Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Friday, April 05, 2013

Dumbfoundery, and art--

It's time to tear myself away from a lively game of facebook table tennis over "Dan Brown's 20 worst sentences" (do read them--if, like me, you have not peeped into a Brown-book, they are illuminating and amusing in the worst possible way!) It's time for me to visit my blog--hello!--where people are busily passing by without so much as a new wave from me. In the course of batting about comments on Dan Brown, I noticed or re-noticed several things that ought to make us all dumbfounded.

  • One, people do seem to think (even other writers) that one is agonized as a writer. 
  • Two, people rush out in great numbers and buy Dan Brown when they could be rushing out to buy books by much better writers), and this suggests something curious about the state of American arts and culture in the 21st century.
  • Three, even people in the arts (actors, composers, and so on from my facebook friend-list) run out and buy drek out of sheer sizzling curiosity and lemming-fever. 
  • People evidently have zero trouble in suspending their disbelief--even the belief in their own intelligence--upon opening certain books.
  • Tripe is edible. People will pay for it and then eat it and make fun of the stuff (after it has already polluted their minds).
Now, what can I say about these cold, hard bits of news from the Dumbfoundery?
  • First off, I would never write if writing was agonizing. Never! As I just said somewhere in that facebook thread, writing is a great, piercing joy. The good kind of piercing.
  • I don't write for filthy lucre, even though I think it would be quite nice and even right were wordsmiths of merit to be paid for their work. I write because wordsmithing is my gift. Because writing is my vocation. Because a flood of words drowns me in the most delicious way. Because dancing with a reader is the best dance. Because I reach out my hand to you through the beautiful artifice of words in best order. 
  • From a worldly point of view, it is quite mad that people like me go on, year after year, striving after what is strong and beautiful--and even giving up good jobs so that they can devote more of themselves to the art. 
  • Like salmon, people can swim against the tide in order to be creative and add beauty to their own culture. We are all culture-makers, and we choose what our culture will be when we buy a painting or a book or purchase tickets for a concert.
  • Readers and followers of the arts can support strong, beautiful books and art and so build the culture they wish to see, one worth handing on to their children. 
I knew all that already, but sometimes it helps to sum up the reality of the times, and how one doesn't quite fit. You probably knew it too. We're in an era when the idea that "we are what we eat" is continually stressed. But we are also what our minds and spirits embrace. And we build our culture out of either shifty sand or stone.

Meeting me elsewhere: Excerpts from 2012 books (A Death at the White Camellia OrphanageThaliadThe Foliate Head) at ScribdThaliad at Phoenicia Publishing. (Thaliad is on sale during Poetry Month. Hardcover is only available through Phoenicia, and the paperback anywhere.) See page tabs above for clips, links to reviews, and information on those brand new books plus The Throne of Psyche from 2011, and more. 

15 comments:

  1. We are what our minds and spirits embrace: yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

    And my goodness, I get exasperated about the old canard that writing is wretched and writers must be miserable. Sometimes writing is *frustrating*, but what worthwhile activity isn't? All in all, though, it's a blessing and a gift and I'm so grateful to be able to do it. And so grateful to be in such fine company, too.

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  2. Rachel, I am very glad to be in such good company as well--the company we keep is part of what we embrace!

    Many thanks...

    Oh, the whole opening a vein business is so melodramatic, isn't it?

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  3. Yes, yes, to all you say here! Isn't culture what remains for future generations? Is it not a mark of great nations, and inversely is a lack of a rich culture a sign of a dying nation? Yikes.... too many questions!

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  4. There are lots of questions, aren't there? The whole business of allowing a widely-supported but debased culture to drown out a more aspiring one is an issue right now with most of the arts. Fodder for another day, maybe...

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  5. I love what you say here about writing, especially the points about "culture-makers." Just like that myth of the writer in agony, the one about the writer living, breathing, and bleeding words in solitude is another one from the standard Hollywood script.

    But as Rachel said, writing does have its moments of "frustration." There are days when the process of getting the words out in the order one envisions, to make a complete picture, requires a little agony and much self-imposed solitude, or whatever keeps one at the desk. :)

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  6. A young writer just left me a note on facebok about another post related to this one called "Fairy Glamour." I'd completely forgotten it...

    Anyway, it picks up those ideas.

    Fairy glamour

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  7. i'm really curious: in order to improve the state of our culture in the U.S., what--let's just say 6-- books would you consider "required reading" for the general student body by the age of 12? And what additional 6 by the age of 18?

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  8. Tough question. We definitely have a huge loss of "common culture" in grade school and high school. There's an awful lot of reading of schlocky y. a. books now--books that would be fine outside of class but seem out of place in "English Literature."

    I'll have to think about that one... and answer it later. Shall do, eventually!

    In the meantime, do you have an opinion?

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  9. i think i've said before that i was bored with the "great literature" i was required to read in school--and still am, mostly. Must say that i now enjoy Dickens and Austen and now Moby Dick--because of excellent "screen adaptations" (you know, movies). But i still can't read the "paper" versions--i can only "get them" through audio book versions.

    i devoured "horse books" and then loved Twain and Hemingway ...does he make "good" lists?

    By the way, i am assuming that the Twilight books belong in the junk food/soft smut lists (i have not gone near them or the movies). A very interesting discussion is going on amongst Mormon feminists since the author has recently declared herself to be a fem...as you can imagine, most of the group is having a hard time believing it.

    i guess for me the questions are, how to foster a love of "good books" and who defines "good"?

    i "got away" without reading many of the classics but feel i grew up with a fairly good sense of culture and human history...sorta. "Good enough" understanding, i guess. Maybe because of my intense religious training?...hard to know.

    Oh..of course i do: it was Charles Schultz who taught me all the important stuff.

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  10. Schultz does hit all the big issues for us!

    I don't know what the solution is. People read the great books at the wrong age, often, and are turned off and never try them again.

    Everywhere you look, things are being dumbed down. I always remember the story of a priest in Africa who said his charges had no trouble with Shakespeare because they were accustomed to the King James Bible and an early version of The Book of Common Prayer. They could read any text and understand because they weren't fed pablum and swill in childhood.

    I peeked in the first Twilight book at the library after reading an article about the author as channeling Mormon marriage. It's for people who want to read romance but want the spark of sf/f, so far as I can tell; it certainly is not notable for an ability to make sentences or portray human beings. That a book should make money does not bar it from literature--but when publishers put money so very far ahead of anything else of value, well, it's hard.

    I love all the ones you name . . . And Hawthorne and Dickinson and Fielding (Tom Jones is sheer exuberance) and Yeats and the Gawain poet and many more.

    Last year was the last year that the National Book Awards was judged solely by writers. For all I know, we are at the end of the written word as central to our civilization and culture. But it is absolutely central to me.


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  11. hm. maybe it has something to do with the beautiful African skies. i was raised on lots and lots of scripture, Bible + BoM, but all that old language in literature was still a huge problem for me.

    i think you are right, it's all about the delivery.

    i'll be eager to see your list. i can always "catch up"...even if it's with a good reader reading it to me. :^)



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  12. Oh...do you like Meindert DeJong and Maria Gripe? Those books sang to me when i discovered children's lit in college. And i've just discoverd/am loving Tove Jansson's The Summer Book

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  13. Can't believe I haven't read DeJong! Perhaps I have forgotten, but those titles don't seem like ones I've read, though he certainly was crowned with awards. And I often read authors Sendak illustrated and at one point had a lot of those books, particularly Krauss and MacDonald. No Gripe either! My 2nd FSG editor loved Jansson and sent me a little box of her books...

    I am not very close to coming up with a list. The more I contemplate, the more I think that things will never be right in our schools until we quit making state testing a fetish.

    "All that old language" is rather discouraging for a writer! Because all language gets old, eventually... However, a good many of us like it still, I suppose.

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  14. I suspect that the languages of this era will not suffer the same fate. And, i was just wondering what would be on your list to foster strong hearts and minds.

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  15. I will certainly have to think about it! Will do... Maybe another post...

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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.