“I Write Because I Simply Must!”

A great interview with the delightful Cynthia Ozick, author of Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays, at npr books

Ms. Ozick laments the loss of a literary culture, when the publication of a “serious literary novel was an exuberant community event.” The last time a book caused a such a reaction was Harry Potter. I attended an exuberant launch for Harry Potter and the Half B,lood Prince and it was great fun, with everyone dressed up as witches and wizards. I have also seen libraries in remote areas of Queensland that treat the arrival of a favourite author’s new book with great enthusiasm as everyone rushes to register to be among the first to read it.

But it is true that it’s all rather muted today. Bloomsbury knew they were onto a good thing with Harry Potter, and that Rowling’s fans were ready and willing to have their exuberance whipped up, but authors mostly have to make the party themselves, with kickstarters, blog tours and whatnot.

I miss literary culture too, I miss writers who could get you heart fluttering with the release of a new book like A.J. Cronin, J.B. Priestley, Elizabeth Goudge, Nevil Shute and so many others, long gone now, who made being a book lover such an adventure. What would they thrill and enchant us with next?

Well, I have Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to look forward to, as well as Ms. Ozick’s latest.

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Let’s Do the Time Warp Again – Robert Silverberg

time hoppers

I knew Silverberg prior to this on the stength of one book – Romany Star – which I read simply because it was the only sf book I ever came across that was about gypsies. I enjoyed it immensely, especially the rollicking main character Yakoub.
I always intended to read Letters From Atlantis, Silverberg’s first venture into the Romany Star universe, but never got around to it until recently, when I found  in the public library. Sadly, I found Letters From Atlantisa bit wet, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Atlanteans seemed too settled, fatalistic and reliant on their gods to be the descendants of Romanies – Yakoub was more what I would have expected. Prince Ram had none of Yakoub’s opportunism and verve. The Rom may look downtrodden and dumbly accepting of a cruel fate to some, but this is far from the truth – these are a strong people with a rich culture, and a whole hearted approach to life. Besides, I don’t really like the letter format. It seemed quite stupid of the protagonist to be writing letters to his girlfriend in the ice age.
The other stories were Project Pendulum and The Time Hoppers, both far more satisfying. (I should mention that such is the power of Silverberg, that I could not put this book down, even though it started with the story I liked least).
Project Pendulum</em> is a tour de force, swinging back and forth between past eras and incredible visions of the future. Of the three, it is my favourite, since it showcases everything I love about Silverberg, his evocative prose, his ability to create credible characters with just a few strokes of the pen, his powerful story telling.
The Time Hoppers was interesting. It covered so many of the issues that we worried about in the 60s, such as the population explosion, ecology and could time travellers affect the future by stuffing up in the past (to put it in modern terms, if I travel back into the past and kill a butterfly, will I cease to exist in the future?”) that it was like time warping back into one of those earnest discussions we used to have between recitations of beat poetry.
But what was chiefly interesting was that Silverberg, like so many sf writers of the 60s, completely missed the one major change that would place over the following decades – the status of women. Even though it is 500 hundred years into the future, the women of Silverberg’s world still define their lives by marriage. The protagonist is Queller, a `class seven’ – which means in that overcrowded world, that he can have a room to himself. His sister Helaine is married to a god-awful specimen with whom she shares one room and the regulation two children. Helaine is married – full stop. She has no career, she stays home and programs the cooking. Her husband is unemployed, but there is no suggestion that Helaine look for a job instead. Her youngest child, a boy, jokes to his older sister that he can realise his ambitions because he `has something that she hasn’t got.” A penis, of course.
Did no one see the women’s revolution coming? Or did Silverberg dismiss the rumbling in the female ranks, deciding that if space and jobs were at a premium, women would be forced to mind the kids anyway? It was not only surprising to me that one of the most visionary writers in sf should think that women would still be wearing aprons 500 years into the future, it also startled me how badly it stood out. Like a sore thumb in fact. Now we expect to see women fighting the aliens and taking charge of space ships and colonies, and to read a book still set in the 50s mindset is completely jarring.
Even to read sf actually written by a woman back in the 60s was something of a novelty. Women were deemed too soft and emotional to be able to write hard sf, and of course, what did they know about science anyway?
Even now, the women’s role in sf has been to look at the human impact of the future, but it’s something the men have picked up on as well, and both sexes abound in sf now – you can no more expect the woman to be manning the kitchen than you can expect a man to be manning the controls of the space ship, or blasting the bejaysus out of the aliens.
Ah, the old time warp – so nostalgic, and so intructive. A writer must remember not to overlook the most blatantly obvious changes that time may bring.

Isaasc Azimov’s comment on the book cover is quite ironic in view of Siverberg’s failure see the sexual revolution up ahead – buyt then Azimov wore the same blinkers.

 

Leafing Through the Pages of Time

My love of magazines began in childhood. My mother bought stacks of them every month and passed them on to me after she had read them cover to cover. Titles like Woman, Woman’s Own, Woman and Home were the ones I saw most, with an occassional Photoplay thrown in, but I was also quite happy to get my father’s Mechanics Illustrated when he had done with it and filed his favourite projects. No one remarked on the clear definition of interests – things were very traditional then. At street markets we bought American magazines like Life and Seventeen (my personal favourite – how I longed for a pair of saddle shoes!) My mother loved Life magazine – a confirmed royalist, she cherished her copy with this portrait of the then Princess Elizabeth on the cover.

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So my main interest in vintage mgazines is mainly womens’ magazines from the 1940-60s. The physical changes are immediately apparent when you look at the covers – older magazines are thinner, smaller but more densely packed with text.
As you come up through the decades, the paper becomes smoother and glossier, the pictures get larger, color is introduced and, of course, the advertising becomes more lavish. So if you remove the larger illustrations and the pages of advertising, womens’ magazine have actually not increased much in text content.
But how that content has changed! Our mothers and grandmothers really enjoyed their magazines, and looked forward to every issue. Just skimming through a magazine of the 50s shows plenty of varied reading matter, from short stories and serials to feature articles.
The idea that women’s magazines once only contained recipes and knitting patterns is quite wrong. The target reader for these publications come across as outgoing, curious and eager to learn about the world she lived in.
In contrast to the self-absorbed reader of today, there is a noticeable lack of self improvement and self analysis. Problem solving was strictly practical – the advice columnists were no nonsense types who upheld strong social values and had little time for women who could not control erring husbands and wayward emotions.
There were the pages of recipes, but in the older magazines, these didn’t have today’s mouthwatering illustrations. The favored cooking style was cheap and plain. Foreign food was largely unheard of, and even Chinese cooking got little attention. The curry was a popular dish because it could be left stewing all day while housewives got on with the business of housekeeping without modern aids.
Crafts were simple, mostly confined to knitting patterns, crochet and embroidery – some of these are so pretty, I am tempted to learn to knit!
Toward the end of the fifties, the magazines started to include movie news and reviews and star stories, but nowhere near the salacious content we see today. The stars are never seen at less than their best and little reference is made to their private lives. In fact, one article strongly defended Hollywood marriages, saying the divorce rate in the star community was smaller than the populace at large!
Some obsessions seem to be perennial. There are long articles discussing the latest trends in child rearing, and the problems associated with motherhood. Did you think that diets were the prerogative of our generation? Wrong, women of the early 20th century were just as concerned with the state of their figures. But the ideal wasn’t a six pack set of abs, it was a tiny waistline. There are lots of ads for miracle slimming pills and other products that “magically melt away that ugly fat.”
No political correctness or consumer protection guarded gullible readers against these ads, but they were no sillier than the claims for miracle herbal “fat blasters” today.
The aim of slimming was just the same – to look as good as the willowy models in the fashion pages. But the bodies were very different – full hips, nipped in waists, and womanly bosoms – the ideal was the `hourglass figure’.
No wonder women of the sixties fell on the `sack’, a shapeless, waistless, baggy number that skimmed all manner of figure faults. But even then, one catty fashion editor remarked that it looked much better with a belt.
The magazines of the 40s, 50s and 60s were aimed at the homebody, to be enjoyed with a cuppa and your feet up after a hard day’s housework. If you want that kind of cosy reading today, you have to go to the `lifestyle’ magazines.
Today’s women’s magazines, with their lip licking celebrity gossip and pages of advertising, are clearly designed for the woman with nothing better to do than read them.