On March 13th UCC’s Dr Anne Etienne gave a presentation on her current research of Arnold Wesker’s early plays. Before the presentation I knew nothing of Arnold Wesker or his plays but when I heard at the lecture’s beginning that he had a reputation for grumpiness that he did not understand why I felt I could relate and that I might like his work.
The presentation focused on failure in Wesker’s career centring around his work with Centre Fortytwo Theatre in the Roundhouse during the 1960s. Centre Fortytwo was a New Labour initiative to bring the arts to a popular audience and imbue it with a political, and in particular, a socialist message. Socialism in Wesker’s plays and Centre Fortytwo was to portray a “way of living based on the theory life is rich… [and] worth living”.
The presentation gave a brief history of how Centre 42 fared through the 60s and how Wesker’s own plays were received. Quite simply Wesker’s writing career witnessed a rise and fall in little time. He was well regarded before Centre Fortytwo and in 1962 his play “Chips With Everything” was a success but after this his career went quiet through the sixties. It was an eminent part of the failure of Centre Fortytwo which Wesker quit in 1970.
Wesker regarded the purpose of art as being to stir the human spirit, but Centre Fortytwo and theatre at the time had an audience neither wide enough nor working class enough to support his plays. His plays “Four Seasons” (1965) and “Golden City” (1966) were flops. By 1970 with the first production of “Oh! Calcutta!” the Roundhouse had garnered a reputation for sex and drugs and had its funding halted.
From what I understand it’s a study of failure. Failure in theatre and in culture and in politics. And it’s an examination as to why. On the personal side, while these reasons were hypothesised, I did not understand why in the terms they examined.
While I did enjoy this lecture I found I was hamstrung by my own ignorance to fully understand and appreciate it. Perhaps if I had know more of Arnold Wesker or more about the modern British theatre or the political environment of 1960s England I would have gotten more out. But what I felt for a lot of the presentation was that I was trying to get a grasp of what was being talked about as well as trying to understand the intricacies of what was being discussed was too great a task to accomplish either.
This is a feeling that recurred throughout the various research seminars I attended. There were many topics and talks I simply did not understand so I found it too much to write a review of them. It’s impossible to effectively judge what you do not understand.
Yet in terms of the presentation itself it was easy to follow. The slides moved away on their own without a huge amount of relevance to the words spoken, but this made little difference. The most positive aspect of it being the introduction to Arnold Wesker, the Kitchen Sink Drama and the so called “angry young men” of the 1960s.
I’m going to spoil a few endings in this blog. Mass Effect 3. Blade Runner. Star Wars.
This is a stupid question. I understand that. But it means something more. It’s a question of story telling consistency and laws of an invented fictional world. A great story does not have to be possible. Things too wild for you to imagine can make the greatest story. But wild fantastic or magical events in a story have to be consistent with a story or they’ll jar. They throw you out of place.
So what happens to a werewolf who becomes an astronaut? There’s many questions in this. First of all why the hell would a werewolf become an astronaut? Does he not know? Has he not seen a full moon or those the change come with amnesia? Has nobody noticed? And if he were to make it to space what effect would the moon have? Would the shuttle and the suit protect him? Or would the lunar power be too great so close? Would he turn werewolf forever? Or fully wolf? Or would he die? The answer is you’re going down the wrong path even considering the idea. It’s utterly ridiculous. Do not include a werewolf in a space story. It’s dumb.
Now this is a stupid example of a real problem in a lot of story telling. It’s easiest seen at endings. Because as far as I can tell, endings seem to be hard. Especially in pop fiction. A stupid, crowd pleasing stuck on ending a can spoil the entirety of a narrative and end up not pleasing anyone but the idiots. And who wants them? Examine Blade Runner. There’s a lot of good in maintaining the world’s consistency. The completely one-sided fight between Deckard and Batty is how that fight should have gone. It fit the world. But if we look at the original cut’s ending, when Deckard and Rachel drive away beneath a blue sky we wonder what the hell is going on? Didn’t we see an industrial hellscape and blasted sky at the film’s beginning?
It’s similar in Star Wars, although not so obvious. There’s a problem with the entire plot around the theme of balancing the Force. In the chronological arc of the story the universe we see has is overburdened with the good Jedi. Then all but a few of them die and the evil Sith have the power. Then the Sith die and there is Luke. The lone Jedi. And he’s good. So the Force is not in balance. What I read into this is that the prophecy of such importance has turned out not no be true. It’s nonsense. And not in the way the entirety of the story is. It’s nonsense because it doesn’t stay true to itself.
Last year the end of the Mass Effect series of video games saw widespread controversy over its ending (read: whiney people with internet connections). It’s the same problem. But it comes about differently. It has a greater excuse but it shoves the deviance in your face so you cannot miss it. Throughout the games you are fighting against the oncoming doom of the Reapers. You are told again and again that there is no hope, that it is impossible, but throughout the games you are doing the impossible again and again. There’s nothing especially clever in a philosophical sense about anything that happens and when the plot gives you an apparent way out and then tears it away to give you some stupid ham-fisted quasi-philosophical cliché that has shown up in every other science fiction since 1950 it doesn’t come across well. In fact it spoils the entire three preceding works. It’s an example of writers trying very hard to be clever and believing they’ve succeeded when in fact they’ve done something incredibly stupid. The ending did not match what a come before it.
I just want plots to keep hold of a tone. Be something. Blend things maybe but don’t tack things on.
Just keep it simple stupid.
Last Wednesday I sat in on a lecture given by Frank Shovlin from the University of Liverpool on the first chapter of his book Journey Westward: Joyce, Dubliners and the Literary Revival. Although I’m studying American literature, I’ve always liked Joyce. Even if you’re not a fan of his work, the way he went about it, his experimentation and his pedantic perfectionism, is fascinating. I loved Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses is like a scrapbook of perfecting an array of literary styles. I quit Finnegan’s wake after two pages because I’m not a masochist. Life is too short for that nonsense. It’s the short story collection Dubliners that I love most of all though. It prose is so clean, simple, readable and poetic I find it as near perfect as writing can ever be. In particular the final story, The Dead, long enough that it’s often considered a novella. Its final passage might be my single favourite piece of writing. (On an irrelevant side note Cormac McCarthy comes close.)
The lecture focussed on The Dead (happily for me) and the importance of the influence of Joyce’s father’s career on his fiction. I was impressed by how much it all tied together. The entirety of it made sense. This is a rare opinion from me to an argument I never once considered and is based primarily on subtext. It’s fit to the text and it fit to Joyce’s biography.
The argument explained Joyce’s choice of location in a single scene from The Dead and provided it with greater context and exposition that tied the choice into Joyce’s life and wider canon. In the story Gretta tale of her time in Galway is centred in Nun’s Island when the cause of the tragedy takes place. Nun’s Island was home to a whiskey distillery. This supposedly was why Joyce picked it and not Bowling Green where his wife Nora stayed.
Shovlin established Joyce’s history with the drink and distilleries. Such as that Joyce’s own father was a failed owner of a whiskey distillery and the family connection of Lady Gregory to the Nun’s Island distillery. The two elements occur with negativity throughout the collection, such as in The Sisters and Counterparts. When it was all put together it seemed clear. This was the most fascinating part. It seems fully intentional by Joyce in a way these occurrences are often not in other writers’ work.
This was the research seminar I enjoyed the most. There are probably several reasons for this. Some might be to do with myself. I had read the text in question several times in the past and had lived in some of the places involved n the lecture so I had some base knowledge and genuine interest in what was being discussed. I was pleased with the manner in which Dr. Shovlin spoke. It was simple. It was understandable. It made it clear that he truly knew what he was talking about. This isn’t to say that the other speakers didn’t. They did. But there’s a line to reach where you can talk to people and have them understand what you’re talking about without an extensive knowledge of your topic, and without condescending to them. I can’t say I’ve ever been condescended to. But I’ve been talked over more often than not. Although again, this may just be me. This lecture hit that note. It’s seemingly harder than it sounds.
With the thesis getting nearer I’ve started thinking more on how to write it. Not even what to write it on. I’ve got a tonne of ideas of what to write it on, but I think how it’s written may be just as important. I’m referring to sentence structure and word choice.
To me the to questions come down to verbosity, which is an ironic word to use given my opinion on the issue. I don’t like writing that is needlessly complex. It feels like showing off. Sentences that stretch unnecessarily for lines using multi syllable words when small words will do are frustrating, but after reading many academic essays and books it seems to be the way it is done.
To me, good writing is getting an idea across as clearly and coherently as possible. It shouldn’t be an exercise in flexing your intellectual muscles. New and interesting ideas show more intelligence and create a more interesting piece of writing than stuffing it full of big words. I know it’s not a exclusive opinion. David Foster Wallace was recorded agreeing with me. Although, you wouldn’t know through reading him…
“Puff” is the perfect description of the problem to me. Although more often I feel like it’s bloating. There’s something wrong to me when you can’t explain it simply. An essay is not a poem. It’s an idea and an argument explained. You don’t need to match syllables to metre. If anything it should be made as short as possible to save time. And if I cannot understand the idea an essay is trying to explain after reading, I regard it a bad essay – whether or not the idea is a good one. This must be the skill of the essay.
I feel the same way I feel about the semi-colon. It’s just not needed. There are simpler ways to construct sentences and they do not lose anything in readability or eloquence. But this, as with the unnecessary big words keep coming up again and again in works that seem to be regarded as seminal academic writing.
I’ve begun questioning myself in the matter. I can’t be sure whether I’m unsuited to academia, or am I at the beginning of a new time in academia (I’m 99% sure this is no) or whether the greater world of academia is full of strutting naked emperors all of them hoping nobody looks down.
I leave space here to be corrected and convinced I’m wrong.
Even as I write this it feels like a strange thing to ask, but I’m not 100% percent sure what makes a novel an American novel. It’s not as stupid a question as it sounds. An American author would be the natural conclusion. But there are books, considered American novels, even Great American Novels, classics, that were not written by Americans.
The key novel I’m thinking of here in Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. It’s a spectacular piece of literature, often regarded as one of the greatest novels ever written, and after reading it, I can’t contest this. What confuses me though, is how often I see the novel on lists of greatest American novels. Nabokov was Russian, but he did become an American citizen. But the novel was originally written in English and the greater part of the novel is set in America. This seems to qualify him.
Cormac McCann is an Irish writer, from Dublin, living in New York. In 2009 he won the National Book Award for Fiction with his novel Let the Great World Spin. It’s about New York, through its people. It’s an American novel by all conventions save the author’s nationality.
A similar story happened in 2001 with Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. As the title suggests the film is about America. In the most part, about American culture and its population made of immigrants and the culture they bring with. But in Gaiman’s style, it’s told through wild fantastic elements. So if Neil’s an Englishman, but the novel is completely about America, is it to be viewed as a purely American novel?
The question is even more rampant in comic-books. The two maybe comic-book franchises, Marvel and DC, hired large numbers of British writers in the late 1980s. They were hired to write classic American characters: Superman, Batman etc. Between 1986 and 1987, Alan Moore wrote the original series Watchmen for DC comics. Again, an American story for an American audience written by an Englishman.
I don’t know how these works are supposed to defined. Is it by writer or by subject. If I were to write a novel about America it might be seen as an American novel. But if I were to write a novel about the Arctic circle, I don’t think it would be considered an Arctic novel. Is it just the strength of the American culture that is absorbs work connected to it? Or is it that art is defined more by its audience than its creator? I can’t settle on an answer. Perhaps it varies through different examples. And perhaps it really doesn’t matter.
When you’re very fond of books – like I am, most of the time – there’s always a danger of reading about books as often as you actually read them. I say danger because it can give you some really strange ideas and unnatural opinions. If you read how a certain author who you’ve never read is a genius and a visionary again and again, you’ll start to believe it. I’m sure it works in reverse, but it’s in the positive sense that I’ve experienced it, and in the instance I experienced, I can confirm, it’s setting you up for a fall.
I’ve been reading about David Foster Walllace for about two years now. Maybe three. It doesn’t matter. The fact is that I’ve heard such amazing things about him. He was supposed to be the American James Joyce. And I live James Joyce (except for his personal letters to Nora Barnacle. Don’t click that. Really NSFW.) His mammoth novel Infinite Jest is apparently one of the greatest English novels ever written. I didn’t tackle that though. I read his first novel, because whether or not this was wise, the beginning seemed like an appropriate place to start.
The book is called The Broom of the System. I was really looking forward to it, because Wallace had been my favourite author I’d never read for the past two years now and the back of the book sets it up to be absolutely crazy. Sadly the back of the book was probably the best part of it. It’s pretty obvious that Wallace loved Thomas Pynchon. That’s where the madness and forced comical situations come from. But he’s not Thomas Pynchon. It’s forced. And it’s clear Wallace has big ideas in regards what good writing is and what a good novel is but nowhere in that book does he achieve it. It reads like he’s writing the type of book he thinks he should. The effort to be avant garde destroys any possibility of being entertaining. It’s tragic and boring and horribly pretentious.
I’m probably being harsh because I’m so disappointed in it. Maybe he improved immeasurably between this novel and Infinite Jest. It’s conceivable. It’s a six year gap. And I’m sure I’ll read it eventually. But later. Much later.
But enough of that. Back to me. This blog is supposed to be much better looking and organised by now, but I can’t figure out how to do that. This truly is my blog…
It’s a difficult idea to grasp that other people may not find the things you love as great as you do, and that things they find are so awful. I’ve always known that some people have bad taste in many things, or most things or even in some cases, all things, but recently I’ve been struck by a pity for them. It’s not even that people are unaware of the better things in the world, they just have bad taste. The first time I realised this I was around thirteen and heard a girl, some years older than me telling her friend how awful Donnie Darko was and how people who like it must be stupid. She was wrong.
So. Catcher in the Rye. Here’s a book whose reputation suffers from its popularity. That makes sense, trust me. I’ll explain. Catcher is one of the most widely read books since its publication. I have never been in a bookshop that did not have this book for sale. It seems to me that most people who read have have read the book and many people who generally do not read, or at least, not regularly, and it seems that they part from the book with either a love and admiration for it, or they hate it. Nobody has even given a middle-of-the-road opinion. At least not to me.
First to tackle those who don’t like the book. Look at this painting. It’s Guernica by Picasso. It’s terrific. It’s a masterpiece. Does that mean you like blowing people up? No. Of course not… I hope. But this is how you should read this book. Objectively.
It always comes back to Holden. Holden is this, that and the other. Nothing ever good. Mostly that he’s whiney, pretty misogynistic, and he brings all of his troubles on himself. Well, yes. Also, the sky is blue. Holden is all these things. He’s a teenager. I was one of those once. It was horrible. And I’ve met some since then. They were horrible. But they are not irredeemable. In fact most people who contract teenager-it is recover from the condition in seven years.
So there’s the protagonist. He’s not to be admired. Or emulated. But I think he is to be pitied. You should pity a cripplingly lonely and depressed boy. Just think about how long he spends just trying to find somebody to talk to. All he wants is somebody to listen to him, and who he eventually finds is Mr. Antollini, and that turns out less than ideal. It’s dark.
And the prose is solid. It doesn’t explain everything to you. It doesn’t throw its meaning into your face. It lays it out simply. It has a beginning, middle and end. It’s well paced. It’s a good length. And it’s packed with simple, but clever metaphors woven into the narrative: the ducks and the frozen pond; the red hunting cap with the flaps to hide behind and its colour the colour of Allie’s hair.
So, what I’m saying in vague and rushed terms is that the book is worthy of great praise. But Holden Caulfield should not be thought of a hero or a voice of a generation. He’s lonely, he’s annoying and he’s seriously depressed.
Which leads on to how you might like the book in the wrong way. If you identify with Holden Caulfield, that is not okay. You have serious issues. He is not a character to admire or emulate. You should speak to someone. Seek help. The Samaritans, or a psychologist. You might be Mark Chapman.
Don’t be that guy. He’s not someone you want to be. And just because you realise that, doesn’t mean you should write-off the book, because it’s a terrific achievement in the creating a novel as an art form. So admire it for that, even if you don’t enjoy it.
*I haven’t read the book in years so this may well be heavily edited in the near future for mistakes and perhaps to be made readable. But the gist will be as it is.
There’s something really terrific about American sitcoms. British sitcoms come in small doses and sometimes, even often, great quality. I’m including Irish sitcoms in this bracket. Father Ted was funded by Channel four. Hardy Bucks doesn’t count because it’s atrocious. We all know how short but how funny Faulty Towers is. It becomes a luxury. Each moment is fleeting and deserves attention because every moment has thought put into it. There are jokes and references and set details that cannot all be taken in on the first viewing.
I’m only talking about the good sitcoms of course. Britain produces more than it’s fair share of totally unfunny tripe. I’m looking at you Two Pint’s of Lager and A Packet of Crisps… whatever you are.
But the American sitcoms… they don’t give a monkey’s. There is a definite and unapologetic preference of the quality over the quantity. Just think, a single season of Friends (which was quality until the trip to London) has as many episodes as the entire four seasons of Blackadder, which might be the greatest sitcom ever. Don’t argue. I’m right.
I’m not lambasting American sitcoms though. I love them. I can put them on in the background and cook or eat or wash up or iron or write a blog post and enjoy the show and do what I’m doing adequately – maybe not well, but… adequately.
I’m not complaining about any of this. In fact, in many of these shows, I want more. I don’t think these shows will be as good as Spaced or Black Books – although the prematurely cancelled Arrested Development comes as close as possible. Combining the volume and quantity is too great a task. Dan Harmon was doing it with Community, but he was fired and the show seems to be imploding. I can’t help but think this is connected.
What I meant to talk about was literary references in these sitcoms. They’re aren’t exactly common. In fact I can only think of two. But expect, tiny updates in case I ever find more.
So, in the newest episode of New Girl – a pretty awful Zooey Deschanel vehicle – named Eggs, the character Nick struggles with writing his zombie novel. He decides he needs to be more like Hemingway and has adventures to solve his inspiration problem. So he gets drunk and goes to the zoo. Seems legit to me. And while this was a joke obviously referring to Papa’s love for big game and crippling alcoholism, it would not surprise me in the least to learn that he once got drunk at the zoo. It sounds like a fun thing to do, if it weren’t for the likely presence children…
This reminded me of the second episode of How I Met Your Mother, a much better show. Ted keeps throwing parties, night after night, in the hope that Robin might show up. At one point, Marshall says to him: “So, Gatsby, what are you going to do when Robin shows up?” I hadn’t read The Great Gatsby when I first saw this. Of course I’d heard the name. Who hasn’t heard of Gatsby – but who knows what he’s about!? The enigmatic magnificent. The line put the thought in my head. Soon after, I saw the book in a bookshop, I bought it, I read it and I loved it. This all meant something to me. It convinced me that there is some greater value to these sitcoms than cheering me up and de-stressing me – although these are all I need.
But my point is that the really great works of literature infiltrate every level of a culture – even if it takes eighty years.
Twenty-five days lay of from updates because to concentrate on an essay is probably too long, but that’s what it’s been and that’s how it is. The course has moved on. It has momentum now and it’s easier to see the progress, slow as it is. It still seems like time is moving faster than work is being done. This leaving a relatively high seeming workload. It’s imposing.
The days have gotten shorter. I don’t mean less sunlight. I feel somebody has stolen some hours. That or I’ve been managing time poorly, but I refuse to acknowledge personal flaw.
On the bright side, the content has changed. The impoverished immigrant narratives are in the past and around and before us are modernist novels with thoughtless spending, loose morals and poor lifestyle choices. It’s much more relatable.
In class, we have studied The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. These are two of the most famous of this era of writers. I’ve loved all that I’ve read of the works of the “lost generation” ever since I took up reading more than doorstops with dragons and often, in a tragically clichéd train of thought, romanticised Paris in the 1920s. It’s a common thought. Woody Allen made a film about it. This Film. Midnight In Paris.
I’m not sure what Van Gogh has to do with Paris in the twenties. He died in 1890. But it’s a great poster, and nothing in the film makes a great amount of sense, so it works anyway. Owen Wilson’s successful but creatively unfulfilled screenwriter on holiday in Paris travels back to meet the legendary artists who occupied Paris in the 20s. Simple.
It sounds daft, and it is, but it’s a great film. I loved seeing these legendary figures brought to life. I know they were just caricatures. Scott Fitzgerald is almost Gatsby, Zelda is hyperactive and super-sensitive, Hemingway is gruff, rude and strangely charming, Gertrude Stein is an artistic mother figure, and Salvador Dali is fantastically insane. These and a host of others make for a brilliantly full film with great personalities surrounding Owen Wilson’s character as he deals with his typical Woody Allen dilemmas in his work and love life. It makes you want to see Paris at night in the rain with a beautiful woman. It’s making an easy sale really.
It’s great to fall onto a film you know nothing about and find you already love what it’s about and get to see it in a new and colourful and funny light.
After more than a month of this masters degree it’s beginning to get moving. It seemed slow at first with more free time than I knew what to do with. Now though, with just the barest understanding of what’s expected through the year, it’s clear that the potential amount of constructive work is endless.
The thesis, which forms almost half of the marks of the course, is not due until early next October but already appears daunting. The word-count is between 15 and 17 thousand words. This isn’t the intimidating part of it. The prospect of choosing what to write it on is what’s troubling. It can be written on anything. Any subject on any author or film maker or novel or film. Past theses have have been written on musicians – presumably their lyrics as poetry – which leads me to believe that video games also fall within the confines of possibility.
17 thousand words isn’t that long when the scope is so large, so to focus the piece and form an effective argument is the task. Deciding on what to write seems impossible now. There are many writers and many film makers whose work interests me. There is a lot of time until this decision needs to be made, but I know that this, like anything else in the future that is ignored will creep up with fast.
The first segment of the course is finished now – Immigration and Race. The novels were all to do with Jewish immigrants in New York. The films focussed on Irish immigrants and their descendants.
Out of the first three novels, just one of them was enjoyable to read. Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers was an easy read. It was short and the language was simple, but it was boring. The plot went nowhere and the characters seemed unreal and generally unlikeable.
Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep is a well written book. The prose is poetic and clearly heavily influenced by Joyce. Ulysses especially. The strength of this influence of this is too great though. You cannot read the book without thinking of Joyce and, more than anything, it makes you appreciate how extraordinary Joyce’s writing is. The book feels over long and the protagonist, David, is insufferable. I found myself hoping for a Shakespearean tragic ending. I can admire the book, but not like it.
Jews Without Money, Michael Gold’s novel, is the best reading experience of the three. The characters seem like real people – good aspects and bad – and the prose is readable and flows with terrific phrasing often occurring. The only problem I found was the novel’s ending. It doesn’t have one. The novel is semi-autobiographical and as such the tale has not ended. But the novel does not find a compelling close. Call It Sleep managed that much.
The first three films: Amarilly of Closeline Alley from 1918; The Public Enemy from 1931; and Yankee Doodle Dandy from 1942 and all feature Irish immigrant families and their rising or attempts to rise from slums – not directly in their plots,more in a subtext. They’re good films (although as for Yankee Doodle Dandy, I don’t care for musicals. At all.)
The fourth film, The Departed, is the film that finally won Martin Scorsese an Oscar. It’s fantastic. And as the time has come that essay titles have been handed out, and I think that this may be what I do mine on, I’ll say no more than that.
So, on to essay and, eventually, the thesis.