Are Your Characters Despicable?

I requested reviews for my novel Sycophants, published late last year on Amazon, so it’s time to take some flak. Overall, the reviews aren’t bad, and much of the criticism is couched in compliments. Almost everyone thinks the writing is solid, the dialogue is snappy, and the story flows reasonably well. It’s the characters that seem to give critics heartburn. I meant to make them reasonably flawed, like real people. So how did some of them, even ones I don’t think are so bad myself, turn out downright despicable to more than a few readers?

The novel poses some questions about the nature of friendship. Can a relationship possibly be healthy if one of the participants possesses most of the charisma and power, possibly encouraging something that borders on hero worship? In Sycophants, there is a basic imbalance between the co-heroines, Imogene and Sara. They are former college roommates (as depicted in my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming) who team up years later for a movie-making venture. They pick up where they left off at school, with Sara the leader and Imogene the follower.

In their new situation, Sara is the boss of a production company with headquarters in New York City. Imogene has been hired not for any particular qualifications, but because they are old friends. Imogene jumps at the opportunity, having become disenchanted with the mostly clerical jobs she has held in the publishing industry. Her marriage to a young lawyer, also an unequal partnership,  is on the rocks. Somewhat naive and unprepared,  Imogene finds herself scrambling to gain a foothold in the high-powered company. She does manage to benefit from her business association with Sara, as she earns a decent salary, plays at being a publicist, and works toward acquiring some credits as a screenwriter. But there’s no way she can catch up to her friend.

It isn’t that Sara is the worst boss in the world. In fact, she is fairly generous in putting up with Imogene’s early miscues, for which another supervisor advocates firing her on the spot. Still, the super-busy Sara blows hot and cold. One moment she might chide Imogene for overstepping her authority; in the next breath, she might exhort her to develop more of a backbone. There are limits to how much Sara can prod Imogene toward success; the neophyte will have to do that herself.

I never intended Sara to be “despicable,” although she does tend to collect “sycophants” through the force of her personality. Her older brother Jake, a fading rock star, is the one who uses that word to describe his sister’s  relationships. He’s offended when Sara proposes to salvage his career by putting him in a movie, although his grumbling doesn’t prevent him from accepting her help.

Not every reader finds this friendship weird or the characters totally unlikable. Some comments fell along the lines of “flawed, not perfect, just as in real life.” Some thought the chemistry between Sara and Imogene had potential. Others felt the need to refer to the “friends” in quotes. To paraphrase one reader, “These people might be realistic, but I’m glad I don’t know them!” They are pegged as users, especially Sara. “Friendship to her is a one-way street,” another reader says, adding that Imogene is too much of a wimp to avoid being her prime victim. Why, these critics demand, can’t Imogene learn to stand up for herself, benefit from experience, and take responsibility? (I had hoped the story demonstrated her doing more of those things as time passed).

The most extreme reaction came from a reader who professed to like the writing, but not the book. She admitted to being predisposed against the “coming of age” genre (although that’s something of a stretch, as my characters start off in their late twenties, having left college about eight years before). For this reader, sycophantic behavior equates to being obsequious and brown-nosing. She concludes, “I’m not sure I’ve ever despised characters so thoroughly.” I’m kind of flattered that I evoked such a strong reaction, even if I didn’t exactly mean to!

I can understand why readers take Imogene to task for bad choices. One observes wisely, “Working for a good friend isn’t always a good idea; neither is blaming your husband for your career failures.” It’s always incumbent on authors to get readers to care what happens to their characters; not caring enough, as one critic says, tends to slow down the reading. Sara’s company is stacked with ambitious people besides herself, and blind ambition tends to make them all unlikable from the start, even before they get to be out-and-out sycophants. Imogene is also taken to task for assuming that her husband is cheating on her and acting accordingly, without real proof (although her suspicions turn out to be true).

To sum up, they are “all shallow, money-driven users with no redeeming qualities. No true villains but no heroes either.” It was suggested that if I had put in a few “true villains,” it might have made the “minor villains” seem less bad. I did introduce an armed kidnapper, but he might have come off as more deluded than evil. And maybe the perpetually drunk minor musicians, who are prone to settling their artistic differences with their fists, served more as comic relief.

Once in a while you get a criticism that you actually like! One reader thought I was emotionally distant from my characters, more in the vein of 19th century literature than modern writing. As a former English major who often prefers the old style myself, I really can’t get too upset about that. If it means my book is somewhat “literary,” I’m all for it.

I’d be interested to know how many of my fellow authors have taken a similar trip with their characters. Have you set out to make them realistically flawed, but perhaps gone too far and accidentally made them despicable?

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Sylvia Plath’s Final Act

I’m finding Sylvia Plath’s second volume of letters, covering the years 1956 to 1963, even more fascinating than the first. These are the letters that take her from happy newlywed to deserted, suicidal housewife. Through it all, almost until the very end, Sylvia’s writing kept coming―poems, stories, essays, book reviews, one novel published and another partly drafted, broadcasts for the BBC. She enjoyed a fair amount of success and recognition, although her true fame was posthumous. In the letters she mostly conveyed happiness and contentment in her domestic life and creative excitement about her writing. Most of her correspondents, even those who knew details of her breakdown during her college years, must have assumed that she was fully recovered and doing well.

Both she and her husband, Ted Hughes, decided to forego stable jobs as college teachers for riskier but more satisfying careers as writers. Sylvia devoted herself to family life, giving birth to two children whom she adored, and supported Ted unstintingly in his writing. His fame was greater than hers, which she believed was proper and justified. Her love for him, by some accounts, could be smothering. She came to realize herself that the loss of her father at an early age had most likely triggered this possessiveness. There were times when she couldn’t bear to let Ted out of her sight, for fear he would disappear forever. Eventually, the pressure became overwhelming. and led to an explosion. After six turbulent but mostly happy years, Ted threw it all over, shockingly and suddenly, by taking up with another woman, and probably more than one. Sylvia’s rage was unrelenting, and strongly influenced her writing from then on.

The most intriguing and ominous of these letters are the ones she wrote from her home in England to the psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Beuscher, who had treated her at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard, during her first breakdown in 1953. These were the letters that Sylvia’s daughter, Frieda Hughes, highlighted in her introduction to the volume. Frieda had only recently encountered these letters herself. Reading them must have been an excruciating experience, but she insisted that they be included in the volume. Frieda opines that not everything her mother wrote can be taken at face value. There are alternate accounts from other sources of some incidents described in the letters, many of which cast doubt on her interpretations. At the very least, it seems Sylvia was prone to exaggeration. Frieda herself wrestled with some of the worst allegations against her beloved father.

Sylvia’s letters to Dr. Beuscher began well before there seemed to be anything seriously wrong with the Hughes marriage. Perhaps they were mostly intended for reassurance. By the time she wrote the last one, Sylvia was aware that history was repeating itself. She had been reading reviews of her recently published novel, The Bell Jar, and pronounced them mostly “raves,” but she seemed to take no pleasure in that. On the contrary, she described the novel as the story of her “first breakdown.” She seemed to acknowledge that a second breakdown, much like the first, was in progress.

Before the book was published, Sylvia wrote a detailed letter to her British publisher in response to his inquiries about libel concerns. She reassured him that the book was fiction and wouldn’t be subject to lawsuits. Many of her claims that certain characters were entirely fictional seem disingenuous. Anyone who has studied her life would recognize the genesis of those characters … the clueless boyfriend, the perpetually put-upon mother, the romance-writer benefactor, the fellow mental hospital inmate (who eventually did sue the estate), and many others.  Far from making up these characters, Sylvia totally nailed them. She knew she got too close to the truth, which prompted her decision to publish the novel under a pseudonym. In the end, her brutality toward some of the people who helped her through that crisis seemed to give her pangs of conscience, and probably contributed to her distress after the book appeared.

The Bell Jar was not her first attempt at a long work. She tried for years to write a “positive novel,” a happily-ever-after story about her courtship at Cambridge University and marriage to Ted. The novel proved to be difficult because, as she wrote to a friend, she couldn’t get beyond “what really happened.” She had also planned a sequel to The Bell Jar, to demonstrate that everything turned out fine for her heroine, “Esther,” who would find love and professional success. But Ted’s desertion blasted that, and she reportedly burned the only copy of that book in a sacrificial fire. Somehow, she could never refashion her narrative to make it come out better.

During her downward spiral in the summer of 1953, she had written desperate journal entries, begging herself to escape from the quicksand that was her mental state. She knew objectively that she was loved and admired by many, as a nearly straight-A scholarship student at prestigious Smith College, with more publications to her credit than almost anyone else her age. But several discouraging events hit her all at once that summer: an unsettling experience as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine, a rejection for a writing course she’d hoped to take in summer school, and difficulty getting started on her senior thesis about James Joyce, a notoriously impenetrable subject. Eventually, she became convinced that she couldn’t write anymore, or even read. Her sleeping and eating were affected. Her mind was a quagmire that she couldn’t dig herself out of, no matter how sternly she ordered herself to snap out of it. That led her to a desperate act from which she was fortunate to be saved.

A similar paralysis overcame her in 1963, as can be seen via her increasingly desperate letters to Dr. Beuscher. Outwardly, she had refashioned her life after Ted’s desertion, leaving the country home where she felt buried and establishing herself and the children in a London flat. She knew she had the makings of a renewed life. She had her babies to live for, and her writing was flourishing in a new way since she’d thrown off her own bonds of domesticity. She cherished some hope that once she had released Ted from the smothering marriage, and established herself as an independent woman, he would be less of a bastard. Perhaps they could even renew the literary partnership that had been so fruitful.

She tried gallantly, but her final letter to Dr. Beuscher signaled that she was losing the battle. Once again, her depression was a quicksand:  “I am scared to death that I shall just pull up the psychic shroud & give up … I am aware of a cowardice in myself, a wanting to give up .. I am suddenly in agony, desperate, thinking, yes, let him take over the house, the children, let me just die & be done with it.” She begged Dr. Beuscher for the reassurances that would pull her out of this “damned, self-induced freeze … this ghastly, defeatist cycle.”

Sylvia’s desperation was heartbreaking, and makes me want to cry for her. I wish that she had found the right tools to master herself. It has been speculated that modern psychiatry could have done more for her. Back then the profession was just beginning to explore the possible physical components to mental illness. She’d been referred to a specialist who intended to analyze her menstrual cycle and its possible effect on her moods. That referral, although promising, came too late. One morning, after taking care to protect her children, she turned on the gas. She ensured their safety for the moment, but there was no protecting them from that horrible legacy.

Laura Ingalls Wilder And Cultural Insensitivity

I was perturbed when the American Library Association announced its intention to drop Laura Ingalls Wilder’s name from a prestigious children’s literature award. The purpose of this action, according to one source, is “to distance the honor from what it described as culturally insensitive portrayals in her books.”

As far as I know, no one has as yet proposed banning the books themselves from elementary school curriculums. Still, this could prove to be a slippery slope. At the very least, it casts a shadow on these autobiographical novels that gave me endless pleasure as a child, and that I still admire. When it comes to protecting people’s sensitivities at the expense of free speech, I tend to come down on the side of free speech.

It has been pointed out that the third book in the series, Little House on the Prairie, contains the old saying, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” Obviously, that is an ugly, bigoted statement, but it must be put in context. The remark was made by a new neighbor of the Ingalls family after their move to Kansas, and Laura’s Pa took exception to it. Laura, although still a little girl in this part of the series, was afraid of Indians but also curious. On some level, she sensed the Indians’ anger at having their territory invaded was justifiable. When she asked her parents about it, she was usually shut down quickly. There was no question that Laura’s Ma hated Indians and said so, but Pa had a more nuanced view. Throughout the series, Laura always seemed much closer temperamentally to her father than to her mother. In a later book, Ma made a face as she recalled the smell of the skunk skins that some of the Indians wore. Pa continued to insist that there was much to be learned from the native tribes: “They know things that we don’t know.”

Our understanding of history requires an honest discussion of these issues. We must try to comprehend how pioneers who ventured into what was once designated “Indian territory” actually felt about the challenges they faced. It is not terribly useful for us, in our superior enlightenment, to declare how we think they should have felt. True, it would be useful to know more about this era from the Native American point of view, but that is a whole different story.

Unquestionably, Laura and her family felt a real threat from Indians. Some encounters were friendly, and some were not. They knew they were taking a risk by moving to Kansas when the Federal government opened it up to non-Indian settlers. The fertile land was too tempting for all kinds of pioneers … farmers, hunters, and cowboys … to pass up. Later, the government reversed that decision, but in the meantime, tensions built dangerously between the old and new inhabitants. Laura described the noisy powwows, punctuated by ear-piercing war cries, that often kept her family up all night as the local tribe debated what to do about the invaders. The most dramatic moment in Little House on the Prairie occurs when a French-speaking Osage chief, Soldat du Chene, arrives on the scene by horseback. He persuades his followers, in the nick of time, not to attack the white settlers.

Excessive political correctness in our day and age is as dangerous in its way as Trumpism. Those of us who oppose this vile president, a shameless enabler of racists and neo-Nazis, only play into his hands when we refuse to understand the different context of racial clashes in times past. It is dangerous enough to demand absolute purity of thought in the present; it is futile to demand it from our ancestors.

The “Little House” books provide testimonials of how people handled cultural clashes when they were a life and death matter. A long-running television series, also called Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) provided a more soft-pedaled version, far less jolting to modern sensibilities but far less accurate as well. I would still recommend the books, trusting that most readers would understand that perceptions have changed since the 1870s, and would be able to handle any discomfort that might cause. When I first read these books as a fourth grader, I was capable of understanding that. Why do we think present-day readers, even young ones, must be protected from history?

Jo March’s Dilemma

I watched with interest the recent PBS dramatization of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, one of the first books I ever read cover to cover as a child. Alcott and her alter ego, Jo March, faced a dilemma common to all ambitious women of their time and place, nineteenth century New England: how to live a productive and fulfilled life while staying within the bounds of what was considered respectable womanhood. Although New England at the time was a relatively liberal place, a fount of many new social ideas, it was still no bed of roses for an ambitious female.

Alcott described Jo’s struggle to make herself a writer. Jo was determined to earn a living from it, because somebody in the family had to. They were a struggling family of four daughters, with a father who earned very little as the minister of a small congregation. A conversation between Jo and her father crystallizes their conflict. The character of Mr. March was undoubtedly inspired by Alcott’s own father, Bronson Alcott, a founder of progressive schools and a well-known supporter of transcendentalism, but useless as a wage earner. We learn that Jo’s father has been working on the same book for twenty years, and has yet to publish it. By contrast, Jo writes “sensation stories” for the weekly rags that sell like candy and help to buy household necessities.

A showdown occurs when Jo asks her father to critique her newly completed novel. Jo has been offered $300 for the publication of it, a fantastic sum for that time and probably more money than the family has ever seen before. Her father advises her not to make the requested alterations, which he feels would rob the book of its heart and soul. “Let it wait and ripen,” he advises. “There’s more to it than you know. You’re more talented than you realize.” Jo loses patience and bursts out something along the lines of, “Let it ripen? For how long? We need the money now.” She can’t resist pointing out to her father that he hasn’t supported his family. He takes this calmly, knowing it to be true.

Even though I was indignant for Jo’s sake, I had the sneaking feeling that Mr. March would be proven right … and he was. All through Little Women, the father appears weaker than his wife and daughters, but like most fathers in literature and popular entertainment, turns out to know best. Jo’s more practical mother urges her to go ahead and publish the book, figuring she will not only benefit from the immediate cash, but receive some useful criticism. As time goes on, it becomes apparent that the book isn’t selling, and any reviews she gets are too contradictory to be useful.

Later, Jo escapes the doldrums of home life by decamping to New York to work as a governess, the career of choice for educated women in those times. Here she meets an important mentor, although it isn’t love at first sight. Professor Bhaer is an immigrant from Germany, probably old enough to be her father, with two nephews whom she has been hired to teach. When Professor Bhaer realizes Jo is a writer, he asks to see her work, but she’s ashamed to show it. By this time she’s broken into the big city rags and is making a nice bundle, but still fears the professor’s judgment. Sure enough, his advice is basically the same as her father’s … that her romance writing, although lucrative, is unworthy of her. “You must be true to your talent. Never write a word that you haven’t felt in your heart and soul.”

The moral of the story seems to be that the men in her life have it right, even though she might have starved if she’d listened to them. It takes time, but Jo learns to make use of genuine emotional experiences that enrich her writing. In the PBS series, her breakthrough comes when she writes and publishes a poem about the death of her beloved sister Beth. The piece travels far and wide, and puts her on the path to success.

Alcott herself, like Jo, wrote “sensation stories” for quick money. But it took Little Women, a novel drawn directly from her real life, to immortalize her. By some accounts, Alcott felt somewhat flustered by her own breakthrough. She had felt pressured by the publishing powers-that-be to make Jo choose a more conventional, “womanly” path than she did herself. In the fiction version, Jo marries her professor and takes a break from writing to open a school for boys. Alcott, by contrast, remained independent all her life and never put down her pen.

So what does this conflict between Alcott and her alter ego say about authors through the ages? I don’t necessarily subscribe to the “write what you know” philosophy, which in my case would bore any potential reader to death. I can’t squeeze much drama out of my forty years spent riding subway trains back and forth from various workplaces in Washington, DC. Likewise, my office life was usually placid on the surface, with only a few eruptions here and there. Luckily, creative imagination can add spice to ordinary situations and people.

There’s nothing wrong with spicing up and exaggerating real life, of course, as long as an author still speaks his or her fundamental truth. Constrained by the social and commercial conventions of her time, Alcott didn’t quite tell the true story of Little Women. Later, as an established author, she seemed somewhat freer in the sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys to introduce a few less conventional characters and situations. Still, you get the feeling Alcott remained under an edict to go on preaching platitudes to young girls and women. All in all, I find it a little sad that Jo starts out being Louisa May, but ends up being someone else.

Forcing Romance

In my continuing effort to understand the popularity of the romance genre (and tamp down my jealousy, since I can’t seem to write in that vein), it has occurred to me that some stories try too hard to fit the mold.

I consider myself a fan of chick-lit, but I define that as any story that is woman-oriented, whether it has a happy ending or not. I prefer stories that skirt romance without necessarily following all the rules of the genre. For example, I was intrigued by the movie version of The Devil Wears Prada, based on the 2003 novel by Lauren Weisberger. It starts with an unusual premise and setting, featuring a rather innocent but ambitious heroine whom I easily identified with. Andrea, whose friends call her Andy, is an aspiring journalist who moves to New York after college graduation and gets a job at a fashion magazine, despite her own lack of interest in fashion. She works her tail off for a self-centered, insanely demanding boss, Miranda Priestly, who can never be contradicted or overruled because she controls the entire fashion magazine scene. Andy finds herself failing at the job, until she hits on a solution: she will become a fashion plate herself. This neutralizes not only her boss, but her nasty colleague Emily, who has continually belittled Andy for her lack of style.

Strangely enough, Emily grew on me, despite being as mean as blazes. Judging by some reviews I’ve read, I’m not the only one who found her more intriguing at times than Andy. At least Emily speaks her mind. She’s the one who gets stabbed in the back when Andy starts to become the crazy boss’s favorite. Still, Andy pays the price, losing the love of her idealistic boyfriend, who preferred the unstylish version of her. There’s some hope for a reconciliation at the end, after Andy impulsively quits her job during a trip to Paris for fashion week. However, it’s not certain that the boyfriend will “forgive” her.

When I became aware that there was a sequel in book form, published in 2013 (Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns), I downloaded it. The story picks up a decade later, when Andy and Emily, both having escaped from Miranda Priestly’s reign of terror, have become partners in a successful wedding magazine. Andy is married with a baby daughter. Her husband, an investor in her new project, is obviously more supportive of her fashion-oriented lifestyle than her old boyfriend could ever be. This seemingly ideal setup goes sour when Emily and the perfect husband join forces to sell the business to Priestly, striking a lucrative deal behind Andy’s back. A betrayed and shattered Andy breaks up with both the husband and the business partner.

If the rest of the novel dealt realistically with Andy’s efforts to get back on her feet and find love again, it would have continued to engage me. Instead, there is a happy ending that, for my money, is tacked-on and not adequately explained. I could see it coming a mile away, when the original boyfriend, Alex, returns to the city from a teaching stint in the boondocks and keeps managing to run into Andy. They get involved again, predictably enough, but why? What about the issues that broke them up in the first place?

This sort of forced romance is nothing new. It was going on in the nineteenth century, when Charles Dickens, in an effort to satisfy his serial-reading public, came up with three different endings for Great Expectations. Most readers wanted the star-crossed pair, Pip and Estella, to live happily ever after. That would have been unrealistic, considering that Estella was damaged goods. She had been raised by an embittered, jilted woman for the sole purpose of breaking men’s hearts, and that was all she was capable of doing. Dickens seemed torn between artistic integrity and the desire to please his audience. Since he was never financially comfortable, I’m sure there were also commercial considerations. In the final version, the pair reunites at the end without falling blindly into each other’s arms. The best Estella can do is assure Pip that they will always be friends, even when they are apart.

Some hedging along those lines, when Andy reconnects with Alex in Weisberger’s sequel, would have made logical sense. What has changed between them, except that he’s recently broken up with his girlfriend and Andy’s marriage has collapsed, making them both available? This was the same man whom, by her own account, she had shared everything with for six years, only to be dumped without warning. He kicked her to the curb even after she had quit the fashion job that he thought had changed her too much. That lifestyle, in his opinion, had made her “too eager to do what everyone else wanted.” She wondered, What does that even mean? Good question. Maybe it meant she was learning that a grownup must answer to others besides herself. Or maybe, deep down, he was offended that she made more money than he did.

At any rate, he had refused to elaborate on what he meant. He accepted a job with an idealistic nonprofit, Teach for America, and moved to Mississippi, leaving her behind with barely a goodbye. As she recalls later: “He hadn’t called a single time, and the only contact had been a curt ‘Thanks so much for remembering. Hope you’re well’ e-mail in response to a long, emotional and in hindsight humiliating voice mail she left for his 24th birthday.”

Who was he to decide she was worthy of his attention again? One thing I hope all women take from the rapidly developing “Me-too” movement is that it isn’t only about sexual harassment. It’s also about respecting women’s choices in other areas, even if they turn out to be wrong. The romance genre is full of ends that supposedly justify the means. The man, possessing superior insight, pinpoints the woman’s hang-ups on first meeting her. In the course of the story, he turns out to be right. The message seems to be that if only the woman had obeyed him without question from the beginning, she would have saved herself a lot of time and stress. Heaven forbid she should forge her own path and learn from her own experiences.

Andy had certainly changed and grown in the time they had been apart, but what about Alex? He had returned to the city and started teaching at a progressive school that paid more than his previous job. He was aware of Andy’s life circumstances through e-mail blasts from her mother. He had been forced to leave the nonprofit world because he needed to earn more, especially since his former girlfriend had made noises about wanting a baby. I expected that Andy, as a parent herself, might take that opportunity to point out that as one gets older and responsibilities pile up, there are more and more benefits to having a job that pays the bills.

Andy can’t help recalling “the resentment, neglect, lack of sex and affection” that had characterized the end of their relationship. Yet she says, “I think I’ll always love him.” Approximately a year and a half after her marital and business breakup, she has a freelance writing career going and is dating someone perfectly nice, but for reasons she can’t quite pinpoint, she’s not really into him. At this point we are 95% through the book, and I’m asking myself, when is Alex going to stop being a jerk so that Andy can take him back without sacrificing her integrity?

Never, as it turns out, because Andy keeps letting him off the hook. Rather creepily, Alex jokes about stalking her, physically and on Facebook. He summons her one morning from her regular writing spot in a café, fabricating an emergency (which should have frightened her to death, since she has left her young child at home with a babysitter).

Gradually, Andy buys into the idea that they were “meant to be,” an opinion expressed by Alex’s brother. (Do male opinions always carry more weight?) Alex suggests they take their new relationship slowly. That would be sensible, in view of his history of mistreating her. If Andy agreed with that, and demanded an explanation of his former cruelty, I would find the story more satisfying. This woman, with all her business acumen and ambition, would have the potential to be a fabulous role model. Instead, she does the romantic genre thing and declares that caution is for losers; she would prefer to dive into this “second chance” relationship with reckless abandon. All I can do as a reader is sigh and say, come on, ladies. We can do better than this.

The Bad Boyfriend Analogy

Somewhere in the blogging universe several months back, I read a rave review of actress-writer Amy Poehler’s 2014 memoir, Yes Please. It was described as a good read for anyone trying to succeed in the arts and encountering mostly frustration. I wondered how this could possibly be true, considering the amazing successes Poehler has enjoyed, including being a full cast member on Saturday Night Live from 2001 to 2008, and then starring in and co-writing her own series, Parks and Recreation, from 2009 to 2015. What could she possibly have to say to the struggling artist?

Some of her opening remarks in the memoir struck me as encouraging, although perhaps disingenuous. For example: “I like hard work and I don’t like pretending things are perfect.” Is she telling us satisfaction remains elusive for her, even after having acquired fame and fortune through constant effort? And also: “I am struggling every day, just like you.” I doubt that her struggles are equal to the average creative striver, although maybe she’s simply asserting that she knows what it is to struggle. This is her explanation for the anger she let loose at an aspiring writer who had the nerve to approach her on an Amtrak train and dump his screenplay in her lap. That person, in her view, was trying to take a short cut to success, something she didn’t have the luxury of doing. She spent years honing her craft in humble improv and comedy clubs. Some lucky breaks did come her way, she acknowledges, but nothing was easy. By a combination of good fortune, a natural zest for performing, and most of all perseverance, she was able to impress the kind of people who could help her.

Poehler discusses some of her enduring insecurities, including major doubts about her looks. She has the face of a comedienne rather than a beauty queen, but she found a way around this early in her career. Improvisation provided a way of becoming somebody else, anybody else, at will. Ironically, she devotes part of her book to complaints about the difficulty of writing a book. She just comes straight out with it: “Writing a book is hard!” Don’t we all know that? She offers the only possible solution: “Just do it!”

Poehler’s best piece of advice, in my opinion, can be summed up by one of her chapter headings: “Treat your career like a bad boyfriend.” Passion, she explains, is not the same as career. Loving what you do may be a prerequisite for accomplishment, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. You may feel yourself falling in love, but who knows if the object of your passion will reciprocate the way you want him to, for as long as you need him to? Poehler herself was going through a painful divorce while writing the book, and was still figuring out how to co-parent two young sons, so her choice of a metaphor might have been influenced by real life.

That phrase struck an immediate chord with me, as I realized that the unreliable suitor could be a metaphor for any hobby, any relationship, any sports team, or anything else you are irresistibly attracted to that continually lets you down. Since the pain is still relatively fresh, I chose to apply that advice immediately to a certain baseball team that takes me for a ride every season and then drops me off in the wilderness, lost and abandoned. Baseball has always been known to imitate life in many ways, and I admittedly take it too seriously, so why shouldn’t I treat my favorite team like the worst boyfriend ever? My Washington Nationals have won four divisional championships in the past six years, and failed every time to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. Talk about a guy who takes you to the prom, buys you a lovely corsage, and then dances with someone else, or worse, leaves with someone else. Or a guy who proposes, and then never sets the date.

Bad boyfriends always have their ingenious excuses, just as the Nationals have a plethora of reasons why they’ve never gotten over that hump. This year, in Game 5 of the National League Divisional Series, Matt Wieters, the stalwart although light-hitting Nats catcher, got hit on the head by the follow-through of a batter’s swing. Because of the violent contact, the pitch should have resulted in a strikeout, and the inning should have been over. As it turned out, nobody in authority knew the rule that pertains to a catcher getting beaned. Everyone, including the committee of six umpires and Nats manager Dusty Baker, was caught up in that cluelessness. No one but the catcher himself seemed to know enough even to argue, and it’s doubtful how articulate he was after getting his brain rocked. Maybe that also accounts for the flaky things Wieters did in the immediate aftermath, including a passed ball and a wild throw that cost the Nats two runs in a game they eventually lost 9-8. Some fans continue to malign him, saying he should have reacted like a professional even under duress. Maybe the life lesson to be derived from this is that the worst boyfriends always have the most creative reason for not showing up. “I was in an accident” is a classic.

Since baseball isn’t as heart-rending for most people as it is for me, and there really isn’t anything even an ardent fan can do about it, I’d advise you to apply the bad boyfriend rule to things you can actually control. We all need a little validation to wash away the inevitable bouts of self-pity we suffer when it seems nobody understands us. If your novel simply doesn’t grab the reader, the fact that you spent years writing it will not alleviate that problem. Even the blog articles that we labor over might go days or weeks without being “liked” or commented on. Fans sweat along with their favorite teams at the crucial moments as if they were on the field themselves. Then, as likely as not, they face a long winter, unrewarded.

Amy Poehler would advise us not to bother at all with these endeavors unless we can find a way to enjoy the process. In other words, don’t expect too much. Don’t sweat it. Maybe that good review will come out of the blue. Or it might be a review that’s not so good, but at least shows that the reader took our book seriously and sort of got it. That bad boyfriend might forget your birthday, and then show up unexpectedly one day and bring you flowers for no particular reason at all. So be joyous, Poehler says, but don’t expect to be satisfied. And be careful what you wish for, because the small successes will only make you hungry for more.

Is Fantasy Doing The Trick?

I’m not a big fan of made-up worlds. I’m more of a realist in my literary tastes. I prefer stories that could conceivably happen to me, with familiar and accessible settings, as opposed to the wildest flights of an author’s imagination. Not since childhood have I been easily captivated by fantasy, science fiction, and tales of ancient times. Nor do I readily identify with wizards, zombies, space aliens, and kings and queens of antiquity.

So what accounts for a recent, growing urge to immerse myself in the unreal? Is the real world becoming too much for me? Alternate realities seem to be all the rage these days. Maybe it’s the strain of living in a country with a crazy president, who brags about his willingness to launch real missiles at an equally unstable leader who thinks he is capable of launching them right back.

I’ve dipped into the anti-realism craze before. I read the first Harry Potter volume, The Sorcerer’s Stone, and downloaded the movie a few years ago. I recently finished reading the first volume of Game of Thrones. Do I get what the excitement is about? Absolutely. JK Rowling and George RR Martin are masters at drawing audiences into their made-up worlds and mapping them out in rich detail, giving them believability and their own inner logic. When everything is so alien, it takes extra effort on the part of the reader or viewer to grasp it. Dangerous and unexpected things lurk around every corner. The main characters go looking for danger, since they are by nature heroic, driven, or at least extremely curious. Both tales feature the occasional woman or girl who behaves as heroically, or more so, than her male counterparts.

We first glimpse Harry Potter when he is about to leave drab reality behind and become a wizard-in-training. His new school is chock-full of magic, while the outside world remains ordinary and predictable. To be sure, weird things were happening to young Harry before he ever heard of Hogwarts, but he did not associate those incidents with magic. He was a maltreated orphan whose treacherous relatives covered up the truth about his parentage, and thus tried to deny him his destiny. Although he begins to realize his true nature when he arrives at Hogwarts, that place isn’t entirely different from the public schools we all recognize. I had a flashback to junior high when I glimpsed the crowded, turbulent dining hall at the school of magic, where much the same bonding, intrigue, and sometimes nastiness goes on. I felt for young Hermione when a fellow student calls her out for her abrasive personality and superior attitude. She runs off and cries, but manages to gain some perspective and humility when she falls into the hands of a dumb but dangerous troll. The only two fellow students who have made her acquaintance, Harry and Ron, at least care enough to help her out of that jam. A mighty threesome is launched.

Harry could live a relatively safe life in school, just learning his magic lessons, but that proves impossible. As the blood of his deceased parents courses through him, he and his two friends keep testing the boundaries. The first time they venture somewhere off limits, they encounter a three-headed dog. As if that weren’t scary enough, they discern that the dog is guarding some kind of secret. Of course the kids can’t rest until they uncover it. Along the way, they discover that some of their fellow students, and even one or two adults, are not necessarily supportive. They’re either jealous, or covering up the schemes and plots of the shadowy Voldemort, the embodiment of evil. Despite being one of the original founders of Hogwarts, Voldemort is also responsible for Harry being an orphan. We learn that possessing magic powers isn’t enough; one must also learn to use them for good.

Despite its medieval trappings, Game of Thrones strikes me as a more recognizable world than Hogwarts. We have the daily news to remind us that not much has changed since the so-called dark ages. The constant, bloody feuding between at least seven distinct houses described in the book is all too familiar to the modern observer. Vestiges of that world rage on in the tribal warfare of the Middle East, and many other places. Even if lords, ladies, and knights are no longer defending strongholds and castles, we still have endless religious and national quarrels and grievances. Who can sort out the allies and enemies in the interminable fight to overthrow the Syrian government? Countless nations have put an oar into that mess without any clear idea of an end game. They may agree that ISIS is the embodiment of evil, but they seem unable to join forces to remove the menace. Besides the intractable quarrel between different branches of Islam, there are also Kurd nationalists on the scene whom the US sometimes support, except when we’re obliged to designate them as a terrorist organization to placate our on-again, off-again ally, Turkey. Sometimes we appear to be on the same side as the Russians and sometimes on the opposite side. Who will the winners be if Assad actually falls? Not that it looks like he ever will.

It’s easier to keep track of the houses contending for the Iron Throne, even with their extended families and retainers and bannermen and outriders. Most readers’ sympathies will be with the family that seems to have valid historical reasons to believe it was usurped in the old days. At least in this world, there are no major religious quarrels going on, although some folks worship the old gods and some prefer the newer ones. Everyone seems to speak a Common Tongue, while more obscure languages are spoken on the outskirts of society.

The implements of warfare are what make this world so different from the one we know. It takes real heroism to be a warrior, as there is no avoiding the enemy. It’s all hand-to-hand combat with swords and lances. There are no fighter jets dropping bombs, no drones, no suicide car attacks, no assault rifles. Amputations are the most common injury in battle. Unless they result in decapitation, they’re considered mere flesh wounds, not serious enough to stop a true fighter. Combatants are always threatening to slice off the manhood of someone they intend to humiliate, and feed it to whatever wild animal is lurking about. And this proves to be no idle threat.

Some of the characters have a ring of familiarity. Robert, the sitting king when Game of Thrones opens, reminds me in some ways of Trump, although he’s much smarter and more self-aware. Robert admits that he felt truly alive and engaged when he was fighting for the throne; the actual job of ruling bores him. He fills his days with entertainment, putting on banquets and tournaments he can’t afford. The young ruler, Joffrey, who replaces Robert on his death, is Trump-like in his childishness. He is given to empty bragging and impulsive decisions, which need to be modified and countermanded by his more mature advisors. At least Joffrey has an excuse; he really is still a child, not a 71-year-old man.

These stories have some romantic potential. Unfortunately, the budding Romeo-and Juliet-style romance I anticipated between Joffrey and Sansa, the daughter of Robert’s loyal retainer, fizzles out for the time being. I thought it had a chance even when Joffrey and Sansa’s father clash, since it appears Sansa clings to her romantic notions for a brief time. Then Joffrey goes so far as to put her father to death as a traitor, and still has the insufferable arrogance to insist that the marriage will go on. As for romance in Harry Potter, I assume it’s waiting in the wings for the kids to mature in later volumes.

Fantasies like these have the power to divert us when real and potential disasters, both natural and manmade, loom everywhere. Sometimes I feel that existential threats like nuclear war and climate change are getting alarmingly close, yet I can still go to the Mall or to restaurants without meeting a gang of marauders who might decapitate me for having the wrong family name. Stories also remind us that life is never easy, even in fantasyland. The reptilian core of the human brain has always lurked barely underneath the surface, ready to erupt at any time. Voldemort, the embodiment of evil, may not be a real person, but he isn’t so different from people we know, too many of which are in positions of power. At least our real enemies aren’t magical, so presumably we have a fighting chance. Too bad we’re not magical ourselves.