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Topic: On "Classics," and "enduring excellence"

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Subject: On "Classics," and "enduring excellence"
Date Posted: 3/15/2011 9:32 PM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
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There aren't probably more than 12 American authors writing books that have a prayer of being recognized 50 years from now for "enduring excellence."  I read just about any American author who is even trying to write such books, at least twice. For some time now, (like going back to Raymond Carver), I have noticed that the great majority of them write strictly about dysfunctional people and worser dysfunctional families. And I can't figure out why. I am working on the fourth book Ihave read by Richard Russo, Nobody's Fool. I think this is a very strong book, as good as any I have read in several years. Still, his books are populated almost exclusively by totally dysfunctional families. One answer my wife gives (she has no college degree, but sees through most "heavy" matters like this much surer than me) is that screwed up people and better still totally screwed up families make for much more interesting reading than "normal" people and functional families.

Then, when I kept pushing her, she made this observation: You know, we live in what is almost a protected environment. There are plenty of dysfunctional families around here, but more than 50% are functional to some degree and most people around are "dull" but "normal." Maybe where these writers live, totally dysfunctional families interacting with other totally dysfunctional families are all the writers see, all they know about.

Your thoughts on these matters, please. [and I do maintain that you can't write works of "enduring excellence" this way)

Date Posted: 3/15/2011 10:36 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
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Dysfunctional is normal.  Normal is weird. 

Seems like all we do today is discuss just how weird our upbringing was.  My siblings, who are a decade older than me, and I take great twisted delight in sharing our upbringing perspectives.  Who got it the worst?

I thought I was raised in a totally dysfunctional alcoholic family, yet my story, when sharing "around the campfire" is always trumped by my friends' horror stories.

And the "normal" upbringing? I haven't found a co-hort who had one.  My mother's childhood seemed pretty close to calm and normal, but she said her mother was undemonstrative when it came to showing affection. My dad? At age 75 he's still a nut case from his childhood.

So I guess reading about family weirdness is oddly comforting. Those hidden desires and heartbreak and embarrassment that we read about tells us we're not alone. What we thought as us being a family outlier was really us smack dab in the middle of "normalcy."

Human beings and human families are by nature just plain weird.  How did they deal with the dysfunction? How did things turn out? How did they cope? It's interesting. Sometimes educational. Sometimes just entertaining. Sometimes horrifying as in the book A Child Called it, which is not enduring literature, but widely popular among the salacious mass market paperback sect.

By the way, I do enjoy Raymond Carver.

 



Last Edited on: 3/15/11 10:38 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 3/16/2011 12:00 AM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
Posts: 9,464
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Part of what I mean is the total absence of any strong, decent males, and the total absence of any strong, decent females. I mean everything written by T.C. Boyle, almost everything written by Wally Lamb, everything written by Annie Proulx except her first. In a way, everything written by Margaret ATwood, who demonizes absolutely every male in her canon.

And in your communities, as in neighborhood or at least a place where all or almost all dealings were with other people in said community, there was a total or near total absence of "normal people"? No one in any families you were closely acquainted with or cognizant of who was like the"glue" more or less holding the family more or less together?

And to my bigger question, how can you get great literature if all you have is a clinical examination of a human zoo? My contention is, you can't; you don't.

Date Posted: 3/16/2011 3:43 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
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John!  And Tome Trader, too! For the love of Heaven, read something like Kent Haruf's Plainsong before you get any further down in the dumps, psychologically!  Please----

I am not saying it is fine literature, only that there is an antidote available to all the mentally-unbalanced characters that people so much American fiction of late.

John, Haruf (pronounced to rhyme with 'sheriff') is a retired English instructor, but I forget whether it was at the college or secondary school level.  He began writing when he retired from teaching.  A sequel to Plainsong, also set in  the Colorado "High Country", is Eventide.



Last Edited on: 12/30/11 2:38 PM ET - Total times edited: 5
Date Posted: 3/17/2011 2:20 PM ET
Member Since: 9/25/2006
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Your wife may agree with Tolstoy's first line of Anna Karenina: "Happy families are all alike; unhappy families are unhappy in their own fashion." It is more interesting to read about families under internal and external pressures. Though since 2011 began, I did read Bob the Gambler by Frederick Barthelme, which is about a family roiled by gambling, I don't usually read contemporary US authors just for the reason you said - too many dysfuntional people / families. I like what they used to call in the olden days "problem novels" but I don't want them all to be about romance gone to the dogs, job woes, and messed up family lives. Variety of situation, incident, location, and walks of life are key elements for me when I read serious fiction. Genre fiction can always be the same - that the comforting point of reading whodunnits, hanging out with Perry Mason in LA, Maigret in Paris, and Salvo Montalbano in Sicily.

Date Posted: 3/17/2011 6:42 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
Posts: 1,427
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Hmmmmmm...........maybe I should be glad I was born and grew up in the time when there were "heroes"  (and once in a while "heroines") in books, on the radio, and in moom pitchahs?    I spent many Saturday afternoons watching Hopalong Cassidy, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, and Tarzan, et als, putting things "right", bringing evil-doers to justice. . . . . .sigh.  

I was pretty 'grown-up" by the time the "anti-hero" arrived and came to dominate books, radio, and films.   I suppose nowadays, if one truly misses "the hero" one can read an OLD book (Zane Grey?  Walter Scott? Edison Marshall? Thomas Costain? etc.) or get Mr. Smith Goes to Washington from Netflix, maybe.   Every once in a while, though, you come across a book about a character with integrity, or "guts", or "grit", or that inner zealotry that leads him/her to war against "Injustice."   I frankly admit to all you discerning, critical readers in this Forum, that I ENJOYED a little book by Clyde Edgerton, entitled Walking Across Egypt, about a little old woman who took a couple of men in hand, and turned them into better men, using her culinary skills to bolster her demands that they 'behave' . . . . . .  



Last Edited on: 3/17/11 6:44 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 3/17/2011 11:32 PM ET
Member Since: 3/27/2009
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Bonnie,

I've got Plainsong on the way.

and Walking Across Egypt sounds interesting is also on it's way.



Last Edited on: 3/18/11 10:11 AM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 3/19/2011 11:39 PM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
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I just finished the book I have been referring to. Richard Russo has redeemed himself, greatly relieving my generally depressed feeling. Throughout the last forty pages or so of Nobody's Fool, he showed himself to have compassion for his characters. Faulkner did that part better, though, at the ending of The Snopes Trilogy. [may get a word or two wrong, working strictly from memory]

Ratliff: You know, there ought to be a moral to this somewheres, if you just knowed where to look.

Stevens: There aren't any morals. It's just poor sons-of-bitches doing the best they can.

Ratliff: The pore sonofabitches.

Stevens: The poor sons-of-bitches.

Ratliff [to the team he is driving] . Get along, there. Pick it up! Pick it up!  

 

You have to do this. You cannot write literature that has "enduring excellence"  if you do not show compassion and respect for people.

Date Posted: 3/19/2011 11:47 PM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
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And fit into this, the ending from the most pessimistic book in American Literature [again from memory, but I am pretty sure of this one]

But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she's going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can't stand it. I been there before.

Date Posted: 3/20/2011 12:22 AM ET
Member Since: 2/16/2009
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That's just Huck, right?  In light of his past experiences, it's understandable.  I never thought of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as pessimistic, exactly, until you brought it up.  I guess Huck did run into an assortment of doubtful characters.  Still, I loved that book.  Way more than Roughing It.  To be fair, Roughing It  has some fabulous passages but the detailed descriptions of mining in all its various aspects is killing me.  Actually, just putting me to sleep, ha!  I have set it aside for the moment, and that makes me feel better.  All this aside, in my opinion you are 100% correct, John, in your statement that excellent literature needs to show compassion for people.  I refuse to read things that just muck around in human putridness or despair without a discernable point.  It makes me feel like I have been manipulated by the author.

Date Posted: 3/20/2011 12:50 AM ET
Member Since: 6/24/2009
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Oh John, I just finished The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and loved it.  I'm not sure why you called it "the most pessimistic book in American Literature."

I found Huck both down-to-earth and uplifting at the same time.  He's a realist and knows what he wants. I wasn't always pleased with his choices but I understand them and applaud his courage in following them, no matter what obstacles are in his path.

I agree with Tome that what we think of as dysfunctional is probably normal.  You see what seems like a "normal" family until you get to know them...and then all the weirdness is revealed and what we though was "normal" is way more dysfunctional than OUR family ever was.  In fact, the only "normal" families I've ever encountered seem to be very BORING.  Way more interesting to have some craziness in the family.

Date Posted: 3/20/2011 10:42 PM ET
Member Since: 9/20/2008
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John,

I was worried that you would not find the redeeming value in Russo's work. The book "Nobody's Fool" is good but so is the movie. I don't remember how true to form the movie is but I do remember laughing quite a bit.

As much as I hate to admit it their is a ton of truth to the whole carzy is normal argument. However, I do find the entire current state of American Literature to be alarming. I do think Russo's work is going to stand the test of time. As of now I can not think of anyone else. This to me has now become a challenge.  

Date Posted: 3/21/2011 7:24 PM ET
Member Since: 10/17/2006
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Two brief comments:  Rather than Leslie's "way more interesting to have some craziness in the family", I'd like to call it "parents with well-defined personalities" plus their children . . . . how my "high-strung" mother and phlegmatic father" ever determined to be life partners is something that I've wondered at . . . maybe she was a genuine neurotic, but I can't find it in me to call her that . . . .she was both fast AND accurate in her secretarial/stenographic work, and her Gregg shorthand was the envy of all the other office workers around her.....they said "we can't read each other's, but we can all read yours----it's beautiful!"

And, I think I've detected a kind of  trend in contemporary American writing about families----it's about first marriages that prove to have been lousy ideas, and so they end in divorce.  Then, after self-examination by one of the principals, wrestling with doubts, and even resistance to "going again", a second union is entered upon, and the "blended" family then proves to be just plain more 'human' and supportive of the members of the family.   Sometimes it ain't even a marriage, it's just a kind of . . . .well . . . . .reshuffling of people which brings about a sound, workable living arrangement for those involved.   I wonder what this theme could be dubbed?    Humanity is stronger than "romance" ? ? ? ?     Sometimes some editing ("cut-and-paste") improves a piece of writing---maybe some similar action could  improve "relationships" ?



Last Edited on: 3/21/11 7:29 PM ET - Total times edited: 1
Date Posted: 3/22/2011 12:14 AM ET
Member Since: 4/4/2009
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On Huck Finn and its ending:  I don't know if I regard it as the very best American novel, but I can't  make a case for any being better.

Huck, you recall, has travelled down much of the Mississippi, has seen a reasonably representative cross section of "civilization." And he knows it, as indicated in his last words. So he chooses to "light out for the Territory," as in the Oklahoma Territory, as in "not-civilization."

Last night my wife dug up the movie, Nobody's Fool. Within ten minutes I could see that the movie was telling a totally different "story."  Events were scrambled in order of presentation. At least a half-dozen pretty weird but somewhat important characters were cut out, completely cut out.  The son, Peter, was a totally different character. Sully's grandson Will was a whole new character also. Much much "nicer" people.

So I watch the movie as its own work of art and strive to figure out why the wholesale changes. They did give the move a semi-unified plot structure. And the changes did "sweeten up" the main theme considerably. Paul Newman would probably have been willing to play the Donald Sullivan of the book. After all, he was once Hud, once Fast Eddie Felson, once Hombre. And these were not "nice guys," not admirable characters in any sense. And they were, at least the first two, as fine acting jobs as he ever did. But Hollywood was not going to show Paul Newman, at that stage of his career, as a general sob. But I did enjoy every minute of the movie.

Comparing the two, and I now regard the book as a vastly better work of art: If you are going to cut a 520 page book into a 100 minute book, you are going to have to cut a huge bunch of stuff. That goes without saying. But when you cut all the "small stuff," as in the countless times Sully deliberately alienates everyone he comes in contact with, with an emphasis on those most important to him, you change everything. The movie definitely has a plot, and the plot proceeds in a mostly straight line to a mostly clear-cut resolution. If the book has plot, in the conventional sense of a plot, it needs to be pointed out to me. For the last 40-70 pages, it does move to as close to a resolution as what has occurred in the previous 450 pages will honestly admit to.