Sunday, March 1, 2015

Must-read classical literature

One of you asked me to name the “10 greatest books ever”.

But I’m afraid that I can’t give you a neat “top 10” list.

It’s the apples and oranges thing. The criteria used to evaluate a work of crime fiction, for example, is considerably distinct from the criteria used to evaluate a work of science fiction, or a mainstream literary novel. (Genre fiction, in particular, is often evaluated by standards unique to that particular genre.)

Michael Connelly’s The Closers is a great book; but it’s nothing at all like The Count of Monte Cristo, which is great in an entirely different way. Which one is “better”? Well, that depends: The Closers is a compact, gritty crime novel set in twenty-first century Los Angeles. The Count of Monte Cristo is a vast, sweeping panorama of a tale set in post-Napoleonic France.

These two books are apples and oranges, quite literally. More like apples and cucumbers, in fact.

And then there is the vast world of nonfiction—which requires yet another set of criteria.

So we’re going to stick with examining books by category. For today, I’m going to give you the greatest works of classical literature. These are the books that—in the Dictatorship of Ed—every high school student would be required to read prior to being issued a diploma.

And really, I think that the list below could be fit into a four-year high school curricula plan. But that’s another topic for another day. If you’re currently a freshman in high school, you can breathe easy for now; the Dictatorship of Ed doesn't seem imminent.

This is my personal list. Though there is substantial overlap between my list and the list that an academic would compile, I didn't include anything below that I haven’t actually read, at one time or another. This is why I didn't even consider Middlemarch, Emma, or The Brothers Karamazov for inclusion.

I’ve also omitted a handful of works that I thought—for one reason or another—to be overrated. So you won’t find James Joyce’s Ulysses or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 below. I didn't like either of these books, so I can’t honestly recommend them to you.

I’ve gone beyond books to include short stories, plays, and poetry. The categories should be self-explanatory.

Modern novels (published after 1800)

The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexander Dumas
For Whom the Bell Tolls Ernest Hemingway
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy
The Winter of Our Discontent, John Steinbeck
Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
Dracula, Bram Stoker
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
1984, George Orwell
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
A Separate Peace, John Knowles
The Lord of the Flies, William Golding
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald
A New Life, Bernard Malamud
Tess of the D’Urbervilles Thomas Hardy
Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The Pearl, John Steinbeck
White Fang Jack London
The Call of the Wild, Jack London
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper

Short Fiction:

F. Scott Fitzgerald:
“Winter Dreams”
“Bernice Bobs Her Hair”
“The Ice Palace”
“A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”
“Babylon Revisited”
“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”

Ernest Hemingway:
“Hills Like White Elephants”
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”
"The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"
“Big Two-Hearted River”
“My Old Man”
“The Snows of Kilimanjaro”

Edgar Allan Poe:
“The Fall of the House of Usher”
“The Black Cat”
“The Masque of Red Death”
“The Tell-Tale Heart”
“The Murders in the Rue Morgue”

“To Build a Fire” Jack London
“The Monkey’s Paw” WW Jacobs
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Washington Irving
“Bartleby the Scrivener” Herman Melville
“The Minister's Black Veil” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Veldt” Ray Bradbury
“Young Goodman Brown” Nathaniel Hawthorne
“The Sorrows of Gin” John Cheever


William Shakespeare:
Julius Caesar
King Lear
Romeo and Juliet
Henry V
The Taming of the Shrew
Antony and Cleopatra
As You Like It
The Taming of the Shrew

Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand
Arms and the Man, George Bernard Shaw
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde
Our Town, Thornton Wilder
Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller


“Kubla Khan” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“Annabel Lee” Edgar Allan Poe
“The Raven” Edgar Allan Poe
“I Hear America Singing” Walt Whitman
“If” Rudyard Kipling
“The Tyger” William Blake
“Death Be Not Proud” John Donne
“Sonnet 18” William Shakespeare
"Because I Could Not Stop for Death" Emily Dickinson
"Musée des Beaux Arts" WH Auden
“The Road Not Taken” Robert Frost
“Advice to a Prophet” Richard Wilbur

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Architecture, decoration, and florid speech


ruh-KOH-koh, or roh-kuh-KOH

This word was originally used to describe a style of architecture and decoration in eighteenth-century France. The rococo style evolved from the Baroque. Rococo decorations and adornments involved shells, depictions of foliage, and other elaborate designs.

The word is still used to specifically indicate the rococo style. However, you are much more likely to come across in its in more general usage: an adjective with means, “excessively ornate and intricate.”

The implication here being, then, that the intricacy is somewhat unnecessary, and may even be a hindrance to clarity or functionality.

As the following two sentences suggest, furthermore, this hindrance to clarity or functionality may have an ulterior motive:

“It is not your job to correct misused apostrophes or other errors in signage. Resist the temptation. You may, however, continue to ridicule rococo language and faux French in menus and food and fashion writing, since pretension is always a fair target.” 
--John E. McIntyre,The Baltimore Sun

The effect of holding off the trackside bookies for 25 minutes, with a rococo yarn about reaching a dying aunt in an invented hospital, was to short-circuit their prices. 
–The Economist

The English verb of the Thirty Years War

The verb plunder means “to rob or take by force”. Plunder is often used in the context of warfare: The enemy troops plundered the town.

Plunder comes from the Middle High German word plunderen, which means, “to take away household furniture”.

English mercenaries became familiar with the word plunderen during the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, the Catholic vs. Protestant conflict that produced approximately 8 million civilian and military casualties. (The Thirty Years War reduced the civilian population of the German states by some 25% to 40%.)

The anglicized plunder entered common usage in England during the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651. This conflict was not as deadly (probably about 190,000 dead), but it was nonetheless crucial in the development of British parliamentary democracy.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Reading as “social justice”

When you’re a self-appointed social justice warrior, conundrums and outrages lurk everywhere. KT Bradford, a contributor to the website XOJane, informs us that she “faced a conundrum” back in 2012. This conundrum soon led to outrage.

It seems that Bradford became outraged while reading short stories, of all things. While making a conscious effort to read more short fiction, she reports that she,

“…would come across stories that I didn't enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.”

You’ll notice that KT Bradford is strategically vague about the exact cause of her outrage. Did the stories contain racist epithets? Calls for the subjugation of women? Denunciations of gays?

We can guess that the answer to all these question is no. If a short story writer had made the case for the inferiority of racial minorities or the subjugation of women, KT Bradford would surely have reported these to us. No, what “offended” KT Bradford was the “identity” of many of the short story writers. It seems that the mere fact that many of them were white, male, and presumably heterosexual was sufficient to trigger her finely cultivated sense of outrage.

But what to do about it? Well, that becomes clear soon enough:

“Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males….Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories.”

I will remind the reader once again that Bradford has yet to charge the white, male, cisgendered short story writers with any specific crime against diversity—other than simply being who they are. Rational people require specific reasons to be outraged, but welcome to the brave new world of grievance mongering and micro-identity politics. Among this crowd, one does not need actual reasons. All claims of outrage in the name of diversity are regarded as self-evident and unchallengeable in and of themselves.

KT Bradford’s game plan for avoiding her undefined outrage was therefore published on under the title, “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year”. This very outraged article is adorned with a photo of the outraged Bradford, frowning and holding up an admonitory finger. In her other hand she holds a copy of Neil Gaiman’s novel, American Gods.

Gaiman is a cisgendered white male, so a red prohibition symbol is superimposed over his book. If only Joseph Goebbels had lived long enough to master Photoshop.

In the arts and humanities, it is presently considered the height of sensitivity to lecture haughtily and in general terms about “marginalized identities” and “privileged groups”. Bradford’s verbiage provides a more or less serviceable example of the basic arguments. She hits all of the buzzwords of the racial and gender-based “privilege” meme, while being careful to avoid much specificity regarding where said “privilege” derives from, or who enforces it. (This is not a crowd that likes to bog down its frothy arguments with facts and details.)

Nevertheless, Bradford’s overwrought lecture relies on several assumptions: The first of these might be called the “grand conspiracy” assumption.

This is the assumption that somewhere there is a cabal of evil white males who are engaged in a conspiracy. (In keeping with the trendiness of the times, we’ll also note that the evil white males are heterosexual, and identify with their gender of birth.) These evil, white, scheming cisgendered males are deliberately maneuvering to prevent the publication of books by anyone who is nonwhite, nonmale, and/or belonging to any of the various boutique sexual niches.

Well, let’s put that assumption to the test: Take a gander at the New York Times bestseller list for March 1, 2015.

Coming in at #1 is The Girl on the Train, by Paul Hawkins. As far as I am able to determine, Paula Hawkins is female. I do not know if she is an original, from-the-womb cisgendered female. (But that’s really none of our business, is it?)

Five of the top 15 books were written by women. Granted, the female author number would have to be 7.5 to be exactly half. But this is only one week, chosen completely at random—and five women certainly disqualifies the “all male” charge.

But what about LGBT representation? I can’t claim to have checked the sexual orientations and gender identities of all 15 authors. However, Jonathan Kellerman’s latest novel, Motive, features Milo Sturgis, a tough-talking, popular series detective who happens to be…gay.

Now how the heck did that happen? How did any of this happen? How did the male cisgendered conspiracy fail to prevent a NYT bestseller list that is comprised of nearly 50% books by female authors, and one book about a gay detective, for goodness sake? Isn’t it true that the cisgendered conspiracy of evil white males doesn't like gays and women?

The answer, of course, is that there is no such conspiracy. This conspiracy belongs to the realm of unicorns and the Loch Ness Monster.

But in the crowded attention marketplace of today, nothing gains one attention more quickly and more predictably than shouting the buzzwords of privilege and marginalized identity. (This little routine got Ms. Bradford a platform on XOJane, didn't it?)

KT Bradford’s lecture relies on another assumption: That readers consciously choose books by authors of a particular gender, race, or sexual identity. (Funny, but that seems to be exactly what Bradford herself is suggesting!)

I’m about as white, male, and cisgendered as they get. One of my favorite paranormal authors is Clive Barker, who happens to be an openly gay man. I’m also a big fan of the aforementioned Milo Sturgis series.

So I read gay books by gay authors. Wait! I thought that we white, cisgendered, heterosexual males simply didn't do things like that, because we want to oppress everyone who isn’t exactly like us.

I don’t stop with Clive Barker and Milo Sturgis. Some of my favorite books of late include: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn, The Last Days of California, by Mary Miller, and Sparta, by Roxana Robinson. In case you didn't recognize the last two names, all three of these authors are female—and very good at what they do.

But for KT Bradford, it isn’t enough that I like books by women and gay men…and a detective series with a gay protagonist. I still haven’t atoned for my white cisgendered privilege, so…

“… the next challenge would be to seek out books about or with characters that represent a marginalized identity or experience by any author. In addition to the identities listed above, I suggest: non-Christian religions or faiths, working class or poor, and asexual (as a start).”

How about Khaled Hosseini? I loved The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.

I’m pretty sure that I pass muster as a “diverse reader”. But not out of any conscious effort to say, “Hey! Look how diverse I am!” That would make me an opportunistic poseur of the John Scalzi school of ostentatious white guilt-mongering. For the record, I also read books by Michael Connelly, Clive Cussler, Brad Thor, and John Sandford—evil and exploitive cisgendered white males all.

Here is the point: When I select a book, I don’t ask myself how many white male points this author has, or how many gay points that author has. Most of the time, I don’t even know what the author looks like the first time I read one of his/her books. And I have no idea of which gender he or she chooses to sleep with. (There is seldom room for all of that demographic minutiae on the backs of book covers).

Which makes the next piece of finger-wagging advice from KT Bradford all the more absurd:

“Or you could choose a different axis to focus on: books by trans men and women...”

Well, yes, I suppose I could. But what would this accomplish, really? And even more to the point—how would I go about such a task?

Now—don’t get me wrong. If a trans man or woman writes the next great crime novel, I’ll probably be purchasing it from Amazon. But according to government statistics, there are only about 700,000 transgendered people in the U.S. I don’t know how many of them have written crime novels; but I promise KT Bradford that I will keep my eyes open. Because she has her eyes on my privilege, apparently.

KT Bradford happens to be an African-American female, and she’s claiming to be outraged. For much of the Internet, those facts alone are enough to induce bobble-headed assertions of agreement. (After all, the mere act of drawing attention to the numerous holes in Bradford’s argument is probably proof that one is a racist and sexist, and probably homophobic, too!) 

You will note, once again, though, that Bradford has never specified the source of her outrage—other than the fact that cisgendered white males have the temerity to write books and release them to the marketplace of potential readers. Could it be that Bradford’s outrage is an affectation, rather than a genuine response to a genuine offense?

I’ll let the reader weigh the evidence for him/herself, regardless of the reader’s race, creed, or gender identification. Reason should not be the slave of identity politics.

Cisgendered, white, male, and heterosexual though I am, I have never had a desire to oppress or repress the voices of those who are otherwise. And I didn't need KT Bradford’s sanctimonious, posturing lecture to tell me that plenty of good books have been written by people who don’t share my particular demographic profile.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

English inferiority complexes and the case for Esperanto

There is one huge, universal inferiority complex in the world, and it doesn't have anything to do with race, ethnicity, or religion. It has to do with English.

There are, of course, countries where the ability to speak English receives relatively low priority. The French-speaking countries lead the pack in this regard, with their language committees that regulate out Anglicisms like le weekend. The Spanish-speaking countries are not quite as obstreperous; but they aren’t far behind. If you try addressing random passersby in Mexico in English, you might get directions to the airport, but you might also get told to speak Spanish, en español, por favor.

The Asian countries are different. As recently as the 1950s, many of them were desperately impoverished, and they tend to view the study of the English language in quasi-religious terms.

Is this an exaggeration? Not really, I don’t think. In South Korea, parents have been known to subject their children to frenectomies. A frenectomy is an operation that involves moving part of the tongue.

The reason? Many South Korean parents believe that the procedure will help their children speak more flawless English—just like the Yanks, the Brits, and the Aussies do.

I would submit to you that the South Korean parents who order this operation aren’t stupid, nor are they trying to torture their children. But they have become convinced that English equals modernization.

Similar attitudes prevail elsewhere in Asia. The People’s Republic of China, South Korea, and Japan don’t agree on much these days—but all three of them are equally obsessed with learning English. I’ve been studying the Japanese English obsession since the 1980s. Every five or ten years in Japan there is a new initiative, a new government program that promises to finally put the Japanese over the hump where English is concerned.

Nevertheless, the results have been unimpressive. Or—to put it another way—the results haven’t been proportionate to the tremendous outlay of time, effort, and money involved in the teaching of English.

In an article entitled, “The mute leading the mute: Why are countries failing so badly at teaching English?” The Economist casts the situation in somewhat stark terms:

“….[in much of the non-Anglophone world] common problems include bad teachers hired via written tests rather than oral ones, and an outmoded approach that sees English as a foreign language to be taught about, rather than a lingua franca to be taught in. Teachers’ lack of fluency means too little English conversation in the classroom…so pupils do not get used to using the language. It is as if they were being taught to swim without ever getting into the water.”

The Economist wasn't trying to be unkind. But should we really be surprised? Think about how many Americans study Spanish for four or five years, and then fumble around when trying to ask for an extra glass of water when visiting Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta.

The simple reason is that the true mastery of a foreign language is an undertaking that requires long hours of study, and ongoing, consistent effort. (Once one learns a language, must practice it in order to maintain a level of proficiency.)

In the English-speaking world, foreign language skills are regarded as specializations. An American who speaks two foreign languages with reasonable proficiency may be referred to as a “linguist” in casual conversation. At any rate, he will be asked how he learned to speak Spanish/French/Farsi/Japanese so well. Does he work for the Foreign Service? Is he maybe a CIA agent?

These questions reflect the fact that achieving true fluency in a foreign language is such a challenge. So much of a challenge that it produces amazement when a native English-speaker can get past simple greetings in a foreign tongue.

Yet every Chinese, Korean, and Japanese is expected to do what only the rare American does. This is not Yankee imperialism, by the way—because Asians, at least, largely impose this burden on themselves. Nevertheless, we Americans don’t object. When was the last time you met an American (whose relatives didn't hail from China) who could speak passable Mandarin?

The Economist closes the above-mentioned article with the following advice for non-English-speaking countries:

“Ultimately, the goal should be to teach other subjects in English, as Canada is helping China to do, rather than just teaching English. But no one should expect miracles. Even if the most promising innovations are widely copied, fluency will come only gradually; today’s pupils must first learn enough English to become tomorrow’s competent teachers.”

Well, just imagine what it would be like to try to teach American kids algebra or geography using the medium of French or Spanish (let alone Mandarin—heaven help us!). Then you’ll have a fair idea of what The Economist is proposing.

Yes—The Economist is expecting “miracles”. And to what end? So that Chinese kids can understand all the subtle nuances in the dialogue of the latest Will Smith movie? So that Japanese kids won’t miss a single video on YouTube?

The world does need a universal medium of communication for routine transactions. Right now that medium is bad English. Bad English is the result for the same reason that bad Mandarin would be the result if Mandarin were imposed on every shop clerk, customs agent, and airplane pilot. Once again, proficiency in a foreign language takes time.

Here we see again the case for Esperanto. Esperanto wouldn't prevent anyone from studying English if they really want to learn English in order to read Shakespeare. English would become another language—albeit still a major one. English would cease to be the status symbol of the world’s climbers, the bastardized tool for inarticulate communications in airports and offices around the globe.

I love languages, and I want people to continue studying them—including English. Even in a world that used Esperanto for routine transactions, there would still be Chinese people who master English, just as there are currently Americans who have a special interest in learning Mandarin.

What would change would be the imposition of English as an assumption, a requirement. There would be no more frenectomies in South Korea, one hopes. Most of all, the adoption of Esperanto would enable countries like China, Korea, and Japan to redirect the disproportionate resources currently being spent on English into more productive ends.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

New posting schedule: Effective 2/26/15

One thing I’ve always struggled with is the fact that this is a multi-topic blog.

This creates problems for readers, I know. A reader who might be very interested, for example, in a post about Ernest Hemingway, might have zero interest in one of my Japanese language tutorials. A reader who is interested in a Japanese language tutorial might have little interest in a discussion about great works of English literature.

So I’m implementing a solution: No, I’m not going to blog about only one topic. However, I am going to implement a schedule—so that readers will be able to anticipate what will be here from one day to the next.

I created the following schedule based on the topics I’ve blogged about in the past:

Literary Sunday: Topics from the fields of writing and literature: book reviews, writing advice, and discussions of great works of literature.

History Monday: From ancient times through modern times, we’ll be talking about history on Mondays.

Economics Tuesday: Although the main topic on Tuesdays will be economics, we’ll also explore related topics like marketing, accounting, and sales.

Fiction Wednesday: Short stories, novel excerpts, and notes about my own writing process.

Foreign language Thursday: My first published book was a book about foreign language learning. Thursday will be a day for foreign language tutorials, and topics of general interest to language learners.  

Editorial Friday: This will be my day for opinion pieces—mostly about current cultural and political topics.

English vocabulary Saturday: I’ve made a lifelong habit out of collecting words. If you’ve ever wanted to learn how to use some interesting new words in a sentence, you’ll like Saturdays.

What else? Well—the above schedule should pretty much make room for everything. And yes, I’ll still be throwing in the occasional plug for one of my books. But other than that, I expect to stick to this schedule for the most part.

What about comment threads?

I will be opening up the comment threads at some point in the future. For the short term, though, I am going to leave them closed—because I want to focus on building up content rather than comment moderation.

If, however, you have feedback, you are more than welcome to contact me via the email address on the contact page.

Thanks for tuning in!

Writing: What writers can learn from Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway is one of the most revered American writers of the twentieth century. Nearly everyone has read at least one of his books. (You were probably forced to read Hemingway in high school, as his novels and short stories are mainstays of high school literature courses.)

While Hemingway is valuable to readers, there is also a lot that you can learn from him as a writer. Hemingway mastered the “short, declarative sentence”—and this is a key characteristic of his style. Hemingway’s novels also provide examples of how the writer can mine his or her life experiences for story ideas. However, this last trait was also one of Hemingway’s limitations, as we’ll see.

The short, declarative sentence

Hemingway was originally a journalist for the Kansas City Star; he later worked as a foreign correspondent in Paris.

His first experiences with professional writing, therefore, involved journalistic nonfiction—a medium that eschews long, complex sentence structures and flowery vocabulary. This training shaped Hemingway’s style as a fiction writer. Hemingway’s style is unadorned and minimalistic. His sentences are usually short, straightforward, and to the point.

This aspect of Hemingway is best explained through example. Below is the opening paragraph of his short story, “In Another Country”:

“In the fall the war was always there, but we did not go to it anymore. It was cold in the fall in Milan, and the dark came very early. Then the electric lights came on, and it was pleasant along the streets looking in the windows. There was much game hanging outside the shops, and the snow powder in the fur of the foxes and the wind blew their tails. The deer hung stiff and heavy and empty, and small birds blew in the wind, and the wind turned their feathers. It was a cold fall and the wind came down from the mountains.”

And below is the opening passage of A Farewell to Arms:

“In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains. In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels. Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees. The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.
The plain was rich with crops; there were many orchards of fruit trees and beyond the plain the mountains were brown and bare. There was fighting in the mountains and at night we could see the flashes from the artillery. In the dark it was like summer lightning, but the nights were cool and there was not the feeling of a storm coming.”

Some of these sentences are long, of course. But they are also simple and straightforward. Compare the above Hemingway passages to the opening passage of Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1925:

“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  
For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning--fresh as if issued to children on a beach. 
 What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?"--was that it?--"I prefer men to cauliflowers"--was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace--Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished--how strange it was!--a few sayings like this about cabbages.”

Mrs. Dalloway was published the year before Hemingway published The Sun Also Rises—his first major novel. Hemingway’s style, therefore, was unique when it first appeared on the early twentieth century literary scene—which was still heavily influenced by the books of the nineteenth century.

Hemingway’s dialogue is similarly terse and unaffected. You will find no long soliloquies or melodrama. Hemingway writes dialogue more or less like people talk.

Hemingway knew how to use a snippet of dialogue to reveal complex subterranean situations and emotions. Consider the following passage of dialogue from “Hills Like White Elephants”.

In this story, a man and a woman are sitting in at a table in an outdoor café in Spain, staring at a row of foothills. On the surface they are talking about the hills, but their words suggest an underlying conflict:

"They look like white elephants," she says. 
"I've never seen one," the man says, and drinks his beer. 
"No, you wouldn't have." 
"I might have," the man says. "Just because you say I wouldn't have doesn't prove anything."

There is a lot more going on here than topographical observations; and this turns out to be one of Hemingway’s most emotionally jolting stories. It isn’t very long, but it packs a punch. (Read “Hills Like White Elephants” for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean.)

Why is Hemingway’s work (in particular, his style) so instructive for anyone who wants to write fiction?

The main reason is that most writers love words—often they love them a little too much. At some point, most writers become so enamored with words that their love of words gets in the way of telling the story.

When you sense that you might be falling into that trap, the reading of a few Hemingway short stories can quickly cure you of it. Hemingway proves that is possible to tell million-dollar stories without using fifty-cent words.

(I don’t mean to imply, by the way, that it’s a bad idea to develop an extensive vocabulary, or to hone your powers of description. Hemingway’s minimalist style has certainly had its detractors over the years. However, writers (especially those who aspire to write literary fiction) more frequently err in the direction of over-embellishment, rather than excessive minimalism.)

“Write what you know.”

This was one of Hemingway’s dictums. True to his philosophy, Hemingway repeatedly turned the raw experiences of his life into fiction.

As we’ll examine below, Hemingway had a lot of interesting experiences that seemed ready-made for fiction: He put himself in the middle of multiple wars (one as an ambulance driver, and several others as a correspondent). He lived in Paris, and spent time in Madrid and other romanticized European capitals.

This doesn’t imply that Hemingway lacked creativity, mind you. Plenty of men and women have had interesting, dramatic experiences without ever writing a novel. My grandfather experienced naval combat during World War II. Some of his experiences were quite intense—but he spent his productive years as a supervisor in a Ford plant. My grandfather—wonderful man though he was—was no Ernest Hemingway.

Moreover, while some of Hemingway’s fiction involves dramatic physical conflict, not all of it does. One of his best-known short stories, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is a tale about an old man in a very mundane setting: a café. There is no physical danger, no spies or soldiers, and no femme fatales. But “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” is nevertheless a very strong short story, for some of the observations it makes about the universal human need for security and familiarity.

Hemingway, then, was an astute observer: He was always on the lookout for “material”.

But while this tendency has an upside, it also has a downside. The downside is that every one of Hemingway’s major works was dependent on something that he had actually experienced. Some of his novels, in fact, contain thinly disguised autobiographical elements.

Hemingway in WWI 

For example:
  • A Farewell to Arms: Hemingway, like the main character in this book, was wounded in WWI. The tragic relationship in the novel mirrors Hemingway’s own unhappy wartime romance with a nurse in a military hospital.
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls: This is a novel about the Spanish Civil War, a conflict that Hemingway was personally involved in as a correspondent.
  • The Old Man and the Sea: Hemingway spent a great deal of time in Cuba, where he often went fishing.
  • The Sun Also Rises: This is a “Lost Generation” tale about American expatriates in Paris during the post-World War I years. Hemingway lived in Paris during this time; and the main character—Jake Barnes—has a personality that is very similar to Hemingway’s. The other characters in the book—Brett Ashley, Mike Campbell and Robert Cohn—have been traced to individuals who hung out with the author during his Paris years.

Hemingway with friends in Paris during the mid-1920s

This reliance on personal experience can work if you have a life like Ernest Hemingway’s. But what if your “day job” consists of processing claims for an insurance company, or working as an accountant?

An absolutist adherence to the principle of “write what you know (and only what you know)” therefore creates severe limitations—for individual authors, and for literature as a whole.

If every writer insisted on writing only from experience, most genre fiction would disappear: There would be no science fiction, and no horror. (Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818)—perhaps the first example of modern genre fiction—was based on a dream.) Say goodbye to Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein.

Few crime procedurals are written by ex-cops. Nor are many espionage novels penned by ex-spies. This would mean no Michael Connelly, no Tom Clancy, and no Vince Flynn.

Historical fiction would also be out. No contemporary writer can claim to have “experienced” the distant past. We would therefore lose the work of John Jakes, Edward Rutherford, and James Michener.

“Write what you know (and only what you know) is also physically exhausting (and sometimes dangerous) for the writer who feels compelled to constantly seek out new and exciting experiences to write about. More than one young man volunteered for hazardous military service in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam with the hopes of having a Hemingwaylike experience that could become the basis of a book. Some of these young men succeeded. (Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn comes to mind here.) But what about the ones who never lived to write their stories?

Hemingway’s peripatetic lifestyle suggests an ongoing quest for fresh material. Hemingway moved around a lot; and he had a distinct preference for high-testosterone, risky forms of recreation. (Of sports Hemingway said, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”)

I recommend that every aspiring writer read Hemingway. He has much to teach you (especially if you find yourself overly enamored with words). It is important, however, to remember that imagination—and not just experience—often becomes the stuff of great fiction.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Fiction, research, and nonfiction boondoggles

An article about the link between science and science fiction:

"SF authors do their research. They tend to read widely, to generate ideas, and then think deeply, to focus in on the details. In the age of the author blog, readers can observe (some of) the authorial process. A lot of research can go into a book, much of it hidden, or even discarded. Inferior authors will info-dump every little last detail they’ve discovered; better authors weave their research seamlessly into the story, discarding what doesn’t fit. Sometimes the raw research reappears in footnotes, appendices, or bibliographies, which can be interesting in their own right; for example, Peter Watts’s Blindsight includes a fascinating technical appendix."

I can see both sides of this one.

On one hand, authenticity always enhances credibility.

It doesn't matter whether you’re writing a science fiction novel, or an urban thriller.

A sloppy mistake will always detract from credibility. If you’re writing a novel set in Kentucky, for example, you should take the time to learn that Frankfort is the capital of the Blue Grass State (which is actually structured as a commonwealth, by the way) if such a detail is relevant to your story.

That having been said, not all scientifically detailed science fiction makes for good reading, and a lot of very entertaining science fiction plays fast and loose with the scientific details.

A number of years ago I read Michael Crichton’s novel, State of Fear. (Yes, I realize that hardcore science fiction fans don’t regard Crichton as a science fiction writer, but work with me, please. At the very least, much of Crichton’s work could be described as “science fiction thrillers”, with emphasis on the last word in this description.) 

State of Fear basically represented Crichton’s attempt to debunk global warming alarmism. I don’t want to get into the global warming debate in this post; but suffice to say that the book overflowed with facts, figures, and not a small amount of argumentation.

On a less controversial note, James Michener, the virtuoso of the historical novel, usually managed to “weave the research seamlessly into the story”. But in his 1992 novel, Mexico, Michener goes off on a long tangent (or “info dump”) about the sport of bullfighting. 

Back to Michael Crichton. My favorite Michael Crichton novel, without a doubt, is Timeline. This is the one in which a group of academics travel through time back to medieval France.

Crichton did pay attention to some of the pertinent historical details in Timeline. (For example, he accommodates that fact that residents of medieval France would speak a variety of languages, some of them extinct or nearly extinct in modern times.)

The science of Timeline, however, is basically hokey. You don’t need a PhD in physics to realize that Crichton’s time travel scenario would never stand up to…well, scientific scrutiny.

Here is the crux of the matter: Some fiction writers clearly have nonfiction books lurking inside them. But because of the constraints of the publishing industry, and the need for author branding, it is fairly rare for a writer who is branded as a novelist to publish a book-length work of nonfiction.

And there may be some perfectly valid market reasons for this constraint. Stephen King’s novels all become bestsellers, practically without exception.

However, King’s nonfiction analysis of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, is barely in print.

In fact, unless you’re a Stephen King completist, there is a very good chance that you’ve never even heard of Danse Macabre. You can also be forgiven if you overlooked Faithful: Two Diehard Boston Red Sox Fans Chronicle the Historic 2004 Season. This is a nonfiction book that King co-wrote with Stuart O’Nan, a lesser-known but accomplished literary novelist.

It turns out that Stephen King’s fans want to come to him for horror tales and thrillers, and go elsewhere for sports writing.

Likewise, I’m not sure how a nonfiction Michael Crichton book about global warming would have gone over in the marketplace. Crichton had a medical degree—but he hadn’t practiced medicine for years, and environmental science is of course an entirely different bailiwick.

And we needn’t wonder how many copies a standalone exposition on bullfighting would have sold, even when the late James Michener was at the height of his popularity.

The takeaways:

Fiction is primarily about storytelling. Period. This doesn't mean that an author (of science fiction or any other genre) should play fast and loose with every fact out of laziness. However, the primary function of fiction is to entertain. Instruction and information are what nonfiction is for.

If a novelist wants to write a nonfiction book, he should write a nonfiction book. A nonfiction book shouldn't be embedded in a novel.