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Updike’s rules for reviewing books

In John Updike’s Picked-up Pieces, he expounds on his personal rules for reviewing books. I’m quoting them here to remind myself of this hard-won wisdom as well as to share with others:

John Updike
John Updike
  1. Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.
  2. Give enough direct quotation—at least one extended passage—of the book’s prose so the review’s reader can form his own impression, can get his own taste.
  3. Confirm your description of the book with quotation from the book, if only phrase-long, rather than proceeding by fuzzy précis.
  4. Go easy on plot summary, and do not give away the ending.…
  5. If the book is judged deficient, cite a successful example along the same lines, from the author’s oeuvre or elsewhere. Try to understand the failure. Sure it’s his and not yours?

To these concrete five might be added a vaguer sixth, having to do with maintaining a chemical purity in the reaction between product and appraiser. Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like. Do not imagine yourself a caretaker of any tradition, an enforcer of any party standards, a warrior in any ideological battle, a corrections officer of any kind. … Review the book, not the reputation.

I write reviews on this blog. Have I followed Updike’s commandments? Most are familiar to me in a hazy internalized way, even if I’ve not formalized book reviewing rules of my own. I confess guilt to giving away the ending of at least one book (a mystery novel, no less). And I could probably do better in my reviews with quoting the source material.

We live in a time of constant media negotiation. We’re not consumeristic readers any longer. With the Internet we’ve all become critics. Film review sites allows moviegoers to pan movies, even pan them before they’re released. We’re saturated with media and we’re saturated with criticism too. Updike’s rules may serve a newfound purpose: A way for us to judge criticism rather than accept it uncritically.

Of grognards and grimoires

Dungeons & Dragons Basic Edition
Dungeons & Dragons
Basic Edition (1977)

Last time I wrote of my praise for Monsters and Manuals, a long-running blog on role-playing games. How I came across Monsters and Manuals is a story itself.

In 2012 I somehow found myself reading a now-defunct Dungeons & Dragons blog called Grognardia. Now, I haven’t played D&D since Ronald Reagan was president, although I was active in the game throughout the 1980s. Why I came across the blog is long-forgotten to me, but there I was reading about D&D in theory and operation.

Grognardia was a bit of a revelation: People—adults—were still playing D&D, even after the rise of the Internet and smart phones and hellaciously ambitious video games. For years I’d thought back on D&D as an odd teenage avocation of mine, a 1980s trend that faded with Rubik’s Cube and glam metal. For me in 2012, the image of four to eight people around a table with paper and pencil rolling saving throws was a sepia-tone daguerreotype of a more innocent age. Now I know better. D&D (and role-playing in general) has changed and evolved, but it’s still going strong.

Reading Grognardia’s love-letters to Gary Gygax, co-creator of D&D, and its many tributes to old-timey role-playing was a massive syringe injection of nostalgia. Reading closely, I deduced blogger James Maliszewski was about my age and had been introduced to D&D around the same time I was (the late 1970s).

Grognardia gave Maliszewski a platform to lay out his dim, gimlet-eyed views of the state of D&D in the 2000s. In fact, Maliszewski held a pretty dim view of all things D&D after about 1983. (Dragonlance Ruined Everything”, “I Hate Change”) His scheme of D&D’s eras has the game exiting its Golden Age before 1983 and waving goodbye to its Silver Age around 1989. From there, in Grognardia’s estimation, Dungeons & Dragons was downhill.

Reading Grognardia for the first time made me feel like Mel Brooks’ 2,000 year-old man stepping out from a 33 A.D. time capsule and discovering people are still abuzz over that Jesus guy. I lost contact with D&D after 1987 (or so) and Grognardia was my re-introduction to the community. Amazingly, I found the community was talking about the state of D&D prior to 1987.

Maliszewski’s writing is forceful, lucid, and mostly consistent. The early Grognardia posts were manifesto-like, each chiseled from a bedrock belief in old-school D&D, each post a brick set in mortar like a fervent believer building a country church by hand. His brimstone sermons on original intent and calls for a return to the soil earned him a wide fan base at his blog’s height a decade ago.

Alas—and you probably saw this coming—cracks in his reputation began to appear not long after I began reading his blog. (Like most Internet dramas, it’s a mildly complicated story and better explained by him and others.) Grognarida ceased updates soon thereafter, and I so searched for a replacement blog to fill the nostalgic void. That’s how I discovered Monsters and Manuals, which I’ve been reading ever since.

While writing my last post, I spent some time revisiting Grognardia. I’d not read it since my first encounter in 2012. The reread gave me a new appreciation for Maliszewski’s idiosyncratic but thoughtful perspectives. Back in 2012, his posts forced me to evaluate (and reevaluate) my memories of D&D and its impact and history. In my reread, I found myself returning to those evaluations once more.

I’m by no means a D&D insider, so my thoughts on the game may earn a collective yawn from the community, but I’ll record them in future posts in case they’re of interest to anyone.

Of Monsters and Manuals

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons
Player’s Handbook

Blogging suffered a cruel downturn this past decade, all but displaced by social media feeds and their 280-characters-or-less bumper stickers. That’s why I hold today’s bloggers in such high regard, particularly hobbyists and amateurs not drawing a steady income off their hard work.

One blogger I’ve followed through the downturn is noisms over at Monsters and Manuals, a site dedicated to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. I’ve been meaning to write this for a couple of years now but kept putting it off. Now is the time. His twelve-year-old blog celebrated its 1,500th post last August and he’s still cranking out entries. That’s impressive. Kudos.

(I haven’t played D&D since the late 1980s. How I discovered Monsters and Manuals will have to be the subject of another post.)

Much of my admiration for noisms is simply the dedication required in producing posts regularly for over a decade. He’s also done well to stay on topic (so many blogs wander off their chosen path to spout politics or shill product) without feeling straitjacketed to a single subject.

More than these reasons, I discovered in Monsters and Manuals a blogger with a fine-tuned radar for exploring creativity.

I recently picked up a collection of Orwell’s critical essays and was sucked in by his discursive writing style. Orwell seamlessly moves from one topic to another without ever losing sight of the essay’s primary focus. Reading Orwell dissect Dickens’ and Kipling’s politics is following a busy bee through a lush garden of orchids and varietals. There’s a similar dynamic at Monsters and Manuals. noisms draws from philosophy, linguistics, history, British culture, and more, all in the service of exploring what makes role-playing different from—and perhaps better than—other narrative forms.

Photographs of odd entryways as starting points for dungeon adventures. British gardens as inspiration for a fantasy setting. Thoughts on the “ontological flicker” of postmodern critical theory. Actual D&D as Marxist praxis. And a defense of violence, at least, a highly-qualified one. It’s a rich stew.

Even in this hundred-word post on Super Mario Bros. as absurdist art, noisms drops something fairly profound for anyone writing a novel, play, or film script to consider:

In creating a long-lasting, interesting and innovative fantasy setting, then, I think the most important thing may well simply be to come up with, say, a dozen or so ideas, themes or tropes and make sure they appear consistently. What those ideas, themes or tropes are is probably of secondary importance to their repetitive use.

I would say that applies to all manner of story, not merely fantasy settings. All great work has an internal logic. Even if we don’t share its values, the pleasure is experiencing, even living within, that internal logic for a short period of time. (“A book is a pocket or portable dreamweaver.”) Repetition of themes or tropes reinforces the internal logic of a character, or an ethic, or a condition, or a world.

Or this, the profession of beekeeping as a creative constraint:

The point is simply this: once constraints are set in place, creativity starts to flourish. Envisage human creativity like water: without barriers it floods endlessly in a very thin and ever-spreading sheen. With constraint it bursts upwards like a fountain.

The best proof I can offer of Monsters and Manual’s wide peripheral vision is a role-playing game noisms developed called Behind Gently Smiling Jaws. Its premise: The player characters are exploring the dream-memories of an ancient crocodile asleep in a lake:

In its mind are memories of such antiquity that all trace of them have faded elsewhere in the world. Beasts long extinct whose bones are now dust. Spirits whose substance have gradually tattered and frayed down the eons until nothing remains. Civilizations which have risen and fallen and whose ruins are no longer even part of distant legend. Lands which have sunk beneath seas so deep that not even the kraken have seen them. The crocodile witnessed it all and those memories live inside it still.

As a setting for a game world, is it successful? I have no idea. But it’s so strange, so ambitious, so weird, I can only admire the effort.

A more down-to-earth effort is his game There is Therefore a Strange Land:

[The players] might be dilettantes, scholars, satanists, priests, or alchemists. One of them inherits the study of a dead uncle or aunt who was clearly Up To Something. In this study is a portal, or portals, which lead to another World or Worlds…the existence of the other Worlds is also known by others, who will want to buy whatever the [players] can bring back, kill them as rivals, and so on…Picture a group of scholars from Regency-era London going to Athas and bringing back a cannibal halfling to sell to the Prince of Brunswick, all the while trying to avoid being noticed by their rivals, thieves, or high society.

What I love about this premise is how the off-world adventuring is not the only meat of the game. It’s also returning to 19th-century London with bizarre artifacts, finding a fence to move them, dealing with robbers and toughs, and navigating the powdered wigs jockeying for position around the Crown. Although set pre-Victorian, I can’t help but visualize the game as the formalism of H. G. Wells meets the street life of Dickens with The King in Yellow thrown in for measure—I don’t know if I want to play that game, but I would certainly like to read that book.

What I see in Monsters and Manuals is a writer who remains wide open to inspiration from traditional and nontraditional sources. I’ve discussed inspiration before, but I’ve neglected writing how to develop an internal “lightning rod” for inspiration: Maintaining an inquisitive mind that stirs loose subconscious, even primal, thoughts to the surface; not rejecting those ideas out-of-hand because they’re silly or or absurd or embarrassing or transgressive; and most importantly, recording everything for later.

It’s apparent to me noisms has developed a lightning rod for role-playing games—his creative mulch is music, countryside walks, philosophical treatises, news clippings, and more. Any writer would do well to do likewise.

How Marcia Lucas (and smart editing) saved Star Wars

Marcia Lucas
Marcia Lucas

Among fiction writers, the editing process is notoriously dreaded as drudge work, but revision is where the magic happens. It’s where a struggling, plodding story is shaped into the author’s vision.

Recently I discovered “How Star Wars was saved in the edit”, an impressive and succinct video on the high art of film editing. It demonstrates revision so well, it should be required viewing in creative writing courses everywhere.

That’s right: Creative writing. Even though it regards film editing, almost all the techniques described have application in revising fiction.

To clarify, I’m not talking about the Star Wars story line. The formula behind Star Wars has been so imitated and overdone over the past forty years, there are few crumbs or morsels left to claim as one’s own. Narratological analyses of George Lucas’ little sci-fi flick are bountiful, as are the reminders how he borrowed much of his structure from mythology, especially the work laid out in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All of this is well-trod ground and not what concerns me here.

What “Saved in the edit” highlights is a criminally unknown aspect of Star Wars‘ mega-success: The role of Lucas’ then-wife Marcia in sculpting the movie’s rough cut into a blockbuster. If Marcia Lucas had applied her formidable editing talents solely to the movie’s heart-pounding conclusion (the rebel attack on the Death Star), she would have deserved the Oscar for editing she eventually received. Her contributions went far deeper, it turns out.

Ordering scenes

I’m most interested in two of the video’s sections. The first is the explanation of intercutting (or cross-cutting), starting at 6m50s in the video. Marcia Lucas and her fellow editors deftly shuffled the first act’s scenes into a crisper progression, to better establish the story and get the audience involved. Since viewers are able to fill in blanks on their own, the reordering allowed for the removal of entire scenes, keeping the story line brisk and taut.

Intercutting is a technical term referring to a specific film editing technique. For fiction, a more general (and blander) term would be scene ordering.

Revising scene order is the author at her most godlike. She is rearranging the events of her dreamworld like a child building up and tearing down sand castle turrets. Scene reordering requires bold moves and wide peripheral vision. It’s not about word choice and tightening dialogue, it’s asking if each scene is in the right place at the right time—or even if it should be included at all.

(Another visual medium that uses visual cuts effectively is comics, a topic I’ve explored before.)

My latest (and, as of today, unpublished) novel offers a personal example of scene reordering in my editing process. My early chapters were a mess. The main character was traveling quite literally in circles. An early reader (and good friend) pointed out the wasted time and lack of energy in the first act.

Although I like to make a rough outline when I write a novel, I don’t organize down to the scene, or even the chapter. After hearing my friend’s criticism, I went through the draft and produced a rough table of contents, each chapter listed in order with a brief one- or two-sentence summary of its major points. (A writing notebook, even a digital one, is a good tool for this task.)

Thinking of his complaints, and referring to my makeshift table of contents as a guide, I “re-cut” the opening chapters and produced a sleeker first act. Sections of one chapter were lifted and dropped into another chapter. Events were shuffled to tighten the story, sharpen focus, and get the story on its legs. Thousands of words wound up on the cutting room floor, so to speak. It was worth it.

Marcia Lucas and George Lucas
Marcia and George Lucas

Ordering beats

My other interest in “Saved in the edit” regards the first meeting between Luke and Obi-wan (11m50s in the video):

Originally the scene started with Luke and Obi-wan watching the princess’ message, then they play with lightsabers, and then they consider to go help her.

The editors realized how “heartless” this scene played out due to the lag between hearing Leia’s holographic plea and discussing whether or not to help her. The editors reordered the scene, opening in medias res to make it seem the two have been talking about Luke’s father for some time. From there,

  1. Obi-wan shows Luke the lightsaber,
  2. then they watch Leia’s message,
  3. and then they argue about flying off to help her.

It’s a simple change, which is kind of the point: Sometimes vital edits are not complex or massive, but surgical and subtle. What’s more, notice how this edit did not require reshooting the scene. All the elements were in place, the problem was their presentation.

The new ordering creates an emotional cone. The tension starts low with exposition (Luke’s supposedly-dead father, a forgotten religion that tapped into a mysterious cosmic “force”). The stakes rise in pitch as they watch Leia’s plea, and then reach a tension point when the old man in the desert tells Luke he must drop everything and travel across the galaxy to save a princess. If you find a scene you’re working on meandering or feeling aimless, consider how the tension rises within it. Is it building, or is it wandering around?

In playwriting, the basic unit of drama is called a beat, A beat consists of action, conflict, and event. Marcia Lucas improved this single scene by unifying a beat that had been split apart with the lightsaber business:

  1. Action: Obi-wan wants Luke to learn the Force and save the princess;
  2. Conflict: Luke has to stay and help his uncle with the farm;
  3. Event: Luke refuses Obi-wan’s call and goes back to the farm.

Not all edits are rearranging action/conflict/event. If you think of a scene as a collection of little beats, sometimes revision is moving the beats around, much as scenes can be reordered.

One sin I’m guilty of is opening a chapter with the character in the middle of action or a conversation, then dropping to flashback to explain how the character wound up in this situation, then returning to the scene. It’s a false and inauthentic way to start chapters in medias res.

How do I correct this? Sometimes by moving the flashback to the start of the chapter and rewriting it in summary. Often I simply drop the flashback and assume the reader will catch up on their own (as Marcia Lucas did by opening the Obi-wan scene in the middle of the conversation). Sometimes I look at the chapter and realize I can simply lop off the opening and dive into the meat of the matter. Each edit is situational and requires a film editor’s mindset. Simplifying scenes is the core of powerful revision.

These editing skills really should be the stock-and-trade of every novelist and playwright. I’ve never seen a book on writing fiction explain these points as ably as “Saved in the edit”. It’s too bad it takes a YouTube video on the making of Star Wars to lay out the power of editing in such a lucid and compelling way.

Writing a book is like being an all-in-one film crew. The author is director, screenwriter, editor, and casting agent. The author plays the roles of all the actors. The directing and writing and acting is the fun part, or at least it can be. But editing is where a manuscript goes from a draft to a novel.

Further reading

For more on Marcia Lucas, I suggest starting with her biography at The Secret History of Star Wars. It details the shameful way she was written out of the history of the movie after divorcing George Lucas.

“Marcia Lucas: The Heart of Star Wars is another fine YouTube video, focusing more on her career and her role with other 1970s films you’ll recognize, such as Taxi Driver and The Candidate. It also does a nice dive into Marcia Lucas editing American Graffiti into the phenomena it would become.

Marcia Lucas’ influence on Hollywood and film editing is still felt today. The Beat‘s “5 Editors That Broke the Hollywood System” are all women, including Marcia Lucas, even though the article is not specifically about women in film history.

Sarah Dessen & the Internet’s new literary feud

Sarah Dessen
Sarah Dessen
(Larry D. Moore, CC-BY-SA 4.0)

Last week a dust-up swirled on Twitter that grew to a Category 5 hurricane. Young Adult author Sarah Dessen learned her name was mentioned in a small-town university newspaper. The article was a feature piece on the university’s successful campus-wide reading program. One of the program’s student committee members—a junior at the time—told the newspaper

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

(Although I share the student’s last name and my father hails from the same state as the university, I’m not related to the student. Trust me: There are a lot of Nelsons in South Dakota.)

Miffed, Sarah Dessen took her disgruntlement to her Twitter account, where she shared with her over 268,000 followers:

Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good.

What ensued is a now-familiar pattern on the Internet: mob outrage followed by mob backlash followed by apologies followed by meta-analysis of what transpired (which includes this post, I suppose).

In the initial burst of Twitter outrage, the student’s remarks were construed as demeaning YA fiction, demeaning teenage girls, internalized misogyny, promoting abuse toward women, and worse. Her social media accounts were tracked down and she was hounded offline. She was even snubbed by other big-name authors she may have read and possibly admired. One of them attacked her by name in the newspaper’s comment section.

The authors’ attacks were amplified a thousand-fold by their supportive followers on Twitter, which only served to energize the authors’ continued denunciations and self-righteousness. Remember, most of the authors involved write YA, a genre whose subject matter centers around solitary young people being kicked around by those in power.

The backlash probably started on Twitter, but picked up strength when online commentary outlets voiced their incredulous disbelief at the mob mentality. The backdraft circled onto Dessen and her prominent supporters, leading them to delete their old tweets and issue apologies.

(This narrative is better covered by places like Vulture and Slate. For the gory blow-by-blow details, I suggest starting there.)

The story has more or less died down now. The media outlets have updated their reports to include these apologies. The door is closing on the story. Time to move on.

The transitive logic underpinning the entire affair is remarkable. A single college student opined that books by a certain author are not suitable for a college-level reading program. From a single paragraph in a tiny university’s newspaper (current enrollment: 3,622) sprang a hornet’s nest of vicious conclusions. The logic magnified an innocuous criticism of a single YA author to an attack on all YA fiction and its readers. Thus, the logic went, if you’re a reader of YA fiction, it’s a personal attack on you. From there the maelstrom spiraled off into more sinister territory.

It’s confirmed: One’s tastes and reading habits may now interpreted as a systematic attack on the underprivileged and powerless. Before the incident faded off, there were tweets (now deleted) declaring the college student wielded more power than Dessen—after all, the student was on a committee. Imagine if she had dared to write a bad Amazon review.

The muted blandness of the authors’ apologies are no match to the heights of the original vitriol or the depths of the condescension. Some of the apologies read like the calculated boilerplate of a publicist or press agent. Some suggest the problem is not with the authors’ own attitudes or sensitivities, but that the college student wasn’t more powerful. I could spend another thousand words attempting to reconstruct how the hell our culture reached this point. And yet, here we are.

Would these authors have trained the same level of indignation on a professional critic with, say, the New York Times or USA Today? I doubt it. There’s a lot at stake there. A lone reader in a flyover state? (“People have strange and inflated ideas about their taste level.”) Different story.

“For the man led a mob”

What’s at play here is the rise of the superauthor: Bestselling novelists who also maintain major media platforms—interactive web sites, message boards, podcasts, and social media feeds with hundreds of thousands of followers. They’re not merely authors, they’re brands. Many of these YA superauthors have crafted an online persona of a confidant and sympathizing mentor. You don’t merely read their books, you hear from them everyday. You see their vacation photos and hear about their pets. You share their ups and downs in the real world.

Utilizing the tidal hydropower of the platform to take down critics is a new twist. G. K. Chesterton noted Dickens could not be ignored or dismissed “for the man led a mob.” Imagine if Dickens had Twitter.

Literary feuds are the stuff of legend, but they almost always involve authors, editors, and/or professional critics. We’re now seeing a new-style of literary feud in the Internet Age: author versus reader. This won’t be the last time writers hit back at reader criticism with the support of the multitudes behind them.

Judy Blume
Judy Blume

(This is not so far-fetched. In private channels, I’ve witnessed writers outraged over a bad Amazon review asking other writers what they know about the reader. I’ve never seen the anger escape those private channels, though.)

Successful YA writers are often adored by their fans for bringing magic and solace to a gray, heartless world. Classic YA writers like Judy Blume have shined a much-needed beacon for generations of young people who are struggling and desperate. Of course she’s adored. (I read Judy Blume when I was young. I thought she was wonderful too.)

But I simply cannot imagine Judy Blume engaging with the behavior on display last week. She’s a human being, a real person with quirks and faults, but she puts readers first—not only her readers, but readers of all stripes. Would Judy Blume have responded “I love you” to someone who posted worldwide “Fuck that fucking bitch” about a college-aged reader? I don’t see it.

Readers of any taste are comrades-in-arms with authors—this is doubly true in an age of Netflix, video games, and big-budget film. Fiction is increasingly perceived as losing relevance, if not irrelevant entirely. Of course negative reviews sting (I’ve suffered them too) but I hope I’ll never take for granted the grace of a reader devoting their time and energy to read my work. The college student’s remarks demonstrate she’s a passionate reader. It’s too bad none of the authors involved noticed that before launching their crusade.

That’s why I can’t let go of this line from Dessen’s original message:

Authors are real people.

As are readers.

Real-life bridge daughters: Miejsce Odrzanskie, Poland

Bridge Daughter by Jim Nelson

From the Associated Press:

Authorities in the village of Miejsce Odrzanskie, which has around 300 residents, don’t know why no boys have been born there since 2010, but they are beginning to worry about filling farming jobs in the future. …

Community head, Krystyna Zydziak, said 10 girls have been born since 2010.

Skeptics Stack Exchange suggests things are not as mysterious as they appear:

…none of this should be overly surprising. The village is small (current population 272, according to the New York Times), and therefore there have only been a small number of births in the last decade (12, according to the Post and other media, e.g. Today and Fox News).

If the chance of a baby being a boy and the chance of a baby being a girl are equal, then the odds of 12 consecutive births all yielding girls is (1/2)12 = 0.0244%. That’s small, but when you consider that there are many towns and villages in the world, it shouldn’t be surprising that at some point, just from randomness, 12 girls are born in a row in a given town.

Another real-life bridge daughter sighting occurred a few years ago on Reddit.

Consider this a Twilight Zone-esque reminder to pick up a copy Bridge Daughter if you’ve not already and see what the fuss is about.

The Concordance Depiction

While Googling for my own work—yes, I do that sort of thing—I discovered the video “The Concordance Depiction” by Michelle David.

Originally posted in September 2017, “Depiction” is a 1m04s silent video reaction to my short story “A Concordance of One’s Life”.

Her summary:

This video is about the short story by Jim Nelson called “a concordance of one’s life”. I try to depict the brain of the mentally unstable narrator.

“A Concordance of One’s Life” has inspired other art as well. It was the subject of a San Francisco art show and adapted to a musical by Thu Tran.