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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

John Gardner on the Novelist and Higher Education

     It is true that some writers have kept themselves more or less innocent of education, that some, like Jack London, were more or less self-made men; that is, people who scratched out an education by reading books between work-shifts on boats, in logging camps or gold camps, on farms or in factories. It is true that university education is in many ways inimical to the work of the artist: Rarely do painters have much good to say of aetheticians or history-of-art professors, and it's equally uncommon for even the most serious, "academic" writers to look with fond admiration at "the profession of English." And it's true, moreover, that life in the university has almost never produced subject matter for really good fiction. The life has too much trivia, too much mediocrity, too much soap opera, but consider:

     No ignoramus--no writer who has kept himself innocent of education--has ever produced great art.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983. Gardner (1933-1982) was a literary novelist, critic, and English professor. He died young riding his motorcycle. 

College Freshmen Are Depressed

     Every year for half a century UCLA has surveyed freshman classes at schools across the country to get a reading on their mental health. The latest findings aren't encouraging: The emotional health of 2014's crop of college freshmen is at an all-time low. Nearly one in 10 students in UCLA's study said they frequently felt depressed, and their assessment of their overall emotional health is at the lowest level since UCLA started asking the question.

     UCLA surveyed more than 153,000 first-time freshmen who entered 227 four-year private and public colleges and universities of different types and selectivity. When students were asked to rate their mental health compared to their peers, they gave themselves  a score of roughly 50 percent, which is an all-time low. Previous UCLA surveys have highlighted students' declining mental health over time and its connection to lower student success. This phenomenon can certainly explain a growing reliance on campus mental health facilities.

     According to a different study by the American College Health Association, more than half of college students have said they experienced "overwhelming anxiety" in the past year. Depressed students were also more likely to express boredom with their classes and be less likely to study with their classmates.

     While students reported higher rates of depression in the UCLA study, another worrisome sign is the reduced amount of time they're spending with friends, which also hit an all-time low for the annual survey…

     While it's clear that college students still drink significantly, students are arriving on campus with much less experience consuming alcohol than their peers from 20 to 30 years ago. In fact, in the current UCLA study, freshman reported the lowest rate of alcohol and cigarette use in high school than at any point over 30 years.

     Unfortunately, students quickly discover alcohol when they reach college--when 40 percent of them say they've participated in binge drinking within the past month, according to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism….

"College Freshman's Mental Health Hits New Low," CBS News, February 6, 2015 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What's Wrong With Judge Baugh?

The Montana judge who said a teen rape victim appeared "older than her chronological age" has sentenced a man convicted of punching her girlfriend to write "Boys do not hit girls," 5,000 times. District Judge G. T odd Baugh also sentenced Pacer Anthony Ferguson, 27, to six months in jail and to pay $3,800 in restitution for fracturing the woman's face in three places during an August 2012 argument. The judge ordered Ferguson to number his list, sign it, and mail it to him by May 23, 2014. [A 27-year-old is not a "boy." What is this, 4th grade?]

Associated Press, December 24, 2013 

Autobiographies of Famous People Are Unreliable

For though fame is a help in selling books, it is of small use in writing them. [That's why they have ghost writers.] And though a reader may be pleased to eavesdrop on the reminiscences of famous people, he will rarely come away from such volumes with more than a nodding acquaintance. The reason for this is that famous people are usually too sensitive of their image to write anything of themselves that may jeopardize it, such as they are bored, frightened, bewildered or hollow as the drums that acclaimed them. Famous people, when they take to autobiography, are chiefly full of tidings about their pedestals and how they got on them, and how modestly they occupy them, and how many other people on pedestals they know.

Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, 1985 

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Dark Fantasy Horror Genre

In pure horror stories--dark fantasy--anything goes, usually straight for the throat. Monsters attack the house, crawl down the chimney, slither or slouch in Zombie ranks closer and closer with each step to the front porch. These fantastic creatures are evil to the core: from slurping, sucking alien monsters to cursed cars that kill their owners. Early in these stories evil begins to appear, usually after a brief opening of calm and tranquility, in small measures.

Philip Martin in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Starting a Mystery Novel Series

An editor rejected my first mystery novel with these words: "I think it would take something really unusual to convince me to take on a new mystery series--an American/Jewish plumber who solves cases by listening at people's drain pipes, or something like that."

William G. Tapply, Elements of Mystery Fiction, 1995 

The Decline of Prison Riots

     Sustained prison uprisings simply do not happen anymore. In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically. In 1973, we had 63 homicides per 100,000 prisoners; in 2000, we had fewer than five. Inmate assaults on staff dropped similarly over roughly the same period.

     These are eye-opening statistics--especially given that the incarceration rate in this country has quintupled since 1970, and a remarkable 3 percent of American adults are now under the supervision of the correctional system. Some of the factors that have led to the decline in violence, despite the rising population, are known: Prison demographics have changed, with a higher percentage of nonviolent offenders serving time now than ever before. Many of the most dangerous inmates are now housed in super-maximum-security prisons. New surveillance tactics and restrictions on prisoner movement have been introduced. And prisons are now managed better, thanks in part to federal court interventions. But there is one other factor, almost never discussed, that has contributed greatly to the decline: the development of elite security squads trained to preempt and put down prison disorder of every kind. Often known as Correctional Emergency Response Teams, they have become ubiquitous in correctional facilities over the past 30 years.

Joseph Bernstein, "Why Are Prison Riots Declining While Prison Populations Explode?" The Atlantic, December 2013 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Reviewing

     With so many books being published, and so little space devoted to reviewing them, even a bad review can be considered a badge of honor. As painful as bad reviews are, it is arguably worse to have written a book that is totally ignored. Is literary criticism becoming a lost art?

     In an interview published in Novel Short Story Writer's Market 2002, editor Ann Close appraised the review picture as follows: "The review situation has gotten a lot worse. When newspapers and magazines hit bad times, a lot of them dropped their book reviews. Time and Newsweek used to review three to five books every week. [Now Newsweek itself is gone.] They don't do that anymore. But in a way, the Internet has taken up the slack. You can get an enormous amount of information about a book on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon sites....Many other websites have started doing book reviews. It's hard to tell how much impact they've had. Nobody has been able to measure it exactly." [I think on-line literary criticism has had an enormous impact on the reading public. Prior to the Internet, a handful of critics ruled the literary world. Thankfully, those days are gone forever.] 

Writing Good Dialogue

     Well-written dialogue does not imitate the way real people speak. Real talk is repetitive, rambling, and redundant. It is boring and often meaningless. Good literary dialogue, therefore has to be carefully crafted. In his book, Stein on Writing, Sol Stein points out that the majority of published writers write dialogue instinctively with little knowledge of the craft. He defines creative dialogue this way:

     "It is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes....Learning the new language of dialogue is as complex as learning any new language....As the writer of fiction masters dialogue, he will be able to deal with characterization and plot simultaneously."

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Cheating Teachers and Unruly Students in Inner City Schools

     Philadelphia's school teachers have joined public school teachers in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Columbus, New York, and Washington in changing student scores on academic achievement tests. Teachers have held grade-fixing parties, sometimes wearing rubber gloves to hide fingerprints.

     As a result of investigations, school teachers and administrators have been suspended, fired or indicted by state attorneys general.

     Most of these cheating scandals have occurred in predominantly black schools across the nation. At one level, it's easy to understand--but by no means condone--the motivation teachers have to cheat. Teachers have families to raise, mortgages, car payments and other financial obligations. Their pay, retention and promotions depend on how well their students perform on standardized tests.

     Very often, teachers must deal with an impossible classroom atmosphere in which many, if not most, of the students are disorderly, disobedient and alien and hostile to the education process. Many students pose a significant safety threat….

Walter Williams, "My Desk," Creators.com, February 26, 2014  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Second Novel

There might be some truth in the fact that writers whose first novels are autobiographical find it more difficult than other writers to write a second novel, but writers of any stripe have a difficult time following up a first novel. I've heard that as many as half of all first  novelists never write a second.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 1994

Identifying Criminals Reflected in Their Photographed Victims' Eyes

     "The pupil of the eye is like a black mirror," says a British researcher…For crime in which the victims are photographed by the criminal (e.g. hostage taking, child sex abuse), reflections in the eyes of victims could help identify perpetrators."

     Researchers showed 32 participants high-resolution photo portraits of faces, and the participants were asked to identify people reflected in the subject's pupils--often the photographer or someone standing next to the photographer. When the reflected person was a familiar one, participants could identify him or her 84 percent of the time….When the reflected figures weren't familiar, participants were still able to ID them 71 percent of the time based on comparisons to mugshots.

Matt Cantor, Newser, December 28, 2013

     

Writer Biographies as Author Self-Help Books

When I'm struggling with my own work I'm often drawn to biographies of writers. Not only do learn fun facts about prominent figures--Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O'Conner cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of unroasted coffee beans--I'm also reminded that there's no single path for living a successful creative or personal life. It's inspiring to read about a flawed human being who struggled with his or her demons and afflictions, experienced paralyzing episodes of failure or self-doubt, but somehow managed to do the work anyway, and produce something that enriched the world. That's my version of self-help.

Tom Perrota in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 2013 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Charles Bukowski on Raymond Carver

I met Raymond Carver one time, long ago. We drank all night. In the morning we went out for breakfast and he couldn't eat. I ate his breakfast and mine. I remember him telling me, "I'm going to be famous now. A friend of mine has just been appointed editor of Esquire and he's going to publish everything I send him." I never got much out of Carver and still can't quite see what the fuss is all about. You asked, so I told you.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1987-1994, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004

The Russian Writers

I like the great Russian writers best of all--Tolstoi, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. I think it is because they seemed to feel that truth is more important than all the fancy skillful words, than belles lettres. I, personally, don't like writing where the package is fancier and more important than the contents. Perhaps that is why the Russians translate so well, because the important thing to them is what they felt, saw and thought. Life is more important to them than literature.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Lawrence Block on Writing Methods

     The study I've made of the writing methods of others has led me to the belief that everybody in this business spends a lifetime finding the method that suits him best, changing it over the years as he himself evolves, adapting it again and again to suit the special requirements of each particular book. What works with one person won't necessarily work for another; what works for one book won't necessarily work with another.

     Some novelists outline briefly, some in great detail, and a few produce full-fledged treatments that run half the length of the final book itself. Others don't outline at all. Some of us revise as we go along. Others do separate drafts. Some of us write sprawling first drafts and wind up cutting them to the bone. Others rarely cut three paragraphs overall.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1979

Sunday, April 9, 2017

How to Begin Your Story

It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you're unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not been written. So instead of waiting until everything is perfect, begin anyhow, anywhere and any way. The result will probably not be exactly right. It may not be even close. So what? You're going to persist until you get it right.

Stephen Koch, The Modern Literary Writer's Workshop, 2003

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Daunting Task of Writing a Book

     Writing a book is a strange job

     "Here you go," a publisher says at the onset, handing you a salary of sorts, and a deadline, "we'll see you in two years." And there you go indeed, in a state of high alarm without any day-to-day ballast--no appointments, no tasks assigned each morning, no office colleagues to act as sounding boards, no clue as to what you are doing: equipped solely with a single idea, which you cling to like driftwood in a great, dark sea.

Patricia Pearson, When She Was Bad, 1997