Friday, May 27, 2011

Navigating between reverence and audacity

The funny thing about creative-writing courses is that they busily rush around teaching people how to express their banalities without teaching them how to source the things that they need to discover. If you go and study music or painting, you learn about the past. You learn where to look, you learn what to look at, how to look things up. You need creative-reading courses not creative-writing courses. Then people would have something that they could actually use in a positive way instead of rushing in thinking, How can I express myself?

You have to choose the best of the past—and the standards are very high in the English language—and ask yourself, Where do I figure in this, do I come anywhere near it? If not, you may as well stop. If you really think that you are nowhere compared with the people you admire—and that has to be a very ruthless and honest self-examination and not simply flattery—then really you should stop. It’s only by thoroughly knowing those other writers and daring to challenge them, even, that you would ever write. So there’s always this paradox of respect and challenge, of recognizing that work exists that you should always be striving towards, which you have to look up to, which is fantastic and which probably you will never reach. It is almost a balance—either you have got it or you haven’t. I don’t know how you really teach it to people who want to write, because there is always too much of the one or the other, too much reverence or too much audacity: either “I know I can do it all,” or “I’m so timid, I’m just going to copy.”

It is important, first of all, to be sure that you do have something to express, but also to show a care for language that suggests that it comes first, before you, before your personality, before your own ambitions. There is always that level of humility. Whenever we talk about writing, we start to talk about paradoxes. We’ve talked about respect and challenge. Now we are talking about chutzpah and humility. The writer is at once the most abject of people and the most arrogant. Because the person who really knows, knows the glories of the past and how significant they are to him or her, is at the same time prepared to say, And now I will add to them. - Jeanette Winterson

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the growth of literature

The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing. The novelist is drawn toward everything that is not yet completed. He may turn up on the field of representation in any authorial pose, he may depict real moments from his own life or make allusions to them. . . . After all, the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and nonliterature, are not laid up in heaven. Every specific situation is historical. And the growth of literature is not merely development and change within the fixed boundaries of any given definition; the boundaries themselves are constantly changing. - Mikhail Bakhtin

What was it that Bakhtin said again? “The novel comes into contact with the spontaneity of the inconclusive present; this is what keeps the genre from congealing.” We need critics who set impatient standards, ask uncomfortable questions, and maintain an omnivorous appetite for the unfamiliar, the awkward, the angry, the untoward. Instead, we have a gated community, a velvet-roped garden party, a Brooklyn vs. Cambridge fantasy baseball league. We don’t need critics obsessed with the real, or with whether the novel is alive or dead. We need critics willing to look at the novels that are already out there, going about their business, quietly making the future of literature, whether “we” like it or not. - Jess Row

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Some of the great questions of how to live well, yet friction grips

- that an engagement with life begins with wonder;
- that there is a natural law which reveals a minimal amount required for our flourishing;
- that happiness is not a feeling but has to do with entering deeply into the relationships that surround us;
- that the passions need educating, not least passions like anger;
- that the stoic aim of becoming attuned with life is key - even or especially when it demands of us a noble response to suffering.


This is all rich wisdom. However, the risk is that, so seamlessly shared, it loses its edge and bite. When so easily agreed upon, it comes to seem obvious and easy too, and clearly it is not, or we'd be living wisely and well already. Listening [to an atheist and a priest agree on these questions] made me realize that disagreement, with at least a little emotional heat, is useful. It provides the listener with a sense of what's at stake. Friction grips. It's perhaps why…the Bible's many conflicts and arguments are not embarrassments, but are necessary as the substance that has brought the people of the book to where they are with God.


- Mark Vernon

Monday, May 16, 2011

Coleridge on Shakespeare

I think, I should have conjectured from these poems, that even then the great instinct, which impelled the poet to the drama, was secretly working in him, prompting him - by a series and never broken chain of imagery, always vivid and, because unbroken, often minute; by the highest effort of the picturesque in words, of which words are capable...to provide a substitute for that visual language, that constant intervention and running comment by tone, look and gesture, which in his dramatic works he was entitled to expect from the players. His Venus and Adonis seem at once the characters themselves, and the whole representation of those characters by the most consummate actors. You seem to be told nothing, but to see and hear everything.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Psychoanalysis does something altogether breathtaking

Psychoanalysis is still feared and attacked, not because it raises the spectre of the sex lives of children or suggests that we want to sleep with our fathers and mothers, but because it invites us into a world with more variables that we can cope with, while giving us very powerful demonstrations of why we should believe this world to be a truer representation of what’s going on than the world we are able to handle. But beyond this, psychoanalysis does something altogether breathtaking. Out of the unworkability of its own project, and as though to upbraid us with the comfortable dishonesty of our ordinary human bonds, it fashions an image of pure trust: not trust based on the appetitive deal-making of friendship and love, but a groundless, purposeless, unjustifiable trust between two human beings holding a conversation on the edge of the abyss.
- Nicholas Spice

Monday, May 9, 2011

A poem as a verbal earthly paradise and the painful truth

We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play, which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence with all its insoluble problems and inescapable suffering; at the same time we want a poem to be true, that is to say, to provide us with some kind of revelation about our life which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception, and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly. - W.H. Auden