What I Did on My (Impromptu) Summer Vacation

Summer Vacation

Dear Readers,

You might have noticed that things have been a bit quiet around here lately. Regular programming should resume this week, but perhaps you’d like to know what’s been going on since your erstwhile book recommender and poetry pusher disappeared. Since the last time I wrote:

  1. We moved into our first house, which we are really, really excited about. It’s just the right size for us (and the obscene number of books I own), and for the first time in ten years my desk is not in the dining room. Also we named our house Bag End.
  2. We’ve visited with two dozen friends and family members at the house in under a month, which is awesome, and possibly explains why I’ve read a grand total of only four books and completely neglected this site since we moved.
  3. I’ve had another story and another poem (both quite short) published, which I’m also, really excited about. There are links over on carolynoliver.net if you’re interested.
  4. We took an actual vacation with my family to Rhode Island, where I read three of the four books I just mentioned and saw four movies in a movie theater. Totally recommend the new Star Trek, btw.
  5. I discovered that a month away from blogging is a bit too long for my taste. I’ve missed writing about books, and reading what other bloggers have to say about them. Onward!


Happy New Year (with News!)

Happy New Year, Dear Readers!

As you might have noticed, after three years (happy birthday, dear blog) I’ve finally updated the look of the site a bit, though the posting schedule remains the same.

I’m not a resolution-maker, but this year I hope to read and write more than I did last year, and to more to bring poetry, in particular, to a wider readership.

Speaking of writing, you’ll soon be able to read my new advice column, Dear Clementine, on a new site called The Postscript. In order to dole out advice, however, I need someone to ask for it, so please do send your questions personal, profession, parental, or otherwise to: dearclementinepostscript[at]gmail[dot]com.

And while I’m engaged in shameless self-promotion: I’ve redone my professional website, which you can find at carolynoliver.net. It includes a very serious picture of me. Also other information.

What are your plans, reading and otherwise, for 2016?


Recommended Reading: The Nearest Thing to Life, by James Wood

IMG_5613As I wrote about a few weeks ago, I very much enjoyed hearing James Wood’s lecture during the Boston Book Festival, after which he signed copies of his newest book, The Nearest Thing to Life (the title is drawn from George Eliot’s description of art). Three of its four chapters (which read like extended essays) were originally delivered as lectures, and indeed I found the book’s style similar to Mr. Wood’s speaking style; erudite and fluid, geared toward the intelligent and interested layperson reader. Though Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard, his writing is very different from the jargon-laden, theory-heavy academic writing on literature that yours truly grew accustomed to reading in graduate school; this is an almost old-fashioned style of personally-inflected criticism.

In the first chapter, “Why?,” Mr. Wood considers the question of death (and the subsequent need for theodicy) as it relates to fiction and its worlds of infinite possibility, writing, for example, that “I was struck by the thought that death gives us the awful privilege of seeing a life whole; that a funeral or even an obituary is a liturgical home for that uneasy privilege; and that fiction is the literary genre that most powerfully offers a secular version of that liturgical hospitality” (19).

Next, Mr. Wood reflects on the role of detail in fiction in the chapter “Serious Noticing,” which was also the subject of his talk at the Boston Book Festival. Fiction asks us to look more closely at people and objects, and for Mr. Wood detail is the “lifeness” that fiction alone can present: “[details] represent that magical fusion, wherein the maximum amount of literary artifice (the writer’s genius for selection and imaginative creation) produces a simulacrum of the maximum amount of nonliterary or actual life, a process whereby artifice is then indeed converted into (fictional, which is to say, new) life” (39).

In “Using Everything,” Mr. Wood makes a case for evaluative literary criticism. Since literary criticism is the only kind of arts criticism that falls into the same medium as its subject, Mr. Wood sees an opportunity for “critical retelling” or “revoicing” in literary criticism, which uses the same tools (like metaphor) as literature itself.

Finally, “Secular Homelessness,” the most personal, I think, of the work here, finds the author reflecting on exile, emigration, and home. Thought-provoking; it made me wonder if Mr. Wood has read George Prochnik’s excellent book on Stefan Zweig, The Impossible Exile.

To illustrate his points, Mr. Wood examines scenes from Chekov, Woolf, Penelope Fitzgerald, and many other writers (though I do wish more were women); his writing is wonderfully descriptive, enhancing the texts he considers, as the best criticism does.

I highly recommend The Nearest Thing to Life to readers of fiction who are interested in thinking deeply about how fiction works, and why; to writers of fiction, for the same reason; and to my fellow bloggers—here you’ll find a model of criticism to strive for.

“to paper my wall with rejection slips”: W.S. Merwin’s “Berryman”

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

Photo by Viktor Jakovlev via Unsplash

I don’t write much about my non-blog, non-job-related writing for a variety of reasons. One is that there’s precious little time for that writing, so writing about it seems like a waste of that time. Another is that I get a great many rejections. Six in a week? Been there.Three in one day? Yep. Two rejections (from different magazines) in two minutes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is, as you might suspect, discouraging.

Plenty of articles, lists, and even whole magazines are dedicated to encouraging and advising writers, both new and seasoned, in the face of almost certain rejection. I sample these prescriptions for perseverance occasionally, but the best I have ever found is a poem (surprise? probably not).

In “Berryman,” poet W. S. Merwin (he’s prolific, but most likely you’ve encountered his translations of Neruda) describes the advice John Berryman (most famous for The Dream Songs) gave him as a young writer. I love the whole poem, but especially these lines:

as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
and the closing two stanzas:
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

And there you have it.

A Small Confession

Dear Readers, I hope you will not mind a post of a slightly different sort. I have a small confession to make: I’m a closet writer.

Sure, I write as part of my job, and of course I write about books here. But I also steal a little time, here and there, to write fiction and poetry. It’s slow going, so I’m pleased as punch to say that I’ve got a very short (really, as in 500 or so words) story in the latest issue of Midway Journal. You can read it here, if you’re so inclined, along with the work of writers whose company I’m very proud to be in.

Thank you for indulging this shameless self-promotion. Back to regularly scheduled programming next week.

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