As You Like It: Rules for Writing

Back in February 2010, the Guardian posted an article titled “Ten rules for writing fiction.” Celebrated authors had been invited to submit ten of their writing rules. But rules often break down under pressure, we might find writers breaking their own, or the examples held up for adulation contain so many exceptions that the rule is nullified early in the game. Take Jonathan Franzen’s rule regarding using then as a conjunction, for example.

Franzen gets pretty worked up about it. Over at the FS&G “Work in Progress” blog, he expounds on his “Comma-Then” rule. Basically, Franzen frowns on the use of then to connect, particularly when the intent is to avoid using and. Fine, I thought, but unmoved, as usual, by this kind of nitpicking, then thought to check his examples.

Franzen explains why he dislikes “comma-then,” and cites Dickens and the Brontes in support. Is it a rule? Should it be? The OED gives this example of the use of then as a conjunction: “The president spoke and spoke well, then sat down. The OED example would appear to violate Franzen’s rule. But Franzen didn’t say the “comma-then” construction was ungrammatical. His argument is stylistic and idiosyncratic. But he cited Dickens and the Brontes as examples of writers who avoided “comma-then.” So l took a look at some Dickens and two of the Brontes, but what I found does not seem to support Franzen’s argument:

From Dickens’s “David Copperfield”:

“Uriah threw the ball to Mrs. Heep, Mrs. Heep caught it and threw it back to Uriah, Uriah kept it up a little while, then sent it back to Mrs. Heep, and so they went on tossing it about until I had no idea who had got it, and was quite bewildered.”

“But I looked so serious, that Dora left off shaking her curls, and laid her trembling little hand upon my shoulder, and first looked scared and anxious, then began to cry.”

From Dickens’s “Bleak House”:

“Jo searches the floor for some time longer, then looks up for a moment, and then down again.”

“My Lady turns her head inward for the moment, then looks out again as before.”

From Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”:

“I listened doubtingly an instant; detected the disturber, then turned and dozed, and dreamt again.”

“Pausing in her lamentations, she surveyed him with a glance of awe and horror, then burst forth anew.”

“He took the book from his hand, and glanced at the open page, then returned it without any observation.”

“He laid them on the table, looked eagerly towards the window, then rose and went out.”

From Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”:

“I walked to the window, across the room, then close up to her.”

“I stood and warmed my numbed fingers over the blaze, then I looked round.”

“Half-an-hour’s recreation succeeded, then study; then the glass of water and the piece of oat-cake, prayers, and bed.”

“He scrutinised the reverse of these living medals some five minutes, then pronounced sentence.”

Not all of the rules in the Guardian article mentioned above are about the mechanics of writing. Some of the rules are about the behavior of the writer, rules to improve productivity or efficiency. The Guardian list opens with Elmore Leonard, whose first rule speaks to writing strategy: Don’t open with the weather, Leonard says. But that’s exactly how Jonathan Franzen begins his novel, “The Corrections,” his first paragraph reminding me of the opening to Dickens’s “Bleak House,” bad weather and sentence fragments. Dickens opens with “Implacable November weather…Fog everywhere,” Franzen with “an autumn prairie cold front…Gust after gust of disorder.”

Implacable, too, the rules of writing. Speaking of fog, rules for writing often fog the glasses of our desire, streak the windows of our prose, our fingers go blind, then despondency.

The Seven Ages of the Writer Amid Rules

Maybe the rules of writing are like Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, found in the play “As You Like It.” In the first stage (of a modified Shakespeare, the seven ages of the writer), the writer is an infant, and there are no rules. In the second stage, the infant grows into grammar school, fidgeting against the rules. The third stage, he’s in love with the rules, whatever he determines them to be. Then a soldier of rules, the professor, or the professional writer looking for an easy gig between novels. Then wisdom sets in for a spell. Then his time passes, and a new generation of writers watches him slip on the banana peels of his rules. And in the end, “mere oblivion” is the rule, “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

Shakespeare of Main Street: How We Should Teach English

Evidence for the claim that Shakespeare did not write Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and the rest, is often cited reasoning that an uneducated farm-boy moved to the city lacks the formal education necessary to explain the depth of knowledge, experience, and wisdom found in the plays.

Though prowess with language is not necessarily a school learned skill, the rebuttal to the Shakespeare as author naysayers is found in Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare. For one thing, Shakespeare indeed was educated. Says Greenblatt, “…[Shakespeare] was sent to the Stratford free grammar school, whose central educational principle was total immersion in Latin.” Portland Public Schools should adopt the school’s method. The school day ran for twelve hours, six days a week, year round. “The curriculum made few concessions to the range of human interests: no English history or literature; no biology, chemistry, or physics; no economics or sociology; only a smattering of arithmetic.” What did they study, then? Latin. Latin was the sole subject, but from their Latin studies came everything else, including reading and performing ancient plays, providing the students with exposure to a world peopled with characters caught in life’s web, preparing students, no doubt, to navigate that web skillfully and purposefully. “And,” says Gleenblatt, “the instruction was not gentle: rote memorization, relentless drills, endless repetition, daily analysis of texts, elaborate exercises in imitation and rhetorical variation, all backed up with the threat of violence.” Sounds like the Catholic high school I went to; well, the threat of violence part, anyway.

So Shakespeare was educated, but still steeped in folk culture. He chose not to write in Latin, but in the language of his home, countryside, and city – the vernacular of his time. In any case, Shakespeare does not appear in his plays. Greenblatt explains that “virtually all of [Shakespeare’s] close relatives were farmers…he seems to have taken in everything about this rustic world, and he did not subsequently seek to repudiate it or pass himself off as something other than what he was.” If there are snobs in a Shakespeare audience, they don’t know what they are hearing.

And, as it turns out, what they are hearing is akin to what they will hear today if they open their ears to the speech of Main Street, as is evidenced by new research and a new play being performed at the University of Kansas in the original pronunciation of Shakespeare, a pronunciation that we might recognize as coming from someone in our own family.

How should we teach English? By immersing our students, as Shakespeare was immersed, but not in Latin, in English, in English literature.

The Bare Bodkin of the English Major

“To be, or not to be; that is the bare bodkin,” says Mark Twain’s duke as he prepares to take down the house with an encore of Hamlet’s soliloquy. Where’s an English major when you need one? They were no doubt in short supply in the Mississippi Valley in the early nineteenth century, and their heyday from the late twentieth appears now to be in full wane. What can restore their numbers?

To take the meds, or not to take the meds; that is another question. Before you answer, read Louis Menand’s recent review, “Head Case: Can psychiatry be a science?,” in the March 1 New Yorker:  “These complaints [confusion over what causes and cures depression] are not coming just from sociologists, English professors, and other troublemakers” (68). To be an English major or not to be an English major; whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to go broke reading or to take arms with others in self-incarceration in a corporate complex – but alas, those late twentieth century opportunities to cause trouble too are in full wane. What’s a poor boy to do?

Work, for one: “…people on the West Coast work,” Kenneth Rexroth said. “Ginsberg when he came out here, as he said in interviews, was working as a market researcher, which is just a shit job. It’s like being a floorwalker in a dime store. I said, ‘Why don’t you work? How much are you making? Forty-five dollars? You can’t live on forty-five dollars in San Francisco. That’s not money. Why don’t you go to work, get a job?’ Ginsberg said, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘Ship out…’ You come back with more bread than you know what to do with!’ In the East people don’t think like that” (Meltzer, 1971, p. 12*).

Some did, but many seem now to have forgotten this. A past issue of Reed College’s Reed Magazine, for example, contained an article by one of their English professors selling the English major; unfortunately, it was clear that the professor had never worked outside of academia, and had not much idea what one would do with one’s English major aside from finding shelter in academia – but that’s all over. Yet no mention in the article of Kafka’s time as a claim investigator for the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia (where he invented the hard-hat); of Ted Kooser’s stint at Lincoln Life; of Wallace Stevens’s career at The Hartford; of Tom Clancy maintaining his Life license even after he became a best-seller.

“Questions like these [being and nothingness, as Sartre put it] are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them” (Menand, p. 74). Yet as most of today’s Hucks head out for the territory of science and technology, leaving the books to turn to dust, some professors seem to be hunkering down; how do you like this solution: “…it [solving the crisis in the Humanities] means finding creative ways to make life instructively hard, for a few years, for the broadest range of talented people of all sorts and conditions whom we can educate and then employ productively and decently”? This non-profound non-market solution comes to us courtesy of Anthony T. Grafton of Princeton who seems to miss the working point that Rexroth talked about and proves Menand’s point of stubborn resistance.  In his New Republic critical reaction to The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in The American University (Menand, 2010), Grafton makes graduate school sound like joining the Jesuits; but who provides financial support for the Jesuits? For the young Ginsberg just starting out today, a job as a market researcher might be a sweet assignment.

“Oh, God,” Hamlet says, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams.” No bad dreams, no harrowing questions, no need for the philosopher or the English major. But while the meds, according to Menand’s review, might help some with some of the bad dreams, the harrowing questions persist.

*Meltzer, D. (1971). The San Francisco Poets. New York: Ballantine Books.

Sister Mary Annette and Shakespeare’s Ambiguous Advice

“Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel”: Sister Mary Annette read Hamlet to our 8th grade class, and since Polonius’s advice had the imprimatur of both Sister and Shakespeare, we took it to be infallible. Sister’s point, if not Polonius’s, was that we would all wind up friendless, friends dropping like flies as we evolved into our self-centered young adult lives, this being the way of the world, and thus if we were lucky enough to hatch a true friend, we should latch on to them. But who wants to be grappled with a hoop of steel? One grapples an antagonist, but one’s friend?

Why did Shakespeare feed so much seemingly sage advice to the mouths of fops or bumbling fools? There’s an argument over Polonius – was he shrewd or foolish? But when it comes to the play, as Harold Bloom observes, “It is very difficult to generalize about Hamlet, because every observation will have to admit its opposite” (409).

Perhaps our aversion to grappling hooks explains our independence. And here’s another piece of Polonius advice, and where would today’s bankers and the stimulus package be if we adhered to it?: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” This Polonius pearl is often repeated without the character’s explanation: “For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” The stimulus package is the thing wherein we’ll catch the conscience of the banker king. It’s not clear that Polonius follows his own advice, for “Give thy thoughts no tongue” he ignores, though he does “Give every man thy ear”; in fact, that’s his undoing.

Though our 8th grade long preceded Facebook, perhaps Sister foreshadowed Facebook’s hoops. She also read to us that year A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield (her favorite Copperfield characters were Mr. Micawber and Mr. Dick, whose optimistic and practical advice always found an appropriate place in our classroom), so we had more on our minds than old Polonius. Alas, we cannot befriend Mary Annette now in this Facebook, but she knew, as did Shelly, that “We look before and after, And pine for what is not.” Of Facebook, she surely would remind us of the closing of Act III, scene iii, that “Words without thoughts never to Heaven go,” and who would know better than a murderous king?

Gaston Bachelard’s book as shell

In Gaston Bachelard’s the Poetics of Space, a philosophical study of the spaces we inhabit, open, and close, our houses, chests, nests, and more, in the chapter titled “Shells,” we find this quote from Gaston Puel:

           

“This morning I shall tell the simple happiness of a man

 stretched out in the hollow of a boat.

The oblong shell of a skiff has closed over him.

He is sleeping. An almond. The boat, like a bed, espouses sleep.”

 

But we are reminded of Hamlet’s “Oh, God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space were it not that I have bad dreams” (Act II, sc. ii).

 

Reflecting on the “capacity of shells” to both protect and trap, Bachelard arrives at a “suitable moral” to the habits of the inhabitants of shells, found in da Vinci’s Notebooks: “Like the mouth that, in telling its secret, places itself at the mercy of an indiscreet listener.”

 

Hamlet, in the space and bad dreams line, is talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a pair of hermit crabs, old friends “sent for” by the king to sneak into and inhabit Hamlet’s shell, but it will not be easy to crack the nut of Hamlet’s loneliness.

Harold Bloom’s How to Read and Why

Harold Bloom prefers his literature neat, and not served with a twist. Adverse to literary criticism that substitutes a doctrinaire reading for the actual text, Bloom’s approach to reading is summed up in his epigraph, from the Wallace Stevens poem “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm”: “The reader became the book; and summer night / Was like the conscious being of the book.” 

Bloom’s book on reading consists of a short introduction, which sets the stage for the kind of reading he prefers, followed by sections devoted to short stories, poems, novels, plays, more novels, and an epilogue.

Bloom’s favorite writers are Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. But it’s Francis Bacon who provides the prose equivalent for Stevens’s poem: “Read not to contradict and confute, nor to believe and take for granted, nor to find talk and discourse, but to weigh and consider.”

Bloom augments Bacon: “I urge you to find what truly comes near to you, that can be used for weighing and for considering. Read deeply, not to believe, not to accept, not to contradict, but to learn to share in that one nature that writes and reads.”

Bloom hopes to inspire an “authentic reader.” Yet, “It is not the function of reading to cheer us up, or to console us prematurely.” 

“You are more than an ideology,” Bloom says.

“Chekhov and Beckett were the kindest human beings,” Bloom says. Reading Bloom, here and elsewhere, one wants to add his name to the list of the kindest readers, writers, and teachers.

Bloom, H. (2000). How to read and why. New York: Scribner.

Virginia Woolf’s uncommon reader

Virginia Woolf was not a common reader, not a common woman, not a common person at all. Yet we like her description of a common reader, defining as it does the utility player-fan, driven by “common sense,” and “uncorrupted by literary prejudices,” and so “differs from the critic and the scholar,” in that “he reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others.” Thus free from the confines of convention, he approaches reading with “affection, laughter, and argument,” and if he is “hasty, inaccurate, and superficial,” that is because he moves on “without caring where he finds it or of what nature it may be so long as it serves his purpose and rounds his structure.”

Woolf was a common reader within her circle, her community, but her experience does not define a common reader nowadays.

The discussion brings us now to the downside of reading, the “Martin Eden” experience, the Jack London experience, the blue-collar kid who discovers reading, books, adventures of the vicarious. But he will never feel comfortable in a Bloomsbury circle, made up, after all, of a non-working class. So he tries to drop back into the group waiting for waves at 42nd Street, for he has read, not too much, but too well, as Bloom says of Hamlet’s thinking. Of course, our common reader is no Hamlet, no T. S. Eliot, nor was meant to be, an attendant, perhaps, waiting, as Beckett said, which brings us, “commodius vicus,” to the reading crisis:

     Is there a crisis if new readers are reading not so much as so well?

     Is there a reading crisis among common readers? 

     But who, nowadays or ever, is or was this common reader?

Woolf, Virginia. The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1925.