In defense of book blogging

Mabel, of Maple and a Quill, encountered a pretty savage shot across the bow aimed at book blogs and book bloggers this weekend, and fired back a salvo as polite as it is devastating in defense of what we do.  I’d talk at more length about why the critic she’s responding to—and a lot of critics like him—are clearly both badly informed about the breadth of the world of book blogging, and astoundingly chauvinist in the ways they think and talk about book bloggers (“knitting circles”?  Wow, and I thought no man was left alive who had been a member of a Victorian gentlemen’s club.  He must think those suffragettes are outrageous).  But honestly, Mabel has said it much more articulately and more stirringly than I think I can muster, so go give her essay a read.

Need more incentive?  This, I think, is the heart of her piece: “As one of the leeches of literature, I feel inspired to speak. I am no literary critic, but I am an intelligent, keen, earnest, curious, and certainly legitimate member of the literary conversation, and I daresay I live in a society that is both aggressive and gentle; both analytical and emotive; both critical and appreciative; both male and female. I do not write to tear apart literature, but to learn from it, and to share my tattered thoughts, which are very much a work in progress.”  Amen to that, Mabel—amen.

My interview with the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y.

So, there’s this initiative out here on the interwebs that’s aimed at reviving interest in America’s literature about rural life—a joint venture of Buffalo State College (New York) and Buena Vista University (Iowa), the goal is to raise the profile of American novels about farm and country life that are disappearing from the national memory and conversation.  The idea in the long run is to work with universities, colleges, museums, and other cultural and educational institutions across the country to publicize books, get them in classrooms and libraries, etc., but you don’t have to take my word for it: you can find out more about the Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y. at their website.

Anyway, these excellent people were steered my way by a friend of Following Pulitzer, Nancy Gluck of Silver Season (thanks, Nancy!), given that I’ve been reading a lot of semi-neglected rural American novels.  Veteran readers of my blog will be interested/amused/horrified to learn that one of Rural Lit R.A.L.L.Y.’s rural novels, and the novel they are in fact featuring this month, is none other than Margaret Wilson’s The Able McLaughlins.  Yes, that book.  And before you ask, the good people at RLR (who are fans of Wilson’s work) already know how I feel about the book, and nevertheless wanted to associate themselves with me—if that isn’t proof that us book bloggers are an open-minded and non-judgmental sort, I don’t know what is.  Anyway, they’re interested in linking to (and even excerpting from, with my permission) Following Pulitzer, and otherwise involving me at least peripherally in helping spread the word about America’s good rural literature—I’m pushing for them to give some much-needed attention to the wonderful Now in November, for instance.

This picture isn't the link to the interview, in case you were's a link in the text to the left.

I swear, I only said a couple of unkind things about The Able McLaughlins in the interview—I think I deserve some credit for restraint. (Photo credit: smiling_da_vinci)

All of this is to say that, as a part of this association with RLR, they asked me if I’d be willing to be interviewed, and I said I’d be delighted to.  Right now, posted on their website, is a lengthy interview with me, so if you’re interested in my reflections on what I’ve learned so far, which rural novels I’d single out for praise (and why), how my work as a teacher has affected my project, etc., there’s a lot of pondering and pontificating there that I’ve never posted here.  Head to that link to find out even more insights into my psyche and this crazy quest I’m on.  And, in general, I hope you’ll poke around RLR’s site a bit and find out more about what they’re up to.  I’m still learning about their work (and how I might collaborate a little, down the road), and I think it’s definitely something that people who love books should be informed about.  Cheers to you all, and I hope October’s being good to you so far!

The Way I Read: Do novels ennoble the human condition?

Last night I had a wonderful opportunity to talk a little about books and what I love about them—and one specific book I love (Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, about which I am happy to talk if you’re interested).  A classmate/colleague/friend is teaching an online course in which she wanted some recorded examples of regular ol’ library students talking about books, and I was asked to participate.  It was an enormous amount of fun, so much so that to talk excessively about it will seem like bragging, and blogging is already an exercise that makes me feel perilously close to Narcissus at times, so I’ll focus only on one moment that’s sticking with me.  Having spoken about Doomsday Book and why it resonates for me, another classmate/colleague/friend (Althea, who blogs with The Bookaneers—I need to add them to the blogroll in the right sidebar!) commented that the way I often talk about books emphasizes how they inspire optimism about human beings.  I tend to read for (and talk about) things like hope, and courage, and dignity.  I can read very sad or even disturbing books (Doomsday Book is often perilously sad, and another book I love, The Sparrow, is a really harrowing experience to read), but I seem to look for those things, and to savor them when I find them.

I mention this because I think it’s worth pondering as a key to why I’ve reacted to the Pulitzer winners thus far as I have.  His Family, the first novel I read on this quest, has been panned by some of my fellow travelers (the witty and wonderful ladies of Along With A Hammer, to be precise), and I get why they disliked it.  But I found it really comforting, and as I look back I think it’s because it emphasized that sunny-eyed hope of a better world that had not quite lost out to jaded cynicism yet in 1918.  I think my attachment to One of Ours, a Willa Cather novel that was also pretty darn idealistic, is another example of this kind of reading.  I like reading the way I do, but I wonder if it will make me miss out on really good books that do not quite brim with hope.  I don’t care for saccharine things, so I don’t fear that I’ll “overindulge” in some really excessively sentimental writing, but I worry that I can be too dismissive of the bleaker stuff.

I share this just because I’m pondering it.  I’m wondering if The Age of Innocence shows anything noble about humans (if so, I’d love opinions as to why, and if not, I’m wondering why I fell in love with it).  I’m wondering if I’d have responded better to a novel like Arrowsmith or Alice Adams (sorry, Able McLaughlins, but no amount of reflection could salvage your reputation) if I was a little more open to that more cutting, sarcastic, cynical perspective that I think both Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington really thrived on.  And I’m wondering if in the long run this way of reading serves me well or not—whether it’s this kind of search for optimism that makes literature such a sustaining presence in my life, or if I risk becoming a 21st century Miss Prism, primly informing people from my pedestal that to be a good novel, the good must end happily and the wicked unhappily, for that is the meaning of fiction.  I threw down American Gods by Neil Gaiman after 50 pages of despair, after all: I make drastic decisions about books (even books beloved by people I respect), and I wonder what this is symptomatic of.  Comments are, as always, welcome, but if none appear, I’m sure I’ll muse on this again before too long, especially once I pick up Laughing Boy again.  Happy reading!

A beginning of a year

I use the indefinite article with care. There are many kinds of years, after all, and this January 1st business is not the only beginning, nor is 2011 the only year, in my life. It may not even be the most important. For 18 years, now, my “work” years have been school cycles—either college or high school—years that begin in late August or somewhere in September with the anticipation of new classes, new challenges, new readings, along with the comfort of the very (and increasingly) familiar. January, in these contexts, begins a new phase or maybe merely returns to a life frozen in place. I now expect that this cycle (or one like it) may continue for most of my lifetime, though the future is (as always) seen through a glass, darkly. Another kind of year, for me, is a liturgical year that begins in either late November or early December with the first Sunday of Advent—a season of anticipation and patient hope. It is a year that proceeds wholly unaffected by January 1st; a year whose rhythms antedate the Gregorian calendar; a year divided to call attention to the various experiences of and encounters with a reality that is in some ways separate from the comings and goings of my everyday life, and in other ways is remarkably immanent in who I am and what I do. Yet another kind of year is the year that begins for each of us on a different day, and for me on the twenty-eighth of September—the year that marks another revolution of the Earth since conscious arrival as an independent human being, the years that (subjectively) pass more quickly now than before, the years that are starting to bring me closer to those who have preceded me and make me feel the increasing distance from those newly come to these strange shores. January 1st is yet another day to see that turning, but it is not an unusually good day to see my life in that perspective.

I say the above things for a few reasons. In part it is because these are the kinds of things I think about, and a blog is a place to write such things. And in part it is me starting to acknowledge that this blog is going to change if it is going to live. Not entirely—I still have my ridiculous Pulitzer aims, and I intend to see them through (even if, as now seems likely, the work may last much of this decade). But I’ve tried too hard to divorce the blog from my life—to operate under the assumption that I either talk about Pulitzer novels, or nothing at all—and that way of thinking is too barren. I read a lot of books (many of which have not won any awards), I think a lot of things about them, and my larger ideas about things like art and beauty and meaning have to do with even more sides of my personality than are encompassed by the books I read.

So, as I return from a quarter where I didn’t blog at all, I’m saying that I should have been blogging. I’ve been reading some interesting novels, and thinking about reading and readers in interesting ways, and I wish I had been sharing that here. I think at the very least it would have been more interesting/relevant/accessible to most of you than me posting my latest thoughts about Laughing Boy (though I will be posting more of those soon!), and I think it would make for interesting comparisons. This quarter, I’m taking a seminar on printed texts (part of the Textual Studies graduate curriculum at the U.W.) and I think it will give rise to some thoughts. I’m intending to share more of those. Sometimes it will be obvious how it connects to the Pulitzer Prize, but I’m going to take that obligation more broadly from now on.

I’ll still be posting the same kinds of comments on those Pulitzer winners, though, with the same consistently idiosyncratic reviews. Poetry Fridays, in one form or another, ought to remain with us. But other things may change. I will say (because I think it needs saying) that the blog will not become a mere outcropping of my whole life. Many things that interest me will not be here (politics, for example), so those of you who don’t share all my opinions about the world needn’t worry. This will more or less still be about me having a fully-awake encounter with literature, and what it says more broadly about who we are as people and where we’ve come from—and it will continue to derive its primary momentum from my interest in seeing what the Pulitzer winners do to me, and how I think they reveal (or conceal) America. I don’t know how frequently I’ll blog, but I know I’ll be doing it much more regularly than I have in months, and I hope a few of you will still be along for the ride: I’ll try to keep it interesting!

A poll for Oscar week

Given that at least mild enthusiasm was expressed in favor of the occasional poll, I thought I’d put out a poll this week in anticipation of the Academy Awards, asking your opinion on the best adaptation of a novel to film.  The options provided are some favorites of mine (and some that are widely praised), but if I’ve set it up right, you can type in your own answer (and I hope you will).  And I encourage some conversation in the comments about good and bad adaptations you’ve seen—it would be nice to hear what folks have to say!

Poetry Friday: 1927 (part 3)

I will admit, part of the reason I’m posting another Don Marquis poem is that I didn’t have time today to return archy and mehitabel and find another collection of poetry published in 1927.  But part of the reason is that I really find him powerful and interesting—the first real “discovery” of Poetry Friday, for me (some poets have risen in my estimation, but nobody that I hadn’t read before).  Marquis’s poems, in order, compose a lengthy and consistent (if not coherent) narrative, told to the human owner of the typewriter (always referred to as “boss”) from the perspective of archy, the cockroach who believes he was once a vers libre poet, although he does write on behalf of mehitabel (a somewhat dangerous cat who believes she is the reincarnation of Cleopatra) in her voice, at times.  Anyway, I don’t know if this guy works for you as well as he works for me—if not, I apologize—but regardless, here’s another of archy’s poems from 1927: “viii: a spider and a fly”

i heard a spider
and a fly arguing
wait said the fly
do not eat me
i serve a great purpose
in the world

you will have to
show me said the spider

i scurry around
gutters and sewers
and garbage cans
said the fly and gather
up the germs of
typhoid influenza
and pneumonia on my feet
and wings
then i carry these germs
into the households of men
and give them diseases
all the people who
have lived the right
sort of life recover
from the diseases
and the old soaks who
have weakened their systems
with liquor and iniquity
succumb it is my mission
to help rid the world
of these wicked persons
i am a vessel of righteousness
scattering seeds of justice
and serving the noblest uses

it is true said the spider
that you are more
useful in a plodding
material sort of way
than i am but i do not
serve the utilitarian deities
i serve the gods of beauty
look at the gossamer webs
i weave they float in the sun
like filaments of song
if you get what i mean
i do not work at anything
i play all the time
i am busy with the stuff
of enchantment and the materials
of fairyland my works
transcend utility
i am the artist
a creator and a demi god
it is ridiculous to suppose
that i should be denied
the food i need in order
to continue to create
beauty i tell you
plainly mister fly it is all
damned nonsense for that food
to rear up on its hind legs
and say it should not be eaten

you have convinced me
said the fly say no more
and shutting all his eyes
he prepared himself for dinner
and yet he said i could
have made out a case
for myself too if i had
had a better line of talk

of course you could said the spider
clutching a sirloin from him
but the end would have been
just the same if neither of
us had spoken at all

boss i am afraid that what
the spider said is true
and it gives me to think
furiously upon the futility
of literature


Another aside—this time, about William Faulkner

As I was reading about the Nobel award ceremony, I followed a link supplied by a blogger (James Fallows of the Atlantic Monthly…I read several of the Atlantic’s bloggers, Fallows less often than I should) to what he claimed was the only memorable speech in Nobel laureate history.

He may be right, though it wasn’t famous enough for me to recognize it—it’s William Faulkner’s speech from 1949, and it’s extraordinary.  It’s incredibly brief, but that’s no bad thing: it has the pacing and rhetorical style to make it very memorable, a sort of “Gettysburg Address” about the power of literature.  If you’ve never read it, I’d encourage you to; the Nobel committee makes the text (and an audio file) available to you here.

The speech begins with the following sentence:

“I feel that this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”

If that doesn’t make you want to read the whole speech, I don’t know what could.  I’ve never in my life wanted to read Faulkner, based on everything I ever heard about him (he always sounded like a pretentious snob who wrote intentionally obscure novels to bedevil literature majors into thinking themselves erudite for studying them….you know, someone like James Joyce).  And now I can’t wait to read whatever Faulkner novel won the Pulitzer….and might just cheat and read something else by him before I get to his Pulitzer novel.  “To create out of the materials of the human spirit something which did not exist before.”  Not bad words to live by; maybe suitable words to die in service to.  My thanks to James Fallows, and to William Faulkner, for that shot of inspiration today.