Tuesday, February 25, 2014

What Makes a Book a Classic?

Salon discusses it, here.

From the piece...

But there are a few places where deciding whether a book is a classic or not has real consequences. One is, obviously, classrooms, but the other is bookstores, as Elizabeth Bluemle of the Flying Pig Bookstore in Vermont let on recently in the blog Shelf Talker. One of the store’s staff members recently asked her if he should shelve Seamus Heaney’s translation of “Beowulf” with poetry or classics. After some discussion, they went with classics, but as Bluemle explains, “Neither is wrong; like many bookstore decisions, it’s booksellers’ choice, which mainly boils down to thinking about where customers are most likely to go looking for a title.”

The incident prompted Bluemle to observe that books by some authors seem to be “migrating” (presumably reshelved by junior staffers or customers) from the fiction to the classics section, particularly books by P.G. Wodehouse and Kurt Vonnegut. She’s not sure either one belongs there (“yet,” in the case of Vonnegut), but she also finds herself wondering why “The Count of Monte Cristo” is shelved in classics while Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” remains in fiction. The comparison is subtle but shrewd, as both are well-written novels with potboiler and gothic elements and both were viewed primarily as entertainments when first published.

The cliché people most often cite when defining a classic is “the test of time.” “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1844) is a lot older than “Rebecca” (1938), but my completely unempirical gut feeling is that they’re of about the same literary quality.

Writing the Lake Shore Limited

The Paris Review discusses the act of writing on trains.

From the piece...

These reasons are all undergirded by a sense of safety, borne of boundaries. I’ve always been a claustrophile, and I think that explains some of the appeal—the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library. Everything has its place. The towel goes on the ledge beneath the mirror; the sink goes into its hole in the wall; during the day, the bed, which slides down from overhead, slides up into a high pocket of space. There is comfort in the certainty of these arrangements. The journey is bounded, too: I know when it will end. Train time is found time. My main job is to be transported; any reading or writing is extracurricular. The looming pressure of expectation dissolves. And the movement of a train conjures the ultimate sense of protection—being a baby, rocked in a bassinet.

Writing requires a dip into the subconscious. The lockbox, at times kept tightly latched in our daily lives, is pried open, and things leak onto the page that we only half knew were there. Boundaries help to contain this fearful experience, thereby allowing it to occur. Looking around at my fellow passengers gives me an anchor to the world: my fantasies, my secret desires, aren’t going to get anyone killed. We’re all okay here; we’re all here, here.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Rainy Literature of England

It's discussed in the Guardian.

From the piece...

The waters are out in Lincolnshire. And Somerset and Oxfordshire and Kent. The river Severn laps at the edges of Worcester. The Itchen makes inroads into Winchester across the meadows Keats walked in calmer days. There are wet books in the Thames Valley this weekend, books hastily piled in top-floor rooms, books heavy with damp that will dry on wrinkled pages, tide-marked by 2014.

Some of these books began their lives in water: English literature has for centuries courted the rain. The Canterbury Tales, the first great epic of English daily life, starts out with the sweet showers of April which bathe the dry land. This first shower is an alluringly sensual one, piercing the earth, finding its way into every bodily "veyne" of plants and people alike. If Mediterranean writers found their hot dry climate conducive to love songs, the English were not going to miss out on the competing erotic potential of rain. For Edmund Spenser, too, launching The Faerie Queene from a standing start as Una and the Redcrosse Knight go gently "pricking on the plain", rain is the beginning of narrative. Weather breaks into the stillness: "The day with clouds was sudden overcast, / And angry Jove a hideous storm of rain / Did pour." The change has been made; the action begun. Moving to shelter, the protagonists find themselves in Faerieland, with adventure springing up around them. These rainy beginnings loosen language and storytelling into life. Rain, being rained on, and finding shelter will become central subjects and structuring principles of British writing.

10 Crimes That Inspired Great Literature

The list, care of the Huffington Post.

Monday, February 03, 2014

The Criteria for a Good Sex Scene

The Huffington Post tells you how to write one.

New Sappho Poems Discovered

Only a few poems of the Greek poetess Sappho’s work have survived but thanks to a leading scholar’s investigation two new works have just been recovered—and gives experts hope to find more.

From a piece in the Daily Beast...

The two poems came to light when the owner of an ancient papyrus, dating to the 3rd century A.D., consulted an Oxford classicist, Dirk Obbink, about the Greek writing on the tattered scrap. Dr. Obbink, a MacArthur fellow and world-renowned papyrologist, quickly realized the importance of what the papyrus contained and asked its owner for permission to publish it. His article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, will appear in a scholarly journal this spring, but an on-line version has already been released.

Despite Sappho’s fame in antiquity and huge literary output, only one complete poem of hers survives today, along with substantial portions of four others. One of those four was substantially recovered only in 2004, also from a scrap of papyrus. Dr. Obbink’s new find adds a precious sixth poem to the body of Sappho’s surviving work and inspires hope that more such recoveries lie ahead.