On writing, writers, and money

“I have no money, no resources, no hope, I am the happiest man alive.”

So writes Henry Miller early in “Tropic of Cancer.” It’s an exuberant voice, as Erica Jong notes in her biography of Miller, “The Devil at Large.” It’s an infectious voice. It certainly infected me when I first read “Tropic of Cancer” in my twenties. Almost 30 years on, I can’t remember now whether I read “Tropic of Cancer” before I saw the movie “Henry & June” or if I saw the movie first. Probably, I saw the movie first and then picked up “Tropic of Cancer,” wanting to see how the movie and book compared.

The movie is actually drawn from Anais Nin’s journals. I didn’t know that then. But, I loved the movie. I loved the way it depicted the impecunious Miller (played by Fred Ward) delighted by the joie de vivre of living, writing, and bumming his way through Depression-era Paris. The movie was much more infectious than the book for me in my twenties trying to be a writer.

“Henry & June” was the first movie I’d seen that depicted a writer’s life. It was the life for me. Disdain money. Celebrate art, freedom, what have you. If you’re a writer, you’re an artist. You shouldn’t worry about how to make a living from writing. I wasn’t worried, then, about how to make a living as a writer. I was in graduate school hoping I might one day teach lit at a university and write on the side.

The funny thing is, as I was learning to write, I rarely put too much of a thought to earning a living as a writer. Oh, I fantasized about getting paid a thousand bucks for a short story in Playboy or the New Yorker—I think Playboy might have paid better. Or, I assumed I’d write a bestselling novel, be hailed a literary genius, and never have to worry about money again. I would just write and write and write. Naive fantasies. Rock star fantasies.

As I was learning to write (fiction, primarily, because writing fiction was “real” writing) I spent a lot of time and money on how-to-write books. Some, like John Gardner’s “The Art of Fiction,” are invaluable, especially for the exercises. Others, forgettable. Even now, as someone who has written professionally as a journalist, I buy and read and even learn from books about writing. Of course, while books about writing help, you still have to write and read novels, stories, poems, essays—everything—to learn to write.

While many of these books on writing are great—another I’ll recommend here is Ursula K. LeGuin’s “Steering the Craft”—and have great exercises and advice on the craft of writing itself, many consistently seem to stray from one topic: the business of writing. How do you make a living as a writer?

A few answer the question. Stephen King’s “On Writing” addresses writing as a business, in particular, writing fiction. The first writing book I ever read, Rita Mae Brown’s “Starting From Scratch,” has chapters about going into newspaper journalism and writing for magazines as ways to make a living writing while you write fiction on the side and hope for the best. (I went into newspaper journalism largely because of Brown’s advice.) Brown doesn’t go into great detail about how to freelance for magazines; she just suggests it as an avenue to income and recognition.

“Starting From Scratch” came out in 1988 and “On Writing” in 2000, and both books are probably woefully outdated, especially now as newspapers and magazines go extinct. Every millisecond turns into an asteroid now with any sort of publishing, and almost everything seems to go obsolete within seconds of appearing. Perhaps writing itself is obsolete.

Richard Rhodes’ “How to Write”—published in 1995— is probably just as woefully outdated as Brown’s or King’s, regarding the business of writing, but I love this book. I recently reread it—I first read it in 2003—as I’ve been sporadically rereading all the books I have on writing. Rhodes’ early chapters on overcoming fears about writing—I reread these, even just a paragraph or two, when I need to pierce my own self-doubts and fears—are worth the price of admission.Throughout the book, Rhodes writes about the business of writing of personal dealings with publishers and editors and other scoundrels, but he also dedicates a full chapter on writing as a business.

While some of his advice on breaking into publishing might be outdated, his outlook on trying to make a living as a writer is sober and realistic. “[T]enacity, not to say obstinance . . . is a valuable asset if you want to write, because it’s not easy to find your way to publication. It’s even harder to make a living writing, and few writers do.”

Like other businesses, a professional writer has to network. You have to “overcome the proverbial shyness that afflicts fledgling writers,” Rhodes writes, and talk to other writers and as well as editors. You have to make contact with agents and publishers. You have to do the type of things you might do to find jobs of any kind.

I’m not sure how much the world of indie publishing has changed this. Agents might be less necessary. But, you’re still going to have to market your work so you can make a living.

Many writers—myself included—also have to get past a learned disdain for money or commerce, the idea that somehow art and commerce don’t or shouldn’t mix. That somehow, if you make money as a writer, you’re nothing more than a hack. I’ve struggled with this notion for years, and it’s still an idea I have to wrestle with. While the seeds of my issues with money were planted in a religious upbringing that took seriously the idea that money was the root of all evil, I kept finding reinforcement in it throughout my life. Confirmation bias was deeply entrenched in my psyche.

In the next-to-the-last chapter of “How to Write,” Rhodes quotes at length from Anthony Trollope’s “Autobiography”. The 19th-century English novelist was prolific and productive, to say the least. He would finish writing a novel and immediately begin writing the next. Rhodes notes Trollope fell out of favor with his Victorian audience after his autobiography was posthumously published. What scandalized the Victorians weren’t sexual confessions, as Rhodes notes, but Trollope’s honesty about and pride in creating a career as a professional writer.

I am well aware that there are many who think that an author in his authorship should not regard money,—nor a painter or sculptor, or composer in his art. I do not know that this unnatural sacrifice is supposed to extend itself further. A barrister, a clergyman, a doctor, an engineer, and even actors and architects, may without disgrace follow the bent of human nature, and endeavor to fill their bellies and clothe their backs, and also those of their wives and children, as comfortably as they can by the exercise of their abilities and their crafts.

Where did the idea come from that writers—any artists for that matter— not regard money? Did we do it to ourselves when we stopped, somewhere around the end of World War I, being “faithful witness[es] of everyman,” as John Ralston Saul posits in his book “Voltaire’s Bastards,” and became literary navel-gazers? There’s probably some truth to that. The Romantics probably had something to with it, too. Romanticism was fresh enough in Trollope’s time to influence those who might want Trollope to shut up about money and simply create art for art’s sake. And in Henry Miller’s exuberant exultation about having neither money nor resources and yet being the “happiest man alive” there is a thread of Romanticism tied to literary modernism.

I suppose, ideally, it’s what we ought to strive for as writers or artists. But, having no money or resources is rarely hopeful, despite Henry Miller’s claim. Writers need to be paid, and not despise money.

Life without enough resources is just another source of fear that can stifle writing, or any person for that matter, as Trollope so poignantly notes:

It is a mistake to suppose that a man is a better man because he despises money. Few do so, and those few in doing so suffer a defeat. Who does not desire to be hospitable to his friends, generous to the poor, liberal to all, munificent to his children, and to be himself free from the carking fear which poverty creates? The subject will not stand an argument;—and yet authors are told that they should disregard payment for their work, and be content to devote their unbought brains to the welfare of the public. Brains that are unbought will never serve the public much. Take away from English authors their copyrights, and you would very soon take away from England her authors.

Make a habit of it: Stephen King’s “On Writing”

I started this blog post at around 8 p.m. on a Wednesday. I try to write at the same time every weeknight, currently for about 30 minutes to an hour. It doesn’t always happen, but I try to make a habit of it.

If there is anybody who knows about making a habit of writing, it’s Stephen King. “I like to get ten pages a day,” he writes in “On Writing,” “which amounts to 2,000 words.” He also tries to write every day. By establishing this writing habit early on, King’s become one of the most prolific living writers on the planet.

Ten pages a day seems like a hefty amount, intimidating, really, especially if you were a writer just starting out. But, the king of horror goes on to say that 1,000 words a day, or about five pages, is an achievable goal for new writers—and you can even take a day off. I’ve tried reaching that five-pages-a-day-goal, probably after reading “On Writing” for the first time. It’s tough. Blank pages, blank Word documents are intimidating. Trying to sit still long enough to do it when you have the blank screen and no words coming is intimidating.

Of course, what’s intimidating you is fear. “Fear,” writes Richard Rhodes in another favorite book on writing “How To Write,” “stops more people from writing, not lack of talent, whatever that is. Who am I? What right have I to speak? Who will listen to me if I do?”

Similar questions or harsher ones probably cross your mind when you sit down to write, although Rhodes offers a good way to break the wall of writer’s block: “When fear is upon you, write for yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write as long as you do it regularly [habit, again]. Set aside an hour or a half-hour daily or as often as you can . . . .Forget spelling . . . . Forget punctuation if paying attention to it inhibits you—you can always add it later. . . . Don’t think about how you’re writing: write.”

It doesn’t really matter—especially at first—what you write, you just have to write, Rhodes notes, even if you’re just writing about a process.

I’ve spent a good part of my writing life trying to develop a consistent writing habit. One of the more difficult aspects of establishing a writing habit is working it around a full-time job, especially when that job involves writing. Working for newspapers made it even more difficult, given the erratic schedules I’ve followed. Shifting your mind from nonfiction to fiction can be difficult too, but I was able to do it.

Establishing a writing habit has many purposes. If you’re writing fiction, when you write regularly, it keeps you in the world you are creating. “Once I start work on a project,” King writes, “I don’t stop and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind—they begin to seem like characters instead of real people. The tale’s narrative cutting edge starts to rust and I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace. Worst of all, the excitement of spinning something new begins to fade. The work starts to ‘feel’ like work, and for most writers that is the smooch of death.”

I think this can be said for nonfiction as well. An article or essay can grow stale, you can lose the narrative and the connection of one thought to the other. Even writing daily, you can get lost and essay too far from the original path.

Establishing a habit helps you tap into the flow of your imagination, into the unconscious mind without needing to wait for the Muse to whisper in your ear. The Muse, as King notes, is “a hard-headed guy who’s not susceptible to a lot of creative fluttering. . . .Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you’re going to be every day from nine ’til noon or seven ’til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he’ll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making magic.”

But, you can also hurt yourself psychically if you’re too rigid about sticking to your habit. As Roy Peter Clark notes in his chapter about “On Writing” in “Murder Your Darlings,” a writing habit can be self-defeating, especially if you’ve set up some staggeringly impossible rate of productivity. “You do not have to exercise every day to gain maximum health benefit,” Clark writes. “In the same spirit, do not be discouraged by violating your self-imposed writing schedule.”

Clark’s right about this. You overwork yourself lifting weights, say, and you strain or tear a muscle, you’re not getting any benefit from the exercise. You keep working out, trying to work past the pain, and not heal, you hurt yourself worse. No pain, no gain is bullshit. No writing every day, no success is bullshit too. When you beat yourself up for not writing every day, or not getting in 2,000 words a day, you’re reacting to another form of fear, the authoritarian and demanding ego telling you, “You can’t really be a writer if you don’t write every day.” Listening to that voice can be as debilitating as not writing at all and never producing anything.

Still, at the same time, to be a writer, you must write. When you establish a writing habit, you’re working past fear, and becoming productive. You’re producing words, sentences, paragraphs, pages. Pages become articles, stories, and books. A page a day is a book a year, as Rhodes notes. If your intention is to become a professional writer, you have to produce, and then submit what you write. And that’s another fear you have to overcome—the fear of submitting what you write, the fear of being rejected, or maybe even the fear of being accepted.

I’ve set up my own walls when it comes to developing a career as a professional writer. Oh, I could establish a writing habit. Often, even with a full-time job, I could make time to write, but mostly what I would write—as far as fiction goes—were writing exercises from writing books. Not to say I didn’t learn anything. I did.

As an aside: No matter what kind of writing you do, if you want to challenge yourself, do the exercises in John Gardner’s book “The Art of Fiction.”

So, I wrote those exercises. I incorporated them in my writer’s toolbox. When I got my first newspaper job, I wove some of those skills I learned into my journalism. Using these tools certainly made me a better feature writer.

The thing is, I aspired to write fiction, and I was writing fiction when I wrote those exercises. I just wasn’t finishing anything. I wasn’t putting all those techniques together into a finished project. Or it took me months just to write a short story when I finally put it all together. I would revise and polish and polish and revise the same story. I might submit it once or twice to the big prominent magazines and journals like The New Yorker or The Paris Review, and once the story was rejected, I’d set it aside, and find a new book with more exercises.

Doing the exercises was a way to tell myself that I was dedicated to the art and craft of writing without really being productive. I was also learning—sometimes from the writing books—to disdain the notion of being a “professional writer,” while at the same time I craved being published. I craved a literary life, one in which I wasn’t really producing a whole lot of literature.

When I first read “On Writing,” I didn’t pay too much attention to King’s section on developing a career as a writer. I wish I had paid more attention to it. King’s composite writer, “Frank,” as his success grows, as he begins to publish more, he begins to think in terms of publishing as a business. He begins to see himself and presents himself as a professional writer. He takes as much care crafting letters to agents and publishers as he does crafting his stories. Those letters are like a resume, the first thing a potential employer usually sees of you.

Of course, in the 20 years since “On Writing” was published, publishing has changed drastically, especially as indie publishing has gained more and more respect. Still, King’s advice has value. You have to keep producing. You have to submit. You have to act as if you are a professional, whether you take a traditional route, an indie route, or become a hybrid.

And, writing is about more than publishing and producing and making lots of money. Writing is always about writing. “I have written,” King writes, “because it fulfilled me. Maybe it paid off the mortgage on the house and got the kids through college, but those things were on the side—I did it for the buzz. I did it for the pure joy of the thing. And if you can do it for the joy, you can do it forever.”

Writing’s something I hope to do forever because it gives me joy. I make a habit of it because I can travel through my imagination. I make a habit of it because it helps me think and is meaningful. Of course, making a great deal of dough from it wouldn’t hurt too much either.

Fear is mind-killer in crime fiction

Georges Simenon's "The Yellow Dog"

I’m a latecomer to mysteries and crime fiction. Until about five or six years ago, I had little interest in the genre, unless you count spy novels like John le Carre’s “The Russia House” or “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” or even a few of Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Occasionally in my reading life over the years I’d pick up a book like William Hjortsberg’s “Nevermore” based on a friend’s recommendation, and of course there’s the obligatory high school reading of “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and several of Poe’s short stories. I would probably count a science-fiction novel like China Mieville’s “The City & The City” as a mystery too.

My interest in crime fiction developed, when late in my journalism career, I began writing about crime. Writing about crime in real life spawned an interest in writing mysteries, and the writer in me said, “If you’re going to try to write mysteries, you might want to read mysteries.” That led me to a whole lot of catch-up reading, which, in turn, led me becoming a fan, and wondering why I had ever neglected the genre in the first place.

I have my suspicions, of course, but I won’t get into them too deeply here. Some of the neglect has to do with the literary snobbishness I developed as a graduate-level English major in the 90s, snobbery that robbed me of crime fiction well into my forties. It’s the same sort of snobbery that made me turn my back on fantasy and science fiction, though crime fiction seems to have a little more clout among the literati—the why of that is another question worth investigating some other time.

Anyhow, in my catch-up period, one of the writers I had long wanted to read was Georges Simenon, the Belgian creator of Inspector Jules Maigret. I first read about Simenon, a prodigious drinker, in Donald Goodwin’s “Alcohol and the Writer”. Before I read any fiction by Simenon, my next encounter with him, if I’m recalling right, was in a reprint of his Paris Review interview, where I became even more intrigued by the author himself, and especially his output. When he was ready to write a novel, he’d block out two weeks on his calendar to write and revise it. He wrote hundreds of novels—75 of which were in the Maigret series— and novellas, as well as scores of stories and articles. Many of the Maigret novels are under 200 pages. “The Yellow Dog,” the first and so far only novel of his that I’ve read, is 134 pages in a Penguin translation published in 2013. It also has 11 chapters, so a chapter a day and three days to revise.

First published in French in 1931, “The Yellow Dog” is the fifth in the Maigret series. I mistakenly thought it was the first, misreading the About the Author blurb, which says the novel was the “first Maigret novel to be adapted for the big screen.” (See, easy mistake, when you’re rapidly flipping through pages in the local Barnes & Noble trying to find the first book of a series). The novel’s set in Concarneau, a small port town in northwestern France, and Maigret is sent there when the city’s biggest wine dealer Monsieur Mostaguen is shot and wounded by an unknown assailant. After Maigret arrives more crimes ensue: a retired newspaperman Jean Servieres disappears after his blood-stained car is found near a river, and a customs agent gets shot in the leg. Each of the crimes seems to be haunted by a strange yellow dog and rumors of a giant vagrant lurking about.

Fears mount in the small town as Maigret investigates these crimes. The town’s fears become so elevated that usually busy streets become deserted and “deathly silent” by four o’clock when the street lamps are turned on (it’s early November). “It was as if the strollers had passed the word. In less than a quarter of an hour the streets had emptied, and when footsteps sounded, they were hurried ones of someone anxious to get to the shelter of home.” People get so tense that someone shoots the yellow stray, which howls in the street where it’s shot like “some supernatural creature.” (I wonder if this is a nod to “The Hound of the Baskervilles”.)

Clearly, fear is the novel’s dominant theme. The word itself appears throughout the text. “FEAR REIGNS IN CONCARNEAU,” a newspaper headline reads, in a Chapter with the same title. As Maigret wraps up the investigation and is about to make the big reveal, he says, “‘I’d like to talk to you a little more about fear, because that’s what underlies this whole business.'” This in a Chapter titled “Fear.” Simenon expertly chooses the right words to evoke fear as well. In one scene, a telephone “jangled,” as if its nerves were shot.

Simenon also plays with supernatural elements to add to the chilling atmosphere. By the way, it’s almost always cold. The wounded dog has a supernatural howl, a doctor appears as pale as a ghost. These kinds of details, along with references to fear and death appear throughout the novel. It’s the kind of detail writers should pay attention to. Repetition of images and words are always clues to what a writer is thinking, as Roy Peter Clark notes in “The Art of X-Ray Reading”. Use your words carefully, build your images.

But it’s the atmosphere of fear that Simenon evokes that’s the most intriguing. Here is a small town where everybody knows everybody, and it’s suddenly disrupted by a crime, which seems to be an attempt at murder. The longer the crime goes unsolved, the greater the fear, the more pressure Maigret is put under to solve the crime. That’s how crime works in real life too. It acts on our fears, whether we’re victims or not. Of course, Maigret is a competent investigator, trained to work past all the noise and pressure to actually get the crime solved.

Fear is the mind-killer—to borrow from science-fiction’s “Dune”— in crime fiction and in life. Fear is a product of ignorance. In a mystery, fear is generated by not knowing who the killer is and the characters in the novel wondering “Will I be next?” It’s the question asked by the press in “The Yellow Dog”—“Whose turn next?” is a subhead in a newspaper article. In fiction and real life, we are always ignorant of the unknown. That’s why we fear it. We don’t have the ability of precognition like the precogs in Philip K. Dick’s story “Minority Report,” on which the 2002 Tom Cruise movie was loosely based. We can’t catch criminals before they commit crimes. We can’t know if the guy in the trenchcoat at the movie theater is just cold on a January night, or if he’s about to whirl around and start blasting with a shotgun. We can’t know—if we’re black—whether the next cop that pulls you over is going to give you a ticket or shoot you. It’s that fear of the unknown that leaders manipulate and use to arouse suspicion and distrust toward protesters. Whose store gets looted next? Whose store gets burned down? We need law and order and tear gas, lots of tear gas, and bludgeoning people. That’ll stop the fears. Meanwhile, a block away, a kid enjoys an ice cream cone. Of course, there are things to be afraid of, and fear is useful. Sometimes, for instance, when the wolves are at your heels, you need to heed the flight instinct and run. Simenon and other crime writers, when they’re really good, capture our fears at all levels.

Whose turn next? Nobody knows. Nobody can know. And fear will always be the mind-killer if we let it.

A Tribute to a Friend

I met Gerald Warfield about 10 years ago. He was one of the first people I met at the North Texas Speculative Fiction Workshop. It would turn out he was one of the most insightful writers in the group, and generous with his critiques. The critiques were just as insightful. They could be tough, but always kind, never condescending or snarky, and often right on target. He made me a better fiction writer.

But Gerald was more than just an insightful writer who provided great techniques, he became a good friend. When I needed a place to live in 2014, he rented an apartment to me. He owned a home in Mineral Wells, Texas, that he had converted into apartments, and I rented the apartment below his. Over the time that I lived and worked in Mineral Wells, I got to know Gerald and his family—mostly his nieces and nephews. I learned more about his life: in his time, he studied music at Princeton, published books on music theory and composition, and at one point was an amateur herpetologist, studying and rescuing sea turtles. He would write an unpublished YA novel “Treader” about his experiences with the turtles.

He also published several science-fiction short stories, including a Writers of the Future winner. You can read it in Writer’s of the Future, volume XXVIII.

Gerald encouraged me in my writing, and I valued our occasional front porch chats on books, politics, and how his beloved garden was faring. The garden took over the front- and backyard of our place. I’m sure the postal carrier wasn’t happy to have to work around the branches of a small tree that grew around the mailbox. Gerald could tell me the name of every flower—I can’t remember many, if any. Was it thyme or lavender out front hanging over the sidewalk? Right now, I can’t remember.

Gerald died at 80 this last weekend from liver cancer. What I will remember more than any plant in his garden or any story he wrote or critiqued is the generosity of spirit. Every Christmas, his present to us renters was a rent-free month. And more than once, when I had hard time making ends meet on a journalist’s salary, he was kind enough to let me pay out rent as I could or the electric bill when I could.

In January, Gerald decided to sell the house and move to Florida with one of his many nephews. This meant I would have to move. The day I moved, I found out he had gone into the hospital.

The last time I heard from Gerald was a week after I had moved. He was calling, worried about me because I hadn’t picked up my mail. He wasn’t aware I had moved. I had gotten busy with the move and hadn’t told him. That call was when I learned he had cancer, but he was more concerned about me. It was like Gerald always was, generous, kind, and concerned as always.

So, farewell, friend. You made my life better in many ways.

Some Ramblings on Writing, Writing Books, and Science Fiction

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to and reading Roy Peter Clark’s Murder Your Darlings: And Other Gentle Writing Advice from Aristotle to Zinsser. As you might’ve gathered from the subtitle, it’s a book about writing books. Clark gives us both a glimpse into some of the better writing books available, and draws out some of the main lessons learned about writing.

Clark, senior scholar and vice president of the Poynter Institute, has written some good books on writing himself like Writing Tools and The Art of X-Ray Reading, both of which I’d recommend. And while I’ve just started Murder Your Darlings, I’ll have to recommend it, too.

Among the writing books Clark includes is Ursula K. LeGuin’s excellent Steering the Craft. What surprised me, though, is that Clark confesses, “Ursula K. LeGuin may be the most famous American writer that I had never heard of.” But, apparently he had never heard of her—or read her— until he started seeing tributes to her after her death in 2018. It was shortly after reading tributes that he ran across Steering the Craft.

Reading that, I wondered how Clark managed to miss reading LeGuin. At the very least, I thought he would have encountered The Left Hand of Darkness or even The Lathe of Heaven. I then wondered if Clark missed reading LeGuin because her primary genres were science fiction and fantasy. While Clark mentions Tolkien and Harry Potter in X-Ray Reading, I get the impression he might not hold science fiction or fantasy in as high regard as other forms of literature. I have no proof of this, of course, and I still hold Clark in high regard as a writer and writing teacher.

And, actually, on one hand, I get the bias against science fiction. If you’ve sat in any English courses, say, over the last 50 years, you’re unlikely to have been assigned any science fiction, or not very much. Tolkien gets a nod, sometimes. Maybe Orwell or Huxley or Bradbury. I took a short story class in which we read one of Asimov’s robot stories, “Bicentennial Man.” There’s not much exposure. The books in Clark’s X-Ray Reading are, for the most part, literary classics like The Great Gatsby and Madame Bovary—though fantasy might get a nod with works like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Odyssey. All worthwhile reads, and worth learning from. But no science fiction. No Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, or LeGuin.

Even now, as sci-fi/SF culture has pushed deeper into mainstream culture with Star Wars, Game of Thrones and video gaming, among others, biases against the genre still appear . I get that tastes vary, and yes, there’s plenty of hokiness even in the very best science fiction and fantasy that can be a turn-off. In the U.S., at least, we have a deeply ingrained suspicion of imagination and intellect—science in particular. So, there’s that.

Genre fiction, in general, other than crime fiction, still seems to get pushed to the literary suburbs. I’m reading Walter Mosley’s Blue Light—I would argue it’s horror rather than SF—and a blurb from USA Today on the back cover reads, “A mind-bending trip into the brave new world . . . good writing, regardless of genre.” The implication—horror/SF is poorly written, juvenile perhaps, and not to be taken seriously by any serious-minded person. Unless it’s well-written?

As a reader and writer—one who makes attempts at writing SF—I find myself sometimes getting stalled when reading science fiction and fantasy. Some of the masters of the genre like Asimov or Philip K. Dick are not great stylists by any means, but then again neither are Theodore Dreiser or Henry James (two writers I have trouble pushing through no matter how hard I try.)

I recently reread Asimov’s I, Robot, and had a hard time pushing through these fascinating stories. Asimov’s style is well recognized for being minimalist, at best. “Asimov preferred a completely unembellished style of writing,” according to the website Develop Good Habits. “His characters were so simple and the dialogue so functional that it approached the telegraphic minimum of language.” While I tend to prefer a simple style (this from someone who wrote his master’s thesis on William Faulkner, simplicity to the point of transparency can often make fiction dry and uninteresting.

While Asimov’s style is dusty, what makes reading him difficult for me is the tone. It’s the tone of mid century middle school lit. “Gloria withdrew her chubby little forearm from before her eyes and stood for a moment, wrinkling her nose and blinking in the sunlight.” This sentence comes from the opening paragraph of the story, “Robbie,” about a young girl who becomes emotionally attached to her robot. On one hand, the tone is appropriate for the character, and little different from James Joyce’s opening lines in A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, “Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road . . .” This is a young Stephen Dedalus being told a children’s story. The tone swiftly moves to a more adult tone. “Robbie’s” tone stays the same, even when the point of view switches to the adults in the story.

And yet, and yet, trudge through the dusty, rarely varying prose, tolerate the tone, and you have one a great story about human relationships to machines and themselves. All of I, Robot‘s stories are certainly relevant today as we begin to deal with A.I., and our relationships to our robots, and other devices like smartphones. This is the power of science fiction. It’s the power of any literary genre. It shows us, us, as cliched as that is. One of my favorite robot stories is “Reason,” about a robot that develops a religious impulse. It’s a perfect critique of religion, especially fundamentalism, but also a critique of pure reason—the robot’s religion is driven by logic, and reasoned out through a priori deductions, all purely theoretical, but accepted as truth, even when experience and evidence contradict it. It would be a great story to teach about critical thinking, a great story for an introductory philosophy class.

If I hadn’t pushed through Asimov, and had dismissed his writing as just banal genre writing, I would have missed these wonderful stories with challenging ideas. So, give SF a chance. Don’t dismiss it, or its fandom.

—Todd

A Good Ending: A Star Wars Review

This weekend, I finally saw Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the final installment of the so-called Skywalker saga, which of course began in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope. According to Rotten Tomatoes, it’s not well-received by critics.

The review site’s Critic Consensus says, “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker suffers from a frustrating lack of imagination, but concludes this beloved saga with fan-focused devotion.”

On the other hand, audiences are giving it high ratings, according to the site. I’m going to take the audience’s side on this.

It’s a good movie. Good. Not great. My critic’s mind wants to agree that it is unfocused, but the Star Wars fan in me says, “Yes, it was a nice, fitting ending to the saga.”

It’s definitely action-packed, which lends to the lack of focus. There are some story arcs that seem to get started then flutter out — like that of ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who seems to be Force-sensitive, and possibly Jedi material. And it echoes Return of the Jedi a bit too much with the revival of Emperor Palpatine, a return to Endor, and the ruins of the last Death Star, the attempt to turn Rey to the dark side, the final desperate battle against overwhelming odds.

At the same time, it’s the thing you want. It’s what made the original Star Wars on one level the movie it was: an uncertain hero, desperate rebels fighting and beating the Empire, and a lot of action. Star Wars wasn’t a perfect movie, and critics didn’t necessarily fall in love with it when it came out.

“Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them,” wrote John Simon of New York Magazine.

Of the many things that made A New Hope work and become the phenomena that it came, especially if you were around nine or 10 when the movie came out, was the spectacle, the sense of awe and wonder. From the moment the Star Destroyer fills the screen in the opening scene to the Death Star exploding, you’re drawn into the world, a world you wanted to live in and be a part of. A world you became a part of, playing Star Wars with your friends, reading the Marvel comic books, reading the novels — my first taste was the novelization of the movie (ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster) and Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

Star Wars was magical, a feast for the imagination. The latest trilogy isn’t that, at least for me, and probably not for many around my age. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are good movies as this final installment is. Even the prequels have a tiny bit of merit. They take themselves too seriously.

The thing is, those films can’t capture the magic of the original trilogy. The magic is in our memories and associations of growing up with this story. It’s imprinted in our hearts and imaginations. J.J. Abrams isn’t ruining our childhoods. He’s telling new stories to captivate other generations. Granted, my critic’s mind doesn’t find them as strong of stories as the originals, at least as far as the trilogy goes. Rogue One is a superb movie, and even Solo is good for an origin story.

What’s in a name?

What’s important about names in writing? In nonfiction, as in life, you’re stuck with what you’re given. You don’t necessarily get gems like Roy Peter Clark talks about in Writing Tools. He writes about a story he ran across in the Baltimore Sun of a woman named Sierra Swann whose daughters apparently died because of her devotion to boyfriend Nathaniel Broadway.

Though, I have run across gems when I worked for a newspaper and had to type up the list of those jailed in the county jail. There was apparently one family of troublemakers who named their children after rock stars Billy Idol and Van Halen.

In fiction, you can come up with gems like Jubal Harshaw or Socrates Fortlow. Or you can, sometimes. Creating memorable fictional names can prove challenging. Usually you want them to fit the character. Scrooge comes to mind in this season. Or The Grinch.

But pedestrian names like John Smith could work, too, if your character is at least in the beginning pedestrian.

Names matter. My own last name can cause trouble when signing up for stuff online. For some screeners it might sound like I am crowing about something fragile.

Place names too can like Ding Dong, Texas, have a ring. They can be forbidding like Death Valley or inviting like Paradise.

What do you think of the importance of names in writing? How do you use them? Where do you find them?

Current News: No More Mr. Nice Guy or Why I’m Reading Machiavelli, Part II

Portrait_of_Niccolò_Machiavelli_by_Santi_di_TitoSo, who is this Machiavelli guy anyway? And why does he have such a bad reputation?

To figure out what made him so bad, I had to drag him out of my dustbin of history—the vague recollection of a history major who took a Renaissance history course way back in 1988. All I could think of was his reputation for writing an allegedly nasty little book, The Prince.

But surely a book with a bad reputation wasn’t enough to give him such notoriety, to make him worthy of study, was it? Of course not. Machiavelli was more than a one-hit wonder. He played a central role in establishing the foundations of humanism, especially when it came to our modern understanding of history.

Reimagining the study of history

Along with contemporaries like Leonardo Bruni, Francesco Guicciardini and Jean Bodin, Machiavelli’s histories reimagined the past and gave back to history its “causal autonomy,” autonomy medieval scholastics usurped in their need to root through Greek and Roman classics for evidence of God’s divine plan, according to historian Eugene Rice’s The Foundations of Early Modern Europe, 1460-1559.

“Recourse to God’s providential plan or to direct intervention by God in order to explain historical events became rarer,” Rice writes. “The explanations advanced by Bruni, Machiavelli, and Guicciardini are usually natural rather than supernatural, involving causes rooted in the appetites of individuals or in the ambitions of particular social or political groups.”

Before the Renaissance, Rice says, medieval scholars “divided history into an age of darkness and error and an age of light and truth.,” For medieval scholars, studying both ages revealed the progress of God’s divine plan for humanity — it was bleak before Jesus came along.

Renaissance historians, according to Rice, split history into three distinct periods: ancient, medieval and modern. By doing so, these historians exercised a value judgment against medieval thought, one that “reversed the traditional metaphor of light and darkness. Antiquity, so long considered dark because it was the time of pagan error, became in this new vision of the past an age of light; while the period after the decline of Rome was branded an age of cultural decadence and barbarism. Correspondingly, the humanists represented their own age as a new historical epoch of a special kind: a renaissance — an age of light after darkness, awakening after sleep, rebirth after death.”

This new way of thinking about history contextualized it. It made the past, past, as William Faulkner might say. It alleviated medieval thought of its provincialisms and anachronisms.

Eliminating anachronism helped uncover fact from fiction and began to hold truth to power. It allowed humanist scholars and educators like Lorenzo Valla and Desiderius Erasmus to develop methods of textual analysis to uncover inconvenient truths. Valla notably exposed false claims of fiefdom in the Donation of Constantine, a forged document that allegedly granted the papacy extensive property in Italy, thus strengthening the Church’s political power. In turn, Erasmus argued against a scriptural basis for the doctrine of the Trinity, an idea within Christendom that was controversial until “interpolated into the New Testament after the Council of Nicaea,” Rice says.

This form of textual criticism “is the concrete embodiment of an historical sense and represents the beginning of modern ‘scientific history’,” Rice says. Such criticism further secularized the study of history. “Instead of being an illustration and justification of God’s ways to man, history was, in [the Renaissance historians’] view, a guide to life.”

Machiavelli is explicit about this view in The Prince, “As for intellectual training, the prince must read history, studying the actions of eminent men to see how they conducted themselves during war and to discover the reasons for their victories or their defeats, so that he can avoid the latter and imitate the former. Above all, he must read history so that he can do what eminent men have done before him: taken as their model some historical figure who has been praised and honored; and always kept his deeds and actions before them.”

This is a key reason we still study history. Or should. To remember the past in order to avoid its mistakes, to improve our leadership skills in whatever field we’re in. But, to study history is more than that. It takes us away from ourselves into other lives, as novels or movies or art does. It takes us away from provincialism, away from seeing the world in the narrow scope of home. It takes us away from a dangerous anachronism — the past is dead: how I cringe at evangelicals wanting to live as if we were in the first century or at the voices of Southerners who want to preserve “heritage,” who don’t want to rid themselves of old times not forgotten, for whom the past isn’t dead, it’s not even the past.

When I read history or watch a well put-together documentary series like Ken BurnsThe Vietnam War: A Film, I see the world as it was, and how it got to the present. I wince when I hear President Johnson declined to reveal that he learn Nixon has colluded with. South Vietnamese President Thieu to stall peace talks until after the U.S. election. For Johnson, that would reveal his less-than-scrupulous methods of getting the dope on Nixon’s treasonous act.

I choke up watching veterans touch The Wall and trace their fallen brothers’ names. I feel their anger and the increasing anger of the anti-war movement at a government that for more than a decade lied to perpetuate a war they knew was unwinnable. I see the roots of our current divide and worry that we might not ever heal from this gaping wound. Finally, I see the depth of humanity, its folly and its triumphs — the sorts of things Machiavelli saw and wrote about in his time with perhaps the hope someone might learn from them.

— Todd

Part III coming soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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