Why is it always the same story?
Fredric Jameson says this about Faulkner: ‘Virtually alone among modern American writers, he never had anything to do with writing programmes’ (LRB, 22 November). It is a ‘matter of shame’, Jameson writes, that nearly all other modern American writers did. Here are 14 modern American writers, all of them born after Faulkner, none of whom appears to have had anything to do with writing programmes: Nathanael West, Henry Roth, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, William Gaddis, Jack Kerouac, John Updike, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Norman Rush. That is not to mention the many modern American writers who taught on writing programmes only after they had launched their careers and in many cases written their masterpieces. Richard Yates did not go to college, let alone graduate school, and taught writing only after the publication of Revolutionary Road. Saul Bellow is another example.
Frank Jackson says that many of the first sentences of stories by creative writing graduates ‘start with the words “when” or “after”; mention the first name of a character; dangle a pronoun with no antecedent; drop one heavy symbol or allusion; and use vaguely abstract phrasing to lay out a fairly banal situation’ (Letters, 6 December). He illustrates his point with the beginning of a recent story by Maile Meloy: ‘When they divided up the year, Demeter chose, for her own, the months when the days start getting longer.’ I had a quick look for other stories that follow the formula. There’s one (out of 11) that comes close in Meloy’s collection Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It (which, I admit, I reviewed favourably in the LRB a couple of years ago): ‘When Valentine was nine, her mother’s new lover took them one night to a bonfire the college kids had at the lake.’ Others by other writers weren’t too hard to find (better examples no doubt exist; these don’t all follow every one of Jackson’s rules):
When the front door had shut the two of them out and the butler Baines had turned back into the dark heavy hall, Philip began to live.
When she opened the door and saw him standing there she was more pleased than ever before, and he, too, as he followed her into the studio, seemed very very happy to have come.
After his trial they gave Constantin a villa, an allowance and an executioner.
After his wife’s death Mason Grew took the momentous step of selling out his business and moving from Wingfield, Connecticut, to Brooklyn.
We knew him in those unprotected days when we were content to hold in our hands our lives and our property.
The only trouble is, none of those openings – by Graham Greene, Katherine Mansfield, J.G. Ballard, Edith Wharton, Joseph Conrad – was ‘cobbled together in the workshops that are the subject of Mark McGurl’s The Programme Era, by writers who’ve come after Philip Roth, Raymond Carver and Joyce Carol Oates’. The problem of first-sentence uniformity, if it is a problem, may have less to do with creative writing programmes (whatever else may be wrong with them) than with the constraints of the short story as a form: you’ve only got a few thousand words so you try to get the who, the when and the where down as quickly as possible. The fault may be Chekhov’s as much as anyone’s: ‘During my stay in the district of S. I often used to go to see the watchman Savva Stukatch, or simply Savka, in the kitchen gardens of Dubovo.’ Though Kafka didn’t help: ‘Als Gregor Samsa eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.’ But then again, ‘when’ is also the first word of The Canterbury Tales.
As for Jackson’s disparaging of Meloy in particular, I wouldn’t make great claims for her story in the New Yorker (though it isn’t bad) but I wonder if it’s quite fair of him to describe explicitly retelling a Greek myth as ‘dropping a heavy symbol or allusion’ (it’s a bit unsubtle to call a novel Ulysses too). Then there’s his sneering at her using ‘vaguely abstract phrasing to lay out a fairly banal situation’ – in Meloy’s case, ‘splitting child custody’. What would Jackson make of this? ‘The litigation had seemed interminable and had in fact been complicated; but by the decision on the appeal the judgment of the divorce court was confirmed as to the assignment of the child.’ Henry James never went to Iowa either.
Marina Warner’s choice of Joan of Arc as a heroine is made possible by a highly selective reading of Joan of Arc’s history, which concentrates on her trial at Rouen and ignores her mission and her behaviour (LRB, 6 December). I fail, therefore, to see the ‘abuse of history’ of which she accuses Marine Le Pen, or why there should be a ‘vigorous rebuttal’ of the claim that the myth of Joan of Arc is a ‘guiding force of reaction and racism’.
Warner’s Joan of Arc is a singular female embodiment of selfless courage, who was adventurous, independent-minded and a ‘proto-feminist’. Joan of Arc’s fourfold mission was to secure the crown for Charles VII, expel the English from France, raise the siege of Orléans, and deliver Charles, the Duke of Orléans, from the captivity of the English. Raising the siege of Orléans was easy compared to the three other tasks. One of Joan of Arc’s problems was that she was plus royaliste que le roi. There was far more to securing the crown of the justifiably paranoid Charles VII than his mystical crowning at Reims. Like the petulant teenager she sometimes was, Joan could only think in terms of absolutes, and military force was the answer where instruction failed. However, the role of a feudal king, particularly a financially poor one like Charles, was to orchestrate a war of position. He became king in the end thanks to political efforts made in the face of the threat of internecine warfare within the nobility.
Joan of Arc’s contribution to France’s military history is zero, and marked by its carelessness with the lives of those around her. Her tactic – tactic? – of throwing herself into the thick of a battle and in effect challenging the chivalrous males in her entourage to come to her aid was bound to lead to her downfall, and did. Those captured with her were ransomed, as was the aristocratic custom, but she was not. I would not write off as misogynist the complaint of one of her enemies that she was ‘the simplest thing he ever saw, and in what she did there was neither rhyme nor reason’. If the right want her they can surely have her.
Why Israel Didn’t Win
I would be grateful if Adam Shatz could supply the source for his contention that Hamas has ‘accepted’ the right of Israel to exist peacefully ‘on the basis of the 1967 borders’ (LRB, 6 December). I have not seen an official – or unofficial – statement of this welcome change elsewhere. It seems to contradict the plentiful calls for the total destruction of the state of Israel, and it is hard to reconcile with the 1988 Hamas Charter’s enthusiasm (in its Article 7) for the murder of all Jews, not just Israelis.
Adam Shatz writes: It is no secret among those who follow the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as opposed to those who get their news from the Jerusalem Post and Aipac – that since the 2007 Mecca agreement with Fatah, Hamas has supported the creation of a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, on the basis of a long-term truce, or hudna, with Israel. As Khalid Mishal, the head of Hamas’s political bureau, told the New York Times in a 2009 interview, Hamas ‘has accepted a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders including East Jerusalem, dismantling settlements, and the right of return based on a long-term truce’. This does not mean that Hamas accepts Israel’s ‘right to exist’ – Rosenbaum’s (and Israel’s) words, not mine. Why, Hamas asks, should the Palestinians recognise the ‘right to exist’ of a state that occupies their land and refuses to recognise their right to a state of their own? Recognition, it insists, cannot be a condition for negotiations. It can be granted only if Israel agrees to a full withdrawal from the Occupied Territories and declares its borders. As for the notorious charter, with its ugly anti-semitic passages and quotes from the Protocols, Mishal has insisted that (as he told the New York Times) ‘the most important thing is what Hamas is doing and the policies it is adopting today,’ and warned the international community not to ‘get stuck on sentences written twenty years ago’. ‘We are not fighting the Jews because they are Jews,’ he said in Doha just after the recent ceasefire was signed, ‘we are fighting the Zionists, the Jews that are colonists.’ Their quarrel is with the Jewish state.
Call him dashing?
In writing about The Portrait of a Lady, James Wood speaks in the same sentence of ‘the dashing, reliable Lord Warburton’ and ‘the dashing, demonic Gilbert Osmond’ (LRB, 11 October). Male critics just don’t seem to get what attracts female characters to male ones. First of all, Warburton is not dashing. It is hard to be dashing and reliable at the same time. He is a decent, fine man. But he is basically uninspiring, as Isabel Archer realises. Gilbert Osmond is far too epicene to be called dashing. An obvious example of a dashing character is Vronsky in Anna Karenina, published at around the same time as James’s novel. Scoundrels, such as Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov in War and Peace, can also be classed as dashing (Natasha Rostov falls for Kuragin hard), and characters that begin as callow youths can grow into dashing romantic heroes, as Nikolai Rostov does when he rescues Princess Maria from her rebellious serfs. Steerforth in David Copperfield is dashing enough to ruin Little Emily. Many women (at least those who had poorly functioning phoniness detectors) found the real-life Bryon dashing. The fliers in the First World War and in the Battle of Britain were dashing. Jane Austen’s works are full of dashing characters. John Buchan’s Richard Hannay is dashing. Warburton and Osmond don’t make the cut. None of the men in The Portrait of a Lady is dashing. That is part of Isabel’s tragedy. They are all either kind-hearted mediocrities, effeminate sadists or, in the case of Caspar Goodwood, dangerously attractive but too modern and business-oriented to be classed as dashing. Maybe James Wood should run his essays by a committee of teenage girls before he publishes them.
No, he wasn’t
Edward Pearce says that James Chuter Ede, home secretary in the 1945-51 Labour government, was ‘not an abolitionist any more than Herbert Morrison’, citing the 1947 Criminal Justice Bill in evidence (Letters, 22 November). It would be truer to say that he had been an abolitionist in his pre-governmental days, but that he had retreated from those views in office, perhaps under pressure from his officials and especially the strongly retentionist permanent secretary, Sir Frank Newsam. Chuter Ede had been a supporter of abolitionist amendments to the 1938 Criminal Justice Bill and, as Pearce concedes, reverted to this stance once he had left office. He became a strong supporter of abolitionist bills in the 1950s, actuated, he claimed, by the knowledge that he had allowed the execution of Timothy Evans, by now revealed to be almost certainly innocent. The 1947 Criminal Justice Bill, which was completely different from that of 1938, was a liberalising measure which, inter alia, abolished corporal punishment as a judicial sentence. Incidentally, Chuter Ede was one of several home secretaries who had been abolitionist before or after, but not during, their tenure.