Tag Archives: The Rumpus

“On the Road”‘s Dilemma

12 Sep

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“[M]ost people (perhaps increasingly) don’t seem to be drawn to fiction that offers more questions than answers,” writes Rob Roberge in “Literary Fiction’s Dilemma” for The Rumpus. Toward the end of the essay, the MFA professor and author of The Cost of Living writes:

We are messy creatures. Beautiful, flawed, disturbed, at times selfless and at times selfish animals left to attempt to make sense of a world that doesn’t lend itself to easy questions or easy answers. To document a world where we are neither gods nor beasts but often a mix of both is to document a world most don’t like to think about.

Roberge makes an interesting—and beautifully written—point that we are complicated beings made up of good and bad characteristics. I wouldn’t necessarily say we don’t want to acknowledge the fact that we don’t live in a black-and-white, all-or-nothing world because I think it’s a very American trait to want to see the silver lining in something and to want to hear a comeback story. I would argue we even prefer our characters a little flawed. We like Jo March, Rodion Raskolnikov, Jay Gatsby, and Tom Sawyer. But I think Roberge is onto something. Even if we don’t desire perfect, goody-two-shoes characters—and I don’t mean to say Roberge is suggesting we do—I think we want the author’s point of view to be morally clear.

Roberge’s thesis does not mention Jack Kerouac, but it got me thinking about the criticism I’ve read about On the Road. So many articles I’ve read about Kerouac’s novel and the recent film adaptation refer to morality:

David Depsey’s 1957 article “In Pursuit of ‘Kicks’” in The New York Times:

Today, one depression and two wars later, in order to remain uncommitted one must at least flirt with depravity. “On The Road” belongs to the new Bohemianism in American fiction in which an experimental style is combined with eccentric characters and a morally neutral point of view.

Referring to Norman Podhoretz’s 1958 essay “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” Andrew O’Hagan writes the following in the New York Review of Books article “Jack Kerouac: Crossing the Line”:

In actual fact the Beats now seem pretty innocent: far from being a threatening group of “morally gruesome” primitives, they were a bunch of college kids with a few new things to offer.

Yahoo! Movies describes the film On the Road saying:

Dean is extremely charming and has a flexible moral code….

Amanda Chen reviewed the film for Scene Creek:

If you have a thirst for adventure and a loose line of morality, you will enjoy all that Walter Salles has to offer in his cinematic interpretation of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On The Road.

Ann Hornaday reviewed it for the Washington Post:

The literary and larger cultural argument that Kerouac’s book ignited and engaged — about formalism, narrative, morality and breaking open new ways of being and expression — is virtually nonexistent in “On the Road,” Walter Salles’s warm but strangely staid adaptation of a piece of literature that was never meant to be tamed as cinema.

Robert Moor writes in “On The Road Again” for the Paris Review:

The moral atmosphere of American life has changed considerably over the past half century; we have moved towards Kerouac’s liberal ideals, which has slackened the tension between the lived and the imagined.

An anonymous poster on Barnes & Noble left this review:

I can give you symbolism for every event in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. I can give you the moral, philosophical points of Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. I can decode the works of Burroughs. But ‘On the Road’ left me feeling like it was pointless…a good, enjoyable read, but…pointless.

These reviews would make one think that Kerouac was the first writer to ever write about characters with flaws, that somehow literature up until 1957 was devoid of characters who did “bad” things—or at least if they were immoral they were severely punished for their crimes. I get the sense that they want to see Dean Moriarty die in a fiery car crash or repent of his sins and devote his life to helping winos and pregnant teens. But that’s not how life works, and I think the beauty of On the Road is that it is complex.

Roberge says readers have trouble with work that “offers more questions than answers.” Interestingly, despite criticism to the contrary, it would appear that Kerouac believed he found good, moral answers:

Dean and I were embarked on a journey through post-Whitman America to FIND that America and to FIND the inherent goodness in American man. It was really a story about 2 Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him.

Kerouac’s characters are complex, flawed, blessed, messy, striking, honest, real. They ask questions we might very well be asking ourselves.

You might also like:

Life Continues to Be Absurd: Saul Bellow, Jack Kerouac, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Joseph O’Niell

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30 Rock, Franzenfreude, and VIDA: Women Writers

1 Mar

Last week’s 30 Rock was an episode titled “TGS Hates Women,” a commentary on late summer’s “Franzenfreude” and the recent findings by VIDA that women writers don’t get as much attention as male writers.

When I look around the publishing house I work in and the classroom at the MFA program I attend, I see women.  Lots of them.  That’s not to say there aren’t any guys.  There are.  I see them in their windowed offices, I attend the lectures they organize, and I read the newsletters they write.  That isn’t to say there aren’t women in high-level, high-visibility roles.  There are.  But the percentage of men versus women in these upper-management roles is significantly skewed.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I read VIDA’s “The Count 2010.”

The short take is that men far outnumber women in getting published in lit mags and having their books reviewed.  I definitely agree with the commenters that the statistics are inconclusive without the facts of how many women versus men submit manuscripts. My editor friend Elizabeth sent me this follow up to the article, in which the editors responded to the criticism that their publications don’t publish an equal ratio of women to men.

Part of the problem is that women do not submit to well-known, “gender-neutral” publications at the same rate as men.  A few months ago, I went with my writer friend Jane to hear Lorrie Moore (Birds of America) talk with fiction editor Deborah Treisman at the wonderfully designed (hello, tilting fish-tank!) (le) Poisson Rouge for The New Yorker Festival. One of the comments that stuck out the most for me (Elissa Bassist, with whom I took class taught by Susan Shapiro, offers further notes on The Rumpus) was that men more often than women submit stories to The New Yorker, which is why men, more often than women, get published in The New Yorker.

I am a feminist, not a whiner.  I don’t believe in railing against the injustices of this or that without actually doing something positive to enact change.  Dialogue itself is useful but dialogue without action is meaningless.  It reminds me of the whole Christian debate of faith versus works, which is solved quite eloquently by the phrase “faith without works is dead.”  In other words, we can talk until we’re blue in the face about how more women should be published but unless more women are submitting quality work and unless more women are studying and working hard to become editors and unless we get over the silly notion that matters of politics are for men and the world at large and matters of domestic life are for women exclusively then all our philosophizing is for naught.  (Yes, I just said “for naught.”)

Women, if you want to be taken seriously as writers and if you want to get published then study writing, write, revise, and submit to publications!  Aim high.  If you get a rejection, try to find out why.  Then find another publication that you believe is a good fit for your writing style (remember there’s a huge difference between Cosmo and The Times) and submit.  Take classes, form writing groups, seek out professional freelance editors, and work on your craft, continually submitting high-quality work.  Make your writing so good they can’t say no!

Let’s not end up like Elaine Mozell in Meg Wolitzer‘s The Wife. Let’s look at the example Tina Fey set by becoming the first female head writer of Saturday Night Live.   And wouldn’t you know it, she’s a Greek!