Qwertyman No. 3: The Book Convention

Qwertyman for Monday, August 22, 2022

THE ANNUAL convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Books of the Democratic Republic of Kawefo was about to begin, and after a rowdy rendition of the National Hymn that was sung in two keys when the video failed, followed by a ten-minute prayer in five different languages invoking Divine Guidance in the formulation of a “coherent, cohesive, and comprehensive national book development policy,” the Introduction of the Honorable Guest Speaker began, properly enough with the birth of the speaker in the country’s easternmost islands, better known for brigandry than textual poaching. 

“Minister Fwefwe could not have arrived at her exalted position at the helm of Kawefan higher education and cultural development without her deep and abiding commitment to the promotion of knowledge, which she gained through her lifelong immersion in the world’s intellectual foundries,” intoned her introducer, the current Vice-Minister of Propaganda whom everyone knew was angling for Fwefwe’s job at the next Cabinet reshuffle. An ex-Marine colonel who had been sacked for leading his men into a rebel ambush while searching for a cellular signal on which he could call his mistress, Vice-Minister Penpen had been rehabilitated through the good graces of his cousin, the chief cook at the Palace who served President Ongong his favorite dishes. “Who could have known that a chance encounter at the circulation desk of the Manoa Public Library on that fateful day of the 23rd of November, 1986, would lead to her elevation from a humble library assistant to our republic’s Chief Cultural Czarina?”

“Good Lord,” muttered Dr. Gawgaw in his corner, “he’s going to tell the full story all over again, is he?” Gawgaw dipped a nacho into the puddle of cheese before him and munched on it noisily. He sat with a group of old men sporting flowery ties and silver-tipped canes, with a sprinkling of elderly ladies whispering in an arcane Creole-like dialect. A retired Professor of Kawefan History, Gawgaw would have preferred to stay home in his library, sniffing the powdery biblichor out of his pigskin-bound volumes on “Robinaux’s Account of Kawefan Border Crossings, 1773” and admiring the faux-Victorian binding of “Society in a Centrifuge: Sugar and the Colonial Domestication of Kawefo,” which he wrote himself. But he had to attend this silly convention on behalf of his Society for the Preservation of Kawefan History, to ensure that any new book policy did not forget to account for the past, of which he was both protector and gatekeeper. “Madame Minister, republish our books!”

Across the aisle, the Kawefan Educational Publishers Guild had other ideas. “Books are everyone’s business!” And indeed it was, especially for Mrs. Krekre, lifetime president of the guild, the grande dame of Kawefan textbook publishing, and supplier of choice to all the government’s informational requirements. The guild employed hundreds of moonlighting schoolteachers to write textbooks that satisfied whatever Kawefan industry and ideology required (the ideology changed every six or twelve years, except for the occasional coup in between), and there was always a need to refresh history and its interpretation. The new administration was anxious to encourage the rumor that its ruling family’s wealth had been founded on ancient treasure, so new myths were being discovered and stories being written about the Lost Kingdom of Lifofo, to which President Ongong could trace his divine ancestry. New material meant new editions and teaching supplements, all of which required thorough vetting by the Ministry of Public Instruction, where Mrs. Krekre’s patient goodwill ensured everyone’s satisfaction.

Oblivious to the proceedings onstage were the members of the Kawefan Popular Writers League, an association dedicated to the principle of literature as entertainment, toward which they concocted dizzying romances set in the Swiss Alps, deep-space honeymoons, movie-star ghost stories, and murder sprees provoked by a secret kimchi recipe. They sipped their wintermelon-flavored milk tea at their table, sharing stories of their latest forays and frolics, and when Minister Fwefwe screeched into the mike about something that sounded like “social responsibility,” they screeched right back and giggled, annoying everyone else, but no one could shut them up or leave them out of the party, because everyone read them in their cars and bathrooms, including Dr. Gawgaw and Mrs. Krekre.

Looking much less happier were the dozen-odd members of Kawefan PEN, who stood forlorn just outside the convention hall, clutching placards that mentioned words like “FREEDOM” and “JUSTICE” alongside a slim stand of books illustrated with skulls, barbed wire, and raised fists. They were led by Prof. Mikmik, who had done his dissertation on Baudelaire at Harvard but who, after the Vietnam War, had seen the Marxist light and now sported a goatee and wrote inflammatory poetry. He had once been friends with Dr. Gawgaw until they quarreled over whose books mattered more in the grand scheme of things. Mikmik was convinced that he was under constant and intense surveillance, especially since his FB account was barraged by friend requests from nubile ladies masquerading as masseuses and escorts.

There were spies, indeed, on the convention floor, shuttling from one exhibition booth and table to another, deputized by the Inter-Agency Counter-Subversion Agency to locate, expose, and denounce subversive literature “in whatever form, format, or genre, for the purpose of undermining the people’s faith and belief in duly constituted authority….” The IACSA’s operatives had attended a workshop in Camp Ngungu, where important questions like “What’s a genre?” were addressed by retired professors of comparative literature (“A novel, a cookbook, a nursery rhyme!”). Key words like “liberal,” “gay,” “rejection,” and “penguins” were dissected and discussed to lay bare the insurgent cancer throbbing at the heart of Kawefan society.

Agent Pogpog had joined the IACSA after sleeping on his call-center job, and was now intent on making a name for himself by bagging his first major subversive author, following the recent, high-profile arrests of poets Gemgem, Kripkrip, and Ricric. For the past three hours, pretending to be a graduate student, he had been keeping Prof. Mikmik company, trying to figure out if Mikmik’s autobiographical epic, Seven Seasons of Solipsism, was subversive or not. It contained a line about “the promethean susurrus of unvanquished desire,” which sounded suspiciously rebellious. “It’s totally subversive, I assure you,” said Mikmik, “and if those fools in the military only knew their Homer, I should have been locked up and shot dead thirty years ago when this book came out. And then this book would be in its tenth edition!”

Inside the convention hall, Dr. Gawgaw burped, Mrs. Krekre laughed, and Minister Fwefwe raised a toast to all authors past and present, and to their boundless imagination.

Penman No. 87: The Art of the Title (2)

Penman for Monday, February 24, 2014

SOMETIMES WE authors fall in love with titles, especially if they’re ours and they come to us in a dream or in a flash of insight, begging to be written into a story or a poem. This could work, if the inspiration they provide is powerful enough to generate a whole series of thoughts, associations, and narratives that become art. I’ve done a couple of stories myself this way, out of the three dozen or so that I published.

But as I often remind my writing students, every title is a working title until the work is actually finished. That’s when you take a step back and look at what you’ve done, and try to figure out what title might work best for the piece. In other words, the title is most often a matter of hindsight rather than foresight because—especially in fiction—you never really know what you’ve written and what it’s about until you’ve put in that final period. Writing fiction is a process of discovery, not merely the execution of a pre-planned idea.

It’s a good thing, too, that authors decide or can be persuaded to change their minds about titles. I’d like to thank my colleague and student, Thomas David Chaves, for pointing me to a website that listed down a number of these last-minute switches that left us with some of literature’s most familiar titles.

Ernest Hemingway’s With Due Respect became A Moveable Feast; William Faulkner’s Twilight (not a vampire story!) became The Sound and the Fury; Tennessee Williams’ Blanche’s Chair in the Moon (not a bad title in itself) became A Streetcar Named Desire; D. H. Lawrence’s Tenderness became Lady Chatterley’s Lover; George Orwell’s The Last Man in Europe became 1984; Carson McCullers’ The Mute became The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter; Alex Haley’s Before This Anger became Roots; Vladimir Nabokov’s The Kingdom by the Sea became Lolita; Herman Melville’s The Whale became Moby Dick; Stephen Crane’s Private Fleming, His Various Battles became The Red Badge of Courage; John Steinbeck’s Something That Happened became Of Mice and Men; Leo Tolstoy’s All’s Well that Ends Well became War and Peace; Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Sea-Cook became Treasure Island; and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s The Man That Was a Thing became Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This looking-back and revising applies as well to first paragraphs—I’ll develop this subject at greater length in another column—which could be very clear to us at the inception of the story and drive it forward, but which, at the end of everything, may no longer be the best possible way to open the narrative, and may even be clunky and unnecessary. We call this “scaffolding,” the way builders put up a temporary exterior shell just to get a project off the ground, then discard it later when the structure can stand on its own and be completed from the inside.

That’s how it goes with titles—you find and use a good working title that your story, poem, or essay can hang on to while it’s being written, and then you think about whether it’s still good (not just good, but the best) for the work, and decide whether to keep it or to change it. I’ve often found that the best source for titles is the work itself—there has to be a memorable, resonant line or phrase in the work that can carry the whole weight of the piece on its shoulders.

Right now, for example, I’m editing a book of 27 travel essays written by an American friend who’s been fortunate enough to visit some of the most beautiful and spectacular and yet also the most desolate and squalid places on the planet, from Timbuktu and Andalusia to Bhutan and Namibia; she’s fortunate, because it costs a lot of money to get around the world this way, but more than money, it takes insight and compassion to become more than another snapshot-happy tourist mingling with the natives. To acknowledge that privilege—now a double-edged word—up front, I suggested a title phrase that my friend used in one of her essays, and the book will come out later this year in the US under the title Privileged Witness.

While we’re on the subject, how about titling works of art like paintings? It’s a whole other challenge, because the artist—typically more of a visual than verbal person—is expected to find words for an image or an idea that should be able to stand on its own. But how do you refer to a painting or a sculpture without a title? (I’ve always thought of the practice of some artists to use, say, Untitled XXIV as a not-even-clever copout.) We don’t know if Leonardo da Vinci himself gave the title La Gioconda to his famous painting which later came to be known as the Mona Lisa, but that ‘s how Leonardo’s assistant Salai recorded the painting, which he inherited (“Mona Lisa” itself is a shortening of “ma donna Lisa,” my lady Lisa, referring to Lisa del Giacondo, the presumed subject).

For our amusement more than anything, Mark Hudelson, a professor of Art History in Palomar College, came up with his own list of the art world’s most remarkable titles—and you’d have to look up the art works themselves to see how the visuals match the words:

1. I Love You with My Ford (James Rosenquist, 1961)

2. The Raft of the Medusa (Theodore Gericault, 1819)

3. Clear Flippers, Release Fire Gods (James Bell, 1984)

4. The Treachery of Images (This Is Not a Pipe) (Rene Magritte, 1929)

5. Are You Jealous? (Paul Gauguin, 1892)

6. Studio of a Painter: A Real Allegory Summarizing My Seven Years of Life as an Artist (Gustave Courbet, 1855)

7. Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee Around a Pomegranate, a Second Before Waking Up (Salvador Dali, 1944–see the pic above)

8. High Voltage Sphincter-Winking Livewire Laxative (Robert Williams, 1990)

9. In Advance of the Broken Arm (Marcel Duchamp, 1915)

10. Through the Night Softly (Chris Burden, 1973)

I did say last week that I was going to deal with movie titles as well—an arena of atrocities some of which I, the former scriptwriter, feel personally responsible for—but we’re out of space, so I’ll save that delectable topic for another time.