Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship IV: Pop Stars and Politics

Q: Should pop stars express their political opinions and take political action? A: Only if they’re informed, concerned citizens…

 

Bono of U2, pop star and political activist (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, herehere, and here.)

For the period covered by the book of essays I’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Protest, the “post-Classic Rock Era” we might call it, the political/protest activities of pop stars have not had the same resonance or gravitas as they did during that era of protests against segregation, the Vietnam War, and environmental pollution/destruction (the role of classic rock era stars in the women’s movement is, at best, questionable – unless those stars were women, of course).

This week, in the next to last essay in this series, we look at four essays, all in one way or another related to the idea that, to contradict one of the major singers of that classic rock era, sometimes it’s about  the singer, the song – and something else entirely .

The essay titles themselves reveal much about what their authors think of the last 35 years or so. Deena Weinstein’s “Rock protest songs: so many and so few”; Jerry Rodnitsky’s “The decline and rebirth of folk protest music”; Mark Willhardt’s “Available rebels and folk authenticities: Michelle Shocked and Billy Bragg”; and, finally, John Street’s “The pop star as politician: from Belafonte to Bono, from creativity to conscience” offer us a range of explanations for why pop or rock or folk singers have/have not gotten involved in protests against social or political injustice. Some, like Weinstein, take the long view, others, like Willhardt, look closely at a couple of artists. In all of these essays, however, much the same conclusions are reached: in one way or another protest has, too often, been subsumed or marginalized by the co-option of the protester – especially if that protester is a musical celebrity. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

The state of literary art I: who is an artist?

American literary fiction over the last 50 years has been, it seems, in a struggle to find an audience…

Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millennium by Joe David Bellamy (image courtesy University of Missouri Press)

Another book from the 2014 reading list composed of essays. This one, Literary Luxuries: American Writing at the End of the Millenium, is a collection of essays by writer, writing teacher, and litfic cheerleader Joe David Bellamy. Since this is a book of essays that range over a number of issues confronting the literary community, it seems logical to look at Bellamy’s book in sections. So, as I’ve done with a book of scholarly essays on popular music as protest, I’ll be looking at this work over a number of weeks. This will allow me to share Bellamy’s wide ranging discussions of issues such as  of support for the arts (particularly literature), writers’ conferences, creative writing programs, and styles of literary fiction.

Bellamy has a lot to say about each of these areas (and others) and his opinions are – interesting might be the best word. I agree with some of his assessment of the state of litfic, some of it I would say probably needs updating, and some of it smacks of his personal biases. That last is not necessarily a bad thing – except when he resorts to trying to make literature style an object of political analysis. Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Waiting for Nothing (More): Tom Kromer’s Singular (and Single) Masterpiece

Kromer’s novel of The Great Depression was his only fully achieved work…

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer (image courtesy Goodreads)

I realize I have been remiss.

Despite two updates to my 2014 reading list (see here and here) I have still more books that I’ve added. So once I finish this essay on a rather singular work of literature from The Great Depression, I suppose it’s incumbent upon me to write a short piece to still further update my reading list.

But writing about the books themselves is ever so much more enjoyable, so let’s get to that first, shall we?

Waiting for Nothing by Tom Kromer is one of those books that rattles around in the halls of academe periodically as a “lost classic.” I first encountered it in my first full time college teaching job back in 1987 at Salem College. A now “lost and by the wind grieved” colleague, Pete Jordan, asked me if I were familiar with the work. When I told him no, he thrust a copy into my hands and told me in no uncertain terms that it was a book I should know.

I took it home and read it in an evening. (That’s not a prodigious feat – the book is more a novella than a novel and the edition I reread for this essay, a very nice remounting by the University of Georgia Press, logs in at only 130 pages). It’s an alternately engrossing and wrenching narrative based on Kromer’s time as a “stiff” (the term refers to the many hobos who spent their time drifting from town to city across the country looking for work during the depths of the economic crisis in the early 1930’s). Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Music as a Function of Place

Music serves as a comment on culture – and, interestingly, that commentary can be both culture specific and universal at once…

Bob Marley in concert, 1980 (image courtesy Wikimedia)

(For previous essays in this series, look here, here, and here.)

This week’s look at the excellent scholarly discussion of popular music and protest, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, addresses the importance of place in the emergence of specific types of music. This section of the editor Ian Peddie’s book consists of three essays on places and music as diverse as one could ever want them to be: Jamaica and reggae, the Australian Outback and aboriginal rock, and England’s “Black Country” (the heavy industry and mining country) and the emergence of “escapist” music represented by artists as diverse (at first glance) as Led Zeppelin and drum and bass pioneer Goldie.

In some ways the most interesting, if most esoteric of these essays is “‘We have survived': popular music as a representation of Australian Aboriginal cultural loss and reclamation.” This essay explores the emergence of Aboriginal rock bands, in particular the work of a group called the Wirrinyga Band. The essayist, Peter Dunbar-Hall, notes two important things about the Aboriginals bands in Australia: first, the bands serve an important cultural function in keeping alive aboriginal languages – in fact, music from Wirrinyga Band and other Aboriginal groups is used in schools to help Aboriginal students learn their native languages and cultural history; second, the Australian government actively supports its artists and offers grants and other financial supports to artists such as the Wirrinyga Band so that they can develop, and more importantly, record their work to make both the subject matter of their songs (they sing of traditional Aboriginal subjects such as spiritual and philosophical beliefs – the “Dreamtime” (a central concept in Aboriginal Animism) and the relationship of Aboriginal groups (the Wirrinyga Band are members of the Yolngu) to mainstream Australian culture.  Continue reading

Book-Review

The Dragon Tattoo dilemma: What is good? Bad?

Stieg Larsson’s crime novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is really an examination of moral and ethical ambiguity…

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (image courtesyGoodreads)

The next novel from my 2014 reading list is the first in a trilogy (yet again with the trilogies – sheesh) that has swept to great success. The late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a solid enough crime novel, and its foreign setting, for many readers, (it’s set in Sweden, for those who don’t know) is, I’m sure, an element of allure. Add to this the familial, financial/corporate, technological, and journalistic threads that are the material of the novel’s fabric and it’s easy to understand why the novel has been a runaway bestseller.

While I have proclaimed loud and long that I am not much of a genre fan, (unless one considers classic literature a genre – which I suppose it is, though the classification would then come from its historical significance rather than its subject matter – and that, of course, then begs the question “What do we mean by ‘genre’?” – and here I’ll stop since I now begin to sound like Jacques Derrida), if pressed, I will admit to a fondness for mystery/crime fiction. Given the hoopla that’s surrounded these novels, since I’ve promised to stretch myself by reading more genre work (see my comments at the 2014 reading list link), choosing one of these books seemed an obvious decision.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a long book (the English translation clocks in at almost 650 pages). Pacing is sometimes an issue, and Larsson has an annoying tendency to offer longish explanations about various areas of Swedish life, economics, and  jurisprudence that are sometimes helpful but at other times simply drag down what was a crisp pace in the narrative. He’s not as annoying as, say, Tom Clancy or James Michener about this “need to explain,” but it does make reading the novel a chore from time to time. I am not sure if this is the translator’s or Larsson’s fault. My estimation, though, based on the regularity with which this behavior annoyed me, is that Larsson must be held accountable. Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship III: Mixed Tapes – The Use of Technology as Social Protest…

Mix tape culture had to start somewhere, right? Is it possible it started as protest?

Remember these? (image courtesy Wikimedia)

One of the elements in current discussion of how technology is shaping society that is currently damned near worn out and pretty regularly debunked is the idea that the Internet gives artists some significant weapon that they can use against the hegemony of cultural gatekeepers who prevent deserving (in this case one should probably think of “deserving” as a weasel word) artists from receiving their due accolades as the geniuses they clearly are. While it’s true that the occasional genius like Psy or Grumpy Cat rises from the deluge of dreck to show us the way forward, the Internet has mostly been unkind to “content creators” – as artists are known in tech jargon. The people who control the technology have been those who have profited – often wildly – from the frenzy of artistic activity littering the Web.

Hegemony strikes again, it seems. As Mr. Townshend observed: “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss….

The protest against cultural hegemony, in the case of this week’s essay from The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, dates to before the rise of the Internet. In a different take on the idea of protest, author Kathleen McConnell explores the rise and evolution of DIY music culture in the Pacific Northwest in her article “The handmade tale: cassette-tapes, authorship, and the privatization of the Pacific Northwest music scene.” While previous discussion in this series have focused on specific musical genres (metal and Goth)and their elements of protest (which both use technologies as tools of protest), this week’s essay looks directly at how a particular technology (cassette recording and reproduction devices) affected the rise of a music scene. Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsMatter

The Venereal Game: or, you don’t have a dirty mind, do you…?

James Lipton’s book on venery is about as much fun as one can have with words.

An Exaltation of Larks or, The Venereal Game by James Lipton

I’m back to the 2014 reading list with a book I picked up at my favorite used book shop – this one about as much fun as one can have with words. The book is called An Exaltation of Larks, or The Venereal Game and it’s written by James Lipton – yep, the same James Lipton who was the longtime dean of the Actors Studio Drama School at Pace University and host of Bravo’s fascinating Inside the Actors Studio.

While this book is indeed about venery, it’s the second definition at the link that fits Lipton’s work, not the first. Certainly there’s indulgence bordering on the decadent, but it’s overwhelmingly of the mental rather than physical sort – though for those of you whose minds drift in those directions, there’s enough titillation to make even the flashing of wit that pervades this work – an excitement of thinkers.

Venery, for those who have refused to hypertext, in that second definition means “animals that are hunted; game.” The derivation of the word is given as follows:

Middle English venerie, from Anglo-French, from Old French vener to hunt, from Latin venari — more at venison.  First Known Use: 14th century

Continue reading

Music and Popular Culture

Popular Music Scholarship II: Goths are protesting – or maybe they just like black a lot….

Decadence, weltschmerz, vampirism – Goth’s got something for everyone….

Ian Curtis, lead singer of Joy Division, one of – if not THE – archetypal Goth band… (image courtesy http://www.joydivision.homestead.com)

For this week’s look at the scholarly essay collection on popular music, The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, we’re going to look at the rise of Goth music – and, tangentially, the rise (and maintenance) of Goth “lifestyle”: at least the  superficial elements (dress, dancing, etc.). Kimberly Jackson’s interesting essay, “Gothic music and the decadent individual” explores the origins of Goth as a musical movement and, as the authors in this collection are wont to do, looks for ties between Goth and its antecedent musical forms that seem to suggest how Goth is a form of protest music.

One of the things that makes this particular discussion interesting is that Jackson sets the context by positioning the Goth movement as a decadent art form. This allows her to discuss Nietzsche and his opposition to decadence in art – and, more importantly (at least for her discussion), this allows her introduce Richard Wagner as an archetype of “decadent art” – and  to suggest that Nietzsche’s reasons for his opposition to the music of Richard Wagner are the same reasons for critical opposition to both seminal Goth rock bands such as Joy Division, Bauhaus, and The Cure and their inheritors. In both cases the opposition comes from those (who then are implicated as Nietzscheans – I’m trying to avoid violating Godwin’s Law here, but I’m not sure I can) who want to “resist” (which might involve “cleaning up” – i.e., eliminating – um, yeah, now you’re thinking about those ultimate Nietzscheans) decadence in its various forms. The problem, of course, as Jackson notes, is that, like Wagner’s music, Goth rock has attractions that make it more likely to survive than its critics. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtSunday

Book Review: Jupiter and Gilgamesh – A Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones

Jupiter and Gilgamesh is a story about life decisions – good, bad, and inexplicable – and how those decisions add up ultimately to – a life well lived…

Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas by Scott Archer Jones (image courtesy Goodreads)

I have an empathetic affinity for the genesis of Scott Archer Jones’s latest novel, Jupiter and Gilgamesh: a Novel of Sumeria and Texas. Jones states that the genesis of his book came partly from a high school English teacher who made him read The Epic of Gilgamesh – and that the character of Gilgamesh was so intriguing (probably compelling is a better word) that he’s read the poem multiple times since that first encounter.

In the vernacular of our time, I feel you, Scott. My first book came partly from my experience of a couple of related works first read at the behest of teachers: Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. The power of literature draws us on, it seems, like the song of the sirens until some of us begin to “sing in our chains,” as the poet said.

That singing in one’s chains thing is a key theme in Jupiter and Gilgamesh. The main character is one Matthew (Matt) Devon, a gifted advertising man who owns a very successful ad agency in Amarillo, Texas. When we meet Matt, however, (I’ll ignore the novel’s prelude for now) he is living – hiding out, really – in an old grain elevator that he is having remodeled in a small farming town a short distance from Amarillo), trying to run his business via phone conferences, and has taken to calling himself Jupiter. Continue reading

CATEGORY: TunesDay

Popular Music Scholarship I: Metal is protest music?

Is metal music really the musical outgrowth of sixties’ protest?

The Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest, ed. Ian Peddie (image courtesy Ashgate Publishing)

The latest book I’ve just completed from my 2014 reading list is an anthology of scholarly essays edited by Ian Peddie called The  Resisting Muse: Popular Music and Social Protest. It’s been a longish read, mainly because I’ve read each essay carefully (like the good scholarly reader I am) all the while trying to think of a way to write about such an olio of pieces. It finally occurred to me that the best way to write about such an interesting group of scholarly essays about rock, reggae, and hip hop would be for S&R’s weekly feature, Tuesday TunesDay. So over the next several weeks I’ll be posting essays on most if not all of the essays from this interesting book.

To begin, a couple of general comments about this volume. In the late 1980’s-early 1990’s colleague Sam Smith and I did a number of scholarly presentations at conferences and elsewhere that took scholarly approaches to rock music. One of the frustrations we encountered was the poverty of insightful scholarly writing about rock music by authors who actually understood rock music. Of course there were a couple of exceptions – one in particular that I appreciated was Simon Frith’s Art Into Pop, an excellent exploration of how the English “art college” system proved an incubator for many of the major figures of ’60s rock music such as John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend. This volume is at least on a par with Frith’s now-classic monograph. The writers here “get” rock, reggae, punk, hip hop – and so their scholarly approaches have, to use a well-loved term in pop music discussions, authenticity.

A second important element about The Resisting Muse is that it takes a “big tent” approach – i.e., it covers a wide range of popular music in relation to its elements of protest. It does this in an era where the music business has been siloed to the advantage of, well, no one except perhaps hard core fans of specific sub-genres.

So to the discussion of this week’s article: “Communities of resistance: heavy metal as a reinvention of social technology.” Continue reading

Poetry

Book Review: Throwing the house from the window by Joshua William Booth

Poems that occasionally challenge readers…the “trigger warning” excuses can begin in 3…2…1….

Throwing the House From the Window by Joshua William Booth

A couple of things will become obvious quickly for readers of this review. The first is that the reviewer has the same last name as the author being reviewed. That would be because we are related. Put that aside. If writers from Sophocles to Turgenev to Steinbeck have taught us anything, it’s that father to son assessments should be read with…a critical mind, let’s say.

The second is that the author of this volume of poetry is a working poet as well as the poetry editor at Scholars & Rogues. So I admit freely there’s a bit of insider trading going on here. But I challenge the reader to find a publication that does not tout works by its own staff. For those who’ve taken that challenge – well, they’ll be gone awhile, so let’s move on, shall we?

Throwing the house from the window is Booth’s third book and second book of poetry. A brief look at his first two works is probably apropos to set this third work in context.

His second book, Danger! God Particles, is a series of what would commonly be called “flash fictions” these days, though Booth, an admirer of Donald Barthelme (and arguer with this reviewer on multiple occasions about the author’s merits) would point the reader towards Sixty Stories as an influence.  Continue reading

The Arts

Pat McCrory, Art Pope, and the short unhappy career of a Poet Laureate…

The North Carolina Poet Laureate controversy isn’t about poetry, it’s about power – and probably about money, too…

Erato, Muse of Poetry (image courtesy Wikimedia)

North Carolina has been in the news a lot lately – and not for the right reasons. A Tea Party-dominated legislature doing the bidding of a billionaire ally of the Koch Brothers, a guy named Art Pope who, while having inherited a vast fortune made by his father by selling crappy stuff to the poor, has wholeheartedly embraced  the somewhat warped version of Randian philosophy of “more for me and none for you if there’s any way I can make that happen.” As is typical in such cases, Pope sees himself as a self-made man who “won life’s race.”  Well, as my colleague Sam Smith notes, winning the 100-yard dash of life is not so tough when you start at the 90-yard line and your competitors start somewhere in the Gobi Desert. Call it the Dubya Effect: congratulating yourself for being the scion of wealth and scoffing at those who didn’t wind the biological lottery.

The words you’re looking for are selfish, self-satisfied asshole. Continue reading

CATEGORY: ArtsLiterature

There is no “Greatest Short Story of All Time…”

There is no “greatest” short story. There are only great short stories and great writers…

Stephen Crane (image courtesy Wikimedia)

It’s wonderful to know literature. It’s great to have favorite writers. It’s even enjoyable to argue about who our best writers are, what their greatest works are.  And of course, we live in a “list culture” that thrives on creating arbitrary lists of “the greatest” in about every category of human endeavor – including cat videos.

Knowing the Internets as we all do, I’m not sure why I let myself get exercised by James Parker’s essay published at Slate a couple of days ago proclaiming “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” the greatest short story of all time. People are constantly arguing about what literature was, is, will be, or should be. Including this guy.

But there were a couple of points that Parker attempted to make (and that I, for one, didn’t buy) that piqued my interest – and that set my crap detector to clicking.

So let us begin….

Parker’s first point had to do with what makes a great short story. His context is that, above all, a story should capture the reader/listener’s attention, should draw in the audience and hold them with its power:

It’s what fiction should be, basically, what it should be aiming at: the death-grip, the ultimate concern. The naked lunch.

Continue reading

CATEGORY: WordsDay

Sinclair Lewis imagines American dictatorship: It can’t happen here … can it?

“More and more, as I think about history…I am convinced that everything that is worthwhile in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system, whatsoever.  But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever.” – Doremus Jessup in Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here

 

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (image courtesy Goodreads)

It may seem strange that I choose to write about Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian satire, It Can’t Happen Here, for July 4th, the high holy day of the American ideal/experiment. Lewis’s novel is, after all, about the subversion of American democracy into a dictatorship. Worse, that dictatorship, is controlled by the leader of a political party called, presciently enough, The American Corporate State and Patriot Party. If ever someone seemed a political seer trying to warn us to consider the results of our actions, Lewis is that seer and It Can’t Happen Here is his warning. Published in 1935, the novel both reminds us of the complicated economic and political stresses of that time and, in an eerie way, reads (for anyone who has been paying attention over the last decade) like the playbook of – well, of both the “corporate citizen” and “patriot” movements within American politics.

For those who don’t know the work of Lewis (and, sadly, that will be far too many), his stock in trade as a novelist was the closely detailed, wittily sarcastic satirization of American life and culture. His masterpiece, Main Street, looks at the smug conservatism of American small towns; Babbitt is an indictment of bourgeois conformity and the practice of “boosterism” (called by another name today, but as rampant now as when Lewis wrote his novel); Arrowsmith, an inquiry into how science, specifically the practice of medicine, is affected by “expected” definitions of success; Elmer Gantry, his attempt to expose the hypocrisy of too many “big time” religious evangelists;  and Dodsworth, a critique of the wealthy (whom Lewis found intellectually empty and self-absorbed). Continue reading

Arts and Literature

Making the familiar strange: is this the key to artistic Nirvana…?

The Dark Knight, elves, and the question of plagiarism.

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. (image courtesy Goodreads)

…when damn near everything presents itself as familiar — it’s not a surprise that some of today’s most ambitious art is going about trying to make the familiar strange. In so doing, in re-imagining what human life might truly be like over there across the chasms of illusion, mediation, demographics, marketing, imago, and appearance, artists are paradoxically trying to restore what’s taken for “real” to three whole dimensions, to reconstruct a univocally round world out of disparate streams of flat sights. – Jonathan Lenthem

Sam Smith and I had this email conversation last week (we have such conversations fairly regularly) about writing. I had just reviewed another highly successful genre novel, Hugh Howey’s Wool, and was mewling and puking as I often do about a primary complaint I have about some of the most popular – and revered – authors of the current boom in genre lit of one form or another: their tendency to spend the endings of their novels setting up the next book in their series. Continue reading

CATEGORY: MusicPopularCulture

Dave Davies’ Kink: rock star same as he ever was…

“There is part of that little boy that has remained with me…. He’s always there to remind me of the endless possibilities that exist in the world, all that life has to offer….” – Dave Davies

Kink by Dave Davies (image courtesy Goodreads)

I bought Dave Davies’ “autobiography,” (it’s really a highly discursive memoir with plenty of digressions) Kink, about a year ago at my favorite used book store. I’d just read a couple of rock books, including a lovely memoir about meeting John and Yoko at the height of their “bed-in for peace” period and earlier I’d waded through a typical “rock bio” book about the Rolling Stones: you know the type, lots of pictures, very little reported that a serious fan wouldn’t already know – or know more about than the author.

Prior to taking up this yearly quest to write essays about all the books I read in a particular year (and, in the process, getting myself lots of recommendations from friends and pleas from fellow writers for book inclusions), I’d read a number of rock biographies and autobiographies, including biographies of The Beatles, Elvis, and Bob Dylan and the recent autobiographies of Eric Clapton and Keith Richards. In the queue for this year I have Dylan’s memoir, Pattie Boyd’s book about her marriages to George Harrison and Eric Clapton, and Pete Townshend’s autobiography.

I dig rock and roll music, as the song says…. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Hugh Howey’s Wool: Utopia for lovers of Dystopia

Wool is a smart, interesting take on the dystopian novel. It’s also kind of frustrating in that “wait for the next book to find out” way….

Wool by Hugh Howey (image courtesy Goodreads)

My local library, a vibrant place of reading, thinking and culture in my community, which I support wholeheartedly in spite of reassurances from the likes of the Google boys and Jeff Bezos that such places are no longer necessary, has been having its annual community read during the month of June. This year’s read has been the bestselling dystopian epic Wool by Hugh Howey.  (Yep, I’m off the 2014 reading list – and its revision – again, though I keep adding the books that come across my desk to that ever expanding list so that’s not strictly true, I guess.) One of the neat things associated with this community read has been community “read-alouds“; groups have been meeting in different spots across the area to read from the novel and discuss the action. I participated in a read-aloud last evening. The nicest thing about the group was the age range – from middle schoolers to a crusty old writer/professor. We had a great time doing a  dramatic reading of the events from one section of this sprawling work. This is wonderful stuff in a rural community like ours and the mix of younger and older readers both sparks hope for the future in this particular reader and, I hope, provides those younger readers with role models and will encourage them to develop a life-long love of reading. Continue reading

Popular Culture

Sci-Fi and Fantasy: what’s with our obsession with dystopias and apocalypses?

Is the explanation for the current deluge of dystopian and apocalyptic books as simple as Milliennial anxiety? Maybe. Maybe not….

Aldous Huxley, author of “Brave New World,” one of the most famous dystopian tales (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In one of my typical “here’s what I’m writing for S&R this time” email conversations with “Chief Scrogue-in-Charge of Herding the Cats Who are the Scrogue Team” Sam Smith a couple of days ago, I mentioned that since I’m only part of the way through my latest reading endeavor (I’m trying to get through one of the most recent darling texts of the “sci-fi/fantasy dystopia/apocalypse” craze, Hugh Howey’s plodding – for me, anyway – dystopian epic called, aptly enough, Wool - and if you’re too young and ill-read to get the metaphor reference, I’m too old and past being patient to explain it), so I told Sam that for S&R’s ArtSunday feature this week I’d write a piece on the current fascination of a large swath of the reading public for anything that represents – in either sci-fi or fantasy terms – a dystopian or apocalyptic view of our future on Planet Earth.

Sam’s reply, as usual was to the point:

I think that’s a dissertation. Have you noticed the explosion of sci-fi, fantasy, speculative, and supernatural in TV and film in the past few years? Something is going on and I haven’t gotten my head around it yet.

Continue reading

WordsDay: Literature

Gatsby IS Great…

Despite occasional detractors, The Great Gatsby remains a gold standard for American fiction…

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (image courtesy Goodreads)

Having read John Edward Williams’ magnificent novel Stoner a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that one reviewer referred to the novel as the “anti Gatsby.” That got me to do a little looking around – and I found some interesting things being said about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel (most in some way or another trying to tie in to the recent release of yet another attempt to make a film of what is damned near prose poetry). A couple of the more interesting essays I’ll mention here in the course of my own comments about the novel. And yes, I’ve gone off the reading list again to zip through Gatsby for the 20-something-th time. I wanted to read Fitzgerald while Williams was still relatively fresh in my mind.

Anyway, the talk about Gatsby – and the need reviewers and essayists felt to compare Stoner to The Great Gatsbywould lead one to conclude that there is some consensus that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel®.  This is, I admit, something of a surprise to me. I’d always assumed (and remember, friends, this is an English professor writing to you – oh, that’s right, credentials mean nothing on the Internet – never mind) that this book was the #1 contender for that amorphous (and perhaps dubious) distinction.

But it would seem I may be wrong and that West Egg’s gaudiest, gauchest gangster has supplanted the Mississippi’s most roguish and reflective rafter as the sweetheart of American literature. I don’t think that this is a good or bad thing. But I believe it may be of interest to consider why The Great Gatsby  now seems to hold a higher place in the American reader’s psyche than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Continue reading

ArtSunday: LIterature

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys: is it the tale – or the teller?

Gaiman’s work owes something to Vonnegut, something to Douglas Adams, something to Sir James Fraser, and probably something to Hitchcock – and Monty Python…

I offer the following quote from a Wall Street Journal piece by Lev Grossman I cited last fall in an essay on storytelling and the Modernist tendency to force readers to struggle with artist’s literary experiments:

Writers like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke, to name just a few, are busily grafting the sophisticated, intensely aware literary language of Modernism onto the sturdy narrative roots of genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, detective fiction, romance. They’re forging connections between literary spheres that have been hermetically sealed off from one another for a century.

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

In an essay about current reading habits and the disappearance of “serious literature,” I offered the following advice from Henry David Thoreau, a serious literature kind of guy:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

At the behest of several friends I’ve been moving away from my stodgy, comfortable literary fiction tastes and trying new writers strongly recommended by family, friends, and colleagues – among these have been the delightful Douglas Adams and the interesting, though not as interesting as I’d hoped, Terry Pratchett.

Neil Gaiman has been an oft mentioned choice  as someone “you really must read, Jim.” And so, having come across a copy of his 2005 novel Anansi Boys at a local second hand book store, I decided to give Gaiman a try. And while I can honestly say it’s a delightful and enlightening novel in many ways, I could not make a case for Anansi Boys as great literature.

The novel revisits characters from Gaiman’s (thus far) magnum opus American Gods.  In this book Mr. Nancy’s (Anansi, a mythical character who is a spider – the weaving of webs of story, communication, ideas is an integral part of the novel) sons, named Charles (called “Fat Charlie” for most of the work) and Spider, discover that they are brothers. This knowledge leads to complications involving embezzlement, murder, and romance. Suffice to say that it all works out in the end – Fat Charlie becomes Charles and discovers that he has some of the magic of a god within himself while Spider, who is part brother, part bother, part doppelganger, part bon vivant (like his father) finds a humanity he didn’t know he had. This realistic part of the narrative is interpolated with African-Caribbean mythology that both provides overview of the “human” story and allows Gaiman to play with magical realism while at the same time gently poking fun at that style of narrative. I am not entirely sure if Gaiman means to poke fun at magical realism. Perhaps he is exploring its possibilities within the fantasy framework. But if he is having a giggle at MR’s expense, I like him the better for it.

Some reviewers have called Anansi Boys a combination of Douglas AdamsP.G. Wodehouse and Monty Python. It’s more – and less – than that. Gaiman has obviously knows his mythology, and much of Anansi Boys provides lesson for readers about non-Western mythologies. He does so, too, in ways that both entertain the reader and that make sense within the narrative and offer gloss to the text that helps readers understand that, for example, the villain is a recurring character who will appear again and again in stories because it is an archetype. This he does always well, sometimes brilliantly – and for the astute reader who grasps the implications of what Gaiman is explaining about good and evil, this glossing infuses the tale with the creepiness of a great fairy tale.

Where the novel is not always pleasing is in the comic “realistic” narrative that drives the entire book. Fat Charlie – who does learn (that he has godlike abilities like his father and brother); who does meet a helper (Daisy Day, a beautiful cop who also becomes his love interest); who does gain a “magic sword” (his father’s Fedora) – who becomes a hero in the best Proppian tradition – is a clear riff on Arthur Dent (with some Bertie Wooster thrown in – likable enough, slightly doltish, maddeningly tolerant of mistreatment despite his protestations otherwise. And Spider owes a good deal to Zaphod Beeblebrox. So there’s that. There are jokes galore (some laugh out loud funny) and silly situations worthy of a Python skit. But it all seems done before. And as well or better elsewhere.

There’s also another problematic element (and maybe this is just me), one that occurs often in work with recurring characters/themes (the dreaded “series” that every science fiction and fantasy author seems intent upon). I spent the last 50 pages or so sensing that Gaiman was “setting up” the next work wherein these characters will appear. Now Gaiman is deft, indeed, a brilliant writer in many ways, and this was subtly and skillfully done. But I’m an astute reader and a pretty clever writer myself. So this bugged me. It was more noticeable in a work from a writer of Gaiman’s reputation – and skill – than it should have been.

Ultimately these flaws seem to me to make Anansi Boys fall short of the giddy heights of a work like Stoner by John Edward Williams. That is not to say that Gaiman is not a brilliant writer and that Anansi Boys is not a superior read. It means this: Neil Gaiman is indeed a wonderful writer and I look forward to reading further in his oeuvre. What it means is that for me, Anansi Boys is not one of those treasures Thoreau mentions above.

But Gaiman may a member be of Thoreau’s “natural and irresistible aristocracy.” Proving that will require, however, further investigation.