Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer's End (my novel problem)

It's not that summer ever really ends down here – today it was well over 90 out, with the humidity hovering in the sauna range, & it won't get any cooler, I'm afraid, until the last couple months of the year. Classes officially began this morning; my own classes start Tuesday. I've finally nailed down the syllabi, & have begun thinking about things to say for those oh-so-important first-impression first days. (Keeping in mind, of course, that probably 30% of those who are present the first day won't be there the 2nd, & there'll be a whole crop of late-adders who will miss whatever sparkling introduction I manage to cook up between now & then.)

So what did I do on my summer break? Well, we were away for almost 2 months – most of it in New York City, where I had lunch with a famous science fiction author, finally met the excellent Zach Barocas in the flesh, & saw a decent amount of theater. We spent the better part of a week in Tennessee visiting Mom, & a number of weekends on Fire Island, where I got bitten by lots of horseflies and not as many mosquitoes. (The mosquitoes on Fire Island, strangely enough, are slower & rather more stupid than the Florida variety, if one can talk of mosquito intelligence levels.)

And of course I read a lot of books. I read stacks & stacks of slim volumes of contemporary verse (some of which I've blogged, some of which I haven't gotten round to, some of which I won't – I've pretty much abandoned the notion of adding things I didn't really like to the "100 poem-books" project), but I also read a little bit of criticism, a soup├žon of philosophy, & wow a bunch of novels. But when I think about it, I realize I'm reading novels all the time, really.

Of course I teach novels in my lit classes, so there's a certain number of books that I'm always working at because I know I'll be teaching them in an upcoming semester (or next week). But I enjoy fiction pretty deeply, & am pretty much in awe at the craft & sheer long-haul determination it takes to produce a full-length work. Why haven't I tried writing a novel, at least since I gave up my last abortive attempt maybe 9 years ago? I think it may be a combination of sheer lacks: a lack of imagination, for one thing – I just can't come up with people, characters who interest me as much as real human beings do, & I can't put them into situations that I find, on rereading, to be particularly interesting.

And then there's a lack of determined focus. I'm best at smallish, manageable projects: a long poem that can be broken down into modular parts, an essay, a book review. It still amazes me that I managed to finish the LZ biography, but I realize that I did it primarily as mosaic-work, a bit at a time, a detail here and a passage there. I certainly didn't sit down & write it from beginning to end. I'm not a big word-count person (like one old friend of mine who writes fantasy novels, who's just posted a truly eye-popping daily word-count on her Facebook page) – I'm ecstatic when I can squeeze out a thousand words in a day. While I'm in awe of Ulysses, perhaps what impresses me the most is that Joyce managed to write it in only seven years.

There're some novelists whose work makes me want to take up fiction again – folks whose novels make me say, "hey, with a bit of luck I could do something rather rather as good as that." (I won't name names, but Paul Auster springs to mind. And I like Auster. And I'm probably fooling myself.) Others – Joyce, Nabokov, Byatt – make me want to never put one fictive word next to another again, I'm so ashamed at their deftness.

Then there's teaching the damned things. A colleague's Fulbright this fall has bequeathed to me a 19th-century American novel course, which I'm pretty excited about – if only it weren't for the 2 or 3 thousand pages of 19th-c. fiction I have to read thru over the course of the semester. I've reread House of the Seven Gables and Uncle Tom's Cabin over the past few weeks. Very interesting books indeed, if in very different registers. I find myself interested in the issue of sentimentality – much on my mind since reading David Copperfield for the first time a bit earlier in the summer.

The sentimentality – the tears – are laid on heavily in each of the novels: if Dickens applies it with a palette knife, Hawthorne uses a mortarer's trowel, & Stowe a garden shovel. But Stowe crosses a line for some of us: as one of my colleagues told me earlier this year, "Oh, well, you teach Uncle Tom's Cabin for sociological or historical interest – not as literature."* And I suspect that line has less to do with tendentiousness than with sentimentality. Wondering how my students will take all that tear-jerking.

*Alas for me, I've become so invested in all sorts of approaches to literary texts that I can't for the life of me remember what pure "literary" value looks like anymore.

11 comments:

dan visel said...

Somewhere in the James Schuyler letters, he talks about making his way through the lesser-known Harriet Beecher Stowe novels in a way that made me want to read them - I haven't actually dug them up, but maybe he'd be interesting to consult?

mongibeddu said...

The first half of UTC is extraordinary. The ending gets tedious; it's as bad as Huck Finn. But to your colleague I'd say, just to be ornery: you teach "literature" for historical or sociological interest; you read UTC for fun.

Wish I had your stamina for reading!

Ben F

E. M. Selinger said...

Say, Mark--I have a question for you. When do you do all this reading? Not a smart-ass question--I'm just curious, and a little jealous. I keep wondering whether I do more housework or commuting or mindless internet surfing or sleeping or SOMETHING than you do, or whether you're just a faster reader, or what. What's the day-to-day schedule like, reading-wise?

Su said...

On Auster: I'm a recent inductee into the Auster Fan Club. After reading his Collected Poems, I picked up & finished Timbuktu. I just started Travels in the Scriptorium. I think my next Auster will be his first memoir, The Invention of Solitude. Someone told me that he also writes songs.

On teaching 19th-c American lit: bless you. Really.

SOS said...

I'd like to read your answer to E.M.'s question. I, too, wonder how you're able to read so much and still maintain a semblance of social life. I've chalked it up to some sort of super-human power.

Norman Finkelstein said...

Long ago I realized that I can't write fiction for reasons similar to those you cite. Dialogue, character, plot, the whole shmear--totally wooden. (But maybe it's a recessive gene: my son writes wonderful fiction, though the world doesn't know this yet). And I know exactly what you mean about small projects and mosaic work--that's how most of my books, poetry and criticism, have been written too. So my awe of novelists remains. I'm finishing the third of the four AEgypt novels, and the way Crowley gradually pulls the threads together is marvelous...

Mark Scroggins said...

Su -- Wow, you're probably the only person in the world -- other than Norman -- whom came to Auster's poetry *first*. Imo, everything since the New York Trilogy has been downhill; Invention of Solitude is quite extraordinary, however. And there are some really bright spots among the novels. Just stay away from the last decade or so.

Eric, Shannon -- golly, I didn't think I read that much. Two things are important: a short commute to work, & no cable. We maybe watch a video once a week, if that often, but really almost no tv around the house, except for the girls' things.

I wonder, Ben, if the triple-tedious coda to Huck Finn isn't a poorly executed parody of the post-Tom chapters of UTC? I wish I knew my Twain crit better. And I'd love to jump into The Minister's Wooing & Oldtown Folks, Dan, but now it's Portrait of a Lady (which I didn't remember being so damned long back when I ordered the thing).

Vance Maverick said...

Yeah, prose fiction is good. The poets I've known haven't seemed to me to give it its due. (One dear friend, for example, seems to read Lawrence's novels more for the prophecy than for the narrative.) So I'm glad to see there are exceptions.

Auster's best (City of Glass, basically) is pretty compelling, but it seems to me (though bear in mind I'm no writer) that while well played it's a rather simple trick. (No feats of psychological imagination, if I recall.) So I have no doubt you could do well at that game, if you gave it the proverbial 10,000 hours.

Su said...

Auster's Collected Poems was in a huge lot of used poetry books I'd bought on eBay and I eventually read through. After reading his poetry, I was curious and picked up Timbuktu on the cheap at Bookwise. Maybe I'll pick up the NY trilogy and House of Glass (after VM's praise) when I get through the 'to read' stacks scattered around the house. I think the 'no cable' is probably key to your productivity. Cable TV lures me in at least 8 hours each week.

Anonymous said...

Mark: Speaking about first impressions in the classroom, what are you going to do with the hair? I owe you a 'phone call.

Tom

Mark Scroggins said...

Well, I'm going to cover the bald bit with a skull-cap, a la George Saintsbury, & let the rest run free. For the love of Ba'al, don't call till later in the week! But looking forward to it...