Turning Reality On Its Head

When reality gets unbearably grim during this nonstop horror show of 2020, fiction seems particularly enticing. For me, it’s a perfect time to plunge into some of the alternate universes that the Netflix streaming service provides. One political drama in particular strikes me as pure wishful thinking, given today’s level of discourse.  It features the first woman president of the United States (and hurrah for the imaginary voters who finally got it right!). Madame President has moved up from her previous position as Madame Secretary of State (as a certain real-life figure once seemed poised to do, until the electoral college bollixed up her chances).

Early in the administration of this fantasy president, Elizabeth McCord, she receives credible evidence of Iranian interference in the most recent election. She vows to expose and punish this attack on American democracy … even though that interference appears to have benefited her! Talk about turning reality on its head. In this alternate world, we not only have a president who is willing to risk her office for the sake of principle, but actually listens to her opponents (as proven by her choice of a Republican vice president), tries to advance legislation that has a chance of helping people not in the wealthiest one percent, uses the military judiciously, and faces down irresponsible politicians who make unhinged threats against her and her family. In short, she applies reason and intellect to the pressing issues of the day. Will this ever be the norm again? After three and a half years of nonstop lies, conspiracy theories, tantrums, and plain rank stupidity emanating from the White House, is there any hope for such a reality?

I have also traveled back in time, to an well-honored classic, to examine this reality-tampering process. The most recent remake of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is quite a departure from the countless earlier versions. The 2019 movie directed by Greta Gerwig is more thematic than chronological. The four March sisters, growing up in Civil War-era New England, were based on Alcott’s own family, yet the author herself reportedly referred to her most popular work as “sentimental pap.” It seems that she was forced to betray her own reality in some ways, in the interests of appealing to the popular reading market of the time. Her original intention was to write a story more aligned with the truth. That would have left her heroine unmarried at the end, as she herself was. However, she allowed herself to be persuaded that the book wouldn’t sell unless it featured a  “happily ever after” ending.

How well does the new movie restore Alcott’s less idealized reality? We see Jo, the novice authoress, stand up to the prospective publisher of her first novel, even when he appears to have all the power. He offers her an upfront payment of $500 in exchange for the copyright. That was sorely tempting to Jo, the primary breadwinner of a poor family. But she turns down the offer, having enough faith in her work to realize that the copyright, in time, would be worth much more than $500.

Yet after token resistance, Jo does succumb to her publisher’s “happily ever after” edict,  just as Alcott did. Gerwig’s movie compromises in the same way. It isn’t certain at first, in this retelling, that Jo will fall for the German professor who courts her during a sojourn in New York City.  In fact, when he has the temerity to criticize her writing rather harshly, she lashes out at him, defending her stories for the pulp market. They might not be great literature, but they bring in cash that her family sorely needs. In the end, however, even this somewhat revisionist movie isn’t about to let Jo end up a “spinster.” The professor grows on her, and his writing advice, while unwelcome at first, turns out to be sound. Some time after she returns home, he pays her a brief, unexpected visit. She almost lets him walk away without a commitment, but her sisters know love when they see it. At their urging, she races through a pouring rain to stop him before he gets on a train bound for the west.

Jo’s three sisters have likewise acquired a new complexity. I’ve often wondered if the real Beth, the sister who died at a tragically young age, was as relentlessly sweet as portrayed in the book. A little research into the actual sister (known as Lizzie) suggests otherwise. As the story goes, the girls’ mother is called away to tend to her sick husband at the battlefront. She asks her daughters to  take up her charitable work while she is gone, but Beth is the only one who actually does. One of her charges comes down with scarlet fever, which Beth knows is beyond her nursing capabilities. She asks her older sisters to pitch in, since they had the fever years before and presumably couldn’t catch it again. When they claim to be too tired or busy, Beth’s normally placid face betrays a moment of anger. Can’t one of them relieve her burden just this once?

As a result, she catches the disease. She appeared to recover from the initial phase, but as time passes, it becomes clear that permanent damage has been done. She eventually succumbs to its complications. In Alcott’s story, Beth accepts her fate, and after much suffering and prayer, even embraces it. Other sources report that on a few occasions, the real Lizzie lashed out at her sisters and others, as she had every right to. After all, their neglect at a critical time was at least partly responsible for destroying her life.

As in all versions of the story, Meg, the oldest sister, and Amy, the youngest, prove to be polar opposites when it comes to marital choices. Meg marries for love, not money, but she’s only human, and sometimes she can’t help lamenting her continuing poverty. By contrast, the latest version of Amy has been generally lauded as a proto-feminist. A rather self-centered child, and later something of a gold-digger in her determination to “marry well,” she’s not entirely sympathetic. Yet who can blame her? Along the way, she faces the fact that her skills as an artist aren’t sufficient to afford her a comfortable living … although she believes in her heart that her earning capability would be far greater if she were a man. Given the limitations imposed on ambitious women, her best option is to make a match that will enable her to pursue art as a hobby, and perhaps serve as a benefactor to others.

In the end, all three of the surviving March sisters make peace with their choices. Switching back to modern times, President Elizabeth McCord manages to overcome a bogus impeachment attempt, and actually rises in the polls as a result. It’s all rather cheesy, and perhaps wishful thinking, but reassuring nevertheless. Given the circumstances of 2020, why not? Just now, we need all the happy endings we can get.

Reality-Based Characters Too Real?

To be honest … how many of us authors are willing to admit that much of our fiction is thinly disguised autobiography? And are there times when it’s so thinly disguised that it’s barely fiction at all? I suspect this is particularly true of debut novels, and I’ll cop to it myself. My first two, Secretarial Wars (2003) and The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) feature, respectively, a working girl version of me and a college student version of me. Later, I tried to branch out from myself a little more, since I don’t find my own life endlessly fascinating and I doubt that many readers would either. I suspect that most authors, if they keep at it, become more skilled and imaginative at altering reality.

This topic occurred to me recently while I was immersing myself, yet again, in the recently published letters of Sylvia Plath. During her lifetime, Plath enjoyed her greatest publication success as a poet. When asked about her poetic process in interviews, she described it as highly personal, derived from physical and emotional experiences she’d had.

The same technique of utilizing true-life situations for fictional purposes seems more problematic. A narrative is much more likely to evoke real people, who are sure to recognize themselves and might react badly. Plath encountered this phenomenon once she completed her only novel, The Bell Jar. Her British publisher expressed concerns about possible lawsuits, and Plath wrote a detailed letter in an attempt to address the issue.

There’s no denying that The Bell Jar is an angry novel. The central event of the story, the nervous breakdown suffered by a bright college girl, was based on her own breakdown in the summer of 1953. As described in the story, many people contributed to the girl’s troubles, or at least failed to give her the help she needed. These characters are easily recognizable to anyone who knows her history, and to deny their connections to real people seems disingenuous.

Still, Plath wrote to her publisher: “I’ve gone through the book with great care and have prepared a list of links of fiction to fact, and a list of minor corrections which should alter most specific factual references.” Accordingly, she changed many names that were in the original manuscript. She went on to explain that the setting for the first half of the book was based on the Mademoiselle College Board Program for Guest Editors, in which she participated during June 1953. She changed the number of participants from 20 to 12, and claimed that all twelve were fictitious. But in later years, researchers were able to locate the prototypes for all of these young women, and they all admitted to recognizing themselves.

Plath also claims that her heroine’s supervisory editor at the magazine is fictitious, and at any rate there were dozens of editors at Mademoiselle that summer. The only unfavorable thing about her in the story, according to Plath, was that one of the girls described her as “ugly as sin.” If I were the editor in question, I would probably consider that insulting enough, even if my professional skills were never called into question. Likewise, Plath insists that the initial psychiatrist whom the girl consulted about her deteriorating mental state, and who failed to adequately supervise a shock treatment, could be based on any psychiatrist in the Boston area. But that appalling instance of malpractice actually happened to Plath, and I would think the real doctor deserved to be exposed.

Some of the portrayals of people closest to her proved most painful. Plath admits in her letter to the publisher that the mother in the book is based on her own mother, and is a “dutiful, hard-working woman whose beastly daughter is ungrateful to her.” True, but that mother also comes off as an uncomprehending, platitude-spouting dimwit. Aurelia Plath didn’t read the book until after Sylvia’s death, since her daughter purposely kept it from her. But the portrayal reportedly struck her to the core. Similarly, Plath transformed the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, a major financial and emotional benefactor to her during her college years and beyond, into a comically bad romance novelist called Philomena Guinea. This was a rather stunning act of ingratitude, since Prouty was the one who paid for Sylvia’s psychiatric treatment at a high-quality hospital, which effectively saved her life at that time.

There was also the clueless boyfriend, a medical student who denigrates the girl’s poetic interests because they aren’t science, and therefore not as important as what he’s doing. Is he really sufficiently disguised, as Plath insists, because there were many blond, blue-eyed boys who went to Yale and became doctors? And then there was Jane Anderson, a fellow inmate at the hospital where Sylvia spent six months, whose name was changed to “Joan” in the novel. Many years later, she actually sued the Plath estate, because the character based on her committed suicide in place of the heroine. Anderson, who in real life went on to become a psychiatrist, contended that the portrayal harmed her professionally.

It may seem mean-spirited to criticize Plath at this late date, for writing the novel she evidently needed to write. But it can’t be denied that she published it under a pseudonym, and tried to keep it under wraps as best she could. If she admitted to family and friends that it existed at all, she describing it as a “potboiler, and just practice. Nobody should read it!” Clearly, she feared the reactions of real people.

Maybe if Sylvia Plath had lived long enough to write her own autobiography, she would have explored the roots of these characters, much as the late novelist Pat Conroy did in a couple of autobiographies toward the end of his life. For Conroy, the process of making fiction from reality seemed to work in reverse: rather than pummeling those who had failed him, he tried in some ways to make his harrowing childhood more palatable. For example, he used his own father as the inspiration for the tyrannical military father in The Great Santini, but made him nicer than he actually was, giving him credit for acts of kindness that never happened. Donald Conroy apparently chose to embrace the sanitized version of himself. He even accompanied his son on some of the promotional book tours, posing as the original Great Santini.

So it appears that reality-based fiction can address our emotional needs in many ways … to satirize or to humanize or to exaggerate the traits of our friends and enemies and everyone in between. Can any of us claim that our stories are totally made up? If so, they’re fantasies … and I suspect there are some grains of truth to be found even in that genre.

Lady Macbeth As Heroine

My 2010 novel, Let’s Play Ball, features a villainess named Guadalupe. She’s an American-born woman of Cuban descent, who throws away a marriage to a Cuban-born major league ballplayer that could have ensured a prosperous life in the United States. She believes she was meant for greater things on a wider stage. She grabs at that more meaningful life by catching the eye of the heir apparent to the presidency of Cuba during a rare state visit. She follows him back to the island to assume the role of first-lady-in-waiting, taking her young son without his father’s permission.

My villainess is not the type to sit back and watch from afar as her ex-husband, Manny, finds happiness with his second wife, Jessica, a glamorous sportswriter, and maneuvers to get his son back. She suffers international humiliation when the child is snatched from his nanny in a daring raid, and returned to the U.S. In revenge, she plots Manny’s kidnapping, bringing in a wide range of accomplices.

Guadalupe is far from the only evil character in the story, since it takes a rather large conspiracy to pull off the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer from his own ballpark. Is she worse than all the others, being the ultimate instigator of a crime against the man she once professed to love? Is she not only un-womanly but un-maternal, since the revenge factor seems to play a bigger role in her plotting than the custody issue?

Certain critics have pointed out that my other female characters don’t come off so great, either. Jessica and her fraternal twin sister Miranda, a homeland security bureaucrat, are the ostensible heroines as they set out to investigate the kidnapping. Although they make progress, their contentious relationship threatens to derail their efforts. They disagree, argue, and snipe at each other a lot along the way. In fact, catfights are a motif in this story. Certain powerful women come to the twins’ attention as suspects, and they, in turn, are fighting with each other. Come to think of it, catfights pop up fairly often in all of my stories. Don’t I like my own sex?

Guadalupe proves to be the lead villainess, the undeniable catalyst of all the mischief. Now I’m writing a sequel in which she becomes something of a heroine, at least in her own mind. Her evil ways continue as she instigates yet another kidnapping of a ballplayer, with less personal justification than before. Yet she feels driven by a higher purpose, a long-range goal that even she can’t define at first. She may be delusional, but she may be onto something.

Can an unapologetic villain possibly be sympathetic? And can people who seem to entertain grandiose ideas make themselves understood by rational minds? For that matter, is it necessary as authors to root for our viewpoint characters every minute?

While researching the subject of sympathetic villainesses, I came across an alternative take on Lady Macbeth. In Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth: A Novel (2009), Shakespeare’s most wicked woman is given a rich backstory that helps to explain, if not justify, her wickedness. She was widowed while pregnant, and forced to marry the Scottish warlord Macbeth, her husband’s murderer. Although she initially despises this unnatural partner, the brutal world she inhabits forces her to join with him and share his plans. There are threats coming at the uneasy couple from all directions, including Vikings, Saxons, and competing warlords. Her own royal blood has given Lady Macbeth an imperious bearing and an awareness of her special destiny. Her twin goals of advancing her son and forging a united Scotland are not for the weak-hearted.

To find a more modern villain-hero, we can turn to the Star Wars universe. It seems that Kylo Ren, son of the original icons Hans Solo and Leia Organa, somehow turned evil. Given his parentage, he must have felt pressured from childhood to become the very embodiment of Jedi righteousness. Instead, in an extreme case of adolescent rebellion, he ends up leading an army against his heroic parents, even killing his dad. A analysis in Rolling Stone of the final Star Wars installment seems to relate this angst to modern times: “A confused, angry man-boy radicalized by powerful forces whispering in his ear, an heir to generational trauma raised in an era of endless war, is an all-too-believable threat.”

Adam Driver, who portrays Kylo Ren, explains the nuances of his role: “There’s something in having an antagonist who is a little more vulnerable That seems to be more relatable and human than just someone who is a psychopath.” He goes on to explain further that although his character is the villain “in some ways,” his actions can also be seen as heroic. This is one mixed-up universe, where a mass murderer is deemed “vulnerable” because he hesitated a moment, with pain in his eyes, before he wiped out an entire regiment of righteous warriors.

I haven’t seen “The Rise of Skywalker,” but it was widely speculated in advance that Ren must be headed toward some sort of redemption. That would seem to be necessary if the chemistry between him and Rey, his warrior-heroine opponent, is ever to develop. That would be the most predictable plot arc, although writers of sagas have been known to surprise us.

So that brings me back to my own Guadalupe, who will not live “happily ever after,” no matter where she ends up. She has never found contentment, either as a baseball wife in the U.S. or in her “Cuban first lady” pose. Nor will she ever settle for being a mere decoration, when she “knows” she’s destined to make her own unique mark on history. Is she a little bit crazy? No doubt, but she may just prove to be a little bit right.

Sylvia Plath, Narcissist Poet

I’ve continued to indulge my Sylvia Plath obsession by devouring the second volume of her correspondence, The Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume 2: 1956-1963. The first volume (1940-1956 ) included Sylvia’s pre-college and college years, and chronicled with particular poignancy her first nervous breakdown and the lead-up to her suicide attempt in the summer of 1953. After a hiatus of six months during her subsequent hospitalization, she resumed her life and letter-writing energetically, as if making up for lost time. After graduating from Smith College in 1955, she traveled to England to study on a Fulbright grant at Cambridge University. She met and married fellow poet Ted Hughes, and the match seemed idyllic at first.

The second volume covers the blossoming and conflicts of that marriage, including two years spent teaching and traveling in America, the births of two children, the establishment of a permanent home in England, and numerous literary triumphs for both writers. Then came the discovery of Hughes’s infidelities, the dissolution of the relationship, and Sylvia’s descent into madness a second time, from which she was destined not to recover.

The outlines of the story were already well known to me. I tried to add another dimension to my understanding by concurrently reading The Collected Poems, which includes most of Plath’s output from 1956 to 1963, plus some juvenilia from her college years. This collection was assembled by Ted Hughes around 1980, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. Much of this poetry is difficult, although lyrical and masterful. It gets increasingly personal as time goes on. Knowing some of the facts of Plath’s life is helpful; without that, I’m guessing much of it would be incomprehensible.

Joyce Carol Oates, novelist and literary critic, offers some insight into this “personal” phenomenon in an essay included in the digital edition. This piece, entitled “Sylvia Plath and the Death Throes of Romanticism,” argues that the world is no longer as receptive as it used to be to this “romantic” brand of poetry, which is increasingly regarded as narcissistic. Oates cites several of Plath’s later poems as prime exhibits. One of these is appropriately entitled “Mirror.” Oates criticizes the self-centered nature of this piece: “the result of a limited vision that believed itself the mirror held up to nature,” and therefore godlike. She argues further that there is no hope for social integration in this stubbornly individual viewpoint: society is simply “an organization of the solitary.”

Oates also cites one of Plath’s most famous poems, “Daddy,” a bitter attack on her long-deceased father. In a wild exaggeration, Plath conflates her father’s German ancestry with Nazi identity. She describes herself, a victim of his supposed tyranny, as “a bit of a Jew.” She doesn’t stop there, but includes her estranged husband in this indictment, and by extension, all men: “Every woman adores a Fascist/the boot in the face, the brute/brute heart of a brute like you.” Oates condemns such a viewpoint, which “never crosses over the threshold of an active, healthy attack upon obvious evils and injustices.” Plath expresses no true sympathy for the actual victims, as she keeps stewing in her own private Holocaust.

This leads Oates to accuse Plath of being blind to the real thoughts and feelings of other people. I find myself wondering if this is really the way Plath was, or if her narcissism was mostly a literary device. Quite a few people who knew her have described her complicated nature: warm and caring at times, but utterly self-centered and rude on occasion. Perhaps Oates’s most serious indictment is that Plath’s poetry treats even her children as mere images. Does this mean she wasn’t a caring mother?

Plath’s correspondence from her teenage years on testifies to her determination to have both a family and a career. In letters to various girlfriends, she claimed that giving birth to her daughter Frieda in 1960, and her son Nicholas in 1962, had been the most satisfying experiences of her life. But the realities of her situation made motherhood a difficult proposition. One of the most devastating results of her marital breakup was Hughes’s confession that he had never wanted children, but had lacked the courage to tell her so until it was too late. When it came to caring for them day-to-day, he made it clear that they would be her responsibility. Her letters from this point on describe her relentless, almost feverish search for reliable nannies and babysitters who would allow her the private time she needed for writing. Her only alternative, as long as she lacked adequate help, was to rise every morning at four a.m. and write for three or four hours until the children awoke.

Plath is perhaps at her cruelest in the poem “Lesbos,” written in October 1962. This poem emerged shortly after her separation from Hughes became permanent, and was evidently inspired by a visit she paid to a couple they both knew. The woman, supposedly a friend, is described in hostile terms. She was an aspiring actress, and Plath mocks her aspirations: “It is all Hollywood, windowless/the fluorescent light wincing on and off like a terrible migraine.” The two of them are discontented mothers, commiserating with each other, yet failing to bond, despite the suggestive title of the poem. Oates indicts Plath as  “an adult woman denying her adulthood, her motherhood, lashing out spitefully at all objects―babies or husbands or sick kittens―with a strident, self-mocking energy.” Since her husband is not there, the bulk of her rage is visited on her children. She stews in the day-to-day realities of child care:  “There’s a stink of fat and baby crap/I’m doped and thick from my last sleeping pill/the smog of cooking, the smog of hell.” Her daughter’s tantrum is equated with a nervous breakdown: “And my child―look at her, face down on the floor/little unstrung puppet, kicking to disappear/why she is schizophrenic.”

Anger and revenge were the ingredients that made Sylvia Plath’s name as a writer after her suicide. She would never have acquired such fame if not for the rage-filled poems of her posthumous collection, Ariel, written mostly during her hard-won early morning private time. There are no happy poems, celebrating domesticity, as she neared the end. On the contrary, she seemed determined to break those bonds.

Maybe Ted Hughes deserved a beat-down like this, but what about the children? How did they cope with such a legacy? They both seemed to have traveled long distances from the scene of their family tragedy in order to forge their own identities. Frieda moved to Australia, married and divorced three times without children, and pursued a career as a painter. Nicholas moved to Alaska, became a well-respected professor and researcher in ocean sciences, never married, and died by suicide at the age of 47.

The Game Of Thrones Effect

I  experienced the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon, much like the earlier “Harry Potter” fad, by sticking my toes in tentatively rather than immersing myself in the lengthy narrative. I read the first book in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, watched the first season videos, and dipped in occasionally thereafter, to get an idea of what the excitement was about. As with Harry and his cohorts, I definitely got it, and I was curious about how it would end, but that was all I needed. To experience it in its entirety would take years.

I find that “Games of Thrones” can influence my writing without my fully comprehending it. George R. R. Martin has created an alternate universe, one that is medieval, brutal, and warlike. It’s a place where you don’t reason with your enemies. You behead them, throw them off a cliff, or poison them. If for some reason you prefer to keep them alive to prolong their suffering, dismemberment is the method of choice. There are no real consequences for violent behavior, other than the certainty of making more enemies. Warriors fight to advance their respective kingdoms, with one overriding throne in contention. There are no nations, and no seasons as we know them on earth. It has been summer for ages, but everyone can sense the approach of winter, which will seem never-ending and make for an even harsher world.

This sort of reality-altering creation has somehow freed up my own imagination. I feel just a tad better about what my critique group sometimes calls my “plausibility issues.” I suspect many of us genteel fiction writers might get a boost from tales like GoT. It seems to make honesty and rawness more possible for every writer. For example, I’ve always been squeamish about sex scenes, but I recently attempted one that is downright kinky. It involves a powerful woman taking advantage of a vulnerable man. I gave it a fairy tale sheen, comparing it to a popular story in which an evil witch kidnaps a handsome prince.

Now I can admit that my 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball, and its intended sequel with the working title Let’s Play Two, really do inhabit an alternate world. I invented a new Cuba, an island south of Florida that is more brazen and more of a player on the world stage than the real Cuba ever was or probably will be. Council meetings at the presidential palace resemble the mad hatter’s tea party. This country keeps acting up and committing outrages against the United States, mostly by making use of its baseball connections. American leaders not only tolerate these shenanigans, but sometimes subtly encourage them for their own purposes. One of my critique group members complained, “I don’t believe all this presidential stuff!” I didn’t totally believe it myself, but I couldn’t help liking the “presidential stuff.” In fact, I’m beginning to think “Games of Thrones” may have inspired aspects of Trump World, or maybe vice versa. The one adviser to the original King Robert who was a true friend of his, and had enough courage and integrity to tell him the truth, was beheaded for his efforts. The beheadings in Trump World may be symbolic, but truth and integrity lose out just the same.

Similarly, this is a world totally devoid of political correctness. The dwarf Tyrion Lannister, despite being high-born, witty, and suave, is referred to as the “imp” or “half-man.” He is defined by his most obvious physical attribute, until he manages to push himself onto the field of battle, the only way a man can earn respect in this world. Jon Snow is forever “the bastard,” as if the circumstances of his birth were his own fault. Luckily for him, he’s a born fighter. The story’s treatment of women is also dicey. They are roughly divided into prostitutes, wenches, and high-born women, with very little in the way of normal housewives. Cersei, Robert’s unfaithful wife, is pure evil, producing prospective heirs not only by adultery but by incest. “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die,” she pronounces, and she should know. The wives of powerful men are mostly heir-producers, and no matter how grand and beautiful, can be silenced at any time by their husbands with a sharp “Enough, woman!” This is true until Daenerys Targaryen comes into her own with an inherited title and dragons to help her conquer all … and unfortunately, a perpetual target on her back.

My favorite characters in the first season were the two battling sisters, Sansa and Arya Stark, daughters of the beheaded adviser and therefore always in mortal trouble themselves. They remind me of my close but competitive fraternal twins in Let’s Play Ball.  One of the twins is having an affair with a ballplayer whom the other twin suspects of participating in a kidnapping plot against a teammate of his, who happens to be her own fiancé. That makes for an awkward family dynamic, but they have nothing on the Stark sisters. Sansa, the oldest, is expected to marry the creepy heir to the throne who oversaw her father’s execution without a shimmer of remorse. Arya, refreshingly, saw through the loathsome fiancé long before her sister did. She trains to fight back as a warrior, although there is the drawback of being mistaken constantly for a boy.

“Game of Thrones” can be taken as a delightful vacation from reality, one that encourages us all to take similar flights. The only trouble with this formula is that the real world keeps getting weirder. Somehow, the wildest fantasies don’t seem so implausible anymore.

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?

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.

Riverdale Runs Wild

In a fit of nostalgia, I recently watched the two seasons of “Riverdale” that are currently available on Netflix. I thought it might be fun to re-experience my childhood enjoyment of the Archie Comics, which captured teenage life in a small town.  I wasn’t yet a teenager when I started reading the comics in the early 1960s, so they mostly gave me a sense of what I had to look forward to, assuming  my own teenage years turned out fairly normal.  There were characters that represented all possible stereotypes … nice and well-behaved Betty, vampy and privileged Veronica, all-American Archie, lazy Jughead, cool-cat Reggie, dumb jock Moose, and so on. In later years, more characters were added to increase the diversity of the cast.

I identified most with Betty, who had a blond ponytail and  a sweet, innocent-looking face. Although she was friends with raven-haired Veronica, she was uncomfortably aware that “Ronnie” was sexier and richer than she. To complicate matters, they both liked Archie and took turns dating him, although Ronnie was also known to flirt with the more suave Reggie. Would typical teenage dramas like these be enough to carry a modern-type streaming series?

Apparently, Netflix doesn’t think so. (Spoiler alert for anybody planning to watch this). The series begins with a literal bang … the murder of a popular student during summer vacation. His family immediately comes under suspicion, since his parents are a little creepy and his twin sister isn’t known to be a good girl. In fact, it comes to light that she was helping her brother run away from home with Betty’s older sister, who was pregnant with his child, when the gunshot rang out. That’s the mystery that sets all of the intrigue in motion, and then it keeps piling on. During the subsequent school year, more murders and attempted murders pop up. Someone who calls himself the Black Hood is wreaking havoc and sending cryptic messages to the newspaper … and also calling Betty’s cell phone, although she has no idea why she’s the target of his weird rambling. And as if this weren’t enough, copycats terrorists get in the act and strike at various times, such as during a mayoral debate and a school musical.

I found myself wondering if I could possibly identify with this wildly enhanced version of Betty, who still has the ponytail but not the innocence. I guess I could, if I suspected my dad was a serial killer, and especially if I had managed to develop sufficient journalistic skills while working on the school newspaper to enable me to uncover some horrifying clues. And maybe if I came to realize that I, too, harbored a certain “darkness” within that could compel me to commit murder for the greater good … even if my intended victim were someone I had thought for a short time was my long-lost brother.

Some comic relief is provided by the irate principal of Riverdale High. He has ample justification for his daily temper tantrums and habit of summoning kids into his office to hear his diatribes. His school is hardly a well-oiled machine; it’s barely a school at all. Most of the kids (except maybe Moose and Reggie and a few gang members) are obviously smart enough to solve complex mysteries that baffle even the chief of police. They’re at an age when they should be thinking about college and taking demanding AP classes in preparation. Even the formerly lazy Jughead has been reconstituted as anything but that, although he sports the same trademark wool cap in every season and situation. He’s probably the most complex of the revised characters, an aspiring writer and crusader for good who is also a gang member. He’s dating nice-on-the-surface Betty in this scenario, but since his dad used to be the leader of the pack, that side of his nature  is never far from the surface.

Schoolwork at Riverdale High is an afterthought, if that. I never saw any of the kids do a lick of homework, although they sometimes tell their parents they have a lot of it. That’s just a handy dodge, it seems, to avoid supervision at home. Once left alone in their rooms, they’re free to get on their computers and phones, not to write themes or work out math problems, but to exchange the latest scandalous news and clues. Nor do the kids adhere to any curfews, as they always seem to be roaming the streets in the dead of night. Once in a while they do sit in a classroom, but the lesson at hand never grabs their attention. How could mere schoolwork compete with their real dramas?

To put it mildly, this is quite a new take on an old classic. There is barely enough time for all of the red herrings introduced in every episode to be chased down. Did the producers go too far in turning what used to be innocent entertainment totally on its head? Or are they just having some fun by pulling our legs?

Corralling A Hot Mess

I’ve reached a milestone of sorts in my semi-illustrious self-publishing career. I have finally disposed of a story that has been cooking inside my brain forever, that has kept on haunting me even as I set it aside and went forward with other unrelated novels because they seemed to come easier. I’ve somehow corralled the scraps of this tale that have lurked ever since I first began to entertain an imaginary friend in childhood. That “friendship” has persisted well into middle age. She still hangs around, advising me and leading by example, since she possesses all the aggressiveness that I lack. She’s the leader of the story, a composite of strong women I have known and admired, while the character based on me is the follower. The story has always been called “Sycophants,” even as it went through revisions too numerous to count. I fear it’s a somewhat self-deprecating title that pegs my heroine, Imogene, as less than heroic, although she does manage to conquer a few demons here and there.

The outlines of Sycophants came to me during my college years in the early 1970s. I was an introvert who tended to gravitate toward the take-charge personalities in my dorm. My college was in rural Maryland, a very pretty spot, but I often longed to escape to New York City, over 200 miles away. A previous novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, published in 2007, dealt with college roommates Sara and Imogene as they embarked on a road trip to the big city. Their mission was to bring back the homegrown band fronted by Sara’s brother Jake, now a famous rock star, to perform at the annual Homecoming concert. Sycophants is a sequel to that novel, in which the original characters have grown up and are now laying the groundwork for their fondest dream, a movie production company. My blurb describes Imogene as a country girl by birth who determines to leave the farm where she grew up and join her former roommate in this exciting venture.

I’ve “finished” the manuscript for this story a few times before, only to abandon it as awkward, uncontrollable, and illogical. In short, it was a hot mess that wouldn’t seem to cool down. For starters, I didn’t know enough about the movie business, and what would be plausible in a do-it-yourself situation in the late 1980s. So I began to read numerous books about all aspects of film-making. I presented the first chapter to a critique group that gave it a real beat-down, leaving me incredulous as to how I could have made so many missteps in just twenty pages. Since traditional publishing was the only real option then, I queried a few places. A few literary agents admitted to liking the concept, but that was as far as it got.

The various manuscripts for Sycophants have a storied history, grinding through all kinds of primitive technology. I typed it on my first computer, purchased around 1987, a Kaypro which had no hard drive and could only store ten pages at a time on floppy disks. Over the years, as the available technology evolved, I transferred it to each new computer. There were times when the ideas flowed smoothly, and other times when they got tangled. I started from scratch more than once.

Now I’m done with it … at least for the moment. I had what I thought was a semi-decent rough draft by May 2018. I reread the whole thing to make sure it was minimally coherent, at least to my own eyes. My current critique group, a much more helpful bunch than the previous one, had beta-read it a few pages at a time, making many useful suggestions. However, that system didn’t allow for an overall assessment. I found that the story hung together, but that the language needed either tightening up or fleshing out in numerous places. I went through the rewriting process at least five times between May and October.

Finally, after farming out the cover design and line editing, I decided to publish directly to Amazon for the first time. My previous four novels were published by iUniverse, and received the Editor’s Choice designation. The last two of those novels, Let’s Play Ball and Handmaidens of Rock, went through the full developmental edit process, which I found thorough and professional. This time I went with only a line edit, not the full process, simply because I had rewritten it so many times myself that I just couldn’t face doing it again. I was something of an editor myself in my Federal government career, and I critique other writers’ work on occasion, so I’m not totally helpless in that area. Still, this feels something like walking a tightrope without a net. But having decided that perfection is the enemy of progress, I determined to let  my “life’s work” fly. At least I’m confident that the professionally designed cover reflects what the book is about … amateurs and semi-amateurs trying to worm or pay their way into the movie business.

But in Amazon’s system, is anything really finished? The files are always available to be unloaded, revised, and reloaded. To my disgust and chagrin, there were a few errors that I didn’t catch until I had the published paperback in my hands. Formatting errors, as long as they’re few and far between, don’t trouble me much. That seems unavoidable, with all the format changes that a manuscript has to go through to be readable on various devices, as well as ready to print. At least the story seems to flow and cohere as well as I could make it. The one thing that made me break out into a cold sweat was discovering that I twice used the wrong name for a minor character. I cursed myself, while wondering if anybody else would notice or care.

I’m sure many of my fellow authors have stories churning in their heads that they can’t seem to finish, but that won’t let them go either. These days it’s fairly easy to go “live” with your books, whether they’re perfect or not. Do you ever get to the point where your work is absolutely finished, and never to be touched or altered again?

A novel about film-making can’t exist without a video, so here’s the link:

If Roseanne Were A Novelist

I was a longtime viewer of Roseanne Barr’s original television show, which ran from 1988 to 1997 on ABC.  The early years of the Conner family, with Dan and Roseanne struggling to make a living and raise three kids, were by far the best, in my opinion. The stories were funny and true to life. The parents, besides working various blue-collar jobs, were brave and foolhardy enough to start their own businesses. The two daughters, beginning as an early teenager and a pre-teen, and the younger son, went through all the normal growing pains: dating, social awkwardness, peer pressure, the beginning of menstruation, birth control, and even masturbation. All of it was believable and sensitively done.

In its later years the series began to lose its attraction for me … slowly at first, and then totally. Changes are inevitable in a series as long-running as this one, as the kids grow up, acquire partners, and face more adult issues. Still, I’ve heard speculation that some of the more startling changes corresponded with Roseanne herself acquiring more control over the story lines. She has been very honest over the years about her struggles with mental illness. Reportedly, she spent ten years working with a therapist to integrate her multiple personalities. That was no doubt a courageous battle. But since she was, by her own admission, not always in touch with reality, she might have been smarter to allow the network authorities veto power over some of her more bizarre creative decisions.

The last two years of the series, in particular, could be a case study in how not to wrap up a long-running television show. It was apparently Roseanne’s idea to have the Connors win the lottery and become instantaneously, fabulously wealthy. That’s the development that lost me as a regular viewer. It simply wasn’t realistic, and not something any ordinary person can relate to. Later, the famously weird final episode of the series finished the job of blowing up everything that had been relatable about the early show, and pulling the rug out from under its loyal viewers. That was when the Roseanne character revealed herself as her own creator, and declared that she had taken the liberty of rewriting her life story to make it turn out “right.” She enumerated various “true” facts that she had altered: that Dan Conner had died of the heart attack he had supposedly survived; that the two daughters were actually married to each other’s husbands; and that Roseanne’s mother, who had discovered she was gay in the course of the series, wasn’t the family member who evolved in that way. Instead, it was her sister Jackie, practically a heterosexual nymphomaniac throughout most of the series. All of these were excruciatingly clever twists that made absolutely no sense.

I watched the recent reboot of the series out of curiosity, despite my discomfort with Roseanne’s tendency toward political ranting. Having been an extreme leftist not all that long ago, she took a violent swing in the other direction. Apparently, at some point during the Obama administration, when she was thinking of running for president on the green party ticket, she’d become convinced that the incumbent president was out to get her personally. That outburst of paranoia should have been a clear indication that her mental illness was not entirely under control.

Yet before her latest full plunge into racism, her eccentricities were bearable. Although extreme right-wing views are tough for us progressives to swallow, most of us are willing to listen to them as long as they can be related to real-world events and struggles. Certainly the Conner family continues to have more than its share of such hardships, but is that enough of an explanation? It would have been helpful if Roseanne’s character had explained her views, instead of spouting wild conspiracy theories and insulting those who disagreed, in imitation of a certain president we know all too well. Maybe that more nuanced view would have come to the surface in time, if she had been allowed to survive on the show. Instead, she was fired, and her character was killed off.

My real problem with Roseanne is bad writing. She may have acquired more creative control over her original show, but she never developed the mentality of a novelist. That requires a writer to envision the big picture, and to discard any plot twists, however clever, that don’t serve that purpose. That’s what we have developmental editors for. In order to revive the series (renamed “The Conners” after her departure), she had to blow up much of her original vision, backtracking on many of her questionable creative decisions. For example, Dan didn’t really die, the Conners didn’t really win the lottery, the daughters kept their original husbands, and her sister was not gay.

It’s too bad the imaginary Roseanne had to die. Even at her ornery worst, she was the central character, the one vivid  point around which all the plot craziness swirled. The real Roseanne might have saved her alter ego by apologizing sincerely for her blatant racism, and preferably closing the twitter account that got her in trouble. But her many explanations for her hate-filled diatribes were contradictory, and her attitude finally became defiant instead of apologetic. Hence, the overdose of painkillers that killed off her character.

Those left behind have their interesting points. The two daughters are continuing the combative relationship they had as kids, while repeating many of their parents’ experiences with under-employment, parenthood, addictive behavior, etc. It seems sister Jackie was brought back mostly to serve as Roseanne’s liberal counterpoint, since her backstory from the original series has been ignored so far. DJ, the son, has an inter-racial marriage to a military spouse, which seems to have dramatic potential. Dan’s dry-wall business is still going, barely; his use of immigrant labor has come up as a topical issue. But none of this is as interesting as Roseanne herself. I wanted to learn what became of her in the long run. Would she evolve back to someone more sane, believable, and admirable? Given her volatility in the past, anything would have been possible.