Tag Archives: Kurt Vonnegut

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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Overarching Writing Tip from Big Sur Writers: Don’t Censor Your First Draft

17 Oct

If you’re a frequent visitor to this site, you’re probably a fan of the Beat Generation, which means you’ve probably read Jack Kerouac’s Rules for Spontaneous Prose.  In a recent fit of procrastination, I stumbled upon Henry Miller’s Commandments while browsing the blog a lovely being.  Then through a rabbit hole that began on Poets & Writers, I discovered John Steinbeck’s writing rules on brain pickings.

As I scoured their tips for jewels of wisdom, I considered whether there were any repeating schemes amongst the three authors, who each lived at various points in their career in the Monterey area of Northern California.  The theme that emerges is one of writing with the force of one of the ferocious waves in Big Sur—quickly, spontaneously, wildly, freely, bravely, deeply, purely.

John Steinbeck: Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

Henry Miller: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

Jack Kerouac: Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

In other words, while you’re composing, just get it all out there on the page.  Don’t concern yourself with censoring your thoughts, diction, or punctuation.  You can always go back and fix things later, but for the first draft, at least, it’s better to let the story take shape naturally.

I’m generally not the type of person who subscribes to a set of writing rules, mainly because I believe everyone has their own technique and process, but I am a huge fan of lists.

Through Poets & Writers, I also discovered Kyle Minor’s “Advice to My Younger Self” and Margaret Atwood’s advice to writers, through which I consequently found similar lists by Zadie SmithElmore LeonardKurt Vonnegut, and David Ogilvy.

What are your tips for writing?

Ramblin’ Jack: Just Because You Don’t Like a Book, Doesn’t Mean It Isn’t Well Written

20 Aug

Over the years, many readers have criticized Jack Kerouac’s work for its rambling prose and sounding too colloquial.  Everyone is certainly welcome to his or her own opinions.  The world would be a pretty boring place if we all liked exactly the same thing.  The literary arts are, to a certain degree, subjective.  One doesn’t have to like or enjoy a work, though, to see its importance and value.  Even if it doesn’t change the likeability of a work, it’s important to consider its artistry before completely dismissing it.

Take Of Mice and Men.  This book did nothing for me when I read it in high school.  I didn’t like the story.  The writing style was just fine, but not particularly innovative.  Still, it was a classic!  John Steinbeck!  I should like it, right?  I didn’t.  I moved on to The Red Pony.  Hated it even more.  But I was determined to like John Steinbeck.  Finally, I read Travels with Charley, which became one of my favorite books.  Same thing with Kurt Vonnegut.  As a teenager, I didn’t feel cool because I thought Breakfast of Champions was simultaneously silly and trying too hard.  Afterward, I read Cat’s Cradle, and even though the nature of the subject matter wasn’t of interest to me, I loved the book.

Sometimes it just takes finding that right book by an author.  Just because it’s a classic doesn’t mean we’re going to all like the same book.  And that’s okay, but it doesn’t mean we should dismiss it—it’s a classic for a reason—or give up on the author.  If we do, we face missing out on some really great literature.

I don’t enjoy all of Jack Kerouac’s books.  And perhaps my favorite of his works is one that many people don’t read: Visions of Gerard.  For the people who don’t like Kerouac because of his subject matter, I’d encourage them to check out some of his other books.

However, even for the books we don’t like, we can still learn from them and sometimes even appreciate them.  When I was getting my Master of Fine Arts—I spell this out to emphasize the artistic nature of literature—in creative writing at The New School, instructors always stressed that we didn’t have to like everything we read but we had to keep an open mind and give each work a fair shot.  One of my first instructors always asked whether we liked the book, sometimes taking a poll.  Of course the interesting part came when we debated why or why not.

I’ll be honest: I read a lot of books I did not enjoy.  Many I ended up giving away to anyone who would take them.  But I kept some of the books I did not like—because even though I didn’t find reading them a pleasurable reading experience, either because they weren’t the style I enjoy or the subject matter bored me, I recognized their brilliance.  Sometimes the books I hated reading the most ended up being the very ones that had the most profound influence on my understanding of literature and the craft of my own writing.

One of these books was Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy.  The antithesis of a beach read, this book requires the reader to concentrate and piece together and analyze.  It’s not so much that the language or concepts were difficult—in fact, quite the contrary.  It was the author’s style, the limited view he gave the reader, that made the book both frustrating and genius.  It challenged my view of what literature was, how literature was supposed to work, and why we read—in a good way!

Now, as far as Kerouac’s prose stylings, there are a few things worth considering:

  • Kerouac’s first language was not English.  He was born in Massachusetts to immigrant parents who spoke to him in the French-Canadian dialect joual.  When he went off to school, half the day was taught in French Canadian and the other half in English.  It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to feel comfortable speaking in English.
  • While many people critique the American colloquialisms Kerouac uses, it’s worth noting that people praise Mark Twain for doing the same thing.  Kerouac was working to capture a unique American sound, the language of his times.  He used to tape record conversations with his friends and refer to letters they wrote him, just to capture authentic speech patterns and diction.
  • The so-called rambling prose wasn’t just echoing true-to-life conversations and speech patterns; it was also referring to the stream-of-consciousness narrative of modernist novels.  One of the books he read that influenced his writing style was James Joyce’s Ulysses, an experimental novel that employed stream of consciousness.  In fact, you know that famous quote from On the Road about the roman candles?  The one that goes:

… but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Well, compare it to this line from Ulysses:

…O! then the Roman candle burst and it was like a sigh of O! and everyone cried O! O! in raptures and it gushed out of it a stream of rain gold hair threads and they shed and ah! they were all greeny dewy stars falling with golden, O so lovely, O, soft, sweet, soft!

  • Kerouac read voraciously.  He read the Greek Classics, comic books, the Russian masters, westerns, the bible, and history books.  In his journals, he refers to these works, evidence of his thoughtful contemplation of what he read.  These works influenced both the content and prose style of his own writing.
  • In addition to books, Kerouac’s writing was deeply influence by music.  If you read his work aloud or dissect his sentence structure, you can hear the bebop rhythm of his prose.  He and his musician friend David Amram used to improvise jazz-poetry readings together, creating it spontaneously, on the spot.  This is a lot harder than it sounds.  You have to really have a firm grasp on chord progression, rhythm, rhyme, and language—all while taking cues from someone else who is also improvising.

Sometimes works that seem effortless are the hardest ones of all to create.

 

Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road discusses in more detail Kerouac’s literary development.