The Emotional Power of Visual Poetry

I very much enjoyed this week screenwriter and screenwriting consultant Barbara Nicolosi’s podcast on “The Emotional Power of Visual Poetry.” Good stuff for all writers, not just screenwriters. Here’s an hors d’oeuvre:

A poetic image provides a PUZZLE for the soul of the audience. It uses material realities to depict things that are immaterial. It asks the reader or the audience to struggle with the disparity between the metaphor and the reality.

What’s one of your favorite images from a work of literature or cinema? Why do you think it works so well? What is the puzzle the image asks us to solve?

Share your thoughts with me on Twitter, @danielmcinerny, or via email, danielmcinerny@gmail.com.

Thornton Wilder on the Nature of Farce

Thornton Wilder on the Nature of Farce

On January 8, 1939 the great American playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder published a short piece in the New York Times entitled, “Noting the Nature of Farce.” As I’m currently roughing out an idea of a farce for the stage, I turned to Wilder’s essay this afternoon and found gems such as these:

“Farce would seem to be intended for childlike minds still touched with grossness; but the history of the theater shows us that the opposite is true. Farce has always flourished in ages of refinement and great cultural activity. And the reason lies where one would least expect it: farce is based on logic and objectivity.

“The author of a farce may ask his audience to concede him two or three wild improbabilities, but thereafter he must proceed with an all the more rigorous consequence. The laughter is an explosion of almost grudging concession: “Yes, granted that premise, these things would inevitably follow.”

The School for Scandal simmers along among a thousand mild improbabilities; it is a comedy; but The Importance of Being Earnest shows us what would be bound to happen if a man invented an invalid brother who needed his attendance when-ever he wished to shirk a tedious engagement, and what would happen if his friend decided to impersonate this brother.

“The pleasures of farce, like those of the detective story, are those of development, pattern, and logic.”

Source: Noting the Nature of Farce – Thornton Wilder

* The image of Thornton Wilder above reproduced courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On Stoppard and Snobbery

On Stoppard and Snobbery

Is the award-winning playwright a snob, or are audiences less intelligent than they used to be? I agree with Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout that refusing to let audiences discard the treasures of our cultural inheritance (e.g. Shakespeare) is not snobbery. Far from it. It’s the activity of preserving that which helps us be more human.

Click on the link below to read Teachout’s article and then let me know what you think.

Source: Tom Stoppard Thinks You’re Dumb – WSJ

Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking, Jeers for “Wolf Hall” but Cheers for “Foyle’s War”

Tom Stoppard’s “The Hard Problem,” Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella,” Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking, Jeers for “Wolf Hall” but Cheers for “Foyle’s War”

imgres As boulevardier of the arts, it is my pleasant duty to share with you several items that have caught my eye of late…

I haven’t seen it. I haven’t even read it. But Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, now playing at the National Theatre in London, has already sparked my interest more than any other recent work of art.

Stoppard’s play is concerned with what philosophers call the “hard problem” of human consciousness. Many today think we human beings are just “stuff” all the way down to our mitochondria. But the fact of consciousness apparently eludes materialist explanation, and suggests a foundation of morality and human dignity in something more than material.

In typical Stoppardian style The Hard Problem presents a dialectic between the materialist and non-materialist positions. Here are Stoppard himself and outgoing director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, discussing the dialectic of The Hard Problem:

I saw two pretty good movies in the past week. I really enjoyed Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. It’s being called “traditionalist” and “un-ironic” and I say hooray. I think we deserve a break from all the deconstructed fairy tales that for too long have claimed unmerited attention as films for the whole family.

Cinderella is a welcome celebration of such unfashionable qualities as humility, generosity, forgiveness, and romance grounded in virtuous character.

My wife observed that one of the film’s nicest features is the sense of self-possession exhibited by both Cinderella and the Prince, self-possession founded upon strong relationships with their fathers.

And about Cinderella’s retro style of “princessness,” my teenage daughter put it well: “Cinderella shows us that a girl doesn’t need to carry a sword in order to be a strong female character.”

In this interesting article Father Robert Barron reminds us of the Christian allegory that lies at the heart of the Cinderella story, and how Branagh’s film helps bring it to light.

Here’s Branagh himself talking about the film:

I finally got to see Eddie Redmayne’s deservedly Oscar-winning portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. This is a very captivating film with excellent performances throughout, though the disintegration of Stephen and Jane Hawking’s marriage after all those years of devotion–especially Jane’s–was a major letdown. The film wants us to see this as redeemed by the fact that they produced three beautiful children and that each eventually found happiness with another partner. But I couldn’t help seeing their break-up as an undermining of all those years of Jane’s unswerving commitment.

Jeers for the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, based upon the Booker Award-winning novels by Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, for the outrageously revisionist portrait of Sir Thomas More. (For the antidote, see Gerard Wegemer’s, Thomas More: A Portrait of Courage.)

Thankfully, there are three new episodes of Foyle’s War to watch, which my family and I are enjoying via the Acorn TV app projected onto the big screen with our Apple TV. Certainly one of the better uses of modern technology. If you’re a fan of Michael Kitchen and Foyle’s War, then you’re going to enjoy this…

Scott Timberg’s new book, Culture Crash, reviewed by Ben Yagoda in this week’s New York Times, raises some interesting questions about the state of the arts in our polity. Timberg sees decline and fall, while Yagoda sees this worst of times as also being, quite possibly, the best of times. Does indie art exploiting the uses of the Internet make up for the decay of more traditional arts associations? One compelling question, among many, raised by Timberg’s book and Yagoda’s review is whether virtual interactions are as creatively productive as in-person ones. Would love to get your take on that. 

What books are on my nightstand? Currently I’m reading, and enjoying, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. Haven’t read any Wharton before this. Meanwhile I’m flipping through, like magazines, Kenneth Slawenski’s biography of J.D. Salinger and Penelope Niven’s life of Thornton Wilder.

Meanwhile, I continue to beaver away on my next novel, a darkly comic escapade I’m calling The Death Symposium, as well as on the script of a musical based upon the subversive theatrical activities of the young Karol Wojtyla, the man who would become Pope John Paul II.

So what art have you enjoyed of late? Let us hear about it!

 

*The image above of the National Theatre, perhaps the ugliest theatre in the galaxy, is reproduced courtesy of Carlos Delgado at Wikimedia Commons.

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.   

2015-02-12 19.03.46

Your comments, as always, most welcome.

Learning from Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”

Learning from Evelyn Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”

waugh-decline-and-fall-granger

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…

highConcepts_highrez

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

512px-ParisCafeDiscussion

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

The_Godfather_Screenplay

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.