Franzen, Weiner, and Nuance

From Flickr User Gerard Stolk
From Flickr User Gerard Stolk

I’ve been planning my triumphant return to blogging.

Since I’m done with grad school (for now), I theoretically have time for this again.

What I planned was this confessional about how I’ve been in a shitty mood and fuck the patriarchy.

But then I got sidetracked by Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Weiner.

My writer friend, Beth Bates, pointed out this interview by another writer friend, Susan Lerner, with Jonathan Franzen.

Here’s the interview.

Read it. It’s great.

It also blew up the internet a little. You Go, Susan.

I’ve been noticing these past six months or so as a teacher and person-who-occasionally-reads-and-writes-emails-in-a-professional-setting and a person-who-has-relationships-with-other-people-that-sometimes-include-talking-about-important-shit, that people in general do not see nuance.

Roxane Gay, in her book Bad Feminist, agrees with me. I am obsessed with that book right now. It is saving and affirming my life.

But people are even less likely to be able to see and appreciate nuance if a situation is emotionally charged in any way.

I become a dreadful adherer to the divine principles of black and white when I am upset. We all do.

And therein lies some of the danger of the immediacy of internet publishing (tweeting, blogging, rocking out an essay for Slate, etc).

Discourse between Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen could be so interesting, complex, and helpful.

But because they both have the platform and freedom to reply in the heat of the moment, and because they are both super brainy people with big opinions, and because they genuinely rub each other wrong, they do a lot of name calling.

Jennifer Weiner’s not the only woman lobbying for equal representation for women in publishing.

Here’s a lovely piece by Meg Wolitzer, and another, from 1988, by Francine Prose that  could’ve been written last week. And let’s not forget VIDA in all its myriad glory.

Franzen is not the only grumpy white guy who is well respected in the world of letters.

You can find your own links for that–those dudes got enough of my time during my education.

It seems Jennifer Weiner is not the only thing Jonathan Franzen is grumpy about. He is irritated with social media. And lord knows what else.

But Jennifer Weiner is plenty grumpy about Jonathan Franzen, too. Read her rebuttal to the recent shit storm.

While punchy and entertaining, her remarks are defensive. She ignores the nuance. She sort of takes what JF said about her out of context. She writes as if he just randomly decided to say something else inflammatory about her.

That’s not really what happened. He was asked, specifically, about women writers and Jennifer Weiner. My girl Susan even mentioned VIDA.

Was he kind? No. Did he “slam” her? No. I don’t think so.

Something else he didn’t do? Slam all women writers.

I think he asked an important question, “Do we want Jennifer Weiner to be the spokesperson for equal representation of women’s writing?” to which I would add the following questions:

  • Why aren’t there many male spokespeople on this topic?
  • How is it not clear that crime novels and romance novels and other commercial novels have the same value as each other, and if some are reviewable, well damnit, so are they all?
  • Why does Jonathan Franzen get to ignore the fact that there are other spokeswomen on this topic, some of whom I’m sure he’s actually read? Some of whom probably also have a fraught relationship with Twitter!

These are important questions, all of them, and even though he’s a blowhard some of the time, Jonathan Franzen would be interested discuss. So would Jennifer Weiner.

Jonathan Franzen actually said *this is an important issue.* And the problem with the idea of Jennifer Weiner being perceived as The Spokesperson is that a) she is not, and b) she is not the only kind of woman writer. There are lots of us.

The bigger problem, as I see it, is that Jonathan Franzen (and many other white male writers) are able to live in a world of total ignorance of this conversation.

They just don’t know how many of us women writers are speaking out–on twitter, on our blogs, as teachers at universities, as public figures, sharing the VIDA count link every year, getting together with our lady writer friends and guzzling wine and talking talking talking about this very shit.

They don’t know because they don’t have to, because the stakes are very very low for them.

But who wants to pay attention to a conversation full of name calling, especially if they are on the long end of the privilege stick?

I like Jennifer Weiner. I heard her speak, shook her hand. She is funny and warm. I would have coffee with her without thinking twice. I bought one of her books for my mom for Xmas. New.

But these two are publicly quibbling over a VERY IMPORTANT ISSUE, that I doubt, when the rubber hits the road, they differ on much at all.

Imagine if these two leveraged the breadth variety of their audiences to raise awareness and !Action! on this issue? Weiner’s already made strides.

I think that Franzen must be ignoring information that is certainly at his disposal, since he claims “[Jennifer Weiner makes] no case for why formulaic fiction ought to be reviewed in the New York Times.

The thing people have seized about that statement is, “Jennifer Weiner makes no case.” (she does, it’s in her rebuttal)

I haven’t read anything that notes how Franzen’s got the wrong stick here. Nuance, anyone?

NY Times Book Review lets you search all reviews since 1981. I typed in Stephen King , got numerous hits of reviews both by him and of his books on the first page. Then I typed in the less-famous-and-way-less-notoriously-tight-with-the-intellectual-lefties, John Grisham, and the same.

Just for funzies, I typed in Anne Rice and got two articles. One from 2014, a year after Times Books’s controversial hiring of a female Editor Pamela Paul, and another, on the second page of results, from 2008. (I also found the review of Weiner’s most recent).

But Franzen says something else, too, in that interview. Something surprising. Something I think Jennifer Weiner would have to wholeheartedly agree with. He says what people read doesn’t have to be emotionally complex, that adults reading YA Fiction aren’t doing anything wrong, even though other Grumpy White Dudes think so.

I think Franzen would have to agree that fiction on par with Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, and Stephen King, is the same kind of delicious, ready escapism.

And some other day I will write about the problem that almost everyone mentioned in this little blog post is white.

So let’s all unbunch our panties, boxers, or dingleberries, shall we, and have an actual conversation. Let’s ask honest questions and discuss them after taking a break to scream, privately, into our pillows, about how much of an arrogant prick the question asker is, or what an entitled c-word.

Wanna?

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Late 2012, or Self (Publishing) Help: How to Be a Baller Client

Flowers from Susan Norris
Flowers from Susan Norris

Late in 2012, I had the honor of working with two excellent writers.

These authors are not excellent because they and I share a bit of commonality in terms of literary goals and aesthetics, they were excellent because they were wonderful to work with.

The authors were REKTOK ross, author of YA Inspirational Romance, and Susan Norris, author of YA Agenda Fiction.

REKTOK’s book, Prodigal, had already been through a number of substantial developmental edits when I saw it. I did the copy edit, and I had some significant notes. Of course, though the author was tired and finished, was still willing to stay the course and make some considerable changes that made the story tighter, more believable, and ultimately, more marketable.

Susan Norris’s book, Rescuing Hope, was a mission from God. That’s how she tells it. She spent a lot of time on her knees before her maker, begging for an easier path. But in the end, she wrote it. About human sex trafficking.  And Susan’s book is only a sliver of her work on that important issue. You can get more information and links from the post just below this one.

If you’re considering self-publishing, I encourage you to be as much like REKTOK and Susan as possible.

Here’s How:

1. I’ve said it before, but Engage Professional Editors.

2. Listen to your professional editors. We usually have years of experience tweaking stories and have read more stories than most people. Susan and REKTOK were both incredibly easy to work with–and I’m sure they both had to beat their inner diva off with a stick from time to time.  In REKTOK’s case, I think it helped that I added a lot of humor to my comments, REKTOK chuckled while reading them to me over the phone when we were talking through some things.  But still. It is never ever exactly pleasant (though after a time, it becomes exciting and revelatory) to read comments, no matter how delicately worded, that ostensibly say “up your game, fool.”

3. Be a class act.  Understand that professional editors are perfectly willing to negotiate their fees.  Both Susan and REKTOK chose from a number of editing packages that I offered, and neither of them got my proposal and then ran away, never to be heard from again, which is the thing that happens more often. I suspect, if they’d opted to use someone else’s services, they would’ve let me know.

4. Pay when you say you will. As a freelance editor and writer, I am paid on all kinds of wonky schedules. I am always willing to work with clients to figure out something that works for them, but it is always a complete joy when a client says, “The check’s in the mail,” and I get it three, not thirty, days later.

5. You are paying for your editor’s time, so if you need a phone call or an extra email, or some clarification on some comment or another, ask for it. This editor is only too happy to oblige.  And I would a million times prefer to clarify something than to have a client run off and weep or whine or, worse still, post nasty reviews or troll.

6. Thank your editor. I am talking about a polite phrase here, not gifts or flowers like the ones above for my birthday, which happened in the middle of the project with Susan. I appreciated those flowers. I never understood about getting flowers before because they always came from some kind of obligatory social convention–prom, valentine’s day, being in a show–but those flowers from Susan were wonderful. They represented a vote of confidence, a kindness, thoughtfulness.  But your editor is not expecting flowers. I would be as thrilled to have worked with Susan with or without them. Your editor is not the enemy. She is can be your biggest cheerleader and greatest ally.  She is probably a writer, too.  She understands what you’re going through.  This is not Us vs. Them.  This is team work, sometimes friendship, and always giving the world better art.

Editors, what would you add to this list? Writers, what do you want from your editor?

A Baker’s Dozen Authors Who Made Me Want to Be a Writer, In Roughly Chronological Order

From Flickr.com via Scott Woods-Fehr

First, a note:  I don’t know if it’s true that these authors made me want to be a writer.  I think that any authors I read would’ve made me want to be a writer.  I think I already wanted to be a writer.  When I was too little to write, I knew it was what I wanted.  So while it feels true that these authors made me want to be a writer, if I had different parents or lived in a different place, this list would be different.  So what is probably more accurate is that these people influenced my young mind and made me want to write well.  But who would read a blog post with a title like that: Twelve Authors who Influenced My Mind?  Authors who made me want to be a writer is less pretentious, and I don’t think this list is too pretentious.  I didn’t have good guidance for choosing authors till college.  My parents are smart, creative people, but they’re poorly educated and not really into the kind of cultural awareness that doesn’t come from Rush Limbaugh or the Bible.

1. Roald Dahl.  Starting in maybe first grade with Matilda.  There are still a couple of titles I’ve not read, but I love how frank and funny he is.  Also, so began my lifelong Britophilia.

2.  Madeline L’Engle. I was so fascinated by those turbo-brainy kids and their secular, sciencey parents.  I read A Wrinkle in Time first, then the rest of the books in that quintet.  I didn’t read anything else by her.

3.  Wally LambI had a friendship with my fifth grade teacher when I was in fifth grade.  As an adult and mother, it seems strange to me, but I guess I’ve got a sort of old soul.  Right now, the people I consider to be the dearest friends are at least twenty years older than I.  This was in the early years of Oprah’s Book Club, and I borrowed Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone from the Bosler Free Library in Carlisle, PA.  It was much, much too mature for me, but I loved it with the love of a thousand cinnamon jellybeans.  I think, however, if I read it now, I’d be annoyed with Lamb for writing a fat lesbian.  I would feel like it was further patriarchal oppression.  Or something.  I haven’t read anything by Lamb since.

4. Sylvia Plath.  When I was in junior high, I read The Bell Jar at the recommendation of a slightly older friend.  This is another book that was probably just a touch beyond me, but I remember giving a report about the book in my sixth or seventh grade reading class and taking a very long time, and my teacher being visibly annoyed by the length of my presentation.  In college, I read some of Plath’s poetry, which I admire a great deal.

5. Paul ZindelI read The Pigman because my mom talked about it.  That’s really all I remember as far as the impetus.  Then I read all of the other Pigman books, and some of Zindel’s others, too.  I don’t remember anything about them now, except, vaguely, that they dealt with pubescent relationships.  I think they were like the throw-away fiction of my youth.  Still, for a time, I was fairly obsessed with Zindel’s books.

6. AviAvi’s been busy since my youth.  He had maybe five books out when I was in jr. high.  Now there are several dozen.  I read as many of them as I could, but mostly because I’d read someplace that he named one of his characters his real name backward, so I wanted to know, naturally.  I was twelve or something.  The book I remember, though, is The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle.  I recommend it to other young women even still.

7. John Irving. It started with The World According to Garp, and then I read most of the others that were available in the mid-to-late 90s.  Irving was the guy who made me want to write sex, which is what I spent most of my college years doing.

8. W. Somerset MaughamOf Human Bondage changed my life.  I thought, “Literature is powerful!”  I am amused when people raise one eyebrow over the title.  If you’re doing that now, I promise you’ll be disappointed by the reality.  It’s a modern novel about a quest for self.

9. J.D. SalingerOf course, right?  I mean, who didn’t identify with Holden Caulfield and love him?  Ahem, some of the people in my high school English class.  I will say this: in high school English, I couldn’t stop reading at the end of the assignment.  It was pure pleasure to read, and I liked all of it.  Except I also had a job, so sometimes I would only read the assignment.  And one time, in the WHOLE academic year in 10th grade, and probably in all of high school, when we read Catcher in the Rye, I didn’t do my homework.  And somehow the English teacher knew.  I have never had much of a poker face.  And so she did this thing where she said, “move your desks forward if you have done your homework.”  I hadn’t done my homework, so I sat on the periphery of the discussion that day.  It was embarrassing and of course I was pissed that it was the ONE day I didn’t do my homework.  Then, at the end of the year, the teacher cited the day as evidence of my strong character. She said, “I know April wasn’t the only one who didn’t do her reading, but she was the only one who was honest about it.”  At the time, I thought that was incredibly cool.  I felt seen.  But I had a thing for strong-willed, vaguely abusive grownup women when I was a teenager.  I had a boss like that who I inexplicably loved.  Now, I’m not so sure what Mrs. Davis was trying to accomplish, who the lesson was for, and what possible pedagogical or theoretical benefit it could’ve provided.  Also, everything J.D. Salinger has written is totally worth reading.

10. Lorrie MooreGod, her writing is so smart it glows in the dark.  I’ve read all of her short story collections and two of her novels.  Her latest novel is on my to-read list.  Lorrie Moore was the first contemporary literary writer I read in college.  A slew have followed, and I’m kind of bummed that I can only pick two more based on my own rules.  The first time I applied to MFAs, I applied to UWisc Madison, strictly because of L.M.  If they’d taken me, I would’ve gone.

12. Amy HempelYou know, Amy Hempel is also brilliant.  I re-read The Collected Stories every year, and every year, one story stands out.  For 2010 it was, “The Most Girl Part of You.”  For 2011 it was, “Beg, Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep.”  I keep that book on my desk at all times.  Whenever I’m feeling blocked or sad or stupid, I grab it up and read a passage.  It gets me right back on task.

13. Brock Clarke.  Clarke is a damn character genius.  He invents the most affectionately flawed, barely likable idiots, and I love them.   His observances about the human condition are acute, and his writing is totally without the frilliness of self-indulgence.  That is rare in a male writer.  (Forgive me, male writers, but ya’ll are far too culturally indulged.)

And just because I don’t like rules, even my own, I’m going to say one/two more:

14. Emily Bronte & George Eliot, a.k.a Mary Ann Evans.  I was so inspired that these women bucked the system to pen and publish the novels that lived within them.  Also, I love the antique diction of the Victorians & their melodramatic characters & plot twists.  Everybody’s always fainting and being martyrish.  Delicious.

Do Literary Authors Need a Social Media Support Group?

from flickr.com user pedrosimoses7

Whenever I am not sure where to take my blog post for the day, I spend a few minutes with Twitter before getting out of bed.

This is one of the many things on my smartphone that make my job as a writer better, easier, or more efficient.  This morning, my friend and former teacher Cathy Day tweeted about her female #amnoveling students being pissed about some things that were pointed out by a particular op-ed by Meg Wolitzer about women literary fiction writers, and differences between the ways books by men and women are publicized.

So of course, I Googled that shit right up.

And of course, it’s not shit at all.

It’s a beautiful essay.  It’s a thing I love about the New York Times (And the L.A. Times), the writing is just gorgeous.  There seems to be a pervasive notion among the newspaper set that the writing does not have to be good, it has to be fast.  But it’s nice about the digital age: the writing can be.  The web gives us our poorly-written, instantaneous news, and in the print media we can slow down a bit.  Thanks, New York Times (and L.A. Times) for understanding that.

And as I read the beautiful piece that talks about literary fiction like it’s something people talk about, I got sad, because it’s true that in the literary fiction world, it does seem like people are talking about it.  But even Jonathan Franzen’s popularity is nothing next to, say, Neil Gaiman’s or Stephen King’s or Norah Roberts’s or J.K. Rowling’s.

I was talking to Sari Wilson at The Wildcat Comic Con about how Literary Fiction is sort of atomized or ghettoized, and that there are all kinds of irritating preconceptions about it that are moshing around in the mass market.  Sari Wilson, though also an educational writer and collaborator with her partner Josh Neufeld, who is a graphic novel artist and author, is a literary writer herself.

So I offer that the unceremonious labeling of literary fiction by women as “women’s fiction” is probably the action of someone who’s noticed this odd ghetto and wondered, from a book-sales (not academic) standpoint, what could be done about it.

Enter the clumsy semantic.

And Wolitzer observes, rightly, that it’s problematic.  But she also acknowledges that women are the biggest consumers of fiction (all types), and that “as readers they are attentive and passionate.”  My friends who write romances experience this generosity. Plus, they are superstars.  Everyone in their world knows them.

But you know what about commercial fiction writers?  Something HUGE that’s different from literary writers?  They give back (to their fans).  I’m not talking about giving readings at colleges and signing books or answering questions after, showing up at AWP (though the commercial fiction writers I know do that, too, only with a different conference).  I’m talking about blogs–they do blog tours about their books, blog about their processes, their offices, their characters–they are active on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc.

I’ve linked to this piece from Justine Musk a million times, but she really says it eloquently.  She says that the world of publishing and marketing and authorship has changed, and that fans want to be able to connect with authors, online, immediately, without having to go somewhere or be a student.  Even readers of literary fiction.

It’s true that commercial fiction authors don’t often have mountains of undergraduate papers about killing the first buck to read, but they do often have other careers, children, partners, homes.  And oh yeah: book deals.  They’ve promised a publisher they can write four of them.  In eighteen months.

Of course, writing literary fiction is totally different from writing commercial fiction in terms of time.  Language does not make itself beautiful, and conflicts do not complicate or render themselves, and characters do not deepen without major intervention.   Probably the average literary fiction novel is about two to five years in gestation.

What’s the deal?

The thing that defines what you think about the literary fiction world is where you sit in relation to it.  If you are within it, there is nothing more important, even though the reading audience of literary fiction is much smaller than that of mainstream (or commercial or genre or whatever you will call it) fiction.  I can’t find any hard numbers on this, but go to a book store, and compare the number of genre labeled shelves with the contemporary fiction shelf and you’ll see how it just can’t not be true.

But if you’re outside of lit fic, there’s nothing less important.  It’s like this fuzzy blurb of hoity toity on the periphery of culture that the Amazon Bestseller list ignores, that the New York Times has a special bestseller list for, and that’s slowly getting smaller or getting absconded with by other genres.

For example, I read “Some Zombie Contingency Plans” by Kelly Link in an anthology of Zombie stories, fully expecting the poor writerly discipline I’ve grown accustomed to in commercial fiction, and was pleasantly surprised.  I can see it anthologized like “Trauma Plate,” by Adam Johnson, because it’s doing a similar sort of cultural commentary thing.  It’s asking why we value what we do, and when stuff is important, and maybe it’s even indicting the way we handle the mentally ill.

I wonder how many other little anecdotal literary stories and novels have been absorbed by the mainstream, that nobody in the literary world even knows about.  In my experience, the literary world is incredibly insular.  It, like its mainstream counterpart, posseses a great number of biases and misconceptions toward the mainstream literary world.

So we have a genre which is itself other, within which women’s fiction is acknowledged to be equal but is still other, and we wonder why people look poorly upon the academy which–as my friend Carolyn points out in the comments of my post about MFA vs. PhD–does within itself that which it proclaims to abhor.

I’m still concerned about literary fiction and I still think that something needs to be done to make it more visible to more people.  But what I’m starting to think, as I read and study this topic is that–while marketing and publicity efforts would surely help, literary fiction authors need to help themselves.

Like Cathy Day and probably a small number of other literary authors have done, they need to figure out Twitter and Facebook and Blogging and build themselves a platform.  I suspect that if they build it, their fans will find it.  And that will happen without additional effort.

But somebody needs to figure out how to put it in terms that are adequately academic such that they take notice and actually do it.  Jane Friedman’s blog is going a long way toward this end, but I don’t know if a blog is the medium that can get through to enough literary authors.

Maybe that’s the scholarly thing I’ll do for my MFA:  Social Media for Very Brainy People Who’ve Written Beautiful Books and Are Perfectionists And Who Think Social Media Will Ruin Their Lives (and It Might, but More People Will Read Their Books).

Who’s cooler? Creative Writing MFAs or PhDs in English?

Use with Attribution. http://www.flickr.com/photos/josefstuefer/ The Flickr user's name is josef.stuefer

In one of my earlier lives, the one before I knew that people don’t need accredited papers to make them worthwhile (though I loved the hell out of my education and would damn anybody who told me it’d wasted my time, not everybody is like me), the one before I had this blog, the one when I was only a mother in theory (which is the easiest way), I had a pretty successful round of applications to various MFA programs.

If you’re not in the know, the MFA is a terminal degree in the arts.  People can get MFAs (Master of Fine Arts) in all kinds of visual art, acting, film making disciplines, and creative writing.  A terminal degree is the last stop before professor-ville.  Another kind of terminal degree is a PhD.

I started an MFA program at Pitt a while back.  I loved a lot of things about that star-crossed semester.  Something I didn’t love was the antagonism between the PhDs and the MFAs.  PhD is Doctor of Philosophy.  Philosophy is knowledge love.  A doctor is more better than a master, at least by the general academic standard.

The main difference between the MFA and the PhD is the amount of time it takes to finish the degree.  The MFA is typically a three year program, a PhD generally takes eight (at least).

A while back on the internet, I read some defensive rant from some particularly bitter MFA about why the shorter time to get the degree is totally fitting for the artist, and how there’s nothing less rigorous about spending three years getting a terminal degree in arts than spending eight years and blah blah wank wank blah.  There was some stuff about apprenticeship.  Not entirely invalid points, but far too defensive.

This is a hotly debated topic in academe.

Should the MFA be a terminal degree?

The Englishey PhDs are pissed because the MFAs finish sooner, don’t often have to know another language, don’t always have to take the subject GREs (and sometimes no GRE is required) to get admitted to programs, and get to write fiction instead of intellectually rigorous scholarly analysis.  “MFAs aren’t intellectuals,” the PhDs say, “they’re alcoholic step children of the arts and academic worlds!”

Maybe that is sometimes true.  But it is arrogant and presumptuous to declare that creative writing is not intellectual enough, and that people who would pursue it are less worthy. And I ask you, PhD candidates in Victorian Literature, why wouldn’t you tackle the MFA and show up the silly, capricious, non-analytical MFAs?  How can you be so certain about your assessment of its intellectual or scholarly merit?

According to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate edition, here are the definitions of intellectual:

1 a : of or relating to the intellect or its use b : developed or chiefly guided by the intellect rather than by emotion or experience : RATIONAL c : requiring use of the intellect <intellectual games>
2 a : given to study, reflection, and speculation b : engaged in activity requiring the creative use of the intellect <intellectual playwrights>

Interesting that the second definition describes the creative writing process pretty acutely.

But all writing–even analytic writing–is creative.  So it would seem that the rhetorical flaws go both ways.

And maybe it’s not fair that a person usually has to spend eight years getting a PhD, when a person can kill a creative writing MFA in three years.  But here’s what I know about how creative writing obsessed people spend their undergrad years: In as many creative writing workshops as they can squeeze into their schedules.  Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, essay, memoir, literary journalism, etc.

Most semesters I had two creative writing courses.  I took every one my university offered in fiction and in poetry, so the last semester of my senior year I got special permission to take the graduate novel writing workshop.

How many Victorian lit courses did you take, Mr. Victorian Lit PhD candidate?  Maybe two or three?  You might’ve done an independent study.  And wicked.  But that’s what, four semesters worth of study in your field?

You got yourself a good, broad, liberal arts style English Major education with a sampling of a number of literary periods, styles, regions, and critical modes.  Guess what.  I did, too.  And you decided you loved the Victorians.  I did, too.

Lifestyle differences

Storytelling is a craft, a discipline.  Academic writing, is, too.  But the level of mastery I would’ve achieved after only two or three creative writing workshops as an undergraduate would never have yielded my better-than-I-thought-possible MFA acceptance results.

Also, I have been writing since I was five.

And I’ve been studying story since before I knew that’s what I was doing.  I have been reading novels since I realized they existed.  I recall getting these pulpy YA novels from the grade school library and being disappointed that we only went once a week.

I didn’t start writing scholarly papers until college, and it seems fair to suspect that most people don’t start with the scholarly analysis till college, which means I’ve been practicing my craft for at least 15 years longer than the average PhD candidate has been engaged in earnest scholarship. That is, unless they were analyzing literary tropes on the playground.  Were they?  I won’t presume to understand their processes.

The breadth of reading a person has to do in order to be a proper expert on a particular obscure thing from Victorian Lit, including all the foundational stuff so you know what your colleagues are talking about when they rail on Barthes or Saussure, including the completely different habits of mind that scholarship demands, is no small task. Of course it takes Eight years!

This isn’t a value thing, this is a different pursuits entirely kind of thing.  One is not better than the other.

The Creative Writing people need to keep writing so that the scholars 100 years from now will have a record, something to study, a sense of our cultural assumptions, how our women and minorities were treated, what class was best educated, what we value–all the stuff those PhDs love studying about Victorian Lit.

In college, I was so busy taking creative writing classes that I didn’t have time to take French so that I could read Derrida in his native tongue.

Would I dig that?

Sure I would!  I love the French theorists and their special brand of abstruse.  It might help to be able to read them in French.

But what do I love more?

Hands Down: the socially and academically sanctioned schizophrenia of the creative writer.  I like to tell plausible lies in prose and make people up in my head who become so real that I can have conversations with them and they can help me realize stuff about myself.

So here’s the news I set out to give you before I ranted: I’ve decided to apply to a low-residency MFA for the fall semester.  I’ve waffled about it, but I feel a strong and wild call to it.  I think that for me it will be time well spent. And if I don’t get in, that’ll be occasion for another existential crisis (those are good material) and self-deprecating blog post(s).  And if you know me really well, maybe you’ll get to listen to me weep.

To my dear friends with PhDs, I mean no disrespect.  I love and envy you and your analytic pursuits.

The Reading Life: The History of My Body

The thing that struck me most about Sharon Heath’s The History of My Body is the deep authenticity of the protagonist’s voice.

The story is told in first person by Fleur Robins–daughter of an extravagantly wealthy fundamentalist nutjob politician father and alcoholic mother–who, at first, exhibits signs of being touched neurologically (never officially diagnosed, her disengaged parents and their far-more-engaged staff assume that she’s autistic).

Though we meet Fleur when she’s barely pre-pubescent, she recalls her early childhood for us, including her propensity for list making and journal keeping, her friendship with a small, imaginary man named Uncle Bob (from the phrase Bob’s your uncle), with her comatose grandfather, and with language and increasingly difficult books.

When she’s eleven, after her grandfather’s death, she gets a seventeen-year-old male tutor, called Adam, who is also the son of a politician and so a kindred spirit, who turns her on to physicists and philosophers and literature, and from there, Fleur’s life improves, with some wrecking ball detours that I’ll leave to you for the reading.

As the story unwinds, Fleur supplants her masochism with masturbation, finds a remarkable mentor, solace in Campbell’s Chicken Soup body odor, doubt, a relationship with her mother, and finally friendship with a girl her own age.

Somehow, the protagonist’s voice is so genuine that it manages to obliterate any potential pretension in her precociousness, or in her love and grasp of quantum physics, or in her references to Sartre and any number of other famous (and not-so-famous) philosophers, scientists, and authors.   Even as the story lands her a highly prestigious scholarly award at a very early age, Fleur is chronically sympathetic.

I will attribute this unlikely success to Sharon Heath’s unbelieveably graceful rendering of Fleur’s very believable cadence, even despite her unthinkable intellect and constant personal and social blunders–at least as she perceives them–, her unique personal lexicon which includes semantic doppelgangers such as tweeter, flapping, ugga-umphing, voidish, Sister Flatulencia, etc–endears her to the reader again and again.

Too, the vividness with which Heath conjures the emotional experience of being a young female is unfailing.  The book is often funny, even when dealing with the dull ache of adolescence, rejection, death.

Heath weaves in social issues like abortion and alcoholism and political issues like war and big oil with equal light-handedness.  The narrative never gives the reader a sense of being judged, nor does it indict anyone.  Heath manages to garner good will for parties on both sides of each issue (if not for each issue).

Fleur often finds herself personally sullied on both sides of issues, but she does not whine.  She introspects.  She wallows a little. Then she emerges stronger and just as clever.

Heath renders the crass and the philsophical, the olfactory and mundane with equal aplomb.  I have rarely read a book that was so consistently beautifully rendered, and I would implore you all to order a copy today.

Sharon Heath, image used with permission

I leave you with the following passage:

For the next week or so, I was forced to go about my daily routine with the handicap of keeping at least one hand covering my chest (which is not so easy to do when you need to eat, drink, pet Jillily, and wipe your poo and pee) just to make sure Grandfather’s ghost didn’t leak out and float over to Father’s house to haunt him forever for killing our tree–in some respects not such an unsatisfying prospect but for the fact that it would leave me with a chasm in my heart I could never hope to fill.

Sharon Heath is a Jungian analyst and novelist residing in California.  Visit her online at http://www.SharonHeath.com

This post is cross-hosted at http://www.billtownbluelit.wordpress.com

Self (Publishing) Help: Grammar and Influence Are Important!

First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third.  Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me.   Onward.

What is Influence?

This image is much funnier when you know that these guys are blind. This is from http://www.publicdomainreview.org

One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.

First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.

Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original.  To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.

If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work.  Which is wrong and lazy.  Artists of all sorts need  to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them.  I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.

So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.

So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.

You still with me?

Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:9

Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.

Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious.  Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes.

My point: nobody is doing something original.  What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.

And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.

What is Craft in Writing?

My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of.  That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.

*Haters, remember the rules about trolls.  No personal insults just because you disagree.  I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement.  Comment away!

A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about.  For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”

Awesome!  I want you to read to escape.  I’m a writer, after all!

Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.

But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!

Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.

Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling,  tense, varied language, point of view.

I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.

Craft is a writer’s tool belt.  It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.

I am trained in the whole enchilada.

And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!

Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better.

Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.

Novelist Wannabes?  If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great.  But take some classes first.  I offer them.  And private lessons.  But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.

Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.

Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.