Saturday, March 11, 2006

Rage, Goddess, Sing, & Recommended Reading

Our joint read of The Brothers Karamazov having passed quite pleasantly, Ted and I now are reading The Iliad, in the Robert Fagles translation. And it is magnificent:

And out he marched, leading the way from council.
The rest sprang to their feet, the sceptered kings
obeyed the great field marshal. Rank and file
streamed behind and rushed like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst,
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hordes swirling into the air, this way, that way --
so the many armed platoons from the ships and tents
came marching on, close-file, along the deep wide beach
to crowd the meeting grounds, and Rumor, Zeus's crier,
like wildfire blazing among them, whipped them on.
The troops assembled. The meeting grounds shook.
The earth groaned and rumbled under the huge weight
as soldiers took positions -- the whole place in uproar.
Nine heralds shouted out, trying to keep some order.
"Quiet, battalions, silence! Hear your royal kings!"
The men were forced to their seats, marshaled into ranks,
the shouting died away . . . silence. (Book 2, lines 100-118)

Goodness, this is glorious writing. Straightforward but just-right words; big, strong, muscular verbs; vivid, appropriate imagery (the soldiers pouring out of their ships like "swarms of bees"). I love how Homer and Fagles establish sentence rhythms suited to the content of the sentence: See how that sentence about the bees rolls on and on and on, just as the soldiers do, so the very structure of the sentence conveys the action it's describing; but once they're all gathered and need to get down to business, the sentences are short and sharp: "The troops assembled. The meeting grounds shook. . . . 'Hear your royal kings!" The passive voice is used only once, and that when "the men were forced to their seats" -- in other words, forced to passively obey. Just this one short passage fills me with awe and delight: I want to read this entire book aloud.

It also makes me think about the uses of good writing. Writers at conferences sometimes tell me eagerly "Oh, I never read anything but children's and YA books," or confidingly "Children's books are so much better than all those adult books," and seem to expect me to praise or agree. Quite often these writers are new to the field and just discovering the delights of modern children's and YA literature, and in that case it certainly is important to get a sense of what's out there and what's good. (In fact, I recently added a recommended reading list over at Talking Books with some novels a beginning children's book editor is expected to know; said list might prove useful for new writers as well.)

But the best thing a writer can read is good writing, especially writing that expands the reader's sense of writerly possibilities: the subjects that can be addressed, the forms a story can take, the perspectives from which it can be told, the way various effects can be achieved, above all good language and how it can and should be used -- all things to get that writing brain and muscles energized and exercised. And -- to state the obvious -- children's books do not have a monopoly on good writing. In fact it would be a fascinating exercise to take the narrative structure or technique of a modern or postmodern adult novel and recast it for a children's book, with a child protagonist: the poem-plus-analysis-gone-insane setup of Pale Fire, for example, or the jumps in time that make Atonement so excellent and devastating, or the unique non-fantasy languages of Everything Is Illuminated or Riddley Walker or A Clockwork Orange, or stream of consciousness like Mrs. Dalloway or magical realism like One Hundred Years of Solitude . . .

I am setting the cart before the horse here, thinking about how technique could shape a story when the story and its function should drive the form; but my point is that knowing all those forms and techniques adds new tools to the writer's toolbox and widens one's field of vision, the things that can be said and the way that one can say them. And of course they offer so much pleasure, these writers, their mastery and their intelligence and humanity, their gift for capturing a moment or image (the soldiers like swarms of bees! -- I'm still marveling at the rightness of that). They challenge you, but they're never work.

So I hope you are all reading children's books. But I hope you're reading Homer (and Austen and McEwan and Munro and The New Yorker and McCullough and Dostoevsky and Sedaris and Mankell and Susanna Clarke) too.


  1. I love your recommended reading list. Richard Peck, for me, is like Moosetracks ice cream with Magic Shell. So good they’re almost too good. I allow myself one Peck a year or else I’d become too discouraged with my own writing. As far as your noted lack of boy books, I’d recommend Chris Crutcher...Stotan! being my personal fave.

    - Jay

  2. Chris Crutcher! Of course! I left out the entire genre of sports books, of which he is the shining example (while also humane and funny as hell). Thanks for the recommendation.

  3. "Glorious Writing!"

    I think I want that on a teeshirt or at least a note taped to my monitor. Pullman calls it "caviar language" in this article:,12084,865561,00.html

    The Iliad quote whooshed me back to when I was nineteen and trying to decide on a major... art? Music? Literature? It all seemed impossible to choose. Then I was wandering through the library and pulled a crusty volume off the shelf. I remember sitting between the stacks, reading the description of the Amazons riding to battle with their banners waving like ribbons. Comp lit it was. It was a total indulgence, not "practical" at all in terms of job skills but I have never regretted it for a moment. Delicious minds on shelves, it was like getting invited to a wonderful party where everyone you talked to gave you presents.

    Thanks for the reminder,


  4. Bravo!! I will send every children's author I know to read this!

  5. Hey Cheryl --

    Thanks for posting that. I've been so jaded lately by children's books for some reason, but when you explicated that graf from the Iliad, I realized what my problem is: I read everything at a gallop, generally because I want to get to the end of the book before my girl starts going Mommy Mommy Mommy! (I got through David Almond's "The Fire Eaters" in about an hour. Gaah.)

    So last night I put the kid to bed and got my copy of the Iliad (Fagles too, what do you know!) and read most of the first book out loud. And you know, there's some damned good stuff in there, esp. Apollo striding down from Olympus. "The arrows clanged at his back as the god quaked with rage,/ the god himself on the march and down he came like night." Oooooh! I loved all of it!

    Tried to read it at the playground while pushing the kid in the swing -- didn't work out so good. But she's sleeping now!

    I don't know why I didn't get into the Iliad before since I'm nuts about the Odyssey. But maybe it's a matter of being ready for it, too.

    Anyway, thanks again for getting me back on track (though inadvertantly, but what the hey).