Real Editing

Many of you may like to know what it’s like to work with a real editor.  Until very recently, I never have.  Of course, I’ve had my manuscripts checked by a professional editor before publication, but that was copy editing: editing of grammar, spelling, punctuation and consistency in presentation.  With my latest novel, I decided it was time to ignore – for the time being – my grammar, spelling and punctuation, and focus on my presentation skills as a writer.   The editor I worked with is a published author, and she took two months to review my 529 page, double spaced manuscript.  What I got back from her was my edited manuscript with one or two comments on nearly every page (none of them related to grammar, spelling or punctuation) and a one-page summary of areas where I could improve the manuscript.

This isn’t mine, but you get the idea

For me, the experience was very good: I learned a lot.  It also meant that I have a major re-write underway.  The current re-write is in addition to the revisions I undertook after completing the manuscript and having some reservations of my own about it.  The areas for attention she mentioned included:

  • Character development: she noted that, while they were all well-defined, there is much that happens to the three main characters, and one of them changes his identity.  What about identify changes for the other two characters?
  • The novel would benefit from more tension for the characters in some of the events
  • I am too kind to some of the characters
  • Some of the dialogue and description does not really add to the story
  • More attention to the time line; there are gaps in the time line
  • The ending needs to be punchier
  • The point of the novel needs to be defined earlier and often
  • Point of view is an issue

Regarding point of view, with three main characters, I decided to use an omniscient point of view, rather that the point of view of one of the characters.  The editor pointed out that the omniscient point of view is not ‘fashionable’.  Perhaps she writes from a singular point of view.  In any case, I complicated things by permitting God and Satan to interrupt the story occasionally, to reveal their views and their covert involvement.  This, she found very confusing.  I think I have now eliminated any confusion.

For me, one problem was that she apparently didn’t read the manuscript through before beginning her editing; this could have clarified what seemed to me to be her early misunderstandings.  Having said that, her comments were generally very helpful and thorough, and as I went through the manuscript, I tried to eliminate opportunities for misunderstanding

In my current re-write, I have cut out about ten percent of the manuscript which, while mildly interesting, is not essential to the advancement of the plot.  I have also focused on how the characters are feeling about the events and the changes in their values.  Tension is also increased, and I’m planning changes to address her other comments.

The real test of all this will be when I submit it to literary agents/publishers.

Darkness in Kids Books

Last month, there was an essay in Time Magazine by Matt de la Pena, author of the childrens’ books, in which he discussed the importance of writing about painful experiences in the books he writes.

Matt de la Pena

He says, “A few weeks ago, illustrator Loren Long and I learned that a major gatekeeper would not support our forthcoming picture book, Love, an exploration of love in a child’s life, unless we “softened” a certain illustration. In the scene, a despondent young boy hides beneath a piano with his dog, while his parents argue across the living room. There is an empty old fashioned glass resting on top of the piano. The feedback our publisher received was that the moment was a little too heavy for children. And it might make parents uncomfortable. This discouraging news led me to really examine, maybe for the first time in my career, the purpose of my picture book manuscripts. What was I trying to accomplish with these stories? What thoughts and feelings did I hope to evoke in children?”

“This particular project began innocently enough. Finding myself overwhelmed by the current divisiveness in our country, I set out to write a comforting poem about love. It was going to be something I could share with my own young daughter as well as every kid I met in every state I visited, red or blue. But when I read over one of the early drafts, something didn’t ring true. It was reassuring, uplifting even, but I had failed to acknowledge any notion of adversity.

“So I started over.

“A few weeks into the revision process, my wife and I received some bad news, and my daughter saw my wife openly cry for the first time. This rocked her little world and she began sobbing and clinging to my wife’s leg, begging to know what was happening. We settled her down and talked to her and eventually got her ready for bed. And as my wife read her a story about two turtles who stumble across a single hat, I studied my daughter’s tear-stained face. I couldn’t help thinking a fraction of her innocence had been lost that day. But maybe these minor episodes of loss are just as vital to the well-adjusted child’s development as moments of joy. Maybe instead of anxiously trying to protect our children from every little hurt and heartache, our job is to simply support them through such experiences. To talk to them. To hold them.”

He went on to say that he was in Rome, Georgia, reading to some school children, when “I decided, on a whim, to read Love to them, too, even though it wasn’t out yet. I projected Loren’s illustrations as I recited the poem from memory, and after I finished, something remarkable happened. A boy immediately raised his hand, and I called on him, and he told me in front of the entire group, “When you just read that to us I got this feeling. In my heart. And I thought of my ancestors. Mostly my grandma, though … because she always gave us so much love. And she’s gone now.”

“And then he started quietly crying.

“And a handful of the teachers started crying, too.

“I nearly lost it myself. Right there in front of 150 third graders. It took me several minutes to compose myself and thank him for his comment.  On the way back to my hotel, I was still thinking about that boy, and his raw emotional response. I felt so lucky to have been there to witness it. I thought of all the boys growing up in working-class neighborhoods around the country who are terrified to show any emotion. Because that’s how I grew up, too — terrified. Yet this young guy was brave enough to raise his hand, in front of everyone, and share how he felt after listening to me read a book. And when he began to cry a few of his classmates patted his little shoulders in a show of support. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so moved inside the walls of a school.  That’s why I write books. Because the little story I’m working on alone in a room, day after day, might one day give some kid out there an opportunity to “feel.” And if I’m ever there to see it in person again, next time hopefully I’ll be brave enough to let myself cry, too.”

I have to add that the illustration Matt is talking about is evocative.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find it on line, but is it focused on a grand piano with a small boy, hugging his legs, head down, sheltered beneath it.  His dog is cuddled up next to him.  On the left is a woman, covering her face with her hands, and on the right is a man, leaving the room.  The text says: “But it’s not only stars that flame out, you discover.  And friendships.  And people.”

Review: Tess of the D’Urbervilles

I was searching my bookshelves for something to read on holiday and I found an old, paperback copy of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles – I have no idea where it came from.  I remember reading Far from the Madding Crowd in high school, and I thought it was time to get in touch with Hardy again.

Thomas Hardy was born in 1840 in a rural community in Dorset, England to a working-class family which did not have the means to send him to university.  He trained as an architect in Dorchester, and moved to London to pursue a career, but he was never comfortable in London, where he was acutely conscious of his class and social inferiority.  Returning to Dorset in 1867, he began his first novel, The Poor Man and the Lady, which was rejected for publication; he subsequently destroyed the manuscript, but subsequently wrote three novels: two published anonymously and one, A Pair of Blue Eyes, in his own name.   This latter novel concerns his courtship of Emma Gifford, who became his wife and encouraged him to write full time.  In 1874, Far from the Madding Crowd was published and was followed be ten novels, which attracted an increasingly hostile reception for ‘pessimism’ and ‘immorality’.  In fact, Jude the Obscure, Hardy’s last novel (1895), was burned by the Bishop or Wakefield.  In his memoir, Hardy said: “After these [hostile] verdicts from the press, its next misfortune was to be burnt by a bishop – probably in his despair at not being able to burn me.”  Hardy then turned his attention to writing poetry and short stories until hes death in 1928.  Tess was also criticised for its immorality and its implied criticism of social and religious culture, which, viewed from a 21st century perspective, is difficult to understand.

Hardy’s themes include the examination of social themes in Victorian England: marriage, education and religion, that limited people’s lives and caused unhappiness.  Hardy’s religious beliefs seem to have been a combination of agnosticism and spiritualism; he rejected the religious doctrine of his time.  For him, education was an unfair badge of social status, and the sexual mores of Victorian England were often a millstone around people’s necks.


Thomas Hardy

Tess, the lead character in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, is a beautiful farm girl whose lower class status is denied by her father who fancies that his family are descendants of the old, aristocratic, D’Urberville family.  She is sent to work for an old,  matriarch and her ne’er-do-well son, Alec, of the D’Urberville family.  She dislikes the son for his arrogance and his bothersome attentions, but she is taken advantage of by him and becomes pregnant.  How this happens is left to the reader’s imagination.  Her baby dies and she goes to work on a distant farm where she meets a middle class man, Angel Clare, with whom she falls in love.  When he asks her to marry him she is distraught, as his expectation must be that she is a virgin.  Finally, she accepts Angel’s proposal and commits to revealing her sin to him, which she does on their wedding night.  He, a man of strict morals, rejects her and emigrates to Brazil.  She is heartbroken, and goes to work on a hard-scrabble farm, where, once again, she meets Alec.  Separated by thousands of miles, Tess and Angel pine for one another, and he comes back to England to find her.  But, owing to dire financial circumstances, she has been taken by Alec as his mistress.  Angel follows her trail and finds her with Alec in a smart hotel.  The story ends tragically.

The first two thirds of the novel is beautifully written at a leisurely, captivating pace.  Hardy’s love of Tess, the English countryside and its culture shines through. At the same time there is a sense of impending disaster which pulls the reader along.

It seemed to me that the last third of the novel was written in a hurry by an author who wanted to get to the conclusion.  Character development in the first two thirds was measured and complete, but the changes in Alec and Tess toward the end seem somewhat dubious.  Alec’s transformation from scoundrel to preacher and back to a scoundrel seems barely plausible – as does Tess’ out of character change in the last few pages to pliant mistress with a hidden fury.  Strangely, Hardy has Tess swear an oath on an ancient stone monument, and one is braced for a repercussion, but none appears.  Then there is the character Lisa-Lu, Tess’s sister, who comes on stage at the last minute in an important role, without previous introduction.

I enjoyed reading Tess, and I also enjoyed finding what I think are errors by a great author.

Fake Rules

Mary Ann de Stefano has an article in the current issue of The Florida Writer entitled “Fake Rules and What Really Matters”.  She begins by saying, “Many of those so-called grammar and punctuation rules that people are pushing in online forums are not really rules at all. (No matter what your high school English teacher told you.)”  The article is light-hearted and I quote from it here.

Ms de Stefano is an independent editor with over 30 years of experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers, organises writing workshops and designs author websites.

Mary Ann de Stefano

“If writers are not debating about the serial comma and the number of spaces after a period in online discussions, they’re often railing against the use of the ‘singular they’ in modern usage.  (The serial comma is a comma placed before a conjunction – usually ‘and’ or ‘or’ – in a list of three or more items.  For my part, I use serial commas and two spaces after the end of a sentence, although my publisher doesn’t approve of the latter.)  Critics say that ‘Somebody used the milk and they didn’t put it back in the refrigerator’, should be written, they say, as, ‘Somebody used the milk and he or she didn’t put it back in the refrigerator.’  The former construction, they say – even though it is less awkward and perfectly understandable – is evidence of a decline in our educational system.  But the fact is that the singular they has been used for hundreds of years by the likes of Chaucer, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, and many more famous authors.  You may not like the singular they, but it is not wrong to use it, except, perhaps, in formal writing.

“Another tenaciously fake rule is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition.  Following the fake rule can often result in sentences that are stilted or awkward.  There is no rule which compels you to write: ‘She asked him from where he had come’, rather than the more natural ‘She asked him where he had come from’.  Feel free to end a sentence with a preposition; famous writers have been doing it for hundreds of years.”

This discussion reminds me of a joke I like.  A shabbily dressed red neck is visiting the Harvard University campus, and he stops a distinguished, well-dressed professor to ask. ‘Where is the library at?’  To this the professor responds, ‘Don’t you know, my good man, not to end a sentence with a preposition?”  And the red neck says, ‘Oh, sorry.  Where is the library at, idiot?’

Ms de Stefano continues: “While you’re at it, split an infinitive and start a sentence or two with a conjunction.  But don’t just do it to thumb your nose at the prescriptivists.  Do it thoughtfully and for a reason. (A split infinitive is the insertion of an adverb or an adverbial phrase between ‘to’ and the verb: for example ‘to quickly go’.  Wikipedia says: “The construction is to some extent still the subject of disagreement but modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to it.”

Ms de Stefano concludes: “Perhaps the desire to lean on the rules is an attempt to grasp into certainty within a process – writing – that is inherently uncertain.  But here’s what really matters: Great writing doesn’t happen just because what you’re doing what is ‘correct’.  Great writing happens because you’re being very conscious and deliberate about the choices you’re making as a writer and how those choices will affect your reader.  I think, perhaps, we talk too much about the rules, about correctness, and to little about style and artistic expression.  Learn the rules, yes.  But also think about how employing them or breaking them might affect the clarity, grace, pacing, tone, voice and meaning in your writing.”


Review: Fire and Fury

I have to admit that I bought a copy of Fire and Fury inside the Trump White House.  I’m not  a Trump fan and I wanted to see how bad it really is.  The book is written by Michael Wolff, based on over two hundred interviews and and two hundred days in the White House, ending with the appointment of General John Kelly as chief of staff and the departure of Steve Bannon..  Mr Wolff claims that he had the agreement of the President to be a sort of fly on the wall, beginning during the campaign, though the President has denied ever speaking to Wolff.

Michael Wolff does not have a gold-plated reputation as a journalist.  The Independent said : “He became well-known for writing that explored the lives of the rich and powerful, often written with colourful and bombastic language. His New York Magazine column, “This Media Life”, explored a world of which he was very much a part – he has surfaced periodically in the New York Post’s Page Six, a gossip hub for the city. . . While he achieved prominence and visibility with his work, Mr Wolff is not necessarily beloved by his compatriots in the media world. And he has embraced that, as shown by a past book featuring blurbs that excoriated him as toxic. “Far less circumspect – and sometimes more vicious – than the other journalists,” The New York Times is quoted as saying. “Possibly the bitchiest media bigfoot writing today,” suggested The New Republic.  “This Wolff excerpt (the book) has a 500-word-long chunk of recreated verbatim dialogue between Bannon and Ailes,” The New York Time’s Nick Confessore wrote. “Come on”.  But it turns out that Wolff hosted the dinner for six at this Manhattan town house.  “I was one of the 6 guests at the Bannon-Ailes dinner party in January 2017 and every word I’ve seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate. It was an astonishing night,” Janice Min said.”

Michael Wolff

The reader has to decide for herself whether every word in the book is the unvarnished truth.  There are relatively few direct quotations from named individuals.  Further, there are almost no kind words for anyone in the book: can everyone in the White House be that bad?  However, the preponderance of hear-say evidence in the book points overwhelmingly to the President’s short-comings in the vital learn-analyse-act-review cycle that leaders must master to be fully effective.  In particular, the Learn and Analyse stages are almost void.  He does not read memoranda longer than two pages (and those, reluctantly).  His preferred style of information gathering is watching television and speaking on the telephone with friends.  Reportedly, he has an aversion to ‘experts’, and tends to be swayed by the last person he spoke with on the subject.  Analysis is also a weakness (though to put it in context, perhaps Obama sometimes seemed to engage in analysis-paralysis), as numerous examples were cited of the President referring decisions to others.  Act, unlike Obama, is one of Trump’s strengths (though this is not mentioned in the book); one has to only count the record number of presidential orders that he has signed.  And, as to Review, no examples are given but, in fairness, it may be too early to review many of the actions taken.  Overall, one has the impression of a man with an enormous, but very fragile ego.

If one has been reading the daily newspapers and watching the evening news, there isn’t much in the way of surprises in this book.  However, until reading it, I did not appreciate the extent to which Trump did not expect to win (nor did he want to win) the 2016 election.   The win he wanted was all the publicity with no follow-on consequences.

Man Booker Protest

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article captioned Man Booker rule change has lost us sales , say publishes, and the caption reads: US dominance has hit Commonwealth writers who are falling off shortlists.  

Not that my opinion had an iota of influence, I was opposed to the rule change in 2014, which opened the prize to writers from any nationality, who publish in English, on the basis that there are a large number of US literary prizes, so there was no need to open another prize to American writers.  I also felt that the Man Booker was a unique prize open to Commonwealth authors.  Finally, given the quirky judging standards of the Man Booker Prize Committer (see my most recent post), it seemed inappropriate to me that the Booker should be positioning itself as the top global prize in English literature.

Now the publishers have weighed in with their own arguments regarding the effect of the rule change on the volume of books sold, and, by extension, on their bottom lines.

“About 30 publishers are understood to have signed a letter urging the trustees to the Booker Prize Foundation to reverse the decision, saying the change risked creating ‘a homogenised literary future’ dominated by American culture.  ‘The rule change, which presumably had the intention of making the prize more global, has in fact made it less so by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others; it risks turning the prize, once a brilliant mechanism for bringing the world’s English-language writers to the attention of the world’s biggest English-language market, into one that is no longer serving the readers in that market’ it says.

“It claims that diversity of the prize has been ‘significantly reduced’, noting that this year’s shortlist consists of three Americans, two Britons, and one British-Pakistani as opposed to 2013’s shortlist which featured a New Zealander, a Zimbabwean, an Irishman, an American-Canadian and a British-American. ‘We already live in a world that is dominated by American culture’, the letter says. ‘The Man Booker Prize was one significant way to allow other voices to be heard.’

“Johnny Geller, of the Curtis Brown literary agency, said the letter was ‘a long time coming’ and that ‘widening the entry requirements to include US writers has resulted in weakened sales on both sides of the Atlantic’.

“Denying that diversity had been reduced, the Booker foundation said the rule change was not created specifically to included US writers but to allow entries from authors of any nationality, regardless of geography.”

Clearly, the rule change has reduced diversity, and one is prompted to ask why the rule change was felt to be necessary: was it to raise the profile of the foundation at the expense of sacrificing its unique position?

The point about the impact on sales is interesting, and the article does not mention whether it was addressed in the foundation’s response.  Presumably, the cause of this sales decline is that Man Booker prize recognition does little to increase the sales of winning American authors: they already have recognition through other awards and bestseller lists.  But, non-recognition of Commonwealth authors impacts their sales on both sides of the Atlantic.

It will be interesting to see how much power the publishers have in this situation!

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

This novel, by George Saunders, won the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and I felt obliged to read it.

George Saunders – according to the bio included in the book – is the author of nine books, including Tenth of December, which was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the inaugural Folio Prize (for the best work of fiction in English) and the Story Prize (best short story collection).  He has received MacArthur and Guggenheim fellowships and the PEN/Malamud Prize for excellence in the short story and was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  In 2013, he was named one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.  He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.

George Saunders

Lincoln in the Bardo concerns the death of Willie, President Lincoln’s younger son, his burial and the President’s intense grief over his death.  This major theme in bound up in a collection of ghost stories in which a state of bardo is conceived and in which the ghosts provide a commentary on racial, social, financial, sexual and religious mores at that time.  There is no central narrator; rather, the stories are told by several dozen fictional ghost characters (two of whom are prominent) and by quotations from contemporary news articles and other sources.  These quotations lend a sense of reality, even though the viewpoints represented (of the President, himself, for example) are conflicting.  The style of the book is oblique, particularly as to the individual ghost stories, so that the reader is left to exercise some deduction and imagination.  The writing is innovative, but faultless. The author’s central question is: “how do we live and love when everything we love must end?”

For me, Lincoln in the Bardo was not an easy or a captivating read.  This was due, in part to the author’s technique of presenting the ghost’s dialogue frequently as fragmented hints (which is fine for ‘ghost speak’ but doesn’t make easy reading).  I also felt that the ghost stories did not always mesh well with the Lincoln tragedy. In my opinion, the author was trying to do too much in one novel.  Interestingly, I don’t recall seeing the word ‘bardo’ mentioned in the novel itself.  Bardo is a Buddhist concept of a transitional state between death and rebirth.  Two other minor comments.  I think the title of this novel should have been: Willie Lincoln in Limbo.  As a Buddhist concept, ‘bardo’ does not fit well in a Christian setting; bardo is a state, so the definite article ‘the’ is unnecessary – one wouldn’t say ‘in the coma’; and Lincoln (the President) was not in bardo – his son was.  But my suggested title is not as intriguing.  At the conclusion of the book, there are 11 ‘Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion’.  This says to me: ‘ I am not only the author, I am a distinguished academic’: hubris.

For me, this is another example of the Man Booker Prize Committee selecting works which are intriguing, different, innovative, rather than lucid, beautiful and memorable.

Why Children Need to Read

This was the title of the cover story in the Review section of The Daily Telegraph on 20 January 2018.  The author is Katherine Rundell, author of The Explorer, which won the 2017 Costa Children’s Book Award. She begins the article by talking about a “state of consciousness that comes without calling.  It is as if the clamorous world has quietened and thinned. . . The other times I have experienced it were as a child, while I read.  It would take perhaps three pages, then the world became mute.  Its urgency vanished and its demands fell silent.  I could sit waiting outside a ballet class, music vibrating through the walls, and hear nothing.

“Children’s fiction accounts for 39 of the 100 bestselling books of 2017, and for about 24% of the UK book market.  There’s a lot of it about.  Still, the question I get asked most, when people hear that I write for children, is: why?  Why not write real, serious books for adults?  Because, I think, only for a child, can fiction crowbar open the world.

“The intricacies of reading evade description in the same way that dreams and music evade it, but there is, I think, something unique about the way stories colour the imagination of a child.  What do you see as an adult, when you read?  Do you deck out the characters in shoes, buttons, fingernails.  I think I don’t.  I read ‘Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich’, and I conjure up, in the space behind my eyes, an atmosphere rather than a distinct picture, colour, nose or lip. But children are doing something different when they read.  They have sometimes described to me in painstaking detail, scenes from books of mine which do not exist.  It happens relatively often: a child will tell me she loves the dance across the Paris rooftops in my book Roofhoppers, or the moment when a girl jumps from a tree onto the back of a wolf in The Wolf Wilder –  scenes I never wrote, although I wish I had.  Children, as they read, paint bright colours in the margins that fiction leaves open.  Their imaginations are snowballs.  When, as an adult, I read some of  my favourite childhood books, I was startled to see how slight some of them were, how many of the details I thought I knew by heart never even appeared; houses I had furnished myself, clothes I had embroidered, journeys  had added.  This is part of why I write for young people: children read the world into largeness.  When you write for a child, you build them a house; when they read, they expand it into a castle.

Ms Rundell tells about the illness of an older sister who died.  “I read through long periods of being alone, in hospital waiting rooms, and car journeys and friends’ houses.  Afraid, I took The Jungle Book or What Katy Did into bed with me alongside my bear, so that if my own fear overwhelmed me, there would be an exit door; I would fall asleep with an escape hatch clutched in one hand. . . . the stories I read then allowed me to believe that my sister didn’t only lose; she also won.  To fight with such gallantry and love is to win.

“The value of children’s books cannot, of course, be predicated on pain – books aren’t only valuable when we have something to escape – but, in fact, I am not sure that escapism is a large enough word for what those books did.  They taught me through the medium of wizards and lions and spies and talking spiders that this world I was newly inhabiting was one of wit and endurance.  Children’s books say: the stories of the world are infinite and various and unpredictable.  They say: you will count for something. They say: bravery will matter, love will matter.”

I was fortunate in having a mother and a grandmother who liked to read aloud.  They were probably motivated, in part, by the rapt attention I paid to stories by Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson and J Howard Pyle.

Review: Istanbul: Memories and the City

I wanted to read a book by Orhan Pamuk, who won the Noble Prize for Literature in 2006, but when I looked at his recent novels, I was put off.  My Name is Red is 688 pages; A Strangeness in my Mind is 764 pages.  To me, this seems a disproportionate amount to time to devote to one author.  (Perhaps, I’m like a teenage boy: so many girls, so little time.)  So, I chose Istanbul: Memories and the City (336 pages), which was written in 2005, and appealed to me because I visited Istanbul, briefly, on my honeymoon.

Orhan Pamuk is a Turkish writer, screenwriter and academic, born in Istanbul in 1952; he has sold 13 million books in 63 languages.  He is a Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches courses in writing and comparative literature.

In 2005, Pamuk made a statement regarding the Armenian Genocide that  “Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do.”  An ultra-nationalist lawyer brought a law suit based on Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code which makes it a crime to insult Turkey or the Turkish Grand National Assembly.  The suit resulted in a lengthy battle with the Turkish legals system in which the European Union took an interest because of its implications for the freedom of speech in Turkey.  The Turkish Justice Ministry finally declined to back the trial on a technicality, but gave no support to Pamuk, who said that he mentioned the genocide not to call attention to specific numbers of deaths but to demonstrate the lack of freedom to discuss taboo subjects in Turkey.

Orhan Pamuk

Istanbul, translated by Maureen Freely, is one of five non-fiction works by Pamuk in English.  It is, as the subtitle suggests, a reflection on the Istanbul the author knew as a child together with his family memories.  There are black-and-white photographs on every couple of pages, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, and some as recent at the 1960’s; most are of ‘old Istanbul’ but there are family photographs, as well.  The ‘old Istanbul’ photographs are a vehicle for commentary on the writings of European and Turkish literati regarding the culture, style, history, art and visual perspectives of the city.  Clearly, Istanbul was (and is) a unique city: its rapid growth, its human crossroads of East and West, its unique wooden architecture (which frequently went up in smoke), the presence of the Bosporus with all its maritime energy, and the air of melancholy (húzún) arising from the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, the subsequent economic decline, and the cultural ambivalence between East and West.

Perhaps what is surprising about this book – part travelogue, history, autobiography, artistic and cultural commentary – is that it is an integral whole, seamlessly shifting themes without confusing the reader.  This, I think, is all down to Pamuk’s fondness for his city and his skill as a commentator and a writer.  One can set the book aside for a day or two, but one is drawn back into its dream-like flow.  The attraction is, in large measure, due to the characterisation of the boy, Orhan, his brother, his mother and father, the larger family and their declining circumstances.  The one criticism I have is that a map of the city should have been included.  There are frequent references to districts in Istanbul by their Turkish names, but one has no idea of the geography which is an omission for a piece of writing which is otherwise so visual.

Istambul is a very pleasant reading experience.

America, the Ugly

As an American living in Europe, I am often asked whether I miss the States and whether I will return there.  The answer I give is that I miss my family and friends living there, but that I have no plans to return to the States.  In fact, in the current environment, I would find America a disagreeable place to live.

Those of you who visit this blog on the expectation of stimulating thoughts from an author’s point of view I ask your indulgence that I might – just this once? – enlarge the topic.

My impression of America today, based in the voices I hear from across the Atlantic – the formal media, social media, politicians, commentators, activists and private individuals – is that it has become a violent, racist, and un-educated country, and my impression is that this is a view shared by many non-Americans.  To be clear, I’m not focusing on the President; to my mind, he is only the cheerleader of a violent, racist, un-educated minority, a minority that is attempting to dominate the discourse on issues with a stridency which seems to seek a change in the culture of America.  The desired culture appears to be more fragmented, more ‘them-and-us’, less orderly, and more beneficial to the loudest.

When I mention an ‘un-educated minority’, I am not speaking of Americans who have only a high school or secondary school education.  For me, it’s not about the number of years of education one has; rather it’s about how one behaves.  There are Americans with graduate degrees who are behaving like cretins and high school drop-outs who display considerable wisdom.

I believe that there are two vital behaviours which the ‘un-educated’  are neglecting: the systematic collection of reliable, non-business-related information, and the deliberate, dispassionate analysis of this information.  These two behaviours, taken together, are the foundations of good citizenship.  What kind of information am I talking about?  General, wide-ranging information on subjects including history, social science, physical science, theology, sports, finance, psychology, art and politics.  If one doesn’t have at least an understanding of the trends in these areas, how can can one call oneself a knowledgeable citizen?  And it isn’t just a question of having ‘facts’ at one’s disposal: the ‘facts’ can be wrong or misleading.  Trust only sources of information that are reliable and have no incentive to bend the truth.  It takes time, attention and effort to become half-educated.

And the other half of being ‘educated’ is perhaps more difficult: it involves setting aside one’s personal agenda and biases (my, particular religion/political beliefs/economic circumstances/social standing/etc.) in order to understand alternative viewpoints and to analyse dispassionately the pros and cons.  (Nothing other than arithmetic is always right.)

It seems to me that the ‘uneducatedness’ of some Americans, who have insufficient or wrong information and analyze it superficially, is what leads to racism and violence.  Racism (and other forms of intolerance) cannot stand up to the ‘educated citizenship’ approach.

By ‘violence’, I’m not just referring to gun violence, but to abuse of all kinds, and to the desire to disrupt the status quo just to ‘punish the system’.  The latter two forms of violence are invalidated by informed analysis.

Gun violence is a particular issue for me, as a resident of England, where reliable adults can have rifles and shotguns, subject to certification and safe storage, and where handguns and automatic weapons are proscribed.  Does this handicap the British population, many of whom are keen hunters?  No.  Gun violence is a tiny fraction of what it is in the US.  Apart from this, the major difference between the two countries is that there is no ‘constitutional right’ in the UK to bear arms.  But, the Second Amendment was based partially on the right to keep and bear arms in English common law and was influenced by the English Bill of Rights of 1689.  Yet, there is no ‘constitutional right’ in the UK.

As I think about the causes of ‘uneducatedness’, two things come to mind: laziness – unwillingness to take the time and effort to inform oneself and to think clearly – and discontentment with one’s situation in life, which, while sometimes justified, can lead to the the blaming of others or the ‘system’.  Laziness is, of course, self-inflicted, and if one is discontented, the best remedy is action, not blame.