Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

Salon Wonders: Is “On the Road” a Classic?

3 Feb

salonOh, hey, that’s an ad for my book on Salon!

What makes a book a classic,” wonders Laura Miller in Salon.

Wouldn’t you know it, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road gets a mention, amongst works by Seamus Heaney, Kurt Vonnegut, David Foster Wallace, Daphne du Maurier, P.G. Wodehouse, Toni Morrison, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Alexandre Dumas. Miller writes:

And what about “On the Road” which to the same reader might seem like an incontestable classic at age 17 and sadly or sentimentally jejune at 45?

Her question in regard to Kerouac’s most famous novel raises some questions of its own:

  • Does our definition of “classic” change with our age?
  • Is On the Road definitively insignificant after age 45?
  • Does content matter more than literary style even for the classics?

But let’s go back to the discussion at hand for a moment to build some context. In her article, Miller points to an interesting discussion on Goodreads:

A fascinating Goodreads discussion on this topic shows participants tossing out all the most common defining characteristics of a classic book. It has stood the test of time. It is filled with eternal verities. It captures the essence and flavor of its own age and had a significant effect on that age. It has something important to say. It achieves some form of aesthetic near-perfection. It is “challenging” or innovative in some respect. Scholars and other experts endorse it and study it. It has been included in prestigious series, like the Modern Library, Penguin Classics or the Library of America, and appears on lists of great books. And last but not least, some people define a classic by highly personal criteria.

She also references an essay by an Italian journalist, translated by Patrick Creagh in 1986:

Perhaps the most eloquent consideration of this question is Italo Calvino’s essay, “Why Read the Classics?,” in which he defines a classic as “a book that has never finished saying what it has to say,” among a list of other qualities.

So does On the Road fit these contrived attributes of a classic?

  • Has On the Road stood the test of time?
  • Does On the Road hold eternal truths?
  • Does On the Road capture its era, the 1940s and ‘50s?
  • Did On the Road have a significant effect on the 1950s?
  • Does On the Road have something important to say?
  • Does On the Road achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection? Side question: Is aesthetic near-perfection something we can define or is it subjective??
  • Is On the Road challenging? Side question: Does challenging mean from a reading-level standpoint? From a philosophical standpoint?
  • Is On the Road innovative?
  • Has On the Road been included in a prestigious literary series?
  • Has On the Road appeared on a list of great books?
  • Does On the Road fit your own personal criteria of classic?
  • Has On the Road ever finished saying what it’s had to say?

Okay, many of these can be objectively answered as “yes.” One can point to numerous sources that show that Kerouac’s road novel rocked the era in which it was published and continues to be discussed by scholars and pop culture alike today. A few seem debatable, but I would argue that anyone knowledgeable of literary history and criticism would agree—from a literary standpoint—that On the Road is innovative (read Burning Furiously Beautiful for in depth analysis of Kerouac’s literary style) and therefore challenging in both style and content. It also speaks to eternal verities (notably the search for it, for meaning) and therefore has something important to say and continues saying it afresh to new readers. The two questions that remain because they are the most subjective are:

  • Does On the Road achieve some form of aesthetic near-perfection?
  • Does On the Road fit your own personal criteria of classic?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on wrestling with these questions. Is On the Road a classic?

One thing that struck me—hard!—when I was reading Miller’s thought-provoking article is that I immediately agreed that David Foster Wallace’s work is a classic, but was put off by J. R. R. Tolkien being included. While this shows my own personal bias, if pressed I would concede that Lord of the Rings is “a classic” but not “a Classic.” It is, after all, fantasy—genre fiction. And in my mind, as in many other people’s mind, there is a distinction, a dividing line in literature. For some reason, I can concur that magical realism can fall under the category of classic but have a more difficult time with fantasy. Yet, if I hold Lord of the Rings up to the same questions as On the Road, I’m hard-pressed to deny it’s a classic. So what is a classic? What standards should we agree to when defining a work as classic? Are there classics and Classics?

And why do Lord of the Rings nerds get a free pass for liking Tolkien well into their adult years while society derides Kerouac as a novel just for teenagers??

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Friday Links: …Punctuation!

27 Sep

In honor of it being National Punctuation Day earlier this week (the 24th, to be exact), here are some punctuation-related links:::

Mary Norris’ delightful piece on National Punctuation Day in The New Yorker

Literary agent Sterling Lord talks about how deeply Jack Kerouac thought about punctuation in his recent memoir Lord of Publishing

“Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition,” said Kerouac in his “30 Beliefs and Techniques for Prose and Life

Alexis C. Madrigal gets to the bottom of William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac duking it out over the Oxford comma in The Atlantic

I suggest The Atlantic is creating their own fauxlore in their beatnik punctuation story

Thoughts on punctuation in haiku, with references to Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Jack Kerouac, R. H. Blyth, Sora, Yaha, Richard Wright, James Hackett, Choshu, Hashin, L. A. Davison, David Coomler, and e. e. cummings

e. e. cumming’s liked to play with punctuation in poems like r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r

Roi Tartakovsky considers this topic in E. E. Cumming’s Parentheses: Punctuation as Poetic Device

“There are some punctuations that are interesting and there are some punctuations that are not,” says Gertrude Stein in Poetry and Grammar

Poet Bob Holman explains how to read a crossed out word out loud in The Brooklyn Rail

David Foster Wallace used endnotes to capture fractured reality

Check out “the greatest literary project of all time“: The punctuation-named lit journal The Ampersand Review

Punctuation impacts how readers perceive a work, I argue in this Writing Wednesday post

Which punctuation tattoo would you get?

Grammar Girl is the best go-to guide for “quick and dirty tips” on punctuation

Want exclamations in bed?! Check out the punctuation pillows from PB Teen

Friday Links: Commencement Addresses by Authors

28 Jun

Quindlen

June seems to have come and gone ever so quickly this year. I suppose that’s the nature of life. The older we get, the faster the days, months, and years seem to pass. I think even Einstein would agree. June always has thirty days in it—it’s not like sneaky February with its leap year—and yet those thirty days seem to go by so much faster than they did when I was a kid. I remember being in grade school just waiting for school to let out for summer break. The winter months seemed to drag on and on, and that last month til graduation felt like for-ev-errrrr.

The funny thing is, as much as I looked forward to graduating and summer vacation and all the excitement that June brought, it also felt like a sad time. It was a time to say good-bye to teachers who had great impact on my love of reading and writing as well as a time to throw out old notebooks filled with a year’s worth of thoughts and doodles.

It was also a time of change and uncertainty. What would the next school year bring? What would college be like? What kind of job would I find after college? What would it be like to go back to grad school after so many years out of college and in the workforce? Did I take advantage enough of grad school and will I now make good use of my MFA?

I wasn’t in any sort of academic program this year, and yet once again I’ve found June to be a time of exciting and positive change but also uncertainty about what the future holds. I recently made what felt like a pretty big decision that will (hopefully) bring me a bit more stability and permanence in my life, however the decision was made at a time when I found out a family member was making the opposite decision. I guess even as adults, we encounter times when we graduate from one phase of our life into the next.

Years ago, my mother gave me Anna Quindlen’s A Short Guide to a Happy Life. I’ve had to get rid of a lot of books over the years with all my various moves, but I’ve held onto this small volume, inspired by a commencement speech she once gave. I think no matter where we are in life, June is a good midpoint in the year to celebrate the accomplishments we’ve made so far this year and plan for the rest of the year. Commencement addresses like the ones by famous authors below are a great inspiration. I also like Warren Buffett’s recent advice to the Millennial Generation to “stop holding yourself back.”

Ray Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) at Columbia College

Max Brooks (World War Z) at Pitzer College

Louise Erdrich (Love Medicine) at Dartmouth University

Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Coraline) at University of the Arts

Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees) at Scripps College (woot!)

Anne Lammott (Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird) at U.C. Berkeley

Michael Lewis (The Blindside, Moneyball) at Princeton University

Barbara Kingsolver (The Poisonwood Bible) at Duke University

David McCullough (1776) at Wellesley High School

Anna Quindlen (Black and Blue) at Villanova University

J. K. Rowling (Harry Potter) at Harvard University

David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest) at Kenyon College

Elie Wiesel (Night) at Washington University

And for those of you who dropped out of college: Jack Kerouac did too, but he kept on studying and you too can keep on learning and growing.

Writing Wednesday: Punctuate Your Point with Punctuation

4 Apr

I’ve heard a lot of strange comments in my writing workshops.  Someone once told me they thought from my writing that I wished I was a boy.  Someone else questioned why I write more about Greek identity than Swedish identity.  I expect all sorts of reactions to the content of my essays and that I’ll get criticism in regard to structure.  It comes with the territory.

What I never suspected was that I’d get feedback on my punctuation.

I don’t recall ever hearing anyone else in a workshop receive comments on their lack of use of the oxford comma or their split infinitives.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I criticized someone’s use of parentheses.  If it’s unimportant enough to place in a parenthetical, it’s not important enough to keep in your book.  Edit it out!  Of course there are exceptions: for example, definitions of foreign words.  The other instance of a workshop debate being generated from punctuation had to do with the use of David-Foster-Wallace-like footnotes.  For the most part, though, comments about punctuation—errors in punctuation, that is—are kept to written edits on the writer’s page.

That’s why I found it so curious that at least once a semester, someone raised comments praising my grammar and punctuation.  As an editor by profession, punctuation is important to a fault for me.  I live by Oscar Wilde’s quote:

I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma.  In the afternoon I put it back again.

It just never occurred to me that someone might actually notice my punctuation.  After all, correct punctuation should be a given.  And when punctuation is correct, it generally doesn’t stand out to the reader.

I figured readers maybe noticed my punctuation because I use crazy marks like the semicolon.  Who uses the semicolon nowadays?

I’m playing a bit coy, though.  I do believe there’s more to punctuation than it just being correct.  I don’t intend my punctuation to stand out and grab the reader’s attention.  I’m not trying to be a punctuation renegade, experimenting and breaking the rules for purposeful affect.  That said, every comma, every em-dash, and yes, every parenthesis conveys subtle meaning.

Think about it.  When em-dashes (those long dashes between words) appear in a text, doesn’t it make the work feel more modern and fast-paced than a commonplace comma?  And don’t endnotes seem more scholarly than parentheses?

I think punctuation frightens most people.  It brings back all this childhood trauma associated with teachers yelling about sentence fragments and marking papers up with green pen.  Green is the new red.  Green is supposed to be less scary than red, but it isn’t.  It means the exact same thing: you made an error.

Don’t let punctuation poison your prose.  Get a grip on it and use punctuation just as you use diction as one of your writer’s tools to convey your story to your reader.

 

Helpful resources for proper punctuation:

Grammar Girl 

The Copyeditor’s Handbook

Grammar class at New York University

 

David Foster Wallace Appreciation Project

15 Apr

The folks over at Broadcastr asked me to participate in the David Foster Wallace Appreciation Project.  I’ve written a little bit about Wallace here on the blog as well as over on Burnside (also, check out my BWC editor, Jordan Green’s, piece on Wallace), so I was really excited to be part of the David Foster Wallace Appreciation Project on Broadcastr.

For anyone who doesn’t know, David Foster Wallace‘s novel The Pale King comes out today.  This highly anticipated book is being published posthumously by Little, Brown and Company.

Broadcastr is compiling stories from fans to celebrate the release of The Pale King.  In my appreciation story, I talk about resisting and embracing David Foster Wallace’s style in my own writing.

And when I say “talk,” I mean it literally.  Broadcastr is a social-media platform that collects audio stories.  Last year I was working on curricula for a documentary that involved oral storytelling so I was really intrigued by the idea of contributing audio.  I’ve done a live reading here or there, but this is the first time I’ve ever done a recording.  I hate the sound of my own voice when I hear it on answering machines so I was a bit hesitant, but in the end I really enjoyed the experience of recording something I’d written.  It was a whole new way of viewing a story.

The name of my Broadcastr post is called “Accepting and Rejecting the Influence of David Foster Wallace.”  I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think!

Writing Wednesday: Who Is the Patron Saint of Your Writing?

23 Mar

Detail of Turf One's painting "Holy Ghost."

“Who is the patron saint of your writing?” my lit instructor inquired.

I’m taking a class that looks at how classic works of literature inspire contemporary works.  We look, for example, at how Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge informed Meg Wolitzer’s The Wife.  It seems natural that great authors would inspire other great writers to write either in the same style or the same theme.  And yet, my instructor’s question has had me thinking for days.

I’ve never thought of my own writing as being inspired by another writer.  I don’t try to write like my favorite authors, though I’m sure I must’ve done it subconsciously many times.

In a way, this rejection of sameness is reflective of my life in general.  I was the English major in undergrad who hung out with all the premed students.  I was the Greek kid in middle school with all the Korean and Japanese friends.  It never occurred to me to hang out with people who had my identical interests and culture, and it never occurred to me to try to write like another writer.

Except maybe Gregory Corso.

When I was 22 I wrote an homage to Corso’s “I Am 25.” It was pretty much a rip off of Corso’s poem, but it was meant to be.  Corso writes about stealing the poems of Shelley, Chatterton, and Rimbaud, and I more or less swapped out the names of these “old poetmen” for those of Corso, Kerouac, and Ginsberg.

Along those Beat Generation lines, one of my favorite writers is Jack Kerouac.  Read these lines from On the Road:

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”

“The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death.”

It pains me how beautiful these words are.  While so much has been made of Kerouac’s subject matter and improvisational style, I find that it is his lyrical descriptions and, yes, the rhythm of his prose that captivate me the most.

I have zig-zagged across the country, visiting places Kerouac visited, and I’ve written short travel articles, but I don’t write road-trip novels.  I would like very much to write about America, though.  I’ve written about Kerouac, sure, but I haven’t (consciously) attempted to write in his style.  I love punctuation rules too much.

I would probably choose Jack Kerouac to be the patron saint of my writing, but in reality, my writing voice comes out more like Sue Monk Kidd or, as my mom has pointed out, Donald Miller and Anna Quindlen.

Others tell me to read David SedarisHe’s Greek!  He writes about his family! And indeed, I do see his humor sometimes creeping into my personal essays.  One time, right after reading David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster, I will confess I conjured up his style for an article I wrote, but I fear that was only similar to off-key humming of a song that just played on the radio.

Must I choose just one patron saint?

I admire great writers, and I love to reference them and turn other readers on to them, but I don’t think I could ever choose just one to be my patron saint.  I’m way too much of a schizophrenic writer for that.

Who is your patron saint of writing?