Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Prologue is Just a Beginning

I’ve been monitoring a hot and heavy discussion on prologues on one of the writer forums.

The contention has been advanced readers don’t like them and many editors and agents now decline to consider a novel with a prologue.

Personally I find that ridiculous. Why would an author include a prologue if he/she didn’t intend it to be read? A prologue is defined as a preface, an introduction to a story, providing background or other details essential to the tale. The narrative device has been in use at least since the time of Euripides, who is sometimes credited with its invention.

There are two valid reasons for having a prologue. One is to provide backstory without resorting to flashbacks or other devices which might bog down succeeding chapters. The other is to provide a hook for the reader and target toward which the rest of the book is directed.

Many writers will tell you both goals can be achieved in a first chapter and therefore a prologue is unnecessary. Generally a prologue relates to events before the novel begins. It’s an introduction set apart from the rest of the novel by time and/or viewpoint. To me that does not always make for an effective first chapter.

Prologues have been used since the beginning of the novel. Willa Cather begins “Death Comes for the Archbishop” with a prologue, as did Kenneth Follett with “The Pillars of the Earth.” Peter Matthiessen employs one in “Lost Man’s River” and Umberto Eco in “The Name of the Rose.”

They are most efficient in mysteries and science fiction. Some examples in the former genre might be Ian Rankin’s “Dead Souls,” Elizabeth George’s “A Place of Hiding” or Patricia Cornwell’s “Cruel and Unusual.”

Admittedly, not all prologues are equal. Many great novels dispense with them. But they are generally brief and I see no sensible reason for not reading one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Speaking in Strange Tongues

Americans have long been xenophobic when it comes to language.

This is apparent in Benjamin Franklin’s warning about German “aliens” who he feared would gain prominence over the English-speaking populace:
“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply'd and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” (Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751).
The same attitude is repeated in Teddy Roosevelt’s comment that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.”
And we see it now in the outcry against alleged catering to Hispanic immigrants in the use of dual language signage. Despite these fears, studies prove English is not threatened. As has been the case in the past, most children and grandchildren of immigrants do become proficient in English. What is less known is that a higher degree of bilingualism exists today than in the past. And that is a good thing.
An ironic aspect of the English-first proponents is that few of them have ever tried learning another language or, if they had, gave it up as too difficult.
I grew up in a place which was enriched by its many immigrants. In my father’s time the children learned English in school and became the translators for their parents who often only learned enough to get by on their jobs. Through socialization with these families my father acquired a smattering of German, Italian and Polish. By my generation, many of the grandchildren no longer spoke the native language of their families. Even the native German dialect of my paternal ancestors is now a dying language.
Aristotle taught language is intrinsic to man and the foundation of society. Though there is much speculation on the evolution of language, science seems to support its value in the creation of sophisticated social structures. “Perhaps of all the creations of man language is the most astonishing,” said Lytton Strachey. We who are writers should love the very fact of language, since one of its primary purposes was the telling of stories.

Samuel Johnson said, “We would not be at the trouble to learn a language, if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation.” True, but reading Don Quixote in translation is not quite the same experience as reading it in the language of Cervantes. As Voltaire put it: “The first among languages is that which possesses the largest number of excellent works.”

Thursday, February 4, 2010

What Makes a Writer?

There are some today who will say you can’t be serious about writing unless you pursue an MFA.

I believe in education. But I don’t believe it begins or ends with a certain number of years in a classroom. It’s a lifelong process, one that benefits most by experience. We—Americans in particular—have a tendency to place more stock in degrees than actual education.

Ray Bradbury once advised a person who wanted to write to stay away from college. In his opinion the only way to learn to write was to do it—everyday. His second bit of advice was to believe in oneself.

I thought it might be interesting to consider some writers who succeeded by that example.

Edgar Allan Poe tops my list. He dropped out of the University of Virginia after one semester. He later failed as a cadet at West Point. Considered one of America’s greatest writers today, he received little recognition during his lifetime.

John Steinbeck. Attended Stanford University for five years but did not graduate. A Nobel Prize winner, many of his works are now on required reading lists for schools across the nation. He was a man with a wide range of interests—from marine biology to mythology.

Katherine Anne Porter, a major voice in 20th century American literature, supported herself with journalism and hack writing. Her first book, Flowering Judas, met with only modest sales and it was nearly 10 years later that she published a second book. Her skill as a writer of short stories is beyond question. Porter’s only formal education beyond grammar school was a year at a private Methodist school.

Dashiell Hammett dropped out of school at the age of 13. He published his first short story at the age of 28, honed his skills in the pulp field and published his first book at 34. He wrote only five books but is considered one of the most influential writers of his time.

Isaac Barshevis Singer dropped out of rabbinical school after only two years and supported himself for most of his life as a journalist, translator and proof reader. Championed by Saul Bellow and other writers, he published his first novel in English in 1950, won fame and, eventually, a Nobel Prize.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, now considered the leading writer of America’s Jazz Age, was not considered a gifted writer during his lifetime. It was not until after his death in 1940 that his books won him wide recognition. He attended Princeton, but left without a degree.

Eugene O’Neil dropped out of Princeton before completing his first year. He was in his 30s before audiences responded to his genius with the 1920 production of Beyond the Horizon. Though he won a Nobel Prize in 1936 it wasn’t until after his death in 1953 that he was acknowledged as one of America’s greatest writers.

Then there’s Lillian Hellman who attended both Columbia and New York University but left both without a degree. She gained world renown as a playwright, activist and memoirist.

Theodore Dreiser. Doubleday tried to get out of its contract with him for Sister Carrie because the wife of the publisher regarded it as an amoral book. The company printed the book in 1900 but did not advertise or distribute it and it did not become available to the public until 1912 when another publisher issued it. Dreiser attended Indiana University for one year.

The list goes on and on. But I think this enough to demonstrate it is not the degree but the writing makes the writer.