Even as a kid, I remember reading stories and being enamored not only by the characters, plots, and settings but also by the notion that there was a personal presence behind the telling, that someone out there, some author, had first imagined into being what I as the reader was now imagining into being. As much as I loved reading, this idea of being the first imaginer was something that I always aspired to, and I was lucky as a young writer to have had many good teachers—from elementary school all the way up through my graduate programs—who cultivated this aspiration.
I am describing Gene Wolfe’s magnum opus, the epic ‘science-fantasy’ known altogether as the Solar Cycle, for the series which comprise it are called The Book of the New Sun (with its sequel The Urth of the New Sun), The Book of the Long Sun, and The Book of the Short Sun. Of these, I have read only the first four novels (the top two volumes of my pile), the Book of the New Sun.
I once heard a female academic talk about the necessity of “de-gendering the private sphere,” and the past year would certainly seem to confirm that, what with children (including my own) and baskets of dirty laundry creeping into the backgrounds of Zoom calls.
Tarjei Vesaas’s final book fascinates me more than the others because of its form. It is a series of images—as I have just used the term, these moments of consciousness-in-place that become character-defining—a kaleidoscope of them (that word means a sequence of beautiful images)…but do they add up to a story? If so, what or whose story?
I want the sheen of the easy finish. Don’t I deserve it, by now? But that’s the dishonesty everywhere now, from The New York Times to CPAC. Instead, the task remains, to take the uneven thread of words, just as with the backstitches of embroidery, and pull them out, and pull them back in—this is not just writing or sewing, but soul-making, too.
Books are also made from other books. I picture literature as a house haunted by the ghosts of authors past, full of echoes and whispers. I may only be able to name the literary ancestors of a given book after the fact, but I always know that they exist.
Stories do not end. The teller of the tale falls silent. If the telling is done well, we feel we’ve truly seen into the world where fiction occurs, and when the teller of the tale falls silent we sense that the story goes on, just as it extends back further than we perceive before the teller began the tale.
I want to write about a certain kind of prose. It is the kind of prose that gets lost in itself. The kind of writing that tumbles head over heels and threatens to drown in its own wake. But not quite. The kind of prose that drowns completely is not so interesting. And the prose that never gets lost is not so interesting either.
My mother read mysteries by American authors, but I have never been interested in mysteries set elsewhere than in England. The best of all such mysteries, in my opinion, and perhaps the one that best justifies my feeling for the genre, is the one that I have just re-read, Sayers’s finest work, The Nine Tailors.
Entry for the twenty-eighth Day in the eleventh Month of the Year that Disease and Mania overspread the World
I have become friends with a White Pine. Go up the Hill from my house, through the Neighborhood, and as you descend again toward the valley that holds the Highway you come to a triangle of undeveloped land. A path runs through this Little Woods, opening onto the underpass, and there, on the other side of the Highway, you can climb again into the Larger Woods that grow on the hills over the River and fill its bottomlands.
Within Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha universe, making Dilsey the spiritual center, the concrete embodiment of Christian faith, was doubtlessly intended to be the exact opposite of a racist gesture. But is putting her on a pedestal actually a form of condescension?
Like the printing press, the internet seems to have created an almost idolatrous relationship with the written word. There are, of course, exceptions, but the tenor of most online discourse today is literal-minded and judgmental, with more than a whiff of the Salem Witch trials about it.
I went on an Anthony Trollope binge last year. It still seems a guilty pleasure, an unexpected detour in my reading list. My literary tastes are more Elizabethan than Victorian, and Trollope’s novels are thick, juicy slices of Victorian sensibility.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider’s narrative center focuses on a woman as fully realized as we might imagine ourselves to be today—a bone-weary professional woman moving in a smoky newsroom, navigating challenges (co-workers, actors angry at bad reviews) that seem amazingly contemporary.
I haven’t seen these notions of truth—both the old ideal of the “objective” one and the more current, perspectival one—mixed in a more arresting manner than in Susan Choi’s 2019, National Book Award-winning novel, Trust Exercise.
As we “shelter at home” during this pandemic, you might be wondering what to do with your involuntary down time besides binge-watching on Netflix. If you’re looking for what sense others have made of plagues and pestilence, I have a few bookish ideas.