Archive for January, 2015

Helpful Critique

As I prepare to turn my hand again to writing short stories, I am reminded of the first creative writing course I took. At the time I was in my third year of college. The course was specifically directed at writing the short story. For my first assignment, I dug into my memory, drawing from my experience (limited though it was as a twenty-year old college student) and faithfully followed the dictum: Write about what you know. I have since discarded that rule (I think wisely) in favor of the imagination.

From the well of memory I extracted my experience as a three-year old child of sitting before the small white casket of my baby brother who had died a few days after birth. This was the nexus of my story. The intent was to portray that the little girl had no sorrow, no real tears, only anger at the adult world that did not want to open the coffin so that she could see the baby she had been promised. Of course, it wasn’t a good story. Not much went on except in the head of the little girl. No dramatic tension was created and dialogue probably was scarce. So what help did my professor offer me after he read my story and handled it like “a dry turd,” as Holden Caulfield described his teacher doing in The Catcher in the Rye?

The professor suggested that I read a James Joyce story, supposedly to learn how Joyce handled something similar. I can’t recall the name of the story. “Araby” sticks in my mind, but I’m not sure. In any case, I didn’t read the story. I was rather nonplussed, mainly because the professor did not diagnose my problem and gave me no indication how the Joyce story was supposed to doctor my problems.

Why is suggesting that an aspiring writer read a particular author’s work, unhelpful critique? Because the critic has not tried to deal with the story on its own terms. Does he have any idea in the first place what the writer is trying to do in the story? If he is unsure, has he asked the writer about his intent? A writer wants to write his own story, not someone else’s or the story that the reader would like to write himself. Once a critic grasps what the writer wants to do, he can offer advice on ways to better produce those effects. Then he’s not proposing another story  be written, but helping the writer to write the story that he intended to write, but which may have missed the mark.

I am not gainsaying the fact that wide reading helps the would-be writer. When it comes to improving a specific piece of writing, remedy for its deficiencies comes from understanding authorial intent. If the author does not know what the hell he was trying to do, then it’s time to throw that attempt at writing into the circular file and begin from scratch. The thinking that goes on in the head probably is more important and more time-consuming than actually writing the story.

Today I would diagnose my problem as not thinking out my story well enough in my head before I started to write.





Cyberspace Book Club


Living twenty-five miles from the nearest town, I don’t attend many meetings and social gatherings of any kind. I communicate with many book-loving friends across the country through email and the telephone to discuss our latest good reads. This got me to thinking about how a viable cyberspace book club could be constituted and how I could incorporate my ideas on the way to choose books and facilitate productive discussion.

For such a long-distance book club, I first considered using a real-time chat room, Skype, or a conference call. I discarded these ideas because some potential members might be technologically challenged and might need training on use of these tools or have to acquire them. Email is now universally used, so I began to conceive ways in which it could be the viable mode of discussion and could even yield livelier exchanges than in live meetings.

A recognized facilitator is necessary to plan and to keep discussion on track. I appoint myself. An annual list of ten books would be selected for the reading year, which would run from September to June. The reading list will be given to members in June so that they can read the books in the order and at the rate they wish. An advance list also enables members to get a jumpstart on the reading of the books during July and August while also affording plenty of time to re-read portions of a book before a book is scheduled to be discussed.

Each member establishes a mailing list in their email program for the book club. The discussion opens on the first day of the month that a particular book is scheduled to be discussed. Members begin to pose questions or write comments about the book and continue to discuss that book throughout that month. Members set their email messages to not include the message to which they are responding. This is important to prevent the generation of long messages with every attached message ever made about that comment included in the latest message. Comments will be controlled through the subject line. When responding to a comment, the responder uses the same subject line as the one to which he is responding. When starting a new line of discussion, the member writes that topic in the subject line. Discussion of the book continues throughout the month–day or night.  I believe written discussion will generate thorough-going and thoughtful commentary, because it allows time for readers to formulate ideas and responses and to find pertinent references in the book. I’d have members set up subfolders by book title in their email under the main folder Book Club in which they can easily find and read comments by subject line.

How will the books be chosen? Suggestions can be solicited from all members, but the facilitator/directress/Autocrat of the Cyber Book Club–ME– -makes the final selection from the suggestions. The criteria for proposed books: 1) published at least twenty years ago. I want books that have demonstrated some staying power. There are already plenty of clubs that focus on currently much talked-about books. 2) the author has received some recognition in the form of a National Book Award, Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Booker Award, or another prestigious award, and not necessarily the book for which they won the award. 3) inclusion of authors not writing in English where good translations exist and whose books have international recognition. 4) inclusion of some “classics”  from prior centuries. 5) inclusion of some significant non-fiction–biography, autobiography, memoir, etc.  As an example, here’s one possible calendar: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor, The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Book of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard.

Lastly, I’d like a span of age groups and a mix of men and women in the book club; but I’m stumped on how to achieve this diversity. There are many factors at work that tend to make book clubs rather homogenous. It’s not my purpose here to explore the reasons for this, only to state my preferences.  Differences in age and in gender provide a range of perspectives and insights that will enhance the liveliness of the Cyberspace Book Club.


Those who take themselves too seriously will not like satire. Those who cannot laugh at themselves will not understand satire. Those who believe they have a hotline to truth cannot appreciate life’s ambiguities and absurdities as well as individual foibles, inconsistencies and peculiarities that make up human personality. The human condition is a carnival. This is the way cartoonists, who above all are satirists, view men and events.  Laughter is healthy for body and soul.

Although they claimed to kill in the name of the prophet Mohammed, the fundamentalists who murdered the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris on January 7, did not comprehend the essence of the religious spirit inherent in all cultures. On top of their lack of understanding of the religion they claimed to profess and the religious impulse in general, they lacked a sense of humor. Satire uses comedic techniques such as irony, parody, caricature, and exaggeration. Hypocrisy is one of satire’s favorite targets. Consequently, satirists lampoon politicians, celebrities, clerics and anyone else who needs his mask uncovered. When others are too afraid to expose deceit or corruption, satirists state the emperor wears no clothes.

Writers such as Chris Hedges (American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, 2007) and Susan Jacoby (The Age of American Unreason, 2008) have pointed out the danger of fundamentalist thinking (or rather I should say non-thinking) to democracy. Authoritarianism, intolerance, xenophobia, and self-righteousness characterize fundamentalism. These characteristics undermine democracy. With the rise in fundamentalism a virulent nationalism can flourish in which no value is seen in other societies or ethnic groups. From that can flow racism and ethnic cleansing. In short, fundamentalism is unhealthy in the way the inability to laugh at oneself is unhealthy; or indeed, the inability to self-examine, to examine one’s premises, to scrutinize one’s society so that real change is facilitated. Satire does this. Satire forces us to examine our cherished beliefs and perceptions. Satire must jar sensibilities and shake perceptions. Those who cannot abide having their cage rattled stick to material that supports their prejudices and preconceptions.

In the past few years fundamentalism has been a subject of my fictional writing. In my novel Delayed Reaction I satirize the Christian brand of fundamentalism. When I wrote it, I feared it would offend Church-going friends. In poking fun at fundamentalism I aimed to illustrate that the examined life is worth living. Is it any wonder that the terrorist deals death and then chooses death for himself?  The life-giving choices are to love and to forgive.  These choices set us free and grant us peace.