Season 3 Episode 21: Elisabeth Van Der Meer & Dave Astor on Enduring Literary Themes

“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary about ordinary people and saying with ordinary words something extraordinary.” Boris Pasternak, Russian poet, novelist, and literary translator

A Russian Affair – Elisabeth Van Der Meer
Dave Astor – Dave Astor on Literature

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia.

Thank you for listening in.

Why do specific narratives endure? Writers and readers come to these stories over and over again.  Is it because the characters are memorable and compelling? Or is it the dialogue, action scenes, or unfolding love that engages?  What transforms an ordinary storyline into an extraordinary critical success that attracts readers beyond the life of the writer?  The answer: A strong literary theme.

Today, I am thrilled that we are joining Porvoo, Finland, Montclair, New Jersey and Vancouver, British Columbia.  Elisabeth Van Der Meer and Dave Astor have joined me in connecting three times zones within seconds to bring you a discussion on “Enduring Literary Themes.”

Dave Astor on Literature
Elisabeth van der Meer on A Russian Affair

Thank you for joining Elisabeth, Dave, and me on Tea Toast & Trivia.  And a very special thank you, Elisabeth and Dave for adding your insights on enduring themes of literature. This has been another exciting conversation. You can connect with Elisabeth on A Russian Affair. You can connect with Dave on Dave Astor on Literature.   There is always an adventure in reading waiting for your arrival on Elisabeth and Dave’s blogs.

Until next time, dear friends, keep safe and be well.

Elisabeth Van Der Meer and Dave Astor on Enduring Literary Themes Tea. Toast. & Trivia.

57 Replies to “Season 3 Episode 21: Elisabeth Van Der Meer & Dave Astor on Enduring Literary Themes”

  1. Always interesting questions about what makes styles and genres endure through the ages.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you for listening in, Tim! I enjoyed David and Elisabeth’s insights – they have added much depth to my reading journey over the past few years. . Don has been working on a 3 way conversation with Zoom, which has been a challenge because of the internet connections. Now, he is having fun learning about frequencies.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. I know what he’s up against. How frequently technology challenges us these days and how much creativity we come up with given limitations of our Internet connections.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. I just read you comment to Don. He said – yes, Tim is very knowledgeable in this area so would understand completely what happened. (We love your videos) Don sends his thanks along with mine for your encouragement. Don is having the very best time learning all about frequencies. After all, challenges keep us alive, motivated and engaged with the world around us. And it is lots of fun, too!!! Sending hugs to you, Laurie, the kitties, the Owl family and my tree!

        Liked by 5 people

  2. Hi Rebecca, Elizabeth and Dave, this is a very interesting podcast. I have often pondered on this question myself. Definitely books that tackle difficult and controversial topics often endure. Books I can think of in this category, off the top of my head, are The Red Badge of Courage (War), All Quiet on the Western Front (War), The Scarlet Letter (pre-marital sex), 1984 (societal issues), Anthem (societal issues), Animal Farm (societal issues), and Tess of the D’Urberville (seduction and murder). Books that endure due to their amazing and impactful language are in a separate category and for me these include Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, She, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Secret Garden. Then there are books that are a first of their kind which make them outstanding. Dracula, Frankenstein, Phantom of the Opera and The Murders in the Rue Morgue are in this category. I think The Great Divorce and The Screwtape letters also fall into this category as they include a very different take on an age old topic. I have said before that with writing, you must chose between fame and fortune. By fame, I mean enduring fame i.e. writing something outstanding. In our modern age, publishers do not want to take chances, Dave alluded to this when he said that Margaret Atwood’s most famous work was not her first book but rather her sixth. She had to write what the masses definitely want to read and establish a name for herself before treading the path of the more controversial. I think publishing has become a money game rather than a creative game and that is the angle from which I make my statement above. A lot of modern writers write to a formula that works and is a definite sell. These books are good solid reads but they are nothing special and I don’t believe they will endure.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thank you, Robbie! Very well said, and GREAT points — including how major publishers often don’t want to take chances, especially with less-established authors. Playing it safe might (or might not) help the bottom line, but it can sure make things less interesting. And that’s a terrific array of novels you listed that addressed various challenging topics and achieved literary immortality partly because of that.

      Liked by 6 people

      1. Thank you, Dave. Sadly, everything in our modern world is about money, but I take comfort in the fact that Emily Bronte self published the wonderful Wuthering Heights which might otherwise have never seen the light of day.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. “Sadly, everything in our modern world is about money” — if not everything, way too much, Robbie. 😦

        And, yes, I wonder if any major publisher today would publish “Wuthering Heights” if they received it as an unknown novel.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. A very good point Dave! When I read Wuthering Heights again last year, I marveled at Emily Bronte’s incredible talent.

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Robbie – thank you for adding breadth and depth to this conversation. Your knowledge of books and how you presented their unique qualities has given me a fresh perspective. Your insights resonated for I have been thinking a great deal about how we participate in a society that has benchmarks for what will sell and what is considered marketable. How can we ensure authenticity in our creativity ? How can we be true to our talents? Our stories? Our artistic expressions? You have brought to mind Vincent van Gogh’s quote, “A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke.” Why did no one see Vincent’s genius? Perhaps they did not fully understand his art, but there are other factors involved. This is a great conversation. As Dave said – “playing is safe can sure make things less interesting.” And of course, I must add a quote by the enduring Virgil “Death twitches my ear; ‘Live,’ he says… I’m coming.” Let’s live bold lives!!!!

      Liked by 5 people

      1. Hi Rebecca, the idea of writing to a formula does not appeal to me. I don’t think I could do it even if I wanted to. I am rather an independent spirit even at work. So often I am told, “but we can’t do that,” and I say: “but why not, look I’ll trace it backwards from the end we want to where we start,” and then all is clear and we can proceed to solve the problem. I am currently very engrossed with my Cli-fi project (book 1 in a trilogy). I am pleased about A-76 the giant iceberg coming along so timeously so I can include something about the fracturing of the ice shelves in my story.

        Liked by 3 people

    3. Hi, Robbie. I think another factor that comes into play with the question of what literature endures is The Academy. What books are the academics who teach literature courses assigning undergraduate students to study? How are these books being taught, through what critical or theoretical lens? What writers are doctoral students basing their dissertations on?

      Liked by 5 people

      1. HI Liz, that is certainly an interesting question. I know Prof French has taught a number of the books that intrigue me, including Shakespeare, All Quiet on the Western Front and Hemingway. I must ask him about the more modern books that are being taught. My son, Greg, had The Great Gatsby as a set work book as well as Catch 22. He also read 1984, The Red Badge of Courage, and Cry the Beloved Country for a themed book comparison essay he had to do for his final school year. Sadly, he is not taking English at University level next year.

        Liked by 4 people

  3. Thank you all for this touching conversation about various topics , which have been treated in literature. It makes me, however ,sad that we may have read about slavery or abuse of people not belonging to the aristocrats, or f.e. about corruption in animal farm or about the most important goal to marry once children into wealthy families, but to me it seems that we havn’t learned very much from all these books!
    Anyway, I just long to live peacefully in a ecologically healthy surrounding. All the best to you three!
    My thanks go also to Don, who seems to have made this conversation possible:)

    Liked by 5 people

    1. “…it seems that we haven’t learned very much from all these books” — that is unfortunately so depressingly true, Martina. 😦 But glad you found the conversation interesting!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. As I said to Rebecca, I am convinced that people learn/learnt on an individual basis, but unfortunately systems or general behaviour havn’t changed.
        All the best, Dave:)

        Liked by 3 people

      2. Terrific point, Martina! Some people will be influenced to change their minds to a degree, even as systems/institutions/etc. often remain immovable. The best to you as well!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Oh, Martina – do we learn? Does society change? Excellent questions. I believe that books identify the issues, creating a space for discussion and individual soul-searching. As you know, Elisabeth recommended that I read “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which was first published in November 1962 in the Soviet literary magazine Novy. I had heard that there were interesting outcomes from the book being published, but I really didn’t know that much about it. So, I looked up the backstory. It seems that this book was the tipping point for other writers. And in the end – “The Gulag system is no longer used in Russia. With the open policy, media is better able to monitor the criminal justice system, https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/one-day-life-ivan-denisovich#H

      Thank you so much for listening in. Don sends his thanks along with mine for your support of these life-affirming conversations. We share your goal of living peacefully in a ecologically heathy surrounding. Sending many hugs your way.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. Oh, dear Rebecca, I am sure that on an individual basis, people have certainly learnt a lot!
        I also read about the Gulag system by Alexander Solschenizyn, which may not exist anymore under that name, but the way the system proceeds against Navalni and now against the blogger and journalist Roman Protasevich, unfortunately, doesn’t give me much confidence!
        I very much enjoy this discussion and by wishing you a sunny day I am also sending big hugs.

        Liked by 4 people

      2. Very true, Rebecca! Sometimes (albeit not as often as we’d like) novels do help to make change in society. That Solzhenitsyn novel, Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” etc.!

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks so much, Rebecca, for hosting this podcast so wonderfully! (No surprise there 🙂 ) You asked great questions and steered the conversation into many interesting areas. Many terrific authors and works mentioned! It was a privilege to share the discussion with you and the superb Russian-literature blogger Elisabeth.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I enjoy our conversations, Dave! I remember the first time I met you on Elisabeth’s blog “A Russian Affair.” I knew I had found a kindred spirit. By the way, good news. I just received your book yesterday – “Comic (and Column) Confessional” at my doorstep. It was scheduled to come on June 1st but the universe had other plans. Looking forward to our next conversation!

      Liked by 3 people

      1. VERY grateful, Rebecca, that the WordPress blog platform enabled us, and so many others, to meet. 🙂

        And so glad the book came early!

        Liked by 3 people

  5. This is, without any doubt, the most inspiring and challenging conversation that I have heard recently. I will be listening to it again. The subject discussed is important. Thank you, very much, to the three of you for your important thoughts on a very relevant subject. I will look forward to hearing more from the three of you again! !

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thank you, Frances! I appreciate the kind comment. So glad you enjoyed the conversation! As I have enjoyed the excellent podcasts you have participated in — on letter-writing, etc. 🙂 Enduring literature themes is (are?) a great topic, and I’m very happy Rebecca suggested it!

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I enjoyed this thought-provoking conversation a great deal! It reminded me of what a joy it was to be an English major, to be introduced to literature in so many different forms and to have my own reading experience enriched by the professors’ lectures. (Lectures are fallen from pedagogical favor these days, but I learned a great deal from them. To me, they were stories.) The other side of the coin was studying the craft of fiction and being taught the paradox of theme for writing fiction–that theme must evolve organically from character, plot, and setting, that if we start with theme, the end result will be contrived and fall flat.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I share you enjoyment of lectures, Liz. I remember my literature class, my first year in university. It was a pivotal moment where the words fell into place. And it was all to do with the lecturer who was close to retirement and looked remarkably like J.R.R. Tolkien. He had a love of literature that came through his lectures, which were brimming with wisdom and humour. I recall that no one ever missed a class. Your thought on the idea of theme evolving organically makes sense. For if we have the theme beforehand, the story is more likely to become formulaic. Another excellent point, Liz. Thank you.

      Liked by 3 people

    2. Golly Liz … this is not so much a reply as an acknowledgement of the importance of your observation – the “theme must evolve organically from character, plot, and setting, that if we start with theme, the end result will be contrived and fall flat.” Eloquently put. It is something I have often felt and, I suppose, instinctively tried to employ in my own work, but never have I consciously thought this. Seeing the words here, honestly it’s like I was blind and now see. Glory, glory hallejah! The organic evolution of fiction (and I would argue good popular history books too) is fundamental to what a writer hopes to achieve. Once the reader (or in the case of movies- viewer) sees through lazy work the spell is not only broken, it’s irrecoverable.

      Liked by 3 people

  7. Liz and Rebecca, I also remember lectures (in those large college rooms 🙂 ). With the right professor, those presentations could definitely be more than mesmerizing enough to make up for the lack of intimacy and small-group discussion. And Liz, I agree with Rebecca about what you said re theme and characters — a novel that “starts” with theme is indeed likely to not be that compelling, though there are probably a few exceptions. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Rebecca, Liz and Dave, that was such an interesting conversation to listen to! My dearest Rebecca you create wonderful interviews and always bring out the best in everyone! Don… you’re doing an excellent job with the frequencies! 😉

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for listening in, Marina. Don sends his warmest thanks for your encouragement on the frequencies. His thanks also goes to Elisabeth and Dave for their patience and willingness to work on a three way conversation. Challenges keep us alive and focused on new possibilities. Sending many hugs.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you, Marina! Rebecca and Elisabeth were indeed terrific to listen to — many interesting comments and insights. And their words came through loud and clear thanks to Don. Rebecca, I loved your statement about how “Challenges keep us alive and focused on new possibilities.”

        Liked by 2 people

  9. The emotional and intellectual experience of reading good literature is only surpassed by conversation about it! These Tea Toast & Trivia podcasts are some of my favorite blogging minutes in the week. The comments threads add to the experience as well. The promptings of both reading and conversing about books are what literature is all about. Rebecca, your sleepless nights produce important questions for your guests! Dave, you have a knack for aligning cultural changes with past literature, which is always a tricky and controversial task. And Elisabeth, your deep dives into Russian literary masters brings a richness to the experience of reading them. I agree with you, Rebecca that Elisabeth and Dave are a credit to the art of blogging about literature. Thanks for a pleasurable experience this morning, and it’s always a delight, Rebecca, to hear your smiles at the end of each podcast. You exude sincerity and joy!!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thanks so much, Mary Jo, for your generous words! I completely agree with your praise of Rebecca and Elisabeth — and with your observation that listening to “Tea Toast & Trivia” podcasts is a favorite activity of any week. Helped immeasurably by Rebecca’s preparation, questions, intellect, friendliness, and podcast-perfect voice. Discussing literature indeed adds another layer of enjoyment to reading literature!

      Liked by 4 people

    2. Thank you for your heartwarming and joyful comments, Mary Jo. Dave and Elisabeth have added depth to my reading experience as you have with your poetry. We belong to a community that thrives on the exchange of knowledge and experience. A few years ago I read “Resistance” by Agnes Humbert translated by Barbara Mellor. It was a journal that spoke about a remarkable group of people who shared art and camaraderie – and made a huge difference. In Humbert’s journals she spoke about their respect and support for each other. The idea of community prompted a look into the how communities foster creativity, new pathways, new visions, and transitions, from art to literature to science to education. Powerful stuff! I believe that I have found such a community that welcomes and engages in authentic discussions. Hugs and more hugs!

      Liked by 4 people

  10. Apologies for arriving late to the party. I had some work I wanted to finish and this was my reward. The podcast itself was (and I do not use this word lightly- because it is so overused, not to mention underappreciated) AWESOME! And the coversation it has inspired was heady stuff indeed! Elizabeth and Dave have such knowledge of literature it leaves me feeling like a first year student invited to a Professor’s conversatione. And as for you Rebecca -if as you imply, you are faking it in the presence of these two giants- then I must say one would never know. The conversation you engendered from all the contributors was excellent. These podcasts get better and better … and now I better head off to the dictionary to look up more superlatives …. my lexicon is deplete!

    Liked by 3 people

    1. My dear Paul, I agree that bringing Elisabeth and Dave together ignited a brilliant conversation on how we relate to narratives and the repeating themes that continue to be transformed by changes within the structure of society. Now, we have the added input of new technologies that foster and demand participation. Recently, my sister Sarah spoke about the The Witcher, a series of 6 fantasy novels and 15 short stories written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It is now a Video Game that allows for integration and transformation of story. From papyrus to digital, we need storytellers. By the way, you are never, ever late to the party. Your arrival with those amazing superlatives, added to the celebration. Sending hugs.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Your kind words are very appreciated, Paul! Almost everything Elisabeth and I discussed was skillfully drawn out by Rebecca’s carefully prepared, insightful questions.

    I am also impressed with how much you and other commenters here and on their own blogs know about literature — as readers, as authors, as readers who are also authors, and as authors who are also readers.

    Rebecca, a video game inspired by literature? Fantastic! Storytelling in all formats is indeed welcome. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. “Make you think books” … thank you Dave!
    “How relevant can this book be for me…?” ….Thank you Elizabeth!
    At least I have read Romeo and Juliette, and a few of the others mentioned here.
    I’ve seen the some of the rest in movies.
    Keep thinking of questions, Rebecca!
    A wonderful podcast!
    Thank you all!!!!

    Liked by 3 people

  13. Thank you, Resa! Glad you liked the podcast! Rebecca and Elisabeth certainly brought up some great literary works, and it’s nice that some of them ended up being adapted into excellent movies or TV series (those “transfers” are of course not always done as well as we’d like). Memorable screen versions of “Pride and Prejudice,” “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” and “The Lord of the Rings,” to name a few.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. A fascinating discussion, Rebecca, Elizabeth, and David. There are several variations on the number of over-arching literary plots, and they seem to come down to how deeply we delve into the details. I like the version that distills it down to 3: Man versus Man, Man versus Nature, and Man versus Himself. How interesting that literary themes also narrow down to so few too. I’ve always thought of fear and love as being the two main motivators of human action, and they play right into the themes and character archetypes. Love is pretty self explanatory and it involves a ton of courage whether it’s standing up for equality, risking the heart’s vulnerability, or doing the right thing despite the will of others. Fear is less obvious – fear of loss of control, wealth, superiority, power, love, life. This was a great listen. Thanks for the entertainment.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am delighted that you listened in, Diana. When I read you throught “there are several variations on the number of over-arching literary plots, and they seem to come down to how deeply we delve into the details,” you reminded me of a thought that comes from Sun Tzu, The Art of War:

      There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard. There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen. There are not more than five cardinal tastes, yet combinations of
      them yield more flavours than can ever be tasted.”

      Storytelling has many complexities because of the details, the variations. These details and variation, in the hands of a master storyteller, capture us in the narrative. We laugh, weep and feel the spectrum of emotional nuances. Thank you for being a writer and storyteller, Diana.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. What a great quote. I haven’t read The Art of War but it seems I should. That was a fun conversation with you, Elizabeth, and David. It sparked so many ideas. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  15. Thank you, Diana! Glad that you enjoyed the podcast! And that was such an interesting description you offered of the basic literary plots and the variations on them. As you and Rebecca (in her reply to you) noted, those variations and the details are the key — giving rise to countless different story lines even if some of the basics are the same. Great takes on love and fear, too!

    Rebecca, your reply was equally eloquent — and Sun Tzu was a very wise man!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply to robertawrites235681907 Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.