Don’t Just Pick Yourself, Pick Your Tradition

Don’t Just Pick Yourself, Pick Your Tradition

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What follows are the notes of a talk I gave recently to a group of writers at Water Street Studio in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The talk was entitled, “2015–The Year of the Artists-as-Entrepreneur,” but on reflection I might better call it, with apologies to Seth Godin, “Don’t Just Pick Yourself, Pick Your Tradition.” I’m going to be developing these themes further in some forthcoming non-fiction writing…

Question: Does the digital revolution spell the death of the artist, or does it rather create the most favorable environment artists have ever known? Answer: It all depends on how you understand your art and its relationship to the market…

A 2-Minute History of the Artist as Businessperson

William Deresiewicz, “The Death of the Artist–and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur,” Atlantic Monthly, December 28, 2014

  • ancient, medieval, and Renaissance period: artisan, craftsman, apprentice to a master, supported by patrons
  • Romantic period: solitary genius, “Art” as a quasi-religious concept, secularism on the rise
  • post-WWII: credentialed professional: the artist as academic

The Rise of the Creative Entrepreneur

  • The digital revolution makes possible a whole new economic model for the artist. I’m going to talk about how this revolution impacts the writer of fiction, as that’s the art I know best. 
  • In our connection economy there is no longer any need to ask permission of gatekeepers (agents, publishers, editors of literary magazines, etc.) to pursue your art and to try and make a living at it. “Don’t wait to get picked, pick yourself” (Seth Godin)
  • Creation, distribution, sales, & marketing–all right there from your laptop
  • Somewhere in the middle of 2014, indie published authors as a cohort began taking in the lion’s share of author earnings on Amazon, while authors published by the Big Five  (Penguin, Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Hachette, Simon & Schuster) fell into second place. (Source: most recent Author Earnings Report
  • In 2015, creative entrepreneurship coming into its own
  • Who can help you get started in indie publishing? Joanna Penn and Hugh Howey, David Gaughran, Steve Scott 

What I Did in the Summer of 2011

  • Let me Tell you the story of how I picked myself in the summer of 2011. 
  • Like many writers, I had for years been trying to get myself picked
  • Daniel McInerny Productions, LLC (danielmcinerny.com)
  • Trojan Tub Entertainment (kingdomofpatria.com)
  • Learning how to build a platform: blogs, free content marketing, email lists, networking through social media, partnering with others
  • Why I prefer “indie publishing” to “self publishing”: real indie publishing involves a community

Pitfalls On the Road of Creative Entrepreneurship

  • In this age of creative entrepreneurship, the line between art and business is more obscured than ever. Deresiewicz raises several concerns about art’s new mode of creative entrepreneurship:
  • A network is not the same thing as a circle or coterie–does not involve the same level of intellectual ferment and friendship
  • The displacement of depth by breadth; art now seems to demand diversification, as in any business
  • More than ever before, works of art are becoming commodities; now it’s not an audience but a customer base
  • Is the new environment producing a safer, more formulaic art? 
  • The nature of aesthetic judgment becoming reconfigured. Who judges the art? There is an absence of a critical culture to form us in our opinions of what is good art and what is bad art
  • The democratization of taste coincides with the democratization of creativity

Don’t Just Pick Yourself, Pick Your Tradition

  • How to avoid the pitfalls on the road of creative entrepreneurship? I think the way forward involves us remembering: Don’t just pick yourself, pick your tradition
  • Austin Kleon, Steal Like An Artist, the importance of writing the book you want to read and gathering the branches of your “tree,” i.e. seeing yourself as part of a creative lineage; our art is a mashup of our influences
  • T.S. Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists.” 
  • In picking your tradition you enter a community of both the living and the dead (not just your Twitter followers or your favorite freelancers)
  • A community which pursues the goods common to it (e.g. fiction) according to standards of excellence internal to it; in such a community writing (art) becomes a practice, not a commodity. (I borrow the concept of “practice” here from the work of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre)
  • The economic business of the artist remains external to the practice; i.e. the practice can flourish without (much) economic benefit. Which means there’s no guarantee of success
  • Standards of excellence remain internal to the practice–so there is a basis for criticism beyond the market.
  • In a way, this brings us back to the notion of art as craft, yet the entrepreneurial mode in the digital environment is something new.

Envoi: Go forth and wed the practices of your art with the savviest use you choose to make of the digital space (or any public platform, for that matter). But never sacrifice the common goods of the practice to the market.   

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Your comments, as always, most welcome.

Learning from Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”

Learning from Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”

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Our work–our life–is the mash-up of our influences.

One of the chief influences upon my comic novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare, was Evelyn Waugh’s first and brilliantly funny comic novel, Decline and Fall.

I don’t know if Decline and Fall is much read today, but it is hard for me to think of a novel that makes me laugh as much as this one. Of the book’s many virtues, the leanness of its prose and its quick, cinematic cuts between scenes are well worthy of emulation.

One of my favorite chapters is the one entitled “Vocation,” in which Paul Pennyfeather, sent down from Oxford for “indecent behavior” (he was innocently “debagged” by a group of drunken students on a rampage) transitions into a job as a schoolteacher. The chapter consists of three crisp unforgettable scenes.

The first features Paul and his guardian, who “cheerfully” informs Paul that he has no legal right to any of his money. The second features Paul and Mr. Levy, “of Church and Gargoyle, scholastic agents,” where Paul applies for a position. And the third features Paul’s interview with Dr. Fagan, the principal at Llannaba, a decrepit school in Wales. As Mr. Levy says about Llannaba:

“Between ourselves, Llannaba hasn’t a good name in the profession. We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,” said Mr. Levy, “school is pretty bad. I think you’ll find it a very suitable post.”

(If you enjoy audiobooks, actor Michael Maloney does a wonderful job in this audiobook version of capturing Paul’s exquisite pusillanimity.)

In writing Chapter 2 of High Concepts, I had this chapter of Decline and Fall very much in mind as I imagined my protagonist Donald Wirt’s transition from adjunct professor of philosophy (a position he has lost after innocently being numbered among a group of drunken revelers at an academic conference) to a position as private tutor to Miles Taylor-Reese, a sixteen year-old high school junior more interested in pitching Hollywood production companies with his slasher horror ideas than with studying for the SAT.

With no pretensions to measuring up to Waugh’s standards, here are the scenes where Donald visits with Miles’s parents, and then where Donald meets Miles for the first time. I’d love to hear what you think of them…

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Donald met with the couple the very next evening in front of a roaring fire in a spacious living room with a vaulted ceiling. Donald had never been inside a house so large and pleasantly appointed. Lionel poured them all a glass of red wine and Sabrina set out a plate of Brie and crackers.

“We don’t know what to do about Miles,” exhaled Lionel. “His I.Q. is through the roof. There’s no doubt he has the talent to get into Prestigious East Coast First-Tier Research University—”

The mere mention of this institution acted upon Donald like a jab from a Taser. Four times he had applied there—to the undergraduate program, the graduate program, the postdoctoral program, and for a tenure-track position in the philosophy department—and four times he had been rejected. Not even to mention losing the position at Fomes to a woman hailing from Prestigious East Coast First-Tier Research University. How different his life might have been, Donald often wondered, if just one of his applications to that glorious institution had been accepted!

“—but we just can’t seem to motivate him. In the past quarter his grade-point average has slipped to 2.643. We don’t think it’s healthy to fixate on the numbers, but frankly, Professor, Sabrina and I are worried. His class rank has fallen to 136.”

“He also doesn’t have any friends or interest in extracurricular activities,” Sabrina added. “He spends all his time in his room, doing what God only knows.”

“Hell,” Lionel remarked, “when I was his age, I was going to SAT prep, doing beer bongs, and hanging out with my girlfriend.”

“Don’t get us wrong,” Sabrina said, “he’s really a nice kid. And so talented.”

Very talented” Lionel agreed. “And totally likable. But he just won’t get serious about his future.”

Lionel sat up on the edge of his leather chair and regarded Donald sincerely.

“Do you think you can help us, Professor? I think if he had one-on-one attention from someone of your intellectual caliber, he’d really blossom.”

“Well—” Donald blushed. “It sounds perhaps like Miles is bored with school. Perhaps his teachers aren’t challenging him.”

Lionel nodded his head like a trained horse.

“I think you’re right, Professor. I think you’re exactly right. I think in his gut he knows he’s smarter than they are. But with someone like you around, he’d know he’d met his match.”

“I’m here to serve,” Donald smiled. “It sounds as though Miles needs to awaken his critical mind. Then he’ll be able to regard his normal school subjects in a deeper, more intellectually satisfying way.”

“I love it!” Lionel said as he got up to refill their glasses.

“I think Miles will really get into sociology,” Sabrina beamed.

“Philosophy,” Donald corrected her.

“Of course. Forgive me.”

“Where will you start with him?” Lionel asked as he poured.

“First,” Donald replied, “I will help Miles realize that he doesn’t really know anything. That is philosophy’s first task.”

Sabrina gasped appreciatively. “That’s exactly what his Algebra II Trig teacher keeps telling us. Miles doesn’t know anything.”

“Second,” Donald continued, “I will show him that all one can really know for certain is a handful of highly specialized conclusions from the empirical sciences.”

“Of course,” nodded Lionel. “His college apps will go right in the trash if he doesn’t ace Physics.”

Donald, Lionel and Sabrina agreed on a sizeable hourly rate for Donald’s services. Then Sabrina suggested that Donald say hello to Miles. They pointed Donald down to the basement where Miles’s bedroom was located.

*          *          *

Donald knocked on Miles’s bedroom door, and a few moments later a voice barked, “Come!”

Donald entered not just a bedroom, but an entire suite of rooms. The first thing that caught his attention was an enormous flat-screen, high-definition television mounted on the wall opposite the door. The television, on mute, was showing The Daily Voyeur’s exclusive interview with a fetching starlet.

Pacing about the room was a pimply youth of sixteen. He had well-groomed, strawberry-blonde hair, and wore a navy blue bathrobe with matching slippers. He motioned to Donald with a finger as he continued to talk on the phone through a wireless headset.

“He’s still away from his desk? Well, could you please tell him that Arnold Martin called? Arnie. He’ll remember. It’s about the Miles Taylor-Reese script. Miles Taylor-Reese. He’ll know the script. Oh, by the way, your name is…? Azure? Really? That was my mother’s name. Listen, Azure, I bet you’re more than just a receptionist. Bet you have a couple of scripts buried in your pencil drawer, right? Of course right. Look, I’m always on the lookout for hot new clients, so if you want to pitch me some—Hello? Azure? Who are you, old sport?”

Donald did not at first realize that he was being addressed.

“Oh. I’m Dr. Donald P. Wirt, PhD. Your parents just hired me as your new tutor.”

Miles seemed distracted by a sound coming through his headset. He tapped a key on the computer on his desk.

“Hello? Yes, this is Miles Taylor-Reese.”

Again he held up his finger to Donald.

“I understand, Ms. Hennessey, that you’re not taking on new writers right now. But I just ask you to imagine two high school students meeting in the romantic deserts of Saudi Arabia. He’s the son of a Western imperialist oil family, she’s the daughter of Islamic fundamentalists. They meet when the boy comes to Riyadh on spring break to visit his parents. He comes in disguise to a party thrown by the girl’s family. They fall in love. But their families fight to keep them apart. It’s Romeo and Juliet for the post-9/11 world….Ms. Hennessey? Hello? Damn. So, you’re my Aristotle, eh?”

Again it took Donald a moment to realize that he was being addressed.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Aristotle, tutor to Alexander the Great. I’m afraid, old sport, that I’ll be no more docile than Alexander was. I, too, have an empire to create.”

“I understand your grades have slipped—”

“Collateral damage, old sport. My nights are spent slaying dragons on the telephone. We’re on a two-hour differential from L.A., you see, and most agents and prodco execs are only getting warmed up around six our time, so from eight to midnight I’m pitching my face off. Afterwards, I’m, like, totally drained, so it’s all I can do to catch a little late night TV before I totally crash. In consequence, I can only get to my Algebra homework during school hours. But then again, I usually spend study hall doing rewrites, so I’m not too surprised that I’m not being mentioned for the Nobel Prize in mathematics.”

“I don’t have the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” Donald said.

“Diary of a film mogul, old sport. I’m an auteur in the making. Writer-director and, depending on who I’m chatting up, agent, manager, or New York publisher.”

“You make movies?” Donald asked, still confused.

“I will make movies, old sport. Here’s the posish. You have to be in possession of a high school diploma in order to enter film school. That’s a year and a half away for me—a lifetime. So I’m making the most of the delay by trying to sell a script to Hollywood. I may not even need film school. I may just sell a couple scripts, negotiate to direct a few bad sequels, go on to my first blockbuster, and after that it’s final cut for Miles Taylor-Reese.”

“I thought you were supposed to go to a regular four-year college or university?”

“Negative, old sport. That’s a parental paradigm. Sabrina will get over it when I take her down to Rodeo Drive to go dress shopping for the Oscars.”

“I don’t know what to say,” Donald said. “Your parents are paying me—and quite handsomely, I might add—to tutor you in critical thinking.”

“Not to worry, old sport. You can quiz me between calls. But you’re going to have to be fast, because my call sheet is pretty bountiful every night.”

Another call came in. Miles urged Donald to help himself to a coffee.

There was an espresso machine on top of Miles’s dresser, next to a fully stocked coffee bar. As Donald made himself a decaf espresso, Miles put his call on speaker.

“Yes, this is Miles Taylor-Reese. Hey, thanks for returning my call. I have a project that’s perfect for you. Let your imagination run with the following: Macbeth meets Goodbye, Mr. Chips. A notorious Gym teacher eager to position himself to be the high school’s new principal teams up with his ruthless girlfriend, the Advanced Spanish teacher, to plot the grisly murder of his rival for the position, the popular director of Driver’s Ed, Mr. Flatch. But one murder leads to another, and eventually they find themselves caught in a web of deceit, revenge and mayhem that ends with their explosive double suicide during the halftime festivities at the school’s homecoming football game.”

“What do you call it?” inquired the voice on the other end.

Out, Out, Brief Candle!

“Pretty good title. Lots of blood?”

“Buckets.”

“Have your agent send it to me,” said the voice.

“I’d love to,” Miles said. “But the thing is, I’m thinking of leaving my current agent. I’ll be happy, however, to have my lawyer send it over.”

Donald looked at Miles.

“Who’s your agent?” asked the executive.

Without missing a beat Miles replied:

“I’d rather not divulge his identity. I’m pretty ticked at him right now, but I’m not interested in making his name dirt around the industry.”

There was a long silence. Miles stopped pacing. Donald could not take his eyes off of Miles’s impassive expression.

Finally, the executive blinked.

“Okay. Send me the script.”

“Bang-o!” Miles exclaimed after the executive punched off. He moved to a large dry erase board hung on the wall and wrote “Slasher Films” under an underlined rubric, “PRODCOS: OUT, OUT, BRIEF CANDLE!

“You seem to derive a fair amount of inspiration from Shakespeare,” Donald noted.

“They told me in English class that he stole all his plots. What’s good enough for the Bard is good enough for the Miles.”

Donald hesitated before asking his next question.

“Would you want to do some work now?”

“Nugatory, old sport. I just got a request for Out, Out, Brief Candle!

“Can’t you just put it in the mail tomorrow?”

“I have to write it first! I don’t write them until someone shows an interest. Saves me a lot of time.”

“How long will it take you to write it?”

Miles considered.

“I should have ninety pages done in seventy-two hours, as long as the espresso is flowing. I work best on a deadline.”

High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare is available at Amazon for just $2.99.

Join Me for Conversation on the Craft of Storytelling

Join Me for Conversation on the Craft of Storytelling

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Sing, O Muse!

Imagine this. A fresh cup of hot coffee or your favorite tea (I’m an Irish Breakfast man in the morning, Earl Grey in the afternoon), and you and I sitting for a comfortable spell having a good auld natter about things literary. No big agenda. Just the pleasure of talk about our favorite books and writers, the practical aspects of writing fiction (or drama or screenplays), and matters of technique and, even more, artistry.

As we talk, I’m likely refer to topics such as Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on the craft of story writing, or the modernist technique of free indirect speech, or Muriel Spark’s art of the “flashforward.” And I’ll be sure to mention the work of other writers I admire, such as that of Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse, Jane Austen and Walker Percy.

And I’m sure you’ll want to make a few contributions as well.

Now doesn’t that sound like a enjoyable way to sharpen your sense of, the craft of storytelling?

I think it does, too. Unfortunately, although I’d be glad to pay for the tea, I cannot circumnavigate the globe on a regular basis in order to enjoy such discussions with you. But I can offer this

The Comic Muse Email Newsletter: a bi-weekly missive delivered to your Inbox absolutely free of charge and featuring a brief (7 minutes) podcast in which I offer a literary topic for our mutual delight and discussion. All you have to do is pour yourself a cup of your preferred beverage, kick back, and enjoy!

All podcasts are exclusive to subscribers.

The Comic Muse Email Newsletter also offers links to compelling content from the world of literature, film, TV, and drama.

But how is this is a conversation?

It’s not, not until you chip in with your thoughts. That’s the whole point: for us to engage with one another. All you have to do is email me back and let the conversation begin. Or use the com boxes here at danielmcinerny.com, or launch a 140-character literary salvo directly at my Twitter account (@danielmcinerny). And who knows? Perhaps you’ll suggest a topic or question that I can put back out by email to the rest of The Comic Muse community, or package into a blog post for the reflection of the rest of the galaxy?

Why is it called The Comic Muse Email Newsletter?

Wonderful question. I call it so because the literary tradition I find most intellectually compelling and perennially delightful is one which sees the entire craft of storytelling as pointing to, as a kind of culmination, comic resolution.

Not necessarily “comedy” in the sense of knee-slapping, belly-aching guffaws (though I mean that, too). I mean “comedy” in the grand sense of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Shakespeare’s As You Like It, of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood.

This is not to say that I don’t like tragedy or serious, even gravely dramatic stories. Not at all. It’s simply that I believe, even in this vale of tears, that comedy rather than tragedy always has the final word.

It’s also a matter of my literary temperament. I’m one of those writers who believes that the most serious matters are often most effectively treated in a comic mode.

Disagree? Well then, let’s talk about it!

Ready to let the revels begin? 

Sign up right here:

Sing, O Muse!

Subscribe to The Comic Muse Email Newsletter today and receive a digital copy of my short story, a post-apocalyptic dystopian romance entitled, “The Bureau of Myths.” Compliments of the chef! 

Thanks so much for your consideration. I can’t wait for our conversation to begin.

The Rhetoric of Fiction

The Rhetoric of Fiction

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To what extent can fiction–meaning that to include all forms of storytelling–purge itself of all rhetoric?

By rhetoric I mean techniques and devices by which the author attempts to persuade us to think and feel about the story in a particular way. The question is, is it possible for an author to eschew all rhetoric and simply and purely lay his subject before his audience and allow the very nature of that subject to wield its effect?

Wayne Booth, in The Rhetoric of Fiction, thinks not. He asks us to consider the following murders:

“Macbeth murders Duncan, and we pity Macbeth rather than Duncan; Markheim murders the pawnbroker, and we hope for Markheim’s salvation; Monsieur Verdoux murders a series of wealthy women, and we side with him against a rotten civilization; the would-be heir in Kind Hearts and Coronets murders a half-dozen or so of his relatives and we simply laugh; Zuleika Dobson “murders” the whole of the undergraduate body at Oxford and we laugh, quite complicatedly; Ch’en, in Man’s Fate, murders a stranger in cold blood and we are terrified–for Ch’en. There is no need to list the many murders in which the more “natural” responses of hatred toward the murderer and pity for the victim are made to predominate” (p. 113, notes 26).

Booth wants us to see that even so universally condemned an action as murder cannot be depended upon to manifest its natural evil without the help of rhetoric–and that rhetoric can also be deployed in such a way so as to make us (at least momentarily) blind to the evil of the murder and in some sense “root” for the murderer. As I’m sure many people do when they watch the Godfather films.

But if Booth is right, then how is it possible for us to distinguish when a story is telling us the truth about its subject and when it is simply masking its subject with rhetoric?

What do you think?

 

* The image above, reproduced courtesy of Eippol at Wikimedia Commons, is of the original screenplay of The Godfather II in the National Museum of the Cinema in Turin, Italy.

 

Brief and Sundry Thoughts on John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary”

Brief and Sundry Thoughts on John Michael McDonagh’s “Calvary”

pzZvVdwHTuvOrvdcVj-WteA9dhpevhMcX-4h3xyf9Es (Note: I won’t sum up the plot. For that, and more, see Steven Greydanus’s and Lauren Ely‘s excellent reviews of the film.)

I saw Calvary in the same week that I saw When The Game Stands Tall. Which manifested the stark and depressing contrast between the genre of well-meaning, cloyingly inspirational faith-based movies and those rare films, often made by non-believers, that searchingly and artfully wrestle with the Cross at the center of the Christian mystery.

But Calvary is a very hard film to watch. It is not for all sensibilities and is certainly not for family viewing.

To paraphrase Walker Percy, before life can be affirmed in a work of art, death-in-life must first be named. Calvary vividly and relentlessly puts on display the grotesque death-in-life of the ordinary “wellness” of contemporary man.

Flannery O’Connor: “I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.” One might say the same about McDonagh’s subject in Calvary. In one scene in the confessional Father James wonders aloud to his penitent that perhaps the medieval belief in demons and demon possession was “closer to the mark” than modern psychological theories of evil. What Calvary shows us is pandaemonium, a parade of demons taunting the representative of Christ.

Brendan Gleeson is superb as Father James. And the character of Father James is one of the finest cinematic portrayals of a priest I can recall. Not that Father James is perfect, or that all of his counsel is sound (did I misunderstand the scene in which he advises the young man struggling with purity to go to a bigger city where there’s more women with loose morals? Was this an ironic joke?). But all in all he is virtuous and wise, and it is painful to watch his struggle faithfully to minister to those who can only taunt and abuse him. Calvary is a fine example of how virtue can be depicted without being saccharine.

There were some false notes. After a gripping opening I thought the second act sagged a bit, with too many stagey, talky scenes serving only for symbolic effect. I don’t think it did much for the narrative for Father James’s bishop to be so effete, but I suppose McDonagh wanted to contrast Father James’ integrity with the complacency of the institutional Church.

I don’t find the denoument ambiguous. I believe what McDonagh is trying to say in Calvary is that Father James is both the martyr-victim of those who seek to wound the Church in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal, and the very thing such people need the most. I thought the post-climax scenes of the townspeople going about their customary business was meant to show how lost they were without the grace that Father James attempted to bring them. The final scene in the prison between Fiona and Jack confirms the enduring gift of Father James’ final sacrifice.

In the end, Calvary argues that forgiveness is the only way past the pain of betrayal.

 

The image above is reproduced courtesy of Reprisal Films.

The Flashforward in Muriel Spark’s “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie”

The flashback we’re familiar with. But the flashforward? Consider the following passages from Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie:

“You did well,” said Miss Brodie to the class, when Miss Mackay had gone, “not to answer the question put to you. It is well, when in difficulties, to say never a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver but silence is golden. Mary are you listening? What was I saying?”

Mary Macgregor, lumpy, with merely two eyes, a nose and mouth like a snowman, who was later famous for being stupid and always to blame and who, at the age of twenty-three, lost her life in a hotel fire, ventured, “Golden.”

….

Eunice Gardner did somersaults on the mat only at Saturday gatherings before high teas, or afterwards on Miss Brodie’s kitchen linoleum, while the other girls were washing up and licking honey from the depleted comb off their fingers as they passed it over to be put away in the food cupboard. It was twenty-eight years after Eunice did the splits in Miss Brodie’s flat that she, who had become a nurse and married a doctor, said to her husband one evening:

“Next year when we go for the Festival–”

“Yes?”

She was making a wool rug, pulling at a different stitch. “Yes?” he said.

“When we go to Edinburgh,” she said, “remind me while we’re there to go and visit Miss Brodie’s grave.”

In these and other passages in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Spark pushes the flashforward button and shows us the various futures of Miss Brodie’s young charges. Mary Macgregor will die very young in a hotel fire; Eunice Gardner will one day be a married woman longing to visit Miss Brodie’s grave. The formal rhetorical name of this technique, as David Lodge tells us in his analysis of Spark’s novel in The Art of Fiction, is “prolepsis.” Probably the most famous literary application of it is the prophecy foretelling Oedipus’s doom in Oedipus Tyrannus.

What is the rhetorical purpose of the prolepsis or flashforward? It is a concertedly non-naturalist technique, in that it shakes the reader out of the narrative dream and makes him aware that he is reading a story and that there is a narrator who, prophet- or godlike, knows how things will come out. In The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the technique fits well with Miss Brodie’s own pretensions. “‘She thinks she is Providence,’ thought Sandy, she thinks she is the God of Calvin, she sees the beginning and the end.” (Sandy is the pupil who ends up “betraying” Miss Brodie–not a spoiler, since this is revealed in another flashforward). Lodge notes that “Of course novelists also see the beginning and end of their stories, but there is a difference, Muriel Spark implies, between useful fictions and dangerous delusions–also, perhaps, between the Catholic God who allows for free will and the Calvinistic one who doesn’t.” Sandy, Lodge continues, “falsifies Miss Brodie’s prediction [that another student, Rose, will become the mistress of the art teacher, Mr. Lloyd], and thus challenges her claim to control the destinies of others.”

In his reflection on Spark’s novel, James Wood sees the technique of the flashforward as Spark’s way of questioning authorial control and limit. “If the novelist acts like Miss Brodie, what does it mean to be a novelist? The novelist adopts God-like powers of omniscience, but what can she really know of her creations? Surely only God, the ultimate author of our lives, can know our coming and our going?”

Perhaps Lodge’s reply to Woods’ questioning would be that Spark’s use of the flashforward device shows a narrator in prophetic service to the Catholic God’s understanding of free will. Spark’s omniscient narrator, in other words, undermines the pseudo-omniscience of Miss Brodie by revealing the real, supernatural interplay of Providence and freedom in the lives of “the Brodie set” (pointedly, Sandy becomes a nun). Far from being an attempt to adopt God-like powers of omniscience, in Spark’s hands the flashforward seems to reveal the novelist’s desire to speak for the omniscience of God.

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction: An Unnecessary Culture-Clash

Genre Fiction vs. Literary Fiction: An Unnecessary Culture-Clash

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In this interview Ian McEwan did for the London Telegraph back in May 2013, an interview focusing on McEwan’s espionage novel, Sweet Tooth, I was struck by the following, rather refreshing remarks McEwan made about the relationship between genre fiction and literary fiction:

“McEwan says he is not bothered that Sweet Tooth might be categorised as genre fiction. For him, such distinctions are irrelevant. It is, after all, his second venture into espionage. The Innocent, published in 1990, was set in West Berlin at the beginning of the Cold War, and did no harm to his reputation as a literary novelist.

“In the end these things just dissolve,” he says. “The only question is how good a novel is, not whether it has spies or detectives or nurses marrying doctors. Take Conrad–we wouldn’t say of him that he’s merely a writer of seafaring yarns. What matters is whether a novelist can devise a particular and plausible world that holds us, and make a moral universe that has such a resonance that we can go back years later and find it still works. Then genre is transcended. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds up because it’s a brilliant novel.”

This is exactly right. When you think of the greatest writers, you find the supposed culture-clash between genre and literary writing “just dissolve.” The Iliad–the defining work of epic poetry or ripping good war story? Macbeth–highbrow tragedy or taut psychological thriller? These kinds of dichotomies are irrelevant. What matters, as McEwan says, is whether a novelist can hold us in a moral universe that has resonance.

Also in the interview McEwan refers to his liking for “narrative pace.” That’s a liking I wish were shared by more of our literary novelists.

 

The image of Ian McEwan above is reproduced courtesy of Thesupermat at Wikimedia Commons.

Am I Charlie?

Am I Charlie?

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Is there a place for satire within a society and, if so, what (if any) are its limits?

The recent terrorist attack in Paris on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly magazine, have forced these questions upon everyone, including Muslim cartoonists. I find myself thinking about them both as a citizen of the U.S. and as the author of a satirical novel, High Concepts: A Hollywood Nightmare.

Inspired by the early satires of Evelyn Waugh, in particular Decline and Fall, High Concepts is a comedy about an out-of-work philosophy professor’s misadventures posing as a Hollywood screenwriter. To deploy the verb typically applied to satiric works, the novel “skewers”

  • the way in which modern academia exploits adjunct labor
  • reality TV
  • the intellectual pretensions of the Hollywood elite
  • the intellectual pretensions of the academic elite
  • post-modern architecture
  • slasher film culture
  • pit bull rings

And more!

So I ask myself: is my satire any different from that of the creators of Charlie Hebdo?

In one obvious sense, yes. My novel does not lampoon real people. It is not even a roman à clef. It takes issue with certain social “types” and cultural phenomena, but no real filmmaker, academic, or academic institution appears in its pages.

Not that I necessarily have a problem with sending up real personages or institutions. The target of comedy is pretension, and it is salutary for any society that its leaders and elites be, now and again, brought back down to earth.

Charlie Hebdo targets real people and in a particularly nasty way. A free society should no doubt tolerate this kind of ruckus from the kid’s table (I borrow this metaphor from David Brooks’s recent excellent op-ed), while also looking for more edifying forms of social criticism.

Satire is a deeply moral genre. Satire casts judgment on a social scene from the point of view of a clear standard. In one sense I am Charlie in that I defend free speech; indeed, because I find Charlie Hebdo repulsive, I am something of a test case of tolerance for it. But in another and more important sense I am not Charlie because I criticize society on behalf of a moral standard–one rooted in natural law and the Aristotelian tradition of the virtues–that Charlie Hebdo’s creators would themselves find repulsive.

Within the confines of free societies a clash of cultures continues to rage. This war is not to be waged by force but by persuasion. Literary satire is one means of trying to persuade others by exposing the pretensions of moral standards that cannot live up to their promise.

Should An Author Judge His Characters?

Should An Author Judge His Characters?

House_of_Mirth_2Should an author of fiction or drama judge his characters?

Academy Award-winning screenwriter and creator of Downton Abbey Julian Fellowes, in a reflection upon his literary debt to Edith Wharton, registered this answer to the question:

“It is quite true that Edith Wharton has been a tremendous influence on me and on my writing although actually she came quite late into my life. I think I was in my 30s when someone gave me a copy of The House of Mirth and I was instantly impressed by the extraordinarily contemporary feeling of Wharton’s writing. Her dialogue was so immediate, her understanding of emotional predicaments was so vital. She observes but she does not judge.”

To observe but not judge: this is one of the chief tenets of literary modernism, still very much exerting its influence in our own day. The modernist ideal is for the author simply to make his characters and situations vivid upon the page and let the reader be the judge  of what they do (if that is what the reader should be interested in doing–which is another question).

But how is it possible for an author to portray human beings in action without, at least implicitly, making a judgment on what the characters choose to do?

Every choice is open to be judged as either good or bad. Even the mundane act of brushing one’s teeth is good insofar as it contributes to oral health. How much more the acts of falling in love, burying a sibling, lighting out for the territory. (Of course, we disagree on how to evaluate choices. A character’s escape from an unhappy marriage is one person’s heroism, another person’s act of betrayal. But this, too, is another question.)

So is it possible for an author to portray acts of this magnitude without registering how he thinks about them through the various dramatic and rhetorical devices at his disposal?

Doubtful.

But more to the point, why would an author want to remain so neutral? Isn’t the point of telling a story that an author has something–i.e. a judgment–he wants to communicate? Isn’t the desire to remain neutral simply a mask for an author’s approval of what his character does?

To admit that writers of fiction make constant judgments in the portrayal of their characters does not mean that writers should not be, to some degree, sympathetic with their characters (even ones they find morally repulsive), or that they can be excused from working hard to depict what the character sees as valuable in a choice. For without this kind of sympathy and ability to see the world from the character’s perspective, drama atrophies.

But what must be dismissed is the idea that an author can remain neutral to his character’s choices as he maneuvers them across the stage of his fiction. Such neutrality is most probably an illusion, and in any case contrary to the storyteller’s art.

Or do you disagree?

 

The engraving above, by A.B. Wenzell, is from the original 1905 edition of The House of Mirth

The Oddness of True Detective and Other Hit TV Shows

The Oddness of True Detective and Other Hit TV Shows

 

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Imagine it’s a Sunday evening, and you and your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend are settling in to binge-watch one of the big TV shows you’ve been missing. You fire up the Netflix or Amazon Prime account and peruse your options–

A high school teacher turned crystal meth dealer (Breaking Bad)

A contemporary American politician in the vein of Richard III (House of Cards)

A mesmerizing nihilist (True Detective)

A zombie apocalypse (The Walking Dead)

Wait a minute. Anybody sense something rather odd in this line-up?

Drama has always dealt with bad guys and misfits, but this group is distinguished by the fact that the bad guys and misfits seem to be the ones we’re rooting for. We like watching Bryan Cranston’s Walter White throw his middle-class morality away. We like watching the hijinks of Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood, even though Underwood never gets the comeuppance that Richard III got. And who isn’t captivated watching Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle deconstruct, Nietzsche-style, the morality of contemporary bourgeois American life?

Even the zombies, though perhaps not the heroes of the piece, exercise a rather creepy fascination over us. We are both repulsed—and attracted.

Isn’t all this odd?

And it’s especially odd when you consider that we in the West, and especially in the U.S., live in what is purportedly the most progressive, self-aware, scientifically and technologically advanced age in history. Human reason has exposed the myths of religion and philosophy. Nature has been disenchanted. The world of politics, while always an arena of dysfunction, nonetheless promises more material good to more people than ever. One’s best life is available, if not right now, then as a result of a little risk and hard work. Even those living in the lower echelons of our economy enjoy luxuries undreamt of by the hedonists of former times.

But if this is all true, then why, in our stories, and not just on television, are we so interested in characters going off the reservation?

A. In watching TV or going to the movies all we want to do is escape for awhile. It’s fun to watch characters doing things we would never do.

B. This is not a representative sample of what’s on offer, even on TV. What about Sleepy Hollow? Downton Abbey? Call the Midwife? Foyle’s War? The characters in these dramas are more traditionally heroic, are they not?

C. The shows mentioned are written and produced by liberal Hollywood elites who delight in preening themselves as disruptors of the moral status quo. Perhaps feeling guilty for the kind of money they make, they make “edgy” entertainment to prove that they’re still anti-establishment figures.   

D. Our fascination with such shows is a symptom of a deep malaise. While it’s true that we enjoy a remarkable degree of material prosperity in our culture, at the same time we realize, if only half-consciously, that we are spiritually bereft. Something has gone deeply wrong, we just know it, although we can’t quite put our finger on it. The characters in the TV shows mentioned compel us because their decisions expose the fact that in the contemporary world we’re playing tennis, as it were, without a net.

Circle the answer that best represents your view.    

The image above is reproduced courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment under the following license.