Thursday, October 28, 2010


The common complaint is that the novel is dead. Don't believe it. Every day new novels dominate review pages, blogs and web sites.
At the same time, there is lots of noise about the death of "plot". Young writers, some critics maintain, don't employ the use of "plot" today. My feeling is that like a lot of dogma, this isn't accurate, either. I think that most readers and writers (especially) are really not sure exactly what "plot" is and how it differs from "story".
It is possible to have a story, that is, a narrative of events that proceeds throughout the book, describing what happens next and then next,without employing a plot. Narrative is the who, what, when, how. Someone once gave the meaning of "story", one that gives you
a sequence of events, as the following: the king died, then the queen died, then the prince died. That can certainly be a good tale, but to make it great, there must be "plot", the "why" behind all these events. Plot is what gives a story meaning and conveys to the reader that deep satisfaction of discovering why she married a dork, why he killed his mother, why friends and lovers betrayed them. And that is why plot will never disappear from fiction (which isn't going to disappear, either.)
We readers will always want to know why. Shakespeare showed us the "why" of Hamlet's family tragedy and created a masterpiece by doing so.
Barbara Phillips

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

This 'n That

Sorry for the long delay in blogging. I was recovering from comments about my blog on "The Help". Such positive ones as "you self-righteous old fart" and "if you're so smart, why aren't you running Random House?". At least, someone is reading me. And while these writers might actually have valid points, I can't reply to them personally because they (3) were all Anonymous. Come on, you guys, what are you hiding behind? Why not put your money where your mouth is and stand up for your positions by giving your names and addresses?

Now for something totally different...Riveted as we have been by the publicity blitz about the new platforms for reading, like IPad, Kindle, Nook and, for all I know, other unknown gadgets, we have lost sight of that poor orphan, the words themselves, the story being read or, in the words of the electronic mavens, THE TEXT. No publisher in his/her right mind could object to having the author's words disseminated far and wide, no matter how. But let's not forget that what's important in the long run isn't necessarily the means to an end, it's the end itself that counts. And too many adults don't read in a sustained way. Something like 27% of surveyed adults haven't read a book in a year. Not even a hardboiled heist or a cozy mystery. Clueless!
And Anonymous, if you're still reading, change your name and reply!!!
Barbara Phillips

Friday, April 30, 2010

In one of my last emails, I promised to read David Shields's "Reality Hunger", and report back if I felt he was putting us on. I am more comfortable with his philosophy of writing now in spite of all his appropriations, because his borrowed essays and his own are instructive. They gave me a lot of information about the history of writing and art in general, also the geniuses involved. But I still can't take Shields too seriously. So what, he takes himself seriously enough for both of us. In these days when the book business in general is in trouble, readers need more help than ever, and to flog a major literary theory change right now is like giving the tiger the key to its cage.
But, interestingly and serendipitously, after reading Shields, I came across "Possessed", a non-novel by Elef Batuman (a woman and a PhD). Shields would give her an A. Batuman has written a series of essays (all her own work, though!)about her obsession with Russian literature and how Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov et al provided reference points for her life and those of her grad-school friends. She is that rare bird,an academic with a sense of humor, and she can be wry and amusing about the darndest subjects. But I found I needed a lot more craziness as a relief from her interminable book synopses and academic disquisitions. When she concludes that one of Dostoevski's characters suffers from mimetic desire, (a literary theory put forth by a Stanford prof whom Batuman studied with), and then segues to a personal friend she is sure is afflicted with the same problem, I wished there was less scholarship here and more tourist hi-jinks in Samarkand. I'd like to see this talented woman channel less Dostoevski and more Woody Allen! Barbara Phillips

Friday, April 16, 2010

Amazing New Technology


Introducing the new Bio-Optic Organized Knowledge device, trade-named BOOK.
BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It's so easy to use, even a child can operate it.Compact and portable, it can be used anywhere -- even sitting in an armchair by the fire -- yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disc.
Here's how it works: BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. The pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binder which keeps the sheets in their correct sequence.
Opaque Paper Technology (OPT) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, doubling the information density and cutting costs. Each sheet is scanned optically, registering information directly into your brain. A flick of the finger takes you to the next sheet.
BOOK never crashes or requires rebooting, though, like other devices, it can become damaged if coffee is spilled on it.
The "browse" feature allows you to move instantly to any sheet, and move forward or backward as you wish. Many come with an "index" feature, which pin-points the exact location of any selected information for instant retrieval.
An optional "BOOKmark" accessory allows you to open BOOK to the exact place you left it in a previous session -- even if the BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs by various manufacturers.
Portable, durable, and affordable, BOOK is being hailed as a precursor of a new entertainment wave. BOOK's appeal seems so certain that thousands of content creators have committed to the platform and investors are reportedly flocking to invest. Look for a flood of new titles soon.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Help

At the instigation of my daughter, who loves the work of Junot Diaz, I have just finished reading THE HELP, by Kathryn Stockett, published a year ago, but still hot with book clubs. Said daughter was puzzled about the best-selling story of three women, two black and one white, two maids and one mistress, in Mississippi in the early
1960's, and commented that while THE HELP was engrossing, at the end she felt something smelled. Expert intuition. This is chick lit of the worst kind--story sentimental slush, characters thin as paper dolls, writing style amateurish. The juxtaposition of the unfortunately written work and the simple, honest author afterword of Stockett, wherein she makes clear that yes, there were honest, humane relationships between white and black women even in a segregated south, is especially unhappy. That relationship exists to this day, not only in the south, but wherever women work together.
And who would argue with the book's concept that women can be remarkable agents for change? But this reader would hope that the execution is carried off with some semblance of reality. I was particularly interested in critiques from African-American women (the writer is white). Several grew up in the south (as I did) and their comments are uniformly negative. They comment on disdainful cliches, offensive caricatures and inaccurate use of dialect in The Help. While the jacket copy refers to "pitch-perfect" language, I can only counter that the Uncle-Tom's-Cabin version of simplistic villainy and nobility could only be the result of a mashup of tin ears.
Once upon a time, there were Faulkner, Welty and Flannery O'Connor, all of whom knew how to spin a tale of the south without insulting the reader's intelligence. Except for the author, I doubt if any of the people involved in the publication of The Help have ever been south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Minstrel-show dialect and antics do not a fine novel make. Barbara Phillips

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Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Novel is Dead: 2.0

I've been hearing a lot lately about David Shields, a writer whose most recent book, REALITY HUNGER: A MANIFESTO, has mesmerized critics. From a writer who queried me about his own work and had interviewed David Shields for The Huffington Post; from Michiko Kakutani of the NYTimes, who mentioned Shields in her magnificent long article about the Internet on 3/21 and from reviewers who have mostly lauded Shields' as a spokesman for the new age of writing, he is very much in the news. Today, I am ordering REALITY HUNGER to form my own opinion.

Shields is against literary fiction as well as genre and bestseller fiction. Plot is yesterday. Story is for middlebrows. No character development, dialogue, setting anymore. Essay is in (I never knew it was out.) Apparently, REALITY HUNGER is one long essay, in which Shields defends appropriation of other writers' works as well as suggesting we obliterate the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. Explanation of our consciousness is what books should be about and the form should be a mashup of all that has been written before. REALITY HUNGER consists of quotations new and old, mashed together and only attributed in an appendix that Shields put in because the publisher's lawyers insisted.

None of this is new, but apparently Shields is persuasive. I think of the many school kids in the future who, bidden to write a researched essay, appropriate the whole work from someone else. Where once they would be labeled plagiarists and admonished to be original, they can now receive A's and become famous writers, even if the great American novel will no longer be their goal.

Shields' ideas seem to me to be an extension of the web notion that "information should be free". But what about those writers who are being appropriated? How do they earn enough money to survive? How do publishers sell books that over-intellectualize form? As it is, the book business, although still doggedly sticking to the scorned old model of story and characters to accommodate readers, is in pretty dire straits. Sustained reading is disappearing like land-line phones. Is this the right social temperature for violent overthrow of literary landmarks?

Hoping to shoehorn literature into a new pair of glittery Cinderella pumps has had varied success in the past. And since many of these revolutionary schemes originate in academe, I suggest that the fight for reality-based literature be battled out right there, in the academy, instead of in the real world. That should provide the next generation with ideas to put into practice when they leave their cocoons, while the rest of us, for the time being, read on to find out what happens next. Or maybe I'll change my mind completely after I've read REALITY HUNGER and mount the barricades, too. Barbara Phillips

Monday, February 1, 2010

Mystery Land

In Mystery Land, book sales are hot. Two hard-boiled thriller writers--Robert B. Parker, (who unfortunately died last month) and James Patterson--continue to sock it to a universe of readers, and both have been designated by different marketing experts as the successor to Raymond Chandler. If only it were true. Chandler was a smooth operator, both on and off the typewriter. He even used metaphors and similes in both arenas. Jim Patterson and Co. is the world's biggest thriller writer in terms of sales, and his publisher wishes he could clone him, but his more recent works read as if they were produced by committee, which they are. Dozens of points of view pour out from forgettable characters who speak in italics and exclamation points. It is sometimes said that Patterson's audience moves its lips while reading.
Parker's prose style and structure are more conservative; his chapters are normal length, and his private eye, the one-named Spenser, is a middle-aged ex-boxer, as good with his fists as with his .38 revolver. Spenser has a girl friend, whom he refers to as a "stunning Jewess with a PhD from Harvard", who cooks like Julia Child and looks like Scarlett Johansson. She thinks Spenser is as hot as book sellers do. Trouble is: Parker made Spenser speak almost exclusively in wise-guy one-liners. Twenty-five percent are smart and funny and 75% make your teeth ache.
As Tom Evans, author and lifetime Parker reader, said, "Parker got to be formulaic--Susan with her tiny bites of food, the darky dialogue with Hawk." Neither writer measures up to the great Chandler. Ross Macdonald had the last word. Chandler, he said, "wrote like a slumming angel."

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