Salman Rushdie on The Role of the Writer

pregnant woman, reading, Kindle

photo: Ed Yourdan, creative commons license

In a Princeton talk last week, Sir Salman not only discussed the role of the novel in, as he said, “a world of lies,” but also how writers must work in the modern world.

The fast pace of today’s world suggests that literary writers cannot be too topical without risking irrelevance in the near future. Shakespeare’s plays have survived four hundred years because they were about universal human truths, even if his characters bore the names of actual historical figures.

Nor can writers choose too large a theme (“everything”) without risking violation of the human scale at which the novel form excels. Thus it may be difficult to take on large-scale issues, as noted author  Amitav Ghosh encourages literary authors to do, especially around the central challenge facing humanity today, climate change. Another way of saying this emerged in a recent Rebecca Mead profile of Margaret Atwood. “A novelist necessarily imagines the fate of individuals,” Mead says, in harmony with Rushdie. “The human condition is what the novel was made for exploring.”

Yet in The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood put her characters in a story with a huge theme: radically changed power dynamics in an American society that has become a fundamentalist theocracy. Imagining such alternative realities should be the literary fiction-writer’s strength, Gawande believes. I’d love to hear the three of them discuss this issue together. I think they’d agree that, regardless of the novel’s scope, it’s the characters that make it resonate with readers.

Another feature of modern life affecting authors is the loss of space between public and private action. He said that Jane Austen’s books, though replete with soldiers, never referred to the Napoleonic wars. Nor did Dickens ever mention the British Empire. The characters in these books lived unimpeded and unaffected by world events. Such is no longer true. “The history of the United States is now the history of everywhere else,” he said. We live in a world where we are barraged by outside forces, many of which can change our lives. It is not only our character that shapes our destinies, or those elements of chance and randomness that have always entered in, but the world around us (another point of agreement with Ghosh).

Today, it seems people try to narrow their identities to one feature of themselves—Republican, feminist, Asian-American, computer nerd—which makes it harder to find common ground with others. The novel has always understood that we’re all a collection of selves, he said, and which comes to the fore depends on circumstances. I’m reminded of a conversation between Winston Churchill and portraitist Graham Sutherland in the TV series The Crown, when Churchill asks (paraphrasing here) “Are you going to paint me as a venerated statesman or as a sturdy English bulldog?” and the painter responds, “I imagine there are quite a few Churchills in there.”

Art tries to increase our awareness of what is possible for us to see and know. For that reason, artists must push the boundaries, despite inevitable opposition. Meanwhile, it’s the duty of everyone to work to protect our culture, the products of art. The power of art to outlast tyranny is great, but the power of artists, not so much, he said. They need to be defended too.

Cliff-Hangers: Learning from the Masters

Harold Lloyd, cliff-hangerLast Friday’s quick tips about writing cliff-hangers can help keep your reader immersed in your story. Today, here’s some of what we can learn from the masters. (Sources listed below). The Victorian novelists who published serials—like Charles Dickens—had to create chapter endings that would bring readers back the next week or month. The successful ones became experts at it.

  • Thus, clinging fast to that slight spar (her infant child) within her arms, the (dying) mother drifted out upon the dark and unknown sea that rolls round all the world. Not: “She was dead.” By referencing the common fate of mankind, Dickens allies readers with the dying mother. Even in death, there is action; she is clinging and drifting.
  • And there, with an aching void in his young heart, and all outside so cold, and bare, and strange, Paul sat as if he had taken life unfurnished, and the upholsterer were never coming. Not: “What in the world was he going to do now?” Dickens gives Paul’s common dilemma an engaging and memorable treatment through a specific visual image, a metaphor for loneliness.
  • The Judge, whose eyes had gone in the general direction, recalled them, leaned back in his seat, and looked steadily at the man whose life was in his hand, as Mr. Attorney-General rose to spin the rope, grind the axe, and hammer the nails into the scaffold. Not: “Pronouncing a death sentence was never easy for him.” Dickens injects images of action, albeit fanciful—spinning, grinding, and hammering—into the reader’s mind. He doesn’t just describe the Judge’s passive mental activities: “pondering, contemplating, assessing.”
  • I put my light out, and crept into bed; and it was an uneasy bed now, and I never slept the old sound sleep in it any more. Not: “Pip tossed and turned all night.” Dickens lets you know something about Pip’s future here, but again, it is not all in his head, it’s tied to the physical reality of the light and the bed. It’s saying goodbye to childhood.

These are moments of high drama and great resonance with the reader. They are integral to the tale, not tacked-on contrivances. Note how specific they are. They contain physical actions, not just thoughts and feelings. And paradoxically, by being so specific, they achieve universality.

Modern writers don’t employ Dickens’s florid language, but they still can achieve an organic approach to cliff-hangers. By organic, I mean an ending that grows out of the story and gives it somewhere to go.

  • They respected him, stopped watching him all the time. But he never stopped watching them. (This plants a seed of menace and tells readers something important about the character.)
  • Ma snorted, her nose and chin almost meeting as she screwed up her face. “How can you sit there and look Ruth in the eye and say you searched the dale? You’ve not been near the old lead mine workings.” (Up next: lead mine workings.)
  • “You’re not a monster. Well, except when you wake up with a hangover. It’ll be fine, George,” Anne soothed him. “It’s not as if the past holds any surprises, is it?” (An almost painful foreshadowing.)

There’s a vast difference between this last example and the weak one cited previously (“she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered”). In the negative example, the author is simply reports a conclusion—head-work—of the protagonist. If readers have been paying attention to the story, they’ve already reached this same conclusion. And, if not, well, there are bigger problems . . .

By contrast, McDermid’s characters are engaged in conversation (action, not reflection). Their statements propel the story forward; readers know what the characters next will do (explore the lead mine workings) or be (surprised). They react with an Aha! Or even Uh-oh.

Don’t destroy your cliff-hanger’s value of by using it to tell readers what they already know. Let them run on out ahead of you. That’s what makes reading fun.

Sources:

The Dickens quotes, in order are from: Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 1, Dombey and Son, end of Chapter 11, A Tale of Two Cities, Book II, end Chapter 2, and Great Expectations, Chapter 18.

The modern quotes, are from: Bill Beverly, Dodgers, end Chapter 18; Val McDermid, A Place of Execution, Part 1, end Chapter 13; Ibid., Book 2, Part 1, end Chapter 3.

Cliff-Hangers: Making Them Work

Harold Lloyd, clock, cliff-hanger

photo: Insomnia Cured Here, creative commons license

Mystery and thriller writers are often advised to end chapters with a cliff-hanger to propel the reader forward through the narrative, to create those page-turners, to make them read “just one more chapter.” Writing cliff-hangers sounds like one of the easier bits of lore to follow, but it can be deceptively difficult to write good ones.

Simple Guidelines

  • Don’t repeat the same formula too often, like asking a question—Would the police arrive in time?  (I’d advise almost never using a question, but that’s me.)
  • Remember that something that sounds compelling to you, embroiled as you are in the fates of your characters, can come across as ho-hum obvious to the reader. In a new thriller about the search for a serial killer, one chapter ends with the head police investigator saying, “We have to find him.” Well, duh.
  • Include a hint of what’s to come. This can be done well or, in this case, badly: “As she stood alone on the once tranquil country lane, she had the distinct feeling that this peace was about to be brutally shattered.” That’s the author strolling into the scene and explaining. Reader responds, “I hope so. This is a thriller!”
  • A good general rule to write on a post-it and stick it to your computer screen is this, then: never be cheesy. If you find you’ve written a cliffhanger that’s no more than a transparent attempt to ramp up the tension, better to delete it. I’ve jettisoned plenty of them.

Origins

Although the movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower would have you think differently, Dickens did not invent the term cliff-hanger (though he certainly used the technique). That honor goes to Thomas Hardy, whose serialized novel A Pair of Blue Eyes left protagonist Henry Knight hanging off a cliff, from whence he reviewed the history of the world.

Because Charles Dickens also serialized his novels, with people in England mobbing the newsstands and Americans clamoring for arriving ships to unload the publications containing the next chapters, I figure he knew a thing or two about writing an effective cliff-hanger, one that would kindle enough interest in readers to last a week or even longer. If you have any Dickens lying around, check him out or wait until my next post (There, a cliff-hanger with a hint of what’s to come).

Monday: Examples of effective cliff-hangers, past and present.

A Christmas Carol

A Christmas Carol

Greg Wood as Ebenezer Scrooge; photo: T. Charles Erickson

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has long been a staple of family holiday celebrations in Central New Jersey. Even 18 years  after the previous version premiered, the show routinely drew huge crowds during its December run. Still, it was time for a new approach, and the revamped 2016 production has been eagerly anticipated.

Director Adam Immerwahr sought a solid Victorian England vibe for this sparkling new production, which premiered December 10 and runs through December 31. Immerwahr’s intent was to explore how Scrooge’s redemption “isn’t just the redemption of one man . . . when a person changes, it can transform an entire community.”  Then he filled it with songs from what Immerwahr calls “the treasure trove of terrific Christmas music of Dickens’s era” (carol playlist). Even some carols not used explicitly have “become part of the underscoring of the play,”  whose music was composed by Obie-award winning composer Michael Friedman.

The show manages to be both different with fresh sets and staging and familiar, retaining the adaptation by award-winning  playwright David Thompson. Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Greg Wood) has never said “Bah! Humbug!” with more feeling, Bob Cratchit (Warner Miller) never more patiently put-upon, and the rest of the cast, mostly playing multiple parts, never more lively, including: Fred/Undertaker (JD Taylor), Lily/Belle (Jamila Sabares-Klemm), Mrs. Dilber (Sue Jin Song), Fan/Miss Kate (Kelsey Carroll), Solicitor Matthew/Young Scrooge (A.J. Shively), Solicitor David/Mr. Fezziwig (Lance Roberts), Mrs. Cratchit (Jessica Bedford), and Mrs. Fezziwig/Lady Char/Laundress (Anne L. Nathan). Dickens’s work is stuffed with memorable characters and many parts amount to a cameo, but all were quite up to snuff.

The familiar tale of a miser’s comeuppance is all there, how the Ghost of Christmas Past (Ivy Cordle) reminds him how he gave up his youthful opportunities for happiness in order to pursue wealth; the Ghost of Christmas Present (Mimi Francis) shows him how others, especially the Cratchits live now; and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Elisha Lawson) lays out a frightening scenario that causes him to vow to change. Old Marley’s ghost (Frank X) is particularly effective (frightening a child sitting in front of me) and has my favorite line from the story, the sententious “I wear the chains I forged in life.” The early dark scenes change to light as Scrooge wakes Christmas morning a new man.

A Christmas Carol

photo: T. Charles Erickson

The cast is augmented by a 27-member community ensemble, which greets theatre-goers, carols and rings bells from the stage, the aisles, and the boxes, and dances exuberantly! Members of this adult group, plus a dozen-member children’s ensemble were recruited through partnerships with ten local organizations and schools. The entire audience becomes involved, with the singing of a carol at the beginning and end of the performance.

Also underscoring the community nature of this production are the theater’s plans for sold-out Fezziwig Parties, a drama workshop for children on the theme of kindness and generosity (called Cratchit Kindness) on December 28, engagement of local businesses in developing unique refreshments for patrons, as well as its usual audio-described and American Sign Language interpreted performance (December 17) and an open captioned performance (December 18).

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (set design); Charles Sundquist (musical direction); Darron L. West (sound design); Lorin Latarro (choreography); Linda Cho (costumes); Lap Chi Chu (lighting); Jeremy Chernick (special effects); Gillian Lane-Plescia (dialect coach).

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

Holiday Favorites!

Nutcracker, Christmas

(photo: wikimedia)

“Tomorrow the kind of work I like best begins: buying. Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and oh, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings: why, we’ll need a pony to pull the buggy home.” –Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory – Hear it here.

See this photo gallery: China’s Harbin Ice Festival.

“This,” said Mr. Pickwick, looking round him, “this is, indeed, comfort.”
“Our invariable custom,” replied Mr. Wardle. “Everybody sits down with us on Christmas eve, as you see them now—servants and all; and here we wait, until the clock strikes twelve, to usher Christmas in, and beguile the time with forfeits and old stories. Trundle, my boy, rake up the fire.” Up flew the bright sparks in myriads as the logs were stirred. The deep red blaze sent forth a rich glow, that penetrated into the furthest corner of the room, and cast its cheerful tint on every face. —Charles Dickens, “A Good-Humored Christmas” Chapter 28 from The Pickwick Papers.

Antiquity Now!’s 12/17 post gives a recipe for Sfeni—yeast doughnuts dipped in honey—a traditional Sephardic Hanukkah dish. Looks pretty yummy! Check out the Antiquity Now! Website throughout the holiday season for more cross-cultural celebrations.

“’Twas Christmas in the trenches, where the frost so bitter hung,
The frozen fields of France were still, no Christmas song was sung
Our families back in England were toasting us that day
Their brave and glorious lads so far away.” –John McCutcheon, “Christmas in the Trenches.” See it performed here.

Don’t miss the ever-popular YouTube video: “Chinese Food on Christmas”!

Now I’m off to make an eggnog pie. Back in 2016!! Happy New Year! Celebrate with these Dancing Fireworks!

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary, prison, isolation

Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia (photo: author)

Many East Coasters recognize the photo featured on this website home page as taken inside the crenelated walls of Eastern State Penitentiary. A “model” institution when it was built outside Philadelphia in the early 1820’s, Eastern Pen remained in use until 1970, by which time officials deemed it “not fit for human habitation.” Governing magazine’s David Kidd recently created a photo essay about this crumbling institution, now near the city’s downtown.

Although the felons have left, today Eastern Pen is a tourist attraction and hosts concerts and other events. If you visited it today, May 10, you could attend a reunion of inmates and guards, who would answer your questions about their former lives there. Every fall, it hosts Terror Behind the Walls, “a massive haunted house in a real prison.”

Kidd points out that the Quakers who built Eastern Pen originally constructed only single-person cells, so that miscreants would have absolute solitude to reflect on their crimes and on the Bible. This, the founders believed, would make men truly penitent (“penitentiary”). In this original sense, a penitentiary differed from a prison, where convicts mingled and shared cells. From the time a prisoner entered Eastern Pen and was led to his cell (wearing a hood) until the time he left (also hooded), he never saw or spoke to another human being. Later, with more crowding, that changed.

The city fathers were proud of their innovation and eagerly showed it to visitors, one of whom was Charles Dickens. Dickens was horrified at the suffering he believed this total isolation would produce. He was inspired to replicate it in A Tale of Two Cities, where the solitary cell in the Bastille drove his character, Dr. Manette, insane.

 

Enhanced by Zemanta

Endings and the Reader’s Imagination

“I wished it would never end.” How many times have readers said that as they closed their book with a sigh. I’ve caught myself reading slower and slower over the last few pages of a book I’ve loved, just to delay the inevitable!

For a class on Dickens I’m taking this fall, I just reread A Tale of Two Cities. At the end, the travelling coach carrying Lucie and her daughter, Doctor Manette, Mr. Lorry, and the unconscious Sidney Carton speeds away from Paris in its desperate escape. We know that the unconscious man is really Lucie’s husband Charles and that Carton has taken his place in the tumbrils headed for the guillotine. I waited in vain for identity of the slumbering man to be recognized, for Charles to wake up and realize he had been “recalled to life.”

But Dickens doesn’t give us that scene. He leaves us to imagine it. I can see amazement and joy mixing with horror and guilt when the realization finally comes to them, and they understand what Carton has done. What, in fact, he told Lucie he would do, some 200 pages earlier: “For you, and for any dear to you, I would do anything.” I see Lucie’s misery, as she recognizes the implications of Carton’s vow and feel the unbearable weight of her promise to keep it secret.

My vision of that scene—and yours—is beyond the covers. Our own ending to solve and resolve.

Sunday we saw the new movie Argo. A lot in that movie takes place by inference. As in the real world, the participants don’t have complete information and neither does the viewer, though we have the benefit of some multiple perspectives. Glimpses of the treatment of the main body of hostages let us imagine the rest. Likewise, details of the escape of the Canadian ambassador and his wife, also in deadly peril, must be mostly created by the viewer.

Have you imagined final scenes involving the characters of stories you read, see, or listen to? Share!