Should I Get an MFA?

An MFA (Master of Fine Arts in creative writing) Is a program which aspiring authors often consider as a stepping stone to a professional writing career. There is an article In Creative Writing News, of 23 January 2022, by Chiziterem Chijioke which analyses the pros and cons surrounding MFA’s.

Chiziterem Chijioke

Chiziterem Chijioke is a creative writer, editor and a student of mass communication. She has worked as a volunteer and is a member of Fresh Writers Community and currently works as an editor for Creative Writing News.

Ms Chijioke says: “In recent years, MFA programs have become so competitive because many writers see them as gateways to building successful writing careers. Research shows that in the U.S alone, there are over 350 creative writing programs at the MFA. And each year, an estimate of over 20,000 people apply to be admitted into MFA programs. But some literary greats have continued to debate whether an MFA is a prerequisite for a successful career in writing.

Many writers want an MFA based on myths that surround the program. One of such myths is that an MFA is the key to a successful career. While the program has served as a catapult for some successful writers, many others with the degree have failed to take off. You need much more than an MFA to carve out a niche for yourself in your creative writing career.

Pros of Getting an MFA in Creative Writing. 

  1. An MFA helps writers grow in their craft.

Writers must understand that learning is an endless process. When getting an MFA, learning is basically what you would be doing. You would learn in order to harness your inborn craft. It is an opportunity to learn to write better than you already do. There is always a great advantage in expanding your knowledge. It makes you more exposed, more aware and better in any field. 


2. It connects a writer with a community of writers:

The beauty of creativity is sharing that creativeness with people who understand. While taking a writing program, you meet people who understand your skill and share similar experiences with you. These experiences may be writer’s block, story setting, narrative style, genre, niche.  Most times, your knowledge may bloom from discussions with your pairs, who have been through similar situations like you have and although they might not have a manual on how to overcome certain blocks, their experiences might inspire you on how to go about yours.

3. It makes a writer more open to Criticism:

Creatives receive criticisms all the time. Most times, you may feel your work or that what you have written is perfect. But then, criticisms can shatter that perception and make us wonder why our perfect work is unworthy to someone.  Again, some writers can question the sanity of someone who criticized their written content.  An MFA program helps a writer grow a thick skin for criticism. The lecturers would have you correcting written work time and time again. Your ideas or writing standard may not align with theirs and this may lead to a lot of criticism.

4. An MFA helps a writer read more:

Many writers are selective in their reading habits. An MFA program forces you to read books you would not consider on a normal day. Reading widely exposes students to various writing styles, which can help you become a better writer. Many writers do not understand that reading widely is a big part of being a better writer. You read to learn, you read to understand, you read to know more. Where better to improve your reading than in a school? Reading is part of a learning process and it is therefore inevitable during an MFA program.

5. An MFA makes a writer dynamic while discovering their niche:

Although many people can juggle different genres, some writers struggle with settling on what genre is their niche. A writing program might help you uncover that. An MFA does not give you what you want to read or know — it throws in various aspects of writing and helps you understand it.

6. Writers’ Workshops:

A writers’ workshop is an instructional program created to gradually build a person’s independent writing skills. It focuses on the writer. Each workshop is organized to provide a gradual release of instruction, moving writers from a class writing exercise to independent writing.  During an MFA program, a lot of writing workshops would take place and this would help broaden your mind. It would also make you more open to learning, because a writers’ workshop focuses on nurturing a writer. 

Cons/ Myths about getting an MFA in Creative Writing

  1. An MFA does not guarantee that you get published as a writer: 

Many writers think getting an MFA in creative writing is a ticket to getting published. It is not true. An MFA only helps you become a better writer, it does not guarantee that publishing houses would choose your work. 

2. MFA does not determine your success as a writer:

Whether or not you become published, an MFA is not what guarantees how far you go or how successful you would be in this field.

3. An MFA is Expensive:

One important question to ask when considering getting an MFA in creative writing is “how much does an MFA in creative writing cost?”  A con of aiming to get an MFA as a creative writer is that the program is costly. Research shows that the average fee of getting an MFA in creative writing in the USA is  $13,800 a year at Public Universities; $36,300 at Private Universities.

4.Making a community does not mean it lasts forever:

Most times in life we encounter beautiful people and things and we hold great hope that it is everlasting. An MFA in a creative writing program would introduce you to people, but this does not mean that these connections would last forever especially after graduation. It also does not mean that your success rate might be the same.

5. A masters of fine art program does not give you access to literary agents:

Another myth about MFA programs is that it guarantees you access to literary agents. Just like the statement about getting published, an MFA does not guarantee that you would get a literary agent. 

6. It might affect your writing: 

One criticism of MFA programs is that it stifles originality and creativity. During the process of learning and gathering novel ideas and knowledge, the mind becomes affected. There might be a clash between your voice and that of the person whom you are learning from. Always hold on to who you are. Hold on to the fact that every story needs to be told, including yours. Always hold on to who you are. Hold on to the fact that every story needs to be told, including yours.

Final Thoughts.

A creative writer doesn’t necessarily need an MFA. It doesn’t help you get a job. It doesn’t  help you get published, and it doesn’t teach you how to be a successful writer. It just gives you an opportunity to focus and grow in writing.”

Literature vs Generic Fiction: What’s the Difference?

The Reader Views blog of January 30, 2022, written by A J Smee, answers this question on four dimensions.

A. J. SMEE has been an international teacher for over twenty years, specializing in environment, languages, philosophy and design. He holds an advanced degree in Environmental Studies and an MA in Political Philosophy. His passion for learning and experience has carried him around the world, living and teaching in numerous countries in South America and Asia. He lives internationally with his wife and cats.

A J Smee

Mr Smee says, “Understanding the underlying purpose of these two different genres is a starting point. Broadly speaking, genre fiction aims to entertain, and there is a technical toolbox that accompanies this type of popular fiction, which reaches into movies as well. But literary fiction probes deeply into our humanity, demanding more of both the author and the reader. What differentiates literary fiction from genre fiction can be summarised by four hierarchical points. As an author, if you write literary fiction or would like to venture into the genre, adhering to these targets will help you to penetrate the genre’s true depths.

  1. Dealing with Social Constructs

In some respect, good literature will contend with existing social constructs, economic, and social systems that we have created to help advance and establish social order. The caveat, of course, is how the protagonist fits into these systems and how these systems are failing her. The character’s confrontation with this world is what, in part, defines the actions of the protagonist; her response to the world is, in part what drives the story. Consider the social constructs that are most compelling to address and you’ll likely find a good literary story to write about.

2. The Human Condition

As the protagonist confronts the social situation, she is forced to discover the best and the worst of humanity. This may be evident from various sides. Antagonists that embody or advance the established systems often exhibit some element of human virtue that are most unbecoming, clashing with the protagonist’s ideals and forcing her to reconsider established beliefs. Out of this come actions and reactions that exhibit the behavioural tendencies of our humanity. Why we do what we do is a common thread that the reader is forced to consider in these literary stories.

3. Internal Struggle and Compromise

As stories in the literary genre are character driven as opposed to plot driven, much of the conflict should be centred around the internal struggles of the protagonist. Ostensibly, this leads the story and helps define it as literature. Committed to dealing with the conflict of the situation, the character must manage the internal frailties of her own moral and ethical fabric. How she comes to terms with her flaws or how she discovers aspects of herself that help her to overcome the conflict demonstrates the growth of the character. The depth of this character arc hinges of the authors ability to develop the internal conflict of the protagonist.

4. Style in Writing

To generalise, genre fiction is created to target specific audiences that would be most entertained by that type of writing and storytelling. Because of this, certain expectations about language, grammar and the story must be upheld. This constraint around the technique of storytelling in genre fiction has evolved mostly because of commercial factors; the author must comply with audience expectations. The literary genre has greater flexibility in this area, as the audience comes to applaud digressions from the norm if they are done effectively. This may include the complexity of language (although I don’t consider this a critical condition); a play with language that influences the effect on the reader; originality in exploring time, backstory and memory; or innovative ways to put the words on the page. And for the author, this can be liberating and creative in terms of how they choose to get their story across to the reader.”

“Whichever genre you prefer, some writing in the literary genre can prove to be an enlightening and useful endeavour. Not only can it aid in the author’s process of self-discovery, it hones an ability to write more complex characters, easily translating to other genres you write in. The literary genre most definitely presents other challenges to your writing, but some honest effort will surely improve your skill and technique as a writer.”

I think this is an excellent analysis.

How The Times’ Best Seller List Comes Together

There was an article in The New York Times on 2 October 2020, written by the “Best Seller Lists Staff” and I quote from it below:

“Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

“Come holiday or hurricane, one thing you can count on is that The New York Times’ best-seller lists will be published online every Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern. And those lists will be dated for the print Book Review, where they will appear 11 days later. This is just one of the many quirks of the work we — the three-member BSL team, as we call ourselves — do, combining data science, investigative reporting and our own special blend of foxhole humor.

“As much as we wish some myths were true, such as that the lists are determined by an automated data spigot with a secret algorithm or our executive editor’s throwing darts at the wall, the work of putting together the lists requires the full-time efforts of the three of us and the support of an information technology team.

“The sales data that drives what books make the lists, and where they land within them, is sent by stores giant, tiny and in-between all across the country. It reflects the previous week’s Sunday-to-Saturday sales period, which stores begin to report to us over the weekend. We receive numbers on millions of titles each week from tens of thousands of storefronts and online retailers as well as specialty and independent bookstores.

“So there’s a lot of data in need of herding. This is complicated by the fact that a single title in one binding, such as hardcover, can have a dozen or more International Standard Book Numbers or I.S.B.N.s, which are like Social Security numbers for books, depending on the different kinds of stores where it is sold. We must tie them together in our system and track all of them appropriately. Since our work must be kept under wraps until we publish, we use an assortment of code names for books, authors and stores.

“By noon on Mondays, we have received roughly 75 percent of the data and have some idea of what the best bets are going to be for new titles. But, as in sports, it’s not over until the final buzzer, which will come the following afternoon. Monday afternoons fly by because we continue to gather reports, help stores with technical issues and begin the stressful task of writing things we know will eventually be read by a lot of famous authors.

“We write descriptions for the new titles based on the blurbs on the books’ jackets or publishers’ websites. Most weeks, we have a dozen or so new titles across our 11 weekly lists. On busy weeks when we also close our seven monthly lists, we can have over 40 new titles. We have to make sure we have the correct title, author(s), publisher’s imprint and pertinent facts about the book before squeezing everything into a limited space on a tight deadline.

“Yes, this means we are ranking the books and writing their descriptions without having read the works. You might ask how we can choose which books are good if we aren’t first reading all of them. We don’t. Unlike the staff members of the Book Review, from whom we work independently, we aren’t making value judgments. We go off the sales data.

“The window for reporting each week closes at noon on Tuesdays. For the next few hours, we determine the final rankings, based on the sales data and details provided by stores. We want the lists to reflect what individual consumers are buying across the country instead of what is being bought in bulk by individuals or associated groups.

“During the finalization stage, the three of us gather in a room (or, these days, we get on the phone), and one editor reads each list from top to bottom as the other two double-check information. To stay alert, we sing some book titles to the tune of familiar songs. Recent chart toppers include: Tara Westover’s “Educated,” crooned to the rhythm of Peaches & Herb’s “Reunited”; Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race,” delivered in the style of Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”; and Sean Hannity’s “Live Free or Die,” belted like Axl Rose wailing “Live and Let Die.”

“Once we complete the descriptions for the new titles, we send them to get copy-edited before they get published in our subscriber newsletter, online and in the print Book Review. On Wednesday evenings, people are either popping Champagne corks or calling for our heads. Whatever the reaction, it’s important to remember that the lists are less of a final judgment by readers on a book or topic and more of an ongoing conversation. Each week tells a different story. The only way to get a true sense of trends in the book world and in our culture is to look at the lists over many weeks, months and even years.”

This sounds like a complicated process, but maybe it’s the fairest way to do it.

Review: The System

I heard Robert Reich speak on a subscription program – was it a Guardian program?  And I was impressed enough to order his book, The System: Who Rigged it, How We Fix It.

Robert B Reich is Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkley.  He has served in three national administrations and written sixteen books.  His articles have appeared in top newspapers and journals.  He writes a weekly column for The Guardian and Newsweek.  He lives in Berkeley.

Robert B Reich

This book is about what has gone wrong with the American political system, how it has occurred, and what can be done to recover our democracy.  Professor Reich says there are three major power shifts which have occurred and, together, they have, over the last forty years transformed the United States from a democracy to an oligarchy, where power is concentrated in the hands of an elite group of very wealthy individuals.  The power shift was brought about by corporate raiders who made the shareholder the only stakeholder in publically traded companies.  Previously, the employees, the communities in which they were located, their suppliers and customers were also stakeholders.  This led to a strict focus on profits, resulting in wage stagnation, loss of union power, off-shoring of production, and, in turn, to tremendous increases in CEO compensation.  CEO’s gained tremendous wealth and power.  So, Professor Reich says that the first power shift was from stakeholder capitalism to shareholder capitalism, and the second was a shift in bargaining power from large unions to large corporations.  And the third shift was unleashing the financial sector (Wall Street) from laws regulation.  This meant huge financial rewards for CEO’s, hedge funds, derivatives traders, and others.  With vast financial resources available to few people, and with the Supreme Court’s ruling on political campaign finance, it became possible for this limited pool of powerful people to ‘bribe’ politicians with huge contributions to obtain the laws, regulations and taxation they wanted.  The top ten percent of Americans became richer, the bottom ninety percent became poorer, with lower quality education, health care and basic infrastructure.  Professor Reich argues that it is possible for the ninety percent to act in concert to change the system.

In the book, Professor Reich singles out Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan, the huge bank, as an example of an individual who uses his power to change the system.  He and many other specific examples populate this book with a host of convincing evidence.  A multi-page appendix lists the sources of the evidence.  There is also much evidence of the wage, benefits, health care and educational erosion for the ninety percent, including personal examples.  The book is written with considerable emotion and conviction.

As accurate and convincing as the book is, I have two minor criticisms of it.  It is often repetitive, making the same point repeatedly.  It is also not organized like a legal brief, the points are all there, but they tend to get somewhat tangled.  Perhaps these ‘faults’ were intentional on the part of the author and his publisher.  They intended this book to be an emotional tirade.  If so, it is very convincing.

 

What Is Literary Talent?

On September 10, 2020, Writer’s Digest ran a reprint of a 1925 article written by Thomas H Uzzell, the former fiction editor of Colliers Weekly and author of Narrative Technique.  He also wrote The Technique of the Novel – a Handbook on the Craft of the Long Narrative, Grandee Jim: A Novel of Action, Romance and History in Old Santa Fe, and was the editor of Short Story Hits.  I was unable to fine a picture of Mr Uzzell, who said:

“Just before I sat down to write this article, a young woman came to me saying she wanted help in writing short stories. I asked her how much writing she had done, and her answer was, “None,” and she had been wanting to write for eight years! A hopeless case. People who want to write, write; they don’t think about it. They may write very badly because they are too subjective and have no idea of an audience and know nothing about technique, but—they will write something. Their interest gives them the energy needed to get the writing done.

On the intensity and the endurance of a person’s interest in his writing does his success hang more utterly than on any other single factor. Love of the medium and love of the deed or want of that love make or break 95 out of every 100 aspirants. Where that love is, you find something as deep as life itself. How much writing have you already done? The answer to this question will offer the best solution I know as to how much writing you are going to do.

Legions of people with literary ambitions who get nowhere are more pre-occupied with the thought of why they would like to success than with the thought of how they are going to win success. They want to “win fame,” “earn some money,” to “fulfill ambition,” “make their friends proud of them;” and, alas, too many of them have turned to fiction after failing at everything else they have tried, as the one thing within their slender powers.

Desire for money or fame are not at all inconsistent with a genuine literary purpose; they are generally incentives to energetic action; but if the action is not the putting of ideas in the shape of words on paper, all resolutions will come to nothing.

One of the commonest errors with regard to this desire to write is the mistaking of a love of reading for a talent for writing. Once he realizes that the easier a book is to read the more painful the labor that produced it, the person with this “book-lover” complex becomes discouraged. His interest was not in self-expression, but in being “literary.”

A handicap even greater than this “book-lover complex” is that caused by some pathological inhibition, some nervous disorder which prevents the writer from comprehending the conduct of normal human beings. His writings express not life as it is, but some suppressed personal desires. This psychopathologic problem of writers is too wide and intricate a subject to be more than touched on here.

The highest mark of genuine writing talent is an interest in the art so deep that copy in quantity is produced. Jack London was fond of quoting his favorite author, Conrad, as follows: “An artist is a man of action.” Action for the literary artists is writing.

Nearly every student writer postpones too long the hour of beginning. He hopes for the beautifully finished plot, the perfect word, the high inspiration. The art of writing is a well-developed habit under constant control. Years of writing are necessary for practically every aspirant to develop this habit effectively enough to release his message to the world. For the average student a million words are needed for this training in habit only.

Whether or not you should write is a question you must decide for yourself. It is both a moral and a literary problem. Most of us do the things we want to do, and writing is no exception. If you have an interest in writing you are writing; if you haven’t you are not, and that is just about all there is to it—on the moral side. If, however, you have been writing persistently without attaining satisfactory results, you may well seek expert advice as to the things which may be hindering you. Such advice can only direct and guide your energies which in themselves are your main asset.

If it were possible to give a “formula for literary success,” such analyses of writers’ assets as I have made would lead me to say that, in the case of the average writer of second and third-rate popular stories we would find that his success depended

60 percent on sheer industry or energy,

10 percent on personality,

30 percent on technical skill.

The writer who produces a bestseller or wins national fame for the high quality of his art owes his success, we would find,

45 percent to sheer industry,

45 percent to personality,

10 percent to technique.

If I am even approximately right in my analysis, the factor of energy or industry plays a larger role in literary talent than is generally supposed. It is also my belief that beyond a certain point, when sufficient energy is allowed, a writer succeeds in his work in exact proportion to the depth and richness of his personality. This last factor is the variable one. It is the only true inspiration. It is that gift which may most truly be said to be born in us, and the possession of which may be said to rest in the laps of the gods and, as one disappointed writer I know says, “The gods sometimes stand up!””

I certainly agree with Mr Uzzell that ‘love of the craft’ is essential to literary success, but I don’t see ‘love of the craft’ as being literary talent.  I think one has to have Love of the Craft and Technique/Skill in about equal measure.  I also agree that personality enters into the equation, as well, in the from of Creativity, Imagination, Intelligence, and a Sense of Freedom.

Review: Lucifer Exposed

I was looking for a book with the title Hostage to the Devil, that I read a long time ago.  It was written by a man who was a priest and a psychiatrist, and it dealt with about five genuine cases of ‘possession’ that he had experienced.  Unfortunately I couldn’t find it, so it must be out of print.  There is a newer book with the same title, but its reviews put me off buying it.  Instead, I bought Lucifer Exposed by Derek Prince (1915-2003), which had many excellent reviews -106 reviews, of which 96% are four or five stars.

Derek Prince’s website says that he was “born in India of British parents. Educated as a scholar of Greek and Latin at Eton College and Cambridge University, England, he held a Fellowship in Ancient and Modern Philosophy at King’s College. He also studied Hebrew and Aramaic, at Cambridge University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“While serving with the British army in World War II, he began to study the Bible and experienced a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ. Out of this encounter he formed two conclusions: first, that Jesus Christ is alive; second, that the Bible is a true, relevant, up-to-date book. These conclusions altered the whole course of his life, which he then devoted to studying and teaching the Bible.”

Derek Prince

Lucifer Exposed uses numerous quotations from the Bible to describe the history, the motivation, the intentions and the actions of the devil.  It describes the devil a a beautiful fallen angel whose fall was caused by his trying to usurp the power of God.  The devil’s power over death was destroyed by the death of God’s son on the cross and his resurrection.  The devil’s reaction had been to try to estrange humanity from God by tempting us into sin, and by destroying the power of the church to disseminate Jesus’ teaching.  The book makes the point that escape from Satan’s clutches cannot be achieved by following the law, because there is always another law we have neglected.  Salvation can only be achieved by faith in Jesus and his teachings.  The book draws a major distinction between citizenship in the World (the temporal, secular place of which the devil is the ruler) and citizenship of Heaven (God’s spiritual world).

This is an excellent piece of Biblical scholarship: well written, thoroughly referenced, and completely logical and believable.  My only comment is that I would have liked to have seen some secular arguments (as well as the religious ones) for the existence of and the extreme hardships caused by the devil.  These hardships are often wrongfully blamed on God’s ‘negligence’.  There is, I think, abundant evidence that most of the World’s hardships are caused by the devil.

 

Review: The Kite Runner

I found a well-used copy of The Kite Runner on the  bookshelves of our Sicilian house just at a time I needed something to read.  How it got there is a bit of a mystery as my wife hasn’t read it.  I guest must have left it.  It is a book, by Khaled Hosseini, that I have wanted to read for some time.

Mr Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965 into a privileged family.  His father was a diplomat and his mother a language teacher.  In 1970 the family moved to Tehran, where his father worked at the Afghan embassy.  They returned to Kabul in 1973.  In 1976 they relocated to Paris, but were unable to return to Afghanistan because of the 1978 Saur Revolution and the Soviet invasion.  In 1980 they applied for asylum in the US and settled in San Jose, California, where Mr Hosseini attended high school, Santa Clara University and University of Calfornia, San Diego Medical School.  He practiced medicine until 2005.  The Kite Runner was released in 2003, A Thousand Suns in 2007, And the Mountains Echoed in 2013, and Sea Prayer in 2018.  His novels have sold 55 million copies, globally. He, his wife and two sons live in northern California.

Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner is set in Kabul and San Jose, with brief stops in Peshawar, Pakistan beginning in the mid 1960’s.  The central character is a boy, Amir, who lives with his well-to-do father in the best section of Kabul.  They have two low caste servants, Ali, who’s wife deserted him and Hassan, a boy of Amir’s age, who is his best friend.  Amir’s father seems to like Hassan better than Amir, a source of much jealousy for Amir.  Amir witnesses a terrible assault on his friend Hassan, without making an effort to come to his rescue.  Ali and Hassan leave the household when Amir implicates Hassan in a theft.  Amir and his father flee Afghanistan and find asylum in the US.  Years later, after Amir’s father dies, Amir is called to Pakistan by his father’s old friend, Rahim Khan, who tells him that Hassan and his wife have been executed by the Taliban.  Rahim also tells Amir that he and Hassan were half-brothers, and that Hassan and his late wife had an orphaned son.  Amir confronts his lack of courage to rescue the orphan and take him to the US.

This is a splendid book about family: good and bad, strong and weak.  It’s also about how childhood can shape our adult lives.  As one reads, one can’t help wonder if this isn’t a memoir rather than a novel.  One feels transported to the old prosperous Kabul, to the savage, wrecked Kabul after years of war, and the strange life of exile in an Afghan settlement in America.  Mr Hosseini is extremely adept at having the reader feel what the characters are feeling, be it jealousy, love, fear or anger.  I’m glad I found this book.  It’s a compelling story wonderfully told.

Are Racist Books Still in Circulation?

An article with the title ‘While Offensive TV Shows Get Pulled, Problematic Books Are Still Inspiring Debate and Conversation’ dated July 3, 2020 and written by Ron Charles appeared in the Washington Post.

Ron Charles writes about books and publishing for The Washington Post. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest. Before moving to the District, he edited the books section of the Christian Science Monitor in Boston. His wife is an English teacher and the cinematographer of their satirical series, “The Totally Hip Video Book Review.”

Ron Charles

The article, in its entirety is as follows.

“As Confederate statues finally tumble across America, television networks are marching through their catalogs looking to take down racially offensive content. It turns out that little video monuments are lurking all across the TV canon — more shocking with each new announcement. Just this month, blackface scenes have been rediscovered and removed from “The Office,” “Community,” “30 Rock” and “Scrubs.”

“The Office”? — really? I don’t remember that scene.

Of course not. Collective amnesia is an essential condition for perpetuating poisonous stereotypes, the way bad sanitation leads to cholera.

In her most recent novel, Swing Time, Zadie Smith captures the disorienting surprise of running across an old racist trope. Her title Swing Time is borrowed from a 1936 musical comedy starring Fred Astaire. In Smith’s prologue, a young woman googles a favorite scene from that movie that shows Astaire performing a tribute called “Bojangles of Harlem.” With a shock, she sees what she had not noticed as a child: “I hardly understood what we were looking at,” she says. There’s Astaire dancing as magically as ever, but he’s in blackface with “the rolling eyes, the white gloves, the Bojangles grin.” Her beloved scene suddenly feels ruined by racist exaggerations.

Any theater launching a production of “Othello,” for instance, must begin with a rich body of scholarship on Shakespeare’s sources and intentions. What are we to make of the Moor, the Venetian general manipulated into murderous rage by his villainous white colleague? Even before Othello comes onstage, he’s subjected to obscene racist ridicule. And later, Othello himself laments, “Haply, for I am black and have not those soft parts of conversation that chamberers have.”

As a Renaissance writer working in England 250 years before the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, Shakespeare surely held the white supremacist values of his culture. But is “Othello” a racist play, or is it a fledgling critique of racism?

Twitter would, no doubt, trend with #CancelShakespeare. By the end of a ferocious week, the Bard would withdraw his play, begin a listening tour, and issue a statement expressing deep regret for the pain he has caused by appropriating the experience of a Moor.

Monuments celebrating racist traitors, which were erected to fabricate history and terrify black Americans, are not works of art that deserve our respect or preservation. Similarly, scenes of modern-day white comedians reenacting minstrel-show caricatures are not ironical interrogations of racism that we have to stomach any longer.

Blackface has long been an issue in comedy.  Look no further than ‘Saturday Night Live’ for proof.

But. complex works of literature are large, they contain multitudes.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin presents a fascinating trajectory of the currents of American sensitivities. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery melodrama electrified the nation when it was published in the early 1850s. Northern abolitionists wielded the novel as a sword for their cause. Southern defenders of slavery answered Stowe’s work with condemnations and counter stories. Even if President Lincoln never actually told Stowe, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War,” the sentiment of that legend is true: Stowe energized the debate that led to battle. Frederick Douglass wrote that the novel’s “effect was amazing, instantaneous, and universal.” In the 20th century, though, the book fell out of favor. Critics complained that it traffics in subservient racial stereotypes; the name “Uncle Tom” became a racial insult denoting complicity with one’s oppressors. But in 2006, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins published The Annotated ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ which offers a complex reappraisal of the novel as a “strange, startling, and audacious work.”

Just a few weeks after it was published in 1885, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned by the Concord Public Library, which condemned Twain’s novel as “absolutely immoral.” Complaints came from white readers alarmed by the book’s coarse language; the Brooklyn Public Library was shocked that Huck said “sweat” instead of “perspiration.” Heaven forfend! But in the 20th century, that silliness gave way to thoughtful considerations of the novel’s treatment of racism and racist slurs. By the 1950s, a movement had begun to remove the novel from American schools because of its frequent use of the n-word. As that push gained momentum, critics debated whether Twain’s portrayal of Jim is sympathetic or humiliating; others suggested editing the novel to fit contemporary tastes. The critical arguments have been illuminating, exploring, among many subjects, Twain’s regard for black people and the deleterious effects of racist language on African American students.

Even weak novels can spur great debates. This year, a thriller by Jeanine Cummins called American Dirt would have fallen quickly into the obscurity that awaits most thrillers. But several insightful critics uses Cummins’ book to highlight the persistence of racist stereotypes in popular literature.  Their critiques and subsequent activism promise to permanently improve the representation of Latino people in publishing.

What’s more insidious is the self-satisfaction that comes from calibrating our Racism Detector to spot only a few obvious sins. Scanning videos for blackface or searching text files for the n-word is so much easier than contending with, say, the systemic tokenism of TV rom-coms or the unbearable whiteness of Jane Austen.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a man in possession of a point like that must be in want of a quarrel.

Bring it.”

Describing a Character More Effectively

An article offering eleven secrets to writers describing characters appeared in the Writer’s Digest on January 14, 2015.   It was written by Rebecca McClanahan, whose website describes her as ‘author, educator, and public speaker specializing in essays and memoir, the craft of writing, and the creative process.’  She has written 10 books.

Rebecca McClanahan

Ms McClanahan says, in part: “The characters in our stories, songs, poems, and essays embody our writing. They are our words made flesh. Sometimes they even speak for us, carrying much of the burden of plot, theme, mood, idea, and emotion. But they do not exist until we describe them on the page. Until we anchor them with words, they drift, bodiless and ethereal. They weigh nothing; they have no voice. Once we’ve written the first words—“Belinda Beatrice,” perhaps, or “the dark-eyed salesman in the back of the room,” or simply “the girl”—our characters begin to take form.

1. Description that relies solely on physical attributes too often turns into what Janet Burroway calls the “all-points bulletin.”

It reads something like this: “My father is a tall, middle-aged man of average build. He has green eyes and brown hair and usually wears khakis and oxford shirts.”

This description is so mundane, it barely qualifies as an “all-points bulletin.” Can you imagine the police searching for this suspect? No identifying marks, no scars or tattoos, nothing to distinguish him.

2. The problem with intensifying an image only by adjectives is that adjectives encourage cliché.

It’s hard to think of adjective descriptors that haven’t been overused: bulging or ropy muscles, clean-cut good looks, frizzy hair.

Often the easiest way to avoid an adjective-based cliché is to free the phrase entirely from its adjective modifier. For example, rather than describing her eyes merely as “hazel,” Emily Dickinson remarked that they were “the color of the sherry the guests leave in the glasses.”

3. Strengthen physical descriptions by making details more specific.

In my earlier “all-points bulletin” example, the description of the father’s hair might be improved with a detail such as “a military buzz-cut, prickly to the touch” or “the aging hippie’s last chance—a long ponytail striated with gray.” Either of these descriptions would paint a stronger picture than the bland phrase brown hair.

4. Select physical details carefully, choosing only those that create the strongest, most revealing impression.

One well-chosen physical trait, item of clothing, or idiosyncratic mannerism can reveal character more effectively than a dozen random images. This applies to characters in nonfiction as well as fiction. When I write about my grandmother, I usually focus on her strong, jutting chin—not only because it was her most dominant feature but also because it suggests her stubbornness and determination.

5. A character’s immediate surroundings can provide the backdrop for the sensory and significant details that shape the description of the character himself.

If your character doesn’t yet have a job, a hobby, a place to live, or a place to wander, you might need to supply these things. Once your character is situated comfortably, he may relax enough to reveal his secrets. On the other hand, you might purposely make your character uncomfortable—that is, put him in an environment where he definitely doesn’t fit, just to see how he’ll respond.

6.In describing a character’s surroundings, you don’t have to limit yourself to a character’s present life.

Early environments shape fictional characters as well as flesh-and-blood people. In Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s adolescent years in the convent, he foreshadows the woman she will become, a woman who moves through life in a romantic malaise, dreaming of faraway lands and loves. We learn about Madame Bovary through concrete, sensory descriptions of the place that formed her.

7. Characters reveal their inner lives—their preoccupations, values, lifestyles, likes and dislikes, fears and aspirations—by the objects that fill their hands, houses, offices, cars, suitcases, grocery carts, and dreams.

In the opening scenes of the film The Big Chill, we’re introduced to the main characters by watching them unpack the bags they’ve brought for a weekend trip to a mutual friend’s funeral. One character has packed enough pills to stock a drugstore; another has packed a calculator; still another, several packages of condoms. Before a word is spoken—even before we know anyone’s name—we catch glimpses of the characters’ lives through the objects that define them.

8. Description doesn’t have to be direct to be effective.

Techniques abound for describing a character indirectly, for instance, through the objects that fill her world. Create a grocery list for your character—or two or three, depending on who’s coming for dinner. Show us the character’s credit card bill or the itemized deductions on her income tax forms. Let your character host a garage sale and watch her squirm while neighbors and strangers rifle through her stuff.

9. To make characters believable to readers, set them in motion.

Be as specific as possible. “Reading the newspaper” is a start, but it does little more than label a generic activity. In order for readers to enter the fictional dream, the activity must be shown. Often this means breaking a large, generic activity into smaller, more particular parts: “scowling at the Dow Jones averages,” perhaps, or “skimming the used-car ads” or “wiping his ink-stained fingers on the monogrammed handkerchief.” Besides providing visual images for the reader, specific and representative actions also suggest the personality of the character, his habits and desires, and even the emotional life hidden beneath the physical details.

10. Verbs are the foot soldiers of action-based description.

However, we don’t need to confine our use of verbs to the actions a character performs. Well-placed verbs can sharpen almost any physical description of a character. In the following passage from Marilynne Robinson’s novel Housekeeping, verbs enliven the description even when the grandmother isn’t in motion.

… in the last years she continued to settle and began to shrink. Her mouth bowed forward and her brow sloped back, and her skull shone pink and speckled within a mere haze of hair, which hovered about her head like the remembered shape of an altered thing. She looked as if the nimbus of humanity were fading away and she were turning monkey. Tendrils grew from her eyebrows and coarse white hairs sprouted on her lip and chin. When she put on an old dress the bosom hung empty and the hem swept the floor. Old hats fell down over her eyes. Sometimes she put her hand over her mouth and laughed, her eyes closed and her shoulder shaking.

11. We don’t always have to use concrete, sensory details to describe our characters, and we aren’t limited to describing actable actions.

With writers like Milan Kunera, we learn about characters through the themes and obsessions of their inner lives, their “existential problems” as depicted primarily through dreams, visions, memories, and thoughts. Other writers probe characters’ inner lives through what characters see through their eyes. A writer who describes what a character sees also reveals, in part, a character’s inner drama. In The Madness of a Seduced Woman, Susan Fromberg Schaeffer describes a farm through the eyes of the novel’s main character, Agnes, who has just fallen in love and is anticipating her first sexual encounter, which she simultaneously longs for and fears.

… and I saw how the smooth, white curve of the snow as it lay on the ground was like the curve of a woman’s body, and I saw how the farm was like the body of a woman which lay down under the sun and under the freezing snow and perpetually and relentlessly produced uncountable swarms of living things, all born with mouths open and cries rising from them into the air, long-boned muzzles opening … as if they would swallow the world whole …”

 

Review: Before We Were Yours

I bought a copy of this historical novel written by Lisa Wingate.  Ms Wingate’s long bio reads, in part: “Lisa Wingate is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Before We Were Yours, which remained on the bestseller list for fifty-four weeks in hardcover and has sold over 2 million copies. She has penned over thirty novels and coauthored a nonfiction book, Before and After with Judy Christie. Her award-winning works have been selected for state and community One Book reads throughout the country, have been published in over forty languages, and have appeared on bestseller lists worldwide.  Booklist summed up her work by saying, “Lisa Wingate is, quite simply, a master storyteller.”

Lisa Wingate

Before We Were Yours is a historical novel written in two parts.  One part is set along the Mississippi River, near Memphis, in the late 1930’s and early ’40’s.  The second part, in Georgia,  is more contemporary.  The first part centers on a family of ‘river gypsies’ who live in a shanty boat on the river.  The parents are Briny and Queenie Foss; their five children are Rill, the narrator, a girl of twelve and the oldest, Camilla, Lark, Fern and Gabion, a male toddler.  The story begins with Queenie in the throes of giving a difficult birth to twins.  Briny takes her to the hospital in Memphis, leaving the children on the boat in Rill’s care.  All five children are abducted and taken into care by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, a real abduction and orphanage mill which made an estimated $10 million for it’s real owner, Georgia Tann, and was active from the 1920’s until it was shut down in 1950.  It made a habit of taking children into custody on false premises and placing them in wealthy, childless families.  Most of the first part deals with the hardships faced by the Foss children as they wait for a family to take them away: first Gabion, then Camilla is separated and disappears, then Lark.  Rill and Fern escape from the family that took them in, only to find that Queenie is dead in the childbirth and Briny is mortally crippled with drink.  Rill and Fern return voluntarily to their assigned parents.

The second part is told by Avery, single in her 30’s, who turns out to be the granddaughter of one of Queenie’s twins, who survived, and was also taken in by the Tennessee Children’s Home Society and adopted.  The grandmother, Judy, now in her 70’s and suffering from dementia, is the widow of a Stafford, who are a dynasty of Georgia senators.  Avery is being prepped to run for the Senate, replacing her father, who is ill.  She meets May Crandall, who is in her 90’s and in a nursing home, during a pre-campaign visit to the nursing home.  May, we discover later, is Rill.  Much of the second part is taken up with Avery, being assisted by the grandson of a friend of Judy’s, trying to piece together her family history.

Ms Wingate is clearly a talented writer.  She describes her characters and the life on a shanty boat so clearly that they are real.  She is also a master at keeping the reader turning pages, a one suffers anxiety about what happens next.  The story itself is heart-rendingly captivating.

In my view, though, the novel has its flaws.  In the first part, there are too many chapters, with too much detail, about the hardships the Foss children endured, while they were awaiting adoption.  I think the story would be stronger if it were edited down,  In the second part, there are secondary issues that aren’t well enough developed to stand alongside the children’s story: the effect that disclosure of their real heritage would have on the Stafford name, and Avery’s decision about whom to marry.  There are also too many family events that do not really contribute to character development or the plot.  More rigorous editing would have made this a memorable novel.