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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Graves’

In “The Naked and the Nude,” Robert Graves points out that, while the two words are generally treated as synonymous, he personally makes a distinction. To him, the naked are honestly and unconsciously clothed, while the nude are sly exhibitionists. In the same way, I make a personal distinction between “author” and “writer,” two words that in theory have the same meaning.

The distinction is more than academic to me. For thirteen years, I have made a living mainly by selling my writing, and I have had both “author” and “writer” used to describe me. However, over the years, I have come to prefer “writer” and to use it to describe myself while shying away from “author” altogether.

Part of my preference is due to the fact that “author” carries more weight to my ear. To me, authors are people who write books, and, although I have one book to my credit – my reworked master’s thesis – that was twenty-five years ago, and the rest of my publications have been articles or at the most chapters in other people’s books. Nor am I the only one to define the words this way – wannabe writers, I notice, usually prefer to call themselves “authors,” given even a small justification.

However, for me, “author” sounds too grandiose. As the first syllable suggests, both “author” and “authority” have a common origin in the Latin word “auctor,” whose various forms can mean “promoter,” “originator” as well as “expert” or “holder of power.” In other words, an author is someone who originates thought, or is the source of others. Echoes of this meaning can be read in Mathew 7:29 of the King James Bible, where Jesus is described as having “taught as one with authority, and not as the scribes” – that is, as someone with original ideas, and not someone simply repeating what others have said or someone making a scholarly article full of citations.

To claim to be an author, then, would seem to be a declaration that nobody has had thoughts similar to mine or expressed as well as mine, and that people should therefore listen to me. Yet while that should be the level of excellence to which I or any other writer should aspire, I feel uncomfortable making that claim for myself. If made at all, such claims are the rights of readers. Undoubtedly, too, the pressure of deadlines and the effort to make a living has encouraged at times to write at least than my best. In fact, I am sure that the distinction between original writers and the rest of us is not nearly as clear as the word “author” possibly implies.

By contrast, “writer” is a humbler term. It simply means someone writes, with no reference to quality or originality – and that I unarguably do. For that reason, I prefer to express no pretensions, and simply call myself a writer instead of an author.

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In Robert Graves’ Claudius the God, the title character learns that Julius Caesar, far from giving speeches about glory and sacrifice to his troops before battle, joked with them instead – and, at least once, gestured suggestively with a turnip. Wisely, Claudius ignores his written speech about honour for an impromptu one.

This episode made me realize a basic fact about war literature: If a piece talks about heroism and fallen comrades, it was probably written by a non-combatant, or by a veteran long after the fact. From this fact alone, you can usually judge how authentic a piece of war literature really is. Graves himself, as a veteran of World War I and a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, was in a position to know this fact, and I believe he was the first to record the observation.

This observation explains, for example, why Rudyard Kipling is so often admired by those who have soldiered. Possibly, Kipling doesn’t get the tone of his poems and stories quite right, partly because he was a civilian, and partly because, in describing soldiers’ lives to the audience at home, he often lectured. However, he is close enough that soldiers from any war recognize the type of life he describes, with its inside references, jokes about officers, and low level griping.

I was reminded of this touchstone when I woke a few days ago with a song I had heard over a decade ago at the Vancouver Folk Festival. It was a song about the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and its defense of Jarama, set to the tune of “The Red River Valley.”

The first two verses of the original are:

There’s a valley in Spain called Jarama,
That’s a place that we all know so well,
for ’tis there that we wasted our manhood,
And most of our old age as well.

From this valley they tell us we’re leaving
But don’t hasten to bid us adieu
For e’en though we make our departure
We’ll be back in an hour or two.

By contrast, this is the version of the song heard a few years later at a reunion of British survivors:

There’s a Valley in Spain called Jarama,
It’s a place that we all know so well,
It is there that we gave of our manhood,
And so many of our brave comrades fell.

We are proud of the British Battalion
And the stand for Madrid that they made,
For they fought like true sons of the soil.
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.

Only a few years separate the two versions, but the falseness has already crept in – no doubt because those who sang the second version are not only survivors, but survivors of a cause that was utterly defeated. The original’s reference to manhood has changed from a complaint to a reference to self-sacrifice, and all sense of humor thoroughly scrubbed from the song. Now, the soldiers are not simply learning one of the truisms of war – that it includes long stretches of boredom and futility – but have become “true sons of the soil” (whatever that might mean when applied to foreigners fighting in Spain).

Similarly, the original ends with, “So remember the Jarama Valley / And the old men who wait patiently,” while the later version ends with, “So before we continue this reunion / Let us stand to our glorious dead.” The difference in the description of the soldiers or the tone can hardly be greater.

Apparently, this is a fundamental difference that is almost impossible to overcome. Woodie Guthrie, who sang his own version of the song, does better than the reunion version, writing that “we saw a peaceful valley turn to hell,” but even a songwriter of his talent cannot resist promising to return in victory, when the valley’s inhabitants will “breathe in our new freedom’s air.”

I understand the reasons why nostalgia might transform the experience. If nothing else, the songwriters and singers are eager to find some compensation in their defeat, and all of them were idealistic men.

Yet, even so, I far prefer the genuine sentiments of the original. Maybe I am deceiving myself, but the cynical humor of the original seems to tell me far more about war is actually like for those who live through it.

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I have been lucky enough to witness several social revolutions in my time. The most obvious is the personal computer; I only regret that it didn’t happen twenty years earlier. But the one that is most important to me personally is the acceptance of women into the literary canons.

Art being the record of human experience, this change did as much as any friendship or relationship to help me understand that women’s experiences were human experience, and therefore were something I needed to know.

When I started studying literature in Grade 12, women were severely under-represented in the works studied in academia. Except for those who might be hidden under the name of Anonymous, the first female writer mentioned was usually Jane Austen. She was too important a novelist to ignore, but for the rest of the nineteenth and twentieth century, women’s representation was limited. Charlotte Bronte was credited with having written one worthwhile novel. Elizabeth Barrett Browning had written a collection of soppy sonnets to her husband. Christina Rossetti had written a few children’s poems and minor lyrics. Emily Dickinson was a decided eccentric.

And so it went, with women consistently written out of the literary history whenever possible, and presented as minor if they had to be mentioned at all. Even George Eliot was known for only three novels, one of which, Silas Marner, was taught mainly because it had the virtue of being short enough for undergraduate’s attention spans.

The only exception was contemporary literature, especially science fiction. There, you could find female authors in something close to the percentages that you might expect from random chance, and I read writers like Ursula K. LeGuin and James Tiptree, Jr. (actually, Alice Sheldon) as eagerly as their male peers. But even these pioneers sometimes had little to say about women as women, as Le Guin would come to acknowledge later in her career.

Anyway, there was something daring about asserting the worth of writers who were still living. Somehow, they were not taken with quite the same seriousness as writers in the canon.

By contrast, by the time I finished my bachelor’s degree, the canon had been drastically revised. In those pre-Internet days, the main reason for this change was the feminist-inspired publication of more female writers, often by small, painfully non-profit imprints.

Suddenly, Charlotte Bronte, Christina Rossetti, and George Eliots were revealed to have had not just the occasional success, but entire writing careers. Other writers were suddenly being talked about – people like Aphra Behn, Mary Shelley, Ann Radcliffe, Zora Neale Hurston, and dozens of others.

I viewed this change with a mixture of enthusiasm and confusion. On the one hand, here was enough fresh reading to keep me busy for years (which it has). On the other hand, just what had I been taught?

More importantly, who were these women? As a science fiction reader, I already knew that all worthy works were not contained in the canon, and reading Robert Graves’ literary criticism had taught me that exercising my own judgment on the canon was not only permissible, but necessary for independence of thought.

Yet if these women were any good, then surely I would have been taught something about them. I suspected that the promotion of some of these writers was as much the result of academics creating careers for themselves as it was of negligence. And, aside from the occasional exception for historical reasons, why should I bother with mediocrity?

Gradually, though, I realized I was being unreasonable. How could I possibly learn who was worth reading unless a wide variety of works were available? Besides, while most of the work of Elizabeth Gaskell (for example) struck me as uninspired back then, so did that of accepted male members of the canon, such as Anthony Trollope or William Thackeray. If mediocre men were accepted, there was no reason not to accept mediocre women as well. If nothing else, tastes differ, not only between person and also occasions.

At any rate, the newly available work had enough masterpieces to justify the era of rediscovery in general. Without it, I might never have discovered the slippery mind of Aphra Behn, or learned as a non-Christian to appreciate the quirky thoughts of Christina Rossetti. I would have enjoyed Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss, but not have had Eliot’s other books to put them into context.

Just as importantly, I found myself reading works by women differently once a critical mass of their work became easily available. Being a young man and as egocentric as most young men, I had always read Jane Austen’s novels about courtship and marriage or Jane Eyre‘s story of love and indendence as exceptions – interesting in their own way but somehow trivial compared to the concerns of male writers.

However, discovering dozens of female writers changed my perception. Newly able to place their subject matter in context, I realized that such topics were not exceptions. For a very long time, they were the concerns of half the human race. If I were to be fully human myself, I needed to understand these concerns, and appreciate them – and in a matter of months, I did.

I like to think that ordinary life was leading me to similar conclusions, and perhaps it was. But I think that, without the rewriting of the canon, the process would have taken me years, instead of months. I might not have even been ready for love and marriage when they came my way near the end of my readjustment.

People often talk about how feminism transforms women’s lives. But, if my personal example is any indication, its effect on men’s lives can be just as great. Throughout my life, my outlook has been broader – more mature – because of the simple fact that, when I was in my late teens, suddenly I could read about women’s lives and learn to appreciate them as the material of art.

The lesson remains one of the most valuable ones that I have ever had.

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