On Writer’s Digest (16-04-22), bestselling author Robert Whitlow talks about how he combines writing what he knows with writing what he’s passion about—faith and law—and how his characters get to that crossroad.
Robert Whitlow is a film-maker and a best-selling author of fifteen legal thrillers. He is also a contributor to a short story The Rescuers, a story included in the book What The Wind Picked Up by The ChiLibris Ring. In 2001, he won the Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction, for his novel The Trial.
Mr Whitlow says, ” My newest novel, Relative Justice, sits squarely in the middle of the crossroads of faith, law, and writing. Well, maybe faith and law. The characters leave the writing part to me. But the journey referred to in the title of this article is often lived out by the fictitious people who inhabit the pages of the stories I write. How do my characters get to this crossroads? What are the rewards of the journey?
Let’s start with the law, not faith. In the real world, ethical attorneys (and the vast majority of lawyers I’ve known over the past 43 years as an attorney are ethical) don’t knowingly misrepresent the facts or the law. They strongly advocate for their client’s recollection of what took place and why the law should be applied in a certain way, but they don’t make up facts or evidence to deceive a jury or mislead the court. When writing about the law, believability of character is linked to accurate portrayal of the legal process.
One of the axioms repeated countless times at writer’s conferences is “write what you know.” Knowledge empowers creativity. By writing based on knowledge, an author can craft a story with nuance, texture, and freedom from stereotypes. I’m from the South. I’ve lived my entire life in Georgia, South Carolina, or North Carolina. My professional career has been spent as an attorney. I write southern, legal dramas, and I populate my novels with people drawn from the cultural soup I’ve eaten since I was a small child.
So, when writing a novel containing legal elements, I enter the creative arena with an awareness about the world of the law—trials, investigation, depositions, motions, client relationships, law office politics, etc. That knowledge is obtained either by direct experience, observation, or research. These are all a form of “knowing.” Only then can a story achieve the acceptance awarded by a discerning reader. Courtroom time can be compressed, cross-examination shortened, and shocking surprises inserted. But no writer wants a reader to stop in the middle of a chapter and inwardly think, “There’s no way anything like that could happen in real life!” Such a tragic moment takes the reader out of the world the author created and boots them into a place from which he or she may never return.
Relative Justice is a story about a small, southern law practice consisting of family members preparing to battle a behemoth drug company. It’s a David versus Goliath scenario. Every lawyer has a few rocks in his sling, but do the attorneys in the novel have the right ammunition and skill needed to slay a giant? If not, is there another way to legally bring down an imposing enemy? That’s the law part of the journey.
A second, less common axiom for writers is “write what you’re passionate about.” That’s equally important. For me, that means incorporating faith into the lives of my characters. Not every character, but faith is strategically interwoven into the lives of some of the people who inhabit my books. And because the world of faith is someplace I “know,” based on experience, observation, and research, it’s possible to achieve the goal of credibility. The reader may not agree with a character’s expression of faith (neither do I in every instance), but what a character believes and how it impacts life can be told in a way that fits with the flow of the novel to the intersection for faith and writing.
To safely arrive at this intersection, it’s necessary to avoid writing what I call “a crusader novel,” a story in which the writer has an agenda or message that the characters can’t carry. This doesn’t just happen in the Christian fiction genre. There are crusader novels written about many topics: environmentalism, race relations, and political agendas, to name a few. A book is relegated to this category when the author’s opinion becomes intrusive (preachy) and overrides the capacity of the characters to convey the message in a legitimate way consistent with who they are.
There’s nothing wrong with characters having opinions about a topic. But the writer must provide them with the background, education, or life circumstances that can justify what they believe and express. In Relative Justice, there are characters with various levels of faith or no faith at all. I take them as I find them and discover where a faith journey might believably take them, just as it occurs all the time in real life.”
This non-fiction work, subtitled The Art and Soul of Building Peace, was recommended to me by a colleague who is a peacebuilder. Since I am a trustee (chairman) of the Peaceful Change initiative, a UK peacebuilding charity, I felt I should read it. The book confirms much of what I have learned on the subject, and it explains why so many in the general public (including those who should know better) misunderstand it.
The author is John Paul Lederach, who is an American Professor of International Peacebuilding at Notre Dame University and a Distinguished Scholar at Eastern Mennonite University. He has a PhD in sociology from the University of Colorado. His academic work draws on his experience in the field as a mediator, negotiator, peacebuilding practitioner, trainer and consultant. At the international level, this has involved input into peace processes in Somalia, Northern Ireland, Nicaragua, Columbia and Nepal. He has written widely on conflict resolution and mediation. He is a Mennonite Christian. He currently works for the foundation Humanity United.
Lederach describes ‘Moral Imagination’ in terms of three parameters: an Awakening – the capacity to see things at a deeper level and beyond what initially meets the eye; a kind of Aesthetic Creativity which surpasses logic; and Transcendence, the refusal to be bound by the existing views of perceived reality. Having read the book, I would define Moral Imagination as: the application of God-given creativity, planned or accidental, so as to achieve a unique and valuable amelioration of a complex human problem. I say God-given, because its source is genuinely inspirational. Sometimes it is accidental – what Lederach refers to as serendipity. It is unique because every human situation is different. And it is rarely a ‘solution’ because complex human problems are almost never solved in one go.
Lederach says that there are four disciplines which are necessary for peacebuilding. These are relationship, paradoxical curiosity, creativity and risk. In peacebuilding it is essential to be able to visualise the complex web of relationships which make up any particular human society, because it is the dynamics of those relationships which can lead to conflicts. Paradoxical curiosity approaches social realities with a respect for complexity, a refusal resort to dualistic truths (e.g. good vs evil). Risk is the ability to step into the unknown without a guarantee of success or even safety.
Time is an important parameter in peacebuilding. Humanity has developed the capability of developing mechanisms and agreements for stopping violent conflict, but we have little capacity for building and sustaining a stable, peaceful society in an unstable environment. What is required for the latter task is the creation of a flexible, effective platform, which houses dynamic processes and patience.
An effective peacebuilder exhibits constructive pessimism in order to be aware of distrust in society, because distrust can be glossed over ignored, and violence will resume.
Lederach tells us that creativity in peacebuilding is more of an art than a technique. In this sense it is akin to writing haiku.
In terms of relationships, the peacebuilder must learn to think of them as a dynamic web which exists in all sorts of social spaces and which include unexpected interdependencies. Thoughtful, unhurried observation of this human web is essential.
Critical mass is not an effective test of numbers of people required to make a change successful, because the critical mass can override a vocal minority, and distrust is renewed. It is better to have a ‘yeast strategy’ in which small numbers of effective and trusted communicators become distributed throughout the society.
In modern, Western society we tend to think of time in the order of past, present, future. But in many societies, the past can lie ahead in the sense that the recent past, including the legacies of those recently deceased, can not only affect our futures, but our sense of who we are as a people and individuals. It is counterproductive in these societies to adopt a ‘forget the past’ solution. The past must be included in the future.
Finally, Lederach says that finding voice is an essential act in peacebuilding. Neglected members of society must also find their voices, and the peacebuilder him/herself must find their own, authentic voice, shaped by a sense of vulnerability and an appetite for risk.
Judging by the attitudes of many philanthropists, who view peacebuilding as a low return investment and one where achievements are difficult to measure, much of Lederach’s peacebuilding is not understood. What he is saying is that Moral Imagination Peacebuilding is the only way to achieve lasting peace in conflict-affected regions. Military solutions, mediated deals and other top-down solutions will ultimately unravel because they fail to address the underlying causes of the conflict. MIP takes time, patience, commitment and money, but the ultimate costs of continuing conflict are far greater.
This book should be read by every president, prime minister and secretary of state. And by those of us who wish for a more peaceful world.
I bought this book on a whim, knowing nothing about Bill Browder or his earlier best seller, Red Notice. Browder is an American-born, British financier who made his name and fortune in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Russian companies were being privatised.
Starting with $25 million in seed capital, he was able to grow Hermitage Capital to $4.5 billion in assets held. In 2005, Browder was blacklisted from Russia as a ‘threat to national security’. He claimed that his activist investor work was interfering in the flow of money between corrupt bureaucrats and their businessmen accomplices. In raids by corrupt Russian officials in 2007, the corporate seals of Hermitage were stolen, allowing the thieves to apply for and receive a corporate tax refund of £230 million. Remaining in Russia to look after Hermitage’s interests, Browder’s Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky was arrested, charged with tax evasion and died in prison after mistreatment. In retaliation, Browder persuaded the US Congress to pass the Magnitsky Act, which provides for Russian human rights activists to be sanctioned. A similar act has been passed by the European Union and other countries. Browder testified that President Putin is “the biggest oligarch in Russia and the richest man in the world”, building a fortune by threatening Russian oligarchs and getting a 50% cut of their profits. He said, “I estimate that he has accumulated $200 billion of ill-gotten gains from these types of operations over his 17 years in power. He keeps his money in the West and all of his money in the West is potentially exposed to asset freezes and confiscation. Therefore, he has a significant and very personal interest in finding a way to get rid of the Magnitsky sanctions.”
The book covers the period 2008 to 2018, but it begins with Browder’s attempted arrest in Madrid in 2018 by Spanish police on a politically motivated Interpol arrest warrant which indicated that Browder was wanted in Moscow for ‘fraud’. At the time, he was in Madrid to meet with Spain’s top anti-corruption prosecutor. Through the rest of the fast-moving book, one is introduced to dozens of corrupt Russian officials and intermediaries, their actions and their photographs. There are many instances of Russian citizens who die under suspicious circumstances after becoming a threat to the official Russian line. One also meets the sleazy Western lawyers and intermediaries, who will do whatever Russia asks in exchange for a big payday. During his travels to testify and to promote the Magnitsky Act, Browder had to deal with constant interference, kidnapping threats, honey traps, defamation, threats to his family, and counter suits. Russian officials often turned the truth on its head to counter a threat. For example, a claim was made that Browder was actually the one who arranged the $230 million tax refund and took the money. Russian laws are ignored and contravened by officials.
As one reads the book, the reader feels that he is reliving what happened in real time. There is minute-to-minute detail of crucial events and the play of emotions.
After reading this book, and observing the events in Ukraine, I believe that the Kremlin and Putin are a major threat to Western democracy and the welfare of the Russian people.
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.”
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.
Marc Chacksfield has a post on Shortlist.com in which he identifies the 40 worst (or best?) villains in literature.
“As Editor in Chief of Shortlist, Marc likes nothing more than to compile endless lists of an evening by candlelight. He started out life as a movie writer for numerous (now defunct) magazines and soon found himself online – editing a gaggle of gadget sites, including TechRadar, Digital Camera World and Tom’s Guide UK. At Shortlist you’ll find him mostly writing about movies and tech, so no change there then.”
Marc says, “To have a hero, you need a villain. And in the annals of literary history, there have been some downright scoundrels, to put it mildly – as this best literary villains guide showcases. No deed is too dark, no action too despicable for this list of utter reprobates. You should feel very very glad that these dastardly characters are confined to the pages of the books that contain them.
1. Shere Khan (The Jungle Book) Author: Rudyard Kipling He had a tough start in life, being born with a crippled leg, and given a derogatory nickname by his own mother (“Lungri – the lame one”), but that doesn’t excuse Shere Khan becoming the villainous creature that he did. Scheming to disrupt the Wolf Pack and claim the life of young Mowgli, this evil tiger will stop at nothing to obtain his prey. A tough upbringing is no excuse you know (his Dad was probably quite nice).
2. Professor Moriarty (The Final Problem)Author: Arthur Conan Doyle The good detective’s arch-nemesis ruled the criminal underground of London and this evil mastermind was one of the few who actually rivaled Sherlock’s intellectual capacity. Ruthless, vindictive and remorseless, he will stop at nothing to destroy Sherlock. One critic has epitomised Moriarty as “crime itself”, whilst Sherlock himself describes him as the “Napoleon of Crime.”
3. Norman Bates (Psycho)Author: Robert Bloch A woman is found dead in Bates’ apartment. Bates is convinced it is his mother, but it is revealed that Mrs Bates committed suicide years earlier, taking her lover with her. In actual fact, Bates’ villainy is revealed in a dark secret: he was the one who killed his mother and her lover. His dissociative personality disorder causes him to assume the identity of his mother, Norma, who was the one who murdered Mary. Here’s the kicker: he stole and preserved her corpse, dressed up in her clothes and spoke to himself in her voice. Psycho indeed.
4. Count Dracula (Dracula)Author: Bram Stoker Vampire lovers of late might contest this one, but Count Dracula is the ultimate blood-sucking villain. Different from traditional Eastern European vampires, Dracula’s charm is what makes him all the more villainous; enticing victims by seducing them, only to inflict a fatal bite.
5. Hannibal Lecter (Red Dragon)Author: Thomas Harris Not only a psychotic murderer, Hannibal Lecter took it one more step too far by sinking his teeth into cannibalism. Having been consulted as a psychiatrist by the FBI on a series of murders, Lecter helps agent Will Graham through the case before revealing that it was him who committed the crimes. Following a lengthy incarceration in a mental facility, Lecter is approached by Graham to catch another culprit by the name of the Tooth Fairy; Lecter finds him and leads the murderer to Graham’s home, with an order to kill him and his family.
6. Captain Hook (Peter Pan And Wendy)Author: JM Barrie He’s got a hook for a hand, he’s a pirate, and he hates Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up. There you go. Apparently, he’s also apparently the only man who Long John Silver ever feared. He loathes Peter Pan for hacking off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile, as well as for Peter and the Lost Boy’s innate moral goodness. He captures Wendy, challenging Peter Pan to a final duel. He gets an ending that is well and truly deserved.
7. Agatha Trunchbull (Matilda)Author: Roald Dahl Children’s books get all the best villains, and Roald Dahl created more than most. The worst of a despicable bunch is Mrs Agatha Trunchbull, headmistress of Crunchem Hall Elementary School. A cruel sadist who hates children (ideal for a teacher), tortures them in a glass-and-nail-filled cupboard known as “The Chokey” and torments her nicest member of staff, Ms Honey, Trunchbull is a true bully, and a fantastic villain.
8. Nurse Ratched (One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest) Author: Ken Kesey A true monster of a woman, Nurse Ratched is every hospital nightmare rolled into one ultra-villainous character. Ruling over a mental institution with absolute power, she uses fear, humiliation and brutality to abuse her vulnerable patients – at least, until Randle McMurphy arrives. Next time you have a slightly cold, unfriendly nurse remember – it could be a whole lot worse.
9. Annie Wilkes (Misery) Author: Stephen King Mentally unstable Annie takes Paul Sheldon in after he breaks both his legs in an accident. As the writer of her favourite novels, Wilkes’ reveals a psychotic obsession for him and his books, taking him hostage, subjecting him to psychological and physical torture and forcing him to write his latest novel how she wants it. It’s also revealed that she’s an infamous serial killer. She stabs a state trooper with a wooden cross and runs him over with a lawnmower, after having chopped Sheldon’s foot off with an axe, setting it alight with a blowtorch.
10. Bill Sykes (Oliver Twist)Author: Charles Dickens A cruel and vicious man, a criminal and murderer, Sykes’ lawless behaviour leads him into a life of destitution and immorality, taking up with a prostitute and carrying out petty crimes. Despite Nancy’s love for him, Sykes brutally murders her when he thinks she has betrayed him. The murder is especially graphic and gruesome, especially for a Dickens novel.
11. Sauron (Lord Of The Rings)Author: JRR Tolkien Tyrannical ring bearer Sauron’s insatiable lust for power provides the foundation for his villainy in the Lord of The Rings trilogy. Desperately seeking the tenth ring in order to bind the magical power that surrounds it, Sauron will stop at nothing to achieve his evil goal, including torturing the little critter Gollum to find the missing ring’s whereabouts. He’s the all-seeing eye and a source of true evil and villainy to the arbiters of good.
12. Patrick Bateman (American Psycho)Author: Bret Easton Ellis To call Patrick Bateman a villain is probably underplaying it a little. A wealthy and successful investment banker yes – but also a violent psychopath, whose hobbies include drug addiction, murder, rape, cannibalism, mutilation and necrophilism. Of course, whether or not any of the violent acts described actually happen or are just figments of his own imagination is open to debate, but this is his story and he is the undisputed villain of it, so in he goes to the list.
13. Humbert Humbert (Lolita)Author: Vladimir Nabokov Humbert, the narrator of Lolita, uses wordplay and humour in his writing, whilst also seemingly expressing regret for many of his actions, but the fact remains that he is a paedophile, taking the young 12-year-old Dolores, aka Lolita, and leading her into a life of abuse at his hands. Nabokov’s genius lies in making us almost sympathise with him – but he remains a undisputed villain.
14. Lord Voldemort (Harry Potter) Author: J.K. Rowling A foe so fearsome that people are scared to say his name out loud. ‘You-Know-Who’, ‘The Dark Lord’ and ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’ are some of his more snappy nicknames, but we shouldn’t joke, for Rowling herself described him as “the most evil wizard for hundreds and hundreds of years” – that’s pretty evil. Harry Potter’s nemesis and a psychopath with a skull-like face, red eyes and snake-like slits for nostrils, he’s unlikely to win any beauty contests: a vile and villainous creature all round.
15. Iago (Othello) Author: William Shakespeare Iago, the scoundrel, hates Othello so much that he tricks him into believing that his wife is having an affair with his Lieutenant. The sneaky devil plans a vendetta against him, driving Othello to kill his own wife. Noted as one of Shakespeare’s most sinister villains, Iago possesses carefully nurtured qualities of deception and manipulation. You might not shake in terror if you met him in a dark alley, but if you’ve wronged him, you’d pay.
16. Alec D’Urberville (Tess Of The D’Urbervilles)Author: Thomas Hardy “I was born bad, and I have lived bad, and I shall die bad, in all probability.” Evidence: he takes a liking to innocent, country bumpkin Tess, entices her into his home and forcibly steals her virginity in the mist, branding her impure. He then manipulates her into thinking her one true love isn’t returning to her. But it’s fine because Tess gets her own back in the end. Doesn’t make him any less of a bastard though.
17.Long John Silver (Treasure Island)Author: Robert Louis Stevenson One legged pirate Long John Silver was the first man to instil fear in Captain Flint. A manipulative and fearful pirate, Silver gains the trust of protagonist Jim Hawkins, only to reveal himself to be the leader of a mutiny, planning to murder the ship’s officers once the treasure is found. Jim catches Silver murdering Tom, one of the crew’s loyal seaman. Gives pirates a bad, if not rather fitting, name.
18. Kevin (We Need To Talk About Kevin) Author: Lionel Shriver That Kevin is the sociopath behind a school massacre should be evidence enough for his villainy. He also hates his mother, manipulates a girl into gouging her eczema affected skin, and it’s implied that he is behind an accident in which his sister loses an eye. Not exactly the makings of a President. His remorselessness is eerie as his mother visits him in prison, trying to understand why he killed all those children. His lack of justification is chilling – a testament to his truly villainous qualities.
19. Nils Bjurman (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)Author: Stieg Larsson This guy could possibly be one of the worst (or best) modern super villains. After the guardian of Lisbeth Sander becomes seriously ill, Nils Bjurman is assigned as her new guardian. He is a sexual sadist who manipulates Lisbeth, only allowing her access to her funds if she performs sexual acts. After a horrific rape scene (which Lisbeth tapes as collateral), Lisbeth gets her own back by tattooing “I’m a sadistic rapist pig” on his stomach. A loathsome villain at his best.
20. Cathy Ames (East Of Eden)Author: John Steinbeck Described in the novel as a “psychic monster”, and having a “malformed soul”, it’s safe to say that Cathy Ames is a high-ranking villain. From a young age, it is clear that Cathy is sexually depraved, causing harm to anyone she holds a relationship with. She manipulates men by using her promiscuity and sexual identity against them; she accuses two young boys of raping her as well as leading her Latin professor to suicide with her wily ways. Perhaps one of the worst events is Cathy’s attempt at a primitive abortion using knitting needles. When she fails and gives birth to two sons, she feels nothing for them. She poisons her beneficiary and turns her brothel into a sadistic sex den.
I suppose we might want to revise the order in which these villains are presented, maybe dropping some and adding a few others, but this list makes an interesting starting point.
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.
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.
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:
There is an article by Yohannes Lowe in The Daily Telegraph of June 1st with the above title.
Yohannes Lowe works as an apprentice for The Telegraph and won the National Council for the Training of Journalists apprentice of the year award in 2019. He says, “I have always enjoyed talking to people and finding out about their personal stories. That interest combined with a hunger for current affairs, made journalism a natural fit. But with no formal writing experience, I took up a teaching assistant role after graduating from university in 2017. It did not last more than six weeks. I then looked for reporting jobs. An NCTJ apprenticeship was vital for training me in the basic skills of the profession, allowing me to be competent in a national newsroom with little formal experience. The apprenticeship, which included regular teaching sessions at PA Training was great as it taught me to write shorthand quickly and the basics of media law and court reporting.”
The article says, “Budding authors have been inundating publishers with manuscripts during lockdown, with dystopian novels being among the most commonly offered. The time freed up by working hours from home has given many aspiring authors more hours in the day to finish off their book proposals.
Avon, a commercial fiction division of HarperCollins, has seen ‘unagented submissions’ increase threefold between March and May compared with the same time last year. They have received a large number of crime and thriller novels from writers who are drawing their inspiration from their pandemic-induced social surroundings. Literary agents, which represents writers and help send their scripts to publishers, have also seen a growing trend for dystopian themes.
Sarah Revivis-Smith, a fiction reader at the Eve WhiteLiterary Agency, said, “I would say we’re seeing lots of people working out their fears of the current situation through dystopias, with submissions that either explore Covid-19 overtly or have an unknown virus or disease spreading through humanity.”
The UK’s publishing industry reached record sales of £5.7 billion in 2018, consolidating its position as the globe’s top book exporter.
Literary agencies are expecting even more manuscripts to flood in by autumn from those who started in late March.
Sam Copeland, director of RCW literary Agency, which boasts Zadie Smith and Kazuo Ishiguro among its published authors, added: “Submissions have continued to be relentless during lockdown, increasing from around 80 a week to 100 . . . I am expecting that number to rise again still further, though, with all the people who have been writing their novel in lockdown. ‘I have had the odd Covid quick book in, funny books, that sort of thing, and some canny authors have tried twisting their pitch to reflect the lockdown. But I think the main rush of Covid books is still to come.'”
There is an article, “Poetry Sales Soar as Political Millennials Search for Clarity”, in the January 21 issue of The Guardian by Donna Ferguson, which I found interesting. Donna Ferguson is an award winning freelance journalist specialising in finance. (Perhaps she knows something about literature, as well.)
“A passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018. Statistics from UK book sales monitor Nielsen BookScan show that sales grew by just over 12% last year, for the second year in a row. In total, 1.3m volumes of poetry were sold in 2018, adding up to £12.3m in sales, a rise of £1.3m on 2017. Two-thirds of buyers were younger than 34 and 41% were aged 13 to 22, with teenage girls and young women identified as the biggest consumers last year.
“Rupi Kaur, a 26-year-old Canadian poet with 3.4 million followers on Instagram, leads the bestsellers list and was responsible for almost £1m of sales. “You tell me to quiet down / cause my opinions make me less beautiful,” she writes in Milk and Honey, the No 1 bestselling collection of 2018, “but I was not made with a fire in my belly / so I could be put out.” (It’s interesting that at least one poet is able to make a decent living.)
“Andre Breedt, for Nielsen, said that sales were booming because in times of political upheaval and uncertainty, people turn to poems to make sense of the world: “Poetry is resonating with people who are looking for understanding. It is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty.” He added that the form’s brevity also meant it could be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.
“In the immediate aftermath of the Manchester bombing, Tony Walsh’s reading of his poem, This is the Place, at Manchester town hall was shared thousands of times online and became instantly famous worldwide. Ben Okri’s poem, Grenfell Tower, June 2017, written in the aftermath of the fire, followed a similar trajectory.
“At these moments of national crisis, the words that spread and the words that were heard were not the words of politicians, they were the words of poets,” said Susannah Herbert, director of the Forward Arts Foundation, which runs the Forward prizes for poetry and National Poetry Day. “Almost everything a politician says is incredibly forgettable. There is a hunger out there for more nuanced and memorable forms of language.” People wanted to cut through the verbiage of Brexit to see the bigger picture in 2018, she said: “Language gets stale in politics. Words begin to lose their meaning. Poetry occupies a different space to the humdrum. It is a way of renewing what words actually mean. It offers you a different way of looking at the world.”
“Poetry as a form can capture the immediate responses of people to divisive and controversial current events. It questions who has the authority to put their narrative forward, when it is written by people who don’t otherwise hold this power,” she said. “Writing poetry and sharing it in this context is a radical event, an act of resistance to encourage other people to come round to your perspective.” Social media and technology have made poetry much easier to access and pass along, magnifying its impact, Shaw said.
Could this mean that millennials want existential emotion in their novels?
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.
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.”
I have long been addicted to Patrick O’Brian’s novels which featured Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin in tales of sea battles with French warships in the early nineteenth century. There was an article in The Sunday Telegraph on November 3rd by Lewis Jones entitled “The Dark Story Behind ‘Master and Commander’, the first of O’Brian’s twenty novels. I probably read all twenty, which were addictive to an ex-Navy officer like me, because of the incredibly realistic accounts of life aboard British warships during the Napoleonic era. But more than that, Aubrey is a roast-beef British, dashing, but sometimes thoughtless character, accurately played by Russell Crowe in the film, and Maturin is an Irish-Catalan naturalist, doctor, and spy. They are shipmates, friends, musicians, and adventurers in the series. O’Brian had an amazing talent for concocting what looked like sure wins for Aubrey, which suddenly became disastrous, but from which Aubrey extracted a brilliant win over his French adversary.
The Telegraph article mentions some interesting facts about O’Brian, the author. He was born in 1914 in Buckinghamshire; during the war, he worked in British intelligence with his second wife, Mary Tolstoy, who had been married to a Russian, Count Tolstoy. After the war, he moved to the Catalan part of France where he spent decades writing, half a dozen novels, a biography of Picasso, numerous short stories and translations. He had friendly reviews, but he wrote in obscurity and he was always broke. In 1967, when O’Brian was at a low ebb, he received a letter from the American publisher, J B Lippencott, noting the C S Forester had died the previous year and that he, O’Brian, would be well qualified to fill the void left by Forester’s Hornblower series. In 1969, Master and Commander was published. By the 1990’s O’Brian was rich and famous, was appointed a CBE and the world wanted to know about him. As an intensely private person, this irritated him considerably. He was the eighth of nine children born to an English ‘pox doctor’ (venereologist) of German descent and an English woman of Irish descent. He was ‘briefly’ educated at grammar schools.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of O’Brian’s biography is the speculation about how he acquired his naval knowledge. In a 1994 essay, O’Brian himself said, “my particular friend Edward, who shared a tutor with me, had a cousin who possessed an ocean-going yacht, a converted square-rigged merchantman, that he used to crew with undergraduates and fair-sized boys, together with some real seamen, and sail far off into the Atlantic. The young are wonderfully resilient, and although I never became much of a topman, after a while I could hand, reef and steer without disgrace, which allowed more ambitious sailoring later on.”
But, in 1995, the venture capitalist, Thomas Perkins, offered O’Brian a two-week cruise aboard his then sailing yacht, a 154 ft ketch. He later said, “his knowledge of the practical aspects of sailing seemed, amazingly, almost nil” and “…he seemed to have no feeling for the wind and the course, and frequently I had to intervene to prevent a full standing gybe. I began to suspect that his autobiographical references to his months at sea as a youth were fanciful.”
In any event his tales of seamanship and combat at sea are remarkably realistic and entertaining. Patrick O’Brian died in 2000.