Joyce Hinnefeld


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Kathe Kollwitz and a Stolen Day Last Week

I hadn't talked with readers about In Hovering Flight for a while, so what a pleasure to join Jeanie Teare and the Politics & Prose Daytime Book Group last week, at one of my all-time favorite bookstores, Politics & Prose, in Washington DC.

And what a group. These women were, among other things, art lovers, so we spent quite a bit of time talking about the wonderful Kathe Kollwitz, whose work and writings figure prominently in the novel (one of her self-portraits included here). I hadn't thought about Kollwitz for a while; it was so great to remember visiting the Kollwitz Museum in Berlin with Jim many years ago, when one of the women asked me how I'd learned about her work. And why her? someone else asked. That one was easy: Because of how articulate she was about the struggle to balance her life (particularly her life as a wife and a mother) and her work, making art.

Also because of how valiantly she persevered, in a life filled with so much sadness, including the death of her son in the First World War, and of a grandson in the Second. Art was her solace and, ultimately, her opportunity to make a powerful statement about the senseless tragedy of war.

Sometimes I envy scholars their deep immersion in a single topic or figure or idea. As a writer, I have these moments, even periods, of that kind of immersion--but then, it seems, I'm on to the next thing. It's disorienting sometimes, and also hard to let go of one world in order to try to enter the next. I'm grateful to Jeanie and this delightful group of readers for allowing me to spend some time thinking about Kathe Kollwitz again--and also for the opportunity to drive to Washington on a sunny, spring-like February day, have a delicious lunch in the downstairs cafe and a lively conversation with a group of smart and thoughtful readers, and then browse the shelves of one of the country's finest bookstores.

And to make it all even better: I listened to several Alice Munro stories on the drive down and back. Felt like a perfect, stolen day.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What Does a Reader Want?

“Life consisted of the small things, with only scattered moments of intensity.”

I’ve been reading romance novels lately--as part of my research for a new book (I swear)--and the line above, from Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain, may be my favorite line so far, just because I find it so ironic. This is what the novel’s central character, Mary, thinks to herself as she ponders her relationship with the “halfbreed” (as in half Native American) Wolf Mackenzie. Mary might claim to want just “the small things,” but that sure isn’t what keeps you reading Mackenzie’s Mountain. I’m guessing it doesn’t make me a unique or unusual reader of this book to say that I raced quickly through the details about the town of Ruth, Wyoming, Wolf’s gentle breaking of horses (sexy as even that was), and so forth in order to get to the next outrageously unrealistic (but really fun) sex scene. These seemed to happen every ten or twenty pages or so. No wonder Mary was left pining for “the small things.”

I don’t intend to try to write a romance novel, but I may have a character who does write them. What I’m envisioning is a literary novel that gets its readers to look at romance novels in a new light--maybe. Right now I’m really just pondering all these things myself, as I read and take notes for this barely formed novel, and I’m also thinking about Terrence Rafferty’s review of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale in Sundays’ New York Time Book Review. Rafferty contends that the mix of genre fiction and literary novel that Morrow attempts in The Diviner’s Tale doesn’t work, that reading the book “is an odd, disorienting experience because its matter and manner don’t match up.”

Yet it’s become pretty common for our well-known “literary” writers to attempt this blend, to write works that draw on pulp novels, horror, comics, etc. in a knowing, even winking, way, and so what, I’m wondering, makes this attempt such a failure in Rafferty’s eyes? (Yes, I guess I’ll just have to read the book to find out if I think he’s right.) I’m thinking, for instance, of a book I adored, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with its incredible mix of futuristic science fiction, playful tinkering with the thrust and energy of traditional narrative, and moments of pure lyricism. I wonder what Rafferty would say about that book.

“In a horror story or a mystery novel,” Rafferty writes in this review, “the flow is all toward narrative resolution, and is--or should be--swift and fierce. Literary fiction, by its nature, allows itself to dawdle, to linger on stray beauties even at the risk of losing its way.” So, he seems to be saying, go ahead and write your literary novel--but don’t you dare lead us to expect something “swift and fierce.” Don’t set us up with those “moments of intensity” every ten pages or so.

So much for old barriers between literary and non-literary breaking down, I guess. What I’m left with is this nagging question of who reads what now--if anyone still reads anything. These can be trying questions for a writer, and probably they’re questions better left for others (publishing people?) to try to answer. But I am curious about what readers would say they’re looking for now. Swift and fierce narrative resolution? Quiet literary dawdling over stray beauties and small things? Maybe with some mind-bendingly acrobatic sex scenes--if not every ten, then maybe every fifty pages or so? What, dear reader, is it? What are you looking for?