I’ll Judge For Myself, Thank You, and Other Rants

It’s a vile trend that seems to be getting steadily more intrusive. In the push and shove of money-hungry writers churning out ephemera as fast as they can, a simple title isn’t enough to attract readers. Why Amazon allows writers to pack book titles with descriptive come-ons is a mystery, but so is much of today’s “literary” business. Three examples from today’s Amazon Daily Deals:

“Absolutely gripping crime fiction with unputdownable mystery and suspense”

“The most gripping, heartwrenching page-turner of the year”

“A twisty, dark psychological thriller that will have you gripped”

These writers, who will go mercifully unnamed, clearly want to grab the emotions of the potential reader and never let go until the last exciting page. Not satisfied with telling you what their books are about, they feel free to tell you what you will feel about them. Keep in mind that these are not quotes from reviewers, but opinions by writers about the value of their own work. Unbiased? Hardly. Accurate. I doubt it. Disrespectful of readers ability to judge for themselves. Absolutely.

Between “Make America Great Again” and “America was always great.”

You can’t make great again what was never great. Rhetoric and mindless patriotism can’t change the past. A great country shouldn’t be founded on the genocide of its original residents. Its economy shouldn’t be built on the backs of humans bought and sold as chattel. Its justice system shouldn’t be a world disgrace that harks back to the inhumanity and horrors of 18th and 19th century imprisonment.

America was never great in the ways that really matter, except in the eyes of its ruling bully boys. And it’s too late now for real change. A damaged natural environment that is still being destroyed in the name of profit isn’t impressed by humans’ delusions and denial, and it will have its revenge.

2026 – Look it up and give it some thought

The exact year isn’t what’s important. What is important is that it stands in opposition to soft-pedaled predictions about a world enmeshed in climate change. We do not have until 2050 to make drastic changes in our way of life or suffer the consequences. Scientists’ fear for their reputations, and fear that the truth will panic the public. If panic is the only thing that will induce a real desire to prevent catastrophe, then what we need is a serious dose of reality-based panic.

It Feels Like an Epidemic

If you wrote a science fiction novel about what’s happening in the US today, it would have to include the epidemic of what I have to consider a form of insanity. Here’s a woman in Florida who’s running for a seat in the senate, who claims to have been abducted by aliens when she was a child. And believes she is still in contact with aliens. But according to her, that doesn’t define her. Apparently, the Miami Herald doesn’t think it defines her because it has endorsed her candidacy.

Actually, it does define her. As delusional. Which makes her a profoundly dangerous person to have as a representative in the government. Very much like VP Pence, who believes he’s guided by Jesus himself. Like POTUS Trump who believes that everything he touches turns to gold, and that he is loved by all of “his” people.

Delusion is the dominant theme in our politics, and in much of our social life. Does the constant immersion in fantasy via movies and tv have something to do with it? Consider the 17th century tulip craze which spread throughout a society in which the primary form of communication was word-of-mouth. Consider mob violence which can rage out of control in short order, dragging in even normally peaceful individuals.

Today, we use the term “viral” when a tweet or a meme spreads widely. What we fail to notice is that these so-called viruses can go on spreading, quietly and unnoticed long after they have lost their shine and been superseded by a multitude of replacements. “Vaccines cause autism”: measles outbreaks in the US and Europe. “Lock her up” and “the media is the enemy”: violence against individuals at political rallies, toward reporters, murder of newspaper staff.

Never in human history have there been so many ways for disinformation, lies, fantasies to be spread. Never in human history have such a large proportion of any population been the recipients. The whirlwind has just begun its spin. We have barely begun to see its potential power.

How Does This Happen?

A great way to start the day — opening up my browser and finding that all my user names and passwords are gone. Every one! Someone really needs to invent a better way to manage IDs. I have one important account locked up for any one of a list of reasons, none of which apply to me. The only way to correct it is to call their customer service. I’ve put that off and off because I hate using the phone, in the first place, and because customer service lines are almost always a source of hideous frustration, in the second place.

My patience has grown thinner and thinner over the last year or so, and there’s no way to know whether it’s just old age finally catching up with me, or all the damned meds I now have to take. There are days… But that’s another rant I should probably never write.

Writers Never Stop

Writers never stop. I found that statement on a writer’s blog about the difference between writers and non-writers. The blogger didn’t elaborate too much, but it came down to the usual advice: write every day. The amount doesn’t matter, just as long as you keep at it.

Let’s ignore that and just think about the original statement: writers never stop. Surely it can’t be that simple. No, it can’t. Because standing on its own, there’s no way to know what it means. Does it truly mean that you have to write every day? What about writers (famous, published) who might not write every day. Maybe not for weeks or months at a time. How much time can go by, not writing, before you have to consider yourself a non-writer? Are you a non-writer during the time spent away from the keyboard and only a writer when you go back to it?

Does it mean that you keep publishing, preferably on some kind of schedule? Of course, if you haven’t been writing, you’ll have nothing to publish. But what if you don’t write anything for a year or more, then hit the groove and turn out a novel or a short story? Writer once again? Or a writer still?

This idea of writers never stop is incorporated in efforts to distinguish between professional writers and amateurs. Professionals write regularly because they intend to make a living by writing. Amateurs turn out a work every now and then, at their leisure. Any one of us could probably make a list of well-known writers who have written just a few works, and who make their living by other means. J. D. Salinger must have been an amateur because he just plain stopped — permanently. Or maybe he was a professional because he had at least one novel popular enough to keep bringing in the dollars.

My question is why do we need such phony distinctions. And why do so many writers let themselves be judged, and judge themselves, accordingly?

Read and Read Again

The one thing I can do when I’m too locked into myself to do much of anything, is read. This is a time of life when I should be reading only books that I’ve never read before. After all, no one can ever read all the books they’d like to. Life just isn’t long enough. So rereading can look like a waste of time.

Nevertheless, a lot of my reading lately is rereads. For many reasons. I have a poor memory and unless a book has a real impact on me the first time, I’m likely to forget most of it. And depending on how long it’s been since I first read it, I may appreciate it much more the second time around. Then there’s the comfort of familiarity. There are books I’ve read three or four times, and haven’t tired of yet.

Finally, there’s the impulse to clean house, preparing for those days when someone else is going to deal with what I’ve left behind. The two book cases hold books that I still haven’t read, and don’t know whether they’re going to be worth looking at a second time. Every book discarded or given to one of the charities that supply a lot of my reading means one less for someone else’s time and energy. That might be the only inheritance I can leave behind: make it as easy as possible for those who remain.

True Confessions

I might as well face up — I’m not going to find a way to write consistently, to stay with one or two projects until they’re finished. Nothing I’ve tried works, and given that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to write at all, it’s unlikely that I’ll miraculously stumble over some viable method.

Which means that I’ll probably never complete any of the longer works that are hanging, or start any that are just ideas yet to be developed. The problem might be the slow mental deterioration that can come with extreme age, or the multiple medications I take daily. I could boil it down to burnout, but that’s a meaningless term, really. Sometimes we have to accept that there’s no name for what’s bugging us, and no way to change it. Not all problems are solvable.

There is No Such Thing as “Partly Jewish”

The welcome basket sent to Paul Ryan by the Manischewitz company was (probably) meant with tongue in cheek as much as pouncing on an opportunity to pump up business, but the discovery that Ryan is “3% Ashkenazi Jewish” is just plain scientifically wrong. There is no such thing as a Jewish race, any more than there is such a thing as a Catholic race or a Buddhist race. Belief systems have no genetic basis, and there is no way to determine a person’s current beliefs or religious identity by blood tests.

The only thing that Ryan’s blood test could possibly determine is that he has ancestors with  genetic characteristics of people who clustered together in particular parts of the world and who are known to have been practitioners of the Jewish religion.  Given different historical events, those ancestors might have been Catholic, as he is today, but I seriously doubt whether anyone would be claiming that he is 3% Catholic because of that connection.

Why does any of this even matter except as a minor error in the interpretation of a blood test? Because it underlies a good deal of the antagonism and just plain bigotry that has been directed at jews over the centuries. It was the basis for my being accused of having killed Christ (who I’d never heard of) when I was in first or second grade — by another child my own age. It is the basis for my lifelong question as to how someone can be considered a member of a religion in which they weren’t brought up and in which they have no interest.

In the mythology of genetic Judaism (for that’s what it is: a myth) I’m 100% Jewish, being born of parents born of two people who considered themselves Jewish. But my parents didn’t practice any religion, I wasn’t brought up as a jew, and as soon as I was old enough to give the matter some serious thought, I knew that I was an atheist, a nonbeliever in any form of god.

Bigotry is passed on from generation to generation, and the power of bigotry is such that it can thrive on error and myth. Today, we are seeing a worldwide upsurge in violence against people who are “different” in some supposedly important way from the bigots. It can be religion, it can be race (which is also a myth), it can be political belief or any belief or practice with which the bigots take issue. The last thing such people want to accept is that we are all humans before we are anything else.

Added later — Aaannd here we go. Paul Ryan Discovers Jewish Roots, Experiences First Instance of Ant-semitism, Courtesy of Ann Coulter.

There will be more. I guarantee it.

 

Read More Women?

This has become a “thing,” a way of being a proper female readers. Political correctness trying to intrude itself into how we read. This morning’s attempt to nudge women in the right direction comes from Electric Lit, one of the sites I read more or less regularly, looking for interesting books to read, and discover interesting writers I may not have known about.

In a new effort to guide my reading, Electric Lit will post, twice a month, titles by five women. I imagine it says a lot about me that not one of the titles has the least interest for me, since they all center around family, growing up, relationships. Exactly the kind of books I never read. Am I a bad feminist, or no feminist at all, because I’m interested in neither the joys nor the tragedies of female lives? But the joys and tragedies of male lives don’t engage me either.

I require more depth, an engagement with the world that doesn’t rest on the individual’s personal difficulties negotiating life. Tolstoy said “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” but the range of differences boils down to a pattern that is simply repeated over and over again. It is the same attempt to ring endless variations that we see in romances or westerns or mysteries. And if that particular view of the world doesn’t resonate with you, then the repetition quickly becomes the outstanding feature.

Bad feminist, politically incorrect reader, and probably a bad human being.

Ignore it at Your Peril

In case you haven’t noticed, underneath the title of this blog is the statement “The Future is Already Here.” That future is one of severe and accelerating climate change. It’s a future we’re already seeing in its early stages. Indeed, one writer suggests that it’s some 80 years ahead of scientific predictions. And most Americans are barely aware of it.

“Throughout the recent record-breaking heat wave that affected millions across the United States, major broadcast TV networks overwhelmingly failed to report on the links between climate change and extreme heat. Over a two-week period from late June to early July, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired a combined 127 segments or weathercasts that discussed the heat wave, but only one segment, on CBS This Morning, mentioned climate change.”

Americans are undoubtedly aware that a massive fire in Greece killed almost 100 people. That fire is threatening the Yosemite area. That floods have recently swept through regions of the earth that have rarely experienced such events. That worldwide temperatures have risen to abnormal heights this summer. But each of these events has been covered by the media as individual and spectacular, but unrelated disasters.

“The effect can be seen in a recent Gallup poll where Americans cited 36 problems that affect them. The dangers of a rapidly warming climate were not among them. It appears fossil fuel think tanks and other extraction and animal agricultural industries, in the mendacious tradition of the tobacco industry, have not only succeeded in influencing politicians and muzzling the corporate press, they have effectively removed one of the greatest threats to humanity from the consciousness of the general public.”

Quotes are from What Reporting Looks Like at the End of the World.

Also today: The Burning Planet

 

Smashwords Summer Sale — Progress on “Boy”

Just for the heck of it, I’m adding my books to Smashword’s summer sale. So, for the rest of July:

Darkest Prison  .99

Camp Expendable  2.99

Hidden Boundaries 2.99

Crossing Boundaries 2.99

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

A big part of what’s been hanging me up with A Well-Educated Boy is trying to decide whether it’s to be first-person or third. I’ve tried the beginning and some fragments both ways, but neither felt right. I’ve been through this before and don’t want to go through the agony again, of writing several thousand words and then having to go through the entire thing and change the focus.

The solution, which finally feels exactly right, is to open every chapter with Harte’s first-person perspective and then switch to third. Also, I’m going to be naming the chapters — a first, for me.

It can be really frustrating to look back and see that I began work on a novel years before, in this case, six years ago, and still haven’t written more than a few fragments. What I’ve found, though, is that the huge gaps between work periods can sometimes generate ideas I might not have thought of if I’d given it less time. So the book I’m working on today is much richer and deeper than the one I conceived of six years ago.

Harte’s parents play a larger role and come through as individuals. The differences between Harte’s life in Burgundy and his cousin Steve’s life in the “regular” world change in ways that make both boys less envious of the other.

 

Still Rolling the Boulder Uphill

In passing: Is anyone still waiting for Trump to become more “presidential?”

Running through the last few months of frustration about not being able to write is a thread that says maybe I just don’t want to write fiction anymore. Or at least not novels. But I don’t want to write straight nonfiction, either. And that isn’t helping me get unstuck with Set Me Free, about capital punishment.

So, the idea of “autofiction” in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jun/23/drawn-from-life-why-have-novelists-stopped-making-things-up intrigues me. Not that I want to write an autobiography or memoir, even mixed in with and disguised as fiction. (Though I was actually playing with the idea briefly before I even saw this article.)

Writers are playing and experimenting with the forms of fiction; modern journalistic reporting has changed in many ways (In Cold Blood being an early example.) Why shouldn’t it be possible to do the same with nonfiction?

In conceptualizing Set Me Free, I had decided that quotes from prisoners on death row wouldn’t be just an occasional interjection. Instead, they would be part of the structure, regularly strengthening the impact of factual information with the lived experience of being on death row and how it feels. But why not go further? Why not incorporate fiction, as well? “Waiting For the Needle,” a short story that is more or less finished, could be divided into three or four “chapters” and spread out through the book. Maybe I could even organize the book around it.

I’ll be giving that some serious thought. It’s possible that I may have to revise the story so that it aligns with my plans for the book, but at this point, revision of short works is something I can actually handle.

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

I’m bound to run out of ways to get back into writing, and I may have nearly reached that point. But once more into the breach, friends.

Morning pages lasted two days, and then I forgot I even had a brand-new notebook to fill. One and a half pages the first day. One and a quarter pages the second day. But my attempt, abortive as it was, to submerge myself in stream of consciousness writing, did get me to thinking. Maybe somewhat productively. We’ll see.

I know very well that one of my major faults in writing — maybe the major fault — is obsessive perfectionism. I was reminded of it again the other day, reading Pretending to Be Normal: Living with Asperger’s Syndrome, by Liane Holliday Willey. She says of her own writing: that she spends “far too much time selecting which word to use and too much time reworking a sentence so that it looks and feels and sounds right.” She’s a more visual person than I am, so I’m not concerned with how a sentence looks. But it has to sound right in every way. It has to say exactly what I mean it to say, so the reader isn’t dragged out of the story by having to figure out what it means. There’s a place for ambiguity, but not at the word or sentence level. The sentence also has to have a natural flow that doesn’t trip the reader up. If I stumble over it, then the reader is sure to.

For me, perfectionism is a necessity — up to a point. But when it becomes a stumbling block, I’ve gone beyond that point. That’s what came through to me from the two days of morning pages. The free-flowing stream of consciousness doesn’t have to be limited to morning pages. What if I could use it, consciously, in a writing project? It’s tempting to say that’s what I actually did during several years worth of NaNos, but it wasn’t really. All I did for those frantic thirty-day periods was to try to catch myself when I was obsessing about a word or the structure of a sentence.

What I’m trying out now is quite different, thanks to the failed morning pages and Liane Holliday Willey. I’m applying it to A Well-Educated Boy, and will see how far I can get in a novel that’s been stuck right at the start. It’s only been one day, and I wrote only 167 words, but those 167 words look like the key to what comes next. Over the last year or so I’ve made something like a half-dozen starts that didn’t lead anywhere. Suddenly, I know the time and place for the next scene, and why it happens the way it does. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of just 167 words. Right now, it looks as if they’re strong enough to bear it.