Real Literature

I was probably doomed to drop out of college from the first moment I set foot in a literature class. I loved the poems and stories we called literature. Through them I found a portal into life as I felt it, but often lost sight of in the hurly-burly of every day. Fortunately, my high school English classes did nothing to interfere with this love. My teachers’ expectations were very low—if we read the entire play or novel and seemed to understand what happened, they were happy.

In college, however, we analyzed literature. This analysis confused me. My experience of the stories and poems and plays occurred entirely within me. What I saw I saw within me, what I felt I felt within me, and what I learned I learned within me. Meanwhile, the literature was taught as a thing outside of us. How else could you teach it? It was as if these stories were puzzles for which there was some right answer.

It all got very murky in my mind. I could analyze with the best of them. Analysis felt like a very grownup way to understand whether something was true. I wanted to be a grownup. But it did not feel good to analyze something I loved. If I loved something, that love should not be up for debate or analysis or a passing grade. Though I know this was never my professors’ intention, there were days in those classes when I felt as if I were being asked to question whether I ever had or could love anyone or anything.

The problem is that love is so fast and analysis is slow. The artist is always aiming his or her arrow past the mind and to the heart, where knowing happens faster than thought. You finish a poem or book and there it is, something come alive again within you. What just happened, your mind asks? How did this sorcerer weave this magic? The mind does not like magic. And so back you go to pull that book apart and find the cause that brought this effect. But it is not there. The more you pull the book apart, the less you find. It is as if the book itself has no meaning. Now you must make a choice. Now you must decide what you will call real and what you will call imaginary.


Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

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Collecting New Admirations

I am away from my desk this week, and so the blogging duties will be handled by novelist, essayist, and all-around swell person Joan Frank.

Joan Frank

Say you know you’ll be traveling to Italy, and that you’ll be there for several months. Wow. A stunning windfall.

And of course you’ll want to read. So you contrive to ship yourself a bunch of books. (Sorry, world: I’m not yet sufficiently out of the tar-pit to make the leap to reading devices. Give me time.)

The choice of those shipped books must be, of course, a meticulous, obsessive thing. So I put together a mini-smorgasbord: old, new, domestic, foreign, fiction and nonfiction.

But what grew instantly clear the moment I arrived was that it would be stupid (a waste of fabulous resources) to read stories taking place elsewhere.

This was the best possible time to read about where I was.

With excitement, I dove into Elena Ferrante’s stunning new novel about a painful, complex friendship between two girls growing up in impoverished, hardscrabble 1950s Naples: My Brilliant Friend (wonderfully translated by Ann Goldstein).

The novel blew me away—the more so because I understood the setting (and the importance of dialects in a country like Italy) a hundred times more deeply than I might have at any other time or place.

And I grasped at once that no matter what kinds of writing we make or where we live, writers need to read more work in translation. What else can trowel us up out of the warm, comfy, sleep-inducing soil of all our own familiar cultural assumptions? What else can smack us awake (yes, in the Rilkean mode of You must change your life) to consider worlds we’d never dreamed of, or just pushed aside? How can reading translated works effect anything other than a cross-fertilization of our writing minds?

I admit that, as an American writer, I’ve been badly neglectful of seeking out writers in translation. Europa is one publisher providing superb titles regularly to the States. Other Press is another, but there are many more. Keep your eye on what’s coming out. Listen to buzz from journals and writers you admire, about whom they’re reading in translation. (Suggestions: Per Petterson. Jens Christian Grondahl. Annie Ernaux.) Follow your curiosity. Collect new admirations. What you absorb can only enlarge and enrich that sacred space of the writerly mind.

Joan Frank is the author of the novel Make it Stay, the short story collection In Envy Country, and, most recently, Because We Have To: A Writing Life. Visit her at

Expecting Reality

Several writers I’ve interviewed have spoken of their desire to write about the difference between expectation and reality. The implication being, though I have never asked specifically, that the reality is less desirable than the expectation. This is what we call growing up, and this is inevitably the domain of what gets called literary fiction, the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

I came from the world of literature, it was my homeland before I ventured out into the world of writing, and so I tried for many, many books to write about this difference between expectation and reality. Again and again I believed I had come up short in my efforts. I often felt like a kind of fraud, someone who, if he were a little deeper, a little wiser, might actually be able to see the world as it is and then be able to write convincingly about it.

Somewhere in all this writing, however, my personal view of what we call reality began to change. It was ever so gradual, but one day I looked up and realized that I did indeed want to write about the difference between expectation in reality, but in reverse, so to speak. I understood that it was my expectations that were consistently less desirable than reality, not the other way around.

But of course by reality I don’t mean what’s happening. By reality I don’t mean war or hunger or rape or murder or disease. That had been my biggest error, you see: I mistook events for reality. It is an easy enough mistake to make, but it is akin to mistaking Hamlet for Shakespeare. One is a real man; the other is a product of that man.

Why and how reality as I have come to understand it is superior to expectations is the subject for another blog, perhaps another book. In the meantime I will leave you with this: I used to expect disappointment and I got it. I used to expect rejection and I got it. Those realities changed the moment I stopped expecting them.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Whole Planet

At some point today (if it hasn’t already occurred), the new issue of Author will go live, included in which is my interview with Lev Grossman. Besides being the book critic for TIME magazine, Lev is the author of the bestselling YA fantasy genre-bender The Magicians, and its sequel, The Magician King.

Lev is also the son of the award-winning poet and professor Allen Grossman, as well as the novelist/critic/professor Judith Grossman. As Lev put it in his interview, in order to write The Magicians, his third novel but his first in the fantasy genre, he had to “come out” to himself as a lover of magic and monsters. After all, he was raised in a temple to literature, where writing about wizards – not ironic wizards, not metaphorical wizards, but actual wizards – can be seen as a kind of heresy.

Good thing he did. I love that which gets called literature. In fact, if I were to call anywhere home, both as a reader and as a writer, it would be literature. But to me, if literature has but one aspiration it should be to remind readers that life is worth living no matter any circumstantial evidence to the contrary—and the only life worth living is one that most pleases he who is doing the living.

And anyway, I dislike all these genres. I know we need them to sell books, and a bookstore, virtual or otherwise, is a big place, so there’s no going back. But could anyone put you into a genre? They could put your career into a genre, your ethnicity into a genre, perhaps your religious beliefs into a genre—but what about you? All of you? Where do you really belong but here in the great, open bookstore known as Planet Earth? Only the whole of Planet Earth will suffice for the whole of you—not this city, not this family, not this genre—because like Lev Grossman you reserve the right to change your mind, and when you do, the rest of Planet Earth will be waiting for you.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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In preparation for our upcoming interview, I am reading The Dyslexic Advantage by Brock and Fernette Eide. The Eides point out that while boys and girls described as Dyslexic experience the well documented challenges with spelling, reading, and rote math, these same boys and girls often go on to show fantastic strengths in other areas, particularly art, engineering, and design. Their point is that Dyslexia is not something you merely suffer with, but an orientation that, like most orientations, has certain strengths and weaknesses and that we should be focusing on the strengths, not the weaknesses.

I was heartened to read this. When my youngest son, who was diagnosed on the Autism spectrum, first began receiving professional attention, I noticed that all discussions of him centered on what he could not do. I understood this inclination. The professionals were trying to help him, and if you want to help someone the temptation is to find what they can’t do and help them do it.

But when he was quite young he showed an almost savant like ability to play the drums. When you have a child on the spectrum, you will spend a lot of time in meetings with specialists where these specialists will show you test results and tell you how your child is not normal. These specialists are well intentioned. They want you to understand how much work is to be done. But it’s depressing. Who would want their life laid out in test results?

At one such meeting I brought up the drumming. He’s a fantastic drummer, I said. He drums better than a boy twice his age—three times his age. What about that? The specialists looked at me with strained patience. Drumming had nothing to do with his language delay, with his outbursts, with his social skills. The drumming sounded nice, but it was not relevant.

It reminds me a bit of stories certain commercial writers have told me about their experiences in MFA programs. The MFA programs tend to be literature-centric, and these poor future romance, suspense, or science fiction writers struggle to fit their peg into the hole of literature.

It’s pointless.  It’s pointless for us to strengthen ourselves by wringing our hands over what we call our weaknesses.  Our strengths, which is another word for our interests, our love, our reason that we’re on this planet, are there to guide us toward some fully expanded version of ourselves, and what we call our weaknesses are no different than the millions of roads we cannot follow as we chase that path we love.

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I can’t count the number of times I have read in newspapers and in novels that we—the modern We—have lost our way. That we are spiritually bankrupt. Emails and the internet have replaced face-to-face conversation. We are too consumerist. Politicians lie. Everyone is too busy. Trees are disappearing. There are no more heroes.

On and on. If we are lost, then there must be someplace we were supposed to be. The hero’s journey, upon which so many stories are based, always involves a protagonist becoming lost. Dante’s Inferno begins with that very event. This being lost is never much fun for the protagonist. It often precedes his death moment, when he must decide if he is willing to abandon the life he believed he must lead to be happy. If he does not, he dies and we have a tragedy; if he does, he lives and we have a comedy.

I have never met or known anyone who has not at some point become lost. Everyone at some point believes they are lesser than, that to succeed, to get married, to get published they must somehow be someone other than themselves. Follow this idea and you quickly become lost. The internet can’t do this to you; politicians can’t do this too you—only a choice made in the quiet of your own mind can do this to you.

So we will probably be writing and talking about lost societies as long as societies are made up of people who become lost, which means forever. I don’t see anything wrong with this. As Geneen Roth points out, there may be no way to know the value of your authentic life until you have tried an inauthentic one. Yet as Geneen and many others like her know, you can become lost, but that which you wish find cannot be lost to you, which may actually be the point of becoming lost. In returning to that which waits for all of us, we understand more fully the patience and endurance of love, and our separation becomes the gift that teaches us the value of ourselves.

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There is a tradition in literature of the novelist as social critic. In this role, the writer, within the controlled environment of a novel, peels back the onion skin of fashionable optimism to reveal the cruel, or vain, or corrupt, or narcissistic, or dysfunctional truth guiding our communal ship. The hope, I suppose, is that in doing so anyone reading the book will never again commit the sin of vanity, narcissism, etc., and society will be all the better for it.

I don’t mean to be flip. All writers were children once, and most of these writers were sensitive, observant children. Many parents, whether in suburbs, in exurbs, in apartment buildings, or in gated communities, fall for the easy trap of maintaining the veneer that EVERYTHING IS OKAY. Meanwhile, of course, the parents themselves are only human, and they worry, and they argue, and they drink, and they get divorced, and the sensitive, observant child is quite aware that everything is NOT okay.

And so, the harder the parents try to maintain the illusion, and the more they ask the children themselves to participate in the maintenance of the illusion, the more the unexpressed truth gestates in the child, so that by the time this child is thirty and writing his or her first novel, the desire to unleash a scathing social commentary about how everything is not okay has become a kind of irresistible force.

So I have sympathy for the social critic in all of us. There is no point in pretending we don’t suffer and lie and steal and kill. But I believe that which the social critic criticizes is just another layer itself, only somewhat deeper than the transparent veneer of public politeness that covers it. The question is not whether we lie and argue and divorce, but why we lie and argue and divorce, and the only reason anyone does anything of this sort is fear, and even the most astute social critic in the world has been afraid.

I would never propose a ban on social criticism; that would be like proposing a second prohibition. But no matter how many politicians deceive, no matter how many fathers cheat on their wives, no matter how many mothers demean their children, anyone, at anytime, in any circumstance, can be okay. Nothing can be taken from us, it can only be given away. That is always the deepest truth, the truth we spend our lives at once resisting and praying for.

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True Allegiance

In yesterday’s blog I eluded to my “switch” from writing literary fiction to writing within a certain genre. This was not a switch I made with much grace. That is, I knew I wanted to write the story that would place me in this genre, but I had a long history with literary fiction, and the idea of writing outside of it, at least within the mind of the publishing world, left me in the impossible position of having to justify (in this case to myself) my desire to write what I most wanted to write.

When I discovered what we call literature it was like a life preserver. Here were men and women writing about what I was thinking about; here were men and women saying what seemed to me to be the truth that everyone thought but no one spoke. I was not alone after all.

But even literature, the great democracy of publishing, has it’s entry rules, and one of those rules—at the moment at least—is that you cannot write about kings and queens and trolls. I have always loved kings and queens and trolls, and because I am currently telling stories about them, I am out. So be it.

Of course, I have not switched anything. That the publishing world believes differently is irrelevant. My only allegiance is to the source of the stories I wish to tell. Woe betide the writer who reaches as deeply as he can into this well and rejects what he finds because of what it looks like. This is rejecting life itself.

True literature, by which I mean any story or poem that invites you more deeply into the best part of yourself, is not a country club. There is no guardian at the gate of love. All are welcome. Here we see the absurdity of all prejudice. Prejudice is the belief that love has a prescribed shape or color, that somehow we will be relieved from the burden of merely feeling it, that we must only recognize it by its form.

Love is forever known and forever surprising, dwelling as it does equally within the soprano and the slug. What each of us loves most is limited, a limitation that allows us to function within a world of infinite variety, but love – like life – defies this containment. The genres and the categories and the bookshelves are for our convenience alone. Love, meanwhile, resides above these borders, like the earth upon which we draw our nations’ boundaries, and will be there still to guide us when we are alone, a country of one in search of like souls.

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A Practical Fiction

I have decided recently that as a writer I dislike genres. That is not to say I dislike the stories written in genres, I just dislike the idea of genres. I say this, by the way, as someone whose stories, because of certain narrative details, are placed unequivocally within a genre.

This was not always so. When I began writing novels I wrote what we call literary fiction. I wrote literary fiction because since I was about sixteen that was all I read. I had no knowledge of the world outside of literature. The first time someone asked me what I wrote I was puzzled. I wrote literature, of course. Isn’t that what one wrote? I had a lot to learn.

Now that I am so much older and a little bit wiser I believe that literary fiction still has a distinct and profound psychological advantage over genre fiction: no requirements. Your only requirement if you write literary fiction is that you write a good book. This book can have mystery, love, suspense, cowboys, CEOs, soldiers—whatever. The writer is free from that odious list of marketing requirements with which mystery and suspense and fantasy and romance writers saddle themselves so that they still “fit” into this genre to which they are supposedly devoted. The literary writer is free to simply write the story they most want to write.

So I say, whatever you write, forget genre. Genres are a marketing idea, and a good one. The advantage of genres, theoretically, is that the reader knows more or less what she is getting into before she reads the book. She knows what to expect narratively from romance or suspense or urban fantasy. Not so much with literary fiction, which may be why it tends to sell a little less. No matter.

When we write, we are all literary writers, whether or not there are dragons or spaceships or dashing pirates in our stories. Our only allegiance should be to the story, that current of desire that caught our interest and brought us to the desk. Once we’re done, then we can find our genre. Remember, however, that every genre evolved when someone wrote just what they wanted to write and were being imitated by so many others that eventually we took all those books and put them into a corner of the bookstore. Genres are a practical fiction, nothing more. The impractical truth is that you are only required to write what you most want to write.

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The Professor Is In

I own one of these gigantic collections of poetry, a sort of greatest hits since the beginning of the English language, and each of the 1,000 or so poems includes a blurb by the collection’s editor—an esteemed poet/academic, I believe—placing the poem in stylistic and historical context. The entries are informed, academically insightful, and usually don’t mean diddly-doo in the grand scheme of things.

Don’t get me wrong. This collection was no doubt assembled as a text for undergraduate English students. I am all for undergraduate English students reading these great poems. For many people, college and sometimes high school English classes serve as a first introduction to the world of Literature with a capital L. The question is: what does one do after reading the poem?

I am by nature a student of form, and so for me it is interesting to learn that the villanelle saw a rise in use after the 1930s, but only in the way certain men want to know when the V8 engine first appeared. It’s nerdy really, but this kind of ticky-tacky technical knowledge gets a pass when applied to poetry. All the better for me. Couple my love of poetry with my years as a wine steward and I make a first-rate snob.

I should ask Erica Bauermeister, who was an English professor for years before turning to fiction writing, how one avoids the trap the editor fell into. Form is nice and easy to talk about, but function is why we’re drawn to poetry, and the function of poetry, as with all art, is to invite the audience into themselves.

It baffled me when I went to college and was part of why I left school without a degree. English professors have a difficult job: they are people who love literature, but you can’t merely stand up in front of twenty kids and say, “I think this book is just great! I hope you love it as much as I do.” I suppose if it fell to me I would explain the parts of the poem that are a little murky, and then ask, “What does it make you think of? Do you agree with it? Does it make you want to write a poem?” Not the kind of questions whose answers you can easily grade, but unfortunately, just as in life, the most valuable questions have no right answers.

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