A Few More Thoughts on Reading and Writing

I thought before I return to book reviews I would try to sum up the past couple of posts, albeit in a rather circuitous fashion, by asking this question:

Why do you read?

I ask this because books – or their electronic counterparts – have a lot of competition in this the early twenty-first century. You can watch TV. Movies. You can go to poetry slams and hear verse recited and, often, acted out. You can listen to audio books on those long commutes. And on an on.


So what do you require in order to read? First you have to carve out some time, maybe an hour during late afternoon, or in bed, just before going to sleep. Then you have to have a reading preference: Mystery? Suspense? A book of essays? Celebrity biography? Literary fiction? Romance novels? Young adult books? Self help? Spiritual?

And finally there’s what you hope to gain from reading a given book. In other words, with last page turned, are you glad you read it? Are you disappointed? Are your preconceived notions of the subject matter challenged? Are you entertained?

Maybe these questions are overwhelming, so let me use my own reading habits as an example.

I read fiction, love it, in fact. I love the author’s wordplay, the well-turned phrases. I love to experience far away places and people, whether these places and people are fictional or real.

I like to challenge my cultural predispositions, and so I’ll occasionally turn to history, to biographies, even at times to modern pop culture.

But why do that? It might seem I’m making work of reading books, but that’s not the way I see my own reading impulses. it’s hard to have a perspective on the cultural framework you live within – sort of like not being able to see the forest for the trees. If, as Robert Frost might have put it, I’m to be comfortable in my harness, shouldn’t I have an unvarnished perspective on my culture? Shouldn’t I learn what it takes to settle comfortably into my proper place in family, community, society, without misconceptions and delusions?

Books can do that. And you don’t have to read the most high minded literary works in order to keep you turning pages, to have you reach eagerly for another book when the one in your hand is done. Books inform, they inspire, they entertain. If you want these things in your live, indeed, NEED them, then read!


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A Broader Take on Story

Today’s world is ever-changing, adapting, mutating. If you see that glass half full, fine. If you see it half empty, then let’s suppose that a given new thing under your microscope hasn’t been fully fleshed out…yet. But to stay on point, what’s changed in the structure of stories, and why?

I won’t cover well-trod theoretical ground, except in passing. There’s Aristotle’s inverted check mark (or whatever else you’ve learned to call it), reproduced in one of its forms here:

Aristotles-InclineIf you fancy yourself a writer and haven’t come across this, well, let’s be nice and just say you should study this diagram. But today’s writers are trifling with this structure, if not abandoning it altogether. Why? Since the era of Henry James, James Joyce, and the like, there’s been an increasing emphasis on characterization. Now I’m all for convoluted stories, upsetting structure and time, and emphasizing character, but a complete surrender to casual characterization can only work under certain conditions.

Full disclosure: when conceiving my first novel, I had only a vague idea of where the story should go. I spent most of my time developing my characters (even walked around my condo, acting them out). As it turned out, my characters determined the direction of the novel, and that direction was the story. So no matter how you devise a piece of fiction, there should always be some vestige of story.

All right, then, what are the rules to structuring fiction in our postmodern world? The thing to consider here is that in our world of flux, your responsibility, dear writer, can be summed up in perhaps two things:

  • What your characters confront should challenge your readers’ deeply held convictions. In a world of change, life, even in fiction, should have meaning. Being willing to leave the past is only half the solution, though; meaning much be transformed as well.
  • As a corollary to the above, the writer must change the way his/her readers see the world, it’s failings, its urge to move toward the future’s promise.

A caution: Reading is a private act. Have you ever read a book in your teen years, then read it again in your middle years and discovered new perspectives, new slants on old perspectives? Do you wonder why Emma Bovary maintains such a hold on modern readers? Do you wonder why the pre-revolution world of Tolstoy’s writing seems so relevant today? That Mark Twain’s tweaking of prigs’ noses works as well today as then? It’s the writer’s inspiration, if one is a true talent, to be able to reach beyond good and bad, beyond belief and certainty, into the always changing nature of the human essence. If reading were anything other than a private act, reaching such depths, allowing the alternative worlds of fiction to displace one’s certainties would be all but impossible.

If you seek simply to write dogma, whether it be social, religious, political, or historical, you’re not writing fiction. If you have an agenda of cut-and-dried good and bad, fiction isn’t what you’re doing.

But in all that the muses give you in the way of inspiration and talent, remember: whatever you write will be incomplete without the movement of life – and that’s what story is all about.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Every Picture a Story, Every Story A Picture

Last week I promised a bit on what goes on in the most engrossing of books, and I think I’d like to tackle characterization first.  If you’ve read Anna Karenina or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, what do you remember the most? Probably Anna’s difficult affair with Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s epic work, and in Tartt’s, it would be Theo Decker and his sleazy pal, Boris, right? But what of the laundry list of other, probably less memorable characters?


Think of your book’s primary characters the way a painter would approach an art project (since we’re talking about The Goldfinch anyway). How does a painter accentuate the most prominent aspects of an art piece? Google Titian’s Diana and Callisto, for example, for a more expanded view of the above art piece. Every picture tells a story, and Titian drew from Roman Mythology in this one, Diana discovering that her maid Callisto has become pregnant by Jupiter.

Notice what Titian does with this? Diana is the prominent one, more nearly facing the viewer, and one of four who are presented with the most light. Callisto is to the left, in the shadows of others presenting the maid to Diana. Notice how the others are turned to the side, or are darkened in contrast to Diana?

This is what the writer does with his/her characters. The protagonist – and perhaps the antagonist – are more visibly “naked.” That is, their physical traits, their inner selves, and their presence in the context of the story, are the most prominent, i.e., you know the most about these characters. Notice in the Titian painting how the others are depicted less vividly, perhaps left darker in the reader’s mind? Their presence is to support or accentuate Diana or Callisto.

Also notice how Titian has positioned and posed his figures to evoke emotion from the viewer? This is also the purpose of supporting characters in a story: these characters are usually the ones who create the conflict that your protagonist must work through. They’re not presented vividly; they only exist – through their looks, attitudes, or actions – as catalysts to drive the story or to create more vividly the protagonist or antagonist.

So think of your book’s characters as having been built in layers – of description, of conflict, of conflict. I think as this sinks in, you’ll want to re-read your favorite books – and you’ll get more out of them. As a writer, you’ll understand better the mechanics you’re putting into play in your stories.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Eloquent Dystopian Writing


Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Mandel serves up here a postmodern, dystopian novel of great skill. Now that I’m done with labeling this book, let me tell you something more nearly relevant about this fine book. A flu virus takes on the world’s people, killing some ninety-nine percent of the population. As Mandel’s story begins, a noted actor, Arthur Leander, has a heart attack on stage, and the play, King Lear, falls apart about him, even as the world does the same. From this point, Mandel leapfrogs back and forth in time, taking us to a Shakespearean troupe touring, at great risk, the dystopian world, allowing us to see various characters in the pre-virus and post-virus time.


What Mandel does with this book pleases me on two counts. She makes this reader care about her characters, much as Meg Wolitzer does in her fine book, The Interestings. And where most postmodern writers simply give us a jumble of lives lived in all its randomness, Mandel awards us a ray of hope for her dystopian world. A metaphor, if you will, for twenty-first century life, in which peace, security, and happiness, seem forever at our horizon.

The author’s prose here is sometimes bland, but as she hits her stride, there are passages of great eloquence. While her vision attempts perhaps too much in this novel, straining to connect past to future, her jockeying structure holds together well and provides a fine, thoughtful read.

My rating: 17 of 20 stars

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

The Imperfect Novel

I thought it might be time to devote a couple of posts to some of the things that make for a great read, whether you’re a writer or reader — or both. I’ve made such comments in previous posts, but they may sometimes get lost in a post reader’s rush to see whether I liked the book or not, or whether the post reader would like to try a given book on for size.

Now, don’t get me wrong here — I almost never post on a book I’ve read that shows a lack of skill in writing — or the promise of such skill. I love virtually every book I post on here; but it’s the responsibility of critique to point out those aspects of a book that seem to be lacking as well as those that take my breath away. Doing so is not to disparage, but to offer another mind, another set of eyes, to a book and its author in order to improve on what’s been done there.

It’s my contention that a perfect novel has never been written, and my bet is it never will. Okay, so what’s the use in writing one if this is true? Writers, in portraying life by way of story, despite the greatest of skill sets, can only write to an audience, and that audience will vary in its reaction to what’s been written. This may sound like something of a tautology, or saying the same thing twice, each in defense of the other, but the issue here is that the novel isn’t completely the province of the author. It’s a negotiation of sorts between writer and reader.

Example: Does the average genre reader love Faulkner? Certainly not. Faulkner’s plot is there, but not in a way that will engage readers simply desiring escape, entertainment. Do literary theory geeks find stimulation in Faulkner? You bet. Theirs is to decipher Faulkner’s elliptical references to story line happenstances and making sense of his odd characters, not (necessarily) in the overall panorama of a Faulkner novel.

I’m sure you get the point, but once again what’s important here is this: what makes a great read?

I’ll give you some grist for that mill in the next post.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Intrigues and Tedium in the Russian Court


The Winter Palace – A Novel of Catherine the Great, by Eva Stachniak

Among the concerns novel writers must contend with in order to provide stimulating reads is the development of characters. Ms. Stachniak’s book, The Winter Palace, has many strong points – and I’ll enumerate some of them in a minute. In order to develop characters in an appealing way, one much first decide which characters lie at the center of a story and provide a layering to distinguish them from the rest. That is, those at the eye of the storm, so to speak, must have the most details about their reasons for being in the story, their physical and emotional characteristics primarily. As other characters fade to lesser importance, details should be less specific.
In this book there are three main characters: Empress Elizabeth, Catherine (Sophia) of Zerbst, and the book’s narrator, Varvara Malikina, a friend of Catherine’s. Throughout the book’s first half, the character resonating most brightly is Empress Elizabeth. It’s only in the book’s last quarter that we see a fully fleshed Catherine emerging. Too, Varvara seems a pale character throughout, but this is sometimes the fate of first person peripheral narrators. Among the questions that seem to go unanswered, or inadequately answered, are:

1 – Does Catherine seem the stuff of a ruler, i.e., does she command the presence of those about her?
2 – Has she ordered a palace coup through her own will to power, or is she merely cast into it as a pawn by forces beyond her control?
3 – Is she as manipulative throughout as she is ultimately made out to be?
4 – Does she truly love her arranged marriage-husband?
5 – Does she love her children, or are they simply more pawns in the power game of rule?

Much of my concern with these issues lies in the amount of emphasis placed on the details of palace intrigue, the clothing, habits, and customs of the book’s range of characters. However, there is much to this book to crow about. Ms. Stachniak has clearly done her research, has placed her imagination within the history and personalities between these book covers, and that alone makes the book an appealing read. Her prose occasionally dazzles, and her voice lends itself easily to the baroque nature of this historical era.

As with many cover blurbs one reads these days in order to entice one to buy a book, this one’s are a bit misleading. The book isn’t about Catherine’s reign; in fact, she only achieves personal control of Russia in the book’s final pages. The book would have been better advertised as one about her rise to power, which would make the above five concerns all the more imperative.

My rating: 15 of 20 stars

Russia, Elizabeth, Catherine the Great, St. Petersburg, character, pacing, history