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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

O.J. Simpson: Do As I Say, Not As I Do

Some writers of letters and a lot of kids don't seem to care if I'm guilty or innocent. They just want to believe in me….When I speak to kids, I say that you have to accept responsibility for your own actions…I say to everybody that if I had committed this crime, I would have had to take responsibility for my actions….

O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You, 1994 [Letter to a young fan following his arrest for double murder.]

Friday, June 23, 2017

Story Versus Plot

Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. "The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died, and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king." This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is a story we say, "and then?" If it is a plot we ask "why?" That is the fundamental difference between these to aspects of the novel.

E. M. Forster (1879-1970) Aspects of the Novel, 1927

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Market Oriented Publishing

     Trivia has swamped contemporary literary life and become, it seems, more important than the books. A book's blurb is more important than the book itself, the author's photograph on the book jacket is more important than its content, the author's appearance in wide-circulation newspapers and on TV is more important than what the author has actually written.

     Many writers feel increasingly uncomfortable in such a literary landscape, densely populated with publishers, editors, agents, distributors, brokers, publicity specialists, bookstore chains, "marketing people," television cameras, photographers. The writer and his reader--the two most important links in the chain--are more isolated than ever.

Dubravka Ugresic, Thank You For Not Reading, 2003

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Talking Versus Writing

     People often assume they know how to write because they know how to speak. There are deep and important connections between spoken and written language, but they're not the same thing. If you think they are, tape a conversation and transcribe it verbatim and see how it reads.

Richard Rhodes, How To Write, 1995

Writing Narrative History

Historians have always crafted narratives. War. Peace. Political battles. Feuds in the hollers. Floods on the Mississippi. Hurricanes. Strikes. Assassinations. Voyages to known and unknown places. Trials of the century. Personal quests. Leaders with uncommon touches and tragic flaws. This is the stuff of great narrative and the stuff of narrative history, stories about the past told with verve and drama but also with strong arguments and thick footnotes.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009 

Friday, June 9, 2017

Trump University: A Scam or Standard Academic Puffing?

     In May 2005, Donald Trump added a new service to the far reaching and diverse Trump brand. (Bottled water, neckties, golf courses, resorts, hotels, office buildings, condominiums--you name it.) Aspiring entrepreneurs in search of their fortunes could enroll at Trump University, an online educational institution that offered courses and seminars in real estate, asset management, entrepreneurship (If you need to go to school to become an entrepreneur, forget it.), and wealth creation. Trump University tuition ranged from $1,500 to $35,000. This was a lot of money for a "university" that didn't confer college credits or an accredited degree. Enrollees knew this, of course. They were attracted to the Trump name and all it stood for. Fair enough. That's why students endure Massachusetts to attend Harvard.

     Donald Trump himself appeared in television ads for the school that led prospective students to believe that the course instructors had been handpicked by The Donald. The targeted customers were promised a free, 90-minute seminar where they would learn how to make money in real estate through a "systematic method of investing." The free seminar acted as a pitch for the three-day real estate seminar that cost $1,495. The Trump school also offered the so-called "Trump Elite" educational packages that included personal mentorship programs that cost between $10,000 and $35,000.

     Trump University, in June 2010, changed its name to The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative after bureaucrats with the New York State Department of Education declared the use of the word "university" in the company name misleading. (Just how stupid would a prospective student have to be to think this was a real university?) The state authorities also felt that because the institution wasn't licensed, accredited, or bonded by the state, it was not a legal operation. Perhaps this is the real reason New York injected itself into the business of Mr. Trump's school. The government wasn't getting it's cut of the action.

     In May 2011, six years after the founding of Trump University, the New York Attorney General's Office, under Eric T. Schneiderman, launched an investigation of Trump's online educational service. State investigators were looking for evidence of "illegal business practices." The attorney general opened the case against Trump after Trump University graduates from New York and four other states complained they had been misled by deceptive advertisement. (According to Attorney General Schneiderman, some of the "Trump Elites" thought they had purchased the right to meet Donald Trump in person. Instead, they were photographed next to a live-size poster of the man.) At this point, The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative had essentially ceased doing business.

     The state of New York, in August 2013, filed a $40 million civil suit against the Trump institution. In its quest for restitution, the attorney general's office accused Trump and his operatives of illegal business practices in the form of "false promises." In the suit the plaintiff described Trump University as "an elaborate bait-and-switch" operation.

     Attorney General Schneiderman, in a statement released to the media, said that Donald Trump and his people had made false promises to persuade more than 5,000 students--including 600 New Yorkers--"to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got." (They got one lesson, only suckers think they can get rich by going to a seminar.) According to the attorney general, "Trump University engaged in deception at every stage of consumers' advancement through costly programs, and caused real financial harm. Trump University, with Donald Trump's knowledge and participation relied on Trump's name recognition and celebrity status to take advantage of consumers who believed in the Trump brand. No one, no matter how rich or famous they are, has a right to scam hardworking New Yorkers. Anyone who does should expect to be held accountable." (Really? The biggest scam artists are government employees. Who's holding them accountable?)

     As could be expected, the Trump organization went on the offensive. Trump lawyer Michael Cohen told an Associated Press reporter that he had testimonials from 11,000 former students who had been "extremely satisfied" (odd combination of words) with Trump University. According to attorney Cohen, the attorney general's illegal business practices suit was laden with "falsehoods."

     George Sorial, another Trump lawyer, accused Attorney General Schneiderman of being politically motivated. According to Sorial, Schneiderman had filed the suit after Donald Trump refused to contribute to his campaign. "This [the lawsuit] is tantamount to extortion," he said.

     Critics of higher education generally might wonder why the New York Attorney General's Office wasn't going after other educational institutions that charge huge amounts of money for diplomas that, in the job market, are worthless. Why wasn't he, for example, suing Columbia University, Brooklyn College, or the University of Buffalo for deceptive business practices?  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Creative Nonfiction Versus Reportage

Creative nonfiction differs from fiction because it is necessarily and scrupulously accurate….Creative nonfiction differs from traditional reportage because balance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged.

Lee Gutkind, The Art of Creative Nonfiction, 1997

Monday, June 5, 2017

Clueless in the Bronx: Puerile Substitute Discusses Love Life With Fourth Graders

     A New York City substitute teacher was fired after she asked her 4th grade students for romantic advice about her relationship with two men. Cassandre Fiering, 45, asked students to act out conversations where they would play the part of the men, both of whom are in their 30s….The incident happened in June 2013 at Public School 189 in the Bronx. Fiering said she was stuck in the classroom with five students without a lesson plan while the rest of the class was on a field trip. So she decided to act out the conversations….

     Students allegedly said she called them her "munchkins" and told them to toilet paper one of the men's homes….The kids, who were asked to help her choose between the two men, advised Fiering to break up with the younger of the two men because he was not returning her calls. Fiering said the conversation was harmless, and that the kids thought it was fun….

     Fiering is also an actress who has had small roles in commercials, movies and television….She admitted that it was poor judgement to bring her romantic life into the classroom, but told a reporter with The New York News that she would appeal her dismissal. "I've been slandered," she said. "This is the biggest bunch of crap I've heard in my life."

     Fiering has since ended her relationship with both men….[This puerile woman was fired because she was a substitute employee and not in the teacher's union. Otherwise, she'd still be in the classroom.]

Ben Axelson, "New York Teacher Fired For Asking 4th Graders For Love Advice About Her Boyfriends," Syracuse.com, May 22, 2014 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

How to Get a Literary Agent

Choosing an agent is a lot like choosing a hairdresser. [I currently don't have an agent or a hairdresser.] If you know a bunch of writers and most writers do because who else is home all day?) ask the successful ones who represents them. [In reality, writers with agents hate to be asked this.] If you don't know any writers, look at books by authors you admire and see which agent the author thanked in the acknowledgements. Send five to ten of these agents a resume, cover letter, and proposal for what you're trying to sell (it's imperative that the prospective agent knows that you have a money-making project in mind). Interview the agents who respond positively and pick the one you like best. If no one responds positively, send your stuff to another five to ten agents. Don't take it personally. Think of it as practice in handling rejection. (Believe me, you'll need all the practice you can get.)

Margo Kaufman in Jon Winokur's Advice to Writers, 1999

[Avoid any agent who charges an upfront fee. A vast majority of the successful agents have offices in New York City. Retaining a fee-agent with an office in Youngstown, Ohio is worse than having no agent at all. Here's the catch-22: It's difficult getting commercially published without an agent, and it's hard to get an agent if you're not published.]

Friday, June 2, 2017

JFK Assassination: Most Americans Believe in a Conspiracy

     [In an Associated Press poll] conducted in mid-April 2013, 59 percent of Americans think multiple people were involved in a conspiracy to kill President John F. Kennedy, while 24 percent think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and 16 percent are unsure. A 2003 Gallup poll found that 75 percent of Americans felt there was a conspiracy.

     As the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death approaches, the number of Americans who believe Oswald acted alone is at its highest since the period three years after the November 22, 1963 assassination when 36 percent said one man was responsible.

Associated Press, November 2013 

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Novel Versus Short-Story Writing

     Short-story writing, as I saw it, was estimable. One required skill and cleverness to carry it off. But to have written a novel was to have achieved something of substance. You could swing a short story on a cute idea backed up by a modicum of verbal agility. You could, when the creative juices were flowing, knock it off start-to-finish on a slow afternoon.

     A novel, on the other hand, took real work. You had to spend months on the thing, fighting it out in the trenches, line by line and page by page and chapter by chapter. It had to have plot and characters of sufficient depth and complexity to support a structure of sixty or a hundred thousand words. It wasn't an anecdote, or a finger exercise, or a trip to the moon on gossamer wings. It was a book. 

     The short-story writer, as I saw it, was a sprinter; he deserved praise to the extent that his stories were meritorious. But the novelist was a long-distant runner, and you don't have to come in first in a marathon in order to deserve the plaudits of the crowd. It is enough merely to have finished on one's feet.

Lawrence Block, Writing a Novel, 1979