Saturday, January 29, 2011

Bachmann and Burr

I actually had another blog topic in mind, but I just read Gail Collins' op-ed on Michele Bachmann in today's New York Times, and I couldn't resist saying a few words, since--a rare occurrence in the pages of the Times, and the annals of political history--a historical novel figures in it prominently.

It seems that Michele Bachmann's turn to the right started when she was in college and she read Gore Vidal's historical novel, Burr--which centers on, as you might have guessed, our third Vice-President, Aaron Burr. “He was kind of mocking the founding fathers, and I just thought ‘what a snot,’ ”Collins quotes Bachmann as saying.

Okay, where to begin? Well, it's nice to know that a historical novel can wield such power, but Bachmann's got it all wrong. First of all, as Collins notes, Bachmann's view that one can say no ill of a founding father "strips the founding fathers of their raw, fallible humanity." (Not to mention that, as I said in an earlier blog post, there's nothing less appealing than a novel with an infallible protagonist.)

But beyond that, Burr himself wasn't even a founding father, at least not in the strict sense of the term. He didn't sign the Declaration of Independence, he wasn't present at the Constitutional Convention, and it's not clear that he subscribed to any particular ideology other than his own self-promotion. More of a founding opportunist, you might say.

That's not to say there was nothing to admire about Burr. For one thing, he had remarkably advanced views on the role of women (way more advanced than the views of most of the real founding fathers, who, as Collins points out, would have been shocked to find someone of Bachmann's gender with a seat in Congress). But basically--and as deftly portrayed in Vidal's wonderful novel--Burr was a lovable rogue, a charming and urbane scoundrel. Not exactly what Bachmann has in mind, presumably, when she utters the phrase "founding father."

And infallible? Even many Burr's contemporaries--actual founding fathers among them--held him in the utmost contempt. And with good reason. When, in the election of 1800, he tied for the Presidency with Thomas Jefferson--a result nobody wanted, since Burr was supposed to be running for VICE-President--he allowed the ballotting in the House of Representatives to go on through 35 rounds rather than do the gentlemanly thing and take himself out of the race. Later he was tried for treason for concocting a scheme to separate part of the United States and, apparently, set up his own empire (the details of this scheme were never clear). And let's not forget that in 1804 he fought a duel with a real founding father--Alexander Hamilton--and killed him. All in all, not exactly a model for our times.

What would Burr himself think of his part in Bachmann's conversion? I suspect he'd have a good laugh. I wish I could find it that funny myself.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Tiger Mothers in the Eighteenth Century

There are no dearth of commentators who are taking a crack at the new book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. But so far, at least, I haven't seen any who have really dealt with it from a late-18th-century perspective.

I should say, first, that I'm about a third of the way into the book, and so far, I don't think Chua is quite the child-abusing witch that others have made her out to be. Much of the time she actually seems to be poking fun at herself and the lengths she goes to in her efforts to ensure that her kids become driven over-achievers. Still, like many 21st-century non-immigrant American parents, I can't imagine myself doing some of the things that seem to come pretty naturally to her (threatening to throw her toddler daughter into the freezing cold because she won't follow instructions about how to play the piano, or threatening to burn her kids' stuffed animals -- but her stunts have already been heavily chronicled in the press, so I won't delve into them in detail here).

But taking a historical perspective, if you look back a couple of hundred years, parents said all sorts of things to their kids that we (by which I mean American parents like myself) would find emotionally abusive today. Of course there were expressions of love and praise by parents, just as there are now, but there were also injunctions to, for example, "be good so that Daddy [or Mommy] will love you." (I did read something like that in a letter from the 1790s -- unfortunately I can't locate it now. But I do recall leaving it out of the novel I wrote that was set in the 1790s because I thought modern readers would find it repellent.)

Of course, the obverse of that injunction is the threat that if you're NOT good, Daddy or Mommy WON'T love you. I doubt that 18th-century Mommies and Daddies actually did stop loving their kids when they misbehaved, but of course the kid on the receiving end of that veiled threat didn't necessarily know that.

Nowadays we take great pains (unless we're Amy Chua, who called one of her daughters "garbage") to make sure our kids know we'll love them no matter WHAT they do. We may be saddened, we may be angry, we may be disappointed -- but we'll still love them. In fact, our kids may need to hear that message even more when they do misbehave. (I'm reminded of an extremely touching story one of Sargent Shriver's sons told at his funeral this weekend: back in the sixties, when he was 14, Bobby Shriver was arrested for smoking marijuana. Given the Kennedy connection, this was a huge deal, with the police coming to the house, "a thousand" reporters hovering outside, the story running on the front page -- above the fold -- in the Washington Post. Bobby felt indescribably awful for letting down his entire family. Sarge, who was ambassador to France at the time, came home and called Bobby into his room for a talk. With great trepidation, Bobby entered the room. And Sarge leaned forward and just said, "You're a good kid, and I love you." Bobby says that hearing that from his father "saved his life." I shudder to think what Amy Chua might have said.)

But I digress. My point is, in previous eras parents did all sorts of things we wouldn't approve of today -- worse things, probably, than Amy Chua. And nevertheless, the human race has managed to survive. Through the centuries there have been over-achievers, under-achievers, people who were depressed, and people who were constantly sunny and cheerful -- probably in about the same numbers there are today, although I don't have those statistics handy. Kids are pretty resilient. And, by the same token, they can be pretty impervious to parental influence. In this context, I highly recommend a book called The Nurture Assumption, by Judith Rich Harris, which essentially argues that aside from contributing their genes, parents have very little effect on how their kids turn out.

So it's really impossible to know how Amy Chua's kids would have turned out without all the Sturm und Drang. Maybe they would have been pretty much the same -- and maybe the atmosphere in the Chua household would have been a lot more peaceful.

Of course, that's what I want to believe, since I wasn't exactly a Tiger Mother with my own kids. I didn't stand over them and make them do practice tests when they came home with an A minus, and when they didn't want to practice their musical instruments I made only token efforts to convince them otherwise. But now that they're young adults, I have to say, they seem to be turning out just great. I'm not sure I can claim much credit for that. But then again, if they'd turned out to be axe murderers, or just slackers, I'm not sure I'd want to be the one held responsible.

Monday, January 17, 2011

On Sympathy and Literature

Do the protagonists of novels always have to be sympathetic?

Certainly there are examples in literature of protagonists who are hard to like, sometimes even repellent. Just look at Lolita: Humbert Humbert isn't anyone's idea of warm and fuzzy. And while Olive Kitteredge--the central figure in the eponymous Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection of stories--is no child molester, she's pretty off-putting.

The artistry of those books is that their authors--Vladimir Nabokov and Elizabeth Strout, respectively--make us care about the protagonists despite their unsympathetic character traits. Humbert Humbert draws us in with his scathing wit; Olive Kitteridge eventually becomes irresistibly poignant in her clueless self-sabotage.

But let's face it: it's a lot easier to engage readers if they like your main character from the get-go. (This is something my agent has been drumming into me vis-a-vis the manuscript of mine that is currently in her hands.) And it's not at all clear to me that I have the talents of a Nabokov or a Strout. So, while I'm not saying my protagonists have to come on like Shirley Temple, I think it behooves me to make sure my readers will basically be in their camp.

That's not to say that a main character can't be flawed. In fact, there may be nothing more unsympathetic than a character who is perfect in every way. Plus, your character needs room to develop and learn a few things--that's what allows for a plot. So, generally speaking, you need to strike a balance with your main character: not too perfect, not too imperfect ... just right.

The main problem I've identified with the historical figure I have in mind for my next novel, Eliza Anderson, is that she was, by our 21st-century lights, a raging cultural elitist who had little use for democracy. As I mentioned in my last blog post, her position may appear somewhat more understandable when you know what early 19th-century American society was like. Still, it's a problem.

So that's her flaw, or at least the main one (she had others too). It seems to me that I need to do at least three things to deal with it. First, I need to make other aspects of Eliza's personality sufficiently sympathetic that readers will be willing to more or less overlook her elitism, at least for a while. Second, I need to establish the circumstances that led her to feel the way she did. And third, I need to make that aspect of her personality change over the course of the novel. She won't become a raging democrat--that would be unrealistic--but she needs to at least begin to challenge her own assumptions.

Unfortunately, there's no evidence of that happening in reality (in fact, there's some evidence to the contrary). But that's okay: this is fiction. True, I try to write historical fiction with a healthy respect for the historical record, but to me this is one area where it's okay to turn my imagination loose a bit. I wouldn't be contravening any known historical facts--something that William Styron once suggested to me as a guide in writing historical fiction, because you don't want the reader pausing and saying, essentially, "Huh?" Beyond that, I think having Eliza change, or begin to change, in this way would allow me not only to create a more sympathetic protagonist but also to say something about what was going on in the United States in the days of the early Republic--that is, that the country was gradually moving to an acceptance of democracy as we know it.

So what will spark this change in Eliza? Since this is a novel, and novels hinge on relationships between individuals, it will have to be another individual. My ideas are still pretty inchoate, but I'm leaning towards giving her a female servant with artistic ambitions that mirror Eliza's own literary ambitions. That would feed into a story-line that is rooted in the historical record: Eliza became embroiled in controversy for her dismissive remarks about mere "workmen" who attempt to present themselves as artists.

The idea of having large historical ideas--like the the tension between elitism and democracy--play out between individuals reminds me of a terrific play I saw last night. It's called Return to Haifa, and it's based on a novella written by a Palestinian author who was assassinated--possibly by the Israelis--in 1972. The play was adapted by an Israeli playwright and performed here in DC by an Israeli theater troupe, in Hebrew. The story is essentially this: A Palestinian couple is forced to leave their house in Haifa when the state of Israel is created in 1948 and, in the chaos, end up leaving their baby behind. A Jewish couple--Holocaust survivors who have lost their own child in the war--move into the house and adopt the baby. Twenty years later the Palestinian parents, having been prevented all this time from returning, show up to claim their child.

All the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis play out between the five main characters of the play. There's plenty of anger, guilt, and recrimination. And yet, the play ends on a hopeful note. Why? Because the characters finally manage to relate to each other as individuals, each one expanding his or her imagination to encompass the experience of the other.

That's what President Obama urged after the recent shootings in Tucson--that we "expand our moral imaginations," that we "sharpen our instincts for empathy." And that's what literature--fiction or drama or poetry--does, at its best: it enables us to be "the other," to see the world through someone else's eyes. Arguably, that's especially valuable when the character whose eyes we find ourselves looking through is someone we couldn't have imagined finding sympathetic. Like Humbert Humbert, or (in my case) a member of the Tea Party. Or, in the case of some Israelis, a Palestinian. And vice-versa.

I'm not saying that if Benjamin Netanyahu sat down and watched this play with Mahmoud Abbas, we'd suddenly have a solution to the problems of the Middle East. But I do think it might be a start.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Democracy and Its Discontents

One of the problems with writing fiction based on real historical figures is that you have to deal with reality--their reality, which often doesn't come neatly packaged to correspond to our own. In other words, real people, especially real people who lived a long time ago, don't always come equipped with opinions and sentiments that we in the 21st century can easily relate to.

With my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, one of the problems I had to grapple with was slavery. It was clear from the historical record that one of my two main characters owned slaves. I felt it was important that readers be able to identify with this character, Hannah Iredell. They didn't have to love her (although that would be nice), but at the same time, they couldn't recoil from her in disgust. They had to be able to see the world--her world--through her eyes. Would they be able to do that if they knew she owned slaves, and if that master-slave relationship was portrayed in the book?

I think I managed to deal with that issue by stretching my imagination to encompass a world where slavery was viewed by most Americans as a regrettable fact of life, and those who owned slaves were able to see themselves as decent, even kind and generous, people. That doesn't mean, of course, that I came to see slavery as acceptable myself. I was simply able to understand how Hannah Iredell might have seen it, and how she might have justified it to herself. And it seems, from what I've been told, that readers were able to understand that too. While a few readers have told me that they couldn't warm up to Hannah Iredell, no one has cited her ownership of slaves as the reason.

Now that I'm contemplating another historical novel, I have a different problem. I had thought, when I first started researching the life of Eliza Anderson, that I had found a protagonist that 21st-century readers would be more likely to find sympathetic. Unlike the two main characters in A More Obedient Wife--both of whom, as the title suggests, essentially accepted the prevailing 18th-century assumption that wives should be subservient to their husbands--Eliza was spunky and feisty, challenging the limits placed on her by early 19th-century society. Abandoned by a feckless husband at the age of 20, she picked herself up and got to work, first as a teacher and shortly afterwards as the first woman in America to edit a magazine (at the age of 26). When she found the man who proved to be her true love, she managed to secure a divorce from her first husband in order to marry him. (This was no easy feat at the time: she had to travel alone from Baltimore to Albany on a new-fangled steamship to track him down, then secure proof of adultery--"not an affair," as she drily remarked, "to which Men usually call witnesses"--and then get the legislature to pass a private bill.)

Alas, I soon discovered that Eliza wasn't a complete paragon of progressive proto-feminism. Yes, in her magazine (the Baltimore Observer), she staunchly advocated a woman's right to education and to express her opinions on any subject she chose. But she also criticized an exhibition of student accomplishments at a local girls' school, warning that "a public acknowledgment of [girls'] merits" might lead them to become "insolent, forward, and presuming." Would she have leveled the same criticism at an exhibition at a boy's school? Not to mention that people in Baltimore were leveling exactly these same charges at her for presuming, as a female, to edit a magazine.

Worse, Eliza was something of an elitist. Her columns for the Observer and her letters to friends are peppered with disparaging remarks about democracy and the state of culture in America. She was dismissive of the artistic endeavors of amateurs and self-taught painters, and opined that "the Muses are rather saucy, and do not admit workmen to their levees."

Great, I thought: an anti-democratic snob. Readers are really going to respond to that. Not to mention that, for all my admiration of Eliza, this aspect of her personality didn't even sound particularly appealing to me. Yes, I'd managed to make a slave-holder palatable to readers, but I didn't actually have documentary evidence of how Hannah Iredell had felt about slavery: I was able to make that up. Here I had to deal with Eliza's own words.

But I've tried, as I did before, to cast myself back to the era my characters lived in--an era when "democracy" was still an uncertain experiment, not the sacrosanct ideal it's become today. And as I've learned more about the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of early 19th-century America--largely through reading Gordon Wood's terrific book, Empire of Liberty--I've begun to see things through Eliza's eyes. I've learned, for example, that eye-gouging matches were common in the South, with the combatants becoming local heroes, and that throughout the country political disputes often devolved into violence. Consider that public education was virtually non-existent, and that whiskey was being consumed at mind-boggling rates--men, women, children, and sometimes even babies "drank whiskey all day long," according to Wood. Under these circumstances, doubts about democracy don't seem quite so reactionary.

And frankly, I confess to occasionally having doubts about democracy myself, even in this relatively enlightened day and age--especially in recent days, as I've shed tears over the victims of the shooting in Tucson and contemplated the sad fact that gun control is politically impossible in this country. (Some will argue that the Supreme Court has elevated gun rights to the level of a constitutional rather than a political issue, but the fact is that the Court has left the legislative branch with quite a few options, and the legislators are simply too scared of the NRA to exercise them. And although the Court doesn't always break down on political lines, I suspect that if there were nine Democratic appointees to the Court, the decision on the Second Amendment would have come out quite differently.) So I can draw on those feelings when I'm looking for common ground with Eliza.

In the final analysis, though, I have to agree with Winston Churchill's oft-quoted line about democracy being the worst form of government except for all the others. And somehow, if I'm going to write a successful novel about Eliza Anderson, I know I'm going to have to lead her to at least the beginnings of that realization as well.

As for how I might do that ... well, I'll save that for another blog post.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

On the Mutability of Texts

It used to be that when a book was published, the text was more or less set in stone. Authors might fiddle with their words or punctuation to their hearts' content (or perhaps their editors' content) before publication; but once the book came out, it was a fixed text. So when we talk about Moby Dick or Pride and Prejudice or Great Expectations--name your classic--we're all talking about the same thing. Sure, some authors have tinkered with a second edition, and texts that have been used for performances have always been more variable than novels. There are multiple variants of some Shakespeare plays, and composers and librettists of earlier eras had no compunction about making significant changes to operas between performances. Giuseppe Verdi wrote so many versions of his opera Ballo in Maschera--largely to satisfy the censors of the era--that it's almost ridiculous. But for the most part, as Gertrude Stein might have said, a text was a text was a text.

That's still true today, with books, but I wonder if it will always be so. With the advent of the internet (I shudder to think how many times THAT phrase has been used in recent years to introduce some portentous thought), texts in general are becoming infinitely protean. Just look at Wikipedia, where encyclopedia entries are never-ending works-in-progress. Or, for that matter, the New York Times. Just today the Public Editor wrote a column that touched on the fact that stories posted online often undergo frequent updates and headline changes, to the point that an alert reader may feel he or she is being gaslighted (and if you're too young to get that reference, see this Wikipedia entry). As one Times reader said, referring to different variations on an obituary of Arthur Penn posted on the paper's website, “I read something, and now poof, it’s gone without a trace.”

I can't help but think of two recent controversies involving rewriting that have been in the news of late: the reading of a bowdlerized version of the Constitution on the floor of the House (edited to take out all the parts that proved to be mistakes and were later changed by Amendments); and the new edition of Huckleberry Finn that takes out all instances of the word "nigger," of which there are many, and replaces them with the word "slave." I have, of course, no evidence that either of these moves were influenced by the ... (drumroll please) Advent of the Internet, but you have to wonder (or at least, I do). I see meaningful differences between the two situations--one seems designed to portray as infallible a document that was acknowledged to be flawed from its beginning, and the other seeks to make an American classic acceptable as part of a high school curriculum--but they both seem to reflect an attitude that it's okay to tinker with texts that an earlier generation might have been more likely to accept, or condemn, as simply a given.

Another change that computers, if not the internet, has effected is the demise of drafts. That's not to say that writers don't make changes to their works-in-progress anymore. If anything, those changes have probably increased many times over, given how much easier it is to make changes on a computer than on a typewriter or a handwritten document (believe me, I remember those days). But the changes no longer leave a paper trail. Unless you turn on the "track changes" feature, every new draft looks as clean as a newborn babe, as though it had sprung full-grown from the brain of its creator. No more messy cross-outs, strike-throughs, carets, or boxes of handwritten text at the top or bottom of a page. And no more scholarly tracking of the minute-by-minute thought processes of a long-dead scribe (see my immediately preceding post on the Jeremy Bentham papers project for some thoughts on that). It seems to me that perhaps something has been lost to posterity here.

But back to published books: With the advent of the e-book (we're seeing a lot of advents lately), I wonder if we'll see authors reaching back into their books to make a few changes here or there, or even make wholesale alterations to plot and character. After all, it would only take a few clicks, and voila--a newly revised work. Will authors someday respond to criticism in this way, the way the producers of a Broadway show might respond to feedback during previews?

If this seems absurd and futuristic, I have to point out that the future is indeed here, at least for self-published books, which are printed one at a time, as they are ordered. Every time I order more copies of my self-published book, A More Obedient Wife, I'm offered the option to "Revise" it. All I have to do is click on an icon, and boom, the text is up for grabs again. And actually, I did use this feature, once, to correct a few omissions in the acknowledgments and typos.

On the other hand, I suspect that for most writers, by the time a book is published they're ready to move on. Having just sent off Draft 9 of a second novel to my agent, with prayers that this time she'll think it doesn't need any further changes, I'm at the point where I'd be quite happy never to read it again. (And "Draft 9" actually vastly underestimates the number of changes I've made and the number of times I've gone through it, since--thanks to my computer--I can reread each chapter the day after I've tinkered with it and simply tinker with it some more.) A writer friend of mine once compared the work of revising a manuscript to "a dog returning to its vomit." Some days the metaphor seems quite apt.

So maybe we don't need to worry about a wave of authors indulging in massive overhauls of their already published books, because they'll be thoroughly sick of them. Let's just hope, though, that the "edit" function doesn't fall into other--and perhaps the wrong--hands.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Bend It Like Bentham

Well, once more into the fray, after a rather lengthy absence. My explanation is that I've been paralyzed in a continuing limbo, hovering between two writing projects, one of which is historical and the other not. But I've decided that's no excuse not to continue posting, if I can think of something to say that's relevant to the ostensible themes of this blog -- history, fiction, and the interplay between the two.

I've thought of something that's relevant to one of them, anyway: history. Last week the New York Times ran a piece about a documentary editing project--an edition of the papers of the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham--that I found intriguing. I used to work on a documentary editing project myself--the Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789-1800, where I came across the letters that inspired my novel, A More Obedient Wife. Generally speaking, documentary editing is a slow, painstaking task that requires a keen eye for detail and a detective-like ability to make sense of illegible scrawls and fragmentary documents. At my project, it took us 30 years to get through the Court's first decade, and that's a mere blink of an eye compared to some projects: the Papers of Thomas Jefferson project published its first volume in 1950 and they're still working at it. And the Bentham Project itself began more than 50 years ago and is less than halfway through.

So the folks at the Bentham Project, based at University College London, had the idea of throwing open the transcription process to the general public. Some 40,000 original, handwritten Bentham documents have been put online, and anyone with an interest--or perhaps a masochistic streak--is free to take a crack at them. Given my 10 years of documentary editing experience, I thought it would only be a public service for me to give it a try. And, having viewed Bentham's clothed corpse some 35 years ago--it's kept on display at UCL in a glass case--I felt I had a personal connection to the man. Not to mention that he held unusually progressive views, for the early 19th century, on subjects like religion and women's rights.

I started with an "easy" document, figuring I'd breeze through it. I did manage to puzzle out a few words that had stumped whoever else had attempted to transcribe the document before me--the transcription project operates on a "wiki" model, with one person correcting the errors of those who have gone before, or perhaps adding to them. But, even though my last stint as a documentary editor ended only four years ago, I discovered that it's a whole new world out there in documentary-editing land--and in some respects, I suppose, a brave one.

Back in my day, we had all sorts of complex computer codes we had to enter to denote different typographical idiosyncrasies we wanted reproduced: strike-outs, superscripts, underlining and the like. We had a sheet of codes, most of which I managed to memorize after a few years. But nowadays there are convenient little icons at the top of the page--click on the question mark, for example, and your guess at whatever the hell Bentham was trying to say automatically gets the computer code for "questionable."

There's also the wonder of the "zoom" feature: click on a part of the document you want to get a closer look at, and all of a sudden it gets bigger. In my day we bent our face to the manuscript like some scribe of old, squinting and turning it in the light (okay, sometimes we used a magnifying glass).

On the other hand, it's harder to see the document as a whole and get a feel for the gist of it: it takes up only one part of the screen, with the other part reserved for your attempt at transcription. There are navigation controls that allow you to move around the document, but I've found them a little cumbersome. I'm getting better, but sometimes, for no apparent reason, the controls go careening away from me and I find myself involuntarily skittering over to the very edge of the document.

But the real question--raised in the Times article--is whether mere amateurs can make enough sense of the documents for their efforts to be valuable. (And the Times article itself seems to have opened the floodgates: it reported that there were 350 people registered to be transcription volunteers, and since then the number has zoomed to over a thousand.) I'm not exactly an amateur, and even I had trouble deciphering much of the "easy" document (although I imagine it will get easier as I get more familiar with Bentham's handwriting). Frankly, I think I'm better than the average bear at reading archaic handwriting, and I have to wonder how accurate other people's transcriptions will be. As I mentioned, in the three brief transcription sessions I've done so far, I discovered a number of errors.

Of course, members of the Bentham Project staff will go over all the volunteer transcriptions before any of them get published--and they're surely in a better position than I am to decide if the volunteers are a help or a hindrance. It may well be better to start with a flawed transcription than to start with nothing.

And why not let whoever is interested see the raw documents themselves, rather than waiting decades for a published edition? There may be people out there who discover--as I did, over 20 years ago now--that there's nothing more absorbing than puzzling over a document written 200 years ago, tracing the author's mental processes through his or her deletions and additions, becoming familiar with individual quirks of handwriting, enjoying the satisfaction of making a coherent sentence out of something that at first glance appears to be random marks on a piece of paper.

If it turns out I'm actually furthering the progress of the Bentham Papers, I'll be delighted to hear it. But honestly, I'll probably keep going back to the project website just for the sheer fun of doing it.