Let Us Now Praise Daniel Radcliffe

Daniel Radcliffe is the anti-Lindsay Lohan.  This young man has just spent the last decade growing up as the most famous child actor ever.  The mere fact that he isn’t using an army of naked groupies to bring him drugs 24/7 is proof that he’s a great guy. 

In interviews about the final Harry Potter film, Radcliffe has confessed that in the last few years–since turning 18–he slept around a little and drank a bit too much, but those days are already over.  That’s it?  If that’s his big dark past then, like I said, he’s a saint compared to how most of us would have handled his fortune and fame. 

What’s kept him so clean?  Probably his defining characteristic is that this guy knows how to work

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Let Readers Discover Your World Through the Protagonist

Here’s an example of the kind of writing rule I was just talking about: let’s say you’re inventing a rich, complex new world as the setting for your story.  There will be a lot of details that need to be introduced and explained to readers, and you need to know how to do it. 

There are two options.  First, you could just fill your story with essays; with long, lazy exposition giving endless background for your narrative.  We’ve all seen stories like this, unfortunately.  Students and untalented writers tend to do this–think of books where a character’s physical appearance is described in detail for pages at a time.  Lazy. 

Here’s what a good storyteller does: make your hero someone who’s new to the world, and needs to have everything explained, one thing at a time, just like the reader.  The reader will see your big, crazy world through that character’s eyes, and will discover it alongside him or her. 

This is the strategy used in Harry Potter, The Matrix, and many others.  You can probably think of more.

Parodies By Literary Giants

As the year winds down, I like to have my classes review the things we’ve read–and the elements of style employed by great authors–by having them write parodies of things as if they were done by literary giants.  We start by reading these examples, done up by yours truly.  Enjoy!


The Empire Strikes Back, as written by William Shakespeare

VADER: Fair young apprentice, it is I who am the father of thy fleshly tabernacle!

LUKE: Oh, forswear it, vile wretch!

      Never shall the days come when I shall agree

      To partake of the black compact thou hast proposed.

      The very seraphs of heav’n shall blow their mighty trumps

      Ere I rule the galaxy with thee!


Napoleon Dynamite, as written by Emily Dickinson

Alas and woe is me,

For bereft of the sweet tots am I.

My lily-white palm reaches–

Out–to cast away the button of

The flippin idiot who–

Votes for Summer in place of Pedro–

My heart drops and yearns for…

Ninja skills!


Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, as written by Ernest Hemingway

      Harry chased the snitch. It flew away. He didn’t give up. Draco came up from behind and bashed him. Hard. Harry was used to sabotage. 

      Harry lurched forward and grabbed the snitch with his hands. Darkness settled and Harry awoke to victory. Draco stood still, and alone.


Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, as written by Ray Bradbury

      The old hag cackled a high screeching blare of ugly maniac laughter. 

      Snow White bit into the rosy orb apple, expecting the sweet juices of intoxicating simple life. Her brain screamed foul as she recognized the betrayal of memory and couldn’t stop the coming end, like an alien doomsday weapon had fired upon all her youth.

      Dwarves, seven, flew through the wood, hoping but late. 


Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinesses: James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Jospeh Campbell’s brilliant classic, A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake (a wonderful tome of literary criticism that glossed Joyce’s Sphinx-like final novel through the lens of mythology) had been out of print and impossible to find for years–until it was resissued two years ago as part of Campbell’s collected works.  Being a fairly active Joyce fan, I asked my local library to order a copy.  Three months later, they emailed to say it was in.  That was yesterday, and I picked it up this morning.


Reading this seminal text reminds me of a silly but useful introduction to the Wake that I wrote a few years ago, and which was published in the Fall 2005 Common Review.  The idea was to structure my favorite trivia about it and advice for enjoying it around a parody of the first verse of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (see the bold headings in the piece below).  To tickle your logophilic fancy, here it is:

Genesis, Geniuses, and Guinnesses

ONE OF THE AMERICAN masters of horror fiction, H. P. Lovecraft, once wrote about a book so alien to our finite minds that reading it for too long would drive you insane. He was referring to the mythical Necronomicon, but the description applies just as well to James Joyce’s 1939 opus, Finnegans Wake.

That weirdness makes Joyce’s last work inordinately unpopular. Finnegans Wake is rarely acknowl­edged, and even then often reluc­tantly, like Grandma’s collection of potato chips that resemble St. Jude. In the Modern Library’s infamous list of the 100 best novels of the twentieth century, Joyce’s two earlier novels, Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, ranked first and third, respectively. However, Finnegans Wake came in at seventy-seven. A companion list created by online vot­ing also included Ulysses and Portrait, but left the Wake off entirely.

What gives? It’s not as if Joyce’s earlier works were easy to read. (Ulysses was only the second Eng­lish work of fiction to use the word honorificabilitudinitatibus—Shake­speare’s play Love’s Labour’s Lost was the first). But readers with some small measure of persever­ance could make sense of them. At least both Ulysses and Portrait had some semblance of order, with a plot, settings, and characters…Finnegans Wake has none of these.

Instead, the reader gets more than 600 pages of pure puns, allusions, and whimsi­cal riddles, whose loose association comes in the context of a dream (Joyce called the Wake the “night” companion to Ulysses’s “day”). In this dream, we find human archetypes interacting amid references to ev­ery tidbit of trivia you can imagine, with scraps of dozens of languages thrown into the mix just for fun.

In its most famous feature, Finnegans Wake abruptly ends in the middle of a sentence that continues on the first page, creating a circular story with no true beginning or end. Joyce couldn’t have told us any more clearly to leave our linear expecta­tions at the door.

So perhaps readers don’t like the Wake because they don’t understand it. My advice: give up! Comprehension is a counterproductively quixotic quest, to say the least. That’s because there is not much to understand. It’s best enjoyed simply as a swiftly flowing river of wordplay, and at this level of ecstatically abstract linguistic celebration, Finnegans Wake is the richest work in the English language. You’d be selling yourself short by ignoring it altogether, so here’s some advice for getting something out of it.

Load up on puns. Master word­smith Joyce had the time of his life creating his portmanteau “slanguage,” often sounding more like lyrics from Nirvana or REM than English litera­ture. Some favorite puns: a decidedly negative Yuletide wish (“End a muddy crushmess!”) and a snide insinuation about the morals of a Mormon prophet (“bringem young!”). Truly, Joyce had a well-rounded inventory of words, or a “volupkabulary.” Keep your eyes open for thousands of these.

Bring your friends.Want to one-up Oprah’s bold book club choice of Faulknerian fables? Round up your overeducated cohorts and throw the snarkiest literary discus­sion the world has ever seen. Take turns reading out loud, and brain­storm every interpretation and association you can. Nobody can find all the possible meanings of the text, much less notice its infinite references, on their own.

It’s one to muse. Don’t plan on reading this book cover to cover. That kind of compulsive guilt is sim­ply not worth the cost. You might as well pick a random number between 3 and 628 and start on that page. Don’t plan on going quickly, either. Like Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, read­ing too much at once will only burn you out. It might take years before you read it all. You might never read it all. Just pick at it and find things you like, then let them marinate in your mind’s stew for a while. Joyce’s juices are exotic; let them simmer.

And use a pen. Before long, your copy of the Wake should look like some endlessly recycled poetry text in a college bookstore—hopelessly un­derlined, highlighted, dog-eared, sticky-noted, coffee-stained, and an­notated in your own swanky style. It will help your self-esteem to keep track of parts you liked and things you understood. Throw in some doodles and the Wake is yours.

Read far more lore. Each page of the Wake has enough winks at both serious academia and pop culture to make Ken Jennings dizzy. Make a game of it: see how many references to music you can find on 359.31–360.16. Don’t worry that you don’t know as much as he did. Joyce’s notes for the Wake spanned forty-seven note­books, and he spent seventeen years writing it. The most accessible guide to Joyce’s myriad references is Wil­liam York Tindall’s A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake. Get it.

Be self-absorbed. The Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone “shows us noth­ing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts.” Finnegans Wake does the same. That’s the plus side of a book so dense that it can only be understood as a subjective riddle. Whatever your memories and experiences, you’ll find tons of the Wake directed squarely at you. Say you come across the word “guenneses.” The former Sunday School student’s memories suggest the biblical book of Genesis. The linguistic puz­zler sees geniuses. And the drinker sees Guinness. All three are cor­rect—if only because Joyce was all three of those people.

If you haven’t seen your cup of tea yet, don’t fret; Joyce has something on the menu for you. That’s why the Wake is so long. Because it plumbs the murky depths of the common human soul, Finnegans Wake is every bit as universal as any play by the Bard (or, as Joyce refers to him, “Shapesphere”). As Joyce explicitly puts it in the text, “Here Comes Everybody.” (This is also why there’s no apostrophe in Finnegans–Joyce wanted to emphasize plurality, not personal possession.)

And now you read aloud the words. Joyce’s prose was his best po­etry. Like all good nonsense nursery rhymes, it’s even more fun to hear than to see. (Like warming up before a workout, you might try reciting Lewis Carroll’s “Jaberwocky” before tackling the Wake.) You will be surprised at how well it rolls off your tongue, like Irish honey. Listen to Joyce read some of it himself at http://www.finneganswake.org/joycereading.htm.

One more thing is worth noting to help you enjoy the ride. Joyce sug­gests a sort of setting for all of this monumental literary effort: the “chaosmos.” Get it? Chaos + cosmos = the whole crazy universe. What could be more welcoming? So relax, let go of your rational hang-ups, and get ready for a no-hassles guided tour of humanity’s collective id. Only in the Wake can you dream like this.