Are Publishers Becoming Censors?

There is an article by Anita Singh in Yesterday’s Daily Telegraph in which Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is quoted as saying that it is unlikely that Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses would have been published had Rushdie written it today. Adichie goes on to say that it is unlikely that Rushdie would have decided to write it today.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Enugu, Nigeria in 1977. She grew up on the campus of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where her father was a professor and her mother was the first female Registrar. She studied medicine for a year at Nsukka and then left for the US at the age of 19 to continue her education on a different path. She graduated summa cum laude from Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in Communication and Political Science. She has a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Arts degree in African History from Yale University. Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and her second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006), won the Orange Prize. Her 2013 novel Americanah won the US National Book Critics Circle Award. Her most recent work, Notes On Grief, an essay about losing her father, was published in 2021. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2015. In 2017, Fortune Magazine named her one of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders. She is a member of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The article says, “In the first of this year’s BBC Radio 4 Reith Lectures, Ngozi Adichie spoke about freedom of speech.

She said: “Here is a question I’ve been thinking about: would Rushdie’s novel be published today? Probably not. Would it even be written? Possibly not.

“There are writers like Rushdie who want to write novels about sensitive subjects, but are held back by the spectre of social censure.

“Literature is increasingly viewed through ideological rather than artistic lenses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the recent phenomenon of ‘sensitivity readers’ in the world of publishing, people whose job it is to cleanse unpublished manuscripts of potentially offensive words.”

Ngozi Adichie said that publishers are also wary of committing “secular blasphemy”.

She claimed that the issue went far beyond the publishing world, with young people caught in an “epidemic of self-censorship” because they are too afraid of being cancelled.

The author faced her own backlash in 2017 after stating in an interview: “When people talk about, ‘Are trans women women?’ my feeling is [that] trans women are trans women.”

In her lecture, Ngozi Adichie said: “We now live in broad settled ideological tribes. Our tribes demand from us a devotion to orthodoxy and they abide not reason, but faith.

“Many young people are growing up in this cauldron afraid to ask questions for fear of asking the wrong questions. And so they practise an exquisite kind of self-censorship. Even if they believe something to be true or important, they do not say so because they should not say so.”

Ngozi Adichie said the alternative to this “epidemic” of self-censorship was people stating their beliefs and as a result facing a “terrible” online backlash of “ugly personal insults, putting addresses of homes and children’s schools online, trying to make people lose their jobs”.

She said: “To anyone who thinks, ‘Well, some people who have said terrible things deserve it,’: no. Nobody deserves it. It is unconscionable barbarism.

“It is a virtual vigilante action whose aim is not just to silence the person who has spoken but to create a vengeful atmosphere that deters others from speaking. There is something honest about an authoritarianism that recognises itself to be what it is.

“Such a system is easier to challenge because the battle lines are clear. But this new social censure demands consensus while being wilfully blind to its own tyranny. I think it portends the death of curiosity, the death of learning and the death of creativity.”

Ngozi Adichie called for a raising of standards on social media, and reforms including the removal of anonymous accounts.

She suggested that “opinion sharers, political and cultural leaders, editors [and] social media influencers” across the political spectrum should form “a coalition of the reasonable” to moderate extreme speech.

I agree with Ngozi Adichie that social media needs drastic reform to stop harmful misinformation, libel and threats. She seems to believe that the ‘tech’ owners of the social media platforms will not regulate properly because of the cost. She is right, but the cavalry is coming in two regiments. One regiment is government regulation and legislation which is starting to be announced and enacted. This will say ‘reform or pay billions’ and if social media platforms want of survive, they must change their business models. The other regiment is the digital advertisers, who, as the defunding of Twitter shows, do not want to be a part of their customers’ misery.

Publishers and authors are different kinds of problems. Publishers have historically had to navigate a fine line between capturing the public interest on the one hand and not causing public outrage on the other. Some authors face a similar set of choices. But neither publisher nor author has an incentive to lie or cover up the truth. On the contrary.

It seems to me that The Satanic Verses is a special case that has nothing to do with current truths or falsehoods. Most Muslims would regard passages in Verses as blasphemous, though is seems doubtful that Rushdie actually intended such severe criticism of Islam. To me, it seems that he intended the dream sequences featuring Mohammad (the Messenger), the polytheistic deities, the devil and the Prophet’s companion as a demonstration of how absolutist systems can go horribly wrong – one of the themes of the book. But the author framed the example with fictional characters and action which are completely contrary to Islam.

In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of “fear and nervousness”. I agree that it wouldn’t be published even today, in 2022, but I wouldn’t attribute the decision to ‘fear and nervousness’. Today, most publishers would look at the manuscript and think, Muslims won’t like it and there will be mass protests. If he wants us to publish it, the dream sequences have to go.

You can call it the ‘sensitivity reader effect’, but really it’s a question about what’s good for the business.

A Banned Author Talks

This week, I’ve decided to post the commentary from a black, gay author whose book has been banned from US school districts. The commentary is on HuffPost, 24 September 2022. I haven’t read the book, so I have no basis for deciding whether it should or should not be banned. But the author, George M Johnson, says he wrote it for 14 to 18 year olds, and it’s about his experience growing up, so, if I were a school librarian, I might discourage a ten-year-old from reading it on the basis that he or she probably wouldn’t have the life experience to deal with the book emotionally. But, I might not refuse a 15 year-old.

George M Johnson

“It was sometime during 2019, before COVID turned the world upside down, that I had the first meeting with my publisher. Her team and I sat in a room around a table and discussed the strategy — the marketing and promotion, mostly — for dropping my first book, which I’d recently finished. I was truly living my dreams. Amid the excited conversation, something in my spirit told me to ask a question: “What happens if you need security at an event?” They all looked puzzled. One of them asked why I’d need that. “I know this book will be banned, ” I replied. “I don’t know when or how widely, but I know that it will be.”

“A report from PEN America this week showed that my book, having survived various criminal complaints, was the second-most banned in the United States, with bans in 29 school districts. States’ continued efforts to ban my work is not easy to wake up to daily. For the past year, there have been constant Google alerts, messages on social media from people calling me a “pedophile or groomer,” and other unsavory attempts to deny my story and the very existence of Black queer people everywhere. I never thought I would be at the center of a political issue moving into an election — nor should I ever have been.

“My book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” is a young adult memoir about my experience growing up Black and queer in America. In my story, I discuss growing up in a Black family who loved and affirmed me; the good, bad and ugly truths about what teens really deal with; and my journey through gender and social identity. My life was and still is full of joy, but also include some painful moments involving nonconsensual sex, as well as my experience with losing my virginity. Unfortunately, my sexual experiences have been deemed “an issue” — pornographic by some. To be clear, this book is for ages 14-18 and it contains truths that many of us have experienced and are healing from.

“Books about our experience are not too “explicit” just because they discuss gender, race and other crucial topics that teen readers need to process as they learn about themselves and the world they live in.

“Our books (the banned ones, if you will) often tell stories that are uncomfortable and important. Book banning is nothing new in the U.S., but it has rarely been seen at this magnitude in recent decades. But we can’t just talk about book banning without discussing the suppression of storytelling. Books written by enslaved people, that described their reality, had to be written under pseudonyms to protect the authors. Some of the greatest literary icons of our time — Toni Morrison, James Baldwin and even Harper Lee — have had their books banned despite their works being part of the landscape and foundation for many generations of writers.

“But that is why writing and other types of storytelling are such revolutionary rights.They change lives, provide community, and serve as a lifeline for those who feel unseen, unheard and alone.

“When I first wrote my memoir, I kept reminding myself that this was not for the 33-year-old version of me. This was for my 10-year-old self who had important things to say and had been silenced for so many years. And as I wrote about my experience, I felt lighter. I felt freer. I felt I had tapped a power I never knew existed.

“And then I watched as reader after reader, from teenagers to people well into their 70s, discussed how this book made them feel — how the stories healed and informed them. I was told that my simple existence (me being out here and sticking to my intentions) was something that they could hold on to on their roughest of days. And that’s the truly revolutionary thing about art. Toni Morrison once said, “If there is a book you want to read and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” That’s what I did. And while all the book bans are weaponizing my words, I know that they’re providing armor for those who have gone through anything I did.

“I have more books to write and more stories to dismantle this system. And I’ll be damned if anyone denies my right to write them.”

I say, “Carry on, George!”

Writing Sex Scenes

Sharon Short’s final segment on Point of View hasn’t been published yet, so let’s look at writing sex scenes. Jessica Martin has a piece in Writer’s Digest titled ‘How to Write a Sex Scene Like Nobody Is Watching’.

Jessica Martin is a lawyer by trade, a writer by choice, and a complete smart ass by all accounts. Based in the suburban wilds of Boston, Jess shares her life with a finance geek, a small sass-based human, and a pair of dogs named after Bond characters.

Jessica Martin

Ms Martin writes, “There are some key scenes in your typical rom-com that writers have to nail. Chief among them is the sex scene. But writing one can stir up all sorts of feelings: anxiety, excitement, a bone deep certainty that if you write a bad one, no one will ever let you live it down. It runs the gamut and while every writer has a different strategy, here’s mine.

The name of the game is distance.

First up physical space. To actually write a sex scene like nobody is watching it helps if nobody is actually watching. For me, this means leaving my house because although I have a perfectly good writing space, there’s a six-year-old beastie who likes to barge in and demand to know why caterpillars don’t eat meat. Or whether you can hear a fish fart under water. Kid, I have no idea how to answer that.

This house I speak of is also occupied by two scheming dogs who lie in wait until I’m in a writing groove. They drop their heads on my leg and drool until I have no choice but to submit to the world’s most devastating puppy dog eyes, bursting with longing that only translates into one thing: Hey human, go fetch me a snack, will you?

And then there’s the husband.

I hope this isn’t shocking to anyone here, but I’ve had sex with him. I don’t want to think about him when writing a sex scene, because I’m pretty sure that violates the sanctity of the marriage pact or something—I don’t know, it’s just weird.

In any event, I vacate the house when I need to write a scene that involves the words thrust, pant, or moan. During COVID, there weren’t a ton of options for non-germy solitude, so I wrote the majority of these scenes in the front seat of my car parked in a state forest. Wearing a ratty hoodie and sucking down tea from a thermos for warmth. Hey, I live in New England and the nights are chilly. You know what else the nights were like in that state forest? Decidedly, not private.

What I didn’t realize is that after the park shuts down for the day, it’s apparently a hotbed of illicit activity. As teens swarmed the woods armed with their flashlights and pilfered booze, they would sometimes comment on the weirdo sitting alone in her car and wondering if I was a NARC. So, I’d need to wait until they’d dispersed into the woods like horror movie cautionary tales before I could get down to the good stuff.

OK, so now I’m physically alone. Now I need to be mentally alone.

Recently, I was out to dinner with my boss, who casually mentioned he’d bought 50 copies(!) of my book for our entire legal team. I was incredibly touched but also momentarily panicked as I sputtered that it was a rom-com … and when the room went silent, I blurted out, “There’s a sex scene.”

As every eye in the room turned to regard me, a colleague asked, “What kind of sex scene we talking here?”

“A tasteful one,” I replied archly (or at least nonchalantly. Please let me be remembered as being calm and cool in that moment).

It wasn’t like I hadn’t thought about it before, it was just that interaction finally drove home that someday, somewhere, my husband, parents, kid brother, my actual kid (when she graduates to books without pictures), friends, neighbors, coworkers, former classmates whose Instagram accounts I follow but otherwise wouldn’t recognize, my incredibly bendy yoga instructor and a whole host of others might one day pick up my book and wonder, SO THAT SEX SCENE, IS SHE DRAWING FROM PERSONAL EXPERIENCE?

While I freely admit to stealing snatches of conversation (especially insults, I love standing behind teenagers in lines), character traits I admire in my friends, and sometimes wholesale shenanigans from my free-wheeling law school days, I draw the line at digging into my own personal cache of sexcapades. Why? Frankly, because I’d like to look that subset of people in the eyes again. Call me a prude, but I like to have a bit of an air of mystery about me. That and I don’t want anyone thinking about my sex faces.

But I’ll peel back the curtain and allow you a peek into my process.

There I am, sitting alone in a car in a dark forest (OK, that sounds creepy, but bear with me) and I warm up by watching YouTube compilations of my favorite on-screen couples. You know the ones, set to angsty music where beloved characters eye each other across a room, a shared smile passing between them. Or maybe it’s that near brush of the lips or a finger tracing a bare collar bone, a shirt goes up and over the head. For me it’s less about what the characters are actually doing and more about that delicious moment of mutual (and completely consensual) commitment to the path of no return, no going back to being friends or enemies or indifferent strangers—it’s on.

Once I’m there, then I imagine my characters, their expressions, their voices, their sex faces (not mine, thank you very much) and what the timbre of their sex scene is. Is it slightly humorous, two people fumbling around knocking stuff over in their jubilant haste to get to one another? Is it full of murmured teasing as one character deliberately seduces the other? Is it rushed but somehow decadent because it’s going down somewhere where any moment our lovers could be discovered?

That’s the feel part.

Then comes the mechanics. I cannot remember where this nugget of wisdom originated, but someone once told me that sex scenes are like fight scenes. Watch the hands. I love this, because it makes me go back and smooth out the scene once I’ve finished with the heady feeling part to make sure it all syncs up. For example, if his pants were carelessly discarded like caution to the wind on the floor a moment ago, as he slides up her body, his hands worshipfully tracing the topography of her hips, then he shouldn’t be reaching for protection in his pocket, right? It has to be in the bedside table or if they’re outside, maybe she’s the resourceful one who still has pants on and whips out the foil packet with a triumphant cry? Details count.

Once I’ve nailed the feeling and true up the details, I break the veil of solitude, I leave the deep dark woods (I’m sure you psych majors are having a field day). I slip back into being a lawyer, a wife, a mother, that person who almost always uses a turn signal when changing lanes. I send the sex scene to my beta readers, then my agent and my editor. I’ll ask them, “This isn’t gross, right?” and that’s usually all I need to feel confident that it’s there.

At least until someone tells me they bought fifty copies of it and they’re giving it to all my coworkers.”

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.

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: 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.

Books About Race and Anti-Racism: ‘Surging’

An article with the above title, Porter Anderson, appears in the June 16 issue of Publishing Perspectives.  Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair’s 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives.

Porter Anderson

Excerpts from the article are as follows:

“A demonstration of how responsive the US marketplace can be to a national crisis: Have a look at Amazon Charts‘ nonfiction listings.

Normally updated on Wednesdays, these titles are showing No. 1 and 2 in both the charts’ Most Sold and Most Read categories to be, respectively White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism (Beacon Press, 2018) and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (Penguin Random House, 2019), respectively.

Those two titles went onto the list two and three weeks ago, respectively just after, and one week after, George Floyd’s death for which former police officer Derek Chauvin now is charged with second-degree murder.

And just out a week ago, on June 9, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Macmillan/Henry Holt) is the timely new release from Stacey Abrams on voter suppression.

On the list of potential vice-presidential candidates for the Joe Biden ticket, Abrams’ book arrived with eerie timing last week–just as Georgia (where she has run for governor) went into a primary-election meltdown of voting-machine failures and waiting lines between four and eight hours long.

More from the Amazon Charts, Most Sold in nonfiction–and the timing on many of these, most on the list for one or two weeks, indicates the drivers to which publishing’s content is responding:

I think it’s pretty remarkable the extent to which writers and publishers are responding to a national crisis as evidenced by the dominance of these non-fiction works on the Amazon Most Sold List.

 

Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

There’s an article by Lawrence Block republished in yesterday’s issue of the Writer’s Digest which was originally in the same magazine twenty years ago.  Lawrence Block, born 1938, is an American crime writer who is best known for a series set in New York about the recovering alcoholic and private investigator, Matthew Scudder and the gentleman burglar, Bernie Rhodenbarr.

Lawrence Block

I quote from Mr Block’s article as follows: “A couple of years ago, two friends of mine, a man and woman I’d known for most of a decade, made the papers. They did so in a rather spectacular fashion when the husband, a Wall Street stock analyst, murdered the wife, drove around for a while with her in the trunk of the car, dumped her at the side of the road, and was in very short order apprehended and charged with homicide. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing women’s underwear.

“Eventually the case came to trial, but not before he had been released on bail, married someone else, beat up the new wife, and had his bail revoked. He stood trial, was convicted, and was in jail awaiting sentencing when he rather abruptly died, evidently of AIDS. The new wife attended his funeral service in the company of a woman who’d been in the news a while back when a former Miss America stood trial on a charge of using unlawful influence to get a judge to lower her lover’s alimony payments to a former wife. The new wife’s companion at the funeral was the daughter of the judge in question, and achieved some local notoriety by testifying against the former Miss America. What she’s doing in this story is beyond me, but I guess everybody has to be someplace.

“After the funeral, the wife and her friend hurried back to the deceased’s house and stole everything they could carry.”

Mr Block, discussing this with a friend, said that it was a lot like a soap opera.

“’No,’ the friend said. ‘No, soap opera has a certain internal logic to it. That’s how you can distinguish between it and Real Life.’

“Fiction has to make sense. Life does not, and I suppose it’s just as well, or vast chunks of life would bounce back from the Big Editor in the Sky with form rejection slips attached to them. When we want to praise fiction, we say that it’s true to life, but it’s not that often the case. Life, unlike fiction, gives every indication of operating utterly at random, with no underlying structure, no unifying principles, no rules of drama. I think it was Chekhov who pointed out that it was dramatically essential that any cannon that appeared onstage in Act 1 had damn well better be fired before the final curtain. Life doesn’t work that way. In life, onstage cannons are forever silent, while others never seen go off in the wings, with spectacular results. Characters play major roles in the opening scenes, then wander off and are never heard from again. Perhaps it all balances out, perhaps there’s some sort of cosmic justice visited in another lifetime or another world, but all that is hard to prove and not too satisfying dramatically.

“What I’m really getting at, though, is not so much that life is a tale told by an idiot as that fiction had better be otherwise. And, simply because fiction has to make sense, we take for granted certain things that hardly ever happen in real life.

“Consider premonitions. Now, everybody has premonitions from time to time—the sudden illogical hunches that lead us to stay off an airplane, bet a number, or cross a street. Every once in a while a premonition actually turns out to be warranted—the number comes up, the plane comes down, whatever.  But in the vast majority of instances the premonition is a bum steer or a false alarm. The warning that came to us in a dream, and that we did or didn’t act upon, winds up amounting to nothing at all. The lottery ticket’s a loser. The plane lands safely.  Not so in fiction. Every premonition means something, though not necessarily what it seems to mean; in fiction, we ignore omens and hunches at our peril, and to our chagrin.

“Just look at the supermarket tabloids. They usually run extensive predictions around the first of the year, with famous psychics telling us what to expect over the next 12 months. Except for the can’t-miss shotgun predictions (“I foresee that somewhere in the world there will be a disaster, with great loss of life. Washington will be rocked with charges of political corruption and financial mismanagement. And, on the Hollywood scene, I see a marriage breaking up.”), the predictors hardly ever get anything right.

“In fiction, they almost always get almost everything right, and it never occurs to us to regard this as unrealistic.  ‘Oh, this is silly,’ a character says. ‘I’m not superstitious. I’m going to walk under this ladder.’ Or break this mirror, or forbear to throw this spilled salt over my shoulder, or whatever. And he does, and we know something’s going to happen to him before his story’s over. We may not be superstitious ourselves. We may detour around ladders, just on the general principle that it couldn’t hurt, but we don’t take the whole thing seriously.  Not in real life we don’t. In fiction, we know better.

“And what does all this mean?   Because I’m not sure just what it all means, or precisely what implications it has for us as writers of fiction. It could probably be argued that one of the reasons fiction exists, a reason it is written and a reason it is read, is that it is orderly and logical, that it makes sense in a way that life does not. Frustrated with the apparent random nature of the universe, we take refuge in a made-up world in which actions have consequences.

“Truth, as we’ve been told enough, is stranger than fiction. Of course it is—because it can get away with it. It flat-out happens, and it’s undeniable, so it doesn’t have to make sense. If my friend’s story, replete with uxoricide and transvestism and the remarriage and the beating of the new wife and the trial and the death, if all of that were placed without apology between book covers and presented as fiction, I’m sure I’d have tossed the book aside unfinished; if I made it all the way through, I’d surely be infuriated by the virus ex machina ending. The loose ends would annoy me and the inconsistencies would drive me nuts.

“But it’s fact. It happened. I can’t dispute it on dramatic grounds. I can’t say it’s improbable, or illogical. It happened. It’s what is. I may not like it, I may be saddened or horrified by it, but I can’t lay the book aside because it’s not a book. It’s real.

“I’ve seen writers react to criticism that their stories were implausible, that they relied too greatly on coincidence, that they were unresolved dramatically, by arguing that their fiction had been faithful to actual circumstance. ‘How can you say that?’ they demand. ‘That’s how it happened in real life! That’s exactly how it happened!’

“Indeed, and that’s the trouble. If real life were fiction, you couldn’t get the damn thing published.”

Crime Writing

The opinion, The Shadow of Violence, by Jane Casey appears in the winter 2019 edition of The Author. Ms Casey is the author of the award-winning Maeve Kerrigan series of crime novels.  Her most recent novel is Let the Dead Speak.

Jane Casey

Ms Casey takes exception to the Staunch Prize, founded by Bridget Lawless, screenwriter and author of educational material on violence.  The prize is awarded to books that do not feature violence against women.  Ms Lawless says the purpose of the award is to draw attention to the plethora of violence towards women, and make sense for exciting alternatives.

Ms Casey says, “Our genre may frequently feature murderous rage, but crime writers are renowned as a calm, close-knit and pleasant literary collective.  It takes a lot to get us agitated; we generally work through our darker feelings in our books.  Yet nothing has stirred us up more than the Staunch Prize.  The reaction of many crime writers has ranged from scepticism to hurt to actual outrage.  Crime writers are defensive.  Crime is a genre that struggles for critical respect, despite brilliant and inventive writing and enormous popularity with readers.  The Staunch Prize feels like a response to the bad old days when crime was thought of as low-grade and vulgar entertainment, designed to titillate and thrill, devoid of any merit.

“At a recent literary festival ion London, I suggested that it is the duty of writers who write contemporary crime novels to reflect society as it is at that moment.  We live in a state of perpetual change; what appals one generation barely ruffles the feathers of the next.  Universal crimes – the ones that echo through the generations – are crimes against people.  These stories are as old as time; not telling then does not make them go away.  Telling stories about these crimes to a new audience has an important function: this is part of the world and it must be understood like any other threat to our safety and well being.

“The Staunch Prize website asserts that through their work, crime writers are perpetuating rape myths.”  (The rape myth, based on academic research, is that jurors are reluctant to convict ‘ordinary’ men of rape because such men do not fit the idea of rapists that jurors have internalised from stories and popular culture.)  She continues, “But contemporary crime writers, I would argue, no longer perpetuate the myth that only ‘stranger rape’ is ‘real rape’. We do the opposite.

“With the rise of the domestic noir genre of psychological thriller, crime-writing has moved inside the home to focus on exactly those behaviours that the Staunch Prize suggests it obscures.  Gaslighting, emotional abuse, coercive control, domestic violence, rape: all of these are real crimes that affect women (and often men) behind closed doors.  Exploring them in fiction is a way of placing them in context for victims and those of us in society who have never had to endure similar experiences – even, eventually jurors.

“A 2013 study by psychologists at York University in Toronto found that reading two genres in particular was a significant predictor of greater ‘interpersonal sensitivity’ – romance and suspense/thrillers.  Reading crime makes us more empathetic rather than blunting our sensibilities.  A 2010 Harris poll found that crime and thrillers were the most popular novels for both men and women, with 57% off female readers enjoying them (compared to 39% of male readers).”

As a footnote: Dorothy, a junior doctor, in my novel, Achieving Superpersonhood: Three East African Lives, is raped by her supervisor, a senior consultant.  She goes public, winning public support, forcing the resignation of the consultant, who flees the country, and a financial settlement.

Review: The Immortalists

This novel attracted my attention because it has good reviews.  It also has about five pages of glowing blurbs; how can I go wrong?

The Immortalists was written by Chloe Benjamin, who also wrote The Anatomy of Dreams, which received the Edna Ferber Fiction Book Award.  She is a gradate of Vassar College (which was a happy hunting ground for dates when I was at university) and she received her MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin.

Chloe Benjamin

The Immortalists is set in 1969 in New York City’s Lower East Side.  Four Gold children, aged between seven and thirteen, are looking for a travelling psychic who can tell them the date of their individual deaths.  The first to die, on the forecast date, is Simon, the youngest, in his early twenties, of AIDS in San Francisco.  Klara, two years older than Simon, and a magician, who not only wants to entertain her audience with her magic and her death-defying feats, but wants the audience to believe in magic, dies on schedule of an apparent suicide in Las Vegas.  Klara’s older brother, Daniel, a doctor, becomes involved with a policeman who is investigating the psychic in connection with Simon’s and Klara’s deaths.  He is shot by the policeman as he tries to kill the psychic, whom he has tracked down; he, too, dies at the appointed time.  This leaves only Varya, who is expected to die at age eighty-eight.  Varya is involved in experimental work with primates to prove that lifespan can be increased by severely limiting the intake of particular foods, but at the cost of a comfortable life.  Varya leaves the experiment and the novel ends with Varya, at least thirty years before her appointed death, accompanied by her mother, Gertie, and Klara’s daughter, Ruby, while Ruby puts on a memorable magic show.

Ms Benjamin does a good job in persuading the reader to suspend disbelief regarding the reality of the psychic: we are not surprised when the first three siblings die, nor are we surprised that the police would be investigating.  What I particularly liked about this novel are the emotional connections between the siblings: love, regret and sorrow.  The character of Simon is extremely well drawn: his sense of urgency to experience his homosexuality at the expense of self preservation is clear.  Klara is also a unique character for her fascination with and commitment to magic.

For me, Daniel and Varga are not as clearly defined.  For example, what drives Daniel to confront the old woman mystic with a gun, and what drives Varga to be so preoccupied with her stringent diet when she has little to show for it except longevity.  I am also not clear as to why and how Klara chose suicide, or the character and motivation of Eddie, the policeman.  There is a valid attempt to suffuse the novel with an air of mystery and magic: a very difficult task, which I think is only partially successful.

This is a unique story with potentially very interesting, diverse characters; it has mystery and emotional content; it has great promise.  I’m afraid the editor let the author down slightly.