Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Quick Hits: Ann Patchett's Bookstore

Ann Patchett wrote an absolutely lovely article in The Atlantic magazine that describes how she came to own an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee called Parnassus Books. It's a touching tale of foolhardy serendipity, but also one about writers, readers, and what bookstores mean for a community. Well worth reading. A version of the piece also appears in her new book of essays, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which you can purchase online from Parnassus. Below is a short video by The Atlantic that gives you a peek into the bookstore.


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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Quick Hits: Project Bookmark

Project Bookmark Canada is a fascinating initiative to place poems and stories in the exact physical location where they take place. A passage from Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion was placed at the Bloor Street Viaduct here in Toronto, for example. The exercise raises a number of interesting questions regarding fiction and reality, and how fiction can shape our sense of place. It reminds me a bit of how avid filmgoers will sometimes make pilgrimages to places where a scene was filmed. Although New Zealand is not actually Tolkien's Middle Earth, there is something that makes that fantastical realm seem more real upon discovering these somewhat other-worldly landscapes here in our own world.

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Monday, April 14, 2014

Write what you don't know

The saying, “Write what you know,” has become a maxim of creative writing. It seems to imply that if you want to write and have grown up in a family that runs a dry-cleaning business in a small town in Iowa, you had better write about dry cleaning in the Mid-West, and not even think about anything else. But this cannot be right. One can imagine an editor saying to a writer about a passage that lacks verisimilitude: “Write what you know.” But here—as with the best feedback in teaching or psychotherapy—what is said must be exactly the most helpful thing to say at exactly the right moment. When broadened to a principle, the saying becomes empty. George Eliot wrote, in Middlemarch, about Dr Tertius Lydgate without herself being a doctor, without even being a man. Stephen Crane, in The red badge of courage, wrote an engaging story of a private on the Union side in the American Civil War without having fought in that war and without having been in combat of any kind.

We do need principles. One might be: “Write about what fascinates you.” The fascination needs to be enough to sustain you as you explore your subject. Your writing will be your coming to know it.

The best book I know on principles of writing is R. G. Collingwood’s The principles of art.  I have written about it here before (click here), but the book deserves to be revisited. Collingwood argues that all art derives from an emotion that affects us deeply, that has an urgency about it, and that is not understood. So, says Collingwood, imagine this man:
At first he is conscious of having an emotion, but not conscious of what this emotion is. All he is conscious of is a perturbation or excitement, which he feels going on within him, but of whose nature he is ignorant. While in this state, all he can say about his emotion is: “I feel . . . I don’t know how I feel.” From this helpless and oppressed condition he extricates himself by doing something which we call expressing himself. This is an activity which has something to do with the thing we call language: he expresses himself by speaking. It also has something to with consciousness: the emotion expressed is the emotion of whose nature the person who feels it is no longer unconscious (pp. 109-110).
A work of art is the expression of such a not-yet-understood emotion in a language. The language might be of the words of a novel, or of the colours and layout of a painting, or of the notes a piece of music.

Collingwood says that we might make something such as a chair and know what to do, as well as what the result will be. Art is different. If we know the result before we start, what we do may be craft but it’s not art.

An exploration in a language of art is apt to take a long time and, for Collingwood, the emotion is both the object of the exploration, and the almost obsessional urge that drives us. I think Collingwood’s principle here needs modification. The urge must be emotional. It’s what keeps an artist going, perhaps for years on a single work, but the subject matter need not be an emotion itself. (A lovely film on this question is Tim’s Vermeer. It’s about the language of visual art. Its subject matter was not an emotion but the question: “How did Vermeer manage to paint such wonderful pictures.” The film is a documentary about Tim Jenison’s exploration of the question. The project took him more than five years, and doing the painting of an actual Vermeer, The music lesson, took him 130 days.)

Artistic writers write what they don’t know. They write what they deeply desire to know, and come to know it better in the exploration that is their writing.

Collingwood, R. G. (1938). The principles of art. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teller (2013). Tim’s Vermeer. Film. USA.

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Friday, April 11, 2014

Quick Hit: The Internet and Deep Reading

In an opinion piece published today in the Guardian, author and journalist Steven Poole argues that the Internet isn't responsible for a decline in "deep reading," but rather it helps to foster it. It appears to be a direct response to this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, which attributes a waning attention span and growing inability to read long form text to the Internet. I would be interested in hearing from our readers on their opinion of both pieces. Does the Internet foster a superficial approach to text that relies heavily on skimming and skipping? Or does the Internet provide a new forum for a greater number and more variety of long-form pieces that cater to a broader wealth of interests? Are both true?

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Monday, April 7, 2014

Caring for characters in a novella: Cary Fagan's A Bird’s Eye

A Bird's Eye
The new novel by Cary Fagan, A Bird’s Eye (2013) is a genre-bender. It is not a short story. It is a story bound between two covers and is called “a novel” on the front. Here are some contextualizing numbers. Animal Farm is 29,966 words long; The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is 70,570; and Middlemarch is 310,593. I think most of us would consider these works to be novels. Fagan’s novel is only about 4,000 words shorter than Animal Farm, at about 26,000 words, by my estimate. (This number seems to fit into most commentators’ “novella” category, and not in the novel or short story categories.) And the novel is divided into 40 chapters, the shortest of which is about 140 words, and the longest of which is about 1,600. So, even though this novella is very short, it is not just a long short story. It is really more of a short, short novel.
Before reading it, I remembered a question that Keith Oatley had asked a few years ago in a post entitled “Love and Character”: “Does a piece of fiction need to be as long as a novel or a television series for a fictional character to become real, to be really loved?” Keith suggests that we might not come to love Chekhov’s characters, for example, because we just don’t see enough of them to grow into loving them.  He notes E.M. Forster’s (1927) distinction between “flat” and “round” characters and suggests that we might add another category, that of “caricatures,” (if only it weren’t for the quite negative connotations associated with that term, Keith notes) between the two to account for those characters who are not flat characters just standing for an idea, but are also not fully depicted by being juxtaposed to other characters or put into interactions with other characters over some length of time. We get enough information to create a mental model of the characters on our own, Keith says, but not enough to really care for them.

So, even though I had read plenty of short stories that I had found immensely moving and substantial, I suspected that I might be embarking here on an adventure that would feel choppy, perhaps inconsistent, self-conscious, and trivial. And likely one in which the characters would feel just like – caricatures. I can’t remember having read a shorter novel, and certainly not one whose author was so audacious as to divide the already short narrative into 40 chapters. Would I be able to feel myself in the presence of the characters long enough to start to love them, or at least to meaningfully empathize with them? 

The main character is a half-Polish, half-Italian boy named Benjamin Kleeman, who lives in downtown Toronto, and narrates his life as a 14-year-old in 1938. His best friend is a black girl named Corinne who is two years older and who has immigrated from Louisiana with her father. Benjamin’s uncle Hayim, aunt Hannah, and father have immigrated from Poland, and his mother from Italy. Benjamin works with a mentor magician named Murenski, and is allowed special library privileges by the sympathetic librarian named Miss Pensler. What we get are snapshots and short conversations by these people, told from Benjamin’s first-person and strangely omniscient point of view. The narrator confesses well into the narrative, when speaking of the conversation between his mother and the boarder that started their affair, “Of course, I did not see all this myself—there is much that I did not see directly. But just as it is possible to guess that a man is thinking of an ace or a heart, or that  a woman in the audience wishing to volunteer will be pliant or troublesome, so it is possible to know what is said and done, what is desired and feared” (69). 

In my experience, the length of the novel and the quick transitions from chapter to chapter did not impede my caring for these characters. I did care for them, particularly for Benjamin, his friend Corinne, and his aunt Hannah. Benjamin’s ardent study of the great magicians by reading books at the library after hours, and his single-minded practicing of his sleights of hand, leave one feeling admiration at his determination to become excellent at his chosen pursuit even in the face of his many obstacles: his mother and father do not love each other; his family is just getting by financially; school bores him. Hannah’s longing to be with her loved ones back in Otwock, Poland, and Benjamin’s feelings when Corinne makes her final decision late in the novel are not muted through the brevity of these short chapter installments.

And yet, somehow, I can’t say that I felt as much for them, as say, for Nicole Krauss’s Leo Gursky in her short story “The Last Words on Earth,” another short story (of 10,100 words) featuring a Jewish male deeply affected by the events in Europe before and during World War II. My guess is that it may not be the length of time readers are in the company of the narrator and characters, but perhaps the length of time the narrator is in the company of himself or herself that allows the reader a deeper fount of caring. Krauss’s narrator is very elderly. He has suffered much, and he has reflected on the past and the future and back and forth between them.Unless I missed it, in Fagan’s novel,  Benjamin never refers to his future self, except obliquely in the passage quoted above, in which the narrator intimates that choosing women from the audience to volunteer in his magic show must be done based on the magician’s gut feelings, and not on any obvious visual cues. This suggests that Benjamin has performed many times and that he knows that moment of choice very well. 

Benjamin’s innocence and fresh-eyed adolescence allow us to feel a certain empathy for him and perhaps to reflect on our own adolescent years. But I suspect that much more emphatically it is the juxtaposition of Benjamin’s normal adolescent day-to-day life with the looming horrific fate of the post-1938 Jewish community in Europe (and particularly knowledge of the utter annihilation of the Jewish population of Otwock by the Nazis) that contributes to our feeling in this novel. In this case, though, our caring depends on how much we know of history. In Krauss’s short story, this juxtaposition happens within the psyche of one person, and I would suggest it is our witnessing of the interweaving of these experiences within one consciousness that somehow allows us to care, even to love, her character. It is Leo Gursky’s depth of feeling and his own insight that engage our feelings of care and empathy, whereas in Fagan’s novel, it is the depth of our extra-narrative knowledge that grants us our depth of feeling. And these are quite different processes.

Fagan, Cary. (2013). A bird’s eye. Toronto: Anansi.

Forster, E. M. (1927). Aspects of the novel. London: Edward Arnold.

Krauss, Nicole. (2004, February 9). The last words on earth. The New Yorker.


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Monday, March 31, 2014

Research Bulletin: Learning Fact from Fiction

The concept of natural selection in evolution is a complicated one that many people struggle to understand. Highschool students, university undergraduates, and even instructors who teach evolution all struggle with the key elements of this theory (e.g., Nehm et al., 2009). A major misconception is that changes in adaptive traits occur at the individual level and within a single lifespan, rather than at the population level and across many generations. An example of this misunderstanding is the idea that giraffes have long necks because individual animals stretched to reach leaves on high branches. This is in contrast to the fact that giraffes possessing longer necks as a function of normal variability were more likely to survive and reproduce compared to those with shorter necks (therefore propagating the trait of longer necks). A recent study investigated whether this complicated concept could be taught to young children using a fictional storybook, providing a demonstration of the potential for facts to be learned from fiction (Kelemen et al., 2014). Young children aged 5 to 6 (N = 28) and older children aged 7 to 8 (N = 33) were read a custom-made storybook describing the fundamental concepts of natural selection with respect to a fictional animal, the pilosa. Children of both ages not only demonstrated better understanding of natural selection immediately after being read the book, they were also able to generalize this understanding to another animal, an important demonstration of knowledge transfer. Most impressive, this improvement in understanding was also evident 3 months later during a follow-up test. A second study replicated these findings in a second sample, using a slightly different storybook that communicated an even more nuanced conception of natural selection. The question of whether one can learn fact from fiction has often been debated in both philosophy and psychology, and this study provides important evidence that even at young ages children can acquire complex concepts through exposure to fiction and generalize it appropriately to the real world.

Kelemen, D., Emmons, N. A., Seston Schillaci, R., & Ganea, P. A. (2014). Young Children Can Be Taught Basic Natural Selection Using a Picture-Storybook Intervention. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797613516009

Nehm, R. H., Kim, S. Y., & Sheppard, K. (2009). Academic preparation
in biology and advocacy for teaching evolution: Biology versus non-biology teachers. Scientific Education, 93, 1122–1146.

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