Saturday, September 24, 2011

Don Quixote, Installment Uno, Cervantes

Don Quixote
Miguel Cervantes
translated by Tobias Smollett, revised by Carole Slade

            Lately I’ve been reading a book of criticism called 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, by the novelist Jane Smiley. It’s a huge book, and though I’m making slow progress, I’ve been enjoying it very much. The final chapter of the book is Smiley’s collected musings on 100 novels, kind of like what I’m doing here. One is Don Quixote. Smiley references Cervantes’ novel many times throughout her text, calling its creation “the invention of the novel-of-a-man-at-odds-with-his-world” and claiming that “it is hard to overestimate the influence of Don Quixote on the subsequent history of the novel.” You can understand, then, why I was intrigued.
            I want to offer two ideas to consider before doling out my thoughts on the book to this point (400 pages in).

1) As a writing teacher, it bugs me when students say “but that’s obvious” or “everybody knows that” when they read work produced at any point in the past. For example, I live in Portland, OR, where everybody recycles, rides their bikes to work in the rain, and eats local, organic food at every meal. When I assigned an excerpt from one of Michael Pollen’s books to my writing class, 80% of my students were bored out of their minds. It was so obvious, they told me. We already know this! Of course we do, I replied, because Michael Pollen started writing about it. The point is not always the content: what can we learn from the way messages are conveyed? How can we learn to do research and write in ways that also change the world, and what people believe is common knowledge?

2) For my Master’s degree in English I was required to take two classes in English literature prior to 1600. One of these ended up being Arthurian Literature: knights of the Round Table, Merlin, Camelot, Lancelot and Guinevere, etc. At first, I hated it. It was sexist and shallow and banal, I thought. Worst of all, it was poorly written. After a while though, as I grew more knowledgeable about the history and tradition of this type of literature, I began to appreciate the class for what it was (and, incidentally, what my university had intended when they created the requirement): an education in English, and how it has evolved and changed over time. The stories we read today are shaped by those “transcribed” by long ago writers (writers of antiquity usually claimed that their tales were true, and that they were translated from an ancient source known only by the author). My understanding of this truth helps me appreciate Don Quixote and realize that Smiley is absolutely right: Cervantes has indeed shaped our understanding of what it means for something to be a “novel.”   

            Don Quixote is “about” a landed gentleman who reads so much chivalric literature that the stories pickle his brain. Under the influence of these tales of heroism, he decides to take up the “profession” of knight errantry. He outfits himself and rides off on his sorry old nag, picking up the peasant Sancho along the way. Sancho is sane, where Quixote is not, but he’s not terrifically bright, and so Quixote is able to convince him to travel along as his servant by promising to bequeath to him an island kingdom (which the reader understands Quixote does not possess) upon the completion of their adventures. Together they get into all kinds of scrapes, and meet a good many people, all of whom almost immediately understand Quixote to be crazy. Perhaps cruelly, the people that he meets all go along with Don Quixote’s foolhardy attempts at chivalry, just to see what will happen. Maybe that’s one of the themes or questions at stake here – how do we treat the mentally ill? What connection is there between mental illness and art? Don Quixote provokes some of the same questions that our famous artists and/or crazy people do today – i.e. which comes first, the art or the crazy? Do the books he reads make Don Quixote crazy, or do they merely give him an outlet through which to filter and conduct his infirmity? Is it an infirmity? Is fiction dangerous? Is art useful?
            As I said before, it’s hard to judge a text so old on its own terms, without letting modern thinking color our understanding. Is Don Quixote making a statement about chivalry? Violence? The position of women in the world? The Crusades? I think one could make any of these arguments convincing. It seems obvious enough, at least, that one of the things Cervantes definitely wants to talk about in Don Quixote is fiction itself. Smiley says she doesn’t know if Cervantes is making fun of the idea that fiction is dangerous, or whether he aims to illustrate exactly that. But to make use of the very form you intend to deride seems to me at best naively ironic and at worst ludicrous. Judging by what I’ve read of the book so far I feel certain that Cervantes must be making fun of the public’s concern about fiction as a kind of “dangerous lie.” To make his point – that fiction is enjoyable, not harmful – he uses a very convincing rhetorical device: gentle self-mockery in combination with humor at society’s expense.

That’s all I’ve got so far. Hopefully I’ll know more after the next 600 pages!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

For All the Tea in China, Rose

For All the Tea in China:
How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History
Sarah Rose

“[Sugar, coffee, tobacco, opium, and tea] rearranged the axes of power all along their supply chain, each step of the way from mountain farms to British homesteads.”

I like tea, and I liked the title of this book. So in a California-sun and independent bookstore induced haze, I picked it up on a shopping spree in which I spent a whopping $60 on books in one hour. (If that doesn’t sound like a lot to you, perhaps I should mention that this happened last month, when I was not “working,” at least not at a job that paid.) I also chose the book because I’ve been thinking I should write more non-fiction, and hoped this would guide me in how to write informatively for a popular audience. Did it accomplish that goal? Yes and no.

The subject of this history is Robert Fortune, a botanist hired by the East India Company in the mid 1800’s to travel to China and steal tea plants and botanical knowledge in order to transport them to British-controlled India. It was fun to read about a subject as seemingly commonplace as tea. I would flip the pages with a steaming cup beside me, sipping milk-cooled Earl Grey while I learned that before Fortune’s expeditions, Britons believed that green and black teas came from two different plants, when in fact that are of the same botanical origin but are prepared differently. The text is chock full of fascinating information along these lines, but it’s also told in a narrative style that’s engaging and quickly paced, and Rose’s investigations into the psychologies motivating the actors in this drama give the book something of the flavor of a novel. Using Fortune’s memoirs, letters, and historical documents from the East India Company, Rose portrays a China newly opening to the West. The pictures she paints of misty hillsides lush with tea plants, gun battles at sea, and Fortune’s misguided interactions with his Chinese servants transport one to an ancient civilization, and offer a glimpse into the history and relationships which have shaped the way we live today.

I respect the fact that Rose doesn’t waste time with general condemnations of the morality of Britain’s quest for tea/economic power. Instead, she focuses on the details of the personalities at play. What we get is a picture of individual actions resulting in huge societal changes. We’re not told whether it’s “good” or “bad,” “moral” or “immoral.” And that makes for pleasant reading, because certainly one could easily get mired in such considerations. It’s because of this lack of analysis however that, though I enjoyed the book for the imagery and history, I’m not sure about how much I can take away from it in regard to my own writing. Rose offers objective history, and I can’t help but feel pulled toward a deeper analysis, especially when she seems to introduce such questions in the very last paragraph of the book. The absolute last sentence is: “Entire islands have been overrun as the result of the kind of botanical frontiersmanship that Fortune and his contemporaries routinely practiced.” Does the author suppose that such a fact hasn’t been on my mind throughout the entire reading? Why bring it up now? Why as the last sentence? Wouldn’t it be better to tie things together somehow? To offer a defense of Fortune, to whom the writer is clearly sympathetic? This ending bothers me because it seems to unnecessarily beg these questions. It’s a question of objectivity over making an argument. Perhaps a student of history would feel comfortable with this. I, whether fortunately or not, am a student of rhetoric.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

On Writing Well, Zinsser

On Writing Well
William Zinsser
6th edition, 2001

“Writers who write interestingly tend to be men and women who keep themselves interested. That’s almost the whole point of becoming a writer.”

Until now, I had never read a book about writing non-fiction, except when made to by a teacher. Now that I’m the teacher, however, I need something good to assign my students. I picked up On Writing Well at the suggestion of a fellow composition instructor, and I’m extremely glad I did. Not only have I found many snippets of useful tips to share with my students, but I’ve also learned and been reminded of oodles of crucial truths about what makes good writing that I myself had forgotten (either accidentally or willfully). I just finished the book and have already found it beneficial; in revising a short story this morning, I heeded Zinsser’s advice to suss out overly ornamental language and extraneous information, and take care to locate exactly the right word for every job. My story is better already!

On Writing Well is organized into four sections: Principles, Methods, Forms, and Attitudes. I admit that I did not read every single chapter in the Forms section; sports, business, and science and technology just aren’t my areas of interest. Travel, memoir, and criticism are. I only wish I’d heard of this book sooner; I very likely would have assigned the entire thing to my WR 323 class this fall, and I certainly would have been improving as a writer earlier myself. Oh well, luckily for you all, I’ve found it now!

Apart from the practicalities (have I mentioned it’s extremely useful?) I found the book interesting from a philosophical, ethical, and/or psychological standpoint as well (my own psychology, and the author’s). As I read Zinsser’s exhortations to do this and not that in my writing, I felt compelled, almost constantly in the early chapters, to ruthlessly analyze his writing, searching hopefully, expectantly, perhaps even maliciously, to find the very flaws in his work that he warned his readers against. Probably if you take enough time and care to find such shortcomings you can. After all, writing is a subjective art, and when Zinsser claims that the word he has chosen is the absolute best one the reader is free to disagree with him. If we interest ourselves instead, as Zinsser claims to do, with the qualities of “humanity, warmth, and aliveness” in writing, then we can find all of that here, on every page of this helpful and enjoyable book.

Many sections of On Writing Well seemed to speak directly to me, and I expect this would be the case with anyone who is passionate about improving their writing. As one who has fallen prey to the cynical game of trying to please an imagined audience or editor rather than myself, Zinsser’s words of advice on balancing the (seemingly) conflicting concerns of audience satisfaction and personal pleasure were especially compelling. “You are writing primarily to please yourself,” Zinsser reminded me. Oh yeah! “When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first to know it.” And so, Zinsser says, when you’re done, you should just get out. So here comes the end of the post.

On Writing Well is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in writing anything, not just non-fiction. Here are some others I've read and enjoyed (mostly all about writing fiction):

Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott
Page after Page by Heather Sellers
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway 
Plot by Ansen Dibell

I'm hungry for more! What other books on writing should I read?