Saturday, March 03, 2007

The Long Grass Books, again

The Marketplace prefers there to be a great story attached to a book. In fact, it often cares more about the attached story than any labored-over manuscript. The Marketplace may be willing to love your new novel, but it will love you better if you are a beautiful unwed quarter-Nepalese mother of seventeen, a recovered addict, highly photogenic despite your missing hand, cut off by your brutal father with the sword his own father had brought home from Japan in World War II. If you can be all of those things, or some, or none but with just-as-colorful alternatives, you are a story, and that kind of story can be sold as sweet meat for the marketplace.

There’s a peculiar kind of disrespect to the reader in these tendencies: they’re nothing new, of course, and have been written about endlessly. They present a great NO. They are the trees planted to obscure a forest. The big books on the billboards are always new and trendy and changing. The other books are behind the billboards in the long grass. They persist, though they’re mostly invisible.

The Marketplace Taste and “good taste” are not the same. They can coincide, but often they simply don’t. Other eras spent a lot of time thinking about “good taste” and beauty and truth in art; ours doesn’t. But even eras that thought about taste didn't have much liking for Melville and Hawthorne or Dickinson (her little efforts to reach out, all misunderstood) and many another. That's the kind of thing that can kill you, if you're a John Kennedy Toole, say--or many another.

Sometimes I read a book on the billboard. Often I like to lie in the grass and read the unregarded books. They’re hard to find, deep in the long grass. But there are rewards that make up for the effort to find them.

Today we are due for an ice storm on top of our many feet of snow, and school is closed--we are using our last scheduled snow day already. And what I really want is a wonderful book to read. I’ve been re-reading Yeats, and I’m ready for a story that can bear the light of his tragic joy and beauty. Be it new or be it old, what shall I read? What are the really wonderful books that I’m missing, wandering in a grove of billboards?

Prior Long Grass Books

Bilge Karasu

Jeanne Larsen's translation's of Tang poems by women

Clare Dudman

The photograph above is courtesy of and Neil Kemp of Egham in Surrey, England.



  1. The books I have been reading lately were for class but have been real good. I just got through with Goodman, Storries of Scottsboro. I felt like I was on the cutting egde of history students with Chauncey's Gay New York, one of the best in queer studies. It was really fun and colorful with lots of stories.

    I havent been able to read much lately.

    Cant wait for Charlaine Harris' next Sookie Stackhouse book to come out.

    Hope you have a fun snow day. I think you should do toast art with the kiddies. That sounded like great fun when James Simpson posted his.

  2. James & toast art?

    Shall have to go see. Right now it is stop-the-leak-under-the-side-door time and chisel-ice-from-the-front-walk time. Sent a large strapping teenage boy of 17, but it seems to be work for a woman!

    Glad you have been historicizing. Now I don't think Harris is in the realm of Long Grass. I have a suspicion that she's visible...

    Yes, we shall have fun, I hope. We are adding more children to the mix, so no doubt there will be jollity but much cleaning to do afterward. I'll try not to think about that part.

  3. Have you read Somerset Maugham or better still, if you like dry sharp English humour written by someone who was brought up by wicked Aunts; try Saki's short stories most are wonderful but one or two you may find a little but too close to the core. Something a little older? Try Apuleius “The Golden Ass” a little risqué. or there are some excellent fun stories in Alexander McCall Smith’s series The No1. Ladies Detective Agency.

    I could go on all day but mustn’t.

    PS. I chose Alfred Turner’s Mother and Child as the first one specially for you Marly on my English Sculpture Blog. Hope you like it.

  4. You know, the only one I haven't read is McCall--nope, that's not true, either. Heard an audiobook on a trip. However, none of those others have I read in the past decade, so they're probably all returned to alphabet soup, mostly.

    Must go get ready for kid-arrivals...

  5. I'm thinking of trying to review books more often on my blog. The problem is, whenever I start writing a review, it quickly turns into something else - an appreciation, an imitation, an evocation. Anyway, I love the "long grass" concept. Reminds me of the earliest chinese books, written on "pages" of long bamboo strips, strung together.

  6. If it's not an assignment, it can turn into anything--although even an assignment can, too. In fact, I recently wrote a short story that was supposed to be an essay.

    I like the bamboo strip idea.

  7. When the power went off here in Northern California and the snow flakes were falling as though a snow globe had encased us, and the roads to the bear cabin were impassable, I lit a bunch of candles and sat by candlelight rereading Austen, and discovering a strange new book--the Empire of the Ants--recommended by one of my customers.
    And yes, the glitzy drama-dependent literature that makes the billboards for a moment--so ephemeral, so like the excesses of other centuries--does pale beside the beauties of true literature (to which group, as you know, I always add your own work).
    When I worked in libraries I would always check out books to read from the dusty top shelf and the bottom shelf, looking for volumes that hadn't been read in a long while.
    Surprising the overlooked treasures.
    I hope you are staying warm in all the ice and snow--ours has melted in the valleys, but we still have much on the hillsides. And a full moon with a rainbow round it--magic afoot.

  8. I am reading Naked in the Marketplace, The Lives of George Sand, by Bentia Eisler.

    George Sand was an interesting Frenchwoman, a feminist, who lived through two revolutions, and was the mistress to several prominent men among them de Musset, Chopin, Balzac and Flaubert.

    Interesting anyway.

    Hope you have dug out by now.

  9. jarvenpa,

    A lovely thing to say to a writer--thanks. And how did you like the formic civilization? A young princess aunt who founds her colony on the back of a tortoise sounds curious...

    It was a bit magical here, too. Fireworks in the fog. Overall, I am finding this year's snow to be high and claustrophobic. Plus the melt wants to seep into my house.

    b. q.,

    I'm afraid that I tend to ignore biography. However, you have certainly chosen a colorful figure. Every time somebody writes something about me, I find that it reads as though written about somebody on the moon--that far away. So I am distrustful of biography.

    The sleepover has ended, and now today's ferryings to piano and the all-important blue-and-gold banquet begin!

  10. Here's a voice that might interest you - Cyrus Baldridge -- who seems to have been tragically born too soon to get on the internet -- which is where he really belonged --- filling a blog with his sketches, anti-war opinions, and memoirs of travel through Africa and the orient.

    Maybe a full book of him would be too much to take --- but I think he'd make a fine character in someone else's book (yours, of course !)

  11. What a vigorous fellow he sounds! Cow-puncher, Africa-roamer, wartime ambulance-driver, etc.: yes, I'll bet he has some interesting things to say. His drawings have verve as well.

    Looking at that critique of liberalism, praising the rarity of the ideas "that human affairs can be controlled by enlightened reason; truth is born out of discussion; civil liberties are vital to democracy; there is no justice where there is no kindness; the great ends of human life cannot be achieved except by appropriate means," I wonder what he would say about us now.

    And he decided his own end: I can see that he would find the loss of strength a great trial.

  12. And here's a great place to find new books to read -- because it's not just a list of favorites --- there's also a little spoonful of each -- just like they give you at some ice cream shoppes.

    Nice comment about Cyrus, by the way -- yes -- he enjoyed being strong -- but he certainly didn't mind taking risks that might have cost him everything.

    And what a sad story about his wife: they retire to the desert together to pursue their muse -- and then she clams up.

    (or -- maybe she was just enjoying herself so much -- she no longer felt a need to write)

  13. Oh, that does seem like an good list--some I like, some I love, some I haven't read.

    The reasons why writers stop writing... There are so many, aren't there? One hopes that she felt happy and complete in the desert--that her days were one long work of art. In 2007, I think the reason to quit is often discouragement stemming from international megacorporations insisting that a very few books make great big profits and the rest be tossed out into the world (into the long grass.) Publishers should be happy with a 3 or 4 percent profit, as they once were, when they were free and independent. I have acquaintances and friends who have quit--one who has quit four times, after each of his last four books! And yet it seems that he has another book coming out.

  14. scanning the list of bloggers on Laurelines, i clicked and came here. your words are so true!!
    especially in the dying world i am attempting to enter (garden books)

    i don't know from great literature, i came to it late since i spent my childhood out of doors
    i adore the language and humor in Elizabeth von Armin's Enchanted April...which paved the way for my adult brain to learn how to see into one or two authors considered so much greater than she.

    but i gotta say, that sometimes, for the sheer purity of it, for the incredible delight of hearing so much out of so few words, i turn to Charollote's Web, or Little House on the Prairie books. i know, i know...the movie...i have not seen it (nor did i watch the tv show)
    and i don't ever want to. but the movie did make me track down the audio book of E.B. reading his words and i hope those sound waves remain captured forever.

  15. Hello, zephyr--

    I'm glad you wafted by. Laurelines is always a good place to start, isn't it?

    Spending one's childhood out-of-doors is perfectly delicious, and something that not many children do any more, at least in the U. S. They tend to be addicts of the screen and over-protected. A childhood of outdoor play is probably the right way to enter the world of garden books.

    Yes, simplicity in words can be delightful. I also like the baroque and all in between. I've read White and Ingalls, and enjoyed them with my children.

    I love garden books--Elizabeth Laurence and Gertrude Jekyll and so on. And often buy one for my mother but read it before I send. On my shelf are mostly ones having to do with cottage gardens and native plants, plus "eccentric" and children's gardens.

    I'm going to write about a nature book soon. It has a garden in it but is not primarily a garden book...

  16. oh yes! Elizabeth! and Gertrude!!

    i will watch, eagerly, for your post on the nature book you mention...speaking of nature books, (i know he isn't one, strictly)...i also absolutely love John McPhee, how he so adeptly captures my imagination while imparting so much knowledge...and there are others...the names elude me and i am trapped beneath my laptop downstairs where it is warmer because the library takes soooooo long to warm up when it's this cold!!

    yes! nature books who garden on the side.
    that's what i hope to create soon
    without the advance
    just because i need to.

    feel better...hopefully soon!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.