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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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.

1201161657Remember the good old days when strict gatekeepers had total control over what got published? It wasn’t all that long ago, when you think about it. Some of us still have scars from trying to crash those gates. Getting slapped down by relentless rejection was bad enough, but what about all the rules that these guardians of literature enforced? If we were fortunate enough to get replies from them at all, we’d receive a dressing down about all the strictures we had violated in our pitiful attempts to write. We would not merit a second glance, much less true consideration, until we mastered the various commandments they had set up to keep the barriers in place.

There were various telltale signs, the gatekeepers said, that pegged you as an amateur. One of these was overuse of adjectives and adverbs. Well, maybe the occasional odd adjective could be allowed, they conceded, but adverbs were strictly verboten. Likewise, if a character said something, he or she could only say it. No declaring or exclaiming or expostulating. And no exclamation points, ever! Above all, we must avoid overwriting and exposition, two deadly sins that went hand in hand. But even the masters do that, I might protest. What about John Updike with his multiple metaphors, and Pat Conroy with his lush descriptions? But those are famous guys, I was told. They get to play by their own rules, or none at all. Someone without a name had to grab the reader’s attention on the first page, if not the first sentence, since even in those pre-social media days, there were distractions at every turn to keep people from reading. In fact, the average attention span was so minuscule that if a prospective reader didn’t get instantly hooked, he couldn’t be blamed for turning on the TV rather than proceeding to page two.

Prior to the advent of self-publishing, when it seemed next to impossible for a beginner to publish a novel, I tried my hand at a few short stories. It proved equally difficult to penetrate any but the most amateur story markets, the type that paid in copies of the magazine. I decided the only way to get beyond the endless “not suitable for us, but good luck” responses was to pay for advice from a reputable source. I sent several stories to a critique service run by the editor of a well-regarded literary magazine. She tore them to shreds, although not without offering tidbits of encouragement here and there. She offered to go on working with me, since I showed a hint of promise. I didn’t take her up on that offer, since I soon gave up trying to write stories and instead decided to work on novels, which would at least offer a greater reward if successful. My critique contact likewise gave up criticizing stories, saying she was inundated with too many bad ones. She, too, decided to concentrate on longer manuscripts.

I recently reread one of the stories I submitted to this service. It was called “Cheryl’s Lunch Hour,” and was based on what I thought was a clever, if somewhat implausible plot twist. It centers on a Federal government secretary in her mid-twenties, who is mentoring her sister, twenty-year-old Rosie, a gifted dancer. Both girls live with their parents, who are fairly unimaginative about the sisters’ goals. Cheryl frequently uses her lunch hour to take an arduous trip from her Washington office to the Maryland suburbs to watch Rosie rehearse for an upcoming small theater production. She believes in her sister, although she is embittered by her comparatively boring job and a jealous streak she can’t quite suppress, since she once had theatrical aspirations herself.

One day, Cheryl runs into a talent scout outside the theater who mistakes her for her sister. For a fleeting minute or two, Cheryl wonders if she can utilize this instance of mistaken identity for her benefit. Maybe if she dieted and practiced, she could dance again herself, with perhaps less skill but with a depth of maturity that her sister does not yet possess. Her head explodes with dreams. Could she possibly carry off this deception? By the time she gets back to her job (which she had had dreams of quitting on the spot), she’s shaken off the fantasy and resumes her main chore of typing spreadsheets.

No doubt I put both the story and the critique aside for many years because the criticism was harsh. Was my critic too enamored with little rules? Perhaps, as she jumped on every instance of sentences close together that repeated common words and phrases such as “she,” “the,” “it is,” and “there was.” She pointed out the redundancy of sentences such as “She scolded loudly.” She denounced as a cliche the opening device I used of the main character waking up in the morning with yesterday’s problems swirling through her head.

I violated plenty of bigger rules as well. I was scolded for having no hint of the central story problem on page one. In my critic’s judgment, the story lacked a sympathetic viewpoint character, since “Cheryl is jealous of her sister, yet wants to use her to feel good about herself.” But she’s not a total bitch, I protested, just discontent with her life and understandably envious of her talented, younger sister. Is she any less sympathetic than the pedestrian parents or the arrogant, oblivious Rosie? It seemed the critic found all of them pretty despicable, except perhaps the superior at Cheryl’s office who has agreed numerous times to cover for her during her prolonged lunch hours. Even he has an ulterior motive … to start a relationship with her. “Central characters and villains shouldn’t be all good or all bad,” my critic lectured, rather obviously. Additionally, what I considered the clever trick of the tale, the case of mistaken identity, was judged to be unrealistic. Maybe so, I thought, but for crying out loud, it’s fiction.

It got worse. Most painful of all was the critic’s judgment that the prose tended to be “unnatural in both narration and dialogue.” My heroine was in the habit of delivering long monologues. For example, she sarcastically describes her State Department job to her father, a higher-up in the department: “You may think all I do is type operating budgets for the Weapons Evaluation Division. But I have the secret knowledge that keeps the operation going. Nobody else in that office knows how to set up charts on the computer. You think it’s easy getting those huge numbers to fall into neat columns? If I were to quit today, I don’t know what you administrators at Main State would do without your nifty charts. And if you didn’t have those numbers always at hand to feed to the negotiators, what would they bargain with? That might be the end of any hopes for world peace in our time!”

Have I gotten better at this stuff over the years? I knew even then that my critic made excellent points. It was kind of her, after all that, to find a shred of hope for me as a writer. Nowadays, I choose to look on the bright side. If I cringe at my earlier efforts, it must mean I’ve improved, at least a little.

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.

MV5BMTMyNjM0MjIxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNTc1OTc3MQ@@__V1_UX128_CR0,0,128,190_AL_I first became acquainted with George Orwell’s 1984 when I was in high school during the LBJ and Nixon eras. Although first published in 1949, the book resonated with us baby boomers because of our generational grievances and distrust of authority. It resonated all the more because it was not a mere political treatise. At the center of it was an illicit, passionate love affair, something that our adolescent hormonal selves could relate to.

The question that each succeeding generation has to ask itself anew is whether the horrors of 1984 could happen here and now. Orwell’s world was divided into three regions, and Oceania, which included the former England, had become a marriage of high technology and totalitarianism. Now that we’re living in a high tech world that few could have foreseen a generation ago, does it make us more or less likely to succumb to dictators?

LBJ and Nixon engendered plenty of mistrust, but we now have a presidential candidate who leaves them in the dust. Not only is he impervious to facts and reason, a trait which many ideological politicians share, but he gets many of his “facts” from the least reliable and most easily inflamed social media outlets. Furthermore, he insists that whatever he proclaims to be a fact is irrefutable, even if our own observations tell us otherwise. On his say-so, he expects us to deny the evidence of our own senses, a concept called “denial of objective reality” in Orwell’s world. As Winston Smith wailed to his overseer O’Brien while in prison, “How can I help seeing what is in front of my eyes? Two and two are four.” Not always, O’Brien replies. Sometimes they are three and sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are all of them at once.

In the end, Nixon couldn’t get beyond the evidence that was preserved on his Oval Office tapes. What we heard couldn’t be unheard. That doesn’t seem to matter to Donald Trump. He has left a long, irrefutable record of unbelievably stupid statements and provocations, but if any of them become inconvenient to his election chances, he simply denies them. If he says something didn’t happen, it literally didn’t happen. He claims to have evidence that Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and that thousands of Muslims celebrated on 9-11. So where is this evidence? We just have to trust that his investigators found some fantastic stuff along these lines. If he denies that one of his goons assaulted a reporter, the video of that event must be lying. Just throw it down the memory hole. He’s also mastered the art of taking contradictory positions at the same time: classic doublethink. He whips his followers into a Two Minutes Hate, so that they never have the time or inclination to think for themselves.

It’s worth considering what happened to art and literature in Orwell’s 1984. As in all totalitarian societies, it still has its uses, but only for purposes that serve the Party. Winston Smith is an intellectual, buttoned-down type who can’t wait to get his hands on a forbidden book that will explain how and why the society he’s living in came about, and how it might be destroyed. His lover, Julia, is a much younger, more sensuous person who only cares about sleeping with him, not probing his mind or considering the political ramifications of their lovemaking. Winston’s job involves rewriting and falsifying the public record when necessary to make the Party look good. Julia works in the Fiction Department, but her skills are best suited to the non-literary part of the job, servicing the machinery used to mass-produce books. She describes the process of composing a novel: “from the general directive issued by the Planning Committee down to the final touching-up by the Rewrite Squad. But she was not interested in the final product … books were just a commodity that had to be produced, like jam or bootlaces.” There is also a subsection of the Fiction Department that produces pornography, based on six recurring plots. The sealed booklets are targeted to proletarian youths (the “poorly educated” in Trump’s endearing terminology), to give them the illusion that they are doing something slightly illegal.

Our country is in danger of casting aside its precious, hard-won democracy and embracing a real-life Big Brother. Donald Trump has already demonstrated his dictatorial bent. He responds to any hint of criticism with threats, insults, and tantrums. In fact, he expects nothing short of nonstop adulation. Could such a president seriously compromise our freedom to read and write what we choose? His threats to “loosen up” existing libel laws, so that he can sue media outlets that are mean to him, is already having a chilling effect. We can only hope it will prove more difficult than he expects to remake America into a place he can rule with an iron fist, but there is no doubt he intends to try. It’s the responsibility of rational people to do everything legally possible to stop him. America is not a place where the Thought Police should hold sway.

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.

How Not To Write Best Sellers

February 26, 2016

thNobody needs to be told by now that self-publishing and marketing novels is no picnic. We all knew that from the start. Some of us have been at it for more than a decade now, and it hasn’t gotten much easier. True, there is far more acceptance for our efforts than there was at first, and that’s a great development. The drawback to that, of course, is that there’s also far more competition.

The trouble with enduring truisms like “it’s no picnic” and “it never gets easier” is that there are some indie authors who are making it look easy. Although it’s still like winning the lottery, there are a handful among us who’ve mastered the art of the self-published best-seller.

How do they do it? It’s not that they have more time than the rest of us, because many are encumbered with jobs and families like “ordinary” people. It helps if the jobs are flexible and the families are understanding, but that isn’t always the case. Some of these self-sustaining authors are generous enough to explain their methods on KindleBoards and other sites. What they do requires writing fast, and writing a lot of books, often in a series. These hot-shots seem to have enough physical stamina to stay up all night if they have to in order to meet some self-imposed goal, possibly one book every two months. I’d have to guess that they’re decades younger than I am, as well as much more into currently hot genres like zombies, sci-fi, apocalyptic, and historical romance. If they’re particularly lucky or prescient, they hit on a winning formula the first time, something involving characters or a fantasy world so compelling that it only needs to be tweaked slightly in order to churn out numerous sequels. They build up a fan base that is enthusiastic enough to forgive a lack of arduous editing. That is not to suggest that just because these books are done fast means they aren’t good. If they weren’t serving a need for readers, they wouldn’t sell.

Even those authors who are making real money with their ventures are not easily satisfied. I come across plenty on the Boards who complain that they “only” sell a hundred or so a month, a result which sounds mighty good to me. In fact, selling 1,000 a year would be a pretty good result for self-publishing. It would enable most authors to cover the investment they made in advertising and printing, with maybe coffee money left over. The problem for the truly ambitious is that it’s not a living. The real measure of success among the aspiring big sellers is to be able to quit their day jobs. Or better yet, attract the notice of one of those traditional publishers who have proven themselves perfectly capable of swooping in to reap the benefits of an indie author’s preliminary hard work.

How do you pursue goals like this if your writing style doesn’t lend itself to speed? You probably can’t. I’ve always preferred mainstream fiction to genre fiction, and I like it to be “literary.” My favorite novels take their time unfolding, and emphasize character development over action. That’s what I try to emulate. I was greeted with incredulity on the Boards when I said I had taken three to four years to write each of my novels. They have numerous characters and complex plots that hopefully fall into place for a reader patient enough to stick with them. I’m still not good enough at writing to do it fast. I make outlines, but don’t stick to them. I run my stories piecemeal through a tough critique group. Even after I have a whole product, I reread it relentlessly and put it through several rounds of editing from outside critics.

So what’s your reward, if wealth and fame seem out of reach because you’re just too slow? It can only be the personal satisfaction of doing the best work you’re capable of, no matter how long it takes.

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.