Friday, May 31, 2013

Dragon-Tamers, Dante's Inferno and the Writer as Literary Navigator

What is an author? Not merely a penner of fancies, a fabricator of fairy-tales, but, in the greatest of literary traditions, a navigator of the reader-trodden byways of their own fictional work. One who has not only traveled this way before but possesses an intimate acquaintance with each slight curvature of road, and with far-seeing omniscient eye winks at our fresh innocence; navigator and map-maker who holds the world in the palm of his hand. Uncharted regions were, in medieval practice, inscribed with the phrase hic sunt dracones (here be dragons) referring to claw-footed beasts of ferocious intent, horned men and monstrous serpents that lurked beyond the horizon; mythical miscreants expressive of the disquietude associated with the dark unknown quarters of things.

The author, however, has not only plumbed the depths in the intimacy of literary creation but has tamed the dragon that slumbers in the far-reaches. For like Virgil who guides Dante through the nine circles of hell he possesses vast knowledge of all things; yet we the reader are struck to the marrow by each new revelation, tentative explorers of a bright new world where all beyond the page remains, for a time, shrouded in the dark expectation of yet-unread.

In present-day versions of the Inferno particular punishments may have been reserved for the compromised writer: one selling without soul, the mindless purveyor of literary tripe (and doubtless for this narrator who arrogantly assumes the prerogative of judgement!) The Virgil-author accompanies us through the turn of page, through the concentric circles of punishment, and the accumulation of gathered understandings. In the sixth circle lies the city of Dis, entrenched and entombed within the Stygian marsh; here the epicureans are trapped within flaming tombs. The linguistically wily, the users of flattering verbiage occupy the ninth circle to which the two poets descend on the back of the winged monster Geryon. These misusers of language are mired and steeped in human excrement, evocative of words utilized in life. These escalating bands of  inventive torture function not merely as a form of divine retribution but serve as the warped gratification of a destiny readily chosen during life. That is not to say all fictional works find analogy in the grim shadows of Dante's inferno - merely a mechanism expressive of the dramatic human plight that lies at life's core, and the oft-times torturous trail that we follow passing through it.

So perhaps writers, manipulators of words, guide the Dante-novice as well as occupy the rings through which they pass. They themselves inhabit the narrative, permeate the prose, breathe beneath the skin of each character, infiltrate the landscape just as they draw us through it. The author occupies all spheres simultaneously: the disembodied voice, the Absent One whose perspective filters through the prose like an incarcerated divinity behind a gossamer veil; the omniscient repository of wisdom particular to this literary journey. They are the one who take us to the brink of some hitherto unimagined literary expanse, whether it be the moons of some fantastical world or the prosaic routine of white-collar modernity - but there is always something under the surface. The placidity, the comfortable conformity, is inevitably disrupted. For the ongoing narrative is a dramatic one, and our guide will see us through the pitfalls and the predicaments. This, after all, is the furious admixture of life - the convulsive tempestuousness of character interaction set amidst a vividly imagined panorama.

Conrad's The Secret Agent opens with a simple description of a rather dilapidated storefront, Balzac's Lost Illusions with the antiquated tools of printing-presses that will prove so instrumental to S├ęchard's trade, Dickens' Oliver Twist in the grim workhouse located within the town of Mudfog, but with each one feels the authorial hand taking our own, astutely aware of the journey in its entirety; but for us the path ahead is darkly shrouded - just our ever-present attendant beckoning us onwards, pointing out environmental features, providing the contextual immediacy within which the plot will begin to unwind like Theseus' thread before us. As Virgil guided Dante, so Lord Krishna counseled Prince Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita - an epic narrative that like the Iliad formed a battleground allegory for the ethical and moral struggles of life. The text itself is designated smiriti or 'that which is remembered' as opposed to texts divinely revealed - thus diminished by its mortal origins but to my mind imbued with the poignant wisdom and courage that escapes Gods of Old, the Immortals who intrinsically comprehend neither courage nor sacrifice in the face of impending death. For the writer a text remembered is perhaps the most sublime achievement of all, implying a centrality of collective pertinence if you will, a literary representation of humanity's most prevalent of themes: a reiteration, a recognition, a renewed awareness of the central questions of what it means to be human; a literary echo that, like Jung's archetypes, resounds through subsequent reading generations.

Dante and Virgil escape Hell by climbing down Satan's ragged fur, passing through the center of the earth and emerging in the opposite hemisphere beneath a star-studded sky. Just as we traverse the literary peaks, precipices and verdant valleys of a narrative work, the author travels a path beside us, resides within the characters we encounter along the way, and imbues all with a feverish expectancy for that which is to come. He (or she) is a whisperer of wisdom, a distant parent, a conjuror of magic, a God...a revealer of uncomfortable truths; or perhaps merely a silent companion, a shadow glimpsed in peripheral vision...of substance so intangible as to be barely there - a ghost in the literary machine.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Writing Self: Love Letters and the Unadorned Intensity of Prose

It has been suggested to me as of late that the written word was merely a poor cousin to the declared equivalent, that the spoken variation was indubitably to be preferred when the choice existed between the two. I beg to differ; indeed remain convinced that there are particular circumstances in which the inscribed phrase reigns supreme. Kafka offers intriguing insight: "I write differently from what I speak, I speak differently from what I think, I think differently from the way I ought to think, and so it all proceeds into deepest darkness." In this analysis manifested modalities of the expressive self reveal disparate attributes, with the written variant being quite distinct from verbalizing or ruminating corollaries.

Words, written or pondered, jostle through my veins hitching a ride with the haemoglobin in the swirl and stream of red blood cells, or cascade through the neural network like the flash and fire of a storm-lit cloudbank; they are an integral component within the context of a writer's life, as essential to intellectual nourishment as water is to the sustenance of the physical self. Perhaps I might take Kafka's rumination and add a caveat of my own: for the laboring writer a pondered word oft-becomes a written one...unspoken perhaps, but for all it's muteness encapsulating a powerful intensity that can, in certain circumstances, achieve an absolute pinnacle of expression.

With this in mind I have been musing upon the emotive force of simply written words; contemplating most particularly the powerful phrase and the manner in which the deliberate aggregation, clustering and recombination of letters can produce a sequence of words so imbued with an emotional intensity that they can bring us to tears. Love letters convey a message more fervent than the spoken equivalent could do - they are unadorned by material trappings, literally a congregation of ink on paper that somehow envelops and conveys a broader impassioned ardor: a metaphorical life-blood spill, a tremulous heartbeat defined in ink.

Imagine, if you will, the lover's utterance at the other end of a scrawled declaration: pronounced with all the attendant nervousness of uncertain reception, or with the languid smoothness of an accomplished Lothario - and almost immediately your mind's eye is assailed with distractions - the appearance of things, the oily sheen of hair, the twitch and murmur of restless limbs, the thrum and clatter of ambient bustle. One must force a certain attentive focus to the spoken words and even then a sentence is pronounced and the previous forgotten....that within the confines of breathless moment, the uttered words fly and disperse like mist in the warmth of the rising sun. Writing these words, however, I am reminded of Eliot's Love Song and the shallow digressions of indifferently languorous women denigrating onset baldness and lanky limbs. I do not disparage the declaration of affection, quite the contrary - but simply admire the stark intensity of the written equivalent.

Jack London writes to Anna: "You elude me. I cannot place you, cannot grasp you. I  may boast that of nine out of ten, by their word or action, I may feel the pulse of their hearts. But of the tenth I despair. It is beyond me. You are that tenth." Or Balzac to Evaline: "My beloved angel. I am nearly mad about you, as much as one can be mad: I cannot bring together two ideas that you do not interpose yourself between them." Or Kafka:."for hours on end my head hums with the desire to hear the name Felice..." I cannot help but feel that love letters achieve a certain ascendency; perhaps it is also the implied nakedness, the laying bare of the soul, the revelation of vulnerabilities and the poignantly yearning hope.

When reading these ardently eloquent letters, so utterly private in their intended audience, I abhor the very notion of another reading them aloud - a misplaced intermediary that squarely positions themselves between myself and the narrative. One cannot get lost in the content with such physical impediments to the imagination; but then I  have never been inclined to books-on-tape: infinitely preferring a self-directed pace, the flexibility to read and re-read, the prerogative to formulate my own perceptions of the narrative sound and rhythm. But it is a context-specific preference - literary prose of the descriptive kind, the lush gorgeousness of depicted environment, or the particular predilections of a well-drawn out character - these works I invariably prefer to linger over, to read and re-read passages of delighted appreciation....relying for interpretation upon my unique imaginative landscape that colors the literary hillside and imbues it with the most pungent of flavors.

It may also be a nostalgic thing - for indubitably the love letters of the kind referenced above were of a different age, one of letters ink-penned and stamped, where lipstick marks, coffee rings, smears and blotches provided visual clues to the writer's state of mind. Love letters now tend to be of an electronically transmitted variety, formulated in the relative sterility of binary code and instantaneously sent and delivered through the dark obscurity of cyberspace. Sans wineglass rings, tear-stains and inky flourishes. The words are the same, they are simply draped in a more blandly uniform garment - generically typed as opposed to the flamboyance of unique penmanship. Certainly, contemporary penned letters of love are not unknown - but what treasures they are indeed! Denoting the painstaking care taken, the implied patience in post and receipt - they are a rarity in the rapid-fire age of electronic immediacy.

For the writer, it is not simply the romantic allure of love, but the written expression of the innermost emotional self - the laying bare of what lies at the center. It is the labored work of focused emotional intent transcribed by all manner of men and women - writers and otherwise. Missives that were intended to be read, fraught with the stops, starts and stutters, the scrawls and start-overs, the crossed out bits and the smeared corrections, they are a literary testimonial (from the fluttering paper to the faint lingering fragrance) of a profound emotional connection. Reading them I can readily imagine the eager haste with which the envelope is torn and discarded, the anxious rush over words, the fearful crescendo of a heartbeat slowly subsiding...' they are alive - they love me still.' With an intensity all the greater for the lack of all else - simply the eloquent loneliness of ink-clustered letters that fill a page or two...

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Linnaeus and the Literary Affliction of Genre-Confusion


I am afflicted with a persistent case of genre-confusion, the primary symptom of which is the inability (or reluctance) to appropriately classify a completed literary work within the accepted gamut of genre allocations. The heart of the matter is perhaps not the specificity of the genres themselves but the fact that they appear to be largely mutually exclusive. 'Literary' forms a distinct publishing category from 'historical' and in good Kipling tradition "never the twain shall meet."

This literary segregation is initially encountered when seeking an agent for a work freshly-completed; or perhaps prior for those writers comfortably established within the known confines of a particular genre. I cannot claim such literary snugness. My novels seem more an amalgamation of disparate things: while indubitably set in the past they incorporate strains of the suspenseful, the literary, the political and the romantic. They are, perhaps, representative of the literary mongrel as opposed to the purity of a genre-thoroughbred; incorporating all the diverse elements that together infuse the narrative with a particular personality that somehow eludes ready classification.

Certainly there are a profusion of reference books to assist in this process, that define and classify works in very specific ways; many of which are then themselves imbued with specific genre-expectations in regard to length, character formation, and nature of prose contained therein.  Unfortunately for the literary mongrels among us (and I do not mean this in a derogatory sense - rather works encapsulating a multitude of literary expression that defy tidy categories) the placement of ones work is a prerequisite to agent-acquisition. My recent novel The Goodwin Agenda is set in 1803 which seems to immediately presuppose its inclusion in 'historical' (although that also begs the question, when does historical end and modernity kick in?) These distinctions seem more useful in marketing applications; a preliminary expediency insofar as agents and publishing houses are concerned, engaged as they are in the selling and branding of a particular kind of novel. For the intended readership there is an 'expected' element analogous to the offerings of franchise restaurants: the product tends to be unvarying and satisfaction, for those who prefer literary consistency, more assured. Certainly there are a profusion of well-written novels that fall neatly and conveniently within one genre-category or another, but what of those that do not? And indeed is this genre-classification broadly useful or even broadly accurate?

This general application of literary codification seems somewhat reminiscent of Carl Linnaeus' system of classification as applied to biological organisms. He established a binomal nomenclature that specifically defines a plant or an insect within a readily identifiable taxonomy based on physical attributes (Mammalia, for example, was subsequently defined with ever greater specificity according to the number, structure and arrangement of teeth). The literary process of genre-appraisal examines a narrative with the expectation of squeezing it into some specific category or other. The scientific endeavor serves to define, compartmentalize, and order according to genus or species - which not only enables scientific inquiry in regard to specificity of ecosystem in a rapidly-changing world, but offers insight into the dizzying array of diversity to which the earth is home. Of course they are not the same: literary genre-application comprise a broader brush with vastly different intent, but perhaps the thought-association is an intriguing one.

So having reluctantly designated a particular genre (as ill-fitting as the garment appears to be), how is the literary fate of that piece then narrowed and preconceived through the filtered perspective of that particular genre-judge? Romance novels are notoriously specific in regards to inclusion criteria - characters and plot-lines adhere to a predominately predefined formula which are then packaged up (all of suitable length) and inevitably covered with a sensuously posed woman in scanty-attire with a broadly muscled chest in attentive proximity. For the avid reader of such works (and there are indeed many) there is a warm satisfaction in the duplication of what has become a most successful narrative formula; the literary equivalent, for many, of comfort food.

I wonder, however, whether for some writers a specific genre-formula is more honored in the breech than the observance, and that the very best of novels elude such prescribed, predefined allotments. For there are indubitably fine works of science fiction that examine the human predicament, that might in fact be characterized as literary if the protagonist physiognomy was a little less elven; works set in the past, that might more readily be classified political thriller if they had taken place fifty years later. Is there not also a timeliness to genre classification? When does a classic become a classic? Does it require a certain amount of intervening time, removed from our familiar age and issues? A degree of chronological resiliency? A wide readership ubiquitously assenting to a level of achieved excellence? The bestowal of literary awards? There is a prevailing genre-ambiguity which narrows the reading demographic, and condenses the glorious variety of literary threads to simply one - irrespective of fit.

I continue to write in utter oblivion to genre-classifications (which may very well be to my detriment in procuring a literary agent) but the work within me, like the complexity of life I seek to convey, is a rather motley assemblage of diverse elements that seem to ignore, span, encompass and bridge conventional categories. My next novel will similarly, inevitably, tinker with genre-expectations; endeavoring to create a historical fiction work of literary bent, with suspenseful interludes, political reference and romantic escapades - thusly encompassing elements of numerous genres within the confines of one: historical fiction, literary, thriller, romance. So is there a trump card? Do all these contributory threads defer to one? Does historical fiction then emerge as the dominant genre in this regard? Can the novel then be submitted to agents interested in all these above genres? Does that not then defeat the process of classification, and the initial attempt to constrain and define? And indeed should such works should be subject to such narrow rigidity?

For art, unlike Linnaeus' particular subjects, often elude classification - they are of the more incorporeal kind, comprised of dark whispers and faint suggestions of a subliminal world, of profoundest impact in the provoked effect rather than the ink-printed solidity of the novel itself; literary works find their most powerful definition in the neural cascade of an emotional receptivity, the intangible impressions of the imaginative minds' eye, in the ability, like magic, to conjure up, with all vibrant veracity, that which does not intrinsically exist outside of our own mind.

To quote the great Swedish taxonomist himself: "Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence." Perhaps the key for literary genre-allocation lies within Linnaeus' eloquent words - that like the ever-expanding multitude of species that are defined as they come to biological light, literary works (due to their innate complexity) also need a similarly limitless genre-array in which to place themselves; a classification defined by membranes of a more permeable kind. But of course this impractical entreaty results in a genre-blend, a literary soup in which one type can hardly be differentiated from another. The solution? Perhaps simply an increased flexibility with the Linnaeun option of establishing a hierarchical arrangement: with a major in historical and a minor in thriller, literary and romance. I have also become aware that greater genre-flexibility is accorded to writers of proven publishing performance - the implication being that genre-mixology remains the provenience of the literary adept, at least insofar as traditional agencies and houses are concerned.

So I remain singularly unable to postulate a practical solution, but obdurately committed to my particular kind of writing that eschews ready genre classification: resigned to the allocation ambiguity of my own literary mongrels. Like the author that penned them, they are a product of a diverse number of influences and accumulations of thought; they are indubitably their own complicated literary endeavors, and any placement-complex or misfit-anxieties that they might experience once fully-fleshed is met by a twinkle in the authorial eye. There is a certain pride in the authenticity of a work (whether it can be readily classified or not) that perhaps, at the end of the day, is indeed all.