Recommended Reading: News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton

de_botton_1The News: A User’s Manual
Alain de Botton
Vintage, 2014
Paperback, 272 pages

If the Beatles’ song “A Day in the Life” were sung today, instead of singing “I read the news today, oh boy,” John Lennon might just sing “I saw the news today, oh boy!”

“Oh, boy!” Indeed.

On its Web site, CNN’s breaking news around 10 p.m. CDT July 9, 2018, is a photo of Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court Justice nominee, at a podium presumably at the White House or on Capitol Hill or somewhere in D.C., the president smiling smugly in the background, Kavanaugh’s family off to one side, wife smiling lovingly.

This is important news, right? At least for the U.S.? Then why do I almost automatically disengage from it? Why don’t I click the photo to read or listen to the story that follows?

Below the photo is a headline: “Trump’s Supreme Court pick is a DC insider who worked for special counsel Ken Starr during the Bill Clinton investigation in the 1990s.” That headline is among many about Kavanaugh.

Twelve hours later, Kavanaugh’s nomination is no longer the lead story. The lead is about the rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Scrolling down, however, I can pick from five different headlines analyzing Kavanaugh. Still, I find myself uninterested enough not to click any of the links.

It’s not that I’m politically apathetic. I vote, I sometimes follow political news and even comment here and there, usually on Facebook.

The problem: There’s already so much analysis about Kavanaugh, just from this one source, it’s numbing. My problem, as with many of us who follow the news regularly, or not so regularly for that matter, is that it’s the same story different name as the last nominee. I could begrudgingly switch to the Fox News Web site, and though they’re likely to praise the nomination, the analysis, in general, will be similar. I’m disengaged because I’m bored with the analysis, no matter who’s presenting it; it will continue in the days, weeks and months leading up to the justice’s confirmation — and then continue afterward until his first decision, which, in turn, will get analyzed … well you get the picture.

This sort of disengagement is addressed in Alain de Botton’s The News: A User’s Manual, an analysis of how news, as it’s presented now, affects us, and how the news could be better and serve us better as consumers of it — and as providers of it, better present it.

“We regularly come across headlines of apparent importance that, in private, leave us disengaged,” De Botton writes. “Boredom and confusion may be two of the most common, but also two of the most shameful and therefore concealed, emotions provoked by so-called ‘serious’ political stories presented by the news organizations of modern democracies.”

De Botton is an essayist, philosopher and public intellectual known for such books as Essays on Love, How Proust Can Change Your Life and The Consolations of Philosophy. He also runs the School of Life, a school, as its Web site notes, dedicated “to developing emotional intelligence,” a sort of self-help school that promotes philosophy, art and literature over pop psychology as practical sources for changing lives and making one’s way in the world a bit more tolerable.

On the surface, in De Botton’s estimate, the news, no matter what’s covered — politics, crime, celebrities — doesn’t make our lives more tolerable. Even just a casual perusal of the news is likely to cause us fear or anger, despair or apathy or lust or envy, depending on the stories we follow, or where we happen to catch the 24-hour news cycle. Some news might elicit all these emotions at once.

The medium in which the news is presented doesn’t seem to matter. De Botton draws examples from print, TV and presumably online — given that most print media (or what once was print) is now followed online. (The book was published on the cusp of social media’s dominance as an outlet for news, even individually created “news,” and smart phone technology, but with minor adjustments, De Botton’s critique easily applies to those media as well.)

For instance, here are some headlines De Botton cites early on from the BBC that could have come across our newsfeed on Twitter or Facebook or on TV at any time and pretty much from any source, local, national or international:

  • “COUNCIL SPENDING ‘LACKING CLARITY’”
  • “ANTI-TAX GROUP LEADS CONSERVATIVE CHARGE”
  • “SYDNEY MAN CHARGED WITH CANNIBALISM AND INCEST”

Only the third headline might command our attention, but probably just insofar as to cause us anger or outrage at such hideous acts. The story itself would in print probably run three-to-four-hundred words in length or gain a minute or two of broadcast time, and then it would become a mere piffle in our minds. Just a few of us, including the journalist reporting it, would follow the story from arrest to prosecution to sentencing — unless the Sydney man happened to hold celebrity status or the story itself, especially in trial, were to reveal gory, gruesome and macabre details. Otherwise, it’s water-cooler talk.

Which, is the issue, De Botton says. What’s the point?

De Botton offers possibilities to improve news and its presentation, primarily suggesting news dig deeper into the “whys” of events or people it reports on are important. Why should we care about a war in Africa when we’re drinking our coffee in our kitchens in the U.S.? What if we see the every day lives of those caught in the war, to see the universals in their lives, then maybe we might just care some? Or we might see a crime as more than just an event in which in which we can express our self-righteous outrage at the perpetrator.

“The tragedies of others should remind us of how close we ourselves often are to behaving in amoral, blinkered or violent ways,” De Botton writes. “Seeing the consequences of such impulses harrowingly played out in the lives of strangers should leave us feeling at once scared and sympathetic rather than hubristic and self-righteous.”

While on one hand De Botton’s suggestions for how news should be gathered and presented is highly idealistic — especially to the reporter, the journalist who is frantically trying to daily fill column space or airtime with something to keep his job — on the other hand, his ideas are intriguing and his critique of the news is spot on in the way it influences those who consume it.

As reporters, we often just go about writing the city council story, knowing the city’s budget will usually fall short or that the next Supreme Court justice will influence the workings of the nation one way or another. We will too often go just to the people in power to get some quotes and then go onto the next story and talk to more talking heads. We ask the same questions and get the same narrative. We don’t always go out with our notebooks to understand the whys of a story, to dig out what a story means, if anything at all.

The kind of journalism De Botton seems to advocate does exist in longform magazine writing, it existed at its best in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as The New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson, et al, emerged. But then, that style peaked by the ’90s. Still, those journalists ferreted out meaningful stories by training literary lenses on their subjects.

Is this the kind of journalism consumers of news now want? Do they have the attention span to read such stories, to watch a lengthy documentary film? Perhaps after reading De Botton’s book, they will want more of that kind of journalism, rather than what they are getting?

I want to think that’s what news consumers want — news with meaning and richness of texture, news that looks at the world in its ordinariness as an artist does. It’s why I am encouraged when I read a great narrative piece in a magazine, online, or even in a newspaper. It’s why I was encouraged that until a few weeks ago CNN had a great show that showed us the world through its people, its food and its culture in the late Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown.”

I would like to see De Botton’s idealistic approach put to the test. It might be more encouraging and less “Oh, boy!” than you think.

— Todd

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Did Balzac Really Drink 50 Cups of Coffee a Day? — The Airship

balzac

I found the post below on French novelist Honore de Balzac’s alleged coffee-drinking habits last night when the SO and I were texting about headaches. She had a sinus headache and I recalled how often as a kid I had bad headaches fairly frequently. As I thought back, many of these headaches probably came as a result of caffeine withdrawal. I became an addict early on, probably around age 4 or 5, when my grandmother would dilute a cup of coffee with cream and sugar and let me dunk cookies — usually Nilla Wafers — in it. From there I extended my addiction to sodas (Cokes, Dr Peppers, Big Red) and iced tea.

I thought about this essay this morning when I was sipping on my third cup and reading, or rather, trying to read—the caffeine was doing its job, making me jumpy and making it hard for me to concentrate on the words on the page. This morning I couldn’t imagine how Balzac could have drunk 50 cups, much less three, per day and still write. Then again, I went to my computer and did some writing, adding a page to my much-neglected novel.

Anyhow, again, I hope you check out this post on Balzac and coffee. A debate about coffee and Balzac: http://airshipdaily.com/blog/01282014-balzac-coffee

Essaying on Fear

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Fear. What does it mean to fear something? Used as a verb, at one time, and a very long time it was — post-Hastings — it meant to frighten or feel fear in oneself. Used as a verb, it comes from the Middle English word feren, which evolved from Old English’s  fær, which might beg the question: if words and language evolve, are they naturally selected?

While that’s old-school, it’s not hard to see the frightening leap to be afraid of something, even something you expect. You might be afraid to get up when the alarm on your phone rings because it means another day’s drudgery at work. Or still asleep, a door creaks, pushed aside by the cat, or a branch scratches against the windowpane above your bed, and you wake startled, heart hammering. Under the covers you squeeze into a fetal ball, eyes closed, because what if that noise wasn’t a branch or door hinge in need of WD-40 and a cat in need of a scolding? What if it’s some meth-addled cretin looking to score a video game he can pawn for his next fix? Or what if there really are monsters under your bed? Just make them go away.

But, it seems a leap of faith to find yourself in Godfearing reverential awe of God. That’s what it means to fear God. Though most people seem to think the deity is something to cower from lest blessings not befall upon your house, and rather your house fall upon you. Ask Job about that.

And that’s what it seems we fear the most — the house falling in on us no matter what. It’s what I’m afraid of, sometimes, or rather its among my many fears — fear is now a noun, the naturally selected necessity in our emotional bank to alert us to danger. Useful on the savanna when a lion is stalking us, or when our Spidey-sense tingles when our enemies have set up an ambush. I like the idea of Spider-man’s Spider-sense, a hero’s enhanced sense of real danger, not the irrational stuff that usually gets to us, the stuff that has the house caving in no matter what.

I can see in myself the tiniest bits of this irrationality, as when the other day driving home from a freelance assignment I was listening to my favorite sports talk radio station out of Dallas and one of the hosts was reading ad copy for a car maintenance shop. The only words I heard were “flat tire”.

“Shut up,” I said. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires while driving. I especially didn’t want to hear how costly tire repair could be. Not then.

Afterward, I kind of snorted a laugh. I had just spoken to a disembodied voice coming from my car’s radio, as if the radio host were next to me in the front seat. I didn’t want to hear about flat tires or anything costing money at a time when my belt is cinched so tight the belt has creditors making harassing phone calls to me.

But that irrational fear seems with me all the time. As silly as it was to argue with a radio ad,what I really didn’t want to do was jinx my subconscious mind and somehow create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hearing those two words was bad mojo. It was like repeating Lord Voldemort and Beetlejuice.

Bad mojo — I need less of it. And maybe by writing about it — maybe I’ll exorcise that fear, beat the mojo, cast it out like I was a curandero, make my tire invulnerable to any costly repair. Should I rub an egg over myself and draw the evil out with it? Might as well blow smoke in my face, too, for all the good it will do.

(Cough. Cough.) So, fear. Look how irrational it is to fear things. But my alert system seems as if its at DEFCON 1 lately without any evidence the missiles are in the air.

One pop-psych self-help book I’ve read calls what I’m experiencing “Waiting for the axe to fall.” To sum up the author’s argument: I should embrace the fear, stroke it like you might the cat. But, have you ever tried to pet a cat that’s afraid of you? It either hisses and bares its fangs to frighten you away, or even more sensibly, retreats and hides under the bed.

Still, I think I understand what the pop psychologist means: perhaps a better word would be managing fear. Another bit more reputable pop psych writer Martin Seligman — in his book Learned Optimism, he at least outlines his research and shows how he came to his conclusions — suggests an evidence-based argument with yourself, a to-be or not to-be moment I suppose, with fewer outrages against the slings and arrows Fortune throws at us.

Maybe, though, we need the outrage, the anger, especially when Fortune, as it often is, out of our control?

Meditation helps — and it too has been embraced in a pop-psych positive thinking way. Sitting and practicing mindfulness meditation, in which focusing on the breath helps you focus on the thoughts you have moment by moment and still them, has helped stem fear sometimes and made my mental focus somewhat better. And a deep breath can quench butterflies or slow anxiousness, say, before a job interview or speaking publicly. But, it’s no cure-all.

Like the other methods, it’s a tool to quiet the mind when we’re ready instead to talk to sports radio hosts as we drive.

But genuine fear of the axe falling is real enough, not irrational. It’s a necessity. I have to take up the slings and arrows courageously and act, knowing that success may or may not be guaranteed. I have to have the determination no matter.

Since this will probably go up before the Fourth, I was just reminded, while listening to a speech of Barbara Ehrenreich’s on Optimism and the cult of positive thinking, of the courage and determination the Founders took: by signing the Declaration of Independence they committed an act of treason against the crown; they could very well have died and some did just by signing their names to that document.

There’s a real reason I think we need fear. It’s not just to caution us to the dangers of the roaring lions around us — and there are plenty here in the U.S. from the top down ready to rend our society further apart — but to remind us nothing is guaranteed. Still, we have to have courage to resist and take action not only politically but personally.

Our best fear quencher is testing reality, perhaps embracing it even when its claws are out, or especially when its claws are out, and embrace and accept what we find under the layers, without embracing magical thinking of any sort that says the world will be a better place if we just think it so.

— Todd

Tuesday Review: Going Solo, or Don’t Judge a Movie by its Box Office

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It’s taken me a month, but I finally made it to the theater to see Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The box office numbers say it’s a flop.

Since its premiere May 24, Solo has pulled in just over $200 million in domestic box office. As any number of sources note, by Star Wars’s standards that’s a flop. Over the course of a month, by comparison, Star Wars: The Last Jedi raked in close to $600 million in its first month and standalone Rogue One more than $440 million.

Solo’s lack of box office success threatens to halt production of more standalone features, which is disappointing to hear. And since generating low numbers from its opening weekend, almost everyone has tried to figure out why.

Was it too close in release with Last Jedi? Have we just gotten bored and oversaturated with Star Wars? Or is it just a really bad movie?

To answer that last question first: No. It’s a good movie. Just what you want out of any heist movie: action at a 12 parsec pace, adventure, betrayals and reversals of fortune.

Moreover, it deals with two of the best characters in the Star Wars universe (those on film, at least): Han Solo and Chewbacca. It’s an origin story, of Han’s life of crime on Corellia, of how he meets Chewie, of how he wins the Millennium Falcon from Lando Calrissian and how he becomes the space pirate with a heart of gold destined to meet a young naïve Jedi-wannabe named Skywalker and a space princess named Leia.

These things make the movie delightful. That and the performances are good. Alden Ehrenreich as Han Solo is as charming as predecessor Harrison Ford, and ably matches some of Ford’s quirks that made Solo Solo. That isn’t to say Ehrenreich’s performance is all imitation. He’s clearly got talent of his own.

As does Donald Glover as Lando. Actually, I would say Glover outcharms even Billy Dee Williams, and that’s hard to do. Glover makes Lando his own.

With good performances, and a storyline that has a decent payoff — it’s a popcorn movie, not an Academy Award performance, good escapism — why has it failed at the box office?

Maybe we have gotten a bit oversaturated with Star Wars? Last Jedi ended its theatrical run in April and was soon out on video and streaming. We had Rogue One behind it and The Force Awakens not all that far away.

That does seem like a lot of Star Wars. Still, Han Solo is an iconic figure in the Star Wars canon, and the Star Wars fandom never seems to get enough of the franchise. We haven’t since A New Hope premiered. We read comics and novels, bought action figures and couldn’t wait for the next film. We watched animated spinoffs and even, if we’re old enough, that classically bad Christmas special that put our heroes on TV screens.

Maybe there’s something in the fandom that’s killed the charm of the movies. Way back in 1999 when the first prequel film The Phantom Menace came out it seemed the fandom complained the most. The movie didn’t meet the expectation of their fannish imaginations.

Of course, there were agreeable complaints: the ridiculous introduction of midichlorians as a signal of someone strong in the Force and having Jedi potential; and poor Jar Jar Binks was just a bad character — a forced comic relief in a film that took itself too seriously.

Which was the real problem with the prequels: they took themselves too seriously. They were trying to be political thrillers telling the story of the rise of the Empire and Darth Vader’s beginnings. A great premise, but slowly done in each (Revenge of the Sith picks up the pace some, however) and when watched on TV, where you can pause the video to go pee, they seem better; they have a TV-series-binge-watched pace. They just weren’t well done movies.

But the complaints from fandom didn’t seem to care about the prequels as movies. What fandom seemed most concerned about was their lost childhoods, their sad nostalgia for Star Wars and what it meant to them.

Later films were hit by certain segments of fandom and seemed to reflect our current political division between left and right: There were a lot of complaints — mostly by white males — about The Force Awakens and Rogue One having female protagonists and a black stormtrooper and black leaders of the rebellion. Somehow, this made Star Wars a PC leftist conspiracy that not only took our childhoods away but made us lock-step into some conspiratorial leftist agenda, as if Princess Leia and Lando Calrissian never existed.

Such ridiculousness extended out of the movie theaters and into pages of a new Star Wars canon: writer Chuck Wendig’s Star Wars novel Aftermath was attacked not on whether it’s a good novel or not, but because Wendig introduced gay characters into the Star Wars universe.

I wonder how these people felt about the innuendo between Calrissian and droid L3-37 in Solo?

(There’s a bigger issue here about the outrageousness of what’s happening in science-fiction fandom in general and the certain set of fans who seem to want to make people miserable and, for me, to step back some away from what seemed a pleasant community; this sort of thing seems too common in all sorts of fandoms: football fans are getting overwrought about kneeling and the anthem, for instance. Maybe in another post all this is worth addressing.)

So, back to Solo. Perhaps what killed it at the box office was expectations: We wanted something more that nothing outside of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back could really ever give — we wanted, in a moment of sentimental existentialism, our childhoods back and the magic of our imaginations that were sparked by those movies.

But age and experience give us diminishing returns. Short of reverse evolution, we can’t go back to that time no matter how much we long for it. We might get a twinge of it watching children watching it for the first time. Star Wars was magical when we first saw it, however, because we allowed it to spark our imaginations, because we were open to it then.

If we expect the same from Solo or even from watching A New Hope again, it’s going to ruin the experience. Of course, there are still moments in the earlier movies that can touch even the cynic. The Empire Strikes Back seems to have the most for me — Han’s “I know” when Leia tells him she loves him as he’s about to get frozen in carbonite (he’s always the confident, composed, cool guy we want to be in the face of danger) and of course the revelation of revelations: Vader being Luke’s father, the cliffhanger leaving you hoping in Return of the Jedi it was all just a bullshit Force trick and Luke isn’t really, is he?

Of course, Disney’s expectations were high, too, weren’t they? Star Wars makes big bank no matter what, right? Solo will always be the disappointing prodigal among Star Wars movies by that standard, won’t it? Judging a movie by its box office is like judging the book by its cover: what really matters is inside.

My only real quibble with Solo is a fanboy quibble (spoiler alert): the Darth Maul cameo appearance at the end. How was that possible? We saw Maul die in Phantom Menace, didn’t we? We know as fans there can be only two Sith lords and Vader and the Emperor are out there building the Death Star. That’s implied in Solo. Solo is, after all, at the end of the movie about to fly off to Tatooine to work for Jabba, right?

That cameo had me working out timelines in my head after I left the theater. Was this a soap-opera trick? An alternate timeline? Maybe the next film is Better Call Maul?

Unless you’re versed in Star Wars lore beyond the movie —or have Google — you won’t know Maul in other media survives his death plunge on Naboo and is revived, well, like a favorite soap opera villain.

Still, that doesn’t ruin the movie.

So, go see Solo knowing that it’s not necessarily going to capture any more magic than you already have in your imagination. Know it’s a heist movie as good as any: there’s a train robbery, flying cars and space Kraken — even Baby Driver doesn’t have space Kraken and it’s still a fun heist movie. And, also, don’t be disappointed that Emilia Clarke doesn’t get naked. The Khaleesi still looks good as Solo’s love interest.

Or maybe Disney should make another Star Wars standalone in which Clarke is always naked? Jason Mamoa could make a cameo as Darth Aquaman. Talk about box-office numbers.

—Todd

 

 

Free Fiction Friday: The Watchers

A pastiche of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, this vignette evolved from a walk I took around my neighborhood. I kept seeing all these blue glass lawn ornaments, most of which were globes. Hoth at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. My imagination took off from there. It’s appeared once before on this blog and recently in the North Texas Speculative Fiction Writers group’s anthology From Planet Texas, With Love and Aliens.

The Watchers: A Vignette of Alien Invasion

In the early part of the twenty-first century there were people who believed we were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s; those people were dismissed as loons, quacks who went out to New Mexico and watched for the Grays to emerge from Area 51.

At the time, I thought such people were at the very least misinformed, pretty damn weird, and probably sold jars of lime Gatorade to tourists believing they were buying alien urine. So it goes.

In my late forties I decided to begin taking a morning constitutional on the advice from the books of health gurus—to some these gurus are quacks as well—and on one of these walks, on a crisp cloudless October morning, in a quaint middle-class neighborhood west of my flat, I passed by a nice red-brick house of a family I knew only slightly, when I heard a slight rustling from their hedges.

I stopped and listened, thinking it was only a squirrel or a bird, or perhaps a lizard. But the sunlight dappling through the shade tree in the front yard revealed something else—an azure sparkle through the leaves. At first I dismissed it as perhaps some piece of trash, a beer can perhaps, caught in the leaves.

Later, after we knew the truth of the matter, some who saw the pictures I took with my camera phone said they heard hissing in the night sky. Others heard nothing, but reported a mass of comets shooting through the sky, an unusual enough phenomenon little reported by the media, which was too busy analyzing Kanye West’s decision to go into fashion design.

Anyhow, I started on my way once more, but then the rustling in the hedges erupted again. I stopped and turned and watched. Something was rising steadily above the leaves and limbs. I brought my camera into focus.

A glowing blue globe peeked from over the edge of the hedge. I trembled but felt compelled to approached, almost as if the Thing were laying some kind of Jedi-mindtrick on me.

The Thing rose silently. There were no visible means of propulsion. Clearly, a technology superior to any on Earth—as far a we know (who, after all, really knows just what the frak is going on at Area 51).

I moved closer. It hovered in place over the hedge. I saw no massive hole, no sign of impact whatsoever. It made no threatening moves, no sound, but I knew better. I knew from sci-fi flicks that nothing good could come of this.

I knew the invasion was on, and at the moment, was its only witness on this too quiet street . . .

 

 

On Writing: Voice

giphyVoice and narrative, according to Terry McDonell in The Accidental Life, supersede pretty much everything a piece of writing offers to make it good — even word count.

As a magazine editor, who edited Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison, among others McDonell used word counts placed at the top of a manuscript page to “evaluate pacing or the lack of it in a piece.” Invariably, the writers he worked with would send features in either way over or way under the word count.

“None of this matters if the piece is good — and that’s determined by voice and narrative, not length.”

But, what is this elusive Roadrunner of a thing writers chase after called voice?

It’s the sum of every writing strategy you use to makes you sound like you on the page, according Roy Peter Clark. It’s the distinct word choices and punctuation and rhythms and everything else that gives plagiarists fits when they try to pass your writing off as their own.

“Voice is a word critics often use in discussing narrative,” writes Ursula LeGuin in Steering the Craft. “It’s always metaphorical, since what’s written is voiceless. Often it signifies the authenticity of the writing (writing in your own voice; catching the true voice of a kind person; and so on).”

Certain voices are very distinct, easy to recognize:

We ate the sandwiches and drank the Chablis and watched the country out of the window. The grain was just beginning to ripen and the fields were full of poppies. The pastureland was green, and there were fine trees, and sometimes big rivers and chateaux off in the trees.

That’s Hemingway, of course, from The Sun Also Rises. What’s always made Hemingway’s prose distinct to me was the repetition of “and”— the conjunction’s got rhythm.

What would just that first sentence sound like if punctuated with commas as we’re taught?

“We ate the sandwiches, drank the Chablis, and watched the country out of the window.”

It’s still vivid and descriptive, clearly the eye of a good writer giving us concrete details of a train ride, but something seems lost. Those “ands” make it Hemingway.

Another distinct word choice is “fine” referring to “trees”. It gives the trees an aesthetic quality. Hemingway does this often with words like “fine” and “good,” to the point of parody. In fact, parodists often throw in a lot of “fines” and “goods” in their parodies of his style.

Here’s another favorite voice of mine:

If I were a bitch, I’d be in love with Biff Truesdale. Biff is perfect. He’s friendly, goodlooking, rich, famous, and in excellent physical condition. He almost never drools. He’s not afraid of commitment. He wants children — actually, he already has children and wants a lot more. He works hard and is a consummate professional, but he also knows how to have fun.

That’s Susan Orlean, from her feature “Show Dogs,” collected in The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup. With this lede, it’s the commas that give the sentences punch, when the sentences are long enough to warrant commas.

But, what makes it distinctive is its surprise and humor. “If I were a bitch” jumps at you, makes you want to read more. It takes you a moment to realize Orlean is talking about a dog, one that by the end of the paragraph, you’re in love with, too. The surprise of “bitch” in the first sentence is sweetened and softened with “He almost never drools.” There, if not before, you can hear Orlean’s smile, a bit of a “gotcha!”

The use of subjunctive in the first sentence also stands out. It seems like a useful strategy to get the reader inside your frame mind, and into the world of the piece, if not overused. Orlean opens her classic piece “The American Man, Age Ten” with the subjunctive as well:

“If Colin Duffy and I were to get married, we would have matching superhero notebooks.”

What an interesting twist at the end of the sentence, to go from speculating about marrying someone to marrying someone who wants to have matching superhero notebooks. We’ve gone from adult speculation about the world and right into the world of a 10-year-old boy in turn of a phrase.

Of course, by voice, some writers mean writing in a certain point-of-view, especially in fiction, when you’re telling a story from a character that isn’t you, or is just a shadow of you, even if you’re writing a roman `a clef.

Nonfiction writers use this kind of voice, too. Ian Frazier, for instance, parodies the language of a legal brief in his hilarious essay “Coyote v. Acme,” in which hapless cartoon character Wile E. Coyote sues the Acme Company, whose tricks and traps never trap the Roadrunner and leave Wile E. maimed, mangled, and otherwise bodily harmed.

My client, Mr. Wile E. Coyote, a resident of Arizona and contiguous states, does hereby bring suit for damages against the Acme Company, manufacturer and retail distributor of assorted merchandise, incorporated in Delaware and doing business in every state, district, and territory.

Sounds legit to me. That’s what voice does. It even gives a fake legal brief a sense of humor and makes it seem real.

So, work on your voice, until you can sing with authority and authenticity.

— Todd

Recommended Reading: Audiobooks

downloadAs a child, who didn’t like being read to? While I don’t think audiobooks make up for discovering in the sound of your dad’s voice language and reading and its nascent joys, they certainly can be boon companions on long commutes or while washing dishes. How long was my last commute, you ask? To work and back again, I listened to all of Dune in about two weeks. All. Of. Dune. (Counting appendices and cartographic notes, my paperback version is 535 pages of dense 10-point type. In other words, it’s a long book.)

It’s just been in the last couple of years that I’ve begun to appreciate the companionship of audiobooks. Since then, I’ve listened to many more. On YouTube, I found a copy of Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, read by The Hitch himself. Oh, to envy that voice, sneering, snarky and cigarette-and-whiskey-smoked slamming it to the deity.

I followed that up — also on YouTube — with Richard Dawkins reading from The God Delusion.

Of course, most writers don’t read their own audiobooks, though I wouldn’t have minded hearing Terry McDonell reading his memoir The Accidental Life. The version I downloaded from Audible is narrated by Jason Culp and runs 11 hours and 30 minutes.

Though McDonell doesn’t narrate the audiobook, it’s nonetheless a great listen, part reflection on nearly 40 years as editor of magazines including Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated and Esquire, as well as a reflection of McDonell’s interactions with the writers who wrote for them: Hunter Thompson, Jim Harrison, Thomas McGuane, James Salter and Peter Mathiesson, to name a few.

It’s also in part an instructive book about editing and writing and the often rocky relationship between the two crafts.

It’s the kind of book (I’m reading the hardback now) that makes you nostalgic for the days when editors and writers held a bit of the public’s imagination, even if it wasn’t necessarily for writing — the writers McDonell spent time with partied like rock stars with drugs, booze and even women, or men, depending on one’s preferences. It also, without demonizing it too much, reveals how much the writing life has changed because of the Internet and technology — there’s lower pay, for sure, in a trade that’s already hazardous to your cash flow. The real problem, as it always seems it has been, is the suits. McDonell takes a peek at that part of the life, too.

Currently, I’m giving a listen to Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood & the Prison of Belief. Wright narrates the introduction but the rest of the book is read by Morton Sellers.

I’m about 6 hours into the 17 and one-half hour audio and it’s absorbing. Just the biography of Scientology’s founder L. Ron Hubbard and the way the science-fiction writer evolved his philosophy into a cult and elevated it to a religion through a variety of means is gripping. Hubbard’s methods are common to cult leaders: coercion, charisma, abuse, outlandish punishments, isolation from family and friends, demands for absolute loyalty, demands for money and attempts to falsify and discredit accounts of ex-followers and critics through a variety of means, including threats and lawsuits.

There’s much to be said, even listening to the first few hours, about the dangers of the cult of personality that seems to take a grip on us daily. Strong, charismatic personalities pull us away from natural skepticism, working on our flaws and insecurities; they rarely seem to work on our strengths. We can see it in other figures: Jim Jones, David Koresh, even Hitler and our current president. They dismantle hearts and minds, even whole countries. Cults rarely come to good ends — unless they manage to become normative, slip into the mainstream, as religions — they usually end in Kool-Aid and conflagrations.

Scientology seems to have a disturbingly far reach: though Hubbard ranted against psychology, I think back to several of the self-help books I’ve read over the years by psychologists, and their advice seems strangely like that in Hubbard’s Dianetics; I think, too, of the paranoiac rantings of talk-radio host Alex Jones — a science-fiction fan — whose rantings can be followed at Prison Planet (Hubbard theorized Earth was a prison planet). How many people has Jones riled up with his rants (our president appeared on his show. How much the president’s rhetoric seems like Jones’.) Was Jones influenced by Hubbard or Scientology in any way?

Listening to Wright’s book has made me uncomfortable about contributing a little to one wing of Hubbard’s empire: The Writer’s of the Future contest. And yet, as a writing contest, it gives beginning science-fiction and fantasy writers a chance at a wider audience. It’s launched some good writer’s careers. I’ve had friends published in it, and I have received accolades from the contest. Am I caught in an argument that I hate: learn more about a particular writer and it taints that writer’s work. Does it really? Can I still love Junot Diaz’s fiction, for instance, though he’s been MeToo-ed?

Those are probably questions for another post.

For this one, I especially have to recommend the latter two audiobooks for your reading and listening pleasure.

— Todd