Guest Post, Jacob M. Appel: Transcending the Particular

Transcending the Particular: Why All Stores Do not Matter Equally

 

Jacob AppelShakespeare and I have far less in common than meets the eye.

On the surface, we’re both Caucasian, male, reasonably well-off for our times, and, in the eyes of my students, roughly the same age. And, as it happens, we also write plays—although his have received a somewhat more enthusiastic reception. For the time being, at least.

That’s roughly where the commonality stops. Shakespeare was English, and left countless artifacts to prove it, as every huckster in Stratford-upon-Avon will assure you. Meanwhile, in Shakespeare’s day, my forebears, a motely crew of impoverished fishermen, brick layers and subsistence farmers, struggled to survive the brutality of the Russian Pale. They practiced a rigid breed of Orthodox Judaism, spoke Yiddish, and suffered the brutality of Cossacks. Novels and plays were likely as alien to them as the church bells of London. Later, those relatives who survived the Pogroms found their way to the gas chambers of Poland. To describe Shakespeare’s drama as my cultural heritage, merely because of the demographic characteristics enumerated above, would reflect the worst of whiggish anachronism.

I emphasize this context, because I want to explore an argument advanced by a Sacramento high school English teacher, Dana Dusbiber, in a Washington Post op-ed last summer, in which she argued against assigning Shakespeare to her inner city students, a majority of whom are low-income kids from minority backgrounds. She wrote:

“….I enjoy reading a wide range of literature written by a wide range of ethnically-diverse writers who tell stories about the human experience as it is experienced today. Shakespeare lived in a pretty small world. It might now be appropriate for us to acknowledge him as chronicler of life as he saw it 450 years ago and leave it at that.”

I do not mean to dismiss the entirety of Dusbiber’s argument: Certainly, students should be able to relate to the literature that they read and a strong case can be made for allowing young people a say in designing their own curricula. Having exposure to literary role models with whom they can connect is essential if we are to welcome a diverse generations of future writers. My concern with Dusbiber’s column is that it does not just dismiss Shakespeare, but embraces a philosophy, increasingly present in literary circles, that writing does not transcend context. One might as easily argue—and I think this would prove a grievous error—that Frederick Douglass lived in a remote antebellum world of chattel bondage, so why read a slave narrative? Or dismiss the distinct rural feminism of Willa Cather, because nobody dwells in sod houses any longer. What makes great literature, as I see it, is precisely the opposite: The ability to capture your own “pretty small world” in a way that speaks to people nothing like yourself.

One need not be African-American to be moved by Richard Wright’s Native Son or Jewish to connect with Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer—or, I’d like to hope, to see the commonality of experience endured by Bigger Thomas and Yakov Bok. The joy of reading lies in recognizing the universality of human experience lurking within the particulars: seeing your own tedious cousin in Jane Austen’s William Collins or an ex-girlfriend in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jordan Baker, or, I have no reason to doubt, a friend or acquaintance lurking in the great oral narratives of Latin America or Southeast Asia—even though one has not grown up in 19th century Britain or Jazz Age Long Island, has never stepped foot in the Andes or the Mekong Delta. When in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, she describes the “long littleness of life,” I understand instantly, even though my politics and lived experience might prove closer to Shakespeare’s than to hers. Whitman’s “multitudes” may be vaster than my own, but the moments of overlap leave me breathless. Growing up as a Dumbo-eared, funny-looking child with a lisp, I remember discovering Pecola Breedlove in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and feeling a deep kinship with her—not to suggest, obviously, that my suffering was anywhere as severe as hers, but I cannot emphasize enough the solidarity, and solace, I found in our parallel fantasies.

Great stories look outward. What is the point, after all, of speaking to people who share your own values and experiences and sensibilities? I wish to emphasize very strongly that this observation is not directed only or primarily at minority writers. Quite the opposite. Far too many of today’s celebrated A-list literary figures are upper-middle class white men who write specifically for people precisely like themselves. (Brooklyn Heights, I hear, crawls with them.) They are often enabled by a publishing industry populated by editors who share similar lived experiences. That is not to say that one cannot cull worthwhile, transcendent truths from Sutton Place or Westchester County—as, for example, does John Cheever—but that many authors no longer seem to be trying. Similarly, a resistance exists to reading about people different from ourselves, or to do so primarily to witness their differences, in lurid exoticism disguised as open-mindedness, rather than to enjoy our similarities. So much of publishing has become inward looking—about marketing to specific audiences, branding, and targeting insular literary communities. I want my students to write for people as unlike themselves as possible. The stories that matter most, at least to me, are not those that merely capture an unknown world—but those that bring me a world I do not know and teach me how it reflects or connects to my own.

With increasing frequency, when I speak at conferences or on panels, audience members ask some variation of the question: Can I write effectively about people whose backgrounds and lived experiences are fundamentally different from mine? (It is worth noting that the questioners tend to by an extremely diverse lot—far more so than the audiences at these events.) To my surprise, and dismay, authors I admire are increasingly answering “No.” I think this approach is misguided, but also tragic. Needless to say, it is much harder to write about cultures and experiences distant from one’s own—and the room for error is significantly greater. Exploration is not an excuse for carelessness or stereotype. But do we really want to create a literary world where the next Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee can’t write about heterosexual couples? Or in which William Styron, whose Sophie’s Choice rivals The Diary of Ann Frank as the most compelling of Holocaust narratives, confines his intentions to Tidewater Virginia? I believe we should be encouraging our students to write about people far different from themselves—to hope for empathy rather than to fear appropriation. (This is a distinct issue, I believe, from the serious problem of the chronic underrepresentation of certain stories and groups in mainstream publishing, but the two matters are often—and, in my opinion regrettably—conflated.) I dream, maybe naively, of a world where we tell each other’s stories, and do so with such insight and identification, that they truly become our own.

So back to Shakespeare.

A host of plausible reasons exist for reading less Shakespeare. But I’d hate to believe that one of them is that he doesn’t speak to low-income minority students. To me, that sells those students short. I’d hope that their teachers can find a way to show the relevance of Hamlet’s doubt or Macbeth’s ambition to their own lived experiences, much as my teachers were able to do for me. Obviously, students of all backgrounds should also be introduced to the universal human experience found in writers who “look” nothing like Shakespeare. But there’s a magic to discovering that someone very much unlike oneself—let’s say a playwright who lived on a distant island more than four centuries ago—shared recognizable fears and longings.

If literature cannot bring us together, what can?

Guest Post, Alan Cheuse: Revision

I don’t want you to take this as bragging, because it isn’t. It’s a description of what can happen if you keep on writing decade after decade for the love of the work, with a little bit of luck, that touch we all need, of course.

And I don’t want you to think this is yet another hoarse exhortation to revise, revise!

My first writing workshop instructor, the poet John Ciardi, back at Rutgers in the early 1960s, exhorted me enough for a life time.

Revise, revise!

(He said this in the same intonation that we find at the end of Frost’s wonderfully playful poem on old age, “Provide, Provide”. Yes, you’ve got it—Provide, Provide.)

Revise, revise!

“Writing is revising,” Ciardi reminded us, a wayward band of juniors and seniors, six of us in a workshop he conducted in the basement of the old Rutgers English house, a former residence on College Avenue which the university had taken over decades before.

“Writing is revising.”

I can still hear his voice in this advice, a slightly patrician-ized South End Boston accent that Ciardi must have worked on while one of the few local Italian boys attending Harvard (where he worked as a writer in residence, of sorts, supplying essays of his own devising for lunk-headed legacies who had the patrician voices but not the supreme intelligence about poetry and fiction that should have come along with it. In other words, he worked his way through college writing papers for his betters.)

I can hear that too.

“For my bet-ters.”

By then I had done more than half the work toward becoming something like this new hero of mine, the Southie poet now in residence at Rutgers, living in near-by Metuchen, New Jersey and also writing a weekly column for “The Saturday Review of Literature.” I had lived for nineteen years in North Jersey, where after an empty, and sometimes violent, middle school so-called education, and while keeping up a certain (small) ability at softball and an even smaller one at basketball, I threw myself into the reading of novels and stories that lighted up my present life and glowed forcefully on the horizon as well.

I read sea stories in grade school and science fiction through eighth grade and by sophomore year of high school I was trying to read Faulkner, whose The Sound and the Fury (about which I understood almost nothing but loved the cadences of the lines) our chemistry teacher, a big doughy white-haired man named Pat White, tore from my hands during a study hour and never returned to me.

Something like happened to Ciardi and poetry early on in his working-class life in Boston.

So now all I had to do was write, and these two halves, living and art, might come together and make me a whole person. If you’re reading this you know the feeling. You live through immense sea-storms of language in books so great you barely grasp what’s going on inside them while at the same time plodding along in school, making fun of the feeble teachers who give you Julius Caesar to read or, worse, to listen to on recordings of “great performances.”

My greatest performance until then was to live as though I were a normal kid, even though now and then I would hole up with a science-fiction novel by Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, or Dubliners (confiscated from me by my home room teacher before I could read it half way through). Oh, and also play ball, and commit an occasional small larceny (stealing cases of Coke from a delivery truck), and brawl—verbally, only, thank the gods—with my father, and attend class and sink into a vortex of forceful apathy that convinced me that there was no such thing as education in New Jersey, only place-keeping until such time as you could join the armed forces or get a job as a clerk and then a manager—or, if you were as lucky as I was, assumed like some prince of the lower-middle-classes that college was your due.

College became the intellectual equivalent for revision.

My slovenly class room habits turned more strict, my near-sightedness about life’s possible pleasures turned into long-range vision, and I began, however haphazardly, to regard my origins and my family as something interesting rather than a burden. Revise, revise! Though I hand no idea that I was doing it, I was doing it. Fiction, poetry, music, painting, architecture, dance—all art came together into a single force and wrenched open my eyes, as in the stunning moment at the end of Rilke’s great poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo”.

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

Years went by, nearly twenty, before I found a toe-hold on the climb up the rocky mount of revision, but the more I worked at it, the more natural it became. The sense of where you must begin a story rather than where you have first begun it. The sense of where you must expand a novel—open it up to further exploration—rather than where it now stands. The necessity to write more and more scenes to make a character’s psychology become more than mere statement. The numerous attempts to make the raw beautiful rather than pretty, and take the beautiful closer to the sublime.

To say this eventually comes to us naturally may cover over the fact that as natural as it seems it never comes easily. When I edited a collection of Bernard Malamud’s essays along with my dear old friend and fellow novelist and story writer Nicholas Delbanco I discovered Malamud’s painstaking method for making the natural seem a common occurrence. Here’s how he worked on a short story. You can draw inferences from his about how he approached novels.

First he wrote a draft in long hand and then typed it over and made corrections in the typescript. Then he wrote a second draft in long hand and typed it up to make corrections that comprised another draft. And so on, sometimes up to a dozen times, to make a finished story. In the page proofs for a magazine version of the story he made corrections with a pen. When he had enough stories for a collection he made further corrections in the galley proofs, and then again in the page proofs. When he had a finished book on hand, it was never finished. When he read a story in public he made further changes as he went along in the reading of it.

Ciardi and Malamud—not a one-two punch, more like a one-one thousand punch to help me to see how to make art better and better.

As I write these words I have just about completed one of the most fortunate endeavors a novelist can undertake. A new publisher has come along to bring out a new edition—this would be the fourth!—of a novel I wrote thirty years ago and published almost that long ago. Back then I called it The Grandmothers’ Club and this remained its title through its first three iterations, its original hard cover, and then two paperback editions. At the urging of this publisher—Frederic Price of Fig Tree Books–I took the time to revise it after all these many decades, and recast the punctuation, particularly the quotation marks. When I first wrote it I was in the throes of modernism, as if caught up in a fever that had a fever, something that’s cooled down a bit for me by now, to, say, a steady boil with now and flares of flame like sunspots. The book changed enough so that we changed its title. Now called Prayers for the Living it comes out in a new trade paperback edition in March.

Revise, revise! Have I changed my life? I don’t know, I don’t know. Have I changed my art? I invite you to come and see.