Genius: It’s More Complicated than That

I loved watching Genius, the new film about the relationship between novelist Thomas Wolfe (Jude Law) and his legendary editor Maxwell Perkins (Colin Firth). At the same time, I wasn’t completely satisfied with it.

I admit that this lack of satisfaction may not be entirely the fault of the movie itself. I am a Thomas Wolfe fan and scholar and have loved his work for almost 30 years, so it’s possible that nothing less than about a 9-hour movie would have been enough to satisfy me.

Perhaps my overall reaction to the film can best be summed up by a comment I kept making to my wife as she and I sat in a coffee shop right after the movie and discussed our responses. She has not read Wolfe or A. Scott Berg’s book on which this movie is based, so as she mentioned scenes that stood out to her and asked if that’s what really happened, I kept saying, “Well, yes, but it was more complicated than that.”

Any film on this subject would have to oversimplify some things, of course. Perkins became one of the greatest editors of 20th century American literature, as he helped establish not only Wolfe’s career but also that of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, and others. He was a complex figure, as Berg’s book, Max Perkins: Editor of Genius, brilliantly shows. Wolfe was equally complex, and the relationship between him and his editor, both when it was working well and when it was crumbling, is hard to capture in any movie of a couple of hours. Throw in other elements such as Wolfe’s tempestuous affair with his lover Aline Bernstein (Nicole Kidman), and Perkins’ relationships with his wife and daughters, and you have enough material for a min-series rather than a movie.

Still, even though as I watched it I kept thinking, “Wait, slow down, there’s more to show about that incident,” I still enjoyed the movie overall and strongly recommend it. Here are a few moments that stand out:

• The opening 10 minutes alone made are worth the price of the whole movie for me. An editor plops the huge manuscript of Wolfe’s O Lost (which would eventually become Look Homeward, Angel) onto Perkins’ desk and asks him to read it. Perkins promises to give it a quick look, but in the following minutes, as we hear voice-over passages from the book, Perkins is mesmerized by the novel over the next few days as he rides the train, ignores the greetings of his family at home, or sits at his desk and combs through page after page. The beauty of the writing itself is what Perkins was masterful at recognizing, and this scene captures it.

• Colin Firth gives the best performance in the film. He embodies Perkins’ reserved but in-control personality that served him so well as an editor and that comes through so forcefully in Berg’s book. Perkins was able to modulate his responses to the needs of the very different personalities of his authors. He did not participate in the foibles of those men, but he didn’t turn away from them because of those flaws either. He was the true father-figure, strong and steady.

• Even though some of the factual details of how Wolfe and Perkins worked together on Of Time and the River are altered, the film brings to life the creative collaboration of these two men as they spend hours arguing and editing and wrestling the manuscript into shape.

• Even some of the small moments make the film memorable—stacks of Look Homeward, Angel appearing in the bookstore window at the novel’s release, Perkins reading the book to his daughter when she misses Tom, the moving reading of Wolfe’s final letter to Perkins (even though some details of its composition and delivery are altered).

For many of us who love Wolfe’s writing, our hope has been that this film would bring Wolfe the renewed attention we think his work deserves. We hope readers will want to go out and read one of his novels. I believe this movie may have that effect. As the film ended, I heard a woman behind us tell her friend she hadn’t read any of Wolfe’s novels, but she sounded as if she wanted to. I hope she does. I was ready to go home and read one of them again myself.

Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

4 Important Elements of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” that Readers are Overlooking

After 55 years of waiting for a follow-up novel to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, readers finally have the new book in their hands, and many are shocked by certain elements of it. The most unpleasant surprise in Go Set a Watchman for many readers is that the beloved Atticus Finch, one of the great American literary heroes of integrity and justice, is an aging racist in the new book.

I spent the entire day reading Go Set a Watchman, but rather than do a typical review, I want to focus on four issues I think are being ignored in the early reviews and discussions of this novel.

1. I believe it is a mistake to see Atticus Finch as simply older and more racist than he was in Mockingbird. Instead, I think he is essentially a different character in Watchman than the reconceived Atticus in Mockingbird. In other words, there are two Atticuses, created by the author to fit the needs of the particular book.  

Why is Atticus Finch so different in Watchman than he is in Mockingbird? The publication history of the two novels is crucial in answering that question. Lee submitted Watchman to her editor in the 1950’s. The editor, enjoying the childhood flashbacks the most, urged Lee to write a novel set 20 years earlier, focusing on those elements of the story. In doing so, I believe Lee created an alternate version of Atticus Finch. He is a different character in Mockingbird than in Watchman, though carved from the same materials.

Mockingbird and Watchman are not really sequels or prequels to one another. They are separate treatments of the same core material. Even the outcome of the trial that is central to Mockingbird is different when it is referred to in Watchman. Lee never expected to publish both books. She did not need to keep the characters completely consistent between the two books. She had the freedom to adjust the characters to meet the needs of the particular book. One implication of this for readers is that if they don’t like the Atticus in Watchman, that doesn’t need to “ruin” the Atticus in Mockingbird for them. They can choose whichever conception of the character they like best.

The Scout character in Watchman, who is more commonly called Jean Louise, also strikes me as significantly different from the Scout character in Mockingbird. It’s not simply that she is twenty years older in Watchman, it’s that I don’t think she is simply a grown-up version of the Mockingbird Scout. She is a reconceived character. She is not radically different in the two books, but different in ways that novelists often change the personalities and other traits of their characters in later drafts of the stories.

2. If Harper Lee had written Go Set a Watchman now instead of in the 1950’s, I think there would be an even greater outcry against it from readers.

If we didn’t know that Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote Mockingbird, then I think the changes in the character of Atticus Finch would be even harder for readers to accept. If Watchman had been written in the 21st century, I think readers would have protested it as a cynical modern treatment of a beloved 20th-century American hero. Why, they would have complained, did Lee turn the justice-loving man of integrity of Mockingbird into the racist cranky-old-man of Watchman?

As it stands, I find it fascinating that Lee saw that the character could be written as both of those men. The relationship between Scout and Atticus is more complicated in Watchman than it is in Mockingbird, but what is fiction for if not to shed light on such intricacies of human motivations and relationships? We have had 55 years of Atticus as an unblemished saint. Now we also have him as a fascinating and contradictory man of his times.

3. Go Set a Watchman is not only about race. Its brilliance extends to other areas that are not getting enough attention.

Much of what I have read in reviews and on social media about Watchman has focused on the racial issues the book raises, but when I read the novel, many other elements of it also stood out to me. Like Mockingbird, this novel richly captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century. It brings to life the feel of what it is like for Jean Louise to return from living in New York City and be thrust into the family life, church life, and social life of the place she grew up in. Lee is a masterful storyteller who uses humor and passion in creating vivid, memorable scenes.

One of my favorite chapters appears about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra hosts “The Coffee,” a reunion of Jean Louise’s former classmates and other women of the town, almost none of whom Jean Louise wants to see. The social satire of this gathering targets the way the women dress, the way they chatter on about their husbands and children, the way they reveal their prejudices, and other details of Southern life. It is beautifully handled and worth reading the novel for. It shows that Lee was a masterful novelist of manners, among her many other gifts as a writer.

4. The release of Watchman reveals that Lee owes her editor a big thanks for compelling her to set aside this book and write Mockingbird instead. Watchman is a good book, but by itself, it would not have become a classic.

Most readers’ first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird is in a high school literature class, where it has been a standard text for decades. The book has all the features that create a beloved classic—a compelling young narrator who shows courage, grit, and humor in confronting challenges young readers can relate to, a plot that offers conflicts that are universal in scope, a memorable setting, an engaging writing style, and other elements.

Watchman is also an entertaining and well-written novel, but it is much more targeted toward adults. I believe that if it had been released first instead of Mockingbird, it would have enjoyed some success and then gradually faded into the literary background. Lee’s editor’s instincts were correct in pushing the author to bring to the forefront Scout’s earlier story. This shows the crucial and often overlooked role editors play in the creation of literature.

The Need for Factual Fiction

Editor’s Note: Last week I wrote a blog post that touched on the relationship between fact and fiction in Sony’s controversial film, The Interview and in another film from 75 years ago, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. This week I am honored to present this guest post by Alton Gansky, an accomplished author of more than 40 books and the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. Gansky also examines the relationship between fact and fiction, this time in the classic movie, Inherit the Wind. I think you will enjoy his perspective. 

By Alton Gansky

In January of 2015, Baker Books will release my latest nonfiction work, 30 Events That Shaped the Church. It comes on the heels of the 2014 release, 60 People Who Shaped the Church. Some are surprised to learn that I write book-length nonfiction. True most of my books are novels but I also enjoy and see great value in producing nonfiction books as well.

While preparing 30 Events I went through a long list of possible topics. In the end, one chapter caught my attention and so infiltrated my mind that I’m still researching it long after I turned the manuscript in. As I worked through the centuries I came upon a week long event that most of us have heard of but few of us know much about: The Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925. When I research I try to keep my mind free of bias, which is a difficult thing to do. Still, I thought I knew a fair amount about the “Trial of the Century.” I didn’t.

Part of my preparation was to watch an old movie (1960), based on an older stage play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, Inherit the Wind. I remember it being one of the best movies ever made, made all the more memorable by actors like Spencer Tracy and Fredric March, as well as Gene Kelly (no dancing in this movie), and Dick York (later of Bewitched fame) who portrayed John T. Scopes (Bertram T. Cates in the movie). This time, I watched the movie with a critical eye and was surprised how far they had strayed from the truth.

To be fair, Lawrence and Lee, as well as director Stanley Kramer, went out to their way to alert viewers that they were watching a movie, not a documentary. The movie begins with these words:

Inherit the Wind is not history. The events which took place in Dayton, Tennessee, during the scorching July of 1925 are clearly the genesis of this play. It has, however, an exodus entirely its own. [. . .] So Inherit the Wind does not pretend to be journalism. It is theatre.”

I appreciate the honesty of the writers. Still—and this is the problem with some types of fiction—many took the events as historical fact. To this day, people who have seen the movie think:

William Jennings Bryan was a glutton. (He was a diabetic on a very strict diet at the time of the trial.)

Clarence Darrow crushed Bryan’s beliefs as the latter sat in the witness stand. (Darrow ridicule people of faith but it had no impact on Bryan.)

That Bryan was a buffoon. (He ran for president three times, was a great orator, served as Secretary of State, and was a gifted writer).

That the townspeople of Dayton wanted to hang Scopes from a tree. (Nothing of the sort happened.)

And that Bryan died in the courtroom, the victim of Darrow’s grueling examination and ridicule of biblical stores. (Bryan died five days later from complications of diabetes. He remained active in the days following the trial.)

When I was in college, my psychology professor told the class that the human mind has trouble distinguishing between reality and fiction. It is the reason we jump in scary movies or tear up reading a sad scene.

All of this to say, that we as author’s of fiction need to take care how we represent figures and events in history. Lawrence and Lee went so far as to change the name of the characters (although they also went out of their way to make the actors look like William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow). Despite their efforts, fifty-four years after the movie (longer for the play the preceded it) people still think the movie is trustworthy history.

This realization puts a burden of responsibility on the shoulders of novelists. While the novelist’s goal is to entertain, we in the Christian market also want to edify and to do so we need to be as accurate as we can be when portraying real people.

William Jennings Bryan’s reputation and work was sullied by the play and later the movie, despite the authors’ and director’s efforts to make clear their story was only loosely drawn from the real 1925 court case. Nonetheless, many have taken the fiction and see it as fact.

We novelist take some needed liberties in our creation, but when it involves real people from the past (or worse, vaguely disguised characterizations of living people), then we run the risk of doing harm.

 

Alton Gansky has written over 40 books of fiction and nonfiction. His latest work 30 Events That Shaped the ChurchLearning from scandal, intrigue, war, and revival releases mid January 2015. He is also the director of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference. www.altongansky.com – See more at: http://altongansky.typepad.com/writersconferences/2014/12/the-need-for-factual-fiction.html#sthash.dBW1l0nG.dpuf

 

 

Sony’s The Interview, Citizen Kane, and the Power of Story

The controversy over Sony’s film The Interview and the hacking attack the company endured in response to it illustrates a principle I teach every day as a literature professor—the Power of Story. It shows how a fictional narrative that on the surface does no harm to anyone can still be perceived as such a threat that people will go to extreme lengths to stop it. The incident also reminds me of another instance when powerful people tried to squelch a movie they saw as a threat—Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane in 1941.

First, a few thoughts about Sony. Consider what triggered the devastating attack that cost the company tens of millions of dollars and brought turmoil to the lives of studio executives, actors, theater owners, and many others.

Was it a dangerous new weapons systems pointed at North Korea?

Was it a new round of economic sanctions that caused suffering for that nation or its leaders?

No. It was a story. Not even a true story, but a silly, unremarkable comedy that without the attacks that accompanied it probably would have been quickly forgotten.

 Why Not Simply Ignore the Film?

Some have asked why a dictator or anyone else would care about such a frivolous piece of entertainment like The Interview. Why not just ignore it?

Maybe those who hacked Sony fear the movie because they know, as I teach in my college literature courses every semester, that stories—whether novels, films, plays or other genres—are far more than “entertainment.” They often shape our perceptions and shape us even more than “reality” does. Stories may inspire, thrill, challenge, and teach, but they also may threaten.

Think of the most powerful films or novels you have seen and read. Aren’t those stories as moving and life-changing as any “real” incident you have experienced or heard about? Think of how stories have shaped your perceptions of places you’ll never visit, historical periods that otherwise would only be hazy in your mind, and aspects of human experience into which you otherwise would never have delved. For example, when I think of what I know about the World War II era and where that knowledge and perceptions came from, I have to acknowledge that far more of it came from fictional stories about the era than from my direct reading of history.

Stories move us and shape our view of reality. So it makes sense that a dictator would believe that the world’s perception of him might be shaped by this film, even if it’s an over-the-top comedy.

Citizen Kane as an Example of a Film that Defined a Real Person

Controversy over another film more than half a century ago shows just how powerful a movie can be in shaping the public’s perception of a real person. In 1941 RKO released Orson Welles’ movie, Citizen Kane, which some scholars have labeled the greatest film ever. The movie is loosely based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, whose vast publishing empire made him one of the most powerful cultural figures in America in the first half of the twentieth century.

The movie gives an unflattering (but in my view, not entirely unflattering) portrait of Hearst and his mistress. Knowing the power of story, since that is how he made his living, Hearst and his allies fought the release of the film by pressuring distributors not to make it available to theaters, by ignoring it in the pages of their newspapers, and by other threatening tactics.

As with the hacking campaign against The Interview, the campaign against Citizen Kane was only partially successful in suppressing it. The controversy itself made people want to see the movie, and it did reach the public in a limited way. It got good reviews, but then it essentially disappeared from public view in 1942 and did not emerge again into the public consciousness again until the mid-1950s, when RKO sold it to television.

Is Kane Hearst? Is Hearst Kane?

That’s when something interesting happened. As the film gained popularity and exposure, the memory of the actual life of Hearst himself, who died in 1951, faded from public perception. David Nasaw, who published an excellent biography of Hearst in 2000 and showed what a fascinating and complex man he was, calls Citizen Kane a “cartoon-like caricature” of a man who was actually very different from Hearst.

However, over time, Nasaw writes, “the lines between the fictional and the real have become so blurred that today, almost sixty years after the film was made and a half-century since Hearst’s death, it is difficult to disentangle the intermingled portraits of Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst.”

In other words, the good story won out over reality. Even though people may be told that Hearst and Kane are different, and even though talented biographers like Nasaw might try to set the record straight, when you mention Hearst to most people, they’ll think of Citizen Kane.

The hacking attack against Sony is reprehensible, but the North Korean dictator may be correct about one thing: the fictional story may be how most people remember him.

Will Novels, Movies and Video Games All Blend Into One?

Is the day soon coming, or has it already arrived, when consumers won’t see much difference between reading a novel, watching a movie, and playing a video game?

Over the past year, I have seen lots of evidence that the boundaries that used to separate these and other categories are breaking down.

For example, until recently, if you planned to read a celebrity’s autobiography, that meant you went out and bought a book, which you would read page-by-page as the author reflected on his or her life.

Now, however, that is the old-fashioned way to do it. Today I saw an article about the actor Neil Patrick Harris’s autobiography, which takes a much different approach. It is an interactive autobiography, which shares similarities to a video game. The description of the “book” on Amazon.com asks, “Sick of deeply personal accounts written in the first person? Seeking an exciting, interactive read that puts the “u” back in “aUtobiography”?” The reader of Harris’s book doesn’t simply read about the actor’s life, but lives it: “You will be born to New Mexico. You will get your big break at an acting camp….Even better, at each critical juncture of your life you will choose how to proceed. You will decide whether to try out for Doogie Howser, M.D. You will decide whether to spend years struggling with your sexuality. You will decide what kind of caviar you want to eat on board Elton John’s yacht.”

All these choices have consequences for the reader: “Choose correctly and you’ll find fame, fortune, and true love. Choose incorrectly and you’ll find misery, heartbreak, and a hideous death by piranhas.” As if that were not enough, the book also contains recipes, a song, and magic tricks!

The Hobbit: Book, Movie, or Video Game?

Another example of category-blending that stands out to me is the most recent Hobbit movie, Desolation of Smaug. The category-blending I’m referring to is not the fact that I first experienced The Hobbit as a book, and now it is a series of films. Books and films are still separate categories. I am talking about the blending of categories within the film itself.

As I watched the movie, there were times when I couldn’t help but think I was actually experiencing a video game, especially in battle scenes that felt entirely different from anything I remember from the book. In one part, for example, dwarves rush down a raging river in barrels as orcs (many orcs) attack them and as elves attack the orcs. I half expected the elves to get 100 points per orc or dwarves to get bonus points for making it past certain barriers. It was an exciting scene, but it didn’t feel like a movie in those parts.

Many actions movies have that video game feel now, as bad guys (or creatures, or robots, or other villains) get wiped out in large numbers in battle sequences that seem to go on for a very long time. Think of the Transformers movies or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes or many others. Many scenes could be transferred almost directly into a video game.

As Movies Become Games, Games Become…Movies? Books?

Of course, as films become more like video games, many video games, with their more elaborate plots, complex characters, and lush and realistic visuals, now feel more like films. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say they have begun to resemble television series, like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos, with storylines that extend over longer periods and characters that can become as familiar as the real people in our lives.

That depth of character and plot sophistication found in recent TV series such as Mad Men and Downton Abbey remind many viewers and readers of yet another category of storytelling, the novel.

“Reality” now merely another story category

Now, even the category known as “reality” is breaking down. I don’t mean reality television, which is its own category-blending genre, but I am talking about real life itself. It used to be that video games copied reality. You played a game to feel what it was like to fight in a battle, or race a car around a track, or ski down a slope. Now experiences are being created to reverse that, in other words to bring the thrill of video games into real life.

The New York Times reported this summer on an experience called Escape Rooms, in which people are trapped together in a room and are given clues and puzzles and codes to solve in order to escape. It’s a video-game-like experience, but without the video. You’re in a real room with real people, and you’re really trapped (although you’re eventually set free even if you don’t solve the clues).

Not everybody likes these trends. When some people go to a movie, for instance, they don’t want a video game stuck in the middle of it. They want their categories pure. On the other hand, there has never been time when people had more ways to enjoy storytelling in every imaginable form. My prediction is that as time goes on, the categories will break down even further, and more and more viewers/readers/players will come to expect the inventive techniques.

Why the Cell Phone May Save the Novel

I like to watch people’s reading habits when I’m at airports and on airplanes. During several recent flights, which included some lengthy layovers and delays, I noticed that not very many people were reading novels, at least not ones in the form of books made of paper. I didn’t see all that many people reading on tablets, e-readers, or laptop computers either. What I saw, more than anything else, were people reading on cell phones.

The people reading their cell phones were not necessarily reading novels, of course. I personally would not want to read a novel on a cell phone, nor would I want to watch a movie on one. The screen is too small and uncomfortable. But not everyone sees it that way. Readership studies show that many people do like to read books on cell phones, and the numbers are increasing.

How Americans Read

According to a Pew Research study of Americans’ reading habits, last year 32 percent of e-book readers 18 and older read books on their cell phones. That is a higher percentage than people who read e-books on a computer (29 percent). The highest percentage of readers still read e-books on e-readers (57 percent) and tablets (55 percent), and many people use multiple platforms.

As a novelist and professor of literature, I am very interested in the future of the novel and have written elsewhere (including in this article in APU Life magazine) about my concerns that its popularity may wane in this era in which readers are used to being entertained by shorter chunks of information such as Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and YouTube videos. Will readers who have grown used to skipping from post to post still have the desire, focus and stamina to work their way through a 350-page novel that contains nothing but words? Have we grown too distracted?

I still worry about that, but this trend of reading books on cell phones, more than any other trend, gives me hope for the novel. Why does the cell phone make so much difference? One reason is that, unlike the e-reader or even the tablet, most people almost always have their phone with them. If they get caught up in a novel, they might find themselves dipping into it at times when they otherwise would not be reading anything—in a doctor’s waiting room, in a line at the store, in an airport terminal. Potential readers who might never think to bother with a novel in other circumstances—such as going to a bookstore to buy one or messing with an e-reader—might be more likely to read one if they could easily access it from their phone.

How the Cell Phone Increases Reading Around the World

Another reason I think the cell phone-reading trend is good news for the novel is that this practice is even more prevalent in other countries, especially developing countries in places such as Africa, than in the United States. A study by the United Nations organization, UNESCO, showed that 62 percent of people in developing countries now read more because they are able to do so on cell phones. In many countries covered in the study, such as Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Nigeria and others, physical books are prohibitively expensive, while open-access books cost as little as 2 or 3 cents each.

The UNESCO study showed that about a third of readers in these countries use their phones for reading books, and about 80 percent of the population has access to cell phones. What kinds of books are they reading? The study showed that the most popular genre was romance novels.

In addition to the countries covered by the UNESCO study, other nations also have a large number of people reading books on cell phones. One report indicates that more than 25 million people in China read books only on their cell phones.

I believe this trend in reading habits worldwide will not only help the popularity of the novel, but will also lead to changes in the novel itself. The novel of the future may look significantly different from novels written in earlier eras. I plan to comment on that issue in a future blog post.

OJ Simpson? Never Heard of Him, Or Johnny Carson Either

When I started seeing the headlines and news segments marking the 20th anniversary of the OJ Simpson murder trial, my first thought was that the whole tawdry saga still felt too recent to be wrapped in nostalgia. My next thought was that, as a college professor, I have seen a big shift over those twenty years in how students perceive the OJ Simpson case.

In the first few years immediately following our culture’s fascination with the Bronco chase, bloody gloves, Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, Judge Ito, and all the rest of it, I could refer to the Simpson case any time I needed an example of an event that captured the attention of an entire culture, an event that you couldn’t get away from even if you wanted to, and that everyone seemed to have an opinion on.

I teach literature, and in one course we read some literary works that sprang from another “trial of the century” about a hundred years earlier. That was when Lizzie Borden either did or did not take an axe and murder her parents in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Borden, like Simpson, was acquitted, even though many people thought her guilty. The Lizzie Borden case still has a big following (the home where the murder happened is now a hotel that caters to fans), and many movies, short stories, articles, and other works have been devoted to it. Why?

It’s just like the OJ Simpson case, I used to say. Why did everybody want to watch it? Why was the trial carried on so many TV stations? Why was it the talk of the nation? Students could immediately see the connection.

Recently, however, teaching the same literature course at the same university, I tried to use the Simpson case as an example, and all I got were blank stares. OJ Simpson? Some students had a vague idea who he was, but not one knew anything about the case.

The 20th Century as Ancient History

The Simpson case is only one of many twentieth century references I have had to drop. A 20-year anniversary of anything means that it happened Continue reading

Poetry and Conversation with Katie Manning

Most poets are thrilled when one of their books of poems is published, but Katie Manning, an outstanding poet who also teaches in the English Department at Azusa Pacific University, gets to experience that joy three times this year, as three of her chapbooks are being published by three different publishers. This success did not come easily. She has been sending out manuscripts for more than five years, so it is a happy coincidence that all three books are now coming out within months of each other. To celebrate these publications and to introduce readers to Katie Manning’s poetry, I am happy to interview her for the Life of the Mind and Soul.

1. Congratulations, Katie, on your poetry chapbooks that are being published this year. I have read some of your poems and have appreciated not only their depth, but also their warmth. I would like to start with The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman, published by Point Loma Press, through Wipf and Stock Publishers. This book follows the unnamed bleeding woman from three of the gospel accounts in the Bible. You give her a name and let her tell her own story. Why did you choose this particular story for your book?

Thank you for taking the time to read my poems, and thank you for your very kind words. I have been curious about the bleeding woman since I was a little girl. What was her name? Why was she bleeding? What was her life like when she was ritually unclean for 12 years? What was her life like after she was healed? Her story is so brief. It is really just a quick aside; in all three accounts, Jesus is on his way to heal a synagogue leader’s daughter. The bleeding woman interrupts Jesus. She reaches out and touches him when she shouldn’t, and she’s rewarded for having faith. The more I thought about her, the more I became fascinated by the idea that reaching out in a final act of desperation can be a demonstration of faith.

2. How challenging was it to enter into a woman’s story when so few details about her are given in the Bible? Did that lack of detail give you more freedom to shape the story the way you wanted to, or did it make your job as a poet more difficult?

Although it was initially difficult to imagine a life for this woman, I think the lack of detail ultimately gave me more creative freedom. I read commentaries of all sorts to give me a better grounding in the possibilities of her life, but then I set those things aside and wrote freely. Many commentaries talk about the bleeding woman as though she was elderly, but I enjoyed imagining her as a young woman who had begun bleeding in early adolescence and never stopped. This choice was partially because of the way Jesus calls her “daughter,” which has always sounded to me like she is younger and somewhat identified with the girl whom Jesus is traveling to see, and partially because I was writing this in my mid-twenties and felt closely connected to her. I also felt free to get very, very strange after her healing and let her travel outside of her original time and place.

3. Could you give us a sample poem from this book and tell us a little about it?

The final poem in this collection is one of my very favorites. (Is it okay to pick a favorite poem? Is that like picking a favorite child?) The bleeding woman, who I’ve named Nura (“light”), ends up eating lunch with Jesus at a café in present day New York City. While I was completing this chapbook, I read Quarantine, a disturbing and beautiful book of poetry by Brian Henry, and I echo a couple of his lines in the title and text of my poem.

Where Death Is Not an Is
          after Brian Henry

I met Jesus the next day
at the Life Café. “Call me
J now,” he said. “People
lock me up when I say

I am God.” He pulled
back his sleeves to show
the marks on his arms
from recent shots. I asked

what I could do. “Just lie
low,” he said between
bites of falafel. ”Dead
is the way the world wants

us. People hate to feel
alive.” We ate in silence
for a while. Then I asked,
“What happens to us?”

He wiped his young hands
and stood to leave. “We are
finished,” and kissed my cheek.
I put my hand on his arm

and told him the scars would be
beautiful when they healed.

 

4. Where can readers find this book?

The Gospel of the Bleeding Woman is now available on Amazon and through Wipf and Stock.

5. You also have two other books coming out this year. Tea with Ezra is published by Boneset Books and I Awake in My Womb is forthcoming from Yellow Flag Press. How can readers order these books?

I Awake in My Womb is available for pre-order from Yellow Flag Press. The first edition is due out in August, and the second edition will follow immediately.

Tea with Ezra was published in a limited edition by a brand new micro-press, and it was done with a hand-sewn binding. The book itself is a lovely piece of handmade art. It sold out in pre-order, but Boneset Books is planning to do a second edition in the future.

6. I love your poems about motherhood. Could you give us a sample from Awake in My Womb?

I’m glad you enjoy them! These poems are based directly on vivid dreams that I had
immediately before, during, and after pregnancy. They are some mix of funny, terrifying, and revealing; they give readers a surreal glimpse into the fear and wonder of impending motherhood. The following poem’s first line became the collection title.
The Outside In
I awake in my womb.
I’m cradling you
so gently, so
as not to break
your see-through skin.
You are half
head, half
body. Your eyes are sealed
shut, but through the cloudy dark
your heart blinks
visibly. I wonder
if it loves me yet.
I hold you close to my face
with both hands
(though you’re smaller than one)
and watch.
We breathe fluid together.
I press
my ear to your chest.
Your heart gallops away.

7. I am intrigued by the title of your book, Tea with Ezra. What does that title refer to? Could you share a poem from that book?

This chapbook contains poems that respond to familiar texts: fairy tales, biblical narratives, poems, songs, novels, etc. The title of the collection is taken from the final poem. Ezra Pound has a poem called “The Tea Shop,” in which he observes that a waitress is not as pretty as she used to be, and he repeats twice that “she also will turn middle-aged.” I felt immediately angry the first time I read this poem because of Pound’s objectification of the waitress. I like to express my anger through humor, so I wrote a parody of his poem. In my poem, I have tea with Ezra Pound, and I am critical of his appearance and his work. When he tells me that I’ll also turn middle-aged, I take my revenge.

Tea with Ezra

                  after Pound’s “The Tea Shop”

He told me that only he and Whitman
had gained immortality,
and he took a bite of his lemon pound cake.
I reminded him that he’d already been dead
thirty years. I tried not to stare through
his decaying jaw at the jostled pastry.
He looked me up and down and said,
“Yes, you also will turn middle-aged.”
I simply shut his book
and drank his tea when I’d finished mine.

 

8. Thank you for giving us a look at your poetry. If readers would like to find out more about you and your poetry, do you have a website or Facebook page they can follow?

I do have a website and an author page on Facebook.

Thanks for your interest in my poetry!

Why I Took My Students to a Murder Site

The most recent field trip in my Honors California Literature course was to a nearby

My students at the scene of the crime--Banyan Street in Alta Loma California.

murder site made famous in an essay called “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” by Joan Didion. On October 7, 1964, Lucille and Gordon Miller were driving home from the Mayfair market after midnight on a sparsely traveled road called Banyan Street in Alta Loma. Gordon Miller was asleep and heavily medicated when the Volkswagen stopped and caught on fire. He burned to death, and his wife was charged and later convicted of first-degree murder.

Didion, an acclaimed essayist and novelist, is the author of such bestselling books as The Year of Magical Thinking and Slouching Toward Bethlehem. Her essay about the murder in Alta Loma is written in a detailed, seemingly journalistic style. Didion establishes credibility by throwing in sometimes obscure details that show she has done her research—the name of the TV show Miller was watching before he was killed, the temperature on the day of the murder, the exact amount of mortgage debt the Millers owed, etc.

It’s easy to get drawn into the essay and think that Didion is simply reporting the facts, but a careful analysis of her essay—and a visit to the scene of the crime—show that she is doing much more than reporting. Like a novelist, Didion is creating an atmosphere in which to set the dastardly crime. The place happens to be only a 20-minute drive from our campus, so my students and I went there to take a look for ourselves and to see how Didion’s description compares to our own impressions.

Here is how Didion describes Banyan Street:

“Like so much of this country, Banyan suggests something curious and unnatural. The lemon groves are sunken, down a three- or four-foot retaining wall, so that one looks directly into their dense foliage, too lush, unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare; the fallen eucalyptus bark is too dusty, a place for snakes to breed. The stones look not like natural stones but like the rubble of some unmentioned upheaval. There are smudge pots, and a closed cistern. To one side of Banyan there is the flat valley, and to the other the San Bernardino Mountains, a dark mass looming too high, too fast, nine, ten, eleven thousand feet, right there above the lemon groves.”

Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? In the context of the essay, fits well with the rest of the atmosphere Didion is creating, but when my students look at this scene, they see something very different. Some of the difference can be accounted for by the passage of time. The street is now part of an upper-middle class neighborhood with attractive houses and carefully landscaped lawns. But there are still some lemon trees, and their leaves don’t strike students as “unsettlingly glossy, the greenery of nightmare.” They’re beautiful trees, and so are the eucalyptus trees, whose fallen bark does not seem “too dusty” to us. The mountains in the distance are majestic, and their beauty is probably one of the reasons people built their homes here. They don’t appear to us as a “dark mass looming too high, too fast.”

Didion is such a good writer that students often overlook her biased perspective the first time they read the essay. Once they are alerted to how she skews the details of the physical scene, they also reconsider some of the stereotypes she puts forth about the entire region. She writes, “This is the California where it is possible to live and die without ever eating an artichoke, without ever meeting a Catholic or a Jew. This is the California where it is easy to Dial-a-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.”

“Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream” is a brilliantly written essay in many ways. Didion brings to life the lives of Lucille Miller and others involved in the case as she probes their backgrounds and motivations. For my class, visiting the scene helps bring the story to life in a different way, as we consider how a writer does not simply report reality, but constructs it in ways that build the story she wants to tell.