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Friday, March 28, 2008

Wendell Berry on the Writer's Obligation

Wendell Berry's admonition to young writers is worth reading by writers of all ages.

posted by Woodlief | link | (1) comments

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Boys Who Read

This is the story the Wife told me about her recent flight: a woman next to her notices that a man across the aisle is reading the latest Harry Potter book. They strike up a conversation. It turns out that both are reading it with their teenage sons. "Anything to get a boy to read," says the woman. The man nods in commiseration.

Later that evening, once she is safely home with us, and our dance celebrating her return is completed, Caleb tells her about a poetry book I bought for him at the used book store. He spontaneously quotes the first lines of Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade," which is in the book. He is especially excited because this is the poem that his friend Parker, an eleven year-old boy who is homeschooled by good friends of ours, recently recited from memory.

"Now that I think about it," the Wife tells me later, "I know several boys around Caleb's age, all of whom love to read, and who read better things than Harry Potter." Of course, she notes, they're all homeschooled, and therefore off the public radar.

And this is the problem, isn't it? Our standards have plummeted, and we no longer have a measure by which to gauge their fall. What a sad thing, that we have come to think that it is inherent in boys not to read, and that they must be coaxed into it by means of brain candy.

So, what are your children reading? And if you aren't happy about your answer, what are you going to do about it?

Update: After gentle correction from some of my brighter readers, I changed the attribution of "Charge of the Light Brigade" from Kipling to Tennyson. It would probably be mean-spirited of me to point out that I was educated in public schools...

posted by Woodlief | link | (20) comments

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Well-Spring

I have an arrangement with myself, which is that I can only have a Starbucks hot chocolate (two-percent milk, no whipped cream) on cloudy days, or on Sundays when I catch the early service at a different church, or on Mondays when the thought of going to work presses me down onto my bed like a weight. Sometimes I release myself from that regimen, like when I'm traveling, or fasting, or today, because I knew words were ready to spill out, and that they are the kind of words that will be aided by warmth and comfort and the breaking of a rule.

I read something recently about what various authors need while writing: a certain kind of coffee, perhaps, or a special pen or type of paper. I only need the quiet, and time to let the thoughts whip about in my head, sorting themselves into lines or dancing in circles or, sometimes, slipping two-by-two into quiet recesses and folds of the brain to mate, and to give me the new notion, a seed out of which a story or essay or poem can be grown.

Sometimes I want something more than the quiet, like today, when I rose in the darkness and knew I would go to get a steaming cup of hot chocolate, feeling very much like Edmund in the witch's sleigh, or perhaps Lucy in the faun's home — because you can never be sure when you write, not really, to what you are in thrall until you have put down the words and examined them, and then taken out your whittling knife, or sometimes your mallet and chisel, and gone to work excising the false so that the true may whisper or shout.

Today it was hot chocolate, but other times it is icy water, and sometimes tepid water, accompanied by a hunger in my belly. Sometimes I need to write fresh from the touch of someone I love, and other times I need not to be touched or spoken to, but to dwell in isolation for a few hours, which is why the dark mornings are always best, because you can indulge this illness without hurting someone close to you.

I read about a writer once — I think it is Henry James — who would write a consistent amount every day. I try to do this, if only because it is like plumbing a well, and you have to keep digging into the heart of things. I write every day, but there are some days when you know the words will be fruitless, that they will be rock and broken earth, and not a drop of cool sweet water. Other days you know before you scratch the soil of your mind or heart or flesh, whatever it is that you claw to get the words, that there will be a spring, and that you will touch it with your hands for an amount of time you can't control, perhaps an hour or the entire day or even a week, and that you'd best capture every word while that spring is within reach. So sometimes I go through the ordinary motions dazed, melancholy or joyous or simply hopeful, because my hands are in that spring, and the words pour out so easily then.

These are things I don't understand. I used to think that I should only write about what I comprehend. The most important things, I think, I will never understand. So I'm learning to write about mysteries, like a spring beneath the flesh, and love without measure, and the vicissitudes of words.

posted by Woodlief | link | (4) comments

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Good, the Bad, and Flannery

I'm in the midst of a writing frenzy at present, so for your reading pleasure I present an excerpt from Flannery O'Connor's "The Nature and Aim of Fiction," which may be found in the volume of her speeches and essays, Mystery and Manners. This came to me some weeks ago courtesy of Adam DeVille, who perused my Amazon Wish List and couldn't contain the goodness of his heart. You could all take a lesson from Adam.

But back to Flannery:

"Everywhere I go I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher. . .

Now in every writing class you find people who care nothing about writing, because they think they are already writers by virtue of some experience they've had. It is a fact that if, either by nature or training, these people can learn to write badly enough, they can make a great deal of money, and in a way it seems a shame to deny them this opportunity; but then, unless the college is a trade school, it still has a responsibility to truth, and I believe myself that these people should be stifled with all deliberate speed.

Now a brain teaser: who can make the connection between this excerpt and a famous 1970's sitcom?

posted by Woodlief | link | (17) comments

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Gioia on Cultural Decline

Since literature seems to be the theme this week, check out Dana Gioia's speech delivered at Stanford's commencement exercises. Some highlights:

"There is an experiment I'd love to conduct. I'd like to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.

Then I'd ask them how many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name.

I'd even like to ask how many living American scientists or social thinkers they can name. Fifty years ago, I suspect that along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax, most Americans could have named, at the very least, Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Miller, Thornton Wilder, Georgia O'Keeffe, Leonard Bernstein, Leontyne Price, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Not to mention scientists and thinkers like Linus Pauling, Jonas Salk, Rachel Carson, Margaret Mead, and especially Dr. Alfred Kinsey.

I don't think that Americans were smarter then, but American culture was. Even the mass media placed a greater emphasis on presenting a broad range of human achievement. . .

Our country is dividing into two distinct behavioral groups. One group spends most of its free time sitting at home as passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Even family communication is breaking down as members increasingly spend their time alone, staring at their individual screens.

The other group also uses and enjoys the new technology, but these individuals balance it with a broader range of activities. They go out—to exercise, play sports, volunteer and do charity work at about three times the level of the first group. By every measure they are vastly more active and socially engaged than the first group.

What is the defining difference between passive and active citizens? Curiously, it isn't income, geography, or even education. It depends on whether or not they read for pleasure and participate in the arts. These cultural activities seem to awaken a heightened sense of individual awareness and social responsibility."

Here's a nice biographical feature about this poet and NEA Chairman: he used to be a businessman in a big corporation. I love reading about life transitions like that, don't you? Now go read something edifying.

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

A New Literary Jerusalem

On my way to the office this morning I listed to Sufjan Stevens's Seven Swans CD. Though this is not my point, it's worth noting that I only bought his CD because I Googled "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" for the lyrics, and discovered the Youtube video below, which is precisely the kind of thing that major record labels want to outlaw.

Anyway, as I pulled into the parking lot and popped out the CD, my radio blared some popular Christian song about how "you got me and Jesus." It was jarring, to shift so suddenly from Stevens's dreamy "Abraham" to that nasally, unimaginative croaking. Perhaps that's the only way to recognize the richness of something, to trade it for dullness for a time.

I found this interesting, coming so quickly as it did on the heels of a similar experience over the weekend. I finished Walker Percy's Lancelot on Sunday afternoon, and turned immediately to a couple of literary journals. Lancelot is by no means Percy's best, and if you've not read him I recommend The Moviegoer instead. But after being immersed in his lyrical style, I was jarred by the clunkiness of what passes for so much modern prose. These are top journals, but I could barely stand to read a good bit of them, what with Percy's phrasings still fresh in my mind. I imagine even his best would be rejected by a number of lit journals today, along with Robert Penn Warren and James Agee and Graham Greene. Those sentences are too long. There isn't enough detail. All this falling from grace and coming to redemption is too fanciful. And seriously, what is up with those over-long sentences?

It's depressing, the squeeze: an increasingly aliterate public on one side, and on the other a host of literary-minded folks hell-bent on murdering voice, narrative, and lyricism. I'm imagining a New Literary Jerusalem, and I don't even need to be one of the writers. I'd be content just to sit in its shade and read. Perhaps with a little music:

posted by Woodlief | link | (9) comments

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Book Thief

This weekend I finished The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, and I think many of you would like it. In Barnes & Noble, at least, it's sold in the juvenile section, which makes little sense to me, except that the main character is a young girl living in Nazi Germany. It's a very sad and very lovely story, narrated by Death, who doesn't come across nearly so cold as we make him out to be. Here's an excerpt from the first few pages:

The book thief and her brother were traveling down toward Munich, where they would soon be given over to foster parents. We now know, of course, that the boy didn't make it. . .

When the coughing stopped, there was nothing but the nothingness of life moving on with a shuffle, or a near-silent twitch. A suddenness found its way onto his lips then, which were a corroded brown color and peeling, like old paint. In desperate need of redoing.

Their mother was asleep.

I entered the train.

My feet stepped through the cluttered aisle and my palm was over his mouth in an instant.

No one noticed.

The train galloped on.

Except the girl. . . she caught me out, no doubt about it. It was exactly when I knelt down and extracted his soul, holding it limply in my swollen arms. He warmed up soon after, but when I picked him up originally, the boy's spirit was soft and cold, like ice cream. He started melting in my arms. Then warming up completely. Healing.

For Liesel Meminger, there was the imprisoned stiffness of movement and the staggered onslaught of thoughts. Es stimmt nicht. This isn't happening. This isn't happening.

And the shaking.

Why do they always shake them?

Yes, I know, I know, I assume it has something to do with instinct. To stem the flow of truth. Her heart at that point was slippery and hot, and loud, so loud, so loud.

Why would anyone want to read a sad story? Consider it your portion of joyful sorrow, the joy coming from the sweetness of the tale. Because sometimes death can have a sweet side to him, believe it or not. Most of the characters here have a sweetness to them, and brittleness as well, just like you and me. I think that's a sign of good writing, when someone can craft a character who is flawed and at times despicable, and yet we love him anyway. It gives me hope for myself, and you as well, for that matter. So go buy the book, and have a smile and a cry. They're both good for you, after all.

posted by Woodlief | link | (3) comments

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Son's Tale

My writer friend Darren Defrain recently turned me on to Andre Dubus, and so I've been working through his stories and essays. He has, as another writer friend describes it, a lyrical voice. You can see faith in his stories, along with doubt, and the grit and ugliness in life that makes faith the anchor or buoy or life preserver that it is, but which for some reason too many of us are ashamed to admit about ourselves. Dubus also evokes the question I read once somewhere I can't remember, about why nearly all serious literary figures of Christian faith have been Catholics. Think about it; you're hard pressed to name a significant Protestant writer of prose. I'm not sure why that is, and the question fascinates me.

Last night I read Dubus's essay titled "Digging," from his collection, Meditations from a Movable Chair, which he wrote after being crippled by a reckless driver while helping two disabled motorists. In the essay he describes the hot Louisiana summer of his seventeenth year, when his father got a job for him on a construction site:

I had never done physical work except caddying, pushing a lawn mower, and raking leaves, and I was walking from the car with my father toward workingmen.

Halfway through his first day of helping dig out the foundation, Dubus vomited and nearly passed out. I did not have the strength for this, he wrote, not in my back, my legs, my arms, my shoulders. Certainly not in my soul. Soon his father appeared over the hole where he was digging.

In the car, in a voice softened with pride, he said: 'The foreman called me. He said the Nigras told him you threw up, and didn't eat, and you didn't tell him.'

'That's right,' I said, and shamefully watched the road, and cars with people who seemed free of torment, and let my father believe I was brave, because I was afraid to tell him that I was afraid to tell the foreman.

But his father didn't take him home. Instead he took him to a diner in town, and ordered him a 7-Up for his stomach, and a sandwich. Then they bought a work hat to keep his head cool. And then his father deposited him back at the work site. Despite the arduous work and the dangerous heat, Dubus finished out his summer there. He writes:

It is time to thank my father for wanting me to work and telling me I had to work and getting the job for me and buying me lunch and a pith helmet instead of taking me home to my mother and sister. He may have wanted to take me home. But he knew he must not, and he came tenderly to me. My mother would have been at home that afternoon; if he had taken me to her, she would have given me iced tea and, after my shower, a hot dinner. When my sister came home from work, she would have understood, and told me not to despise myself because I could not work with a pickax and a shovel. And I would have spent the summer at home, nestled in the love of the two women, peering at my father's face, and yearning to be someone I respected...

You should check him out, if you've not already read his work.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Teenage Stupidity

Guess what's at the top of the list when you Google teenage stupidity? That's right, Sand in the Gears is your number-one source for information on the dumbification of American teens. And if I may say so (and I may, this being my website and all), I am an expert on this phenomenon, having been a stupid teenager myself.

In keeping with my self-appointed and self-righteous mission, I bring you the latest Kaiser Family Foundation report on media consumption by children, wherein you will see, among other things, that more than half of American children ages 8-18 have televisions in their bedrooms. More alarming, while the average child watches four hours and fifteen minutes worth of television and movies per day, he reads books 23 minutes a day. In other words, the average American child spends 1200 percent more time on the idiot box than on books.

Does anyone think this story will end well?

posted by Woodlief | link | (7) comments

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Christian Fiction IV: The Weaning

Well, I let a week of things that pay the bills get in the way of writing my fourth and final installment on this topic, and I think I've lost my steam. Or maybe there's just nothing left to say, other than that good writing flows from good reading, both at the level of the individual, and at the level of society. We are inundated with unimaginative books because too many of us have become unimaginative readers. I came across this from Ortega y Gasett, which captures the notion:

"So many things fail to interest us, simply because they don't find in us enough surfaces on which to live, and what we have to do then is to increase the number of planes in our mind, so that a much larger number of themes can find a place in it at the same time."

I wish I could tell you where the Gasett quote comes from — it's quoted without source by Robert Bly in his Leaping Poetry. I searched for it on the Internet, and found the quote several other places, but nobody else bothered to source it either. For all I know, it might actually be something profound from Beyonce's autobiography, which has been wrongly attributed to Gasett. On the other hand, had it come from Beyonce, I'm sure it would have been referenced in more places on the Internet. That's precisely the point, of course; we have habituated our palates to bubblegum.

Rather than bad writing producing bad reading, then, one might be justified in arguing that bad reading yields bad writing, both by creating a market for shlock and by stultifying the minds of successive generations of writers. Horace Gregory, in his introduction to William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain put it this way:

"It is sometimes futile to reply that the unintelligent, the insensible, the undiscerning, the unimaginative (if they are writers) are incapable of sincerity in what they write; their relationship to what they say is already compromised before they start; at best they are merely writing with half a voice and half an ear and their beliefs rest upon such shallow ground that they are meaningless almost before we discover what they are."

But perhaps all this handwringing over the quality of Christian bookstore offerings is misguided. Perhaps good writers who happen to be Christians simply don't need a CBA to sell their work. Leif Enger's book, for example, was a New York Times bestseller. Maybe this debate is completely backwards; instead of asking why Christian publishers don't produce more high-quality work, we ought to ask why Christians choose to buy their fiction from such limited venues.

And the very fact that one can ask that question, that one can walk into a Borders and find Peace Like a River, may well be the CBA's biggest accomplishment. Perhaps we can credit the CBA, and the dreadful Left Behind series, for making it okay to talk about Jesus in a book. It would be ironic and somehow delightful, I think, if the CBA's greatest contribution to Christian fiction proves to be that it opened the door for self-consciously secular publishing houses to realize that there's gold in them thar hillbillies.

At the same time, someone like W. Dale Cramer — not high literature, by any means, but a thoughtful, entertaining writer — probably wouldn't be published by a mainstream press. His fine books exist because of the CBA. No matter that you have to wade through shelf after shelf of bodice stretcher and thin literary recreations of Christy to find Cramer, the fact is that you can find him, if you're willing to look, and this is thanks to a Christian publishing house, Bethany (not coincidentally, one of Bethany's publishers has a blog, Faith in Fiction that focuses on the theme I've tried to tackle in these essays). A defense of all these poor CBA offerings, as a publisher from another Christian publishing house noted in his comment on one of my previous essays, is that it subsidizes the good writing. With that in mind, it's probably fair to say that Christian publishing houses on balance do more good than harm, in the world of fiction. And they would do far more good if we readers could wean ourselves from the bubblegum.

And with that in mind, I promised in an earlier post to give you some ideas on good reading. Fortunately (or providentially, for my Presbyterian and Lutheran friends), the very fine faith-oriented literary journal, Image, has assembled both a study guide and an editor's list of the top 100 books from the past century. If you care at all about the intersection of good writing and faith, you should subscribe to Image, and I'm not just saying that because they're publishing one of my short stories later this year.

Remember, by reading better, we all encourage better writing. So consider your sampling from these lists a small but important part of the effort to change the world, and not just a high-brow attempt to avoid housework.

posted by Woodlief | link | (2) comments

Friday, April 6, 2007

Christian Fiction, Part III: Bad Writing Is Evil

After I discovered Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, I breathlessly recommended it to my friends. I could barely disguise my disappointment when some said it was "too slow," or "hard to get into." I love them all the same, but I couldn't help but view them as slightly handicapped, like someone who is colorblind, or can't taste anything sweet. That doesn't state it strongly enough; imagine someone who can't see sunsets, or hear music. You'd love this friend nonetheless, but between the two of you there would forever be a gulf, an inability to share something lovely. This is what comes to mind when I learn that a Christian friend's literary tastes run to the spiritual equivalent of Who Moved My Cheese?.

There is a sweet side to this reality; when I discover that someone I know was also moved by James Agee's A Death in the Family, or thinks Frederick Buechner is a modern-day prophet, I can't help but feel a closer bond with him. There's an almost subversive quality to it, though we aren't subverting anyone, except perhaps by slipping a lovely book to a promising recruit and whispering "Here, read this." And when the recruit shyly returns it a month later, and confesses that it was a little slow, we love him nonetheless; we just stop pointing out the sunsets to him.

I think there's something running deeper here, however, than individual tastes, or communities of shared affinity. Cliché-ridden, unimaginative prose is not only less lovely than good writing, it is less true. Consider the cliché, which Dictionary.com defines as:

"a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

Now, we all use clichés in everyday speech, because they save time. Those common phrases are right there in the front of our brains (and see how the cliché, and the practice of reading poorly, can perpetuate itself?). In a conversation, especially where there's work to be done, one doesn't have time to compose melodic prose. So one resorts to ready-made phrases. Clichés are very helpful in that regard. But keep in mind what we sacrifice by using the cliché. In effect, we trust the listener to substitute his own experience in order to understand ours. If you tell me:

I'm feeling under the weather today.

I don't really know how you feel; instead I think back on my own experiences of feeling bad, and transfer them to you. To be sure, the cliché is based on a commonality of human experience, but it is by necessity a common denominator. That's fine for conversation where approximation of truth is sufficient to the work at hand, but when it dominates conversations that are supposed to be about connection, and discernment of truth (and if writing is not supposed to be about these things, then we may as well burn all our books straightaway) then it destroys the very purpose of those conversations.

The cliché moves us away from the truth, the precise truth of an individual human being in a particular moment in history, and instead substitutes the thin gruel of simple words uttered so many times before that neither the speaker nor the listener has to think much about them at all. The cliché is not only less than truth, its very blandness and unoriginality paints the colorful world a uniform gray.

The spectacle, then, of Christian writers layering cliché after cliché into their prose is especially disheartening, because they claim to espouse a worldview founded on truth and miracles. Neither are gray, are they? Wander over to the fiction section the next time you're in a "Christian Lifestyle" store (and don't even get me started on all the ways that conceptualization is an absolute abomination), or to the "faith" section the next time you're in an actual bookstore, and randomly select a book. Open it to a random page, and count the number of clichés, the sheer weight of "trite, stereotyped expression." And let's be clear, the cliché is not the extent of the problem, the root cause of bad writing; it is a symptom of the lazy, unoriginal, irreverent treatment of creation that underlies such writing.

And if this rote treatment is the extent of our storytelling, why not do the reader a favor, and just summarize?

Beth was heartbroken and questioning her walk with Jesus, but then brooding Glenn came along, and together they rediscovered their faith, all while fighting off the godless land developers who wanted to ruin their bucolic town.

What's that, dear reader? You want more to the story? Just fill in the blanks. You've heard all the phrases I was going to use anyway, and you know exactly how the story is going to end — which is probably half the reason you picked up the book in the first place. So just stare at the wall, and tell yourself the story.

Think of the paper we'd save.

To relate stories in drab, unoriginal language, then, is to deny truth. The world is filled with exquisite joy and pain, and if a writer (or reader) can't lift himself out of commonplace phrasings to tell the stories of this joy and pain, then he ought to busy himself with some other endeavor, because the alternative is to lie (or to entertain the lie) about creation, and about the author of that creation. This is what we are engaged in, those of us who make a steady diet of sugarless gum — a perpetual lie, because bad writing is always lying. This is why I say that a steady practice of bad writing (and bad reading) is a sin. It's not going to the movies for a couple of hours of release, it is a continual dwelling in a fantasy space. I don't think that comports with the calling of a thinking Christian, do you?

posted by Woodlief | link | (6) comments

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Christian Fiction, Part II: The Bubblegum Diet

What is Christian fiction? Does Doris Betts's story, "Serpents and Doves" count? In it a dying, guilt-ridden man has a feverish conversation with the Devil that brings him to realize the salvation that has eluded him. Then there's Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory, wherein a priest is executed for refusing to renounce his faith. Leif Enger's Peace Like a River is infused with grace, and its noblest character is a through-and-through Christian. Do any of these count as Christian fiction?

I suspect not. There's cursing in them, for one thing. Greene's book depicts sex in a prison cell. Plus his priest fathered a child. Each book has an edge to it, and perhaps that's the best demarcation. Christian fiction seems to be a safe harbor for people who want no cursing, or sex, or difficult theological quandaries. It's a place where the bad people are clearly bad, where the troubled find Jesus, the wicked get their comeuppance, and children have the wisdom of angels. It's escapist literature, and as such it's part of a long tradition. It's the literary equivalent of bubble gum, only it's sugarless, for those who care about the state of their spiritual teeth.

There's nothing wrong with sugarless gum; the difficulty arises when one makes a steady diet of it. If one believes that reading is an important part of the thinking life, then what one reads is no trivial matter. I know some people — intelligent, well-meaning people — who believe that the end is reading itself. They're happy that their adult children read, but when you delve into what their children are reading, it's a bubble-gum banquet. The purpose of a literate life is not the steady gazing at lines of words all strung together in tight rows and bundles, but the engagement of the mind with ideas and events and struggles greater than oneself. It's the interaction with ideas such that one's life is richer, and more meaningful, so that one is better equipped to be a force in the world.

One gets none of that from bubble gum. And how sad is it, really, to elect for a bubble gum diet, and then to make it sugarless? If we are to let our minds stagnate, then at the very least, mightn't we have a little fun doing so? Think about it: to be given these great gifts of prosperity, peace, and literacy, such that we have at our fingertips the brilliant thinking and composition of noble and ignoble souls alike, and then to read none of it. Doesn't that seem awfully close to sin? And if it is, why not sin boldly? Read some Stephen King, for crying out loud. At least you can tell his characters apart.

That's right, I'm suggesting that bad reading — and bad writing — is a sin. I'll even go so far as to posit that there is a special library in hell, lined with Danielle Steele and Robert Ludlum books, where the damned are consigned to copy the books' wretched dialogue over and over on endless spools of dry scratchy paper, with demons waiting nearby to lop off fingers whenever someone puts his punctuation on the outside of the quotation mark.

Keep in mind that I'm not speaking to people who's intellectual capacity limits their ability to comprehend a Wendell Berry or Dorothy Sayers, a Chaim Potok or Flannery O'Connor. Those blessed souls stopped reading after I used the phrase "theological quandaries," in the second paragraph. No, I'm talking to you, and to me, and most importantly, to each of us who is a parent (but more on that later). We have the capacity to read wonderful books, but we've trained our palate to crave bubble gum. Then we lie to ourselves, and say that because it's sugarless, we are being good stewards of our minds. But sugarless gum produces a rot of a different sort, in the form of an absence of nourishment.

But enough for now. Next post I'll dig a little deeper into why I think bad writing (and therefore bad reading) is a sin. And as your payoff for enduring my insufferable snootiness on this topic, I'll direct you to some lists of wonderful books that wrestle with things that ought to matter to the thinking Christian.

posted by Woodlief | link | (10) comments

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

On Christian Fiction, Part I: Bad Readers Make Bad Writers

There's a debate in Christian writing circles arising out of the perceived difficulty of getting publishers under the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) umbrella to carry more "literary" work. The underlying conflict between literary and mass-market fiction has existed in one form or another long before the CBA took root, of course. The first time a caveman etched a picture of his battle with the woolly mammoth, there was probably a scratcher of intricate berry-gathering vignettes waiting to denounce his work as sentimental and derivative.

The CBA question is especially interesting (to me, at least), because it incorporates not only questions of good art, but of purposeful art, which is itself a separate and tangled thicket. Does art with a high-minded purpose run the risk of being contrived and insincere? Should the purpose of the Christian artist be anything other than to tell the truth, i.e., to be a good artist — and if not, what's the purpose of an association dedicated to the selling of "Christian" books?

Whenever the debate is joined, it threatens to surface a more delicate matter, regarding what Christians choose to consume with their minds. Since free markets consist of sellers in service to willing buyers, our concern about what publishers print is really, in one dimension at least, a concern with what our friends choose to read. Tastes are cultivated, of course, and so we can quibble over what parents and schools teach (or more likely, fail to teach), but those dissatisfied (disheartened? disgusted?) by current CBA offerings are really dissatisfied with readers. As long as scores of readers get pleasure out of a book that can be written in a month, there will be authors turning out a book a month.

One runs the risk, in making this observation, of appearing to be one of those pedantic, precious little creative types who is convinced that the world has rejected his art because the masses have neither sense nor discernment. But some things are true even if Allan Bloom said so.

There's much more to be said here (and I promise not to afflict you with all of it), but I'll take it up in the next post.

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Monday, April 2, 2007

Renaissance Radical

Something that has always bothered me about the theological enterprise is an undercurrent of arrogance, the notion that we possess so clear a discernment that we can build mental boxes to contain the wild God of the ages. I once heard a sermon where the pastor quoted a brilliant theologian, who was commending Jesus for drawing the right conclusion in a particular lesson. It put me in mind of the politician who declared in the midst of a speech, "As the good Lord said, and I think he was right . . ."

Recalling that the first theologian was the Devil himself, it seems a slippery enterprise at best. It isn't surprising that the great reformations — Josiah having the Torah read to the people, Christ slapping down the Pharisees, Martin Luther suggesting the Pope get re-acquainted with the Bible — center on returning to what God has said, not what man has to say about what God said. (The aggrieved pedant often interposes a secondary discussion here, regarding the extent to which the Scriptures themselves are simply man's interpretations of what God has said, and the best reply is that he educate himself through more than the books that speak to his preconceived bias on the topic.)

All the foregoing came to mind yesterday as I read this from Sir Walter Raleigh's History of the World:

"Man, to cover his ignorance in the least things, who cannot give a true reason for the grass under his feet . . . that hath so short a time in the world as he no sooner begins to learn than to die; that hath in his memory but borrowed knowledge, in his understanding nothing truly; that is ignorant of the essence of his own soul, and which the wisest of the naturalists (if Aristotle be he) could never so much as define but by the action and effect, telling us what it works (which all men know as well as he) but not what it is, which neither he nor any else doth know, save God that created it . . . Man, I say, that is but an idiot in the next cause of his own life and in the cause of all actions of his life, will notwithstanding examine the art of God in creating the world . . ."

Or, as the good Lord said to Job (and I think he was right), "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?"

As might be expected, they lopped off Raleigh's head, their anger no doubt heightened by verses like this:

"Tell faith, it's fled the city;
Tell how the country erreth;
Tell, manhood shakes off pity;
Tell, virtue least preferreth;
And if they do reply,
Spare not to give the lie.

I don't know about you, but I always delight in discovering a critic from ages past. It makes one feel as if one is part of a sacred tradition, or has perhaps been admitted to a secret society because someone forgot to check one's references. And it shouldn't worry us, that so many meet gruesome ends, because mostly that doesn't happen any more, unless one lives in the Middle East. Or Africa. Or Pakistan. I guess there's also China, Cuba, Venezuela (soon), Russia, and Europe, if the Muslim demographic invasion continues . . .

Ah, well. Perhaps we misanthropes can simply hope for Raleigh's pluck on the executioner's block. He thumbed the blade and declared, "This is that that will cure all sorrows." And then, when the executioner dallied too long before the blow, Raleigh chided him: "Strike, man!" We'll know we've turned the corner in our universities, when this Renaissance radical replaces the thuggish Che Guevara on chic t-shirts. But to judge from Raleigh's poetry, academia was little better in his day, it seems:

"Tell arts, they have no soundness,
But vary by esteeming;
Tell schools, they want profoundness,
And stand too much on seeming
If arts and schools reply
Give arts and schools the lie."


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Friday, February 23, 2007

Serial Comma Killers

Suppose you read the following while browsing the Internet:

"Jeffrey's first year as an independent architect was so successful that several of his corporate clients decided to throw a reception in his honor. We're talking some of the biggest names in the city, too: Joyner & Hasting, Manning Incorporated, Vandelay and Piper. It was a classy event, except for the hors d'oeuvres, which were the strangest selection I've ever seen. Every tray you saw had the same odd assortment — bagels, bread, crackers and peanut butter. Despite the strange food, we all had a great time. A number of people even led the crowd in toasting Jeffrey, including his parents, Al and Marge."

It's a little puzzling, isn't it? Is Vandelay and Piper a single firm, or are they separate firms? Was the peanut butter available for spreading on the bread and bagels, or was it already married to the crackers? Are Al and Marge Jeffrey's parents, or are they two additional people who toasted Jeffrey?

Were you confident that every writer in America still adhered to the wise and sensible tradition of the serial comma, then you might immediately have your answer. But no, thanks to the seditious influence of journalists and Brits, we can no longer be certain of what the heck we're reading. To be sure, including the serial comma can introduce ambiguity as well, but at least in the past we all knew that everyone was following the same rule. Now you have to scan the entire document in an effort to discern which rule the writer is following.

Apparently journalists are most responsible for the change, seeing no problem (being the only writers they read) with replacing the old, occasional ambiguity of serial commas with a whole new dimension of ambiguity via its absence. Of course we can't expect journalists to appreciate the virtue of not tampering with social norms, but it's a pity to see corporations, already distinguished by a distinct lack of clarity in their communications, following suit, as so many are.

I suspect the serial comma will go the way of tipping one's hat to a lady and wearing a suit to church. But I'm not changing until Fowler changes, and that isn't happening, because he's been dead for seventy-four years.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

"Mental Slovenliness"

In his meditation for today (My Utmost for His Highest), Oswald Chambers writes, "When once you allow physical selfishness, mental slovenliness, moral obtuseness, spiritual density, everyone belonging to your crowd will suffer." This is directed, we should be clear, at the Christian church, and with good reason. People filled with religiosity but not grace are toxic — at the extreme they are the sort who blow up school buses full of Israeli children, while in milder forms they are the gossipers and backbiters who think hell exists for other people.

A mistake too many Christians make in separating from Judaism and Catholicism is the notion that spiritual work is misguided. The Christian walk, in this worldview, is all about the personal decision for Jesus. He is the author and perfecter of faith, after all. But we also know that we are to work out our salvation with fear and trembling.

Work out — what a lovely way to put it. There's work involved, in other words. A signature of the Protestant movement for at least the last one hundred years, however, is anti-intellectualism, combined with an insurance salesman mentality — get the poor sinner to mutter a commitment prayer, and you've won yourself another soul for Jesus. Those newly won souls are tender things, of course, and the souls of children are especially imperiled, so best to shield the whole flock from seditious thought. Perhaps it's true that the heart and flesh crying out for God in despair feels a lot like Holden Caulfield, but best to just burn that copy of Catcher in the Rye. The boy curses, after all. So not only is spiritual work eschewed, but also the honest working out of spiritual things — evidenced, for example, in the stark paucity of Protestant literary accomplishments.

I'm wrestling with the two-fold challenge of how to teach my sons. I don't want them to turn out like vast sums of Christian churchgoers, with absolutely no sense of church history, no understanding of the foundational principles of theology — in short, no ability whatsoever to serve as genuine leaders or teachers. This is remedied easily enough (with the added twist of educating myself in the process, because I number among those vast sums — it's like building rooms at the same time you are laying the foundation).

But there's the additional challenge, of fostering in my boys a sense of genuine inquiry. I want them to learn the true things, the unseen things, but I want for them to learn to wrestle with these unseen things, because I don't think we really know them, in our gut, until we have looked at them in the cold dark hours, in the midst of our knowledge of the suffering of the world. I want them to know faith from the eye of Graham Greene's whiskey priest, and confront nihilism in the eye of Flannery O'Connor's Misfit. Certainly God places us in travails that teach us more than a book, but surely books, if the mind is nimble enough, can begin this process of inquiry.

I suppose this means that first they shall have to learn to read. Caleb is making great progress in this area, as is Eli. Isaac is still learning that upside-down is not the preferred way of looking at books. And yet already I'm thinking of reading lists, and gentle discussions, and days when they have questions that I have no idea how to answer.

So I'm curious, from those of you whose children are older, and have found some resonance in anything I've written above. What do you read? What do your children read? How are you working (and cultivating in them the desire to work) so that you and your family don't suffer from "mental slovenliness?"

Perhaps this is too constant a theme with me, the desire to be liberated from ignorance. I suppose it's the natural consequence of growing awareness of one's own ignorance. Funny how it took me two degrees and thirty-odd years to get to this place, where I realize how little I really know about anything.

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Monday, December 26, 2005

On Reading

Received a lovely little notebook designed for making notes on what one is reading. Advice in the front says: "... no one should ever finish a book they're not enjoying, no matter how popular or well reviewed the book is."

I took it as a sign that I can put down Robert Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, a recent airport purchase which I've begun to avoid in favor of the Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle. A fav in Libertarian circles, the book is just flat, the characters lifeless, the conversation Randian in its desperation to convey an overarching View Of How Rational People Would Order Things.

In this the Libertarians are little different from other pedantic Utopians. I exempt those who call themselves libertarians. Read closely and think a bit and you'll get the difference.

I recall enjoying Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, but I read it when I was fifteen. Perhaps The Moon is a Harsh Mistress would have been enjoyable then too.

Now I'm on to Godric, by Frederick Buechner. Because life is too short to spend on a book that doesn't ring true. I'm also reading A Reader's Manifesto, by B.R. Myers, a much edited preview of which can be examined here. But the subtitle alone should grab you: "An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose." Among his targets are Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, and Annie Proulx. Delightful.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2005

C.S. Lewis for President

I've been reading "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" to Caleb and Eli in the evenings. Caleb has been on the edge of his seat during parts of it, wondering if the Witch will turn Edmund to stone, if Aslan will die, if the Witch eats children.

We finished the book last night, and in the closing pages was this wonderful passage which I'd forgotten:

"And they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being unnecessarily cut down, and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school, and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live."

If I ever run for office, there's my platform.

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Thursday, August 4, 2005

On Reading and Writing

If you care at all about good writing, and you haven't yet purchased a copy of The Atlantic's fiction edition, do so right away, while there are still some left at the newsstands. A writer friend told me a few months back that they are moving their offices to Washington, D.C., which saddens me because I suspect this city will do to the magazine what it does to many people -- coarsens them, dulls them, leaves them obsessed with the very small and ill-tuned to the very important threads of life.

But for now it remains the finest magazine in the universe. The essays and short stories in this issue have got me to thinking about the craft of writing, and how my own writing, -- and life, for that matter -- when surveyed from a distance, has the look of an onion, with successive layers peeled away, some easily, others only with much digging and scratching and tears. To write well is to dig for truth, though it be layered with inventions and contrivances, at its core it bears truth. But to tell truth is to offend, and to strive boldly for truth, arms flailing like an idiot in an all-out sprint for it, is to be wrong at times. This offends in a very different way, but it offends nonetheless.

So as I peel back the layers I wrestle with this problem more and more, and sometimes the words of one of my movie bad-guy heroes, Jack Nicholson's Colonel Jessep, come roaring to the forefront of my brain: you can't handle the truth!

But it seems that the alternative is to choke on it, and that's not worked so well either. More on that another time, perhaps. This is all just an introduction to two things I've recently read that I want to share with you. The first comes from Saul Bellow, whose 1963 comments on the topic of moralism in writing are excerpted in the aforementioned issue of The Atlantic:

A book which is lacking in power cannot be moral. Dullness is worse than obscenity. A dull book is wicked. It may intend to be as good as gold, as nice as pie, as sweet as can be, but if it is banal and boring, it is evil...

And this is why I increasingly find my stomach turning when I survey the fiction shelves of Christian bookstores. We are a people called to seek, pursue, and speak truth. That we tolerate such untruth as is found in poor writing and music is a shameful thing, and I suspect that the net effect is indeed wicked.

The second item comes from Stephen King's wonderful book, On Writing. I grew up reading King, and I confess that I was surprised when I got to college and found out that my tastes in reading, like so much else, were proletarian and shabby. I spent too many years thinking poorly of myself for this, and am only now coming around to the suspicion that it's okay to believe in my soul that post-modern, magical realist, nihilistic literature is a load of horse manure peddled by pedantic twits who spent too long at the feet of their clever, small-minded teachers, that much of what passes for art in the museums littering our nation's capital has no more heart than a talk show host, and that a lot of high-brow poetry doesn't make a damned bit of sense.

Or maybe I'm just not smart enough to get it. We shouldn't go ruling that hypothesis out too quickly. But back to Stephen King. Here's the part I want to share:

I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused by someone of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that's all.

If you tell the truth, don't let anyone make you feel lousy. More on that later as well, perhaps.

Okay, enough for now, except for one more thing. If you never saw or read it, check out King's acceptance speech at the 2003 National Book Awards. Classic, and classy, and right on.

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Friday, May 20, 2005

A Plethora

I must confess, I was pleased with yesterday's post, so much that I re-read it this morning. Yes, sometimes I do that. Do you ever glance at your reflection in a store window? Alright then.

So then I saw the typo. Don't bother, I took care of it. But oh, how I hate the typo. Not a Blockbuster kind of hatred, but more a deep soulfully sad kind of hatred, a wretched hatred.

Typographical error. That's not even the right word for it, according to this helpful definition. What's the right word for a mistake that occurs when you are editing with the "cut" and "paste" functions, and you accidentally leave in a whole chunk of words that don't belong in the newly constructed sentence? Or when you just omit a word altogether?

No matter. I despise all of it, because I despise lack of clarity in thinking, almost as much as I despise hyper-rational lack of wonderment in thinking.

Speaking of wonderment, which is close to "wondering," I recall the first really funny post here at Sand in the Gears, a mockery of an actress who misused a couple of words in her narcissistic monologue (if you click the link you have to scroll down, to the one entitled "Mousse Musing"). There's got to be a word for that kind of mistake too, when you mean to write "desert" and instead give us "dessert." A word other than "stupid," I mean.

That in turn reminds me of a student I had at a large major university which will remain nameless because, frankly, I don't like giving them any free publicity on my website. It was for an introductory American government class, and I required each of my students to write three short papers over the course of the semester. This guy's first paper included the phrase "variable plethora." What he meant to say, of course, was "veritable plethora," which, like "dovetails nicely," is an expression that should never, ever be used again except in mockery, like now. So not only was he trying to use a hackneyed phrase where all he meant was, "a lot," or, "a whole bunch," he was getting it wrong. Instead of a "literal plethora" (and don't get me started on the misuses of that word), he used a phrase that means "a plethora that kind of changes from day to day, like, you know, one day you might have too much bread and apples and stuff, and then, like, the next day you might have, I don't know, way too many Fig Newtons."

So I corrected his error, because I actually read my students' papers. Not to be catty, of course, because everybody reads his students' papers. Then, a month later, he writes a paper on a completely different topic, and there is that phrase again: "variable plethora." So I wrote a more strongly worded note.

Next month, another paper, same bloody phrase. My mind kept trying to conjure up exactly what a variable plethora must look like. I noticed that one definition of "plethora" is an excess of blood in an organ. That wasn't a helpful visual, trust me, the thought of some strange new disease causing one's organs to randomly swell up unexpectedly, as if one is a balloon in the hands of malevolent toddler.

Yes, I have an imagination. It's what fuels this site. Give thanks.

So, once again, I wrote a strongly worded note about the importance of reading the notes on one's paper when one is fortunate enough to have an instructor who actually reads papers and provides editorial suggestions. Not to imply, once again, that every instructor doesn't read his students' papers. I even knocked off a few points, and put my strongly worded note in red ink next to his lowered grade. The two dovetailed nicely, if I may, if you will, so to speak, as it were.

Final exam time. Blue books, because Tony requires essays. Yes, I'm cruel that way. My students leave understanding what "bicameral" means (and no, it's not the camel with two humps), and how to write a little better. It's my contribution to society.

You know what's coming, don't you? That's the sign of a good storyteller, you know, when you know what's coming next, and you keep reading anyway because the getting there is just so delicious. Anyway, you are right. He used the phrase again. Variable plethora. So I knocked off some points, and wrote an even stronger note on his exam, which I'm sure he didn't read.

He was a reasonably intelligent student, by the way. I suspect he's working at a law firm somewhere now, mystifying his colleagues with memos about the "variable plethora" of new clients that await if they expand into medical malpractice, or the "variable plethora" of new rulings in employment law.

Or, perhaps he's working in one of these places.

In any event, we can sum up with the observation that it's a wonderment that English-speaking peoples came to dominate the globe. Unless, perhaps, people who speak other languages have the same problem. But that's literally a question for another time, because I've already written a plethora, which dovetails nicely -- if you think about it -- with my theme, don't you argue?

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Grace and Truth

From time to time I try to figure out what it is I'm doing here. This website has been part political commentary, part life history, and part essay, with a big melodramatic helping of self-therapy thrown into the mix. So we end up with an eclectic mix, which is fine, so long as there's a theme. I confess that sometimes I have doubts about what that is.

A kind writer named John Goldfine once wrote me an encouraging note in which he said that some of my writing is characterized by the quality of grace. I really like that, and I want it to be true. I'm also seized by the notion that my own place as a writer is to answer Pontius Pilate's question, "What is truth?"

Grace and truth. That's what I'm striving for. Often I miss the mark.

So, I wanted to share that with you. What got me thinking about it was the fact that from time to time I read something that is simply beautiful to me, and I think, "I should put that on my website." I often have dutiful impulses like that: "I should call my mother;" "I should volunteer more;" "I should tell _________ at work that nobody likes him because he's deceitful and impervious to reason."

I frequently don't act on them. I probably never will. But at least I can be more diligent about sharing with you the beautiful things I read. Let's start now, shall we?

In a fine literary journal called Orchid, shared with me by the delightful writer, thinker, and brain-tumor warrior Sid Sharma, comes this breathtaking passage in a short story entitled "Odds and Ends," by Debbie Lee Wesselmann:

"White sugar sunlight, sweet and crystalline, poured through the uncovered windows and onto the carpet, sifting up to their knees."

How bad can the day be, with an image so glorious in one's mind?

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