Despite countless articles and classes on the topic, the King James Version of the Holy Bible is seen primarily as a religious text and rarely as a literary one. Of course, there is nothing wrong seeing it as a religious text, for that is its primary purpose, but what is unfortunate, is that some cannot get past its text-proof practicalities to its deep literary richness and ambiguity. It is probably because of its literary characteristics that the Bible continues to spawn conflicting religious and non-religious interpretations, but I would argue that by understanding the literary aspect also helps to clarify how it has been interpetaed as a religious text.
Robert Alter, professor of Hebrew and comparative literature at University of California, Berkeley, helps takes us a little further along to consider how the Bible, particularly the King James Version of 1611, has influenced countless American writers in his book Pen of Iron. By seeing the Bible through the eyes of American fiction, it helps us recognize how biblical language has shaped our literary expression and culture, and in turn see the Bible through a different lens.
What Alter focuses on is not only how certain biblical stories or symbols are re-imagined in American fiction, but about how KJV style informs American expression, where “…the language of the Bible remains an ineluctable framework for verbal culture in this country” (3). Sometimes style is seen as aesthetic window dressing that the story is told through, but it is much more. As Alter iterates a few times, style is “a way of imagining the world, of articulating value” (180).
The writers and work that Alter considers are Melville’s Moby Dick, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, Bellow’s Seize the Day, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, along with Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with even an offhand reference to hard-boiled crime novelists. He offers insightful analysis of key passages and techniques that writers use to exploit certain biblical styles, in a give and take negotiation with literary history engaging with American complexities.
Let me touch briefly on one of these techniques. Parataxis is when simple declarative clauses are typically brought together by the use of the word “and.” This is seen in an example of Rebekah at the well from the 1611 English version, “and she hasted, and emptied her pitcher into the trough, and ran again unto the well to draw water, and drew for all his camels” (Genesis 24:20). This is a fairly simple example, but illustrates what kind of syntax and diction was not present in early modern English until after the arrival of the 1611 KJV. Parataxis can be used for several effects, but usually creates a forward motion in the narrative where clauses can have equal weight, a phonetic compactness of diction, sometimes connecting dissimilar ideas or images in conjunction with each other, and often in fiction, creating ambiguity in the space between clauses.
To give a quick idea how this may look in a novel, Alter has plenty of examples he takes us through, but let’s try out McCarthy’s The Road.
In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons and carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all (28).
Though minimal usage of the connecting word “and,” Alter describes this paratactic passage as “the framework in which the landscape is laid out: there are no casual or hierarchical relationships here, just one detail of devastation after another as the observing eye scans them, with ‘and’ the dominant conjunction and only the most minimal syntactic subordination allowed. Several sentences are merely noun phrases without predicates, a procedure that here is basically a modernist extension of the logic of biblical parataxis” (173).
This is really nitty, gritty stuff that dives deep into how prose is constructed, and thereby how fictional worlds are imagined. I suspect that creative writers would really enjoy this book, whether they have an interest in the Bible or not. But I imagine for the general reader who didn’t enjoy English class, this book is probably not your cup of tea.
But at least consider, “The essential point for the history of our literature is that the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text, however oldentime they may be, continue to ring in cultural memory. We may break them apart or turn them around, but they are tools we still us on occasion to construct the world around us. That is precisely what a series of strong American writers since Melville have been doing” (183).
In reading Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd, I keep thinking that the thing about books on writing is that they can provide a glimpse into the mind of an author, but only of that author. Even though writing books may tackle all the same topics: character, point of view, setting, each writer has their unique approach, however slightly. Of course there are some fundamentals, like spelling and grammar that don’t change often, but just because I know all the chords and scale for G minor key doesn’t mean I know how to write music using it. But ultimatley, what works for you as a writer will likely not work for me. And that's ok.
So why do I keep going to back to books on writing? Well, for one, I’m interested in the creative process. I’m interested in how authors break down the stories they tell. Or how to build the stories they’ve discovered. And maybe I'll pick up on something I never consider. But deep down, I think that if I read enough books on writing that somehow, someway, that novel inside me will finally come out. But alas, it is a fool’s dream. If I want to write that book, then I all I need to do is write that book. No amount of reading about how to do it will replace the act of creation itself.
Nonetheless I simply enjoy the shoptalk of writers, keep returning such books, and Good Prose is not a bad place to spend time with. Primarily focused on non-fiction writing, it covers the basics like every other writing book, along with a bit of career memoir, with a warm conversational style that you just can’t help but want to put the book down and start writing yourself. It gave me a bit to think about, especially about the process of being edited, along with some excellent analysis of classic non-fiction works that I wasn’t familiar with, such as John McPhee’s Encounters with the Archdruid, which fall in current wheelhouse.
The title of the book is intriguing. One of the thoughts I had was, why only “good” prose and not “great”? While reading along, I found that the “good” in the book title seems to me less about a quality of scale, but more about creating prose that possess a moral good, to put it crudely. And by that I mean that non-fiction writing should be about truth and facts obviously, but not about spin, melodrama, or manipulation. Good prose should be enlightening and entertaining and not commercial or political pandering. This really struck me towards the end of book when the authors talk about the tension between art and commerce and eventually bring David Foster Wallace into the conversation, quoting him,
…the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose: the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved. (135)
In framing writing within this dichotomy, it has given me a lot to think about my own intentions and the reasons why I write. I don’t think I have had a desire to write out a want to be loved. But as an occassional misanthrope, the converse never occurred to me in this particular way: writing as an act of love, a gift freely given, with no expectation of being loved back. How does a writer do that? It’s a good question.
Learning how to write fiction is a tricky business and one that really only learns by actually doing it, stumbling over words and sentences until something rises up out of the muck that might resemble a story, let alone a good story. Still trying to figure that out, but never giving up.
For me I can sit down and write something non-fictiony without much struggle, whether a review, essay, or a brief historical exploration. But coming up with a plot and characters is something that still eludes me. So, for better or worse, I'm returning back to taking a class or two at the local university to kickstart my fiction deficiency, starting in a couple weeks.
In the meantime I came across a great little article on tips from Faulker's writing life. Most are things we've all heard before, but others I haven't really considered, like "don't worry about style." I like that idea and as one less thing to worry about it works for me.
Once in a while you read a work of investigative journalism that blows your mind. This one did. You might have already heard about or read this article, but if you haven't, then do yourself a favor. It reminds me why blogging, etc, can not hold a torch to the long-haul work of a journalist discovering a world that needs to be revealed. Amazing work that deserves the attention of everyone who dares calls themself a journalist.
If you write, like me, I just wanted to share something cool from Small Beer Press, that little indie publisher that has some of the coolest stuff around, not least of all Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.
Starting last year and continuing again for 2011, they have created A Working Writer's Daily Planner. It's filled with writing advice, prompts, contest deadlines, publishers info, and much more. It won't help you write more or better, but it might get you a little better organized so you can write more, and maybe, even just maybe, better.
"The perfect supplement to any writer’s life, this new edition of A Working Writer’s Daily Planner is even better than before, packed with more of the information writers need to organize their work schedules, track upcoming deadlines, and learn about grant opportunities, contests, and workshop programs. For 2011 we turned to those who know best what writers want—writers themselves—and asked them what resources they’d find most useful. The result is a unique and indispensable tool that makes it easy for writers to keep track of the practical, business end of writing, leaving more time for them to actually spend writing."
As for me, my one and only New Year's resolution is to write a helluva lot more. NaNoWriMo got me started a little, but this coming year will put everything to shame I've done up till now. Or at least that's my plan, and since you now all know (all 3 of you), then I've got some accountability to someone, somewhere.
Well the madness is about to begin once again. Just a few days ago I remembered National Novel Writing Month was coming up on November 1st. I've participated in the past, with paltry results, but I thought I'd give it another shot. The thing I like about NaNoWriMo is the development of discipline that can occur with a group of people supporting you through the process. And discipline is what I need. I already have a story in mind, one I came up with a few weeks ago, and have written some character and plot notes, but haven't begin the actual story yet. So, here's to the madness.
I have occasionally pondered on the possibility of getting an MFA in creative writing. The idea has never really appealed to me, especially weighing the cost/benefit. Would it make me a better writer? Likely, but not certain. Does it guarantee a writing career? No, not particularly. Would it put me in a awful state of debt? Without a doubt.
I have come across several comments on the pros and cons of MFA writing programs. I respect a good number of the writers who teach at such programs (Ethan Canin, Marilynne Robinson, Kelly Link, and Tony Early among a few), but they are only a handful. I suppose if I wanted to teach at a university and write on the side, a MFA would be a good choice. But being a working full-time writer probably requires a different path.
I like Garrison Keillor's advice,
"Skip the MFA in creative writing…. If you want to write, sit down for a few weeks with the most gripping book you’ve ever read and analyze it to a fine hair—how it’s organized, the structure, the time sequence, the characterizations—and then set out and write something similar. Don’t turn up your nose at genre fiction—which MFA programs tend to do. Learn how to write a workmanlike novel. And if it doesn’t get accepted for publication, no problem—go on and write another one."
When Philip Roth's latest novel The Humbling was released, it took a few weeks before the critical reviews catched up with it. And some reviews I've read (here, here, and here) provoked strong reactions, with some worthwhile critical insights. I read the book and enjoyed, but a masterpiece it is not.
That's when I came across Leon Wieseltier's review, which is not exactly a review in the traditional sense, but uses The Humbling as an example of what has been lost in fiction of late. The first three paragraphs of his review are simply stunning in my opinion, and anyone who cares about literature should take the time to read and think about them. He begins first with a quote: