No matter how much we want it to be, no story, no story, can be rock-solid “true,” in the sense that it can relate events in the only possible way those events can be related. There’s always another way to look at things. There’s always another perspective.
By freeing ourselves from the belief that what we’re reading “happened just this way,” we free ourselves to see that every story is telling us “a truth” instead of “the truth.” We free ourselves to realize that objective truth may be impossible to find but that subjective truth is just as valuable.
Early in the novel “When You Reach Me,” which last week won the John Newbery Medal for the most outstanding contribution to children’s literature, the narrator, Miranda, falls into an uncomfortable conversation with a schoolmate about her favorite book, “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle.
Miranda, who is 11, doesn’t want to have the discussion. “The truth is that I hate to think about other people reading my book,” she thinks. “It’s like watching someone go through the box of private stuff that I keep under my bed.”
Members of the OnFiction group have (if I may speak for all of us) been a bit dissatisfied with the idea that non-fiction is true and fiction is untrue. We prefer to see fiction in terms of its subject matter: exploration of how selves make their sometimes problematic ways through the social world.
Uncertainty about what really happened is an issue that rightly exercises historians and journalists. But the deeper issue, raised by [Frederic] Bartlett though not mentioned by [Daniel] Mendelsohn, is that when remembering or, indeed, when trying to make sense of anything for the first time, we are constantly engaged in an “effort after meaning” (Bartlett, p. 20). In his refusal to write an autobiography, Freud wasn’t worrying about truth and untruth, but about truth and lying.
Fiction, then, in which one searches for truths other than those of mere actuality, as if from the inside, may be the real expression of the human effort after meaning.
Secret Son by Laila Lalami
I have a basic policy of trying to read books written by bloggers with whom I have interacted. I don’t really know these people, and perhaps it is a form of wanting a connection with the famous (used loosely), but I find it interesting to see how their writing works in long from as opposed to blogging. —From review of Secret Son at Collected Miscellany
For several years now, I’ve taken to scanning the shelves each time I hit a bookstore, looking for books by people I’m familiar with via their blogs (or forums). Partly it is wanting to see how book-form writing compares to blogging. And partly it’s my way of supporting fellow writers whose writing I have enjoyed for x years. Should I ever complete and publish a novel, I would hope my fan (I do have one!) would do the same.
Anyhow, it’s often easier said than done.* Want Dan Brown? No worries. Want Laila Lalami or Tayari Jones? Er… So let me tell you, I was shocked when I saw Secret Son on the shelf in the Chapters on Robson in December. One copy. Hardcover. Y’all know I never buy hardcovers unless they’re on the remainder table. But then, in continuing to browse, more shock! I also found Jaden Hair’s Steamy Kitchen Cookbook and Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Cooking. So then I decided it must be my day and bought all three. Solstice prezzie to self! Hurrah!
Cookbook reviews to follow. For now, Secret Son.
I’ve read Laila Lalami’s blog for a long time. Since back when it was called Moorish Girl. Since before she published her first book (Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which I have yet to find), when she was just another book blogger. One of the the things she’s written about is her decision to write in English (her third language). Part of it is that English is not fraught with the connotations that Arabic and French have for her. But as well, she’s writing for a predominantly English-speaking audience. I think translations can sometimes have the effect of erasing the language difference, i.e. you forget that you’re reading a translation and impose your own language-view on the text.
Here are excerpts from a couple reviews:
“Secret Son” gives us an insider’s view of the underlying turmoil of Morocco, access we probably wouldn’t have if she had written in another language. But something has been lost in her attempt to bypass translation: perhaps it’s the cadences of the inner courtyards of her upbringing. Her English prose, although clean and closely observed, lacks music, and her similes can be predictable, as when Youssef’s half sister, returning from California to Casablanca, feels “like a fish that had been taken out of water and put back.” —New York Times
Lalami’s portrayal of indecision, abetted by her characters’ plainly outlined conflicts, lacks tension. When she does successfully transcend her own stylistic shortcomings, which happens in two scenes that revisit key events from different characters’ perspectives à la Rashomon, such structural cunning is deadened by the same rhythmless style, where rage is always “blinding” and a character’s regret is expressed by the narrator’s asking, “What had he done with his life?” —Quarterly Conversation
What these criticisms of her writing style seem to be missing is that she’s made a deliberate choice to write that way, and I think it’s an important one. The way it’s written, to me, is designed to not let the reader slip into the mistake of thinking that the characters are native English speakers. It’s written the way a non-native English speaker, who is fluent in English, but for whom writing in English is still not the main way they communicate, writes in English. It’s one of the first things I noticed. Of course, the story is being told about the characters, but still, I think taking this approach of writing like the characters would in English makes sense because you don’t lose the sense of them being Moroccan.
The other thing is that its written in close third person. Multiple povs, yes, but close third. It’s not omniscient. Which means the writer is limited to what the characters know. She can’t break into a soliloquy on the Moroccan condition. So true, it’s not a “big” novel; it’s an intimate one. It’s looking at the world from the perspective of the characters, not looking at the characters from the perspective of The World. I actually loved the scenes that were seen from the perspectives of two characters, seeing the subtle differences between their remembrances. Really important for a novel so focused on truths and lies. I liked the ideas explored here: identity/family, dual loyalties, the old “education will set you free” trope ;-), choices (or lack thereof). I like that while the characters’ secrets are revealed, their problems aren’t solved.
It did seem like the pacing really sped up in the last quarter or so of the book, and I was wishing it would slow down a bit. But I’m going to have to think about whether or not that is a flaw or not. Although it felt like there was a rush to the ending, I can see how that might be intentional, designed to mimic how the MC, Youssef, was feeling.
- First Chapter
- Book Notes “In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published books.“
- Interview with Laila Lalami about Secret Son.
*Yes, I’m fully aware I could just order from Amazon. However, one of my great pleasures dating from pre-internet life is haunting bookstores new and used, looking for somewhat obscure titles. Nothing beats the heart-skip you get when you see a long sought-after book sitting on the shelf in front of you. Buying online does not provide the same thrill.
In the non-Aboriginal tradition, at least until recently, the purpose of historical study has often been the analysis of particular events in an effort to establish what ‘really’ happened as a matter of objective historical truth or, more modestly, to marshal facts in support of a particular interpretation of past events.
While interpretations may vary with the historian, the goal has been to come up with an account that best describes all the events under study. Moreover, underlying the western humanist intellectual tradition in the writing of history is a focus on human beings as the centrepiece of history, including the notion of the march of progress and the inevitability of societal evolution. This historical tradition is also secular and distinguishes what is scientific from what is religious or spiritual, on the assumption that these are two different and separable aspects of the human experience.
The Aboriginal tradition in the recording of history is neither linear nor steeped in the same notions of social progress and evolution. Nor is it usually human-centred in the same way as the western scientific tradition, for it does not assume that human beings are anything more than one — and not necessarily the most important — element of the natural order of the universe. Moreover, the Aboriginal historical tradition is an oral one, involving legends, stories and accounts handed down through the generations in oral form. It is less focused on establishing objective truth and assumes that the teller of the story is so much a part of the event being described that it would be arrogant to presume to classify or categorize the event exactly or for all time.
In the Aboriginal tradition the purpose of repeating oral accounts from the past is broader than the role of written history in western societies. It may be to educate the listener, to communicate aspects of culture, to socialize people into a cultural tradition, or to validate the claims of a particular family to authority and prestige. Those who hear the oral accounts draw their own conclusions from what they have heard, and they do so in the particular context (time, place and situation) of the telling. Thus the meaning to be drawn from an oral account depends on who is telling it, the circumstances in which the account is told, and the interpretation the listener gives to what has been heard.
Oral accounts of the past include a good deal of subjective experience. They are not simply a detached recounting of factual events but, rather, are “facts enmeshed in the stories of a lifetime”. They are also likely to be rooted in particular locations, making reference to particular families and communities. This contributes to a sense that there are many histories, each characterized in part by how a people see themselves, how they define their identity in relation to their environment, and how they express their uniqueness as a people.
Unlike the western scientific tradition, which creates a sense of distance in time between the listener or reader and the events being described, the tendency of Aboriginal perspectives is to create a sense of immediacy by encouraging listeners to imagine that they are participating in the past event being recounted. Ideas about how the universe was created offer a particularly compelling example of differences in approach to interpreting the past. In the western intellectual tradition, the origin of the world, whether in an act of creation or a cosmic big bang, is something that occurred once and for all in a far distant past remote from the present except in a religious or scientific sense. In Aboriginal historical traditions, the
particular creation story of each people, although it finds its origins in the past, also, and more importantly, speaks to the present. It invites listeners to participate in the cycle of creation through their understanding that, as parts of a world that is born, dies and is reborn in the observable cycle of days and seasons, they too are part of a natural order, members of a distinct people who share in that order.
As the example of creation stories has begun to suggest, conceptions of history or visions of the future can be expressed in different ways, which in turn involve different ways of representing time. The first portrays time as an arrow moving from the past into the unknown future; this is a linear perspective. The second portrays time as a circle that returns on itself and repeats fundamental aspects of experience. This is a cyclic point of view.
Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (1996)
via Delgamuukw v. British Columbia (SCC 1997)
One of the reasons I got so hooked on TWoP back in the day was because they didn’t take any crap.
Q: I love typing in all lowercase or all uppercase, ignoring proper grammar and punctuation, and writing my messages like I’m text-messaging on a cell phone with an eight-year-old. That’s cool, right? I mean, who cares? This is the internet!
A: Well, we care…but the sad truth is that other posters might skip over your posts if they’re too hard to read. Things like proper spacing, capitalization, and punctuation make your posts much easier on the eye, and they make you look like quite the Captain Smartypants, too.
Look, we’re not grading you. You won’t get banned for misspelling “definitely” or anything. Just try your best to write neat, coherent posts. Don’t type “2” for “to,” or “U” for “you,” or “l8r” or “LOLOLOL!!!!!!!!!!!” or any of that nonsense. Throw in a carriage return now and then to break up the text, and please use proper capitalization. Your computer comes with two shift keys. Use ’em.
Emphasis added by me. Link.
The Untelling by Tayari Jones
I’ve been reading Tayari’s Blog for over two years now. IIRC, I found it through a guest post she had made at another blog. Tayari’s published two novels (The Untelling is her second) and is working on a third. Leaving Atlanta is her first novel. She teaches creative writing, and is currently assistant professor at Rutgers-Newark (she moves around a lot!).
Tayari’s blog is one of my favorites. It’s a great writing-about-writing blog. But extra-appealing because she’s my age and is doing the academic thing, too. I’ve wanted to read her novels since I started reading it. So what took me so long? Well, apparently bookstores here don’t carry them :-S (I haven’t seen Laila Lalami‘s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits either). Yes, I could have ordered from Amazon or Chapters. But my to-read bookshelf is already overflowing (because I have no resistance when I see a book I want in person) without also ordering books online (where would it stop?!). I tell myself I can buy books online if I whittle down the to-read pile, but just when I think I’m getting there, I go on a used bookstore (or remainder table) spree and eek! it’s overflowing again. (Oh, but you know I wouldn’t have it any other way.)
Anyhow, happily I did stumble across The Untelling in The Book Shop this summer and of course snapped it up. The Untelling‘s mc is Ariadne (called Aria). When Aria was not-quite 10, her family was in a car accident in which her father and baby sister died. Unsurprisingly, this tragedy has affected Aria enormously, and her relationships with her mother and her older sister continue to be strained. In the now of the story (mid-’90s), Aria is in post-university limbo. She’s 25, living with her best friend Rochelle in a somewhat sketchy neighborhood (starting to be gentrified, but not quite there yet), and teaching literacy to people studying for their GEDs. Rochelle is engaged and will soon move out. Aria daydreams about her boyfriend Dwayne moving in when Rochelle moves out, even though Dwayne doesn’t like the neighborhood.
And then she tells people something that turns out not to be true. She thinks it’s the truth; only later she finds out she is mistaken and must figure out how to “untell” it. This is complicated by why she was mistaken and the post-traumatic stress and guilt she’s still suffering from. (I know that’s a little vague, but I’m trying not to be spoilerish.)
One thing I really liked about reading this was seeing so many things Tayari has mentioned in her blog pop up in the story. For example, she’s written about having this word processor—one of those typewriter-like devices that saved a few lines so you could check your typing before the words actually went on the page—and one of those shows up in the story. (One of the girls on my residence floor in first year had one—was v. jealous at the time. Haha!)
Now I want to read Leaving Atlanta.
The Great Failure: A Bartender, A Monk, and My Unlikely Path to Truth by Natalie Goldberg
Hey, look, it’s day 1, and I’ve already finished my first book of the year!
I spotted this on one of the remainder shelves at Chapters last week. Last book purchased; first book read. All the books on my “to be read” pile are jealous. But I figured (a) it would be a quick read, and (b) what more appropriate way to start off than with a remaindered book?
So, it was a quick read obviously. This is a brief memoir of Natalie’s relationships with her father and her Zen teacher and her coming to grips with them being human, i.e. flawed. Essentially, it is about her figuring out whether she is able to admire/love people even when she feels that they have disappointed/betrayed her by their actions (or inaction, in the case of her mother).
I’ve read most of her books. I like her writing books best. This one… well, it was interesting, because I’d read the others. But on its own, I could take it or leave it. Writing Down the Bones was truly a book that changed my life. Wild Mind and Long Quiet Highway were also lovely books. I found her novel disappointing because I like what she writes about—her ideas—more than how she writes. Her writing style is very simple and straightforward to the point that I find it almost clunky. It’s a style that works for a book on writing practice, but, I think, works against her in a narrative. After reading her writing practice books, I had high expectations for her novel, Banana Rose; I suppose I expected that all that writing practice would have led to a tangibly more polished narrative writing style. But it wasn’t. I realized that’s just how she writes.
The Great Failure didn’t resonate with me in the same way as her earlier work did. It’s not that I couldn’t understand where she was coming from; I could. That part was fine. But I think if you’re going to write about how people have disappointed and betrayed you, you also have to turn that around and dig into how you may have disappointed and betrayed others. She touches on this, but she doesn’t dig into it. I also didn’t feel that she was breaking any new ground here; the realization that people—even people you respect and trust—are human/flawed isn’t particularly insightful on its own. I think probably everyone has had to accept (in order to move on) the fallibility of a parent or parental figure at some point in their lives. And I’m not saying that that’s not a difficult thing, but… she wasn’t sharing with a friend; she wrote a book. There has to be something more than that, I think. A deeper insight.
Also, she seemed unable to accept that not everyone has an inner life (well, an inner life of substance), that people are, in general, not really that interested in your interests no matter how close they are to you, and that no one else will ever see the same events from the same perspective as you. In my un-expert opinion, her constant fight against these things didn’t seem very Zen. Once you accept these things, it is much easier to be content.
I wanted to read this because it was a Natalie Goldberg book, but maybe it was a book I just didn’t need to read. Perhaps for someone else, it could be the right book at the right time, the way WDTB was for me.
In class on Tuesday, at one point the discussion turned to blogs and why people blog, the consequences of blogging (is it okay to mention other people in your stories?), and what a blog is (does it have to be personal to be a blog?).
As a writer, I find it hard to separate “why blog?” from “why write?” Telling one’s own stories and writing about issues from one’s personal viewpoint are nothing new to writers. The same material you find in personal blogs is also found in memoirs, autobiographies, columns, editorials, personal essays, etc.
What’s different about personal blogging is not the content, but the fact that anyone can do it, that bloggers don’t generally have editors, and the accessibility of it (anyone can read it).
So I suppose in any discussion of personal blogging, you have to start from the premise that there are two kinds of bloggers: writers and non-writers. For the writers, writing is the essence of blogging—it’s another format to try, a way to hone their craft, etc. They blog because blogging is writing. They wrote before blogs existed and if blogs vanished tomorrow, they’d still write.
But for non-writers blogging (writing) is a means to an end. It might, for example, be a way to keep in touch with family or meet friends or promote a product/service. For non-writers, blogging is just a vehicle that might get them to whatever their goal is. Their motivations are entirely different from those of writers.
A couple other things: I found the comment about thinking a blog had to be personal interesting because it’s such a reversal of traditional thinking (if anything to do with blogs can be “traditional” haha). My research into blogs indicates that a lot of early bloggers think that personal blogs (online diaries) aren’t really blogs at all; to their minds, blogs are only blogs if they have traditional “links plus commentary” posts. Also, most mainstream media attention has focused on issues-oriented, alternative media-type blogs written by male bloggers, not personal blogs (even though the majority of bloggers are teenage girls keeping online diaries).
Of course, even if you’re just posting links, you’re personalizing. The links you choose and what you say about them say something about you, even if you never say anything about your personal life per se. On a related note, sometimes bloggers will make explicit what they will/won’t write about on their blogs. One common off-limits subject is politics. I always thought this was strange because everything is political. (You know: “The personal is political.”) You don’t have to explicitly state who you vote for to involve politics. I don’t know how you’d write about anything substantive without involving what you agree with/believe in—and that’s politics.
One more thing: in The Subject of Semiotics, Kaja Silverman discusses Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” and she says this:
Laura Mulvey argues that the classic film text distinguishes sharply between the male and the female subjects, and that it does so on the basis of vision. The former of these is defined in terms of his capacity to look (i.e. as a voyeur) and the latter in terms of her capacity to attract the male gaze (i.e. as an exhibitionist). This opposition is entirely in keeping with the dominant cultural roles assigned to men and women, since voyeurism is the active or “masculine” form of the scopophilic drive, while exhibitionism is the passive or “feminine” form of the same drive. (222-223)
Okay, so why is this interesting. Well, first, one of the comments made in class with respect to motivations for blogging was that if a blogger wouldn’t write if s/he wasn’t blogging, then s/he was motivated by exhibitionism. Second: this is entirely circumstantial, but it does seem to me that women are far more likely to blog about highly personal subjects than men are. So you could go the direct route and say women are acting in keeping with their culturally-defined role and acting as exhibitionists in keeping personal blogs. But, I think that would be missing an important point. It’s not men who are reading these uber-personal blogs; it’s other women. And the uber-personal information shared is not designed to attract the male gaze; rather, much of the content would probably have the opposite effect. So… it’s more like using the voyeur/exhibitionist dichotomy as a means of resistance against the cultural norm.
Some posts I had clipped on the motivations and responsibilities of writers/bloggers (emphasis added):
Writers write for their ideal reader, for their loved ones, for themselves or for no one. All this is true. But it is also true that today’s literary writers also write for those who read them.
It is because all writers have a deep desire to be authentic that even after all these years I still love to be asked for whom I write. But while a writer’s authenticity does depend on his ability to open his heart to the world in which he lives, it depends just as much on his ability to understand his own changing position in that world.
There is no such thing as an ideal reader, free of narrow-mindedness and unencumbered by social prohibitions or national myths, just as there is no such thing as an ideal novelist. But a novelist’s search for the ideal reader – be he national or international – begins with the novelist’s imagining him into being, and then by writing books with him in mind. —Orhan Pamuk via MoorishGirl
I find that I don’t care as much about story or plot or action as I do about getting inside someone’s head. Usually the author’s head. In this case, inside the subject’s head. But that’s what’s interesting to me. The chance to get a glimpse of an inner monologue, to see how someone else’s wheels turn.
In effect, this is what blogs let you do, or at least I’d like to think so. I started blogging almost exactly 4 years ago, right before I started law school. I just wanted a place to store thoughts, and a way to force myself to write every day. But I found that once I started, it’s hard to stop. I got addicted to the instant connection with people out there in the world, the immediate feedback, the feeling like someone out there cares about what you’re thinking. And as I started reading other people’s blogs, I found that sometimes, even if you can’t articulate why you’re reading, you start to get hooked. A blog — a good blog — lets you inside someone’s head, and if you like being there, it can become awfully compelling. —Jeremy Blachman
I think it’s the first book that uses a blog as a narrative vehicle, and in doing so Jeremy explores a question I find pretty compelling — how do we know who to trust? What makes someone authentic, believeable, truthful? … In the book, there’s an active tension between the blog persona and the “real” persona (as evidenced by emails).
Blogs are private, and public. As a vehicle for an unreliable narrator the blog is very interesting, and I am not sure the cultural conversation about blogs has really started to embrace the complexity of the way people are exploring, sharing, and creating their identities online. I think the book begins that conversation in an interesting way. —Sherry Fowler
I am interested in the question of what the implied promises are between blogger and blog reader. … I agree that there is a pact of sorts, in almost any writing, between writer and reader. I aspire to be a good blogger, and I have some ideas about what that means. I’ve never put them down explicitly, though. Let’s see if I can unpack them.
The Blog Author promises to:
* write truthfully
* write as un-self-consciously as possible — avoid contrivances
* write about subjects that move her
* write about things about which she has personal knowledge, direct experience, some investment
* tell her own story, not other people’s stories
* avoid complaining
* not use the blog as a prop or a crutch or a shield
* not use the blog to avoid having direct conversations with specific people
* post thoughts, and leave them up. Disclose edits, and if I change my mind, annotate and link rather than delete or modify the original posts. —Sherry Fowler
Does it really matter whether or not this video was truly created by a teenager or not? And if it does matter, what does it say about our own obligations to remain honest on our personal sites? …
Personally, I’m of the belief that the theory of caveat emptor applies to anything available on the internet — let the reader beware, everything may not be as it seems. That said, I do see an argument which says that for those of us who have loyal readers who visit our sites daily, common decency mandates that we not betray their trust by being dishonest about who we are. But does that mean I have to be forthcoming about everything?
What say you — do we, as authors/artists/citizen journalists/whatever, have an obligation to (a) reveal all and/or (b) reveal honestly? —Karen Walrond
Bloggers with rabid fans (e.g. Dooce, Miss Snark) fascinate me. Or, rather, the fans fascinate me. Anything the blogger says they will agree with. God forbid they disagree with the blogger and get banished!
So, I was pleased to see that some of Miss Snark’s fans actually disagreed with some rather dubious advice that she gave recently.
A snarkling had read a writing buddy’s manuscript and found some aspects of it lacking (this is a shock? It’s a draft by an unpublished writer…) and asked Miss Snark what to do. The snarkling seemed to be baffled at this development, like the possibility that the manuscript wouldn’t be ready for publication hadn’t even crossed her mind.
You say “I was glad to read your novel. I never offer comments but I can answer questions about it.” General questions like “did you like it” can be answered truthfully with “not as much as I hoped I would after reading -and this is where you insert the name of the work you did like.” You’ll know she has no idea about character development if she doesn’t ask anything about it.
What?! Give the poor writer a critique, goddamnit. You’re her writing friend, not her mother. Don’t be mean, but do be honest. Tell her what she’s doing wrong. (If it’s an unmitigated disaster, pick your battles; choose whatever’s worst and start there.)
You don’t say: “Your novel sucks.” That’s being a jerk. You say: “I didn’t find your characters believable because *insert reasons here*. I suggest you do this.” This is constructive criticism. There are three parts to it:
1. Make it an “I” statement: “I think…” “In my opinion…”
2. Give specific reasons why the characters (or whatever) aren’t working.
3. Suggest what could be done to fix the problem.
I know it’s hard. Do it anyway. Both of you will be better writers for it.
If she takes it well, she’ll have an awareness of her writing that she never had before; this may be a turning point for her. If she takes it badly, you’ll know not to offer to read/critique her work again. Regardless, you will learn so much from critiquing. It will make your writing better. Honest.
Thankfully, some of the snarklings offered suggestions along this line. In fact, this time, they offered much better advice than Miss Snark herself. Read the comments.