Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 5, 2008
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times
, Greensboro, NC.
Post-Its, Foreclosures, Rankings, Moses on Stage
Here's something fun to watch on your computer. You will not believe how
versatile stickynotes can be!
But I warn you: don't try these stunts in your own office, unless you own the
company. Or own a lot of stock in 3M, which has the Post-It Note trademark.
Sad news for me and my wife. For many years we've had all our picture
framing done at a shop in Quaker Village called The Framin' Place. When we
first became regular customers, the owners were Sumner and Ruth Feinberg,
and with them we worked out our philosophy of framed art.
It's a simple one: Each work of art stands alone. We don't choose our art, or
frame it, to define a room. Instead, the frame is the room -- the walls we put
around the art, the space in which it is to be experienced.
So our home is a jumble of every kind of art, each one framed exactly as that
particular painting or photograph demanded (in our opinion) to be framed.
After years of relying on the Feinbergs, they had the gall to sell the shop and
retire. We thought we'd never forgive them -- but the new owners, Alicia
Flowers and Cherry Hershey, were worthy successors. A few years later, they
too sold out, this time to Ann and Dick Shaw.
The Shaws were as different from Flowers and Hershey as they had been from
the Feinbergs, yet we learned once again to value their advice and trust their
And Ann Shaw earned our awe when she helped us rescue and restore a work
of abstract art that had been damaged in transit when I carried it home from
Barcelona. There was no way to put back the bits that had chipped off. Nor
did we have a photograph of how it had been before.
So instead, Ann studied the work and, building on the portions that had
survived, remade it.
Seeing her work on that piece, we simply could not remember what the original
had been like -- her completion of it blended in seamlessly.
When Fresh Market left Quaker Village, a lot of walk-in trade disappeared, and
when the Shaw's lease ran out and they could not get a rent reduction, they
decided not to renew.
They considered relocating, but ... this was a retirement business for them, and
maybe it was time for a change.
So The Framin' Place is closing, and after 25 years of being regular customers
there, through three sets of wonderful, artistic owners with impeccable
standards of workmanship, we feel bereft. Most of the art on our walls (and in
our storage unit waiting to be cycled back into the house) passed through the
doors of The Framin' Place ... but no more.
Thank you, Sumner and Ruth, Alicia and Cherry, Ann and Dick -- you have
contributed much to the pleasures of our home, and we have enjoyed your
company and collaboration.
The reason Congressional Democrats created the new, more "generous" rules
for mortgage lending was to help poorer people lift themselves into the home-owning middle class. A noble aspiration, and it didn't cost the government
Unfortunately -- but predictably -- those old mortgage rules had a purpose:
They kept people from buying homes they couldn't afford.
Some people have made it -- the rule change was a blessing for them.
But for a lot of people, the road to home ownership led straight to
foreclosure. Up to the last minute, they think they'll find a way to make it
work. Or perhaps they are so naive about mortgages that they just don't
believe that their house is going to be taken away from them.
Some are able to arrange to take away with them everything of value; but many
leave their homes like refugees -- though no one is chasing them. So what
does the mortgage holder do with all the stuff they leave behind?
Here's a sad video to show you what's done with the once-valued possessions
that people leave behind in foreclosed houses.
There are neighborhoods in California where every other house, or every third
house, is in foreclosure. And as more and more houses go on the market for a
fraction of their original price, the value of everyone else's houses goes down.
Which means that their houses no longer have enough value to cover their
mortgages. As long as they keep up their payments, this won't be a problem --
except that it may take many years of payments before they have any equity.
Meanwhile, at the foreclosed houses, the lawns turn brown, the swimming
pools turn green. So workers come out and literally paint the lawns green,
while others clean the green out of the pools.
The dream of home ownership is a good one. But when you manipulate the
loan process, even with the best of motives, everybody -- even the people who
can afford to make their house payments -- loses.
Meanwhile, we're finding out that the "generous" change in lending rules
turned out to have a cost after all.
Who's the greatest of them all? It's a fun game to play, as long as you don't
have any money on the line, because nobody is every going to find a way to
Usually conversations like that have to do with sports -- best all-around
football player, best pitcher, best Heisman Trophy winner, best heavyweight
boxer, that sort of thing.
But now and then someone tries to do it with literature -- and I, for one, find it
to be a lot of fun, though there are fewer people to play the game with, and it's
always irksome not to find my own name on the list.
Daniel S. Burt's The Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists,
Playwrights, and Poets of All Time is a noble effort. Naturally, since Western
culture is still in charge of things, our writers and poets are in the
overwhelming majority, and among those, English-language writers are
Burt includes a few writers from non-Western cultures, but the fact is,
relatively few Anglophone readers are fluent readers of books from other
cultures -- myself included -- and we simply aren't equipped to evaluate.
Besides, it was in Western civilization that freedom, prosperity, the Roman
alphabet, and the printing press all happened to coincide. No doubt there
would have been far more literature from Roman times, if they'd had a printing
press, but plays remained their only art that had a chance of reaching any
number of the common people.
And while China knew about printing, there was neither the freedom, the
prosperity, nor the 26-letter alphabet to make it easy to print and sell large
numbers of books.
You could even say that it was European culture that invented literature
(depending on how you define it), and other countries are nearly all emulating
that achievement after the fact.
So let's grant that Burt is not out of line to have his list consist primarily of
writers I've heard of. It certainly makes the list more interesting to me, since I
already have opinions about most of the writers.
The real issue is what we mean by "influential." Influential on contemporary
writers? On later generations of writers? On the contemporary audience,
changing their artistic expectations? Or influential on society as a whole, then
At least one entry on the list, James Joyce, is arguably not influential at all.
His influence on society at large is zero, since volunteers almost never read his
work. His influence on other writers is nearly as slight, since it is obvious to all
but the most elitist writers that none of Joyce's experiments actually worked --
that is, his "techniques" serve only to drive most readers out of most his works.
On the other hand, no one can deny the vast influence of Harriet Beecher
Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin -- but the influence was not artistic, it was social. It
can be fairly argued that the reason the North was willing to fight to oppose
slavery in the South during the Civil War was because she had given so many
readers (and, soon, play-goers) a visceral hatred of slavery.
But her artistic influence was non-existent.
So Joyce's influence consists mostly of having a lofty reputation (manufactured
by himself, his friends, and the academics suckered into believing them), while
Stowe changed the world but is generally ignored as an artist (and, in my
opinion, correctly so).
With the huge exception of Joyce, who is laughably misplaced at #7 on the list,
if he belongs on it at all, most of the discussion this book will incite will be
arguments about order. "How can he put Dante above Homer?" "Milton above
Cervantes?" "Yeats above Melville?" And so on.
And those of you thinking, "Who cares?" -- just remember that that's how I feel
when I hear people arguing about whether John McEnroe in his prime could
have beaten Arnold Palmer, or Dr. J, or ... what sport were we talking about?
If you're really serious about literary rankmanship, you'll want to look at
Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English and American
Literature, edited by Joseph Epstein.
It's a well-made book; real care has gone into it. And real thought. This time
there's no problem with writers you've never heard of -- if you know English-language literature, every name will be familiar.
What matters here is what we mean by "genius" and which writers had it.
Most of the people on the list -- presented, more or less, in chronological order
-- belong here, or at least in the general neighborhood. I find Ernest
Hemingway's placement on the list to be a bit absurd -- when will we finally
stop believing his own self-promotion? -- and J.R.R. Tolkien's absence merely
speaks to the provincialism and arrogance of the academic-literary elite.
But I loved seeing Robert Frost there, along with Dickens, Austen, and Twain
-- apparently in the editor's view it is possible to be a genius and also have
large numbers of volunteer readers.
And the individual essays are interesting, especially when they place these
writers in their context.
The problem is ... I don't believe in genius. I don't believe it exists.
There's talent, which is born in you; skill, which is achieved; wisdom and
understanding, which come through intuition and experience. But you can
also find ambition, arrogance, and charisma, all of which contribute to a
reputation for "genius."
And, of course, luck. When Thomas Grey wrote of "mute, inglorious Miltons" it
wasn't just in country graveyards that they could be found. There are many
writers in many eras who, if the public taste had been a little different, or they
had hit upon a story that really caught the public imagination, or if they had
come up with a jazzy theory to explain why they were great and everybody elseexcept their friends stank (cf. T.S. Eliot), they might just as easily be classed as
But quibbling about the definition of genius is half the fun of a book like this --
and, if you're interested in books like this, this is a good one!
Thirty-five years ago, while I was a missionary in Brazil, I used my spare time
to write a play called Stone Tables -- the story of Moses. I grew up on Cecil
B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, but as I read and reread the book of
Exodus I realized just how much of the story was missing in DeMille's typical
"sex and scripture" movie.
How did Aaron feel about his baby brother becoming the prophet and leader of
Israel, while he was the sidekick and also-ran? Maybe he was fine with it --
but the incident with the golden calf suggests that Aaron was probably a bit
more complicated than the simple story in the scripture lets on.
I wrote the first two acts of a five-act play in blank verse (yes, I was that
besotted with Shakespeare) and mailed it off to my playwriting professor and
good friend, Dr. Charles Whitman, at BYU. When I got a letter from him a
couple of weeks later (this was before the Internet. It was almost before mail),
instead of a critique I got this news: He had added it to the main-stage
schedule in BYU's Pardoe Theatre and would I please send him the rest of the
What rest of the play? I wrote my brains out and sent ... something. Enough to
finish all five acts.
Oh, and Dr. Whitman's letter also told me that he had given the script to my
long-time musical collaborator, Robert Stoddard, who was now writing the
music to my songs.
What songs? Well, apparently Robert was finding songs in the poetry of the
Stone Tables was produced at BYU while I was still on my mission. (No, they
don't let missionaries go home before their time is up, not even for the world
premiere of their first hit play.) There was some controversy -- ignorant people
had started a rumor that it was a "rock musical" -- anathema at a religious
school in the era of Hair and Oh Calcutta!
But Robert's music was not rock by any means -- it was modern, soaring,
cacophonous, funny, sweet, and devastating by turns.
Or so I heard.
The play was a hit. Sold-out performances; the run was extended to meet the
demand. And I missed it all.
Years later, I turned my play into a novel, also titled Stone Tables. By then I
had done a lot more research, and discovered that the most likely Pharaoh of
the Plagues was not a Ramses, but Thutmose III, and the "daughter of
Pharaoh" who adopted Moses would then have been the one female pharaoh,
At the same time, Robert revised and added to his music, my brother, a
brilliant composer in his own right, orchestrated it, and we produced a CD of
the score to be released with the book.
What we didn't do was stage the musical again. Why? I was still too close to
the book. I couldn't write a new script to include the new music; I was a
novelist now, not a playwright; and every other excuse I could think of.
Till now. My script is finished. Some talented young actors at Southern
Virginia University, where I teach one semester out of four, are in rehearsal
even as I write this, and on 24 October a new production of Stone Tables will
This time I'll actually be there to see it myself.
You're invited, too, of course -- why else would I tell you about it? The show
runs October 24-25, 30-31, and November 1. (That's right, it really does have
a performance on Halloween.) It starts at 7:30 pm, at Chandler Hall on the
campus of SVU at One University Hill Drive, Buena Vista, VA 24416.
If you want tickets in advance, you can call 540-261-8405. There might be
tickets at the door as well. Buena Vista is three or more hours from
Greensboro (the best route is up US 220 until you latch on to I-81), so plan to
leave early and get home late.
But it won't be too late. I'm a better playwright now, and instead of five acts,
there are only two -- just as much of the story, but a much tighter script.