A Quote for the Day

Worth bearing in mind:

“Nothing shows so clearly that they [writers] have been tamed as their concentration on ‘interpersonal relationships’ and the absence from their works of any reference to politics or economics –i.e., to man in his social context… Of course, one has no right to hand the author a list of issues and say, ‘Base your next play or novel on one of these.’ But one does have the right to demand complexity, texture, depth, and a sense of the layeredness and many-sideness of life. This, the prestige writers are, for the most part, unable to convey.”
From Margaret Halsey’s The Pseudo Ethic.


Gore Vidal on “write what you know”

From time to time, I have had mixed feelings about Gore Vidal.  The man was, on occasion brilliant (Julian; his essays), but also had a streak of cynical elitism that sometimes put me off.  That said, I want to shout “HIP HOORAY for his statement at the end of his essay, “Thomas Love Peacock:  The Novel of Ideas,” published in the New York Review of Books, December 4, 1980.  Vidal wrote:

…write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all.  Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect:  that is the only way out of the dead end of the Serious Novel which so many ambitious people want to write and no one on earth–or even on campus–wants to read.

Vidal began this essay finding fault with the American idea of the “Serious Novel,” stating, “…for Americans, sincerity if not authenticity is all-important; and requires a minimum of invention,” and “During the last fifty years [fifty years before 1980, when he wrote this–but also largely true today, I think], the main line of the Serious American Novel has been almost exclusively concerned with the doings and feelings, often erotic, of white middle-class Americans, often schoolteachers, as they confront what they take to be life.  It should be noted that these problems seldom have much or anything to do with politics, with theories of education, with the nature of the good. … Irony and wit are unknown while the preferred view of the human estate is standard American…For some reason, dialogue tends to be minimal and flat.”

Vidal suggests that to salvage the novel form, a tactic that might work is to infiltrate the genre forms.  “To fill them up, stealthily, with ideas, wit, subversive notions… .”  To some degree, in the years since Vidal wrote those words, so-called genre novels have done so. (eg. Walter Moseley’s work; much of Stephen King’s work–the metaphor of IT, for example; and most certainly, the short stories of Connie Willis which I have recently been reading).

For Vidal’s term, “Serious American Novel,” I might substitute the term “Literary Novel.”  I’m not sure when that latter term was coined, but I suspect it was after 1980.  In any event, there is a difference between a literary novel and true literature.  I believe it is that difference to which Vidal was speaking.



After reading an essay written by Jeanette Winterson in which she defends Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (in Winterson’s book, Art Objects, Essays in Ecstasy and Effrontery), I got curious about the book, and have been reading it myself.  Winterson wrote that those criticizing Stein as being self-aggrandizing and not factual had missed the point of what she was doing.  Winterson’s view is that Stein was no more intending to write a factual book than Matisse or Picasso were trying to paint photographic portraits, that the book was meant to be a work of fiction, was experimenting with an entirely new form, and should be judged on its experimentation–producing a new way of seeing and thinking–rather than on its substance.  That may be.  Nevertheless, I think a work should provide some substance as well.

The main thing I admire about The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, is Gertrude Stein’s chutzpah.  Alice’s “autobiography” is actually a biography of Gertrude; thus, actually an autobiography by Gertrude.  A literary trompe d’oeil in which Stein can have Toklas dub Stein one of only “three first class geniuses” she has known, and in which “Alice” writes next to nothing of her own life.  A clever little con-artist, our Gertie.

My problem with the book, beyond the self-aggrandizement, is that it appears to be a rather constant recitation of the famous artists and writers, composers, or philosophers with whom Stein mixed in Paris, along with a stream of blanket statements about who got along with whom and who didn’t.  But one never is given any details that would make the content more than name-dropping or very general, minimal gossip.

For example, Stein-alias-Alice tells us that Stein liked William James and that he thought highly of her and recommended she go to medical school and become a psychologist.  But she does not tell us anything of what they may have discussed about philosophy or psychology–or even what her own views were.  She tells us only that, when she got to medical school, at a certain point she didn’t do the work because she was “bored,” yet many professors passed her anyway because of her presumed “brilliance.”

Stein-aka-Alice writes that Stein talked with the geniuses or near-geniuses, but that she–Alice–only talked with the wives of the geniuses or near geniuses.  Not only does she give us no details or insight into the “geniuses,” she tells us nothing about the wives except that they were congenial or not, fashionable or not, etc.  Perhaps this is because the real author, Gertrude, never talked to the wives.  But, then, neither as Alice nor as herself does she provide any depth–real or fictional–to her view of any of the people beyond the fact that they kept coming and going, and she saw them often or saw them rarely, or met them once, or saw them often but fell out with them (she never gives us the reasons).

Of Picasso (or Matisse or Hemingway, or others), she may tell us that they discussed or argued at length–with Picasso, long into the night–but never tells us what they discussed or what either thought.  Instead of giving us a real (or even fictional) sense of Stein’s life or her thinking, the book leaves one with the impression that this person was a pseudo-intellectual who lived a shallow, if idiosyncratic, life–and an easy one (whenever there was a question of money, it seemed that all Stein had to do was call a relative in America and money–or on one occasion, even a Ford automobile–would be sent).

Stein’s experiments with literary form may have value.  Her other works (poetry, novellas, novels, plays, etc.) may have something to them, but one cannot get any real insight into them or her from this book.  Stein’s notions as expressed in this book remind me of no-one so much as Christopher Isherwood’s peripatetic Sally Bowles.  And Stein’s very definite declarations of literary and artistic “truths,” to the degree that they’re expressed here, make me think of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie, who fancies herself artistic,  radical,  and a sophisticated shaper of the thoughts of the little girls she teaches, but is actually just an admirer and adherent of fascism.  Although The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas has nothing in it that addresses Stein’s political philosophy, there is something about it that leaves me unsurprised to find that she was an adherent of Vichy France and its leaders.

I am inclined, as relates to The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, to quote Hemingway:  “A rose is a rose is an onion.”



Not long ago, I was listening to  Krista Tippet’s National Public Radio show, On Being.  Tippet was interviewing Joy Ladin, a transgender individual, about her journey between genders.  Ms. Ladin discussed her acute observations of the outward ways in which gender is expressed–of her need, before coming to terms with her inner self, to model the observed masculine and avoid what she thought was feminine and then, when she made the change from male to female, the need consciously to observe and model the outward ways  in which women move and express themselves. (As an example, she noted her observation that women tend to use their hands when speaking and men tend not to.)

I know very little about transgender issues (other than the threat to transgender people by those who hate).  I would never be so presumptuous as to write about the matters they must deal with emotionally, psychologically, physically, or societally, and I have not raised the Joy Ladin interview here in order to do so.  (I do recommend that people listen to the interview, linked above, to gain some insight.)  But, while it makes perfect sense that, in Ms. Ladin’s circumstances, she looked to outward cues to determine how to pass or function as one gender or the other in society, it troubles me that society creates such narrow strictures of what constitutes masculinity and femininity.  And, as I listened to Ms. Ladin speak, it reminded me of how these strictures tend to affect even the ways in which writers deal with characters in fiction.

Some writers express insecurity about writing from the point of view of the opposite sex.  I am reminded of one male author’s delighted amazement at my ability to embody male as well as female characters in my novel, Tinker’s Damn.

I am also reminded of a prospective agent’s reaction to another novel of mine in which the female protagonist was an IRA bombmaker trying to get a former cohort to observe a truce with the British.  That agent asked:  Does she ever wear a dress?  Does she ever think about marriage or wish she had children? –As if, in the middle of an encounter that will affect world events, the character should stop and ruminate on wearing dresses and having kids?  Indeed, one of the reasons I wrote the novel was to create a female counterpart to the male anti-heroes of the genre–someone of tough mind and integrity, and an ability to handle hairy situations.  Why, in an international thriller, should such a female protagonist, any more than her male counterparts, spend time considering  her personal domestic issues?

When, in irritation, I mentioned the agent’s questions to a writer-friend who happens to be a Lesbian, she replied, “well, you could just go all the way and make her a Lesbian.”  I’m sure this was an off-hand reply, meant either with a bit of humor or without giving great thought to it.  But, I have wondered since whether my friend realized that her statement was feeding into a stereotype of what it is to be gay or straight, as well as male or female.

There are all these exasperating myths out there of what it is to be manly or womanly:  men like to fight, women like to talk; women are the nurturers, men are the aggressors; men want to solve problems, women want someone to just listen; men are logical, women are intuitive.

I believe that our common humanity comes FIRST.  The rest are just trappings and societal constructions.  Fiction can reflect and reinforce these trappings and constructions, or it can be a tool to change them.  And not only by writing stories about characters fighting the strictures society places upon them, but by creating characters that, by their mere existence, defy those societal definitions.  (To paraphrase the film Field of Dreams, if you write them, they will come?)

I believe that human motivations are universal.  You can create any kind of man and any kind of woman and still have them be believable so long as you capture the essential humanity that will govern their response to their given circumstances.

Humanity comes before gender.


For those writers who may, at the moment, feel bogged down by their work or by the heavy intrusions of life and the wide world, I highly recommend a book entitled Steal Like an Artist, 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon.  Along with good advice, Kleon’s book has about it a cheerful creative abandon.  His feeling of freedom is contagious–the ultimate in the sense of play necessary for creative work.

Amongst Kleon’s words of wisdom, culled from others, is that nothing is completely original.  Creative work always builds on what came before.  (I’d add that that is true whether the creator realizes it or not.)  He notes that we learn by copying (not to be confused with plagiarism–read the book! ) You begin by copying those writers/artists you like, and end up unable to do so adequately, but in the process, find something else original to you.  (Who wants to be a mere imitator anyway?)

The Kleon book has much advice that we writers may already be aware of, but forget when we feel weighed under–advice like:  “The way to get over creative block is to simply place some constraints on yourself,” or “write what you like” (rather than what you “know.” –something that I strongly advocated in the very first  post of this blog).  However, my favorite advice from Steal Like an Artist is:  “If you ever find that you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.”  –meaning, of course, that if you are the most talented person in the room, you’re not being intellectually challenged in a way that will make you grow and expand.

I’m not generally one for motivational books of any kind, but this one replenishes my spirit every time I read it!

(For a full dose of Austin Kleon’s playfulness, see his website at www.austinkleon.com.)


I’m late with this post.  Some crises of life have intervened and, at the moment, are ongoing.  My attentions are focussed on that, so I don’t have the patience or organization of thought to sit in one place long enough to write.  Instead, I am posting a small essay I wrote in 1998, for a class in the Johns Hopkins writing program.  I should, at some point, re-examine this question, consider why I write now, and whether the reason has changed.  But here is what I felt then, and for all my life before:


Why do I write?  Right now, I’m writing because characters keep coming into my head–characters with pasts and with futures that I have to get down on paper, or no-one but me will know they exist, and they’ll fade away.  Last year, or the year before, perhaps, the driving motivation was often something specific I wanted to say–political, philosophical–events or conflicts that brought on a Swiftian anger which writing (and expressing to a public) relieves.  But, when I started writing, in my teens, I just wanted to have fun.  To play.

There was nothing dramatic in the decision.  Reading, discussing literature, and writing were in the air all around me while I was growing up.  My father, my mother, and my brother (who is nine years older than myself) all read to me.  The three of them talked about literature around the kitchen table.  There were always books–history, philosophy, linguistics, mathematics, art, dance, mythology, poetry, and fiction, above all, fiction–read to me, handed to me, suggested to me.  Also, although I don’t think either of my parents ever published anything, my father had, before I was born, written stories and poems.  My mother wrote witty, artistic letters which really could have been short stories or the basis for them.  And she would come to my father the way one comes to an editor:  to comment, to suggest revision, to suggest a flourish.  My brother, in school, also wrote creative fiction–pieces that, these days, might be called experimental (who knows?)–like his own version of The Odyssey, or a satire in which a poor country’s ambassador to the United Nations writes home to his president.  But that’s what I mean by “in the air.”  It was just there.

The attitude toward writing was that one should have a sense of play.  Not take it too seriously.  Just take in the technique of this or that writer and feel free to try it out for oneself.  And that’s how I started.  Playing with styles, with words, with ideas.  I wrote a story in the style of Louis Carroll.  I wrote a dialogue in the style of Tom Stoppard in which two actors argue about whether they should take their bows for acting in his play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.  I wrote a story in which Oscar Wilde’s entrance into heaven depends upon the literary assessment of his works by a jury of fellow writers.  (I didnt’ write about personal things because I hadn’t lived enough then.  And I don’t write directly about personal things now, because I can only write poorly about things that are too close to the heart.)

Then two things happened.  I taught myself to draw.  And I became a lawyer.  (The latter can be blamed on my father, who handed me Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense when I was twelve.)  After working all day writing legal decisions, it was much easier to draw or paint than to sit down again and try to write.  So, for many years, I thought about writing but didn’t do much more than make notes on possible themes, or set down snatches on possible plots and characters.

What got me back to writing?  There’s nothing like a few deaths to make one realize they can’t put things off forever, to give one that kick in the bum.  My mother had always looked at my art work and said, “That’s nice, Jess, but you should be writing.”  When she died, I thought, if not now, when?  So I began again.  I found I had some things to say about politics (in the broad sense of the word), and philosophy–about my view of the world–and I used poetry as the means of expression.

At the same time, I kept telling my father about an idea I had for a novel, and he kept telling me not to tell him the story, but to write it down.  Then he died.  And that was the kick in the backside that got me to actually sit down and write the novel.  The characters became, and still are, very real to me.  It’s not that I don’t know the difference between fiction and reality, but, even with the novel completed, I can sit anywhere and have my characters wandering in my head in new adventures, and in conversations with each other which will play and replay with variations.

There are a number of short stories I’ve written that some people say should also be novels.  While I think these stories really are short stories, I also think to myself–well, I could make them into novels as well.  Then those characters start wandering about in my head, expanding their worlds, their histories, their adventures.  Somehow, I’ve moved from playing with ideas to creating universes and, in some odd sense, living in all of them as well as the real one, simultaneously.  And now, while I generally still do have some particular point I want to make with a story, and that desire to make the point sets me off, I suspect what keeps me at it is creating those worlds.  That’s why I write.  This year, anyway.


The Narrow World of V.S. Naipaul

Recently, someone brought to my attention a 2011 Guardian article reporting on a Royal Geographic Society interview with Nobel Prize Winner Mr. V.S. Naipaul.  While the interview is a few years old now, Mr. Naipaul’s statements in it struck me as freshly as if the interview had been conducted yesterday.  According to the article, Mr. Naipaul stated the following views:

1. that no woman writer is his literary match;

2. of Jane Austen, that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world;”

3. that women writers are “quite different,” that “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not.  I think [it is] unequal to me;” and that this is because of women’s “sentimentality, the narrow view of the world;”

4. that “inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes across in her writing, too;” and

5. that “my publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh.”

And of course, like any good bigot, in a preemptive non-apology apology, Mr. Naipaul apparently added:  “I don’t mean this in any unkind way.”

For a Nobel Prize winner for literature, Mr. Naipaul seems to have an extremely narrow knowledge of literature, as well as an extremely narrow view of life.  When he accuses all women writers of being sentimental or dismisses all women writers as writing sentimental tosh, one must first ask what he means by the terms “sentimentality” and “sentimental tosh.”  He does not define them, so I  take the liberty of assuming he means either that women write tear-jerkers (or, in American parlance, stories fit for the Lifetime channel’s made-for-T.V. movies), or that their themes are limited to women’s concerns.  Taking this as my premise, I must then ask, has Mr. Naipaul ever read anything by Pat Barker?  Muriel Spark?  Margaret Atwood? Doris Lessing? Nadine Gordimer?  Has he ever heard of them?  (And as for “sentimental” tosh, has he ever read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections?  And if by “tosh” he means anything to do with what he considers women’s concerns or lot in society, is he familiar with the works of Tolstoy, Hardy, Dickens, Flaubert, or just about anything by D.H. Lawrence–all male writers?  Frankly, for toughness, theme, and absence of “sentimentality,” I would set Barbara Kingsolver’s short story, “Why I Am a Danger to the Public” in her book Homeland above any of the stories in Naipaul’s Miguel Street.)

When Naipaul says of Jane Austen, that he “couldn’t possibly share her sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world,” he is baring an incapacity to make an empathetic leap into anyone’s world but his own.  That is not the mark of a great writer, and certainly not of a great mind.  (It is no wonder that, in Naipaul’s Miguel Street, a book of short stories about people living in poverty on Miguel Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad, not only are the subject characters of all of the stories male, but to the extent women are mentioned in the stories, they are entirely stereotypical, one-dimensional asides.  The stories are quite entertaining, and Naipaul shows some sympathy for the men, but even the men are not given any depth to speak of.  This was an early work, and perhaps one should examine Naipaul’s later novels to see whether he developed greater insight over time, but his public statements suggest otherwise.)

When Naipaul says he can tell within a paragraph or two that something is written by a woman, and that “…inevitably for a woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing,” he sounds a bit like the pot calling the kettle metal.  In saying that a woman is not a complete master of a house, is Naipaul referring to women’s traditionally subservient position to the man of the house and to men in society?  If one is not master, is one then a servant or a slave or–dare one say–subject to some form of colonial rule?  On those terms, anyone–man or woman–who comes from an oppressed or colonized group or place and chooses that subject as a theme, and those people as characters–must have a narrow world view.  This, then, must apply to Mr. Naipaul’s choice of themes and characters as well.

Finally, to bolster his universal dismissal of female writers, Naipaul pulls out his anecdotal view that his female editor is a good editor but, when she wrote, sure enough–she wrote “all this feminine tosh.”  To that, I would say, first, that given his prejudices, Mr. Naipaul is hardly a reliable source for such an assessment.  But even if he is correct, editing and writing are two very different tasks.  Many people, male and female, can do one well and not the other.  Many people, male and female, want to write but find they do not really have something of consequence to write about.

This gentleman won the Nobel Prize for literature.  It is reported that some have dubbed him “the greatest living writer of English prose.”  I have not yet discovered who so-dubbed him, so I cannot vouch for whether those proclaiming that greatness are giving a sincere assessment or are part of the usual publicity campaign found in the publication industry.  But, considering that there are some other great writers, male and female, currently living, to dub any one of them the “greatest” seems a bit of puff.  Still, I wouldn’t begrudge him as much claim as anyone else to the title, but for his using his position, standing on these laurels, real and/or manufactured, to dismiss as inferior all literature written by a gender other than his own.