Writing Advice from Charles Dickens

The Writers Write website has a series of pages where famous (and not so famous) authors give advice about writing. In this case, Alex J Coyne, a writer, proofreader and card player, has found relevant passages from Dickens’ works and has interpreted them for authors.

7 Bits Of Writing Advice From The Works Of Charles Dickens

1. Nothing Is Impossible (When You’re A Writer) 

‘Consider nothing impossible, then treat possibilities as probabilities.’ – From David Copperfield 

If you believe it’s unlikely or impossible that your pitches and stories will be successful, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

But if you consider nothing impossible, you’ll wake up every day believing something good is about to happen. Keep working at it.

2. Write With Everlasting Curiosity

‘We lawyers are always curious, always inquisitive, always picking up odds and ends for our patchwork minds, since there is no knowing when and where they may fit into some corner.’ – From Little Dorrit 

Charles had a keen interest in law, and this sentence also applies to the average writer. Writers draw heavily on their experiences and research to be good writers who portray these experiences well to readers.

Do you have enough bits and pieces of life experiences, trivia, and research about odd topics to make sure your writing is rich, interesting, and accurate in its details?

3. There’s A Lot Of Bad Writing Out There

‘There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.’ – From Oliver Twist 

The Oliver Twist quote reveals that there was just as much grammatically incorrect (and nonsensically plotted) writing in the 1800s as we have today with the internet.

4. Choose Words With Great Responsibility

‘A word in earnest is as good as a speech.’ – From Bleak House

Another way to say the above would be, ‘One correctly chosen word is worth a thousand.’

Writing should never be lengthier or clumsier than it needs to be. Good writing says stuff, but remarkable writing says stuff with less (and usually more carefully chosen) words.

5. Have a Unique Selling Point

‘It is a hopeless endeavour to attract people to a theatre unless they can be first brought to believe that they will never get in.’ – From Nicholas Nickleby 

Every writing piece that’s worth reading has a unique selling point.

6. Give Characters Depth (& Life!)

Little Red Riding Hood was my first love. I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.’ – From The Old Curiosity Shop

Fictional characters should have depth, personality, likeability (or the opposite for antagonists!), and history the reader might never get to see.

When readers encounter a character in your story, they should always feel something. Love, hate, disgust, curiosity, interest, wonder, lust, something. Otherwise, you are just not doing your job as a writer.

7. You Should Be Writing

‘Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.’ – From David Copperfield

Writers write, but many writers also procrastinate.

Every writer has at least one or two excuses to hush their conscience when they should be writing now, but aren’t.

Writing right now is always better than not writing right now. Now go write something!

Review: The Nickel Boys

This novel, by Colson Whitehead, was one that my son-in-law left for me. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2020, and i devoured it rather quickly.

 Colson Whitehead was born in 1969 in New York City; his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. As a child growing up in New York City, he decided that he wanted to be a novelist after reading Stephen King’s novels. He matriculated at Harvard University; after he was not accepted into Harvard’s creative writing seminars, he studied English and comparative literature. Upon receiving a B.A. in 1991, he became an editorial assistant at The Village Voice; he wrote music, television, and book reviews and eventually became the newspaper’s television editor.  He has written eight novels, including The Underground Railroad, for which he was awarded he 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, long Island.

Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys is a work of fiction but it is based on the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, which the author discovered in 2014. It was a reform school operated by the State of Florida from 1900 to 2011. Throughout its 111-year history, the school gained a reputation for abuse, beatings, rapes, torture, and even murder of students by staff. Despite periodic investigations, changes of leadership, and promises to improve, the allegations of cruelty and abuse continued.

The principal character in The Nickel Boys is Elwood Curtis, growing up in the Florida panhandle in the 1960. His parents have deserted him and he is living with his grandmother. He is an idealistic, well behaved boy who does well in school and is preparing to go to college. He is arrested accepting a ride from a car thief and sent to the Nickel Academy, a segregated reform school. There, he meets meets and becomes friends with Turner, a cynic, who cannot understand Elwood’s commitment to Dr Martin Luther Kings instructions to love your oppressor. Trying to intervene in the bullying of a younger boy, Elwood is severely beaten by the school authorities and spends two weeks in the school hospital. The novel lays out in gripping detail what life is like in Nickel. Eventually, Elwood, who has been taking notes of all his experiences, decides to pass them to a state inspector. This leads to an attempted escape by Elwood and Turner which ends tragically.

This novel certainly deserved to win the Pulitzer Prize. It is difficult to set aside, but it is not sensational; it is factual, almost understated, moving on quickly to what happens next. The writing is tight, and the images are sharp. The contrast between Elwood’s and Turner’s attitudes is used to maintain the manageable temperature of the Novel. The school authorities are unembroidered: their action speak for themselves.

The book is a supremely eloquent indictment of man’s inhumanity to man. It leaves us asking ourselves how it can happen to ‘normal’ people. In summary: a great, memorable piece of literature.

Review: The Testaments

I acquired Margaret Atwood’s novel The Testaments from amazon.it just before my son-in-law dumped a pile of his completed summer reading on me. Some of it actually looks quite interesting, but Margaret came first.

This is her novel which won the Booker Prize in 2019, is pretty much a sequel to her The Handmaid’s Tale which was published in 1985, and which I haven’t yet read.

The flyleaf of The Testaments say that ‘Margaret Atwood is the author of more than fifty books of fiction, poetry and critical essays. Atwood has won numerous awards. She has also worked as a cartoonist, illustrator, librettist, playwright and puppeteer. She lives in Toronto, Canada.’

Margaret Atwood

The Testaments is a dystopian novel set in the what was the northeastern United States in the twenty-second century in a military dictatorship which is strongly patriarchal, totalitarian and theonomic. It is called the Republic of Gilead. Women are not allowed to read, write or own property and are divided into classes, each with a distinctive dress. Most importantly, they are deprived of their reproductive function. Wives are the highest class, Marthas are the servants, Handmaids main role to to provide children to male Commanders (infertility is a problem owing to radiation and chemical pollution), Aunts train the Handmaids, and Econowives constitute the major segment of the female population. There are also unmarried girls dressed in white and widows in black. Mayday is a secretive resistance movement in Gilead, and the Pearl Girls are Mayday’s opponents. The Eyes are Gilead’s secret police.

There are three narrators in the novel: Aunt Lydia, an aging, cynical and powerful figure, and two young sisters in training, who become involved in Aunt Lydia’s scheme to bring down Gilead, whose Commanders have become self-serving and corrupt.

The novel is fast-moving and tension-filled. For some one who in not familiar with The Handmaid’s Tale it can be a little bit difficult to get ‘the lay of the land’. Sometimes I also lost track of the historic relationships between characters. Nonetheless, the novel is fascinating in its complexity, its flawed, well-drawn characters, and its ever-shifting plot.

I would certainly recommend this novel to anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale. It will surely satisfy your hankering to know what happened next.

It’s my impression that The Testaments was selected as the joint winner with Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo’s of the 2019 Booker Prize as a retrospective recognition that perhaps The Handmaid’s Tale should have won the 1985 prize. After all, the earlier novel was an enormous commercial success, presented the original dystopian landscape, which served as a controversial criticism by the author of the direction in which she saw America heading. It was also as tension-filled, peopled with flawed characters, and undoubtedly as well written as its sequel.

US Supreme Court Rejects First Amendment Case

On July 6, Andrew Albanese reported In Publishers Weekly on a decision by the US Supreme Court that preserves protections for authors and journalists, but raises questions about the future of such protections.

US Supreme Court Justices

The case in question involves Guy Lawson’s 2015 book Arms and the Dudes: How Three Stoners from Miami Beach Became the Most Unlikely Gunrunners in History, the basis for the movie War Dogs.

In 2017, Shkelzen Berisha, the son of the former Prime Minister of Albania, sued Lawson and Simon & Schuster arguing that the book’s portrayal of his involvement in corrupt arms deals was defamatory. In December, 2018, a district court judge dismissed the lawsuit, holding that Berisha, as a “limited public figure,” failed to show “actual malice”.  In other words, by the standard set in the Supreme Court’s unanimous 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, Berisha failed to show that Lawson and S&S had published statements they knew to be false, or with “reckless disregard” as to whether or not they were false.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously affirmed the decision in September, 2020. And with the Supreme Court’s denial of Certioari last week the case is now over.

In a brief statement, S&S officials said they were gratified by the Supreme Court’s 7-2 ruling. “[The decision] affirms long held rights and protections for authors and journalists under the First Amendment and puts an end to a lawsuit that should never have been brought in the first place,” the statement reads.

But the biggest takeaway from the case may be that two of the court’s conservative justices apparently believe there should be more cases like Berisha’s.

In dissents that take aim more at today’s fractured media landscape than the merits of the case, Justices Thomas and Gorsuch question how well the standard articulated by the court in 1964 in Sullivan holds up today.

“What started in 1964 with a decision to tolerate the occasional falsehood to ensure robust reporting by a comparative handful of print and broadcast outlets has evolved into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable,” Gorsuch writes. “If ensuring an informed democratic debate is the goal, how well do we serve that interest with rules that no longer merely tolerate but encourage falsehoods in quantities no one could have envisioned almost 60 years ago?”

While today’s media landscape is obviously different and challenging, the standard articulated in the New York Times v. Sullivan is widely regarded as a pillar of the American free press. Before the decision, handed down in March, 1964, public officials in southern states had effectively used the threat of libel and defamation actions against news organizations to suppress coverage of the civil rights movement. But the actual malice standard adopted by the court effectively mitigated the risk from costly defamation claims.

Gorsuch and Thomas are far from the only federal judges to urge a re-thinking of the Sullivan standard in recent years—though it is unclear from both dissents how the court’s intervention—as opposed to Congress’s—would alleviate the problems that have emerged in today’s media—a point Gorsuch acknowledged.

“I do not profess any sure answers. I am not even certain of all the questions we should be asking,” Gorsuch conceded in his dissent. “But given the momentous changes in the Nation’s media landscape since 1964, I cannot help but think the Court would profit from returning its attention, whether in this case or another, to a field so vital to the ‘safe deposit’ of our liberties.”

So, it seems to me that there will eventually be changes in the level of free speech protections now enjoyed by authors and journalists.

Review: The Pull of the Stars

As usual, I ran out of novels to read while on holiday in Sicily. I scoured the English shelves of the local bookstore and this time I found a winner: a novel by Emma Donoghue. The title, The Pull of the Stars did nothing for me but the back cover sounded promising: ‘Dublin1918 . . . unfamiliar flu . . . Best Novels of 2020 Daily Telegraph’.

According to the inside back cover, Emma Donoghue was born in Dublin in 1969 and was an Irish emigrant twice over, having spent eight years in Cambridge, England before moving to London, Ontario. She is best known for her novels, which range from the historical to the contemporary. Her international best seller Room, was the New York Times Best Book of 2010 and was shortlisted for the Booker, Commonwealth and Orange Prizes.

Emma Donohue

Nurse Julia Power, age 30, single, who lives with her younger brother, a shell-shocked casualty of the trenches of World War I, is the principal character. Through staff illness she has been assigned a tiny, three bed ward which is occupied by women in the late stages of pregnancy, and who have the fearsome disease which is taking so many lives. (The virus which causes the disease was not discovered until there was an electron microscope in 1935, and a vaccine was not developed until 1938.) There are two other supporting characters: a young volunteer, Bridie Sweeney, from a Dickensian home for orphaned children, and Doctor Kathleen Lynn, a real person, who violently opposed British rule, was Sinn Fein’s director of public health and founder of a free clinic on Charlemont Street. There is a constant flow of new patients onto the tiny ward. Julia and Bridie face seemingly every complication of pregnancy with the occasional help of Dr Lynn. Nurse and volunteer become attached under the continual life and death struggles they face. Bridie becomes ill with the flu and dies. Her loss for Julia (and the reader) is compensated partially by Julia’s spontaneous adoption of the newborn son of an impoverished woman who died of the flu.

This book is a magnificent piece of fiction. Julia, Bridie, Dr Lynn and all of their patients are real in their humanity and their flaws. One feels nearly suffocated in the tiny ward with it’s primitive medications and treatments. My hat is off to Ms Donohue for her compelling descriptions of early 20th century medication, the hospital culture, and the Dublin environment with its grinding poverty. From about page 30, the tension is unremitting and un-contrived. The reader becomes completely absorbed in this altogether different world a century ago, and its strange yet familiar problems.

I have just two comments about the book. The scene-setting which consumes the first thirty pages of the book lacks the powerful tension which engulfs the rest of the book. It is still very interesting reading; perhaps some foreshadowing would have helped increase the tension. When Bridie becomes ill during the last twenty pages, her death becomes a foregone conclusion and some of the tension disappears. It might have been better to introduce Bridie’s illness earlier with some doubtful symptoms and some denials. This could have intensified Bridie’s loss.

Review: Stakeholder Capitalism

I ordered this book some months ago when it first came out, intending to read it while I am in Sicily. It is one of the few non-fiction books I’ll read this year, and it is worth special mention.

It is written by Klaus Schwab who is the founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, the International Organisation of Public-Private Cooperation, best known for its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Klaus Schwab

Mr Schwab makes the point that Shareholder Capitalism has failed. The form of capitalism which has been practiced throughout the Western World for the past fifty years is no longer fit for purpose. By focusing all the benefits of business on the owners of the business (the share holders), great injustices have been done to employees, the community, the general public, government and the planet.

In the first part of the book, he describes in some detail evidence against Shareholder Capitalism. The focus on giving shareholders nearly all the benefits has resulted in a shift in power away from labour unions and into the hands of management. Employee pay has stagnated, while executive pay has dramatically increased over the last half century. Communities have been devastated by the closure of local businesses and the relocation of the business overseas in order to improve profits for the shareholders. The general public has been injured by unregulated risk taking and non-competitive behaviour of businesses. Government has been unable to collect the taxes to which it would be entitled by tax avoidance schemes which benefit only shareholders. And insufficient attention has been paid to pollution as a cost saving which benefits only the shareholder.

Schwab argues that it is time to change our form of capitalism to one where the benefits are more fairly distributed, where employees have more of a say in their work and receive fairer compensation, where the needs of the community which houses the business are considered, where the government has a stronger regulatory role, and the life of the planet is given full attention.

This change, Schwab argues, can be brought about by repurposing companies so that they benefit their customers, their employees, society at large and their shareholders. He says, “in September 2020, the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum – comprising 140 of the largest global companies -presented the Stakeholder Capitalism Metrics. They are a core set of metrics and disclosures on the non-financial aspects of business performance, including variables such as greenhouse gas emissions, diversity, employee health and wellbeing.”

The book is well written and certainly persuasive. It is also timely. Although it is early days, I think that more attention should have been given to implementation of Stakeholder Capitalism. More examples of companies which have actually done it, and more about the actual metrics.

Left unsaid – likely for political reasons – is the application of stakeholder capitalism to the Chinese version of capitalism, where the main beneficiary is the Chinese Communist Party and its ideals.

The world would be a very different place if stakeholder capitalism were to be universally adopted.

Pessimistic (but Good)Advice

Harry Bingham, of Jericho Writers, in his email last week, had a rather sad story, and some good advice arising from the story. The key person in the story is Karen Jennings, the South African author.

Karen Jennings: ‘I finished the novel in 2017 and no one was interested.’
Karen Jennings

Harry said, “The Guardian newspaper ran an interview yesterday with a South African author, Karen Jennings.

“In one way, the article offers a standard literary tale. Roughly this: ‘Author writes book, this time about a lighthouse keeper and a refugee who washes up on his little island. Publisher buys book. Publisher publishes book. Book gets nominated for a major prize (in this case the Booker). Book increases its print run ten times over. Author suddenly starts to get a ton of positive attention. Big newspapers like the Guardian run flattering features. Life turns on its head.’

“You’ve already read a version of that story a million times, except that on this occasion there’s more honesty on view. The interview also tells us that Jennings finished the book in 2017. She didn’t (and doesn’t) have an agent. She found it very hard to get a publisher. When she did find one, (British micro press, Holland House), the team struggled to find anyone to endorse the book or give them a quote for the blurb. Prospects were so meagre that Holland House put out a print run of just five hundred copies (and it’s essentially impossible for anyone to make money at that level of sales.) When the book came out it was met, very largely, with silence.

“Loads of writers struggle to get an agent, struggle to get published, struggle to sell books, struggle to get that book noticed. That is pretty much the norm for our odd little industry. And, OK, on this occasion we’re talking about a micro press that is well used to dealing with small numbers. But the same phenomenon is common enough with the Big 5 houses as well. Yes, advances are generally larger and yes, sales expectations are consequently higher. But if your book gets a mediocre cover, it’ll die all the same. You don’t hear a lot about the books that just curl up and die, but there are a lot of them out there.

“This experience often calls for sacrifices. Karen Jennings is quoted as saying, ‘I’ve been really poor for a very long time. I don’t have much of a social life either. You know, I don’t have fancy clothes. I don’t have a car. I don’t have a house. I don’t have a career the way other people have.’

“Now that outcome, it seems to me, is optional. I urge writers – and I mean YOU – to look after your income sensibly. That mostly means: get a job and write in your spare time. Or marry someone rich. Or win the lottery or strike oil in your back yard. Please don’t make the mistake of looking to writing for your livelihood.

“There are a thousand books out there as good as Jennings’s. Most of those will just sell a few copies then be forgotten. It’s perfectly likely that Jennings’s book will perform decently, but not win the Booker Prize.

“Take a book that did win the Booker Prize: Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. That’s a major author winning a massive book prize – so it must be a great book, no? I mean, there can’t be any doubt about that, can there?

“Well, yes there can. Geoff Dyer, writing in the New York Times, commented: ‘This was not one of those years when the Man Booker Prize winner was laughably bad. No, any extreme expression of opinion about The Sense of an Ending feels inappropriate. It isn’t terrible, it is just so . . . average. It is averagely compelling (I finished it), involves an average amount of concentration and, if such a thing makes sense, is averagely well written.’

“Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.

“So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, the media likes to work with conventions – idées reçues, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually, an anything), it struggles to overturn or challenge that idea.

“Personally, I agree with Dyer. I think the book was obviously mediocre.

“So why did the book get so heavily praised? Well, the media likes to work with conventions – idées reçues, to use an older term. Once the media has formed an idea about a novelist (or, actually,

“So the Julian Barnes convention says, “Julian Barnes is a great novelist. Here he is writing about some Big and Important Topics. So this must be a Big and Important Book. Let’s say how great it is.” Easier to do that than to read the book and do some real critical thinking about it.

“Let’s summarise some of these thoughts.

“One: you can’t trust that excellence alone will bring you to national or international prominence. That may well not happen. Excellence is not enough.

“Two: you can’t rely on critics to determine the value of your book. For one thing, the critics are mostly unlikely to read or comment on your book. For another, what they say is often nonsense or a basket of conflicting opinions.

“Three: once an opinion has formed, that opinion is likely to hold like iron, no matter what the actual reality of the situation.

“It sets out the landscape for us as writers:

  • You need to enjoy the process of writing, because you may not earn money or fame.
  • You need to enjoy the process of publishing, for the same reason.
  • You need to trust your own inner assessment of the book, because you may not get any meaningful external commentary – and what you do get may be unhelpful anyway.

I think Harry makes a vital point: the reason we write is that we enjoy writing, not because we are seeking fame and fortune. If we start writing to achieve fame and fortune, we will almost certainly be disappointed.

Review: Of Human Bondage

Having never read any Somerset Maugham, I decided to read this one. Perhaps I would have been better advised to pick out one of his shorter novels – this one is exactly 700 pages – but as a semi-biographical novel, it gave me an insight into both his writing and his personality.

W Somerset Maugham

Maugham was born in the British embassy in Paris (and was therefore British) to the British lawyer, who handled the embassy’s legal affairs, and his wife. Both his parents died before he was ten and he was put into the care of his uncle, the vicar of Whitstable, Kent. He attended the King’s school in Canterbury, where his small stature and a stutter made him the butt of jokes by his contemporaries. He wrote steadily from the age of 15, and at 16 his uncle allowed him to study in Heidelberg, where he wrote his first book and had an affair with an Englishman ten years his elder. He returned to London, where, after a stint as an accountant, he studied medicine and was qualified as a doctor. In 1897, he published his first novel, Lisa of Lambeth, the immediate success of which persuaded him to abandon medicine and take up writing as a career. Maugham was particularly financially successful as a playwright, but he wrote short stories, travel books and a long list of novels. He was married in 1917 to Syrie Welcome, with whom he had a daughter in 1915. The marriage was unhappy, the couple separated, and Maugham lived most of the rest of his life on the French Riviera with a male partner. In 1962, Maugham sold a series of paintings which he had given to his daugher, Liza, who took him to court and won. The writer descended into mental illness, and unseemly vituperations which hurt his commercial image. He died in 1965.

Of Human Bondage is set in about 1900 and parallels Maugham’s real life until the protagonist, Philip Carey, becomes a qualified physician. As a nine-year-old, Philip is orphaned and put in the care of his uncle, the vicar of Blackstable. He is a shy, introverted boy, with club foot, who is harassed by his classmates at boarding school. Rather than accept a scholarship at Oxford, Philip goes to study art at Heidelberg University. In the company of an assortment of artistic friends, he discovers that he has little talent as an artist, and returns to London where he is an apprentice accountant for a brief spell before entering medical school. He meets Mildred a lower class waitress, who treats him with indifference, but he falls passionately in love with her. Mildred leaves Philip repeatedly for others, and descends into prostitution. While working at a hospital, Philip befriends a family man, Thorpe Athelny. Philip looses all his money on a failed investment and descends into abject poverty. He reconnects with Athelny who has an attractive but ordinary daughter, Sally. Sally and Philip admire each other, but do not profess love. Philip receives an inheritance from his uncle which allows him to finish medical school and be qualified. Sally fears she is pregnant. Philip decides to give up his dream of travelling the world to marry Sally. She tells him she is not pregnant, and that he is free to go. Philip decides to marry Sally and take up a post as a rural doctor.

Of Human Bondage is considered Somerset Maugham’s masterpiece. When it was issued (1915) it was criticized in both the the UK and the US. However, Theodore Dreiser, an influential American novelist and critic called it a work of genius and compared it to a Beethoven symphony. It has never been out of print since. Maugham himself was modest about his talent, saying that he was in the very first row of second class writers. In spite of its seven hundred page length, I found it calling me when I put it down. It is rich in characters, ideas, emotions and events. One has an almost constant desire to find out what happens next, and it is seldom what the reader anticipates. Maugham rarely ‘shows’; he ‘tells’, but most of his telling is about the intricate thought processes and feeling of the characters. In all their complexity they become knowable to the reader. Maugham derived the title from a passage in Ethics by Barch Spinoza: “The impotence of man to govern or restrain the emotions I call bondage, for a man who is under their control is not his own master … so that he is often forced to follow the worse, although he see the better before him.”

I have two criticisms of this novel. First, I find Philip’s passion for Mildred difficult to understand. She is unattractive, rude, selfish and fundamentally stupid. She should have been given one or two redeeming features. Second, the intricacies of Philip’s many friendships are, in only a few cases, contributing to the wealth of the novel. A modern editor would cut heavily in that area. Of Human Bondage has to be read as a great piece of historic fiction, not as a modern novel, which would be judged on today’s very competitive standards.

Can White Authors Write Black Characters?

There is an article on the HuffPost website by Lorraine Devon Wilke, dated 22 October 2017, with the title “Are White Authors Not Allowed To Tell Stories Involving Black Characters?” This interested me as I have recently written a novel in which a black billionaire is a principal character.

Author, artist, and cultural commentator, Lorraine Devon Wilke, shares her unique take on everything from the inflamed landscape of politics and evolving social mores, to the ever-changing influence of media, entertainment, and art. 

Lorraine Devon Wilke

Ms Wilke said, in part: “Storytellers are the chroniclers of our life and times. They memorialize history, dissect our complex and evolving world; they entertain and provoke and captivate. They are as diverse and eclectic as the characters they create and the stories they tell. It is their job to reflect who we are, what we experience, and what we can imagine. That’s a big canvas. It’s huge. And there’s no end to the variety of colors and hues that can be drawn upon it. Just as there is no end to the variety of artists weaving the tales drawn there.

Yet some believe there are rules to who gets to use which colors, who gets to draw outside the lines to tell stories that involve characters from different cultures. Some believe issues of race can only be voiced from within limited perspectives. Who gets to decide that? Who determines the answer to the title question?

I am a white author telling a story that involves black characters. This, as Anthony Horowitz, who’d been dissuaded from including a black character in one of his ten novels: was warned, is not considered “appropriate.” It’s seen as “patronizing.” Though, in following that paradigm, who, then, would be able to tell the story of an interracial relationship if neither race can write about the other? Personally, I find that to be madness, but I’ve now had agents from three different high-profile literary agencies specifically cite “appropriation” as their reasons for rejection:

  1. The first felt my “whiteness is kind of a problem,” she wrote: “This is a well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current… but there may be an issue of whose voice gets to represent race.”

2. The second asserted she couldn’t take it on because of “all the concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ these days.”

3. The third felt the black male protagonist “didn’t sound black enough.” I won’t even parse that implication.

But the message was clear, at least from the point of view of these particular gatekeepers: white authors writing black characters are unmarketable. Beyond “inappropriate,” “these are brutal times in fiction and we’re not comfortable representing a book, no matter how good or worthy, in which that issue is present.”

How do we feel about that? As readers, writers, and consumers of cultural content?

I find it dangerous. I find it censuring. I find it condescending and discriminatory. I find any limitation to writers of any race to be the antithesis of art.

Industries, like the publishing industry, pendulate wildly as they attempt to transcend and reinvent, often without clarity about what’s next or what new turn culture might take while they’re trying to survive. So I get it. I get a literary agent telling me she “doesn’t have the courage” to take on a book that might stir controversy, that might garner commensurate cowardice from the publishers she’s trying to sell it to. It’s a business; she’s gotta make a living,

But if a book with black characters written by a white author is a “well written and serious novel; an issue-oriented novel that could not be more current,” and if that book — presented with fully-fleshed characters, with depth, sensitivity, and authentic reflections of all ethnicities involve — is rejected simply because it might trigger discomfort about “cultural appropriation,” what is the underlying message?

Literary discrimination. Artistic cowardice. Market segregation.

Is that really what we want from our artistic gatekeepers? Fear of controversy? Cultural timidity? The negation of an entire demographic of voices who dare to include diversity outside their own? Have we really come to a time of such hair-trigger sensitivity that we require our storytellers to limit their imaginations to only the race, creed and color they are?

Tell that to Harper Lee.

What Faulkner Had to Say About Writing

Amanda Patterson has a post on the Writer’s Write website on the ten comments William Faulkner made about writing.

Ms Patterson, on her Twitter site says, “I love books. I always carry two with me – one to write in and one to read.”

William Faulkner was an American writer, who died in 1962. He is a Nobel Prize winner who wrote primarily about the South. He offered plenty of advice to young writers in 1957 and 1958, when he was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia. His lectures and public talks were recorded and can heard at the university’s Faulkner audio archive. He was also interviewed extensively over the years.

William Faulkner
  1. Don’t be ‘a writer’ but instead be writing. Being ‘a writer’ means being stagnant. The act of writing shows movement, activity, life. When you stop moving, you’re dead. It’s never too soon to start writing, as soon as you learn to read. (The Daily Princetonian, 1958)
  2. I think it best to use as little dialect as possible because it confuses people who are not familiar with it. That nobody should let the character speak completely in his own vernacular. It’s best indicated by a few simple, sparse but recognisable touches. (From What’s the Good Word?)
  3. Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad; see how they do it. When a carpenter learns his trade, he does so by observing. Read! You’ll absorb it. Write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window. (The Western Review)
  4. I would say to get the character in your mind. Once he is in your mind, and he is right, and he’s true, then he does the work himself. All you need to do then is to trot along behind him and put down what he does and what he says… You’ve got to know the character. You’ve got to believe in him. You’ve got to feel that he is alive… After that, the business of putting him down on paper is mechanical. (From a University of Virginia graduate class in American fiction)
  5. [A good novelist] must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself. (From an interview in Paris Review)
  6. The real truths come from human hearts. Don’t try to present your ideas to the reader. Instead, try to describe your characters as you see them. Take something from one person you know, something from another, and you yourself create a third person that people can look at and see something they understand. (The Daily Princetonian, 1958)
  7. For [writing] fiction the best age is from thirty-five to forty-five. Your fire is not all used up and you know more. Fiction is slower. For poetry the best age is from seventeen to twenty-six. Poetry writing is more like a skyrocket with all your fire condensed into one rocket.” (From an interview with The Western Review in 1947)
  8. A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination—any two of which, at times any one of which—can supply the lack of the others. (From an interview in Paris Review)
  9. You can always find time to write. Anybody who says he can’t is living under false pretences. To that extent depend on inspiration. Don’t wait. When you have an inspiration put it down. Don’t wait until later and when you have more time and then try to recapture the mood and add flourishes. You can never recapture the mood with the vividness of its first impression. (From an interview with The Western Review in 1947)
  10. Probably any story that can’t be told in one sentence or at least one paragraph is not worth writing. (University of Virginia Q&A)

I think there are some very good points here. I particularly like his comments about bringing characters to life before writing about them. His comments about just trying to be better than yourself, and the one-sentence story make a lot of sense.