Monthly Archives: April 2009

Review: ‘A Good War is Hard to Find’

A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America by David Griffith. Soft Skull Press. 189 pages.

When Pilate said unto them, Why, what evil hath he done? And they cried out all the more exceedingly, Crucify him.—Mark 15:14

What America learned from World War II, after a billion people died and agoodwar300half the Earth was scorched, was to outlaw war on civilians (which works but at bestial cost) and to ban torture (because it’s ineffective, leads to retaliation, kills the souls of torturers, and if you say a soldier can slap a prisoner the whole affair becomes something medieval real fast). America learned this. It’s in the Geneva conventions we signed and in our own Army’s field manual on interrogation. How did we forget so much that, in Iraq and Afghanistan and our offshore prisons and the whole world, for that matter, torture became official U.S. policy?

What David Griffith does in A Good War is Hard to Find isn’t to attack the Iraq war or the Bush administration, both easy outrages, but to explore the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal in relation to the larger problem of human evil.  First, I must honor the fact of this book. Here’s a young man—he was in high school during the Gulf War—who earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Pittsburgh and is now a professor at Sweet Briar College, who gave himself the authority to engage. He’s no expert, except perhaps in our common language, and that’s the point. He didn’t let Abu Ghraib go down in the flood of fractured information in which we’re drowning. It was deeply significant beyond mere politics, and he saw that. I admire his creative and brave response more than I can say. He used the self in the best possible way an artist can, as an instrument of inquiry into something larger.

A Good War shows how a narrative line can be supplied by a writer exploring a Big Idea instead of by event sequence, plot; the essays are linked only by the author and his inquiry. His own story, unfolding in various scenes, is vital to this: our guide is one of us, an American kid who stumbled upon Hiroshima as a fifth grader and got a seed of doubt and awe planted. And we can see how his past and his preoccupations bear on his response to evil. Griffith grew up steeped in violent movies, watching in boyhood basements and college dormitory outings, and his book reflects those experiences and his growing moral imagination as a husband and as a committed Catholic. He shows us scenes of himself enjoying violence and becoming uncomfortable, and ultimately he grasps the felt, moral response to violence in Blue Velvet and Deliverance in contrast to Quentin Tarantino’s creepy aestheticization of violence and denial of its seriousness in Pulp Fiction.

His book is deceptively easygoing because it’s personal, restrained, and profound rather than clever. Before you know it, you’re contemplating his true subject, of which Abu Ghraib is a banal symptom. Griffith approaches this the way we must approach something so large, in the sideways manner poetry does, probing at the margins of something large and abstract. And then we get the title essay, which meditates upon Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor’s moral vision of the evil (“pride”) intrinsic to human nature. Taking his book’s title from her iconic short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” about a family led by its foolish, pridefully unconscious matriarch to execution by a merciless serial killer, Griffith asks much of any reader ignorant of religion or anyone unwilling to consider why America seems peculiarly susceptible to the grotesque violations of its transcendent ideals that its power permits and encourages.

“[B]y separating sin from nature, we forever see ourselves as innocent and exceptional—a chosen people ordained by God to rid the earth of evil in a War on Terror,” he writes. “Was there ever a greater occasion for pride? Is this the real meaning of the Abu Ghraib photographs? Are these images evidence of the subterranean flaw beneath our benevolent, Christian surface?”

I’d call his and O’Connor’s “pride,” instead, “ego”—but pride is synonymous and may be better, an old word that captures religion’s profound, ancient struggle with the intrinsic problems of being human. Yet what of Abu Ghraib torturer Charles Grainer, who had a Jesus license plate on his truck and a stone engraved with a Bible verse in his flower bed? His particular dogma probably told him that evil was outside himself. This seems worse than religion’s other supposed sin of telling us we’re intrinsically bad. Maybe his religion told him both.

It isn’t just the polarizing fundamentalists who externalize both good and evil—God is out there but so is evil, waiting—but also the angry atheists, as literal-minded as the fundamentalists, and hardly worth discussing, being even more spiritually ignorant, yet who are exerting a baleful influence on the milder folk caught between. A Good War was well-reviewed, including in The New York Times Book Review, despite discussing human nature as imperfectible (and containing evil!) and mentioning God. I hope readers understand Griffith isn’t proselytizing, but can they also imagine themselves as torturers at Abu Ghraib? Or as leaders whose arrogant, power-corrupted pride set the sin in motion? Or as a member of a fearful, angry electorate who put into office such men, who promised not only protection but vengeance?

Humans are torn, moment by moment, between their ravenous egos and an intrinsic moral sense—grand creatures with certain inalienable flaws. This divide is the source of human hypocrisy, in which we can tumble into evil. Although going completely to the dark side isn’t inevitable, under the wrong example and leadership, men will. Abu Ghraib is a warning, not an aberration. The men who put Jesus to death were, after all, ordinary, good citizens, the ruling elite and its mob muscle.

The beauty of A Good War is Hard to Find is that it does not politicize this human dilemma nor does it let anyone off the hook. Nor should it, for the problem it ponders is a daily and everlasting one.

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Filed under essay-classical, honesty, narrative, religion & spirituality, REVIEW

Lee Gutkind on immersion journalism

From an interview with nonfiction guru Gutkind conducted by Eric Parker for Fresno Famous—

“[I]mmersions are so wonderful in that you walk into an immersion havinggutkind an idea, idea A, but by the time you’ve spent three months or six months, you have a new idea, or a different formulation of your idea. Then, if you spend another year or two, your idea sophisticates and focuses even more. So, it’s a constant balancing challenge to make sure that you are giving the subject the proper attention.”

“Sometimes learning about a subject through the eyes of the writer can work. But more often than not, the most successful immersions are done with writers who are not egocentric. John McPhee, who’s someone I really admire, did this book called The Curve of Binding Energy, and it’s 65,000 words—my book is about 75,000 words [referring to his most recent book, Almost Human: Making Robots Think]—but McPhee always brags that he wrote this 65,000-word book and it took him until his 35,000th word before he used the word ‘I’ in relation to himself. It took that long for him to be important in the story.”

“[G]reatness takes great, massive, continuous failure in order to succeed. So, writing a book for six years is nothing. And even though it’s filled with five and a half years of frustration, you need to continue to apply yourself. I’m not sure I’m an incredibly talented human being, but I think that one of the reasons I’ve been successful is because I just decided to never give up and to always go onward.”

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Dinty W. Moore on concise nonfiction

The writer, and editor of the journal of concise nonfiction, Brevity, was interviewed by Mary Richert as part of her nonfictionist series odintyn her blog No Titles:

“I think certain experiments, with language, point-of-view, structure, work better in the short form.  Very brief essays are like a petri dish for innovation.”

“. . . [T]he lyric, almost ethereal essay as opposed to the highly journalistic ‘article’ –   are both nonfiction, and nonfiction that allows creative choices on the part of the author . . .  But fiction has this range as well: fiction includes the child’s board book and the highly formulaic western, and all of the literary genres and sub-genres, including the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Italo Calvino.”

“I think any story can be set as fiction or nonfiction (though of course, the nonfiction story must be limited to the honest facts, memories, and observations, and the fiction author can , and should, allow the imagination to add and enhance).   Maybe the difference is with the author — some authors need to explore an experience, idea, or question in one mode while others need to explore it in a different mode.”

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Readers’ minds

On thing teaching writing does for you is that you see the same issues over and over in students’ work. “Rule of Thumb: Anyone worth mentioning needs a short physical description,” I hear myself saying, “even though the person readers picture in their minds will look nothing like your Aunt Sally.” Or, “It’s strange how rewarded readers are by understanding something because of information you’ve given them previously.” Or you see again in a workshop, along with a rapt circle of students, the weird power of showing versus telling. Of scene and image over exposition and mere rhetoric.

Lois on her interesting blog Narrative Nonfiction had a great post April 4 on “Parsing Writing for Info” in which she points out how much readers love adding two and two for themselves. That is, filling in the image in their minds from details the writer has provided: “Let’s consider how much you can impart to a reader without spelling everything out,” she writes. “The human brain doesn’t need a lot of data to come up with assumptions. For whatever reason, the brain dislikes blanks the way radio dislikes empty air.” She then recounts everything she did in five minutes and uses asides in brackets to indicate what the reader learns about her that isn’t overtly or specifically told. Her inspired post is illustrative and a great teaching tool.

(Incidentally, I named my blog before I knew about Lois’s so didn’t copy hers—actually I stole my title from Narrative Magazine after a friend complained about my first title, Theme, a passe word in many creative writing circles. I got the idea for Theme from teaching, too: students often don’t consciously realize what they are really writing about.)

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Noted: William Zinsser

from “Visions and Revisions: Writing On Writing Well and keeping it up-to-date for 35 years,” in The American Scholar, Spring 2009

“It now occurs to me that I didn’t really find my style until I wrote On Writing Well, at the late age of 52. Until then my style more probably reflected zinsserwho I wanted to be perceived as—the urbane columnist and humorist and critic. Only when I started writing as a teacher and had no agenda except to be helpful did my style become integrated with my personality and my character. . . . The personal voice of the teacher, not the literary voice of the essayist, was the one I wanted narrating my book.”

“I learned to delete every word or phrase or sentence that told readers something they had already been enabled to know or were bright enough to deduce. I also tried to stop using phrases like of course and adverbs like surprisingly, predictably, understandably, and ironically, which place a value on a sentence before the reader has a chance to read it. Readers, I learned, are not as dumb as the writer thinks; they must be given room to play their role in the act of writing—to discover for themselves what’s surprising or predictable or understandable or ironic. They don’t want that pleasure usurped. . . . I learned to gather hundreds of facts and to let those facts speak for themselves, unvarnished. I learned to generate emotion by getting other people to tell me things they felt strongly about, not by waxing emotional myself. I learned not to wax.”

“To focus my students on the process, rather than on the finished product, I invented a writing course that doesn’t require any writing. I only ask the women and men in my class to talk about their hopes and intentions and about the possible ways of getting where they want to go. That forces them to confront all the prior decisions that memoir insists on: matters of voice, tone, tense, attitude, scope, narrative, and the privacy of their family and friends. How do they plan to reduce the vast jumble of memories clamoring to be sorted out and described? . . . I had discovered that the crippling problem for many writers is not how to write, but how to organize what they have written. Yet that skill is almost never mentioned or taught in writing classes.”

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That sweet white space

The line break, an extra return after a paragraph that adds white space to a text, has practical and dramatic uses I was slow to understand. I was proud of my verbal transitions, and physical ones seemed like cheating. It took me a while to transcend my guilt, undoubtedly forged in newspapers where column-inches are precious.

But verbal transitions can be lame—they are artificial devices themselves windowblogand often clunky—and line breaks do more than indicate a major shift of location or time: they underscore the material where the break ends. That white space is a dramatic transition and a resonant pause filled with meaning and its own kind of content, a space pregnant with time’s passage and unstated events.

In his essay “This is What the White Spaces Say,” the writer and nonfiction writing theorist Robert Root discusses today’s segmented essay in which the line break is a significant element in the composition. “Segmented essays . . . depend on space, usually expressed as numbers or rows of asterisks or squiggly lines or white breaks in text, as a fundamental element of design and expression,” he writes. “. . . Like musical compositions, nonfiction need not be one uninterrupted melody, one movement, but can also be the arrangement of distinct and discrete miniatures, changes of tempo, sonority, melody, separated by silences.”

My students love trying the technique and discussing their thinking about where and why they’ve used breaks. (One girl confessed they seem like cheating to her, so this Puritanism isn’t just mine.) Undergraduates may miss the rhythm involved, and some happily hit an extra return after every single paragraph in an otherwise linear traditional essay. Students also like to put a dingbat of some sort in the white space, which I dislike but rarely mention. With today’s nonfiction writers using more white space, the unnecessary philodendron leaves or flowers or chuffy hogs that some publishers stick there can annoy. Asterisks are bad enough.

Perhaps the most basic reason for line breaks in traditional work is that they give readers an island where they might rest amidst a sea of dense type. Which raises the question of how white space is used in America’s greatest novel, Moby-Dick, which sprawls to 654 pages in the copy I own. In the book, white represents a hostile blankness epitomizing the indifference of the universe, so one wonders if Melville would dare employ white pauses, and if typographic conventions of the day were a factor when the book was published in 1851. Moby-Dick is famous for its 135 chapters, many of them very short; and Melville regularly ended a chapter and began the next as an almost-seamless continuation—a perfect place for a line break transition.

But . . . he does use line breaks, about four, and the short chapters supply even more emphasis and resonance than mere pauses. (In fact, one famous chapter, 122, is only four lines and is itself mostly white space.) To Melville, the matter was organic, as he explains in the opening of Chapter 63: “Out of the trunk, the branches grow; out of them, the twigs. So, in productive subjects, grow the chapters.”

Melville employs his  line breaks in the way we do. The first doesn’t appear, by my count, until page 234, in the middle of the short chapter “The Mat-Maker.” His white spaces aren’t completely empty, as they bristle with five asterisks harpooned across their modest wake. The publisher’s unfortunate decision? Maybe not, because there’s a strange place in Chapter 54 where four asterisks trail a sentence, telegraphing a break typographically, not physically—yet another innovation, an ugly one. I wonder if Melville drew them into his draft, though technically dingbats are the publisher’s lookout, at least nowadays, and I think a pure uncluttered white space there would be better. Yet preserve Moby-Dick with such eccentricities: Melville also uses the dash like we do—but sometimes like this,—with that comma, or sometimes a semicolon, before the dash. That’s the nineteenth-century showing in this startlingly modern book. Dash-wise, Melville may seem caught typographically in the evolutionary middle, halfway out of the sea, so to speak; but there were reasons for his variance, subtle in the case of the comma; the semicolon and dash pair makes more obvious sense: a pause;—and then a leap. We’ve largely abandoned that flexibility and have stripped to the plain dash; and to wider, more frequent, and less ornamented white spaces.

These may be small matters in a masterpiece. Yet white space is a powerful structural device and, as I like to tell students, structure is what writers talk about when they talk about writing.

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