Monday, 1 June 2009

Books and Things


I have for some time been picking through an anthology of the work of Lovecraft. H. P. Lovecraft, if you don't know of him, wrote "weird tales" (his term) which were forerunners of the later penny dreadfuls and other horror genres. His fiction has been an influence on things like Tales from the Crypt, Stephen King's work, and anything relating to the Necronomicon or the Cthulhu mythos (both of which he made up). Well, lately I've read a couple more tales from the anthology. Each one gives me a better sense of Lovecraft's style, and what I'm getting is that his writing is pretty repetetive.

He overuses adjectives in a bad way. In a sense it's form matching content, because he so frequently writes about the overgrown and florid--only it's not flowers but mold and fungus. However, it's still a style that is what Snediker (a professor at Queen's) calls "writerly," in that it calls attention to the fact that it is writing and therefore breaks the hypnotizing element of fiction; it does not allow us to be drawn into the text.

He is also obsessed with history and pre-history. He loves ancient secrets, but he also loves ancestral horrors. All stories with ghosts are stories concerned with the past, but his fiction isn't ghostly at all. It has more to do with cults, semi-humans, curses, and the walking and corporeal dead. Sometimes it involves cannibalism. Sometimes it includes ancient and evil gods. But it almost always has to do with the past, even if it is only ancient rites practiced by current but anachronistic folks. In some cases this works well: The Rats in The Walls, for instance, or Facts Concerning the Late Someone Who's Name I Forget and His Family. I'm sorry; that's not a very helpful title. Others feel more derivative: He and The Festival. I can read them, but I must take them slowly, as I'm never sure how good the next will be.

Loius L'Amour:

I bought a collection of short stories by Louis L'Amour last summer and never got around to it. I've poked through it since coming to Fort McMurray this year, and have been highly amused. L'Amour is an American author of Western-style stories. There stylistic faults are not the same as Lovecraft's; L'Amour is not at all over-florid but a little simplistic. And that's not Hemingway simplistic. That's just not a very great writer simplistic. Further, his romantic sub-plots are ridiculous. The guy gets the girl way too quickly, generally because he produced an impressive show of arms/horsemanship/quick thinking. That, and he's hunky, and she's been beset by so many bad men that she's a sucker for a good one. Feminists would likely scream over his mid-story philosophies about women.

But he's still a very readable and interesting writer. The stories, while simple, have the sort of ingenious solutions to tough problems that make heist movies and the like fun, and they also generally have down-to-earth but nonetheless idealistic characters I enjoy. Finally, there's just something about the Old West, stereotypes and all, that's just romantic and exotic enough to be engaging and yet "rugged" and familiar enough to dodge the bad taste in your mouth that the over-romanticized can give you. In all, I find him fun to read because of both his faults and his strengths.

The Handmaid's Tale:

To begin, I would like to say that I am not a fan of Atwood in general. I have read one short story which was supposed to be humourous but wasn't, pieces of literary criticism which I could not finish, and one novel which I disliked (Edible Women). If feminism drives you up the wall, you couldn't read this book. If feminism is your cup of tea, I'm sure you've already read this book. If feminism falls somewhere between these two in your interest spectrum, then I don't know what to say about that. What I can tell you is how I'm liking the book so far.

I think the book's primary fault lies in it's tunnel-vision for feminist ideology, though the awful copy-editing is a close runner-up. I think it was Woolf who said that a truly good author is androgynous, able to transcend their place and gender when writing a novel. She said that few can do this: Austen would have been one of the best authors ever if she could; George Eliot could; some male author who I can't recall could. She said a few authors could, too, but I can't recall them. Anyway, Atwood fails this test. Her novel is entirely preoccupied with the female characters. Yes, at the point where I have so far read, the Commander is becoming an actual viable character. But even so he's hardly there. And you can say, the interesting pov is necessarily the women because they're the ones who are being oppressed in this novel. However, the Catholic theologian and Carmelite nun Joan Chidester has pointed out that most systems which oppress women also oppress men, only differently, and this society seems no exception to me. I'm not saying that the main character's is not an interesting point of view, but that Atwood, in writing this novel, fails to demonstrate any understanding whatsoever of how male characters operate internally. They are non-characters. This seems fundamentally problematic to me. She does an excellent job with the book in general (at least I think so), excepting her portrayal of male characters. They simply do not strike me as real.

Well, almost an excellent job. The copy editing sucks. There are more than a few places where periods show up in sentences. unexpectedly. There are also places where commas show up but aren't necessary or, sometimes, allowable. It's frustrating. I wonder if she's doing it on purpose (she very well might be) and I'll find that purpose out later in the novel, but in the meantime it is truly aggravating. I have never read a book so poorly copy edited before. Never.

The Cost of Discipleship:

I have very little to say about this book right now. I'm not very far through it. I will say that it's by Deitreich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and a martyr in WWII. He tried to overthrow the Nazis from within Germany, and died for it. That isn't what the book is about, though.


Jon Wong said...

What exactly is involved in being an androgynous writer? Could you write something from a first-person perspective and still be androgynous?

Christian H said...

Yes. I think so, anyway. Is Middlemarch first person? I think I remember hearing it was androgynous. The idea is that the author can conceptualize what it would be like to be the other gender and write like that. Also, that the style (and concerns) aren't noticeable masculine or feminine, outside the characters voice.

Jon Wong said...

The narrator for Middlemarch is different though. It's in first person, yes, but the narrator is just that: a narrator. He/She isn't an actual character in the novel. I'm thinking more like, could you actually BE someone taking part in the novel - and therefore necessarily either male or female - and still (as an author) be androgynous even though the character through which you are writing is definitely one gender or the other?

Christian H said...

Probably you could, but, Jon, I don't think this is something you should consciously worry about. Write honestly and, if you can write androgynously, you likely will as a side-effect.

Jon Wong said...

I'm not concerned about writing from an androgynous viewpoint (are you kidding? I am somewhat anti-androgynous in that I think it's a little silly; I think it's impossible to be unaffected by your gender). I'm just wondering if it's unfair for people who simply think that writing from a first-person perspective is a more affective method.

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