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bear by san

March 2017

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bear by san

"The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska

was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska."

Book #38, Willa Cather, My Antonia

Now, this is writing. Listen:

Occasionally, one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time with his bites as he ate down toward them.

Fabulous reality. Right there.

And the characters, and the society, and the breath of the light over the land, and the way everything works together to make you believe in these people, in their time, in this passing instant of the world. And then, and then... there's the book's uncomplicated, unconscious vintage 1900 racism. Which just completely made me wince when I turned a corner and stumbled over it.

I can't blame the book for it. Not given when it was written. But it's a burr under the saddle-blanket, nonetheless.

It's not a burr that can ruin the book, which is breathtaking. Not only is it beautifully written and evocative, but it's got a kind of quiet truth hovering in it that encompasses the choices and the mistakes and the sacrifices that the characters make, and turns them all into reflections of one another.

Lovely thing.

Comments

A bygone way of writing

*grin* Yes, I too have read and admired Willa Cather's work. I was soaking in the beauty of her prose and its cadences years ago when some of it accidentally got on me. This caused critique groups and writing contests to go ballistic, because it ruined their plan for me to always write in a no-style style.

I envision a modern Cather coming to her workshop group and getting "comments" from the rules-wielding fellow writers on the sentence.

"Occasionally, one of the horses would tear off with his teeth a plant full of blossoms, and walk along munching it, the flowers nodding in time with his bites as he ate down toward them."

"Purple prose!" the critiquers yelled. "All that sche*sse about the flowers--cut that. It sounds pretentious. Far too many words--prune, prune, cut, and prune!! Be concise!! And don't say it inverted--'tear off with his teeth' is just a silly way of saying 'bite.'" Say, 'Sometimes one of the horses ate a flower.' In fact, why are you bothering to say this at all? We assume the horses are being fed!"

*sigh* Yes, I'm serious. I'm sure that anyone who has ever been to workshops to try to identify what's wrong with the novels that don't sell has heard much the same thing. And I suppose the critters are right. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

I make myself read only the newest stuff for the most part, as crappy as much of it may seem to me (some doesn't--but a lot does), hoping the way that they write will take hold. I never take the chance nowadays that some of the phrasings of the authors of the classics might rub off on me. It's tough enough fighting my own instincts and trying to write that pared-down, adverb-free (ha) prose that the market says it wants. After 20 years of on-and-off trying that resulted in no success, I swore that I'd spend this year aggressively trying to market my work. But when I sit reading the agent rejections (about half say I am "too detailed a writer" and that I should pare it all down and use no "made-up words," and half just don't like the stories I try to tell--but editors typically reject with the added caveat not to change my voice or style, so that's frustrating), I don't know if I can waste the rest of the year beating my head against the same old bricks. The market has spoken.

Of course I don't write like Cather, but then again I think that the reason no one seems to nowadays is that they're being told, "This is the style of today. This is the stripped-down and simplified way you must write if you are to sell. Be careful of your vocabulary and don't use adverbs." I don't want to write a newspaper article or screenplay and call it a novel. The world has changed, and we can't write that way any more if we intend to sell. Now, if you are an exception--if your prose is beautiful and you still managed to sell--I must salute you. But you're darn lucky. Most of us just simply will not, no matter what we do.

And that means a good number of Willa Cathers will go unsung. Well . . . so it goes.

(Of course it's not just Cather's style that makes the book beautiful, but also her themes and characterizations. The book speaks to the universal human condition. You get bonus points for recognizing that when there's racism, classism, or what-have-you in older novels, it's because that was the mindset of the time. We just have to overlook that; we can't judge them by the "rules" of today and say that they "should have known better." So many people make this mistake if they do try to read the classics. It's nice to see that smart people still know that we can't apply a modern politically correct or morally upright or what-have-you standard to the older work.)

Re: A bygone way of writing

I don't know you, and without a story or a chapter in hand I can't speak to what agents may mean by "too detailed." (For instance, are they really talking about complex sentence structure or are they talking about two much blow-by-blow in terms of storytelling? You know what I mean -- the story equivalent of "He heard the doorbell ring. He stood. He put down the white ceramic bowl of popcorn on the Chippendale table. He took a step. He took another step. My, this carpet was deep. He remembered when Bella first bought it..")

Anyway. Questions I'm in no position to answer. But I hate, hate, hate when someone tries to shove their natural style into what they think, or someone thinks, the market wants. The market wants what is good and different; it just doesn't always know that until it sees it. Nobody should be concerned with what prose style they think is fashionable; they should be concerned with what in their work is good and bad.

I will also add that even a spare storyteller has room for the occasional sentence like the Cather quoted above. A blossom here and there (not to run the metaphor into the ground) makes the spare winter branches worth staring at.

Re: A bygone way of writing

My style is anything but spare, and I do all right. And I can name some people doing better--Annie Proulx, for example. Neil Gaiman. Susannah Clark.

The thing is, that Elmore Leonard stuff is harder to be boring in. And it's very easy to write bad prose.

Re: A bygone way of writing

{nitpick}Susanna Clarke.{/nitpick}

Shalanna, I would certainly not avoid reading what you deeply enjoy for fear it will infect this ideal "sparse prose". In fact, if you read only what you do not enjoy, because it its the style you are told is commercial, you will write what you do not enjoy. The most of the people I can think of who seem to know what they are doing (Ie, they are published authors, or editors, or the like), suggest better that you read widely, and not only from your own time. TNH, in offering ways to improve one story, pointed me to a book from the 1940s, with the comment, "This way you can steal from the best." Most people denigrating poorly-wrought fantasy epics criticize the writers as having only read these stories modern imitators of the imitators of Tolkien's shameless borrowings from the Eddas, when they should go and look at the Eddas themselves if they wish to write a really good story.

And the number of authors inspired in some way by authors from the 1500's, or the 1800's, or anywhere between, are if anything on the rise.

(Anonymous)

Re: A bygone way of writing

NB: from here on in, anyody correcting my lazy spelling or crappy typing will be attacked by chilean kicking ducks.

Re: A bygone way of writing

That's only fair. Beign kicked to death by ducks is better than being nibbled to death.

(Seriously, apologies. Had I not had anything else to say, I wouldn't have mentioned it, but because I did, the urge became irresistable)

Re: A bygone way of writing

*snrch*

And I see lj logged me out in revenge, anyway.

Re: A bygone way of writing

I personally wouldn't rush to accept the judgements of a lot of unpublished writers who are parroting how-to-write books. I have gotten a lot of bad advice from the same. (I've also gotten some spectacularly good advice, on occasion, and some crappy advice from award winning authors.)

The other thing to consider is that ornate does not always equal strong. (Actually, Cather's phrasing above is rather plain--short words, vivid sensual verbs. What's powerful in it is her ability to capture of an image.)

I'd say, work on developing a voice and a strong prose style and narrative energy, rather than conforming to whatever seems to be the fashion.

Fashions change.

Good writing is good writing.
That's in interesting piece of prose. I guess I'm not as excited over it because I've been reading stuff like that for my master's class.

One book that comes to mind is Something Wicked This Way Comes. It's poetry in the guise of a book.
If I ever lose the ability to be entranced by a really great sentence, take me out back of the chemical sheds and put a bullet in my head.
>>I can't blame the book for it. Not given when it was written. But it's a burr under the saddle-blanket, nonetheless.<<

I've been having the same problem lately with Sherwood Anderson.
Oh, yeah, I could just look at Cather's sentences all day. (And your burr under the saddleblanket is my field of study so I get to intellectualize it, which provides some nice detachment. I imagine it's like being an epidemiologist and finding people dying horribly from a very rare and interesting disease.)

I read The Professor's House last week, another really beautiful Cather novel, and there's a surreal moment where a nice white boy refers to an Anasazi mummy as "the bones of my grandmothers." I was so confused I had to re-read to figure out who he was talking about. The mythos of the American frontier is some bizarre stuff, I tell you.
In my junior year at high school we read My Antonia! in English class.

Looking back on it, it was because it was required reading for English class that any joy to be gotten out of reading it was utterly lost on me. :( That and The Scarlet Letter.

So I went off and read Philip K. Dick and Lord of the Flies and 1984 by myself. I actually did a book report on Man in the High Castle...

I also remember in my sophomore English class everyone wound up reading A Separate Peace because a majority of the class voted to read it (I was stumping for War of the Worlds) because "it was about gay guys." Didn't seem that way to me when I read it. Many years and a corresponding Wikipedia entry later, though...
We read A Separate Peace because it was required.
I think my teacher and one college roommate out of five liked it. The rest of us couldn't stand it. In retrospect, I can see good in it, but that's largely because I'm remembering what I want to remember.
I once watched a Shire horse operate under the delusion that it was a giraffe: 2200 pounds of horse going up on its hind legs to browse the foliage of an overhanging tree. An impressive sight.
...and in a strange twist of the cosmos, I ran across my copy of My Antonia while attempting to clean (but really just rearranging piles into different, somewhat neater piles.)
Yes, she's a fine writer--about the only writer people in this state know! We do have a couple of popular thriller writers who may soon displace her. Alex Kava and someone else.

Nebraska doesn't have a long literary history, so they rightfully cling to her.
Willa Cather is one of my mother's favorite writers, but it took me a while to get around to reading her. Of course I read My Antonia first, and it really is beautifully written. It isn't simply gorgeous description, it's the observations that go along with it--the way she makes you understand how the world fits together--so (seemingly) effortlessly.

As for the 1900s racism, it wasn't so much a bur under the saddle for me, as I saw it as simply another facet in the history of who these people were and how they thought. Truly, do you think it was unexamined racism on Cather's part, or was she simply showing the world in which these people lived without passing (explicit) judgment on it?
I think it's unexamined racism, given the way it's presented.