The State of Literary Art V: Theory Schmeory…

Do we need a theory of creative writing? Would that save higher education? Uh, nope…

(For previous essays in this series, look hereherehere and here.)

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

This essay in the series of essays on Joe David Bellamy’s assessment of American writing ventures into territory that may be irrelevant by the time I finish this. In this section of Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium, Bellamy tackles a problem that is solving itself – although not in a way that Bellamy, or anyone in academia or creative writing expected at the time of this book’s appearance in 1995.

The section containing Bellamy’s dispute with the structure of English departments and their contentious relationships with creative writing programs is called “Literary Education.” In a pair of essays called “The Theory of Creative Writing I: Keeping the Frog Alive” and “The Theory of Creative Writing II: the Uses of the Imagination and the Revenge of the Pink Typewriter” Bellamy discusses the two main issues that plagued relations between English departments and creative writing programs: the rise of literary theorists and their increasingly esoteric and irrelevant (to the teaching of English, particularly thinking and writing, anyway) specializations, and the emphasis on analytical/critical approaches to all learning that permeate academic instruction.

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Book Review: The Day the Mirror Cried by Saundra Kelley

An interesting olio of tales, vignettes, and short stories with poetry used as a gloss…Kelley’s collection offers nods to Faulkner, Capote, O’Connor, and other Southern legends….

The Day the Mirror Cried by Saundra Kelley (image courtesy Goodreads)

Saundra Kelley’s new book The Day the Mirror Cried reflects a couple of facets of her professional life. Kelley is a professional storyteller, a member of the Storytellers’ Guild, based in one of the capitals of that oral art form, Jonesborough, Tennessee. But Kelley also is a student of literature, and this work, a rambling collection of what she calls “reflections,” “odd memories,” and “ruminations,” shows that while she has a deep understanding of the folkloric character of storytelling, she also has a deep appreciation of great writing. The Day the Mirror Cried is laced with allusions to the work of great Southern writers even as it offers its own fascinating insights into the culture of native Floridians.

Unlike the typical story collection which often progresses towards a key centerpiece work that gives the collection its name, Kelley begins with  the piece that gives her work its title. “The Day the Mirror Cried” will remind readers of one of Faulkner’s most widely known stories, “A Rose for Emily,” and Kelley does a fine job of nodding to the great Mississippian while keeping true to her own tale. This story, which opens the first section of The Day the Mirror Cried, sets up some of the other nods to Southern Gothic tale telling that appear with it such as “The Ship’s Lantern” and “Laugh at the Moon No More.” One other story, “Emerald Forest,” is affecting in the same way as a Truman Capote tale: what begins as curiosity ends up in a sinister situation, changed in Kelley’s story by the intercession of a protective relative (and here the story echoes the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood with the main character’s brother acting the role of the woodsman). Continue reading

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Book Review: St. Nic, Inc. by S.R. Staley

It’s not Santa Claus vs. the Martians – it’s Santa Claus (sorta) vs. the DEA – which is, come to think of it, almost as nuts…

St. Nic, Inc by S.R. Staley

Sam Staley’s latest book is a Christmas story. It’s not, however, the sort of Christmas story ones hears in homes on Christmas Eve. There are no shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” or flying reindeer jockeyed by a “right jolly old elf.” Staley’s book is a Christmas story with all the 21st century twists: the North Pole is home to NP Enterprises, a slickly run distribution company with billions in revenues and a 26 year old MIT trained computer geek CEO named Nicole who employs large numbers of talented, intelligent people who happen to have the condition known as – you guessed it – dwarfism; its ability to operate is based on economic funding from a 21st century source – a computer operating system superior to others on the market; and its problems within the narrative come from overzealousness on the part of a government official.

NP Enterprises is a family owned business founded by Nicole’s great grandfather, a Dutchman named Nicholas Klaas, who moved to the Far North and began making toys which he sold to trappers and hunters for their children. Through succeeding generations the business evolved into a world wide organization dedicated to providing toys to deserving impoverished children. Funded originally by toy sales, the company has become very successful through NP 2000, a software system that helps businesses small and large manage data ranging from inventory to sales. As a result the company moves large amounts of money around – a practice that draws the attention of that overzealous government official I mentioned – a guy named Getko who is a special agent for the DEA and is looking to make another big career splash by busting up what he is certain is a money laundering operation serving drug cartels. Somehow, he figures that the cartels have figured out a way to move money not only through the usual Los Angeles and Miami systems but have built their own distribution system located in the Far North – near the North Pole. So he sets up a massive operation to run a drug raid on – Santa.

If this seems like a cockamamie plot line to you, take a look at some of the real hypotheses the DEA has come up with over the years. This one won’t seem so goofy. Continue reading

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The State of Literary Art IV: Fiction that is “Super” – or Maybe Just Superfluous…

What Joe David Bellamy calls “super fiction” may well have led us to the superfluous…

Literary Luxuries by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

(For previous essays in this series, look herehere and here.)

After a week away, we return to Joe David Bellamy’s Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium. This will likely be the most interesting – and perhaps controversial – essay in this series because of Bellamy’s subject matter. The section of the book from which the Bellamy pieces to be discussed is called “Literary Meteorology,” and the subject matter is part and parcel of the argument that raged throughout the 20th century not just in literary circles but in other areas of what used to be known as “high art” – visual art and “serious” music: how far can artists (of all types) go in terms of experimentation with style and subject matter before they “lose” their audiences and end up “creating” only for themselves – and some precious few critics who value difficulty in ascertaining meaning as the highest hallmark of artistic achievement.

There are three essays in this section of Literary Luxuries, the first two of which deserve the most attention. “Superfiction: Fiction in an Age of Excess” is the first and allows Bellamy to argue the the tumult of the 1960’s  is responsible for the emergence of a “new” type of fiction – a type of work that Bellamy labels superfiction - this is fiction that no longer feels the need to be tied to the conventions of realism – or even to readily discernible presentations of human experience. Superfiction, as Bellamy delineates it, seeks to challenge our perceptions of what language is, what reading comprehension is, what reality is. At this point most readers can probably name the authors that Bellamy cites as the key figures in the rise of superfiction: Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon – and Kurt Vonnegut? Vonnegut is a highly clever choice, of course, because more than any of the other writers mentioned in Bellamy’s essay, lauded though they have been and are in many literary circles, those others are considered “academic darlings”: Vonnegut is much more the “everyman” sort – a genre writer who transcended his genre (sci-fi) to become a literary figure in much the same way that Mark Twain, the apotheosis of everyman as American literary genius,  did a century earlier.  Continue reading

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Book Review: Mercedes Wore Black by Andrea Brunais

Mercedes Wore Black is either a romantic political thriller or a political thriller romance – that’s for the reader to decide…

Mercedes Wore Black by Andrea Brunais (image courtesy Goodreads)

Andrea Brunais is a highly decorated former investigative reporter in Florida. Her new novel, Mercedes Wore Black, reflects her knowledge of Florida politics,investigative journalism, and the changing media climate for reporters who want to write – and writers who want to report.  It’s an interesting book, always lively, at times funny, at times deeply troubling, at times a little frustrating.

Like the Florida politics it depicts with pointed insight, it’s kind of a hot mess.

The novel concerns an investigative journalist, Janis Hawk, who is fired by her newspaper – seemingly as part of the wholesale downsizing of newspapers that goes on apace – but Hawk’s firing has, as one would guess from the introduction, political motives. She’s been stepping on the toes of the rich and powerful: developers who want to ruin delicate sea grass beds to gouge out a deep water docking area at a port only a few miles from plenty of deep water anchorage; an unscrupulous gaming management company trying to take over the Florida lottery business; and, of course, politicians whose greed, lust, and general smarminess they would prefer not to have discussed in public. Luckily – for both Hawk and the plot – Janis has a wealthy and powerful 2nd wave feminist mentor and friend who puts her into business as a journalist blogger which allows Hawk to continue her investigative reporting. This brings her into contact with both friends (the Mercedes of the title, for example, is an old college friend working for the gubernatorial campaign of a maverick politician with high ideals) and enemies (see above).  From those connections, as the old saw goes, things get interesting.

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Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book: Imagining Reality

Jansson’s brilliance is her understanding that the world of childhood and the world of adulthood are separated by the thinnest of distances – sort of an “It’s just a jump to the left” thing….

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson (image courtesy Goodreads)

Once again my fellow “mad for reading” sort Wufnik got to me.

Wuf wrote an intriguing piece about the Finnish writer Tove Jansson, she of “Moomins” fame, who also had a significant career as a writer of works for adults. I was vaguely familiar with the Moomin books (terrific stuff for children and adults smart enough to realize that kids like the best stuff), but I had no experience with – actually, knowledge of – her work for adults. So after reading Wufink’s essay on the dreamlike, magical memoir Sculptor’s Daughter, I expanded my 2014 reading list yet again (I have got to do a post to share the added works I’ve been reading) to add one of Jansson’s works. My choice was one of Jansson’s earliest forays into adult fiction, the in-its-own-right dreamlike and magical (magical and dreamlike aren’t fair terms to use for Jansson, for she has those qualities in ways that make other writers see uncomfortably pedestrian – in fact, what she does probably should have resulted in the coinage of its own term – Janssonesque) work, The Summer BookContinue reading

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Ian McEwan’s Atonement: Very Good – But That Gimmicky Ending…

McEwan’s novel is well written and has a fine plot – except for the gimmicky ending…

Atonement by Ian McEwan (image courtesy Goodreads)

This essay about a work from my 2014 reading list looks at one of the most successful novelists of the last two decades. Ian McEwan has had a highly successful run as a commercially successful and acclaimed writer. His 2001 novel Atonement was short listed for the Booker Prize (England’s most prestigious literary award) and was made into a highly successful motion picture in 2007.

In most ways Atonement is a worthy novel. The theme, which examines the results of allowing one’s imagination to overpower one’s reason and senses, allows McEwan to examine the role of the artist in society and issues of class prejudice and family dysfunction. McEwan writes with both authority and skill and has a grasp of language that allows him at times to play with words (especially in his descriptions of the novel’s “writer” character, Briony Tallis, and her early forays into writing).   Continue reading

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