93. Pard’s Christmas, 2014
Annals of Pard XIII
Pard’s New Year Greeting:
So here’s a paw, my trusty friend,
And gie’s a paw o’ thine!
We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet
For auld lang syne.
5 January 2015
94: The Saga of the Mice, Continued
Annals of Pard XIV
“The Saga of the Mice, Continued” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
95. “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Kazuo Ishiguro talked to interviewer Alexandra Alter (NYT 20 Feb 15) about his forthcoming novel The Buried Giant, which takes place in a non-historic just-post-Arthurian England. Everybody there has lost most of their longterm memory, due to the influence of the breath of a dragon named Querig.
Ogres and other monsters roam the land, but Querig just sleeps and exhales forgetfulness, until a pair of elderly Britons with the singularly unBriton names of Beatrice and Axl arrive with the knight Gawain and a poisoned goat to watch a Saxon named Wistan kill Gawain and then slice the head off the sleeping dragon. Beatrice and Axl wander on in search of their son, who they now remember may be dead, until Beatrice falls asleep in the boat of a mysterious boatman who rows her off to a mysterious island while Axl wanders back inland.
A wild country inhabited by monsters, an old couple who must leave their home without knowing exactly why, a sense that important things have been, perhaps must be, forgotten . . . Such images and moods could well embody a story about the approach of old age to death, and indeed I think that is at least in part the subject of the book. But so generic a landscape and such vague, elusive perceptions must be brought to life by the language of the telling. The whole thing is made out of words, after all. The imaginary must be imagined, accurately and with scrupulous consistency. A fantastic setting requires vivid and specific description; while characters may lose touch with their reality, the storyteller can’t. A toneless, inexact language is incapable of creating landscape, meaningful relationship, or credible event. And the vitality of characters in a semi-historical, semi-fanciful setting depends on lively, plausible representation of what they do and how they speak. The impairment of the characters’ memory in this book may justify the aimlessness of their behavior and the flat, dull quality of the dialogue, but then how is it that Axl never, ever, not once, forgets to address his wife as “princess”? I came to wish very much that he would.
Mr Ishiguro said to the interviewer, “Will readers follow me into this? Will they understand what I’m trying to do, or will they be prejudiced against the surface elements? Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?
It appears that the author takes the word for an insult.
To me that is so insulting, it reflects such thoughtless prejudice, that I had to write this piece in response.
Fantasy is probably the oldest literary device for talking about reality.
‘Surface elements,’ by which I take it he means ogres, dragons, Arthurian knights, mysterious boatmen, etc., which occur in certain works of great literary merit such as Beowulf, the Morte d’Arthur, and The Lord of the Rings, are also much imitated in contemporary commercial hackwork. Their presence or absence is not what constitutes a fantasy. Literary fantasy is the result of a vivid, powerful, coherent imagination drawing plausible impossibilities together into a vivid, powerful and coherent story, such as those mentioned, or The Odyssey, or Alice in Wonderland.
Familiar folktale and legendary ‘surface elements’ in Mr Ishiguro’s novel are too obvious to blink away, but since he is a very famous novelist, I am sure reviewers who share his prejudice will never suggest that he has polluted his authorial gravitas with the childish whims of fantasy.
Respect for his readers should assure him that, whatever the book is, they will honestly try to follow him and understand what he was trying to do.
I respect what I think he was trying to do, but for me it didn’t work. It couldn’t work. No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it. I found reading the book painful. It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, “Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?”
2 March 2015
96. Addendum to “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”
At a Guardian event held at the Royal Institution in London on Sunday, Ishiguro said that veteran author Ursula K. Le Guin was “a little bit hasty in nominating me as the latest enemy for her own agenda,” after she had written a blog post accusing him of “despising” the fantasy genre.
“I think she wants me to be the new Margaret Atwood,” he said, referring to the criticism the Canadian author and poet has received from Le Guin for distinguishing her writing as “speculative fiction” and for saying science fiction was about “talking squids in outer space”.
“If there is some sort of battle line being drawn for and against ogres and pixies appearing in books, I am on the side of ogres and pixies,” he said. “I had no idea this was going to be such an issue. Everything I read about [The Buried Giant], it’s all ‘Oh, he’s got a dragon in his book’ or ‘I so liked his previous books but I don’t know if I’ll like this one’.
“[Le Guin]’s entitled to like my book or not like my book, but as far as I am concerned, she’s got the wrong person. I am on the side of the pixies and the dragons.”
I am delighted to let Mr Ishiguro make his own case, and to say I am sorry for anything that was hurtful in my evidently over-hasty response to his question “Will they think this is fantasy?”
I still don’t quite understand why he asked it, but I only questioned it because it appeared to me to be drawing the kind of “battle line” that he deplores.
Indeed I wish I hadn’t flown off the handle at what I took for a sneer at the literature of fantasy, offending him so that I suppose he and I will never be able to discuss such issues as his remarks make me long to ask him about. For instance: If I said I was “on the side of” dragons, but not really “on the side of” pixies, would that interest him at all? Would he be interested in talking about the various definitions of the word “fantasy” as inclusive of most imaginative literature (as I use the word), or as limited to a modern commercial development in fiction and the media (as I think he was using the word)?
I certainly had no intention of nominating Mr Ishiguro as “the latest enemy for my own agenda,” and regret very much that my clumsiness led him to take my words so much amiss. I have no agenda that I’m conscious of, and I certainly don’t want to nominate any enemies (and least of all Margaret Atwood, whom I have long been honored to consider a wonderfully unpredictable, admirable friend). My enemies must nominate themselves; I have no interest at all in making, finding, or knowing them.
Many sites on the Internet were quick to pick up my blog post, describing it as an “attack”, a “slam”, etc. They were hot on the scent for blood, hoping for a feud. I wonder how many will pick up this one?
10 March 2015
97. Utopiyin, Utopiyang
“Utopiyin, Utopiyang” is included in UKL’s forthcoming No Time to Spare
98: Puzzle Personal Assistant
Annals of Pard XV
Photo by Moe Bowstern
11 May 2015
99. Up the Amazon with the BS Machine,
Why I keep Asking You Not to Buy Books from Amazon
Amazon and I are not at war. There are vast areas in which my peaceful indifference to what Amazon is and does can only be surpassed by Amazon’s presumably equally placid indifference to what I say and do. If you like to buy household goods or whatever through Amazon, that’s totally fine with me. If you think Amazon is a great place to self-publish your book, I may have a question or two in mind, but still, it’s fine with me, and none of my business anyhow. My only quarrel with Amazon is when it comes to how they market books and how they use their success in marketing to control not only bookselling, but book publication: what we write and what we read.
Best Seller lists have been around for quite a while. Best Seller lists are generated by obscure processes, which I consider (perhaps wrongly) to consist largely of smoke, mirrors, hokum, and the profit motive. How truly the lists of Best Sellers reflect popularity is questionable. Their questionability and their manipulability was well demonstrated during the presidential campaign of 2012, when a Republican candidate bought all the available copies of his own book in order to put it onto the New York Times Top Ten Best Seller List, where, of course, it duly appeared.
If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.
The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.
I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese. Fortunately, I also know that many human beings have an innate resistance to baloney and a taste for quality rooted deeper than even marketing can reach.
If it can find its audience by luck, good reviews, or word of mouth, a very good book may become a genuine Best Seller. Witness Rebecca Skloot’s Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which for quite a while seemed to have immortal life among the Times Top Ten. And a few books work their way more slowly onto BS lists by genuine, lasting excellence — witness The Lord of the Rings, or Patrick O’Brian’s sea stories. Not products of the BS Machine, such books sell because people actually like them. Once they get into the BS Machine, they are of course treated as products of the BS Machine, that is, as commodities to exploit.
Making a movie of a novel is a both a powerful means of getting it into the BS Machine and a side-effect of being there. Like so many side-effects, it may outdo its cause. To many people the movie is the real thing, the book can be left unread. If the book has value as a book, however, and is kept in print, I have noticed with pleasure that in time the movie tends to become the shadow, while the book regains its substance, its reality, and continues to be read.
But you can’t buy and read a book that hasn’t been kept in print.
Consistent in its denial of human reality, growth capitalism thinks only in the present tense, ignores the past, and limits its future to the current quarter. To the BS machine, the only value of a book is its current salability. Growth of capital depends on rapid turnover, so the BS machine not only isn’t geared to allow for durability, but actually discourages it. Fading BSs must be replaced constantly by fresh ones in order to keep corporate profits up.
This fits well with a good deal of reader desire and expectation, since to many readers much of the value of a BS is that it’s new: everybody’s reading and talking about it.
Once it’s less read and talked about the BS is no longer a BS. Now it’s just a book. The machine has finished with it, and it can depend now only on its own intrinsic merit. If it has merit, reader loyalty and word of mouth can keep it selling enough to make it worth keeping in print for years, decades, even centuries.
The steady annual income of such books is what publishers relied on, till about twenty years ago, on to support the risk of publishing new books by untried authors, or good books by authors who generally sold pretty well but not very well.
That idea of publishing is almost gone, replaced by the Amazon model: easy salability, heavy marketing, super-competitive pricing, then trash and replace.
Any publisher willing to print a book that isn’t easy to market, or to keep books that sell modestly but steadily in print, is bucking this trend. Most of them are small houses. The few big publishers that now continue functioning at all under the deliberately destructive pressure of Amazon marketing strategies are increasingly controlled by that pressure, both in what they publish and how long they keep it in print. This pressure forbids them to value quality as well as salability, or to plan in terms of long-term sales.
And the independent booksellers that were and are the natural habitat of the non-best-selling book have been driven out of business — first by the chains that operated as part of the BS Machine, and now, decisively, by Amazon.
As a book dealer and publisher, Amazon wants no competitors, admits no responsibilities, and takes no risks.
Its ideal book is a safe commodity, a commercial product written to the specifications of the current market, that will hit the BS list, get to the top, and vanish. Sell it fast, sell it cheap, dump it, sell the next thing. No book has value in itself, only as it makes profit. Quick obsolescence, disposability — the creation of trash — is an essential element of the BS machine. Amazon exploits the cycle of instant satisfaction/endless dissatisfaction. Every book purchase made from Amazon is a vote for a culture without content and without contentment.
1 June 2015
100. “A Book that Changed My Life”
There’s a magazine aimed at the people who used to be called old before that became the unspeakable and unprintable “o” word now replaced by blandnesses such as elderly, senior, feisty, and spry. This magazine approached me, I expect because I am a writer who is very [unspeakable and unprintable], to see if I’d write a short piece for them. I sent them the 200 words they asked for, but they never answered, and I realised I was glad they hadn’t, because my 200 words were no good.
The problem was their topic: “A book that changed my life.”
A book? One book?
When I was very little, books were read to me; then I started reading them; a while after that I started writing them. By now I’ve been reading and writing books for about eighty years, and every single one of them changed my life.
Well, I admit some of them didn’t change it very much. But you never can be sure what you take away with you from a book. Almost anything you read is likely to have the power to change, or to shape, your life.
Since almost any book can inform or misinform, enlighten or confuse, shrink or enlarge expectations, and directly or indirectly subvert conventional teachings or beliefs, The Powers that Be, political and religious, are always trying to control books by censorship, forbidding literacy to women, etc. Their distrust is justified. Nobody can guess how a person’s life or a people’s fate may be changed by one book, or one poem, or even a single sentence.
So in that sense, the magazine’s topic was a sound one. But for me, it was this can of worms the size of Arkansas. How the hell was I going to pick one book out of eighty years of reading books? One, out of the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books that changed my life, every one of them in a different way?
So I wrote them 200 words of bleh, which went nowhere, thank goodness, and I forgot about it.
Then the Strand Bookstore in NYC asked me to do their monthly “author’s bookshelf.” The authors gets to pick 50 books, and they do their best to have copies of them all, set out on a sale table in their store.
Well, now that is a really nice idea. I thought I could do that.
Fifty isn’t very many books, by my lights, but at least it’s 49 more than one. And the only qualification was liking them, and I like a lot of books a whole lot. I got to fifty in about ten minutes. Actually, a lot more than fifty, because I cheated — with some authors, such as Virginia Woolf, I just said “anything she wrote” — simplifying life both for myself and for the Strand.
I tried to name books purely because I like (love) them. I consciously tried to avoid thinking about it, thinking that I should mention something because it had such an influence on me . . . No. People are always asking me What Books Influenced You? — a question I hate, because it’s the same problem as A Book That Changed Your Life.
What books didn’t influence me?
If only someone would ask that! I’ve been waiting for years to answer it. Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand, I will say, had absolutely no influence on me except to cause hours of incredulous boredom. I thought in all fairness I ought to try The Fountainhead. I gave up on page 10.
But that title reminds me of The Fountain, by Charles Morgan, a book that did have real influence on me when I was 22. Though I don’t now really know why, so it’s not among my fifty at the Strand. But it’s on my own shelf, for the piety or tenderness we have for something we loved long ago. So is D.H. Lawrence. So are many others I didn’t list.
By a semi-conscious decision, I left out almost all the kids’ books I have reread all my life. And most books not in English.
For some reason I had listed almost no fantasy and sf, when I realised I had my fifty, and more than fifty, and must stop. If I went on I would try to make the list complete, and there is no way it can, or should, be complete. There will always be one more book I forgot to mention. And there will be the book that I haven’t yet read but will read tomorrow and love. So I just stopped.
Here’s my original list. They’re not in any meaningful order. I’ve added a few books that I couldn’t bear to think weren’t included. But then again, I stopped. The beginning of wisdom is in knowing when to stop. Or maybe sometimes it’s in just stopping.
List of books sent to Strand Bookstore:
Virginia Woolf: whatever you have — novels, letters, the diary.
Jane Austen: all the novels
José Saramago: The Cave, Blindness, Seeing, The Stone Raft, The Elephant’s Journey, All the Names
Charles Dickens: Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights
Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Poetry (collections or selections): Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, Yeats, Rilke, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, Emily Bronte
Lucretius: The Nature of Things
Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle
Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World
Charles McNichols: Crazy Weather
Thomas Berger: Little Big Man
George Eliot: Middlemarch
Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Rudyard Kipling: Kim, Just So Stories (with Kipling’s illustrations), The Jungle Books (with his father’s illustrations), The Day’s Work
Lyov Tolstoy: War and Peace (in any of the older translations, not Pevear), Anna Karenina
Molly Gloss: The Jump-Off Creek, The Hearts of Horses, Falling From Horses
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Roughing It, Life on the Mississippi
Poetry: A.E.Housman: Poems (how could I have not mentioned Housman!?)
J.R.R.Tolkien, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings (ditto)
Philip K. Dick, The Man in the High Castle
Kij Johnson, At the Mouth of the River of Bees
Austin Tappan Wright, Islandia
Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake
Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog
15 June 2015
101. Some People Are Just As Equal As Others
Annals of Pard XVI
Pard photo courtesy Euan Monaghan/Structo
This photograph illustrates something I’ve been thinking about cats, dogs, and people. And about Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.
We know that dogs, descended from wolves, and having lived domestically with humans for as long as 30,000 years, are for the most part deeply hierarchical, conceiving of society as a pyramid with The Boss (Alpha Male, Master, Mistress, God, King, Leader) on top and other beings arranged in descending order beneath. Obedience to authority and acceptance of one’s place in that social and moral order is right behavior.
I believe that cats, descended from semi-social or asocial wild cats and having lived domestically with humans for probably less than 3,000 years, have no concept whatever of a rightful hierarchy of social or moral authority. It does not occur to a cat that any other being has any right, other than might, to its obedience, which is offered only out of immediate self-interest or personal affection. Cats are intensely opportunistic, practical anarchists.
What we see in this photograph, taken by an amiable human willing to get down on his belly at floor level with the cat, is that the cat accepts this willingness as unworthy of special notice. The cat considers himself on a level with the human, whether the human is towering six feet above him or is flat on the floor with him.
Knowing that the human is a stranger, although a quiet, well-behaved one, and is ten times larger and stronger than himself, the cat shows no alarm, but some rational distrust. He offers no welcome, slits his eyes, sets his ears at alert, gives nothing away, and simply looks straight at the large intruder upon his territory.
This is the level gaze of one who does not conceive himself as inferior to anybody — who sees himself as the social equal of anyone he meets.
I don’t say the absolute equal. Size matters. Pard grants me a certain authority: there are places I forbid him to go and things I prevent him from doing, and though he tests these sanctions often and sometimes disobeys them, mostly he accepts them. I think he does so because he trusts me, is fond of me, and is very much smaller than me. If he weighed 120 pounds instead of 12, he would be lot likelier to assert his equality with me by disobeying my orders.
Relationships of trust and affection that involve a balance of power are never simple. We work them out as we go along, individually and by species. Generalizations lead to assumptions that are often misleading, sometimes fatally so. After all, an 80-pound dog frightened or goaded into aggression, or who has been trained and encouraged to attack, is as dangerous as any leopard.
That so many of us can’t see the cat’s level gaze as a declaration of equality, but see it as contemptuous, arrogant, even threatening — as declaring superiority — signifies that, like wolves and dogs, we simians are hierarchs. We want power to be assigned to certain individuals once for all, not to pass around among us according to circumstance. We make permanent niches — Higher, Lower — and fill them. Creatures who won’t stay in the niche we put them in frighten or anger us. The gaze of equality from a small, speechless, furry creature is read as the intolerable challenge of an inferior claiming superiority.
I said cats are anarchists, but a society of equals is also, after all, a democracy.
The cat-human connection, historically an almost entirely practical, utilitarian one (with occasional fits of worshiping the cat as a divinity) in our time has come to include powerful bonds of intimate affection, unconditional, as between equals. I like the idea that from these subtle, intense companionships we might have something to learn about the nature of our own politics, our difficulty in achieving, even conceiving, genuine equality.
20 July 2015
102. A Personal Take on Go Set a Watchman
Harper Lee’s “new” book starts out wonderfully. Its young author had a sure touch and a light hand. It is entertaining, vivid, funny, dry. It begins to come apart a bit, but gains in intensity, about halfway through, when it hits its real subject: A person imbued with the highest ethical standards is faced by a radical immorality in her society, in which her family and friends are complicit.
Reviews that describe the Attticus of Watchman as having become a racist, or being revealed as a racist, by clinging to the idealized Atticus of Mockingbird may miss the point of Watchman. Atticus hasn’t changed. We saw him through his young daughter’s eyes as faultless. Now, seen by his grown daughter, we can see him as imperfect: a good man who, being fully committed to living, working, and having friends in an unjust society, makes the compromises and performs the hypocrisies required of its members. He’s a lawyer — not a judge — with a lawyer’s complex relationship to justice.
Watchman isn’t free of childishness — its author was still pretty young — but its goals are adult ones: to show how hard it may be for a daughter to see her father as a fellow human being, and how hard it is to rebel completely against the injustice of your own people. Merely to be less racist than most of the people around you can be quite anPard is doing the Legless Cat Asana on top of a four-drawer filing cabinet in the upstairs hall, at just about human eye level, a good place for exchanging greetings with his equals.
Photo by Moe Bowstern. accomplishment. I think that by seeing Atticus as first saint, then demon, we refuse to let him be a man, and also refuse to hear what the author was trying to tell us about being a Southerner.
So, the daughter returning home on a visit finds her father, her model of clear thinking and courageous honesty, is siding with the bigots; her boyfriend, her model of brotherly kindness, is siding with the bigots. What’s she to do?
The answer from outside is quick and easy: of course she rebels. She rises in wrath, denounces, disowns, and departs.
That’s what Scout (now Jean Louise, 26, on a two-weeks visit home from New York) almost does. It’s what I would have imagined her doing, and believed it absolutely necessary for her to do, before I married into a white Southern family and lived with them some years.
If you love and respect people who live in and obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart. Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous, ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.
You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not everyone shares, or admires, his opinons. Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.
Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists.
It may seem implausible that a person can, like Jean Louise, grow up without race prejudice in a society so profoundly racist as the small-town White South. It is in fact a miracle, but not an uncommon one. I can attest that my husband and two of his cousins, raised entirely in that society, grew up entirely without race prejudice. But unlike Jean Louise they were intensely aware of their anomaly, the complex discomfort of their position. They were all among the first in their families to go to college; they all sought and found a non-racially prejudiced community of people within Southern society, or else left the South altogether. What is implausible to me is not that Jean Louise is, as she says, “colorblind,” but that she’s somehow managed to blind herself all her life to her difference from her people.
The time is early in the Civil Rights movement; customary behaviors are becoming the object of discussion, deep-rooted injustices are being challenged. On her visit home, Jean Louise realises that her boyfriend and father are active in anti-NAACP organisations. She feels utterly betrayed. Her naivety may be incredible, but her denunciations are fine, her diatribes fierce. They soon get the wind taken out of them, however, by unshaken arguments from the boyfriend, an erratic uncle, and (most importantly) the beloved father, who, with a mixture of Christian meekness and lawyerly aplomb, permits her to say unforgivable things to him, while gently setting her straight about practical realities, the impossibility of immediate change, the importance of avoiding violence — all the persuasive and predictable justifications for moving very, very, very slowly towards righting the wrong.
Jean Louise has arisen and denounced, unsuccessfully. Does she depart?
We’re never told what she’s been doing in New York City. She never thinks about the place, any person there, or her work, whatever it is. A small town in Alabama is the entire cosmos of the novel. I think it must have been the cosmos of the author’s life. Jean Louise is going to go back North, but we don’t know whether to stay there or not. My guess is that what she was doing in New York was being a writer; and she’ll make a go of it, and come back South to stay. Not a very hard guess to make.
It appears that the New York editor who handled the book was uninterested in the human and moral situation the author was attempting to describe, or in helping her work through the over-simplifications and ineptitudes of that part of the book. Instead, she apparently persuaded Lee to enlarge on the very charming, nostalgic early parts of the book, when Jean Louise was Scout. Lee was encouraged to go back to childhood, and so to evade the problems of the book she wanted to write by writing, instead, a lovable fairytale.
I like to think of the book it might have been, had the editor had the vision to see what this incredibly daring first-novelist was trying to do and encouraged and aided her to do it more convincingly. But no doubt the editor was, commercially speaking, altogether right. That book would have found some admirers, but never would it have become a best-seller and a “classic.” It wouldn’t have pandered to self-reassuring images of White generosity risking all to save a grateful Black man.
Before Watchman was published, I was skeptical and unhappy — all the publicity made it sound like nothing but a clever lawyer and a greedy publisher in cahoots to exploit an old woman. Now, having read the book, I glimpse a different tragedy. Lee was a young writer on a roll, with several novels in mind to write after this one. She wrote none of them. Silence, lifelong. I wonder if the reason she never wrote again was because she knew her terrifyingly successful novel was untrue. In obeying the dictates of popular success, letting wishful thinking corrupt honest perception, she lost the self-credibility she, an honest woman, needed in order to write.
So I’m glad, now, that Watchman was published. It hasn’t done any harm to the old woman, and I hope it’s given her pleasure. And it redeems the young woman who wrote this book, who wanted to tell some truths about the Southern society that lies to itself so much. She went up North to tell the story, probably thinking she’d be free to tell it there. But she was coaxed or tempted into telling the simplistic, exculpatory lies about it that the North cherishes so much. The white North, that is. And a good part of the white South too, I guess.
Little white lies . . . North or South, they’re White lies. But not little ones.
Harper Lee was a good writer. She wrote a lovable, greatly beloved book. But this earlier one, for all its faults and omissions, asks some of the hard questions To Kill a Mockingbird evades.
3 August 2015
103. Concerning a Wilderness
Getting an area designated Wilderness is no easy matter, even when, or especially if, it’s so far away from urban areas that most people never heard of it. A Wilderness designation offers protection from ruinous land use, reckless development, and recreational over-exploitation. Beautiful, remote, unique, and fragile, the Steens high desert region is one of the jewels in Oregon’s crown. We can hope that Crater Lake (a National Park since 1902, but not yet a Wilderness) and the amazing Owyhee Canyonlands will soon join it.
Here’s how Matt Kertman, the Outreach Director, describes ONDA:
Nearly half of Oregon is high desert, characterized by rolling uplands, jagged mountains and canyons, rushing rivers and rich wildlife. The Oregon Natural Desert Association is the only nonprofit organization that works exclusively to protect, defend and restore this high desert. ONDA has worked in stunning, ecologically significant areas in the Central Oregon Backcountry, John Day River Basin, Greater Hart-Sheldon Region and the Owyhee Canyonlands for almost 30 years. Learn more at ONDA.org.
I’ve been a member for a long time and thoroughly admire the work ONDA does and how they do it. They’re based in Bend, and many of their members are Eastern Oregonians. At the meeting, I tried to express my appreciation of the way they handle relations with the people who live in the remoter desert areas. Efforts to conserve and protect wilderness often meet local pressures and resistances rising from ignorance or from greedy dreams of easy money from development. Education and awareness can change the balance there. But the education and the awareness have to go both ways.
Nobody likes being told how to live where they live by somebody who doesn’t live there. Much of the population of Eastern Oregon consists of people who don’t want anybody telling them anything at all. Part of their ethos could be reduced to something like: You need help, we’ll give it, generously and with good will. And we’ll keep our cows off your grass, and you keep yours off ours.
Cattle ranching is still one of the ways to make a living in the Steens area. I’m not going to recite the many ways in which this always was a poor way to use this land and is now rapidly becoming an impossible one both economically and ecologically. That’s not in question.
The problem is that there are families who’ve been ranching there for four or five generations. (My great-grandfather tried it on the Steens, around 1870, but gave it up.) These people and their animals are just as much a part of “the scenery” as the buttes and the marshes, the egrets and the eagles. Grazing practices that have impoverished the land can be and are being reduced and improved, and many of the ranchers are as aware of the need for this as any ecologist.
On the ranch I know best, the cattle are entirely grass fed, freely grazing in uncrowded grasslands by a river. They’re handled when handling is necessary by a few people on horseback or little ORVs – no hazing by helicopter, etc. Old cows and ailing calves are walked in to pastures near the ranch house to be cared for. When the time comes to move or sell off animals for beef, they aren’t crammed into trucks but led out onto the road by a cowboy or two to go along at their own gait. Drivers in cars on that road go at that gait for a while too, in the dust, among the big half-curious eyes of the cattle and the soft, random mooing.
I’m not describing this sentimentally, nor to defend raising cattle for beef, but to try to counter the impression that all beef is a product of enormous corporations that keep the animals in cruel, filthy, shameful misery. There are cattle outfits where the relationship of people and animals is more like the relationship of gardener and garden: knowledgeable, intimate, hands-on, and tending towards mutual benefit.
The reason I brought up the ranches and the ranchers at the ONDA meeting, and here, is this: I went out to the Steens country because I’d fallen in love with it, the desert, the scenery. It took me years to realise how much I was learning by living on a ranch for a few days a year, watching domestic animals as well as wild ones, and talking with the people. Slowly I began to see the scenery as what it is to them: their world, by birth or choice; their life, often their parents’ and their children’s life. They know it deeply, they curse it from the bottom of their hearts for its implacable obstinacy, they love it and give their lives to it.
It’s only too easy to antagonize “the locals” by appearing to dismiss their hard-earned local knowledge or giving the impression that the aesthetic emotions or escapist yearnings of hikers, campers, birders, tourists are more valuable than the ranchers’ relationship to the land and the living they and their animals earn from it.
Such antagonisms can be modified by patient listening on both sides, genuine conversation, working towards a mutual good. Sounds easy. It’s complicated. Nothing in conservation work is ever uncomplicated! But I’m proud of ONDA for working on that conversation, being neighborly, trying to include the human landscape in the natural one as truly part of what is to be honored, protected, and saved.
At the meeting I read some poems from Out Here, the book Roger Dorband and I did about that country. I’ll end with one from its history. In the 1890’s the P Ranch covered a great part of what we now call Harney County and the Steens. Frenchglen (population ~12) is named for the man who ran it, who built barns the way the Middle Ages built cathedrals.
The Cattle King
He turned his back in scorn, did Peter French,
unarmed, and the homesteader shot him dead,
on the land he’d got by hook or crook, P Ranch —
the cattle kingdom he was ruling, still
convinced he’d break the desert to his will,
control it all; and yet his partners profited,
ate up the cash and cheated Peter French.
Controlling, cheating, ruling, we’ve done ill
and ill and ill again to this great spread
we got by hook or crook, this empire-ranch,
this Harney County. Maybe we’ll learn until
we learn to use it well. Of him let it be said:
his lifeblood’s in this land where he lies dead.
12 October 2015
104. A Trip South
Back in the days, I did considerable traveling around the country to talk or teach or read from a new book. Only once did I get hooked into a regular book tour, the if it’s Tuesday this must be Connecticut thing. After a couple of weeks of that, and after sitting in a plane on the runway at the Denver airport watching them de-ice the plane for the third time before we took off into a white-out blizzard, as we climbed (just barely) over the Rockies, I was able only to resolve never to do a book tour again.
The worst thing about it was that I’d realised I was obsessing about whether and when I could have a drink before I went on stage. I’ve “used alcohol,” as the medical questionnaires weirdly phrase it, ever since I was in college, but I’d never before (or since) felt that alcohol was beginning to use me. Nicotine had had me cornered for years, and I didn’t want another addiction. It scared me. When I got home I was so strung out that Charles looked me over and said, “I’m going to take you over to the beach for three days by yourself,” and he did.
He put me in a nice little run-down motel, kitchenette and geraniums, two blocks from the ocean. I didn’t speak to anybody but the grocery store clerk for three days. I spent them walking or sitting on the beach. In the evening I’d wander back to my room and sit down with a shot of bourbon to call Charles before I made dinner. Dr Le Guin’s Pacific Therapy worked. It wasn’t too long after that that we bought a house, a few blocks from that motel, so we could both do beach retreats, jointly or in solitude — with a kitchen that had more than two saucepans, one lid, no teapot, and those damn serrated motel knives that won’t cut butter.
For a long time plane travel was no problem for me physically, and although I always hated airports, I did enjoy flying. It can be amazingly beautiful, and sometimes a real high. I got more than one story idea at 30,000 feet. (One was the germ of Changing Planes.) But as deregulation progressed, and security became a big deal, and the airlines took to processing passengers as insentient objects, airports became suburbs of hell. And the bag of peanuts on the plane deteriorated into five intensely saline plaster pretzels and a granite corn nut, and then into nothing at all. And I was getting lame, and old, and then really old, and the prospect of getting through airports and plane changes and delays made me more and more anxious, until I saw I couldn’t do it alone. So now I fly only very seldom, and as a sheep, guided by an endlessly resourceful and kindly shepherd, my son.
Thus I arrived, bleating softly, in Los Angeles airport last Saturday night.
I feel like writing a blog about the trip, because I never have done that, and because I have a fairly strong feeling that I may not fly anywhere to do a gig again. No, I am not saying never. I learned long ago never to say never, or anyhow hardly ever. And I hardly ever say last, ever since I published The Last Book of Earthsea and then discovered it was the fourth book of six. Never and last are closing words. Having spent a good deal of my life trying to open closed doors and windows, I have no intention of going around slamming them shut now, just because I’m 86.
As I see it, getting old gives me the opportunity to go through another door, into another place.
Old age is quite a different place from what people who don’t live there think it is or say it is or want it to be. Here, what you want doesn’t count as much as it used to. Energy, stamina, memory, any of them may suddenly fail and let you down — not because you let it happen, but because you can’t prevent it. Where there’s a will, here, there isn’t always a way. Doors do shut; windows close. No hype, no vanity or pretense, no resolution can keep them open. In fact, I wonder if a continuous strenuous effort to keep them open may prevent the compensatory thinning of the fabric of the everyday, the weakening of all walls and barriers, that increasingly admits shadows, gleams, intimations, glimpses of a larger habitation, a vaster landscape even than that of the world seen from 30,000 feet.
So anyhow, I made one strenuous effort. I flew to L.A. to do a gig — I’m sorry, an Event — at the Center for the Art of Performance series in Royce Hall on the UCLA campus on Sunday afternoon. I took it on partly because it paid very well and thus provided me a (completely unnecessary) excuse to go on to Santa Ana to see my daughter in the house she bought there two years ago. I very much wanted to see her in it, so that I could imagine her where she is whenever I think of her. It is hard to have children where you can’t imagine them.
Also, the person who was to talk with me on stage was Meryl Friedman, who now teaches at UCLA, but who, years ago, in her wild youth, produced the first stage play of my Left Hand of Darkness. I always regretted that I wasn’t able to go to Chicago to see it. Reviews of the play and reports by people who saw it were very impressive. When I had the pleasure of being in on the production of Left Hand here in Portland two years ago by Hand2Mouth and Portland Playhouse Theaters, I knew better than ever what I’d missed in Chicago. Stage magic is just about the purest magic I know. So I wanted, at least, and at long last, to meet Meryl. It was a happy meeting.
Afterwards, Theo and I met Charles Solomon and Scott Johnston at a fish house for dinner. I don’t remember how Chas (as I will call him to distinguish Charleses) and I became email-pen-pals — was it something to do with Miyazaki? or with cats? We share cat stories shamelessly. I tell him about Pard, he tells me about Nova, Matter, and Typo. Typo makes himself into a black fur scarf around Chas’s neck and goes to sleep there. I wish he could have worn Typo to the restaurant. Over the past few years, Chas has given me a master class in the criticism and appreciation of animated film, and patiently endures my ignorant grumblings about why does everybody have to look like inflated plastic toys, etc. As a critic, he can be a master grumbler himself, but he grumbles from knowledge. Meanwhile, Scott does the real thing, practices the art. I don’t know how often a top artist and a top critic can make a happy marriage, but it’s a great thing when it happens. The picture, taken by Scott, is me and Charles — both obviously full of fish and purring.
Next morning we rather gratefully left the hotel. It was perfectly OK, but why do hotels think you want to enter a cavernously dark lobby with a gas fire burning in a glass hearth on a brilliant day in Southern California, or eat breakfast in windowless gloom to the unmeaning thump and whimper of muzak, while palm trees clash and glitter outside in the sunlight? I’m just glad the muzak wasn’t yet playing “White Christmas” and “Let it Snow.” Anyhow, we got out into the bright air under a radiant blue sky and drove on The 405 (every highway in L.A. must have its article) down into Orange County.
Santa Ana isn’t a mess of cognitive dissonances plunked down in a desert, like Riverside. It’s a solid old town with a history. Like Sacramento, Monterey, Petaluma, it’s been there for a while, with good reasons to be there — a county seat with federal offices, for years the market center of a great orchard and farming area, a long-established settlement of Americans originally from the south, chiefly Mexico.
Elisabeth’s house is in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood built mostly just after the second world war. The push now is to upscale and gentrify, that is, to push out the people who’ve lived and worked and paid taxes there for sixty years or more, bulldoze the one-story houses, scrape away the lots full of tricycles and persimmon trees and old California sycamores, and erect the sterile megamansions of Money with their locked doors and unopenable windows. Can we do nothing to prevent these hordes of the filthy rich from overrunning our country and dispossessing our people, to stem this ever-growing White Plague of freeloaders who let us pay their taxes while they send our jobs to China and our kids to Afghanistan? — Oh, it’s so easy to rant with so many examples of ranting to be heard, and so easy to turn bigotry upon itself! Anyhow, I hope the City of Santa Ana comes to its senses and saves its pleasant neighborhoods.
We met the other inhabitants of the house. Here they are: Terri; Chimul in his cat-bed; Opal (with whom I bonded when she was still a kitten); and on my lap, in his new holiday sweater, Ugo, a long-term visitor.
Terri calls Chimul the Punk, and there is some truth in it, but he’s very pretty. Both cats outweigh little Ugo, but they all get on; and Ugo is a dear, and a brave watchdog. After we had enjoyed touring the house we went round the garden, where we deeply admired the clothesline and the compost pit, and deeply envied the lemon and orange and persimmon trees.
Elisabeth made us a grand lunch of fish and vegetables which we ate outside in the sunshine at the table beside the pretty solar, a shady-sunny patio enclosed with lattice and half-roofed, with a most inviting hammock.
It was quite windy, with the palms sounding like sea-waves, and not very warm, except in the sun — a north-wind day. I didn’t grow up in Southern California, never even saw it till I was over thirty, but California is itself and nowhere else from top to bottom, from Sierra to sea. When I’m there, almost anywhere there, deep in me a contented voice says: Yes. Right. Some people have an Inner Child. I have an Inner Californian.
We drove downtown to see the Centro Cultural de México, the community center that first drew my daughter to Santa Ana in pursuit of the son jarocho music of Vera Cruz, and which has become an important element of her life. But all too soon it was time to leave for the airport.
John Wayne Airport. I didn’t say I like everything about California, you know.
After we got there we discovered that the two-hour six-o’clock flight to Portland was two hours late. Altogether we spent three hours in John Wayne Airport. Not too bad. Theo belongs to airline clubs where you can sit peacefully and have a drink, and the restaurant was really OK. But it was getting pretty close to closing time. John Wayne Airport shuts right down at ten p.m., because the people in the megamansions in the luxury burbs and Huntington Beach object to having plebeian airplanes fly over them when they want to sleep. Honestly. This is true. And not only that: all day long, so as not to disturb the filthy rich, the planes have to gain altitude fast by taking off very steeply.
By then I was quite willing to take off very steeply.
We flew against headwinds all the way north, missed our landing the first try, circled back, and bumped down in blinding rain and gusty wind about midnight. Dear, wet Portland, hello! I am happy to be home.
23 November 2015
105. Ruby and Me
These pictures are of Ruby and me at the thirty-fifth Wild Arts Festival, an annual craft fair and book sale for the Portland Audubon Society.
I attend to sign books for the very lively benefit. (People bought 58 copies of my new poetry book, Late in the Day!) Ruby attends for the edification and delight of those who behold her.
Ruby turned up at the front door of a farmhouse, a young Turkey Vulture someone had tamed and then lost or abandoned. The farm family wisely brought her to the Audubon Society. She never learned the skills she needs to survive in the wild and is not accepted by her own people, so she must live with us, which she does with great dignity. I admire Ruby very much, and like to think that I look a little like her, or would if I had a majestic black-and-silvery feather cloak and an ivory nose. We both always attend the Wild Arts Fair.
In the first picture, I am trying unsuccessfully to imitate Ruby’s splendid profile. In the second one, she’s turned away because the camera flash displeased her. I wasn’t really that close to her. You don’t invade the personal space of somebody with a six-foot wingspread.
Ruby’s companion from the Audubon Society asked us what we thought she weighed. One guessed forty pounds, and one said, “If she was a Thanksgiving turkey I’d say about 18 pounds.” In fact she weighs more like 4 pounds. She is all feather and hollow bone. The Queen of Air and Darkness.
7 December 2015
Photography by Alyson Berman
Photo-editing by Zach Kobrinsky
106. A Child Who Survived
The vapid statement “the creative adult is the child who survived” is currently being attributed to me by something called Aiga —
which is “supported in part by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.” I wasn’t able to communicate with Aiga to ask them to take my name off their design.
It probably wouldn’t do much good anyhow. A false attribution on the Internet is like box elder beetles, the miserable little things just keep breeding and tweeting and crawling out of the woodwork.
I posted on my blog and at Book View Café on this persistent misattribution last year. Early and very welcome responses to it by Meelis and Jonathan on BVC gave me both the sentence I wrote, and a possible source of the misquotation.
Meelis pointed out this sentence in the 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?” (reprinted in the collection The Language of the Night):
I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up: that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived.
Nothing about “creativity” whatever. I just said a grown-up is somebody who lived through childhood — a child who survived. A truism, of course, but in 1974 I had reasons for stating it. The disavowal of childishness that is part of assuming adulthood, particularly male adulthood, can become a denial of the value of any connection to oneself as a child or to children in general. It was acceptable, forty years ago, for people to boast of disliking children. It was all but automatic for critics to deny adult value to fantasy literature simply by saying it was ‘for children.’ And some feminists of the Seventies, wanting to free women from sole responsibility for children, denied any natural connection to them at all. This was the mindset I was addressing. I was just trying to keep the child-adult connection open, and free of contempt.
Jonathan discovered that the earliest appearance on the Internet of the misquote was in 1999, from a huge collection of quotations compiled by Professor Julian F. Fleron:
The professor gave no source for the sentence; I have no idea why he attributed it to me.
It is high time that this sentence, “The creative adult is the child who has survived,” be attributed to its originator, Prof. Julian F. Fleron.
If he did not originate it, and wishes to be freed from the onus of supposedly having done so, that’s up to him or to those who wish to preserve his good name. I just wish, oh how I wish! that he hadn’t stuck me with the damn thing.
28 December 2015