Oct. 11, 2011

Changing Genres

by Dean Young

I was satisfied with haiku until I met you,
jar of octopus, cuckoo's cry, 5-7-5,
but now I want a Russian novel,
a 50-page description of you sleeping,
another 75 of what you think staring out
a window. I don't care about the plot
although I suppose there will have to be one,
the usual separation of the lovers, turbulent
seas, danger of decommission in spite
of constant war, time in gulps and glitches
passing, squibs of threnody, a fallen nest,
speckled eggs somehow uncrushed, the sled
outracing the wolves on the steppes, the huge
glittering ball where all that matters
is a kiss at the end of a dark hall.
At dawn the officers ride back to the garrison,
one without a glove, the entire last chapter
about a necklace that couldn't be worn
inherited by a great-niece
along with the love letters bound in silk.

"Changing Genres" by Dean Young, from Fall Higher. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Elmore Leonard (books by this author), born in New Orleans in 1925. He learned to write by reading, especially Hemingway and Steinbeck. He still keeps a portrait of Hemingway in his office. He said: "I feel that I learned to write Westerns by reading and rereading For Whom the Bells Tolls. [...] But I was not influenced by his attitude, thank God. My attitude is much less serious. I see absurdities in serious situations, influenced in this regard by Vonnegut, Richard Bissell, and Mark Harris, and this shows in my writing. It's your attitude that determines your sound, not style."

When Leonard started writing, he was also working as a copy-editor for an advertising agency. He woke up every morning at five to start writing — he wouldn't let himself turn on the coffee pot until he started to write. At work, he would stick his hand in his desk drawer and write in a blank notebook. He wrote five books and 30 short stories that way, before he quit to be a full-time writer.

At the beginning of his career, he wasn't sure whether to focus on Westerns or crime novels, but he decided on Westerns because they were easier to publish — the genre was popular, and there were lots of pulp magazines publishing them. He turned them out throughout the 1950s. But then the pulp magazines started to fade away, and the audience for Westerns grew smaller. Leonard turned his same succinct, plot-driven style to writing crime novels. His novels include Glitz (1985), Get Shorty (1990), Rum Punch (1992), and, most recently, Djibouti (2010), which proclaims on the cover that it is "a Middle East Western on water." Djibouti is the shoot-'em-up tale of an American documentary filmmaker named Dara Barr who joins a bunch of Somali pirates in the hopes of making a good movie.

Elmore Leonard has written more than 40 novels — as soon as he finishes one, he starts on another. He's famous for his advice for writers. In 2001, he published a piece in The New York Times called "Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle." He gave 10 rules, things like "Never open a book with weather"; "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue"; "Avoid detailed descriptions of characters"; and "Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip." He wrote: "Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he's writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character's head, and the reader either knows what the guy's thinking or doesn't care. I'll bet you don't skip dialogue. My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it."

Elmore Leonard's newest novel, Raylan,is due out next year.

It's the birthday of novelist François Mauriac (books by this author), born in Bordeaux, France (1885). During his lifetime, he was considered one of France's greatest novelists, and he won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1952. But he was staunchly Catholic in an era when Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre were bringing existential philosophy to French culture — he was too conservative for progressives, but not Catholic enough for the Catholic establishment. Mauriac also had a tendency to get in public fights with other well-known writers.

His first major public dispute was with Albert Camus in the aftermath of World War II. Camus wrote for Combat, a newspaper of the French Resistance, and he was of the firm opinion that justice was the most important priority for France, and that every Nazi collaborator should be ferreted out and given a harsh punishment. Although Mauriac was also a member of the Resistance, he wrote for a conservative newspaper, Le Figaro, and in his column he took issue with Camus, arguing that France should focus on unity, not on punishing collaborators. A few months after their public attacks on each other, a French writer named Robert Brasillach was sentenced to death for his role as a collaborator, although his collaboration had been theoretical — he supported Nazi Germany and was anti-Semitic, but he hadn't actually done anything beyond publicize his views. Mauriac went to Brasillach's defense — he totally disagreed with Brasillach's views, but he didn't think he should actually be executed for them. Mauriac organized a petition to ask Charles de Gaulle to pardon Brasillach, and he got a lot of big names on his list, including Paul Valéry, Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, and Colette. At the last minute, Camus signed it as well, but it didn't do any good, and Brasillach was executed. Camus, for his part, had a total change of heart and decided that there was never an excuse to justify execution. Several years later, he gave a speech and said, "I have come to recognize for myself and now publicly that regarding the fundamental issue, and on the specific point of our dispute, Mr. Fran&ccdeil;ois Mauriac was right and I was in the wrong."

In 1949, after Simone de Beauvoir published The Second Sex, Mauriac lashed out against it, suggesting that it be investigated as pornography. It probably didn't help that 10 years earlier, Beauvoir's longtime lover Jean-Paul Sartre had written an essay called "Fran&ccdeil;ois Mauriac and Freedom," in which he concluded: "Novels are written by men and for men. In the eyes of God, Who cuts through appearances and goes beyond them, there is no novel, no art, for art thrives on appearances. God is not an artist. Neither is M. Mauriac."

Mauriac and best-selling novelist Roger Peyrefitte also engaged in a very public dispute. It started when Mauriac wrote a letter about the recently deceased gay writer Jean Cocteau, whom he called a "tragic personality" because he was missing out on "that reassuring universe where a woman lays her hand on our forehead with the same gesture as our mother, and where children gather around us till the end." Peyrefitte, who was open about his own gay relationships, was annoyed by Mauriac's comments. Then Mauriac published another letter saying he was disgusted by a film being made out of one of Peyrefitte's novels, about homoerotic feelings between 12-year-old boys — Mauriac said that it was "a cauldron from which their souls will not emerge unscathed." That set Peyrefitte over the edge, and he published a vicious letter about Mauriac — not only did he call him homophobic, but he also suggested that Mauriac was a closeted gay man who had been in love with Jean Cocteau. The fight became the celebrity gossip of France, dividing prominent figures as they sided with one or the other.

Fran&ccdeil;ois Mauriac continued publishing novels until his death in 1970 at the age of 84. He said: "Every novelist ought to invent his own technique, that is the fact of the matter. Every novel worthy of the name is like another planet, whether large or small, which has its own laws just as it has its own flora and fauna."

And, "If you would tell me the heart of a man, tell me not what he reads, but what he rereads."

It's the birthday of writer and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (books by this author), born in Quang Ngai, Vietnam (1926). He has published more than 100 books, including Peace Is Every Step (1992) and The Miracle of Mindfulness (1999). He said, "Sometimes your joy is the source of your smile, but sometimes your smile can be the source of your joy."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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