If you ate an apple without knowing it was called an apple, would it be any less an apple? Would you enjoy it less, be less nourished by it, discard the memory of it, simply because it had no name?
All my life, I have been writing in unnamed genres, ex-categorically, happily, and obliviously. My first book was called “a portrait” because it wasn’t a biography, or really anything else, and was shelved (I made notes) in these sections of bookstores across the country: Spirituality, Philosophy, Entertainment, Biography, TV History, Memoir, Non-Fiction, Religion and Literature. In her review of my most recent book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, Harvard editor Heather Hughes wrote this: “Harrison Solow seamlessly weaves form and content to create an engrossing hybrid work: epistolary novel cum memoir cum literary critique cum advice column…Masterfully done.” My poetry is prose, my prose is often called poetry, my nonfiction appears to be fable, my fiction, fact. None of this has ever mattered to me, since I have enjoyed the taste and texture, substance and nutrition of apples in countries whose languages I do not speak and loved books whose categories I could not label. I don’t need a name to experience something real, worthy, useful or beautiful. I hope my readers feel the same.
When it came time to submit my PhD thesis, category became significant. Or so I thought. For a time I laboured to determine a category under which my creative and critical dissertation in English Letters would fall. I spent considerable effort wrestling with my work so that it would have a clear predominant strain. And six months before my PhD dissertation was due, when I had a manuscript of about 400 pages, I threw it away. This is because I had attempted to do what is recommended by every academic with whom I’ve spoken and every piece of advice on the subject I’ve ever read – make notes, organize chapters, write for a certain number of hours or write a certain number of words or pages a day, methodically, steadily. But that isn’t the way I work and I shouldn’t have attempted this process. I adhered to it for about a year or so and it did produce copious material, but what I ended up with was exactly what that process indicates: an organized, methodical and, to me, a highly pedestrian, boring piece of work. So I destroyed it – all physical copies were shredded and all digital copies deleted. My supervisor nearly passed out. (For the rest of the story, see http://on.fb.me/1rXGbbA)
After I wrote my new thesis, my next efforts were directed toward determining how to justify the polymathic nature of my writing, until it occurred to me that it wasn’t my job to squeeze the content of my writing into a pre-existing form, or to write differently so that no explanation of form was needed, or to apologise for the nature of my work but rather to transcend the notion of form entirely as I had always done – and simply to introduce the work as the multi-faceted tale that it was.
This is how I ended up describing it:
The Bendithion Chronicles is an epistolary, mixed-genre literary work: a creative thesis with a critical commentary about an enigmatic encounter with a Welsh-speaking village, portrayed in contrast to the Hollywood film and television society of which I have long been an intimate part. It is a reflection on a pilgrimage in the Chaucerian tradition; a series of recondite tales rooted in fact, but, as Bill Roorbach wrote in The Art of Truth (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 6.), “true to the encyclopaedia of self” because “the writerly mind will always err on the side of truth over facts”.
In tribute to Welsh storytelling, historically an indistinguishable blend of fact and fantasy, The Bendithion Chronicles is both fiction and nonfiction. It is my conviction that no word equals its referent. There is a meaning in any experience described within a book, that cannot possibly be in the book. Nowhere have I seen this personified, indeed, living, except Wales:
The Welsh have survived as a nation chiefly by cunning and reserve. [...] Those sweet smiles are sweet, but they are well under control. It is performance that greets you, polished and long practiced, played on a deceptively cosy stage set with brass pokers by the fire… (Jan Morris, The Matter of Wales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), pp. 215–216.)
My significant encounters were with first-language Welsh-speakers, whose intermittent appearance behind those smiles had both an I-Thou magnetism and a liminal but discernable invitation that sent me hypnotically to Welsh classes to embark on a journey of another kind: the lifelong acquisition of an ancient, bardic tongue. And therein lies the tale. These chronicles are essentially a romance with ephemera. They should be heard, not read. It is only because I cannot sing that they are in fact, written. They are word-performance. They are Eisteddfod. *
This Abstract had two effects.
First, I publicly claimed my authorial voice. This is a powerful thing to do and I’m not sure I had consciously done that before. Certainly when at lectures, signings and readings of my books, there were challenging questions asked, but my authorial voice was never challenged – if only simply because the books were already published. In this case, the work was not yet published and there was a great deal at stake, since the granting of a British Research Doctorate is solely dependent on the thesis and the viva voce (oral defense of the thesis) in which one’s supervisor has no say and is often not even in the room. There are no classes and no grades and no thesis committee or any other mitigating factors that could contribute to a GPA or an assessment process. This is it. The five to seven years of research replaces the entire process of an American PhD programme and it all comes down to this moment. The orals are conducted by professors who have nothing to do with the candidate’s work and may not even know the candidate. In my case, both the examiners were from other universities, Cambridge and the University of Sussex. It was rather a large gamble, as a writer and a scholar, to eschew traditional moulds (as much as I like, respect and honour them) and present a work that had no precedent.
But this is how I enter the world – through this complex series of perspectives – the natural consequence of the kind and number of worlds I’ve lived in, internally and externally, as well as my innate propensity to multiplicity – and it was profoundly significant not only to declare that but to stake those seven years and the granting of a doctorate on a leap into a genre-less void.
The second effect of writing an Abstract was to introduce the notion – to my readers at least – that scholarly research is not incompatible with creative expression, that fiction, while often opposed to fact is not opposed to truth, and is merely another path to it. It started a conversation about genre that continued long past the granting of the doctorate. During my research, I had come across few such conjunctions. Elif Batuman’s Possessed: Adventure with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them was a fascinating hybrid – as was The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel About Autoethnography by Carolyn Ellis. I didn’t find a great deal more out there. Recently of course, Patricia Leavy’s work has garnered well deserved attention for merging “the creative arts and scholarly research across the disciplines” but it’s a very new concept and when I initiated it into my traditional programme several years ago, it had a trailblazing effect.
In any case, that is how I wrote my thesis and that was all I had to present at the viva.
Of course, I was worried about its reception, but not enough to falsify my voice. And, happily, the leap into unchartered territory was well rewarded, The examiners loved it and their evaluations of this cross-genre work reinforced my commitment to authenticity of voice, solidified the course of my future books and, although I am not a fan of discussing writing in general, my willingness to talk about genre at all. The examiners’ 20-page evaluation of the work included these comments:
“Solow has a polymath’s range of expertise in fields that include scholastic philosophy, Jewish and Christian mysticism, critical theory, theology, and science fiction. It juxtaposes the world of rural Wales with the Hollywood studio system, in a topography of improbability.”
“It is sui generis in terms of form. I know of no work with which or to which The Bendithion Chronicles may be compared. It both draws from, and transcends the literary forms from which it draws.”
“One challenge of reading Solow’s work is keeping a grip on the endless reaching out towards multiplicity. The thesis is organic, open-ended and intentionally resistant to closure, though it is, on the other hand, remarkably all-encompassing. It demonstrates the considerable multiple realms of knowledge it is truly necessary to identify as constituting the actual foundations of any significant creative work, and in particular of The Bendithion Chronicles, reaching out as they do to such a subtly complex weave of interconnected ideas, cultural and historical roots and a philosophical enquiry. This does mean that any reader searching to identify a conventional academic model of thesis/antithesis/synthesis might have found himself or herself frustrated. Of course, it may be inferred from Solow’s approach that…the whole notion of synthesis is a convenient fiction and she demonstrates her position with such imaginative brilliance…that for me the successful accomplishment of her objective is not in question.”
These were wonderful assessments to read – but I do not include them here because they make me feel good or because I think my work was imaginatively brilliant. I think these comments were engendered by surprise at the juxtaposition of genres – by a delight in the serious exploration of form. I incorporate these remarks into this discussion because they are meaningful in two ways.
First, they enthusiastically embrace the expansion of the definition of a book. These evaluations came from two truly brilliant scholars whose own works follow strict genre rules and who were not initially receptive to such a departure from form. By taking the chance that my work might recommend itself outside the box simply by being authentic, creative and substantive, a new conversation about the way we learn, the way we combine facets of learning in a non-linear, even liminal way, opened up in the world of letters in that place and in that time and has continued to this day.
And second: I am now working on turning this thesis into a book that is not only a story, but a way to find the connections – and there are always connections – among the various disciplines of academia, the creative industries, the spiritual traditions and the cultural vagaries in the world and to demonstrate that this process and this work need not be categorised to be worth reading.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction of The Bendithion Chronicles:
“Religious literature is characterised by parables, exempla, midrashim, folk tales and fables – all fictions, created to reveal perceived truths. Those who wish to perpetuate these ‘truths’ must map out the spaces between recorded events and fill them in: populate deserts with saints and stone tablets, spin fairy stories, anecdotes and whispers into cohesive allegorical histories, weave tapestries, paint ceilings and write eternal tales: a Canticle of Canticles, a pilgrimage to Canterbury, a Genesis, a Narnia, a Chad Gadya. And, in other eras, an Inferno, a Pilgrim’s Progress, an Iliad, A Space Odyssey.
Inside this literature lies a history of ideas, my history of ideas and thus my relationship to literature, art and science; to revelation, philosophy, and rhetoric; to astronomy, music, and law – to all the codes of my culture; and outside it lies the one lone nation of Wales.
My small story of Wales is as elusive and authentic as these tales and as organic and fanciful as their origins, as true as any writ and as fallible as any also. What I am arguing is that in the telling of any story, in the recounting of any history, in the description of any revelation, if the object is to tell a truth and not merely to list facts, then the only difference between a fiction created to reveal a perceived truth and that truth itself is the eye (or ear or heart) of the writer (creator). And the beholder. That difference is what constitutes the liminal. For this writer, Wales, like the fairy stories and implausible saints above, like the fingers of fire creating Commandments, like sirens in an Aegean sea, is a truth wrapped in fables, a numinous sphere. The argument follows. The story follows that.”
Many thanks to Nicole Walker for inviting me to be a part of a fascinating discussion in an unfolding literary world.
*The Eisteddfod is a traditional festival of Welsh literature (poetry and fiction), music, recitation, dance and theatre performance, all in the Welsh language. This tradition dates back to 1176 when an historically significant celebration was held by Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd of Deheubarth in his castle in Cardigan. The tradition subsequently fell into abeyance but was revived in the eighteenth century. The Welsh word ‘eisteddfod’ comes from ‘eistedd’, meaning ‘to sit’, and ‘bod’, meaning ‘to be’, which together means ‘to be sitting’, or ‘to be sitting together’. (As Welsh is a mutated language, the word ‘bod’ is mutated into ‘fod’ in this compound word.) More information can be found on the official Eisteddfod website at: http://www.eisteddfod.org.uk/english/
Dr. Harrison Solow has been honoured with multiple awards for her literary fiction, nonfiction, cross-genre writing, poetry and professional writing, most notably a Pushcart Prize for Literary/Creative Nonfiction.
She is one of the two best-selling University of California Press authors of all time (at time of publication) and holds Literature and Writing degrees from three different English-speaking countries including the rare distinction of a British Doctorate in English Letters with (according to the examiners) a flawless dissertation.
She is published by various presses and has been, among many other incarnations, a former Franciscan nun, editor of a Jewish magazine, a university professor and the science fiction specialist/consultant to the SyFy Channel. Her latest book, Felicity & Barbara Pym, (http://amzn.to/1m93gaW) about the relevance of literature, has been called “the treasures of a cultured mind” and is now a college course text.
Dr. Solow lives in California & elsewhere with her husband, producer/writer Herbert F. Solow, the former Head of MGM, Paramount and Desilu Studios and the executive force behind Star Trek, Mission Impossible and other iconic series, where they both write and consult in the entertainment industry.
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