Sunday, October 5, 2008

Ante Up

As George Orwell notes in his comprehensive essay on Charles Dickens, this author was a serious muckraker, a class and social critic, a fierce gadfly of The Industrial Revolution, and yet he attracted considerably more readers than he did political enemies or detractors. Orwell didn't make this comparison, I did: John Steinbeck went after many of the same targets as Dickens, digging, I believe, deeper and wider, certainly adding such subjects as race, migration, immigration,women's rights, scientific investigation, and politics into his examinations. Further, he, more so than Dickens, portrayed the middle classes. For his efforts, he was branded as overly sentimental and naive, a brand that at first blush I naively thought was the result of anti-intellectualism and academic jealousies, but have more recently come to believe is the more insidious effect of a concentrated Conservative (note capital C) effort at discrediting him because of his alleged left-leaning sympathies. This last observation is a distraction from my intent in raising the issue; it will be dealt with later as I begin to pursue the evidence of a smear against Steinbeck for the unwanted vision of behavior he excavated in his major works.

The intended thrust is that Dickens and Steinbeck produced individual and aggregated identifiable works because of the characters they chose, how they allowed their characters to behave, and the results they achieved in helping others to see life as they did. Although each wrote in different times and of differing places, each had a particular filter over his work. Similarly, Mrs. Woolf wrote of a particular class of the social structure, some few years ahead of her more or less American counterpart, Mrs. Wharton. And to add a kind of thematic balance, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, and William Faulkner established in their respective works a kind of regional calculus that reminded us how the very specifics of a place and the individuals within that regional specificity caused them to be transsubstantiated into universal truths.

All prologue to the question for the individual, what do you bring to the table? What's your ante to get into the game of being a writer? Do you prefer fictional locales that are, on their face unreal? Do you do so from fear that greater specifics will bring you trouble? Do you write novels set in the distant future so that individuals who read them will not be likely to recognize themselves and thus spare yourself the embarrassment of having them confront you? Was that me in your novel, I who bore you and endured you while you were learning how to tell these very stories that dare show me as who I am? Why, pray tell did you in your last novel or in an earlier short story name a junior high school after me?

Sometimes, if we read carefully, we can see authors at play, using friends names in one way or another. I have been a suspect, a protagonist, a corpse, a Marine Corps recruiting officer, and a Bronx detective in the works of friends and a number of less respectable personae in the works of shall we say less than friends. My dear friend Barnaby Conrad has found his way into a number of my stories as Conrad Burnaby, thought to be a purveyor of replica watches and automotive chop shops. Digby Wolfe appears often as himself, a bemused Englishman who at an early moment in is career had to go on stage to warm up the audience before the Beatles. Brian Fagan, a world-class archaeologist, appears as Major Fagan of the Salvation Army. When called upon to read a short story in Steve Cook's modern lit class, I chose a story in which he appeared in a mandatory group therapy session as the result of a bureaucratic mishap, and in more than one story, Duane Unkefer is referenced as living unhasseled by the police in his 1968 Pacer, thanks to his weekly classes for wannabe writer cops. So we know what I bring to my work, which is mischief at the very least, if not a kind of noirish romanticism.

These visions you have need not be humorous or dire or dreary or overly optimistic; they needn't be parody or satire or dark horror, but they must reflect or refract some semblance of your vision, all the while projecting a world, a universe, a solar system palpably real and plausible. It is said of some times, times such as the present in fact, that they trump in their quotidian display any attempt to parody them. It is said of some times that the unthinkable not only came to pass, it set up branch offices and is seeking an employable staff. Nevertheless we must look beyond the very incidents we create to see how, by exaggeration, we can evolve our drama into satire, mindful in an absurdity of its own that such drama will eventually come to pass.

Outrage and absurdity are every bit as Darwinian as the so-called deadly sins.

It remains for us to pick a target which we will weave into our work. But weave we must if we are to keep up with the unyielding tenacity of our human condition and render it in drama for all to see.


Anonymous said...

I've heard the observation (accusation?) that writers who use fantasy, magical realism, and the like do so to avoid reality, to make certain issues easier to discuss, and so on. Does that have to be the case? Is the "real" setting more honest or more powerful?

lowenkopf said...

I equate such accusations with a combination of snobbery and jealousy, the accuser patronizing the medium because he cannot perform it and/or thinks it beneath dignity.

For me the real setting is always the honesty and depth of emotions expressed and evoked.

Kate Lord Brown said...

'Why, pray tell did you in your last novel or in an earlier short story name a junior high school after me?'

What a magnificent idea ... a whole range of possibilities have opened up! Place, architecture to me is as important in terms of character as the people - every setting is rooted in a factual place that evoked a strong emotion, good or bad.