Journal Linkage

The issue of Relief Journal is in the wild, and from what I’ve read, it’s a strong issue. If you have not taken a chance on this journal or recommended it to your book club or writing group, I encourage you to do it. It will be far better than watching the news. I look forward to their Daily Sacrament contest winner, which will be featured in the next issue.

Also, Relief is trying to nurture new writers with a writing network.

The journal storySouth is calling for nominations for the best online fiction. Last year’s winner was a sci-fi short called “There’s a Hole in the City” by Richard Bowes.

David Lynn talks about refusing stories for The Kenyon Review which have also been submitted to other journals.

And there’s a new monthly literary review, Open Letters. They claim to be “dedicated to the proposition that no writing which reviews the arts should be boring, back-patting, soft-pedaling, or personally compromised.”

Maybe Genres Should be Good, Better, Best?

Plenty of literary books are unreadable. Plenty of genre books are unthoughtful. So how do you distinguish the pearls of any theme from the hack work? You argue.

My fear – no, make that prediction – is that literary fiction will be increasingly marginalized as general interest publications focus on “books people actually read.”

J. Peder Zane is exaggerating on what people read, but it does hit close to the mark, doesn’t it? If few people want to read what we call literary fiction, why shouldn’t it be marginalized? If all the really good writing is actually in literary fiction, then it won’t suffer in the long-run and may suffer in the short-run if we continue teach our children not to value good writing.

How Sweet and Awesome Is the Place

How sweet and awe-some is the place

With Christ within the doors,

While everlasting love displays

The choicest of her stores.

Pity the nations, O our God!

Constrain the earth to come;

Send Thy victorious Word abroad,

And bring the strangers home.

We long to see Thy churches full,

That all the chosen race

May with one voice, and heart and soul,

Sing Thy redeeming grace.

by Issac Watts

Music Embodied in Words

The best poems express something that cannot be expressed in other words. Change a word, a syllable, and you’ve changed the expression. If I can read a poem with the same ease and certainty as I do a billboard or newspaper, it’s probably not a poem, though it may be propaganda.”

Thus spoke Anecdotal Evidence, giving us a good reason for accepting difficulty in poetry and persevering to understand it. The fundamental problem with this is that modern readers don’t know if a poem is worth trying to understand. Are there not plenty of poems written by pretentious post-grads who draw inspirations from personal experiences which outside readers cannot possible understand, like Bilbo riddling with the dragon on his adventures outside the Shire? What helps a reader persevere through a poem? For me, it’s the confidence or hope that I’m reading a great poet. So I will work to enjoy Yeats and Eliot, but P.J. Smithe?

Tar Baby: An Unusable Term?

What do you think about the term ‘tar baby’? In this AP story (link defunct), two presidential hopefuls have said of a difficult–dare we say ‘sticky’–situation that it is or would be a ‘tar baby’ for those involved. Both men apologized for using the term, but I don’t get it. Are the Uncle Remus stories anathema in our sensitive age? Or is this a return of the idiocy that cried out a few years ago when a politician who labeled someone as ‘niggardly’ was rebuked for his racist remark? That’s about as smart as trying to take the ‘hell’ out of ‘hello’ by saying ‘heaveno.’

Can I make this title shorter? Part 2

I have more to say about last night’s subject, come to think of it. The importance of fewer words. Like white space in graphics. Like pauses in music.

I know a pastor who’s a very effective preacher, but hopeless with words. He actually has, I think, a phobia about words (like my own phobia about numbers). Faced with a word choice, he grabs the first word that enters his mind and throws it against his meaning to see if it sticks. If it doesn’t, he throws another, and another, in the hope that the aggregate of all those words will be somewhere close to what he wants to communicate. If he weren’t good with gestures and facial expressions, nobody would ever know what he meant. But because he adds a lot of physical clues, he makes it work.

A lot of people try the same sort of thing with writing. They write a sentence and then think, “That’s not exactly what I meant.” So they add another sentence, or a lot of modifiers—adjectives and adverbs. In the end they walk away from the steaming pile of verbiage, hoping the meaning they intended is in there, somewhere.

That’s not readable writing.

I made a reference to Westerns last night. Think of all the Westerns you’ve ever watched. You’ll probably recognize the following scenario.

The bad guys ride into town, yahooing. They ride their horses on the boardwalks and into the saloons. They fire their pistols again and again, indiscriminately. Mothers snatch their babies up and run away, terrified of a stray bullet or ricochet.

Enter the hero. He doesn’t say much. He goes into the saloon and orders his drink. He refuses to talk to the rowdies.

They get angry. They taunt him.

He does nothing but drink his drink.

They shoot at the floor at his feet, to make him “dance.”

He doesn’t take the bait.

Finally they do (or say) something unforgivable.

Suddenly the hero is all action. But it’s limited, deliberate action. He draws his pistol. He may not even be fast with it. But his shooting isn’t indiscriminate. He fires three times. Three men fall, each of them shot dead center.

The hero has his weapon under control. He doesn’t use it more than necessary, but when he uses it he uses it with precision.

The writer’s weapon is his vocabulary. He doesn’t show it off. He doesn’t try to impress the reader with his fancy style. He uses the minimum number of words he needs to, but they’re precisely the words he wants.

(I know there are good writers who use a more flowery style. But even they, I think, need to learn to cut words first, before they can move on to an idiom of their own.)

“But how do I know the precise, right word?” you ask (using a redundancy you’ll need to work on).

There’s no royal road. Do what you need to do to expand your vocabulary. Read thesauri in your spare time. Do word puzzles in the newspaper. Read books above your reading level with a dictionary at your elbow.

Whatever you need to do, do it. Learn more words so you can use fewer of them. These are your tools. If you want to be a master, you need to control them and their uses.

American Thinking on Literature and Humanities

Some provocative questions by Thomas Mallon on American writing and scholarship at The American Scholar. I’ll point out one of them.

How can the contemplative mind survive in the multitasking, ADD-inducing world of digitization? Are we willing to face the downside of this great electronic boon? Do we really want students reading electronic texts of the classics that are festooned with more links than a Wikipedia entry? Aren’t a few moments of quiet bafflement preferable to an endless steeplechase across Web page after Web page?

Well said. We must learn to use our communication/entertainment equipment (PCs, PDAs, phones, TVs, and radios) instead of submitting to them. Do you do anything to help you think deeply or keep the demands of your electronics at bay?

Can I make this title shorter?

The amusing Dr. Luther at Luther at the Movies was playing with an aristocratic title generator yesterday. I went over and checked it out, and frankly it didn’t amuse me much. Too easy.

But at that site I noticed a link to this site, where you can purchase an official Scottish lairdship. Or so they claim.

Don’t say I never did anything to improve your quality of life.

How am I today? Much better, thanks. I went to bed about 9:00 last night, and slept till 6:00 a.m., and I woke up much improved.

My working hypothesis on what happened to me is that my body was overwhelmed by the unprecedented amount of sound sleep it’s been getting lately. It had to shut down for a while to recalibrate.

I was listening to talk radio today in the car, and when I got where I was going I turned it off. I noticed immediately how much more pleasant the silence was than the preceding discussion had been.

That put me in mind of a saying attributed to Calvin Coolidge (which means somebody else probably actually said it): “I try never to say anything that won’t improve on silence.”

Those words have been guiding lights to me all my life.

You might not realize it, knowing me only from these posts, but I’m known as a man of few words. Partly because I grew up in a situation where saying the wrong thing was physically dangerous, I learned to keep my own counsel and save my fire for the moment when I can drop one pithy, memorable, and possibly funny statement into the mix.

Because of this policy I have a reputation for being smarter than I am.

I’m perfectly OK with that, by the way.

But I think it might be a help to me in writing too. Less isn’t always more, in spite of the cliché, but in modern writing it definitely helps.

An example comes from one of my favorite books, Heimskringla, (or The Sagas of the Kings of Norway) by the Icelander Snorri Sturlusson—the most exciting and readable history book written in the Middle Ages.

There’s a scene in the saga of King Harald Hardrada (who deserves to be much better known than he is). Harald has come into open conflict with one of his jarls (earls), a man named Haakon. who spared an enemy of Harald’s against his orders. Harald goes out to attack Haakon with an army. He defeats him, but it’s uncertain whether the jarl survived or not. As the king’s army is going home, a man suddenly leaps from the forest into the path, grabs the jarl’s captured standard, kills the man carrying it, and disappears into the trees again.

In the earlier versions of the saga that Snorri used for sources, Harald replies with a fairly long speech about how dangerous an enemy Haakon is, and how everyone should be on guard.

In Snorri’s version, Harald just says, “The jarl is alive. Bring me my armor.”

Think of the impression Clint Eastwood made by doing the Man With No Name westerns almost entirely without lines.

Writers do well to remember how powerful a few, well-chosen words can be.

Wow! It’s snowing hard out there.

Winter is alive. Bring me my sweater.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture