from Reading Journal, 2003
I am a literary slut. I may as well confess that right now, for I fear no matter how I try to hide it, this will become evident in the reading of my journal anyhow.
It’s physical attraction first, as always. I have my ‘types’ of course. There are always particular covers I am drawn to. I avoid the muscled, hairy-chested, open-shirted books, you know, the thick ones with gold embossed lettering.
I am wary of books where the author’s name is bigger than the title. This smacks of egotism. On the other hand, this could be covering up a certain amount of insecurity which is appealing in its own way. I am looking now at The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, whose name is writ large in embossed silver. What is he, if not insecure? (As evidence I cite the will I? won’t I? Oprah débâcle.)
My mother, who came to novels late after a lifetime of biographies, will pick up any book fronted with a painted scene of English countryside on a white background à la Joanna Trollope. Even if it’s called Lesbian Killer Dwarves from Outer Space, as long as the cover has a nice watercolour featuring church steeples and hollyhocks she’ll say, ‘This looks good.’
And then there is the title. The cover of my copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love is quite frankly mediocre, nondescript. But who could resist a pick-up line like that?
Going into a library – it’s like walking into a bar when you’re single and bored. First it’s a quick scan around to see what looks good. You listen to the pick-up lines, read the blurb on the back for a bit of small talk, maybe get engrossed in a deeper conversation by flicking through the pages a bit. And then you get to choose what to take home with you. Like real life sometimes someone else has already taken home the one you want. But at least from a library you can take home a whole selection – if one bores, you can always move on to the next. (Of course this can happen in the dating analogy as well, but let’s not get into that here.)
You soon get to know the authors you want to take to bed. And I have, at various stages in my life, literarily fallen in love with such writers as Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood to name a few.
And of course there are one night stands – trashy books that are just read for a quick passing thrill. These are usually read for the sake of having something to read, and are consumed with varying degrees of guilt and pleasure. They are (best) forgotten by the next day, so let’s not name names here.
My other confession is that I enjoy the literary pornography of British tabloid papers. I regularly buy the International Express (and sometimes I will glut out with the Mail as well). Most people are slightly horrified by this, as if I’d said I read Jeffrey Archer or something. ‘If you’re going to get a British paper, why not the Guardian?’ they say. Let me tell you, these people don’t realise what they’re missing out on. I mean, sure I know far more about the sex life of British politicians than could possibly be healthy. And television celebrities the world over seem equally vile.
But reading these papers is like reading science fiction. Britain comes across as some surreal parallel universe, a mix of a bleak futuristic vision and a comforting view of the world stuck somewhere mid-twentieth century. The Queen, hedgehogs and the sanctity of the British sausage (at present under threat by the evil Belgian Euro-Nazis) are of extreme importance. But then there’s the desolate Clockwork-Orange-esque council housing estate wastelands full of abandoned shopping trolleys, overturned cars and ten-year-olds attacking grannies for drug money – a grim vision of society run aground. And there are also fascinating glimpses of the odd people who live everywhere but seem to thrive in tabloid Britain. The man who died after yanking out his own rotten tooth with pliers. The opera-singing stalker. The woman who used her pet iguana as a weapon.
The trouble with being an ‘easy reader’ is that words are not just found in the pages of a short-story collection. I do read a lot of things. Packaging and labels, for example. (Some of my best moments have come from the reading the backs of packets; I particularly like instructions, or to be more exact, the tone of instructional advice.) Also comics, advertisements, record covers (have you ever read the blurb on some of those cheesy lounge singer records from the Sixties?) and the internet. I read on streets and in buses and while shopping – I love the names of hairdressers and paint colours and cosmetics. (I’ve just discovered a bright red lipstick called I’m Not Really A Secretary, a moisturiser dubbed Never Say Dry.)
But I won’t write about all that. Neither will I write about those odd junk shop finds (you know the sort, thirty-year-old knitting pattern and flower arrangement volumes, the Private Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, a book on planned parenting from the Forties), fascinating though they may be.
In this journal I shall be strict what I write about. My musings will be entirely short fiction based. I shall not confess to reading unsuitable novels, or even worthy ones. Poetry will not be mentioned. And like someone on a first date I plan to reveal only the brightest side of myself – my easy reading ways shall be hidden as best I can. Well, that’s the plan, anyhow.
listening to grace
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, Grace Paley
Tusiata and I were having a drink at Bodega after class one Tuesday when we realised we’d been at Canterbury University around the same time. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘Did you ever take that class with that guy, what was it…’
‘American Thought and Writing?’
This is not an unusual conversation – the lecturer Craig Harlan made an indelible impression on anyone lucky enough to take one of his classes. He was a thin bespectacled American with a curious, hesitant yet intense manner (someone once accurately described him as being a cross between David Byrne and a muppet) and we would all sit there in class transfixed, fascinated by what he said and the passionate, child-like, deliberate way he said it.
One of the best things about his teaching style became apparent when you missed a lecture. He put his class notes in the library for students to study, and he wrote exactly how he spoke, so that when you read through the notes it was like listening to him. In fact afterwards it was hard to imagine that you hadn’t physically sat through one of his lectures. (Actually his notes were so good they became a bit of a temptation for those too lazy to make it in to his early classes…)
I expect by now you’re thinking here is where I launch into a story about how this lecturer inflamed in me a passion for the works of Grace Paley, but actually I hadn’t even heard of Paley till this year. In fact I had read only one Grace Paley story before watching the video of her reading out her work, halfway through the course. A few days later I got this collection of stories out of the library and discovered that, like reading those notes in the lecturer’s voice many years ago, I was hearing the stories read out in my mind through Paley’s distinctive New York accent.
I’m not sure whether this is a good thing or not. I mean, it made the reading intensely enjoyable, I was able to hear the rhythms of her speech as I read. But it was a bit like reading the book after you’ve seen the movie and being unable to shake the image and sound of the actors playing the parts. I wish that I had read Paley’s stories first without her aural filter, without even knowing she was a New Yorker (although you don’t have to read far to know that, I guess), to see whether I would have picked up on those particular rhythms.
I’ve just tried reading Paley’s stories in a Peter Wyngarde/Stephen Fry upper-class British accent (in my head, you understand – I can’t do accents in reality). They still work. Are (English) speech rhythms universal? To a certain extent, they must be.
But this also makes me wonder if Paley’s work has a particularly aural style. I’m sure when I read other work I am not aware of the sound of it. I don’t read it aloud in my head because I read too fast for that to be practical.
Reading is a weird thing anyway. When I was a kid and an insatiable reader I used to puzzle over the mysterious process of reading. (That, and infinity. How could the sky possibly go on forever, there must be an end somewhere. And if you ever did travel to the end, what’s one step beyond that?) With reading there’s just these marks on a page and by looking at them you enter into another world. And I found it strange that although I never consciously heard or saw images of what I read, somehow those black marks bypassed everything else to enter directly into my brain as emotional experience or as knowledge or both.
I don’t think I generally process written stories either aurally or visually. (Although if an image in a story fits some remembered image in my brain then it will stick to that – like the tins of smoked oysters that the fat man steals in The Fat Man in History, by Peter Carey, which appear to me as the never-to-be-opened tins of smoked oysters that my grandmother kept in her pantry.) I think I normally read books emotionally – I can remember how they made me feel above all else. But with Paley’s work, I see the images, I feel the emotions, and most of all, I hear her voice.
All of this is by the by. I guess I should be writing about what I feel when I read Paley’s work, and why. Obviously she is very good at creating a natural rhythm to her work. Most of her stories seem to be first person narrative, or, if they aren’t, they are still told in a particular, rather than impersonal, voice. All her stories have a very strong sense of character – it reads as if someone was just saying it. At the same time there is a colourfulness and a wit to her writing that somehow doesn’t intrude on the naturalism. (Aah, like the best of Coronation Street…)
These are not nice neat stories. Well, some are neater than others. ‘Samuel’, about ‘Four boys jiggling on the swaying platform’ of a subway car is quite a tidy story, as is ‘The Little Girl’, the horrible tale of the girl who was raped and killed. Initially it was these stories I was drawn to, perhaps because of their brevity (and therefore manageability), dramatic storyline and simplicity. (Though I also love the voice in which ‘The Little Girl’ is written. ‘Carter stopped by the café early. I just done waxing. He said, “I believe I’m having company later on. Let me use your place, Charlie, hear?”’)
But the more complex stories about seemingly less significant events begin to appeal more on second reading. There is so much going on in Paley’s writing. Lively character sketches. Political, sociological and psychological observations. Nuggets of wisdom from old wives’ tales. Reading one of Paley’s stories is a bit like watching someone who is a good but seemingly careless cook whip up a soup from a bit of this, a handful of that, oh and shove some of these in – and somehow it smells and tastes divine. And I can’t quite figure out how she does it. Me, I have a terrible tendency to want to write safe neat stories, to tidy everything up, to tie it all in together. My words are too carefully weighed out, I limit what I put into the mix, I use a bit of ready-made stuff from tins, and it all just adds up to an edible if somewhat predictable experience.
Paley is an exciting and sometimes scary writer. The more I read her stories, the more I admire her. I’m too measured, safe, polite and passionless to ever be able to emulate her style. But she has made me vow to be more observant of the way people talk and act, and curious as to why.
by any other name
I have decided I need a pen name. When I told my husband this, he suggested Bic Parker. He said this was twice as good as a normal pen name, being, as it is, two pens’ names. This is the level of wit in my household. Outside help was needed.
There are various reasons why I decided I needed another name. Perhaps the main one is that by creating another identity, the anonymity will allow me, my family and friends (who feature in my writing from time to time) some privacy.
Also there is a lot of baggage attached to the name Lovell-Smith. If I mention my name to a person just met, chances are they will say, oh are you related to the doctor/painter/man who tried to levitate his way to political power? Or, I used to go to school with/live next to/occasionally sleep with a Lovell-Smith, are you by any chance related?
No doubt anyone who has a slightly distinctive name suffers in the same way. But it needn’t have been this way for our family if my great-grandfather, a colonial social climber, hadn’t foreseen the possible benefits of hyphenation. As a youth he was known as William ‘Knickerbocker’ Smith so at least he had the sense to replace the knickerbocker with something somewhat more dignified.
If my grandfather had stuck with the anonymous Smith, I would be sure to be facing an equal but different set of problems. But at least plain Smiths never get asked if they’re related to, say, the woman who drowned her children, or that Mormon dude.
Another difficulty I have always had with my name is that it’s such a mouthful. My full name is Rebecca Nellie Rachel Lovell-Smith, but even just my first and last names add up to six syllables, four more than conventionally necessary, twice as many as I want.
I needed a name that was simple yet memorable, so I turned to books for help. According to Mencken’s American Language, Coleridge ‘declared that every woman’s [given] name should be a trochee – that is, of two syllables, with the accent on the first, eg Mary, Alice, Agnes, Ellen…’
Mencken also presents the views of Gelet Burgess, who complained that the trochee suggests ‘a persistent hammering force,’ and that the iambus, with the emphasis on the second syllable, eg, Jeanette, Elaine, Louise, suggests ‘a decisive vigour’ which, apparently, is also a bad thing. Burgess favours the dactyl, three syllables, emphasis on the first, eg, Emily, Adelaide, Isabel (he seems to approve of ‘limp ragdoll ease’ for a female name) or the anapaest, three syllables, accent on the third, eg, Antoinette, Marianne which ‘is just the thing for sparkle and pep’.
Mencken also gives mention to the Manu-smitri, the ancient Brahman code of laws which states that ‘the names of women should be easy to pronounce, not implying anything dreadful, possess a plain meaning, be pleasing and auspicious, end in long vowels, and contain a word of benediction.’
And I like the advice of an Eldon C. Smith (am I perchance related?) who, according to Mencken, advocates the use of ‘the more sonorous consonants, r, l m and n,’ and warns q and the hard g. Smith believes a good girl’s name should be ‘easily spelled and pronounced, it should not give birth to a disagreeable diminutive, it should be free from unpleasant connotations or associations, [see the infamous Seinfeld Mulva/Dolores episode] and it should not be so odd or unusual as to evoke constant comment.’
Not being a poet I hadn’t thought seriously about syllabic issues before reading Mencken. Having since taken the time to consider such matters I realise I like some people’s names better than others because of the way they scan. I think I particularly agree with Coleridge in favouring a trochee, paired with a single syllable surname. (Alliteration and rhyme, internal or otherwise, are of secondary importance.)
How to come up with such a name is difficult. For inspiration I turned to the lists of female given names in Mencken’s book. I offer a sample of real-life names (including a few trochaic examples) that I immediately rejected: Alexanderene, Apple, Bashie, Chlorine, Coita, Dawnette, Dinette, Faucette, Fragoletta, Garguerite, Groveline, Halloween, Hygiene, Larceny, Latrina, Manila, Nix, Oolooah, Ova, Pencilla, Phalla, Saline, Sing, Tryphena, Twitty, Ureatha and Vaseline.
I myself favour something simpler, though I am drawn to a name found in the male section, Willie 3/8 Smith (who I’m pretty sure would be no relation to the man baptized Loyal Lodge No. 209 Knights of Pythias Ponca City Oklahoma Smith). Other examples in the unlikely but true category (male): Arson, Blasphemy, Blitz (and his twin Krieg) Cash, Constipation, Extra, Flake, Foil, Handbag, Himself, Loven Kisses, Magazine, Od, Pink, Poke, Pudding, Submarine, Trigger, Trouble, Victrola and Yick.
And surnames? How about: Acid, Baby, Barefoot, Bitsh, Bible, Buggerman, Burp, Cabbage, Cashdollar, Cobbledick, Cutmutton, Death, Doll, Egg, Evilchild, Flowerdew, Ghost, Girl, Hair, Human, Jelly, Junk, Killbride, Laughinghouse, Lung, Necessary, Organ, Permission, Pinwheel, Purple, Ratskin, Sex, Shovel, Sickman, Stolen, Sugarwater or Wham?
But I digress. It seems to me that a name has a certain power. Usually a reader’s first knowledge of a writer is the name, so in a way it’s a bit like the title of a book. Certain clues are picked up. So in that way, a name is important. On the other hand, people are remarkably accepting of any name after a term. It is like a person’s face. After a while, how someone looks is of little relevance, it’s how they are that affects you. So perhaps I should just pick a name at random and be done with it.
I have asked other members of my class to help me come up with a suitable name. Jane wrote back with a list of suggestions on where to look. Cliff decided Marina should be the first name, then gave me a huge list of surnames – Beckett, Verlaine etc (he confessed he was reading the authors’ names off the spines of books in his shelves as he wrote). Hinemoana came up with Jean Fenn – the name of a woman she’d seen on an E! Hollywood Exposed TV programme about Liberace. I sent her the list of names from Mencken with a few possible combinations and she decided Hygiene Latrina was the one. We both agree it has a certain ring to it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rebecca Lovell-Smith completed the MA in Creative Writing in 2002. She sells rubber ducks and cap guns by day, and is writing a never-ending story by night. She lives in Christchurch with her dog, two cats and husband.