The House on Mango Street – Book Review

You can find a recent review I did on Cosmoetica, this one being on The House on Mango Street, the famous novel by Sandra Cisneros.

I may post the review in full on this site as well, but in the meantime here are some points that I make in regards to art that were, in the end, excised from the review due to length:

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The problem, however, is when people start to conflate the comfort Cisneros provides with things of actual depth. Despite its being considered Chicano Lit it doesn’t do much to expand the reader’s purview or understanding, opting instead to provide confirmation of certain views. Do we really need to be told that Mexican-Americans are human, or that societal expectations affect women for the ill? Instead of exploring the substance of bigotry and its origins Cisneros is fine with feeding the reader the answers he is already aware of and in ways that are accessible and easy to swallow. The reader’s feelings of comfort are mistaken with the consumption of something substantial for ideas contained in the novel are “important.” As a result, you have a book that you can hold-up and say “See, this book talks about important things! It must be good, and I’m a good person for advocating such tripe!” But if you want a story to survive you have to do more than cater to the reader’s feelings and expectations. You have to do more than mimic what people want to “hear.” More has to be done.

When Moby-Dick was first published hardly anyone wanted to read it. Yet, it has managed to survive and is, rightfully, considered a classic today. It did not serve the needs or desires of the people in Melville’s time, but greatness does more than act as a gentle service for an individual or population. One could argue that The House on Mango Street has “survived” and, therefore, is a great work, but that just makes it an exception. Mango Street is an example of “The Bukowski Effect.” Despite Charles Bukowski’s mediocrity he is still being read two decades after his death; however, this isn’t because he actually provides anything to the reader of artistic or philosophical worth, but rather because he provides an “image” that people like to latch onto. His poetry isn’t very good, but his work in conjunction with “the man” conjures up an attractive image, that of the rebellious and tragic drunkard. One might call Bukowski “an original,” and in some ways he was, but I bet that you, the reader, can write a poem in his style that is equal to some of his best with little to no effort. Now, attempt the same with the style of a Yeats or Rilke. Even if you manage to capture Rilke’s voice I doubt that you would be able to write something as great as “The Panther.” Bukowski, despite his originality, is far easier to emulate both stylistically and qualitatively. Just because he was “the first” doesn’t mean that he was good.

Now let’s look at Mango Street with the same lens. It was first published in the eighties but is still being read today. Classes, from middle school to college, are assigned this dreck largely because of what it represents rather than what it accomplishes. Sure, it might have been a “first,” in the sense that it was a flagship book for Chicano Lit, introducing the literary world to Mexican-American and Latino Literature, but let’s consider something: if Mango Street was never written, would Chicano Lit be in an entirely different place as it is now within the mainstream? Perhaps, though I have a feeling that if Mango Street was never around some other book would have taken its place. Like Bukowski’s poetry, Mango Street is completely replicable and replaceable, regardless of the quality of its sentiments or the things it represents.

The point is is that the lasting popularity of works like Mango Street is largely due to chance and people’s artificial prolonging of its legacy. And besides, will Mango Street still be read a hundred years from now? What about 500? The book’s popularity hinges on its subject matter and accessibility and the times we currently live in. I doubt the claims for its “novelty” and “importance” would be enough to save it from becoming negated by time. There is simply no reason for a person in the year 2525 to read this piece of shit (hell, there’s no reason to read it now.) However, there would still be reason to read Black Boy or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for greatness always has something to offer that goes beyond the ephemeral. A thousand years from now, notions of “blackness” or “whiteness” may have long been dissolved, but Black Boy would still be relevant for it gets at the core of not just racism, but certain aspects human nature that allow such prejudice to arise. This is because Richard Wright was a writer who put his art at the forefront. Maybe Sandra Cisneros really prioritized “the art” when writing her book, but regardless of intentions her book fails because she is a lousy artist, not because of its message or subject matter.

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How 2 Writ Gud: On Why Writing Guides and Tips are Bullshit

Lately, I’ve been looking at some of the articles dedicated to writing here on Medium and I can’t help but wonder: who are these even for? Most of the “tips” that these articles proffer are so generic that they cannot be of any use to anyone, let alone beginning writers. But instead of telling you what I think of writing guides, let me show you instead. Here are some of the more ubiquitous tips that I’ve come across:

“Write everyday.” Okay, I get it! Stop telling me to write everyday! I don’t need a billion articles telling me the same shit over and over as if this particular tip was the one, true ticket to greatness. Shit, Stephen King writes ten books a day and I doubt many people would call him one of the greats.

“Write for yourself.” God, I hate this “tip.” The reason why the internet is aflood with so many trite poems is because all people ever do is “write for themselves” instead of for others or for higher things. Writing isn’t just about me, me, me. And no, I don’t mean you should cater to the reader’s desires and emotions; you should, however, not insult the writer or pretend that art isn’t about communication. What are you communicating to me that hasn’t been said before when you’re writing a screed against your boss in prose broken-up into lines? Expressing yourself is fine, but if you want to be a serious writer you’re going to have to do more. You need to communicate ideas, and you need to do so well.

“Read and write.” No shit.

“Write in the morning.” Not terrible advice as you’re usually without distraction and your mind is, at least, somewhat alert, but it’s not as if this piece of advice guarantees anything. Besides, Wallace Stevens wrote his poetry at night and on weekends. So, how about just write whenever you can? Who gives a shit?

“Write clearly.” This is obvious, of course, but what they really mean by this is that one should avoid long sentences and complexity. This is good advice for hacks who are trying to emulate David Foster Wallace, but imagine someone telling this to Herman Melville, or James Joyce, or Hermann Hesse. Simplicity is good, sometimes, but so is intricacy and ambition.

“Show, don’t tell.” This advice is just dumb. If the author wants to get through information quickly then there’s nothing wrong with merely telling. Not every little detail or movement needs to be tossed at the reader’s face.

“Avoid passive voice.” Yes, your writing should be active and dynamic! Or else you will bore the poor monkey-brains that are trying to finish your novel! Look, there is nothing inherently wrong with passive voice. It’s just another tool that may or may not result in good writing.

“Avoid using cliches.” Yes, cliches like “write everyday” and “write for yourself.”

“Write original characters.” Well, duh. The problem lies in how one should go about this. “Wait, how about giving your character a flaw! What about a special quirk! Make your character wear a funny hat or have a passion for rainbow sherbet! Have you tried giving your character three arms? After all, this is something no one has ever done before!”

“And, most importantly, just do it!” Do what? Go outside? Call your parents? Stick your head in the oven? What? Why are you speaking in riddles?!

Okay, enough of this horse-hockey, I haven’t even gotten to the underlying problem with writing guides: not only are they condescending, but they push an idea that suggests that good writing is something that can be taught. What should be realized is that the best writers came into their own. The greats all have unique voices, disparate not just from one another, but from mediocrities. And this is because a writer, in order to be successful artistically, must take onto his own path. This means that a writer cannot simply read and absorb some advice for writing is a continual process that is most likely going to lead to failure; this is something that writing guides tend to avoid saying, but it’s the truth. Yes, there are some good tips out there, like “read and learn from the masters,” but I never needed to be told that. I’m a talentless hack and I already knew that that was something I should be doing. Humans, whenever they attempt something, always look to others as examples; it’s just a natural part of our collective behavior. What matters is how one absorbs the masters and utilizes what he has gained, but such an ability isn’t taught, nor is it given.

So, why all the articles on writing? Maybe they offer a myth that is comforting not just to the reader, but to the person writing the article, that good writing can be achieved from easily-applicable tips and not just from talent, which is something beyond our control. Maybe writing guides are just easy to write, but the ease probably comes from the fact that the only advice that one can offer in regards to writing is banal. It’s kind of like how certain artists think that the duty of art is to “speak the truth,” but what is the truth exactly? Instead of trying to dissect such an abstraction it’s easier to just offer things everyone has acknowledged to be the truth or a truth. How many poems or stories have you read that have declaimed the shittiness of war, or how about how awful rape is? With writing guides, we get the regurging of the same crap over and over because that is the crap that everyone thinks is good or that works. So, in order to write an article that will be “useful” you gotta write in banalities, but, as a result, the article turns into a nothingness that washes over the wannabee writer.

There is also the fact that there really isn’t anything aside from banalities that one can offer when it comes to writing, or at least when you’re writing an article that targets everyone. As mentioned before, becoming a writer is a solitary task, or succession of tasks. This means that writing guides and tips aren’t really much use for the individual because the individual is already on his path, trying to find his own way; a tip like “be more clear” will just bounce off of him for he’s attempting to discover how he write himself writes. Not saying that there isn’t advice people can offer, but the advice has to be specific to the writer’s needs in order to matter, it can’t be tripe like “don’t use semicolons!” or “not too many run-ons now!”

Originally posted on Medium.

On Writing: Communication v. Self-Expression

A few days ago I read an article someone posted on Medium advocating the idea that one should “write for one’s self” rather than sweating over being read or unread by anyone. Here was my response:

“I just want to write for myself.” There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, and sometimes it’s this mindset that is most beneficial, but I think a lot of serious writers also want to be read, i.e. they’re not just writing for themselves, but are seeking an audience as well.

If you want to be read there are a few basic approaches. One is that you write something that will appeal to the majority. The problem with this is that there are a lot of mediocrities out there doing the same thing. So in order to stand-out you could either have an “original” premise, or market yourself. But, ultimately, the best, most substantial approach lies in not so much the content of the story, but the way it’s written. You could write a mediocre piece of crap that people will care about now, but does that mean it will be continued to be read 100 years from now? If you want to be read I think the reader should always be kept in mind, but that doesn’t mean you should merely appeal to his “likes” and “dislikes”; you should write something that is intellectually great, something that not only contains ideas, but carries those ideas to the reader in an interesting way. The works of Melville and Kafka, while neglected during their lifetimes, are today read all-over because they aren’t masturbatory journals, nor crappy pulp-novels that appeal to the lowest common denominator, but works of literature that actually offer something to the reader.

While I do think that a writer shouldn’t just cater to the biases and desires of the reader, the reader should still always been in mind when one writes. Despite some overlap there is a distinction between mere self-expression and communication. With the former all the writer cares about is putting himself out there. Yes, good writing and art can arise from this, but for the most part communicating ideas isn’t what’s pertinent, but rather it’s the ego of the writer. I sometimes scroll through WordPress and other sites, surveying some of the poetry that is constantly posted and 99 percent of it is garbage; this is largely because the people posting the poems don’t care about effectively communicating something to the reader, but are more concerned about just putting whatever thoughts and feelings they have onto a screen. A lot of “poets” don’t pay attention to the art of writing because there is no reason to; they’re just writing for themselves and that’s okay; but, if you want to be taken seriously as an artist, you have to do more than just write for yourself: you have to write well which means taking into account the reader’s intellect (not just his emotions!)

The Watcher

There was a twitching in the rocks that nabbed the edge of Frank’s eye. He pulled his attention away, almost instinctively, from the horizon, which had held him for a while, and turned his head towards the left. Bending down he saw the shape of a lizard. Like its surroundings, it was almost entirely grey and its head twitched as Frank’s face drew closer. Its eyes were just two dark specks amidst millions of stones, but they contained not just the stones, but myself as well, Frank thought. Or, they held nothing. Perhaps, Frank mused, that, for a lizard, the eye was just an organ that, like its tail, was merely a thing that sensed the protrusions of the universe, protrusions that were quickly erased from the lizard’s mind once it decided to either scatter or draw forth—if he stepped closer the lizard would flee and, as a result, Frank would disappear from its world. But surprisingly, the lizard moved closer to him, as close as it could get without abandoning its rock. Frank felt silly, but now he wondered if standing there a moment longer would create an impression on the creature, an impression potent enough that even after he had disappeared the lizard would still carry him within its small, black eyes. He stepped away from the lizard and turned back to the horizon. It was a beautiful thing to Frank, especially at this time when the sun started to bury itself into the ocean, summoning an orange hue that echoed against the clouds. But somehow it had lessened. He had stopped to watch all this, the sun and how its descent altered the sky. And now, it didn’t seem like anything, as if the brief moment he had with the lizard had somehow stolen something from the sky. He looked over—the eyes were still watching him. He suddenly knew: those eyes had been there forever, observing larger things as they came and went, as they prowled across the lands they’ve conquered until finally dying within a patch of shade. The night soon covered both Frank and the lizard. Frank, at this point, couldn’t really see the lizard that well and he wasn’t so sure whether it could still see him or not. He glanced once more at the horizon before walking back to his car.

After the Old Man’s Song

Every midnight, the droning
of the old man’s tone,
the piano’s moan as fingers pile
upon each key the construction
of soul. His song invades the air,
creaks along the earth, suffering
sounds upon the skin of stars.

Now, the strings sleep,
no longer haunted by what lives
in the press of fading hands,
and night is only itself,
no longer the throat
for a foolish voice.
We can finally find sleep.

The Patient

Dr. Harris sat in his office, trying to look calm. He was skimming the notes he had on Karen, trying to convince himself that she was just another patient to be treated. Five minutes later, Karen entered his office for her appointment. She had short, blond hair and greenish eyes; she was also a little overweight and wasn’t the most beautiful thing ever, but there was an ineffable quality that hovered about her presence, obviating any mere imperfection. “How are you,” Dr. Harris quietly asked.

Karen took a moment before answering, crossing her legs (she was wearing a skirt) and prepared a smile. “Fine.”

“Fine?” Harris nodded, “That’s good. How’s the new job, you mentioned your manager…”

“Yeah. No. Work’s been fine.”

“That’s good.” Her eyes faced him, but Harris felt as though they weren’t looking at him; this was something that frustrated him, as though he didn’t exist and was merely a springboard for her to talk about her issues. But this didn’t stop Harris from looking at her eyes.

Suddenly, her head jerked to the left, toward the window and she said, “I don’t want to talk about it, but I guess that means we should…”

“You mean…”

“Yes. That. It’s been almost a year since he’s died. And I’ve been thinking about him.” She turned herself back to Harris. Harris noticed that she, unlike his other patients, always guided the sessions. He considered this a part of her arrogant personality, but this was just another thing that both excited and agitated him.

“In what ways have you been thinking about him?”

She sighed. She looked so pale. “I guess…I shouldn’t say I’ve been thinking about him. But things surrounding him. How…he wasn’t a bad person; he was more human than most people who just walk around dough-eyed; he could have been a great artist, but things prevented that.”

“His drug addiction.”

“Yes,” she said sharply, “His drug addiction. But that’s not what I mean. The things pushed him onto that route…” She trailed off; her eyes started to turn red. Suddenly, Harris felt so small behind his desk. Her voice returned. “I was just thinking about how little control he had. He could have been great, could have been larger than his past.”

“But, he made his own choices. No one was forcing him…” before he finished that thought Harris stopped himself. Karen didn’t respond to this; she seemed to be in her own world, a place that he couldn’t access.

“All men are tethered to circumstance,” she suddenly said, “Even great men had little control of what they became.” She waved her hand. “I don’t know, it’s a silly thought, but it’s something I keep having. Maybe I like having this thought.” Harris didn’t know what she meant by her last statement. He just nodded and let her continue.

An hour quickly passed and Karen was gone. Harris went to lunch and came back to talk with another patient. He tried to stop thinking about the enigmatic Karen, but he couldn’t quell the image that floated within his mind. There was that thing about her that he couldn’t analyze, that he couldn’t reach or even touch upon—it was beyond things and beyond him. He knew he shouldn’t be treating her considering his feelings toward her—he also couldn’t help her—yet she was there, every Wednesday at 11:30.

The patient Harris was with was another dull, middle-aged, middle class guy, just like him. The patient babbled on and on about his wife; Dr. Harris nodded and moved his pen.