I am reading a new book by Charles Yu called Sorry Please Thank You. It is a collection of stories that I bought on a lark because of an article I read in Poets & Writers. Yu seems like a super-friendly, quiet sort of fellow and he has a delightfully creative mind. You can tell he is a young guy (not only by the photo on the dust jacket) and he has a clear, easy-to-read style that reminds me of Jonathan Safran Foer.
I read the first four stories this morning because for some reason my brain woke up at 4:45 and I couldn’t go back to sleep. The first story is called “Standard Loneliness Package.” Wow. What a trip! Technology has figured out how to transfer the pain from one person to another, and a booming service industry has appeared in which you can pay to have someone else experience your pain for you. Funerals are most common. The death of a cousin is $500, a sibling is $1250, a parent is $2000. Attending your kid’s recital is $125/hr. Church is $150.
You can also pay for someone else to take your pain in the dentist chair. Or a bad day on the stock market. Heartbreak is one of the most expensive. Death of a child is on a quote-only basis. Most people cannot afford it.
The story is told in first person by a guy who works for a pain transfer service. It is the usual service call scene – he has so many tickets to fill each day, has friends in the cubicles next to him, falls in love with a quiet new girl in the cube across the aisle.
I have to congratulate Charles Yu for a great story. I was taken right into the moment, but never overburdened with the horrifying notion that is the basis of the story – that you could have a job in which all you do all day is receive other people’s pain electronically. It is wistful and light-hearted, and full of basic human longings. I can’t stop thinking about it.
The other stories I read this morning were also pretty good, but he definitely opened with a strong one. All totally original. He get full marks for originality.
The criticism I have is this. Stephen King is quoted as saying, “A short story is like a kiss in the dark from a stranger.” What I think he means is that short stories are limited by their very nature. Maybe they are the perfect size for today’s short-attention-span society. But you will always have a truncated experience with a short story. It may be exciting and sensual, like a kiss, but you still come away from it without having developed that wonderful friendship with the characters. They remain strangers, as does the author.
The other thing I want to point out has probably been the subject of many blogs and essays, but I will say it again. It takes more skill to make a traditional 3rd person narrative hold the reader’s attention nowadays. Something has happened and it seems like more and more stories are taking the easier route and using 1st person because of the instant connectivity you have with the character who is speaking directly to you.
Charles Yu’s stories leaning heavily on the 1st person, though I did flip through the book and found at least one or two that are 3rd person. But it seems like most short stories and many novels are sticking with 1st person. This may not be too big of a problem, but it does create a different mood or reading experience.
For one thing, it is difficult to describe a scene in 1st person. “There was a dwindling fire in the fireplace and she saw his dark figure distorted through the rim of her glass of chardonnay at her lips…” What you will get is more psychology and less location, more being in the speaker’s mind rather than being in the place feeling, smelling, seeing the action.
Again, this is probably due to the tastes of many contemporary readers. But I wonder to what extent it is an indication of further loss of some literary discipline in our society.
My name is Jeffrey Mays. I had another blog for about 4 years where I posted rants and quirky stuff in an undisciplined way, and anonymously. Because it was just for my own fun, and because of the stage of life I was in, I posted a casserole of topics – political grumbling, short stories, comic attempts, observations, reflections, movie reviews etc. I decided it was time to move on.
So what am I doing with this new blog?
A few friends have told me that they envy my book club, going strong for over 13 years now, always meeting outdoors (so we can smoke), under every sort of meteorological inclemency, at The Dog And Duck – a book club called Athenaeum. These envious people are either dear female friends (the club is guys-only) or they live in other cities, or their schedule will not permit their attendance. They want to read more, to have a literary
community of friends who also read good books and talked about them.
They know that there is some secret knowledge out there that our modern world has lost. They sense that these people they have heard of -Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dostoyevsky, Joyce – laid down their precious jewels in volumes of literature which in today’s world is virtually lost, and might as well be written in secret code.
Now seriously, I usually need help too. Reading Flannery O’Connor‘s Wise Blood last month was a tough road. But having a group of 10 other guys made it possible to piece it together and come away with an enrichment I could never have found alone.
And yes, we are all better people for having read Wise Blood
and parsed out the symbolism and savored her gift for words and the
weaving of eternal mystery into her stories. There IS a lost knowledge,
only made elusive by the loss of the language in our culture, but there
waiting nonetheless, available for less than $15 at a used book store.
So this blog is for those who 1) have a literary life already and are
glad for more and 2) for those who want some little place they can go
to that will give them a little nibble of the enjoyment of that secret
life of books, or 3) It is also for writers like myself who are not only
enjoying the best literature, but are attempting to play the cultural
pathologist, to say something in fictional form, with skill and
perception into the mystery part of life that O’Connor talked about. I
will share some of my own creative work as well as discuss others –
oftentimes, what I happen to be reading.
But my hope is that you will come to The Literary Outpost looking for
a serving of the literary life. Not that I am a great authority. No, I
just read books. And I talk about it here with you. And you respond with
your own observations and suggestions. And perhaps we can find little
nuggets of literary mystery together and enjoy them. That is why I’m
writing this new blog.
(Oh, I have a novel I finished this summer and am looking for a
publisher or agent, if you…you know, know any…one…like that
We are trying to understand what William Faulkner meant when he said that all good writing was born of “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself.”
I suggested that such a statement requires the existence of some notion of a soul. And it’s no good pointing to plants animals or the wind as somehow endowed with the same meaning, the same drama, the same depth of inner conflict, because this is simply us projecting our human experience on object of nature which we may love very much.
So here we go.
I submit that by “the heart” Faulkner is referring to the deepest inner aspect of a person. And to be in conflict with itself suggests that the one heart has two aspects, two “knowledges”, two separate grasps of reality and of self. The first is an ideal heart, with a certain sort of perfection, and the other is the heart of the everyday self. One is the heart that knows bravery, honor, reason, love, trustworthiness and all virtues. The other heart operates mainly out of some appetite – it wants pleasure, peace, control, homage, security.
Faulkner is insinuating that there are dual principles battling for mastery of the human, and each have their moments of control. Occasionally we obey a call to serve The Good (a thing outside of us): the need of a loved one, a noble cause, justice, exposure of some falsehood. This side tends to be based on the rational, the divine spark within all humanity, the thing that separates us from the animals.
And other times we obey our appetites, the thing inside: hunger, lust, what we are owed, our protection. This side tends to be based on an instinctual impulse, the animal side.
And here you have the classic quest for humanity to rise above those animal passions still dwelling inside, and live according to the higher principal that we possess.
The heart in conflict with itself happens when these two principals smash up against each other. The higher human principal vs. the animal principal. Rational vs. instinctual. Spiritual vs. material. Even freedom vs. slavery, if you will.
And this is why I say that understanding this phrase necessitates the notion of a soul which is the container of the ideal, the seat where the knowledge of The Good abides. I maintain that everyone has this as a part of human nature, though it is possible to suppress to such an extent that it is for all purposes lost.
Now. Back to good writing. The best writing, says Faulkner, is in those books that take the reader into the midst of such a contest of hearts as it battles in the soul of the characters. And this is what makes his fiction so stunning – the way he lays out messed-up people – freaks really – and messy relationships, brokenness, all dripping with the particular problems of the 1930’s South. He is so good at it in fact, that his fiction is inaccessible to some.
If you are used to Nicholas Sparks and are wondering if you should read a Faulkner novel, the answer is ‘yes,’ but please email me first. Or at least prepare yourself with some back reading.
The heart in conflict with itself may take the form of insanity. It may take the form of incest. It may take the form of prejudice. It may take the form of addiction. Some of these are factors beyond our control, which adds even more dimension. It may not just be a struggle of The Will, it may be a battle in which the odds are completely against the ideal, as in the case of insanity or addiction, where reason is compromised and cannot even enter the fight. The battle may be further complicated by societal forces, such as social rank, prejudice or politics.
I suppose the most ragged edge of the heart in conflict with itself is involved in what a character thinks about God. Does it love some false notion of God, or does it create its own God. It may insist there is no God. It may be in a fierce battle with God, as in Moby Dick, Jude the Obscure or the Greek myth of Prometheus (not the movie).
But in each of these cases, the heart can only be in conflict with itself…IF there is such a thing as an ideal principal, which is what we can call a soul.
If there is no soul, then Faulkner’s phase is either meaningless, or is reduced to an much less interesting chemical or organic reaction. The badger choosing to dig the hole.
[I will return to my discussion of Faulkner tomorrow. Below is something I wrote about 3 years ago. Enjoy.]
I went into a public restroom today and noticed what is now undeniable empirical evidence that men have developed a totally new language used only in restrooms. But this language consists completely of nonverbal queues.
When I walked into the restroom, a man in a stall sniffed – louder than necessary. I realized he was signaling his presence to me, as if to say ‘hey, you’re not alone in here.’ I can only presume that he was doing this as a courtesy to me. Perhaps he was afraid that I might fart with too much abandon, or start singing out loud thinking I was alone, and then I might be embarrassed when I did notice someone else in the stall.
I have been noticing this now for a couple of years, and I am trying to piece together the rudimentary elements of the new language that is developing – an anthropologist’s dream – to be able to witness a new form of communication developing in its natural habitat.
So here for the first time, I will share with you a typical conversation using this new language with translation. I may post further advancements in future blogs as my vocabulary grows.
[I walk into the men’s room and go the urinal.]
Stall 1: Sniff. [Translation: Heads up, sir. There is someone else in this bathroom.]
Me: Cough. [Thank you, friend. I will be careful of my behavior.]
Stall 1: Rattles newspaper. [Splendid. Now, no need to get too friendly.]
Stall 2: Ahem, Ahem. [I say lads, just letting you know there’s a third one here.]
Me: Sniff. [Yes, I could already tell by the odor coming strongly from that stall.] Sigh. [If you don’t mind folks, I need to concentrate here.]
Stall 1: Uncomfortable silence. [Would one of you gents be so kind as to turn on the tap? It might stir things up a bit, ay what? Might also deliver me from some embarrassment over the terrible splashing that is about to occur.]
Stall 2: Rustling loudly with pants and zipper. [One moment old chap, I’m happy to oblige. Just let me tidy up my trousers.]
Me: Heavy sigh. [I bloody wish both of you wankers would get out of here so I could bloody well concentrate.]
Stall 2: Especially loud flushing. [There you are, old man! That should help things a bit. A good rushing water sound usually helps me. Better let it go fast before the flush is over. You too, at the urinal. Go ahead, I can’t hear a thing!]
Stall 1: Cough. [Sir, you are a gentleman. I hope you will let me buy you a drink.]
Stall 2: Clattering door latch and squeaky hinges. [No need to thank me, old sport. I know how it can be. We’re all in this together, right-o!]
Stall 1: Vigorous unrolling of approx. 15 feet of toilet paper. [If only my ex-wife and I could communicate this well, our marriage might have lasted. As it is, she’s run off to Strattford on Avon with some bloke from the bankers office. Bloody wretched business. But as Dr. Johnson said, “a man of genius is seldom ruined but by himself.” I have to catch the trolly at 6, so let me get you that drink. What’ll you have?]
Stall 2 man at sink: Briefest possible dispensing of soap, washing, drying hands on paper towel. [Really, there’s no need. I trust you would do the same for me.]
Stall 1: Quick flush. [I insist!]
Stall 2 man exiting: Casual, relieved exit. [Very well, sir. Gin and a dash of elderflower cordial. Shot of apple juice.]
Stall 1: Exit briskly without washing. [brilliant! Make it two!]
Me: Sigh. [Great ceasar’s ghost, finally a chap can have a bit of peace without those two yammering on.]
(this is part 2 in a discussion about Faulkner’s famous statement “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing…” Read the short Nobel Prize acceptance speech here.)
Stories that reveal the innate conflict of humans with themselves.
What is that supposed to mean? Am I in conflict with myself? If so, am I even aware of it? What is the nature of the conflict? What does it feel like? And what does it mean if I don’t feel myself to be in conflict with myself?
The first thing this idea suggests is the necessity of some notion of a soul. What internal conflict can there be within a creature that has no soul? Or if a writer attempted a story about a soulless object, would it be interesting enough to write about? Does a tree have some innate psychological conflict? Does the wind wage war within it’s heart? No.
What about animals? Perhaps you could have an animal, say a badger, in a state of turmoil over whether to dig a hole or find food to eat. That is not worth writing about. Or perhaps if you had a badger fooling around on his wife at a local night club, spending money he didn’t have and going into debt, a pacifist badger who has just been drafted into the military and must either flee the country or go against his principles…
If badgers have this kind of drama in their daily existence, it is not apparent (the honey-badger notwithstanding.) Now, I can imagine someone who is inclined to be contrary insisting that the drama of all creation is as noble as the silly scurrying around of humans. But is it the heart in conflict with itself?
If it is anything, this is what’s called an anthropomorphism, or humanization of some thing; taking a non-human creature or object and speaking as if it had human characteristics. This is an extremely common literary turn, but it falls short of revealing the heart in conflict with itself, except insofar as the creatures are really showing us something about human experience in the fun form of a talking animal or tree.
Might Faulkner simply be talking about double-mindedness? Ah! We’re getting warmer. But that is still not terribly worth writing about, much less something that Faulkner would hold up as the Holy Grail of good writing. It is a mundane human experience. Hardly the sine qua non of good writing.
The kind of heart-conflict that Faulkner is talking about requires all the complexity that is innately present in a human soul. A psyche, if you will. But not just any human psyche. A human psyche that fundamentally at odds with itself in some way. A broken psyche – one that possesses, in a distinctly human way, the capacity to recognize and desire the ideal and yet to choose otherwise. It is the story of internal battle of the will, the angel and the devil sitting on each shoulder. And the best books, according to Faulkner, are those that present the problems that arise when a character is at war with himself.
The exciting conclusion of this thread tomorrow.
“…the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself, which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about…”
This famous quote by William Faulkner was spoken at his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950.
What does he mean by “the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself?” Is it just any conflict?
If we can get a finger on this, we will be able to take a first step toward identifying good writing. We will also have criterion by which to judge a piece of writing bad, which we must insist up on the ability to do. We cannot leave writing to either commercial interests (whatever makes money) nor to the postmoderns (who’s to say what’s good or bad writing?).
It is not the only criterion, but it is an important one. The Twilight Series might be found to have this quality, but that doesn’t make it good literature. But I digress.
This phrase should also be of very critical importance to any writer, mainly of fiction. This is a dictum of a man who many consider to be the greatest American fiction writer of all time. I have to ask myself, does my writing explore the problems of the heart in conflict with itself?
Readers, writers! We must get a hold of what he means. Don’t give up on this. This is the key. What is “the heart in conflict with itself?”
I am no expert, and it seems to be much more complex than any surface answer would allow. But I will tell you what I believe it means.
The diligent woman was praised by everyone. She gained a reputation with the farm owners and in the markets. But the other woman had only a few unhealthy friends. By her hard work, the diligent woman raised her standard of living. She moved into a bigger house in a quiet suburb and bought many fine things to enjoy. She bought a 55″ television and she would fall asleep in front of it every evening after a hearty and nutritious dinner.
The diligent woman developed new ways to increase her production, and her eyes stayed fixed on the work of her hands. The other woman was easily distracted by the birds and the clouds which took the shapes of elephants and sailboats. She had to stand up frequently and stretch her sore back, and she would stand stretching and watch as a cyclist rode by. She would always interrupt her work if music could be heard, either from the nearby school, or church or even a whistler out on a walk. One day, a traveler passed by. He had returned from a poor land and told stories about how thin the children were there. “Here,” she said, “here’s a hundred dollars. Buy the children some food next time you go there.” “Idiot,” shouted the other woman from across the field, not raising her eyes. “You’ll never see that money again. And neither will any hungry children!”
There were times in the day when the diligent woman was alone in the field. She was already there working when the other woman arrived, and she stayed after quitting time, into the dark almost every day. She had developed a frame of lights that strapped to her forehead and shoulders, and it was as bright as daylight beneath her lamps. She only stopped to reload an energy drink into a backpack with a tube that she gripped in her teeth. She drove to work in a black vehicle and she wore a stylish black exercise outfit made of advanced material, with pink stripes down the side of the legs.
The distracted woman wore the same cotton slacks and apron every day, and a floppy straw hat with a ribbon around it. Twice a day she would fold out a three-legged stool and she would eat carrots and celery and watch the migration of the birds. When Daylight Saving Time was in effect, the diligent woman scoffed at her because she left while there was still three hours of sunlight left, but she replied that she just wanted a cup of tea or perhaps something stronger. She was thin, even without going to the Pilates class that the other woman attended.
One day in the field, she glanced up at the angle of the sun and saw it was time for a break. She opened her little food satchel and started fixing some saltines and cheese whiz. “There’s supposed to be a big storm coming through,” she said to the other woman, loud enough to be heard across the field. The diligent woman bustled more fervently as if to silently retort that the distracted woman had better worry about the financial storm that was going to overtake her soon. In the mid-afternoon, the distracted woman had another break and turned her face into the cool wind, and she ate her saltines and drank grape juice from a box. She saw clouds building in the northwest and instead of returning to work after her break, she sat and watched. The clouds came closer and were a foreboding gray-blue color. She noticed the birds had stopped singing, and wind was changing. She picked up her stool and skipped away toward her bicycle, and she shouted to the other woman, “We’d better get inside. A storm’s coming!” But the diligent woman never raised her eyes. “Well, now,” she thought, “I can work in a cool shade for a change. It’s not a storm, just a more pleasant work environment. Thank heaven for the clouds.”
When the rain started, the diligent woman said to herself, “The cool rain! Let it come. It will pass through as it always does; but I will certainly not let it interfere with my goals.” The storm grew stronger and she determined to ignore it. And at last a tornado came and carried her away, and she never raised her eyes from her work. She continued looking at the fields and the work of her hands, even as the field turned and receded from her view, and the storm lifted her into the sky.
And the distracted woman trembled in the dry storm shelter, and pitied the diligent woman, sitting in safety among the other distracted folk who had seen the storm coming.
I’ll explain what this blog is about later. First, I’ll get started with a short story.