The Writing Life

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When Did the Fiction World Become a Beatdown?

Beatdown: 1.) an emphatic or overwhelming defeat 2.) a violent physical beating

Last week the Internet surged with stories of a young adult book that mysteriously hit the Number One spot on the sacrosanct New York Times YA best-seller list. After an investigation pursued by young adult authors and bloggers, the New York Times book review staff removed the suspect book, Handbook for Mortals, written by Lani Sarem.

Order was restored, and everyone seemed pleased with the outcome, except of course for Lani Sarem, who is furious and upset. "I'm super frustrated," Sarem said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "There has been no official explanation to what happened other than reported inconsistencies. Nobody talked to us."

The fact that The New York Times removed the book from the list suggests that there must be some sort of problem in how the sales of Handbook for Mortals were counted. But am I the only one who is taken aback by the fury of the mob and the decision to play this out in public rather than quietly report concerns to the Times? This reminds me of the villagers bearing torches swarming the castle of Dr. Frankenstein: "Remember, get the monster alive if you can, but get him!"

Sarem, vigorously defending her novel, says, "Because some people in the YA community weren't aware of it doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of people out there that were excited about it. It's disheartening that someone I don't know decided to attack me today basically because he had never heard of it."

Anyone who has posted their book on Goodreads is aware that publishing is a rough sport. An author on Goodreads, especially a debut, can feel like a goalie without protective padding, pinned against the net as offensive players hurtle down the rink, sticks raised. Still, scathing reviews are one thing, and writers have to learn how to cope with them.

What's happening currently is that authors' publishing paths are being savaged.

The author-on-author beatdown can be particularly troubling. Just ask Jonathan Franzen, who serves as a literary piñata for other authors whenever he publishes. But there is a lot more coming at us these days.

Philippa Gregory said in a recent interview, "Choosing to write a genre novel is like fencing the universe because you are afraid of space. Why does anyone write lazy, sloppy genre novels?"

Isabel Allende said of crime writers, "I cannot write that kind of book. It's too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there's no redemption there."

And Martin Amis said, "If I had a serious brain injury, I might well write a children’s book."

Why do these things need to be said?

A special circle of Hades belongs to authors who rip into each other in blogs and on social media over traditional publishing versus indie publishing. That's where it gets truly vicious. May they be condemned to read aloud the hundreds of wounded comments below their posted attacks every night for a year!

In academia they have a saying: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low." But the stakes are not low in today's fiction world. Many authors talk darkly of a glut of books. Contracts aren’t being handed out as readily as ten or even five years ago. Is this why it feels so darned angry out there? Why they’re lashing out?

A week ago, I was asked to speak on a panel at the Writer’s Digest annual conference. On Saturday I spotted a very long line snaking down the corridor of the New York Hilton, many of the people in line looking fairly excited. "They’re signed up to pitch," a writer friend told me.

I have two hopes for the writers in that line. The first is that they publish their book. And the second is that when they do, the publishing world has become a nicer place, with far fewer beatdowns.

— Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thrillers The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry and a magazine editor and writer.

Confronting a Classic for Information and Inspiration

True confession time: I recently read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, for the first time. That's kind of embarrassing for a writer whose whole series takes place in Brooklyn neighborhoods and has an underlying theme of "What changes in Brooklyn and what doesn't."

I don’t know how I missed it in my bookworm youth and I'm not sure what impulse made me pick it up now. I am glad I did. Some beloved books need to be read at a certain age to create that passion, and too late or too early, we never fully get what the excitement was about. This one, though taking place before World War I and with a very young girl as the main character, still reached right out and spoke to me, a grandmother raised in the mid-20th century and a long way from Brooklyn.

This is the story of Francie Nolan, half-Irish, half-German, growing up poor even for her poor neighborhood — Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is bright, an avid reader, and sharply observant of the life and people around her. Though she is the viewpoint character, there are times the author steps in, adding information she could not possibly know. That would generally be considered a flaw, but I can't say I minded. I only wanted to know what happens to this special young girl and her vividly depicted family.

We see her mother turn poverty into a game–and the first time Francie sees through it. We see a teacher who criticizes her for writing stories about her real life because it was too "ugly" and writing should be edifying. We see a doctor and nurse discuss the horrid poor kids as if the children have no ears to hear or minds to understand. Poignant, angry, hopeful, and heartbroken are all moments in Francie's story. By the end, we can guess that Francie grows up to be Betty Smith.

A few months later, looking through my long lists of books to read, out jumped Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn. Honestly, there was no plan for this. Yet here I was, deep in another book about girls growing up poor in Brooklyn. African-American, this time, and Bushwick this time, and three-quarters into the twentieth century this time.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is long, detailed, full of stories. The stories are riveting. Another Brooklyn is short and the atmosphere is evoked, like poetry. The language is riveting.

But they both bring to life the young girls at the heart of the story. Different background, different religion, but they tell about yearning spirits and the dangers that are everywhere for young girls whose struggling parents are not always paying attention. Francie’s father loves alcohol more than his family; August’s mother started seeing a ghost and one day walked all the way into a lake. There are dangers to girls from calculating older boys, from nasty men who try to take advantage of their poverty, from a world that seems to say, always, "You can’t." And these are girls who say right back, "Yes, I can."

I looked up Jacqueline Woodson and I found this: She has said that she dislikes books that do not offer hope, but she enjoyed A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Even though the family was exceptionally poor, the characters experienced "moments of hope and sheer beauty." She [says], "If you love the people you create, you can see the hope there."

 I think what I need to do is move both books from my shelves of miscellaneous reading over to the shelves of Brooklyn books that I use for information and inspiration. And of course they will stand side by side, sisters across time.

— Triss Stein 

Triss Stein writes mysteries about different Brooklyn neighborhoods a and their unique histories, in her ever-fascinating, ever-changing, ever-challenging adopted home. In the new book, Brooklyn Wars, her heroine, Erica Donato, researches the proud history and slow death of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, when crime gets in the way.


Ah, Lord Peter, I Hardly Knew Ye

You can’t sell Lord Peter Wimsey to a classroom full of millennials. I’m sorry. You. Just. Cannot. Even A.C. Doyle’s “Silver Blaze,” with which I begin my survey course on mystery fiction, is met with cries of “What’s in it for me?” and “It’s just not relatable” (the latter a neologism I cordially despise). Or as Edmund Wilson would have it, “Who Cares who Killed Roger Ackroyd?

Teaching the Golden Age mystery – on which I cut my escapist teeth – is hard, for, as W.H. Auden demonstrated in “The Guilty Vicarage,” it is a socially, morally, and epistemologically normative genre policed by a detective who is an intellectual and social snob. (And Auden was a fan.) And when you think of it in those terms, why should students care? By the time I finally gave up and cut poor Dorothy Sayers from the syllabus, I found myself asking myself why I loved Gaudy Night so much after all.

So is the detective story nothing but a hopelessly nostalgic fantasy of a time and place of an epistemological and social certainty that never was? Well, yes. They wouldn’t call it a Golden Age if it were real, now would they? The entire point of an idyl, whether it sings of Theocritus’ nymphs and satyrs or Tennyson’s King Arthur, is to celebrate a lost state of perfection that never really existed. (Okay, I had to sneak that it. It's the first time in my life that I’ve ever been able to introduce one of my abstruse orals topics into polite conversation.) Still, it is no coincidence the Golden Age mystery flourished between the two World Wars – a time of considerable, social, moral, and epistemological upheaval. For the idyl is a profoundly conservative form, which offers the fantasy of a return to a vanished Eden from which we have fallen.

And yes, in the wrong hands, this quest to recover a lost state of grace rapidly turns into a quest to scapegoat the Other. Doyle's assumptions about class and race pop out like a missing stud on a starched shirt front; The Sign of Four is one of the very few texts I consider too racist to teach. However, the very fact that the Golden Age never existed in reality paradoxically opens up tremendous post-modernist literary possibilities for those who write from outside the closed society whose values the Golden Age detective story reinforces.

“Silver Blaze” met with grudging acceptance at best. But Sherlock’s “Empty Hearse” met with no such objections. Many would say (myself included) that Sherlock wound up hoist on the petard of its own cleverness. But “The Empty Hearse” is an elegant homage to fans and fan fiction. (For more on that see Emily Nussbaum’s article in The New Yorker.) The episode is also a slick post-modernist take on Lacan’s and Derrida’s seminal readings of “The Purloined Letter,” in which they demonstrate the inherent instability of the mystery’s central promise epistemological certainty – for (apologies for the ugly flashback to Lit Crit 101), any truth is inherently conditioned by the symbolic order of the subject that construes that meaning. (Okay, that was pretty painless, wasn’t it?)

Thus, according to Derrida (and Quentin Tarantino after him), the purpose of any search for the solution to a puzzle can only be to spin further narratives. Dare I introduce the term “absent referent” here? Or, as Hitchcock put it much more simply and elegantly, the MacGuffin. Manuel Ramos’ “The Skull of Pancho Villa” begins with a wonderful counter-narrative to the tale of how the titular MacGuffin was stolen by a mercenary in 1926 and wound up in the possession of Prescott Bush, “grandfather of you-know-who,” and now rests in Skull and Bones at Yale. Instead, Gus Corral, the narrator claims his Grandpa Alberto, the Chicano flunky who actually dug up the grave, kept it, and it remains in the possession of the Corral family, “stored in various containers like hat boxes, cardboard chests, and even a see-through case designed for a basketball.” The conflicting narratives are in themselves a wonderful commentary on the United States’ relationship with its Latin American neighbors, but the true joy of the story is that those narratives are as much of a MacGuffin as the skull, which has little role in the mystery itself beyond making a memorable return with a “lime-green sombrero with red dingle balls balanced on his slick, shiny head.”

Desideria Belen Ayute, the narrator of Carlos Hernandez’ “Los Simpaticos,” solves a classic Golden Age locked room puzzle halfway through the story, whereupon she breaks the fourth wall to deliver a lecture on why Latinos prefer judgement to puzzles – and why this makes the telenovela their art form of choice. She then goes on to deliver the criminal into the hands of the U.S. courts, not out of any abstract belief in justice, but rather because it makes a simpler and tidier instrument of revenge than picking up a weapon herself.

Then there’s Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night. I wrote in a previous post about how difficult I found it to write in the first person from any point of view other than my own. Haddon uses the equivalence of the reader and the detective, first pointed out by Tsvetan Todorov, to manage this feat. Christopher’s mindset may be very different from his reader’s, but they are connected by being in the same position as they both struggle to “read” the text of the central mystery. Even more importantly, the very nature of autism means that Christopher’s quest is a fictional demonstration of Lacan’s claims, for Christopher’s cognitive difficulties all stem from the fact that he has no symbolic order to condition his ordering of facts into a narrative that can create meaning.

Perhaps most fascinating of all of these counter-narratives is Randolph Fisher’s extraordinary The Conjure-Man Dies, written during Harlem’s own Golden Age, decades before post-modernism was a gleam in Derrida’s eye. But more on that next time.

—Erica Obey

Erica Obey is the author of, most recently, The Lazarus Vector and The Curse of the Braddock Brides.

Lessons Learned from an Ill-Timed Writing Workshop

Lessons from a Recent Writing Workshop

Earlier this month I took part in a "first pages" workshop on Inked Voices, a website that facilitates virtual writing groups. This workshop offered feedback from a literary agent for the bargain price of $75.

Unable to pass up such a deal, and desperate to make progress on a novel that has languished for two-plus years, I signed up.

In full disclosure, I was completely unprepared. The workshop evaluated those carefully crafted opening scenes that will either draw in a reader or consign your literary brainchild to the slush pile. My first pages consisted of a brain dump spewed out to test the direction of my latest outline, the fourth or fifth for this project. Submitting that garbage would have wasted everyone's time and my money, so I spent five days (when I should have been reading and critiquing) rewriting my crappy draft. This process left me with just over one week to read and review the work of my fellow participants.

At the end of the two weeks, I had spent twenty hours or so rewriting my pages and critiquing peer submissions. My takeaways from the experience include the following:

Deadlines are my friends. Having a specific submission date kept me moving forward. Even though I posted my pages late, I still made more progress than I would have on my own.

Studying craft is mandatory. Because I've struggled with this draft, I've read several books on structure in recent weeks. Doing so helped me to identify the flaws in my draft during the rewrite, and it allowed me to pinpoint what didn't work in peer submissions.

Apply what you learn. Learning the craft in theory only goes so far. We still have to figure out how to implement these techniques in our own writing. Going in, I had an excellent idea of which aspects of my submission worked and which ones were likely to belly-flop.

Critiquing work builds editorial muscles. We often struggle to recognize the flaws in our own work, but those same errors leap from the page when we didn't commit them. Practicing this type of objective review helps us apply the same critical eye to our own stories.

Different readers offer different value. Even though no one else read my genre (urban fantasy), their feedback as readers provided great insight into which sections needed more explanation. Part of the writing process involves learning how to determine which feedback enhances your vision of the story and which does not.

In the end, the exercise confirmed that I'm not only learning craft, but also discovering how to apply it to my writing and to my reading. Such tangible takeaways can be invaluable when undertaking a project that literally spans years, where the ultimate payoff may go no further than a self-awarded foil star for participation.

A member of the MWA-NY board, Mistina Bates made her short fiction debut in Indian Country Noir (Akashic Books, 2010) and is currently working on an urban fantasy/paranormal suspense novel. She slings words for a living as founder and president of Market it Write, a content marketing agency based in northern New Jersey.

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