Death of the Gentle Read – So What?

GUEST POST: G. F. SKIPWORTH

I’ve just completed and released a book entitled The Simpering, North Dakota Literary Society, based on the stories of six female geniuses bumbling their way through the grim era of 1919. They’re trying to make sense of the practical in their time. More importantly, they’re trying to grab their share of the happiness they deserve using only the tools they’ve got. So what?

How can you and I, as serious readers, buy a book like that when the characters are often cheerful, their stories improbably optimistic, and even their names are so stilted that to hear them in the physical world would be astronomically rare? Where does one get off approaching such a tough era through humor and gentle irony when there’s so much terrifying stuff going on? If I’m going to write faithfully to the condition of the world, shouldn’t l start dark and descend from there? Shouldn’t I use a degree of shock more appropriate to the gravity of the day? Wouldn’t anything else be patently dishonest? It’s a problem, because I don’t want to write for the purpose of only shock or distraction. So, how do I deal with the sheepish feeling that comes over me when I look at the lists of new releases approaching serious subjects in thoughtful and powerful ways? Why was my “breezy” tale of 1919 written at all? In other words, “so what?”

One reason might be that if we covered the material in history class instead, many of us would fall asleep, some of us would fail the final, and almost none of us would remember that suffrage wasn’t a tea party debate that finally won the heart of Congress. People fought for it, and some of them didn’t make it. A “breezy” tale with brilliantly flawed characters might be more effective at reminding us of that than sixty assigned pages in the textbook.

Maybe the textbook, in its effort to give us the information, neglected to seize upon our idealism, without which we cannot survive. Maybe there’s a more rousing example in a cheerfully optimistic, gets-up-when-she’s-knocked-down character than another droned recitation of battles fought, documents signed and lessons forgotten. Do we see ourselves in the textbook, or do we see a half-real past that has nothing to do with us, because the book forgot to ask us to rouse ourselves and maintain our resolve, the way these optimists with the stilted names could?

For some of us at a certain age, there are joys in life we cannot revisit, but those breezy characters with the stilted names can. They can find the reader who believes that life is an art form to be lived beautifully, or the one who believes that such rubbish is  elitist and deluded. Light-heartedness has many uses, and is not necessarily superficial – just ask Charlie Chaplin.  Humor and serious issues have partnered or acted as foils for one another through the centuries. Those genius morons can tell us a great deal about themselves and their time, us and ours. Call them what we will, but we don’t dare call them unrealistic, because we, too, are bumbling our way through the grim era of 2010. We, too, are trying to make sense of the practical in our time and, most importantly, we, too, are trying to grab our share of happiness using only the tools we’ve got –“that’s what.”

G.F. Skipworth has toured much of the world as a concert pianist, symphony/opera conductor, composer, vocalist and opera coach. Along the way, however, he also worked as a speechwriter, in comedy and as an academic author. His formal education includes Whitman College, Johns Hopkins, Harvard and UCLA. As he describes it, one day he sat down to write a fourth symphony, but a four-volume fantasy series came out instead, which he affectionately refers to as a “shoot ‘em up clang clang.” Following the “Fables of the Carpailtin Campfire,” he wrote a fantasy based upon the twenty-four poems of Franz Schubert’s great song-cycle, “Winterreise (Winter Journey.) Moving on to historical fiction, he released “Stormfield – Tales from the Hereafter,” based on Mark Twain’s final incomplete work. Dr. Skipworth often refers to “The Simpering, North Dakota Literary Society” as his  personal favorite, although writing dialogue for a cameo appearance by the razor-sharp Dorothy Parker was maddening, even worse than for Mark Twain (at least he paused to light a cigar now and then.) Currently, he resides in Portland, Oregon with his wife Barbara, where he serves on the faculty of Lewis & Clark College. Upcoming works include “The World-Weary String Quartet of Alliance, Nebraska” and “The Madonna of Dunkirk.” Please visit G.F. Skipworth’s site at rosslarebooks.com.

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