12 Winters Blog

Tolstoy a century later; Men of Winter to be released soon

Posted in November 2010 by Ted Morrissey on November 21, 2010

Yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, and as a matter of coincidence I’ve been reading Anna Karenina. One of my followees on Twitter posted an English-language Russian news segment reporting on the author and what an industry he’s become, especially his home, Yasnaya Polyana, as a tourist destination. The news reporter interviewed Tolstoy’s great grandson, who talked about the irony of the fact that very few of the tourists who enthusiastically flock to Tolstoy’s home have in fact read any of his work. Then he went on to discuss how it’s a shame that the vast majority of people only read classics that are required of them in high school. He made sure to take nothing away from contemporary books and authors, who should be read too, but insisted that classics, like Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or War and Peace, still have much to offer modern readers. My favorite author, William H. Gass, also laments that too few people today read classic literature, which he believes helps to develop the mind in ways that popular fiction is unable to. I’m on the other end of the spectrum in that I’m drawn to classics and don’t read new authors as much as I feel I should — but there are only so many hours in the day: with working three jobs and giving daily attention to my own writing, there’s not nearly enough time left to read as I would alike. I’m ashamed to admit that I don’t take a newspaper, though the idea of sitting down with a big thick paper, like The New York Times, and a good cup of coffee is very appealing. To find that time, however, I’d have to forfeit time spent reading other things (like the three hours I spent with Tolstoy this morning) that I find nourish both my intellect and my soul.

Speaking of my writing, Men of Winter is supposed to be out this week (though I’m not holding my breath). It is fair to say that it will be out soon. Meanwhile I’ve uploaded videos of my reading chapter 1 of the novel to both Vimeo and YouTube; so far neither site has garnered very many hits, not surprisingly. Also I launched Pathfinding: a blog devoted to helping new writers find outlets for their work as my Punkin House author’s blog, though I’m not yet listed among their blogging authors (I believe PHP is redoing their webpages). On the one hand, I’m looking forward to having my novel out in the world, but on the other I feel a bit handicapped in trying to promote it as neither my three-job lifestyle nor pocketbook easily lends itself to aggressive promotion in terms of scheduling readings and attending book fairs, etc. I will do my best, however. (This past week I did receive an invitation to read the first chapter of Men of Winter at The Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 in February — now just to find some way to pay for attending the conference. . . .)

I continue work on the Authoress, soldiering my way through chapter 19. It’s slow but I like what I have, which isn’t to say it won’t need much revision. It will.

In a bit I’m headed to the local Barnes & Noble for a school library fundraiser — just what I need: a good excuse to buy books.


More Turgenev and a proposed release date for Men of Winter

Posted in August 2010 by Ted Morrissey on August 15, 2010

I’ve been reading from the collection of Ivan Turgenev’s stories (though some have been described as short novels). After reading the collection’s titular story, “First Love,” I read an earlier-written tale, “Bezhin Meadow” (1851), then skipped to the final tale in the collection “Clara Milich” (1882), and now I’m reading “Assya” (1857). There’s been little rhyme or reason as to which stories I’ve read and in what order. I suppose I’ve been guided somewhat by David Magarshack’s (that is, the translator’s) introduction, and his assessment of the evolution of Turgenev’s style as reflected in these stories that span more than thirty years. According to Magarshack, in his earliest stories Turgenev was especially interested in describing scenery:

The interesting stylistic feature of A Sportsman’s Sketches, as well as of Turgenev’s other stories belonging to the same period [early 1850s], is the presence of the long descriptive passages which have very little relation to the subject matter of the story. Indeed, Turgenev was for a time so obsessed with his ability to paint landscapes in words that even his letters of the period abound in descriptive passages of the same kind. (pp. x-xi, First Love and Other Tales, Norton 1968)

On the one hand, I see in the stories I’ve read so far what Magarshack is getting at. His assessment, though, that the “passages … have very little relation to the subject matter of the story” is not one that I would whole-heartedly embrace. There may be little direct relation to the plot of the story, but it seems to me that Turgenev is operating in a way that would soon become known as impressionism in painting, and a bit later as impressionism in literature. That is, the descriptive passages are often meant to reflect some meaningful aspect of the characters who are operating within or observing the scenery — that aspect may be the characters’ psychologies, or it may be foreshadowing their narrative advancement. In the story “Assya,” for example, the connection between scenery and characterization is overtly made by Turgenev when the narrator says of Gagin, a young Russian fellow he’s met in Germany and who’s awakened him early on a beautiful morning, “With his wavy, shiny hair, open neck, and rosy cheeks, he was as fresh as the morning himself” (94).

Needless to say, I’ve been enjoying the Turgenev stories. I read a bit of Turgenev as an undergraduate, but he’s one of the many authors who’ve been just on the edges of my academic radar all these years.

A couple of developments on the creative writing front: My story “The Composure of Death,” which I just began sending round last month, has been taken by Pisgah Review, a beautiful little journal associated with Brevard College, in Brevard, North Carolina. The journal is edited by Jubal Tiner, whom I met several years ago at the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (though I’m not sure Jubal is making the connection just yet). According to Jubal’s email, the editorial staff is not in love with the title of the story so they’ve asked me to consider a different title, which I’m willing to do — I have no emotional investment in that specific title. I did reply with a brief explanation of the title’s origin, which is Hawthorne’s “The Minister’s Black Veil,” a story I allude to in my story, and why I’d chosen that phrase. I don’t know if that will change their feelings about the title, but, if not, I’ll put my thinking cap on and come up with another. With the acceptance of the story, each of the stories in my collection Weeping with an Ancient God, a novella with collected stories, has been published. I’ve also been shopping around the first chapter (under the title “Melvill in the Marquesas”) of the unpublished novella, but so far no one has offered to take it to the dance. It’s still very early in the process, and I’ve only gotten a couple of rejections so far.

The other development: According to Amy Ferrell, CEO of Punkin House Press, Men of Winter should be out in October. Still quite a ways to go in terms of laying out the pages and designing the cover, but that will apparently get intense in a hurry. PHP also wants to do some sort of online workshop/contest that I’ll lead and judge for publication, in part to promote my novel but also to help other writers find publication. Right now it’s just a concept, so that too will have to be fleshed out in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, I continue to work on the Authoress, my novel-in-progress. I’m about 265-manuscript pages in, and a couple of days ago I roughly mapped out the final sections of the story. I have a long way to go, but I must resist the urge to rush toward the finish line. In a sense I’ve been working on the novel for four-plus years, but that’s misleading because for three years I (almost literally) didn’t touch the manuscript as I finished my Ph.D., specifically preparing for and passing comprehensive exams, then getting the dissertation topic approved, and researching, writing, and defending it. So, really, this is only my second summer of working on the novel. I must keep in mind facts like it took Joyce seventeen years to write Finnegans Wake, and William H. Gass worked on The Tunnel for nearly thirty years — not to imply that my book will be another Finnegans Wake or The Tunnel, but rather to remind myself that a novel worth its salt takes time to write, and rushing the process is counterproductive.


Notes from the Louisville Conference 2010

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 21, 2010

I’ve just returned from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (LCLC)–ungainly title but terrific conference–and I wanted to share some of my finds and observations.  For any literature folks who haven’t been, it’s a top-flight international conference and well worth the effort.  It’s normally the last weekend in February and will be again in 2011.  I didn’t hear any concrete numbers, but it seemed attendance was down a bit (as universities are being hit by the economic crisis as well, and departments are having to pare back their travel allowances–in times of economic downturn, humanities and the fine arts tend to find themselves on the bureaucratic chopping block); nevertheless, the panels that I attended and participated in were up to their usual standards.  I chaired a panel on Joyce’s Ulysses on Thursday.  Even though it was not a prearranged panel, all three papers dealt with Molly Bloom, offering new assessments of her character in the novel.  Throughout the twentieth century, commentators tended to characterize her as a wanton woman, even a whore–but these papers were much more open-minded about her roles as wife, mother, woman.  I was especially intrigued by Elizabeth Kate Switaj‘s paper on “Ulysses as Lesbian Text” as the writer, a doctoral student at Queen’s University, Belfast, dealt with an approach to reading that identifies “space” for interpretation in a text that may not, at the surface level, seem to support such a reading.  One of the reasons I found this approach so attractively provocative is that my own pedagogical hobbyhorse in recent months has been to get my students to embrace ambiguity in their analyses of literature.  It seems that in the last couple of years especially my brightest students are “mathy” and “sciencey” types who want to reduce every work of literature to some sort of calculus equation that can be definitively “solved.”  I tell them that the humanities aren’t about simplifying everything down to its “correct” answer.  Humans are complex, and therefore ambiguous, creatures who often don’t understand their own behaviors and attitudes, leave be the behaviors and attitudes of others.  A sophisticated textual analysis doesn’t shy away from conflicting and conflicted conclusions–these sorts of conclusions are meaningful in their own right as long as they’re grounded in textual evidence.

I was also treated to some of Switaj’s poetry.  Speaking of creative panels, I especially liked the work of a young poet named Jeremy Allan Hawkins, who read from the thesis manuscript he’d submitted the previous day for his MFA from the University of Alabama.  I enjoyed the short story “Blue Sky White” by Tessa Mellas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati.  Deborah Adelman’s (College of DuPage) cross-genre piece “Fleshing out the Bones” was very engaging, being part memoir, part fiction; as was Greenfield Jones’s (Louisville, Ky.) novel excerpt from Rêve Américain; and Adam Prince’s (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) “Ugly around Him” from his book-length manuscript.

I attended several thought-provoking critical panels, including one on the graphic novel–an area of literature that seems to share a lot with postmodernism, especially postmodern texts as trauma texts.  Graphic novels tend to be nonlinear and elliptical, thus putting the reader in the position of having to piece the narrative together in order for it to make sense.  Victims of trauma, by the same token, tend to communicate the source event in nonlinear, elliptical “texts” that must be reconstructed by a listener/reader.  Another paper (by April D. Fallon, Kentucky State University) has made me interested in e. e. cummings’s poetry in a way I hadn’t been previously.

My own presentations were well enough received.  I read my story “Communion with the Dead,” which was published in the fall 2008 issue of The Chariton Review.  I also presented it at the College English Association Conference in March 2008.  I enjoy reading it aloud, but it’s a bit tricky.  For one thing, at a couple of key places in the story I switch to unpunctuated stream of consciousness, and minus any visual cues for the audience, it may not make perfect sense (not to overuse the word, but it’s meant to be elliptical even when being read, as opposed to listened to); also, there are several Italian names that look interesting (and a bit exotic, I believe) on the page, but they can be challenging to read aloud fluidly.  I also presented my critical paper “In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:  Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass.”  It, too, was well enough received.  I am attempting to turn it into a 30-page article for a European journal, and now that the Louisville Conference is over, I’ll be getting back to that project.  My physical working on “The Authoress” also came to a halt this week because of my traveling–physical working, I say, because I think about the novel all the time and I have some ideas about how it should end, though the ending is still a long way off.  Right now I’m working on a long central (I think) section that has been inspired, structurally at least, by Ulysses.  I hope to complete a draft of the novel this summer.  Meanwhile, an editor is interested in looking at my earlier written novella Weeping with an Ancient God for possible serial publication in her journal–which would be terrific, since trying to get a novella published is even more difficult than a first novel.

This morning I continued annotating Omensetter’s Luck.