literature

You Must Remember This, a Kiss is Just a Kiss

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When the TV series Monty Python’s Flying Circus was first aired on a major U.S. network, the executives decided that it was a bit crude for delicate American sensibilities and it should be censored in several places. In one instance, the original soundtrack said: “They washed their arms, they washed their legs and they washed their naughty bits.”

The U.S. censors felt it was prudent to bleep the offensive term “naughty bits.” So the American audience heard “they washed their… bleep.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but my mind filled in the beep with something a bit more questionable than “naughty bits.”

I thought of this today when I came across a review for my Reader’s Digest book “Don’t Screw It Up.”  It was an overall positive review, which I appreciate.  The only reservations the blogger had to the book were to what I shall term its “naughty bits.”  She referred to this as “implied profanity.”  I can tell you I’ll be dumbfounded if I can imagine what kind of profanity I implied in the book, but I wrote it a while ago and I haven’t read it recently.

It might be instructive here to give you an idea of what kind of book this is.  Here is the publisher’s description:

Learning from failure is an effective—and entertaining—way to make information stick. This fun and engaging guide showcases hundreds of common screw-ups and how to avoid them. Do you know how to tie your shoe? Or do you just think you do but you’ve actually been screwing it up for decades like most people? This witty, light book takes a fresh spin on all the mistakes we make everyday that end up costing us big in our wallets, our health, our homes, and beyond. Topics covered are Yourself (appearance, skills, all things you), Your Home, Your Cooking, Your Money, Your Relationships & Family, and Your Health. This perfect combination of humor and wisdom entertains readers as they learn how to make their lives better by avoiding and remedying common screw-ups.

Is it possible that I or the editorial department in our quest to avoid the repetitive use of the term “screw-up” implied we were thinking of replacing the first word with one that started with f? That would be a fine cock-a-doodle-doo.

I’m having fun with the idea of implied naughtiness here, but that wouldn’t have inspired me to write.  Here’s the quote from the review that caught my attention:

“The second (concern) was an entry on kissing; I’m sure that it’s not graphic by today’s standards, but I wouldn’t want my child reading it.”

This is what I wonder:  “Don’t Screw It Up” is not in any way marketed as a book for kids.  (If it were, dispensing advice to them on how to drive a stick shift or chop down a tree would be highly irresponsible.)

Does the reviewer believe that all books should be written with a child’s sensibilities in mind? Wouldn’t we all be a bit impoverished if our literature never tackled themes beyond the 6th grade level?

So, that’s why I wrote today, to pose this question.  Now, just to avoid creating a “naughty bits” situation of my own and allowing you to imagine my kissing entry is much more racy than it is, I will share with you– from memory– the gist of its content.

The entry in question was based largely on a survey that asked men and women what they liked and disliked when their partners kissed them.  It turns out there was a significant gender difference in the responses.  Men seem to enjoy more tongue activity than women do.  Thus, I recommend (along with some other tips) that if a boy-person and a girl-person want to kiss each other a certain amount of compromise is in order for both to finish with a warm glow.

I actually wrote a lot of entries that didn’t make it into the final book.  At some point I might go through and figure out which ended up on the cutting room floor and post them here or on my non-fiction blog Broke is Beautiful.

The Cry of a Living Soul: Literary Quote of the Day

“Dear Childe Alfred, The preface is all right. It has your extraordinary quality of being what Shakespeare called unpoliced. Every sentence I write is policed to the last comma; but what you write is the cry of a living soul, with the result that people wonder what is behind my writing and must sometimes doubt– I do myself occasionally–whether there is anything behind it. They know you and love or hate you as the case may be; but they cannot make me out clearly enough for that. I am an invented, histrionic figure, mostly quite impossible; but you are a human being for them.”

-Gorge Bernard Shaw to Lord Alfred Douglas, 1942

Teaser Tuesdays: The Uncollected Oscar Wilde

ImageIt seems that Tuesday has come again.  And so I will pick up the book that is nearest to my left hand and tell you a bit about it.  Here’s how Teaser Tuesdays works:

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today I was reading The Uncollected Oscar Wilde edited by John Wyse Jackson.Image

The selection is from a lecture to art students delivered in June 1883.

“To begin with, such an expression as English art is a meaningless expression.  One might just as well talk of English mathematics.”

If you would like a couple of bonus lines (the conclusion of this paragraph):

“Nor is there any such thing as a school of art even.  There are merely artists, that is all.”

A “Destructive” Love Affair: Empathy for Lord Alfred Douglas

ImageLately I find I am  fascinated by Lord Alfred Douglas.  (This may be the only thing I will ever have in common with Oscar Wilde.)

It began when I read his correspondence with George Bernard Shaw.  Douglas was in his 60s at the time, his beauty faded, his infamous temper cooled a bit.  Yet I have rarely encountered a personality that asserts itself with such force from beyond the grave.

Bosie (as he was called) has a Peter Pan quality which Shaw dubs his “infantile complex,” a term that Bosie embraced.

He has tantrums, he flatters, he is vain and easily hurt, he begs to be loved and appreciated as much as he appreciates his own worth.  Although he is self-aggrandizing, he is also witty and self-aware.  He has a sense of humor about his prodigious character flaws.

What I loved most about the correspondence between the far right Douglas and the far left Shaw is that it is a story you don’t hear much these days, the story of two people who disagree on everything and who continue to hold great affection for one another.  I found the correspondence to be uplifting for this reason.

Recently I was driving, and in front of me was an SUV covered in bumper stickers espousing the opposite of everything I believe to be moral and good.  My first thought was “I hate that person.”  After a moment’s reflection I realized that I probably would really like the person if I met him.  There are a lot of people who I love who have views that oppose my own.

Arlo Guthrie put it this way: “I came out of that whole time (the 1960s) thinking I’d only met two kinds of people, that’s people who give a damn and people that don’t.  And the truth is you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue, and in the long run I thought you might even have more in common with people who care about stuff than you have with people who side with you on an issue or two as they’re going through time.”

Douglas and Shaw were two people who were bonded in affection as a pair of souls who gave a damn about stuff.

Without falling into complete fuzzy moral relativism, the triumph of love over ideology is an important and compelling story, as compelling as the triumph of the right over the wrong.  If we were reminded of this more often, maybe the world would be a better place.

After I wolfed down the Shaw/Douglas book like a bag of cookies, I wanted to know more about Bosie.  As I read more I found myself in a love/hate relationship with him.  There are sides of him that are distasteful and sides that are noble, romantic and beautiful.  He seems to be everything at once and all of it in the extreme.

He had a fierce judgmental streak which is easier to recognize when he is arguing from the conservative side, but it was always there even in his youth when he was proclaiming, to the extent that Victorian society allowed, the beauty of same sex love and carnal pleasure.

His most notable flaws are his vanity and arrogance.  It was easy to get on his good side, just complement his poetry and he would be impressed by your wisdom.  I can’t tell you why, but I find his arrogance amusing and charming.

In his day, there were those who detested Oscar Wilde for his pretension, vanity and arrogance.  We love him for saying “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

Bosie does not get off so easy.

Wilde must have had a certain wink, a certain tone, that made these boasts seem charming.  Contemporary accounts before the trial that brought Wilde down seem to suggest that Bosie had a similar vain charm.  Many people describe them as being mirror images of each other.

This is from The Green Carnation, a novel that satirized Bosie as Lord Reggie and Wilde as Mr. Amarinth:

“I want you to tell me which is original, Mr. Amarinth or Lord Reggie?” “Oh! they both are.” “No, they are too much alike. When we meet with the Tweedledum and Tweedledee in mind, one of them is always a copy, an echo of the other.” “Do you think so? Well, of course Mr. Amarinth has been original longer than Lord Reggie, because he is nearly twenty years older.”

Together the two men partook of the illicit pleasures of London’s seamy underworld of male prostitutes. If it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to this risky pass time, there is no reason to suppose Wilde went kicking and screaming.

Wilde often wrote about how he wanted to experience everything in life, that all experiences were material for his art.  If Bosie was more reckless and bold (all evidence suggests he was, as he was protected by his social class) that had to be a big part of the attraction.

I have to admit that the more I read, the more of a love/hate relationship I have with Oscar Wilde as well.  His character flaws are dismissed much more easily because of his literary ability.  Every artist may be driven, on some level, to become appreciated enough for his art that his sins are forgiven in time.

In case you are not familiar with what happened to Oscar Wilde, here is a quick summation.  Lord Alfred Douglas’s father was known for his violent temper and his vindictiveness.  He was so incensed at the relationship between his son and Oscar Wilde, who had long been whispered to be a sodomite, that he made it his mission to keep Bosie away from the playwright.  He basically stalked Wilde and his son until Wilde made the disastrous decision to sue him for libel for calling him a sodomite, something that in this time was considered a horrible crime punishable by a long prison term.  It seems obvious in retrospect that it was insane to sue him for libel over something that was true.  But this was the only thing they thought would get him to leave them alone, and they seem to have believed that Wilde’s wit and charm could win over any jury and that social class would protect them.  Nothing could be proven about Douglas and Wilde’s relationship and the prostitutes were without power and status and speaking about what they did would implicate themselves.  They counted on a code of silence, and underestimated Bosie’s father’s determination to turn up evidence.  The Douglas family squabble set this all in motion, but Wilde was not imprisoned for his relationship with Bosie but for his activities with prostitutes.

People always describe the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas as a “destructive love affair.”  The implication is that the love affair itself was at fault.  That it was Wilde’s weakness for his young lover, an obsession, that led him into this snare.  I don’t believe this is a fair way of looking at things.

It is certainly possible to believe that Bosie was not a good match for Wilde and that he could have done much better for himself.  They fought and broke up and came back together time and time again, but many couples relate this way.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Wilde to say, “Your father is making my life hell and this relationship is not worth it.”  He wasn’t willing to do that.  Through all sorts of external pressure and private conflicts of their own, they were determined to stick together.  With Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas we call this destructive obsession.  Yet in a straight couple wouldn’t we call it something else?  Wouldn’t we call that commitment?

The Pulitzer Non-Prize

Ann Patchett wrote an impassioned op-ed in the New York Times about the Pulitzer committee’s decision not to award a prize for fiction this year.  The inability of the committee to select a novel for the prestigious prize leaves readers with the impression that it was a “bum year for fiction.”

Patchett goes on to list many of the books, finalists and non-finalists that she believes were worthy of the title.  She argues that the lack of a prize for fiction harms book sellers because everyone buzzes about the chosen book and they go out to buy it.

“I can’t imagine there was ever a year we were so in need of the excitement it creates in readers.”

Patchett’s conclusion, however, is odd:

Unfortunately, the world of literature lacks the scandal, hype and pretty dresses that draw people to the Academy Awards, which, by the way, is not an institution devoted to choosing the best movie every year as much as it is an institution designed to get people excited about going to the movies. The Pulitzer Prize is our best chance as writers and readers and booksellers to celebrate fiction. This was the year we all lost.

If you follow any publishing news feeds, it seems everyone is a-buzz, commenting, speculating and, as Patchett instinctively did, listing books that were worthy of the title and that everyone should read.  If scandal and hype is what the the publishing world needs to get people talking about fiction, didn’t the failure of the committee to select a winner do more than simply announcing a title would have? 

Literary Irony: Walden Pond Edition

Two paragraphs from one page on The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau:

From Walden:

I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.


…Walden enjoyed only moderate success in Thoreau’s lifetime…

I Hate Book Marketing!

There, I said it.

You hold the first print copy of your novel with a sense of pride and accomplishment.  But after a few days in the self-promotion trenches, you start to feel about as dignified as a telemarketer who calls during dinner hawking herbal Viagra supplements shipped from Uzbekistan.

I hate those rah-rah, go-get-‘em, book marketing web sites. You know the type. It’s run by a cheery expert whose claim to fame is his circular ability to sell himself as an expert on how to sell. His only book is an ebook on how to sell an ebook. Each page is framed by six different ads for the product. Every article (“7 Ways to Market Your Branding,” “10 Ways to Brand Your Market.,” “6 Surefire Ways to Get everyone Buzzing about Your Book Buzz!”) is embedded with at least three references to it: “As I mentioned in the third chapter of Marketing Books for Book Marketers….”

I roll my eyes and then get back to work.  I fire off a guest article pitch to a popular book blog.  The article is focused on a subtle lesson I learned while writing my novel. (Angel by Laura Lee available wherever fine books are sold) That’s when I start to wonder if there is really much difference between me and Mr. Buy-My-Book-Marketing-Book.

But I want you to read my book.

You see my problem?

The process of writing a novel was as selfless as anything I’ve experienced. After a lot of effort and trial and error, when I finally came to what my story should be, I felt as though I had discovered it whole. In the past when I wrote fiction I labored. This time, once the pieces fell into place, I wrote in a complete state of flow. I felt as if my characters were real beings.  Because I was the one who had found them, I had a responsibility to them to get the story right and to work on the craft of writing to the best of my ability.

In the best possible way, I did not matter. I wrote in order to lose myself and to see life through someone else’s eyes.  By so doing I hoped to have an intimate conversation with far away people I would never meet. My role was matchmaker. I would introduce my characters to someone in Boise, Idaho, and with any luck they would be meaningful to his life in some way.

Once the writing was done, though I had to shift gears entirely. I had to talk myself up to potential publishers. I had to think of my fictional world in terms of sales and market niches.  I had to boast about my resume.

Now I’m in the awkward position of asking people to drop what they are doing in their busy lives and to pay attention to what I have to say. Buy my product! Listen to me! Listen to me! This part feels anything but selfless.

I’m trying to find a way to overcome this feeling and see the shameless book plugging as part of the matchmaking process too. I can’t introduce my characters to the world by being quiet and hoping people discover the book on their own. This part does not come as naturally or comfortably to an introverted literary type like me, but I am trying to persuade myself that it is the next responsibility that I have to my characters.  I must do enough talking so that the people who are supposed to meet them have the chance. 

Don Quixote, Da Vinci and the Invisibility of Children in Literature

In Encounter Milan Kundera made the observation that “scarcely 1 percent of the world’s population are childless, but at least 50 percent of the great literary characters exit the book without having reproduced.”

I found this to be quite thought-provoking.  I disagree, however, with his conclusions as to why this is.  He hypothesizes that the novel makes the protagonist “irreplaceable… the center of everything.”

If Don Quixote had children, he argues, his life would be prolonged.  His narrative would go on in the form of his children and the story wouldn’t be finished.

This makes no sense to me as the full life of a character from birth to death is not usually the span of a novel.  Novels usually focus on a particular period in a character’s life starting not at birth but just before a particular drama unfolds.  Some novels end with the death of the main character, but this is far from a requirement.  The story is finished when the drama as the author conceived it is over.  (“And they lived happily ever after” is as common in story telling as “And then they all died.”)

Stories do not include children for the same reason they do not include a lot of elements of life— the drama of a novel is stripped down to those characters and situations that are essential to portray the particular struggle being illustrated.  Children exist in our stories largely as plot devices rather than characters because adults are, for the most part, not that interested in exploring the depths of the immature mind.

The biggest problem I see with a Papa Don Quixote is that we are meant to view Don Quixote as a hero because he refuses to be constrained by ugly reality and chooses instead to live in beautiful fantasy.  He makes his own dream world rather than living with the constrains and responsibilities of his social environment.  There is a part of us that is always at war with the constrains of society, and that part loves Quixote.  But it is much easier to admire Don Quixote’s beautiful madness if it is not at the expense of an abandoned family; a wife and children who might depend on him to be present in the real world back home.

It would be even more outlandish for us if he were a woman.  Imagine Donna Quixote:  A wealthy Spanish woman who chooses a world of fantasy over reality.  She would have a hard time.  If she was childless our culture would have us assume one of two things about her.  Either she was traumatized by her barrenness (her madness might be attributed to it) or she was selfish enough to put her own needs above child rearing.  She could be either a damaged victim or unsympathetic.  Those are really the only two choices we have in our culture, especially historically, for childless women.  Neither makes for a great hero.  If Donna Quixote had children, on the other hand, how forgiving would we be if she went off to have adventures as a knight and left the kids behind?  Much less so, I imagine, than we would be for the warriors of classic literature.

Which leads to another observation about the great literary characters.  I am making this statistic up out of thin air, but my guess would be that while a full 50% of the world’s population is female, 98% of the great literary characters are male.

Historically, children were a woman’s responsibility and they were interesting to men only as heirs.  This being the case, they would rarely figure in the drama of a man’s life.  He might find his princess and she might have his children, but that would have little impact on his adventures at sea.

Kundera’s analysis of the purpose of children in literature, in fact, takes the view that the only meaning of a child is as an heir.  The child is not a responsibility or a person with whom you have a relationship.  If more of the great books focused on the lives of women then children might be more present.  In stories about women, children often exist as a pressing responsibility.

I was thinking about this question again the other day when I was reading one of those books on the search for the historical Jesus.  The book speculated on whether or not Jesus was a married man.  It would be unusual for a 30-year-old Jewish man of his day not to be married, and the author concluded that it was likely that he would have been.  The popularity and appeal of this view of Jesus is attested to by the great success of Dan Brown’s best seller The DaVinci Code.

Of course, when you speculate about the marital status of Jesus, the next question is whether or not he had children.  The author of the book on the historical Jesus touched on this question.  Just as Dan Brown does in The DaVinci Code and as Kundera does in his musings on Don Quixote’s childlessness, he frames the question of Jesus’s children as one of his bloodline. Does Jesus have descendants walking around somewhere?

This sidesteps a rather important question: If Jesus had children what kind of father was he?

We know that Jesus did not have many positive things to say about family bonds.  He told his disciples to leave their families and follow him, and he turned away his own mother and brothers (Matthew 12:47-49) and said that his disciples were his real brothers.  Would this detachment from his mother and siblings extend to the next generation as well?

It is easy to see how the idea of a Christ with children becomes problematic.  If he favored his own children over others, it undercuts his message of universal love– a love that shines out on everyone and everything with equal unconcern.  Jesus loves the beggar, the prostitute and the tax collector with the same depth and quality as he loves his mother, no more no less.  Yet as human beings, the idea of a father who does not favor his own children and give them special attention over other people is abhorrent to us.

It is much easier to avoid the issue all together by leaving his family, if indeed he had one, out of the story.

A Kiss is Just a Kiss?

As a writer, how do you begin to describe a kiss?  This is the topic of my guest post today at Bibrary Book Lust

A kiss, a first kiss especially, is not only a touch, it is an emotion. It is a question, an invitation that can be accepted or denied. “Will you be my lover?”

It is that most vulnerable of moments, full of nervousness and anxiety, and it is also one of the anxieties that is most quickly relieved. It melts away the moment the lips touch and the invitation has been accepted.

“And then they kissed,” was not going to cut it.

For guidance, I ventured onto Google Books and found myself reading an 1873 magazine called The Galaxy. There, in an article called “The Curiosities of Kissing” I discovered this observation by William Conant Church:

“Shakespeare calls kisses holy, lovely, loving, gentle, jealous, soft, sovereign, warm, and righteous. He has over two hundred and fifty allusions to kisses and kissing in his plays, and in the second part of ‘Henry VI.’ he speaks of ‘twenty thousand kisses.’ In the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ he calls lips ‘those kissing treasures.’ But in all his writings we find no full description of a kiss. It was a subject too vast even for Shakespeare’s mighty mind.”

Realizing that I had stumbled onto a problem that had stumped Shakespeare made me feel a little bit better about myself, and so I got back to work.

What was my solution to this conundrum?  Read the rest at Bibrary Book Lust.