Tag Archives: Salon

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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Dani Shapiro Explains Memoir Is Not Autobiography

29 Jan

devotion

When I tell people I write memoir, they tell me that they don’t think they could ever write memoir. Their lives are too normal. No one would want to read about their boring lives. The implication is that they think I must be pretty hot on myself if I’m writing memoir.

But that’s not what memoir is about.

In her excellent “Open letter from Dani Shapiro: ‘Dear Disillusioned Reader Who Contacted Me on Facebook‘” on Salon, Shapiro provides clarity on what memoir is and isn’t and why we read it:

Memoir is not autobiography. You did not pick up my 1998 memoir “Slow Motion” because I’m an important, influential or even controversial person. You did not pick it up because I am, say, running for office, or just won an Academy Award, or am on Death Row. No. You picked up my book because –– whether you know it or not –– you wanted to read a good story shaped out of a lived life. You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense.

Read that last sentence again:

You wanted to sink into a narrative that redeems chaos and heartache and pain by crafting it into something that makes sense.

Beautiful. A lot of memoir writing and reading is about understanding ourselves and our life stories better.

She goes on to further explain that memoir tells an aspect of one’s life through a specific viewpoint:

The memoirist looks through a single window in a house full of windows. After all, we can’t look out of all the windows at once, can we?  We choose a view. We pick a story to tell. We shift through the ever-changing sands of memory, and in so doing create something hopefully beautiful, by which I mean universal. We try to tell the truth – by which I do not mean the facts. Listen to me closely, because here is where I apparently have enflamed you so: it is not the job of the memoirist to present you with a dossier. If you want a dossier, go to a hall of records.

I spent a lot of my time talking about the differences between memoir and autobiography while getting my MFA, and I’ve had a lot of people ask me point blank if writing memoir means I can just make things up. Um, no. If I wanted to make things up, I’d fiction, which frankly, sounds more appealing. Who really wants to write about themselves, to open their lives up for others’ critique? No, memoir sticks to the truth, but it is not journalism. We create dialogue out of the cobwebs of our memory, not through a transcribed secret recording of our entire lives. There are things we leave out, not because we are necessarily hiding things, but because they are irrelevant to the story we are telling. The reader doesn’t need to hear about my commute, for example, unless of course something about my commute is interesting or is relevant to understanding who I am or is a metaphor.

I recommend reading Shapiro’s article in full if you’re interested in memoir as a genre. Also, check out her great blog.

If “Everything Is Possible,” Our Milestones Need to Change

21 Aug

singles-620x412Image from Singles via Salon

In the second paragraph of Sara Scribner’s recent Salon article about Generation X, the journalist says:

Few have even noticed that this small, notoriously rebellious clan – those born roughly between 1965 and 1980, which means about 46 million Xers versus 80 million boomers — has entered middle age.

The article itself is entitled “Generation X gets really old: How do slackers have a midlife crisis?”

Let’s stop right there for a moment. The date range provided here for Generation X refers to people who are currently between 48 and 33 years old. Is 33 middle age? Is 33 “really old”? Hyperbole aside, is 48 even “really old”?

The rest of the article refers to people in their 40s. I get it. The writer is using the median age. Treatises on generations are always rift with broad-swept generalities, however the attention to age in this particular article is telling for the article goes on to bring up issues of delayed adulthood, parents, and leadership.

Scribner quotes historian and generational expert (side note: how does one get to be a generational expert? That sounds like an awesome job) Neil Howe saying:

“Xers experience agoraphobia — everything is possible.”

The article goes on to say:

That’s where this generation gets its reputation as reluctant to grow up. “It’s very hard to mature,” [Howe] says. “In order to mature and become an adult, you have to shut off options. The way Xers were raised, there were always options — their parents told them to keep options open.”

Further on in the article, Scribner explains the result of this:

[Sheryl] Connelly, the Ford futurist, says that some of the postponing of the traditional midlife period may come down to a pushing back of all the major life milestones: “Some of that [midlife questioning] would be fueled by empty nesters – the kids are grown,” she says, explaining a feeling of “now what?” “Demographics have shifted such that with each passing generation, people are postponing marriage.” With dependent kids at home, everything has been pushed back. “There’s nothing midlife about my situation right now.  I think that’s why you don’t hear this conversation.”

Maybe, but that’s assuming that we’re talking about a Gen Xer born closer to the 1965 date. Let’s take someone smack dab in the middle of Gen X. If we’re using the range 1965 to 1980, let’s pick someone born in 1972. That person today (well, depending on when their birthday falls) would be 41 years old. Let’s now assume this person married right out of college and then had a kid the following year, when they were about 24 years old. (Keep in mind, that’s younger than the median age for getting married which is closer to 27.) That child would be about 17 years old. It’s therefore not at all shocking that many—even half of—Gen Xers would have “dependent kids at home.” It would actually be rather traditional and, dare I say, old-fashioned.

More interesting is not that life’s “major life milestones” are happening later but that they’re happening at different times for Gen X.

And, just as interesting is that, even with these societal changes, Scribner still upheld conservative viewpoints of adulthood when she paired the phrase “major life milestones” with Connelly’s quote about “empty nesters,” “postponing marriage,” and “dependent kids at home.”

This is where the article gets fascinating but isn’t fully explored. Yes, perhaps on the whole, people are postponing marriage and children and many who did have children now can’t get rid of their boomerang kids, creating a period of limbo. However, just like the age range of Gen X varies, so does the age that they’re getting married and having kids. That’s apparent even in looking at the celebrities the article mentions. Kurt Cobain (born in 1967) had a baby, and that baby is now 20 years old. Winona Ryder is 41 and has never been married or had children. Liz Phair, who is now 46, married a film editor in 1995 and had a child with him the following year; in 2001 the couple divorced.

I have friends I graduated college with who afterwards got married and now have two or three children. I have other friends I graduated high school with who are still very single—and by “very,” I simply mean that they are not only unmarried but also not in a steady relationship. I have a cousin who is about two years older than me who has a seventeen-year-old son. And I have other cousins who are about a decade older than me and have children the same age and younger than the cousin closer to my age.

At a writing conference, I had an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues. On so many levels we connected. We’d had very similar upbringings. We had comparable goals with our writing. We  shared parallel interests. Only about two years older than me, she is a mother of adolescent children and confessed to fearing empty-nest syndrome. At that moment in the conversation, my unmarried, childless self felt like a complete child next to her.

Going back to the statements about Gen X’s reluctance to grow up and the difficulty of maturing in this day and age, I think Howe’s concept of “agoraphobia” is worth more attention. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with Howe’s assessment that we have a phobia, an irrational fear, of “shut[ting] off options,” but the fact that we have those options is significant. We have the option to get married right out of college or to wait until we’ve experienced more of life, know ourselves better, and have amassed a nest egg to support a family. There’s no longer the same social stigma there once was to have a child out of wedlock and so we have the option to have a child with a significant other who we may already be living with. With the advancement of medicine, we also have the option of waiting until we’re in our 40s to have children.

As Howe says, “everything is possible.” But what does that mean for our identities and for the concept of maturity and adulthood?

Does a Gen Xer who is single and childless at 48 years old have more in common with a single and childless 33 year old Gen Xer than with a 48-year-old Gen Xer with a toddler? Does a Gen Xer who is an empty nester have more in common with the Gen Xer who never had children? Does a divorced Gen Xer in their early 30s have a more similar lifestyle to a Gen Xer in their late 40s who never got married? Is the 48 year old who never got married and never had children less mature, less of an adult, because they haven’t reached certain “milestones”?

Maybe it’s time our concept of maturity shifted to match the time period in which we’re living. Maybe it’s time to recognize that today’s milestones have changed.

The Salon article says “Many Xers seem nostalgic for the serene ‘50s,” but the “serene ’50s childhood” is a myth. One, in fact, that we explore in Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” when talking about how illness killed off children, how war fractured families, how gender roles were back then, and how supposed countercultural icon Jack Kerouac longed for a wife and a ranch. Marilyn Monroe died at 36, never having a child. Ella Fitzgerald never had a child of her own but adopted one. Allen Ginsberg had a lifelong partner but his relationship was not considered traditional at the time. Clearly, there were people in the 1940s and ’50s who reached adulthood, reach midlife, without achieving traditional milestones. So why do we continue to use the same markers for maturity today that weren’t even accurate in the 1940s?

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