Review: Granduncle Bertie

This time it is one of my novels that’s reviewed, by Maria Victoria Beltran for Readers’ Favorite.

She gives it a 5 for Appearance, 5 for Plot, 4 for Development, 5 for Formatting, 4 for Marketability, and 5 for Overall Opinion.

She goes on to say: “Granduncle Bertie by William Peace is an inspirational novel about
one man’s quest for a peaceful death. The story unravels when
Albert Smithson asks his grandniece Sarah to help him write his
memoir. In the last seven years, the two have been partners in
writing popular children’s picture books, with Granduncle Bertie as
the writer and Sarah as the illustrator. As the story unravels, Sarah
finds out that Bertie is traumatized by the excruciating death of his
father and suffers from thanatophobia or fear of death. He has lived
a good life and has overcome many difficulties, and now he wants
his memoir to reflect his inner struggles. It will chronicle events in
his life that make him realize that to die in a peaceful state, he has
to accomplish three conditions.
William Peace’s Granduncle Bertie is a thought-provoking read. All
human beings begin life, and all human beings die. This is
undoubtedly a theme relevant to all of us. William Peace’s literary
style engages his readers quickly in considering essential questions
not only about how we want to die but also about how we want to
live. Narrated from the point of view of Sarah, a woman in her late
twenties, the tone is chatty and informal. Most of us can relate to
Granduncle Bertie as a familiar family story. What makes it unique
is that it attempts to explore a sensitive theme. This book suggests
that exploring one’s fear of death may allow us to live more fully.

Highly Recommended!”

Review: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Having never read any James Joyce, I decided I should start with something shorter, that Ulysses. I am disappointed, but not put off enough to abandon the idea of tackling Ulysses.

Joyce was born in 1882 into a middle class family in Dublin. He was educated at Catholic schools and universities, a brilliant student. In 1904 he met his future wife and they moved to mainland Europe. He published a book of poems, Chamber Music, and a short story collection Dubliners, before serially publishing Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Ulysses was published in Paris in 1922; it’s publication in the UK and the US was prohibited because of its perceived obscenity until the mid 1930’s. In 1939, the next major work, Finnegan’s Wake, was published. He died Zurich in 1941 shortly after surgery for a perforated ulcer at the age of 58.

James Joyce

Portrait is set in Dublin in the late 1800’s and is narrated by an omniscient, neutral third person, except for some stream of conscious in the final chapter. It traces the experiences of its protagonist, Stephen Daedalus, from his childhood to his early 20’s. Stephen is a bright, perceptive individual, but he lacks self-confidence, and his relations with classmates are somewhat difficult. The themes in the novel are family: his father is a heavy drinker and an unreliable bread-winner. His mother is kind and loving but dedicated, uncritically, to the Catholic church. The church restricts Stephen’s desire for artistic freedom, and there is likewise a tension in his image of women: virginal purity vs prostitute. There is also tension in Stephen’s view of Ireland and its culture: loyalty to its homely comforts vs a ‘nation of clodhoppers’. Amidst all this conflict, Stephen searches for his own identity: priest vs artist. He chooses the later, leaving family, Dublin and the church behind. Joyce’s innovative techniques, including stream of consciousness, internal monologue and description of a characters psychic state rather than his actual surroundings.

Joyce’s prose is certainly captivating; one never has a doubt of what is going on in Stephen’s mind, but, for me, sometimes it seems too detailed. I felt that there was to much of it, that it would be better to show rather than tell. Do we have to know exactly how he was feeling? Would not a hint now and then suffice? Let the reader pick up the thread.

Some of the scenes in the novel seemed superfluous or repetitious in their effect.

But my largest complaint about Portrait is that my edition had over fifty pages of footnotes, so that one had to continually flip back and forth. Some of the footnotes had to do with Dublin places or real Irish people, and might be skipped. But many others were translations of Irish word or Latin phrases, and were a necessary aid to comprehension. One has the impression of a novel set in a particular time and place, and that therefore its issues and messages may not be transferable. For me, this rules it out as a classic.

Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in the Context of the Ukraine War

Ani Kokobobo has an article which was published on The Conversation website on 6 April 2022 which raises the question of reading the two Russian icons with the war in Ukraine in mind.

Ani Kokobobo is Assistant Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures at the University of Kansas.

Ani Kokobobo

She says, “As someone who teaches Russian literature, I can’t help but process the world through the country’s novels, stories, poems and plays, even at a time when Russian cultural productions are being cancelled around the world. 

With the Russian army perpetrating devastating violence in Ukraine – which includes includes the slaughter of civilians in Bucha – the discussion of what to do with Russian literature has naturally arisen.

I’m not worried that truly valuable art can ever be canceled. Enduring works of literature are enduring, in part, because they are capacious enough to be read critically against the vicissitudes of the present.

You could make this argument about any great work of Russian literature, but as a scholar of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, I will stick with Russia’s most famous literary exports.

Upon learning that Russian writer Ivan Turgenev had looked away at the last minute when witnessing the execution of a man, Dostoevsky made his own position clear: “[A] human being living on the surface of the earth has no right to turn away and ignore what is happening on earth, and there are higher moral imperatives for this.”

Seeing the rubble of a theater in Mariupol, hearing of Mariupol citizens starving because of Russian airstrikes, I wonder what Dostoevsky – who specifically focused his piercing moral eye on the question of the suffering of children in his 1880 novel “The Brothers Karamazov” – would say in response to the Russian army’s bombing a theater where children were sheltering. The word “children” was spelled out on the pavement outside the theater in large type so it could be seen from the sky. There was no misunderstanding of who was there.

Ivan Karamazov, the central protagonist in “The Brothers Karamazov,” is far more focused on questions of moral accountability than Christian acceptance or forgiveness and reconciliation. In conversation, Ivan routinely brings up examples of children’s being harmed, imploring the other characters to recognize the atrocities in their midst. He is determined to seek retribution.

Surely the intentional shelling of children in Mariupol is something Dostoevsky couldn’t possibly look away from either. Could he possibly defend a vision of Russian morality while seeing innocent civilians – men, women and children – lying on the streets of Bucha?

At the same time, nor should readers look away from the unseemliness of Dostoevsky and his sense of Russian exceptionalism. These dogmatic ideas about Russian greatness and Russia’s messianic mission are connected to the broader ideology that has fueled Russia’s past colonial mission, and current Russian foreign politics on violent display in Ukraine.

Yet Dostoevsky was also a great humanist thinker who tied this vision of Russian greatness to Russian suffering and faith. Seeing the spiritual value of human suffering was perhaps a natural outcome for a man sent to a labor camp in Siberia for five years for simply participating in a glorified socialist book club. Dostoevsky grew out of his suffering, but, arguably, not to a place where he could accept state-sponsored terror.

Would an author who, in his 1866 novel “Crime and Punishment,” explains in excruciating detail the toll of murder on the murderer – who explains that when someone takes a life, they kill part of themselves – possibly accept Putin’s vision of Russia? Warts and all, would Russia’s greatest metaphysical rebel have recoiled and rebelled against Russian violence in Ukraine?

I hope that he would, as many contemporary Russian writers have. But the dogmas of the Kremlin are pervasive, and many Russians accept them. Many Russians look away.

No writer captures warfare in Russia more poignantly than Tolstoy, a former soldier turned Russia’s most famous pacifist. In his last work, “Hadji Murat,” which scrutinizes Russia’s colonial exploits in North Caucasus, Tolstoy showed how senseless Russian violence toward a Chechen village caused instant hatred of Russians.

Tolstoy’s greatest work about Russian warfare, “War and Peace,” is a novel that Russians have traditionally read during great wars, including World War II. In “War and Peace,” Tolstoy contends that the morale of the Russian military is the key to victory. The battles most likely to succeed are defensive ones, in which soldiers understand why they are fighting and what they are fighting to protect: their home.

Even then, he’s able to convey the harrowing experiences of young Russian soldiers coming into direct confrontation with the instruments of death and destruction on the battlefield. They disappear into the crowd of their battalion, but even a single loss is devastating for the families awaiting their safe return.

After publishing “War and Peace,” Tolstoy publicly denounced many Russian military campaigns. The last part of his 1878 novel “Anna Karenina” originally wasn’t published because it criticized Russia’s actions in the Russo-Turkish War. Tolstoy’s alter ego in that novel, Konstantin Levin, calls the Russian intervention in the war “murder” and thinks it is inappropriate that Russian people are dragged into it.

“The people sacrifice and are always prepared to sacrifice themselves for their soul, not for murder,” he says.

In 1904, Tolstoy penned a public letter denouncing the Russo-Japanese War, which has sometimes been compared with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

“Again war,” he wrote. “Again sufferings, necessary to nobody, utterly uncalled for; again fraud, again the universal stupefaction and brutalization of men.” One can almost hear him shouting “Bethink Yourselves,” the title of that essay, to his countrymen now.

In one of his most famous pacifist writings, 1900’s “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” Tolstoy presciently diagnosed the problem of today’s Russia.

“The misery of nations is caused not by particular persons, but by the particular order of Society under which the people are so bound up together that they find themselves all in the power of a few men, or more often in the power of one single man: a man so perverted by his unnatural position as arbiter of the fate and lives of millions, that he is always in an unhealthy state, and always suffers more or less from a mania of self-aggrandizement.”

These writers have little to do with the current war. They cannot expunge or mitigate the actions of the Russian army in Ukraine. But they’re embedded on some level within the Russian cultural fabric, and how their books are still read matters. Not because Russian literature can explain any of what is happening, because it cannot. But because, as Ukrainian writer Serhiy Zhadan wrote in March 2022, Russia’s war in Ukraine marked a defeat for Russia’s great humanist tradition.

As this culture copes with a Russian army that has indiscriminately bombed and massacred Ukrainians, Russia’s great authors can and should be read critically, with one urgent question in mind: how to stop the violence. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny noted during his March 2022 trial that Tolstoy urged his countrymen to fight both despotism and war because one enables the other.

And Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze cited “War and Peace” in a February 2022 entry in her graphic diary.

“I’ve read your f—ing literature,” she wrote. “But looks like Putin did not, and you have forgotten.””

Good Dialogue

Matthew FitzSimmons has an article on writing dialogue, dated September 1, 2021, on the Writer’s Digest website. He makes some points that wouldn’t normally be high on the last for a writing class, but nonetheless, I think they’re worth remembering.

Matthew FitzSimmons is the author of Constance, as well as the Wall Street Journal bestselling Gibson Vaughn series, which includes Origami ManDebris LineCold HarborPoisonfeather, and The Short Drop. Born in Illinois and raised in London, he now lives in Washington, DC.

Matthew FitzSimmons

Mr FitzSimmons says, “I was teaching English at a high school in Washington, D.C., when I wrote my first novel, The Short Drop. One of the perks of being a teacher is having summers off, and it took me a little over two years to finish the manuscript. At the time, I thought one of the book’s strengths was the dialogue. After all, I came from a theater background and so much of directing is thinking about the spoken word. Plus, and I don’t say this to brag, but at that point I had 40-plus years of practical, hands-on experience in “talking.” So how hard could writing dialogue really be?

Well, my developmental editor on The Short Drop, the wonderful Ed Stackler, got his ink-stained mitts on it and disabused me of the notion that a lifetime achievement award for best original dialogue was my destiny. After that, I stopped taking dialogue for granted and began to craft a personal writing philosophy on the art and artifice of dialogue. Here are a few of the guidelines I keep in mind each day I sit down at my desk.

1. No One Uses a Name Without a Reason

Ed’s first lesson was one that in retrospect should have been painfully obvious—no one says anyone’s name in general conversation. (Alright, not never, but rarely.) When a name is spoken, it has purpose behind it. A few examples to illustrate the point: 

  • When someone is trying to get another person’s attention: “Matt. What do you want from the bar?” 
  • When someone is attempting to dominate another person: “Isn’t that right, Mr. FitzSimmons?” 
  • When someone is showing off that they were paying attention when you met and actually remember your name: “Matthew, good to see you again.”

There are, of course, many others, but always for a reason. When was the last time you used the name of your best friend?

2. Hemingway’s Non Sequiturs (or, Not Everyone is Having the Same Conversation)

Whatever your opinion of Ernest Hemingway, the man was brilliant with dialogue. I strongly recommend his short stories—“Hills Like White Elephants”, for example, is a masterclass of elliptical dialogue. But it was a couplet of dialogue between Lady Brett Ashley and Jake Barnes from chapter IV of The Sun Also Rises that taught me that the most interesting dialogue is rarely a straight line. It goes:

“Don’t worry,” Brett said. “I’ve never let you down, have I?”
“Heard from Mike?”

Not a lot to it until you consider that Jake is hopelessly in love with Brett and that Mike is Brett’s latest husband. Read it again. Now what was merely an innocent non sequitur becomes a cutting, passive-aggressive barb more incisive than any five-page argument. How people answer, or don’t answer, questions is an incredibly useful tool for revealing relationship, character, and agenda.

3. Complete Sentences/Correct Grammar

Dialogue composed of nothing but complete sentences will sound false to the ear. Grammar also tends to take a backseat as well. A character who uses who/whom correctly in casual speech is revealing a lot about their background. More often than not, people use shortcuts to limit the number of words necessary to communicate information. One example: Personal pronouns are frequently omitted—“I’m running late,” often becomes “Running late,” and so on. Listen to, and become a student of, how people speak, and what it can tell a reader about your characters.

4. Multitask

I always aim for dialogue to perform more than one purpose. If a passage of exposition is absolutely necessary, I always ask, “What other jobs can that dialogue be performing in terms of character and story?” Small talk is especially challenging, because as a species we (sadly) depend on it to navigate almost every social interaction. In prose, small talk is deadly to a reader’s interest and less is definitely more.

5. Not Everyone Sounds Like Me

If you spent any significant time around me, you’d quickly pick up on my conversation style, my verbal tics, and my sense of humor. When I first began writing seriously in my 20s, there was a tendency for all of my characters to sound like versions of myself. What was pleasant in small doses (I hope) was catastrophic in large ones (the world really doesn’t need more than one Matthew FitzSimmons in any conversation). It was an incredibly important self-discovery. I realized that if all my characters sounded like me that I wasn’t putting in the work to fully realize each of my characters. A habit I’ve developed in the years since is to write “interviews” with my characters to think through how they speak and why. Once I understand their conversational posture, I have a much better insight into who they are as people.”

Mr FitzSimmons point about people not using names was brought home to me when the manuscript for my novel Nebrodi Mountains came back from the editor with many names deleted. And I particularly like Hemingway’s not sequiturs as a clever dialogue device.

Sex in Literature?

There is an article in Literature News dated 18 December 2020, written by an anonymous subscriber, which struck me as being quite indicative of the times. The article is subtitled: ‘Yes, it used to be classic but now it’s mostly crass!’

I have edited the article which appears below:

“Modern literature in English, the books published after 2010, mostly, have been popular because of many factors that have affected the sensibilities, choices, preferences and ideals of the masses. However, for a certain group of readers, increasing obscenity in casual literature is also a reason that has increased their interest in literature, frequency in buying and reading books and also took them away from what we can call sensible and meaningful literature. Well, all of it, most of the times, comes down to the description of sexual and intimate moments in literary work. For example, works like Fifty Shades of Grey have taken it too far, when we talk about the international literary horizon.

“I want to f*** your mouth, Anastasia, and I will soon,” his voice is hoarse, raw, his breathing more disjointed.”

This comes from E. L. James’ novel Fifty Shades of Grey and the extract below may be said to be something more:

“Keep still,” he orders, his voice soft but urgent, and slowly he inserts his thumb inside me, rotating it around and around, stroking the front wall of my v*****. The effect is mind-blowing—all my energy concentrating on this one small space inside my body. I moan.”

So, anyone can read, the intimate moments have become intense (in the literature of the day) and their descriptions have become raw, direct and even more than what could actually be. And this may be called a sudden outburst because mainstream literature has been filled with such works by the novelists who have taken it to the next level while describing the sexual scenes. Authors have begun providing a special set of readers with what cannot be exhibited even in the inline content platforms.

“He kissed my nipples. He moved up and kissed my collarbone. He kissed my chin and then my lips for several minutes. He tugged at my panties. My heart beat fast. Was I really going to get fully naked in front of a man?”

There are many new authors who are coming up with even ‘better’ versions, even more explicit details. It makes things aroused for a moment or two, an hour or two and may meet the sexual fantasies of readers (especially teenagers and youths for whom things are all new). However, in this process, what we forget is ‘fiction’ and the target readers of these authors seldom judge such books on merits. Problem for none and a win-win situation for the novelists.

In those days, when the authors like Lawrence and Hardy tried to portray sexual actions on the pages of their novel, things were very different and everything was almost ‘beautiful. Things were suggestive, narrated wonderfully and also felt good to read. This may be coming out of my bias for classics and against the modern nonsense which is served in the name of realism. However, you can realise more if you read these lines by Lawrence which detail a scene of love-making between Paul and Miriam in Sons and Lovers:

“She put her hands over him, on his hair, on his shoulders, to feel if the raindrops fell on him. She loved him dearly. He, as he lay with his face on the dead pine-leaves, felt extraordinarily quiet. He did not mind if the raindrops came on him: he would have lain and got wet through: he felt as if nothing mattered, as if his living were smeared away into the beyond, near and quite lovable. This strange, gentle reaching-out to death was new to him.”

And you can feel the sentiments in the extract below but you cannot find that obscenity:

“And afterwards he loved her—loved her to the last fibre of his being. He loved her.”

Now, the readers may have their say on what they want to enjoy and to which extent. There is nothing that I would ask them to leave or accept. However, as a critical thinker, I find modern description of love-making rather elaborated to the naughty sides of our conscious. It is, however and somehow, doing great with the time.”

I agree with the sentiments of the writer. For me, literary fiction (as distinct from generic fiction) should employ the imagination of the reader. When characters engage in love-making, it is enough to set the scene and concentrate on revealing the emotions of the couple. This defines their relationship. ‘Mechanical’ details of the interaction, while possibly of peripheral interest to the reader, distract from an understanding of the relationship.

Review: Me and White Supremacy

I was attracted to this book by a favourable review and by it having been on the Sunday Times bestseller list. It was written by Layla F Saad, “who is a writer, speaker, and podcast host on the topics of race, identity, leadership, personal transformation and social change. As a East African, Arab, British, Black, Muslim woman who was born in and grew up in the UK and currently lives in Qatar, Layla has always sat at a unique intersection of identities from which she us able to draw rich and intriguing perspectives.”

The book cover

You’ll notice the subtitle, “How to Recognise Your Privilege, Combat Racism and Change the World”. Before I opened the book, I didn’t expect to learn a great deal from it, but I do recognise my privilege, having grown up in an environment of private education. And I think it is fair to say that my mother and grandparents were racist. I never accepted my mother’s views, or the views of my Navy colleagues who were white, Southern officers. I felt they were wrong, but I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t ‘call them out’.

Ms Saad’s book is very well organised. After several chapters which lay the groundwork very clearly and well, the book has a chapter-a-day format for four weeks. In each chapter, a particular aspect of white supremacy is described in depth. There is a chapter, for example, on white fragility in which the action is explained, examples are given, when it shows up, why it’s important to understand it, and some searching questions for the reader on his/her experience and understanding of white fragility. The reader is asked to write their answers in a journal. For me the number of actions which make up white supremacy is astonishing. Many of them, like tone policing, I never heard of before, but I could see how each action contributed to the white supremacy structure.

Toward the end of the book, Ms Saad begins to move the reader gradually toward action, with chapters like, You and Your Friends, You and Your Family, You and Your Values, You and Losing Privilege, You and Your Commitments. She lists a number of possible commitments. One, for example, is “I am committed to my lifelong antiracist education by . . .” There is also a section toward the end of the book that deals with how groups should work through the book together.

Probably the best aspect of this book is its persuasiveness. Ms Saad’s tone is friendly, factual, clear and certain. She knows what is wrong and how to correct it. This book will stay with me for the rest of my life. It should be required reading for every sensible white person.

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.”

Review: The Boys in the Boat

I was given this book (a New York Times no. 1 bestseller) by one of my sons-in-law who rowed crew at university, but didn’t know that I had done some rowing, although I was never very good. In spite of the pain that one suffers when one is racing in an eight-man shell, it can be a truly addictive sport. And it can be very exciting for spectators cheering their boat, particularly during the last minute of a race.

This is an historic novel, and, paradoxically, quite suspenseful, written by Daniel James Brown. On his website he says: “I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and attended Diablo Valley College, the University of California at Berkeley, and UCLA. I taught writing at San Jose State University and Stanford before becoming a technical writer and editor. I now write narrative nonfiction books full time. My primary interest as a writer is in bringing compelling historical events to life as vividly and accurately as I can. I live in the country outside of Seattle, Washington with my wife, two daughters, and an assortment of cats, dogs, chickens, and honeybees. When I am not writing, I am likely to be birding, gardening, fly fishing, reading American history, or chasing bears away from the bee hives.”

Daniel James Brown

This book is about the eight-man (and a coxswain) crew from the University of Washington which won the Olympics in Nazi Germany in 1936. It is a true and memorable story, though almost none of us alive today have any memory of the event, and few ever heard the story. The central character is Joe Rantz, a poor, but tall and strong boy, who is beginning his freshman year at the University of Washington in the Depression of 1933. We learn about his checkered family background and his decision to row in an eight-man shell, of the difficulties he went through to win a place on the freshmen’s no. 1 boat. From that point, Joe struggles to win a seat on the junior varsity boat, the Washington varsity boat and the US Olympic boat, in all that time never losing a competitive race. The competition included the University of California crews and the best eastern crews: Penn, Navy, Cornell and Syracuse. There are plenty of obstacles that Joe and the rest of his crew have to overcome: financial worries, exhaustion, family relationship issues, training problems, and more. Each major race they face is clouded with uncertainty, but, since it’s a true story, we know in advance the real outcome, yet we live through the tension with Joe and his teammates. In Germany, for example, the final race seems to be stacked against the Americans: the Germans and and the Italians are given the two most favourable lanes; the Americans, the least favourable lane. Moreover, the American stroke (the stern-most oarsman who sets the pace) was ill.

Apart from the vivid writing and nearly constant tension maintained throughout, one has to marvel at the extensive and detailed research which the author had to do: interviewing Joe’s daughter, fellow crewmen, dozens of others and reading reams of records. Through it all, he is able to capture the magic that an eight-man crew can create when they are in the ‘swing’. There is plenty of captivating rowing folklore here. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting book.

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.