Sunday, November 17, 2013

Remembering F. D. Reeve (1928 - 2013)

Franklin Reeve (Photo: Christopher Reed Homepage)

I've dedicated Farnsworth's Revenge to F. D. Reeve, who was one of my most influential mentors as a writer. I've had a great many valuable teachers and counselors, and it's not like I spent so much time with him. But let me tell you what he taught me, and why I think it has made all the difference.

Frank was one of my professors in the College of Letters program at Wesleyan University. This interdisciplinary major is a three-year curriculum in literature, philosophy, and language. The teaching modes include colloquia (large group discussion sessions around a core reading list), seminars (smaller group meetings on specific topics), and individual tutorials. The program was ungraded. We had a battery of oral exams at the end of junior year, and then we had to defend a paper in senior year. For my paper, I wrote and directed a play, The Kepler Foundation, which has been performed exactly three times.
Frank was an active leader in the colloquia all three years I was in the program. And he was one of my tutors in my senior year.
He titled his tutorial course "Some Islands." The reading list included classic works, mostly fiction, with island themes - Huxley's Island, Stevenson's Treasure Island, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and quite a few others. The assignment was to read one of these books each week, then write a review. And here's the challenge - each review had to be written in the style of a particular literary journal or periodical. That is, you had to write the review as if you were a stringer for the magazine and had to "voice" your copy to suit the publication.
Now, in a traditional journalism course, I've since learned, the professor would probably drone on about the analytics of parsing sentences to determine rules of style. Count the words, count the clauses, count the syllables. For tenth-grade level, keep sentences under twenty words, no more than two clauses per sentence, no more than three syllables per word. The New York Times famously adheres to its own flavor of tenth-grade-level style. (It shouldn't come as a shock that USA Today writes to seventh grade.)
Problem was, Reeve told me none of this. I don't recall ever even having a conversation about what the elements of style are. (Yes, there's the highly regarded handbook, Elements of Style. We didn't talk about that either.)
I don't know how Reeve expected me and his handful of other students to get this knack. But I did, and without any attention to deliberate techniques or metrics of style. I could liken it to learning to play piano by ear. He simply directed my attention to the task. Playwrights and screenwriters talk about having an ear for dialogue. This skill is much the same, listening to the editorial voice of the publication.
In my most memorable session with Frank, we'd met in his office to go over my review of Robinson Crusoe, which I'd tried to do in the manner of Time magazine.
Reeve read through my two-page, double-spaced, typewritten review as I sat there facing him. He came upon the following sentence, and he literally gagged:
Defoe: Of course, my main worry was how to achieve verisimilitude. I wanted the reader to think these fanciful events actually happened.
Time: Very what?
My mentor said nothing, just stared at me with those steely blue eyes as his ruddy cheeks grew even redder. Without a word his look told me, "You're supposed to imitate this shit, not make fun of it."
Then we both laughed. I laughed so hard, my head flew back and hit the wall.
I haven't been the same since.

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