Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Literary Conversation

I did a reading on Friday night, reading a portion of my novel to an audience for the first time. It went really, really well. Afterwards, several people complimented me on it, on my reading, and asked when the novel will be published so they can read all of it. All things considered, I'd call that a successful reading.

One person noted the similarity between my narrator's voice and Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, which was gratifying to me. I hadn't set out to write in a narrative voice like Salinger's, the voice sprang into existence during a freewriting session and the very first thing it said was, "Shrink says everything's a choice, and I think he's full of it." The voice was there first, the story followed. In recent years, thinking towards needing to find a way to explain the novel in an agent query, I have been playing with billing the novel as "The Catcher in the Rye meets The Lovely Bones."

I read The Catcher in the Rye, like most American school children, in ninth grade, when I was fourteen, and have never looked at the book again until just a few weeks ago while I was on my writing retreat and wanted to read something other than my own words. Our friends had The Catcher in the Rye in their bookcase and so I opened it up. I was shocked at how much of Catcher I had assimilated into Altar, at how deep an impression Holden Caulfield seems to have made on me. I don't mean to say I have copied, or even tried to copy, Salinger's work. That's not it at all. Matt is not Holden Caulfield. I think the similarities strengthen the novel because they make it part of the literary conversation, an extension of what Salinger was doing with Holden Caulfield, which was an extension of what other writers before him had done.

All writing, all art for that matter, exists in response to what's been done before it. It exists in a conversation with the work other writers and artists have produced. It may be overt, as in the case of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, The Odyssey and James Joyce's Ulysses or most of Shakespeare's plays which referenced Plutarch, Chaucer, and many pre-Elizabethan stories, folktales and legends. Or it may be more subtle, taking character names or themes from previous work and combining them in new ways. This is one reason why, I think, we do ourselves a disservice when we throw the existing literary cannon out the window and stop teaching the classics in school just because the cannon was comprised mainly of Dead White Males. Instead of pitching out Shakespeare and Salinger, we should be adding the literary traditions that reflect our country's diversity. We are a Western civilization. Our culture goes back to the Greeks and Romans and Europe and our literature is a reflection of that. Now that our culture also includes Mexico, Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, and a multitude of other traditions and cultures, we shouldn't banish the traditional cannon in favor of these newer influences.

The cannon gives us a common frame of reference, a common conversation. Yes, there's a lot more to read now than there was in Shakespeare's time. There are many more options and fewer people are actually reading. Movies and music have become our common cultural currency.

One of the things I'm doing in my other blog, Textual Archipelago, is exploring that conversation by writing stories in response to other short stories, specifically those stories published in the Best American Short Stories of the Century. It seemed like as good a way to get a cross-section of writers as any. And it's been kind of interesting to read what was being written and published almost one hundred years ago and find a way to write a contemporary response to it.

Yes, I've given this a lot of thought. Not just since I realized how much I'd assimilated Catcher into my current novel, but because my next novel is a much more overt nod to an earlier work. Namely The Odyssey. It's also because I read and study a lot about what came before me. I'm interested in the history of literature, its various movements and the way in which contemporary literature has come to be.

It is strange to me that, given all the people at State who have read portions of Altar, this man Friday night was the first person to mention the similarities (for instance, I'd completely forgotten that Holden's older brother, D.B., was dead and that's what sets Holden off, until this man reminded me), maybe even a little distressing since it means we're losing the common thread of the literary conversation. I see this in my classes, too, my fellow students who know nothing of their literary antecedents and are not interested in it at all. Which is another soapbox I'll get on some other day. But I will just ask the question, how can you be trying to subvert the conventional forms of literature when you don't even know how those forms evolved in the first place?

This is getting pretty long, so I'll stop here, but just point you to an excellent blog entry that Neil Gaiman wrote about literary cross-pollination and how many writers work on the same ideas. It happens all the time. He loves it when his work gets borrowed in new and inventive ways for good reason. It means he's becoming part of the literary conversation and that is the surest way that your work will endure.

Here's the link to Neil's blog:
You have to scroll to the bottom where he starts talking about fair use and the Harry Potter trial in 2008 where JK Rowling successfully blocked the publication of an HP encyclopedia because it simply copied what she'd written in the HP books.


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