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“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”

Greek proverb


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What do I Know?

There are few things more pleasing than discovering a clear expression of a latent thought that has been lurking in the back of your mind for years or decades but has never quite come into focus. Margaret Attwood just provided me with this pleasure in the following quotation.

“Everyone thinks writers must know more about the inside of the human head, but that is wrong. They know less. That’s why they write. Trying to find out what everyone else takes for granted.”

These few words lit up a dark corner that has disturbed me for years. There are many plausible answers to the question: “Why do we write?” I’ve used most of them in my lifetime. But, as Attwood implies, the real reason I write is that I don’t understand anything about other human beings, or the world we all live in, and I’m trying to find out.

The human world is awash with enthusiasms and manias, all of which are incomprehensible to me: sports, religion, and war are three of the big ones. I just can’t understand what anybody sees in any of them, yet they seem to be as basic to human happiness as food or sex.

It is disappointing that a long lifetime of writing hasn’t brought me any closer to answers, but at least I tried. In the end, I’m happy to relax into the bemused acquiescence of the great French essayist Michel de Montaigne. In old age, he became skeptical about the possibility of any true knowledge, and adopted the motto: “Que sais-je?” – What do I know?

Literature for Sleepers

A good book carries you into sleep quietly, leaving something interesting for the subconscious mind to work on for the next few hours.

But it is harder and harder to find a good nighttime read. I haunt the library and the bookstores, follow the reviews, ask my friends. Yet the heap of half-read and unread books beside the bed grows larger and larger and threatens to engulf the whole bedroom.

From time to time I am encouraged or instructed to pick up all the books that I have piled beside the bed. This has something to do with a profoundly un-literary ritual called vacuuming, of which I disapprove on principle. But it is interesting to see what books are there, some read, some half-read and abandoned, some glanced at and tossed down.

For example, I enjoy a good historical novel. My favorite author is Patrick O’Brian, in case you’re interested. But I’m struggling with a book by the Booker Prize winning writer A.S.Byatt, called The Biographer’s Tale. It is about a young man who abandons literary theory (a nice little in-joke) in order to write a biography of a biographer. It’s an ingenious idea, and the writing is as clever and as graceful as one could wish. But the reader needs a notebook, a PhD and a photographic memory to keep track of the plot. Who needs this kind of intellectual workout at bedtime?

I prefer fiction at bedtime, a good story. But good stories have become almost as rare as honest memoirs. The death of the novel has been routinely announced for the past fifty years, and I’m beginning to believe that it may be dying at last. The mysteries all seem like pale imitations of P.D.James, modern detective stories are all detective and no story, spy novels are redundant, science fiction is always behind the times, and romance is not to my taste, as well as being even less probable than science fiction. This leaves the ordinary novel, the “non-genre” novel, which has been the central and most prestigious form of fiction for the past two hundred years.

But the ordinary novel is being displaced by what is called the “literary novel” – a tautology if ever I heard one. The literary novel is written by a professor of literature, or a graduate of a creative writing program, and it is designed to be read only by others of the same tribe.

These authors are no doubt very talented – it’s hard to get a novel published these days – but they all seem seriously depressed, and they want their readers to know it, and share it. Their books are promoted with lines like: “A dark fairy tale of mothers and daughters locked in a struggle” and “Fictional memoir of a descent into madness.” Is this the kind of thing I want in my head just before I go to sleep?

A lot of modern novelists have also abandoned the old-fashioned virtue of clarity in their writing. The new rule seems to be: the more pompous, wordy, obscure and loaded with symbolism the better. I like my fiction to be entertaining in an intelligent way. There’s plenty of intelligence on display, but entertainment seems to have gone out the window.

I suspect that only The New York Times reviewers actually read books by writers like Don DeLillo, Margaret Attwood, Cormac McCarthy, and even the semi-sacred Salman Rushdie, and perhaps not even they get to the last page without skipping.

The authors would probably argue that their very serious novels are not intended to be read in bed, but can only be appreciated in a deep leather chair, under a green-shaded reading lamp, in a quiet study or library, with plenty time and a heap of reference books close at hand, along with a bottle of Prozac.
So, by necessity, my bedtime reading is moving inexorably away from my beloved fiction, into the less imaginative realm of non- fiction: biography, criticism, essays, and history. At least, as long as it’s true to life, there’s always something to laugh at.

Science Fiction Without Science

This is not the first time I have posted a commentary about this but, right now, it seems even more important as the “war on science” becomes more real and more dangerous. The nation is dominated by a gang of fantasists and anti-rationalists whose influence seems to be seeping right into the culture, including fiction.

I’ve always been interested in science (as an ill-educated amateur), and therefore in science fiction. Sometimes I browse the shelves of new science fiction in our local library, although I scarcely read SF anymore. Once I was a passionate fan, and in the naïve decades of my life actually wrote dozens of science fiction stories, some of which were published in the pulp magazines.

Traditional science fiction was exactly what the name implies – fiction about science and its possibilities. The central themes were the triumph of knowledge and progress, the conquest of space, the conquest of illness and even death, and most importantly the conquest of any aliens foolish enough to stand in the way of this great civilizing enterprise. Older listeners will remember Captain Kirk of the first Starship Enterprise, and his five-year mission to boldly go and spread split infinitives and American values through a reluctant universe. It was the quintessential science fiction narrative of the 1960s, simplified down to cartoon form but still powerful.

It was powerful because it was an imaginative way of exploring the possibilities of the future, good and bad. The future was exciting. Science fiction writers predicted many discoveries that actually happened – television, space travel, computers – and spun their plots around the question “What if…?” One of my own stories, for example, featured an invention called the Panacticon, a sort of universal remote that could control not only the TV, but the weather, the traffic, the growth of lawn grass, the children, the rate of rise of a soufflé, and just about everything except the behavior of cats. This device gave its owner god-like powers, but only so long as she remembered to change the batteries, which of course (in my story) she did not. Now I look back at them almost all my stories were based on the idea of incompetent human beings struggling with miraculous new technologies. The ultimate version of this plotline appeared in Douglas Adams’s Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which may never be surpassed as a satire on technological hubris.

It was all harmless fun, and perhaps even educational in an ironic way, just as Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels was educational in its time. Of course, SF also had a dark side, from H.G.Wells to J.G.Ballard. There were plenty of apocalyptic prophecies and dystopias about the triumph of the machine. These are still popular, especially in movies. A lot of people obviously look forward to the end of the world and enjoy these previews. Then there has been a sub-genre of literary science fiction. Writers like Cory Doctorow, Philip Pullman, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip Roth have been using SF as a philosophical device, and it works brilliantly.

But the shelves of recent science fiction in the library are disappointing. The book covers make it clear that there’s not much science here, not even imaginary science, and precious little about the future either. It’s all sword and sorcery (quite literally), flying horses, magic in Elysium, romance in Avalon, Queens and princesses, angels, dozens and dozens of dragons, knights on white horses, tribal warfare.

I have nothing against imagining things that don’t exist, but I can’t get excited reading about things that never did, never will and never could exist, like flying horses. What happened to the old science fiction future, full of exciting real-world possibilities? This slide from scientific optimism to magical fantasy in a mere half a century is rather disturbing. Let’s hope it’s not a metaphor for our collective mental state.

That’s Not Funny

All writers, and I suppose all people, suffer from stereotyping. We navigate through a bewildering world in part by putting labels on everyone. Just looking up and down the street I realize that I have labeled (in my mind) the crazy Chinese lady, the desperate housewife, the paranoid electrician and the pedantic historian. I don’t know how they think of me, and I prefer not to know. My labels for them are probably wrong, but they are a convenient way of remembering who’s who and making some sense of our little corner of suburbia.

For half my life I was stereotyped as a serious academic writer. For the past twenty years it has been my fortune or fate to be stereotyped as the exact opposite, a humorist. I don’t know which is worse.

Nobody is always funny or always serious. On the whole I prefer writing with at least a touch of humor. It comes naturally to me, and readers and listeners definitely prefer it. Editors are desperate to find good humor writers, so this is the perfect way for a freelance to break into the business.

There are two problems. The first (which doesn’t bother me) is that, if you write humor, nobody takes you seriously. Many writers long to be taken seriously, and so turn our humorless and gloomy books that nobody wants to read. Sometimes, the secret of success is simply to lighten up.

The second problem really does bother me. This is that not all the subjects I want to write about are funny, or can possibly be made funny. Last year I collected a dozen essays that just didn’t fit the funny category. They went into a separate folder labeled “Dark Matters.”

The annoying thing is that these dark writings are among those I like best – just as Mark Twain loved his own dark writings, which almost nobody but Twain scholars ever reads. My little collection of gloom and doom deals with themes like political lies, religious extremism, and selfishness.

As I had expected this book landed on the market like the proverbial brick. While I was digesting this the Covid epidemic came along, another subject that is not particularly humorous, but I have been doing my best (see my weekly commentary at wshu.org). This strange interregnum is going to continue for a while, so wish me luck.

Montaigne on the Radio

The French are more intellectual than you and me. They care more about ideas and read more serious books. A big French bookstore is a daunting place if you are more accustomed to Barnes and Noble.

Even after spending a lot of time in France I don’t feel that much of this intellectual sparkle has rubbed off on me. But I have enjoyed it, the way you enjoy the performance of acrobats in a circus. Being a radio person myself I listened to a lot of French radio. The best national stations are about as far from easy listening as you can get. A classical concert, for example, is presented of a series of segments in which musicologists hold intense and serious discussions between the music, and sometimes even in the middle of the music.

It was therefore no surprise one year to find Montaigne on the radio all summer long. Michel de Montaigne (1533 – 1592) is universally recognized as the father of the essay, but he is not exactly everyday reading. However a philosopher called Antoine Compagnon offered a short radio commentary on Montaigne once a week on Radio Inter, before the one o’clock news, and published them as a slim book called A Summer with Montaigne, which became an instant bestseller.

Essayists who write in English can only groan with envy at such an opportunity and such an audience. The only thing we can do is to read Montaigne (and M. Compagnon’s book) and try to learn what makes his essays so popular and so seductive. My own guess is that it is the perfect balance he achieves between amusement and sadness. Montaigne never takes himself too seriously.
He wrote: “If nobody reads me, shall I have wasted my time, when I have beguiled so many idle hours with such pleasant and profitable reflections?”

Scenery

At sunset, one evening before we were all beached by the coronavirus, I was traveling back from work on the ferry that runs between Bridgeport, Connecticut and Port Jefferson, Long Island. It was a windy night, with gusts up to forty miles an hour, and the ferry was headed straight into a spectacular sunset. The sky was full of black clouds, torn and scattered by the wind. Between the clouds, the sky showed a surrealistic mixture of pink, yellow, blue, and deep red. The sea showed black but was covered in whitecaps that picked up colors from the sky. The blunt nose of the ferry plunged into each wave with a crash, eliciting squeals from the passengers in the main cabin, who seemed to think that this was some kind of fairground ride.

The bar on this ship is near the prow and has a wide, sweeping window facing forward. I was in the bar, for purely aesthetic reasons, and sat in a corner under the television, looking out at the wild and romantic scene I just described.

Everyone else in the bar was looking at me, or rather at the TV over my head. Twisting my head around I could see that the screen showed a number of large young men in brightly colored costumes running around a field and occasionally falling down. I recognized it at once as football. The sound was drowned out by the roar of the wind and the thumping progress of the ship through the waves.

The crossing takes an hour and a quarter. In that time, as far as I could see from my vantage point, not a single person took their eyes off the TV screen to look at the outside view. The sunset and the waves that night were unique in my experience, while a football match is always and everywhere the same. But it was football that my fellow passengers yearned to see. This is not the kind of experience that cheers the heart of a writer, or indeed a reader.

At school at home

A lot of writers teach to pay the rent. It’s the almost ideal occupation because of the long vacations and the fact that teaching is (or was) all about words, books, and ideas. Some have made the leap from teaching to literary fame, like Frank McCourt (Teacher Man) and Alan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind).

I’ve done my share of teaching, although I started late. The first time I faced a class, at a British University, I was already thirty years old. This gave me a certain advantage over the younger assistant professors. The students assumed I was more senior than I was, and I didn’t disillusion them. For twenty years I continued teaching at that university, and in New York, Connecticut, and California. It was a great experience, although it left me with an ineradicable streak of irony.

Now I only teach at summer writing schools, and the occasional adult seminar, where the dynamic is very different from that of a college class. But an opportunity just came along to teach a special seminar at the local university, which set me thinking again about the education process, which I thought I had left behind for good.

Teaching changes people. It’s great for self-esteem, perhaps too great. Professors feel sure of themselves. They are the experts, and they are on top of their subjects. They may occasionally be challenged by graduate students or a bright undergraduate, but basically they are invulnerable.

It’s a good feeling to be ‘the authority.’ It’s something I miss as a writer. My audience and work team consists of our two cats, who never defer to my authority in any way whatsoever. So the thought of a seminar is rather tempting.

Other kinds of teaching may be less good for morale. Primary school teachers are (I hope) firmly in charge of their tiny pupils. But middle and high school teachers are on a battlefield, and they often seem crushed and embittered by the experience. Education works best from ages 0 to 10, and then again from about 20 to 30. The intermediate years are a waste of time.

Pedagogy has changed enormously in my lifetime. The boys’ school I went to was run by a team of authoritarian “masters” to used sarcasm and violence to keep us in line. But they were effective teachers. At university, I encountered some of those old-fashioned professors of the type portrayed so vividly by John Houseman in the movie The Paper Chase. Teachers were always typecast as enemies, egomaniacs, or gurus. They fascinated us because they were so different and we assumed (usually wrongly) that they had bottomless stores of secret knowledge.

All gone now: vanished beyond recall. Today’s teachers, at all levels, are supposed to be friends and confidantes, regular guys and gals who facilitate shared learning experiences instead of teaching. In fact, the school has become much more like home, which is appropriate at a time when homeschooling has become an unwelcome necessity. I just hope that homeschooling parents are paid enough to compensate for their awesome responsibilities, and their 24-hour timetable.

Where are the Servants?

Every writer has the same complaint – I don’t have enough time to do my work. Yet writers in the past managed to be prolific without even the crutch of a computer, or sometimes even a typewriter. How did they do it?

The answer is summed up in a book by Alison Light: Mrs. Woolf and The Servants (2009). It records the sad travails of Virginia Woolf in dealing with the ill-paid people whose job it was to cook for her, clean for her, arrange her clothes, and in general make her life absolutely free of household cares. According to the book, Mrs. Woolf hated her servants, even while she depended on them utterly. Even that great champion of the working class Karl Marx left all the dreary tasks of daily life to his servants, and treated them badly.

It’s sobering to remember how many distinguished creative careers in the past depended completely on the existence of a servant class. Only the very rich have servants now, so they have plenty of free time that they can spend playing golf or meeting with their accountants. But the rest of us are our own servants now, slaves to our homes and families. Our time is swallowed up by mindless domestic tasks. No wonder we feel inferior to our more productive ancestors whose time was, quite literally, their own.

Library Closed

With the libraries closed I am reading all the books in the house that I should have read or had half-read over the past fifty years or so. My “library” (to give it much too grand a name) is a tangible, physical record of my own “thinking” (to give it much too grand a name) over all those years. It is slightly worrying to find how little has changed. I have always favored the same kinds of novels (realistic, narrative, often historical) and the same kind of histories (also rather old-fashioned narrative). As for philosophy and sociology it seems that I have been reading the same kinds of things for fifty years – studies of beliefs, political systems and cultural change.

What kind of progress is that? But I suppose there’s no point in trying to improve my mind now or take a new direction. My mind, like my old car. Is past improvement and almost past serious maintenance.

This, let’s face it, is rather a relief.

A Room of One’s Own

The room I pretend to work in – which I rather pretentiously call my study – is very pleasant. It overlooks the garden and some woods. The plantation shutters create slanting bars of sunshine, so I can imagine that I’m writing on a tropical island like Graham Greene. All my stuff is conveniently arranged. I even have two desks, although one of them is always covered with cats. But when we first moved into this house, I found myself mute in this room, completely unable to think or write for about two weeks. The same thing has happened before. Rooms that I wrote in for years became almost an essential part of my equipment. When I had to leave them it was like death or divorce. It induced a kind of mental paralysis.

Now my study is utterly familiar, like a second skin, and I can see why familiarity is so essential, at least for me. It’s a question of blanking out everything else, of reducing distractions to the absolute minimum. When I have my space properly organized the routine stuff becomes automatic. My shelves of general reference books and music reference books are on the left. Other books of current interest – a changing selection – are on the right. Filing cabinets are behind. The computer is on one desk, and the typewriter and the cats are on the other. Recording gear and CD players are on a cabinet that also holds stationery. When I need a stapler or a paper clip or a notebook my hand knows exactly where to find it. My favorite pictures are on the walls. The bird feeders are clearly visible from the windows. Order has been achieved. There are no distractions. I can write. If this sounds like a bad case of obsessive-compulsive disorder then I plead guilty. But I think it makes some psychological sense.

Now, as the pandemic hysteria sweeps across the country, this room is close to becoming my whole world. I’m so lucky to have it, and I have no complaints.