Because I love reading novels and short stories, authors of fiction have always been my idols. I’ve met many of them at book signings and had the pleasure of interviewing several for this blog. For the most part, I’ve always found authors to be engaging and extremely gracious. But I’ve never been as excited about meeting an author as I was the day I met Betty Smith.
Smith’s novels were extremely popular in the mid twentieth century, although you don’t hear as much about them now. Her most famous novel, the one that earned her a place in the ranks of respected authors, is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, published in 1943 and recently named a PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick.
I’ve been trying to move more lately for health reasons. Instead of scribbling at my desk 10 hours straight—or curled up nose in book—I’m trying to walk whenever possible. That is changing my reading experience, inclining me to audiobooks. It’s also making me wonder: does hearing a book change the book?
Fighting the Audiobook Prejudice
I harp on audiobooks a lot in this blog. But the subject continues to intrigue me, undoubtedly because it’s such a big part of the reading experience these days. And I have to admit to a prejudice: I grew up thinking that reading with the eyes is somehow intellectually and morally superior to reading with the ears.
I recently finished reading Fielding’s chef d’oeuvre, Tom Jones, first published in 1749, and running to over 750 pages in the Norton Critical Edition—without the critical essays at the end. So by contemporary standards it’s a whopper, and that in itself may be why sufficient reason why so few people, apart from English Lit. students, have read it. (And have they? I suspect half of them merely skim it.) And yet, with some reservations, I very much enjoyed reading it, and benefited from the experience quite a bit. In this thumbnail review, I shall consider some of the reasons why people may shy away from it, and try to show what they’re missing.
First, it was written nearly three hundred years ago, so some will be wary of the ‘old English.’
Chosen by a book club I belong to, due to the volumes of praise attached to the front and back cover, I anticipated a more compelling story than The Little Stranger turned out to provide. I’ll try to explain why.
The Little Stranger is described as a modern gothic novel. The author inserts story elements that cannot be explained by standard logic––the vision of a ghost and events for which there is no rational explanation and for which Waters provides no justification.
Readers may feel comfortable with unresolved gothic tropes. I don’t. The key question is whether these elements are critical in determining the story’s outcome. If they are, all the more reason that I, as a reader, feel they need to be explained either by providing a rational cause or by a theory that says in this world, ghosts exist.
Where do fictional characters come from? I’ve been asking myself that question for as long as I’ve been writing, but the complete answer still evades me. The process is as mysterious as the origins of life itself, maybe even more so. At least we know that life on earth evolved from some primordial soup. But what concoction serves as the foundation for those who inhabit our stories?
Seeds come to mind. Seeds give birth to plants and other living things. Humans start as a kind of seed. And so do our creations. As writers, we have experienced multiple settings and experiences. We’ve connected with many different types of people. All of those contacts can provide us with material that we sift through, plant in our fictions, and watch grow.
This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Harriet Arden Byrd (aka H.A. Byrd), author of the new fantasy novel Aru’s Realm. Like the novel itself, this “realm” is hard to shoe-horn into a category. A young girl who has caught the interest of a “master of magic,” Aru’s realm in some ways resembles the 19th century, including steam trains and horse-drawn carriages. In other ways, Aru’s realm is one we have never seen before, not only because it includes monsters and magic but also because it has many strong women and lacks the concept of war.
TZ: Your work has many roots in traditional epic fantasy but is distinct in having a pacifist bent–and also in centering on strong female characters.
SILAS MARNER by George Eliot tells the tale of a weaver in nineteenth-century England named Silas Marner, who finds himself fallen among hard times when he is falsely accused of a crime, and the woman he expects to marry suddenly marries someone else. Silas moves to another town after being effectively banished from his native Lantern Yard. Silas, through no fault of his own, must live as best he can in his new town of Raveloe. Through the story of Silas, the novel punctuates how cruel and then how fortuitous fate is in life.
Upon moving to Raveloe, Silas’ loneliness is compounded by a robbery. When he moves into a little house, Silas still has one aspect of his life that remains constant, his work.
Let’s face it: plenty of writers are rubbish. I’m afraid I despise, deplore, or simply detest quite a lot of them. They include:
Writers with no sense of humour;
Writers who think they mustn’t offend anyone;
Writers who believe the purpose of fiction is to edify their readers;
Smug, self-righteous, or sententious writers;
Writers with an overt or covert political agenda (especially the latter);
Writers who are toadies, lickspittles and arse-kissers;
Writers who admire (or pretend to admire) other writers because they are successful;
Writers who believe that an MFA or PhD in Creative Writing qualifies them to write;
Writers who believe that a writer’s colour, religion, sexual orientation, sex (or gender!) qualifies anyone to write;
Writers who whine about their white privilege;
Writers who don’t bother to learn the rules of English usage or spelling;
Writers who don’t think it’s important to read the canon;
Writers who think the canon needs to be decolonised;
Writers who think it’s necessarily important to read the latest literary prize winners;
Writers who are ignorant of history and philosophy;
Writers who think their drug experiences are interesting;
Writers who believe that their experiences as victims is fascinating and important;
Writers who despise other writers because they are not, or were not, morally pure;
Writers who follow the latest trends and write for the market;
Writers who think that their ‘platform’ is important;
Writers who believe that writers are essentially social engineers;
Writers who are certain that their values and views are correct;
Writers who can’t think for themselves (at the current time, the majority, sad to say);
Writers who watch more TV or movies than read books;
Writers who want the writer’s ‘lifestyle’;
Writers who think their job is always to be kind;
Writers with no imagination (a surprisingly large proportion);
Writers with no ear for language (incredibly, the majority, whether ‘literary’ or otherwise);
Writers who think literary agents know more about literature than they do;
Writers who believe that the world needs their novel;
To sum up: Writers who are not artists, but hacks or halfwits.
Did you know that “Refusenik” Natan Sharansky and his supporters played a major role in bringing down the Soviet Union? Sentenced in 1978 to 13 years of forced labor for the crime of being a leader of the international human rights movement and seeking to emigrate to Israel, Sharansky’s refusal to confess to his “crimes” became a touchstone in the West for those opposed to the totalitarian regime’s repressive policies at home and abroad.
Once freed, Sharansky became a leader in Israel. He helped form a political party that gave voice to Russian émigrés, served in two governments and was chairman of the Jewish Agency for nearly a decade. His record, personal appearances and writings should have made him a bigger star than he is today.
An Interview with Co-Writers Michael J. Tucker and Tom Wood
I’ve co-authored non-fiction for most of my career, but never considered co-writing novels or short stories. Having complete control over the work has actually been one of fiction-writing’s chief draws for me–distinguishing it from the science writing, playwriting, and other collaborative writing I do.
But recently authors Michael J. Tucker and Tom Wood had made me re-think co-writing. They have just published a co-written, A Night on the Town. a short story about two strangers whose paths cross on a fateful rideshare encounter.
Both were gracious enough in this interview to enlighten me about the co-writing experience.
TZ: A Night on the Town is written using alternating first-person voices—which strikes me as particularly well suited to co-writing because it gives each author the ability to develop a distinct character or characters (kind of like improvisational theatre).
I had the pleasure of reading THE AUGMENTED MAN, a story of a US soldier with a stormy past. Author Joseph Carrabis delves into the psychological and physical aspects of warfare and its effects on the psyche of this soldier, Nick Trailer. Mr. Carrabis shared his thoughts on various aspects of his writing and reading with me.
What kinds of books do you read?
Well written. They’re getting harder and harder to find, though. But reader friends tell me I’m persnickety about what’s well-written. Genre doesn’t matter to me, nor does fact or fiction. But well written? I don’t yield on that one.
Who are your favorite authors?
The first who come to mind are Terry Melia (Tales from the Greenhills) and Joanell Serra (The Vines We Planted), both indie authors and both have amazing talent (I’m waiting for their next books).
(Yes, the rhyme is deliberate.) Well: is it Covid-19? Maybe it was, a bit. At first. People’s routines were upset, they felt anxious, under-stimulated, and possibly other things seemed more important. But what kind of excuses are those? Crap ones. More serious, possibly, is the furore over George Floyd’s death and racism in recent weeks. Not only has there been unrest in the US and the UK, which at times has seemed to threaten the very fabric of society, but also, black writers have been demanding a more prominent role. (I say black writers rather than ‘diverse writers’ because by far the most vocal writers have been black, and most of them seem to have been pointing specifically to under-representation by African-Americans (in the US) or Afro-British (in the UK).
What major federal policy has every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barak Obama agreed on? Answer: Advancing educational opportunity as a path to societal equality. They may have differed on how to expand schooling, but not that it was a goal to be achieved in order to reduce social inequality. Why then have the results not lived up to the promise? The answer is simple according to Fredrik deBoer: schooling can never produce social equality––not because we don’t spend enough or because teachers aren’t good enough. It’s because not all people are academically talented.
Marshaling studies that expose the raw underbelly of schooling’s failures on top of insights from his personal experience as a teacher, and capping that off with a measure of behavioral genetics, deBoer concludes, “as long as our education system creates winners, it will also create losers.”
I’ve recently finished reading Susan Choi’s A Person of Interest, and mathematics professor Lee, the main character, continues to live on in my imagination. It’s as if he actually inhabits the external world and was intimately interacting with me during the time I read the book. Lee is Asian American, though his origins aren’t a main focus in the narrative, and it’s never made clear just where he was born. Still, though he ends up being an outsider at the university where he teaches and in his wider community, that stance seems more to do with his irascible personality and natural aloofness than with him being racially distinct.
Of course, you could argue that these qualities may be the result of Lee never quite fitting in because of his Asian origins.
It turns out I’m not the only one having trouble reading lately. The struggles to get through a book seem pervasive as so many of us shelter in place–even for hardcore bookworms.
READERS HAVING TROUBLE READING
With all the holes in my calendar during the COVID-19 pandemic, I thought I’d be ripping through my library. Instead I find it hard to concentrate. So last month I asked if this sounded familiar.
It certainly did with most of my Facebook friends. Many reported having trouble reading as well. Most–many of them serious readers and some of them professional writers themselves–confirmed that they are having trouble concentrating on books these days.
I have yet to read an entire book during this pandemic
To my friend Nancy, having so much time to read ironically makes reading less precious, and less desirable.
Since I started my writing career almost a decade ago, I have dabbled in reading most genres–historical fiction, thrillers, horror, mystery, and so forth. Reading other authors’ works is vital to discovering one’s own style of writing, a process that constantly evolves. Literary fiction, which stands apart from genre fiction in that it tends to be more didactic and serious, has become my preference in terms of a favorite type of novel.
Literary fiction usually focuses on characters’ internal struggles, which resemble the conflicts of real life. In The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, protagonist Holden Caulfield dislikes fake individuals, who act superficially and represent one of the ills of society. He constantly brings up this theme of superficiality, which inevitably makes the reader dwell on it.
She didn’t do an MFA in Creative Writing, let alone a PhD. She didn’t even have a BA in it. Or in English. And yet Jane wrote the initial draft of Sense and Sensibility when she was 18, and had finished Pride and Prejudice by the time she was 20. Astonishing? Yes. So how did she do it? Did she follow the advice of the self-appointed writing gurus—who tell you that if you can’t do a degree in the subject, you need to attend expensive conferences, join writing groups, get professional editors? No, none of that. So how on earth did she learn her craft?
By reading and writing. I’m not an Austen scholar, but I know that in the late eighteenth century England’s public libraries had not yet been founded, so it’s fair to assume that most of her reading was done in her father’s library.