Robert Heinlein and the Novelty of Science Fiction—Part 1 in a Series


I have no special expertise in science fiction. I’ve read little of it. But what I’ve read I’ve selected carefully and most of it has been a joy to read. The league of SF enthusiasts is intense if not immense. Though the SF genre has attracted a hefty percentage of readers, this result has been hard-won. This is my impression from the sidelines, as it were.

My limited direct experiences with science fiction may be of interest to those fiction readers who have long wondered what all the fuss is about, and to those enthusiasts who care to know what a neophyte like myself might say about what he’s found worthwhile.

So here is the first installment in my recounting of those experiences . . .

Image.Book Cover.Job Comedy of Justice.Robert HeinleinI think the first author I read was Robert A. Heinlein. An excellent choice, I’m sure the experts would agree. (You may know him through some of the films inspired by his work.) The trouble is remembering which book came first—and whether there were others. I’m pretty sure it was Job: A Comedy of Justice. I like sustained, serious comedy, and I’ve always been drawn to the Old Testament book of Job. Putting the two together would be quite a feat. Those who subscribe to my webpages will likely find this novel a tempting entry point for reasons that resemble my own. (Others, who do judge a book by its cover, may be drawn first to his book Friday.)

As a philosopher, I can appreciate Heinlein’s talent as an observer of the human condition and what a future society might look like, if we continue on our present course, or if dramatic changes happen to us (notably through the development of technology). Heinlein had metaphysical and epistemological interests, as well, but his sensibilities were quite different than my own. This is no reason to pass over his ouvre. I’m an advocate for reading outside your comfort zone and conversing with diverse perspectives. It’s an aid to understanding your own worldview, and accepting it more responsibly. And fiction is among the best ways to access alternative perspectives on reality and human experience. Literate science fiction can do that for you. (I think, also, of Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Not SF, but imaginative and contemplative, a far distance from where I stand intellectually, but by a clever fellow-traveler—on a motorcycle, to boot!)

Heinlein lived to be 80 years old, but his output was comparatively meagre for one with so great a reputation and influence. It shows that quantity is no match for quality. His total cast of significant characters, on the other hand, is almost ridiculously extensive. And you know an author’s influence is substantial when there’s a thriving online society dedicated to his legacy.

So that’s how it all started for me, and for that, I suppose, I’m in debt to Heinlein. But deep as my appreciation goes, I will never be considered a “Heinleiner.”

Note: For an exposition of worldview analysis within literature, I recommend James Sire, the book among his many that had the greatest influence on me. When I read it in the late 1970s, the book was called How to Read Slowly: A Christian Guide to Reading with the Mind. It’s now been adjusted to How to Read Slowly: Reading for Comprehension, which doesn’t quite get at the essence of the book, I feel. It’s a book I wish I had written. But I couldn’t have done so when I was 18. Probably still couldn’t.

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The Adventurous Reader


What is an “adventurous reader”? I’m two chapters into a novel by Jedediah Berry, titled The Manual of Detection. The CIP data on the copyright page indicate that subjects for this work of fiction include (1) private investigators, (2) femmes fatales, and (3) criminals.

Inside the front cover are three pages of accolades, many of them praising the book for its departure from conventions and its playful spirit. The Wall Street Journal says that the author “defies mystery novel conventions, but adventurous readers who stay with his strange and fabulous debut work will be handsomely rewarded.”

I wonder, what is an “adventurous reader”?

Here are some possibilities. An “adventurous reader” is someone who:

  1. reads literature in any genre that contains adventure: fantasy, science fiction, the detective procedural, etc.;
  2. steps outside his normal reading habits or patterns to read beyond “other stuff”;
  3. lives more fully within the pages of books he reads;
  4. reads what others in his field, or in his peer group, or in his circle of friends do not read;
  5. takes on authors who are challenging, difficult, mind-stretching;
  6. devotes much of his reading time to authors with whom he disagrees
  7. reads backwards, starting with the last word on the last page;
  8. reads only every other page.

There must be other possibilities. Is the adventure to be found in the act of reading—its how—or in the object read? Both?

I guess I consider myself an adventurous reader—though I think “adventuresome” might be the better word. But why? I read “broadly.” I’m patient about finding “just the right book.” But I will sometimes take a chance on something with little to go on.

Does the adventuresome reader read slowly, or quickly? Is speed irrelevant? Or has speed got to do with being one kind of adventuresome reader? Wouldn’t it be an adventure to read five novels in a day, allowing only thirty minutes for each? Or to pick slowly through a complex text, in an effort to notice everything worthwhile—what is written, how it is composed, the contribution it makes to our knowledge or a fulfilled life?

Adventure is a pretty pliable concept. Applied to the reader, it has interesting possibilities.

Are you an “adventurous reader”? Why would you say so? Do you know someone how is more adventurous than yourself?

The Serious Business of Lying and the Enterprise of Fiction


Battle of Borodino

Image via Wikipedia

Ursula Le Guin objects to the idea that science fiction is predictive. In 1976, she wrote:

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

— Ursula K. Le Guin, Introduction to The Left Hand of Darkness

Lying, you might say, is serious business. Even when it comes to fiction, when we like to be lied to. But why do we like to be lied to, those of us who read fiction and pay good money to see movies?

There’s a clue in the title of John Dufresne’s guide to writing fiction: The Lie That Tells a Truth. Fiction and film, at their best, package important truths in a tissue of lies. Some of these truths we already know before our fictive experience of them. Others we learn, if we trust the lies, when fiction happens to us. And often it is our capacity to trust the lie that makes us vulnerable to truths.

Some will protest that the novelist and the screenwriter do not lie. After all, we know “it’s only a story.” But since when has this stopped us from believing what we know isn’t so? Isn’t Le Guin onto something when she says,

In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napolean. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

And in the thick of our believing, we don’t want to be reminded that “it’s only a story.” We’re like the lad whose grandfather reads to him in the movie The Princess Bride. He’s not as ambivalent as he pretends. And neither are we. If it’s a really good story.

Speculative Fiction by and for Christians


Twitter led me to a blog called My Friend Amy, where there’s an interesting take on speculative fiction in today’s “Faith ‘n Fiction Saturdays” category. The post addresses several questions:

  1. What is speculative fiction?
  2. What is “Christian speculative fiction”?
  3. What are the standards for high quality Christian speculative fiction?

This short post got me thinking about these and related questions. The result is a longer post sketching some of my thoughts about the general topic.

What Is Speculative about ‘Speculative Fiction’?

My Friend Amy quotes Wikipedia for an answer to this question:

Speculative fiction is a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world in various important ways. In these contexts, it generally overlaps one or more of the following: science fiction, fantasy fiction, horror fiction, supernatural fiction, superhero fiction, utopian and dystopian fiction, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction, and alternate history. (Click here for the complete Wikipedia entry for “Speculative fiction.)

The term is of relatively recent vintage. It doesn’t appear in any of the three handbooks I consult for such things:

  • Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, 4th edition published in 1996. A new edition was published in 2008, and no doubt includes novel entries (no pun intended).
  • The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 2nd edition published in 1984. This edition was updated in 2002. Of the three books listed here, this is the best value—very affordable and reliable, with excellent coverage of authors, titles, literary movements, historical periods, terms and phrases.
  • Kathleen Morner and Ralph Rausch, From Absurd to Zeitgeist: The Compact Guide to Literary Terms (1997). I believe this book is out of print, but I see that (at the time of this post) one copy is in stock at Powell’s Books.

I once read an essay on speculative fiction that developed a convincing account of the form. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or where I came across the item. But I do remember thinking then that “speculative fiction” is an apt label for fiction that explores counterfactuals—ways things might have been but weren’t, or ways things might yet be but won’t. [FN: For more about counterfactuals at this website, “Run Lola Run—A Discussion Guide.”]

The interesting examples of counterfactuals are worlds very close to this, the actual world. “What if, instead of X happening at time t, something else that could easily have happened, Y, had happened at t? How would things have turned out then?” (One serious philosophical problem with speculation of this sort is that the sequel to any counterfactual at time t—the succession of events following Y, for example—may itself vary in numerous counterfactual ways. There may be many ways things might have turned out if Y had happened rather than X at t. And it’s puzzling to think that there is just one way things would have turned out in such a counterfactual setup. But I digress.)

The better fictional depictions of counterexamples would be at least minimally ‘literary.’ And they would explore themes of enduring human interest.

Could a Christian author write speculative fiction? Of course. The author at My Friend Amy’s blog alludes to several. The most obvious examples are ones that are most obviously ‘Christian.’ They broadcast a Christian message so overtly that it cannot be missed. For example, as noted in the blog post over at My Friend Amy, much Christian fiction depicts battles in the spirit world between angels and demons and the role of intercessory prayer by humans caught in the conflict. This kind of speculative fiction will appeal mostly to Christian readers, and then only to a certain kind of Christian reader. They don’t appeal to My Friend Amy for example. [FN: Some Christians, you may be surprised to hear, would argue that many such specimens of fiction are not properly Christian.]

C. S. Lewis and Others

It is interesting to me that C. S. Lewis is not mentioned. In addition to his cherished Narnia series of fantasy novels, Lewis wrote a very sophisticated series of three novels in what might be called the category of ‘space fiction.’ These are Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. Lewis wrote with subtlty and grace. It’s well-known that he wrote from a Christian worldview. But these novels do not ‘preach.’

Lewis also wrote The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce. These must surely count as paradigm cases of ‘speculative fiction.’ Next time you read them, consider this question: “What sort of ‘what-if’ question is Lewis endeavoring to answer in this book?”

I think that’s the question to put to any book if you want to be sure it counts as ‘speculative fiction.’ This opens the way for ostensive definition of the term. That is, it facilitates understanding of the term ‘speculative fiction’ by pointing to clear cases of it. Two examples that come immediately to mind are Shikasta, by Doris Lessing (1979), and The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992).

It’s interesting to consider these examples in connection with questions raised by My Friend Amy. My view is that speculative fiction is a particularly congenial form for writing from a distinctive worldview, be it Christian or otherwise. It is congenial in part because it permits experimentation with the implications of a worldview without wearing that worldview on its sleeve. Doris Lessing and P. D. James both write with religious sensibilities—Lessing with the perspective of Sufism, James with a Christian worldview. [FN: Lessing was once offered the honorific title of “Dame” by Queen  of England. Lessing declined the honor. James was created Baroness James of Holland Park in 1991.] The guiding perspective in each case, though often discernible, is subtly layered into the narrative. This is akin to what the great authors Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene accomplished in their more ‘realist fiction.’ [FN: See for example, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor, and The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene.]

For many readers of this post, the film adaptation of The Children of Men will be better known than the book. While watching the first few scenes, I thought about how this darkly apocalyptic film might render the religious component of the human condition when humanity is faced with extinction. My guess was that it would represent society as completely secular, and that any portrayal of religious people would characterize them as the kind who stand on street corners warning passersby of imminent divine judgment, in a tone that betrays their conviction that ‘none who hear will convert, and it’s just as well anyway, since they deserve to go to hell.’ That pretty much is how religion was ‘treated’ in the film.

That last statement needs qualification. What I should say is that religion, imagined under the conditions described in the film, is presented a certain way. This may be a commentary on how religion is manifest in the world today. But it’s pretty striking that no one I would call a ‘serious believer’ shows up in the movie. I imagine they don’t exist, or, if they do, they are marginally significant to the storyline. But then what would account for their nonexistence? Or what would explain their insignificance to the unfolding story? It is precisely the apocalyptic character of the story that makes their absence conspicuous. And that is interesting.

So a film or a novel may have something to say about religion even when it makes no direct reference to anything explicitly religious.

Vampires

The Amy post also asks whether fiction featuring vampires might be a venue for developing Christian themes. I’ve thought about this myself. That would be an excellent question for Anne Rice, the bestselling author of vampire fiction, and an adult convert to Christianity. Books in her newer series based on the gospel narratives has not been quite as successful as Interview with the Vampire. They are, to be sure, friendly presentations of the life and influence of Jesus. I suspect they have generated a new set of fans.

Susan Howatch

Another contemporary author known for her Christian worldview is Susan Howatch. Also a bestselling author (and British), Howatch composes stories with a realist cast. They take place in our world, you might say. See, for example, her acclaimed series beginning with the novel Glittering Images. One of her best is The High Flyer, which can be recommended to any reader with a taste for literary fiction set in the contemporary context.

* * *

A blog permits the expression of random thoughts during idle moments. I’ve exploited that opportunity here. As often happens, the flood of thoughts swelled to the point of necessary expression because of a bit of reading. This time I happened to be reading another blogger who reads.

Thank you, Amy my friend—whoever you are.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

Michael Dirda on “The Knowledge Most Worth Having”


My education in the value of the personal essay probably began in a time and space I don’t recall. But I was compelled to appreciate this specialized form of literature most memorably during my reading of Philip Lopate’s collection The Art of the Personal Essay. The enthusiasm inspired by his anthology resulted in a welcome appetite for more of the same. Lopate’s genius for selecting the best of the breed was proven by the difficulty I experienced during my search for collections of comparable value. The annual publication of books in The Best American Essays series, edited by Robert Atwan, sometimes approximates the Lopate standard. And there are other worthy collections. Thankfully, my quest for the best has put me in touch with individual authors, contemporary essayists of the first rank, whose writing is consistently creative, wise, and ennobling.

My favorite contemporary essayists include Michael Dirda, Joseph Epstein, John Updike, and many others. This post loiters in one section of one essay from Michael dirdabook-by-bookDirda’s book Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life. The essay is titled “The Pleasures of Learning,” and the section I’ve isolated for consideration here is called “The Knowledge Most Worth Having.” This section consists of seven sentences, followed by a list of sixteen items, and a concluding sentence that reads:

Know these well, and nearly all of world literature will be an open book to you.

Clearly, Dirda’s reference to “the knowledge most worth having” is circumscribed by a specific purpose. He doesn’t mean to catalog all that it is most important to know. More precisely, he asks, “What should a person know of the world’s literature?” This question presupposes that some works are more worthy of our time and meditation than others, and that if we are to have a “structured reading program” we must have a criterion for determining which works are most deserving. Dirda gives us a criterion and then “a roughly chronological short  list of those that the diligent might read in a year or two.” Both the criterion and the list are interesting.

Dirda’s criterion—the test he uses in deciding which authors and which works are most rewarding for the reader who would attain a knowledge of the world’s literature—is simple. Devote yourself to those works “that later authors regularly build on, allude to, work against.”  Dirda does not elaborate on the principle, except to bestow a name on works that meet this condition; they are “the great patterning works.”

For further insight into the principle, we might consider Dirda’s list. He does not claim that it’s exhaustive. Actually, he implies that it is not. It’s a place to begin. Still, it’s a comfort to hear that “there aren’t many of these key books,” and it’s enticing to be told that “they aren’t all obvious classics.” One might spend a year or two in the company of these books, and then move on to others.

Before I reveal the list, I want to ask, again, what is the point of the list? It is to commend works with the potential to crack open the world of great literature. These works have this power because other authors have built on them, alluded to them, and worked against them. They are, in other words, touchstones for so much great literature that our capacity to appreciate and know the greatness of other works is unlocked by our acquaintance with these.

Now to the list. It is no surprise that it begins with

  • The Bible (Old and New Testaments)

Dirda recommends the Authorized, or King James, Version because it’s “the one that has most influenced the diction and imagery of English prose.” As a kid, I attended a Baptist Sunday School that used the King James Bible in Bible lessons, Scripture memory, and “sword drills.” (Incidentally, I never heard anyone seriously proffer a defense of the KJV on the grounds that “if it was good enough for Saint Paul, it’s good enough for me.” My Sunday school teachers were far more sophisticated than that.) In the third grade, taught by my mother, we children were awarded Bibles of our own—the King James Version, of course. Shortly after that, the production of new English translations began in earnest, and today the original KJV of 1611 is little known, even by those who know the Bible. I’m a proponent of the multiple versions doctrine, that individual versions or translations have their distinctive virtues, and that more than one should be consulted in the serious study of the Bible. But Dirda is hardly alone in proclaiming the incomparable linguistic beauty and legendary influence of the KJV, and I do not disagree. (For those interested in the translation debate, I recommend D. A. Carson’s book The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism.)

Next on the list:

The items listed by Dirda are not annotated. He doesn’t say why an entry meets the criterion he’s adopted. But some source containing the ancient myths of Greek, Roman, and Norse provenance is a no-brainer, and Bulfinch’s is the industry standard. Oddly, my copy of the generally reliable Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia (mine is the 3rd edition) has no entry for this classic collection. But then, neither does my handy paperback copy of The Reader’s Companion to World Literature. No matter. The important thing is that allusions to mythologies abound in acknowledged “great literature.” The reason for this is worthy of contemplation, but beyond the scope of this post.

Fine. If ancient mythologies must be known on the grounds that they are sources for innumerable allusions, then Homer’s influence is no less significant. The Ionian poet as a man is a mystery. Even his actual existence is doubted. The story of the composition, preservation, and function of “Homer” among the ancient Greeks is interesting in its own right, and is told with clarity uncompromised by brevity in . . . Benét’s.

We begin to suspect that the influence of the ancients runs deep in our literature. Plutarch, who lived in the first century of the Common Era, is best known as a biographer. It’s an irony of history and of literature that little is known about Plutarch himself—no biographer for the biographer. Shakespeare made use of Plutarch in two of his great plays. (Plutarch was, by the way, a master of the personal essay, and his compendium, the Moralia, has survived to please readers to this day.)

So far, Dirda’s choices are obvious. Of course Dante. But why the Inferno and not the whole the the Divine Comedy? Dirda doesn’t declare. So let’s speculate. The Inferno is the first part of the Divine Comedy. So maybe you read the first part and can’t put it down. Or you do put it down, but you’ve had enough Dante for the purposes envisioned by Dirda. Imaginative writing about hell does make for scintillating writing. For some, heaven is boring in comparison, and a proffered reason for indifference about the soul’s destiny. Strange logic.

Next in line:

I confess that I was initially surprised by this entry from the early Middle Ages. But I shouldn’t have been. This is our source for Ali Baba, Aladdin and his Magic Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and the phrase “Open Sesame” (which appeals to our get-rich-quick aspirations). The story of Sultan Shahriar and his clever wife Shaharazad is endlessly intriguing. But a guide to The Arabian Nights would be useful, if only because of its length.

The Middle Ages brings to mind the next fairly obvious choice:

  • Thomas Malory, Le Morte D’Arthur (tales of King Arthur and his knights)

Seeing the Monty Python movie is no substitute for reading the book. Take my word for it. But it does give a sense of the book that is somewhat surprising. (Take that with a grain of salt.) The written tales were probably composed in prison by a chap who commended the ideals  of chivalry and was notorious for violating those same ideals. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, was very much taken with these tales, and transcribed them into epic poetry in his Idylls of the King. Here is a clear case where one legendary author, the Victorian poet Tennyson, is understood better against background knowledge of a 15th century author of legend.

You knew he had to show up on the list eventually, and if you’ve been following the chronology, you may have suspected his appearance at any moment—William Shakespeare.

Some of these have been quite respectably adapted for film. Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson (1990) finally made sense of “words, words, words” to me. The Orson Welles film Chimes at Midnight (1965), featuring Welles as Falstaff and John Gielgud as Henry IV, was a favorite of Welles and is generally thought to be one of his greatest movies.

There have been a dozen or more adaptations of King Lear. Most celebrated is the 1983 version starring Laurence Olivier and Dianna Rigg. Another cinematic reprise is planned. How would you like to see Naomi Watts, Keira Knightley, and Gwyneth Paltrow as the three daughters of King Lear, played by Anthony Hopkins? It’s in the works. So now is an especially auspicious time to have a read of the original King Lear.

Film or television adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream were released in 1935, 1968, 1996, 1999, 2002, and 2005. Enough said.

An adaptation of The Tempest is said to be in production. It won’t be the first. The Tempest was first “screened” in 1905, in a two-and-a-half minute production. The play enjoyed a science fiction adaptation in 1956 in the film The Forbidden Planet. Other adaptations were screened in 1982, 1991, 1992 (in animation that is faithful to Shakespeare).

These works by Shakespeare are immortal. The enjoyment of a worthy film adaptation is enriched by a reading of Shakepeare himself.

Michael Dirda’s list continues. But here the entries shade into the controversial.

Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra introduced his dubious but endearing hero, the Man of La Mancha, in two volumes (1605 and 1616). Cervantes is credited by many as the first modern novelist. Since he died in 1616, that’s quite a distinction. The only thing controversial about including Don Quixote on Dirda’s short list is that the list is so short. Some would argue that the inclusion of Don Quixote obliges the inclusion of some other great work not on the list. But the fact is, this grand novel supremely fits Dirda’s criterion. If you disagree, you’re tilting at windmills.

A shade more controversial are

and

Defoe wrote something like 250 works. They call that prolific. Businessman, journalist, government representative, spy, possibly even double agent, but best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, or The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Through this depiction of a solitary figure stranded on an island, we learn how noble men might conduct themselves under such conditions. Crusoe is an admirable figure, with lessons to teach us all. Who hasn’t imagined what it would be like, what we would do, what we would become, if we were to live in such forced seclusion?

Swift was a genius. As evidence for this, I take the liberty of quoting:

Gulliver’s Travels is perhaps the sole major work in all English literature that has continuously led a double life: it has been at once one of the most glamorous of children’s adventure stories and one of the most pungent critiques of humanity addressed to the mature imagination. This almost incredible marriage of opposites is possible because in the main the disturbing satire for adults lurks inconspicuously behind the pleasantly exciting façade of the explorer’s tale; the child can rarely see behind the façade, and the adult can never cease seeing behind it or trying to pierce through it. Further, there are times when Swift is entirely concerned with the façade—of the elaboration of the details of the story for its own sake . . . and the presence of such passages assists the young reader—or the unperceptive reader generally—to take the whole story at the simplest level of meaning. . . . Swift’s obvious enjoyment of playing the game—of unusual sizes, mysterious phenomena, and strangely shaped creatures—gives zest to his narrative without in any way impeding him when he chooses to make the game philosophical. (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 226)

Dirda’s inclusion of Gulliver’s Travels is vindicted by the suggestion that this satire “draws upon at least five traditions of world literature,” and the claim that “the use of fantasy for serious statement, virtually eliminated by two centuries of emphasis upon realism, is reappearing in our own day” (The Reader’s Companion to World Literature, 229).

Dirda goes on to add items undeniably suited to his premise. But these, I confess, lie at the periphery of my own reading interests:

and

Fairy tales and folk tales. Their influence has been great. My interest is negligible. For the record, the noted study of folklore and human society is James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

The final three works are perhaps the most controversial choices. Again, one could argue that some other work is more worthy of inclusion on such a list.

I believe a rationale may be built for each of these entries. Notice, Jane Austin is the only woman to be valorized on the basis of Dirda’s criterion. Some readers might object to this. I know some writers would have filled in with other great female authors just to avoid the appearance of impropriety and escape censure by enforcers of political correctness. But this is Dirda’s list.

There should be considerable pride in and no prejudice against the admission of Jane Austin to the august company of writers of seminal importance. (I hope that doesn’t sound like a bad pun or a contradiction in terms.) In 2003, the BBC sponsored a program called The Big Read, in quest of “the nation’s best-loved novel.” Pride and Prejudice was voted #2, after Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I suspect many titles voted onto the Top 100 list for The Big Read found their way there with the help of recent cinematic adaptations. But Dirda’s basis for including Jane Austin’s novel isn’t current popularity but lasting influence in the field of literature.

Lewis Carroll has to be acknowledged, even by someone without predilections for his plotting and style. Alice in Wonderland falls into that class of fairy tales and folklore that have little appeal for me.

As for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I’m completely sympathetic with ranking it high on a list of entertaining and well-crafted fiction. I would even consider bringing Holmes along for my island exile. I’m less sure of the application of Michael Dirda’s criterion for educating ourselves in preparation for mastery of the world’s great literature. Doyle’s imagination, plotting, and writing style are both creditable and inimitable. But there are others. Agatha Christie has sold better—much better, in fact. Edgar Allen Poe is the acknowledged inventor of the mystery story, and is the namesake for the Edgar Award in mystery fiction. I suppose that Doyle gets the nod because Sherlock Holmes is the paradigmatic sleuth, the one who comes to mind first when that special expertise is needed. Fair enough.

So there you have it. A criterion and a list. I’ve tried to make sense of Dirda’s choices. Using his criterion, and limited to sixteen items, I think he succeeds.

Related Posts by Doug Geivett:

John Updike as Book Reviewer


Encountering John Updike as book reviewer is to witness something akin to the 8th wonder of the world. I calculate that the time it takes for him to write as much as he dupdikedue-considerationsoes (speaking here of volume) leaves no time for reading, much less reviewing, books written by other people. My calculations have to be pretty far off the mark. He reviews like a fiend. (I mean this in the most positive sense of the term.) And reviewing is but one of the many grooves his writing follows. Is there any form he does not indulge?

I might not be so impressed by the monumental volume of his output if it were not for the other, more fundamental impression Updike makes. He is a master writer. People who write better than I, and not nearly as well as Updike (by their own confession), have been saying this about him for decades. With Updike, you need not begin with an interest in any topic he takes up to be delighted with his perspective.

For example, in an essay titled “Groaning Shelves,” he reviews the book The Book on the Bookshelf, by Henry Petroski. A book with a title like that would tempt me. In the scope of five pages—seven paragraphs—by Updike, I experience at least as much pleasure and add every bit as much to my fund of knowledge as I would expect from reading Petroski himself (279 pages). Come to think of it, the relish of reading Petroski firsthand is converted to relish in not having to read it because of the relish of reading Updike on Petroski.

In the first paragraph, Updike describes the publishing niche of this professor of civil engineering and history, mentions two of his previous books, The Pencil (1990) and The Evolution of Useful Things (1992), identifies the primary sources for Petroski’s third work, here under review, and demonstrates that The Book on the Bookshelf (1999) would not have been much of a book without the use of stretching devices, since the territory (“the history of book housing”) has been pretty thoroughly scampered over by others before Petroski.

petroskithe-pencilpetroskibookonthebookshelf

petroskievolution-of-useful-things2What we learn from Updike in this first paragraph is technique in the art of book reviewing that requires having something to say about a book that says little more on its topic than what others have already said in earlier books. We also learn something about Updike—that this is no reason to leave the book alone or end a review having said as much. Something else about Updike: he judges that arranging the books in one’s personal library in accord with the Dewey decimal system is “whimsical” rather than “obvious.” (It seemed obvious to me several years ago when I adopted the system. Ironically, perhaps, this gentle chastening by Updike, for being whimsical when I thought I was being practical, was reinforced the day before reading his review; I learned with mixed emotion that the latest version of bibliographical software I use—namely, Bookends—enters the Library of Congress call number in the designated field for each new book reference. I’m now in engaged in a tedious cost-benefits analysis of switching over to the LC system from this point forward.)

The second paragraph begins with a sentence that must have been a relief to Petroski: “Nevertheless, we need to be reminded that people did not always live surrounded by books arranged on shelves, with their spines outward and stamped with the title, author, and publisher.” On this point, I take issue with Updike. I’m not sure we “need” to be reminded of such things, or even that we ever “needed” to learn such things. This may be Updike’s way of persuading himself that Petroski’s book is worthy of review. He surely needs to convince his readers, given the mediocre assessment implied in Updike’s first paragraph.

The balance of paragraph two re-traces the earliest stage of “book” production (papyrus rolls) and the practical solutions that were devised for the problem of their convenient storage. One sentence, albeit parenthetical, glistens: “In truth, only in certain circles, smaller than academics like Petroski might imagine, could people be said [even today] to be surrounded [by books]; I am frequently struck by how many otherwise handsomely accoutered middle-class American homes have not a book in sight.” I know that experience—the experience of not only seeing this to be the case, but also the experience of being “struck” by the fact. I am, of course, an academic. (Not that being struck by the absence of books in the homes of other people is a sufficient condition for being an academic, except in that “special” sense of being eccentric.)

The next four paragraphs carry on the exposition, in chronological sequence, of book production and storage adjustments, leading up to the present, when the volume of books at institutional libraries, it is estimated, doubles about every sixteen years. Updike boils down, in five paragraphs, the history of this transmigration of the souls of books. Even to the layman, it is an interesting history, if told well and in no more than five paragraphs.

I knew nothing before of “chained libraries.” I’m not sure I quite have an adequate picture in mind of this invention that served for several centuries. The most interesting fact I learned is that “even after books came to rest on shelves, their spines were unlabelled and faced inward.” Updike surmises that “when books were few, they did not need to be labelled, any more than do familiar people.” I’m not about to experiment with this technique of book arranging with my several thousand volumes (although the storage of many hundreds in boxes is hardly more satisfactory).

pepys1The eighteenth-century member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”), most famous for his Diary, was apparently compelled (by his wife?) to constant winnowing of his own book collection, so that it never exceeded the manageable limit of 3000 volumes. He ensured efficient use of space for his books by arranging them in two rows, tall books in front, shorter books behind on raised shelves, a strategy that is “impressively harmonious, though somewhat forbidding to a would-be browser.” You can see this for yourself at Magdalen College in Cambridge, where twelve cases of the Pepys collection are preserved.

As always, after reading Updike, my vocabulary is much improved. I now know how to identify the “fore edges” (not “four edges”) of a book. I’ve got a sprinkling of new Latin terms under my belt, which should come in handy next time I cross paths with Seneca: volumina, capsae, armarium commune. Speaking of Seneca, he opined that those who ostentatiously surround themselves with books as mere ornamentations of their digs make themselves ridiculous, or something to that effect.

“Groaning Shelves” appears in a 700-page collection of John Updike’s writings over a period of eight years, third in a series of such collections. This volume is called Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (2007). It contains nearly 150 brief essays. Since yesterday, I’ve read eight of them, including: “On Literary Biography”; “A Case for Books”; “Looking Back to Now” (not unlike Jorge Luis Borges); “Against Angelolatry”; a tribute to Eudora Welty; Updike’s Introduction to Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm; “Groaning Shelves”; and one other whose title I’ll withhold, lest you infer something disagreeable and false about my (or Updike’s) character.

I purchased my copy yesterday, after browsing the entry on “The Future of Faith” (pp. 27-41). I excluded this from my count in the previous paragraph because I haven’t yet read it closely. But I know that I will, and soon.

updikedue-considerations1

Amazon Paperback

Be Still and Know that I Am an Artist


Margaret Atwood tells a joke:

The Devil comes to the writer and says, “I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation—of this century. No—this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul.”

“Sure,” says the writer, “Absolutely—give me the pen, where do I sign?” Then he hesitates. “Just a minute,” he says. “What’s the catch?”

Atwood uses this fictional exchange to explore “the problem of moral and social responsibility in relation to the content of a work of art.” The passage appears in chapter four of her 2002 book Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing. I’m still in chapter three, but I skipped ahead.

Negotiating with the Dead is a literary essay on the writer as artist. At least, that’s true of the half I’ve read so far. Chapter 3, titled “The Great God Pen,” traces the Art Wars generally, and the world of poetry and fiction as a theatre of war in particular. And she examines an interesting argument—strictly syllogistic, mind you—that “we should devote ourselves to beauty-worship.” An unexpected but crucial premise in this argument is Jesus’ declaration, “The truth shall make you free.”

The interesting story here is that art has displaced religion in a secular society. Atwood isn’t all that explicit about this. But what she says is suggestive. Her chapter begins with clichéd questions about literary worth and money. Since writers are warned against unrealistic expectations of monetary gain, they must come to grips with deeper incentives. One possibility commends “the social usefulness of art.” But writers beguiled by this idyllic motive are victims of censorship, often inflicted by themselves. “Thus, the heroes of Art became those who were willing, as they say, to push the envelope.”

In due course, this pushed artists in the direction of a “pure aesthetic” that pitted art against moral purpose. The upshot, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, is that beauty, rather like God, “is its own excuse for being.”

Oscar Wilde drew out religious parallels with art that imitate the language of Christianity, says Atwood. In his preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde wrote, “No artist has ethical sympathies.” He added, “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.”

The artist is a high priest of the imagination. But this does not require scruples. When it comes to Art, some get it and some don’t. Art for art’s sake is non-utilitarian. It disdains mammon and turns a blind eye to social responsibility. For a writer of this persuasion, there is no accountability. The only ultimate is the instinct of the artist.

Atwood explores this theme without committing herself to its creed. But she does seem to think that there are only two other motives for writing. They are writing for monetary gain and writing to fulfill a social responsibility of one sort or another.

***

Atwood is probably best known for her novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), depicting an apocalyptic future with the world’s women in subjection to a theocracy run by fanatical devotees of the Bible. The film adaptation appeared in 1990, starring Faye Dunnaway, Natasha Richardson, and Robert Duvall.

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