Literature is My Religion

I was recently raving to my best friend about a book (10:04 – Ben Lerner) I discovered in a little Dallas bookstore while traveling there for work (http://thewilddetectives.com/ – go! Check it out!), and he asked me about the book’s genre.

“It’s literature,” I said.

“No, but what genre, is it sci-fi?”

“It’s literature.”

“You mean like contemporary fiction?”

“No. I mean literature.”

Which is not to say it does not have certain genre components. Nor do I mean that genre fiction cannot be literature. Jules Verne blows that idea out of the water. Followed by Neil Gaiman and so many mystery, science fiction, young adult, and other writers.

When I say literature, I mean several things.

First, I mean the prose is exceptional. The writing is clean, flawless, takes no prisoners. If the book is bloated, that was a decision by the writer; much like a decision to misuse a semi-colon for emphasis.

Second, I mean the book contains a certain number of universal truths. These don’t need to be big truths, but can be small moments of humanity. They don’t have to be plausible or even possible. But they need to, on some level, be true. Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which I consider both literature and a perfect book, although perhaps not for small children, has a number of moments of implausibility that are, in fact, completely true. Coraline’s Other Mother provides everything we believe a Mother should be, and yet she is horrifying.

Why? Because she may do and say and act in the ways that we consider in an ideal mother, but she does not love Coraline in that way that her real mother, who acts and behaves in a way that one considers unmotherly. Yet the reader knows, virtually from the beginning, which mother is the real mother.

Moments like this are what I mean by true.

Third, the book has a sense of permanence. Very few serious readers will doubt that Harry Potter will last. At this point, it is probably a universal law of reading that the next generation and the next will read Harry Potter along with Narnia. Along with White Fang and Tom Sawyer and all of those books we call Children’s Literature when we buy then for Children, and Literature when we buy them for ourselves. These are the books that add to the cannon. Perhaps even knock a few out of it.

I have been fighting with writer friends off and on for ten years about the origins of Chick Lit (a genre I love but judge so harshly that outside of Helen Fielding, Helen Fielding, and Rebecca Wells that I almost never read it). I maintain (loudly) that Helen Fielding invented chick lit and rescued it from the pink corner of shame (romance) in the book store. How those genres differ from say the modern mystery (invented by Megan Abbott, Tana French, and Gillian Flynn) or household fiction is a topic for another post. But as far as I can tell, it’s not just me and the publishing houses who draw a distinction.

Others suggest chick lit has its origins in nineteenth century literature. Not the Brontes, not George Eliot, not even the socialite Edith Wharton. By others, I mean one of my warrior princess sisters who argues OVER AND OVER that Jane Austen is chick lit.

To say I fundamentally reject the notion that five books I have read well over 100 times founded chick lit during the regency period of British Literature, fundamentally changed the notion of the novel, and shaped the idea of the modern heroine is an understatement.

I might entertain the idea that Austen provided the foundations for Fielding, but Austen wrote literature. Exceptional prose (including intentionally long paragraphs replete with semi-colons), universal truths (stated within the first page), permanence. I love Bridget Jones. She is a masterpiece of a character.

But her books are not pushing the notion of the novel forward or in a new direction.

The fourth reason is metaphysical and resides well within the modern question: “What is Art?” Jonathan Franzen perhaps captured it best in a 2004 review of an Alice Munro short story collection (Munro being perhaps the most talented living writer of short stories) when he said, “Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I’ve made, the things I’ve done and haven’t done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion.”

For me both Franzen and Munro are in that handful. What I often call my top five (or top ten) living writers, along with the same dead writers, make up the back bone of classic and modern literature for me.

Even on my goodreads page, I distinguish between modern literature and modern fiction (https://www.goodreads.com/review/list/411786?shelf=read). I love to read and read constantly. I am a huge fan of genre fiction of all types (not so much on romance, but even that I will give a whirl, although I prefer it in the YA crack delivered by Rainbow Rowell and John Green). But when I worship, I worship at the alter of high art and when I say something modern is literature, it is me saying “THIS! THIS! THIS! is what changes the modern novel.”

Literature is my religion.

Inspired in part by that snarky dude from St. Louis and his musings, and in part by conversations with my best friend, who is perhaps even Snarkier than Franzen (assuming that is possible).

http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/my-higher-power/Content?oid=496294

 

 

 

 

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It’s Hard Not to Hate You: A Review

Dear Val,

I’m going to be straight with you. I bought your book because it was on sale at Half-Priced books (my inner indie book girl says with much shame) and because I liked the title. I’ve been traveling non-stop lately, and a snarky memoir seemed the perfect thing for when I was too tired to work any more, so I chucked you into my roller bag.

What I discovered, as you so aptly describe in your last chapter, was a validation of living in 3D emotions. It wasn’t so much a memoir about hate (although I will be saying “its hard not to hate you” for months), but a story about a woman both coming to terms with her own mortality while finding ways to balance self-empowerment and overt b!tchdom.

In many ways, your search for depth made me feel more secure in my often “too muchness,” too emotional, too self-critical and analytical, too needful to discuss and analyze feelings. So thanks.

Let me just say I think you are a wildly under-rated novelist. While I love the show Sex & the City, your treatment of “Smart vs. Pretty” is a stand-out for me. Keep writing. I suspect I will be ordering a second copy of your book (from my local indie bookstore Left Bank to properly atone) and placing it in many hands).

Perhaps your books are like your discussion of friends. Kinsella and Bushnell come and then make it into the “to sell pile” (how I ended up in the Half-Priced joint in the first place). Yours stay. They are lifers. And for a memoirist, who likes to think she is funny and loves to read, this was a particular treat. You finding your emotional intelligence and depth was a validation of my own.

Thank you for this hidden gem. And for making this fat jewish girl giggle and laugh and tear up.

xoxo

–CCS

PS: I’m kind of in love with Howie.

 

Work: An Adventure

Let us go then you and I, out into the star strewn sky like a patient etherized on a table. Oh do not stop to ask what is it, let us go and make our visit! — TS Eliot

My garden is overrun with weeds – both those known and those pernicious flowers and plants that will hijack a bed without constant vigilance – my horse is fat and lazy in the August heat, and my vigilance knows one direction.

Work.

It is my oldest and most preferred addiction. The reason I began this blog some five years ago, to find a voice and a self within the six minute increments. But that was then, and now, I have found myself a new purpose in this practice.

I write poems and travel, city to city, client to client, depo to depo, and somewhere in between the shadow and the soul, I find new meaning.

I dare not abandon my roses, the eldest approaching 120 years old, but the nice young men who cut my lawn are happy to make a little extra money taming some of the beasts.

Mr. Bojangles doesn’t mind the time off and still, despite my constant dash for this airport or that hotel, this drive, that meeting, we still jump and sing and have our moments.

I watch my work become a vocation, and all of my Catholic/Jewish roots tingle in the knowledge that I can do some good here.

And still, I find new parts of me, between the lines.

The trick, I must believe there is a trick, always there is a trick, is seeing the adventure. I’ve been practically everywhere, gypsy childhood on the road, but always there is a new restaurant, a new road, a new friend.

A new sketchbook filled with old buildings and new skyscrapers.

And there are poems, songs of Middle America, all of which exist between the lines, between the notes, I will say of a particularly skilled pianist.

Life is short and hard, but it is also sweet, sings la merchant.

I work.

I work and I discover that when they finally let you do the things you were meant to do, there is no measuring in six minutes. No measuring in sad Prufrockian coffee spoons.

There is adventure.

And for me, often terror, for I take what I do so seriously. The duty. The burden. But even on this long, hard days, I will pause, fingers groping for some charcoal to draw this life in suburbia (already apologizing to my dry cleaner as I beg her to make some black smudge disappear from my black and white skirt) and think …
Well now.

Let us go then.

And see what wonders we might find.

Perhaps not precisely life OUTSIDE of law these days.

Instead, a new adventure.

Life between the lines.

Which any poet will tell you, is where the best ideas reside.

This One Life

it is my life.

Perhaps not my one life,
my karmic slate tallying,
next time I want to be a cat,
do I endure?

Or will it be pergatorio for me because
I choose
at this point a
clean and simple place to cook
read work live
pergatorio, Ingvar Lindholm’s
tenors and contraltos
clear voices open to
indicate waiting

No amount of time on my knees will buy me a
seat in Peter’s Heaven, the one I rejected long ago
finding my knees had better uses

My DNA, those twisty double cords, have
little patience with waiting, no
tolerance for life now as a penance for life then
show me your mitzvahs, this your
*one* life, one chance to explore your person hood.

if I spend Saturday lolling in the sun
slow turning pages, slow sipping tea,
if I spend Saturday clapping for horses
who run because its their joy, after
trotting my own because its my passion,
if I spend Saturday working in his old shirt
ratty hair and smeary eye makeup, working and writing,
chanting, until I can chat with you…

well

It is my life, my one life, and I will look for joy, and
seeing it, seeing it shine in front of me

I will turn in my karmic slate, my bag of mitzvahs, my collected penance, and
trade any other potential future life for this
one life.

Hey, Jack Kerouac

you were a serious eyed literature junkie in 1995, you had to work to avoid the Beats. Every coffee house in every town had its own Neal Cassady. You would think he was the next William Carlos Williams. Sadly he he was not. You had to go to Ginsburg for that, but first it would help to learn how to read. Good luck finding someone who could do that.

So you sat and read alone

You learned who liked Junk or Queer and who could recite Kaddish or Howl from memory. Who just carried around On the Road and who could recite the Mad Ones with the right amount of irony and grief. The ones who knew that Karouac was a poet and a damn good one to boot.

One of the brightest stars in my constellation is my identity as a member of Generation X. I will grieve the passing of these days like a war bride grieved the parties of the USO. Back when we were too lazy and irresponsible to accomplish anything, before our younger siblings and cousins swallowed up the generation below us. Before we understood the normalcy of the twelve hour day and inherited the duty to go forth and colonize the workplace.

We wore Mary Janes and drank actual espresso and danced awkwardly in a-line mini dresses. We were mad to live, even if it meant slouching and worshipping Pulp Fiction, Daria, and the prose of the beats.

Ever the contrarian, I didn’t fall headlong into Alan, baby for another couple of years. I spent 1995 with the ex pats, escaping in Paris. With their parent’s generation, buying flowers, listening to Beethoven, and coming to and fro murmuring about Michelangelo, curled up in coffee house after coffee house after coffee house. I read the Beats early and would return to them at 20. When I wondered who expected me to fulfill this travesty of a plan spelled out in Woolf, Forster, and Elliot. Or the ruin of a life in Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Might as well live Parker would drawl.

In 1995, I stretched back and out, rooting myself firmly in my love of a clean well lighted place.

It would take me years to realize I needed to Howl. Another decade to learn how to do it properly.