Writers Who I Admire

Writing fiction is an act of enchantment.

How to enchant better  –

that is always the question.


Joyce Carol Oates: This Love Has Come Upon Me Slowly

Your books are something like a prayer to me. They require me to persevere and work hard so that I may gain, so that I may perceive the unwitting unconsciousness that underlies life, and pity the characters and honor them as metaphorical representatives of the humanity we share. There is nothing big or over-the-top about your work, but you are the grand mistress of sheer resplendent trueness; not a word wasted, not a single emotion over-dramatised. The truest moments collect in the form of unshed tears and shrieking silences. You show what it is to be alive in someone else’s skin.

When did I recognise my absolute allegiance to your craftsmanship? It was a blinding moment of immaculate admiration that came as a gasp from nowhere; for a moment I shared with you the deep eviscerating joy and simultaneous pain of being human; I found myself engulfed by an emotion so deep I could not speak or breathe or give it a name.

Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart

It was in a lesser-known book of yours with the peculiar title of Because it is Bitter, and Because it is My Heart (How odd, my writer’s mind thought, and why the present tense?), and the cover is no better with its slender black silhouette leaning for support against what looks like a corn-stalk. I see her as a frail dreaming shadow. Did you, JCO, oversee that cover design I asked myself? If so, why a corn-stalk?

The sentence that transformed me into a believer is on page 403 of my dog-eared copy of Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart, two pages from the end. You must know which one I mean? You wrote it thus: “On the reverse of the print Jinx had written in that large looping lazy-seeming hand, Honey – think I’ll ‘pass?’” 

It will seem like nothing to anybody else, just an innocuous silly   sentence, but that could only be because they have haven’t lived through Iris’s story, page by gut-wrenching page, or because they are not human. But I had read your book and lived it and never knew how much I loved it – felt it as Iris did – until that shocking sentence, with its declaration of unsuspected love, hit me in the solar plexus.So you have crept up on me over the years, and book by book I have read your words and now I have reached the position of faith, which means that I am forever indebted and transformed, and will perhaps have to re-read every book of yours I have already read. But fortunately you are as prolific as you are true to your art; so there is no real danger that I shall ever run out of the pleasure of reading the stories you tell.

~~~ Joyce Carol Oates, 1938 – ,  Bibliography: http://artsandsciences.sc.edu/engl/LitCheck/oates.htm


John Irving: Garp

Irving’s Garp writes a novel in which the central character knifes her rapist to death in a graphic first chapter. Garp’s publisher considers the book to be x-rated soap-opera, nevertheless the visceral language and controversial subject matter have potential market appeal so he does what he’s done before with books he’s not certain about: he asks the woman who cleans his office to read it, not expecting her to read past the first few pages. We learn that his reputation as a publisher of surprising books destined to be popular is in fact based on the opinions of this unlikely reader who doesn’t even like books. When he realizes that she has actually read the whole book he asks her why. This is the exchange between them:

“Same reason I read anythin’ for,” Jillsy said. “To find out what happens.”
“So you read it to find out?” John Wolf said.
“There surely ain’t no other reason to read a book, is there?” Jilly Sloper said.

When she asks him for a copy he interrogates her as to why she would want to read it again, and she finally responds as follows:

“It feels so true,” she crooned, making the word true cry like a loon over a lake at night…. A book’s true when you can say, ‘Yeah! That’s how damn people behave all the time.’ Then you know it’s true,” Jillsy said.

As Irving points out any fiction writer worth his or her salt must work towards creating a reality that feels true and that begs the question of what ultimately happens to our characters. If we are serious about honing our craft and making a living as full-time writers then we must be serious about captivating readers. The world is full of readers; we just have to find ways of making them fall under our spell.

Original version appeared in www.livewriting.com; ‘South African writers on writing’


Rainer Maria Rilke: For the Sake of a Single Poem

[For the Sake of a Single Poem]

… Ah, poems amount to so little when you write them too early in your life.  You ought to wait and gather sense and sweetness for a whole lifetime, and a lone one if possible, and then, at the very end, you might perhaps be able to write ten good lines.  For poems are not, as people think, simply emotions (one has emotions early enough)—they are experiences.

For the sake of a single poem, you must see many cities, many people and Things, you must understand animals, must feel how birds fly, and know the gesture which small flowers make when they open in the morning.  You must be able to think back to streets in unknown neighborhoods, to unexpected encounters, and to partings you had long seen coming; to days of childhood whose mystery is still unexplained, to parents whom you had to hurt when they brought in a joy and you didn’t pick it up (it was a joy meant for somebody else—); to childhood illnesses that began so strangely with so many profound and difficult transformations, to days in quiet, restrained rooms and to mornings by the sea, to the sea itself, to seas, to nights of travel that rushed along high overhead and went flying with all the stars, and it is still not enough to be able to think of all that.

You must have memories of many nights of love, each one different from all the others, memories of women screaming in labor, and of light, pale, sleeping girls who have just given birth and are closing again.  But you must also have been beside the dying, must have sat beside the dead in the room with the open window and the scattered noises.  And it is not yet enough to have memories.  You must be able to forget them when they are many, and you must have the immense patience to wait until they return.  For the memories themselves are not important.  Only when they have changed into our very blood, into glance and gesture, and are nameless, no longer to be distinguished from ourselves—only then can it happen that in some very rare hour the first word of a poem arises in their midst and goes forth from them.

—Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (Vintage International, 1989), reblogged from apoetreflects.


Kafka: Quotations

Franz Kafka

“Thus Spake Schubal”, themodernworld.com

Discovered a marvelous website that could distract me endlessly. http://www.themodernword.com/kafka/kafka_quotes.html

Kafka speaks to us all:

One is alone, a total stranger and only an object of curiosity. And so long as you say “one” instead of “I,” there’s nothing in it and one can easily tell the story; but as soon as you admit to yourself that it is you yourself, you feel as though transfixed and are horrified.
–“Wedding Preparations in the Country”, Franz Kafka


Germaine Greer: Daddy We Hardly Knew You

Why have I avoided Germaine Greer? But then what sensible woman wouldn’t be put off by a title like The Female Eunach? So at a mature age, with sufficient experience and suffering under my belt, I pick up Daddy, We Hardly Knew You by Germaine Greer at the library sale. I’m quickly absorbed by her true story.  It’s probably because my own father has passed on to green pastures and was hardly known.

It’s Greer’s account of India that fascinates. There’s something measured and scholarly and dignified and human and touching about her account. I would love to know Mrs Vaishampayan and her sisters. Mr Vaishampayan is a hero of manhood. How unexpected, this vista ofIndia, spiritual well-being that includes floating melody and gentle laughter founded on a bedrock of wealth and status. So even the rich can aspire to and achieve spiritual happiness. This is a revelation. Elsewhere in the book she talks about the life of small towns and how the sense of community is dying out with the advent of television. I know that I regret the television’s arrival in our house. But perhaps even Germaine Greer can be naïve. Did these happy villages with their happy village life really exist? Perhaps one or two here and there, exceptions to the rule of poverty and degradation. But weren’t the rest happier after capitalism arrived, on average, all things considered? That is the question a capitalist would ask.

Reading Germaine Greer has opened a window; I realise how insinuating Ayn Rand’s evangelical message was; I welcomed it, absorbed it and made it my own. My little wavering attempts at a new-found spirituality are hampered by my life, my constrained capitalist life with its straight lines and sharp corners, its demand for proof, its obsession with reason.  I’m brought to mind of an appreciation to a mapmaker in Time magazine – a man who revolutionized mapmaking by focussing on aesthetics first and then only introducing mathematics. Perhaps this is the answer to our quandary. Perhaps capitalism has been too much of one thing and not enough of another.

I am bothered by a philosophical question Greer asks: ‘Can a man step in the same river twice? At first I don’t understand why the answer is ‘NO’. Of course I can step in the same river again and again. There are times when ignorance is frustrating and debilitating. Then it comes to me as I write this piece; the river is flowing, ever-changing, so that the exact moment can never be repeated. So I concentrate on the river and reach further high thoughts. Where I step into the river, the river is changed for a moment, as it flows around. I go a step further; within me my thoughts are flowing, ever-changing, so that I am also changed by my act. I go all the way; outside circumstances are also flowing, ever-changing, like the seasons and the weather, the time of day. How could I have not understood? It is immensely profound. Heady stuff, this philosophy.

Extract from an Essay written for “Illuminating The Spirit”; Department of Arts & Culture


Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged


Ayn Rand in 1957 (Wikipedia)

In Ayn Rand’s carefully constructed world the will of man is paramount. I intend man in the generic sense, outside of gender connotations, any heroines in her books were at the very least shadows of the heroic epic figure of the Howard Roark prototype. Everything is driving ambition and power, the full focus of the mind is on the achievement of self. Where there is will there is also ego.

There is no tomorrow, only one life. Man’s creative potential as a producer is exalted. A good capitalist is one who renounces religion and spirituality since they are anti-reason. On the same grounds altruism, collectivism and mysticism cannot co-exist with capitalism. Selfishness is a virtue.

Ayn Rand’s achievement was to transform capitalism into an art form through her eloquence. Time has moved on. The pendulum swings to the other side. There’s a new class of Haves and Have Nots. Those striving for a state of spiritual wisdom, and those not striving. The trick is to work out for yourself if capitalism and spirituality are two congruent worlds or overlapping realities. We are inundated by books written by so-called professionals – from psychics to self-help gurus – who make a healthy profit out of leading us away from worldly thoughts, in a mass turnaround, like lemmings from the cliff edge,  to the realms of obscure higher thoughts. The fervour of these armchair philosophers is superseding Ayn Rand’s capitalist zeal, swaying us in new directions, no doubt taking us to new heights of folly.

The new versions of literature for female capitalists are the self-help guides written by personal finance gurus of the likes of Suze Orman (Don’t spend more than you earn!). But it doesn’t seem quite as enjoyable a way of absorbing the message as reading about the heroic efforts of Rand’s bigger-than-life main protagonists, so some of us are holding onto our Ayn Rand novels and lending them out to our up-and-coming capitalist progeny.

And if one of these young people (in my case a nephew) should be sufficiently impressed to buy their own full set of Rand novels, as if the whole caboodle were an encoded manual on how to become a good capitalist, straight off the Internet, we’re left smugly pleased that the young person in question leans heavily towards the promise of legitimate wealth and power in a world where warlords, drug lords, gang leaders and criminals are often the kingpins. As if the threat of a confining humiliating incarceration is not enough to dissuade our gentle protected youth from that so-called ‘easy’ path. Naturally, we Randians are totally opposed to white collar crime; Rand’s heroes would not have stooped to such dishonourable behaviour.

1.  According to a survey by the Library of Congress and Book-of-the-Month Club, Atlas Shrugged ranked second after the Bible as the that most influenced people’s lives. (http://www.libertystory.net)

Extract from an Essay written for “Illuminating The Spirit”; Department of Arts & Culture


Alice Walker: Writing What’s Right (Quote from GERNICA)


Image from Flickr via The Septenarian~> CIRCLE(F)

Walker: Great Literature is help for humans.  It is medicine of the highest order.  In a more aware culture, writers would be considered priests.  And, in fact, I have approached writing in a distinctly priestess frame of mind.  I know what The Color Purple can mean to people, women and men, who have no voice. Who believe they have few choices in life.  It can open to them, to their view, the full abundance of this amazing journey we are all on.  It can lift them into a new realization of their own power, beauty, love, courage.  It is a book that unites the present with the past, therefore giving people a sense of history and of timelessness they might never achieve otherwise.  And even were it not “great” literature, it has the best interests of all of us humans at heart.  That we grow, change, challenge, encourage, love fiercely in the awareness that real love can never be incorrect.

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