Monday, December 30, 2013

Willa Cather: One of Ours

I’m a huge fan of the fiction of Willa Cather. For many years, though, I’ve avoided reading her early, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, One of Ours. I’d heard that it was a jingoistic hymn to World War I, whitewashing the violence and pointlessness of that bloodbath. I happen to find a copy of the book on sale recently, and decided to give it a chance, since the centenary of the start of that war is approaching, and World War I has been on my mind. I found out that the novel is much more complex and interesting than I had heard.

Photo of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen
The main character of One of Ours, Claude Wheeler, is the strapping son of a Nebraska grain farmer in a town where his family ranks among the leading citizens. Claude grows up at a time that is somewhat familiar politically—his state is split between an aggressive Christian fundamentalist movement and liberal free thinkers, epitomized in the book by the Erlich family, who live in Nebraska’s college town of Lincoln.

Interestingly, the Erlich sons, who are part of the progressive trend, play football. At the time this book takes place, about 100 years ago, colleges were transitioning from divinity schools to a more science and liberal arts oriented curriculum. Football at that time was a rebellion against the otherworldliness of religious studies. Claude is the star player for a very bad football team, half-heartedly fielded by the only college his parents will pay for, a religious school dominated by a prissy and egotistical minister whom Cather scathingly portrays in the novel.

After college, Claude returns to the farm town where he grew up, and is caught in a trap. The only girl in town he can marry is Enid Royce, who is bright, but swept up in the fundamentalist craze. Her interests in life are to ban alcohol consumption and become a Christian missionary in China. Prohibition does actually pass in Nebraska during the course of the novel, and Enid runs off to China to take care of her ailing sister, who is already a missionary.

Claude becomes a surprisingly existential figure for a Nebraska farm boy. He yearns for some larger meaning or connection in his life. When the United States is drawn into World War I, Claude immediately enlists.

Cather does portray much of the suffering in World War I. The episodes on the boat over to France, where the young recruits are devastated by the deadly flu epidemic before they even arrive in Europe, are particularly poignant. The action in the trenches at the front is sometimes very graphic and violent, but in the end, Cather leaves the reader with a sense that the war was mostly a good thing, even for the men who died so horribly young. She even suggests that the U.S. military had given rise to a new, selfless breed of adventurer.

Reinforcing this view, an appealing, young Frenchwoman describes to Claude her memory of U.S. soldiers returning from a major battle: “I was in Paris on the fourth day of July, when your Marines, just from Belleau Wood, marched for your national fête, and I said to myself as they came on, That is a new man.… As Claude looked at her burning cheeks, her burning eyes, he understood that the strain of this war had given her a perception that was almost like a gift of prophecy.”


One might reasonably ask what good it is to be a new man who is slashed to bits by shrapnel. But for Cather, coming from the confining life of small town Nebraska, any exposure to the more sophisticated ways of the continent seemed worth the price. Ultimately, One of Ours is not about the glories of war, but about the necessity for a life that has more juice to it than the religiosity and gossip of Main Street U.S.A.

Other posts about Willa Cather: 
Writers I Can't Stop Reading, Part 3
A Writer Moves West, Part 3: Intimate History

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Visiting Hearst Castle

I’ve wanted to visit Hearst Castle since I first saw the movie Citizen Kane in college. Not that Citizen Kane is exactly based on the life of William Randolph Hearst, the man who built the castle. But close enough.

Hearst Castle
I arrived at the castle grounds yesterday, on a perfect California December day. The view up and down the coast was clear, and I could see why Hearst would pick such a remote site to build his largest residence. There are few spots in the world as scenic and mild-climated as the California coastline.

I was surprised that I couldn’t drive right up to the castle. You have to park at the visitor’s center, at the foot of the mountain where the castle is perched. You can glimpse the structures way at the crest of the coastal range in the distance, sitting like a Gaudí fantasy. That theme-park aura only intensified when the shuttle bus driver told us about the zebra and other animals that still roam the hills, left over from Hearst’s private zoo. An aoudad mountain goat did charge across the road on the way down. I wouldn’t want to drive those switchbacks without guardrails, and I kept wondering if any cars had ever rolled over the side after a night of partying at the castle.

The mansion itself is strikingly like a cathedral, but mixed in with the very pagan statuary of buff gods and goddesses, and the distinctly sporty flavor of the pools and tennis courts.

the Neptune pool
The interior Grand Rooms are lavish but rather fussy, featuring lots of carved wood ceilings and choir stall paneling brought twig by twig from the continent, seat of culture, at least in the mind of an American tycoon of the 1920s and 30s. I did enjoy the elaborate tile work in the exterior courtyards.

paving tiles in an exterior courtyard
What’s intriguing to me is how completely different this house is from the palaces of the East Coast magnates, such as the Roosevelts’ Hyde Park residence, or J.P. Morgan’s home in New York, which conform to a stuffed-armchair ideal of good taste, much more European. Hearst Castle is not in good taste. It’s a hodgepodge of classical, renaissance, and gothic. The artwork is a mélange of Spanish, French, Mexican, Flemish, Italian, and Greek. (One can imagine architect Julia Morgan biting her tongue at some of her client's choices.) The private movie theater has art deco caryatids holding branches of lights.

light fixtures in the movie theater
Hearst Castle is distinctly Californian in its idiosyncratic features and its defiance of decorum. It’s no surprise that the lady who presided there at Hearst’s side was not usually his wife, but the movie actress Marion Davis, who was his mistress.

Marion Davies
A Hollywood crowd often filled the guest rooms at the castle, including Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Jean Harlow, and Clark Gable.

I’m not saying that bad taste is a virtue, but there’s something refreshing and original about the mix at the Hearst Castle. Only a bold mind would have created with architect Julia Morgan the two pools: the Neptune Pool for outdoor swimming, and the Roman Pool for indoor, with its dark blue and gold tiles covering every inch, from the deep end of the water to the ceiling.

the Roman pool
I’m not defending Hearst’s politics and his active campaigning through his newspapers for the United States to enter the Spanish-American War. But I do find his castle surprisingly likeable, in its own naïve and earnest way.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Is the Detroit Institute for Arts Collection For Sale?


A story in the November 5, 2013, edition of the New York Times describes an appraisal that a major auction house did of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a city-owned museum. In order to pay off its creditors, the city of Detroit, in bankruptcy court, is seriously considering selling off its world-class art collection, an unprecedented step for a U.S. museum. The Detroit Institute of Arts owns some of Diego Rivera’s greatest murals, painted specifically for the museum. Other works in the collection include Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s celebrated The Wedding Dance, a stunning self-portrait of Vincent Van Gogh in a yellow straw hat and cornflower blue shirt, and Henri Matisse’s The Wild Poppies in stained glass.
The Rivera Court in the Detroit Institute of Arts
The city of Detroit is $18 billion dollars in debt. Even the pensions of its municipal workers are being considered for cuts, according to a ruling this week by a federal judge. Selling off works of art might seem like a rational way to ease the deficit. According to the article in the Times, “Some of Detroit’s largest creditors have contended in court that the museum’s collection is not an essential city asset and should be sold to help pay those who are owed money.”

But what is an “essential city asset” if not the works of art that generations of Detroit citizens have grown up knowing and loving? A painting or a sculpture that you visit regularly in a museum becomes almost like a friend. Its removal or disappearance is not a trivial event.

The Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned Diego Rivera to paint the series of murals in the museum in 1932. Rivera chose the theme of Detroit Industry for the cycle of paintings. He spent a month at the Ford Motor Company’s plant in Dearborn, Michigan, sketching and planning the murals, a tribute to local technology. Many of the portraits in the murals depict residents of the Detroit area, including a museum guard and gardener, and a Ford engineer. Taking these murals out of Detroit would deprive these artworks of much of their historical setting and context.

Even if the Detroit Institute of Arts sells off most of the collection that can be auctioned, estimates of what it would net range from $452 million to $2.5 billion, only a fraction of Detroit’s debt. 


We have to consider as a country what are priorities are. Do we support keeping great works of art accessible to the public, and maintaining the pensions of lifelong public servants, or do we continue to spend two-thirds of a trillion dollars each year on military expenditures? It’s possible we've reached the point where we have to choose.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Orhan Pamuk's The Museum of Innocence

I just finished listening to the audiobook of Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence. It’s an extraordinary novel, romantic, poetic, informative, philosophical, and at times maddening. The translation by Maureen Freely reads beautifully in English.

Orhan Pamuk in his Museum of Innocence
I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just say the plot concerns a man from an upper-class family in Istanbul, Turkey, who becomes deeply infatuated with a female distant cousin, while he’s engaged to a society woman.

The novel is full of lovingly rendered descriptions of Istanbul in the 1970s and 80s. Pamuk is particularly eloquent in describing how people entertained themselves then, from eating dinners at fish restaurants right near the Bosphorus, to attending schmaltzy Turkish movies in the summer in outdoor gardens, to watching the one channel of state-controlled television.

The differences in how the haves and the have-nots enjoyed their free time is one of the novel’s key contrasts. The main character and narrator, Kemal Basmaci, is from a family that owns factories, and he moves in the highly Europeanized world of Turkey’s upper crust, with their ski vacations and shopping trips to Paris or Milan. The young woman he falls in love with is from a distinctly lower-middle-class family that spends most of its time at home watching TV, and never leaves Turkey.

One of Pamuk’s main points, I think, is to show the self-hatred implicit in the upper class’s rejection of all things Turkish: anything Islamic, traditional sexual morality (which they claim to pooh-pooh but really hold fast to), Turkish folk music, etc.

The maddening aspect of the novel, for me, is the center section of the book, where the narrator/main character dwells endlessly on his obsessive attachment for his younger cousin. His love is moving, but it becomes such a mania that I found it unsympathetic during this part of the novel, though the narrator redeems himself by the end. If I hadn’t been listening to an audiobook narrated by the skilled voice of the actor John Lee, as I drove north and south on Highway 280, commuting between San Francisco and Silicon Valley, watching the sunset behind the fog-draped hills along the Crystal Spring Reservoir, I don’t know if I could have struggled through this section. I’m very glad I did. The last chapters of the book are among the best.

The book’s ending feels inevitable, given the protagonist’s extreme expectations of what his love can bring to his life. The final sections of the novel become a fascinating meditation on museums. Pamuk compares the Western attitude of pride in collecting to Eastern feelings of shame about assembling objects of deep meaning to the collector. This is yet another side of the book’s postcolonialism, which is not facile or rhetorical, but woven into the love story in a pattern as complex as a Turkish rug.

The class and race politics of The Museum of Innocence are pointed. They ring true. What troubles me are the sexual politics of the book. Pamuk's narrator tells us over and over about the main female’s character’s beatific qualities, but all we really see of her is her beauty-contest looks. The sex scenes are tender but male-centered.


I have to say I loved many sections of this novel, though. Pamuk is a master of description, particularly of the small but significant details of urban life, and his rendering of the world of Istanbul in the 1970s, complete with about 100 distinct characters, is amazing. My favorite character is Aunt Nesibe, the conniving mother of the narrator's love interest, who somehow winds up being lovable by being so immersed in the banal details of everyday life, and ends up sympathizing more deeply than anyone else with the narrator.

One extraordinary thing about this novel, published in Turkey in 2008, is that in 2012 Orhan Pamuk actually opened a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul, very similar to the one described in his novel. Life imitates art, but in this case, not without a sizable expenditure of time and money on the part of the author.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, November 15, 2013

Poets Are Rockin’ Out

Every poet has fantasized about starting a rock band and becoming the next Bob Dylan. Poet Cornelius Eady didn’t just dream about it, he went out and found some great musicians and a sweet-sounding back-up singer (the poet Robin Messing) and cut a double album he calls Book of Hooks

Cornelius Eady
He also published a double chapbook to go with it, so you can read his lyrics like poems. His topics run from the moving and serious “Last Known Address,” about an eighty-year-too-late pardon for a black man wrongly executed in Maryland for the murder of a white woman, to “Bed Bug,” a hilarious song about the critters in your sheets in the Big Apple:

Mama sighs, and shakes her head
But mama don’t live in New York City

Eady isn’t alone among serious poets who are turning to performance to find a wider audience for their verse. Poet Kim Addonizio shows up to her readings with a harmonica. 

Kim Addonizio
I attended a reading Kim gave at the low-residency writing program I teach in at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and a dude with a beard like a porcupine stood up in the middle of the reading and shouted to the whole audience that he was heading after the event to the Tap Root bar for a blues jam, and who was coming with him? Kim was the first to volunteer. Not only did she close her poetry set that night with a song she wrote that included a harmonica solo, she played a mean blues harp with the band at the Tap Root afterwards.

Hey, poetry started as a performing art, right? Homer’s epics were chanted to the lyre, the closest thing to a folk guitar in ancient Greece. Greek drama was written in poetry and performed in an amphitheater with a chorus. What’s this fetish about poetry only being on the page? I’m not talking about spoken-word poets, who are sometimes great performers, but often talk faster than the guy reading the fine print at the end of a radio ad for a car lease, so I often wonder what these poets’ work would look like if it was slowed down enough to read it. But “page-poets” are turning to performance now, too.

So next time you hear a song you like, you might actually be hearing poetry.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 3: Intimate History


In 1987 I moved back to San Francisco for good. I did some mining in the public library and found a book that helped me catch up with what I had missed in Western literary history: Americans and the California Dream, 1850–1915 by Kevin Starr. Through Starr I learned that San Francisco had already been a literary center during its Mexican days, when several Spanish-language literary magazines flourished. With its natural, warm-weather port, San Francisco has always stayed open to the world, attracting a curious, creative, and diverse population.

I also came to understand from reading Starr’s book how very remote the West of the U.S.A. was from the world’s urban cultural centers before the building of the transcontinental railroads and the Panama Canal. The Golden Spike connected the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad in 1869. Before that, getting from the East Coast of the United States to San Francisco, for instance, was an arduous and risky journey. Whether you traveled overland or by sea, the trip lasted several months. By sailing ship, the journey involved going all the way around Cape Horn at the tip of South America. At the time the California Gold Rush began in 1848, San Francisco, the most populous city on the West Coast, had all of 1,000 souls. 

San Francisco in 1851
The relatively sparse population of the West in the early years of European settlement was brought home to me very personally during my first few years in San Francisco when I used to walk my daughter to the school bus for first grade. There was a woman who always waited with her son at the same bus stop at that time in the morning, and naturally we got to chatting. It turned out she was from Nebraska. Growing up in Manhattan, I knew almost no one from Nebraska, and what little I knew about that state I had learned mostly from reading the wonderful novels of Willa Cather.

“Well, I don’t know much about Nebraska,” I confessed to the parent at the bus stop. “But I do know that Willa Cather was from a town called Red Cloud.”

“I’m from Red Cloud,” she answered.

“I know Cather wrote about some of the town’s most famous citizens, especially in the novel A Lost Lady,” I enthused. “Wasn’t one of the main characters based on a former Nebraska governor who lived in that town?”

“That was Silas Garber,” she said. “He was my great-great-uncle.”

Silas Garber
Now, you could write this off as a weird coincidence, but I’m telling you, this would not happen at a bus stop in Manhattan. There are just too many people in New York City for the one person you meet by chance to be closely connected to the one character you mention in a novel.

What that encounter taught me about the West is that it has grown remarkably quickly into a population center, and that it retains a relatively recent memory of the time when it was only stippled with small towns. Unlike Manhattan, downtown San Francisco is still only an hour away from untouched forest. Human beings and human settlements are far from the only show around, just about anywhere you go in the West. And the connections between past and present are sometimes remarkably fresh and surprising intimate. 

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
A Writer Moves West, Part 1: The Summer of Love, Part 2: San Francisco in the Disco Era

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 2: San Francisco in the Disco Era


I grew up in New York City, but my family first visited San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967. I didn’t meet many writers during that brief stay in the Bay Area in my teens.

That started to change in 1978, when I followed my poet girlfriend to San Francisco, arriving on the last day of rainy season. I bought an umbrella and didn’t use it again the entire seven months I was in San Francisco, to my amazement. I grew up with summer storms with fists of thunder and prongs of lightning, something you almost never hear or see in California. I lived that year in a communal apartment, again in North Beach. I bought a used, manual typewriter from a guy outside City Lights Bookstore and banged out poems in my “pad.”

That summer I spent much more time dancing than at literary events. It was the height of the disco era, and North Beach, where I lived for the second time, had several great disco clubs. There was one called Dance Your Ass Off on Columbus Avenue, which was sometimes fun, but my favorite was a club called The City, right on Broadway, about a block east of City Lights. You could either listen to singers on the ground floor, or dance upstairs. The singers included the legendary Sylvester, who had just released “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” making him an international star. The disco dancing went on till about 2:00 a.m. with a very mixed gay and straight crowd, pretty unusual, even for the disco era. Lots of flashing lights and mirrors, and a great DJ who kept things jumping with vinyl songs that went on forever. 

Marquee of The City disco in North Beach
San Francisco in the late 70s had not yet entered the era of AIDS. It was the height of the sexual revolution, and many relationships began and ended quickly.

I hung out a lot in Noe Valley that summer, which was then the hot neighborhood for artists, before it got gentrified. I was warmly and generously welcomed there into two very different literary circles. I took writing workshops with Robert (Bob) Glück at Small Press Traffic Bookstore on 24th Street. Bob is a thought-provoking teacher with a wry and mischievous sense of humor. Small Press Traffic was then the center of a growing school of writers that included Steve Abbott, Dodie Bellamy, Bruce Boone, and Kevin Killian. Those writers were interested in breaking down the conventions of narrative, and in exploring sexuality in an explicit way. Small Press Traffic Bookstore was so politically correct that they actually had separate sections for male and female writers. The workshops were held right in the dining area of the person who ran the bookstore, who lived upstairs, and she would appear occasionally during class to grab a plum or a yogurt from her refrigerator.

The original Small Press Traffic Bookstore in Noe Valley, San Francisco
I also got to sit in on a fiction workshop that used to meet in Noe Valley in the Victorian home of Ruthanne (Roxie) Lum McCunn. Though they only met a few blocks away, that group was very different from the Small Press Traffic school. The younger fiction writers at Roxie’s—who included Jay Schaefer, Carol Tarlen, Genevieve Belfiglio, and Chris Davis—were exploring narrative but taking it into new subject matter that did not appear in traditional fiction. Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s novel, Thousand Pieces of Gold, which told the story of a Chinese woman in the West during the Gold Rush, was a perfect example of that.

I also got to hear some good San Francisco poets that summer, including a reading at Fort Mason of sexy new work by Summer Brenner and Jana Harris. There was a sign-language interpreter at the event, which I hadn’t seen yet on the East Coast. I also got to hear Genny Lim, a dynamic performer who combines jazz, politics, and poetry.

I still had very little sense of the writers who had lived in the West before my time, writers who had absorbed that landscape into their work. I also didn’t know many people in California, and I only lasted in San Francisco until just before the rains started in the fall, when I moved back to New York City. The next time I moved to the Bay Area, though, it was for keeps.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
A Writer Moves West, Part 1: The Summer of Love, San Francisco

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Writer Moves West, Part 1: The Summer of Love, San Francisco, 1967

I grew up in New York City and spent almost all of my life there until I started hearing about the beginnings of the hippies in San Francisco in the mid-1960s. I mostly knew about the hippies from reading Ramparts, a political and arts magazine based in San Francisco. Many issues of Ramparts brought reports on the radical experiments in lifestyles going on in the Bay Area, from the collective called the Diggers distributing free food; to the solarized, DayGlo posters for the Fillmore Auditorium’s rock concerts with the letters rippling like flames. I was hooked. I had to experience all this firsthand. 

Rock poster, San Francsico, 1960s
I was only 15, but I had a mom who was an adventurous free spirit, and it didn’t take too much convincing to get her to agree to leave New York and spend June, July, and August in San Francisco in 1967. I might be the only person who went to the Summer of Love with his mother.

My mother, my sister, and I arrived in San Francisco in early June with no clear idea of where we would stay. We found a hotel room near Union Square when we first arrived, but that proved expensive. Our search in the San Francisco Chronicle for short-term rentals did not yield any results. Wandering around North Beach one day, we happened by chance to pass the offices of Ramparts magazine. On an impulse we went inside and my mother asked the receptionist if she knew of any places for rent for the summer. It turned out the receptionist had an apartment nearby, and offered to rent it to us for the summer, while she moved in with her boyfriend. Kismet!

It turned out that the original hippie scene had pretty much peaked in San Francisco by the Summer of Love. Many of the early hippies had left the increasingly violent Haight neighborhood to move to communes in the country. Haight Street itself was bumper-to-bumper with rubbernecking tourists gawking at the latter-day hippies who were still in town, hawking copies of the Berkeley Barb alternative newspaper to sightseers. There were head shops selling posters of Che Guevara and the guy on the Zig Zag rolling papers package, who looked vaguely similar.

We went to the opening of a show by the artists of the psychedelic rock posters: Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, and others—artists I idolized. By then, they were selling their work in a fancy Union Square gallery, signing posters while they yakked about what they were charging for their surrealist collages.

You could smell the pot in the air in Golden Gate Park, but beyond that, you could smell the freedom in the air. You could dress any way you liked (although the hippie rejection of style involved a style of its own), you could love anyone you liked, and you could give things away for free (definitely a no-no in the consumer culture of the U.S.A. post-World War II). At the Fillmore Auditorium, you could dance in a strange, free-form way, wheeling your arms in the air and clomping up and down, while blobs of colored oils throbbed on the walls in a projected light show. I remember my mother taking me to a gay bar on Grant Street (how many moms took their teenage sons to gay bars, especially in 1967?) and seeing two men partner dance to Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” We heard the Grateful Dead and Country Joe and the Fish playing for free in the parks.

My sister briefly dated the son of Harry Bridges, the leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, so a whiff of the labor history of San Francisco also reached us. We socialized with the family of Earl Conrad, a radical novelist and nonfiction writer who lived with his wife in a very urban apartment in the Tenderloin neighborhood. We had met Earl in New York when he was researching a book that mentioned my dad, also a writer. 

Cover of a book by Earl Conrad, with a portrait of the author
Evenings we often took the N Judah trolley all the way to the end of the line near the beach, to watch foreign films at the now-defunct Surf Theatre, a great old neighborhood movie house from the 1920s that showed the innovative flicks of Bergman, Fellini, and Antonioni. The drenching fog at night in that part of the city resembled an apocalyptic landscape out of one of those films.


That first glimpse of the West was an eye-opener for me. It wasn’t that New York was devoid of culture and liberty—just the opposite. But something different was happening on the West Coast, a new kind of freedom that made for a bubbling arts and literary scene, more open to new ideas and lifestyles and to the cultures of the Pacific Rim.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4 
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6, Part 7
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8Part 9Part 10
Putting Together a Book Manuscript, Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Working with a Writing Mentor: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5
How to Deliver Your Message: Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6
Why Write Poetry? Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4
Using Poetic Forms, Part 1: Introduction; Part 2: The Sonnet; Part 3, The Sestina;
Part 4, The Ghazal; Part 5, The Tanka

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why Are Certain Writers Popular in Other Countries?


I remember when I first started traveling abroad, if French people realized I was an American interested in books, they wanted to tell me how much they admired and enjoyed the novels of Chester Himes. “Chester who?” I would ask. Well, it may be that Chester Himes is a writer we should all know more about—he was an African American mystery writer of the 1950s and 60s, totally unknown to me or any of my acquaintances. In France, he was one of the most famous American novelists. It’s true, Himes wrote about race relations at a time when few were taking on that subject: “All that tight, crazy feeling of race as thick in the streets as gas fumes. Every time I stepped outside I saw a challenge I had to accept or ignore.” (from If He Hollers Let Him Go). But even if Himes deserves a closer look, he’s no Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. Why is Himes so popular in France?

Chester Himes
French readers also all seem to know authors of the Beat Generation, especially Jack Kerouac. But very few are aware of most of the terrific poets and novelists in the U.S. since the Beats.

Similarly, readers in the U.S.A. and all over the world are fascinated with Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez is one of my favorite novelists, too—Love in the Time of Cholera is right near the top of my all-time list. But there are other equally deserving classics in El Boom, the wave of magical realist writers, books that don’t seem to attract as large a following—novels such as Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and Manuel Puig’s Heartbreak Tango; or Julio Cortázar’s stellar collection of short stories, All Fires the Fire. I believe that their reputations will equal Márquez’s novel in the long run.

Haruki Murakami, also a big favorite of mine, has millions of readers worldwide. But other Japanese authors such as Kenzaburo Oe, who, unlike Murakami, has actually won the Nobel Prize for Literature; or the poet Yosano Akiko, author of 50,000 tanka poems, are relatively unknown outside their own countries.

Why do certain writers attract readers in other countries, and others do not? Some of it may have to do with having a connection to a particular country. Chester Himes, for instance, moved to France in the 1950s, and he had the advantage of being able to publicize his books on the ground in that country. Jack Kerouac’s ancestors came from Brittany (the name “Kerouac” is like “Smith” in the Celtic region of Northwestern France), but I don’t think that’s the key to his success in the land of Sartre and de Beauvoir. There is something about Kerouac’s spirit of adventure and vitality that says “American” with a capital “A” to people in other countries, similar to the way that cowboys and gangsters do.

Haruki Murakami is immersed in the popular culture of the U.S. and Western Europe, even naming one of his novels after a Beatles song, “Norwegian Wood.” That might explain part of why readers in the West find his work so accessible, even though his books are mostly set in Japan, and the world of his novels often shades into fantasy, which only a minority of English-language novels do. But why is Murakami one of the ten top-selling foreign authors in Mainland China? True, he’s a terrific writer, funny, thought-provoking, moving, willing to take on the status quo and business as usual. Well, O.K., I think I just explained his global popularity to my own satisfaction. 

Haruki Murakami
It does seem to me that certain writers just translate better into other cultures, maybe because they play off the stereotype that we have of those cultures in a complex way. Love in the Time of Cholera is about a passionate, Latin lover, but Márquez takes that stereotype and inflates it so much it explodes into thousands of fragments, into meandering sentences that each has a life of its own. Kerouac’s On the Road takes place in the wide-open spaces of North America where the cowboys toted six-shooters and the buffalo roamed, but his bebop descriptions of the West in the 1950s create a new American myth that seems more applicable to our time. Haruki Murakami's characters refuse the image of the Japanese “salaryman” and stay-at-home woman and become instead existential heroes who buck the system, almost in spite of themselves. It’s these new turns on the old national and regional clichés that make these books accessible but still eye-opening for cultures outside the ones that give rise to them.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Has the Best Literature Already Been Written?

It’s very easy to fall into the mindset that there’s not much point in writing anymore, since the best writing has already been written. After all, who is going to write a lyric poem better than Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments...”? Who could out-do his Sonnet 55, “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments/Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme...” so bold in its claim, so democratic in its implications.

The Bard Guy
But imagine if all the writers since Shakespeare had thrown away their quills or pens or clunky manual typewriters with stuck keys and said, “No way I’m going to measure up to the Bard Guy.” Think of the many thousands of works of literature we wouldn’t have, from Wordsworth’s sonnets to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God to Neruda’s poems of surrealist angst in Residencia en tierra? Make your own list. Probably the majority of great literature was written after the Golden Age of Petrarch to Shakespeare was ancient history.

You might still say that the works of even those more recent classic writers I just listed are out of reach now, since our daily speech has declined in the age of texting and singers with dollar signs in their names to the point where we can’t reach the peaks of the literary sublime. Maybe. But what an interesting challenge that is, to try to create a moment of heightened language and emotion in a world where that is not the norm, where new literary classics are as rare as pulling an emerald from the dirt!

Rather than assume that literature has seen its best days, why not think of what literature has not been attempted yet?

Have we melded literature as fully as we can with the other arts and technologies? Heck, no. (Who said that?)

Have we taken literature authentically into the realms of intimacy that have been so private up till now?

Have we written about the new shapes that relationships and families are taking in our world?

Have we laid out the radical equality and justice and sustainability that will allow our world to survive this age of splits—of faiths, families, nations, and atoms?

Yes, there may be a trade-off. We may not be able to duplicate the lacy sounds of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, or the intricate dance of Dante’s terza rima. But we have the benefit of hundreds of years of history and change since Jacobean England and Trecento Italy, change that has given us, I hope, new insights. There are new musics, new asymmetries of elegance to reveal.

Other recent posts about writing topics: 
How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka
How to Be an American Writer