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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Art and the path x 3

SPAM Just when the Balrog spam guards were heartily sick of eating spam (and wearing Ugg boots), along comes dessert spam: effusive flattery that actually seems to have made a 60-second attempt to grasp the blog. Nom, nom! The Balrogs scoop it up with big spoons! In answer to the pressing question of what the Balrogs look like, I inform you that they do not look like the one in the movie but rather like one of the monsters in Where the Wild Things Are. (Maurice Sendak, thank you for loving the world so intensely and being so full of vibrancy and grump!)

Alert! Don't forget to pop down and answer the question in the prior post. Comments here and elsewhere have been helpful.

Curious me-fact for the day:I have made it into the Wiktionary, it seems, with a word (and a number of lines) from The Throne of Psyche... I feel all sparkly. (Of course, that's probably just a new symptom of the myriad-minded viral Bug.)

Triptych. Below you will find excerpts from two recent reads and a reread that seemed to fit together in a challenging fashion. All deal with the making of fiction, virtue, transformations of the world, and more. See what you think!

The novel that reinvented fiction - John Banville

In Portrait of a Novel Michael Gorra has written a ringing affirmation of the power of fiction to explore and represent consciousness. It can be argued that the novel after James took a wrong turn and lost itself in the playground of the avant garde. What James was offering was a way forward from the bland smugness of the Victorian novel into a grown-up world in which fictional characters face squarely the difficulties of actual life, and by their example encourage us to do the same.

That way is wide and is still open to the novel; the journey awaits. Henry James knew the rigours facing the traveller along that path, knew the pitfalls that threaten and the gloom that pervades, yet he went on undaunted. As Dencombe, the novelist hero of James’s great story The Middle Years, puts it: “We work in the dark – we do what we can – we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Once Upon a Time, There Was a Person Who Said, "Once Upon a Time" - Steve Almond

Ten years later, I continue to receive stories long on vivid camera work and short on coherence. These manuscripts all lack the same thing: an effective narrator.

Initially, I attributed this pattern to the modern pedagogy of creative writing — specifically the sustained dogma against exposition, which finds its purest expression in the mantra “show, don’t tell.” My teaching years made it clear that students were also mimicking — consciously and unconsciously — the dazzling visual media of film and television.

I have since come to believe that these manuscripts reflect a more fundamental cultural shift. In evolving from readers to viewers, we’ve lost our grip on the essential virtues embodied by a narrator: the capacity to make sense of the world, both around and inside us.

The best introduction to the mountains - Gene Wolfe

It need not be so. We might have a society in which the laws were few and just, simple, permanent, and familiar to everyone -- a society in which everyone stood shoulder-to-shoulder because everyone lived by the same changeless rules, and everyone knew what those rules were. When we had it, we would also have a society in which the lack of wealth was not reason for resentment but a spur to ambition, and in which wealth was not a cause for self-indulgence but a call to service. We had it once, and some time in this third millennium we shall have it again; and if we forget to thank John Ronald Reuel Tolkien for it when we get it, we will already have begun the slow and not always unpleasant return to Mordor. Freedom, love of neighbour, and personal responsibility are steep slopes; he could not climb them for us -- we must do that ourselves. But he has shown us the road and the reward.


  1. One of the things that has impressed me about A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage is precisely the strength and aptness of the narrative voice. I can't wait to read on - Amazon excerpts are a great boon - when the pb edition becomes available.

  2. Shall announce, I'm sure! The Amazon price on the hardcover swings up and down, sometimes goes down to $16., all according to their secret algorithms...

    I'm glad you found it enticing!


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.