Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Why Is This Blog So Unpopular?

In case you hadn't noticed, nothing published on this blog "goes viral." Not remotely! No advertisers plead for space here to promote their products because the audience is so large and thus presumably commercially appealing.

Why is that?  Well, part of the answer might lie in a study Albert-LászlóBarabási, who identifies himself as a data scientist, recently conducted in an attempt to discover what sort of books make the New York Times bestseller list.

He and a colleague analyzed the sales patterns of the 2,468 fiction and 2,025 non-fiction books that made the NYT hardcover bestseller lists over the past decade.

Well, this blog is nominally (and mostly) about fiction so let's start there.  What sells?  In a word, "action," or to put it another way, page-turners.  The top five best-selling categories are thrillers and suspense novels; mystery and detective stories; romance; fantasy, and science fiction.

I rarely write about books or stories that fall into one of those genres. There's nothing wrong with such books and possibly a great deal right about them. They are just not my thing.

I do stray away from fiction from time to time, mainly to write about political and social tends, and books concerned with history, law or political science are the second most popular genre on the non-fiction list. But biography, autobiography and memoir is by far the hottest selling category there, the two data scientists found.

So there you have it.  "Thoughts About Fiction" is one of the quieter backwaters of cyberspace, and rightly so!

Monday, December 3, 2018

Black Male Writers Experiencing "Extraordinary Moment"

Black male writers are experiencing "an extraordinary moment" of mainstream attention in the world of American literature, Ayana Mathis, a best-selling black female novelist, said.

If so, it runs at least somewhat counter to recurring assertions that American publishing is one of the strongest remaining bastions of white male domination in U.S. society.

"The last decade has seen a burgeoning multiplicity in America's literature, with gifted black men writing novels, poems and plays of great import," Mathis said in the Dec. 2, 2018, edition of "T," the New York Times Style Magazine.

Enumerating several top literary awards won by black male authors, Mathis said that "what matters here, what's more striking than the sums exchanged or the awards received is the intense focus on works by African-American men in America's artistic landscape, even as the problems of race and racial violence continue to plague the nation."

Indeed, one reads repeatedly that the attitudes expressed and postures taken by U.S. President Donald Trump have served to encourage White supremacist initiatives.

"Now in 2018, blackness is as lethal to black people as it ever was," Mathis said. "Even as African-American writing currently experiences unprecedented mainstream appeal and critical recognition, the focus on black expression has another, uglier face: a deadly obsession with black bodies."

In addition, some believe anti-Semitism is on the upswing in the U.S. at present as well.

"To be sure, there is much to celebrate, but these recent developments are not without complication," Mathis said, noting that a surge in mainstream attention to blackness and its literature isn't unprecedented in periods of American crisis. And it is possible that at least some "gatekeepers" (presumably liberal white males) expect black males to focus mainly on racism and oppression, she said.

"I wonder if, in the annals of history, this extraordinary period of artistry will find a name, or a unifying sentiment that codifies it as a movement," Mathis said.  Earlier in the article, she had pointed to the Harlem Renaissance that sprung up in the wake of WWI and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Social Change: More on the Rise of Tribalism

I recently wrote a post on the rise of tribalism in the U.S.  Here's a bit more on that topic.

On Nov. 4, the New York Times published in its paper edition a piece by Ginia Bellafante entitled "Is it Safe to be Jewish in New York?"

The story related recent incidents of anti-Semitism and then went on to observe that for several years, expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment have made up the preponderance of hate crime complaints in the city. According to the NY police department, anti-Semitic incidents have accounted for half of all hate crimes this year, or four times as many as against blacks.

Where is this coming from?  Generally speaking, right-wing, non-Jewish whites sympathetic with Nazi policies tend to be the leading suspects based on the history of such incidents in the U.S. over many years.  But that doesn't seem to be the case in NY at present.

If anti-Semitism bypasses consideration as a serious problem in New York, it is to some extent because it refuses to conform to an easy narrative with a single ideological enemy, Belefante wrote.

"During the past 22 months, not one person caught or identified as the aggressor in an ant-Semitic hate crime has been associated with a far right-wing group, Mark Molinari, commanding officer of the Police Department's Hate Crimes task force, told me," the NYT writer said. "I almost wish it was more clear cut," he (Molinari) was quoted as saying. "It's every identity targeting every identity," he told Belefante.

Every identity targeting every identity is mark of increasing tribalism, one could argue.

The Invisible Woman (or Man)

Invisible people are generally associated in the world of fiction with ghost stories or tales making use of what is known as magical realism -- or outright magic.

But in truth, invisibility is common in everyday life and can be written about as part of the Importance of the Ordinary.

Good examples of this can be found in a recent New York Times article entitled "New Women's Groups Focus on Generational Mix."

The article opens with an anecdote about a woman lamenting the difficulties of aging. "She said she felt invisible … generally silenced. Unseen. As if she had nothing to contribute to the world." Other women were said to have then echoed the same feelings.

"These were all women who had college degrees, were married or had a significant other, were well traveled and led very nice lifestyles, but every one of them felt invisible. They didn't feel pretty any longer. No one was looking at them."

So reported Susan Good, a woman who has launched an initiative to combat the affliction.

Among other things, the article mentions a monthly reading series in various major cities where women from multiple generations read short stories and essays loosely centered around a theme. It was founded by novelist Georgia Clark after a conversation during which her mother spoke about "disappearing" in later life.

"She said that as she had gotten older people looked right through her," Ms. Clark told the NYT. "If we're walking down the street together, they'll just look at me, and if she's alone, it's as if she's not there."

This, by the way, is not unique to women.  Older men experience it as well, but they are perhaps more reluctant than women to admit it.

"The dominant culture tells you that when you reach a certain age, you can't be included any more," Devorah Bry, a dance and couples therapist in Nevada City, was quoted as saying.

In truth, advancing age is not the only reason people feel invisible. Marginalization, such as by virtue of mental illness or severe financial setbacks, is another.  That may be a factor behind recent, seemingly inexplicable mass shootings.  Those carrying them out are invisible no more, even if it is only on the way out.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Societal Change: The Rise of Tribalism in the U.S.

As per its title, this blog is focused on fiction, but with one or two exceptions, what I have had to say on that topic has attracted little interest.

This, one could argue, opens the door to other subjects, such as where we are in the wake of Donald Trump's election as President of the United States.

An important factor seems to be that as America's traditional white majority shrinks in size and various categories of non-whites demand seats at the country's various tables of power -- political, social and cultural -- tribalism is on the increase.

This Sunday, the New York Times magazine tackled the topic in its "First Words" column.

For most of the post-war period, and particularly in the wake of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that led to Southern conservatives switching from Democrat to Republican, the country has been pretty evenly divided between the two parties. And until recent years -- according to regular American National Election Studies surveys -- most people were not strikingly dissatisfied with the opposition party.  As a result, disputes were mainly based on policies and compromise was often possible.

More recently -- and particularly since Barack Obama was elected president -- there has been an important change: the percentage of survey respondents expressing extremely negative views of the opposition party has risen dramatically.

"In the post-war era, the coalitions that made up the Democratic and Republican Parties were haphazard and incongruous, bearing little resemblance to the tribes of today," the NYT article says.

More than any other politician -- and perhaps because he wasn't previously a seasoned politician conditioned by what went on  before -- Donald Trump has tapped into this apparent new reality. Among other things, he has clearly determined that his tribe -- very largely white -- wants everything associated with former president Obama overturned or erased. That's not so much because Obama's policies were too far left -- they weren't -- but because Obama's very ascension to the top elected office in the U.S. represented a major real or symbolic shift away from those who traditionally sat at American tables of power. Or at least that seems to be the way in which many who voted for Trump perceived it.

It is tough for partisans to say that in a straight-forward manner.  "Racist" remains a very uncomfortable label. But many can quite comfortably vent their feelings or frustrations by being opposed to immigration, particularly since unlike the past, the vast majority of those seeking to enter the U.S. now do not look like them. With something like 20 million people living illegally in the U.S. already and the possibility of terrorism ever present, many can feel comfortable backing strict border controls and in so doing hopefully slow the country's increasing racial and cultural diversity.

That seems to be where U.S. socio/political realities stand at present.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Virginia Woolf on Fiction, and “Bleak House” in Particular

Man is a list-making animal.  Nothing, it seems, can be properly apprehended, digested, comprehended and then absorbed or rejected until it is first categorized in relation to its peers. 

Thus in her 1929 essay “Phases of Fiction,” Virginia Woolf divides the subject matter up into a list of six categories.  There are The Truth Tellers, The Romantics, The Character-Mongers and Comedians, The Psychologists, The Satirists and The Poets. 

By prevailing standards, this is a modest registry. “Writer’s Digest,” for instance, currently lists 21 genres of fiction. But let’s give Virginia the benefit of the doubt and say she was considering only what might be termed literature as opposed to, say, the broader realm of commercial fiction, the chief purpose of which is profitable entertainment. 

Significantly, in view of the three main books Bill has chosen for our seminar, Woolf focuses on “Bleak House” in the category of Character-Mongers and Comedians, eventually comparing and contrasting it with Jane Austin’s “Pride and Prejudice.” At the end of that section, George Eliot gets some consideration as well. 

The term “comedians” here does not mean authors whose aim is humor. Rather, it refers to authors who write books, in the English tradition, that have happy, or comedic (as opposed to tragic), endings. Such books generally conclude with successful marriages that often served to reinforce prevailing social norms after many trials and tribulations along the way. Woolf’s own second novel, “Night and Day” (her least highly regarded) easily fits within that category. 

But when one is in the mood for characters of extravagant force, one need look no further than “Bleak House,” Woolf maintains. “In Dickens, the character-making power is so prodigious that the very houses and streets and fields are strongly featured in sympathy with the people.” Thus, in “Bleak House,” one perceives a certain location as looking like or characterized by one thing or another because of the attributes of the character that inhabits it as opposed to the reverse. 

Thus, for instance, readers clearly see the chaotic conditions of the house in which poor Caddy Jellyby is brought up not because the place itself is much described, but because of the manner in which Dickens depicts Mrs. Jellyby’s preoccupation with the Borrioboola-Gha peoples of Africa at the expense of her family. 

Dickens works by way of exaggeration, Woolf says. “Who has met anyone who, whatever the day or the occasion, can be trusted to say the same phrase, to repeat the same action? This perpetual repetition has, of course, an enormous power to drive these characters home, to stabilize them.” 

Such characters, Woolf says, naming a few, serve as stationary points in the flow and confusion of the narrative and thereby firm up what she termed the extraordinary intricacy of the plot.

For me personally, the catatonic seizure-prone Mr. Smallweed, episodically shaken back into his senses by his granddaughter Judy, was one such character, albeit more significant to the plot than, say, the king of deportment, Mr. Turveydrop, who Woolf points to as one of the “gargoyles” of Dickens’ composition. 

There are times, Woolf says, when Dickens’ powers of character development pull readers away from his story because of the sentiments they generate.  She points in particular to Mademoiselle Hortense, dismissed from her presence by Lady Deadlock, walking shoeless through the wet grass. “She goes and leaves a strange wake of emotion behind her,” Woolf says. 

Similarly, in “Howards End,” Helen describes Ruth Wilcox walking off into the meadow. “Trail, trail, went her long dress over the sopping grass, and she came back with her hands full of the hay that was cut yesterday.” Another powerfully emotive image. 

But back to “Bleak House” where Woolf cites in the same context Mr. Tukinghorn’s friend (unnamed as I recall). “A man of the same mold and a lawyer, too, who lived the same kind of life until he was seventy-five years old, and then, suddenly conceiving (as it is supposed) an impression that it was too monotonous, gave his gold watch to his hairdresser one summer evening, and walked leisurely home to the Temple [an area between Fleet St. and the River Thames where lawyers lived and had their chambers], and hanged himself.” One can easily imagine Virginia pausing and dwelling on that depiction. 

The most interesting character in “Bleak House” for Woolf is Inspector Bucket. Rather than being static and extreme, he “is made up of contrasts and discrepancies,” she says. 

While at times bombastic, but very able in his official capacity, Bucket is also conscientious and even compassionate, Woolf says. “All these qualities are displayed by turns in the astonishingly vivid account of the drive through the night and the storm, in pursuit of Esther’s mother.” 

Dickens “uses this clear-cut, many-faced figure to sharpen his final scenes and then, letting Inspector Bucket of the detective force disappear, gathers the loose folds of the story into one prodigious armful and makes an end,” Woolf says. 

But while she clearly admires Dickens’ abilities (and, I suspect, greatly enjoyed “Bleak House”) Woolf also finds her literary predecessor lacking in an important respect.  His characters are unconvincing when it comes to intimacy with each other, she says, and thus fail to “interlock.” This, she argues, may be because Dickens’ own heart burned far more with indignation for public wrongs than for private relationships. 

“So it is that we begin to want something smaller, more intense, more intricate,” Woolf says, pointing to Jane Austin and in particular, to “Pride and Prejudice.” 

But back to lists and categories. 

In a previous post, I wrote about Virginia Woolf’s take on “Howards End,” material extracted from an essay in which she discusses all of Forster’s novels except for “Maurice,” which, dealing with homosexuality, was only published after first Woolf and then Forster had died. 

“We look, then as time goes by, for signs that Mr. Forster is committing himself; that he is allying himself to one of the two great camps into which most novelists belong,” Woolf said. 

She identified the two camps as “the preachers and teachers” headed by Tolstoy and Dickens on one hand, and “the pure artists” headed by Austin and Turgenev on the other.

Two categories this time, rather than six. 

Forster, Woolf says, has a strong impulse to belong to both camps at once and that may be one reason he is an author about whom “there is considerably disagreement” and whose gifts are “evasive.” 

He falls into the “pure artist” camp when it comes to “an exquisite prose style, an acute sense of comedy, (and) a power of creating characters in a few strokes which live in an atmosphere of their own.”  But at the same time, Woolf continues, “he is highly conscious of a message” and that tends to put him in with “the preachers and teachers.” 

Her own message: if a writer can’t be properly categorized, he or she can be hard to understand and digest. 

Well, how about Woolf herself?  That’s potentially a big topic since she experimented with different styles, but let’s keep it simple and stick with what Forster had to say about her. 

In his view, there are two categories as well – “The Temple of Art,” a rarified atmosphere within which beauty is pursued for the sake of itself, on one hand, and the real world on the other. 

Woolf’s writing, in Forster’s view, comes perilously close to the former, but in the end thankfully escapes, and in so doing, remains relevant. 

“She has all of the aesthete’s characteristics: selects and manipulates her impressions; is not a great creator of character; enforces patterns on her books; has no great cause at heart. So how did she avoid her appropriate pitfall and remain up in the fresh air where we can hear the sound of the stable boy’s boots, or boats bumping, or Big Ben; where we can taste really new bread, and touch real dahlias?”  

Because, Forster maintains, Woolf liked writing for fun and “in the midst of writing seriously, this other delight would spurt through.” 

“For you cannot enter the Palace of Art, therein to dwell, if you are tempted from time to time to play the fool,” he says.  It is by mixing and managing these two impulses – the serious and mischievousness – in masterly fashion that Woolf succeeds as few other writers can, Forster says. 

This aspect of her gifts is clearly evident, I believe, in “Mrs. Dalloway,” when, for instance she slyly pokes fun at the classes of society represented by Hugh Whitbread and Lady Bruton (that name alone says it all) on one hand, and Doris Kilman on the other. 

If, however, we return to Woolf’s six categories and ask Forster to place her in one of those, it would clearly be the last: The Poets. 

“She was a poet who wanted to write novels,” he says, pointing in particular to “The Waves” a novel often said to be her greatest work if not her most satisfying. “To the Lighthouse” is generally awarded that prize and I would certainly argue that “Mrs. Dalloway” is a very close second.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Importance of the Ordinary

The Whitney Museum of American Art is about to open a major retrospective on the art of Andy Warhol, probably the world's most well-known practitioner of Pop Art and a man who perhaps most notably brought to life the beauty and aesthetic integrity of the ordinary. Cans of soup, boxes of cleaning pads.

That came to mind when I was reading "The Pastons and Chaucer," the first chapter of Virginia Woolf's collection of essays known as "The Common Reader." About Chaucer, she had the following to say:

"For among writers, there are two kinds: there are the priests who take you by the hand and lead you straight up to the mystery; there are the layman who imbed their doctrines in flesh and blood and make a complete model of the world without excluding the bad or laying stress upon the good. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelly are among the priests; they give us text after text to be hung up on the wall, saying after saying to be laid up on the heart like an amulet against disaster --

                   Farewell, farewell, the heart that lives alone

                          He prayeth best that loveth best
                          All things both great and small

-- such lines of exhortation and command spring to memory instantly.  But Chaucer lets us go our ways doing the ordinary things with the ordinary people. His morality lies in the way men and women behave to each other."

And, further:

" … the pleasure he gives us is different from the pleasure that other poets give us, because it is more closely connected with what we have ourselves felt or observed. Eating, drinking and fine weather, the May, cocks and hens, millers, old peasant women, flowers -- there is a special stimulus in seeing all these common things …"

Moreover, Woolf says, Chaucer goes on "to mock the pomp and ceremonies of life."

If Chaucer put great stock in ordinary life, so did Woolf, herself.  With the exception of "Orlando," a transgender, time-wharp phantasy said to be a love letter to Vita Sackville-West, all of her novels deal with ordinary people living ordinary lives. So, too, does the vast majority of the writing of James Joyce.