Real Fiction

Exploring the nexus of reading and writing

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Like a Visit with an Old Friend

This is the phrase that leaped to mind, unbidden, as I read the first few pages of the “Preface” to Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf.

steppenwolfThe familiarity of the words (for I have read them at least thrice), their poetical presentation (even in translation from the German!), the warmth and clarity in the characterizations of the first people we see in this story… these are the paltry words I conjure for a picture much richer in my mind and soul.

I am reminded, even as I begin, how different today’s published novels are from the writing then.

“Then” was merely ninety-four years ago; it was first published ten years before I was born. This forms my perspective. That is, I have read many stories, as a child and youth, which were published beginning the mid-19th Century. In my youth and teen years, I devoured the novels and short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Mark Twain, “Saki” (H. H. Munro), Victor Hugo. Later, in my twenties, I was enthralled with the writing of Henry James, then later still, Joseph Conrad. Beginning my college years, I learned to love the soliloquies in Shakespeare’s fictional biographies of kings and princes.

Many others could be cited, but these are stored in deep memory, having moved from current memory to make room for the avalanche of information and impressions one is relentlessly confronted with in current times.

One reads these books not only for the story but for the way the words were presented by the author, sometimes author/translator. I look back and thank my father for having such books available to me, despite our otherwise, and temporarily impoverished living conditions. We had wealth beyond what is considered wealth today.

So now you have an idea of my perspective when I read a contemporary fiction such as “Stay with me, by Ayobami Adebayo,” which was recommended to me.

stay with meI found the writing immature and uninspiring,  even if the author was skilled in depicting, sympathetically, the emotional state of the main character who suffered a series of great tragedies throughout her life.

And this is where I become perplexed–the author and her novel are highly regarded:


Ayobami Adebayo‘s stories have appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and one was highly commended in the 2009 Commonwealth Short Story Prize. She holds BA and MA degrees in Literature in English from Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife. She also has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia where she was awarded an international bursary for creative writing. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from Ledig House, Hedgebrook, Sinthian Cultural Institute, Ebedi Hills, Ox-Bow School of Arts and Siena Art Institute. She was born in Lagos, Nigeria. In 2017, her debut novel Stay With Me was shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction. (Source)

The above is all to the credit of an author who is thirty years old, and whose celebrated novel was written, I assume, through her late twenties in that it was first published when she was 29.


Its appeal is to the emotions, exclusively, in my opinion. There is little depth in the characters, even some equivocal characterization. The words are simple, which is all right indeed, but they are not put together in a way that makes want to slow down to savor their progress.

Why does her writing receive such accolades?

I suppose I am out of touch, being an old, “white,” male.

Back to “Steppenwolf.”

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Writing about writing and arguing for God

ScreenHunter_149 Jul. 03 10.35A very difficult book

The book is The Broken Estate, by James Wood.

I have long wanted to learn more about some of the authors and historical figures (often one and the same) whom this author presents: Sir Thomas More, Jane Austen, Gustave Flaubert, Virginia Woolf and so on. And, I learned about others new to me. I am in debt to the author for educating me.

However, I am also exhausted from the reading of this difficult book. I cannot fully put my finger on the reason or reasons, but the following are thoughts my forebrain reveals.

James Wood is upset by the trivialization of God that most authors offer in their novels. Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick is one of the exceptions. He also likes Jane Austen for introducing the inner dialog of the main character in a new and useful way, but this doesn’t seem to have anything to do about the “God” issue that underlies this collection of essays.

To justify my having said the foregoing, here is an excerpt, regarding the free-will argument, from the final paragraph of the book in the final chapter entitled The Broken Estate: The Legacy of Ernest Renan and Matthew Arnold:

…(A) world of limited freedom and absolute transparency of knowledge, in which not one of us is in any doubt about our creator, would be a limited, useless place. But it would not, presumably, be useless to God. It is what heaven would be like; and why, before heaven, must we live? Why must we move through this unhappy, painful, rehearsal for heaven, this desperate ante-chamber, this foreword written by an anonymous author, this hard prelude in which so few of us can find our way?

The above ends the book.

As an aspiring writer, I am eager to learn from such a master of language and from his criticism of literature. But what is literature as compared with just “writing,” which is what I think I am doing? tells us this, in part, about the definition of “literature”:

• Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value: “Literature must be an analysis of experience and a synthesis of the findings into a unity” (Rebecca West).

• The art or occupation of a literary writer.

I take this to mean that writing has artistic value when it is deemed such by those who consider their own writing to have artistic value such as, presumably, Rebecca West.

Rebecca West

Rebecca West, 1892 – 1983

As for literary writer, I find no direct definition on the Internet. No doubt it exists somewhere, but I will attempt my own here: a literary writer is one who, in his writing, refers, implicitly or explicitly, to other writers and their work. T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land is a solid example of this, in my view. One cannot understand his poem without first having read and understood a great number of other works of other authors and philosophers, including The Bible.

I have a bias, as may be perceived here, against those who hold themselves out as “experts” in telling us how good or bad, and why, a given piece of writing or art may be.

James Wood doesn’t tell us how we should think; he is telling us what he thinks, and he thinks very deeply. I agree that the notion of God or, more to my taste, the notion of a power beyond us and beyond our understanding, a Life Force (or, as I use in my poetry, The Great Everything), does in fact exist. I believe he is arguing that for the last several hundred years man has undertaken to describe the universe in his own terms through the use of the written word and has reduced God or The Life Force to an abstraction, something less relevant than before.

I will keep this book. This means I will read it again, perhaps ten years from now when I am 81 and will have had more life experience. I may find it less daunting reading then, as I recently found with Plato’s Dialogues, despite their being opaque to me when I was 25.

May the Force be with you.

[response] And also with you