literary fiction

Cubism & Its Wordy Equivalent: On Thomas Wolfe

Fruit Dish, Georges Braque, 1912

Thomas Wolfe. I knew his name enough to know that I needed to read something of his in my lifetime. Like many authors, we know their name more than any singular work they’ve produced. Look  Homeward, Angel. Ever  heard of it? I hadn’t either. It’s probably his most well-known work.  But since I’m on a short-story compendium kick, I picked up  The Complete Short Stories of Thomas Wolfe instead.

And I was blown away.

I can’t seem to hang on to Faulkner; he’s just, well, out there. And Melville’s abysmal abysses and personification lose me.

Thomas Wolfe has that comfortable language, that lilting dialogue that pulls you in, in accessible, personable, familiar prose words. But then he peppers things up, sharpens the dialogue, creates a parallel dialogue, uses big words. But those big words — “vituperative” for instance — somehow you know what they mean. Perhaps it’s the logical context? He cuts back and forth between continents; in one sentence you are in France, the next you are in Cincinnati. He is a master of inflection and voice. “I wondeh what t’ hell she’s doin’ all dis time! –Hey!” she cried harshly, and hammered on the door, “Who’s in dere?… Com on out, f’r Christ’s sake!… Yuh’re holdin’ up duh line!” But perhaps his most interesting practice is his unique ability to paint several different feelings of one character in response to one event or observation. It’s very multi-faceted: “I knew the passionate heart of the boy who from the darkness of his berth watched, with a wild exultancy of joy and hope and sorrow, the great stroke and fanlike sweep of the immense and imperturbable earth… I  had known as well all other joys and labors of the night.” (From “Death the Proud Brother”)

So what picture does Thomas Wolfe, the author, paint?

Perhaps a pieced together, patchwork quilt or a cut-glass collage. But he’s still something more, perhaps something more innovative, elite. Perhaps if we knew the cultural context in which he wrote — the day, the age — we could make a guess and be spot on. He wrote in the 20’s and 30’s. He was southern – from Asheville, North Carolina. He was said by Faulkner to be his generation’s best writer (Faulkner credited himself with being #2). He influenced Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth. And he was a master of autobiographical fiction.

Mix all of this up and you get (according to this critic, at least)… Cubism.

Why Cubism?

Cubism was a 20th century avant-garde art movement that revolutionized painting and sculpture and inspired movements in music and literature. In cubist works, objects are broken up, analyzed, and re-assembled in an abstracted form—instead of depicting objects from one viewpoint, the artist depicts the subject from a multitude of viewpoints to represent the subject in a greater context. Often the surfaces intersect at seemingly random angles, removing a coherent sense of depth.

Wolfe took an abstract, liberal view (viewpoint of interlopers to a bum’s death), tackled many viewpoints (from the farmer to the upper crust), and wrote with pieced-together, mad passion (“he spoke roughly, casually, but with a kind of brutal…”).

Wham, bam! Braque and Picasso flew into my head when my eyes hit the page.


The ‘Art’ of Susan Sontag

Vesuvius Erupting During the Day

So I’m on a retro reading binge at the moment, and this moment very much revolves around Susan Sontag.

Read. Her. Again.

While “The Volcano Lover” as a title sort of trends toward bodice-ripper, this is one of the most literary of the literary fiction I’ve read. And it involves art. And it plunges to the depths and crests of character development. It is based on the life of Sir William Hamilton, the British envoy to the Neapolitan royal court in 1764 (“the Cavalier”). But it is really about his infatuation with collecting. Sculpture. Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts. Caravaggios. Anything and everything. He is driven by it. He even climbs into Mount Vesuvius and collects its lava rocks. He meets other collectors – but they are all different types of collectors than he. Some collect to show off their collections. Others collect Bellinis, golden candlesticks, reliquaries, Poussins,  but hide them from the world. Still others were more interested in the chase than staring at their newfound capture day in and day out – ”to find the xxxx!” they’d say. “On to something new!”

The Cavalier ponders the idea that art can either be temporary or eternal. War can torch the halls and massive buildings where artifacts are incinerated to dust. But other pieces live on eternally (e.g., relics from the ancient Greeks t hat have somehow survived centuries), and as humans we are just a fleeting image of life on earth. The holders, the caretakers, the admirers of these great objects have more of date with mortality than the artifacts themselves. He thinks that the reason we sometimes become beholden to certain objects is because they have no contract on life – there’s no predestined date with death like the one we have with another human.

Sontag is brilliant in “The Volcano Lover.” There’s so much more to savor. It definitely merits another read. But in a few years — I have so many other books on my list right now!

Matisse & A.S. Byatt: On Art In Literature


Woman With a Hat, Henri Matisse (1905)
San Francisco Museum of Art

So many works of fiction either focus centrally on art (think A.S. Byatt’s “The Matisse Stories”) and others weave it into the plot in nuanced ways (Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover”). The Matisse Stories is a compilation of three stories, and in each a woman’s life is touched by the paintings of Henri Matisse. It’s been referred to as a “still life” of ordinary women: a teacher who must psycho-analyze her self-absorbed hairdresser while staring at a Matisse on the wall in his salon, a housekeeper with a passion for knitting (right under the nose of two arrogant artist employers), and a professor discussing his affair with an art student.

Byatt doesn’t overly describe the Matisse paintings that were the inspirations for these stories. In fact, she provides little description of them, which propels the reader to look up the works, to study them independently, wonder why she chose these particular paintings as the stories’ muses. And then, once the reader has done that, the story seems to go on and on and on, as the reader compares and contrasts the art to the plot points, the characters, the setting. It, therefore, makes these short stories seem like long, delicious novels.

The stories, at points, feel light and airy, and then deep and intricate. Characters evolve. Plots take a turn.

Grabbing snippets of Matisse’s “world views” here and there throughout the stories, you start to wonder about his character, how his ideas and views fit into all of this, how they inspired it. How, as an ordinary woman — like the women in these stories — would he influence my life? What about his infatuation with color? With his supposed repression of women? You ask him to pull up a chair and discuss.

We can only imagine.

Theory and Technique in the Arts and the Crossover to Writing

Degrees of Freedom book reading

Degrees of Freedom book reading

Last night I held a book reading of Degrees of Freedom at Visible Voice books in Tremont, Ohio. It was lots of fun, conversation ran the gamut (what’s the difference between creativity and craft? does one trump the other in terms of importance? how does applying  musical techniques to your writing improve it? can skills or techniques learned in different arts — music, performance art, architecture — transfer?)

Recently, on literary agent Rachel Gardner’s blog, Heather Goodman wrote an excellent post “Finding Your Voice” on how to utilize musical techniques to improve writing.

As a musician, understanding the idea of voice in writing came to me via music. Just as composers and performers have unique sounds, so do writers. Faulkner favored wordy sentences, intricate descriptions, and heady emotions while Hemingway preferred a stark style. You have a favorite author for a reason. The way she unfolds a story and character resonates with you. This goes beyond conquering the rules of the craft–using active verbs, avoiding words like just and immediately, and showing instead of telling. Voice is one of the hardest things to develop as a writer, but it’s also the most important aspect. It makes the story uniquely yours.

She also provides several techniques to strengthen her musical composition that she transferred to her writing.

1. Mimic other authors. In composition classes, we wrote Baroque counterpoint and fugue, Classical sonata forms, and Debussy-like floating chords. The intention wasn’t to be Bach, Beethoven, or Brahms but to play with different forms and styles in order to understand them. Then we gave them our own twist.

2. Write stream of consciousness. In one of my composition classes, I wrote what seemed to me too sentimental. But the instructor recognized something with its lyrical, idyllic, and playful qualities that reflected my style.

These techniques can, of course, be applied to performance art, visual arts, etc. AND they are fun!

Got Inspiration in the Gallery?

Patricia Piccinini - The Stags (2008)

Patricia Piccinini - The Stags (2008)

Inspiring! Some of these should not be reserved just for writers. My favorite technique is to sit in the gallery on a bench and watch people’s reaction to a painting as they stare up at it. You can capture many more viewpoints than you’d ever dream up yourself.

From 15 Ways Modern Art Galleries Can Inspire Writers by Joanna Penn on September 2, 2009
Tate Modern, London

I love modern art galleries and go to them whenever I am in a large city. I find they spark creative ideas and I leave feeling refreshed and ready to write more! Here are 15 ways Modern Art Galleries can inspire writers and authors.

  • Writing Exercise: Sit before a piece of art and describe the piece and what it says to you. Modern art is fantastic because you can’t just say “It’s a portrait of a young woman with a dog”. Often the pieces are entirely based on your interpretation.
  • Use as a setting in your novel. Describe the physical details of the place, the various rooms, how you could use them. Would your characters meet here in the vast white open space of the main hall? or in one of the obscure video dark rooms?
  • Write notes from the display description. Copy down phrases that touch you in some way. What images are conjured up?
  • Free associate from one of the pieces. Just write down all the words that come to mind. Do it in a mind map format.
  • Listen for dialogue. Sit in the lobby or a public area and listen for snatches of conversation. Write notes on what you hear.
  • Browse the giftshop for marketing ideas. Can you use some of these ideas in your own marketing?
  • Use it as your Artists Date. An Artist’s Date is time out to refill our creative wells and allow new ideas to surface and spark.
  • Change your writing scene. Buy a coffee in the Gallery cafe and sit and write for an hour.
  • Use it as a venue for a meeting with another author.
  • Understand the Body of Work. This book we are working on is one piece of a whole lifetime, a whole body of work embracing all we are and all we want to express in the written word.
  • Research one of the Artists for a character sketch. Google them and use this for a character sketch.
  • Research one of the Artists and evaluate their online presence. Do they use multi-media? Do they blog?
  • Use your visit to inspire a blog post.
  • Be silly. I did tracings on coloured paper with crayons on one exhibit.

Where Art and Words Collide

Born Magazine creation

Born Magazine creation

Not to be missed. Simply NOT to be missed! Born Magazine (online mag) brings together graphic/visual artists with poets and prose writers to make magic.

Publishing’s conundrum

I’m surprised that literary fiction does not sell well in hardback. Those are the books you want people to see on your shelf!

The pride and joy of publishing, literary fiction has always been wonderfully ill suited to the very industry that sustains it. Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines. One supplies the cachet, the others the cash.