classic literature

Writers’ Writers vs. Readers’ Writers

I used to think the phrase “so-and-so is a writer’s writer,” was just a way to indicate a writer that other writers would read and recommend. Hell, even after I became a writer myself, the same attitude prevailed.

It was only after my writing reached a certain level, and my consciousness of the art form became much less subliminal and much more specific that I began to realize why some writers are revered by their peers while others most emphatically are not.

Let’s take Dan Brown, for example. Writers will never, ever accept that there is any literary merit in his work. They describe him as a hack who writes awfully, an aberration that proves that, just because words are in a book, it doesn’t make it literature.

Though I don’t know Dan Brown personally, I imagine he is laughing all the way to the bank. You see, no one told the millions of readers of The Da Vinci Code that it sucked, and they kept right on reading.

In fact, I’ll admit to having enjoyed it enormously (especially the first half of it). I was on a plane and out of books and the only interesting English-language paperback they’d had in Madrid airport was this one. So I bought it and loved it.

Is it well-written in the sense that Brown focuses on the language and the currently fashionable tenets of literary expression. No effing way.

Is it good? Absolutely. It is a page-turner in the classical mold and, like it or not, these are the books that engage readers. No matter how many critically acclaimed auteurs sniff at it, readers are not stupid; they can tell when something is excellent… and they will ignore critics in droves to read it.

So who’s right.

Offhand, I’d say the readers, as they are the people that writers create for in the first place.

But it isn’t that simple. A more nuanced answer would be that both groups are right.

A book that keeps readers reading is good by the most important of all definitions: it gives pleasure, escape and entertainment to its target audience. That can’t be bad, and critics of everything from Harry Potter to Fifty Shades are wrong to forget it. Great storytelling has to be an important part of any great book, and when postmodern critics sit down and disparage anything with a plot that people enjoy, they are doing a disservice to literature (modern critics had the same issue, BTW, this isn’t an attack on postmodernism per se).

Having said that, it’s possible to read for more than just the basic pleasure of finding out what happens next. The plot can be advanced in elegant as well as simple ways… and the texture of the writing can bring pleasure to readers as well. In that sense, arguing for more literary text is perfectly valid.

So why “writers’ writer” and not just “sophisticated readers’ writer”?

I think it’s because of the way writers react when they see a spectacular chunk of prose. While a reader might feel pleasure at the aesthetics, a writer will admire (or be jealous of) the mechanics. Writers, when they manage to turn off their inner reader, can feel awe at another writer’s craftsmanship.

In my case, I see it in Wodehouse, of course. While he is beloved by millions for the sheer sake of his humor and lovable characters, any writer exposed to his prose will leave with a sense of awe and inadequacy that will take a while to shake. There is no writer in the English language whose sentences are as beautifully crafted as Wodehouse. Don’t remember it that way? Then I challenge you to pick up any one of his books and prove me wrong. You won’t.

There are other writers who use language wonderfully (Fitzgerald), or incorporate erudite concepts effortlessly (Eco).

So, yes. There is another level in writing, and these are the books that authors will gravitate to.

But don’t discount readers’ opinions. That a book is straightforward in no way makes it a bad book. You have my permission to ignore the critics who tell you otherwise.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose books (he hopes) are long on both storytelling and language. In an attempt to prove it, he cites his collection of literary fiction, a novel in short story form, entitled Love and Death. You can check it out here.

Mona Lisa Overdrive: Cyberpunk Mysticism Explained… Sorta.

I’ve spoken about William Gibson’s Sprawl trilogy here before. Last time, we mused at just how much influence the books had on The Matrix film series (basically it’s impossible to overstate).

Now that I’ve finished the trilogy by reading Mona Lisa Overdrive, I can give my final thoughts.

First off, this book is fun. It’s structured like a multi-string crime book or a thriller in the modern mold, with different characters showing us different threads of the action, which then converge at the end. While it’s a little short to be quite as effective in this treatment as a contemporary (1988) Tom Clancy book, it’s still an entertaining way to structure the novel.

This is probably the one where the cyberpunk elements are woven into the tale most skillfully, possibly because Gibson understood them better or maybe because he assumed that the readers who’d gotten that far also understood everything much better. Either way, I think this book would not really work at all for people who hadn’t read the first two in the series.

Having said that, the best part of this book is that it actually explains the mystical aspects of the earlier novels, which, like the mystical aspects of the Matrix trilogy always annoyed me. They were a jarring note in an otherwise hard-science-y universe of hardware and software.

Though the explanation isn’t very deep or detailed–this book is much more about completing character arcs and telling its own unique set of events–the fact that the spiritual explanations are closed off helps reestablish the hard-edged nature of the series.

These books aren’t perfect–not many seminal books are–but they do transport you to an alternative and noir world, which is always welcome.

And seeing that a lot of modern science fiction seems more concerned with diversity and inclusivity than with actually telling a cool story, this is a welcome change of pace for those who’ve become saturated with the modern stuff. (I don’t want to be unfair–there’s still plenty of good, story/tech/adventure-driven SF out there. But you have to wade through it).

So there’s a reason Gibson has taken his place among the canonical writers.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Outside explores, as Gibson’s work does, the limits between humanity and technology, and the consequences of too much reliance on the latter. You can check it out here.

A Different Look at Early Feminism: The Bostonians

Back when I did my review of A Room of One’s Own, I commented that political discussion seemed to be much more intelligent back then and, in consequence, less annoying than our present day state in which people on the other side of the argument need to be unfriended, because politics.

Apparently, I spoke too soon.

Henry James is probably best known for A Portrait of a Lady, but in The Bostonians, he ridicules the political obsessives of his own day, which in this case was the late 1870s. That he choses the female emancipation movement is probably not representative of James’ own political leanings, but more that he needed a political movement that made itself utterly obnoxious for an extended period of time. Feminism appears to have been that movement on that day.

Despite Virginia Woolf’s well thought out and beautifully delivered speech that formed the basis for A Room of One’s Own, we were naive in stating that this was an era of intelligent political discussion. Woolf did not represent her movement’s rank-and-file, or even the day-to-day organizers. She was a superstar in a different field brought to impart wisdom… and she succeeded.

But that daily membership was just as subject to ridicule as your friend who wears the MAGA hat and drinks bleach to kill microbes or your communist buddy who insists that the Soviet Union wasn’t “real socialism” and that all historical evidence of the failure of socialism is caused by either aliens or corporate conspiracies.

Here, the victim of Henry James’ satire is a young fanatic feminist who may (or may not) be a lesbian. She lives and breathes for the movement to such an extent that she ends up hating all men… which is no less adolescent in 1870 than it is today.

Making things even more delightfully ironic, her antagonist is a southerner, a man who recently fought on the losing side of the Civil War… and whose views are decidedly conservative–and who James also satirized and turns into a caricature.

The stakes are the heart of a woman who is the most original and persuasive feminist speaker the movement has yet discovered and, unlike others, is young and beautiful to boot. The Southerner wishes to win her hand, while the feminist wants to keep her in the movement (which she will abandon if she becomes the Southerner’s wife).

I won’t spoil this one by telling you who wins, except that no one comes out smelling like a rose… and that it paints a portrait of the politics of the time which allows us to see that even the suffragist movement, which managed enormous good was, at its core, populated by the same sad fanatics we see today.

Interesting stuff, and a good way to immerse oneself in the day and age.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the range from literary fiction to historical fantasy. His most mainstream novel is a thriller entitled Timeless which combines a fast-paced international-crime-driven plot with the inherent sexuality of a young globe-trotting journalist to create something unique and absorbing. You can check it out here.

More Fine Books

As I’ve mentioned here before, I love Fine Books & Collections. I used to be a subscriber but, unfortunately, the postal service they use to mail magazines overseas just isn’t arriving in Argentina for some reason. And no one seems to have any clue as to where they are going missing.

So I buy them when I travel to the US, if I happen to spot it at a B&N newsstand. Which I did on my recent mid-pandemic trip to Washington and Philadelphia.

It appears their distribution issues are not just limited to Argentina, because the only copy I was able to snag was the Spring 2020 issue… in October. Still, I grabbed it without hesitation and, unlike the rest of the reading material I bought on the trip, I read this one immediately.

Totally worth it, even if a good chunk of the magazine dealt with the New York Rare Book Week (I assume that got cancelled due to Covid).

Even so, this one represents immersion therapy in a world of classic editions of beloved books, old maps, beautiful craftsmanship and art. Along with my visit to the Philadelphia Art Museum, which had some unexpected highlights in its holdings of Impressionist, Post-Impressionist and Modern art, this was my cultural break during my trip since the Smithsonian museums I am interested in–Air & Space, Art and American History–were closed on the dates I was in town.

My head spends a long time in the future because I’m in the middle of a science fiction novel, my kids ensure that I spend a good chunk of the day very much in the present (with both the joys and the annoyances that come with it), so just stopping everything and enjoying beauty and wonder created decades or centuries ago and seeing into minds who appreciate that sensation just like you do is a way to relax and just let go for a bit. I’m not exaggerating in the least when I say that these magazines are probably among the things I most enjoy reading.

In this one, there are the usual great articles and columns, but two, about the photography of Danny Lyon and the book listing high-tech inventions of the renaissance really stood out. I always leaf through these mags when I have a desire to be transported… and I still haven’t found one that disappoints on rereading.

Recommended (and maybe if enough people buy it, they’ll be able to fix their distribution problems!).

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. You can check out his literary fiction in Love and Death a narrative that comes together out of several short pieces to tell the story of a group of individuals who never quite realize how closely they are linked. You can check it out here.

The Allure of Beautiful Libraries

Those of you following along at home are probably aware by now that I have a thing for libraries, particularly beautiful ones. My home bookshelves are an eclectic mix of fine editions and ancient destroyed paperbacks, with most of the better books being “keepers” of which I bought a decent copy to replace a paperback that was falling to pieces.

Besides my own book buying tendencies, I also love reading about libraries, especially when it’s a lavishly illustrated book about them.

So it should come as no surprise that one of my dreams in life is to own a truly spectacular walk-in library with hundreds of meters of shelving. Those familiar with the Abbey Library at Saint Gall will understand the concept, but I never did like the aesthetics of these cold–albeit imposing–abbey libraries.

For myself, I much prefer the coziness of an English country house style library and study. It just seems a better kind of surrounding for a modern polymath. All right, it might be a bit of an antiquated concept, and the gentleman scholar a bit of a cliché, but I find that it fits my self-image better than most everything else. I’ve been accused of being a little elitist, but I maintain that I’m a gentle example of the breed.

CMC 39

So if I ever get one of these, you’re all invited to discuss literature, art and pretty much anything else that comes to mind in the feast of reason.

You’ll certainly find me happy.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death is a look at what could happen if prehistoric creatures resurfaced in Antarctica and encountered an expedition. It’s a fast-paced romp where enemies take many forms: monsters, weather and, perhaps worst of all, other people. You can check it out here.

Inspector Morse and Oxford, the Perfect Combination

Over the course of my life, I’ve discovered that few other genres offer the immediate escapism that a good murder mystery does. I’d never really thought about why, but I’ve come to think that it’s because the setting plays such a huge part in a crime novel.

Whether it’s one of Agatha Christie’s books set in the English countryside, or a slice of noir decadence, the shady lanes and mean streets are another character in the book.

But the master isn’t one of the ones I’d read before. It’s one that came to me through the screen.

Like many people, I discovered Inspector Morse through the 90’s TV series. A wonderful creation, it is essentially the only non-sports or non-sitcom TV content I have any patience for. I watched the entire original series recently, and it’s an amazing piece of work, transporting the viewer to the pace and sights of Oxford.

But I’d never read any of Colin dexter’s Original books. This, it turns out, is a stupid omission.

I’ll assume The Daughters of Cain is a typical Morse book and say that… it’s absolutely wonderful. If the rest of the series is as good as this one, I’d say that Dexter was another of the worthy successors to Agatha Christie. In fact, I’ll say that, though the psychological complexity of the characters might not be at the level of others, these books are better.

Why? Because of what I said at the beginning. The setting becomes a character, and no setting is better suited to the role than the city of Oxford. It’s history, architecture and the interaction of town and gown is perfect to lose oneself in…

But it takes a special kind of writer to do it justice and Dexter fits the bill wonderfully. Erudite and knowledgeable, he brings the city and Morse’s fraught relationship with the university to vibrant life and you, as a reader, find yourself transported.

When the book finished, I wanted more, but not more of the characters, necessarily. I wanted more of the world they moved around in. And I think that’s the magic of these books.

Recommended.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans several genres. His fast-paced thriller Timeless follows a journalist on the track of a big story only to find herself involved with international smugglers and East-European drug dealers. If she wants to survive, she’ll have to ally herself with a man who knows the ropes… and that means a criminal. You can check it out here.

Gaskell’s Brontë, a Controversial Piece of Hero Worship

Choosing a favorite among the three universally accepted colossi of the 19th-century female writers is supposed to be an exclusive proposition.  You can only like one–Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë or Jane Austen–while being severely critical of the rest.

Of course, that only applies to superfans, the kind of personality who will force perfectly normal people to choose between Star Wars and Star Trek, or between Twilight and Harry Potter.

If forced to dance to this music, I’ll go with Austen, followed by Emily.  Charlotte would be close… but third.

Even among the Brontë’s themselves, I have gone on record as preferring Anne to her more famous sisters.

Elizabeth Gaskell, were she alive, would disagree.

The Life of Charlotte Brontë - Elizabeth Gaskell.jpg

A famous novelist herself (North and South), Gaskell was friends with Brontë while Charlotte was still alive.  She was therefore perfectly placed to write the authorized biography of the author of Jane Eyre.  In fact, she was so perfect that Brontë’s father was the one who asked her to write it.

Being that close to the subject brought very many advantages–the knowledge of the people and places really brings the resulting book, The Life of Charlotte Brontë, to life.  Unfortunately, it also means that Gaskell withholds important information and pulls her punches somewhat.

The basics are well covered.  Gaskell’s style paints an incredible picture of the six motherless children growing up in an isolated village, and you cry with them as they lose the two eldest sisters, leaving probably the greatest concentration of literary genius every gathered under a single family’s roof in the persons of the three surviving girls (the one boy, Branwell, was never able to get it together and was basically an anchor and a source of anxiety, nothing more).

If you wrote a fictional account this poignant, no one would believe it, and you’d be laughed at.

But it’s real.  One by one we watch the women of the generation drop in the clutches of tuberculosis, fortunately after producing immortal masterworks.  Emily is the one felt strongest in this particular book.  The personality we guess at from Wuthering Heights appears fully present here, walking the moors.

In fact, this book reinforced my thinking that, if I had a time machine, I would probably go back and give Emily a TB vaccination as an infant.  I would really want to see what she, the genius of a family full of them, would have done with a little practice under her belt.  She’s the one I’d save if I could only save one.

On the debit side of the ledger, the Life completely conceals the episode of Charlotte falling in love with the (married) owner of the school she studied and worked at in Belgium.  That is because Gaskell had a hero worshipper’s view of Brontë.  She considered Charlotte a model of Christian mores and suffering, and this view was inconsistent with any possibility of that kind of inappropriate behavior.

In fact, had it been any other life, I’d say the suffering angle was way overblown by a natural dramatist… but when your mother and siblings drop like flies out in the moorlands, I’m inclined to give Gaskell the benefit of the doubt.

Of course, some people didn’t, and despite the care to omit names, the publishers were threatened with lawsuits, most notably by the owners of the school that killed the eldest siblings through unsanitary conditions and the woman who was Branwell’s (the brother) lover, and also the wife (later widow) of one of his employers.  Fortunately, the first edition went out unexpurged, and we can record her name here for posterity: Lady Lydia Robinson Scott.  We do this not because we think she did anything wrong in taking a lover, but because she lawyered up when caught.  Yawn.

There have been more factually accurate biographies of the Brontë’s, but I doubt there will ever be any more powerful.  Gaskell could write, and the material in her hands was dramatic indeed.  Recommended.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer.  He is fascinated by how the human mind responds in emotionally charged situations.  One of his books explores this in great depth, and is, unsurprisingly entitled Love and Death.  You can check it out here.

The Opposite of a Spy Novel

We’ve discussed spy novels here before, and we’ve professed a preference for the books on one end of the spectrum: the unrealistic spy-as-a-superhero genre, as exemplified by stuff like this or like thisJames Bond is probably the perfect example of this kind of reading; suspension of disbelief is a must, but the rewards are a truly fun read and a welcome piece of escapism.

But there’s another side to the spy book business.  Some writers go the literary routs and, instead of making their agents superhuman, they settle for making them all-too-human.  Graham Greene, of course, showed us part of this with his The Third Man, and Conrad failed, but the master is John le Carré.

The Russia House - John le Carré.jpg

The Russia House isn’t his best known book.  That would be The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.  I haven’t read enough of his books to say with any confidence that it’s his best… but I can say it’s typical.

In le Carré’s world, spies are tired, worn workers in a trade that takes a toll.  Some suffer the anxiety of being captured and tortured, and shot, but most, the ones not on the front lines simply feel the stress of being responsible for an unheralded part of national security while, at the same time, having to worry about wives and lovers, pushy coworkers and office politics.

These are the characters that populate this novel, and they play against the ones that truly are at risk, the men and women on the front lines whose very lives depend on the aforementioned handlers.

The tension in his books is of the slow-burn type.  You don’t have a gigantic guard running after the protagonist with an AK-47.  The KGB is around every corner, but they’re probably just as bored as you are.

It’s certainly not the escapist rush of a quick 1970s secret agent novels from supermarket racks… but it does draw you in to the Cold War and build a world that means the last page of the novel is turned with regret because you have to return to the real world.  The characters are well-rounded.  They are people, not cardboard cutouts.

The espionage?  It’s secondary.  Like the sex in Lolita or the car trip in The Remains of the Day, it’s a framing device to tel us about lives that might not be so different from our own, and values that are, perhaps, lost.

A worthwhile alternative look at the genre.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose novel Ice Station Death takes international politics and crosses them with Jurassic Park to create a tense adventure with modern sensibilities.  You can check it out here.

The National Book of Argentina

Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book.  England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth.  Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar.  Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote.  Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.

But what about Argentina, my own land?

Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture.  Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.

But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges.  It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).

Martin Fierro José Hernández

Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature.  Everyone else in the country can name it.  It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.

Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country.  Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.

I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true.  Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier.  It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).

Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good.  Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).

It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note.  The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters.  And that is timeless.

Finally, a technical note.  The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books.  If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.

Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different.  If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy.  You can have a look at it here.

Poirot, Like a Breath of Fresh Air

Those following along will remember that the last two Agatha Christie novels we reviewed here were Tommy and Tuppence vehicles.  You can see my take here and here.

These are not the books that made Christie famous.  Not by a long shot.

But, like finding a glass of water in the desert, one appreciates her great work more by exposure to the arid wasteland.  And when Poirot returns, rejoicing ensues.

Evil Under the Sun - Agatha Christie

I don’t know if it was the rebound effect, but I found Evil Under the Sun to be a near-perfect murder mystery.  It has everything you want from Agatha Christie: a secluded location, a group of people with motives for killing the victim, wonderful red herrings and a resolution that depends on the psychology of the victim.

It’s a simply beautiful piece of mystery fiction and blows away the boring image of the Tommy and Tuppence books.  I suppose the reason it works so well is that the setting is comfortable and familiar, and that the possibility of the reader guessing the murderer exists (though that is never necessarily Christie’s strongest suit in my experience).  The clues in this one exist… but you don’t necessarily manage to put them together until Poirot explains them.

So THIS is classic Queen of Crime, and if you’ve already read The Murder of Roger Akroyd and Murder on the Orient Express, this is a good choice for continued reading.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who doesn’t write whodunnits, but his book timeless is a sexy, fast-paced thriller.  You can check it out here.