Thoughts for Thursday - March Essays

Yeah, it's World Book Day, whatever the hell that is: I'm sure you'll find other bloggers celebrating away, shredding pages of old books into confetti and urging readers into bookstores with little tin horns.

Not here. (Oh, no, I'm not against the World or Books or even Days. I am just being cranky, pure and simple, about invented celebrations.)

Today is March 1, and that ushers in my Month of Essays. And do I have some beauties!

The London Scene: Six Essays by Virginia Woolf (doubles as a travel guide, too!)

First and the Last by Isaiah Berlin (includes his final essay, My Intellectual Path)

Why Do I Love These People: Understanding, Surviving and Creating Your Own Family by Po Bronson (as I rarely mention my family, you must get an inkling of why this book appeals)

Hundred White Daffodils by Jane Kenyon (I've been inspired by all of the Kenyon poetry bloggers posted in the past year, plus she discusses her battles with depression)

... among essays I intend to read by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joan Didion and whoever else strikes my fancy.

AND I am expecting delivery this month of a new book of essays on Sylvia Plath.

Not sure I'll make it through the entire list, but that's what I like about essays: You can dip and delve into them, one by one, versus having to devour volumes whole, as novels require.


Rules for writing

This is from BikeProf, who is a credible source because he actually finished a book draft!

The Hobgoblin's Rules for Writing

Write every day. At the worst, your typing will improve to the point that you can write more quickly than ever before. More to the point, though, writing every day will help in two ways: 1) you will nurture the sense that you are making progress; and 2) you will eventually generate a large stack of pages.

Do not revise. I cannot state this strongly enough. Do not look at what you have written until you have finished a draft. Trying to revise in the middle of things will send you to that circle of hell where you are paralyzed and cannot write a second sentence until the first is so perfectly written, so immaculately phrased, that writing all over the world will instantly become meaningless and superfluous in comparison.

Have fun. You are all big readers; you love to read. So writing is the production of joy. The production of joy should have some element of joy in it, or you're just not doing it right.

Daydream. For me, writing was nothing more than imagining an entertaining scene, seeing it play out in my head, and then describing what I saw. Daydreaming is fun and does not seem like work, and soon, writing a little every day did not seem like work either.

Don't think about your audience. This goes against something I usually teach my freshmen composition students, and, to a certain extent, it is not advice to be followed closely. However, when writing fiction, if you think about every reaction of the readers, and if you worry how your mom will react to the character who swears, then you will wrap yourself up in a sheet of neurosis so completely that you will not be able to write at all.

Write truthfully. Genres don't matter. Labels are for bookstores and not authors. If you really want to write erotic sword and sorcery fantasy novels, then write the best, most truthful erotic sword and sorcery fantasy you can.

Write who you are. This goes along with writing truthfully, but is more personal. You have a voice, so use it. Don't try to write in a voice that will not work for you. Those who try to be Hemingway ventriloquists usually end up sounding more stupid than Hemingway-esque, after all.


Trilby by George du Maurier

This is a book of its time and place, fin-de-siecle Europe. What interested me most about this book was the fact that it was the sensation of its time, selling more than 200,000 in Britain and America, spawning a successful play and leaving a permanent mark on the English language by popularizing two terms that endure today: "Svengali" and the "Trilby hat".

What was it about this book that caused such a fuss?

Not the prose, certainly. Syntax is awkward, prose purple, and characters are of the Victorian stripe -- described in sentimental superlatives such as "most ravishing," "transparent as crystal," or "most unclean." There are numerous references to fashion, literature and other cultural phenomena of the day. (I won't get into the anti-Semitism displayed here, but it is unpleasant. And it helps to speak French, as there are lots and lots of untranslated passages in that language.) Here's a taste (one of the better passages, I think, capturing some of the wit that occasionally bubbles up), an elaboration of the narrator's musings about literature:
Feydeau, or Flaubert, let us say -- or for those who don't know French and cultivate an innocent mind, Miss Austen (for to be dead and buried is almost as good to be French and immoral!) -- and Sebasitan Bach, and Sandro Botticelli -- that all the arts should be represented.
I'll agree in part with the introduction to the Penguin Classics version, authored by Daniel Pick, that says: Trilby"seems to occupy several key crossroads of its time. It hesitates between elitism and egalitarianism; amateurism and professionalism; between enthusiasm and horror of the marketplace in general and the merchandizing of talents in particular..." I think, too, what he's getting at in a polite way is that the writing is very uneven; some passages are fine and ironic, while others are confusing rather than merely ambiguous.

I would speculate that Trilby hit a chord with people who were still coming to terms with Darwin's new theories on evolution and survival of the fittest, mysticism versus scientific fact, industrialization and dehumanization. Hence, the character of Svengali, who mesmerized his protege to the point of total control, literally mesmerized the reading public as a kind of elaborate conceit of these issues.

Svengali is in fact the most memorable character in the book -- and he takes up suprisingly little real estate within the pages! For me, the novel fell flat when old Svengali wasn't up to his tricks; everyone else was so "noble," "brave," "naive," or otherwise brimming over in Victorian virtues that I welcomed a character with some less than sterling qualities -- especially one who was so successful at something that is portrayed as unethical at best, evil at worst. He's more human because he's complex. Maybe that's why the term has still stuck around.
I wish I could stomach reading this again to try to hit on the nuanaces Daniel Pick outlines in the introduction. But this is a rather obscure, outdated novel. I'd say it's worth the read for anyone interested in late-Victorian literature. But I don't think I can read it again.


Monday mish-mash

There's so much reading-related activity happening lately at Planet Kitten, I thought I'd just do one of those catchall posts.

1. Finished Trilby. An odd book, surely, dated and very late-Victorian in tone and topic. But I'm very glad I stumbled upon it and managed to read it. (A long analytical post to come, I promise. I need to digest it a bit.) I'm thrilled that I managed to finish 3 books during my Month of Romance Reads!

2. Memoirs of a Muse by Laura Vapynar. About halfway through this one, and I am really enjoying it. I think the subject matter (a girl obsessed with Dostoevsky and his muse, who aspires to be a muse herself) is compelling to me, and the author's prose is clean and sure. A future post on this, absolutely. With any luck, I will finish in time to add a fourth romantic read for February (and all that in a short month!). I don't recall how or where I heard about this book, but if it came from a fellow blogger, many thanks.

3. Book-buying binges. Well, I've maxed my credit cards on Amazon.com and the QPB site, and my new bookshelves already are bulging at the seams. Check out my (partial!) TBR list on Library Thing, if you don't believe me. And what did I do this weekend? I stopped by a sidewalk sale on my way home from the DeYoung Museum in Golden Gate Park and, for $2, picked up: Alias Grace and Bluebeard's Egg (short stories) by Margaret Atwood and If I Told You Once by Judy Budnitz. Isn't it fortunate that I happened across the two Atwood books, just after finishing Cat's Eye -- and being determined to read more of her? I am planning to delve into the short stories during my evening bus commute. But, with all of these books waiting impatiently for me, covers closed and silent and begging to be exposed to light and sight, I am so overwhelmed, I don't know where to start! There are too too many good books in the world for one poor little reader.

Lucky for me, the monthly list of reading seems to help me focus. And, so far, feels doable and satisfying. I'm gearing up for essay reading in March -- a nice change of pace from novels, with room built in for whatever else strikes my fancy.

How are your reading adventures going lately?