Not very long ago, I found myself at a friend’s 75th birthday party, despairing aloud about the deluge of words that engulfs our world. A somber, very sober, man leapt to the defense of language and good writers. There’s nothing I respect more, he said, than a good writer who can clarify and inspire.
Well, I like good writing and good writers too, I retorted…. but he wasn’t interested in anything I had to say. I was obviously some kind of philistine, or at the very least stupid.
He’s probably right. Not about the philistinism or the stupidity, but about words. Only words, well-crafted, beautifully put together, will be able to help us. No wordless vision, no great symphony, not even a Kumbaya, will do.
I was reminded of this when I ran across an Adam Gopnik article on Albert Camus and Jean Paul Sartre in the April 9 issue of The New Yorker. Gopnik argues for the superiority of Camus’ journalism to his fiction or his philosophy. In a time in France that was nearly as chaotic as our own, Gopnik writes,
He struck a tone, not of Voltairean Parisian rancor but of melancholic loft. Camus sounds serious, but he also sounds sad – he added the authority of sadness to the activity of political writing. He wrote with dignity at a moment when restoring dignity to public language was necessary, and he slowed public language at a time when history was moving too fast.
Years ago, when I went to college in San Francisco, I was distressed by the numbers of people who wanted to write. My writing was to be special – more stylish, more moving, more profound than theirs. Besides, I had an important need to write. But when I got on with life I discovered that I didn’t have the mojo to make it happen.
Now that I’m at it again, the world of books has gone all peculiar on me. Today, as then, everyone is writing or expects to. The difference is that now, in much greater numbers, they can publish. Most of them, now as then, aren’t honest-to-god writers, not the way I dreamed of writing. But today everyone can publish books without the scions of the publishing world passing on them. And, somehow, I think that’s probably all to the good. Even if it does make me feel sometimes that the world is awash in words. Too many words.
Among these, are some that warn of a world where the digital book will not only kill off all the lovely paged books with colored covers that we adore, but books themselves. Even the ones on Kindle and the Nook will cease to exist. Everyone will have learned to express themselves in 140 characters or less. Sometimes, the critics just mean to prophesy the end of fiction, but that’s hardly less dire.
Ann Patchett, who is one of the nation’s finer fiction writers, recently wrote an op-ed in The New York Times complaining, as a writer and a reader, of the failure of the Pulitzer Prize Committee to choose a work of fiction this year. “… Either the board was unable to reach a consensus, or at the end of the day the board members decided that none of the finalists, and none of the other books that were not finalists, were worthy of a Pulitzer Prize.” She went on to name six or seven books she thought were worthy,* and to worry that the Committee’s failure to name any of them was a loss to all of fiction. The Pulitzer Prize is important because of the publicity and public celebration it creates. It stirs up “the buzz that is so often lacking in our industry – Did you hear about that book?”
We live in a time of transition, of chaos, of confusion. And nowhere is that more obvious than in media of every kind, and especially in fiction.
I’ve come of age. It’s taken a very long time, but I’m finally ready to write. But what’s happened, what’s happening, to the world?
All this to say that I’ve placed a small ad for the first book I’m publishing in this odd era. It’s to your right on this page. You’ll see that I’ve decided to become, among other things, a cozy mystery writer. In future posts, I’ll talk more about writing and writers, and especially the elderly among us. I’ll create another page on this blog to advertise and present samples of “The Body in the Butter Churn,” and eventually of other books. I’ll continue to help fill the air with words, words, and more words. I really have no other choice.
I think Ann Patchett’s list of books worthy of a Pulitzer is fascinating and, in the interests of doing my small part in the project to give them publicity, I’ve listed them. I’m afraid I haven’t read any at this writing. The first three were on the Committee’s short list.
“Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson
“Swamplandia!” by Karen Russell
“The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson
“Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories” by Edith Pearlman
“Lost Memory of Skin” by Russell Banks “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward
“The Marriage Plot” by Jeffrey Eugenides
“The Pale King” by David Foster Wallace
History is after all only a pack of tricks we play on the dead,” said Voltaire.
Well, maybe it’s not quite that bad–but memory is certainly unreliable. There are as many versions of history as there are historians. There are certainly as many possible memoirs as authors to write them. Facts are elusive. The truth of fiction has never had to depend on facts.
But more recently and again and again, memoir and fiction have been joined.
A recent book, The Lifespan of a Fact, is a debate by essayist, John D’Agata, and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, over D’Agata’s essay about the suicide of a teen (Levi Presley) who leapt from the tallest tower on the Las Vegas strip. The essay is reprinted at the center of each page with Fingal’s notations about inaccuracies, altered quotes, half-remembered events, and outright falsehoods–and D’Agata’s response. Says the writer: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art–a truer experience for the reader–than if I stuck to the facts.”
“You’re inventing significance,” Fingal writes to him in Lifespan. “It’s not like you’re interpreting empirical data and prophetically unveiling to us a meaning that was hiding there all along. You’re threading Levi’s life through a needle you made.”
D’Agata may not be the best spokesman for his point of view, but he still has a case to make. “Sometimes we misplace knowledge in pursuit of information.”
I haven’t read the book and probably won’t. What I’ve quoted is from an article on Slate by Dan Kois who is deeply troubled by the debate, and especially by D’Agata’s cavalier attitude towards facts (“The Lifespan of a Fact: Essayist John D’Agata defends his right to fudge the truth”). When he describes his struggle with the issue, when he repeats his despairing “I don’t know what to do,” a writer he admires responds, “Just keep writing.” “And so I did,” he says.
The fact is that the fiction writer has always mixed fact and imagination to produce art or “story truth” but since Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, one of the first of the “non-fiction novels,” the question of what is or is not real, what is or is not true, has become critical.
And, for the life of me, all I can offer is the same advice as was given to Dan Kois, “Just keep writing.”
Many years ago, in the middle of a project about the pillaging of the earth by various coal companies, I worried that America wasn’t America and never had been. There was no “shining city on a hill,” only a country with good and bad, strength and weakness, justice and injustice. It’s a fascinating country and one I love but, contrary to the nation’s odd array of Republican debaters, I’m not sure that it’s a country God loves better than any other.
That’s when I realized that America is a dream–sometimes almost realized, often not. Patriotism is not an unconsidered devotion to “my country, right or wrong,” but an allegiance to a dream and the work to to realize it.
Langston Hughes had already said it in the 1930s, and said it powerfully. Most of my readers are probably familiar with this poem, but it, more than most – and especially now – bears repeating.
Let America Be America Again
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
Old age is frequently a subject that inspires mirth, and of course much of it comes at the expense of us, the old people—of which I am one! But none of these intend to ridicule, so enjoy, whatever age you are.
There was an Old Man with a beard,
Who said: “It is just as I feared!
Two Owls and a Hen,
FourLarks and a Wren
Have all built their nests in my beard.”
– Edward Lear
… The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness, and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
William Shakespeare – As You Like It
“I was looking in the mirror the other day and I realized I haven’t changed much since I was in my twenties. The only difference is I look a whole lot older now. ~
– George Carlin
Old age ain’t no place for sissies. -Bette Davis
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,
as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.
Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,
something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.
Whatever it is you are struggling to remember
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.
It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.
No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.
- Forgetfulness by Billy Collins
I’m going to New York City for a week. I could just leave the blog, stopped short, with no new words or thoughts, like a spring that ends before it starts. (An image that’s appropriate when you live in Vermont this time of year!) But I thought instead that I’d put up posts of poems and sayings about old age every few days: some of them great literature, some amusing, some hopeful and some sad. Make of them what you will. I hope they’ll be provocative, moving, help you see something new, or old, but something you hadn’t noticed before.
I thought I’d begin with T.S. Eliot’s “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Maybe it’s about old age, and maybe it’s not, or not exactly, but when I thought of quotations about being old, the first thing I remembered was “I grow old, I grow old/ I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” How droll, I thought. How nice to remember it after all these years. It’s a splendid poem. So here’s the whole of it!
THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes,
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
And indeed there will be time
To wonder, “Do I dare?” and, “Do I dare?”
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—
(They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!”)
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
(They will say: “But how his arms and legs are thin!”)
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?
And I have known the eyes already, known them all—
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?
And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
(But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!)
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
* * *
And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep … tired … or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) brought in upon a platter,
I am no prophet—and here’s no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.
And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it towards some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”—
If one, settling a pillow by her head
Should say: “That is not what I meant at all;
That is not it, at all.”
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
“That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.”
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
Some people suggest that reading, and especially reading literature, is out of style and will gradually become obsolete. After all, you can find any information you need on the Internet. Graphic novels and celebrity memoirs are the order of the day. Reading literature—whether poetry, fiction, plays, biographies or critical essays—is no longer something many people do. For pleasure, they watch TV and movies, or play video games. For business and learning, they consult Google or Wikipedia.
A recently published book by Marjorie Garber entitled “Use and Abuse of Literature” argues that literature does something no other medium can do: “The absence of answers or determinate meanings” is exactly the set of “qualities that make a passage or a work literary.”
Literary works have no single meaning. More probably, they have many interpretations. They leave readers with questions and moral quandaries; they don’t impart facts or moral truths so much as they educate us to question the world and our place in it. They make us more human.
And so, says reviewer Seth Lerer, of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Why read? In the end, the answer to the question is as complex and compelling as “why live?”
Then there’s that other question: “Why write?”
The answer is not to make something for readers to read. There’s already a surfeit of books.
Reading about the contemporary publishing of books can drive a hopeful writer into a deep, deep depression. Publishing companies are going broke. Thousands of people are self-publishing, the vast majority of them with memoirs and how-to books. Unfortunately, many of those how-to books are writing manuals. The how-to’s and— for those with more money and the right connections—the writing workshops for the MFA degree, have bred hundreds of thousands of would-be authors, says Jessa Crispin, an editor and blogger (Bookslut.com).
The deluge of writers is not new. The widespread publication of them is. There have always been the hobbyists, the men and women who scribble their life stories for the benefit of their children or grandchildren, the poems hidden in the bottom drawer, the screenplay the banker works on before bed. Tell someone in a bar that you’re a writer and within seconds they’re tellling you an idea for a novel they’ve been mulling over and asking you for tips. Telling stories, constructing narratives out of the chaos of our lives, fantasizing about what could be—they’re all in our blood. Putting it down on paper is an act of optimism. It’s willful, and it helps us make sense of things.
The difference is that now whatever you can scribble on paper or type on your computer, you might as well publish as a book. What was once fantasy—becoming a published writer—now can be a reality. Sorta. You and your book have to face the [resulting] din and most likely will get lost in it. All that respect, glory, and laurels you expected would greet you in your new life as a writer is still in the realm of the fantastic. You’re met instead with silence, just of a different sort.
The how-to books and the MFA’s, says Crispin, have become an industry with an eager clientele.
When things are so uncertain—and the publishing industry is nothing but uncertain these days—people look for someone to tell them what to do. Those taking their money probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them into all the other ways to go about things. Certainly not when excising all their adjectives, replacing their libraries of novels with guides, writing their memoirs or maybe a vampire trilogy, and submitting to agents seems like such a sensible, tried-and-true-pathway to becoming a writer. Whatever that may be.
The answer to the question “Why read?” is clear. The answer to the question, “Why write?” is less certain. Ambiguous. Indeterminate. Almost like literature itself. Like life itself.
I know I’m not alone in reading a murder mystery, only to realize—perhaps a third of the way or half through—that I’ve read it before. Having reacquainted myself with the plot, I can usually remember who dunnit! Except for their resemblance to one another, murder mysteries may be the most easily recalled of books. I’ve forgotten so many others. I look around my library and I’m embarrassed that I’ve read so much more than I even begin to remember. Now, I realize, happily, that I’m not alone.
I have just realized something terrible about myself: I don’t remember the books I read…. Nor do I think I am the only one with this problem. Certainly, there are those who can read a book once and retain everything that was in it, but anecdotal evidence suggests that is not the case with most people. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most people cannot recall the title or author or even the existence of a book they read a month ago, much less its contents.
He then asks the obvious but troubling question: Why read books if we can’t remember what’s in them?
Collins consults an expert and examines his own experience of reading, which is a pleasurable one. Which also turns out to be the first answer to the question: reading is pleasurable. A second answer proposes that reading is like any other experience—we are changed by it and on some level it stays with us. Collins objects: he doesn’t read for some general benefit to his character and intelligence; he reads for information. In conclusion, he briefly examines some of the techniques that are supposed to help us remember what we read. It doesn’t sound as if he’s taken to any of them.
Oddly, even though Collins is a writer of novels, he doesn’t seem to worry that most of his readers will be just as forgetful of his own books.
Nor does he consult the writer’s experience of remembering. When I write—and I’ve heard enough interviews with others to know I’m not alone—I seldom have a precise memory of any past event. I have a plethora of memories, most of them vague, and stirring them up somehow elicits whole chapters that I didn’t expect. The surprise that’s the text is one of the joys of writing.
If that kind of remembering happens with past experience, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t happen with books. Some of what we read will be remembered in detail, but most of it will come back when we least expect it, and very probably in forms we don’t recognize.