Monday, December 30, 2013

Review: N. Gopinathan Nair--His Life and Times

I like to think that when I sit down to write a story I have done enough research to give the novel a feel of authenticity—the scene, characters, and problems ring true to the reader. Getting to that point isn’t always easy. I can and have asked odd questions of elected officials, local police men and women, social workers, and nurses. These questions help me get at the facts of a situation, but every writer knows you need more than that. You need the “feel” of a situation, the atmosphere of a neighborhood, or the sense of a community.

The last time I was in India, just a year ago, a friend gave me a copy of her father’s collected essays, which she had helped her mother compile. As I started to read through the essays in English I felt an entire age opening up for me. N. Gopinathan Nair was one of those men who live fully in their time, and in their own way participate in shaping their country’s future.

All of my characters in both series, the Mellingham series and the Anita Ray series, have a back story, and this is the kind of work that I turn to, to get a sense of the world some of them might have known.

The scribe Remembered: N. Gopinathan Nair—His Life and Times, edited by K. Saradamoni with biographical preface by Saradamoni and visual essay by G. Asha. (2012)

The early years of a new nation are heady exciting times. The reports and articles by journalist N. Gopinathan Nair are a record of these crucial early days and issues in the history of Kerala and India. Gopi, as he was generally known, was best known as the founder editor of Janayogam, the first weekly and later daily newspaper of the undivided Communist party in Travancore, before it merged with two other areas to become Kerala.

Born in 1923 outside Kollam and educated in Kuala Lumpur, where his father worked, and the Government Boy's High School in Kollam, he later attended the American College in Madurai. Gopi was profoundly influenced by Nehru’s writings. He turned from an early interest in science to journalism for his career.

Gopi wrote for many newspapers and publications over the years on a wide range of topics. He was especially attentive to legislation that would address the ancient and onerous burdens on landless farmers and other laborers, the lack of education for those outside the elite groups, developing technology in the new India, and creating a stable government to benefit the many castes trying to move into the modern world. His articles often included carefully researched data for skeptical readers and historical background information to flesh out a discussion of contemporary problems and proposed solutions.

The book comprises essays and articles in both Malayalam and English, depending on the original publication, as well as several tributes and reminiscences. There are numerous photographs of Gopi and his family throughout the years.

Gopi’s wife, Dr. Saradamoni, prepared an extensive introduction and his daughter Asha collected and arranged a number of photographs that add another rick layer to Gopi’s biography.

To purchase the book go here:

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Commercial Fiction vs Literary Fiction

I spent part of Friday afternoon happily reading the SinC quarterly newsletter. Margaret Maron's essay “Mystery Writers vs. 'Literary' Writers” surprised me and made me think. Her essay was prompted by an article by Francine Prose, in which the author complains about “commercial fiction.” In the following week, a reader complains about the lack of supportive groups for women writers. Really?

First, Prose’s essay is about the imbalance in reviews of fiction by men and women. It seems that men are getting all the reviews. In addition, some consider this justified because women don’t write as well and don’t take on important topics as much as men do. The article was published in June 1998. But I decided Margaret’s ire was justified when I read the whole Prose essay a second time. (“The Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” Harpers, June 1998.)

Prose’s essay wasn’t about the decline in literature and why is everyone reading formula fiction to his or her intellectual detriment. Her slap at commercial fiction had nothing whatsoever to do with her topic. It was gratuitous. If commercial fiction has “an autonomous existence” outside the literary world of reviews and contests, why even mention it? And if writers of literary fiction have no organizations to help support women writers, why not? After all, writers in commercial fiction have lots of supportive organizations. Sisters in Crime was founded in 1986 to support women writers, challenge the male-dominated world of book reviews, and protest misogynistic trends in fiction.

The literary versus commercial fiction debate has been going on for a hundred years, and the only point I can see seems to be to give so-called literary fiction writers the opportunity to imply that their work is superior to those of us who write so-called commercial fiction. Prose’s comment had nothing to do with the point of the article, which is the neglect of fiction written by women when it comes to handing out reviews and awards. Prose spends close to nine pages comparing passages by different writers, one male and one female, to challenge as rigorously as possible the idea that anyone can tell a woman’s sentence from a man’s.

I like to read. I like to read lots of things--novels, essays, history, biography, memoirs, poetry, parody, and just about everything else I come across. I go to book signings and readings by all sorts of writers. I almost never say I'm also a writer because I'm there for the writer whose event it is, but sometimes the other writer is someone I know and is welcoming and generous in his or her greeting. Andre Dubus III is one of them. Another, who shall remain nameless, is not. Madam Anonymous has written six novels, so had I when we met. Madam A signed my book, and then said, without prompting, “I don't read crime fiction. It's so crass, don't you think?” Madam A, did you forget that we had dinner together and discussed that I write crime fiction? What sort of person goes out of her way to throw out an insult like that?

Let me answer my own question. Someone who is resentful and jealous. It's hard to believe that someone of Madam A’s stature would be jealous, but I think literary writers carry a certain resentment against other writers. First, so-called commercial writers are clearly having a lot of fun. Our characters can be (and often are) anything we want them to be. They are crazy, wild, funny, dangerous, scary, beyond belief much of the time. Second, if we’re still in the business after one book, we’re earning out our advances and then some. (I sat next to a first-time novelist on a panel who announced that no first-time novelist is ever expected to earn out her advance; I could not let that pass.) Third, readers love our stuff. They love our characters and adopt them as their own. They love our villages and islands and mountain castles and depressed cities and trailer parks. Every mystery writer has encountered the reader who walks up and asks, “But what about Joe's family?  Why doesn’t he visit them? Is there trouble there?” (I sometimes worry the reader is so concerned she will follow up with an offer of help.)

Fourth, and the real reason, is that mystery writers know why we write. We’re storytellers. We have not forgotten the point of fiction is to tell a good story, to sweep the reader away into another world where he or she will undergo experiences otherwise beyond their ordinary life. Yes, the reader will experience suspense, romance, fear, and wonder, all those crass human emotions. These are fabulous depths of life that many of us in our need to hold a job and pay the bills never get to experience except through fiction, and if we as writers can get them into a story, we should do so. 

In these stories that are so formulaic and offensive to literary writers we are tapping into ancient patterns in how humans see and experience the world. We deal honestly with important questions of justice and character and the consequences of our acts. Readers get to test their principles and dreams against those of another and larger world. And readers of crime fiction are not so easily misled by “literary” prose to give a pass to unscrupulous behavior. We might feel compassion for an officer forced to carry out an execution, but we still know he’s a murderer. The real man of courage is the soldier who refuses.

At the end of her essay Margaret Maron asks the other question prompted by Prose's essay: Why are mystery writers so nice to each other? We help each other build careers. We don't see every other writer as a competitor we have to undermine in order to get ahead. We take criticism from editors and reviewers well for the most part, and offer it humanely in return. Editors have been commenting on this for years, and I think the reason is simple. Mystery writers maintain a certain perspective on their characters and their stories--we create pretty awful people and watch what happens to them. We don't forgive or protect characters who have a bad end coming to them. We don’t use our talents to convince readers that black is white or white is black. Crime fiction requires a high degree of emotional honesty. We don’t fall into the temptation of believing that we’re “important” and therefore readers have to appreciate us. We know what our job is, and we do it.

Those are my theories. What are yours?

Friday, December 20, 2013

To review or not to review

This week Goodreads sent me a notice that I had read 48 books this past year. I hadn't been keeping track of books read, but I thought the number seemed low. After a moment's thought, I realized it meant the number of books reviewed on the Goodreads site. I did, in fact, read many more.

There are lots of reasons for not posting a review on Goodreads or Amazon or Librarything, or any of a number of sites set up for readers to find books. Sometimes I pick up a book that can only be found overseas or is so well known that it doesn't need a review from me, such as something by Charles Dickens. But sometimes I pick up a book recommended by someone else and read it even though it's outside my comfort zone. It's just not the kind of book I'm interested in. This is what happened to me recently.

I've heard about a certain author and knew he was wildly successful, so I wanted to see what he wrote and how he went about telling a story. I found a book from his earlier years and settled in to learn as well as enjoy the story. About half way through I had to decide if I would finish the book or not. After a minute I decided I would. I had come this far and would see it through to the end. There was no question about the quality of the story telling. This writer can set up a story and keep it moving forward, page after page. But I knew how it would end. And I also knew I wouldn't review it.

I understand that all of us as writers are tied to our time and place in history. As forward thinking as we like to believe we are, at some point in the future someone is going to find the blindspot in our thinking. We belong to our time. I warn readers about this when they pick up a book from a favorite writer from the 1930s and 1940s who is new to them and later complain about the author's prejudices. Agatha Christie was mostly of her time, as were many other writers in the so-called Golden Age. But what about someone writing in the 1960s up to the present?

The book I decided not to review was one in which a young woman died unnecessarily and unpleasantly, and another woman, who had absolutely nothing to do with the crime except that she was married to the intended victim, was put through a humiliating and, in all honesty, a male fantasy of rape. It wasn't necessary for the story.

This kind of writing, despite the great success of the writer, says to me "lazy thinking." Yes, it's a way to heighten the tension, and yes, it's a way to keep readers reading, but no, it's not necessary to abuse women to keep the story going and keep the reader interested. It's certainly not the only way, considering the number of successful women writers who manage to do it, such as Sara Paretsky.

I didn't bother posting a review of this book and I doubt the author would care either way. I don't want to say anything positive about a story that in the end I found revolting enough in some aspects to ruin the entire story for me. But thanks to this one book, I have became much more skeptical of writers who claim their plot devices are necessary and much more likely to interpret their work as superficial and based on shortcuts.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Writers' Groups

This piece was originally posted on Author Expressions in November 2011. I've reposted it here because I recently helped set up a writers' group at a local library. My role is to help the group get organized, build up its membership, and establish ground rules that will support the work of each member. The ultimate goal is for me to bow out and leave the group as a self-sustaining entity. As part of the introductory session I described the various kinds of groups, and the members moved towards the one that seemed most supportive and useful for them. The discussion was interesting and informative for me, so I've decided to reprint the essay I used as a springboard in my discussion.

A few weeks ago an acquaintance asked me for advice on setting up a writers' group. I immediately said, Sure. Then I paused and wondered, What kind of writers' group? My friend didn't know. I shouldn't have been surprised. Writers talk about their writers' groups usually with reverence and affection, but few actually describe what the group is like. As a result, most beginning or non writers think a writers' group is a writers' group is a writers' group. And they would be wrong.

Over the last forty plus years I have been in a variety of writers' groups, ranging from the informal two-person (actually two-woman support group for struggling dissertation writers only able to meet over lunch) to the large, highly structured group with strict membership requirements (and no nonsense whatsoever). But a few types stand out for the gratitude and affection I came to feel towards my fellow members, and these are the ones I described to my friend. This is not a definitive list, but a few suggestions for how to structure the coming-together of writers who want to help each other. These are roughly in chronological order.

First was the group of writers of all genres and all levels of publication history, including the writer who managed to get a contract for a nonfiction book about hikes in New England and then didn't look at the contract again until four months before the manuscript was due. She hadn't written a word. The purpose of this group turned out to be to provide massive amounts of encouragement and a small dose of envy for anyone who could get a contract and be so cavalier about deadlines. Another member sought information on a particular free-lance job, received highly specific warnings about avoiding this magazine at all costs, ignored them, and then received massive amounts of encouragement in suing the vendor who refused to pay her. If nothing else, this group was consistent. We were promiscuous in our praise and unstinting in our support and generally ignored all good advice.

The second group I attended seemed to be based on whom you had worked for. All genres were acceptable, including a few that had no names as yet. We all knew each other and our professional paths continued to cross. We were expected to show up with something to read at least every other week, and to take not longer than five or ten minutes. We were expected to listen attentively and offer suggestions for improvement. This was another support group but a little more discerning. It was rare that anyone said anything negative, but when someone did, we took it as a sign that we were ready to graduate and move on.

A third group was among the most structured, meeting once a month and requiring each writer to present a complete chapter or two (about 50 pages) for everyone to read beforehand, then listen without verbal response (eye rolling was allowed) as everyone else commented and discussed among themselves. At the end of this, if the writer was still able to speak and could stop biting his or her tongue, he or she could comment on the discussion and the specific points made. I lasted about a month (that's one meeting for those not following this discussion closely).

A variation on the third group requires that a writer send out by email or snail mail copies of whatever she or he wants to discuss at the weekly meeting, and then at the regular meeting each member can comment and discuss with other members including the writer whose work it is. No one is barred from speaking. All genres are acceptable.

A fourth group is probably the result of the first three. This group has a monitor, also a writer but one who does not participate in the readings and critiques. This person is expected to facilitate discussion, keep writers from acting out the crimes they are so graphically describing in their novels and short stories, and generally keep the group feeling positive and motivated and out of the clutches of the authorities.

These then are the four basic writers' groups. And while I might have had some unusual experiences as a writer when among other writers, I hasten to assure all you beginning writers our there that you will survive participation in a writers' group, you will learn a great deal, you will get that boost you need to finish your novel and then sell it. But in the process you will meet a few oddballs and hear some painful descriptions of your brilliant Pulitzer quality work. You may even wonder why you thought writing a novel was a good idea in the first place. But when you finally sell that novel, your writer group friends will bring a bottle of champagne, cheer you loudly, and you will know you really are a genius.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

If you're going to give advice . . .

(This post was originally published on Author Expressions, August 2, 2013. It generated so many interesting comments that I felt I should reprint it here.)

Everyone who writes at some point has the same experience. I finish a short story or a novel, go over it for the tenth or twentieth time, and print out a clean copy to give a friend to read. Perhaps I’ve been reading chapters to the members of my writing group as I go along, or perhaps I am a solitary writer with no group and a strong reluctance to share my work till I think it’s finished. But at some point it will be finished enough to share, and I will have to show it to someone. What I get in return can be significant.

A recent discussion on a chat list for writers touched on the problem of getting nothing but negative feedback from a first reader. The reader even went so far as to tell the writer to stop writing. The reaction of the other writers, including me, was that this negativity is not useful. It’s destructive and there’s no point in destroying a new writer’s dreams and determination. The discussion and comments reminded me of two things—my early efforts and how kind some of my first readers had been and a story I was asked to read by someone who thought he was destined to write the great American novel. In my opinion I didn’t think he could write a grocery list. I learned from both experiences how to make useful comments without judgment. (And I have always been grateful to the editors who were kind. When I look back at my early work . . .)

First, I ask the writer to describe the “aboutness” of the story. What is the story about? Tell me in one or two sentences. Don’t give me a plot summary—that’s different. Tell me what this story is for me as a reader. Some writers will never have thought about this, and it helps any writer focus on the story and what is or is not relevant in the telling of it.

Second, I ask about the opening line (and sometimes about the closing line). Where did it come from? What is it supposed to achieve? Is the writer satisfied with it? I’m almost never satisfied with my opening lines, but I sometimes am very happy with the closing lines. Are there alternatives that were discarded? Why?

Third, I try to find a sentence with an interesting or unusual word usage and ask about that. Why did he or she choose this word? What is the writer trying to achieve?

Fourth, if the story is a mystery or paranormal or science fiction, I try to ask relevant questions on structure and formula (I’m limited to mystery fiction mostly), and how the writer understands the formula.

Fifth, I might ask about characters’ names if there is anything unusual about them, or if too many characters are named Joe or Mary. I might also point out that the ethnic identities of the characters do or do not match the setting or story line.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There is nothing in any of my comments that is a judgment or an evaluation. Each comment is meant to take the reader and the writer deeper into understanding the story and the writer’s goals. This can be edifying for both writer and reader because getting another writer to articulate a way of viewing the world and trying to present it means that I have to stretch my thinking.

In addition, if I read something I think is awful and have to discuss it, I am forced to dig deeper, to reach beyond my prejudices and blinders. I have to listen to another writer’s reasons for doing something I probably wouldn’t have done. And I have to read with possibility in mind, with the idea that the writer is reaching for something. All of this makes me think harder.

Being asked to read someone else’s work is a compliment as well as a responsibility. Anyone who agrees to do so, therefore, is, in my view, obligated to provide something useful and productive to the writer. Offering up a visceral reaction isn’t enough, and that doesn’t count as any kind of thoughtful reading. There is nothing to be gained by telling a struggling writer that he can’t writer. I am well aware that the one person whom I think can’t write a phone message may turn out to be the next Scott Turow.