Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

A Couple of Cultural Notes

January 12, 2017

Book Recommendation: News of the World is a great yarn, set in a very interesting time (1870 Texas), and beautifully written. The relationship between an old man and a very young girl who’s been a captive of the Kiowa is the heart of the book, but there’s plenty of adventure too.

Movie: Queen of Katwe is a story of some slum kids in Uganda who take up chess. It captures the rhythms of life in East Africa way better than any other movie I’ve seen. A sweet story, with the settings, the accents, the wordings, the clothes, the eyes, the attitudes spot on. This is some kind of miracle: a classically Disney inspirational story, but the look and feel are not Hollywoodized at all. Anybody who loves Africa should see it.

Publishing Woes

September 23, 2016

Everybody knows that the digital revolution has changed publishing. You can read long analyses of what is new and where the industry is going, if you want to. A lot of that will bore to tears anyone who isn’t directly involved. For most people, only two questions matter: are good books being written, and can I get them? The answers are yes and yes.

However, I think you might find it interesting to gain a close-up view of the problems of publishing as I experience them—problems that mirror some of the problems of American society today.

I’ve published many books over the decades, and I have absolutely no reason to complain. However, I’m writing a different kind of book than any I have in the past, and I’m experiencing a different reality.

I’ve written a novel, and it is far-and-away the best thing I’ve ever written. I say that with confidence because I’ve had six or eight readers review it and they’ve been strikingly positive. Besides, I feel it in my gut.

It’s a contemporary story based in an urban gospel mission. In fact, that’s my working title: Gospel Mission. It focuses on a handful of people involved with the mission’s residential drug and alcohol rehab program. The ethos is fundamentalist/evangelical. It’s a story of addiction and recovery, life and death, God and destruction, plus a developer trying to move the mission out of a neighborhood he wants to gentrify, and his skullduggery that almost wrecks the mission. It’s a compelling read, by all accounts.

The problem is getting somebody to publish it. Sure, I know, that’s a problem for most novelists. But this is an interesting case, best summed up in an email I recently received from a literary agent.

She liked the book, a lot. This agent can be blunt, but everything she wrote was laudatory. After considerable prose devoted to the book’s virtues, she wrote:

“Having said all that, I am stymied as to what sort of publisher would be interested in the project. It’s told mainly from men’s point of view, and [Christian publishers] struggle to make books written mostly about men work. It’s hard to find the audience. I don’t, by any means, think this is a book that would only appeal to men. (I certainly enjoyed it.) But women have to be given encouragement to read such books, and publishers seem inept at finding readers for novels that don’t have a “just right” sort of hook. A summary of the story wouldn’t drive women to the book, nor does the title. I couldn’t think of an angle that might work.

“And it’s not a general market book–way too much religion in it.”

According to her, I’m stuck in a publishing black hole. General publishers won’t give the time of day to anything so evangelical. And Christian publishers only know how to publish inspirational women’s fiction.

Isn’t that a reflection of our post-Christian western world? Religion remains an important reality to a great proportion of society, but that reality doesn’t make the cultural mainstream—except, maybe, in some exotic or historical form. People of faith are cordoned off—or cordon themselves off–into a cultural ghetto.

And when you turn to specifically Christian institutions, they have become extremely narrow. They only embrace a small slice of society, and they don’t have the money or the imagination to take chances on a wider audience. They stay in their ghetto.

This isn’t an entirely new phenomenon, but I think it’s gotten worse with the changes in publishing since Amazon became the biggest player and bookstores fell on hard times. There is less bandwidth in books that get published, and less willingness on the part of publishers to take on risk.

Fortunately, another change in publishing means that I can publish myself. I will, if that’s my best option, though I would far rather leave the publishing to somebody who knows what they are doing. Leave me to write! One way or another, Gospel Mission will get published. I’ll let you know when that happens.



Another Take on Atticus Finch

August 5, 2015

A friend sent me this review of Go Set a Watchman. It’s really about what it’s like to live in a racist society after you become aware of how wrong racism is, and yet find yourself involved and implicated in it by the people and the society you love. This, the author Ursula Le Guin suggests, was the young Harper Lee’s subject, until an editor derailed her and set her to write a naive, white-liberal-self-congratulating book. She thinks the failed, earlier book (the one just now published) was actually a lot more truthful than the beautiful and famous later book.

Myself, I appreciate books written from a child’s perspective. That’s what To Kill a Mockingbird is: a child’s memory of her father, the epitome of goodness. Children see their fathers as heroes in a way they almost never do as adults, but the child’s perspective is a valuable one. We could do worse than to see the world through the eyes of a little child.

There is also a more adult tale to be told, far more complicated and troubling. As a matter of fact, no white man in Harper Lee’s society was ever as good as Atticus Finch. I say that having read a great deal of civil rights history. I am aware of only one or two candidates for the Good White. Almost invariably those who sought to be Good (and there weren’t many of them) got hounded out of town.

Today, when we have become alerted all over again to the persistence of racism in our society, we need both children’s tales and adult tales. We need to hope, and we need to deal with complex reality.

Atticus Finch and Bill Cosby

July 21, 2015

I’ve been fascinated by the upset caused by Harper Lee’s new rendition of Atticus Finch in Go Set a Watchman, her followup to To Kill a Mockingbird. Evidently Atticus does not come off as quite so morally heroic, and that bothers people.

To which I want to say: Atticus Finch is a fictional character. Another novel that uses his name is just another novel, and another character named Atticus Finch has nothing to do with the first Atticus Finch. The character in To Kill a Mockingbird is his forever; it was complete when Harper Lee published the book.

I think this way because I’m a novelist. I love novels, but I know that they are illusions, carved out with careful intentionality by their authors. Novels may tell you some important truths—I believe they do—but they do not create lives. Only God does that.

My wife explains to me that people long to believe in heroes during these dispiriting times, and Atticus Finch is a hero. I take her point. How many characters in modern fiction can one see as genuinely heroic? I am having trouble thinking of a single one, besides Atticus Finch. Perhaps the upset over Atticus represents people who want heroes left alone.

Okay, I get that, but could we focus on defending heroes whom we know to be real people?

My thoughts about fictional heroes apply almost identically to the trouble with Bill Cosby. Of course, it’s upsetting that Cosby has turned out to be a wretch. (Or is that too kind a word to apply to a serial rapist?) But there are many serial rapists in the world. The particular trouble with the idea of Bill Cosby, serial rapist, is that we believed he was such a nice man. We believed, in fact, that he was our friend. Naturally we feel betrayed.

But that feeling of betrayal is based on a hopeless and willed naivete. I will contend (and here I rely on my experience as a reporter, not as a novelist) that the public figures we read about and see on TV—the athletes, movie stars, politicians, preachers and even scientists—are just as much fictional characters as Atticus Finch. Enjoy their performance, and draw inspiration from it, but resist the temptation to think you know anything about the real person behind the performance.

I’ve had a few experiences of this, with Christian celebrities who were widely believed to be wise and saintly characters, and whom I came to believe (from personal encounters) verged on the psychotic. Unless you know people personally, and know them well, you have no idea what they are like. Their public persona is an image, as carefully crafted as a character in a novel.

Bill Cosby of public life—let’s call him “Bill Cosby”—was a lovely old curmudgeon, funny and wise and delightful. “Bill Cosby” represented a projection of something that the real Bill Cosby wanted to be, and perhaps in small portions could be. But “Bill Cosby” has no more fallen than Atticus Finch. And you don’t know the real Bill Cosby, and Bill Cosby wasn’t your friend. Thankfully.

Making Stuff Up

May 13, 2015

For the last six weeks I have been writing fiction Monday through Friday. It’s what I’ve wanted most to do since I was in the third grade. I love fiction, and I believe in the power of fiction. In my mostly-journalistic career I’ve managed to carve out time to write five novels; this will be my sixth. None of my novels has been anything like commercially successful, but what does that have to do with anything? I have the freedom to write fiction, and that’s what I’m doing.

I have to report, though, that fiction is much harder to write than non-fiction. I’ve written enough fiction that the techniques are not a mystery. I’m not floundering as I sometimes did in earlier novels. It’s just hard—hard every minute and every day. The reason can be expressed very simply: you have to make things up. You start with nothing. Every day you begin with a blank screen, and you try your best to breathe life into words so that people—real, three-dimensional people—walk and talk through your pages. So that real things of consequence go on. So that relationships develop and change. So that life is lived on the page.

It’s so much harder than non-fiction I can’t even put them under the same heading of “writing.” I know how to write. I’m a good writer. I am not sure I know how to create out of nothing. I’m trying, but I teeter on the edge hour by hour and often fall off.

All this to say: when you read the first words of Genesis, where it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” understand that this is a stupendous statement. A novel is a shadow of reality; God created reality. From nothing.

Hemingway the Creep

November 19, 2014

I have been reading about the Spanish Civil War lately, partly because it is my daughter’s specialty and partly because it is so very interesting in its own right. It was the Vietnam war of its day—passionately argued over, saturated by media coverage, attracting celebrities. Also very deadly and very disheartening.

One excellent, gossipy book is Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, which tells the story of the war through a number of more-or-less celebrity couples that experience it: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn among them. Hemingway was cheating on his wife and doing his macho bluster thing, writing dispatches that suggested he was seeing a lot more combat close up than he ever did. As Vaill writes of him—in this and also in Everybody Was So Young—Hemingway was a truly repellant human being. As to cheating on his (several) wives it does not seem that he was promiscuous so much as he was a born cheater, in a self-glorifying, self-justifying way. He trashed many of his friends in print, including people who had helped him a lot and put up with him a lot. He was vicious with those who (he thought) crossed him. He drank too much, bragged constantly, thought it was a great thing to knock somebody down. Ick.

But my daughter reminded me, as I went on about this, that he was also quite a writer. I hadn’t read him since I was in college. I remembered good things regarding the depressing The Sun Also Rises, but I was thinking that the rest was mostly Hemingway’s macho schtick. Which it is, I think. But with my daughter’s encouragement I re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a wonderful book, probably the best war book I have ever read. I can only conclude that Hemingway, when he stopped talking and sat down to write, became a much more contrite and controlled human being.

It’s a small reminder that people of great talent are human beings, and that even dreadful human beings may have something truly great in them. I like this quote from Philo of Alexander: “Be gentle with each person you meet, for each of them is fighting a great battle.”  

The Best

May 8, 2014

A few days ago David Brooks published an op-ed entitled “A Love Story.” It refers to an encounter between the British intellectual Isaiah Berlin and the Russian poet Anna Akhmotova. They met in 1945, in Leningrad, and talked all night. They spoke of literature and history and, of course, their lives. It was a luminous conversation, life-changing, unforgettable–and never to be repeated, as Akhmotova had only begun to be persecuted by Stalinism.

Brooks writes: “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments. Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading.”

And he concludes: “I’m old enough to remember when many people committed themselves to this sort of life and dreamed of this sort of communion – the whole Great Books/Big Ideas thing. I am not sure how many people believe in or aspire to this sort of a life today. I’m not sure how many schools prepare students for this kind of love.”

I’m old enough to remember that too. The quest wasn’t always about literature, of course. In my college years it had more to do with protest against the Vietnam war. People could, they did, spend all night talking about the agony of the draft. Nobody I ever knew hoped to start a business, and very few thought of their education as being mainly about qualifying for a job.

“Today we live in a utilitarian moment,” Brooks says. “We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. “Our reason has become an instrumental reason,” as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.”

Now: my son Silas put the lid on the romanticism inherent in these thoughts when he pointed out that the Great Recession has a lot to do with the current mood. He’s right that in earlier generations, including mine, you could count on a decent job if you went to college. Indulging in Dostoevsky is more attractive if the bills are paid, and will be.

Nevertheless I’ll stand by my belief that the greatest aspiration in life is not to lead a successful start-up. In faith, art, culture, conversation, family, books, beauty, goodness–in these we find our best selves, and our deepest satisfactions. We owe it to our children, and to our friends, to hold on to such hopes.

Questions for Birmingham

April 28, 2014

A friend wrote telling me that her book group was reading Birmingham, my novel of the Civil Rights protest era. She asked whether I knew of some discussion questions. I didn’t, so she wrote her own. Here they are, in hopes that other book groups will be inspired.


1. Why do you think a “white” seminary student from CA would leave his wife and home to go to Birmingham? Do you think God would lead a person to do what he did?
2. Have any of you ever lived and/or traveled in the South?
3. What were your impressions of Dorcas? What was her role in the story?
4. Were you surprised that Rev. Wriggleshott welcomed Chris into his home? Why might his family be mistrustful of a “white” student from CA?
5. Why do you think Rev. Wriggleshott had to prod Chris to call his wife, Linda?
6. Was Operation C effective? (p. 38)
7. What were your impressions of Jerry Mealman? Was he an effective leader?
8. Was anything accomplished at the meeting at the Episcopol Church in chapter 5?
9. Was the meeting with the Methodist minister helpful to Chris (at the Country Club)?
10. Did the relationship between Dorcas & Jerry surprise you?
11. Was Tall Paul helpful to the movement?
12. Was it hard to believe Charley was a Methodist Christian as he said? Did you think Chris made a big mistake going with him for a ride?
13. Were you surprised at the description of Martin Luther King? Why did everything hinge on him (p.105)?
14. Why was Rev. Wriggleshott so intent on protecting Chris? What did Chris learn from his jail experience?
15. Were you surprised that Chris lacked the courage to speak up at the Methodist Layman’s meeting? (p. 114-115) What did you think of Charley’s explanation as to why whites mistreated Negroes as they did (p. 119)?
16. What moral or ethical decisions did the characters make?
17. How authentic was the culture and era represented in the novel?
18. Who was your favorite character?
19. What was the message of the book?
20. Did you like the ending?

The Future of Books

February 28, 2014

In the February 17 & 24 edition of The New Yorker George Packer has a long, well-reported piece on Amazon and its impact on books. It’s an article every book junkie will love, full of angst over the future of book publishing, independent bookstores, and mid-level authors who need support (big advances) to do their work. Also lots of publishing gossip, some quite juicy.

The internet in general and Amazon in particular have greatly disrupted book publishers and bookstores. Packer contends that the highly secretive Amazon never thought that much of books in the first place, but saw the book industry as an opportunity waiting to be plucked, a gateway into internet commerce (and a rich database of customers). Amazon always wanted to be the everything store, and books were merely a convenient place to begin.

The thing about books was that they store well and are easy to ship, and there are far too many of them for any physical location to stock. Thus the internet is a far more efficient vehicle for selling them than are bookstores. (Even though the internet will never match the cozy environment that the best bookstores offer. But what are you buying, books or atmosphere? Amazon bet on books.)

The thing about publishing was that it was too comfortable. There was a lot of inefficiency. Book prices were padded, salaries were padded, expenses accounts were padded, Manhattan office rents were padded, egos were padded. It was ripe for serious challenge, or so Amazon thought, according to Packer.

One can blame Amazon for the changes in bookselling and publishing, but in my opinion Amazon simply accelerated the inevitable. The internet is a more efficient way to distribute books, and bookstores were bound to suffer. The publishing industry has, quite apart from the internet, been under competitive pressures that have led to huge consolidation, increased fascination with blockbuster bestsellers, less interest in editing, less loyalty to writers who are developing their craft, and other crass aspects of modern publishing that may be blamed on Amazon but are fundamentally part of the corporatization of publishing.

Nevertheless, Amazon has been and continues to be a force that has aided and abetted the decline of bookstores and of publishing, and these are surely to be regretted.

However, there are two other parties involved: readers and writers–and arguably, they are the parties that matter.

Start with readers. As a reader I love Amazon. I don’t buy many books for pleasure, I get them from the library. But in my work I am often buying books that would be practically impossible to find at even the best bookstore: books on biblical studies, history, philosophy, obscure and out-of-print books. I find them easily and instantly from Amazon. I also use Amazon as a tool of reference to see what is available on a particular topic. I send gifts of favorite books to family and friends–a huge savings of time, since I don’t have to go to the bookstore and the post office. When I travel, I load up my Kindle with e-books, some free, some not, so that I can have a small library available without breaking my shoulder every time I have to carry my suitcase upstairs. As a reader, I love Amazon.

Some people worry that an Amazon book universe is a flat universe, with uncountable books published with nothing to distinguish them:  no thoughtful editors selecting and promoting the best books, and few critics publishing book reviews enabling us to find and buy the best. So, they suggest, it will be a vast plain in which good books simply disappear in a swamp of self-promotion and drivel. I’m not sure. There are some pretty good blogs already reviewing books–my niece Jenny Brown, for example, publishes in her spare time, check it out. And with the enhancement of peer-review sites like there are a lot of eyes out there reading and commenting. Also, the prize committees–Pulitzer, Booker, etc.–seem to be as active as ever and there are new prizes every time I turn around. The situation is far from perfect but I don’t think it’s hopeless, either. I still manage to find good books to read, don’t you?

As a writer, my feelings are more ambiguous. The destruction of the publishing industry and the bookstore industry has meant that my book sales are down. I don’t write blockbusters or best-sellers. (Wish I did.) For books like mine there’s little money for marketing, and anyway, marketing is now dominated by self-promotion on social media. If you’re good at this–and some authors are very good promoters–it’s all to the good. For me it’s more a disaster. I dislike self-promotion, and I don’t care to spend my life on Twitter. If a tree falls in the forest, is there any sound? That’s a parable for my books on the open market.

Also, I love good editing, but it’s become a very scarce commodity. Though truthfully, I’ve never found it very plentiful.

On the other hand, digital publishing in general and Amazon in particular have freed me from the gatekeepers. I found this very helpful in publishing Birmingham. I couldn’t get agents, let alone publishers, to read a single chapter. I think it was because my track record included several novels that didn’t sell. (You never really know why you don’t get a response to your emails.) In earlier times, Birmingham would have been put in a drawer and never seen again, until the grandchildren cleaned out the house. But I was able to publish it for minimal expense. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s one of the best things I’ve written. I’m glad that it’s available for people to read.

That is what writers ought to want, more than anything. Money is great, and celebrity is naturally desired, but a writer’s ambition has got to begin with the desire to be published. There’s a great line at the end of “Babette’s Feast,” the film based on the Isak Dinesen story: “Throughout the whole world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.” For Babette, you may recall, that involved cooking one great thanksgiving meal for an audience that had no taste in food at all.

I gain some solace from the reminder that in the history of civilizations, there have been few times when a writer could make a living as a writer. Even as late as the nineteenth century some of the really astonishingly great writers scraped by on poverty wages or depended on their family. (George Eliot, for example.) Book publishers were also booksellers and they were hardly authors’ friends. Yet great literature was written, and great literature was published.

(So was drivel. In Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now Lady Carbury’s writing abilities are described as follows: “She could write after a glib, commonplace, sprightly fashion, and had already acquired the knack of spreading all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good.”)

Don’t get me wrong, I am extremely grateful that I make a living as a writer. I am also grateful that I have been able to invest significant time and money in research, for The Adam Quest most recently, thanks to a good advance and the support of a foundation. Without time and money for interviews and research, some books just can’t be written. If publishing ends up utterly dominated by Amazon and its kin, those who make a living as writers will be those who are good at self-promotion and write books for wide audiences (romance, anyone? parenting?). Others will have to make a living in another way, by teaching, for example.

I would hate to have that choice put to me. But–do you know any poets? I do. They have been operating by these rules for all eternity. And there are some extraordinary poets.


Getting Religion Right

December 21, 2013

Reading Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver I was struck by a passage in which she describes a church service. The book is set in the Appalachians and many of its characters are outspokenly evangelical Christians. I appreciated that Kingsolver portrayed them sympathetically, in a way that she manifestly failed to do in The Poisonwood Bible. But her description of a church service demonstrates rather dramatically that she has spent very little time in evangelical church services. She just gets it wrong, in a tin-eared way. She’s like a fundamentalist trying to describe the talk in a gay bar.

Truthfully, you could read a lot of award-winning fiction and not find any such attempts. Religion–evangelical religion, in particular–just doesn’t appear. It’s clearly a foreign world to the literati.

It’s true of Hollywood too. If church is going to feature in film, it will be Catholic. I assume that’s because the liturgy is pretty easy to duplicate. The nuances of Protestantism–the precise ways of speaking and moving–are unscripted and probably much harder to fake. Most movies don’t try. The few that do make me cringe. (Remember the uplifting church scenes in “The Color Purple?”)

One wonderful exception is Robert Duvall’s “The Apostle.” This is a movie you either love or hate. I’m not pushing it. It’s a strange movie. I love it because (among other reasons) Duvall has clearly been in a lot of holiness church meetings. He precisely, lovingly brings their ways onto the big screen. The apostle (Duvall) even walks like a Pentecostal preacher.

Can you think of other examples? I’d love if you would contribute movies or books that get religion right–and movies and books that get religion wrong. (I don’t mean theology. I mean the portrayal of culture, speech, appearance.)