Thursday, January 23, 2014

19th Century Fiction

I wanted to comment on something Russell Letson put in a comment. Ruseel writes:
In fact, I found Austen, Dickens, and Twain to be among the saving graces of the novel of the Great Tradition (as we were taught to think of it), but Hardy and James were hard (and often incomplete) slogs for me, and I even ran out of gas with George Eliot. (Middlemarch: the 19th century in real time.)

I think I would agree with this. As the century progresses, the novels become more inward and possibly more realistic, though heaven knows Austen is realistic. But how about many of the other great 19th century novelists? Moby-Dick is full of the minutia of everyday life on a whaler. But is that whale realistic? How about Ahab? Huckleberry Finn draws on Twain's deep knowledge of the Mississippi and life on the Missouri frontier. Again, is the novel really realistic? It's an epic quest for freedom, set on a magical river. The white Americans along the river -- "the common clay of the new west," to quote Blazing Saddles -- are for the most part grotesque, stupid and mean. So we have a flight to freedom along a magical river, the banks of which are populated by orcs. Dickens' Bleak House begins with "it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill." Granted, Dickens does not say the Megalosaurus is actually there. But we are left with the vivid image: London, the winter mud, the giant lizard. How about Jane Eyre, the ultimate gothic novel? Realism is mingled with wild romance and genuine weirdness.

There is a strong realism in the classic bourgeois novel, but it's often combined with exoticism -- think Robinson Crusoe or the mad, West Indian wife in Jane Eyre -- and the gothic. But all this neat stuff gets gradually leached out, until we are left with the internal lives of the late 19th century European and American middle classes. Austen, for all her realism, is not interested in inwardness. Her topics are money and right behavior.

(I know Robinson Crusoe is an early 18th century novel. But it does combine realism -- in its first edition, it claimed to be a true narrative by Mr. Crusoe -- with the exotic and is in the line of descent of the bourgeois novel. Plus it's a neat read, and the N. C. Wyath illustrations are awesome.)

(And I can't speak about the Russians. I haven't read them, except for Chekov, who is wonderful. My brother got through War and Peace by taking it on a six-week ocean-sailing trip. He had nothig else to read. I am not planning a comparable trip.)

I am sure there is more going on in realstic fiction at the end of the 19th century. But is it enough to make up for the loss of desert islands, white whales in the Pacific, magical rivers, Megalosauruses, and all the splendid oddities that populate Dickens, not to mention the dark, dense, almost alive city of London?

On Being A Writer

I love facebook, partly because of the minutia: the reports of people's meals, days, the weather, cats, children... Also, because I get interesting links and get into interesting conversations. My facebook colleagues almost all have some connection to science fiction and most are interested in politics, the environment, science, literature... as well as cats...

What follows is part of a facebook discussion, which begins from a quote from Samuel R. Delany:
"Samuel Delany once said that to succeed at writing, he had to give up everything else. He sacrificed his health, his relationships, in pursuit of becoming the best at what he did. The people who won worked harder than other people. They were willing to sacrifice more."

For me, writing has been a part of other activities: making friends, building a community, holding more or less interesting day jobs, having an interest in politics and economics and birdwatching... I can't remember giving up much in order to write. I feel as if the writing has woven in and out of the rest of my life.

I decided early on that (a) it wasn't easy to make a living at writing and (b) I didn't want to be dependent on income from writing. I wanted to be able to walk away from deals because I thought they were bad. And I did, in fact, walk away from a deal for two books because the publisher wanted to edit my politics out of one of the books. It would have been a lot harder to walk if I'd needed the book money. I think I would have done it anyway. But it might have led to hard times
Josh Lukin gave me a link to a review of a collection of Delany essays done by L. Timmel DuChamp. I wrote:
I read Timmi's essay and really like it. I am now trying to decide if I need to read the Delany book. I suspect it would discourage me, since I'm not at all sure I have to the kind of passion and commitment he is describing. Maybe I'm not a writer. Right now I am enjoying being mildly under the weather, looking at Patrick sleeping on the couch, drinking coffee. At some point -- maybe not today -- I will think about writing.

Was Grace Paley a writer? She was a teacher, a political activist, a parent and grandparent, the author of three collections of short stories and three books of poems. Per Wikipedia, "in a May 2007 interview with Vermont Woman newspaper – one of her last – Paley said of her dreams for her grandchildren: 'It would be a world without militarism and racism and greed – and where women don't have to fight for their place in the world.'" I wouldn't mind a life like hers, though I am a terrible teacher and I don't have children, only younger friends.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

More on Culture

Russell Letson put a comment on my middle class culture post, in which he says he loses interest in canonical lit after 1800. I like the 19th century, what I've read of it.

Austen, Dickens, Twain. The only work by Melville I've read is Moby-Dick, and I liked it a lot. Austen does write about family relations. There are many, many poor marriages and dysfunctional families in her novels. But her great subject, it seems to me, is money and the struggle of people in the lower gentry, women especially, to gain (through marriage) incomes that are large enough so they can be comfortable and remain in the gentry. Here is W. H. Auden's famous stanza on Austen in his "Letter to Lord Byron:"
You could not shock her more than she shocks me,
Beside her, Joyce seems innocent as grass.
It makes me most uncomfortable to see
An English spinster of the middle class
Describe the amorous effects of ‘brass’,
Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety
The economic basis of society.
Dickens novels are mostly about people scrambling up into the comfortable middle class. And he writes about poverty. The society he portrays is more dynamic than the one Austen portrays and more scary, because we see the poor. We know where his heroes and heroines will end up, if they're not lucky. The worst fate in Austen is that of Miss Bates, who lives on a reduced income and relies on help from her neighbors. In Dickens we see the horrifying slums of London.

Huckleberry Finn is about the morality of slavery. Moby-Dick is about whaling and life on a whaler. Because whales had to be processed as soon as they were killed, the ships were sea-going factories. You can see the novel as the story of taking a job in a factory and finding out that the boss is seriously crazy, and you can't quit and walk out the factory gate.

At the same time that these canonical novels were being written, we have the development of genre fiction, which comes (I think) out of the gothic romance. The Frankenstein monster and the plucky young women exploring castles full of dark secrets can be reasonably seen as leading to SF and detective stories. By the end of century, with H.G.Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle, we have recognizable science fiction and detective fiction, which is still read and enjoyed today.

Maybe the turning point is Henry James. I like his early work, but find his late work too difficult to read. Too much style and not enough life, as H.G. Wells said. Here is the famous Wells quote about James' fiction:
It is like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg−shell, and a bit of string.
This is unfair to James. You can see why the friendship between Wells and James ended.

Or maybe the turning point comes after the Second World War, at least in the US. I have read some Faulkner, Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I don't mind them. Patrick likes Sinclair Lewis and John Steinbeck. The focus on middle class angst comes a bit later.

My own theory is that the post-war McCarthy era made writers reluctant to write about social issues. They retreated into psychology and the family, and they have never returned to look at the rest of the world.

I am told that some 60s writers -- Pynchon especially -- wrote about the larger world. Here again we see my limitations as a critic. Starting as a kid in the 1950s, the new fiction I read was mostly science fiction and murder mysteries. I haven't kept up on literary fiction. I did read Catch 22 (which came out in 1961) and liked it a lot. It is not about middle class angst.

I think Russell is right. Many of the topics of contemporary fiction can be made more interesting by adding a murder. Then the family's dysfunction and lies can be explored by a police inspector. The murder ups the ante and gives the reader a reason to care.

As for science fiction, it can explore the broad social problems that 19th century writers used to explore, and because it is not limited to the present and to realism, it can explore the problems in ways that realistic fiction cannot.

Maybe we can see realistic fiction, the bourgeois novel of manners and psychology, as having run its course and been reduced to sterile repetition.

The gothic tradition continues in science fiction, fantasy and murder mysteries -- and has possibly triumphed.

Saturday, January 11, 2014


The temp is now 26 above. So our cold snap is over. Last night, I heard the hiss of car tires on a wet pavement, and the streets look wet this morning. It's a miserable day, overcast and gray. The air looks thick -- misty or foggy, but not in attractive way. Smoggy. The snow is dirty and lumpy. That's the best word I can come up for snow when it begins to melt.

It's not good weather for self reflection. The grayness gets into my mind. As I wrote the preceding, I remembered my light box and turned it on. I have not been using it much this winter, and that is not good. Though the crisp, bright days of the cold snap were good for lifting my mood.

Time to get back to writing, which cheers me up.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014


No records for low temps were set in Minnesota during the cold snap yesterday. So there. It was not such a big deal, unless you were not paying attention to weather warnings or did not have shelter or warm clothing. Patrick says more homeless people die or heat than cold. But cold is still dangerous.

Middle Class Culture

This is made of a facebook conversation. I have taken out the other person's comments, since I don't have his permission to use them. I will add that conversations like this are useful, because I make sweeping statements based on intuition and impression, and then someone calls me on it. This enables me to learn.
I have some real issues with upper middle class culture. I find it thin and uninteresting, though I suspect I undervalue much of it. The art market is deranged and has been since the 1960s or 70s, when contemporary art began to attract serious money. I have no interest in novels about the emotional and existential problems of people who are comfortably well off. Much nonfiction is shallow and dishonest. The glossy surface of a life spent isolated from most of society is just plain irritating.
I was called on this by my facebook colleague, who pointed out the top ten percent included people who were not making a giantic amount of money, were making less than in the past, in fact, and weren't sure they were going to hold onto their jobs. He also pointed out that middle class people could not afford to be in the art market. I replied:
I just checked. The top ten percent appears to start at a household income of $150,000. So you are clearly right about much of the upper 10% worrying.

A couple of comments on the art market. The top prices are gigantic, but there is plenty of affordable art. The art market is not merely the auctions are Sotheby's and Christie's. There are galleries and art fairs... Second, I suspect the prices at the top influence ideas of what art is, what people see in museums. I don't know this for sure. But it seems to me American art became less interesting -- at least to me -- when the art market took off.
And he pointed out that novels about the emotional problems of people with a comfortable income includes the work of Henry James and Edith Wharton and Madame Bovary. I replied:
I have read James and liked him, though not as much as Jane Austen, since Austen writes about money and social mobility and survival... the constant fear of falling out of the middle class... I am rereading Northanger Abbey for the first time in decades. Not nearly as good as the other novels, but still pretty good. In spite of writing a story that is partly about Madame Bovary, I have not read the novel. I must have read some Wharton, but I don't remember it.

I don't know why I could happily read a long novel about the emotional problems of an Japanese prince and have no time for contemporary middle class novels. Maybe because The Tale of Genji is exotic and a gorgeous novel and because psychological problems had not been done to death in the 11th century.
Much of what I have said here is probably BS. But saying it and having someone else react to it does enable me to examine my ideas, which are not all right...

Sunday, January 05, 2014


I enjoy New Year's resolutions. I also enjoy grocery lists, to-do lists, plans of all kinds... So, my resolutions...

Go to Weight Watchers regularly and keep the WW tracker/food journal. The goal is to lose weight, but also to pay attention to nutrition.
Exercise regularly.
Get rid of stuff.
Finish revising my novel.
Remain calm.
Have fun.

Breakfast and the Weather

The coffee this morning is good. I finished the current jar of marmalade, but there is still sour cherry jam, lingonberry fruit spread and an unopened jar of marmalade. A bright, clear day with plumes of steam rising from the buildings. Golly, Minnesota is lovely in cold weather.

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Cold Weather

As most people know, there is cold snap in the Midwestern and Eastern states at the moment.

I find the local reaction to the cold weather somewhat odd. I swear to heaven I used to go to school via public transit when the air temperature was 20 below. (This was before windchill.) Due to dress codes, I wore a skirt and nylons or maybe tights, and I can remember shivering on street corners wearing Capizio flats. I should have been dressed more warmly. But if you dress warmly and pay attention to the weather and public service announcements, cold weather should not be a cause for panic. Yes, Governor Dayton is right to close the public schools. Yes, you should have emergency supplies in your car. But this kind of cold used to be typical of Minnesota this time of year, and the state survived.

If it's cold enough so exposed skin gets frostbitten in minutes, then cover your skin. This is why the goddess made balaclavas. Scarves also work, and those neat hoods on winter jackets that tighten, so only your eyes are unprotected. I wear glasses, so even the eyes are protected, though after the glasses fog over I can't see much. Also, don't try to lick a metal railing.

A facebook friend who grew up in western Minnesota reminds me that winter is a lot more severe in rural areas, especially in the western part of the state, where the winds come off the Great Plains and pile up drifts. But people who live there learn to cope.

I used to work with a guy from Pipestone, which is right at the South Dakota border. He told a story about his previous job. Some of the staff had a meeting in western Minnesota, and there was winter storm coming in. Jim said, "We don't want to drive west with a storm coming." They said, "Ha! Ha! We are Minnesotans. We don't fear winter." So they all climbed in a car and drove west into the storm. After a while, they turned around and drove back to safety.

I am always impressed, when we go west, by the gates on the freeway entrance ramps, that close in bad weather to keep the idiots off.


It snowed yesterday evening and into the night. I woke several times and heard the clank and rattle of a plow going past: a reassuring sound. I love evidences of community and collective action. This morning the streets are all plowed, also the park sidewalks. A little light snow is falling in the sunlight. High today of 26 above. High Sunday of minus 11. High Monday of minus 18.

I remember an interview with a supervisor for the Department of Transportation talking about what it was like to plow the highways in western Minnesota after a bad snow storm. The drivers were plowing through drifts fifteen feet high, knowing that there might be stalled cars under the drifts, which they could hit. If they saw a stalled car, they had to stop and find out if anyone was inside -- possibly frozen to death. After describing this, the supervisor said, "A day like this is hard on the guys." None the less, the roads get plowed, and human civilization continues.

Patrick and I lived -- decades ago -- in Hamtramck, Michigan, a small town entirely surrounded by Detroit. The town had no plows and contracted with Detroit to get the main streets plowed. People had to do their own shoveling on the side streets. Usually the snow wasn't that deep, and you didn't have to shovel out the entire street. But you'd shovel out a parking space for your car and then put a wooden kitchen chair in the space to hold it. I would sooner pay taxes and hire a street department.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014


Happy New Year, everyone.

I had a hectic holiday season, due to visitors from out of town. The guests have returned home, and Patrick and I are enjoying our usual quiet. I don't know what to expect from the new year. We shall see.