Posts Tagged ‘Geoffrey Chaucer’

Ruminations on Fathers Day

June 19, 2017

Author’s Note: I plan to extend my tour through other author’s websites on Wednesday, but until that time, I have a few spare thoughts about writing that came up through my reflections yesterday: Father’s Day.  The following is a whimsical and meandering, and maybe sometimes philosophical, look at fatherhood from the perspective of an outsider – and novel-writing from the perspective of a “nervous first-time dad.”

Ruminations on Father’s Day and Fathers in General

If necessity is the mother of invention, then what is the father of invention?  Yesterday was Father’s Day, a worldwide holiday in which we honor our forebears, specifically our fathers, with offerings of novelty ties with US presidents; authentic, old-fashioned shaving kits that we made in China last week; truly unique, only four more like them at Sears, grills for the upcoming feast; collections of beers from around the corner; and the burgers to go with those beers.

There are certain ironies in the stereotypical gifts that we pass along to our fathers on this day, particularly for me.  For example, my father dislikes wearing ties so much that he takes his off for his lunch breaks; he prefers the inexpensive razors because he doesn’t have to worry about throwing them out when they break down; he doesn’t drink (neither do I); he’s pretty much vegan; and he doesn’t like grills due to the carcinogens that they produce (after taking an applied chemistry class that discussed carcinogens at length, I don’t blame him).  To top it all off, my father is notoriously hard to shop for; it’s not that he doesn’t express gratitude; it’s that he doesn’t ever express a need for anything beyond what he has.  It’s an enviable place to be, and an enviable outlook on life.

I am not a father.  I hope to be there one day, but my two ‘children’ are a pair of felines.  Yes, they’re like children.  They’re constantly bickering, with the big brother picking on his little sister – a sister who happens to be roughly three times his age, but that’s beside the point.

Father’s Day is a day of appreciation, and a day of understanding everything that a man has done to contribute to your existence and who you are as a person.  (Cats already do that whenever you give them wet food)  In many ways, a man or a woman is a reflection of their father, for better or for worse.  For instance, my father-in-law is notoriously industrious; he will leave work in the afternoon and move on to his second job, coming home only to eat dinner and go to sleep.  My wife is equally as industrious, and is a whirlwind of productivity when she comes home.  I don’t know what my cats may have inherited from me, but I’m not sure that they care.

Fathers in Fiction

Fathers have historically been essential in much more than how one is reared.  For instance, numerous ancient texts, including some of the first texts that have been distinctly English, have discussed patriarchs, and patrilineal significance in great detail.  We see a little of this in Beowulf, a turn of the first millennium text that is one of the earliest surviving examples of English fiction.  Beowulf is the son of Ecgtheow, a victorious warrior who was exiled to Geatland (from Daneland) as part of a political power play.  Thus, when Beowulf brings up his father, he’s also establishing a bit of his own credibility as a warrior. This tradition carried on to stories such as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, where introductions sometimes involve more than a century’s worth of family histories.  Gimli, Son of Glóin, Son of Gróin, son of Farin, and so on.  By following the patterns of some of these pedigrees, I’d be Jim, Son of J the athlete, Son of H the aviator, Son of M the carpenter.  By the time I’ve hit that third antecedent, I’m already discussing two family migrations and a story that began more than 130 years ago.  Nevertheless, this type of pedigree is often important in high fantasy, science fiction, and even historical fiction, and the role of the father carries on again and again through fiction.

Writing is like Fatherhood

Over the past few weeks, I’ve put a little thought into how writing is like fatherhood, and hence the introduction, “necessity is the mother of invention,” which has appeared in many forms, and may be a bastardization of Plato’s The Republic (c.380 BCE).  If necessity is the mother of invention, then imagination is the father of fiction.  I’ve seen it many times before that a good writer must also be a good reader, but I don’t think I’m taking too much of a leap to say that there’s more to it than that.  A good reader can only write what they’ve already seen in their own reading.  A good writer must use their own imagination to expand upon and deviate from what they’ve read.  Similarly, a father is someone who has learned about fatherhood because they’ve experienced the opposite side of it as a son.  However, a good father must use their own intuition and their own imagination in order to build a strong relationship with their own children.  Just as my grandfather had a different relationship with his children than his father had with him, my father has had a different relationship with my sister and me than his father had with him.  In part, this is the natural order and the progression of time, but it is also the result of a man’s ability to create relationships.

But I think that the analogy of novelist:novels::parent:children extends further than this, and is also why we are similarly so careful with our novels that they may seem like our children.  Children form over time; even though there aren’t any complete rewrites, child-rearing is much like novel writing (and editing) in the sense that you want to put both in the best possible situation for success.  Despite our best efforts, there will be shortfalls, and none will turn out perfect (would it be in poor taste to include a Todd Marinovich joke here?), but they all must face the world at some point, and they will all be perfect in their own way.  There are ways in which novel-writing is like motherhood, in the sense that they both have a gestation period that starts at conception, and ends with them being introduced to the World.  However, regardless of the gender of the writer or of the parent, the product is ultimately a reflection of its creators.

Thus, as I’m working through another editing process, and awaiting another round of beta readers, I realize that a large part of why I haven’t published my works yet is due to a common concern for both authors and fathers: that their children must be ready for the World.

Futurists aside, we cannot adequately predict what the World will be like as our works have time to mature.  What will the critics say about our novels when we publish them?  Will they survive for five years?  Will they survive for a hundred years?  It shouldn’t matter to us, but I think that there is a visceral desire to see the lives of our creative works exceed our own.  Today, with self-publishing, ebooks, and a seemingly endless amount of digital storage, we do not need to be Shakespeare or Byron, or Shelley or Harper Lee.  Our works – whether critical hits or monumental flops – can extend far beyond our own lives.  It’s a grandiose idea, yes, but think about how difficult it was for people to get their own copy of Chaucer’s work in his own time!  Think about what it was like for the little guy that we haven’t

Despite its popularity, The Canterbury Tales wasn’t “mass” produced until nearly eighty years after Chaucer’s death.  Why?  Because Chaucer predated the printing press!  Even then, William Caxton’s printing press of ~1480 (the original press for Chaucer’s work) was one of just a handful west of Germany.  Even 500 years later, by which time the technology had upgraded many times, the types of presses that print fiction were still limited in the sense that only a few companies were capable of true mass publication.  Today, anybody can publish through Amazon CreateSpace, Lulu, Barnes & Noble, and dozens of other publication services and digital storefronts.  We don’t need thousands of square feet to house all of the books in our local libraries (at least, not to the same extent we once did), as today’s libraries can house literally (and yes, the correct use of the word) millions of ebooks on a relatively inexpensive server.  So, what does this mean?

This means that you, Alan Smithee, Author of Awesome Book and its three sequels, may not live on as author of the “Universally Beloved Awesome Book series,” but your work may be on some server (either in the AWS data center, your local library’s server, or some infrastructure supporting the Cloud), long after you have retired your keyboard and taken up permanent residence with the worms.  Whether your book burns up the Kirkus Review, or the Kirkus Review tells readers to burn your book, your book will live on!

Until next time, this is the father of several books that are still in incubation, reminding you, in the words of the imitable Ralph Kiner “It [was] Father’s Day [yesterday] at Shea, so to all of you fathers out there, happy [belated] birthday!”

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Unfinished Business (Part Two)

April 10, 2017

Note: This is the second in a three part series about unfinished drafts of famous and not-so-famous works.  The third part of this series is scheduled to go out on Wednesday.

Last week, I mentioned my mentor’s fondness of the Robert Burns poem, To A Mouse (1785), which ends with “/ an’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain, / for promis’d joy!” (essentially, the best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry, and leave us with nothing but grief and pain for promised joy).  Despite what we may plan to do with our lives, some things never come to fruition.  Due to writer’s block, frustration, illness, or myriad other things, some authors are forced to leave a work behind.

Of course, not all writers are fortunate enough to step away from a novel or long story and choose to set it aside. Some writers suffer from what tvtropes.org refers to as “author existence failure.”  The following are a few examples of writers who were not able to complete a famous work before they died:

The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer – One of the early examples of great English literature (but by no means the earliest) is The Canterbury Tales, a story of pilgrims on a pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral. There are 24 completed tales, and centuries of debate that go alongside them. The general consensus is that Chaucer did not finish his tales before he died c.October 1400 at c.57 years old, because the pilgrims never make it to Canterbury, and Chaucer’s work ended in the middle of “The Cook’s Tale.”

The Canterbury Tales, for those who haven’t subjected themselves to them, are a trip because of the nature of the language in the text. It’s nominally English, but the thing that you need to realize about English at that time is that it was still coming together as a collection of languages based on British Anglic, Frisian (a German language that is still spoken in portions of the Netherlands), Norman (an earlier version of French), and a handful of other native British languages. As a result of this still simmering stew of languages, some of the words are the same in appearance as they are today, but sound completely differently than you’d expect; for instance, “pilgrimage” is actually pronounced “pill-gri-mah-juh.”  If you can cast aside the almost foreign English language, you’ll find tales with a variety of different content, from the pious to the profane.  A lot of the tales have to do with relationships and sex, at least one of them has to do with roosters, and all of them were intended to entertain people 600+ years ago.

The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser – Like Virgil before him and Walt Whitman after him, Spenser set out to create a national myth for his country. He intended to compose twelve books (more like long chapters or acts) of an epic poem that followed the virtues that mattered to contemporary Britain, personified by knights staving off giants, witches, dragons, and dark knights.  Spenser was so well liked, and so well known in his endeavor for a national myth, that he was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I, and received a pension of £50 per year from the crown in order to complete it.  However, he died at age 47 in 1599, allegedly of starvation, having completed just five of his books. Any notes on the planned installments are lost, and it isn’t clear if Queen Elizabeth ever even read his work.

Don Juan – Lord Byron – Prior to the 1800s, novels weren’t really much of a thing for English-speaking audiences, and the epic poem was the closest thing to what we see today, which is why you see examples of verse, such as The Canterbury Tales and The Faerie Queene on this list. Lord Byron came in that intervening period where epic poetry hadn’t entirely phased out, but the novel was still evolving as an art form. His Don Juan was a satire about a man who was easily seduced by women (not the womanizer that we hear about today). He published sixteen “cantos” (effectively chapters) before he died. The first two were anonymous, because he was worried that he would get in trouble for peddling “immoral content” (19th century smut). He was working on a seventeen canto, in which he effectively calls out his critics while continuing the story from the sixteenth canto, when he died from a sudden fever in 1824; he was 36.

The Love of the Last Tycoon – F. Scott Fitzgerald – Fitzgerald was of notoriously poor health due to his almost surreal ability to drink copious amounts of alcohol, but his heart attack and subsequent death in 1940 still shocked the literary world.  Fitzgerald wrote about 163 pages into The Love of the Last Tycoon, his unfinished work that gathered insight from his years in Hollywood.  It follows a fictitious director’s rise to power, and the conflicts that he encounters along the way, including a rivalry with another director. His family published the incomplete draft in 1941.

Islands in the Stream – Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway was incredibly hard on himself as an author, and relentless at editing his own work. This is indicative of his overall mental state, as Hemingway is the only person who had the final say on when he died; he took his own life via shotgun in July 1961. Islands in the Stream and the subsequent The Garden of Eden were both published posthumously.  Despite taking almost two years to complete (nothing compared to the fifteen years spent on The Garden of Eden), Hemingway’s work on Islands in the Stream is rough.  His family did publish a complete draft of the novel, which follows a man as he goes from an artistic recluse to an action hero.  There are characteristics of the novel that are clearly Hemingway, but the rough nature of his word choice makes some critics wonder if the seemingly finished work was indeed finished, or if Hemingway intended to publish it as is.

Bonus: A Fourth Millennium Series book – Steig Larsson – This one is probably fresh in many of your minds, but Steig Larsson, the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was working on a fourth book in that series when he died of a heart attack in 2004. Furthermore, Larsson had written out notes for two more, and allegedly had plans for as many as ten books in the series. His partner, Eva Gabrielsson, inherited his laptop, which contained his manuscript and all notes, and elected to sit on them while she considered her options.  In 2015, David Lagercrantz, another author contracted by Larsson’s publisher, published a fourth book in the series.  It does not rely on Larsson’s original notes.

There are plenty of other well-known authors who have famously passed on in the middle of a famous work.  Are there any big ones that I’ve missed?  Feel free to leave some examples in the comments section below.