Thursday, January 26, 2017

Do People Even Drink Amontillado These Days?

When you pick up a book, you are engaging in a transaction with at least one other person, who might no longer be alive. You pick up the book with the expectation of being a part of that transaction. 

If the book is nonfiction, you'll come away with information and opinions for use in your own conversations and intellectual survival. If the book is a work of fiction, you expect to be shanghaied to geographical and emotional planes you'd not expected to visit, caused to root for some kind of tangible achievement for one or more individuals you know up front to be imaginary. You'll have every chance of seeing your way into, around, or through some existential and emotional maze.

When you undertake to write a book, you're offering the kinds of outcomes you expect when your own intent is to read.

In each case, as reader or writer, you're vulnerable to such variables as boredom, insufficient information, too much information, disturbing conclusions and, worse, disturbing illustrations.
Even though you often read for comfort and write to achieve yet another kind of comfort, you run the risk of being transported to a place and degree well beyond comfort.

As a younger person, the more you read, the more your appreciation grew for the men and women who seemed to have an inexhaustible appetite for exploration, extrapolation, and the adventure of examination. You also became aware of the multitudes of failed attempts at the barest forms of connection and communication.

One afternoon, when you had a favored author in your editorial office at 1640 So. La Cienega Blvd. in Los Angeles, you heard him deliver a story about an event that befell him at an open house given by a literary agent who, at one time, had been your own literary agent. A bellicose and belligerent individual had, so your about-to-be author revealed to you, confronted him. "See here, Sturgeon," the confronter told the author, whose name was indeed Sturgeon. "Ninety percent of this science fiction you people write is pure crap."

Sturgeon confessed to you that he was possibly a bit drunk at the time, but less so than the boor who'd accosted him. "My dear sir," Sturgeon reported himself as having said, "ninety percent of everything is pure crap."

You're pleased to note that the incident has found its way into the configurations of Google as both Sturgeon's Law and Sturgeon's Revelation. This discovery forces you to conclude that Theodore Sturgeon made the observation numerous times, the moment in your office being only one recitation. You are led to conclude that Sturgeon dined out on that trope, perhaps already aware this was yet another reason why his observations about the human condition why he would be remembered.

Sturgeon's Law or, if you will, Revelation, also led you to the direct understanding that the concept of an individual dining out on some observation or other was the subtextual root of Edgar Allen Poe's famed short story, "A Cask of Amontillado." 

In your view, this story ends well beyond the eerie, plangent conclusion of Montressor, the narrator/protagonist, telling us his tormentor's bones have remained undisturbed for years, and wishing for Fortunato to rest in peace. This ending suggests to you the notion of the narrator dining out and gaining some sort of fame by reminding newer audiences of his own cunning.

Roiling about in your mind is the potential for a remake of Poe's story with the new opening scene of a hostess arranging the guest list for a sit-down dinner party. Her husband looks at the guest list, hopeful Montressor is not invited. The wife says she has no other choice than to invite him. Family obligation. The husband replies with the fervent hope someone will have the good sense of stopping him before he can relate that awful, self-serving narrative.

Reading and writing are among the more significant things we of homo sapiens do four ourselves and for the genus and species. These activities become in actual and metaphorical forms the prisms through which reality passes to become, at the peak, art, at the nadir, boredom.

You've had occasion to teach a course for graduate, undergraduate, and curious adult audiences in which the goal is to show "How to Read Like a Writer." Since you've been preoccupied these past days with books that hold for you even greater promise than collections of stories or novels or essay. Time now to nod toward Francine Prose's excellent and compelling How to Read Like a Writer,  in which she provides her syllabus for doing that most worthwhile thing.

This excellent book makes you want to eavesdrop and spy on Prose's considerable analytical and storytelling ways, then to read more books and write more. 

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