You can define poetry in many ways. You can focus its form, its content, its language, its purposes or its differences from prose. Or you can define it as John Updike — the poet, novelist and critic — did in Higher Gossip: Essays and Criticism. He said that poetry is “the exercise of language at its highest pitch.”
April 4, 2012
April 1, 2012
Few picture books influenced mid-20th-century children as did The Little Engine That Could, written by the pseudonymous Watty Piper. Its pictures lack the high distinction of other favorites of the era, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. But some baby boomers who recall no other line from their early reading remember: “I-Think-I-Can …” What explains the appeal of this story of a small engine that agrees to pull a long train up a hill after larger engines refuse to help? An answer appears in The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived, which ranks the “little engine” as No. 31 on a list compiled by authors Allan Lazar, Dan Karlan and Jeremy Salter. They write:
“Each of us has reserves of strength, imagination, and intelligence. If we concentrate and focus our attention, we can tap those reservoirs and meet challenges that might otherwise have seemed overwhelming. This is the simple yet powerful lesson of The Little Engine That Could. It is especially worth the attention of its target audience because The Little Engine That Could is a morality play for children. It is also very much an American tale in which an individual accomplishes what the establishment is unable or unwilling to do. …
“A valuable lesson for children is that being big doesn’t always make the difference. Those big engines refused to do what the tiny hero of our story accomplished. And she teaches us that we should believe in ourselves, to believe we can do it.”
March 22, 2012
Why do we need brick-and-mortar bookstores? Scott Turow, the novelist and president of the Authors Guild, gives an often neglected reason in this quote:
“Marketing studies consistently show that readers are far more adventurous in their choice of books when in a bookstore than when shopping online. In bookstores, readers are open to trying new genres and new authors: it’s by far the best way for new works to be discovered.”
March 15, 2012
Critics have an armada of fuzzy words that they deploy when they want to avoid taking a stand on books. Editors, agents and others translated some of the reviewers’ evasions in my posts 40 Publishing Buzzwords, Clichés and Euphemisms Decoded, More Publishing Buzzwords Decoded and 23 British Publishing Euphemisms Decoded. The critic Daniel Mendelsohn mentioned another while introducing lifetime-achievement award winner Robert Silvers, editor of the New York Review of Books, at the 2011 National Book Critics Circle Awards ceremony. Mendelsohn said that Silvers asked when a critic described a book as “compelling”:
“Compelling? Compelled to do what?”
You watch Mendelsohn’s introduction to Silvers in a video of the NBCC ceremony.
March 5, 2012
February 13, 2012
“I should be most unhappy if I thought we did not belong to each other forever.”
Emma Darwin to her husband, Charles, c. February 1839, as quoted in Deborah Heiligman’s Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Holt, 2009), a National Book Award finalist
February 9, 2012
An old joke says that a sadist is someone who’s nice to a masochist. By that standard, you find both types in creative writing workshops that require students to submit their work for critiques by their classmates. Francine Prose suggests why in an interview with Jessica Murphy Moo in The Atlantic online, reprinted in Reading Like a Writer, that includes these comments:
Francine Prose: “I think that the idea of writing by committee, or learning to write by committee is insanity. It’s just simply insanity. I mean, writing is all about being different from everything else – not the same. So when you’re writing to satisfy the tastes of a group, and presumably you know those tastes after a while, that’s actually quite dangerous.
“ … there’s something essentially sadistic about the whole [workshop] process. I mean to sit there and have the love of your life – your work – something that close to your heart and soul, just ripped apart by strangers. …
Jessica Murphy Moo: “And not to be able to say anything.”
Francine Prose: “Yes – and not to be able to say anything. Who thought that up? It’s so cruel. And everybody essentially knows it’s so cruel, but that’s one of the many things you’re not allowed to say. This whole language of euphemism has sprung up around the inability to be honest. You can’t say, ‘This just bored the hell out of me.’ So instead you say, desperately, ‘I think you should show instead of tell.’ Where’d that come from? I mean, tell that to Jane Austen!”
Comment from Jan:
Philip Hensher was right that a creative writing workshop “can be wonderful, with the right group, with a proper level of trust; or it can be atrociously unhelpful.” Journalist Cheryl Reed got little help from students’ comments she received while getting an MFA. “Most contributors offered terrible and conflicting advice,” she said on her blog. Reed added that although she received many favorable comments on her fiction, the workshop process on the whole wasn’t helpful: “It was mean and mean-spirited.”
I had to submit my work to peers in my undergraduate journalism classes and found the process neutral, neither helpful nor harmful. Perhaps the experience was benign because I had a gifted professor or because the rules for news-writing are clearer than for fiction: Your story has an inverted-pyramid structure or it doesn’t. I’ve also led workshops in college journalism classes I’ve taught, and they had more flexibility than those Prose describes: My students could respond to comments. But I’ve used workshops sparingly for reasons implicit in Reed’s remarks: They can amount to — if not in the blind leading the blind — the nearsighted leading the nearsighted. Some creative writing programs may require workshops partly because, in writing classes that last for several hours, they give everyone a break from the lecture format. For that reason alone, some students and professors welcome them.
You can follow Jan (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often tweets about writing, by clicking on the “Follow” button at right.
(c) 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 3, 2012
Which is more of an ordeal: taking the SAT or writing the questions that appear on it? You might wonder after reading Andrew Ferguson’s Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College (Simon & Schuster, 2011), a lively memoir of one father’s attempt to understand higher-education admissions rituals.
One of the most informative chapters in the book deals with the college-entrance exam that was originally known as Scholastic Aptitude Test and is now officially just the SAT. Ferguson learned that the authors of its questions must navigate a minefield of words or phrases forbidden because they might offend a test-taker or give one group an advantage over another. He summarizes some of restrictions imposed on the test-writers by the Educational Testing Service, which develops and administers the test for the College Board:
“The term ‘hearing impaired,’ to describe people whose hearing is impaired, is discouraged in favor of ‘deaf and hard of hearing.’ Test writers must steer clear of the words ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal.’ ‘Hispanic’ should not be used as a noun, and neither should ‘blind’; ‘black’ can be used only as an adjective. ‘Penthouse,’ ‘polo’ and other ‘words generally associated with wealthier social classes’ are likewise off-limits; ‘regatta,’ too, needless to say, along with any mention of luxuries or pricey financial instruments like junk bonds. ‘Elderly’ is to be avoided in describing people who are elderly. ‘America’ can’t be used to describe the United States.”
December 30, 2011
Animal stories have appealed to young children for thousands of years. What accounts for their popularity? Peter D. Sieruta, a children’s literature critic and the author of Heartbeats: And Other Stories, writes in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey:
“Infants, like puppies, kittens, and other young animals, not only share a diminutive size and appealing ‘cuteness’ but are also alike in their innocence and dependency on larger creatures.”
December 26, 2011
“ … book clubs have had both a positive and negative effect. On the one hand, they do get people reading and talking about reading. But on the other hand, when you’re reading for a book club, the whole time you’re thinking, I have to have an opinion and I’m going to have to defend it to these people. The whole notion of being swept away by a book pretty much goes out the window.”
Francine Prose in an interview conducted by Jessica Murphy for The Atlantic online, July 18, 2006, reprinted in the “About the Book” section of the paperback edition of Prose’s Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperPerennial, 2007).