'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

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'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by DotNotInOz on Wed Feb 17, 2010 7:43 am

Yep, I am one...a literature wonk, wonk being defined as a person who studies a subject excessively and obsessively.

I can't simply read and enjoy *A* book by an author. I have to check to see what else s/he has written, try to find all of those works and read them, too. Frustrates me no end if I've really enjoyed a book only to find that I can't easily locate other works or there are none. I'm still mad at Margaret Mitchell and Harper Lee. It's sooooo reassuring to find that I've happened onto a debut novel by a person young enough that I may hope hir creative juices will produce many more equally good ones for my enjoyment.

With classical authors especially, I've sometimes searched out and read works the author said were influential or are believed to have influenced the author.

And then, there are the biographies. Yep, you've got it...simply must read at least one biography on an author, which is why reading debut novels is so frustrating to a lit wonk like moi...there's unlikely to be a biog as yet, and maybe never will be (Horrors!), unless it's a genre debut by a well-known author established in another genre. Just leaves me itching...

Of course, one biography leads to others when there are several. A lit wonk never knows how different the perspective will be from one biographer to another. And there might be some really juicy bit in one that the other biographers failed to sleuth out. Gotta read as many of those as I can get my wonky little hands on.

Which brings me to how gratified and yet disappointed I was by The Ghost In the Little House, a biography of Rose Wilder Lane, daughter of the celebrated Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Great title that a lit wonk can simply salivate over. You'll see why below.)

Nearly twenty years prior to discovering that book, I visited the Wilder home and museum in Mansfield, MO. A few of Laura's penciled manuscripts, thriftily written on Big Chief-style tablets, were displayed in the museum.

Any lit wonk would do as I did, I'm sure, and spend some time bent over the case reading the entire page on display. It was the manuscript of Little House on Plum Creek, as I recall. I don't remember what episode from that book was the subject of this page, but I was astounded at how very amateurish the writing style seemed to be. None of the depth of character, sparkling speeches, bits of quaint and vivid description of the finished book. Not one bit. How very odd!

"Wow! She must've had a really thorough, nearly obsessive editor to turn this stuff into that book," I thought.

Then, I thought back to how surprised I was when I read The First Four Years, the unfinished manuscript that took the story of Almanzo and Laura's marriage beyond their wedding in These Happy Golden Years. It was actually pretty boring and didn't seem like it could have been written by the same person who wrote the others.

Sure, Laura roughed out the storylines of Plum Creek and FF Years. They were, after all, based upon her life.

I agree with the author of Ghost, however, that her daughter Rose actually produced the beautifully written books that are still so very popular and deservedly so. He even includes extracts from letters from mother to daughter and back that conclude with Laura's saying something like, "Oh, I don't care. Do whatever you think it needs" regarding Rose's suggestions for massive improvements to one of the books.

But, I'm disappointed. I wanted to believe that they were all Laura's but for some editing, and that she had put her all as a writer into the books rather than being on the whole the somewhat commonplace stylist her newspaper columns written in her latter years demonstrate. Not much verve to those...several verging on too cute with somewhat trite sentiments.

Dammit! I am SUCH a lit wonk!
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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by gillyflower on Wed Feb 17, 2010 8:57 am

I'm not. Smile

I usually prefer to know very little about the "real" person behind the words and face I see on screen. There was a blow up recently online about writers and characters of color, for example, and I found myself thinking about some authors "Would you all just shut up before I have no one left to read?" It takes away a lot of my enjoyment of a book when I know that the author is a raging bigot! And then there are all the ones who are crazy as bedbugs, bless them. It is such a relief to go to a conference and meet authors who are sane and pleasant, or can at least hold it together for an hour or so.

I'm affected by having a daughter and son-in-law in theater and the music world, too, so I get to hear stories about different artists (both those in front of and behind the lights) from them and from their friends. Yesterday both of them were dealing with Big Names and it went well, I am so glad.

That is neat to know about Rose. She had the talent and her mother provided the experiences. A good team!

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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by DotNotInOz on Wed Feb 17, 2010 1:21 pm

I guess I don't see it as so terrific, Gilly. There were a lot of tensions between the two, more so than you want to think since the books were so idealized. (And the Ingalls family were pretty heavily fictionalized besides. I won't spoil the image for you.)

I suppose I foolishly thought that they were largely autobiographical. So, I'd agree with you where this series is concerned that learning as much as I have about both the Ingalls and Wilder families rather ruined my enjoyment of the books.

And I'm judging a few things Rose's parents did by contemporary standards rather than granting them the fact that their time had VERY different standards.

Rose was definitely a woman ahead of her time. I do admire immensely that she lived as she wished and lived a rather bohemian life after her divorce. She chose not to re-marry despite having some opportunities because she said she wanted to live her own life and never again as a "Mrs. Him."

I empathize somewhat with Rose who felt very betrayed by the fact that she never knew she'd had a brother who died in infancy until she was sorting out her mother's papers after Laura's death and found the unfinished manuscript of First Four Years.

Also, I feel for her because she found her mother particularly cold and distant and didn't relate well at all as an adult to her. Nothing so odd about the latter, but it's quite sad that there was so much conflict between the two, I think, particularly if Rose heavily rewrote the books. I'm not so sure it was that much a labor of love.
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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by gillyflower on Wed Feb 17, 2010 1:38 pm

Don't you think that it was typical of the times, hiding the death of a baby from the other children? I find in the genealogy world and among my parents sibling that there are things like adoptions, deaths, divorces, etc. that they hid. I had an aunt once, when I asked her something about my mother, tell me it was none of my business!

Perhaps Rose wrote about life the way she wished it had been. Don't worry about ruining the Little House books for me, they were never a favorite and I didn't watch the tv show either. I'm sorry that you had that experience.

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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by John T Mainer on Wed Feb 17, 2010 2:02 pm

Sometimes literature is like art, it doesn't really change the power and effect a work has on you, if the creator has the emotional range of a teaspoon and the understanding of a mushroom. Art is measured in the effect it has on others. What someone creates without much thought, can act as catalyst for endless debate, self exploration, and self discovery. Mostly I don't care about the creators of the art that I enjoy; I do not demand they be the paragons I am not, it is enough to give thanks for the gifts of their art they have vouchsafed us. Sometimes I do care. Sometimes they are dealing with the same demons I am, and when their characters speak, it is as if the dark places in my soul are brought to light. Sometimes a book puts into words the struggle within yourself as you could not, and allows you thus to deal with it.

One author whose works shared space with Kipling in the pocket of my combats through most of my early military carreer was David Drake, whose experiences with the Armoured Cavalry in Vietnam placed him in the position of understanding soldiers very well, and other civilians very poorly, an experience I was to become familiar with. He wrote a book called Starliner, attempting to capture the essence of a time long past. The main character was a man trying to recreate himself, and seeking to understand the father whose mental scars shaped a boys childhood, and barred a sons understanding. In his own passage through the fire, he gains the understanding of his father, and himself, through the acquisition of the same terrible burdens that scarred his father

http://david-drake.com/starliner.html

Many times in this book, characters spoke truths to each other that changed me, or allowed me to understand the changes in myself. This book was not intended as anything but an adventure story, but the author admits this story is not one that his publisher wanted, but one whose research and creation the author NEEDED to do. Perhaps our shared experiences gave me the same need to read it as he did to write it.

I do not expect the authors that I like to be without flaws, but sometimes it is those flaws or scars that make their words more important for us personally.

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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by DotNotInOz on Wed Feb 17, 2010 2:35 pm

gillyflower wrote:Don't you think that it was typical of the times, hiding the death of a baby from the other children? I find in the genealogy world and among my parents sibling that there are things like adoptions, deaths, divorces, etc. that they hid. I had an aunt once, when I asked her something about my mother, tell me it was none of my business!

Oh, absolutely, Gilly! There was a tremendous secret, sort of revealed but largely denied, in my immediate family.

That's what I referred to when saying that standards were very different for someone of Laura's time and upbringing. It's also what I meant in saying that Rose was a woman very much ahead of her time. It wouldn't have been at all odd for a woman born in the mid-1880's as she was to have thought concealing something of that sort from one's other children was exactly what ought to be done.

Perhaps Rose wrote about life the way she wished it had been.

The concealment and idealization exist in the original manuscripts, I think, although I've certainly not had an opportunity to compare but a few segments from them with the finished books. That they did is partially why I was somewhat surprised in retrospect to find that Laura mentioned her son's death in First Four Years. I wonder if she'd have decided to remove that had the manuscript ever gotten to publication. I don't recall if Rose said that she knew that manuscript was begun in the years after Almanzo's death. I think that's when it's thought to have been written, and Laura didn't live more than a little over 8 years after he died. Maybe by that point in her life she honestly didn't recall having concealed the brief existence of a brother from Rose. She was in her 90's when she died.

I think Rose was quoted as having said that she didn't ever edit the manuscript for publication because she was so blown away by finding out that Laura and Almanzo had kept something that important a secret from her, especially when they'd given her the clear impression that she was so very precious to them because they'd never had another child. It's been some time since I read Ghost, so I'm not sure if that was her statement or the author's conclusion.

It would make sense if she actually did extensively re-write the books that she simply couldn't deal with bringing FF Years to the same stylistic level as the rest of the series.

Anyway, I know that the unedited manuscript was published only after Rose's death at her request. Was she secretly hopeful that lit wonks and scholars would read her own novels, see the stylistic similarities to the Little House books and acknowledge her effort?
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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by DotNotInOz on Wed Feb 17, 2010 2:45 pm

John T Mainer wrote:
I do not expect the authors that I like to be without flaws, but sometimes it is those flaws or scars that make their words more important for us personally.

And this is why I find weighing the works against what I know of the authors so worthwhile even though doing so occasionally reduces my delight in the works themselves.

Guess I'm more of a product than I like to think of my brief series of classes in the uses of literary criticism and how useful biographical and social criticism in particular can be.

It's sad knowing that Zelda Fitzgerald was quite a polished writer herself but pleasant in view of her descent into madness that at least a vestige of her skill is preserved in Scott's works since he's known to have taken bits from her unpublished manuscripts, rewritten them for consistency, and inserted them into his own.
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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by wmdkitty on Thu Feb 18, 2010 8:16 pm

If I pick up a book that's part of a series, I absolutely HAVE to go and read the whole series from the beginning. And if I start a series, I HAVE to finish it. ("Twilight", I'm looking at YOU.)

The second I heard about HP Lovecraft, you can probably guess where I was. Yup. The library. Then I started in on Brian Lumley. I have yet to get to August Derleth, but I look forward to it. (And won't be sleeping for... well... a while.)
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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

Post by DotNotInOz on Thu Feb 18, 2010 11:54 pm

Oh, yes indeed...the series completion fetish. I know it well.

Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel series? Read those yet?

Lengthy volumes, quite well-written with compelling epic plotlines...and slightly kinky sex besides (bisexual S&M, anyone?). What more could a jaded lit wonk need?
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Re: 'Fessin' up to being a lit wonk...you, too?

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