Verisimilitude

Henry-JamesIt must be admitted that good novels are somewhat compromised by bad ones, and that the field, at large, suffers discredit from overcrowding.
– Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”

It is the beginning of a new semester of my graduate program in Creative Writing and I came across this quote as I began the reading for my American Naturalism literature class.  It seemed like he could have written it today about today’s conversation about writing and self-publishing.

There are a lot of books being published today.  Amazon bears a responsibility for that — it is now easier than ever for an author to share their work with an audience.  I was sitting in a train station on Friday afternoon, shamelessly eavesdropping on a young woman’s conversation, where she explained to her companion that she had published a book and sold five copies of it — she was certain that it was all to her parents’ friends, but she was thrilled nonetheless.  Five people had purchased her work, but this was as big of a goal as she had for herself.  For perhaps the first time, we have a broad amateur market with easy access to an audience.  We sell ebooks for a dollar — sometimes even less, to a global marketplace that has learned to expect poor editing for a cheaper price.  I’ve heard others tell me that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book, no matter who the author is.

Wouldn’t Henry James be delighted at such sentiments?

There have always been vanity presses.  Even Jane Austen’s family volunteered to offset the publishing costs of her first novels.  Many, many well-polished and mature manuscripts still face failure at the traditional publishing houses, who are now owned by fewer companies than they ever have been.  As with most of the cultural products in our world, our choices are becoming simultaneously fewer and greater at the same time — there are fewer people professionally producing unique books, but many more amateurs with the ability to bring us their creative vision.  We’ve seen the same experience with music, as Youtube and independent music distributors like Jamendo, Bandcamp and others have enabled more musicians than ever to share their art with the world.  (Read more.)

Being the populist that I am, I can’t help but appreciate that it’s easier than ever for  creative art to find its way in the world.  I want the truly creative artist to not be dependent on taste monitors at publishing houses and recording studios deciding what will be financially viable for them and making that available to us as a culture.  We’ve seen what that creates with the music stations of the United States, which play a increasingly small selection of songs.  Much of what gets published is published with the same idea — repeat the same formula that’s already out there, because it’s likely to win you money.  Find an author that was an amazing success, then publish more of her work.  Discover authors who are already selling, who already have their cross-marketed platform, who have already been successful — it’s a significantly less risky strategy than taking a chance on someone that no one has ever heard of.

I can’t really even blame the publishers for these decisions, when I hear readers say that they won’t pay more than three dollars for a book.  You have to sell a lot of copies of that book before you can pay your staff. And with the market prices now starting to be driven by retailers like Amazon, who are demanding to set the price of books even lower, it’s become more difficult than ever to stay in business as a publisher.  We may well see a market entirely created by the “amateurs” soon if giants like Amazon manage to make professional publishing houses unprofitable.

What would Henry James think of that?

I have to admit that there have been times in my writing life, when I am frustrated with the work that I am doing, where it becomes impossible to see the point of it all. This is in part because of how much work there is out there — even this blog often feels like I am writing into the abyss.  If audience is the goal, then that is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve when there are so many different places for audiences to go. We could argue about an increasingly short attention span as well — I know far too many people who won’t even read beyond the title of an article on Facebook.  The web has its own share of the guilt — so many things that are produced for the Internet are for link capital and provide very little new content.  If I had a dollar for every article that begins, ‘You Won’t Believe…” or “10 Things That….”, I would not be worried about some day trying to make some money off of my writing.

I admit that I have a certain fondness for Henry James.  He was a modernist, in a changing era.  He was writing about psychology and feminism, as he watched the traditional gender roles that he grew up with change as his world crossed over into the 20th century. Although his work has aged over the last century, his books still feel modern — and you get the sense of a man trying to understand the people around him.  Later in “The Art of Fiction,” James writes that the novel, unlike other literary forms, should compete with real life — that it should engage in a type of trompe l’oeil verisimilitude. I like that idea a lot, this idea that literature should struggle to feel real.  Even when the characters are in fantastical situations, they should feel real and true.  If I could just wrangle my characters into that, then I could be happy enough, published or not.

 

Woe to the Pears

Shinko Asian Pears“I have some sad news for you.”  Me Beloved’s face was mournful, but his mouth was twitching, which is never a good sign.

“Uh-oh.”

“About the pear tree.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“No!”

My favorite fruit in all the world is the Asian pear. I presume that this is because I am a Taurus and value expensive things, because the Asian pear is the most expensive pear I could possibly desire.  Even in Asia, they’re considered delicacies that are often saved for guests, or shared between people, because they are expensive and difficult to cultivate. In Korea, there’s even an entire museum dedicated to them, which gives you an idea of its economic and cultural importance.

They are hard to find here.  When they do come in, they sell out quickly, despite their price tags of $2 to $3 per pear. And while I adore them, I also have a difficult time spending that type of money as often as I would like to indulge my habit.  My delicious, juicy habit.

So I thought I would be clever, since I had just moved into a house with a garden — I thought that I would make my own pears, to give myself the quantity that I would like. I did my research and purchased two Asian pear trees, because fruit trees need to cross-pollinate.   I wasn’t able to get two of the same type, due to limited supply, and one was advertised as less delicious than the other.  I put the less delicious tree on the median between the street and the sidewalk in front of our house as a sacrifice to neighborhood children.  I am not a fool.

The good pears, I put in our front garden, inside our fence.  Then I waited for them to grow.

And waited.

And waited.

Because they are fruit trees, in the third year, I expected to see a few pears.  I picked them, but I picked them too soon and they weren’t very good.  So I waited another turn of the year, leaving the pears on the trees until they were fat and plump.  Then, I came home on picking day…and discovered that they were all gone.

Every single pear.  Taken.

They say that there are five stages of grief.  The first is denial.  I went inside the house and asked my Beloved if he had picked the pears.  He hadn’t.  The second is anger.  What kind of person would have taken ALL of the pears?  What special kind of blanketyblank do you have to be? Are you freaking kidding me?

Then, bargaining. Do you think if we hadn’t planted one of the pear trees on the street…?  Depression follows.  There will be no pears.  I don’t deserve these pears if I couldn’t protect them.  Then, finally, acceptance.  We’ll grow more next year.

So we did.  And they disappeared, en masse, yesterday evening.  I wish that I could blame it on kids, but a neighbor saw who took them last year, so I have my suspicions.  My very adult suspicions.

I printed out a LOST PEAR poster and put it out on the telephone pole on our curb, with a picture of our missing pears.  After all, I’m back in denial.  Mourning will come later.  How could it have happened again?

Summer Gardening

_DSC3019Today I found myself laying in the grass underneath my four-year-old Asian pear tree, watching puffy white clouds float by in a light blue sky.  I told myself that I was resting, taking a break from the heat and the weeding that I’d been occupying myself with for a few hours, but the truth was that I was reminiscing.

I haven’t spent much time in the garden this year, between all our house guests and trips out of town and keeping things going while my Beloved was in Ireland.  Life does that – it intervenes and takes control, no matter how good your intentions.  My postage stamp sized garden is largely self-sufficient — without my lifting a finger, we had decent crops of strawberries and blueberries and the beginnings of what I hope will be our biggest Asian pear crop yet.  Yet the neglect is obvious in the straw color of the grass and the forests of weeds that grew out between the bits of last year’s mulch that survived the winter. In the five hours that we spent working on it today, we pulled out four full-sized construction garbage bags of weed and dead grass. I need not have fretted over missing yoga this morning — my back, shoulders and legs got plenty of exercise in wrestling the garden back into shape.  Garden Kneeling Pose.

We put down six bags of cedar mulch, both to keep down the future weed life, but also because cedar mulch is colorful and pretty.  As I knelt along the edges of the lawn,  spreading out the mulch with my hands, carefully piling it around the roots of every plant, I felt about as connected to my garden as possibly could be.  I am marked and scarred from mulching the rose bushes, but they’re scars I’ll carry proudly over the next week, when I’m stuck in a climate-controlled skyscraper, as far from nature as I possibly could be.

When I was small, I used to spend hours and hours lying in the grass and watching the clouds.  Time is different when you’re a child — time is something that you kill while the adults are running around doing adult things. Today we just sat for twenty minutes, watching the water shoot out from the main sprinkler, waiting for the second sprinkler head to kick in on its timer. Just sitting, while I was covered in dirt, sweat and grass from a hard day’s play, was one of the happiest moments that I’ve had all summer.  As the water pooled on the driveway, I tried to clean my muddy flip-flops and feet in it, but only created thick mud streams down my legs. It was so carefree, so lovely, so freeing.

Faithful Place by Tana French

faithful-placeTana French’s Faithful Place, the third novel in her Dublin Murder Squad series, draws us to the poor Dublin neighborhood of the Liberties and sends us back in time to the 1980s, the height of Ireland’s poor economy and emigration problem.  Readers of The Likeness will remember Cassie’s Undercover boss Frank Mackey, who is the star of this novel.  In December, 1985, Frank was a 19 year old, poised to run away to London with his girlfriend Rosie Daly.  Headed for the morning ferry, he was at the beginning of a new life — escaping his violent, alcoholic father, dysfunctional family and poor economic prospects…only Rosie never showed.

Twenty years later, Frank is an established and respected Undercover detective.  When he receives a phone call from his younger sister Jackie giving him the news that a new construction project has unearthed Rosie Daly’s suitcase, his understanding of his last night in Faithful Place is thrown into turmoil, and he begins to wonder if Rosie meant to meet him after all.  Carefully protecting his new identity from his family, Frank returns home to finally answer the questions that have been chasing him since the night his dreams of his life with Rosie were shattered.

As with French’s other mysteries, Faithful Place is deeply character driven.  The story is not truly about the mystery of Rosie Daly’s disappearance — instead, as in her first novel In the Woods, French asks us what the consequences of going home again are.  The family dynamics are classic alcoholic family dynamics — the older siblings react to their father’s violence by taking on the responsibilities of protecting their younger siblings from their parents.  Frank’s siblings are as scarred as he is, though they wear it differently.  When Frank returns, in his official duties as a Garda cop, he finds that his family and his neighbors are equally suspicious of his motives.  When he quickly finds Rosie’s body, old wounds are reopened, and they all point back to him.

One of the beautiful components of French’s writing is how accurately she combines psychological insight with the troubled history of Ireland.  She demonstrates the difference between Frank and his childhood best by subtle dialect — Frank’s language is posh, educated and practiced. We can hear the advantages that he had — his extra years of education, his years married to a barrister, the daughter that he now lives to protect — in the way that he speaks. Meanwhile his siblings, who never made it far from Faithful Place, speak in a street slang that reminds us that Frank lives in a different world.  His tenacity in answering the question of what happened to Rosie also sets him apart — while he’s willing to explode the past in his rage, his family, old friends and neighbors want to keep it buried. For lovers of language, the sheer Irishness of French’s prose will also be a delight.

Cooper the pathologist, a narky little bollix with a God complex, got there first.  He pulled up in his big black Merc, stared severely over the heads of the crowd till the waters parted to let him through, and stalked into the house, fitting on his gloves and leaving the murmurs to boil up louder behind him.  A couple of hoodies drifted up around his car, but the bogmonster shouted something unintelligible at them and they sloped away again, without changing expression.  The Place felt too full and too focused, buzzing hard, like a riot was just waiting for its moment to kick off.

Faithful Place is a good read and an interesting story for anyone looking to understand the complexities of a country whose failing economy forced generations of young people into desperate choices. In 1989, Ireland lost over 70,000 people (2% of its population) to emigration — one of those young people being my husband.  French takes on that history without flinching, bravely digging into the social problems that widespread poverty creates.  Frank tells us that in 1985, every job had at least twenty applicants – and that his chances went down to nothing once he listed his address.  As always, with French, this attention to time and setting gives us so much more than a typical murder mystery, but readers looking for a whodunnit with a big reveal are likely to be disappointed.  This just isn’t that kind of story.

The beautiful writing and thoughtful narrative of Faithful Place has me already shopping for her next novel in the series, Broken Harbour.  My reviews of French’s earlier Dublin Murder Squad books,In the Woods and The Likeness can be found here and here.

Separation

montauk_seagullJune has been sneaking away from me, the days so filled with activity that I’ve barely noticed the blooming in my garden, the hotter days and the incredibly furry cat that stares at me intently, wondering when I’ll have a heart and take her to get her fur shaved off, for the love of God.

 

That would be scheduled for Wednesday.  I’m not a monster.

My Beloved has been in Ireland for a week and a half, with no return date in sight.  His mom is not doing well at all and I am very glad that he is with her.  At the same time, the space that’s carved out in our lives by his absence is obvious — all the things he does around the house, the noises he makes, the stories he brings with him — are all suddenly absent. There’s a certain silence where I am used to hearing noise.  I am listening, as I take out the trash and cook myself dinner, do the shopping and pass off the dry cleaning.  I drive around in his massive truck and find myself fitting into the spaces that he normally inhabits, which feels good, because it feels like a service that I can do for him when he is so far away and so worried about bigger things.  It always better to be doing.

Jason-Stomps-Love My house has had a steady stream of visitors to keep me company while he’s away.  These were planned visits, as we always get busy in the summer months, but I’ve appreciated the distractions.  Last weekend, I went with friends out to the end of the island, where we visited the Montauk lighthouse, ate like kings, and found a wonderful little bookstore–the rather directly named Montauk Bookshop.  They had a fabulous collection of books, with many lesser-known titles by classic authors, and a good selection of the backlists of more contemporary writers.  I picked up Mary Shelley’s Mathilda, Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and Tana French’s Faithful Place, which I have been meaning to read for years.  Stocked with more books than time, we went to find dinner at a place called Rick’s Crabby Cowboy Cafe because they served S’mores.  Wouldn’t you?

A good trip.  My next visitor comes from the U.K. in about three hours, so we’ve spent quite a bit of time this week pretending that we live in a much neater house than we really do. I’ve come to terms with reality and put away the paint supplies that have been sitting out since I started repainting the hallway back in May.  Plaster is a look, right?  In removing all of the stuff for the half-finished construction projects which aren’t likely to progress until the return of my Beloved, I’ve discovered that we have a lot more house than I thought we had.  Now that I can see my living room again, I’m really looking forward to the arrival of the couches that we purchased on Memorial Day.  The current couch has been slowly separating — the end seat is threatening to break off, like a polar ice cap, and has been in danger of floating away for some time.  That, too, is a look.  A look that will thankfully soon be gone.

Yesterday was the summer solstice.  In honor of the change of seasons, my yoga teacher asked us what the first thing was that came to our minds when we thought of summer.  Being in a room full of Long Islanders, nearly everyone named the beach.  Her answer, however, was time — the extra hours of sunlight in summer give us that extra hour in our day that we’re always looking for. This is the time of year that we play in the sun and spend time reconnecting with the people that matter. As I’ve slowly whiled away the weekend, napping, dreaming, writing, cleaning, I kept finding myself thinking about the gift of time that summer brings.  When my Beloved called yesterday for our evening chat, he mentioned that in Dublin, the sun didn’t go down until nearly 10 p.m.  Here, a little further south, the sun will set around 8:30 p.m.  When we were in the San Juan Islands at the beginning of the month, the evenings seemed to last forever, because we were far were as north as Ireland is. The light gave me energy and, above all, time.

The Elephants Stand

AmericanCraftsmanWhen I walk into the house of my oldest friend, I notice that there are three wax elephants on her mantel.  They’re in complimentary colors that I knew that she would like — dark and rich burgundy, maroon and gold. I don’t remember when I bought them or for what occasion.  Christmas, perhaps?  A birthday? But they have moved with her again and again, from Boston to her new home of Portland and, a decade later, they march across her mantel, as still as ever.

It makes me smile.

We are in Portland, Oregon, at the end of a short visit before we drive up to the San Juan Islands for a week with my family. This is a city that suits her perfectly and, although I miss being able to easily visit with her, I know she belongs here just by looking at the houses. My city is a city of apartment buildings, sophistication, grime and intensity.  This city seems to be built of the American Craftsman style, with often eclectic paint jobs and overflowing rose bushes and azaleas, butterfly bushes and lilacs.  It rains a lot here, which you can see in the fecundity of the suburban landscaping. Plants dominate, their growth seemingly unstoppable.  It’s a beautiful place to walk around and watch the melt of nature and art.  I have never been here on a rainy day, and everyone tells me how lucky I am, but I can easily imagine that this is still a beautiful place even when the skies are grey.

Yesterday, we sat on the banks of the Sandy River for most of the day. There are so many parks here that it’s easy to step into nature.  We cleverly bought two large umbrellas at the local store, which meant that we spent a beautiful day with our heads in the shade and our feet in the sun, watching all the adventurous Portlanders willing to go rafting in an ice cold mountain stream. The comfort of old friends is that we slip back into each others’ lives so easily, the conversation quickly ranging from past to present to future.  I love fitting into her life here and seeing her friends, some of whom have become my friends over the years, and watching as her community and her home grow into something even more beautiful every time that I visit.  I am very proud of my friend and proud to be her friend. I feel this way about most of my friends, as I watch us all growing into older, wiser, slightly greyer versions of ourselves, but the geographical distance that makes our visits rare makes it so much more obvious when I do see her.

Last night, my Beloved said the most beautiful thing to me, which was that he liked Portland and would love to come back.  I’m glad that he thinks so, because I miss this town already.

 

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

 

Wolf_Hall_cover“This morning Anne wears a crucifix on a gold chain. Sometimes her fingers pull at it impatiently, and then she tucks her hands back in her sleeves. It is so much a habit with her that people say she has something to hide, a deformity; but he thinks she is a woman doesn’t like to show her hand.”

The story is familiar, at least to anyone who paid a bit of attention in grade school history. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and decides that it is time to cast off Katherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty years, for the English courtier Anne Boleyn. This is a monstrous, momentous decision that will lead many people to their graves as the country divides over its religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This is not modern America; Henry is not far removed from being a despot and, despite his Parliament, the people he decides need to go have a tendency to lose their heads. What we learn again and again in Wolf Hall is the dangerous nature of power — Henry burns bright, but getting too close to him is a dangerous game.

Mantel tells us this story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, one of the sharpest minds around Henry.  He begins as a servant of Cardinal Wosley, who is the first to fall from power for not giving Henry and Anne a papal annulment for Henry’s first marriage.  Yet,  miraculously, as Wosley falls, Cromwell rises.  As the son of a brewer, his political success seems nearly impossible.  He is surrounded by aristocrats with titles going back a thousand years, but Cromwell rises on his merit.  A polyglot, lawyer and rich wool merchant, we watch Cromwell use his diplomatic skills to rise to become the right hand of the king.

There is a feeling of power in reserve, a power that drives right through the bone, like the shiver you sense in the shaft of an axe when you take it into your hand.  You can strike, or you can not strike, and if you choose to hold back the blow, you can still feel inside you the resonance of the omitted thing.

Cromwell is a remarkable and powerful character. The brilliance of Wolf Hall is Mantel’s ability to slip inside a powerful brain and portray it convincingly. We are blinded by Cromwell’s quick thinking and cunning.  He has the ability to be ruthless, but we see that he is not ruthless by nature — while, like his King, he enjoys a good adversary, we see his compassion, even to those who would not do him the same kindness.  One of the long-running adversarial relationships in the novel is Cromwell and Thomas More, Henry VIII’s former tutor and Lord Chancellor. Mantel’s portrayal of More is not kind, but it is honest. We watch More’s rise and fall, knowing that Cromwell will follow. Perhaps it is this knowledge of his own fate that drives Cromwell to extraordinary lengths to try to save More from himself, but it also makes us love Cromwell for his adherence to his humanist principles.

Henry takes off his embroidered cap, throws it down, runs his hands through his hair.  Like Wyatt’s golden mane, his hair is thinning, and it exposes the shape of his massive skull.  For a moment he seems like a carved statue, like a simpler form of himself, or one of his own ancestors; one of the race of giants that roamed Britain, and left no trace of themselves except in the dreams of their petty descendants.

Portraying well-known figures such as Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn presents a special  challenge for any writer — feelings run high about them.  It would be easy to villainize Henry, who casts off his first wife, beheads two more and sends yet another to a nunnery. Or, perhaps, to look at and judge him for the religious mayhem that he caused, which sent both Protestants and Catholics to the stake.  Although often credited with bringing Protestantism to England because of his break with the authority of the Pope, Henry was a Catholic conservative who blocked the religious reformation that figures close to him, like Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, risked their lives for.  Mantel holds him to account for these moral crimes, but she also shows us a king that is often generous, passionate and fair.  Cromwell respects him, as one fox might respect another. We find ourselves wondering if maybe there’s something more to this wife-slaying autocrat that our grade school history textbooks led us to believe.

Likewise, Mantel removes the romanticism of Anne Boleyn, giving us a fascinating portrait of the woman who played such a pivotal role in English history. Anne is not beautiful, but she is sharp and vicious, with an understanding of the game being played that Cromwell can’t help but respect.  Like Cromwell, the Boleyns are courtiers without a pedigree, but Anne’s relationship with Henry raises her from being the niece of the Howards to a Marquess in her own right and then, briefly, a Queen. Anne has not yet fallen from power by the end of Wolf Hall, but the writing is on the wall. Her crime is the same as Wolsley’s — she failed to give the king what he wanted most, so she is sacrificed as well.  Cromwell leads us through it, pointing us at Henry’s next moves before Henry knows them himself.

Often darkly funny, dry and witty, Mantel’s telling of Henry VIII’s court is well worth the read. She brings the story to life, while entertaining us with an invitation to step into the shoes of brilliant and extraordinary man.  We grieve with him and celebrate with him and wonder, at the end of this 650 page journey, why the book has come to an end.  Luckily for us, Wolf Hall is just the first in a trilogy and the second novel, Bring Up the Bodies, came out in 2012.