Edward P. Jones on Reading

I can’t off hand recall if I’ve ever read anything by Edward P. Jones, but I think after reading an interview with him at After The MFA, I will be putting him on my Amazon Wish List.

I was particularly alerted to how much Jones values reading, how essential it is to read as a writer and was very intrigued by this particular portion of the interview:

I mean, [Jones said] I didn’t grow up thinking that I would be a writer — that’s not the kind of environment I came from. You grew up to get a solid job, so that you won’t have to pray about your rent and worry about food. And I didn’t know any people who were writers. But the reading was always important, and I suppose that there’s no better foundation in the universe, if you want to write, than loving to read.

You come across people in writing courses with poor reading — they haven’t read enough… One of the first things I noticed, before I even thought about being a writer, I think I was in junior high school, and for some reason I was in some office killing time, and there was a typewriter there. That was the first time I ever typed. I typed my name and I was fascinated by the way the black words looked on the white paper. And I discovered books when I was in my early teens, and one of the things I noted, for example, was quotations. There’s open quotations, and then there’s the comma, or the period, and then end quotation. I had this student, an intelligent woman, and one of the things she was doing was that she had no idea how the dialogue technically was supposed to be written. As if she had never read a book that had dialogue. I always liked to have conferences, whether in my office or over the phone, and I was telling her about that problem. I said, “Go to your bookshelf and take down a book.” And it was if she had never investigated how dialogue — a simple thing — how dialogue is supposed to be written… The reading thing is the best foundation.

How does an advanced writing student not know the technical way to write dialogue? I thought my freshman composition students were the ones who were supposed to have such technical problems. How many advanced writing students are in graduate school who don’t know the technical basics? It’s one thing to experiment with how something is going to physically look on the page (although even a talent like Cormac McCarthy, who shucks many technical conventions, gets annoying; I’ve never have quite understood McCarthy’s purpose not using at least dashes to set off dialogue. Am I just missing something?). But, to not know how to write dialogue? I would make me suspicious of just how much or how well the writer has read. I wonder how true it is, as Jones says in the interview, how many writing students really don’t have a strong reading background. How do they expect to become writers?

To read the rest of this interview, go here.


books bought, books mooched

1 Before I update you on my books boughts, I have to add a new category — books mooched– since I’ve discovered BookMooch, a great site for bibliophiles who want their books for free (to the tune of Dire Strait’s "Money for Nothin’": You get your login for nothin’ and your books for free.)

Books bought:

  • Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing by Claire Kehrwald Cook

Books mooched:

  • Libra by Don DeLillo

The problem of sex

"For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind solved the problem of sex rather well." Thus begins J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, a novel about professor David Lurie, who doesn’t really sovle the problem of sex at all.

Published in 1999, a year in which the problems of sex were fresh on American minds at least, given then President Clinton’s own problems (just an aside: really, folks, was an unusual use of a cigar worse than invading another country unprovoked?), Disgrace’s central plot unfolds when Lurie has an affair (potentially unwanted, though that’s ambiguous in the narrative) with a student, Melanie Isaacs. Though set in South Africa, the campus where Lurie teaches frowns upon such behavior, as do American campuses in sex-hating America. Such behavior is seen as an abuse of a power relationship, and there is a hint of rape in the Lurie-Isaacs relationship.

The affair gets revealed and Lurie, refusing to publicly admit he’s sorry for the affair (in several scenes that resemble an Arthur Miller witch trial or Hawthornian scarlett-lettering) resigns his post and leaves in disgrace; he travels to his daughter Lucy’s farm. Father and daugther are estranged and Lurie seems to want to make an attempt to close the gap on the estrangement.

Only this doesn’t work. David and Lucy are attacked by a gang of bandits and Lucy is raped.  Lucy refuses to acknowledge the rape publicly. Lucy, of course, isn’t much older than Melanie Isaacs and Lurie can see the irony in the situation.

His insistence that Lucy acknowledge the rape only further estranges him from her. Indeed, from the downfall brought about by Eros (Lurie acknowledges, and follows, the god’s dark side, James Salter’s "satanic happiness") to the continued estrangment of daughter and father to the inability to repair any of his relationships, Lurie hasn’t sovled the problem of sex, neither erotically or in relation to gender.

It’s this dark exploration of eros that is attractive. Lurie is a Romantics professor who intellectually understands the lyrical nature of passion, while at the same time, is unable to unlock himself from simple desire. His problem with Eros, is Eros itself and Coetzee captures this nature very well.


Books Bought, Books Read Update

Books Bought: 

  • No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

Books Read:

  • How to Read Like A Writer by Francine Prose
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

I had hoped to write more about Card’s Ender’s Game, about science fiction, in general. I’d never read any of Card’s work before, and it’s been quite some time since I’ve read any science fiction, though I’ve loved the genre since early adolescence at least. A friend of mine recommended Card’s novel and I was curious about Card and how he incorporated his Mormonism into science fiction. A quick summary: The novel has a standard sci-fi plot: What do we do about defeating the pesky alien race that keeps invading us? Card solves the problem by having the military recruit children, to train them until they are expert killers, willing to destroy a whole race.

The plot, by the way, is successful–or at least to the extent that the alien’s (the buggers) home planet is obliverated. But, the novel’s protagonist, Ender Wiggin, realizes the military’s game and learns that the wargames he thinks he’s playing as part of his training are actually the real thing. He also, to some extent, subverts the somewhat totalitarian system that rules not only the military of the future, but the Earth itself. 

I’m not sure how the quasi-totalitarianism fits into the scheme of Card’s personal beliefs, but it seems to me that, in varying forms and degrees, throughout much of the science fiction that I’ve read, from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers to Lem’s Solaris to Orwell’s 1984, totalitarianism seems to have won out–individualism and the individual seem to get sacrificed readily for the whole, for the state or the federation, even in science fiction laced with liberalism, such as Star Trek (remember Spock’s sacrifice of the one, for the good of the many?). And yet often it’s the individual, acting outside the box (to use a cliche from that other form of totalitarianism, the corporation) who is able to triumph–sometimes. Winston Smith certainly suffers in 1984. Why, in varying degrees, does science fiction offer such a dim view of individuality? Is our future, which doesn’t seem so far away, one in which the individual is sacrificed to the state?

OK, actually it does seem I had a lot to say about Ender’s Game and science fiction.

Now on to Prose. I hope to write more about Prose’s book, too, in future posts. I will say this much: Her method of close reading is thorough. I’d recommend the book not only to writers but to graduate students in literature, if anything to see beyond some of the Orwellian lit crit you’re subjected to in graduate schools, that attempt to stuff literature into politically correct orifices of theory.

Anyhow children, remember: "War is Peace. Freedom is Slavery. Ignorance is Strength." 


Writing Meme filched from celesteavonne

Keyboard or [insert various local names for pen-type implements]: I use pencil, pen, typewriter or keyboard when writing. All depends on where I am, what I have available and what I’m writing. Normally I’ll compose on the computer, print a hardcopy and edit. But sometimes, when I just don’t feel the love from my writing, I have to break out the old Royal manual to hear the thwhack of the keys against the paper.

Beta or no beta? WTF is a Beta? A first reader? Anyone who volunteers may be my first reader.

Plot? Comes out of the characters–I hope.

Title? The novel: Most of the Time. Filched from Bob Dylan.

Smushy or smutty? Smutty.

Summary? Love lost. Love gained. Love lost. Love gained, sort of. With some naughty bits thrown in. See a pattern?

Funniest fic? A "found objects" exercise I did in a workshop one Saturday. I selected a Dr Pepper bottle and went from there.

Most popular fic? People who’ve read it seem to like one of my published short stories "The Short, Unknowable Life of Frances Beachcomber".

Most fun to write? Almost everything I write, I enjoy writing, but I like working on fiction the best.

Best and worst? I hope the novel is the best. The worst–probably some papers from undergrad. Yes, I’ve kept most of them.

Coulda been contenders? I have a big stack of sketches, some of which might still be worth expanding. Or not.

Strengths? I seemed to be hooked on narrative summary. Of course, the show, don’t tell camp will beat me up for that one.

Weaknesses? Scene development. I tend to write half-scenes with narrative summary.

Dirty little secrets? Those all come out in the novel.