Suppression of Freedom of Speech

Camilla Turner wrote an article for The Daily Telegraph in late April on the topic “Student ban on free speech ‘blight of our age’.”  She said:

“Suppression of freedom of speech in universities is ‘one of the greatest problems of our time’, a former chancellor has warned.  (A chancellor in the UK government is the finance minister.) Lord Lawson, who led the Conservative campaign for Brexit, said that political correctness was a ‘great blight of our age’, adding that students often have their way because of ‘totally supine’ university authorities.

Lord Lawson

“‘Safe space’ and ‘no platform’ movements have swept across campuses, including campaigns to ban speakers deemed offensive.  But Lord Lawson, who served as chancellor in Margaret Thatcher’s government in the Eighties, said it was crucial that universities were independent from government.  He went on: ‘But now we have a new problem in the university sector, which is not the problem of government control – though that always needs to be watched – but the problem of the suppression of free speech.  The problem comes from political correctness to some extent, which is the great blight of this age.  A view is either politically correct or not, and if it is not, then it should not  be heard.’

“At an event to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the University of Buckingham, the UK’s first  private university, he added, ‘This is happening throughout the universities today, where it is pushed by students.  They may not be the majority of students, but they are very vocal and they have their way because of totally supine university authorities.  The suppression of freedom of speech in the universities is now one of the great problems of our time’.  A new higher education bill has been criticized by academics, who say universities will be forced to pander to the demands of ‘snowflake’ students.

I agree with Lord Lawson.  There is entirely too much exclusion of what for some is painful dialogue on university campuses.  One example is at my alma mater where the name of a college (my particular college, in fact) was changed because of student protests.  The name of the college was Calhoun College, named for John C Calhoun (March 18, 1782 – March 31, 1850) who was an American statesman and political theorist from South Carolina and the seventh Viced President of the US  from 1825 to 1832.  He was also a two-term US Senator and US Secretary of State.He is remembered for strongly defending slavery and for advancing the concept of minority rights in politics, which he did in the context of defending Southern values from perceived Northern threats.

Wikipedia says this about Calhoun: “In Calhoun’s defense, Clyde Wilson, editor of the multi-volume The Papers of John C. Calhoun and a Distinguished Chair of the Abbeville Institute, argued: ‘Your ordinary run-of-the mill historian will tell you that John C. Calhoun, having defended the bad and lost causes of state rights and slavery, deserves to rest forever in the dustbin of history. Nothing could be further from the truth. No American public figure after the generation of the Founding Fathers has more to say to later times than Calhoun.’

While I can appreciate that Calhoun is an objectionable figure for many, is it necessary to expunge him from history?  It seems to me that particularly at university level, one needs to reflect on the good and the bad.  One needs to ask, “Why did they name this college after John C Calhoun?  Would we do the same today? Why not?  How have we changed?”  It seems to me that there are some learning experiences in such a dialogue.

Besides, when one starts cleaning up names, where does one stop?  Calhoun College (now called Grace Murray Hopper College) is part of Yale University.  Founded in 1701, it was originally the Collegiate School of Connecticut, but it became Yale College after the gift of Elihu Yale, a slave trader.

Plotting Problems

There is an interesting article on the Writer’s Digest website, 11 Plot Pitfalls – And How To Rescue Your Story From Them, by Laura Whitcomb (born December 19, 1958), an American writer and teacher.  Whitcomb grew up in Pasadena, California. She received a degree in English from California State University in 1993.  She is best known for her book A Certain Slant of Light, which has been optioned for a film by Summit Entertainment. Whitcomb has won three Kay Snow awards and was runner-up in the Bulwer-Lytton Writing Contest.

Laura Whitcomb

Ms Whitcomb lists the pitfalls as follows:

1. THE PLOT ISN’T ORIGINAL ENOUGH.  It may be very similar to another story, play or movie.  When I write, I have an issue or two,  the setting, and the characters in mind before I start.  I also define the direction that the novel will take, but my novels tend not to be driven by a pre-conceived plot.

2. READERS ALWAYS KNOW EXACTLY WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN.  This can definitely be a problem is one is working with stereotypical characters and a familiar plot.  When I start a novel, I don’t know what’s going to happen.  It depends on how the characters (who have to be pretty unique) react to the issue(s) in their particular setting.  And often, I’ll take pains to shape the story so that the character goes down an unexpected path.

3. THE PLOT IS BORING.  “Often, after thinking of wild ideas to make the story more interesting, you begin to come up with workable ones that are just as stimulating, but better suited to your book.”  I agree.

4. THE PLOT IS ALL ACTION AND THE FRENZIED PACE NUMBS READERS. Ms Whitcomb makes the point that it is important to give the characters an opportunity to reflect on what has happened, consider what might happen, and express their feelings.  Real life isn’t all action.

5. THE PLOT IS TOO COMPLEX.  “Does your protagonist have to visit her father in the hospital twice—once to bring him flowers and talk about Mom, and then again to find he has taken a turn for the worse? Couldn’t he take a turn for the worse while she’s still there the first time? Does your villain need to have three motives for revenge? Would one or two be interesting enough?”

6. THE PLOT IS TOO SHALLOW.  “Ask yourself these questions: Why am I bothering to write this story? Why does the outcome matter to the characters? How do the characters change? How did my favorite book affect me the first time I read it?”

7. SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF IS DESTROYED.  “Readers need to buy into the reality put forward by what they’re reading. You may go too far with a plot point or not far enough with preparing your audience for that plot point.”  I think this is a very good point.  As a writer, one constantly has to ask, ‘is this believable?’  If not, something has to change.

8. TOO MANY SUBPLOTS MAKE THE PLOT OVERLY COMPLEX.  Only Agatha Christie could get away with this.

9. THE SEQUENCE IS ILLOGICAL. “If you feel the order of scenes or events in your story is off, list each scene on a separate index card and, in red ink, write a question mark on every card that doesn’t feel right where it is in the story. Shuffle the cards. I’m not kidding. Mix them up completely. Lay them out again in the order you think they might work best, giving special attention to those with red question marks.”  It’s important to feel the reaction of the reader at every point in the story.

10. THE PREMISE ISN’T COMPELLING.  “See where you might make the stakes higher, the characters more emotional, the setting more a part of the overall plot. Remember: The premise should make your readers curious.”

11. THE CONCLUSION IS UNSATISFYING.  “Do you have to create more suspense before you give the readers what they’ve been craving? Do you need to make the answer to the mystery clearer? Does the villain need to be angrier, or perhaps show remorse?”

I would add one more point: keep the suspense coming in waves.  This solves several of the problems mentioned above.

The First Scene

‘Your Novel’s First Scene: How to Start Right’ is the title of an article in the February, 2017 issue of The Florida Writer.  The main point of the article is: don’t tell too much too soon.  It is written by Paula Munier who is Senior Literary Agent and Content Strategist at Talcott Scott Literary Services.  She has experience as a journalist, editor, acquisition specialist, digital content manager, publishing executive, author and writing teacher. (!)

Paula Munier

She begins the article by mentioning that she moved from “sunny California” to the “Northeast, where winters can be brutal”, and she dreaded the prospect of beginning “a journey, even if it’s only to the grocery store – which means venturing out into sub-zero temperatures to a frigid vehicle that may or may not start.  It was a cold prospect I dreaded, until I happened upon two spectacular tools: remote car starters and heated car seats”.  These allow her to “slip into a warm seat in a warm vehicle with a warm engine and hit the road.  This is a beautiful thing.

“You want to do the same thing with your story.  Every reader starts a cold story, and you want to warm the reader up to your story as quickly as possible.  You want the reader to slip into a warm seat in a hot story with blazing beginning and take off for parts known only to you, the writer.”

She says, “One of the main reasons so many opening scenes fail is because the writer tries to tell too much about the story too soon.  ‘Tell’ is the critical word here.  The writer is telling – rather than showing – us the story.  Many scenes are overburdened with backstory, description, and the characters’ inner monologue, which leaves little room for the action that should be driving the story forward.”

Ms Munier then suggests an exercise to edit a beginning: mark up the text as follows:

  • mark the backstory text (what happened in the past) in blue
  • mark the description (of the setting, etc.) in pink
  • mark the inner monologue (the characters’ thoughts and feelings) in yellow

I don’t have coloured text on WordPress, but perhaps the reader would like to mark up the beginning several of my recent novels:

Seeking Father Khaliq:

“May I ask you, honoured Professor al-Busiri, if you will go to meet Princess Basheera?”

I looked up reluctantly from the student essay I was reading, and considered the bearing of the woman who had entered my office unannounced.  She was tall and slender, graceful; she was motionless, but there was a suggestion of incipient mobility.  She was dressed in a black naqib and a jilbab so that I could see only her dark eyes.  Her voice, however, had an optimistic lilt to it.  She must be about thirty, I thought.

Deliberately, I pushed the essay to one side.  “Who, may I ask, is Princess Basheera?”

“She is my employer, sir.”

“And what does this Princess Basheera want with me?”

“She has an assignment that only you can fulfil, Professor.”

This is very strange.  A young woman comes into my office at (I glanced at my watch) two thirty-six in the afternoon, and asks me to meet with a Princess Basheera (glad tidings), about whom I know nothing, to undertake an assignment, about which I also know nothing, but which, it is said, only I can undertake.

I closed my fountain pen, thinking for a moment.  “Can you give me a reason, madam, why I should say ‘yes’ to your request?  I have a full afternoon of work ahead of me, and I cannot afford the time to discuss university business.  That should be pursued through the office of administration.”
The woman nodded.  “I can assure you, Professor al-Busiri, this has nothing to do with university business.  Nor does Princess Basheera wish to sell you any product or service.  The assignment is related to your status as a renowned professor of philosophy.”

(Probably too much description and inner monologue)

Hidden Battlefields:

“There were two documents,” she confided, her eyes fixed on his across the table; “two documents that got him convicted.”

Robert nodded, urging her to continue.

She said, “Nobody testified against him, apparently.”

“What were the documents, Mary Jo?”

She sat back, and folded her arms across her chest.  She was wearing a pale blue cardigan with pearl buttons; only the top button was undone.  “Well . . .” she began and paused.

“I mean,” it was his turn to lean forward.  He looked around the busy Olive Tree restaurant that she had selected: it was near her work in Alexandria, Virginia.  No one seemed to be paying attention.  “Can you give me an unclassified version?”

“Well,” she said quietly, “one was a diagram of a centrifuge cascade.”

“A centrifuge cascade that’s used to make weapons-grade nuclear material?”

She nodded.

“How could that diagram get him convicted?”

“Because it had the actual levels of . . .”  She picked up her menu and seemed to be looking for the waitress.  To her menu, she confided: “. . . uranium enrichment on it.”

“Oh, I see, and the levels . . .”  He paused.  “. . . were much higher than anything the Iranians have announced.”

(Pretty good – no backstory, no inner monologue and very little description)

The Iranian Scorpion:

“So, I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?” Kate inquired with one eyebrow arched provocatively.

Robert was clearly enjoying this conversation. He leaned towards her, his hands clasped around the Gordon’s martini which rested on the hotel’s grey granite bar. “Yes, you do.” He watched her with a not-yet-predatory interest.

She, too, smiled, indicating her willingness to play the game. “In what way do I remind you of your father’s girlfriend?”

“Well . . .” he glanced briefly at the open button on her khaki shirt, then, he studied his martini. “Mary Jo is very good looking . . . and she has a rather nice figure . . . and she is a clever, out-going girl.”

“Girl?” Kate raised that eyebrow again, but this time it expressed scepticism. “If she’s your father’s girlfriend, wouldn’t the word ‘woman’ be more appropriate?”

“No. She’s my age.”

Kate sat back on her tall chair. “And how old would that be? – give or take a few years.”

“In my case it would be thirty-two; in Mary Jo’s, about thirty-four.”

Kate chuckled and took a sip of her white wine. “So the old man likes young skirt.”
He stirred the martini with his forefinger. “Yeah.” There was a note of resentfulness in his response.

(Again, pretty good: no backstory, no inner monologue, perhaps a little too much description.)

This strikes me as a pretty worthwhile exercise.

Writing Advice

On their website, The Writer’s Workshop say: “When you send your stuff off to an agent, 9 times out of 10 your work won’t actually be read. It’ll be ‘looked at’.  What does that mean? It means that an agent (or junior reader) will simply glance at the first page or two of your submission. In a large majority of cases, authors will give themselves away as amateurish in the opening chapter.  If you’re one of them, then the agent will read no further. Sure, the agent doesn’t know about your story, your characters, or your brilliant ideas. The fact is that if your writing style is poor, then those things are irrelevant.”  The website goes on to give lots of advice about writing style and techniques.  This makes sense: after all The Writer’ Workshop is selling their editorial services.  Their message is, ‘use our service and agents will read your manuscript’.

On the iUniverse website, there are tips from fiction authors, and I found it somewhat surprising that there were only two tips that mentioned writing style or technique.  These are:

“Interesting verbs are seldom very interesting.” — Jonathan Franzen, and

“Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.” — Elmore Leonard

I wonder what Franzen means by ‘interesting verbs’.   If he means ‘unusual verbs’, why not say “Unusual verbs are seldom very effective”.  In which case, I agree.  I’m not sure Leonard’s advice is actually helpful.  What is ‘the knack of playing with exclaimers’?  And if there is a knack, why have a quota?

iUniverse is a self-publishing company, so maybe they want to be associated with important authors.  Anyway, here are some of the tips that caught my eye:

“In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.” — Rose Tremain  I agree!

“Always carry a note-book. And I mean always. The short-term memory only retains information for three minutes; unless it is committed to paper you can lose an idea for ever.” — Will Self   Maybe I should start carrying a notebook, but I doubt I would use it.

“It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.” — Jonathan Franzen; and “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.” — Zadie Smith  I disagree.  If one is writing fiction that is intended to be’real’ in time and space, how can you do it without Google?  Unless, of course, ‘good fiction’ is not real in time and space.

“Read it aloud to yourself because that’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences are OK (prose rhythms are too complex and subtle to be thought out—they can be got right only by ear).” — Diana Athill  I’ve got to do more of this.

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” – Anton Chekhov  Beautiful.

“The writing life is essentially one of solitary confinement – if you can’t deal with this you needn’t apply.” — Will Self   Very true.

“Be your own editor/critic. Sympathetic but merciless!” — Joyce Carol Oates   A necessity.

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” — Neil Gaiman   True, except for publishers’ editors.

“The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it’s definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.” — Neil Gaiman  This sums it up.