Category Archives: books

photos of the beat generation

With the death of the poet Peter Orlovsky in late May a chapter in America’s cultural life came to a discreet end. The long-term partner of Allen Ginsberg, Orlovsky was the last surviving connection to the movement of writers that emerged from Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1950s and which became known collectively as the beat generation.

In contrast to Orlovsky’s quiet demise from lung cancer, the beats arrived on the American art scene with an explosion of amphetamine-fueled creativity. Their frank explorations of the twin taboos of sexuality and drugs helped to usher in the counterculture of the 1960s and, though their wild antics were the stuff of legend, they paid a heavy price.

Jack Kerouac killed himself with alcohol, while William Burroughs killed his own wife in a drunken parlor game gone awry.

Ginsberg’s most famous poem “Howl” begins with the famous line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” With its graphic descriptions of homosexuality, it flayed the sensibilities of conservative America.

So much so, that the poem became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial brought by the San Francisco police department against a city bookstore for stocking the poem.

The 1957 court battle is the centerpiece of a film about Ginsberg due for release in September. Also called “Howl” the film stars James Franco as the poet and Aaron Tveit as Peter Orlovsky.

In the meantime, Washington’s National Gallery of Art is showing a selection of Ginsberg’s photography, called “Beat Memories.”

The fascination this iconoclastic group of young artists still inspire is evident in the exhibition, which features intimate portraits of Ginsberg and his circle taken from the 1950s up until his death in 1997.

The photos in the exhibition are spontaneous and expressive, many of them taken before the beats had achieved literary fame.

One snapshot shows Kerouac in downtown Manhattan, wide-eyed and mouthing something to the camera, a model of youthful exuberance. In a handwritten note to accompany it, Ginsberg wrote that the author of “On the Road,” — the most well-known of the beat novels — was mugging a “Dostoyevsky mad-face” for the occasion.

A later photograph of “Naked Lunch” author William Burroughs by contrast shows the ageing writer gazing skyward as he reclines on a beaten up old chair at his home in Kansas.

Ginsberg appears in some of the photos too: In a group shot taken by Orlovsky outside City Lights, the bookstore prosecuted in the obscenity trial. In it the young poet looks fresh-faced and nerdy in his trademark dark-rimmed glasses.

Not exactly the image you might conjure up for the man who wrote of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” and who would resurface in the 1960s as a bearded guru of acid and free love.

The photo was dated a year before the trial. In spite of the district attorney’s contention at the time that the poem was “filthy, vulgar, obscene and disgusting” “Howl” evaded the censors and is now recognized as one of the seminal works of American poetry, no doubt helped by the oxygen of publicity generated by the original trial.

The poem presents a series of nightmarish images of young men pushed to the brink of sanity through their own excess and by the absurdity of modern life.

It is dedicated to Carl Solomon who Ginsberg met in a mental institution in New York State. Like the other beat writers, Ginsberg stayed close to Solomon for the remainder of his life.

As much as anything else the photos in the exhibition are a celebration of these enduring relationships formed by the poet over the years. With this in mind, one of the most moving photographs shows Orlovsky leaning over a snow-covered bust of James Joyce at the Irish writer’s graveside in Zurich in 1980.

Nearly two decades later the same man was at the New York bedside of one of the best minds of his own generation, when Ginsberg breathed his last.

This article was first published on CNN.com on 26 July, 2010

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how to tell a good story

(LONDON, England) We have all heard that time-worn phrase trotted out about everyone having at least one book inside them, and most of us like to believe it’s true. And why not? Humans after all are natural storytellers. From the gossip we pick up at the watercooler, to the soap operas we watch on TV, telling each other stories seems hard-wired into us.

But how do you make those stories engaging and exciting? That’s the million dollar publishing advance question all aspiring storytellers must grapple with, and one of the reasons that for many, that long-cherished book never gets beyond the planning stage.

Well, you won’t have that excuse anymore. CNN’s Spirit of has compiled for your delectation a brief guide to the dos and don’ts of storytelling, courtesy of some sound advice from great writers past and present. And let’s be honest, they should know.

The American author Kurt Vonnegut whose most famous novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” is a fictional account of his experience as a POW in the German city of Dresden when it was firebombed by the Allies in World War Two once set out a list of rules on how to write a short story.

His first piece of advice is sacrosanct and one by which all stories live or die.

“Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted,” he wrote.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? Yet, it is amazing how many books, films, plays and even drunk friends at parties forget that, first and foremost, stories are meant to entertain.

But what about instruct, I hear you grumble over your dog-eared copy of “The Grapes of Wrath”? Surely many of the greatest tales ever told, from the Bible to “Midnight’s Children” edify the reader as much as keep them gripped.

In a career spanning over half a century the South African novelist and anti-apartheid activist Nadine Gordimer has written extensively about her country’s political and social upheavals.

In spite of some of her novels being banned at the time by South Africa’s white-only government, the Nobel laureate insists that any author who tries to push a message on a reader ahead of narrative is in danger at best of producing bad writing, and at worst of lapsing into propaganda.

“The moment the fiction writer, the novelist, the storyteller, the poet starts to think that ‘I am writing to persuade, I am writing propaganda’ then this is a tremendously bad thing for whatever talent you have,” she tells CNN. “You cannot put it at the service of something like this.”

The British author Doris Lessing is even more emphatic. “If you’re going to write to a formula of some kind the writing is dead, which we know by having seen it so often,” Lessing says.

And with that we’ll return somewhat sheepishly to Vonnegut’s rules on storytelling, which it must be said he did note that most great writers tend to break, with the exception of the first.

Rules number two and three relate to the creation of character, and are more practical than the first: “Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for” he wrote, and then about motivation, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

Now for rule four: “Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.” Put more simply, every word must count.

There’s nothing more frustrating when reading a story or when watching a movie than being led off at a tangent as the author indulges in some pointless navel-gazing. How many more celluloid panoramas of Manhattan, for example, do third-rate filmmakers need to show us before they realize we get the message? We already know the New York skyline is beautiful.

The great American writer Ernest Hemingway despised this kind of flabby, indulgent storytelling. Early on in his career he had a $10 bet with colleagues that he could produce a story just six words long. This is what he came up with:

“For sale: Baby shoes, Never worn.” Needless to say he won the bet. 

The English writer and essayist George Orwell was also a great advocate of an economic style and like Vonnegut compiled his own set of rules on how to write well. Orwell said that a long word should never be used when a shorter equivalent existed, and that redundant words should always be cut out.

Back to Vonnegut, who as you may have by now picked up, had a very wry sense of humor. For rule number six he wrote: “Write to please just one person.” It may be that you are aiming your story at others but, if you’re not happy with what you’re producing, it’s unlikely you’ll manage to convey much enthusiasm to an audience.

Or as Vonnegut put it: “If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”

And on that note we shall end our lesson for today. Armed with this advice you may now go away and write the great epic novel of the 21st century, or at the very least stop boring your mates at parties.

This story was first published on CNN.com on 19 December, 2008