Monday, January 17, 2022

Whatever Happened to Thomas Hart Benton?

Thomas Hart Benton (1889–1975) was at one time widely considered the leading painter of the United States. Today, he is virtually unknown. I see many valuable lessons for artists and writers in the rise and fall of Benton’s reputation.

Thomas Hart Benton, Self-Portrait

At the height of his renown, Thomas Hart Benton was the first artist ever featured in a Time magazine cover story, in 1934. Art critic Thomas Craven wrote as late as 1958: “Thomas Hart Benton, secure in his eminence, has weathered the storms and caprices of popular and aesthetic tastes, and stands virtually in a class by himself…” Benton was in a position to become the Diego Rivera of the United States. Like Rivera, Benton went to Paris as a young artist during the Cubist era before World War I. In fact, Benton and Rivera knew each other in artistic circles in the French capital. Also like Rivera, Benton rebelled against the elite and rootless movements of modernism and returned to North America to paint murals that depicted the local history and politics of his country. Today, however, Rivera is enshrined as an iconic artist, while Benton is largely unheard of, even for many artists and art enthusiasts. I recently visited the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco to see one of Benton’s best-known canvases, Susanna and the Elders, in their permanent collection. I was told that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco had 24 works by Benton, and not one was on display. The almost total eclipse of Thomas Hart Benton’s reputation is even more surprising because he anticipated many directions in contemporary art:

  • Benton rebelled against the empty abstractions of modernism in favor of a more representational and political practice of art.
  • Benton condemned the New York-centered bias of the art world and moved back to his native Missouri to seek inspiration in settings not often represented in traditional painting.
  • Benton worked with radical scholars outside the art world (including revisionist U.S. historian Charles Beard) to gain insight and information that he used directly in shaping his art.
  • Benton incorporated images of African Americans and Native Americans in his paintings in ways that broke stereotypes.

To some degree, Benton’s innovative move back to Missouri and the Midwest, outside the coastal hubs of the art world, may be responsible for the current lack of awareness of his work. Some of Benton’s most monumental works he did for the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City; other are now housed in the Indiana University Auditorium in Bloomington, Indiana. One lesson here is that the reputation of an artist often has as much to do with geographic proximity to cultural centers as it does to the importance of the work. Benton’s standing in the art world also slid downwards during the rise of abstract expressionism in the 1950s, even though, ironically, Benton was a close mentor to the young Jackson Pollack. (The influence of Benton’s murals is still palpable in the scale and dynamism of Pollack’s abstract canvases.) Benton was also inconsistent in his portrayals of the truths of American history. He was far ahead of his time in showing how White settlers decimated Indian communities in works such as Aggression in his first major suite of murals, American Historical Epic, painted 1919–24.

Aggression, American Historical Epic

Many of his portrayals of Native Americans have dignity and individuality, and are well researched. But Benton fell back on stereotypical images in a number of his murals, including the Indian offering the peace pipe to the gun-toting pioneer in Independence and the Opening of the West, painted for the Harry Truman presidential Library from 1959–62.

Detail from Independence and the Opening of the West
Unlike the Native Americans in Diego Rivera’s murals, who are clearly the architects of an advanced civilization, the Indians in Benton’s murals are hunter-gatherers who don’t seem to have cultural artifacts beyond what they wear and carry.

Similarly, Benton depicted African Americans with nobility and pathos in Water Boy (1946) and Ten-Pound Hammer (1965).

Water Boy
But he also reverted to trite images of Blacks in his interpretation of the story of Frankie and Johnny in his murals for the Missouri State Capitol (1936), among others.

From my point of view, the lesson for artists and writers here is that if you go outside your own background for inspiration, make sure that you seek out honest and insightful feedback from members of the community you are representing. That is particularly true if, like Thomas Hart Benton, son of a U.S. congressman and grandson of a senator, you are fortunate enough to grow up with significant privilege. I believe that Thomas Hart Benton’s reputation as an artist has also not benefited from a revival because he used an odd technique in his work. To create murals with many figures in them, Benton sculpted three-dimensional models out of clay, or out of plasteline and wax.

Clay model Benton used to paint one of his murals
Instead of painting directly from a live model, he often used those dioramas as visual notes for his compositions. Those lifeless models drained the vitality out of many of his paintings. Benton’s work also often has a cartoonish aspect, which might result from his retro fondness for egg tempera, rather than oils, which allow for a more painterly texture. The lesson here is, there is no substitute for living and breathing sources in our work as artists.

Ultimately the paintings of Benton that I find the most enduring are not his panoramic murals with dozens of figures, or his portraits of quaint, rustic characters, both of which were trademarks of his American Scene art. The paintings of Benton’s that move me the most are landscapes where the human element almost seems incidental, such as Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek (1965), where a tiny boat is barely visible in a vast Western river valley.

Lewis and Clark at Eagle Creek

I also admire The Boy (1950), where a young man waves goodbye to his farmer parents, presumably off to make his way in the big city.

The Boy
Something about the contrast between human endeavor and the expanse of nature stirs me in those great paintings of Benton’s. He was not trying to do too much in those works, just to tell a story against a vividly imagined backdrop.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris

Other posts of interest:

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 Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Sunday, October 24, 2021

From Short Story Writer to Novelist: An Interview with Richard Chiappone

Many fiction writers want to make the transition from writing short stories to novels. One writer who has done this successfully is Richard Chiappone, whose terrific first novel, The Hunger of Crows, was published in 2021. I interviewed Rich to find out how he made that leap in his career.


Richard Chiappone, author of The Hunger of Crows
Zack Rogow: Before you published your novel The Hunger of Crows from Crooked Lane Books, you’d written mostly short stories. When you got the idea for The Hunger of Crows, how did you know that this would be a novel and not a short story?

Richard Chiappone: That makes me smile because I had no idea that a short story titled “Personal Use” in my second story collection, Opening Days, would turn into this novel. I rushed to complete the story in time for that collection, and I always thought it ended abruptly. So, a couple years later, I picked it up again and said, “Why does it feel like something more is about to happen? What’s next?” What happened next was about ten years of trial and error and error and error, hundreds of jettisoned pages, and numerous gray hairs. Plus, a novel!

 

Q. When you started to write the novel, what adjustments did you make to create a plot that you could sustain over many chapters?

 

A. After thirty years of writing character-driven stories, I realized I knew absolutely nothing about plot. I thought writing a novel might be a good way to learn. One problem I had was the tendency to make every chapter a stand-alone story. The first agent I sent a draft to said, “When I started reading this I feared it was actually a story collection.” (Note the word feared. Agents HATE story collections.) I had to learn that a chapter can’t be complete on its own; it has to move the novel forward. Who knew?


Q. Did the number of characters or subplots increase when you saw the work as a novel?

A. Oh, yes. And it was very liberating. I allowed myself to shift points of view among the characters, something I’ve always avoided when writing short stories. And new plot ideas kept weaseling into the story. So I let them. What a luxury. It was like finding out you were allowed to swim—without wearing handcuffs.

 

Q. What kinds of character development did you add in writing a novel that you would not have done in a short story?

 

A. Actually that was one of my worst problems. I set out to write a simple action-driven crime novel. But free to sprawl, I went nuts. I got so interested in each character I wrote dozens of pages of back story that had to be thinned down. Even in the finished novel, most of the characters have a lot of history. I guess that’s why it’s been called a “literary” thriller. You have no idea how much more I tried to cram in. Thank God for editors.

 

Q. Does the setting play a different role in this novel than in your short stories?

 

A. Setting plays a much larger and more active role. Here where I live in south Central Alaska, in June when the story is set, we have about twenty hours of daylight, and almost no real darkness. (There are midnight softball leagues.) That’s not just some colorful factoid in the novel. The main character, a young woman, Carla, has fled from Phoenix, Arizona, to a small town, 200 miles from Anchorage, where she is hiding from a quasi-military corporation out to kill her. She assumed that the remoteness of Alaska would hide her, but the constant daylight feels like a spotlight shining on her. Then there are the unpredictable and treacherous northern ocean currents, tides, and storms that nearly kill Carla before the bad guys even show up. Atmosphere can be an important character in a longer work of fiction.

 

Q. Are there advantages to novel writing that short stories don’t offer?

 

A. Yes. In a short story there can be very little dramatic physical action. Look at “The Dead” by James Joyce, one of the greatest stories. It’s a dinner party; no punches are thrown, no guns drawn, there’s barely a voice raised in anger. After reading that story, your knees quake.

 

In short stories, what characters feel and think is often more important than what they actually do. But ironically, there’s little room in that form for delving into their lives leading up to those powerful moments of epiphany. That’s something you can include in a novel. I had a good time writing beatings, shootings, boats sinking, sex! But still, I fell in love with my characters and I wanted to spend a lot of time with them. I hope my readers will too.

 

Q. Is there any one thing you were able to carry over from years of story writing and use in your novel? Something akin to your “style.”

 

A. I’d say it’s humor. Sometimes crime novels can take themselves pretty freaking seriously. That’s their author’s business, of course. But some that I admire also have moments of great levity. I’m thinking of Walter Mosley’s stories, and of course, the sometimes very funny Elmore Leonard.

 

My wife is horrified and embarrassed that I laugh at my own jokes, but I’ll go out on that limb and say in my own defense, several readers have commented on the humor in The Hunger of Crows. One of the many revisions was taking out excess jokes. Painful!

 

Q. How did you go about finding an agent for your novel?

 

A. In 2018, after working for five years, I thought the novel was complete. I sent it to Jeff Kleinman at Folio Literary Management. I knew that Jeff had discovered Alaskan writer Eowyn Ivey’s hugely successful debut novel, The Snow Child, at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference here in Homer in 2008. He was an agent who had been to Homer, the setting of my novel. I was sure he was someone with an ear for Alaskan stories. He is.

 

Q. What process did you go through with the editor in creating a finished version of the manuscript?

 

A. Jeff Kleinman liked it, but said it did not feel complete. He turned it over to his associate, Rachel Eckstrom, and for the next two years I completely rewrote the book three or four times before the wise and patient Rachel decided it was ready to pitch to publishers. When Crooked Lane Books bought it in the spring of 2020, I thought I was done revising, at last. Then their editor sent me eleven single spaced pages of “notes” (meaning things that needed to be worked on, changed, or eliminated). Eleven pages! I thought they were rejecting the book. Then I remembered they’d already paid me for it.

 

The editor’s notes were brilliant, and I rewrote the whole manuscript twice more, making massive structural changes. And then it was finally done, after ten years, uncountable rewrites, and hundreds of excised pages zapped into cyber oblivion with the delete key. Nothing to it.

 

Q. How is the novel being publicized or marketed differently from a short story collection?

 

A. Hah! Using the words marketing and short story collection in the same sentence is hilarious. (See above: agents hate story collections.) Why? Because publishers hate story collections! And for good reason: they do not sell. Seriously, how many story collections are on the NY Times bestselling fiction list right now? I'll look. Okay, I looked. The answer: NONE. Only novels.


So, after three decades of publishing short stories, Crooked Lane’s wonderful marketing of my novel has been deliriously encouraging and very much appreciated.

 

Q. Any advice for short story writers who want to try their hand at a novel?

 

A. Yes. Read lots of novels. Many short story writers mostly read short stories. I know, I’ve been a short story junkie for thirty years (and I don’t want to recover. Ever). I have a whole wall of nothing but story collections or anthologies. You can always sneak-read a couple stories secretly. (Hint: Put a story collection on the bottom of a stack of novels on your nightstand. No one will notice.)

 

Not reading novels made it hard to learn to write a novel. I did not have the rhythm of a long work of fiction etched into my brain the way the shape of stories was. Maybe that’s why some of the greatest short story writers never wrote wildly successful novels: Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Anton Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor, to name a few.

 

Q. Were there any “How to” books about novel writing you found useful?

 

A. I love reading craft books on writing. But because until recently I never intended to write a novel, I’ve never read any that are specifically about novel writing. It should go without saying that it helps to have some general writing skills if you’re going to write 300 pages of anything. There are several fine books that I’ve found helpful for myself and for the numerous students I’ve worked with over the years. Here are some favorites (alphabetically):

 

The Half-Known World, by Robert Boswell   

Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway, et al.

The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner

On Writing, by George V. Higgins

The Fiction Writer’s Workshop, by Josip Novakovich

How Fiction Works, by James Wood

 

One last word to new novelists.

READ LOTS OF NOVELS!

Did I already say that? 


Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.Other posts of interest:

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 Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Friday, October 15, 2021

The Tofu Hall of Fame: Best Tofu Recipes

In this post, I’m taking a break from my literary blogs to feature some of my favorite tofu recipes.

Tofu, that flexible food that soaks up a multitude of flavors, is heavy on protein and calcium, and low on calories. And tofu is a shape shifter—it can be carved into strips, cubes, or wedges. It can have a texture that’s creamy or chunky. Who ever thought of grinding up cooked soybeans, straining the milk from them, and then gelling the liquid into a block! Tofu is a culinary miracle.

 

Over the years I’ve collected my favorite tofu recipes, and this list is for me the soy crème de la crème.


Seared Tofu with Snap Peas and Sesame Seeds

Seared Tofu with Snap Peas and Sesame Seeds

This New York Times Cooking recipe from Melissa Clark features an unusual preparation of tofu on a skillet with tasty green veggies.

 

Spicy Lemongrass Tofu

From a fine cookbook, Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table by Mai Pham, which includes juicy anecdotes about how she discovered recipes in her travels around Vietnam.


Korean-Style Broiled Tofu

This food.com recipe yields tofu strips coated with yummy sauce. I substitute a tablespoon of honey for the Splenda sweetener in the recipe. Make sure the liquid reduces till it forms a thick sauce. Great with your favorite kimchee.

 

Sook Mei Faan Cantonese Creamed Corn With Tofu and Rice

Another New York Times recipe, this one from Hetty McKinnon. Silken tofu has a softer, more custardy texture than the meaty firm or extra firm tofu. It is delicate and goes well with crunchy corn or veggies. You have to treat it gently or it falls apart!

 

Silken Tofu with Spicy Soy Dressing

A very quick recipe from Hetty McKinnon of the New York Times where the silken tofu is served cold. I know, cold tofu, it sounds yucky. But take my word, everyone will want more than one helping.


Spicy Peanut Tofu Bowls

A tasty recipe from Pinch of Yum with a Southeast Asian flavor. The sauce takes a while to make, but you can freeze it and save some for another time.

 

Crisp Tofu Katsu With Lemon-Tahini Sauce

This is a New York Times Cooking recipe that features tofu cutlets dredged in breadcrumbs.

 

Thai-Style Tofu and Vegetables

From Food & Wine magazine comes this flavorful recipe with coconut milk, lime, and a variety of veggies. Great one-dish dinner.


Black Pepper Tofu

Black Pepper Tofu

An Ottolenghi recipe that is super-tasty. Don’t go overboard on the chili peppers because there is already lots of spice in the sauce.

 

Sweet and Sticky Cashew Tofu

A fine vegan recipe from Olives for Dinner that combines brown sugar and tangy spices. Yum! I suggest toasting the cashews and sesame seeds and cooking the broccoli florets longer than this recipe calls for. Also, slightly reduce the amount of garlic and ginger and keep it in the cast iron pan with the veggies and tofu. 

 

Please suggest your own favorite tofu recipes in the Comments. Bon appétit!

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies.

Zack’s most recent book of translations, Bérenice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris.Other posts of interest:

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 Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Valerie Miner on the Novella

I heard the writer Valerie Miner give a fascinating talk on the novella form, and I asked Valerie to talk about her experience as an author and reader of novellas. Valerie’s latest book of fiction, Bread and Salt, features a wonderful novella.


Valerie Miner


Could you explain what a novella is? When does a work of fiction go from being a short story to a novella, or when is a novel brief enough that it is considered a novella?

 

Valerie Miner: I sometimes imagine different forms of fiction like the music of string instruments. I hear the short story as a winged, breathless violin scherzo. The novella sounds like a cello sonata, rich and round and deep. The novel reminds me of the seasons of a string quartet. Of course, there are no rules about length. But my stories are usually between 5-25 typed pages. In writing a novella, I aim for 60 to 120 typed pages. My novels tend to be 250 to 500 pages.

 

What is the appeal and/or advantage of writing a novella? Are there disadvantages to writing a novella?    

 

I enjoy the flexibility and length of a novella. It can reveal more than a personal epiphany but usually less than the whole map of an individual adult life. I find the form ideal for exploring friendship. Jane Smiley thinks that marriage is a good topic: “...few marriages and even fewer love affairs are worth three hundred pages—but a hundred? Great loves can go a hundred.”

 

I enjoy reading and writing novellas in much the same way I enjoy other anomalous forms—the prose poem, the novel-in-stories, microfiction—because their very irregularity provokes my imagination. The shape of this less familiar form disturbs my ability to maintain expectations about character and plot development. Also fascinating are those cross-genre projects mixing fiction and memoir. Neither the novella nor these other “unconventional” forms are endangered species, and hybrid forms are steadily gaining audiences. Just as writers breaking linguistic and other stylistic expectations often have to establish a critical framework in which their own fiction can be appreciated, practitioners of “odd forms” like the novella need to alert readers to the novella’s idiosyncratic rewards. It’s the idiosyncrasy of the novella form, its perversity and disruptiveness, that stirs ideas and changes literary appetites.

 

The disadvantages of writing a novella are perhaps most related to reception. It’s difficult to publish them in literary journals. I’ve had the opportunity to judge novella contests for Quarterly West and Evergreen Chronicles, but most journals are looking for something shorter.

 

Unfortunately, most people haven’t yet developed the habit of reading novellas as they might read one short story a day over breakfast or in bed, or as they might savor a novel on a week’s vacation. For many, the novella clashes with daily routine. Habit is what holds back the popularity of the novella. We carry expectations about stories and novels regarding degrees and kinds of emotional response or intellectual stimulus. But novellas—what are they? Less intense than a story? Less profound than a novel? Or something altogether different?

 

In your recent collection of fiction, Bread and Salt, you end with the title piece, which is a novella. How and when did you know that this idea would take the form of a novella?

 

My favorite form is the short story. So why have I published only four story collections and nine novels? Perhaps because I’m too curious about characters’ back stories and their futures, so I keep writing and the piece grows.


“Bread and Salt” started out as a short story. I was caught up with two complex people, Caroline and Anouar. I always begin writing with questions. In this case I wanted to think about the difference between glancing appearance and reality. I wanted to explore Caroline and Anouar’s identities as travelers and their distinct experiences with colonialism. And given all this, the story had to take place on three continents. It’s hard to write briefly about places I love, like Paris and parts of Tunisia. So, the more I wrote, the more questions I considered, and the longer the story became. I believe stories find their own shape. In this case, the narrative became a novella.



“Bread and Salt,” is a love story about a North American woman and a North African man that takes place over a period of almost 30 years. The novella is set in Tunisia, Paris, and Boston. What were the challenges of taking your characters through such an expansive time period and geography in only 42 pages?

 

I don’t set stories in places I don’t know. But “knowing” and “knowing enough” to fully evoke a place are two different things. The more I wrote about Tunisia (where I did a Fulbright in 2004) and Paris (a place where I’ve worked and visited since my early 20s), the more details I needed to include. Since the novella takes place over a number of years, I had to remember, imagine, research these places during different decades. The novella took about ten years to write.

 

What are a couple of your own favorite novellas, and why do you think they work well in that genre?

 

Just a couple? I’m a fan of Ordinary Love by Jane Smiley, Thea Astley’s Vanishing Points, Randall Kenan’s Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days, and Cris Mazza’s Therapeutic. I imagine that each of these authors took a winding route similar to my own, one that posed more questions, demanded more answers and wound up taking them to the length of a novella.

 

One thing I love about the novella, and literature in general, is that it is a portable and, in some senses, more intimate medium than film or opera or theatre. We carry books with us into our most private rooms, dressed—or undressed—as we like.

I encourage my students to play with the novella as readers and writers. It might stimulate short story writers to discover what would happen if they gave themselves more space. The novelists might find it a useful exercise in distillation or excision. We see what the novella teaches us about other forms as well as discover whether it’s a form in which we want to write for a while.

Other posts of interest:

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 Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry