I began writing seriously about four years ago. I had moved to Saudi Arabia, and I had to give up the love of my life: improv comedy. Writing is one thing you can do when you are stuck in the middle of the desert surrounded by religious police. Alhamdullah. Finishing the first novel, of course, was as pleasant as pulling teeth, but I have a second one done and am working on a third, so the habit has stuck. I find it hard to keep myself from going back to pecking away at my Scribophile or the 1950s vintage Remington that my wife bought me last year for my birthday. The blank page is perhaps the most thrilling, open adventure I can have. In it there are infinite possibilities, and you can't say that about much else in life.
I have an interest in writing fantasy, but my reading spans a variety of genres, from depressing Russians to 19th century British romances to the latest literary craze to really good YA. I'm currently listening to the Hunger Games on audiobook, but before that I read Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and before that E.M. Forster's A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread. <-- I loved all of these. I also just got to visit Italy and see some of the places Forster wrote about with such descriptive power.
I live in Tunisia right now with my wife, where I am doing dissertation research on business politics in North Africa. It is long, slow, messy work. I have a daughter who died of leukemia.
(Note: Timothy Vienne is a pen name. My real name is Bob Kubinec).
I never intended to write a YA fairy tale retelling. It just kind of happened. (I guess that's how fairy tales are supposed to work, though). My wife and I were on a long plane trip, and to amuse her I took out my laptop. I started writing about the first idea that came into my head: a crazy world where people took advantage of fairy tales: i.e., they knew what the game was, and they played it to their own advantage. To amuse us, I invented a character who wanted more than anything to be cursed because she knew if that happened, she would find a prince. From this absurd premise was born a story which wouldn't let me give up on it. So thousands of words and several rounds of edits later, I have THE PRINCESS AND THE PEASANT. In addition to Sleeping Beauty, it brings in The Prince and the Pauper by Mark Twain, because it is a story about a girl who learns the dark side of what waiting for Prince Charming requires.
I think my manuscript is in a polished state--as I am told we should to submit to #Pitchwars--but I could use a firm critique of the manuscript, with particular attention to how the main character evolves over the course of the novel, and in particular how her relationship with her co-adventurer, a young orphan servant boy, develops as well. I'm not the most emotionally aware writer, so I often have to work hard to get deep into my MC's inner experiences.
I am quite used to critique, and whatever you say about my manuscript, it's probably no more harsh than what I get from my advisor. So I appreciate frank advice, although at the same time I am looking for a mentor who will believe in the main character as much as I do. I do my best to respect other people's deadlines because I know what it's like to be busy and have to rely on others to get things done. Finally, I am looking for a mentor relationship that is also a friendship. I have made great friends through this authorship adventure from an amazingly diverse set of life circumstances, and I hope to do the same through this contest.
So there are now 139 writers participating as mentors in the #PitchWars contest... what can we learn from their interview questions on Brenda Drake's blog? For anyone who doesn't want to read through, there aren't any incredible surprises here, but it would make sense to pay attention to the themes that are emphasized across all of the mentors: character arcs, plot lines and plot holes, voice, and grammar. Also, we need to be ready to receive critiques: no grouchiness, please. That does sort of sum up what preparing a manuscript is all about, isn't it?
Here are the top 50 two-word phrases from all of the mentors (excluding prepositions, etc.). Notice how important characters are, occupying several top 10 spots, and also how worldbuilding (#62) is far less mentioned than "fall love" (i.e., to fall in love). People want stories they connect with and feel some sympathy for the main characters more than they are impressed by your command of geography.
It's still a lot of information to take in, though. What if we could reduce all of the mentor's answers to a single dimension? I.e., some kind of editing style scale? That's what I did (for those interested in the technical details, feel free to tweet me a question). I used counts of words and word phrases in all the mentors interviews to try to place them on a scale using a statistical algorithm. The result is below, and it is interactive. Note that the scale has no inherent meaning: it is based on which people emphasized the same concepts in their writing. To see an interactive version of the chart, simply click on it.
To make things clearer, I divided the mentors into four categories based on their position on the chart: far right, right, left, far left (note: this has nothing to do with politics!). Then I made word clouds for each of the four kinds of mentors:
One of the enduring disputes in 21st century art is over the apparent gulf between popular and elitist conceptions of the true and the beautiful. While at one time many artists lived by making relatively pragmatic forms of art (i.e., works commissioned for the decoration of buildings or for an influential patron), modern artists can rely on either publication (in the case of a novelist) or a fellowship or job through the many colleges, universities and even high schools. Of course, these resources can be meagre and many would-be artists are forced to abandon their callings when faced with the difficulties of the artistic marketplace. But it should be emphasized that there is still a class of artists who are considered to be "the" artists in a sense that did not exist 300 years ago.
This sort of dilemma often arises in conversations about the meaning of modern art. The use of simple shapes or complicated but chaotic lines strikes many viewers as utterly opaque, and even well-meaning museum placards explaining the author's purpose fail to provide the kind of clarity that many observers need. Thus it seems like art for art's sake only speaks to those who have been taught its language, a language that is confined to the academy and imparted to those who are willing to pay the considerable cost of a traditional liberal arts education. The liberal arts were, after all, a sign of aristocratic bearing in the Roman Empire: for the free, or the liberal, people, as opposed to the slaves.
Given this context, a writer like Coetzee is very interesting. In many ways he is a part of the artistic establishment, the elite. He has a PhD in linguistics, teaching at universities in the U.S. and South Africa. He has won many of the awards in the literary world, even including the Nobel Prize. So he is a great writer. But what does that mean, substantively? Is it just that he speaks a rareified form of language that is the preserve of the vestiges of the European elite (and their settler colonies)? Or does his writing address those stories which haunt the human soul?
Clearly I should affirm the latter. After reading his work Disgrace, which won the Man Booker Prize, I think that is true. But its not apparently true, and I think that one way to move towards a more healthy artistic world is to not hold those who have won prizes in such high esteem that we miss the point that they are human beings telling stories, just like us. The words are not magic--their power is in awaking memories and perceptions of the world which are fundamentally true and speak across genres and languages.
Disgrace is a novel about a man with a mind-numbing series of love affairs with women. He spends most of the book obsessed with an opera he wants to write about Byron, and like Byron he cannot seem to avoid seducing every woman he meets. It could become fodder for a James Bond comedy except that Coetzee shows his protagonist in brutal full-color. He is expelled from his university after an affair with a student; he sleeps with women he meets on street corners and at one time hires a woman to be his weekly liaision in a secret location. He is at once dominated by and fascinated with women, but mostly their bodies, not their souls.
The preferred route to deal with such a character is to reform him--to teach him to value women as more than just objects. Coetzee avoids that route, preferring to let David Lurie indulge in hopeless fantasies long after he should have learned his lesson. When his own daughter is raped, Lurie begins to learn, begins to grasp what sex is like for a woman, what she might experience. But he never fully arrives at those realizations. They remain incipent, underdetermined.
Of course accepting a book like that is hard. We want characters with dark problems to be reformed. We want them to recant and see the light. So reading Disgrace is about reading on a person's life without fully endorsing it. Understanding it as a portrait that is not an icon.
Literary fiction, as on my teachers said, may well be its own genre. As a genre it should have a purpose--and perhaps its purpose is to take the stories we want to tell, but keep them from reaching easy conclusions. To force us to look beyond our blithe statements about life into the somewhat grotesque reality around us.
Not always a fun read, but at the end of the day, an absorbing one.
This fall I had the pleasure of reading works by two marvelously different authors: the 19th-century master George Elliot's Middlemarch and the epic dystopian novel The Road by 21st century master Cormac McCarthy. The striking contrasts between these books in terms of mood, subject and prose is so vast as to be trite. But the point I want to emphasize in this post are the similarities between the two more than the differences. Culture, setting and style change over the decades, but a well-wrought story endures.
Elliot's Middlemarch is a tome that fixates on the drama of an English small town during the tumultuous period of the 1830s. This era is known as one of the first examples of bottom-up movements for democratization in Britain; while the actual reforms implemented would look shallow by today's standards (essentially lowering the property qualifications to vote), they were revolutionary to the aristocracy that had long run Britain's electoral system. In the midst of this social mayhem, a young woman named Dorothy marries an old clergy man on the assumption that his scholarly prowess will give her life significance. She decides wrongly, and instead is trapped in a cold, lifeless relationship with a man who tilts at academic windmills. Dorothy gains a fervent admirer in Will Ladislaw, a relation of her husband who is classic gentleman adventurer without a fortune or a career. It is only when her husband dies that Dorothy can consider Will, although a cruel provision in her husband's will means that to marry him she must give up her wealthy estate. (Middlemarch in 500 words, not bad eh?)
McCarthy's The Road is a tale of man and his boy, both nameless, who journey through a post-apocalyptic United States. Fleeing marauding bands of cannibals, they survive on the last vestiges of civilization in looted supermarkets and abandoned root cellars. The bleakness of the landscape contrasts with the fervent love of the man for his son. They reach the coast, but the man dies before he can reach any traces of normal people. His son, though, is rescued from starvation by a local family, who adopt him as their own son. In that sense The Road is a story about redemption and sacrifice: a man lays down his life for his son, which secures his salvation from the perishing world around him.
In terms of setting these novels could not be more different. Yet the strength of these stories is not in their clever use of scenery but in the intensity of their characters' passions. The man in The Road will brave pneumonia and the savagery of lawless tribes if it will only give his son a chance to live. Dorothy in Middlemarch refuses to accept her husband's post-mortem judgment on her life, and instead chooses a life of obscurity because she loves Will Ladislaw. These characters choose not to let the overwhelming temptation of the easiest choice overcome their desire to redeem those they love.
A way to put it could be that a great novel examines why a human being is great, or at least can be great. Great not in the sense of daring escapades or ingenious schemes, but great in terms of shaping others' destinies. There is no one to one correspondence in either novel between good, evil and the characters in the novel: each one has dimensions which are unimpressive or reprehensible. But the main thing is to rush forward into the traps of life, not to remain in the comfortable obscurity of the might-have-been.
Robinson is a mesmerizing writer who finds the deepest meaning in the most ordinary settings, similar to the small town novels of Wendell Berry. In contrast to the classic Wizard of Oz, Robinson follows a character who never left Kansas and who intends to die in the same town in which he grew up. Robinson's novel Gilead is a collection of the reflections of this aging pastor towards his seven-year old son. Having married late, the protagonist, John Ames, wants to impart any wisdom he can to his son before he dies. He moves from disconnected stories of his childhood to warnings about unsavory characters in town to profound theological reflections from his ministry.
The author is very well-read in both philosophy and theology, as a recent interview with the Paris Review discussed. For this reason, John Ames is in some sense also a representative of Robinson's attempt to marry an aesthetic theology to traditional Calvinist teachings. If that sounds like a mouthful, it is. Yet this kind of thinking produces subtle portraits of the beauty of life in a nondescript Kansas town:
"It was a very clear night, or morning, very still, and then there was such an energy in the things transpiring among those trees, like a storm, like travail. I stood there a little out of range, and I thought, it is all still new to me. I have lived my life on the prairie and a line of oak trees can still astonish me."
You could call this John Ames' (and Robinson's) belief in the divinity of the ordinary, that God's creation is evident in the subtle act of existence. Ames is often meditative and reflective, waking up to go to his church and pray through the hours of the night so that he can be there when the sun shines through the windows. Robinson is redeeming Midwest Christianity from its association with austerity, of a life-denying ethos. Ames loves his life to the hilt, even the few years he has left to spend with his young wife and son. He is ready to pass on to the grave, yet he sees God's hand in each day.
All of this happens in a literary voice which defies a lot of contemporary conventions, and is for that reason refreshing. Robinson has no taste for the adage, "show, don't tell." Her book is filled with reflections of any kind of topic, some of them very close and personal, others distant, such as Ames' account of what Calvin really meant in his theological opus The Institutes. Yet the unity of the book is in its constant probing of Ames' relationships to his wife and son. His concern and worry over what their lives will be after he dies animates what he writes in his letters. It is not the visceral reality of the story which moves it along, but rather the truth revealed about human struggles through one man's open-ended reflections.
My one question for Robinson is whether she injects so much of her theology into Ames that he becomes a bit of a mouthpiece for her. Ames is incredibly well-read for a small-town pastor, bringing in 19th and 20th century German theologians into his thinking and weaving together a clever re-interpretation of Christian doctrine. In addition, there could be some postmodern hijacking of what 1940s Midwestern Christianity looked like; Ames is circumspect about other people's faith and always avoids making any firm statements when he is confronted by unbelief. While this equivocation makes the book palatable to the modern American reader, it renders the character a bit of a reflection of today into the past than from the past into the present. For instance,
"In the matter of belief, I have always found that defenses have the same irrelevance about them as criticisms they are meant to answer."
This sort of subjectivity is a characteristic of academic thought in the 1970s and later and has moved into contemporary culture. For the modern reader, saying that "truth and doubt are equivalent to each other" raises no eyebrows. But I doubt such an idea would have much currency in Kansas in the 30s.
Quibbles about history and philosophy aside, it is a profound book that leaves one wondering about the nature of existence and what it means to hold dear those who live around us. To participate in the tremendous beauty which we habitually ignore. And to take in a character so fleshed out his thinking is as transparent as crystal glass. Whatever else may be said, Gilead sure deserved its Pulitzer. As Dorothy ran away to another world to find the answers to her life, so Robinson runs in to the world of the present, in all its grit and glory.
I'm an avid reader of 19th century British novels, for which reason I was surprised I had so far left one of the big authors of the period unturned: William Thackeray. So I picked up his quintessential work, Vanity Fair, his bold attempt to rewrite the emerging novel form. The subtitle of the work is "A Novel Without a Hero." In this sense, the book is a departure from Dickens or Austen, who are both fond of including unambiguous protagonists. It is never hard to pick out the woman who will overcome all odds in an Austen novel, or the plucky chap who will do great deeds in a Dickens adaptation.
Thackeray's point in writing a novel without a hero is to comment on human fallibility. The book cannot be read apart from the Biblical work Ecclesiastes, which opens with this haunting phrase:
"Vanity of vanities, says the teacher, vanity of vanities! all is vanity."
Some have described this Biblical masterpiece as the first recorded example of existential philosophy. Of course, that is reading a whole lot of 20th century thinking backwards into ancient Israel, but the point stands. Thackeray is building on a Christian tradition of the emptiness and meaninglessness of life. He illustrates this lesser-known theology by writing a novel in which all of the characters are imperfect. Or almost.
Becky Sharp is the promiscuous shatterer of social conventions who is also the most unarguably "evil". Amelia Osborne is the much more likable, but ultimately sinister, "good" counterpart to Ms. Sharp. In between these two central women are a horde of men who at times compete for their affections and at times are ruled by them. The point Thackeray wants to make is that both Sharp and Osborne have deep character flaws, although one conforms outwardly to social convention while the other does not.
That is of course to emphasize their similarities--Becky Sharp is responsible for breaking up marriages, bankrupting friends and belittling her only son. Amelia Osborne, by contrast, is devoted to those who need her help. I don't think Thackeray completely intends to put both of them on the same level: rather, the take is that even those who are most admirable in their social behavior can cause great misery to others.
This equality in fallenness is what saves Thackeray from the possible accusation of sexism. His portrait of Amelia Osborne echoes many Victorian stereotypes of weak-willed, hapless women. Even by the end of the novel, I cannot help but think Amelia is not as fully human as some of the men. However, she needs to be contrasted with the very self-possessed, commanding Becky Sharp, who has little in common with such stereotypes. It also must be noted that Thackeray gives Amelia more moral agency when she is able to ruin a romantic relationship by abusing the intentions of her long devoted admirer Colonel Dobbins. Amelia's great weakness is to accept the devotion of others with the same assumption in which she gives affection to others: it is provided in accordance to need, not merit. In some sense, Amelia is a bit like Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a Christ-like figure who loves everybody. However, this Messianic figure is also able to inflict pain on others despite her "pure" intentions.
So the question is... does Vanity Fair have a hero? Does it live up to Thackeray's bold claim? Kind of. One of the central characters, Colonel Dobbin, pursues his beloved Amelia for decades despite her ever acknowledging his regard. Yet by the end of the novel she returns the pursuit and they finish the book in a (relatively) blissful state. So Dobbin is, in some sense, a hero of the novel; at least he is a character who struggles against great odds and is successful.
Thackeray's book is a mesmerizing tale of great society in Victorian England. It is also a brilliant experiment in removing some of the moralistic overtones of novels from the time period. Yet it may not fully arrive at the premises from which it starts, to expunge hero-worship from narrative. It is later novelists who accept that challenge, and perhaps take it to its logical conclusion. In particular, I think of the morally ambiguous and brutally realistic work of Hemingway and Steinbeck.
Reading Umberto Eco is an unusual experience. This Italian philosopher-turned-novelist has developed a peculiar form of historical intrigue centered on the political machinations of the Catholic church. His first book, the Name of the Rose, delves into a murder mystery in a medieval abbey, while his third, Foucault's Pendulum, constructs an elaborate conspiracy theory about the Knights of Templar. I just finished Foucault's Pendulum, and was fascinated by Eco's elaborate historical imagination.
Eco is a scholar with parchment under his fingernails. When he writes about mystical medieval spiritual clubs, he is able to run through immense chains of connections of people and events with an astonishing ease. The Pendulum's focus on the Knights of Templar surrounds their supposed discovery of secret knowledge in Jerusalem during the Crusades. This esoteric insight into the power of the universe was passed down from generation to generation, although only those who are truly in the know ever grasp the mystery. In true conspiracy fashion, those who know, do not tell.
However, this book is not another attempt to weave a Catholic conspiracy a la Dan Brown. In fact, this book is more like the anti-Dan Brown: Eco does not conceal his contempt for the ludicrous machinations of the many who have labored to uncover secret meanings in the count of characters in Biblical texts or through botched attempts at alchemy and astrology. Rather, the networks of conspiracies serve as a proxy for Eco to talk about belief. Or perhaps, to use a philosophical notation, Belief.
The story follows Casaubon, an Italian PhD student who first studies the Knights Templar for his dissertation. It then follows his career as an independent researcher who takes a job at a press with an interest in vanity publications. The head of the company, a car salesman-esque publisher, wants to publish as many books as he can so long as authors pay for the books up front. The market for conspiracy theories concerning the Knights Templar is quite ripe, so the company starts its own line of self-published conspiracy works.
Causabon initially edits submitted manuscripts, then decides to come up with his own subversive plot in collaboration with two other employees of the firm. Yet their theory, which they call the Plan, grows larger than they anticipated: Causabon and another colleague become obsessed with the connections they find, even while they admit they concocted the theory from nothing. By the end of the book, the Plan creates reality when authentic conspiracy theorists believe the two men have stumbled on the secret of the Knights Templar, and go after them. The intricate layers of authenticity and falsehood are so dense by the end of the novel that it is difficult to tell fraud from authenticity. Or facts from belief.
Eco is a thoroughgoing postmodern thinker. He is one the one hand very skeptical of religion and yet is willing to acknowledge spirituality (at least of sorts). There are convincing portraits of demon possession in the book, which balances the cynical portrayal of the many characters who indulge in conspiracy theories. What is apparent in the Pendulum is that the conspiracy theory stands in for the larger idea of religion. Do we need to look to some higher source for knowledge about the world? Or is what we have here on earth enough?
Foucault's Pendulum represents an attempt by Casaubon to wrestle with this need for Belief, for a connection to the transcendent, and whether it is permissible to invent that connection even when there is no empirical evidence to defend it. The book does not offer an easy answer, although it suggests that truth is to be found in the reality of human relationships: the Plan pulls Casaubon away from his beloved wife and son, while the two human beings also interfere with his desire to live out the Plan.
A question C.S. Lewis poses in the Silver Chair would be most appropriate for Eco: what if the imaginary world is preferable to the real world? What does this say about the real world? Is the real world itself a construction? If it is, then on what basis do we discredit such conspiracy theories?
Thought-provoking questions from the Italian peninsula...
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