Freelance Editing

There is an article on the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) website with the title ‘Freelance Editors: Find and Cultivate Top Notch Talent’ by Deb Vanasse who is a reporter with the IBPA Independent magazine.  Wikipedia says that: “Deb Vanasse is an American writer of more than a dozen books, many of which are set in Alaska. Her children’s books include six picture books and two young adult novels.”

Deb Vanasse

While the  article appears to be directed mainly toward publishers, it interested me, because I used an editor for the first time on Achieving Superpersonhood, and while the editor did a reasonably good job for me, I felt that she was sometimes missing the points I was making in the novel.  So, while I’m now committed to using an editor, I need a better process to select him/her.  An editor can help the author see problems in the construction – the substance –  of a novel that an author might miss.  So I am interested in getting some ideas about a selection process.  I should mention that the editorial work to which I’m referring here precedes the copy editing which comes just before preparation for printing and which includes grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc.

I also thought that there is material in the article which could be of interest to readers of this blog who wish to become freelance editors.

Ms Vanasse says, “Within the past decade, market changes have created a healthy supply of freelance editorial talent. But in the wide-open field of freelance editing, quantity is no guarantee of quality.  ‘There are more editors looking for freelance work since the Big Five have let a vast number go from full-time or part-time work,’ says Geoff Brown, acquisitions editor at Cohesion Press. ‘Combine that with the many self-published writers who think they can now work as editors because they put out a memoir or urban fantasy through Kindle Direct Publishing, and you have a lot of freelancers looking for work.’

“Freelance editor Amanda Spedding laments that some in her field fail to grasp the nuances of language or understand how it contributes to storytelling. ‘I know of a lot of authors who have been burned by people claiming to be editors when they have no right to call themselves such,’ she says. ‘It gives a bad name to those of us who have done the study, have put in the long hours, who continue to learn, and keep up to date. I hate defending my profession, but I’ve had to do so more these last few years.’  Some publishers even outsource editorial work overseas, a trend that puzzles freelance editor Kelly Lydick. ‘To me, this is a difficult thing to understand,’ she says. ‘Not just because it affects me personally and narrows the job market, but in particular how a non-native English speaker could have an expert command over grammar in the same way a native English speaker could. It is a genuine concern when the ultimate goal is to honour an author’s work.’  Lydick ranks those in her profession in terms of good, excellent, and superb. ‘A good editor will have a sense of content and how content can be organised so that it’s interesting and sparks something in a reader—hopefully inspiration,’ she says. ‘An excellent editor will have a good sense of audience and how a particular work will be received by a reader—and will tailor the work with this in mind. A superb editor will have a sense of the literary marketplace and how and why a book may do well in the market, knowing that it’s often a tough market to predict.’

“‘Talented freelancers also enjoy what they do’, says Renni Browne, founder of an editing service called The Editorial Department. ‘I’ve been at it for over 50 years, and I’ve never known a good one who found their work boring,’ she says. ‘Every author is different, every manuscript is different, every chapter, paragraph, sentence is different.’  Ms Browne likens the work of a developmental editors to that of an architect, suggesting where to place lines and paragraphs for maximum effect. Ross adds that good developmental editors use diagnostic skills to identify strengths and weaknesses, which they must then convey effectively to the author.  When they work at the line level, Renni likens editors to mimics who recognise an author’s distinct voice and then work to make it shine. Line editors also need a good ear, says Ross, Renni’s son. ‘By ear I mean sensitivity to the way language sounds, the way it flows, to the rhythm between dialogue and narrative,’ he says. ‘They’ll know what sounds real and what sounds phony, what sounds natural and what has a strained literary effect. And they probably won’t think about any of this.’

Internet searches, professional associations, and personal recommendations are among the resources for publishers to tap when seeking editorial talent.  An internet search led Crosstown Publishing’s Jim Laughren to The Editorial Department. ‘I saw they were owned by Renni Browne, author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a book I had read and been impressed with,’ Laughren says. ‘There are good bios of all their editors on the website, so I was able to select an editor who I felt was most appropriate for my particular book.’  Geoff Brown, acquisitions editor at Cohesion Press, discovered Spedding through a professional association of writers. After he confirmed her qualifications and experience and checked references from previous clients, he hired her to handle all editorial functions at his small press.  Professional associations may offer request-for-quote (RFQ) services that broadcast publisher needs to their members, notes Ross Browne. But depending on how the service is set up, he warns that the response can be overwhelming. ‘Editorial Freelancers Association has several thousand members, and you can expect several dozen members to respond to your RFQ,’ he says. ‘Thankfully, EFA also allows you to post a supplemental notice stating you have received sufficient replies.’   Other professional associations of freelance editors include the American Copyeditors Society and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors.

“Editorial relationships begin with an exchange of information between publisher and editor. Specifying the scope of services, scheduling, and compensation, a formal or informal agreement binds the relationship.  ‘When I’m exploring the possibility of a new project, I first get a sense of how well I communicate with the author and how well the author communicates with me,’ Lydick says. “’ also take a look at the content and see if it’s within my scope of understanding or, even better, expertise—a subject I know a lot about—and also whether I like the style of the writing.’

“At The Editorial Department, the business relationship begins as something of a matchmaking process in which Ross Browne works with the client to choose the best fit for the project from among the company’s 16 editors.  ‘We ask a lot of questions of our new clients at the intake stage about the manuscript and its author, including publication goals and intended readership, the author’s experience with writing and publishing, and where they feel they need the most help,’ he explains. ‘I read some of the manuscript to make sure it’s ready for our process and to get a feel for the writing so I can make a good match to an editor.’  After recommending an editor, Browne offers details of the services, costs, and time frame proposed for the project. He provides formal agreements upon request.

“Lydick affirms arrangements with work orders, project agreements and, if necessary, confidentiality agreements.”

 

Review: Midnight’s Children

Having finished the books I brought with me to Sicily, I went to the local bookstore which has a small selection of English language books, but I found nothing that intrigued me.  Looking on the bookshelves in the house, where guests occasionally leave books, I found Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.  Mitigating against reading it were its length (647 pages), and its author (I’ve read The Satanic Verses and admired it, but didn’t particularly enjoy it).  The main factor in favour of reading it is that it is twice the winner of the Booker of Bookers: the best Booker Prize winner in the last 25 years and 40 years.

First Edition

The story, written in 1981, deals with the recent colonial past of the Indian subcontinent, its independence and its partition into two states: India and Pakistan.  The narrator is Saleem Sinai who was born at midnight, the precise moment of India’s independence, and who is telling the story to his future wife, Padma.  Saleem is born with a huge, dripping nose with exceptional olfactory powers, such that he is able to read thoughts and identify intentions.  He learns that all the children born at the moment of independence are gifted with extraordinary powers, and he forms a Midnight Children’s Conference to try to influence events, including political developments and subcontinental wars.    In particular, allegorical style is used to critique the governance of Indira Gandhi during the ‘Emergency’ period.  Mrs Gandhi brought a suit against Rushdie, not for his slating of her administration, but for a single sentence criticising her family relationships; this sentence has been removed from current editions.  As well as the Conference, the tale involves Saleem’s extended family: mother, father, sister, grandparents, aunts, uncles and his infant son.  The style of the book is magical realism, not conforming to any particular genre, it is factual, comical, suspenseful, magical, surreal, historical and mythic.

In his introduction to the 2006 edition, Rushdie says, “In the West, people tended to read Midnight’s Children as a fantasy, while in India, people thought of it as pretty realistic, almost a history book.”  Though I have traveled to India three times, and know something of its history and culture, I read the book primarily as a fantasy, which is a shame: I feel I have missed an important dimension of the book.  It must be said that Salman Rushdie is an extraordinary story-teller: he has great imagination and invention, and sometimes I felt that he has invented himself into a corner – how can he get out of this one?- only to read a clever, smooth and sensible transition out.  His command of language is breath-taking, leaving one with the clearest possible image of what is happening.  Occasionally, though, I felt left out by his use of Hindi (or other native) words and expressions which are undoubtedly appropriate.  There were also times when I felt that his excursions into descriptive fantasy were too lengthy, and yet, long as it is, I wanted to read on.

So, for me Midnight’s Children is a literary masterpiece, and there is much to learn from Rushdie’s skill as a writer and a story-teller.  But did I enjoy it?  Not particularly, having missed too much of it,

Review: Living Buddha, Living Christ

My wife read this book by Thich Nhat Hanh, and when I ran out of handy books (we’re on holiday), I decided to read it.  The subtitle is “A revered meditation master explores two of the world’s great contemplative traditions.”

The author is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, born in 1926; he is active in the peace movement, promoting non-violent solutions to conflict.  He has written more than 100 books, including over 40 in English.  He is fluent in French, Chinese, Japanese, Sanskrit, Pali, English and Vietnamese.  He is based in Plum Village in Dordogne in the south of France, and has established Buddhist facilities in Vietnam, France, USA, Germany.  He is a Zen Master of Buddhism and a teacher of mindfulness (meditation).

Thich Nhat Hanh

This book does a very credible job bringing the teaching of Jesus Christ in line with the teaching of Buddha.  If these two men were to meet, one can suppose that they would have gotten along well.  More on this below.  Contact with the Holy Spirit is suggested to place one in a similar state of near nirvana to Buddhist mindfulness or meditation.  In fact there are references to the benefits of mindfulness on nearly every page, and although Thich Nhat Hanh is a master teacher of Buddhist mindfulness, and he has written books on the subject, there is no prescription for reaching near nirvana.

(When I was much younger, the company I worked for put its sales people on a course in meditation taught be a man named Jeff Coats.  The reason for the course was that sales people needed to have a constructive escape from the stress of selling.  I can recall reaching a meditative state only once, but it was quite sublime.)

The author takes issue with the Roman Catholic church on its implied position that it is the only true religion.  He makes the point that this can lean to real conflict and it inhibits constructive dialogue.  I agree.

While the ethos of Christianity and Buddhism may be similar, there are two important points on which the two diverge,  Buddhists do not believe in an immortal soul; Buddha taught that the soul, like the body is constantly evolving and therefore impermanent.

Thich Nhat Hanh says, “A good theologian is one who says almost nothing about God, even though the word ‘theology’ means ‘discourse about God’.  It is risky to talk about God.  The notion of God might be an obstacle for us to touch God as love, wisdom and mindfulness.” and “The Buddha was not against God.  He was only against notions of God that are mere mental constructions and do not correspond to reality, notions that prevent us from developing ourselves and touching ultimate reality.”  It seems to me that there are several problems with this.  Christians believe that Jesus, as part of the Trinity, is God, and He is not a ‘mental construction’.  Thich Nhat Hanh seems to accept the reality of the Holy Spirit, also part of the Trinity; is the Spirit a ‘mental construction’?  In the last sentence quoted above, the author uses the word ‘reality’ twice, without being clear about what ‘reality’ he is referring to.

When I imagine a meeting between Jesus and Buddha, I don’t think it would be entirely friendly.  In my scenario, Jesus chastises Buddha for being a ‘man of little faith’.

For this reason, I found Living Buddha, Living Christ to be a book of little value: it focuses on relatively minor similarities while ignoring the important differences.

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay was interviewed by Stephen Sackur on BBC’s Hard Talk a few weeks ago.  At the time, I was impressed by this man who lifted himself from ignorant child immigrant to intellectual star in the most adverse circumstances imaginable.

Lemn Sissay

Sissay’s mother, an immigrant from Ethiopia and pregnant with him, arrived in England in 1966.  He was born in Wigan, Lancashire in 1967.  The social worker responsible for his mother renamed him ‘Norman’ and gave him to foster parents with the suggestion that they should consider it an adoption, while his mother went to Bracknell to finish her studies.  She refused to sign the adoption papers, saying that she wanted her son back when she was more settled.  Social services ignored this.

Sissay’s adoptive parents, being strongly religious, wanted to rename him Mark after the Christian evangelist and give him their surname: Greenwood.  They were very strict parents, but kind in their way.  When Sissay reached the age of 12, he became somewhat difficult to manage.  The Greenwoods, who by then had three children of their own, decided he was possessed by the devil, turned him over to social services, and announced that they wanted nothing more to do with him.

From the age of 12 to 18, Sissay was held in four childrens’ homes where he was physically, emotionally and racially abused.  When he left the care system, he was given a flat with no bed; the head of social services said he should be taught a lesson, but what was the lesson?  Sissay asked to see his files from social services; he had no family, no papers and no photos.  His life history was contained in those files.  He was given only two documents.  One showed that his real name was Lemn Sissay.  The second was a letter his mother had written to the social worker when Sissay was one, pleading for his return.

He continued to request his files.  In 2015, after being told that the files were in remote storage and had been lost, he was given his files and an apology by Wigan Council.

In 1988, after a long search, he met his birth mother in Gambia where she was working for the UN.

At the age of 17, Sissay used his unemployment money to self publish a pamphlet of poetry .  He released his first book of poetry in 1988 at the age of 21 and he has been a full-time writer since the age of 24, performing internationally.  He has written eight books, and eleven plays, four for BBC radio, many featuring his maltreatment as a child.

In 2009, he was made an honorary doctor of letters by the University of Huddersfield and the following year he was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire).

In June 2015 he was elected Chancellor of the University of Manchester for a term of seven years.  In January 2016, Sissay wrote an article for The Guardian in which he said, “How a society treats those children who have no one to look after them is a measure of how civilised it is. It is scandalous that a prime minister should have to admit, as David Cameron did last autumn, that the care system ‘shames our country’ and that Ofsted should report that there are more councils judged as ‘inadequate’ than ‘good’ for their children’s services.”

Simon Hattenstone, a journalist with The Guardian, said, “Sissay is an old friend of mine. He is one of the funniest and warmest people I know, extraordinarily animated with a life-affirming laugh. He is also one of the most damaged people I know, suffering paralysing depression that forces him to withdraw into himself and disappear for months at a time, sometimes longer.”

During the Hard Talk interview, Sissay made the following observations which I think are memorable:

  • Our families are the repositories of our histories and therefor of our memory.  Without family we are amnesiac.
  • Forgiveness of the injuries we have suffered leads to healing of those injuries.
  • “Define me by my healing not by my suffering.”
  • “Forgiveness lets you live in the present.”

 

Review: The Kurdish Bike

I bought this book for two reasons: it won the gold medal for the best regional fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards, 2017 (I like to know what other indie authors are doing well); at because its setting in Kurdistan (which is part of Iraq, Iran and Turkey) interested me.

The author is Alesa Lightbourne, who, according to the biography included in her book “has been an English professor and teacher in six countries, lived on a sailboat, dined with Bedouins, and written for Fortune 50 companies.  She lives close to Monterey Bay in California where she loves to boogie board and ride a bicycle.”

Alesa Lightbourne

The Kurdish Bike is the fictional story of Theresa Turner’s experiences as a freelance English teacher working at a remote, but somewhat prestigious school on a hill top in a remote part of Kurdistan.  The school has strict regulation of teachers and students, very tight security – wealthy people’s children attend – and some odd characters teaching and working there.  Theresa obtains a bicycle, as her only means of exploration of the external world; in a nearby village, she meets Bezma a single woman of about 30 and her mother Ara, who is both wise and sour.  Bezma falls in love with Hevar, an egotistical, testosterone-fueled hunk of a man.  There is much to-ing and fro’-ing about the marriage, which eventually does take place.  Meanwhile, Theresa’s stateside finances fall apart owing to the existence of a spend-thrift ex-husband.  The schools manager, Madame, tempts Teresa to stay on for another year, in spite of some emotionally-disturbed management and teaching staff.  The students are, by and large, the only truly likable characters.  There are issues with FGM, which apparently runs at 95% in Kurdistan.  There are two suicides and one murder: plenty of stuff happens.

The Kurdish Bike gives a startlingly real picture of life, culture and the settings of Kurdistan: generally not a place to visit willingly, but the local characters, while extremely drawn in some cases are nonetheless real and captivating.  The story is generally well written.

My main concern is the last couple of chapters of the novel: they seem hurriedly written without supporting events.  One gets the feeling ‘there! everything’s sorted!’  Whereas, there are several crises building up in parallel, and are only resolved in the author’s afterword.  For example, Theresa seems to be thrown a lifeline by the Kurdish government when her contract with the school is cancelled.  This seems implausible since there was little groundwork laid for it.

The tone in the novel, written in the first person, shifts considerably from beginning to end.  It starts out being tentative and defensively emotional.  Toward the end, it becomes cocky, hip and aggressively emotional.  This is more an observation than a criticism; one wonders whether it was consciously intentional, because, to some extent, it is a natural transition for the main character.

One final comment about characters: none of them, with the notable exceptions of Pat, a fellow teacher, and Seema, a female student, are without major flaws, such that you wouldn’t want to spend much time with any of them.  The male characters are irredeemable idiots, a reflection, perhaps of Theresa’s attitude towards men, given the choice she made in a husband.

I think that The Kurdish Bike is a good read, and it’s hard to put down.  It is certainly thought-provoking about a very foreign culture.

The Nobel Delay

Amanda Craig has written an article in The Daily Telegraph on May 5 about the one-year delay in awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Her website says: “Amanda Craig is a British novelist, short-story writer and critic. Born in South Africa in 1959, she grew up in Italy, where her parents worked for the UN, and was educated at Bedales School and Clare College Cambridge”.  She has worked in advertising and PR before becoming a journalist and a novelist – currently working on her eighth novel.  Her last novel, Hearts And Minds, was long-listed for the Bailey’s Prize for Women’s Fiction.

Amanda Craig

In the Telegraph article she says:The world of literary prizes is such a vexed and vexatious one, and having rarely been listed for one myself, I may have a jaundiced view of their value.  The Nobel is, due to its sheer pecuniary value, supposedly the Big One, the Everest of achievement and the Moby Dick that has certain Booker winners checking their mobiles every year to see if they have won.

“Does any reader pick a novel because its author has won the prize?  The old saying that a camel is a horse designed by a committee so often comes to mind that those of us who love reading are often grateful to awards for making clear what or who is largely tedious and unreadable.  Let us not forget that the Swedish Academy rewarded Bob Dylan, who, though a revered singer-songwriter, is literature only to the wilder followers of Professor Christopher Ricks.

“What this absurd scandal – involving not a judge but the husband of a judge – obscures is that, although there are outstanding novelists, from Margaret Atwood to Philip Pullman, there is no great genius of literature currently writing in English.  Not one.  I remember the gloom that would descend of the board of the Society of Authors when, every year, we had to put forward a British author for consideration and could only come up with Harold Pinter.

“The trouble with all big prizes is that they lack definition.  What does ‘best’ mean?  Does it mean, as Jane Austin wrote in Northanger Abbey, a novel ‘in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest definition of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language’?

“Or does it mean a novel which is all about fine prose, but which dispenses with character, plot or even deep insight into the human condition?  Or, perhaps, indeed, a book in which wit and humour are wholly absent?

“All of us have encountered prize-winning novels like these, and all too often.”

As for me, I have, on several occasions, selected a novel by a Nobel winner, just to see what was special about it, and I have been disappointed.  I certainly agree with Ms Craig, and I have said so myself, that the remits of the major prizes need to be clarified, so that not everyone is trying to find that obscure and sometimes cranky, ‘best’  I rather like Jane Austin’s definition, though I would substitute ‘broadest’ for ‘happiest’.

My earliest suspicion that Ms Craig does, indeed, have a jaundiced view of the situation was confirmed by her penultimate sentence: “Usually, what the Nobel Prize seems to award above all is the possession of a penis.”

Why So Few Prizes for Female Writers?

In her Guardian article on 23 January, Stephanie Merritt argues that female authors ‘rule literary fiction’, but receive few prizes.  This complaint, while it may be justified, is poorly documented.

Ms Merritt, born in 1974 in Surrey, is a literary critic, author and feature writer for the Observer and Guardian.  She read  English at Queens College and graduated from Cambridge University in 1996.  Her first novel, Gaveston, won the Betty Trask Award from the Society of Authors in 2002.  She has since written six historical novels featuring Giordano Bruno under the pseudonym S J Parris, and a memoir called The Devil Within, which was shortlisted for the Mind Book Award, about her experience coping with depression.

Stephanie Merritt at the 2016 Hay Festival

She says: “On the face of it, the revelation that female writers dominated the UK bestseller lists in 2017 might seem cause for celebration.  According to the Bookseller, only one man, Haruki Murakami made it to the top ten that saw a generation of female writers, including Sarah Perry, Naomi Alderman and Zadie Smith displace venerable fixtures of the literary landscape such as Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan and Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro.

“But does this really represent a dramatic shift in the recognition of female literary talent?  The Bookseller list was compiled, by its own admission, according to a narrow definition of ‘literary’, limiting its choices principally to authors who have won, or been shortlisted for, major awards.

“Given the well-documented bias of the big prizes in favour of male authors – in 2015, the author Kamila Shamsie established that less than 40% of the titles submitted by publishers for the Booker in the previous five years had been by women – this results in a very small pool of eligible names.

“If you were to take at face value the discrepancy in coverage in major newspapers and journals, you might conclude that men are simply producing more ‘serious’ fiction than women.  But, as Francine Prose pointed out twenty years ago in her essay Scent of a Woman’s Ink, this is largely to do with an inherent bias in the way men’s and women’s wok is perceived.  When a male author writes about a family, it is regarded as social commentary; when a woman does, it’s a domestic tale.

“As recently at 2015, the author Catherine Nichols wrote about the experience of having her first novel universally rejected, only to meet with a very different response when she resubmitted it under a male pseudonym.”

I understand Ms Merritt’s complaint, and it is probably quite just, but this article doesn’t prove it.  She says that 9 of the top ten literary writers in 2017 were women, but women don’t receive a fair share of prizes.  Yet she says that one has to be a prize winner or shortlisted for a prize to make the list at all.

She says that less than 40% of the titles submitted for Booker consideration were by women.  All things being equal, this number should be 50%, and therefore, in my opinion, 40% does not result in a ‘very small pool’.

She refers to the ‘well documented bias’ of big prizes in favour of male authors.  It would have been useful to her case if she had cited some specifics.

That said, the points made by Francine Prose and Catherine Nichols appear to point to an injustice.

Review: Waiting for the Last Bus

I saw an announcement of the publication of Waiting for the Last Bus in the newspaper, and thought I would read it as I am working on a new novel about religion, death and growing old.  I was further attracted to Waiting by the fact that it is written by the former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway.

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Richard Holloway

Holloway, clergyman, writer and broadcaster, was born in Scotland in 1933, educated at Kelham and Edinburgh Theological Colleges and Union Theological Seminary. From 1958 to 1986 he served as curate, vicar and rector at parishes in Scotland and the US.  In 1986 he became Bishop of Edinburgh and in 1992, Primus (presiding bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church); he resigned both positions in 2000, and adopted an agnostic world view.

Waiting is a brief (156 page), erudite book filled with poetic quotations, and it reads like a rambling valedictory.  It has tones of human optimism as well as pessimism in the loss of loved ones and the doubt of existence after death.  Holloway recalls many experiences of ministering to the bereaved and the dying, ranging from the uplifting to the tragic, but all genuine and thought-provoking.  Holloway quotes from scripture, not to make a point about faith, but to strengthen an assertion about human nature. The spectrum of issues which Holloway addresses is virtually all-inclusive: the history of attitudes toward death, heaven and hell, aging, the fight for survival, the imperative of death, religion as the human response to existence, predestination, forgiveness, near-death experiences, reincarnation, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, cryo-preservation, memory and remembrance, the death of a child, the meaning of the universe, obituaries, and grief.

For me, one observation I could take away is Holloway’s assertion that people can be divided into four categories by religious or agnostic vs fearful or acceptance of death.  I put myself in the religious and accepting category (though with a twinge of concern).

And I would have liked to hear more from Holloway about his personal beliefs and why they are what they are.  My curiosity is precipitated by his renunciation of formal religion.  OK, thanks for the in-depth discussion of the issues, now, tell us, wise old man, ex-clergyman, and thoughtful writer and philosopher, what is your opinion?

I have no hesitation in recommending this book.  It is thought-provoking, well-written, balanced in its message and not too long.

 

The Urge to Write

My wife called my attention to Elena Ferrante’s weekly column in The Guardian.  (That tells you something about our respective political leanings: she, being more liberal, is a frequent visitor to The Guardian, while I read The Telegraph.)

Elena Ferrante is one of my wife’s favourite writers; she, too, is Italian and has written the Neapolitan Novels, a four-volume work about two perceptive and intelligent girls from Naples.  The real identity of Elena Ferrante – a pseudonym – has been the subject of intense debate and speculation.

In her column on May 12, Ms Ferrante wrote: “If you feel the need to write, you absolutely should write. Don’t trust those who say: I’m telling you for your own good, don’t waste time on that. The art of discouraging with kind words is among the most widely practised. Nor should you believe those who say: you’re young, you lack experience, wait. We shouldn’t put off writing until we’ve lived enough, read sufficiently, have a desk of our own in a room of our own with a garden overlooking the sea, have been through intense experiences, live in a stimulating city, retreat to a mountain hut, have had children, have traveled extensively.

“Publishing, yes: that can certainly be put off; in fact, one can decide not to publish at all. But writing should in no case be postponed to an “after”. When writing is our way of being in the world, it continuously asserts itself over the countless other aspects of life: love, study, a job. It insists even when there’s no paper and pen or anything, because we’re worshipers of the written word and our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down. Writing, in short, is always there, urgent, and distances even the people we love, even our children who ask us to play.

“The sense of guilt arrives afterwards, when we’re done. If it arises before that, if we can’t repress it – if, in other words, the responsibilities of affection prevail – well, maybe that’s a sign that writing doesn’t have sufficient power, that our vocation is fragile and that, fortunately (yes, fortunately), on the human plane we are better than artists, most of whom are so full of themselves, so egocentric.

“But be careful: we have to refrain from taking our barren, proud, cruel creative deliriums for a mark of quality. The yearning to give written form to the world isn’t a guarantee of good literature. Writing, even when we have a strong vocation, doesn’t necessarily produce memorable work.

“Oh, one can be successful, of course, transforming the fury of writing into a lucrative job. But one can never contain writing within a professional framework, complete with résumé, salary, bonuses. Success and the bit of prestige that comes with it prove nothing, especially if one’s literary ambitions are high. We remain dissatisfied and, successful or not, the writing will continue to remind us that it’s a tool with which one can extract much more than we have been able to. The exercise lasts obsessively, desperately, all our lives. And if others say to us, it’s enough now, you’ve given all you could give, we don’t trust that, we shouldn’t trust it. Until our last breath, we’ll torment ourselves with the suspicion that, just at the moment when we seem to have won, we have lost.”

Many of Ms Ferrante’s comments resonate with me.  When I started writing my first novel, Fishing in Foreign Seas, I wasn’t planning to write a novel.  I thought it would be interesting to write down a Sicilian romance, bits of which I dreamt.  But, I couldn’t stop.  It became a whole story that was crying to be told.  Since then, I have learned a great deal about the craft of writing, which is much more that having a lovely story and good English language skills.  (I’ve mentioned these skills in earlier posts.)  Suffice it to say that gaining skills does nothing to extinguish the longing to write – if anything, the longing becomes a craving,

Ms Ferrante says, “Our minds dictate sentences even in the absence of tools with which to set them down.”  How true!  I find myself lying in bed thinking about how to resolve a character’s particular dilemma, when, suddenly, a near perfect piece of language will come to mind, and my task, hours later, becomes the recreation of that piece.

Poet Laureate

When I think of a poet laureate, the image of an ancient bearded Greek with a wreath of laurel on his head comes to mind.  The tradition was revived in Italy in the 14th century.  Nowadays, some twenty countries and eighteen US states have poet laureates.  Wikipedia says that the laureate “is a poet officially appointed by a government or conferring institution, typically expected to compose poems for special events and occasions”.

In the UK the appointment is made is made by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister.   The role does not entail any specific duties, but there is an expectation that the holder will write verse for significant national occasions.  The position dates from 1668 when John Dryden was appointed by Charles II.  Traditionally, in addition to a financial stipend the appointee received a quantity of good wine.  The current UK poet laureate is Carol Ann Duffy, who was appointed in 2009 for a fixed ten year term.  Her compensation is £5,750 and a barrel of sherry.

In the United States, the Library of Congress appoints a ‘Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress’ annually.  The laureate receives a stipend of $35,000 per year, serves from October to May, and is given the responsibility of overseeing an ongoing series of poetry readings and lectures at the library, and a charge to promote poetry.  No other duties are specified.  The current laureate is Tracy K Smith, who in April, 2018 was nominated for a second term by the librarian.  Ms Smith, born in 1972, is a graduate of Harvard and Columbia Universities, has published three collections of poetry, and is currently professor of creative writing at Princeton.  Her poetry collection Life on Mars won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 2011.

Tracy K Smith

Ms Smith was interviewed in the April 9 issue of Time Magazine.  She was asked why poetry matters today.  Se said, “Poetry requires us to be humble and beholden to something other than our own opinion.  That’s important.  There’s too much in our 21st century lives that is telling us we’re the most important thing, that our initial gut reaction is incredibly valuable and not vulnerable, and that our opinions as consumers are more important than anything else about us.  A poem says, ‘No, no.  You have feelings  You have fears.  You have questions.  Let’s get back to the voice and the vocabulary of being human.”

“What do you feel is your duty as poet laureate?”

“I think it is my duty to say, ‘This is something everyone has permission to do.  A poem is not something you need an advanced degree to comprehend.'”

“What’s next for you?”

“I’m co-translating a contemporary Chinese poet called Yi Lei.  And I’m working on a libretto for an opera with Greg Spears, about land held by descendants of people who were enslaved on that land, and what happens when that land becomes extremely valuable.”

Ms Smith strikes me as a person I would like to sit and talk with about the creative process and how she teaches it.  She is clearly quite an accomplished artist at a relatively young age, and I particularly like her answer to why poetry matters today, because, I think the same answer applies to literature, generally.