clearskies, bluewater

Insights, reflections and creative imaginings for our awakening world

Belles-lettres, or hackjob?

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Like himself, they were sunk in books, chained to the alphabet, in thrall to sentences and paragraphs.” –Cynthia Ozick, The Messiah of Stockholm

I am dwelling on things I love, even if a measure of tragedy is stitched into everything, if you follow the thread long enough.” – Sebastian Barry, On Canaan’s Side

On a day such as this, I feel I have gotten myself into a mess by saying I am a writer. What does it really mean, to say such a thing of oneself in reality? These days I have taken more to novel reading, at the fine suggestion of some literary bloggers here at WordPress. Here in Denmark, the choices for English language fiction are somewhat limited, to say the least. And yet. I have been able to find some remarkable stories in the library, stories full of beauty, angst, sorrow, soul, in other words, works of fiction worthy of (and given to some) prizes and praise from those self-defined experts of contemporary literature. I would like to share a few excerpts with you today, dear Readers. Because there is writing, and then there is really Great Writing. Read the following and see if you don’t agree.

Excerpt from The Messiah of Stockholm, by Cynthia Ozick:

When he woke at seven into full blackness of night, he felt oddly fat– he was sated with his idea, he understood what he thought. He sat down immediately to his review. He wrote it straight off, a furnace burning fat. It was as if his pen, sputtering along the line of rapid letters it ignited, flung out halos of hot grease. The air brightened, then charred. He was very quick now, he was encyclopedic, he was in a crisis of inundation. He drove through all the caged hypotheses of his author– some were overt and paced behind bars, others were camouflaged, dappled; he was a dervish, he penetrated everything. When he was within sight of conquest he began to fuzz over with vertigo; he was a little frightened of all he knew. A greased beak tore him off his accustomed ledge and brought him to a high place beyond his control. Something happened to him while he slept. It was not the sleep of refreshment or restoration. He had no dreams. Afterward his lids clicked open like a marionette’s and he saw: what he saw, before he had formulated even a word of it, was his finished work. He saw it as a kind of vessel, curved, polished, hollowed out. In its cup lay an alabaster egg with a single glittering spot; no, not an egg: a globe, marvelously round. An eye. A human eye: his own, and then not his own. His father’s murdered eye.

Excerpt from On Canaan’s Side, by Sebastian Barry

“There is such a solace in the mere sight of the water. It clothes us delicately in its blowing salt and scent, gossamer items that medicate the poor soul. Oh yes I am thinking the human soul is a very slight thing, and not much evolution has gone into it I fear. It is a vague slight notion with not even a proper niche in the body. And yet is the only thing we have that God will measure.”

“And be thinking, remembering. Trying to. All difficult dark stuff, stories stuffed away, like old socks into old pillowcases. Not quite knowing the weight of truth in them much any more. And things that I have let be a long time, in the interests of happiness, or at least that daily contentment that I was once I do believe mistress of. The pleasure in something cooked just right, just the small and strangely infinite pleasure to be had from seeing, from witnessing, a tray of freshly baked biscuits. Like I had just completed the Parthenon, or carved Jefferson into a rock face, or maybe the contentment, felt in the very sinews, of the bear when he digs a salmon out of the water with his paw. Mightily healing, deeply, and what else could we have come here for, except to sense these tiny victories? Not the big victories that crush and kill the victor. Not wars and civil ructions, but the saving grace of a Hollandaise sauce that has escaped all the possibilities of culinary disaster and is being spread like a yellow prayer on a plump cod steak– victoriously.”

And on the other side of great, Dear Readers, is an excerpt from the now apparently #1 best seller of the NYTimes perennial bestseller list, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson: (this is listed in the nonfiction section)

My father was perpetually disappointed by our lack of trust, but I reminded him that just last week he’d brought his own mother a box he’d filled with an angry live snake that he’d found on the road on the way to her house. He tried to defend himself, but my sister and I had both been there when my father laid the box on the front yard and called his mother out to see ‘a surprise.’ Then he nudged the box open with his foot, the snake jumped out, and my grandmother and I ran inside. Lisa ran in the opposite direction and tried to jump into the bed of the truck, which was incredibly shortsighted, as that was exactly where my father stored the skinned, unidentifiable animals tha the planned to boil down in order to study their bone structure. The bed of my father’s pickup truck was like something that would have ended up in Dante’s Inferno, if Dante had ever spent any time in rural Texas.

A randomly chosen excerpt from Stay Close, by Harlan Coben (#13 on the NYTimes Bestseller list during May, 2012)

But why wasn’t Dave calling her back?
All those years he had been working, yes, providing, putting food on the table and all the rest of the crap men use to justify what they do– but Dave liked his work. He thrived on late hours and travel and golf on Sunday mornings and then coming home to his hot, willing wife. She had been all that for him, even when she didn’t want to be. Don’t get her wrong. Dave had never bullied her. He had never been mean or deceptive, but then again, why would he be? He had the perfect wife. She had given up on finding a career of her own. She paid all the bills, took care of all the shopping, drove all the carpools, made sure the household was in order. She took care of his mother, cared about her more than he ever could, and after all that, all the sacrifices she’d made, how did he treat her?
He was ignoring her calls– and he’d somehow been spying on her.

As we can plainly see from these contrasting excerpts, all novelists (Jenny Lawson is basically a humorist-novelist-writer-bloggess, apparently) are NOT created equal. Okay, call me a snob, but for good reason! The caliber and quality of prose by Barry and Ozick are light-years ahead of the two authors who have, undoubtedly, made a ton of dollars from the royalties on their bestsellers. Hardly fair, but that’s how it works in this business. See it as a business, play the game right, and you may end up well known (at least for a time) and well off. But dare to write in the tradition of the literary geniuses and you may become published, known in literary circles, and possibly need to hold onto your dayjob. Of course, you may be lucky and become both critically acclaimed and rich, the best of both worlds?

My exploration today is simply to emphasize that the reasons why people sit down at their computers and start typing varies wildly in the world of writing. Obviously, I have my own delusions of grandeur, my own opinions of what is actually worth one’s time to sit down and read. If I am a writer at all, then part of my mission as such is to remind (or teach if they do not already know) writers that what they write, as well as how they write it, matters. It really does matter, in the long run. Words, in this cyberspace world we live in, are getting unbelievably common and as such, cheap, becoming ever cheaper. I am one lone voice in the mass of written words which is encouraging the use of million-dollar words and thoughts, as my daughter’s third grade teacher once taught. Ask yourself why do you write, what is the motivation underlying your story, your thoughts, your efforts? It seems critically important to really understand yourself as a writer, in order to write well. Do you agree, dear Readers who happen to also be Writers? Please give me your thoughts, I would like to hear your comments on this.

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Author: SingingBones

When we sing over the bones, we are calling the wild nature, the instinctive soul back, singing it alive again. To live with our wildness intact, is the greatest gift a woman can give herself. "It is the holy poetry and singing we are after." C.P. Estes

2 thoughts on “Belles-lettres, or hackjob?

  1. Dear friend….your choices of examples are excellent….the contrast is stark. Yet, best sellers are not always well-written.Pace, suspense, plot lines and other factors come into play. Look at Stieg Larson’s trilogy….61 million sold. He is NOT a great writer but he is good enough with these other factors brought in. My two cents………

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    • Of course you are correct, there are certainly other reasons that people read books than for their literary value. And McDonalds hamburgers are eaten around the world, but that doesn’t mean they have food worth eating. Ahh, humanity, so willing to settle for the least, when what we ought to be aiming for is only the best and highest of ourselves and each other. My two cents reply, dear friend…

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