The uses of poetry
Phil’s earlier post about National Poetry Month got me thinking about the whole subject of poetry. I’m always dangerous when I think about subjects of which I’m ignorant. But I do know a little about the history
I remember years back, Steve Allen hosted a series on Public TV called “Meeting of the Minds”. The concept of the series was that Allen would gather a group of famous historical figures around a table and have them discuss their thoughts and differences of opinion.
One particular episode involved Emily Dickinson and Attila the Hun (I’m not making this up). I think Charles Darwin and Galileo made it a foursome that evening, but I may be confused about the last two. In any case, I was struck by an exchange between Dickinson and Attila. Attila denigrated Dickinson’s poetry, saying that her “little poems” (or something along that line) had nothing to do with the real world of violence and power.
I thought then, and I think now, that the show’s writers underestimated Attila. Granted, Attila might not have appreciated Emily Dickinson’s choices of subject matter, but I doubt very much that he would have scorned the idea of poetry in itself. Poetry was a serious matter to barbarians everywhere.
This brings us back to the very roots of poetry. Poetry, through most of human history, has not been first of all an aesthetic discipline. Poetry was in fact the information storage and retrieval system of pre-literate cultures. Facts that people wanted remembered, like the names and deeds of ancestors, were “locked” into rhythm, meter and rhyme (or something corresponding to rhyme) in order to assure that the data would be preserved relatively uncorrupted. If someone reciting a poem got a detail wrong, the rigid poetic rules would probably be broken at that point, making the mistake obvious. Snorri Sturlusson, author of the great medieval history of the kings of Norway, Heimskringla
, explained in his forward that he felt confident recording information derived from old poems as long as the poetic diction worked.
Old poems tend to be very different from modern poems. They tend to be narratives, and to tell stories about adventures and magic and battles and all kinds of stuff that appeals to a low-brow taste (like mine). It was, I believe, only after the invention of printing had rendered poetry’s archival function redundant that poetry began to become an exercise in pure language skills, produced by “artists” (a very modern concept) for a small audience of cognoscenti.
C.S. Lewis’ greatest disappointment in life seems to have been that he was never recognized as a great narrative poet. Narrative poetry is the sort of thing that Homer and Dante, Milton and Spenser wrote; long poems that tell stories. He loved that kind of poetry and couldn’t understand why people didn’t write or read it anymore.
I kind of wonder myself. Maybe it’s because novels took over the market.
Portrait of the artist as a toothpaste tube
What shameful and sordid impulses lead a man to become a writer?
I can only speak for myself. Although I hate to perpetuate a stereotype about a group to which I belong, I think the average writer is probably a pretty unhappy person. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there are lots of good writers out there who had happy childhoods, are enjoying healthy marriages, and are highly regarded by their neighbors.
But I doubt it.
From about the age of eight, I’ve been a social Superfund site. I have few friends, and my dating life has been minuscule to the point of vanishing. Some people are afraid of rejection. I assume
rejection. I’m afraid
that people are going to devote their lives to hurting me.
So the psychological energy that most people devote to relationships, I have pent up inside me. Such energy needs an outlet. There are various outlets available. Some people assemble jigsaw puzzles. Some write gaming software. Some do amateur surgery on small animals in their basements.
Me, I write.
My theory is that it’s like those toothpaste tubes we had back when I was young (around the time Colgate met Palmolive). Instead of being made of plastic as they are today, those primitive tubes were built up of several thin layers of metal (what metal I don’t know. Probably lead, as a tooth whitener). In the course of normal use, those tubes tended to develop little holes at stress points. One morning you’d be squeezing the tube, and you’d find a worm of white paste being extruded from the side. This was especially likely if you happened to give the tube a squeeze before you’d opened the cap.
I think my writing’s like that. Because my normal outlet is blocked, my paste comes out in odd places, such as words on paper and intense relationships with people who exist only in my imagination (and, hopefully, in the reader’s after a time).
I didn’t always want to be a writer. When I was a little kid I drew incessantly, things that nowadays would get a child sent to a doctor and put on medication—Civil War battles, Viking battles, Old West gunfights. (“Hmm. Is there possibly some repressed anger here?”) Whenever I meet an old school friend, he’s likely to ask, “Are you still drawing?”
And I have to explain that when I started writing seriously (around the time I learned to use a typewriter) I gradually tapered off drawing. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I just didn’t feel like drawing anymore. Writing “scratched my itch” better.
Or maybe I should say it brushed my teeth better.
*If you’re too young to remember the release of the first Star Wars movie, you probably won’t get the alternate title.
April is National Poetry Month The Academy of American Poets
is celebrating its tenth month-long literary celebration of poetry next month. They want us to remember Emily Dickinson's words
, "Nature is a haunted house - but Art - is a house that tries to be haunted."
During the month, ten poetry readings will be held in ten cities, the first being in Vancouver, BC. Why they couldn't find a tenth US city, I don't know; but maybe Vancouver is a would-be American city--an American-enough city. Probably they're just willing to have a reading. (Did they ask poets in Houston or Athens, TX? St. Louis, maybe?) New York will get involved with a light display on the Empire State Building. Pictured is the one from last year. They will also have a benefit gala at the Lincoln Center on April 5 with a handful of familiar faces and voices, including everyone's favorite former anchorman Dan Rather.
But the fundamental point of this celebration is for you and I to enjoy more poetry. What do you think of that? Do you enjoy poetry or do you return it to the shelf still hungry?
Excellence in writing…
…is not a subject I’m really qualified to address, but I can make a few practical comments on the basis of my own experience (I’m responding, of course, to Phil’s earlier post).
Last June I learned that I’d be losing the day job I’d held for nine years. I didn’t panic because a) I had some money from a couple recent legacies and b) my employer offered to let me keep working on a part-time basis, so I’d have some income on top of that.
After some thought and prayer, it seemed to me that this was God’s opportunity to really make a run at this novel-writing thing.
My former publisher has one (very successful) theory on how to market books. I don’t think I’m giving away a trade secret by saying what it is. It goes like this: “Bring out three books by your new author in very quick succession, just a few months apart. This will give readers a chance to get acquainted with him/her rapidly, and he/she will gain a following (three books by the same author on a shelf is a reader-magnet). Then keep the books coming as fast as possible.”
I had failed to work my publisher’s plan, because I didn’t get my third novel into the hopper on time. This was due to a tangle of personal circumstances, including the death of my father. I had worked hard since then, writing much faster than I ever had before.
So I thought, “Here’s my chance to redeem myself. I will act like a professional. I already have three novels finished and submitted. I’ll write full-time, finish a fourth one, and have it ready for delivery in December. This will a) give my publisher one more novel than his ideal number for a publishing blitz, and b) prove to him that I can write fast, like the big boys.”
So I did. I got the new book done before the end of December and sent it to my agent.
My publisher then dumped me.
So here I am, sitting on four rapidly written novels. My agent is now talking to another publisher, and he asked me to go over one of the manuscripts to make sure it was professional and able to stand alone.
So I’m doing that now. I just finished the read-through and my first reaction is, “Heavens to Harold Robbins. This stinks.”
All right, that’s an exaggeration. The story’s OK. It holds up, as far as I can tell.
But the dialogue is ragged and awkward. The syntax is poor. The similes and metaphors are labored. It's not good work.
Conclusion: I can’t write fast. Not if I want to write well. Maybe a book a year, at best, if I work very hard.
That may mean I can never be a commercial author. Most publishers in SF/Fantasy want two books a year. Literary authors are allowed more time, but I’m not writing for the literary market.
It may be a problem without a solution.
America, by Matthew Cummings
I learned this weekend that my brother-in-law, Matthew Cummings, had a poem published at the Brick & Mortar Review. It's long and modern, but it feels right in the end. "America, America, you have shown me the clean-cheeked face," he writes. I'll quote an early paragraph here. Go to the B&M Review
for the whole thing.
America, I have seen your gentle and antebellumed South, North Carolinian
jack pines, Virginia hawks, salt breezes and pine cones, smiling bank tellers
and pleasant gas attendants, the lakes and grills, cliffs, dirt roads, family
reunions and shirt-sleeved winters. Rockingchairs have creaked under
lavender skies; in the summer your pools have cooled my skin. I have
encountered the hostile southern police.
Deidre Donahue in a review for USA Today
of Ian McEwan's Saturday claims literary excellence is darn hard. "Few writers can sustain excellence, particularly if they publish more than one book a decade. The widely admired best-selling British writer Ian McEwan, author of the acclaimed Amsterdam
, which won the 1998 Booker prize, proves no exception. His new novel, Saturday
, can only be described as dull." The book is heartless, she says, written with skill, not feeling.Many reviewers disagree
, but what do you think about her opening claim on excellence? Has McEwan maintained a literary excellence over the past decade? Has anyone else, even if the measure of that excellence differs a bit (i.e. Terry Pratchett may be excellent, but not the same excellent as McEwan.)?
What Are Book Reviews For?
Kevin at Collected Misc. has some good thoughts
on a couple posts on other lit blogs about the nature of book reviewing. Should a book review advise you whether to buy the book or should it contribute to a larger body of criticism by holding the book in question to a high standard of excellence?
Also, Kevin follows that post with a warning that book reviews can land you in an ugly, melodramic mess
"Alas, and did my Savior bleed?
And did my Sov'reign die?
Would He devote that sared head
For such a worm as I?
"Was it for crimes that I have done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!"
From a wonderful hymn by Isaac Watts. May we never forget it.
One more thing before I go...
All this week, a scene from Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome
has been running in my mind. A former priest tells a former psychiatrist, "You're going to end up killing Jews."
Challenged to explain himself, the priest says, "Do you know where tenderness always leads?""No, where?" I ask, watching the stranger with curiosity."To the gas chamber.""I see.""Tenderness is the first disguise of the murderer."
There was a time in this country when we were more cold-hearted. Back in those days, we would never have starved a woman to death without first doing an available, definitive test to discover whether she could feel pain or not.
I fear our sentimentality more than anything else today.
George Herbert's "Easter"
I got me flowers to straw Thy way,
I got me boughs off many a tree;
But Thou wast up by break of day,
And brought'st Thy sweets along with Thee.
Yet though my flowers be lost, they say
A heart can never come too late;
Teach it to sing Thy praise this day,
And then this day my life shall date.
I’m going to take a break from blogging till after Easter, so let me take this opportunity to thank you for your attention and your comments (special thanks to those who’ve ordered my books), and to wish you a blessed resurrection festival.
C.S. Lewis comments offhandedly somewhere (I haven’t bothered to search out the reference) that the early Christians basically preached one doctrine – the Resurrection. I think that may be an oversimplification. The formula “Jesus is Lord” seems to have been pretty important from the beginning. And I'm confident that atonement by the blood of Christ was part of the message too.
But there is a sense in which Lewis was very close to being right about this. Look at Luke’s account of Paul’s Areopagus speech in Acts 17. Verse 32 says, “When they (the Athenians) heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’”
I’m given to understand that the sense of the original Greek is that the Athenians thought that Paul was preaching about a new god named Anastasis
(Greek for Resurrection). The resurrection was the center of Paul’s presentation.
And for good reason. This was Athens, center of Greek culture, home of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. This was the place where the matter/spirit question I’ve blogged about before was incessantly debated before the eyes of the world. The Romans were men of action. They mostly outsourced their thinking to the Greeks.
And to these Greek intellectuals, Stoics and Epicureans and Platonists and a whole catalog of others, Paul presented this radical new doctrine of Resurrection. It was a shock to them; a challenge to their assumptions. They’d been arguing matter vs. spirit forever, and had been deadlocked just as long. Now came this short, bald, bowlegged rabbi, proclaiming a message that threw a hand grenade in among all their neat categories. Matter and spirit had been reconciled, Paul claimed. Reason and passion had joined hands. Justice and mercy had kissed, in the person of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ.
May the Good News of His resurrection reconcile your minds and hearts, and fill you with joy and hope this Sunday and long after.
Bloggin Ain't Good Fer Writtin Maud is talking
about an author discussion of blogging. In short: "Don't, don't start; it'll suck you into the screaming vortex of the blogosphere, and then you will never get out." I understand that and may not disagree (I'll have to consult myself on it), but what do you think about this statement by Ayelet Waldman: "I was taking all these things, these moments and thoughts and experiences, and just putting them right out there [by blogging]. And once they're out there, once they're expressed, they're gone -- I think. I think, for a writer, once you've put something down, it sort of both freezes it and expresses it, and you lose it from yourself."
I don't believe that's true for every writer. She may not be trying to say that anyway. It certainly true that blogging suck you in. Maud points out that author William Gibson rejected blogging because he decided that he wasn't writing a novel while he was blogging, so that wouldn't do. Can't argue with that. Except some writers or authors enjoy and can manage both.
My dirty mouth problem
The title of this entry, of course, is misleading and intended to attract your interest under false pretenses. I don’t actually have a dirty mouth problem personally, or not a major one. I don’t curse often, and if I occasionally let a bad word out, it’s generally when I’m alone. I feel bad afterwards.
No, I’m talking about the problem of cursing and obscenity in book dialogue. It’s a dilemma, both artistically and morally, and I haven’t worked out a really satisfactory resolution.
It seems to me that when I write a work of fiction, I’ve entered into a tacit contract with the reader. The reader agrees to pretend that the things I’m writing actually happened (or will happen) in the way I describe them. I, in return, am expected to present a picture of the world that isn’t too obviously unbelievable. If I present objects and events that don’t exist in our world, I have to justify that in some minimally believable way. And I have to take particular care to present people more or less as they are.
This leads to many problems. People do lots of things that I don’t care to describe in much detail. Generally it’s possible to close the curtains or turn off the camera where I wish, so that I don’t have to portray sex or violence in more than general terms. I don’t apologize for that. You can’t show everything, even if you want to. It’s the artist’s prerogative to prune.
But dialogue is a harder problem. Dialogue drives a story. If you’re presenting a conversation, you can’t keep cutting away from it or close your authorial ears. And (I’m sorry to say) we’ve entered a time in history when cursing and obscenity are becoming more and more acceptable in conversation. I don’t think they’re still quite as usual in most people’s speech as Hollywood would like us to believe, but they’re certainly more common than when I was a boy (around the time of Cotton Mather).
So how do I handle this, if I’m to present my modern characters in a believable manner?
Frankly, I don’t know.
Sometimes I circumlocute. In Blood and Judgment
I described one of my characters as letting out “an oxymoronic imprecation to an excremental deity”. Cute, but I don’t think I can get away with that too often.
Sometimes I substitute. There’s a word that starts with “fr” and ends with “g” that I sometimes substitute for the “f” word. (It has some believability, but I’m pushing it.) And there’s a word that starts with “cr” that I often substitute for the “sh” word. Also believable (barely) but unsatisfactory.
Sometimes I create an imaginary word. This can be justified when writing about the future. Still, I’m sure the reader knows what I’m doing, and the illusion of reality suffers.
And this is what really embarrasses me: I generally let my characters curse and take the Lord’s name in vain. (Cursing, by the way, means calling on God to bring damnation on something. It’s different from mere “dirty words” which are properly called obscenities.)
I believe that cursing is a far worse sin than obscenity. Cursing is a sin on the level of the Ten Commandments – a cardinal sin. Obscenity is simply offensive, a sin against one’s neighbor (if one’s neighbor has any taste).
Still, I allow cursing in my books but not obscenity. Why? I guess it’s just social conditioning. “I can’t use those words. There are ladies
Suburban Fairy Tale Poetry
Poet Michael Paul Ladanyi
, a Georgia resident, has collaborated with designer Christine E. Laine
, a Virginian, on a new book of poetry from Little Poem Press. Suburban Fairy Tales of Brilliant Ash and Blue Sin
can be obtained through the Little Poem Press site
I think Michael's poetry is interesting, but I don't have confidence in my judgment of poetry to say much more than whether or not a poem works for me. Here's a sample from a poem nominated for the 2005 Pushcart Prize for Best Small Press Poetry
Angela sits mesh smoking, drinking lost
tea stains from her empty glass,
brown bird hands making ten
fingers seem like twenty-four.
A still child born in her every word,
she rattle-pops split-skirt letters,
ravenous fish statue words,
crimson bullet questions. I think about
vegetable soup and cannibals,
two hungers I should have already used
together in a war poem.Continue on his site
Gerard Manley Hopkins on Spring
NOTHING is so beautiful as spring—
When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;
Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;
The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush
The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.Read the second half at Bartleby.com
In Pursuit of the Great American Novel
"Don't yearn for big important tasks that God didn't give to you while neglecting the small obvious ones that He did."
(from Dry Creek Chronicles
in a post on busyness
Where is Heaven? or Two Ways to View Death
I read the Sherlock Holmes' case "The Five Orange Pips"
recently, and it struck me that a reader could view the conclusion as a success or failure according to his worldview. The story itself is a bit of a disappointment. The client appears with a dramatic story. Holmes talks through his initial observations, and the next day, he discusses some conclusions. The story occurs almost entirely within his apartment. The final words describe what Watson could ascertain about the suspected criminals at sea.
Once Holmes does the office work to pinpoint some likely suspects, he mails a letter to them and one to the American authorities in order to apprehend them for murder charges in Britain; but all they ever heard was "that somewhere far out in the Atlantic a shattered stern-post of the boat was seen swinging in the trough of a wave, with the letters 'L. S.' carved upon it." Watson could only assume the ship with the suspects was destroyed in the violent storms that day.
How does that strike you? Did the criminals escape justice through an accident which could have killed anyone? Did Holmes fail because he could see the murderers prosecuted? Or did a divine judge execute his own sentence on them through the storm?
In Dallas Willard's book, The Divine Conspiracy
, he writes about some of the words we use to describe our world. We used to use the word heaven to describe the atmosphere near us, the space between planets and stars, and the location of God, angels, and departed saints. We called them the first, second, and third heavens. Now we call them the first two sky or air and space. Do the words imply different things for you? Sky and space imply nothingness or an empty location. Heaven suggests something spiritual. Willard suggests that we hinder our viewpoint by thinking of God in heaven somewhere, removed from us, maybe--we hope--paying attention to us; but when the Bible was written, part of heaven was the air we breathed. The spirit of God was in the wind.
So when Holmes' prime suspect are lost at sea, are the victims of blind nature or the subjects of God's justice? And in our daily lives, are we accidentally alive, no more significant than the ants cued up over the garden stones, or do we benefit from divine provision in the strength we have to walk, to work, and to play?
Here's another language question based on the same worldview. If a disabled person cannot feed himself, would feeding him be "forcing him to continue living" and would starving him "letting him die?" If so, am I forcing my children to live by feeding them? I call it nurture, and I don't understand why so many are arguing over it
What makes a story?
I’ve always felt a twinge of embarrassment when I’ve read a line like this in an author’s bio: “So-and-so began early as a writer, making up stories for his/her brothers and sisters.”
That’s the way an author’s supposed to start, blast it. But I didn’t. One more black mark on my record.
I didn’t tell stories to my brothers. I read them stories quite a lot (I’m a rather good actor), but I never made stories up, and for a simple reason. I didn’t know how stories worked.
When I was in school, English teachers tried to explain story structure to us. They drew a chalkboard diagram, explaining “Rising action” “Climax” and “Anticlimax.”
Didn’t mean a thing to me. What made action rise? Did one inflate it? Prod it with a sharp stick? I didn’t have a clue.
Finally an article in Writer’s Digest Magazine explained it to me in terms even I could understand.
It’s all about problems.
You create a character, preferably one you like and think your readers will root for. You give him a problem. He tries to solve it. He fails. Now the problem is worse. He tries again, and fails again. This goes on as long as is consistent with the story length you’re aiming for. Finally he either succeeds, or he fails in some significant way, a way that teaches him or the reader something.
That’s a story. “You keep failing until you find something that works.”
Stories have been written and published without using this form, of course. Such stories are highly artistic and experimental. Their authors are proud of them. Critics admire them.
But nobody loves them. Nobody re-reads that kind of story on lonely nights with rain rattling the windows.
There’s a reason why stories employ this form (we call it “plot”). There’s a reason why stories have been constructed this way since the time of Gilgamesh, and (no doubt) even before that.
It’s because stories reflect human life.
I’ve heard that contention denied. I’ve heard people say, “Well, you know, stories are really artificial constructions. There are no plots in real life.”
That, I think, depends on how you define real life. Life is large and full of details, certainly. It’s true that nobody’s life is crafted as a fine story is crafted, with all elements omitted except those that drive the story on. In that sense, life has no plots.
But in terms of how we live life, how we learn to live in the world, stories are precisely like life. This is precisely how we learn to make a place in the universe for ourselves. We try to deal with setbacks, fail, try again, fail again, and keep trying until we find “something that works”.
Or else we die.
And that, I believe, is why the Bible is full of stories. It’s why God entered into human life as Ulysses entered into his wanderings, as the knights of the Round Table entered the quest for the Grail, as the Mysterious Stranger enters Alkali Gulch in a western movie.
It’s why the Lord taught in stories.
That’s one difference between secularists and Christians. They believe life is “just one **** thing after another.” We believe life is a great story, and we want to see how it ends.
Jabez ‘n me
In my ongoing effort to be right up on the cutting edge of Evangelical thought in these entries, I’d like to address the matter of The Prayer of Jabez
A couple years ago there was a fair amount of controversy about Bruce Wilkinson’s little book. Critics charged that the book represented a new form of “Name It—Claim It” triumphalism. In fairness, I never saw that happen. Although I didn’t read the book myself, I know and have worked with people who were very enthusiastic about it. From all I saw, the prayer to “enlarge my teritory" was taken to mean a plea for a larger and more effective sphere of service, not “Oh Lord, please give me a big house in Maple Grove with a pool in the back yard.”
No, my problem with the book was of another sort entirely. My problem was, they stole my verse.
I read through 1 Chronicles 4:9-10 many times without realizing that it properly belonged to me (not exclusively, you understand, but categorically). It’s a strange passage, really. It’s stuck into the middle of a genealogy listing the clans of Judah, and it’s not at all clear how it relates to the material that surrounds it. We don’t know precisely where Jabez fits, but one assumes he was a Judahite.
In any case, the passage tells how Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez because she bore him in pain. He prayed to God, saying, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” (NIV)
Eventually I heard Chuck Swindoll preaching about this passage, back in the pre-Wilkinson days. He pointed out that the name “Jabez” is a sort of pun. It’s similar to the Hebrew word for “pain”. So what we’ve got here is a mother who was so upset about what she went through giving birth to this particular child that she hung a name on him that would remind her forever of how much it hurt. Imagine a woman naming her son “Payne” in our culture, and when you ask her why she chose that name, she says, “The little s.o.b. hurt me so much being born, I gave him that name just to remind me that he owes me big.”
And that’s the secret to the passage. Jabez is the son of a mother who doesn’t love him; who blames him and holds a grudge against him. And that’s a big deal, especially in Jabez’ culture. Not getting a blessing from your parents was a major setback for an Israelite. To actually be cursed by a parent was horrific. You might as well just go hang yourself now. Your life is not going to be a pleasant one. You are a luck-repellant.
But Jabez, we are told, took his problem to God. He apparently asked the Lord to give him a blessing that would counteract his mother’s curse. “And God granted his request.” (verse 10) His brothers, not as honorable as he, very likely let their mother’s judgment be the last word on their destinies, and lived lives that were nasty, brutish and short.
I immediately seized on this interpretation, because this was the first biblical passage I’d ever found that spoke to my personal situation. Without going into details, I’ll just say that I grew up in a home that was dysfunctional. All my life I’ve heard people talking about what their mothers’ love meant to them; how it was a strong foundation and a constant encouragement to them. I… well, I’ve had to do without that. Jabez is my brother.
That’s what bothered me about the Wilkinson book. People who want general-purpose blessings can find them all over scripture. There’s only one verse for people who lack maternal love in their lives. If you had a loving mother, take some other verse for a life verse. Let Jabez and me have this one.
Lord of the Beans
Coming soon from Big Idea
, an epic adventure with an all-vegetable cast: Lord of the Beans. A little flobbit names Baggypants has been given the One Bean for safe harbor on a dreadful mission. A guardian fellowship
, including friends Ear-A-Corn and Leg-O-Lamb, help him while an angry army of sporks are on the prowl. Will they use their gifts wisely and save the world?
My current favorite show
At this moment in history, the television show I most look forward to is "House", Tuesday nights on the Fox Network.
If you're a Wodehouse fan, you may remember Hugh Laurie's inspired performances as Bertie Wooster on Masterpiece Theater some years back. Well, Hugh's back, and now he's an American. According to the show's website, the producer wanted somebody quintessentially American for the role, and couldn't find any Americans who fit the bill. Go figure. In any case, Laurie's accent is spot-on and he's tremendous in the role.
He plays Dr. Gregory House, a brilliant diagnostician who avoids seeing patients as much as possible because he just doesn't like people. This seems to be because he has a crippled leg and believes that "patients don't want a doctor who's sick". He's also addicted to pain pills (he's not a role model).
But when he's persuaded (often tricked by his staff) to pay attention to a case, he goes all out. In the usual script format the unhappy patient is subjected to a series of harrowing and painful treatments before a solution is found in the last ten minutes. Usually the patient survives. One might ask why it always takes so long if House is so brilliant, but these are always what doctors (I think) call "zebra" cases -- the hoofbeats sound like horses', but they're not.
But it's the writing and the dialogue, along with the strong acting ensemble, that make this show special. House is a downbeat comedian, self-aware enough to know that his quirks make him a little ridiculous.
My favorite episode involved a sick nun. Her faith, and that of her fellow nuns, was treated with respect throughout. Even House, ostensibly a skeptic, couldn't dampen it. In a wonderful moment, one of House's fellow doctors, frustrated over House's obsession with finding a diagnosis, says, "Sometimes in life there isn't an explanation!" House replies, "There's always an explanation. We just don't know what it is yet."
To which the first doctor replies, "I think the nuns would agree with you on that..."
If you're feeling down because your NCAA Tournament brackets aren't even as good as the premium, 20lb, bright white paper they're scribbled on, then order a jar of Chalmers Chocolate
, "an exquisite chocolate confection exploding with bold flavor." The 30-year-old company is based on Lookout Mountain, GA, just south of Chattanooga, TN. I believe you can call or email them directly to order a jar, but they are also available in a few locations around Chattanooga, such as Mountain Market, as well as stores in New York City, Chapel Hill and Charlotte, NC, Greenville, SC and other fine America cities.
Brand identity designed by Widgets and Stone
The man who made “Readers” of a nation
I did my obligatory Irish post yesterday. So today, entirely out of orneriness, I want to talk about Norway, my second most-beloved country.
Bear with me. Books come into it in a major way.
If you know Norway today, you know it as a spectacularly beautiful European country, typically European in its politics and attitudes. It’s a little more religious than most European countries, but not by much. It’s wealthy, well-educated and politically correct, fashionably unconcerned about old-fashioned matters like national defense or maintaining a replacement-level birth rate.
But few even among the Norwegians remember the name of the man who did more than any other to change Norway from a traditional, class-bound society to a free, democratic one.
His name was Hans Nielsen Hauge (pronounced “How-geh”, though we usually say “How-ghee” in America).
Hauge (1771-1824) was a farmer’s son, born into a world where you were destined to be what your father was (at best). In 1796 he experienced a Christian conversion while working in his father’s fields. Almost immediately he began talking to his family about spiritual things, and after a time he began speaking to larger gatherings, almost always in private homes. He also began writing books, though his formal education had been minimal. He preached sin and repentance, and stressed the necessity of living a life that matches your beliefs.
In time he began to travel by foot around the country, carrying his books for sale at a minimal price, and speaking to gatherings in far-flung locations over that very rugged landscape. He began to attract the attention of the state church and the authorities, and not in a good way. There was a law in force at the time known as the Conventicles Act. It prohibited anyone but ordained pastors from preaching or leading religious meetings. So Hauge began to be arrested now and then. He always submitted cheerfully, convinced that what he was doing wasn’t in violation of the law.
He did more than just preach. He was an entrepreneur and a rough-and ready engineer. He was forever on the lookout for advanced, scientific farming techniques, which he taught to people on his journeys. When he found a mountain stream that was suited for building a water-powered flour mill or sawmill, he’d point it out to people and help them get a business started. He built a paper mill on a communal pattern, where orphans and the disabled could earn a living. He also ran a number of successful businesses of his own.
In 1804 he was arrested and confined in the city of Christiania (now Oslo). Now began ten years of repeated hearings and delays, during much of which he was confined in a cold, damp cell and denied even a Bible to read (they did let him read Voltaire).
He was paroled during most of the year 1809. As a consequence of the Napoleonic wars, Norway had been blockaded by the English navy. There was great suffering (Norway has always been a food-importing country). A critical need for salt led to a search for someone who could build sea-salt refineries. Hauge was the only man found in the country who had that expertise, and so he was let out on bail in order to set up salt works. When this job was done, a grateful government clapped him back in jail (but in somewhat improved circumstances).
In 1814 his case finally (!) came to trial. He was convicted on two of the charges and released for time served. His health was broken and his wealth gone. Friends helped him to buy a farm near Oslo, where he lived quietly, marrying and having one son who survived him. He never preached again, though he was visited often by prominent political and religious figures. Official opinion about him had changed in an increasingly nationalistic Norway. The Conventicles Act was eventually abolished and lay ministry came gradually to be accepted, even in the state church.
Aside from the spiritual effects of Hauge’s work (which I consider inestimable) he also had a profound influence on education in Norway. Hauge’s converts wanted to read the Bible, and they wanted to read his books (they were known by the nickname, “The Readers”). As more and more of the common people came to be well-read, it grew harder and harder for the officials and upper classes to claim that they were the only people smart enough to have a say in government. Pietism in Norway, as in so many places, was a profoundly democratic social development. When the Norwegians finally elected their own Parliament, late in the 19th Century, it was led by Haugeans.
In time the Left Party (that’s what they called it) would be taken over by humanists and secularists. But it wasn’t the humanists and secularists who got the democracy ball rolling. It was the Haugeans.
It is well known among Shakespearean scholars that the bard first crafted his stories in the form of the serial limericks. Shakespeare invented the form, which is popularly assumed to have been crafted by Edward Lear
before the readers of the world were smart enough to call it a limerick. I tell you, the state of public education has been rotten ever since Socrates handed it down to George Washington.
Some of these classic poems have been discovered and preserved. "The Taming of the Shrew" begins this way:
There once was a lady named Kate
Her popular sis she did hate
Bianca, she knew
Was really the shrew
But twas she who could not get a date
Three men for Bianca did vie
For her love they did vow they would die
But their hopes they were buried
For till Katherine got married
Her sister must suitors deny
. Much appreciation to scholar JM Downing for preserving this text. An equally strong scholar, DJ Downing (some relation), has preserved this Shakespearean limerick which was expanded into the classic "Romeo and Juliet." I have the honor to present it to you here in full.
In Verona a city so fair,
Two families were oft feuding there
In this mess we do find
Star crost lovers entwined
And I fear that they haven’t a prayer.
Young Romeo and family most rash,
A Capulet party did crash
‘Twas there that he met
The sweet Juliet
And he fell deep in love in a flash.
Poor Juliet felt rather blue;
Her love was a dread Montague.
Yet she loved just the same
Asking “What’s in a name”.
Still she didn’t know what she should do.
Then Romeo that lover so keen,
Climbed to her on vines, strong and green.
Together these two
Vowed they’d always be true,
In what’s known as the balcony scene.
But trouble in Verona did grow,
When Tybalt stabbed Mercutio.
Cried he “You’re all louses,
A plague on your houses!
I’m dead of a murderous blow.”
Wedded bliss just was not meant to be
For Romeo slew Tybalt you see.
As the Princes’ law writ
Romeo’s live was forfeit
So our hero had to pack up and flee.
A plan to fake death went awry,
When Rome thought Juliet did die –
So he killed himself then
She did herself in
And together in death they both lie.
Then the Prince scolded both families.
“Take a look at these two, if you please.
Because of your hate
Juliet and her mate
Are now one of the Bard’s tragedies.
Patrick, Son of Ireland by Stephen R. Lawhead
As if you Irish needed more pandering on this day (note to self: tamp down the Norwegian festival envy), this is my review of Stephen Lawhead’s book on St. Patrick.
I like Lawhead. His craft has improved steadily over the years, and he's one of my few competitors in the field of Christian historical fantasy (though I doubt he considers me much of a challenger). Nevertheless he has also grown quirkier (in my opinion) in his recent novels.
This quirkiness is much on display in Patrick
. I’m accustomed to seeing historical revisionism coming from secularists. It’s somewhat jarring to see a revisionist book by a Christian.
Lawhead’s Patrick starts out according to form. Young Patrick, a 6th Century British nobleman, is captured in an Irish raid and taken as a slave. Lawhead then veers from the traditional story by having Patrick attend a Druidical school (in his scenario the Druids have been converted peacefully, turning their magic lore to the development of spiritual gifts). After achieving the high “filidh” rank, he escapes to Britain and the continent. At this point Lawhead alters the traditional story again, having Patrick serve as a soldier and get married and widowed in Rome before returning to Ireland (partly at the suggestion of Pelagius, whom Lawhead portrays as orthodox and falsely accused).
Lawhead’s purpose is clear, especially taken in connection with what he writes in his Celtic Crusade books. He wants to divorce Patrick entirely from the institutional Roman Catholic Church. He seems to be one of those who consider early Celtic Christianity a sort of proto-Protestantism, free from the corruptions of the papacy. In this he joins the ranks of many people, of all kinds of persuasions including New Agers, who find in the Celtic church a spiritual mirror, showing them their own images. (I think it ought to be noted that the Irish church was fiercely devoted to the veneration of saints, hardly a hallmark of the Protestant spirit.)
Still it must be admitted that Patrick is a pretty shadowy historical figure. Many historians believe the Patrick we know from tradition and a few documents is actually a conflation of two different people.
I’m a low-church Lutheran myself, and reflexively hostile to all Romeward moves in my own communion. But I’ve got to say that I wouldn’t talk about the Catholic church, especially in that historical period, as Lawhead does.
But nevertheless this is Lawhead, and he always delivers a good read. If you’re a Catholic, though, you might want to pass him by.
Here's a Twilight Zone question: If you could read a book in an instant and reflect on it clearly for an hour before things begin to grow murky, would you do it? Say there's a library where this could be done, and complications limit you to only one book per visit. Would that be your ideal reading fantasy or would it take the fun out of it?
Also from Wittingshire
, I learned I am the obsolete skill
of "regularly metric verse." Fitting.
What Do You Call, Linkage?
- Nextbook.org's current cover story is a divided audio piece with supporting imagery on Jewish veterans from Iraq.
- Earlier tonight, I blogged at Collected Misc. about new sales for Warren's Purpose-Driven Life, generated by the Atlanta courtroom-shooting story. I also linked to VidLit, book promotions done by animation. Be sure to watch the one for Yiddish with Dick and Jane, but don't ask me what I want on my hamburger, all right? Oy Vey!
- Occasionally, I think that humility should prevent me from posting links such as like those in #2, excessively speaking. I haven't yielded to humility in these cases, and I don't see the point of it. Almost every blog is a page of words, images, and links which interest the blogger, and since I am blogging on two blogs at the most present time currently, I want to point out the posts of interest-to-me on the other blog when I make them. Is that prideful?
- The Thinklings have launched a book club. Their first selection is The Bible and the Future by Anthony Hoekema. No, it appears to be a readable tome, despite the subject. I am looking forward to it. I should add it to my list on the right. If you are interested in The End Times or eschatology but don't want to wade into the book, watch Thinklings.org for the Monday morning discussions.
- Let me take this opportunity to mention that Jared has some cool (there's a better word than cool--what is it?) writing quotes which are popping up in some of his posts.
- And in other news, John Grisham is writing a non-fiction legal thriller for Doubleday Broadway to be released next year. The story will be on Ronald Keith Williamson, a death-row inmate formerly with the Oakland A's who was acquitted through DNA testing many years after his conviction and just prior to his scheduled execution.
I think this one is my all-time favorite:
There's a vaporish maiden in Harrison
Who longs for the love of a Saracen.
But she has to confine her
Intents to a Shriner,
Who suffers, I fear, by comparison.
There was a young Master of Trinity
Who solved the square root of infinity.
But it gave him such fidgets
To add up the digits,
He chucked Math and took up Divinity.
I remember Shari Lewis the ventriloquist reciting this one on a talk show long, long ago:
There was a young man from Japan
Whose poetry never would scan.
When they said, "It won't go,"
He replied, "Yes, I know,
"But I always try to squeeze as many words into the last line as I possibly can."
Happy St. Patrick's Day, folks.
"Brandywine Books" Is a Great Name
Reactions like this from Wittingshire
remind me what a great name I have in Brandywine Books. "It's bookish and Tolkienish, which naturally means it must be good." Of course, it is. It also relates to an area in Delaware and Pennsylvania
, and has alcoholic overtones. All good attention grabbers, in my opinion.
Amanda at Wittingshire points out Lars' second Incarnation
post in response to her discovery of this new land. Also, she has been blogging limericks
this St. Patrick's week. I like this one
, which is probably as old as the hills, old as dirt, or old as yesterday's news, but I am unfamiliar with it.
A fly and a flea in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
"Let us flee," said the fly.
"Let us fly," said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.
This reminds me that I've wanted to buy something akin to, if not precisely, the Oxford Book of Light Verse
Here’s an argument I use in my novel Blood and Judgment
You’ve all watched the scene a hundred times on the news. A family stands on its front lawn, dressed in pajamas. Their home is burning behind them. A reporter (with the legendary empathy of his profession) asks, “How do you feel right now?”
The father replies, “Thank God we’re all alive. The house and furnishings, that’s just stuff.”
It’s so common it’s a cliché. It’s one of those things we take for granted. “People are infinitely valuable. Stuff can be replaced.”
But suppose you were to subject that sentiment to rigorous scientific analysis. Would it hold up?
What is a person, this thing we value so highly? It’s not a mere body. If it were, death would make no difference. You could freeze grandma and be just as happy as before.
A person is a personality, an attractive, mysterious, frustrating combination of loves, habits, hates and fears with which we interact through language. We like some people and dislike others. Some we love and some we despise.
But is there any scientific evidence that personalities exist? Some scientists believe that all human behavior can be reduced to reflexes and conditioned behaviors. They believe there is no free choice. We do what we do, they believe, not because we’re distinct persons, but because of our genes and environments, which drive us unconsciously. Our idea of freedom, they say, is just an illusion. We are chemicals reacting in complex ways, nothing more.
And yet, and yet… even those scientists go home and hug their wives (or significant others) and laugh with their children (assuming they have any). They carry on their lives precisely as if they and their loved ones had souls, as if they were infinitely valuable. Most of them, I’m sure, would die for their children.
They are living in what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”. That means they live in a manner that contradicts their stated beliefs about reality.
One of my jobs as an author, I think, is to rub such people’s faces in that contradiction.
That they might be saved.
The sin of envy
Tomorrow I plan to write some further thoughts along the lines I’ve been pursuing, but tonight I thought I’d produce a post more in line with the usual Brandywine Books fare.
So I want to talk about a few authors in my own genre who rouse my envy; authors the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to unloose. In no particular order:
Walter Wangerin. I give him pride of place because he’s a fellow Lutheran. Also, by a totally irrelevant coincidence, he just retired as speaker on The Lutheran Vespers radio program, for which I worked for ten months as administrative assistant back around 1980. Since WW is a pastor in good standing with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, I’m pretty sure we have major theological disagreements. But The Book of the Dun Cow
is an almost perfect book, and almost unique of its kind—a modern animal fable for grownups. I was sure I’d hate it, but I loved it. I especially loved the character of the dog Mundo Cani, a heartbreaking picture of grace working through someone with low self-esteem. I didn’t like the sequel, The Book of Sorrows
, as well though.
Mark Helprin. Helprin isn’t primarily a fantasist, but Winter’s Tale
is one of the great fantasies of the 20th Century. The audacity of the thing is breathtaking. He sets his story in an imaginary city called New York City, a metropolis perpetually surrounded by an impassable cloud wall that blocks it off from the rest of the country. The wall lifts periodically to let trains through (unexplained is how a city cut off like that could have become a major trade center. Don’t think about it. There’s enough wonderful stuff going on to divert you). It’s a book about love and redemption and sacrifice. Not Christian, but a good book for your heart. And it includes my favorite line ever in any novel, which I won’t quote because I don’t want to spoil it for you (and because I can’t find my copy just now).
Leif Enger. People bugged me for years to read Peace Like a River
, but I put them off. Maybe it was because he used to work for Minnesota Public Radio, so I assumed he must be a lefty. Maybe he is, too. I don’t care anymore. Peace Like a River
is as close to a perfect book as I’ve ever read. Not only do the characters fascinate, but the prose is as lyrical as a Shakespearean sonnet. The story is of a man who can perform miracles, but whose gifts are never able to help his own dearly loved family. The story is told by his asthmatic son. The son loves his father but can’t get over his resentment that there’s no miracle for him. There’s a quest for a lost brother and a love story, and it’ll break your heart.
One thing all these authors have in common is that they don’t produce books very quickly. I could write a lot better than I do if I were free to take two or three years to polish my prose.
But even then I don’t think I could come close to these three.
Incarnation, Part 3
Years ago I was a member of a Christian singing group that traveled to work with church youth. We were slightly famous with a very small public. We wrote a musical play and toured with it one summer. It was a sort of bargain-basement Narnia/Pilgrim’s Progress
sort of thing. I’d probably cringe if I had to watch it today, but at the time we had good success within our limited sphere of influence.
A troubled young man spoke to me after one performance. He said that what we were doing was wrong. He said we should not present a story in which a character who was not Christ represented Christ.
I pointed out that Jesus had told parables in which human characters represented both Him and the Father.
“Well,” the fellow replied, “it was OK for Jesus. But you’re not Jesus. You don’t have that right.”
He could not, of course, point to any biblical passage or principle that supported this view, but he was certain he was right. We parted agreeing to disagree. Afterwards it occurred to me that I should have asked him whether he thought John Bunyan was out of line too.
When Jesus came, He generally didn’t teach in the way that would seem obvious to us—going to people with a systematic layout of His teachings. A PowerPoint presentation would have been nice. That would have been a good, rational approach.
There are some people, of course, who would have preferred Him to go another way. In their view, He should have just healed, fed and comforted people. He should have given out lots of hugs and affirmations. That would have pleased those who despise reason and think faith should be about works of compassion alone.
Instead, His primary teaching method was telling stories. A story is a hybrid sort of thing. It has structure and logic. It makes a teaching point (at least the way Jesus used it). But it also engages the feelings, the subjective side of human nature.
A story is a little incarnation. It was the perfect way for the Word made Flesh to touch people in their minds and hearts, their reason and their feelings.
J.R.R. Tolkien described the work of the storyteller as “subcreation”, a little reflection of God’s great work (which includes the spiritual and the material). “It may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium
in the real world…. So great is (God’s) bounty… that (the Christian) may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation.” ("On Fairy Stories")
Tolkien achieved that great goal. Whether I’ll achieve it in my smaller sphere remains to be seen. I'm keenly aware that when I tell these stories I'm putting hands on holy things (that was probably what the young man who objected to my musical play meant). But I believe it’s worth trying. I believe it’s a genuine work of ministry. The master's praise did not go to the servant who played it safe by burying his talent, but to the ones who took risks.
Friends of Chattanooga's C.S. Lewis Lecture
If you live near Chattanooga, TN, you may wish to attend the Monday, April 4 lecture at UTC. "Genes as Resources: A New Image of Humanity" will be delivered by Gilbert Meilaender
of Valparaiso University as the 23rd Annual C.S. Lewis Lecture. It's free. Starts at 7:30 p.m in Benwood Auditorium. Mr. Meilaender is releasing a revision of Bioethics: A Primer for Christians
Wallace & Gromit, the Movie
I just learned from Will at View from the Foothills
that a movie of Wallace and Gromit will be released this October. Here's a production trailer
. I may have to take my sweet children to the theater for this one! But will the snack counter serve wensleydale
What if I wear the wrong trousers? Oh, dear.
Incarnation, Part 2
I’ve talked about the idea of a spiritual realm, and the fact that most people who’ve lived have chosen to believe in It, in one way or another. But how do we relate to It? How are we to think of It, in order to keep on Its good side?
It’s possible to believe that the material universe we live in is divine (in the sense of being a god, or gods). Many people have believed this. In this view, the material world we live in does exist, though we’re blind to its true nature.
A second possibility (I’m painting with very broad strokes here) is to believe that the material world doesn’t exist at all. It’s an illusion, a dream. Fulfillment must come through learning to forget about it.
What I’m talking about here isn't just philosophical theory. It has to do with how we see the world, and how we see ourselves. We all have spiritual longings in our hearts, but the natural world never satisfies them. It offers hints and shadows and scents on the breeze, but never a happy ending.
But a very strange story began to be told. It said a middle eastern teacher had been executed and had risen from the dead. The evidence for this story was about as good as could be had in an age before photography and recording devices. More than that, this teacher’s followers declared that He was in fact the Creator of the universe, who had come to be a human being and live a human life.
This was revolutionary. It proposed that the division between flesh and spirit had been broken down. God, the great, holy Lord of Hosts of Scripture, so good as to be terrifying, suddenly had a friendlier, more approachable face. And matter, which had seemed low and contemptible to some, acquired respectability. If He had a real body, then bodies couldn’t be bad, could they?
(This, by the way, is why modern science developed in Christian Europe and nowhere else. Christians did not despise matter, nor did they consider matter part of God. It was God’s handiwork, created under reasonable laws and therefore probably understandable, and there could be no blasphemy in examining it closely.)
I’m fond of the movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”. In the movie you have the Baron, played by John Neville (looking frighteningly like Doré’s illustrations in the book), who represents the world of dream and imagination – spirituality if you will. He is great fun, but to journey with him you have to leave your reason behind. On the other side is Mr. Jackson, played by Jonathan Price, the archetypal Enlightenment drone. He has reason on his side, and he tries to crush and suppress all spiritual aspirations. In the end, the people of Vienna must choose between the two characters, and they go with the Baron, who gives them a victory that’s exceedingly satisfactory but could never work in real life.
The way of the Incarnation is a third way. It has a place for reason, and it does not despise or reject the material world. It has a place for the spirit as well. It declares that someday, just as the risen Christ still had a human body (though one with new capabilities), we ourselves and the material world we live in will enjoy a perfect harmony of spirit and matter. The two elements of our nature, so long at war, will be at peace. The lion of reason will lie down with the lamb of the spirit.
Next up, I’ll talk about how this relates to storytelling.
From "The Rival Conceptions of God" by C.S. Lewis
If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic - there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.
Taken from Mere Christianity
, quoted by a "fool" on Into the Wardrobe
Interview with Adam Fawer
First-time author Adam Fawer offered to write something for Brandywine Books several days ago, and I asked him a few questions in something that approached an interview, which I posted on Collected Misc
. Go there to read his answers to the handful of questions I asked, but here I'll give you what he said about the origin of his story, Improbable
I had a statistics professor in college who once said, "If you walked outside right now and jumped up into the air it's POSSIBLE that through a confluence of incredibly low probability events (a sudden typhoon carrying you up into the sky high enough to collide with the space shuttle) you could land on the moon. However, this is highly unlikely. Thus, the moral of the story is nothing is impossible, but certain things are infinitely improbable." This idea always stuck with me and eventually morphed into the premise for my book: a man who could understand all of the consequences for every improbable action in the universe.
Yesterday I poked into the oleaginous stew of my own motives to discuss the question of why I write. Today I want to address the same question from another angle – “What am I trying to say when I write?”
I write, in that sense, because I have basically one idea in my head – the drum I bang on, the horn I blow, the (live) horse I beat. That idea is the Doctrine of the Incarnation. The Doctrine of the Incarnation is one of the few things I actually get excited about. It energizes me. It gets my blood up. And I’m not even going to make a self-deprecatory joke here about what that says about the quality of my social life. The Incarnation is too important to be used in a passive-aggressive ploy for the reader’s acceptance.
All through history, men and women have tried to make sense of the fact (a fact everybody believes unless he’s been brainwashed out of it) that we have two realms of reality to deal with – the natural and the spiritual.
Ed has a friend named Joe. Joe exists. Joe is as real as Ed. Ed has no reason to question that fact. If it’s not true, then the whole world is a parlor trick and Ed doesn’t know anything anyway.
Suddenly, Joe is dead. Joe, who existed a minute ago, is gone now. Where there was a personality who could be interacted with, familiar but not completely known, agreeable but not perfect, there is now just a pile of flesh, blood and bone, rapidly entering a state of decomposition.
Where did Joe go? The body’s there, but where are the things that made him uniquely Joe and not Ed or Bill or Sue? The things that identified him as Joe even in the dark, even in a letter? One can postulate that those things ceased to exist at his death; became nothing. But that means that the human things, the things that matter most to us, the things we prize most highly, are less permanent than organic tissue. And incidentally less permanent than gold, silver, fame, power, real estate or oil -- all those things we keep telling ourselves aren’t really important in the long run. Extinction is a possible answer, but a most unsatisfactory one, and one that should not be left alone in a room with anyone suicidal.
So most people throughout history have opted to believe that Joe must continue to exist in some kind of spiritual sphere of existence. But what can we guess about this spiritual sphere, and how do we relate to it? And, more importantly, how are we to prepare ourselves for our own inevitable encounter with it?
I’ll continue this essay in my next post. I’d like to conclude with a quotation from C.S. Lewis, but I can’t find the bloody thing. It goes something like this: “When I was an atheist, I had to believe that most people in most times and places had always been wrong about the things that mattered most to them. When I became a Christian, I was able to adopt a more broadminded view.”
I picked up Janine Goffar’s The C.S. Lewis Index
a while back. I’m constantly amazed at how useless it is in helping me find the quotations I want. How did she manage to leave out all the best stuff?
Why We Write
Why would anybody be a writer? Why would someone (me, for instance, just choosing a subject at random) choose a calling whose hallmarks are solitude, multiple rejections and limited prospects of ever earning a living?
I've often thought about this question as I sat, all alone, staring at a rejection note or working at my day job. I've applied to it the kind of ruthless self-criticism that's made me legendary with crisis hotlines.
I came to the conclusion that I write primarily for one reason: to attract chicks.
And it doesn't work.
I remember the day I sold my first short story. I was higher than Gore Vidal's opinion of himself. Letter in hand, I actually danced around the room -- and dancing is foreign both to my religious tradition and my coordination level.
I assumed, naturally, that selling a book would be even better. What excesses might I perform, I wondered? As one who hates to make a spectacle of himself, I worried about it a little.
So when I finally got my first book sale, I anticipated the emotional rush with some concern.
But nothing happened.
No, actually something did happen. I got depressed.
Time for more brutal self-examination. In the end I realized that my depression came from disappointment. I'd been holding a number of unexamined expectations about what it would be like to be an author--expectations that went entirely unfulfilled.
I expected (I think) to be taller once I got published. Also to be better looking, thinner and more attractive to women.
Where had these expectations come from? My suspicion is that they came from television shows, movies and novels.
In television shows, movies and novels writers are almost always good looking, sophisticated and devastatingly sexy.
And then it occurred to me that television shows, movies and novels are written by writers.
My name is Lars Walker, and Phil Wade has been kind enough to ask me to contribute to this blog now and then. Since he’s going to be busy this month, and since I’m all full of a newcomer’s puppy-like enthusiasm, you may be seeing as much of me as of him here temporarily. But it’s Phil’s blog, and will remain so.
I’m the author of four fantasy novels published by Baen books (www.baen.com). The novels, in order of appearance, are Erling’s Word
(which you don’t need to buy because it was eaten by its sequel), Wolf Time
, The Year of the Warrior
(a double volume, incorporating Erling’s Word
), and Blood and Judgment
. All are Christian fantasies featuring Viking and Norse themes.The Year of the Warrior
is a historical fantasy, telling the story of a true-life character, Erling Skjalgsson of Sola, through the eyes of his Irish priest.Wolf Time
and Blood and Judgment
are contemporary fantasies set in a fictional town called Epsom, Minnesota, loosely based on my home town. Wolf Time
is set in the near future, and Blood and Judgment
is a prequel, set more or less in the present.
I don’t intend to make a lot of sales pitches in these blog entries, but perhaps it wouldn’t be out of line to mention that if you wish to order these books from Amazon or someplace like that, it’s best to do it now. Baen has terminated our business relationship, and the books are headed to the pulp machine.
The folks at Baen haven’t specified to me the reason for their decision (or my agent may have mercifully withheld that information), but I have to assume it’s low sales. I can’t fault them for that. My personal opinion is that they would have been rewarded in time if they’d stayed the course, but in point of fact Jim Baen has been pretty patient with me over the years. He’s a genius who’s managed to build one of the few old-fashioned-style publishing houses left in our world—a house built on a genuine passion for books rather than cookie-cutter marketing schemes and bean counting. I think he made a mistake in regard to me, but I still admire him intensely.
What happens next? My agent’s talking to another publishing house. If they don’t bite we’ll go to yet another, and so on until we find a home, or we give up, or I die. I’m a writer. I write, whether I’ve got a current publisher or not. I’ll examine the dark and sordid roots of this compulsion in my next post.
Context for Debate
Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God's will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)
So, Christian Bloggers, how often do we couch the reason for the hope within us in gentleness and respect?
Why We Read
Betsy Childs in an article titled, "In Praise of Rereading,
" talks about important books in her life and reasons for reading:
Several of the books that have had the greatest influence on my life are books that I've stumbled upon. I found them while browsing through a shelf. I had never heard of them and did not expect to impress anyone by reading them. I read them because they intrigued me or offered answers I was looking for, and I was not disappointed. But these examples stand out in contrast to the majority of the reading I've done, which is far too often motivated by intellectual fads, a high-brow idea of what will be considered literary, or the desire to be perceived as well-informed.
I'm guilty of prideful reading and book-buying as well; but I still want to read the books come home to every evening no matter why I bought them.
[As for my unplanned absence from the blog, I have been busy and will continue to be this month. I want to post every weekday with something meaningful, but I won't be able to. Thank you for continuing to check in. I have not given up blogging yet.]
God Gives Them Sleep
"OF all the thoughts of God that are
Borne inward into souls afar,
Along the Psalmist's music deep,
Now tell me if that any is
For gift or grace surpassing this—
"He giveth His beloved, sleep"?
What would we give to our beloved?
The hero's heart to be unmoved,
The poet's star-tun'd harp to sweep,
The patriot's voice to teach and rouse,
The monarch's crown to light the brows?—
He giveth His beloved, sleep."
From Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Sleep
New Book Blog
Here's a new book blog out of Britain which was kind enough to link to Brandywine Books, thus enabling me to find it through back-linking and the extensive research tools provided for my work in the CIA and Interpol. (Forget you read that last part.) The blog is
I would raise a dram to you, Maureen, for a good life and fulfilling blogging, reading and writing, if I drank things in drams. I'll raise my oversized mug of coffee to you instead.
I have also noticed a lit blog which is older than this one and yet Kate links here under the heading "
She recently read The Good Earth and enjoyed a group discussion
on it. "Wang Lung's love of the land and simple desire to prosper and provide for his family particularly resonate for me right now as I yearn to be away from this life-in-limbo, to be steward of my own good earth."
I should also mention, though I am late to do so, that I appreciate the kind recommendation from Mental Multivitamin. Thank you very much. May we all meet at a book-signing and be surrounded by hundreds of fans who murmur into their tote bags, "Who are these people again?"
Talking It Up
Yesterday was World Book Day for the UK and Ireland
. No, I don't know why it isn't the UK and Ireland Book Day or why it isn't Book Day in the rest of the world. Stop thinking about it.
This year's theme was "Spread the Word.
" A survey, conducted for The Booksellers Association
(I believe), shows that sales are highly influence by personal recommendations. BBC News reports
, "Other factors which are said to influence readers' book choices are the synopsis on the back cover, the jacket design - but much fewer people are swayed by advertising campaigns." These factors as well as reader faithfulness to an author or "author loyalty" are the meat and potatoes of bookselling.
[Enter The Lit-Blogger, stage right]
The Poseur Is the One Who Killed Himself
"It's the Sandra Dee's that create room for the Hunter Thompson's" - BreakPoint
"Hunter S. Thompson was, shall we say, the real
fake in this accidental duo. His 'authenticity' was just a pose. Reporters, young and old, who compulsively imitate him are poseurs squared.
Dee, on the other hand, got help, kept up appearances, died of natural causes. The normal, boring stuff of real life. . . . Sanda Dee is Hunter S. Thompson's superior because her artifice was grounded in the real." - Kathy Shaidle
Book Lover Complaints
I found an article on The American Reporter
, dated February 21, 2005, about the BookExpo America on April 2003. It's an old article, recently published online. It reports that there are about 1000 bookstores in the States now, down by half from ten years ago. Then it says, "Wilkie's Bookstore & Cafe, the oldest bookstore in Ohio, is closing its successful operation after more than a century of bookselling so that the Dayton school board can expand its offices."
I throw that out to introduce a post I put on Collected Misc.
I don't understand why some of us, book lovers I mean, champion independent bookshops. Are they supposed to combine retail trade with bibliophilia? BookAngst writes, "We LOVE to love independent booksellers, and much of the applause they receive for hand-selling is indeed well-deserved. On the other hand, for all of the hand-wringing that goes on about the big chains driving the independents out of business, for most of my authors on book tour, it's the Indie stores that draw the smallest crowds." So do some book lovers dislike chain booksellers (not chain media-sellers, there's a difference) because they dislike big?
Are the same people the ones who complain about publisher-owned bookshop? Is there really anything to fear in a bookshop owned by HarperCollins or Little, Brown, & Co? I think "The Little Brown Book Shoppe" is a great name, though I guess it would be a Time-Warner store now. Some publishers already sell their books directly through their websites, and Barnes & Noble, a retailers, publishes their own line. I don't understand why such a store would be a bad thing. If the publisher sold only his books, he would limit his resale market. If he sold his books with everyone else's, becoming simply a good store with perhaps less overhead for his stock of books and maybe a better avenue for selling damaged merchandise or unpopular selections, then what's to complain about? Is it that some book lovers have it in their heads that corporations are bad, that business is ugly and the bane of decent society, so chains and publisher-owned bookshops are perversion of the pure, liberating bookseller?
A Floating Bookstore
[by way of Rare Book News
] Did you know that the oldest active passenger ship is also a huge bookstore? The MV Doulos
, built in 1914, sails from port to port, "supplying vital literature resources, encouraging inter-cultural understanding, training young people for more effective life and service, promoting greater global awareness, providing practical aid and sharing a message of hope in God wherever there is opportunity." The ship carries 500,000 books, sold well below retail. Most recently, it is harboring in Port Said, Egypt.