My Girls Are Unlikable

September 25, 2017

Why do readers and critics of chicklit fiction demand likable heroines? When asked why this is so important, some say they can’t get into a story unless they find themselves rooting for the central character. They must be able to identify with her, or at least care what happens to her. They’ll concede that everyone has flaws, and a perfect heroine would be dull, but she must overcome whatever foibles are standing between her and a happy life.

So how flawed can a heroine afford to be? Must she achieve near-perfection during the course of the narrative to allow the reader to develop the necessary sympathy? Do readers really strive for such perfection themselves, or think they can achieve it with such a person as a role model? In the process of writing four novels, I’ve come up with imperfect and perhaps even unlikable heroines. I never thought they were bad people, just a little messed up. Of course they tend to be self-absorbed, but aren’t most young people like that? That’s how I defend them from naysayers.

In Secretarial Wars, a story inspired by one of my office experiences, the recently divorced secretary Miriam is still sleeping with her ex-husband, although he wasted no time marrying someone else. That’s certainly not nice of her―in fact, it’s called adultery. She actually gets a kick out of risking discovery by the volatile and jealous second wife. Miriam’s professional goal is to shed her secretarial identity and become an investigative journalist. This presents a conflict of interest, as her efforts to uncover malfeasance at the office make her something of a turncoat to the agency that pays her salary. Along the way, she takes some tentative steps toward personal happiness, but without benefit of a real epiphany that would lead to a character makeover.

I chose a small-town college setting, like the one I experienced myself, for The Rock Star’s Homecoming. Imogene, a college senior, rants and raves because her unreliable boyfriend Steve won’t commit to taking her to her final homecoming dance. What will that mean for her chances to leave college with the all-important “Mrs. degree”? To makes Steve jealous, she allows herself to be seduced by the rock star who returns to campus with his now-famous band to play the dance. Since her strategy kind of works, has Imogene learned any real lesson? At least she realizes that she wants more from her post-college life than just a husband.

Handmaidens of Rock also involves girls sleeping with musicians, although the three who hang out with the band called AMO certainly have career aspirations of their own. The way they use the musicians to acquire fame and fortune in their own right might not make them the nicest people. Still, if they didn’t grab some benefits from the arrangement, the arrogant band members would be far too inclined to treat them as mere groupies.

In Let’s Play Ball, fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica penetrate the world of baseball while pursuing widely different career paths and personal lives. Miranda is a bureaucrat with a stable job and what looks like a solid marriage to a lawyer. Jessica, by contrast, is a sportswriter who has sacrificed conventional career prospects and relationships to establish a magazine that pursues controversial topics. After a long struggle, she makes a success of it, and becomes engaged to the major league ballplayer who was the subject of one of her most famous profiles.

All hell breaks loose when that ballplayer is kidnapped, and Miranda is caught sleeping with a teammate whom Jessica suspects of participating in a wide-ranging plot. Obviously, Miranda is no paragon of virtue, although she claims to have been driven to it by her cheating husband. Jessica’s self-righteousness doesn’t endear her to readers either. She tends to regard herself and her fiancé as perpetual victims, and is too quick to accuse everyone in sight of participating in the vast conspiracy to destroy her perfect happiness.

I’m hardly alone in creating less-than-virtuous heroines. Famous authors have been known to do it, although they rarely make their girls totally unlikable. If they do, critics and online reviewers savage them. For example, Candace Bushnell has created a plethora of heroines in her many chicklit novels, including One Madison Avenue, Lipstick Jungle, Trading Up, and the best known of all, Sex and the City. The four SATC girls who were featured in the television series and movies tend to rise from the confusion as fully realized characters, simply because we’ve known them for so long. Carrie the writer is the most relatable to me, but Miranda the career-minded lawyer, Charlotte the homemaker, and even Samantha the nymphomaniac publicist are likable most of the time.

In one instance, however, many of Bushnell’s readers think she went too far. Trading Up features a total narcissist in Janey Wilcox, a superstar model with Hollywood aspirations. This novel has received more one and two-star ratings than I have ever seen on Amazon for a famous author. The description reads: “Modern-day heroine Janey Wilcox is a lingerie model whose reach often exceeds her grasp, and whose new-found success has gone to her head. As we follow Janey’s adventures, Bushnell draws us into a seemingly glamorous world of $100,000 cars, hunky polo players and media moguls, Fifth Avenue apartments … Unseen forces conspire to bring her down, forcing her to reexamine her values about love and friendship―and how far she’s really willing to go to realize her dreams.”

This description is somewhat inaccurate, in my opinion. As far as I can see, the only “reexamination” Janey undertakes is to figure out why she hasn’t hit the big time as forcefully as she expected. She latches onto a Hollywood mogul by pretending to write a screenplay, only to be exposed as a fraud. She marries another star maker who actually loves her and tries to help her, but he proves to be a dead end, forcing her to “trade up” again. There is no come-uppance that would make Janey a better person. There is only a vague discontent that keeps her moving on.

The soulless heroine isn’t a totally modern phenomenon. In fact, Edith Wharton raised the topic way back in the early twentieth century. Bushnell was perhaps giving us a sly wink in that direction when she had her character Janey propose Wharton’s 1913 novel, The Custom of the Country, as a film subject to one of her producer lovers.

Wharton’s heroine in that novel, Undine Spragg, was like Janey in a different era, lacking the Hollywood glitter. Undine marries three times, leaving a trail of destruction and never looking back except to offer self-justifications. Her first husband, who doesn’t share her taste for high society, bores her. He is too busy trying to support her and pay her bills to keep her amused. When she moves on, she abandons her young son, until she later sees some benefit in having him with her. An ensuing custody battle ends up destroying her first husband. Predictably, once she wins the child back, she neglects him. Her second husband has a noble title but not enough money. Her third husband does have enough money, but rather crude manners.

Wharton sums up Undine’s dilemma: “She had everything she wanted, but she still felt, at times, that there were other things she might want if she knew about them.” Both Bushnell and Wharton suggest that their heroines are trapped in the societies they inhabit, and are therefore perhaps not entirely to blame for being so ruthless. Undine was born into an era in which marriage provides the only outlet for an ambitious woman. Similarly, Janey is social-climbing in a community that values her beauty much more than her mind.

Both authors have created beautiful sociopaths, who by definition are incapable of change. Does that mean they’re unworthy heroines, as many critics suggest? I find them fascinating in their own way. Sociopaths may be disturbing and infuriating, but they are people too.

 

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Uncooperative Heroines

July 28, 2017

I used to think it would be great fun to write steamy romances and watch them sell like hot cakes. Theoretically, it didn’t seem too hard. The requirements of the genre, as established by publishers such as Harlequin and Silhouette, were very specific as to length, type of plot, and the need for a happy resolution. Authors who mastered this form seemed able to generate at least two or three books per year. Their stories were gobbled up like candy by their addicted fans. None of these works had long shelf lives, but presumably the speed with which they were produced made up for that.

So why couldn’t I acquire this lucrative skill? I actually started my first two novels with romance at least partly in mind. Secretarial Wars is the tale of a secretary, Miriam, who aspires to be an investigative reporter, and discovers malfeasance at her quasi-government agency. Her plan is to impress a handsome underground editor with her journalistic skills. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features a college senior named Imogene who can’t get her boyfriend to commit, not even enough to take her to their final Homecoming dance. She concocts a plot to make him jealous by pursuing the leader of a homegrown rock band that returns to campus to perform at the dance (and incidentally, to cause a riot, just like the old days).

The problem with Miriam and Imogene was that they refused to behave like romantic heroines. The guys they pursued acted like jerks, which is typical male behavior in romances, especially at first acquaintance. The genre requires that the men eventually overwhelm such heroines with their redeeming qualities, beginning with sheer sex appeal. Unfortunately for Miriam and Imogene, the guys they were most attracted to were pretty much who they were, and never improved much when it came to character.

My heroines’ stories took a long time to unfold and never got totally resolved. I suppose the long epilogues, which some critics objected to, were a giveaway that there were many loose ends to tie up. I couldn’t seem to envision these stories whole. Like life, they didn’t come to me with a blueprint. It seemed the more I worked on a particular story, the more complicated the plot would become. Even though I edited as I went along, I acquired multiple threads and a profusion of secondary characters. I tried to bend my plots and characters to certain rules, but these conventions eluded me. I felt like I was back in first grade, trying in vain to color within the lines and finding out I was hopeless at art.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I studied certain hot-selling examples of the genre, trying to figure out what made them so popular. Some of these books I couldn’t finish. Not that they didn’t contain some decent writing and interesting plot twists. But in my opinion, the ever-present, required formulas dragged down what could have been intriguing stories. I found the predictability stultifying. Beyond that, the heroines simply didn’t speak to me. It’s not quite fair to say they were all alike, and yet in some ways they were.

I liked sex when I was younger, and I still like it theoretically, but I find endless, repetitive sex scenes quite boring. I roll my eyes and think, there they go again. Two people who are barely acquainted, or even dislike one another at first sight, can’t keep their hands off each other. Who really acts like that?  Lovemaking scenes rarely rise above trite writing. Can’t authors leave some of this to the reader’s imagination?

Miriam and Imogene didn’t cooperate by living happily ever after, although they were still young and hopeful when I left them. When I looked for romantic prototypes to model them on, I found too many women sacrificing every other passion in their lives for a chance at a perfect love. That is something Miriam and Imogene simply couldn’t do, as much as they longed to embrace their magic men. You can smell the main lesson of a traditional romance a mile away: a woman can’t possibly live a fulfilled life as a workaholic. In my sampling of romances, I encountered a ruthless prosecutor feared in the courtroom by criminals of all stripes, who happens to wander into a physically perilous situation while on a rare vacation, and has to be rescued by a sexy man. Of course she’s infuriated by her own helplessness, but how can she deny the pounding of her heart? I squirmed at the clumsy symbolism of a widely renowned heart surgeon whose own heart is broken. The question hovers over all of these heroines: what frustration or heartbreak are you covering up when you work so damned hard?

Sandra Brown’s Heaven’s Price, which I first read around 1983, is a prime example of a romance that has both the virtues and flaws of the genre. As far as writing and plotting, it’s not bad. Ms. Brown’s success as a romantic author is astounding. According to her Amazon page, she starting publishing in 1981 and wrote over 70 novels, 60 of which are New York Times bestsellers. Judging by her picture, she’s also blessed with movie star looks. Heaven’s Price was relaunched more than ten years after its first publication, due to customer demands. I guess you can’t argue with that kind of success. Or can you?

The very title of this book screams what it’s about and how it’s destined to end. A woman has to pay a price for her “heaven,” which is defined as the love of a good man. A man’s “goodness” is measured not by his kindness or virtue, but by his ability to turn her on. In this case, we have a heroine pushing thirty years old, who has enjoyed moderate success as a dancer but is discontent because real fame and fortune have eluded her. Her knees have been damaged by years of pounding stages, forcing her to take time off from city life and move to a remote location for treatment and rehabilitation. Her new landlord acts like a creep, but a sexy one. He pretends to be the masseuse she’s expecting, and has thoroughly manhandled her by the time the real masseuse turns up. Of course she’s angry at the deception, but who can resist such virility? What’s a little violation when you can get aroused like that?

As the relationship develops, the landlord proves to be seriously controlling in ways that would raise all kinds of red flags if this were real life. The sexual relationship develops quickly, and strikes me as barely consensual, which is typical of the genre. She might have said no at first, but she really meant yes, and since he could tell she really wanted it, he presses ahead. He also strikes me as both angry and possessive. She realizes she’s been loved before, but “never with such dominance.” Her growing need for him “could well destroy her life’s blueprint.” At one point, he tells her, “If you weren’t already battered, I’d be tempted to punish your insistence.” That seems to suggest that he didn’t need to resort to violence—just the suggestion of it was enough. Later, he comes out with, “I ought to knock the hell out of you for saying that … or better yet, I ought to throw you down on the bed …” As if violence and lovemaking are synonymous. When she pursues an audition before her knees are completely healed, he sabotages it “for her own good.” Of course she’s furious. The pain in her knees makes her even angrier, since it proves he was right. Once again, he knew better than she did what was best for her.

What really set my eyes rolling was the cheesy conversation these two have at the end, when all their differences are neatly resolved and they’re safely married. She has forgiven or soft-pedaled all of his offenses against her. Both are caught up in youthful passion, as if nothing else in the world mattered. It leaves me wondering what a couple is supposed to do when that burns out, as it inevitably must. Is there such a thing as a popular romance that depicts a relationship substantial enough to take a couple through middle and old age? Or are we to presume that fond memories of all that hot sex will suffice to keep the spark alive? At least my Miriam and Imogene will keep on trying to climb their respective career ladders, if only to have something to talk about with any future partners who respect their intellects as much as their bodies.

A Darker Side Of Anne

June 21, 2017

I started reading the “Anne of Green Gables” series as a child. The first five books took Anne from a spunky orphan of eleven years old, trying to settle into her first real home, to the early years of her marriage to longtime sweetheart Gilbert. My interest was revived as an adult when I came upon three additional books that cover the birth of her children, their growing up, and their eventual participation in World War One, with some tragic results.

Accordingly, I’ve never been able to resist any new rendition of the story that comes to the screen. To be honest, despite my fascination, some of the values that these books convey always gave me pause, even as a child. Of course, the early twentieth century was a different era from my own, and Canadian societal norms also differed in some ways from American ones. Now I find that the first season of a new Netflix series, “Anne with an E,” picks up on some of my reservations and sets out to address them.

I’m not sure I would have recognized a “nature versus nurture” debate when I was young, but ideas about that certainly pervade the story. Lucy Maud (L.M.) Montgomery drew from personal experience when she wrote about the loneliness and sorrow that orphans suffer. Although not technically one herself, she endured tough times while being raised by strict grandparents. That said, considering Anne’s troubled background, it stretches credulity to present her as a bright, sunny spirit who came to the Cuthberts, the brother and sister who adopted her, as a basically sound little girl who merely needed some training in certain social conventions. This is a child whose parents died when she was three months old, and who never heard a kind word from either of the two families who took her in. She was treated as a servant and threatened with beatings if she fell short. Further, she witnessed drunken and violent scenes that no child should be exposed to.

Granted, these books were written for young readers. That was probably the reason Montgomery never strayed far from the myth that once Anne was adopted, her troubles were mostly over, apart from a few scrapes now and then. In “Anne with an E,” the nightmares keep visiting her. At first they prevent Anne from making friends in school, other than her ever-sympathetic neighbor Diana. She is just too strange for most of the other girls. In the books, Montgomery seems to gloss over any damage done to Anne in early childhood, assuming that thanks to good genetics, she will be all right. Marilla Cuthbert, considering whether to adopt Anne, reflects that she talks too much but she’s never rude or slangy. “It’s likely her people were nice folks.”

Realistically, a girl like Anne would be a handful for someone like Marilla Cuthbert, who is portrayed in the books as fairly inexperienced in life outside the peaceful confines of her Prince Edward Island village. She is unsympathetic and impatient with Anne at first, but gradually unbends as the child’s charming personality exerts its influence. The new series, depicting as it does a more troubled Anne, seems to acknowledge that she would require careful handling from a woman who, unlike the original Marilla, approaches the task with a fairly broad mind and at least a few qualifying life experiences.

It struck me early on that in Montgomery’s Prince Edward Island, the French-speaking population was a permanent underclass that existed mainly to serve the more exalted English-speaking community. Montgomery never seems to question the rightness of this system. However, in the television series, the French boy working for the Cuthberts is given an actual personality, a quick wit to match Anne’s, and ambitions of his own. There’s also an interesting twist on Diana’s great-aunt Josephine, who becomes Anne’s financial benefactor at a crucial time. In the books, she’s an old maid who has nothing else to do with her money. However, in the series, she confides to Anne the true reason why she never married. It seems she found all the contentment she needed with a female companion.

In the later books, certain things continued to jar me. The newlyweds Anne and Gilbert move to a seaside community, where Gilbert sets up a medical practice. The first neighbor they get acquainted with entertains them with her strong opinions. In this predominantly Presbyterian community, the woman nurses an implacable, largely unexplained hatred for Methodists. Montgomery treats this as a harmless eccentricity. Presumably, the village is such a homogeneous society that there is no real chance of this lady ever encountering someone really different, like a Catholic, a Jew, or a person of color. Likewise, I grappled with the only serious quarrel that ever troubles Anne and Gilbert’s marriage. This comes about when Anne opposes Gilbert’s efforts to treat a head injury that has rendered a neighbor mentally disabled. Anne objects to any treatment for this man on the grounds that he was a bad husband to one of her friends, and would presumably be so again if he were restored to health. I was appalled by Anne’s berating of poor Gilbert over his determination to do his job. Surely a doctor’s wife should be aware of the Hippocratic Oath.

The most compelling quality about Anne as both a child and a woman, in the books as well as the series, is her imagination. She makes up stories as easily as she breathes. At first she does this primarily to escape reality, which is too grim to bear. Later, she does it to entertain her schoolmates. It would strike anyone immediately that she is destined to be a writer, perhaps of the J.K. Rowling type. She pursues this goal for awhile as a college student and a schoolteacher, publishing some short fiction in magazines. Then she marries Gilbert, becomes a mother, and all but gives up writing, seemingly without a regret.

Granted, it wouldn’t be easy for anyone to raise six children, be a doctor’s wife, and write stories on the side. And yes, women of every era have had to make difficult choices along these lines. But shouldn’t Anne, who was a born writer if ever one was depicted in literature, miss the process at least a little? If writing is in your blood, can you ever suppress the urge entirely? One of Anne’s children does become a famous poet, but is that sufficient compensation?

Montgomery did not live in an era when people obsessed about “work-life balance” as they do now. Women were expected to become homemakers, and the author eventually did so herself, although not without considerable resistance. She reportedly suffered through a few failed romances in her early life, while she was still struggling to find herself as an author. Unfortunately, she failed to marry her true love (a mistake she didn’t allow Anne to make). She seems to have “settled” in her late thirties for a minister with whom she was not particularly compatible. By then, she was an established author, which perhaps made it relatively easy to keep churning out novels while raising two sons.

The Netflix series takes considerable liberties with the original story, more in tone and message than in narrative detail. It shows Anne beginning to question the limited roles of girls and women in her conservative community. I hope to find that in later seasons, as “Anne with an E” grows up, she will make choices that are not as automatic and unquestioned as in the original books. All in all, the “Anne of Green Gables” stories were entertaining, but even when I first encountered them, they did not always tell me what I wanted to hear.

My Classic Rock Soundtrack

October 1, 2016

rockstar_55-xlI’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.

Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.

Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.

Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”

Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”

The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).

Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.

0601161425Traditional publishers will probably never embrace independent authors as equals. They will be loath to admit that the terms of engagement in this ongoing battle are changing, that the combatants are becoming more equal, and that some authors even find a way to go “hybrid.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the trads are losing the high ground they once held in the area of editorial standards.

Examples of bad editing crop up more and more in the traditional world. For example, there are few authors more successful at traditional publishing than Anne Rice. She also specializes in the hottest subjects in fiction, vampires and werewolves. Yet Floyd Orr, editor of the long-running review site PODBRAM, and a rabid Rice fan, reports: “Anne Rice’s 34th book contains more errors than I have ever seen in a top-selling, traditionally published hardback! There are errors of every kind: repeated common words, misused spellings of words that are real words that actually mean something else, misuse of tense, and various other types of boo-boos. What do these errors all have in common? They are the sort that appear in books because human eyes did not read and reread and proofread the text before publishing it. There was an obvious reliance on computer programs to find the errors. Was this by Ms. Rice, her editor, or Knopf in general? Who knows?” Floyd kindly goes on to point out that the error count of Rice’s book easily surpasses those of several of the self-published books he has reviewed, including my own Handmaidens of Rock.

Trads were guilty from the start of not fighting this war honestly, but things have progressed to the point that self-published authors don’t have to suffer the same nonsense anymore. They can take or leave “friendly advice” from self-appointed arbiters of what deserves to be published. No doubt these experts will persist in warning us against “vanity” publishers, a term that should have been deep-sixed years ago. We can now call out websites that masquerade as help for the self-published, but are actually designed to discourage us. Certainly there are bad self-published books, but the argument that we’re all equally bad doesn’t hold water, any more than the argument that traditional publishing guarantees quality.

Several years ago, I sent my 2007 novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming, to a site called “The Self-Publishing Review,” a blog run by an author who’d had a fair amount of success in publishing non-fiction. Some speculated that her generic-sounding name might be a pseudonym to protect herself from backlash. Certainly the name of her blog was misleading. Once I had read a sampling of her “reviews,” it became clear to me that these were something else altogether. By any fair standard, a reader who purports to provide a review must, at the very least, read the book. Her object was to throw cold water on authors by subjecting them to the kind of treatment they would receive if they sent their manuscripts to a “legitimate” publisher. Admittedly, that might be a useful service, but it was not what she advertised.

To be fair, she warned us: “I’m an editor, and expect published books to be polished. I’m going to count all the errors I find in spelling, punctuation and grammar and when I reach fifteen I’m going to stop reading. I’ll work my way through up to five pages of boring prose or bad writing before I give up.” Despite that stern warning, I felt okay about sending her my novel, although it had to be shipped overseas at some expense. I’ve been something of an editor myself during many years of technical writing for the Federal government. I knew I had gone over my novel carefully and that it had been edited by professionals.

My book, like almost every other that this hot-shot editor “reviewed,” was discarded after about seven pages because of alleged mistakes. I was sure there were not fifteen errors of the type she warned against in the whole book, much less in the first seven pages. When I asked for an explanation, she admitted that there was nothing wrong with my “spelling, punctuation and grammar” per se. My sin was “exposition,” apparently a common complaint against self-published authors, and a handy one if the arbiters can’t find more obvious mistakes.

What does this sin consist of, exactly? Wikipedia defines exposition as “the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ backstories, prior plot events, historical context, etc.” The article quotes fantasy and science fiction author Jo Walton on the importance of “scattering information seamlessly through the text, as opposed to stopping the story to impart the information.”

My problem with this criticism, legitimate though it might be, is that famous authors do it with impunity. I pointed out that two of my favorites, Pat Conroy and Gail Godwin, tend to not even start their stories until the scene is thoroughly set. If any arbiter tried to impose rules on them, about exposition or anything else, they’d laugh in that person’s face. Ah, the arbiters say, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. All I conclude from this is that it’s always wrong when self-published authors do it.

What about the credentials of these arbiters? Despite their successes in the non-fiction realm, they tend to be sitting on piles of unpublished novels like everyone else. Ironically, that’s where they’re offering their harshest criticism. Since self-publishing is for losers, they disdain that route—although they might admit to putting excerpts of their novels on the Internet, as if that were not a form of self-publishing.

We’ve all heard plenty of those traditional “success stories,” touting the efforts of authors who kept writing and rewriting the same story for fifteen or twenty years, submitting it to numerous agents and publishers, revising and starting over to suit each new critic, perhaps even trying to re-envision their stories as plays or screenplays. Sometimes two decades of effort and perseverance are indeed “rewarded,” but that’s not my idea of success. How many other stories could these authors have been writing during those endless years spent twisting their original vision a hundred different ways to suit one critic after another? Was the original inspiration even recognizable by then? Fortunately, no one has to settle for this kind of treatment any more. The fight rages on, with one of the combatants, in my opinion, looking increasingly desperate.

61+nU4R9iuL__AA160_If I had to choose the author whose works entranced me most as a child, it would be Laura Ingalls Wilder. My fascination with Laura began in the fourth grade, when I was introduced to Little House In The Big Woods. This book was clearly intended to teach us kids who were living cushy suburban lives what it was like to grow up in a pioneer family. The books, and the seven that followed it, were all about survival and self-sufficiency in places where civilization as we know it had not yet penetrated.

The Ingalls family saga began in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, where they had to eke out a living from hunting and raising crops on small patches of cleared land among the trees, all the while fighting off bears and panthers who roamed the woods freely. When Laura was about four, the family moved on to Indian territory in what is now Kansas, in search of more fertile land. Non-Indian settlement there wasn’t strickly legal yet, according to the Federal government, and both the Feds and the natives took steps to get rid of the interlopers. Then on to Minnesota, where marauding grasshoppers destroyed the family’s crops. Tragedy struck when Laura’s older sister Mary was struck blind as the result of an illness that could not be pinpointed at the time. Although expensive doctors were called in and the bills piled up, nothing could be done for her.

When the Ingalls family moved to Dakota Territory, their final stop, they lived and worked for a while in a railroad camp, where Laura’s father Charles was the paymaster. He was threatened with beatings or worse when the pay was late. Even once the family settled on its own homestead, they dealt with one crisis after another. The weather alone could be a backbreaker. The legendary winter of 1880-81 merited a book of its own (The Long Winter). Summer tornadoes often proved just as destructive.

I didn’t realize as a child that these books were fiction. It was easy to assume that they were literal truth because their level of detail is so vivid. That is why the recent publication of Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography, edited by Pamela Smith Hill, is so intriguing. It features the original memoir that Laura wrote prior to beginning work on her series, including all her misspellings and grammatical errors, and sometimes lapses of memory. Numerous footnotes are included that explain the actual history that inspired the series, and help to separate truth from fiction.

Laura was assisted by her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in shaping the fictional works. Lane was an established author who had written several biographies that crossed the line between fact and fiction, angering some of her subjects. She advised her mother to use similar techniques, but without the pretense that they were straight autobiography. To make the novels more dramatic, yet suitable for children, they altered certain events, created some new and composite characters, and glossed over or excluded some of the family’s grimmest experiences. For example, the family’s sojourn in Burr Oak, Iowa, where they helped to run a hotel, was not included in the series. Presumably their proximity to a saloon, where Laura observed drunkeness and other questionable behavior when not yet a teenager, made it unsuitable for young readers. The death of Laura’s baby brother around this time was also deemed too dark an episode to deal with.

Reading the “true story” has made me aware of a more important omission that, in my opinion, prevents the books from telling the entire truth. Although the themes of self-sufficiency and resilience were genuine enough, they sidestep the fact that there were times when the family needed help from the various governments under which they lived. During their Minnesota sojourn, after the grasshoppers wiped them out, Charles Ingalls was forced to apply for assistance to feed his family. Later in Dakota Territory, after blackbirds had destroyed their corn crop, it appeared that the family’s long-cherished plan to send Mary to a college for the blind in Iowa might be finished. The fictional version of the story dramatizes Charles Ingalls’s decision to sell his heifer calf to raise the necessary funds. This would be a considerable sacrifice, setting him back at least a year in establishing his farm as a fully functioning entity. The true story, however, is that Mary participated in a program established by the Dakota territorial government to educate blind students for five years at the nearest suitable institution.

In our current polarized political climate, there seems to be scant middle ground between those who believe government is an evil force that makes people too dependent, and those who believe government can solve every problem. The moderate voices that ought to be heard are being shouted down by the loudest, rudest voices. I still love Laura and her adventures as much as I ever did. The Ingalls family indeed persevered through many trials and demonstrated great strength of character. But it would have been no shame to admit that from time to time, they and other pioneers needed the sort of helping hand that government programs could provide.

girls-no-9-the-bell-jarI first encountered Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in 1972, when I was a sophomore in college. It was not assigned reading at that time, yet it was catching on like wildfire, especially among us young English majors. Apparently the novel was having a similar effect on many other college campuses. It was originally published in England, Plath’s adopted homeland, only a few weeks before her suicide in 1963. She had used a pseudonym out of belated concern for the many people close to her whom she had trashed mercilessly in the autobiographical story.

Plath was reportedly disappointed in the tepid reaction to the novel. Her only previous book, a collection of poems, had suffered a similar underwhelming fate. She had recently separated from her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, who at that time was much better known than she was. Motivated by both pride and desperation, she was trying to find a way to support herself and their two children. American publishers were initially skeptical about the book’s salability, and she was unable to get it accepted by a U.S. publisher during her lifetime. Several years later, when imported bootleg copies began selling by the hundreds in bookstores, The Bell Jar finally caught the eye of the so-called American literary experts.

Having reread it recently, I can see what put publishers off. It details a nervous breakdown suffered by a young, talented college student. Plath’s forte was poetry, and it shows. The novel reads like the effusions of a poet trying to write a novel. It features a plethora of metaphors, which make for lovely writing but at times can look like showing off. Apart from this stylistic problem, the story suffers from something of a disconnect. As pointed out by one of the publishers who turned it down, the breakdown doesn’t seem to follow from the ordinary angst of a teenaged girl. The observations of a perceptive young woman, who’s going through a tumultuous time in her life, don’t prepare the reader for her plunge into suicidal depression.

Yet something about Plath’s novel certainly spoke to us young college girls. What brought it to life was that by the early 1970s, we knew it was chillingly real. Plath had indeed tried to commit suicide at 20 years of age, and she succeeded at it when she was 30. Like her heroine, Esther Greenwood, she was a scholarship girl at a prominent Eastern women’s college in 1953, who won a writing contest that entitled her to spend a month working at a New York-based fashion magazine. Like her character, Plath was beset by overwhelming ambition that was essentially stymied for girls growing up in the 1950s. She wanted both personal happiness and professional success. The magazine job turned out to be tedious and unsatisfying. She had a boyfriend who wanted to marry her, but who assured her with complete certitude that once she had kids, her creative life would become irrelevant. When she returned to suburbia from her New York adventure, everything seemed lifeless. Her mother’s van reminded her of a prison. The neighbors struck her as nosy and dowdy.

The college years can be a tough period of self-discovery and fear for the future. I hardly knew anyone in those times, including myself, who didn’t go through an episode or two of depression. Fortunately, few of us crashed as dramatically as Plath did. Yet in her later life, Plath came tantalizingly close to fulfilling that “having it all” goal. In fact, at the start of The Bell Jar, she almost brags about it. For a long time after her breakdown, Esther says, she hid away the gifts she accumulated in New York from various fashion companies, such as sunglasses and makeup cases. But “when I was all right again,” she brought them out, and “cut the plastic starfish off the sunglasses case for the baby to play with.”

For a while her marriage was almost idyllic, at least on the surface. She and Hughes took turns caring for their child while each managed several hours of writing time each day. But unfortunately for Sylvia, she married a man with a roving eye. The marriage seemed to grow more troubled after the birth of a second child, which made their childcare chores more complicated. However, her final breakdown was not triggered by her separation from Hughes. In fact, that trauma inspired her to write the anger-fueled poems that became Ariel, the collection which made her name. A more likely explanation is that the publication of The Bell Jar tipped her back into the adolescent angst that she thought she had escaped.

The seeds of self-destruction were always there, regardless of her circumstances. “Sylvia was doomed,” remarked her high school English teacher when he heard of her suicide. Even when she had posed as a fun-loving, carefree high school girl, he had detected the rigidity and falseness behind that sunny mask. It’s noteworthy that there was a history of depression on both sides of her family. She was able to make art from her illness, but the more prosaic truth was that she was mishandled by the psychiatric profession. That is one of the messages of The Bell Jar. Effective treatments for her condition either did not exist or were in an early stage of development. She became something of a guinea pig for drug regimens and electroshock therapy. So I conclude that Sylvia Plath speaks to us, but not for us. We understand her struggles, but most of us, thankfully, can’t begin to understand the desperate remedy that she seized.

The Baby Boom Still Roars

December 5, 2015

images (4)These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.

My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.

It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.

My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.

Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.

In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.

My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.

Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.

I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”

I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.

Are You Writing A Saga?

September 15, 2015

Secretarial Wars still shotWhen I self-published my first novel, Secretarial Wars, in 2003, the industry was less advanced than it is now, and both readers and reviewers were hard to find. Only a few were willing to take on my fairly long and complicated tale, inspired by my own secretarial experiences, friendships, and romances when I was a twenty-something in Washington, DC. The story focuses on three women, aged 24 to 35, with 27-year-old Miriam as the viewpoint character. There are numerous secondary characters, especially gossipy office colleagues and troublesome boyfriends.

I was fortunate enough to attract a thoughtful, if rather brutal review from a reader based in England. She did say, encouragingly, that she “enjoyed the banter between the three friends and wanted to know what would happen to them.” But that was somewhat negated by “lack of pace and over-complexity of plot.” In short, I was accused of writing a saga when the chicklit-style story didn’t support it.

The three friends, I must admit, are rather bumbling, as the reviewer said. She complained of too many details about “American football matches” that the girls take in, mostly for the purpose of trying to meet players after the games. Nobody can say the women aren’t ambitious in their own ways, yet the reviewer accused them of lacking “gumption.” Miriam, for example, wants to write an exposé that would blow her own government agency out of the water, yet fails for months to uncover the corruption simmering at her workplace. Perhaps overly cautious, she can’t afford to lose her job for the sake of investigative journalism.

The reviewer complains that “there are far too many characters for a story that is neither a saga nor a blockbuster.” But how, exactly, does a story qualify as a saga? Does it have to be multi-generational, like The Forsyte Saga, or about a family caught up in historic conflicts, like War And Peace? Can’t my story be a mini-saga, since the girls do manage to shake up their own little corners of the nation’s capital?

Maybe the places where they hang out are just too seedy. At their favorite night club, which one of the girls co-manages, they get to hobnob with a second-tier elite, including a faded football star and an underground newspaper editor. The climactic scene of the story features a fundraiser held at the club for a long-shot Mayoral candidate. Things get out of hand, and the girls end up spending the night in jail. Through all their tribulations, they don’t really resolve anything, except to grow up a bit. So how often do we start out writing stories that feel like epics/sagas/blockbusters at first, only to fall a little short?