Sunday Salon: Holiday Readings and More on Point of View

This has been a busy holiday reading season. Christmas week I read Karen Harrington’s Janeology, a novel that blends suspense, legal thriller, and family drama into a compelling investigation of how the past influences the present. Today, I started Joe O’Connell’s Evacuation Plan, a novel about hospice care.

Both these novels share something in common with the novel I finished reading last week — William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying — multiple points of view.

All three of these novels give each of their main characters a voice without breaking up the main narrative line. They are complex narratives, without being complicated.

Point of view has been an obsession of late, largely because I’m revising my novel, which shifts point of view. In some of the chapters, I made the beginner’s mistake of shifting point of view in the middle of the narrative without breaking the shift into either a new paragraph, chapter or segment within a chapter.

Writer Josip Novakovich in Fiction Writer’s Workshop reminds me of why it’s good to avoid abrupt shifts in point of view: “. . . [T]his switch jars us . . . . Conventionally, when you switch from the thoughts of one person to the thoughts of another, you’d start a new paragraph or more often, new chapter. Otherwise, your narrative will be jumpy.”

Of course, some writers — Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, for instance — can shift point of view with such finesse, you hardly notice it.

I’m not at Virginia Woolf’s skill level, yet. But, I tend to like giving voice to the main players in my fiction, especially when they are key to the narrative line.

I also like reading fiction with multiple points of view. There’s something satisfying seeing how different characters interpret the same event.


Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.


Who’s in Charge Here?

When I taught comp and rhetoric as an adjunct, I emphasized to my class the importance of writing to an audience, of addressing your argument to an audience. A notion that went against 99 percent of what I believed about writing, especially my own writing.

I understood the notion. In some instances, you know your audience, and you have to write to them, addressing them. They will expect some expertise, some research, some knowledge of the subject at hand,  some idea you know what the hell you’re talking/writing about.

But as I understood it, writing was its best when the writer wrote to please himself first, tangling with his obsessions and theories, and sometimes just to have fun, as novelist William Hjorstberg writes about his first published novel, Alp.

At 27, I was little better than a bum. Still, I’d written all my life and couldn’t stop now. I simply gave up any hope of making it my career. I also gave up all my acquired “writing rules.” (Write about what you know.  Writing is serious work. Never write when stoned.) I broke all the rules. From now on, I would write only for my own amusement. It was all about having fun.

I started a comic fantasy set in a make-believe Switzerland and peopled with foolish mountain climbers, trolls, witches, honeymooners; simply making the whole thing up from day to day without a clue what would happen next. I wanted only to surprise myself.

I struggled with the notion of writing to an audience  in the newsroom. There it seemed existed an idea that your audience was out beyond the borders of your desk, and you had to outguess them, and figure out what their tastes were. Sometimes, editorial control seemed relinquished to those who may or may not buy the paper.

As more and more newspapers collapse, could relinquishing editorial control to the audience, to what sells, be part of the problem? As publishing seems to be following in folding, perhaps the loss of editorial control to sales and marketing at publishing houses is  part of the problem.

That’s what’s suggested in this post at Holt Uncensored.

Maybe  “give ’em what they want” is a chunk of the problem in the national financial crisis. This post at TomDispatch makes a connection between the collapse of publishing and the automaking crisis.

Or maybe not. What do you think, audience?


Editor’s Note: The links above and the grim news about publishing came from brief entry at Bookslut.

Fall Into Reading: The Update

OK, I’m a day late posting this, but I wanted to post an update to the Fall Into Reading 2008 challenge.

On Sept. 25, I listed these books as the ones I would read from Sept. 25 to Dec. 20:

  1. Write Free: Attracting the Creative Life by Rebecca Lawton and Jordan Rosenfeld
  2. Swimming in the Volcano by Bob Shacochis
  3. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind
  4. Orlando by Virginia Woolf
  5. Writing Past Dark by Bonnie Friedman

Of these, I read Write Free, In Fact, and Orlando.

Added to this list were

  1. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
  2. The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
  3. Nevermore by William Hjorstberg
  4. Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
  5. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
  6. Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
  7. Clear Your Clutter With Feng Shui by Karen Kingston

Wednesday Surf: Charlie Don’t Surf, But I Do

Surfing tonight I found via Bookslut a site that records newspaper corrections. This  error is about as puzzling as any error I’ve ever seen:

How does that happen? Do they rebuild the template every day?

Another favorite was from Dave Barry:

In yesterday’s column about badminton, I misspelled the name of Guatemalan player Kevin Cordon. I apologize. In my defense, I want to note that in the same column I correctly spelled Prapawadee Jaroenrattanatarak, Poompat Sapkulchananart and Porntip Buranapraseatsuk. So by the time I got to Kevin Cordon, my fingers were exhausted.

And this one from the Guardian:

Some confusion arose in a review of a television drama about knife crime as a result of mishearing the term shanking, which means stabbing someone with a knife, as shagging (Last night’s TV, page 27, G2, October 2).


Sunday Salon: Faulkner and Hjorstberg

The last time I read anything by William Faulkner was 12 years ago when I was writing my master’s thesis on Absalom, Absalom! and The Sound and The Fury.

After grad school, every time I tried to read anything by Faulkner, I rolled into a mental block.  A couple of years ago, when I read Jane Smiley’s 13 Way of Looking at the Novel, I was happy to read Smiley’s assessment of As I Lay Dying.

Enthused by Smiley’s reading, when I decided to read through my own list of 100 novels, As I Lay Dying had to go on the list. I’ve reached the point where I’m now reading it — it’s 62 on the reading list — and enjoying it, enjoying Faulkner’s Mississippi lilt in the voices of his characters, enjoying one of the weirdest novels I’ve ever read. It’s nice to find myself reacquainted with a writer I loved in my twenties.

I say weirdest novel, because of the plot: A country family embarks on strange quest — the Bundren clan, at the request of dying mother and wife Addie Bundren, set out first to build Addie’s coffin, and then take her body by wagon to her family’s cemetery in another town. A simple journey becomes a skewed quest, one hampered by weather, by bizarre events, all pretzeled by Faulkner’s dark Southern-gothic humor.

Point of view becomes pivotal to the narrative — as it does in so many of Faulkner’s novels — with each main player sorting out the story in first-person segments.


On my recently read list is William Hjorstberg’s mystery novel Nevermore. Set in Jazz Age New York, the novel involves Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini crossing paths to solve a bizarre series of murders, all of which are themed to murders in Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories. I’m not an avid devourer of mystery novels, but this one is well-paced and a quirky idea.

The only thing that bothered me was the heavy peppering of cliches. Some seemed justifiable since they were dated expressions from the 20s, often spoken or thought by characters who would use the language of the time. Others, though, seemed inserted simply as prose shortcuts.

The cliches distracted me, though not enough to stop reading — the story itself, the idea, was compelling. But Hjortsberg’s use of cliche reminded me of a passage on cliche in Richard Rhodes’ How to Write:

I know of at least one popular, best-selling author who carefully goes through his draft manuscripts and substitutes cliches for any original turns of phrase that may have crept in, because he doesn’t want to distract his readers with unfamiliar words and images . . . .

I wonder if Hjortsberg consciously inserted cliches because readers expected them. And I wonder, Do readers really expect cliches? If so, why?


Editor’s Note: This post has been written as part of Sunday Salon.

Booking Through Thursday: A Time to Read?

1. Do you get to read as much as you WANT to read?

Not really, even though I actually have the time. But for almost two years now, I’ve often read less each day than I used to.

One thing that’s slowed my reading is no longer having a pile of subscriptions to newspapers, magazines and literary journals. I can’t afford the subscriptions, and I desperately miss my periodicals.

And unlike some of you, I like actual newspapers and magazines in my hand,  as I like books in my hand. I’m not a Luddite, but the decline of print media distresses me.

Besides being a print journalist at heart, I’m deeply troubled by the decline of the newspaper industry. I think it’s destructive and dangerous. (BookDaddy Jerome Weeks has a nice post on dwindling arts criticism in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.)

Also, the very idea of electronic book readers just makes me cringe.

Another thing that seems to have slowed my reading has been adjusting to marriage with an instant family installed, especially with TVs blaring in almost every room in the house, and kids whining they’re bored. I have to go to our bedroom, shut myself in, and read.

Of course, there’s a TV in our room and its lure is constantly compelling. I’m trying to cut back on the idle TV watching, and hope to do it as football season closes out. (Football is a true addiction.)

Since I’ve gotten married, and since I’ve moved about four times in about a year and a half, I’ve also visited the local library less. The library used to be a source of peace and quiet and access to periodicals.

2. If you had (magically) more time to read–what would you read? Something educational? Classic? Comfort Reading? Escapism? Magazines?

If I had time (read quiet and privacy) and money, I’d renew my newspaper and magazine subscriptions. I especially miss The New Yorker and Harper’s, and occasionally the New York Review of Books. I have these periodicals bookmarked online, but, again, I love being able to sit back and fold pages and read.