Random Post of Awesome: Braggin’ on a Buddy!: Ajay Ramachandran Poetry Published by Midtown

Great news! My buddy Ajay Ramachandran, who comments early and often on anything Virginia Woolf or P.G. Wodehouse (our very special mentors from earlier this year), has had a a wonderful poem publish by Midtown: A Journal of Writing and Fine Arts.

“Achebe to Zwiren”

Please go check it out – it’s well worth it. Bookophiles will adore it, and those who followed the Woolf and Wodehouse discussions will find it particularly impressive. Ajay knows what he’s talking about! Congratulations, Ajay!

Product-of-Your-Time Rhetoric – Is Awareness the Answer?

Agatha Christie is my third mentor for this year, and she’s also the third British writer who published actively in the ’20s and ’30s. Woolf, Wodehouse, and Christie could, very conceivably, have hung out and had some beers together. They were all about the same age and wrote throughout both World Wars. What’s so interesting about reading these three authors back-to-back is their approaches to literature are so startlingly different. Stream-of-conscious Woolf. Humorous Wodehouse. Mysterious Christie.

However, I noticed a disturbing trend as I read through these three writers. I hesitate to bring it up, only because it involves the potential to insult these writers whom I’ve worked so hard to talk about. But I think if we are to learn anything from a mentor, we have to examine the subjects that come up, flaws and all. So I’m going to risk it and hope that you’ll share your thoughts and comments below.

Underlying the different techniques and the approaches to language in these writers, there was one thing that they all hit on at one point or another: disparaging commentary toward minority groups. Specifically Blacks and Jews.

The book that brought my attention to this directly was the original title of Christie’s And Then There Were None. At first that book was called Ten Little Niggers. Then Ten Little Indians. The final version I read had no reference to either of the previous titles – the song used in the book refers to ten soldiers.

My brain spun at the idea that a book could be published at all with the two original titles. Then I thought about Wodehouse and Woolf, remembering that there had been one or two times where a derogatory term would pop up. I flipped back through and here are some examples of what I found:

Woolf:
• from The Voyage Out: “ ‘I want people to like me and they don’t. It’s partly my appearance, I expect,’ he continued, ‘though it’s an absolute lie to say I’ve Jewish blood in me….’”
• from Jacob’s Room: “she liked that man Jacob better than dirty Jews.”

Wodehouse:
• from “The Little Nugget”: “It is always the bad nigger who gets religion most strongly at the camp meeting, and in my case ‘getting religion’ had taken the form of suppression of self.”
• from Mike and Psmith: “Unfortunately, he used the sooty hand and the result was like some gruesome burlesque of a nigger minstrel.”

And there are more examples from each one of these writers. I’m not saying that to bash their stories or their accomplishments. In fact, as I turned it over in my head, considering the drastic differences in style, method, selling-ness, and experiences of the authors, I found it strange that all three could consistently mention Blacks and Jews in such a fashion: just throwing down the words without expectation of reprisal.

Then it occurred to me: in the time period these three writers were producing work, it was – while not necessarily encouraged – accepted that “nigger” or “dirty Jew” could be thrown into a story as a legitimate metaphor. Readers wouldn’t have thought twice (unless such terms were thrown into the title…and even Ten Little Niggers got past enough editors to get published). The rhetoric of the culture allowed such things to be said.

While, today, we bitch and moan about having to be Politically Correct, there are some darn good reasons to watch what we write or say. First off, piled-up rhetoric is very convincing.

Imagine, if you will, that thousands of people are reading just these three authors (as they were and are). Therefore, thousands of people are exposed to the language “nigger” and “dirty Jew” thrown around in casual conversation/popular literature. That casual language sets a layer. Now, imagine a talented rhetorician comes around, notices what is or is not acceptable to talk about, and starts emphasizing certain things, i.e. “You have no money, but that dirty Jew shop owner does.” Another layer. And imagine a rhetorician with a film camera commenting on The Eternal Jew. Another layer.

No! Before anyone jumps to conclusions, I do not in any way blame Woolf, Wodehouse, or Christie for Hitler – or for slavery/segregation/American politics until the 1960s for that matter. I’m merely illustrating that what we say (whether in writing, in speech, in blogs) has a layering effect. It’s like millions of pieces of paper or bytes leaning and piling on top of one another.

And, unfortunately, we may not realize that what we said added to the layers of negativity.

Not to get any more political, but only to illustrate today’s potentially rhetorical danger zone: Today, as we know, Osama bin Laden is dead. The Middle East is in upheaval. And there are going to be literary reactions to all of it, on all sides. Books have already been written in reaction to 9/11 (The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Hamid, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Safran Foer, and The Terrorist by Updike to name three wide variations on this theme).

While great writers try so, so, so hard to remain balanced, to just tell the story, to examine what could be the truth from all sides…the truth is, writers are only human. They have biases and prejudices – often fed by their Time. They’re (we’re) bound to fuck up. And only future generations can tell how much so.

But I think, by being aware of what we’re saying, we’ll be able to say it better, without offending too many, and without compromising our own integrity or the integrity of our work.

Okay, I’ve gone on waaaay too long. You’re turn. What’re your thoughts on political correctness? Derogatory terms? The three mentors’ language? Or, you know, if you know a good joke that’ll lighten the heavy discussion…. =)

The Mystery of the Cow Creamer: An Imaginary Dialogue Between P.G. Wodehouse and Agatha Christie by Jenny

“I say, Agatha!” calls Wodehouse from across the tea room. “You’re frightfully good at puzzling things out, what?”

“So I am,” responds Christie.

“Perhaps you could help me out with a bit of a mystery. My cow creamer has disappeared.”

“Why would you need to cream a cow?”

“No. It’s a creamer in the shape of a cow. Are you sure you’re very good at this?”

“Pardon me?”

“Well,” says Wodehouse, “I mean to say, if you can’t figure out what we’re discussing, then perhaps I should hunt down another sleuth. That Patterson chappy seems sharp.”

“We’re discussing a cow creamer.”

“You’ve wrapped your head around the fact now?”

“Indeed. Please give me the facts of your Creamer Case and I shall endeavor to put your mind at ease.”

“Thanks.” Wodehouse sips his tea.

“Though it would be difficult to find an easier mind than your own.”

“Thanks.  As I was saying. I sat down to tea with a bloke of my acquaintance. We talked of this and that and that and this. Throughout the whole of the meeting the creamer remained upon the table, excepting when it was used. Now it is nowhere to be found.” He sips his tea again.

“I see. Here is the table at which the tea took place?”

“Yes.”

“There are two teacups, one empty, one full. A bowl a sugar, a teapot, a tray of biscuits and a space where the creamer should be.”

“Hence my concern over the creamer’s absence.”

“Indeed. Did your acquaintance partake of cream in his tea?”

“No. He is not a cream chap. Two teaspoons of sugar only.”

“You’re certain?”

“Most certainly certain. I remember like it was just a moment ago. I lifted the creamer to off my acquaintance a drop or two. He said ‘No, no, not a cream chap myself. Just two teaspoons of sugar.’ I nodded, knocked a drop or two into my own cup and that is my last memory of the creamer.”

“Perhaps the best way to go about following a creamer is to follow the cream,” Agatha says.

“Logic at it’s finest!”

“Thank you. Now, after you poured your drop or two, was your tea sufficiently creamy?”

“The creamiest!” He sips.

“And I see there are two cups here at the table. One empty. One full.”

“You’ve said that already.”

“And you say that you put cream in your tea?” Christie asks.

“Yes. I have said that already. I’m truly to beginning to doubt your attention to detail. To recap: There are two cups of tea on the table because my acquaintance and myself were having tea…and this is Britain, not Afghanistan. Having confirmed my tea was the creamiest tea imaginable, I think you would gather that I poured a drop or two into my tea cup.” 

“Yet the full cup of tea has no cream. The trail of cream we have followed has gone cold.”

“What does this mean?” Wodehouse asks.

“It means I know where the cow creamer is located.”

“You do?”

“Indeed.”

“Well, where is it?”

“In your hand,” Christie declares.

Wodehouse looks down. “So it is.”

“You stated that you placed cream in your tea, but as you see here, there is no cream in the full cup of tea. Plus, it is a full cup of tea, meaning you must have drunk from another cup. As you stated your drink was the creamiest, and there is no creamier beverage than cream, I deduced you must be drinking from the creamer.”

“Brilliant!”

“And I saw it in your hand as soon as you said ‘I say, Agatha!'”

“Ah.”

In Defense of Wodehouse

P.G. Wodehouse is not someone that I studied in school. In fact, if it weren’t for industriously reading friends, I wouldn’t know his name at all. Why is that?

I’ll be straight: I don’t know why. Without making broad negative assumptions about academia (which I don’t want to make because I’ve learned a lot from there) I can’t think of anything that would stop Wodehouse from making a terrific subject for English classes.

His language is sharp. I can see that argument that the slang is dated, but it’s not something that is distracting and slang, more than ‘proper’ language says more about the time a piece was written in–making it a valuable tool for understanding history and the development of language. (Yes, texting language says a lot about the tech savvy and speed of our current culture.)

The stories are developed in a classical style. There’s a three-to-five act structure involved in the pieces. Even if a story is about cow-shaped creamers, does the fact that the stories are shaped similar to Shakespeare’s comedies mean nothing?

Plus there’s the historical aspect of his stories–not just language, but subject matter. Most of what we’ve discussed the last couple months were Wodehouse’s works pre-WWII. (So, lots of butlers and whatnot.) But I bet an interesting comparison could be made between his pre- and post- works. So the pieces are relevent there too.

Any other ideas on would be good to study in Wodehouse? What writers have you studied in college/high school that would compare to Wodehouse? Any? Humor writers?

***Sorry for those who saw this post as blank earlier!  My own computer is in ‘the shop’ and I’m adjusting to the husband’s computer.

Formula Doesn’t Equal Easy

Humorists, like romance writers and, to some extent, mystery writers, catch some flak because, for whatever reason, it gives the impression of being ‘easy’. Which, as anyone who has tried to write comedy knows, it isn’t.

Why would people think it’s easy?

It occured to me as I was reading Comedy Writing Secrets by Mel Helitzer (I was inspired to learn more about comedic writing because of Wodehouse) that one of the reasons people think writing funny is easier is because there are formulas. Things like reversals. Things that can be put into acronyms, pneumonics, and formats that can be otherwise memorized.

Meaning that if you stick to the pattern VOILA! you will be funny.

Well, in that case, why isn’t every comedian Robin Williams or any one of the Kings of Comedy or the Blue Collar crew?

Let’s take one of the formulaic pieces offered by Comedy Writing Secrets: knowing the audience. This seems fairly obvious, doesn’t it? But this isn’t as easy to gauge as you think. Robin Williams has note-takers who tell him what got the biggest laughs and what didn’t and he adjusts his routine accordingly. The Blue Collar guys bank on the idea that, while you may not be related to the guy with the car under weeds in his front yard, you have seen it. And Bill Engvall’s schtick about stupid signs…he’s not making fun of a group directly, he puts the audience in the position of power because it’s a “You know that guy but you’re not that guy, of course” kinda bit.

But for every Robin Willams, Bill Engvall, Bill Cosby, and Steve Harvey you’ve got a bunch of unnamed comedians trying to break out in the club circuit. The club circuit guys know the routines, know the formula, but for some reason or other (maybe just dumb luck) they haven’t hit it yet.

However, my guess is that Harvey, Cedric the Entertainer, Bernie Mac (God rest his funny soul), and D.L. Hughley as well as Williams and the Blue Collar dudes, have skill sets that allow them to read and engage an audience differently. Perhaps it’s note-taking, perhaps it’s just paying attention to the local enviornment. Whatever it is–and playing at these levels, it’s not dumb luck–they have it and they use it.

Which is the same for writers like Nora Roberts, who gets simultaneously knocked and praised for being Queen of Romance. Just because there’s a formula to romances and just because, sure, you can predict happy endings and sex and what order they come in doesn’t mean creating something like that is easy. Roberts has a skill set which allows readers to engage with her writing, she mixes up the complications–capable of portraying medieval, Western, supernatural, mysterious worlds to mix it all up–and the reader is left satisfied.

If it’s so easy to engage the reader, to create creative complications within a framework, develop language that doesn’t come off too hokey (because let’s face it, there are only so many adjectives for ‘hard’ and the hard-core romance reader don’t buy into really hokey description anyway, regardless of what the outside world thinks), and to make characters an audience will keep coming back to…why isn’t every romance a mega-bestseller?

Dudes. Because it isn’t easy.

Thursday Reviews: The Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse (A Mentor Review!)

The Luck of the BodkinsThe Luck of the Bodkins by P.G. Wodehouse

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re a fan of early cinema this book–originally published in 1935–is for you. There’s plenty of in-jokes geared towards producers, nepotism, and actors. At one moment in the book I had to pause because Monty Bodkin (the Lucky Bodkin of the title) was compared to Leslie Howard and Clark Gable, both of whom were to star in Gone With the Wind four years after Wodehouse mentions them. Shall we give P.G. a pat on the back for smushing such stellar talent together before Selznick?

I know what you’re thinking and, no, you don’t have to be a fan of movie history to enjoy this story. It just helps.

There’s plenty of rip-roaring trouble. Monty Bodkin wants to marry Gertrude Butterwick, who misunderstands a tattoo of his and breaks their engagement. As he tries to win her back over the course of a six day crossing-of-the-Atlantic he has to thwart movie starlets (and boy, does Wodehouse nail the speaking patterns of the early mega-watt actresses like Katherine Hepburn/Bette Davis in Miss Lotus Blossom) novelists, movie producers, and the good intentions of his best friend Reggie. Mickey Mouse plays a part, as does Wilfred the Alligator.

The most enjoyable part of this book is spending time with the characters. Each one is so well-drawn that you don’t lose your place, which is tricky with a “cast” of this size. Gertrude is a hockey-playing sportswoman who can handle herself. Lotus “Lottie” Blossom is star of stage and state-rooms. Ambrose Tennyson is “not the right Tennyson”. Ivor Llewllyn is a three-chinned, Customs-fearing movie producer. Peasemarch is the feudal serf who can’t keep his nose out of anyone’s business. And Reggie is the intelligent blighter who somehow manages to pull everyone together.

If you’re looking for something to make you smile, this one’ll do it. Part of it is inexplicable.

No, literally. Part of it is the word “inexplicable.”

View all my reviews

Fun With Lists…or Not Really…or Reading Like a Writer

Wodehouse, I don’t think anyone will disagree, is a clever writer. There’s a dryish wit that feeds his prose. British, yes? Yes.

When Wodehouse describes a regular situation (man falls off bike) he conveys all the normal information like:

1. If you’re not careful, you can fall off your bike.

2. Falling off the bike will hurt.

3. A reader has empathy for the guy falling off the bike.

I’m a boring writer comparitively (See above, I made a list. So exciting.), so let’s look at Wodehouse. Here’s the passage from The Code of the Woosters in which Bertie Wooster witnesses Officer Oates’s bicycle accident:

The constable, I say, was riding without his hands: and but for this the disaster, when it occurred, might not have been so complete. I was a bit of a cyclist myself in my youth — I think I have mentioned that I once won a choir boys’ handicap at some village sports — and I can testify that when you are riding without your hands, privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence. The merest suggestion of an unexpected Scottie connecting with the ankle bone at such a time, and you swoop into a sudden swerve. And, as everybody knows, if the hands are not firmly on the handlebars, a sudden swerve spells a smeller.”

Interesting bits of how Wodehouse developed the above passage (here’s another list):

1. He lets us fill in the gaps. We don’t actually see the Scottie dog attack the bike, but we know it happens.

2. He overexplains the situation. Wodehouse doesn’t just say “If you ride without your hands on the handlebars you need to concentrate.” No, it’s “privacy and a complete freedom from interruption are of the essence.” The situation is not an accident it is a complete disaster: “but for this the disaster…might not have been so complete.”

3. The overexplanation and use of elaborate wording is reversed right at the end with the slang of “smeller.”

Not to take the fun out of reading by overexamining, but taking small chunks of a writer’s work and examining it like this can lead to revelations in your own work. I mean, in this one paragraph we got: leave gaps to fill in, overexplaining, and reversals. I’m sure that if we continued to probe the language of this paragraph we would find still more tidbits.

But that’s not as fun.

Still…the next time you come across something that you really love in a work, you should read it, mentally note it, and come back to it after you’ve read for fun.

Always fun first, then work.

You don’t need to examine the whole thing (who has that kind of time?), just take a paragraph like I did here. You will definitely learn something.

P.S. Official Warning Label: Do not attempt this exercise with Chaucer, Milton, myself, or Shakespeare. Your head will explode. And I’ll just be embarassed.