Huntley Fitzpatrick: “I passed on the scotch and the smokes, but kept writing.”

Yesterday, somewhat randomly, I ran into an author’s biography at Amazon.com, to which I point you for its style as much as its insight. Her name is Huntley Fitzpatrick. Apparently, she writes young adult fiction — how well or how prominently, I cannot say. I know of her only what I read there.

Here are some excerpts from her Amazon author page, where you should read the whole brief bio, if her charm speaks to you too.

I was lucky enough to be born to parents who read every kind of written material with interest and enthusiasm, and let me do the same. From the start I searched for books that let me fall in love…with the story and with the boy. For most of my childhood I divided my devotion between Almanzo Wilder from The Little House books, C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian and Tom in Louisa May Alcott’s An Old Fashioned Girl.

I figured out early that stories were what made sense of the world when it was confusing and made the best moments permanent. I was shy and nearsighted but good at anything that involved reading and imagining, so quickly decided the only logical career to pursue was writing. To this end my father gave me a typewriter (it was a long time ago), a package of Lucky Strike cigarettes, a bottle of Scotch and a note advising me to “Be Bold, Be Bold, Be Bold.” For my tenth birthday.

Marilynne Robinson: “As if People Were Less than God Made Them”

From Marilynne Robinson, “Freedom of Thought,” in When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Picador – Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), pp. 3-18:

At a certain point I decided that everything I took from studying and reading anthropology, psychology, economics, cultural history, and so on did not square at all with my sense of things, and that the tendency of much of it was to posit or assume a human simplicity within a simple reality and to marginalize the sense of the sacred, the beautiful, everything in any way lofty. I do not mean to suggest, and I underline this, that there was any sort of plot against religion, since religion in many instances abetted these tendencies and does still, not least by retreating from the cultivation and celebration of learning and of beauty, by dumbing down, as if people were less than God made them and in need of nothing so much as condescension. Who among us wishes the songs we sing, the sermons we hear, were just a little dumber? People today — television — video games — diminished things. This is always the pretext.

Ann Padgett on Writing: Robyn the Critic

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” (This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60)

(Robyn is a graduate teaching assistant in a college poetry class.)

I admired Robyn and was terrified of her, and soon I had so assimilated her critical voice that I was able to bring the full weight of her intelligence to bear on my work without her actually needing to be in the room. I could hear her explaining how what I was writing would fail, and so I scratched it out and started over. But I knew she wouldn’t deem my second effort to be any better. Before long I was able to think the sentence, anticipate her critique of it, and decide against it, all without ever uncapping my pen. (p. 26)

 

Ann Padgett on Writing: “Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV”

From Ann Padgett’s “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life,” in This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage (New York: Harper, 2013, pp. 19-60).

Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thoughts so that other people can read it. Look at what we already have going for us: some level of education, which has given us control of written and spoken language; the ability to use a computer or a pencil; and an imagination that naturally turns the events of our lives into stories that are both true and false. We all have ideas, sometimes good ones, not to mention the gift of emotional turmoil that every childhood provides. In short, the story is in us, and all we have to do is sit there and write it down.

But it’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. (p. 21)

Novelists Writing Essays . . . and a Novel

I had an hour to kill in a university bookstore a while back. The results were more less predictable. I read several pages each in two books of essays and was hooked.

I’m been working my way through them both, reading an essay now and then. I’m enjoying both so much that I don’t really want to finish anytime soon. I’m not in too much danger of that, either. I keep going back to savor essays I’ve already read: both the writing and the thought — not that the two can be separated.

Novelist Marilynne Robinson, of whose fiction I have read exactly none, has enraptured me with her collection of essays entitled When I Was a Child I Read Books. She takes up large, serious topics, like politics, society, Christianity, and individualism. I think she’ll take up the American West somehow, in essays I haven’t read yet. So far her writing serves her themes very well; this is not a small thing.

I’ve read as much of Ann Patchett‘s fiction as I have of Marilynne Robinson’s. Her writing and thought have an irresistible personal charm and candor; in fact, these essays are part memoir. The book is called This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, after the title of one essay. (That story is quite a story, to be sure.) Other essays are about reading, writing, books, and topics I haven’t yet discovered.

When I want to savor rich writing, but I’m in a mood for fiction, lately I’ve been turning to Richard Russo‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls. I picked it up on remainder or at a library sale somewhere, because I saw it as a miniseries years ago and found it charming. The writing is dense and rich so far. The long, pseudo-historical Prologue — annoyingly set all in italics — is something to savor. I suppose a prologue ought to be that good, if it is to exist. I don’t resent the existence of this one at all.

(Links to books in this post are to my Amazon store. Purchases help to support this site. But libraries are great, too. So is Barnes and Noble. And Powell’s. And Sam Weller’s. And so forth.)

C. S. Lewis on Prayer and More

I was looking for some things C. S. Lewis said on praying for people we don’t like, including tyrants, for something over at FreedomHabit.com, when I encountered these gems:

  • “In praying for people one dislikes I find it helpful to remember that one is joining in His prayer for them.” (a 1951 letter)
  • “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter 4)
  • “For most of us the prayer in Gethsemane is the only model. Removing mountains can wait.” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, Chapter 11)
  • “You don’t teach a seed how to die into treehood by throwing it in the fire: and it has to become a good seed before it’s worth burying.” (3 December 1959 letter)

The last of these suggests a good goal: to become a good seed, “worth burying,” before I am buried.

Leonard, Pronto, Hooptedoodle

Elmore Leonard passed away last August. He’s been called the greatest crime writer of our time, but that’s not a genre I know. Soon after his death, I read a tribute to him in one book review or another. I decided that, if he was that good at his craft, I should read one of his novels. You may have heard of Get Shorty or Mr. Majestyk, but I settled on Pronto (itself a bestseller two decades ago) and ordered it from Amazon.

I haven’t had a lot of time to read books lately, which is why one of my New Year’s resolutions — yes, I made some this year — is to read in a book almost every day, in addition to my extensive reading on the Web. So I decided to finish Pronto next, having started it shortly after it arrived. I’ve been chipping away at it of an evening, ensconced in my unconscionably comfortable “reading chair.” Then the flu arrived this week, and I had time to finish the book.

You’ve already gathered that I didn’t find Pronto irresistible. However, I did enjoy it. For those who worry about such things, I note an abundance of language I wouldn’t use in Sunday school or even a barnyard, as well as some scenes I wouldn’t consent to watch portrayed as written in a movie. That said, I think I’ll keep the book for future reference; Leonard was a master at dialogue, and I’m also interested in his dialogue-centered character development.

What sealed the deal for me last fall, when I considered reading one of his books, was a New York Times piece Leonard wrote on writing. You never know whether the title or headline came from the author or the editor, but it was “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle.”

He briefly offers ten rules for writers. I presume these are the same ten he presents at greater length in his short book, Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I just ordered for my own collection.

He writes:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your own voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

“Show, don’t tell” is one of the oldest cliches of writing, but there’s a reason for that, and Leonard’s instruction in the matter is welcome.

I enjoy lists of rules for writing, especially when they come from real writers instead of school teachers who aren’t real writers. George Orwell’s list in “Politics and the English Language” is a favorite. I’ve assigned the whole essay to my college writing students, when I’ve taught. It ends with this dictum: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

When I saw in Leonard’s article the same healthy sense of humility and the willingness to confess that rules are tools, not shackles, I was hooked. You don’t get that sense from your junior high or high school English teacher, unless she is extraordinary, and some college teachers aren’t that sensible, either. (David R. Williams, author of Sin Boldly!, which everyone who wants to write well should read, is my hero among those who are that sensible.)

I don’t want to squander all the suspense, so I won’t list all of Leonard’s rules. You can read them for yourself — and you should, because most of the delight is in his explanations, not the rules themselves. I mention only the following.

It’s hard to argue with the wisdom of Rule #10, “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

He is sometimes absolute where I am less so: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” I wouldn’t say “never,” but I mostly agree.

I’ll leave it to you to discover why Leonard mentions one of his characters, who tells how she used to write historical romances which were “full of rape and adverbs.”

Finally, in case you’re wondering, I note that the word hooptedoodle appears in Leonard’s explanation of Rule #2, “Avoid prologues . . . especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.” He attributes the odd word to John Steinbeck, who didn’t always avoid prologues. My fine New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) doesn’t know the word hooptedoodle, but I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that.

What’s next on my reading list? I’ll have to decide soon. The flu hasn’t left yet, and (very strangely) I haven’t read Tom Clancy’s Command Authority, which I bought on the day it was released. It’s a leading candidate. But Heidi and I also have tickets to the musical version of Les Miserables a few weeks hence, and I’ve been meaning to read the entire, unabridged Victor Hugo novel before seeing the musical. I got about 100 pages into it last year and loved it.

If I didn’t have these two fine choices, I have another hundred or so books waiting to be read. A guy could have worse problems.

Review: David Lodge, Nice Work and Thinks…

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Years ago, I tried my hand at a few book reviews. Here is one of them, because I think it still has merit, and because I need some content to test the function of this web site I’m building. This was previously published at an old site of mine, BookishThoughts.com.

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Nice Work (trade paperback): 288 pages. Penguin, 1990. ISBN: 0140133968.
Thinks (trade paperback): 352 pages. Penguin, 2002. ISBN: 0142000868.

Some years ago, I read a book of literary criticism by David Lodge. In a discipline where so much writing is deliberately murky, hopelessly trivial, or stridently ideological – or some unfortunate combination of the three – his prose was a refreshing, encouraging exception. His thoughts, like the sentences and paragraphs he created to express them, struck me as being carefully, artfully, precisely crafted. This is not to say that Lodge’s prose is sterile and mechanical; on the contrary, it manages, while never calling attention to itself, to be quite lively and fresh, and infused with a gentle, natural humor. One does not roll on the floor laughing, reading Lodge, but one tends to smile a lot, and sometimes chuckle aloud.

I was sufficiently impressed that I made a mental note to read some of David Lodge’s fiction someday. I have recently read two novels, Nice Work (1988) and Thinks (2001). They have several things in common. First, in both cases, the literary craftsmanship (perhaps I should say artistry, but it’s not just art) is superb, and the chapters are brightened by the same gentle humor I remember from his nonfiction. Second, both novels feature the collision of two worlds, which is to say that relationships develop between people with very little in common, who have to struggle mightily to understand each other.

In Nice Work a British government program designed to foster mutual understanding between the academy and the outside world ends up doing (strangely enough) exactly what it intends. Robyn Penrose, a temporary lecturer in English literature at the university, is assigned to “shadow” Vic Wilcox, who runs a factory. Robyn’s temporary status makes her at once vulnerable to receiving such an undesirable assignment and consumed by the quest for a tenured position somewhere – “nice work if you can get it,” as they say, and hence the title. Her fashionable leftist world view leaves her completely unprepared for the everyday realities of Vic’s occupation. The clash of ideologies and lifestyles is deftly drawn and delightful to read.

The cautious reader should note that there is some fairly candid description of sexual matters here and there in the novel, as the “mutual understanding” goes a bit farther than the government intended.

The two main characters in Thinks . . . are both in the academic world, at the fictional Gloucester University, but the gulf between them is vast. Helen Reed is a novelist, temporarily on the faculty to teach a course on creative writing. Ralph Messenger is the director of a research institution that is devoted to studying the phenomenon of consciousness and developing artificial intelligence. Each is introduced to the other’s world and finds it a strange.

This novel is something of a thought experiment on the nature of consciousness; the reader notices this long before encountering confirmation in the two pages of acknowledgments that follow the novel. To what extent is consciousness an objective phenomenon, reproducible from human to human, or perhaps even artificially? (One scientist in Messenger’s institute is trying to program a computer to simulate mother-love.) Can the mystery that is consciousness ever be solved? Reed argues, as I think Lodge also means to argue, that fiction is our best data on consciousness. Even though it is invented, as Messenger points out, and therefore of little scientific value, it probes its characters’ consciousness far deeper than we are presently able to probe an actual person’s consciousness.

Three voices narrate the bulk of the novel. One is Messenger’s; his chapters purport to be transcripts of his very private attempts to record his conscious thoughts as they occur, with as little ordering or censorship as possible. (Again, the cautious reader is warned that the man spends a fair amount of time thinking about sex.) Of course, as he notes early on, the very effort to express and record his thoughts implies some ordering and censorship, making his transcripts of little scientific use; but they serve their literary purpose. Reed’s narrative voice is in the form of journal entries, which are more carefully crafted and less spontaneous than Messenger’s ramblings. The third major narrative voice is a third person narrator.

Lodge’s exploration of consciousness relies on the technique of juxtaposing the three narrators’ views of the same events and ideas. This is far more artfully executed than the familiar television plot, where several characters recall and relate the same events in vastly different ways, often for comedic effect. Reed sets forth an idea in her journal, in the process of recording her discussion of the idea with Messenger, and Messenger examines it in his record, too. Ideas Reed encounters in conversation with Messenger even find their way into writing assignments for her students; some of the students’ writing fills two or three chapters of the novel, including a memorable sequence about an imaginary experiment to explore a person’s consciousness of color.

From time to time, events combine to teach one character or another quite forcibly that he or she has little or no idea what another person is thinking. This is hardly original with Lodge; such surprises play a major role in many novels. But in this case, these twists and turns in the plot are more than just devices; they are a commentary on the subjective, very personal nature of consciousness, and the role and importance of literature in exploring the nature of consciousness.

The philosophical implications are, in any case, quite profound. To the problem of consciousness are connected many larger issues: the existence of the self (or the soul), the immortality of the soul, the nature of personality and of conscience, the interrelationship of mind and body, the role of fiction, and so forth. For all that, Thinks . . . is admirably light on its feet. It may challenge the thoughtful reader, but it will also entertain. Lodge makes the scientific and philosophical issues involved about as accessible as they could possibly be, and thus manages, I think, to say something useful on the subject of consciousness.