Sunday, December 22, 2013

Quote from writer, George Saunders

A wonderful quote from writer, George Saunders:

 "What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness." 

Saunders was one of the authors interviewed by Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, December 22.
Schieffer cited the quote as one of his favorites.

 It comes from a graduation speech Saunders gave at Syracuse University. Full text of the speech was reprinted by the NYT:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Writer finds solace in Dante's "Divine Comedy" after death of his wife

Here is a fine essay, entitled "I Found Myself in a Dark Wood," by David Luzzi, from the NY Times.  It is about finding solace in Dante's "Divine Comedy," after the author loses his wife:

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

On Science and Nature Writing

The most recent essay featured in the New York Times “Draft” series (December 9, 2013) on the art and craft of writing is entitled “The Science and Art of Science Writing,” written by Michelle Nijhuis :
 Nijhuis is the co-editor of The Science Writer’s Handbook: Everything you Need to know to Pitch, Publish and Prosper in the Digital Age.”
The essay set my juices flowing.  Though I am not a scientist, I am married to one.  You might say our interests intersect in nature/science writing.  He is a geochemist who appreciates good writing on those topics, and I am a writer/editor who sometimes enjoys reading about them.
Two of our favorite writers are Elizabeth Kolbert and John McPhee, both of whom have essays published frequently by The New Yorker.  Here is a link to one of Kolbert’s recent articles, entitled "The Lost World":
John McPhee’s writing is not limited to nature/science writing.  He also writes wonderful essays in The New Yorker’s “The Writing Life” series.  One of them is entitled “Structure; beyond the picnic-table crisis”:

If you are interested in this type of writing, check out The Best American Science and Nature Writing, an annual publication (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.  The Best American Series).  The 2013 edition will be one of my husband’s Christmas presents.  Sh-h, don’t tell him!


Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Short stories online

Want to read classic short stories on line?  Go to this site:

There's a "Short Story of the Day" featured.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"Ducking Grief" essay

This essay by K. A. Leddy spoke volumes to me, for I, too, lost my daughter, though from disease, not from suicide.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Joyce Carol Oates and Robert Frost (A frosty relationship?)

The headline here is "Joyce Carol Oates Skewers Robert Frost as a Sexist Racist Old Bore."
Yikes!  "The Road Less Traveled" and "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening" are two of my favorite poems:

And here's the link to "Why is Modern Poetry so Bad?" in Harper's:
Read my blog entry on modern poetry on September 18, 2010, "Call Me Conventional."

Friday, October 18, 2013

Literary fiction

In a “Well” blog of the New York Times Health section (October 3, 2013), Pam Belluck writes about a study, published in Science, no less, which concludes that "after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence."

 What is literary fiction?  Its definition is usually in contrast to the definition of commercial, or popular, fiction.  Literary fiction is usually described as "serious," concerned with excellent writing and style, and often, though perhaps not always, portraying life as it really is.  Popular fiction is more concerned with plot and entertainment--a mode of escape from real life.  Literary endings may offer a resolution of sorts but tend not to wrap things up in a definitive manner.  Popular fiction usually provides a definite resolution--e.g., a happy ending, good triumphing over evil, a mystery solved.

 Some cynics might add that commercial fiction, as the name implies, is more likely to earn money for its authors, although sometimes a work of literary fiction can become a best seller.  Cold Mountain is an example of literary novel achieving commercial success. 

My first reaction to the above-mentioned study was "Yay."  I generally tend to like literary fiction, especially short stories.

 In a workshop I attended not long ago, one of the presenters made the statement that "literary fiction is boring."  I looked at her and mouthed "No."  (She is a writer of light mysteries and probably earns more money than I'll ever make as a writer.)  The generalization that all literary fiction is boring was unfair and untrue.  My hackles were raised.

Lately though, I find myself having my own criticism of literary fiction--at least, short stories that are classified as literary fiction.  In reading some anthologies of modern short stories, I noticed that many of the stories are so dreary that they could, indeed, be called boring.  Some, I've found unreadable. 

 Is it possible to be serious without being dreary?   I certainly think it is.   "Serious" and "dreary" are, of course, subjective, so what I find serious and admirable, other people might find dreary.  What I find dreary, other people may find admirable, because the stories are found in some annual anthologies whose editors chose them as "the best."

 I once taught a literature class about the short story.  In the beginning of the class, we discussed the difference between popular and literary writing.  The first story students read was "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell.  It is a classic of popular writing, with a plot so well structured that it's been emulated in one form or another over the years.  It is suspenseful, enjoyable, and totally unrealistic. 

 As we made our way through the course, we read a number of classic stories--most of which would probably be considered more "literary." Usually somewhere in the middle and again at the end of the course, I asked the students to do short writing exercises answering the question:  Which of the stories you've read so far is your favorite?  And why?  They had to explain their choice by using literary terms such as plot, characterization, suspense, etc. in their answers.  I also asked them to explain why they considered the story to fall more in the popular or the literary category.  Inevitably, "The Most Dangerous Game" would get more favorite votes than any other story.

Still, I would like to think that most of the students learned to appreciate stories that had popular elements but involved more complex themes and subtle character development.  Some of the stories that elicited good responses were:  "How I Met My Husband" by Alice Munro; "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri; "Everyday Use" by Alice Walker; and "Where are you going? Where have you been?" by Joyce Carol Oates.  (There are excellent films of the latter two stories which definitely added to the enjoyment and understanding of the stories.)

The stories just mentioned are also some of my favorites.  They have serious, thought-provoking themes, round characters, and believable plots--a balance of these elements that I consider ideal.  I don't consider any of them dreary.  

 I'd be curious to hear other people's thoughts on dreariness, or lack thereof, in the modern short story.  Drop me a line at