Turkish Writers and Literary Repression

I had promised in a previous post to report on Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk’s legal status. Pamuk, you will recall, is Turkey’s most well-known writer and novelist. His sin was, in a passing reference to a journalist, to mention the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915. He was to be tried for “denigrating Turkishness,” and was declared a traitor. Because of Pamuk’s international stature, however, and due to not a small dose of support within Turkey, the charges were subsequently dropped.
Now, another Turkish writer is under attack. Elif Shafak, a journalist and novelist, happened to mention in her sixth novel, “The Bastard of Istanbul,” the dreaded massacre of Armenians, declaring it genocide. Now she is to be tried for a similar offense.
Why is the Turkish government so thin-skinned? Maureen Freely, Pamuk’s English translator, thinks the cause is not a clash of East and West; rather it’s a battle over democracy. It’s true that nations and governments that impose either religious or secular precepts inevitably turn to repressive tactics in their attempts to reinvent human nature. But I think there’s a more pragmatic issue at the basis of Turkey’s relationship with its writers. The country was cobbled together from the remains of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey becoming a synthesis of east and west, of secularism and Islam, of many ethnic cultures hunkered into Turkey’s borders. Here, think of China. Germany. Yugoslavia. Britain. South Africa. Even the United States. As with all nations aggregating diverse cultures, Turkey suffered repression in some form in order to exist.
And in keeping with the ethos of writers from other cultures, Turkish writers have braved repressive tactics, expulsion, imprisonment, and death to communicate their views of Turkish society – and its people – to its people. What we’re witnessing here is a parallel to Hugo, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pasternak, Yevtushenko, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Roth, Gordimer, Coetzee, and many others who have felt some measure of the whip’s lash because of the suffering but durable human soul they have portrayed.
As readers and writers, we should step away from the page occasionally and do our bit to protect the one enduring element of any society: its literature, and support those who commit it to paper.


Furthering the Craft

Okay, this is a threadbare subject, even here. More and more, authors are resigning themselves to publishing and marketing their own product. The industry, in fact, abets this. Self-publishing abounds, and even the relatively innocuous publishing on demand industry offers varieties of deals to entice frustrated writers into a minimal monetary commitment to see their work published. All in the name of doing what the publishing industry exists to do for the writer: sell books.
As we know, the old publishing houses did much more. They developed writers; assigned editors to work with them, to nurse fledgling authors through the protracted developmental process. They marketed and promoted the books, the writers happy to trail along in the industry’s wake by showing up at book signings, readings, and interviews. Then the publishing houses were bought out by conglomerates. Their bottom line: How many books can this author sell for us?
Suddenly agents were scrambling, and editors as well. Agents took on the editors’ previous roles in book gestation, editors became part of the marketing machine (such as it is). Slowly responsibility has been pushed down the food chain to the point at which, even with a solid publishing contract, a writer must become his/her own agent, graphics designer, publicist, and book vendor. The latest aspect of this trend is decidedly the most difficult: marketing and selling your own books. Web sites offering books and seminars on marketing your book are floating to the surface almost daily.
This brings us back to self publishing and PODs. What’s wrong with that? you will certainly ask. It’s merely a pragmatic response to market conditions for writers, you argue.
Pragmatic it is. And as pointed out before here, there’s a lot right with the do-it-yourself approach. New genres appear. One writer friend has single-handedly spawned a new version of chick lit, something she calls hen lit, for the fastest growing segment of the book buying public, women over fifty. Another is toying with a new genre conflating military stories with religious and self-discovery pursuits, a logical hybrid the publishing industry should be embarrassed not to have devised themselves. Certainly the industry needs this type of creativity, and such innovation always seems to come from the bottom up.
Without recycling old tirades, the publishing industry has abrogated one primary responsibility to both readers and writers. Publishing came into being, not only to propagate a writer’s literary sensibilities, but to allow the writer to focus on craft, on developing a voice, on the experimentation that furthers literature and the society from which it emerges. Rarely now, even in MFA programs, does a writer learn the subtleties that engender good writing, develop the refined thinking and sensibility that carries readers to never-scaled heights of understanding of the human condition.
Writers may have to become a new publishing version of the Renaissance Man these days in order to complete themselves as writers, but they – we – are steadily losing ground with regards to literature’s true place in society. As writers – and readers – we should support any effort we might turn up allowing the writer a return to craft, development, experimentation.
Writers can resolve to remain true to their standards of excellence, their literary vision. Readers can find ways to make the publishing industry aware of vibrant literary talent out there among all the chaff. Sometimes the most sorely needed solutions to problems are the most obvious.

With Six Guns Blazing

You’re browsing a bookstore looking for an exciting new read. You’re looking for something, but you’re not sure what. Then there you are in the car, a bag beside you, and you can’t wait to get home to start reading. But what goes on between browsing and purchasing?
Book marketers know certain covers appeal. I’m drawn to something stark in a cover, teasing me with the possibility that this one will be a serious, purposeful, powerful read. Not humorless, you understand, just something in those hundred thousand words to shake my understanding of the world, to test my beliefs. Something exotic. Acrid. Explosive, in every sense of the word.
Once your hands begin to perspire with anticipation as you take in the cover, flip it over, read the blurb — i.e. the teaser — a synopsis of sorts to set the conflict, hint at its resolution. This is where I begin putting things together — how the cover art dovetails with the blurb and leads into the story. Our next step toward the checkout line is usually universal: flip to the opening, read the first line, the first paragraph; see if its magnetism pulls us in.
But how does the writer magnetize the page? One writer friend who writes westerns will read something of mine, crack a wry smile and say, “It works okay, I guess. But I always begin with six guns blazing and amp it up from there.”
He’s being sardonic, but it’s a reminder to get off on the right foot. Today’s novel — even the well-crafted creative non-fiction piece — has adopted cinema’s dramatic techniques. Despite our reading habits, we’ve become highly visual — the sentence must become the moviemaker’s camera, following the action in a logical, realistic way, panning here, close-up there. All very sense-oriented. The writer’s term for successful engagement is “in medias res,” i.e., start the story deep into events leading up to it. This gives the reader a sense of urgency, gets the adrenalin pumping as he/she tries to figure out what HAS happened as well as what WILL happen. I remember someone telling me that Harry Crews (sorry, Harry, if this isn’t an exact quote) tells his students to find a way to summarize the story in the first sentence.
Accomplishing all this in the story’s first few lines is a challenge, I know, but picture it the same way you watch TV, remote in hand. The sitcom or dramatic hour must do something — expected or otherwise — to grab the viewer’s attention in the first two minutes, or you’ve lost them. Same with the novel. Hook ‘em, then, you can clean ‘em and fry ‘em. The byword here is: Make the first sentence irresistible. Follow with another irresistible sentence.
Before putting pen to paper (sorry —fingers to keyboard) the writer must make clear decisions regarding point of view, on where the story begins, on how to orchestrate the dramatic tension, and all this must be evident in the first few sentences. That’s what makes the first chapter — the first page — the first paragraph — even the first sentence — worth their weight in literary gold.
Whether you read to write or read to escape or learn, take the time to observe how your favorite author does these things. Then you can bore into the book, let the story carry you away.