Symbolism and The Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. Wandering around the yard on his first day, he noticed that a man would shout out a number–“a hundred and twelve” or “thirteen” or “seventy-eight”–and everybody within earshot would laugh and laugh. Perplexed, the new prisoner asked one of his colleagues what everybody was laughing about. “Jokes,” the old prisoner said. “Remember the prison-issue joke book you got when you got here–along with the the prison-issue khakis and prison-issue toothbrush?”
“Yes,” said the new man.

“Well, we’ve all read through the joke book so many times that we know all the jokes by number. So instead of telling each other the jokes, we just call out the number to the joke we want to tell. Saves a lot of time.”

Eager to fit in, the new inmate stood up on a bench in the prison yard and yelled, “Forty-six!” Everybody stopped and stared. Nobody laughed. Near the corner of the bench the man heard one prisoner say to another, “Some guys don’t know how to tell a joke.”


I taught my way through Vanderbilt’s PhD program, and when we discussed symbolism, I always told the joke about the prison-issue joke book. It was my way of explaining what T.S. Eliot called “the objective correlative.” Here’s how Eliot himself explained it:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

When I taught literature, I was very interested in symbolism and the objective correlative. It certainly gives you something to talk about with freshmen and sophomores. Step 1: “What do trees symbolize in All Quiet on the Western Front?” Steps 2-14: “Here on page [fill in blank], the author mentions a tree. What do you think he’s trying to get across here?” In other words, you learn the formula (the set of objects, the situation, the chain of events) and thenceforth, whenever you encounter the formula, you crank out the meaning or the emotion. Read More

Audience Participation Friday: Meta-APF

At the risk of blowing everybody’s mind, the topic for Audience Participation Friday this week is Audience Participation Friday. I realize this is more postmodern than what you’re accustomed to at, but I’m running a little short on insightful and entertaining discussion topics. I thought I’d open things up to you, the audience. What do you think would make a good topic for an upcoming Audience Participation Friday, and why? To prime the pump, I’ll offer a couple from Aaron Roughton. To wit:

  • How did you find out that Santa wasn’t real?
  • What was the goofiest white elephant gift you’ve ever received?
  • What are three things you want to do in 2011?

If this goes well, I may not have to come up with any more APF topics this year. I’m counting on you.

Unsolicited Writing Advice: On the Real World

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow–a writer of espionage-action thrillers–who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a good long while. He felt he needed something to happen, so he was going to drop a village onto this vast arctic waste, a place where his characters could meet some new people, maybe get into a scrape or two.
I urged the fellow not to do it. The arctic waste in question is a real place, and there are reasons there are no villages there. I challenged the writer to spend some time pondering a) why there are no villages where he wished there was a village, b) what is there instead of villagers (smugglers? moonshiners? hermits?), and c) what narrative possibilities present themselves. Plopping down a village would be the easy and convenient thing. But by taking that easier route, the author may miss out on some real rewards. Aren’t smugglers and hermits more interesting than villagers anyway?

The fiction writer has the luxury of not sticking to the facts on the ground. He can change whatever he wants to change in his fictional world; who’s going to stop him? Writers of fantasy fiction have even more freedom in that regard. But there are dangers therein. Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds. And frictionless is another word for slippery.

I’m a big fan of creative non-fiction. A good essayist limits himself to the facts as he finds them, then rassles around with those facts until meaning reveals itself. The facts on the ground become metaphors and symbols for deeper truths that lie behind and beneath them. There’s a whole worldview there. I really believe that good fiction–including fantasy fiction–begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.

I’m not through articulating this idea. I imagine there will be two or three more posts on these topics in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the role of the “real world” in imaginative fiction.

Audience Participation Friday: Christmas Stories

Read-aloud at the Rogers house the last few nights has been The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. It’s a hilarious story about a family of juvenile delinquents named Herdman who hijack a church’s Christmas pageant to the shock and horror of all the nice people who have always run the show. The girl who plays the part of Mary smokes cigars in the church bathroom. Half the shepherds want to quit out of sheer terror of the Angel of the Lord. Never having been to church, the Herdmans know nothing about the story they’re acting out. But as they act it out, a couple of things happen. First, they strip away all the sentimentality that clouds the significance of the Nativity. The rag-tagginess of the original Christmas comes to life in the Herdmans’ off-the-mark interpretation. And second, as the Herdmans experience the Christmas story for the first time, they are moved in ways that the church kids never have been. They get it wrong in a dozen different ways, but they are deeply affected by a story story that is just water off a duck’s back for their self-righteous peers.
I have the occasional quibble with The Best Christmas Pageant Ever; but I love the fact that it shocks the reader. The Christmas story is supposed to be a shocking. To sentimentalize the story, to make it sweet and palatable, is to strip it of much of its power. By the way, this is why I love Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” sung like an angel by Jill Phillips on Behold the Lamb of God, my favorite Christmas album ever. Here’s the first stanza and chorus:

It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town

And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold

It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love.

Anyway, that brings us to the audience participation portion of our program. What are some of your favorite Christmas stories (besides THE Christmas Story), and why?

An Encounter with a Phrenologist

If you’ve read The Charlatan’s Boy, you know that phrenology–the “science” of reading a person’s character by the shape of his or her skull–plays a significant role. A blogger brought to my attention the following account of one person’s run-in with a phrenologist. It comes from The History of Phrenology on the Web, which is interesting if you like that sort of thing. And I do.
A recollection of the Rev. G.C. Rankin, looking back on his school days in the eastern United States, circa 1870:

“Among the students was a bright young fellow who had been under the tuition of the old teacher three or four years and he had been making a specialty of phrenology, and occasionally the boys would congregate in one of the rooms and Bob Rutherford would examine their heads, especially the new boys. He would take the boy, measure his head, place his hand upon the several bumps and call them by name and then decide whether or not he had any aptitude for study or any outlook for development. I had to submit to this ordeal. It was not exactly hazing, but it was on that order. I was somewhat credulous and disposed to believe what was ordinarily told me and, in some sense, this was a serious matter to me. It was made such by those who witnessed the proceeding. The fellow proceeded to measure my head from the forehead to the back, and from one ear to the other, and then he pressed his hands upon the protuberances carefully and called them by name. He felt my pulse, looked carefully at my complexion and defined it, and then retired to make his calculations in order to reveal my destiny. Read More

Audience Participation Friday: Wizard of Oz

I was at the Waffle House the other day with Father Thomas McKenzie (you may know him from the One Minute Review). Thomas had recently read The Wizard of Oz–something I’ve never actually done. I’ve seen the movie more times than I care to remember; that’s the only Wizard of Oz I’ve ever known, so I should say up-front that my opinions aren’t as well-informed as they might be. But even poorly informed opinions can be dearly held.
Thomas thinks very highly of The Wizard of Oz. Its characters, he says, have been damaged and diminished by the stories the world has told about them. The reader sees how false those stories are long before the characters do. We see the Cowardly Lion act out of bravery again and again. The Scarecrow believes himself to be stupid, but his wisdom and ingenuity pull the travelers through one scrape after another.

The Wizard tells the Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man the truth about themselves, and in so doing he sets them free from the falsehoods that had enslaved them. Read More

Feechie of the Week: Lester Warner

It’s true: there are a couple of non-feechie details to the following story. One doesn’t think of feechiefolk sitting in recliners in the woods, for instance. Nevertheless, fans of feechiefolk will appreciate the spirit of Lester Warner of Dover Township, PA.
Mr. Warner is eighty-six years old and dying of metastatic prostate cancer. He recently stopped chemotherapy. But deer season was coming up, and he wanted to go hunting one last time.

It didn’t seem very likely, given his weakened state, but he did his exercises and as deer season approached, he thought maybe he could do it.

Opening day of deer season, Lester and his sons woke up at 4 a.m. and headed out to the woods. Lester’s son Brian had hauled a recliner up Broadtop mountain, and there Lester sat in the 19-degree weather.

Around 8 am, a big buck came out of the woods. Lester told his son Brian to shoot it, but Brian insisted that his father take the shot. He dropped the deer with one shot. Then he looked at his son and said, “Never give up.”

It was the biggest buck Lester ever killed.

You can read the full story at the York Daily Record.

BONUS: Also from the York Daily Record: Resident Stunned After Deer Ransacks Dover Township Home. I love the fact that it’s in the Crime section.

A Charlatan’s Review of The Charlatan’s Boy



The CSFF Blog Tour is featuring The Charlatan’s Boy this week. The long-come-short: a loose confederation of book bloggers read the same book and review it the same week as a way of building internet traffic for said book, as well as for one another’s blogs. If you’re interested, a good place to start exploring the two dozen or so blogs that are talking about The Charlatan’s Boy this week is Rebecca LuElla Miller’s blog, which summarizes the highlights of the tour and has a link to the participants’ blogs.
I want to bring to your attention one of those blogs–Frederation, written by Fred Warren. I caught him trying to write a review of The Charlatan’s Boy without having read the book. My first impulse was to turn him in, make an example of him. But he seemed like a good kid with a lot of talent, just a little misguided. I thought it best to give him another chance. If I gave him something to keep him busy, it might keep him off the streets. So I issued Fred a challenge. I wrote the following on his blog:

Thanks, Fred. Your post is very much in the spirit of The Charlatan’s Boy. The mind boggles to think what a great review you would have written if you had read the book.

Mind if I issue a challenge? I’d love to see what kind of review you could write just from the chapter titles. You have to promise not to cheat and read any of the actual book–only the chapter titles and the back cover copy. If you’re up to the challenge, I will post your review on my blog. If you want to go back and read the book later, fine, but according to the terms of this challenge, you have to review the book sight unseen.

What say you?

Fred rose to the challenge, and very much so. His review is hilarious and brilliant, going chapter-by-chapter through the book and making observations that, in the tradition of charlatans everywhere, are vague and general but give the impression of insightfulness. It’s quite masterful, and I highly recommend that you go here and read it.

Fred, nicely done.

I should also point out that Fred is an author himself. His book The Muse is available at his website. I haven’t read it, but his chops as a writer of fake reviews bode well for his authorship.

How Sally Apokedak Rescued The Charlatan’s Boy



The Charlatan’s Boy was an exceedingly difficult book for me to write. Before writing this book, I had never experienced writer’s block. I didn’t, in fact, believe it existed. “Writer’s block” conjures up images of the tortured artist, misunderstood by the world. Me, I’ve always been a plain procrastinator. I thought it would be distinctly unhelpful to dignify my procrastination with the term “writer’s block.”

But in the writing of The Charlatan’s Boy, I experienced something that went beyond procrastination. I don’t know any word for it besides writer’s block. I had set a task for myself that I wasn’t at all sure I could accomplish. I’ve always been comfortable writing raucous, whoop-it-up stories, but The Charlatan’s Boy, for all its robustiousness is really a story about a boy’s inner life. It’s one thing to write about alligator wrestling; it’s quite another to write about a boy’s wrestling with his loneliness, his hurt, his ugliness. Writers often talk about how terrifying it is to write; I usually dismissed that as mostly self-indulgence. But I was pretty terrified by the thought of trying to go deeper into a character’s inner life. I literally pictured readers saying, “Really? That’s what you call insight into the human condition? Why don’t you stick to alligator wrestling?”

A certain amount of pressure is motivating, but I had crossed some threshold; the pressure was paralyzing. I fell into an awful cycle of self-absorption and terror. I had come to view my unfinished book mostly as a source of personal misery. Time came to turn in a manuscript and I didn’t have a manuscript to turn in. My editors, Shannon Marchese and Jessica Barnes, were very patient and understanding. They gave me an extension. Which I missed. Then I missed another extension, if I remember correctly. Eventually they very sweetly laid down the law and gave me a genuinely hard and immovable deadline.

That sho-nuff deadline was bearing down on me, and all I had was big pile of scenes that didn’t yet fit together into a coherent story. They were great scenes; I loved everything I had written. But they were highly episodic, and there weren’t nearly enough of them. I was at a critical point; if I hadn’t already spent the advance long before that time, I would have just told Waterbrook Press never mind and given them their money back.

It was at that critical moment that I got an email from Sally Apokedak, whose name you will recognize from the comments section of this blog. Sally has been a huge supporter since The Bark of the Bog Owl came out in 2004, but we had lost touch. I hadn’t heard from her in a couple of years or more. She had heard that I was working on another book. She scolded me for not telling her and said she wanted to start telling her friends and blog readers about it:

Really, Jonathan, just because you don’t know us, you have to realize that your loyal fans feel like they know you after reading and falling in love with your characters and they WANT to know what is going on. You could put out a little newsletter. It wouldn’t kill you. It doesn’t have to be cheesy and braggy like others we get in our in-boxes. You could do it with humility. We like you and want to know what you’re up to.

I wrote Sally back,

Sorry for not telling you, but I’ve been genuinely worried that the book would be bumped from the fall catalog or worse…this has been the most painful writing experience ever. Which is to say, my lack of communication with readers…has more to do with self-doubt than stuck-upness.

If you don’t mind, let’s hold off on telling your loyal readers about The Charlatan’s Boy until I’m a little more confident that it’s going to release in the fall. I’ll know in about a month, and then I’d love to shout it from the rooftops.

Meanwhile, would you pray for me, Sally?

Sally did pray for me. She also offered some encouraging words that bordered on flattery, and she offered to read the manuscript. After some dithering, I decided to let her read what I had. She read it (that very day, I think) and told me that she really loved it.

And then something shook loose for me. It wasn’t many days later that I was done with the manuscript. In praying for me, Sally turned out to be the answer to her own prayer. I had descended into a closed spiral of self-doubt, self-indulgence, self-flagellation…self, self, self. I had come to think of this book as my personal nemesis. My interaction with Sally reminded me that this wasn’t just about me. Other people had a stake in this thing–real people who would read and benefit from my book. The realization jarred me out of my solipsism, and I was surprised by a joy of writing that had long been absent. Sally’s willingness to step in kept me going.

So here’s to Sally Apokedak.

Audience Participation Friday: Your Least Favorite Narnia Book

Earlier this week I mentioned that The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is my least favorite of the seven Narnia books. I clarified that I love all the Narnia books; I just love VDT a little less than I love the other six books. It’s true that I consider Eustace’s dragon sequence to be among the very best scenes of the Chronicles. But as I said in a comment earlier this week,
“My biggest problem with VDT (and it’s not a huge problem) is that I don’t much like its episodic structure. Something about it feels cheaty to me, as if Lewis wanted to work in a lot of different little stories, and instead of figuring out a unified story that would let him tell those stories, he just let his characters bounce from place to place. That, I realize, is what some readers love about that book. The Odyssey works the same way, and nobody complains. I should also confess that The Charlatan’s Boy can be a little episodic itself, so I don’t have a lot of room to talk.”

Speaking of cheaty, how cheaty is that–quoting oneself from earlier in the week, and not even the body of the post but a comment!

Anyway, a couple of you chimed in to speak of your favorite Narnia book(s), but we didn’t hear much about people’s least favorite book. So today’s Audience Participation discussion topic is this: “Which Narnia book do you love the least, and why?” Here’s hoping for vigorous (though, of course, friendly) debate.

Privacy Settings
We use cookies to enhance your experience while using our website. If you are using our Services via a browser you can restrict, block or remove cookies through your web browser settings. We also use content and scripts from third parties that may use tracking technologies. You can selectively provide your consent below to allow such third party embeds. For complete information about the cookies we use, data we collect and how we process them, please check our Privacy Policy
Consent to display content from Youtube
Consent to display content from Vimeo
Google Maps
Consent to display content from Google
Main Menu