WELCOME TO A FEW EXCEPTIONS IN A WRITER’S MANIFESTO

by Jnana Hodson

As part of observing my wife’s most recent birthday, we snuggled up on successive afternoons to watch two of her favorite movies from what’s admittedly a long, but critically worthy, list. And, from my end, having seen them both years ago, I’d forgotten enough about each of them to require a remedial course. How delightful!

Each of the films has an author as a central character, as well as a well-set professor in a deep-pockets English department. For me, those two alone are usually a red flag.

I’ve previously posted about my aversion to art about art, and that includes celebrations about authors and poets as well as musicians, dancers, architects, actors and actresses, and university departments. Well, once again, that could be a long list.

Part of that stance arises in my long years in the newspaper trade, where our focus was on telling what was happening “out there,” meaning outside the newsroom or, in another perspective, out in “real life,” which the fine arts, too, attempt to reflect rather than subsume. It’s one reason, in fact, those of us in the print end of journalism look down on so-called reporters who stand in front of a television camera while the scene of their story sits in the background. A good reporter’s invisible to the audience, and a good reporter doesn’t sway the story, either, by interfering in it – think of good academic field research as a parallel.

Part of my aversion also arises in a preference for interdisciplinary work that reaches out beyond departmental walls. My degree in political science and urban studies rather than English or comparative literature (which I could claim as minors) or journalism itself also surface here.

Still, I do have a published novel about the newspaper industry, Hometown News, as well as poems about poetry and other poets. Sometimes it’s an homage, even to another stream of art, such as music or painting.

The danger is how quickly it becomes incestuous.

In too many versions, especially those arising from the Romantic Era, the artist becomes a high priest, holier than the general public. In opera, think of Richard Wagner himself, even before Meistersinger argues his case. Or Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca (about an opera singer, a painter, and a poet) rather than Butterfly or Girl of the Golden West. (Hmm, now I’m wondering about Wagner as a Donald Trump. Rather scary.)

You might even consider whether artists as such soar in this period to replace the classical gods and goddesses who wandered through the arts in earlier times.

There is, however, another side I find equally offensive – one that shows up especially in movies from the ’30s – the parts that ridicule high culture. You know, popular taste or so-called pop culture rules – if it don’t sell, it ain’t good – or whatever.

Well, as we watched the movies, my defenses fell. The reason, I think, comes in the ways these turn the stereotypes on their head.

The first, the 2006 Stranger Than Fiction, featuring Will Farrell as an IRS agent who’s somewhere along the autism scale, casts its bestselling and critically acclaimed author (played by Emma Thompson) as extremely neurotic and shy even as their trajectories overlap when her narration in the work she’s drafting runs audibly through his brain in the course of his daily actions. Still with me? He’s shaving and he hears her telling about it, in the third-person!

So Ferrell’s character, Will Crick, eventually turns to psychiatric help, who points him to the professor, played zestfully and drily by Dustin Hoffman, as a last ditch defense. For the record, as much as I relish in this professor, neither he nor the author can be seen as paragons of virtue. Au contraire! Forget reality at this p0int, Hoffman’s character is marvelous. I’m envious of him, even though we know so little of his private life.

Fortunately, a compassionate, anarchist baker (Maggie Gyllenaal) soon throws everything into a spin. Viva the baker!

In the second, the 2000 Wonder Boys, based on Michael Chabon’s first novel, has Michael Douglas as both the professor and the celebrated novelist, and settles far more into academic affairs. (Oh, boo!) At least he’s not omniscient, and the university politics leave me with huge questions. (How does a chancellor rise to the top by her late thirties or early forties, anyway?)

I do find the wealth in both movies troubling – both professors have very expensive offices, yet what I usually see in real life is that literature departments, like most humanities, rarely stand at the front of the donations list, unlike, say, business schools.

For me, the most delicious twist in Wonder Boys is the fact that the least popular student in the writing seminar (ever so drily portayed by Tobey Maguire) is the one who lands the book contract and – by implication – literary celebrity. Remember, the other students are well-read, they just can’t stand his morbid work. What does that say about the serious end of today’s publishing world? The one where Chabon landed?

Oh, I suppose I should add, having lived an hour away from Pittsburgh, I love the scenes of the city in Wonder Boys. So would Buffalo have worked better? Who knows?

Both films, by the way, feature excellent casts, worthy of much further explication.

I think I need to view the movies again. My wife should be game.

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