Posts Tagged ‘Good Writing’

Snail Email

In Communication on September 17, 2009 at 10:02 pm

cartoon-getting-a-letter-in-the-mailD. Hannah, Dubai

Gone are the days of eMail as we knew it. Where once the excitement of something new, now lies only the faded thrill of a letter. We may have hundreds of thousands rotting in our inbox every morning, waiting for our reply to be popped and sealed into the vacuum tube of the Internet internal messaging system (where it in turn waits to be fired back) but that one speck of gold – that one name we recognise immediately, being usually conspicuous by its absence, will send me into paroxysms of glee. Yes a veritable tin of glee is opened and poured liberally over open hand to be rubbed together, quiet contemplation echoed in a deep smile and shrill giggle, thoughts flashing ahead to home, wine (I’d recommend a good Kiwi red) and sitting down to peruse it at my leisure. Even a short missive if represented by the right name will banish thoughts of work – not that I usually get as far as the medium of the missive. No the name is enough to send me to sign out just in case I get a premature glimpse.

eMail is now to be savoured like the letters of sweethearts in war movies (minus the running of the scented envelope under nose of course – technology has and probably can go just so far). I mean it’s just so damn rare that we get ones that matter. When they first came out, the world was a bigger place, and phone calls being so expensive the new idea was jumped upon. Suddenly, it was cheap and fast to keep in touch. Then it became cheap but not fast enough. Text and instant messenging came into vogue, MSN to gmail chat to skype, available and on as soon as you booted your computer so everyone could see you were there and ready set waiting to be talked to. Then that too became too difficult – I mean actually responding to people? What were they thinking?

And so came the mass transit systems of communication. Now people don’t just see that you’re there, they see what you are thinking, doing and plin-plon-planning. A response without responding. Ingenious I must admit, but not for me. When – and more to the point why – did communication between friends become one to many? Wasn’t that sort of communication why books were invented? At least books contain stories – beginnings, middles and ends. Where’s the climax in Myspace, the face off in Face Book? When I talk to a friend, I want conversation – someone genuinely thinking about what I may want to hear – someone thinking of me and how I fit in their context.

As Sympathies is dedicated to the thought of picking up the quill and parchment (or flipping open the lid to keyboard as it were) I ask you this. When was the last time you sat down, and with malice aforethought tapped out a real eMail to an unsuspecting friend? Try it. The two I have received this month have made the long summer weeks go a little quicker (I live in the Middle East – this is a good thing).

So as the last Face Book holdout, I go back to the front and prepare to go over the top. eMail is the way forward. If you want to hear from me, you must be prepared to hear FROM me – not about me. And rest assured as I write I will be sitting and thinking to myself ‘remember that time…’ and may you catch a glimpse of that sentiment and find yourself in quiet contemplation echoed in a deep smile and a shrill giggle.

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An Overdue Response to the Ownership Question

In 20th c. Literature, Questions for the Panel on February 8, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Editor’s Note: This is the first post by industrial midwest exile and Sympathist extraordinaire, Brian Hill.  Clocking at at a relatively brief (by Sympathies standards) 860 words, Mr. Hill’s modest and wryly self-knowing style is a nice fit for the blog.

Brian Hill, Kyoto Japan

tower_3Happy for any dead or broken branch from any type of tree to prod at what appears, at first appraisal, to be the carcass of my literary consciousness, then cause it to stir, eventually to stand on numb legs with maw gaped in a yawn complete with fingernails scratching ass; happy as I am, I will try to pull something out of…well…I shall scribble down some thoughts.

I admit that I have no thesis but only the errant desire to own some authors.  I also admit that I have become very undisciplined with my reading, favoring collections of essays, short stories, poetry over any longer form; over any novel.  And then, I only pick and choose and then let it drop again.  Fortunately for me there exists Borges and Calvino.

Borges is someone that I would like to own.  Remembering my time in Toledo reading through Cognitive Psychology journals, a geology textbook, a biology textbook, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, etc. I would find myself distracted from my studies and begin furiously trying to capture some idea that had occurred to me.  So, that when I first started reading Borges I thought: “Here is a guy who took my idea and expanded it in ways I never dreamed.”  I would like to own him, but am too often intimidated by his erudition.

A lesser known author who I do own is Albert Goldbarth, a poet and essayist who I discovered some 16 f years ago.  A Sympathy of Souls, is a collection of creative essays touching on Jewish stories and parables, family, personal experience, humor and the Goldbarth wit.  His, Heaven and Earth, A Cosmology was my first introduction to him and remains a solid sample of his poetry that combines modern scientific ideas with…poetry.  He captivated me early on and has achieved ‘Can Do No Wrong’ status.  As a sample here is “One Continuous Substance”:

Continue Reading

“You Live Here?”/”Not Right Here.” Richard Price’s “Lush Life.”

In Genre Fiction on February 8, 2009 at 9:10 pm

lushlife-bookcoverM. Standast, Kyoto

One measure of how much a book moves or captivates me these days is how long it takes me to finish it. This didn’t use to be the case. In high school I could read a book in a single night, starting from 7:30 or 8 PM and finishing at 2 or 2:30 AM. My senior year of high school I read between 200-250 books of every genre, level of difficulty, and length. The easier ones, those by P.G. Wodehouse, John Dixon Carr, Agatha Christie, could be polished off in an evening. Sturdier efforts, from Julian Symons, Anthony Powell, Kurt Vonnegut, took two or three days, while Joseph Heller and Ayn Rand would eat up a week or so. That was then. These days, everything takes longer. Looking at my reading list for this year, David Mendell’s Obama biography was put away in an amazing 5 days; Ballard’s Conversations took 12. Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits took a month, while Richard Todd’s excellent study of authenticity in the modern world took 3. Five books in six weeks–43 books a year, a little meager. Fatherhood, full-time work, and a certain waning of, not of curiosity per se, but of that burning intensity of adolescence that allows for literary one-night-stands, intensity that is simply no longer accessible, all these have taken their toll.

Richard Price’s 2008 Lush Life consumed 14 days, the last 400 pages of the 450+ page novel coming in the last five. In this day and age, that’s full tilt, flat out absorption. Price, the author of Clockers (basis for a solid Spike Lee film from 1995) and The Wanderers (basis for the 1979 Philip Kaufman film–is there an odder director than Philip Kaufman?) has established himself as a kind of elder statesman of urban crime writing; when the epic Baltimore-based The Wire decided to go for name brand talent in its later seasons it was George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, and Price that were brought aboard. Lush Life got mixed reviews, mostly positive but not outstanding, and I only picked up the book after hearing Price on NPR talking about the victim of the piece, Ike Marcus, who brings about his own demise by telling a would be mugger pointing a gun at him “Not tonight my man.” Despite the reviews, something about the phrase stuck with me, and Lush Life has been on the top of my “to read” list for months.

The novel is set on New York’s Lower East Side, and Price gets a lot of mileage out of the intersection of longtime Jewish residents, African American kids on the fringes of school and the drug world, Chinese illegals who sublet already sublet “planks” in “boat buildings”–apartments overflowing with immigrants– and white yuppies with big dreams (performance artist, writer, actor) who inevitably find themselves at 35 still waitressing or tending bar. Continue Reading

A Post-Leftist in Genre Drag: On Ownership Part I

In 20th c. Literature, Genre Fiction, Questions for the Panel on February 2, 2009 at 10:39 pm

ess_ambler_1M. Standfast, Kyoto

Puritano has beaten me to the punch by offering us a highly ambitious answer to the ownership question.  He narrows down his list of masters to two, Franz Kafka and Emily Dickinson, and explains why he thinks these two will outlast even such established masters such as Faulkner.  My own list is longer, and my efforts to address the ownership question will likewise be at once longer and less ambitious than Puritano’s.  Apologies in advance.

My Authors

Eric Ambler, Walter Benjamin, Pierre Bourdieu, Erving Goffman, Anthony Powell, Paul Theroux.  For each of these writers, I have read both deeply and widely from their ouvre, and I feel on pretty strong ground when speaking about them. Interestingly, I have not read everything by any one writer; the closest would be Powell, but even here I have not read his first novel, Afternoon Men in its entirety.

My Authors To Be

The second list is perhaps more interesting; it contains writers about whom I am working toward a sense of ownership but don’t yet have the expertise on to confidently put a claim on.  These include: Peter Berger, Elizabeth Bishop, Maurice Halbwachs, Herodotus, Machiavelli, William of Occam, Edward Said, Sun Tzu.

Eric Ambler

Ambler comes first for two reasons; he is both first alphabetically and arguably the oddest inclusion.  Ambler is generally remembered, if at all, as a writer of spy novels, and those with longer memories will recall that he was in fact a forerunner of the modern spy thriller.  While it is true that the Ambler books form a bridge between the more patriotic, almost 19th century style of John Buchan (1875-1940) and the prototypically “modern” (by which of course I date myself by still meaning 20th century), disillusioned overtones of LeCarre, Ambler himself wrote very few true “spy” stories.  Instead, most of Ambler’s protagonists come in one of three varieties: i) the small time petty thief, menial, or flat-out loser who is thrust into and manages to come through a dangerous situation in which he is apparently overmatched by relying on an innate cunning and instinct for survival; ii) men of middling status who, because of hubris or a kind of arrogant naivety, get into dangerous situations in which they are very definitely overmatched; iii) a cross between i) and ii). Continue Reading

The Swing is the Thing

In 20th c. Literature, Questions for the Panel on January 30, 2009 at 2:12 pm

st-dupont-fountain-pen-usb-keyDean Williams, Kyoto

This man, who was graced with light,
who was chosen by the dread God,
who approached the dark clouds of Terror—

anon. Hebrew poem (The Death of Moses)

What is the son of Adam, that you should trouble over him?
Yet you made him only a little less than a god,
You have crowned his head with glory and honour,
You have made him govern the works of your hands,
You have put everything under his feet…

Psalm (8, Penguin Classics Ed., p 11)

A Thicket-like Beginning

Readers of my earlier post on Kafka will remember my hypothesis that the works of Kafka and Dickinson owe something of their peculiar power to the spiritual pendulum swing their lives described. As they alternately struggled with, defied, and rushed toward God, they forged their odd, oddly compelling little stories and poems:

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind–/ As if my Brain had split–/
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam–/But could not make them fit.
But also
Distance—is not the Realm of Fox/ Nor by Relay of Bird/
Abated—Distance is/Until thyself, Beloved.


More than once I have been tempted to call their writings afterthoughts to a life in truth dedicated to immanence, but that would be going too far. It seems clear that both took the craft of writing extremely seriously.  In the very short list of thoughts I believe I can guarantee fired off in their respective crania, one is, “I want to get better at this writing business.” They would not have worked year in and year out if it had not been important to them.  (We have more than 1700 poems by Dickinson!)

But I would distinguish their fundamental stance, what they thought they were doing when they put pen to paper, not only from all the poetasters, journeymen writers, hacks, pamphleteers and amateur scribblers like yours truly, but also from other major writers. Continue Reading

Against “Shock” Fiction

In 20th c. Literature on January 26, 2009 at 2:57 pm

14568293Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post reviews a very appealing article by Jonathan Dee from Harper’s in 2005. In the article, called “Ready-made rebellion: The empty tropes of transgressive fiction,” Dee outlines an unimpeachable case against the whole genre of “shock” fiction.  His argument has significantly influenced my thinking about the purpose of literature and what makes a work of fiction work, and is worth going over in some detail.

Dee calls out by name Neil LaBute, A.M. Holmes, Will Self, Chuck Palahniuk, and Dennis Cooper. I have never been drawn to any of these writers, save Self, but have been forced to rethink LaBute’s films (I moderately admired “In the Company of Men,” but was turned off by the deeply unsubtle “Your Friends and Neighbors”) in light of Dee’s blistering and brilliant broadside. Dee begins with the thesis that the job of good fiction “is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation.”  He argues that none of the authors here (he trains most of his fire on LaBute and his “troupe of hideous men”) achieve this–instead they write characters that do terrible things for no reason, and feel nothing. For Dee, works which consist little save a fusillade of “shocking” acts are, from from being transgressive, thought-provoking, or daringly original, actually shallow, and lazy. The shock approach excuses the authors from the hard work of creating believable characters with conflicting desires and complex sources of motivation, while allowing them to take cover behind the claim that “this is how things really are”–diffusing criticism before criticism can even get started.

Dee’s thinks that this is not how things really are, that human affairs are actually far more complex and interesting, and that the “this is how things really are” defense is a pose and an exercise in bad faith.  His essential argument is as follows: “What’s really intended to provoke us is not what they feel but everything they don’t feel {…} It’s a way of ducking what a more sophisticated writer might consider his primary artistic responsibility; namely, a credible motivation for his imaginary characters to say and do the things they say and do.” While admitting that not slipping into easy moral judgments is a good strategy for writing, Dee shows exactly why shock fiction does something far more banal: Continue Reading

On Raymond Carver’s “Fires”

In 20th c. Literature on January 25, 2009 at 10:20 pm

c10797Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

Raymond Carver is not one of my very favorite writers, but his work is full of resonant nuggets of greatness that linger long after one puts him down. Fires, contains four essays, a number of poems and half a dozen or so stories. Carver has useful things to say about using common language in writing, although he arguably makes a fetish of it. The best things in the book are a handful of poems, and the one standout work seems to be “The Baker.” Other excellent poems include: “Iowa Summer,” “For Serma with Martial Vigor,” “Looking for Work,” “Cheers.” Fires also includes a lengthy poem on Bukowski where Carver appears to be recounting an evening’s worth of Bukowski’s conversation. Good stuff, but not of overwhelming interest except to Bukowski fanatics.

The essays, on his father, on writing, are very sharp. Carver’s prose, as he himself admits, tends to be lean, approaching flat, but accumulates force on that account: “If the words are heavy with the writer’s own unbridled emotions, or if they are imprecise and inaccurate for some reason-if the words are in any way blurred-the reader’s eyes will slide right over them and nothing will be achieved” (“On Writing”). This is fundamentally true and great–the statement has a corollary, if the words are just right, the reader’s eyes will stick, and come back to them for a second look, even though they were taken in the first time.

Little things register. From the title story: “On the other end of the line was the voice of a man who was obviously a black man, someone asking for a party named Nelson. It was the wrong number and I said so and hung up.” Here, decisiveness of language (“and I said so”) fused with perfect choice of noun phrase “a party named Nelson” achieve a remarkable force. Sometime his terms are loaded with meaning because Carver’s paragraphs tend to close where other writer’s would just be beginning: (his motto: “Don’t explain. Don’t complain.”): “I really don’t feel that anything happened in my life until I was twenty and married and had the kids. Then things started to happen.” Fin. What does he mean? does he mean happen, like, “that’s really happening man,” or just happen, as in, flatly events transpired. We are left to guess; the paragraph ends. Continue Reading