Tag Archives: fiction

Spoiler Alert

I work in a cubicle. That’s just one word shy of the famed “six word novel” challenges. I’m wondering what qualifier I should add. To understand this dilemma you have to realize a few things. My first professional job (professor) included a three-room office to myself. Also, I am a middle-aged man amid a work-pool of mostly twenty-somethings (everyone else my age has their own office). My cubicle has walls six feet high, so I can’t see, but can hear my just-out-of-college neighbors. Very few people talk to me at work. In fact, I can go an entire week without anyone saying anything to me, right here in the largest city in the country. The office is generally very quiet. You can hear everything. This leads to my concern with a very specific peril regarding work in a cubicle.

Much of the meaning in my life comes from what I read. In addition to all the books I review here on this blog, I have quite a few fiction projects going at any one time. I happen to be reading a book just now that was recently made into a movie. The reason I know it’s been made into a movie? My unseen, 20-something colleagues began talking about it yesterday morning. Complete with spoilers. Now, they couldn’t see the contortions on my face, hidden in my cubicle. The people who sit next to me work in a different department than mine and I have no reason to speak to them—they don’t even know who I am. Should I, like the voice of God, thunder unseen from my cube, “No spoilers!”? Or should I just continue to sit here with my fingers jammed firmly into my ears and hope that when I pull them out I don’t learn anything more about what I haven’t read yet?

I know it’s just me. I don’t read the blurbs on a book before reading the book itself. I don’t read reviews of movies before seeing the film. Guys my age appreciate the craft of story, building up to the reveal, not getting it in Monday morning water-cooler talk. I finally got up and walked away from my desk. There’s nowhere private to go on my floor, so I went to the stairwell and pointlessly climbed to the top floor and back down again. I returned to my desk and they were still talking about it. Not only was it Monday morning in a New York City where nobody had spoken to me in the three hours since I arrived in town, but there wasn’t even a spoiler warning for one of my favorite pastimes. Such are the perils of cubicle life.

The Big Shill

Once in a while I have to shill. As an erstwhile academic I’m aware of the cachet my employer bears for colleagues and the elite among the general public. Still, I find articles on the Oxford Dictionaries blog irresistible. I don’t work for the Dictionaries division, but I sometimes wish I did. A recent post by guest blogger Rebecca Teich discusses pulp fiction neologisms that have made their way into mainstream vocabulary. It’s not so much the individual words that interest me as much as does the phenomenon itself. Pulp fiction is antithetical to the sophisticated literature of the cultured class. Yes, there is status snobbery involved in such an assessment—we know those who find anything “common” to be vulgar and indicative of a lack of good breeding. The fact, however, that pulp fiction words make it to the mainstream belies the singular direction of cultural influence.

Many of us who grow up in working class families aspire to better things. We see (or used to see) on television and in movies how other people live. They have things and experiences that we covet. We work hard for many years to try to get there, often being kicked back down the stairs along the way. And yet we find some of our cheap, common vocabulary creeping into the consciousness of those who can afford better. There’s even a phrase for it. Guilty pleasures are those enjoyable books or other media that are really “beneath us,” but which we secretly enjoy. I post once in a while about Dark Shadows novels which are, quite literally, among the pulp fiction I grew up reading. They reached cultural cachet with a decidedly disappointing Tim Burton movie based on that universe, but regardless, they reached mainstream respectability.

Respectability. I suspect that’s what it’s all about. We want to be shown that our dirty collars and rolled-up sleeves mean something in this world of billionaire playboy presidents and congress that aspires only to greater wealth for itself. My first job, which I started when I was 14, involved physical labor. Brooms, paint rollers, and sledge hammers. I spent my evenings watching television and some of my weekends writing fiction. Pulp through and threw. Part of me finds its bliss in knowing that other rough-hewn writers have stamped their hallmark on the literary world by pounding out gritty stories of authentic human experience. Yes, I may be a corporate shill in this respect, but then, the shill is a respected member of the pulp fiction community.

Inventing Breaks

Breaks are good for many things. Time with family and friends. Hours of non-bus time for reading. Watching movies. So it was that we went to see The Man Who Invented Christmas. It really is a bit early for my taste, to think about Christmas, but the movie was quite welcome. Being a writer—I wouldn’t dare to call myself an author—one of my favorite things to do is talk about writing. Watching a movie about it, I learned, works well also. The conceit of the characters following Dickens around, and refusing to do what he wants them to should be familiar to anyone who’s tried their hand at fiction. My experience of writing is often that of being a receiver of signals. It is a transcendent exercise.

Not only that, but in this era of government hatred of all things creative and intellectual, it is wonderful to see a film about writing and books. The reminder about the importance of literacy and thought is one we constantly have to push. If we let it slip, as we’ve discovered, it may well take considerable time to recover. Getting lost in my fiction is one of my favorite avocations. Solutions to intractable problems come at most improbable times. Although publishers tend to disagree with me, I find the stories compelling. In the end, I suppose, that’s what really matters.

On an unrelated note, this is the second movie I’ve seen recently that attributes non-human actors their real names in the cast listing. What a welcome break from the blatant speciesism that pervades life! Animals have personalities and identities. Humans have often considered the privilege of being named to be theirs alone. True, animals can’t read and wouldn’t comprehend a human art form such as cinema. But when they communicate with each other, they may well have names for us. The beauty of a story such as A Christmas Carol is that it reminds of the importance of generosity. We should be generous to those who take advantage of our kindness. Our time. Our energy. We should also be generous to those who aren’t human but are nevertheless important parts of our lives. The movie may have come too early for my liking, but the holiday spirit should never be out of season. If we’ve made a world that only appreciates kindness because much of the rest of the year is misery, it means we’ve gone too far. Films can be learning experiences too, no matter the time of year.

Novelty Religion

Religion is dead. So they say. They have been wrong before. One of the great things the web has given us is book fan sites. There are a number of them, and my wife frequently sends me stories from BookRiot. Often they are lists, and the most recent one is Teresa Preston’s “100 Must-Read Novels about Religion.” As I scanned through the tons of tomes to see which I’d read, it struck me once again just how many novels touch on—at the very least—religion. Many are based on it. That’s because religion is an inherently fascinating phenomenon. We don’t really understand it, and even the staunchest of atheists believe something, no matter how secular. Novelists are those who, successfully finding a publisher, express their views of living on this planet in terms of fiction. It’s often factual fiction.

One of the best bits of advice I can give to academics who want to write for a wider readership is this: read fiction. There’s been a time-honored stigma, of course, outside literary studies, of academics reading fiction. Once, at a conference, I was awaiting an author meeting. It was a small conference so I had taken a book to read between appointments. When my author came up, he asked what I was reading. (I’d cautiously removed the book jacket before taking my novel along, not wanting this topic to come up.) “Just some fiction,” I explained. His eyebrows shot up and he questioned why an academic should be reading fiction at all. I have known academics successful in the fiction market, but they’ve had to use a pseudonym because their real name might discredit their scholarship. We are a divided, perhaps schizophrenic, society.

Not all academic novels, of course, are cases involving religion. Still, it’s often there. I recently finished Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Both involved religious themes at various points. This is so much the case that unless it’s really obvious or unusual I don’t always discuss such tropes on this blog. (Although I do register the books I read on Goodreads, yet another excellent book fan site.) If they want to appeal to the deepest of human needs, novels must address religion from time to time. Paying respect to the dead is, after all, a very human thing to do. And should it prove true that rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated, we shouldn’t be surprised. Like they say, reading is fundamental.

Flat Devils

Fiction is a framework to approach reality. People are drawn to stories because they help us to make sense of a bewildering world which wasn’t, in reality, custom made for us. Marta Figlerowicz’s Flat Protagonists: A Theory of Novel Character explores the types of characters that modern novelists are taught to avoid. She points out, however, that they occur in great novels beginning from the early stages of the category up through fairly contemporary classics. The flat protagonist, in short, isn’t believable. I’m not enough of a literary critic to judge her examples, but I have been thinking of one such character that occurs in popular culture all the time—the personification of evil. In my reading on writing I’ve learned this is to be avoided. Nobody is pure evil. Popular media begs to differ.

Being of working class sensibilities I can’t separate myself from the lowbrow crowd, I’m afraid. My fascination with Sleepy Hollow is pretty obvious on this blog. One of the recurring themes in the series is the antagonist that is indeed pure evil. Whether it’s Moloch, Death, Pandora, or the Hidden One, those who are evil represent the dark side of humanity, or the universe. They glory in destruction. Of course, in late Judaism and early Christianity this was a role taken by the Devil. As a child I was taught that it was wrong to feel sorry for Satan. This clashed in my head with the idea of forgiveness and with the love of all. Could God not love his (and he was masculine) own enemy? How could we hope to do the same, then?

In the most ancient of religions, as far as we know, evil wasn’t personified. Yes, evil happened, but it was simply part of the matrix of being. Some gods tended toward good while others tended the other direction, but a being of pure evil doesn’t seem to have existed. Even Tiamat loved her children, at least until they killed her consort. The stark black-and-white world of monotheism can’t explain evil without an divine enemy. A flat protagonist, to be sure, but one you can always count on to do the wrong thing. The closest we come to that in real life is the Republican Party. Insidious, sneaky, using every possible loophole to shove their agenda through, they are the perfect flat protagonists. No, I’m not inclined to believe in the Devil. Or at least I wasn’t until November of 2016.

Bibliotherapy

This may sound strange, considering the source, but I fear I don’t read enough. An article by Sarah Begley in a recent issue of Time, reinforces what we’ve known all along—reading is incredibly good for you. Even fiction. Especially fiction. For the most part, as I’m commuting, I read non-fiction. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but it doesn’t always help with literacy issues that might call for a bibliotherapist. You see, literacy builds a kind of psychological strength that helps with real-world issues. Part of it is because many books go through a rigorous process of approval. Still, it’s important to realize that this kind of reading may not be the popular fiction that can be found in grocery stores and airports—although even that is fine—but the level of writing that really helps is somewhat mysteriously labeled “literary fiction.” The kind of book an author writes, rewrites, and rewrites. Deep thought and care go into such books, and they can be a help to their readers. Reading isn’t just fundamental, it is transformative.

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I remember my school years well. Kids are amazing in their level of energy. They crave activity and experience. Getting them to read can be difficult. You need to sit still. And concentrate. Concentration isn’t easy. You have to train a child to read, and, at least where I grew up, that was a struggle. The fact that it’s possible to graduate from high school and be functionally illiterate is one of the signs that learning to enjoy reading doesn’t always take hold. I knew guys in middle school who would rather do just about anything other than read. I often wondered what anyone could do to make them realize what they were missing. I read books and stories that took my breath away. There was something incredible going on between the covers—but how to convince others?

Recently a colleague pointed out to me that those of us in publishing are, statistically speaking, a very small number of people. We work in an industry that serves a small number of people. We are an odd lot. We read books, and some of us write books, and we do so for a small sector of society. Signs are hopeful that interest in reading is growing. Leading by example may help. At any one time I have at least one, generally two or more, fiction books going at the same time. On the bus I read through non-fiction at a faster rate. Maybe the mix is actually right. Fiction reading takes more time. It could be because I’m getting more out of it than I realize. I just wish I had more time to do it. More time for reading health. I may need to see a bibliotherapist.

Zoo or Farm?

It comes as no surprise, I hope, that I read lots of fiction. While not every book I read makes it onto this blog, a good many of them do, along with some I haven’t read yet. Bill Broun’s Night of the Animals is one of the latter. A suspicion is itching way down deep telling me that I’ll probably end up a fan. Part of my suspicion comes from having read a story on NPR about the book. First of all: dystopia. Need I say more? I admire those who try to paint a future with a lighter palette, but I’ve been observing the way those in power behave and it kind of makes me think optimism about improvement is just a tad naive. People are too easily lulled into apathy by things like sports and the internet. The Romans used bread and circuses. Meanwhile those in power help themselves to a bit more until you can’t even get on an airplane without a total stranger seeing you sans briefs. If I can’t be trusted by those I elect, what cause do I have for hope? But enough about me. The book’s the thing.

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Night of the Animals, according to the NPR piece, is kind of a reverse ark. The animals in the London Zoo are understood by a man and they ask him to release them. I don’t know what happens, but I sure hope to find out. When interviewers ask Broun what it was like to spend fourteen years working on a novel, he responded in a way that, I suspect, many writers would understand. He said that it was a spiritual journey. Writing this book was his search for God. Many of us must nod our heads to that.

Concentration is becoming a dying art. I’ve written a number of books in my life—by far the greatest number remain unpublished—and I know there’s nothing like the intense concentration you experience when lost in such a world. Yes, it is spiritual. It is also a cry to be heard. As George Orwell well knew, we are the animals hoping to be heard. Zoos represent entrapment. Broun states that he wanted to explore how people are trapped in his novel. Looking at a system that rewards greed and keeps workers in unfulfilling jobs just so they can keep the system going while their CEOs buy another hotel chain or sports team and decide to run for office, I begin to hear the oinks, whinnies, and neighs all around me. And I haven’t even read the book yet.