Women (and Men) Just Don’t Do That (in Books)

whispering

Muttering and Murmuring – photo: Lexe-l, creative commons license

Excerpts from an entertaining new book by Ben Blatt, self-styled “data journalist,” are appearing all over the place. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve summarizes much fascinating research he’s done with a pile of literary classics and 20th century best sellers on one hand and a computer on the other.

A recent Wall Street Journal article (paywall) tackles the question of whether men and women characters in books behave differently. The short answer is “yes.”

Authors are more likely to use words like “grin” when speaking about male characters and more likely to use the tamped-down “smile” when referring to females. Men shout, and chuckle; women scream, shriek, and shiver. Sometimes a male character may scream (under extreme torture, I suppose), but he would never shriek! As IRL, men are more likely to murder. Female characters murmur; male ones mutter.

Blatt uses his database of novels to expose authors’ general writing patterns and writing trends over time. Based strictly on the numbers, here are some of his results, which I’ve culled from stories on Smithsonian.com and NPR:

  • Men and women authors write differently, with men much more likely to use clichés (Compare best-seller James Patterson—160 clichés per 100,000 words—to Jane Austen—45)
  • Well worth further exploration and perhaps years of psychoanalysis is the finding that male authors are more likely than females to write that a woman character “interrupted”
  • Ditto to the finding that male authors describe their female characters as kissing more often than their male characters (“she kissed him”), and for female authors, it’s the male characters who do the kissing (“he kissed her”).

Tomorrow:  Does Writing Advice Hold Up?

A Failure of Imagination about Climate Change

India, dawn, village

photo: Mario Lapid, creative commons license

Will future generations look back on the people of the 21st century and think we were deranged? According to revered Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, that may be the only way future generations can explain humanity’s feeble collective action in the face of climate change, global warming, and the violence of their likely consequences: drought, fire, famine, extreme storms, rising sea levels, extinction.

In a recent Princeton lecture, Ghosh said climate change is not just a problem of politicians, business leaders, and scientists, it is also a crisis of culture and thus of the imagination. His new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, makes the case that literary novelists, with a few exceptions, are failing to recognize and address the coming cataclysm, the most profound challenge of our day, in their work. Thinking about such a future is left to the margins of the literary world—science fiction, fantasy, and the like. Here’s an example.

Fundamental to the carbon economy—in fact, so fundamental we don’t even notice it—is that it is a manifestation of power. Not electrical power, the “might makes right” kind. Ironically, while some U.S. military leaders are more candid than our politicians with regard to the security risks posed by climate change, the military is a huge energy consumer. While the generals and admirals may talk about the risks of climate change, they contribute mightily to it, as, he says, the U.S. military consumes more energy than Bangladesh, a country of some 157 million people. Changes in the international power dynamic may be some of the most disruptive and far-reaching.

By framing climate change questions as economic ones, he says, we mask the reality that they are an exercise of power. Economic frameworks emphasize personal choices and desires, just as discussions of climate justice boil down to “how much are you willing to sacrifice?”As long as people in developing nations want to live as Americans (especially) do, a desire fueled by consumerist media, their leaders can’t and won’t suggest these sacrifices come from them. “Why should we cut back? You’ve had your turn. Now it’s ours.” Yet the changes needed go beyond recalibrating the desires of individual citizens of any nation.

Ghosh says only Pope Francis is willing to talk about breaking this cycle of desire and the impact it has on the poor. This should be a matter of significant interest, if Ghosh is correct that “People living at the margins of society will be the first to experience the future.” It’s one very different from that depicted by our politicians and literary leaders.

His was a dense lecture with many innovative and compelling arguments. Only a reading of the book can give you an adequate understanding of his vital points!

Ian Rankin’s 30th Year of Rebus

Ian Rankin

photo: wikimedia

In Daneet Steffens’s recent interview for LitHub with Scotland’s crime fiction star Ian Rankin, he says, “All crime fiction boils down to ‘Why do we keep doing these terrible things?” Go back to Shakespeare, to Euripides, and the combination of natural proclivity and circumstances has produced people who destroy not just their enemies, but also the people they love.

Rankin says his early books were more typical whodunits, “but as I got more confident about the form and about what the crime novel could do, I thought, ‘Well there’s nothing it can’t do.’” Writers who want to talk about politics can do that, like author David Ignatius. Those who want to talk about race relations can emulate Bill Beverly. The environment, Paolo Bacigalupi. And, those who want to explore domestic tensions can stake out territory alongside Gillian Flynn or Megan Abbott. In that way, choosing to write about crime is not a limiting factor for authors, but one that gives their story about politics, race relations, the environment, domestic life—whatever—an extra urgency.

You may have read Rankin’s short stories, or be familiar with his best-known work, the award-winning Detective Rebus series (21 books!) set in Edinburgh, or seen one of the several television series made from them. The most recent series title, out earlier this month, is Rather Be the Devil, in which the retired detective takes on a cold murder case, and finds it tied up with a complex money laundering scheme and an aging rock star.

Rebus also has aged and represents some values and a black-and-white view of the world that Rankin says he doesn’t share. It’s Rebus’s partners—the books secondary characters—whose job involves “trying to change his mind on things.” After 30 years of writing the same character and his consistent opponent, Big Ger Cafferty, an old-fashioned gangster up against an old-fashioned detective, the world has changed around them, but the series has “no signs of wearing out,” says a CrimeFictionLover.com review.

You can hear Rankin for yourself at a three-day Rebus festival in Edinburgh, June 30 to July 2. Or in New York at The Center for Fiction, 17 E 47th St., which will host Rankin for a Crime Fiction Master Class on Tuesday February 7th at 7 pm. He’ll be interviewed about his career and the Rebus series by author Jonathan Santlofer. Free and open to the public.

Glimmer Train Short Stories

tapas, small plates

photo: Ken Hawkins, creative commons license

Catching up with two back issues of Glimmer Train—one of the premiere U.S. venues for short story writers—with thoughts about writers to watch, based on these pages. The winter 2015 issue (#92, 13 stories) and fall 2016 issue (#97, 14 stories) are culled from a vast sea of literary output—some 32,000 stories submitted to the GT editors each year.

Most GT writers appear (from their bios) both youngish and frightfully accomplished. Their work and how the editors’ tastes have reacted over the years suggest an evolution in concepts of narrative and characterization, plot and story. Some stories in these recent issue push the envelope of narrative, depending less on scene and dialog. Others deliver their message in short bursts, perhaps thematically linked but otherwise superficially disconnected from what comes before or after. Some require a bit of figuring out. I like the challenge!

Among the stories I enjoyed most from Issue 92 were:

  • “Language Lessons” by Barbara Ganley, each section of which is a mini-story in itself. Ganley is the founder of Community Expressions, LLC, whose purpose is “to help small communities bring storytelling to civic engagements and change efforts”—an enterprise at least as interesting as her fiction.
  • The multiple point-of-view story “Keller’s Ranch,” by award-winning essayist Ming Holden, which includes the memorable line, “I knew that hope can be as sharp as our teeth.” Not an abstract danger, an incarnate one.

Several stories in Issue 97 deal with death, an ambitious topic for a young author and yet dealt with effectively by A. Campbell (“On Fleck/ Fleck On”), a debut author, Matthew Iribarne (“We Are Heaven”), and Lauren Green (“When We Hear Yellow”): “. . . if the heart were a lighthouse, I wouldn’t be able to count on mine. Mine would send out distress signals only after the shipwreck had taken place.”

I also enjoyed:

  • “Pepper,” dog-park action by Weike Wang, author of the novel Chemistry, forthcoming in May, and
  • “Jumping Doctor He Come in Future” by Karen Malley, a story whose good humor starts with the title. Fires and storms and recalcitrant cats.

Tap a source of fine short stories—find them in the magazine section of your big box book store and on many websites—for “small plates” that satisfy.

Lee Child is a Pantser

Superman

graphic: Kooroshication, creative commons license

Someday I hope I inspire a reader as enthusiastic and indulgent as Lee Child has in John Lanchester. Lanchester’s fanboy article in the 14 November New Yorker delves into both the form and process used by Child to create his literary child, Jack Reacher. I’ve read only the first one in this long-running series, The Killing Floor, and didn’t see what the fuss was all about.

Lanchester—a contributing editor at The London Review of Books—was untroubled by my big gripe: I just couldn’t believe in the character. First of all, Childs’s hero, he says, “isn’t just tough; he’s supertough. He is exceptionally good with all manner of weapons. His expertise as a sniper is regularly called upon . . . He routinely gets into fights with multiple opponents” and in a climactic combat, Reacher will be pitted “sometimes against vastly superior numbers, sometimes against an opponent of superhuman size or strength of inability to feel pain, sometimes against all of the above.”

But Lanchester has devised a clever test for whether a novel exceeds his ability to suspend disbelief. He calls it the Superman test: “Is what I’m being asked to believe less likely than the character’s being able to fly?” Everyone has a set-point for their own personal Superman test, and mine must be lower than Lanchester’s.

He likes Reacher, even when he skates perilously close to Superman territory. He says it’s because Child balances Reacher’s extraordinary skills with realism. The fighting seems “realistic within its implausibility”; Reacher fights for the good guys, but he’s a realist, he’ll fight dirty.

Reacher’s given up everything and travels around the country, righting wrongs, carrying no more than a folding toothbrush. To every cube warrior who longs to get out from under, this sounds pretty good. Even if such a life isn’t really possible, “The alienated possessionless freedom of Reacher has a core of emotional truth,” Lanchester says.

Another seductive aspect of the books for Lanchester is Reacher’s thought process as he tries to decipher what’s going on, who the bad guys are. Turns out, Child is a pantser! He doesn’t write the books with the whole plot worked out in advance; he writes by the seat of his pants. He captures Reacher’s figuring-out activity so well, because he’s figuring it out at the exact same time.

This way of working was revealed when author Andy Martin—another Jack Reacher devotee—literally sat with Child as he worked on his recent book Make Me. Martin turned his observations into Reacher Said Nothing (2015), a “genuinely enlightening” literary biography that’s one of a kind.

Reacher’s work-it-out-as-you-go method is the way I write, too. Although some writers storyboard each scene and conversation ahead of time, that would take all the fun out of writing—the thrill of discovery—for me. This faint kinship is why I’ll give old Jack another go. I think I’ll read Persuader. Lanchester says it’s Reacher at his best.

“In a Surprise Move, God . . .”

Inverted Pyramid, Louvre

photo: Derek Key, creative commons license

Is the inverted pyramid dead? That trusty journalistic technique that crams all the basic information about an event—the who, what, when, where, why and how—into the fewest possible words at the top of the story, then proceeds to fill in decreasingly important details?

Award-winning hard-boiled crime novelist Bruce DeSilva thinks so, and said as much during a panel at the recent Deadly Ink conference in New Jersey. DeSilva was a prize-winning journalist before becoming a novelist seven years ago and worked on stories winning nearly every journalism prize, including the Pulitzer.

DeSilva apparently was warming up for a turn on the Writer’s Forensics Blog, where he goes into the flaws in the pyramid in more detail, repeating this “what the Bible would have been like if a journalist wrote it” example:

In a series of surprise moves intended to bring all of creation into existence out of what leading scientists call the ‘singularity,’ before energy, matter or even time existed, God yesterday said, ‘Let there be light,’ according to reliable sources close to the project.

His point was that the transition from the artificiality of journalese to writing fiction is difficult. The two require a completely different voice. In fiction, the depiction of events is more realistic in that they generally unfold chronologically, with the wwwwwh answers coming near the very end, not in the first sentence or two.

Needless to say, other former journalists on DeSilva’s panel—including author Dick Belsky—pushed back. Belsky thinks the techniques of journalism, such as digging in and getting the story and grabbing the reader’s interest up front, do translate well. And, the profession provides a believable background for his character, investigative reporter Gil Malloy.

Fellow panelist E.F. Watkins said the hardest thing about her transition from busy newsroom to chair in a quiet office, alone, was learning not “to give things away too fast.” But, she knows how to meet a deadline and how to get her facts right.

According to DeSilva, the main lesson he learned from his journalistic career is that “writing is a job.”  A job you go to daily, in the mood or not, in the company of the muse or not. “You put your butt in your desk chair every day and write.”

Praise for a Writing Group

Room at the Table, Writing, Writers

The “Room at the Table” Table

Each year, our local Chamber of Commerce newspaper publishes a summer fiction issue, and this week nine members of my writing group had our work published—every one of us who submitted, as far as I know!

For some time I’ve felt the many rewards of having this close-knit writing group, which we call Room at the Table, in acknowledgement of our welcoming spirit. The irony is, there isn’t any more room at my dining table, where we meet, because we’ve gradually grown to 15 loyal members. The group is about equally divided between men and women, all of us “over 35,” and the genres we write in are diverse.

Each month we spend two hours critiquing about eight submissions by fellow group members, sticking more or less to our rule of thumb of 1500 words apiece. Some members say they come for the snacks, but they all come with carefully reviewed submissions, ready to discuss. We laugh a lot.

Group members provide enthusiasm, help people get unstuck, ask the occasional big question (Where Is This Going?) and generously share our ideas, grammatical obsessions, candid feedback, and praise.

Occasionally, we do a group exercise, and one such, which involved imagining the characters of a ghost story, created such enthusiasm among three of us that we all wrote the story and were all published. This past spring we each wrote a short story on the theme of “being stuck,” and are thinking of turning the result into a story collection.

I’ve heard woeful tales of critique groups that like to eviscerate the author. That isn’t us. Our members recognize that serious writing is a lonely task and publishing is hard. We go out of our way to be supportive even when delivering the message: “needs work.” We’re supportive outside our meetings too. One of our number recently had a short play read by professional actors, and four of us trekked into Manhattan to see it; another, a Brit, appears in local pantos, and we go see him.

In March and October, we do readings of our fiction at the local library. We’ve done this five times now, and attendance is growing! It’s great to hear applause and laughter (in the right spots). And, of course, we serve snacks.

Glimmer Train – Spring/Summer 2016

Glimmer Train, literary magazines

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

Literary magazines that publish short stories are an easy way to get a taste of a new writer’s work without committing to an entire novel. As a person who still actually pays for books–authors need to eat, too!–I know reading is a commitment of both time and money.

I’ve subscribed to Glimmer Train since (I think) its first issue and, four times a year, it brings me first-rate fiction, mostly by authors previously unknown to me. Quite a few of the stories in the current issue were by authors from other cultures, emigres, exploring dislocation, distance, fitting in, or not. Nine of the 16 stories are written in the first person. This does not mean they are memoir. Their authors used the first-person device to get to the heart of the story, closer and quicker, not having a novel’s 85,000 additional words to do so.

Here are just three stories I particularly enjoyed in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue:

  • Eric Thompson’s “The King of India” is a man simultaneously obsessed with Elvis and the fate of his new son. (Do South Asians have a particular affinity for Elvis, I wonder, recalling the recurrent image in Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things? Or is it that “The King” is universal?) Poignant and funny.
  • “Waterside” by Marni Berger, captivated me with its opening epigram from Anne of Green Gables. It’s about an adolescent friendship between a boy and girl, how the world is seen through the friend’s eyes, and the shell of not-caring adolescents affect. It’s about what matters. The narrator, who buries herself in books, says: “Stories are shelters to hide inside, and you can hide inside someone else’s story to escape your own.” Which of us hasn’t been there?
  • The story “The Tune” by Siamak Vossoughi humorously probes issues of connection through the tale of an American who calls her Iranian friend in San Francisco and hands the phone to the Iranian cab driver she’s just met in Chicago. Surely, they will have things to talk about, she believes. Life, for instance. What the two strangers don’t say to each other is as revealing as what they do. Vossoughi’s book Better Than War won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction.

And, I learned a new word: scordatura. It means tuning a stringed instrument (a lute, a violin) a little differently, in order to produce a particular effect. Christa Romanosky used it in her story “Every Shape That the Moon Makes” in this nice sentence: “Moods come and go as quickly as rock falls, as a scordatura, moods your ring cannot discern.”

Explore the riches Glimmer Train and other literary publications offer. Find them in your big box book store’s magazine section, library, or online. Feel free to tell me and our readers what you discover!

“Hush Now, Don’t Explain”–Part 2

Billie HolidayFiction editor Beth Hill has written excellent advice to authors in her Editor’s Blog essay, “Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain, Don’t Explain.” I covered four of her points here on Friday.

Here are two more and an example from Cormac McCarthy:

  • It isn’t necessary to stop the story’s action to define what something is or how it works, Hill says. These are digressions and most readers don’t like them. Many authors enjoy doing the research for a book (I do!). They aren’t just making stuff up, they’ve grounded their work in reality. They want to share. And probably shouldn’t. That said, readers of some types of sci-fi and techno-thrillers expect to be given an understanding of the science and mechanics behind the story. Authors who write in those genres get a little slack on the “how stuff works” front. I read a terrific military novel lately (The Empty Quarter), where Amazon reviewers criticized it for not explaining every acronym and term. I wasn’t bothered, thinking I’d figured most of it out, but reader frustration was great. So it may be that a careful balance is needed.
  • Hill says if a character speaks several languages, she doesn’t need to repeat her words or thoughts in more than one of them. Writers should pick phrases or opportunities to use the second language when the meaning will be obvious by word form or context. Cormac McCarthy uses a lot of Spanish in The Crossing, and even though a not-to-be-specified number of decades have elapsed since I had high school Spanish–which certainly never touched the topics McCarthy writes about–I had no trouble following. This exchange between several Mexican men and two young Americans takes place after an old man has drawn them a map of where they want to go and walked away (McCarthy does not use quotation marks):

When he was gone, the men on the bench began to laugh. One of them rose to better see the map.

Es un fantasma, he said.

Fantasma?

Sí, sí, Claro.

Cómo?

Cómo? Porque el viejo está loco es cómo.

Loco?

Completamente.

In this and in many different and subtle ways, McCarthy confirms the reader’s understanding of what is said without a mechanical translation of every phrase (or, by extension, technical term). By the time I finished this book, I was following so well, I thought I could actually speak Spanish!

Again, I encourage you to take a good look at Hill’s full essay. Avoiding overexplaining will help keep you in step with your readers, which is what every writer wants!

The Goldmine in Your Back Yard

Alabama, water tower

photo: sunsurfr, creative commons license

The Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Glimmer Train includes an interview with Tom Franklin, conducted by Kevin Rabalais. Franklin is the award-winning author of short stories and the novels Hell at the Breech, about Alabama’s 1890s Mitcham war, Smonk, and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2010.

One of the issues they talked about was how Franklin’s upbringing in Alabama prepared him to be a writer. His response reminded me of what another Southern writer, Flannery O’Conner, famously maintained: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” And to write about, too.

Franklin developed an affinity for the physical and cultural environment of the Deep South practically by osmosis. He didn’t recognize the richness of this heritage, his attachment to it, and how it might shape his work until he moved away. Home was a place to return to in his writing because “I know what everything is called, the trees, the animals. I know it in and out, instinctively, because I’ve hunted and fished that land.”

He told the interviewer that his fellow graduate students would react to his Alabama stories by saying, “You really had a great childhood for a writer” or “I envy your material.” It was around that time, Franklin said, “I realized that, yes, I’d had a writer’s education my whole life.”

About Franklin’s most recent book, Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, Ron Charles in The Washington Post says, “Franklin is a master of subtle withholding, revealing lines of culpability and sympathy in this small town one crooked letter at a time.” It’s the tale of an awful crime in a small Mississippi town, but what makes the particular setting in which his characters operate so believable are the down-to-earth, day-to-day details Franklin searches out and knows in his bones. His enviable material.

Especially worth noting is that the title story in his collection, Poachers, was included in The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century, and The Best American Noir of the Century. Today, he lives in that hotbed of Deep South fiction-writing, Oxford, Mississippi.