AN AFFRONT TO ENGLISH

The “Russian” Civil Wars 1916-1926, Jonathan D. Smele, presents a fascinating subject. But it seems written in a language that has endings for specific congregations for its verbs and with many declensions for its nouns – languages like Russian, German or Latin.

The strength of English prose is verbs, actions directing nouns. Most well-written books and articles recognize this rule. Verbs are close to subjects; no one ever loses sight of that combination, or the purpose for which noun-verb was used. If a writer likes to discourse in a sentence, go on and on for 70 – 100 -120 words, an English sentence better have parallel structures. Logic dictates it. (It’s not the logic of the language, but logic – premise, minor premise, conclusion)

In Mein Kampf the translator observes,  

…mixed metaphors are just as mixed in one language as in the other

other. A lapse of grammatical logic can occur in any language. An

English language Title might be just a redundant as the German one;…

No non-German would write such labyrinthine sentences…I have

cut down the sentences only when the length made them unintelligible

in English…

The substantives are a different matter. Here it has been necessary

to make greater changes, because in many cases the use of verbal nouns

is singly incompatible with the English language…Hitler’s piling up of

substances is bad German, but the fact remains that numerous German

writers do the same thing, while this failing is almost non-existence in

English.

…much German prose, some not of thee worst quality, around in…

useless little words: wohl, ja, denn, schon, noch, eigentlich, etc. Hitler’s

sentences are …clogged with particles, not to mention such private

favorites as besonders and damals which he strews about…needlessly.

His particles have a certain political significance, for in the petit

bourgeois mind they are, like carved furniture, an embodiment of the

home-grown German virtues, while their avoidance is viewed with

suspicion as foreign and modernistic.

[Translator’s note, Mein Kampf, Boston, Mariner Books, 1999, p. xi-xii.]

Parenthetical words and terms at the beginning of an English sentence, or at the end, or sometimes the middle indicated by the use of parentheses indicate a lack of writing skills.

Let’s observe one demonstration: 

On the contrary, the events that took place in the period from

around  1989 to 1991 and their volcanic reverberations across

the former Soviet space have very greatly enriched, necessitated

and energized historical investigations, as they have made it

unchallengeably clear that any approach to the “Russian” Civil

War that places the Red and White struggle within the matrix too

starkly in its foreground is missing the point.

[Smele, The “Russian” Civil War 1916-1926, N.Y. Oxford, 2017, p. 6]

There’s a lot to chew on in that one sentence. The following sentences present a lot of gristle and fat, also. I noted this sentence was in the INTRODUCTION, and believed getting to Chapter One would break up and provide good sailing.

Alas, the first sentence of Chapter One reads, 

Despite what has already been noted above, the is also a very

strong case for the dating of outbreak of the “Russian” Civil War

on the extensive anti-Russian uprising in Central Asia during the

summer of 1916, as a large number of the tsar’s Muslim subjects,

in a rebellion that anticipated the Basmachi movement, resisted

the forced mobilization into labor battalions to serve the Russian

army and the armaments industry (although this was the most

overt assault on local sensibilities that had been repeatedly

affronted by the waves of non-Muslim settlers that had been moving

into the region for a half century.)

[IBID, p. 17.]

Note the hesitancy to tell anything in the text which is further emphasized by the third sentence of that same paragraph beginning with Moreover and goes on for 100 words or so; the last sentence begins with Thus. Blue pencil it all! Also note, the book defines the Busmachi movement as a term for Muslim bandits during Soviet times. This sentence attempts to expand and explain incidences in the nineteenth century as well as those occurring, perhaps at late as 1980.

The usual manner of writing history or even fiction is for a non-writer to write chronologically. This writer decides to put a flashback into parentheses while using Soviet terms indicating more recent events. The outcome is a whole series of unexplained events of one hundred fifty years.

I wanted to learn of the “Russian” Civil War, its battles, the philosophy, its politics, and how its effects might survive today. But reading such diversion makes the story overly complicated, suggests portions of that war arose from local circumstances, and demonstrates the historian does not have a the big picture in his head clearly. He could not communicate much. The writing reminded me of translator’s note from Mein Kampf.  

P.S. One way Hermann Boell was taught to write was editing Mein Kampf, editing to a third of its length. The text was readable. I believe The “Russian” Civil War could benefit from the same treatment and be vastly improved.

NATURALLY BEWILDERED

I’ve long held the opinion that human beings look for ways and people that take them from accepted routines, understandings and strictures. I saw a quote from Bruce Lee which many human beings follow: Always obey principles but never feel bound by them. Human beings willingly go far, endangering themselves and others in the exploration of life.

Where does my thinking put me today? Not very venturesome. I have a manuscript to edit. I wrote three stories in 2011 which I lumbered through. Parts of them are imaginative and engaging, but passages and some chapters are clunky. I now like rewriting and editing. Every first draft is a meager communication of the imagination, what it intended, what it could produce or what must be created off the draft. The process of fixing everything, not all at once, excites me. An advantage I have – Time has written and rewritten the book, in my mind. I now know what is important, what might be improved, and what is stupid and never should have been dropped in.

I’ve begun to edit, getting through 1500 words in the shortest novel. That’s not enough; I suspect the opening needs rewriting. The words do not impel the reader into the story, and I also added a theme which will carry through the novel. No one can drop in a second draft references to a running theme throughout the entire manuscript.The best I can do is make each paragraph and each chapter as cogent, comprehensible and complete as it can be. In the third draft I can attach the chapters to one another. Two more drafts aren’t onerous, just careful.

Of course that level of detail and concern varies greatly from the great sweep of mind a writer must when dreaming and driving a writing along a new story. My last effort to devise, dream and drive was so arduous and fitful that: I didn’t want to – I want to – I didn’t want to – do it again. In essence I’m conflicted, disorganized and unsettled. I know how to calm myself: Read, read very good books, read stuff that carries me along.

Almost every book I buy now comes from library book sales. The History of Dogma, Vol 1-7, by Harnick is heavy lumber. Early Christianity, Vol 1- 4, ditto. Each meets the review of Pilgrim’s Progress appearing in Huckleberry Finn. “About a man who left home; it didn’t say why. Statements in it were interesting but tough.”

It’s good to read books that give new information, new pleasures and new exposures. I found one, The West of the Imagination, William N & H Goetzman (father & son). How do Americans perceive the West? How did the new country perceive the West? Will we be stuck with “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend,” from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The book tells of exploration and painters production of art as they traveled through the West. So far I’m surprised to learn that Native Americans liked to have their portraits painted.

Whatever I may gain from reading, and until now, everything that amused me was a means to prepare myself to write. None of the reading was research; it was background, sensing what is good and bad. Military histories usually have a quick pace; it is the subject matter. Novelists have to write well. I may read as many as 50 books, and at the end I exhaust myself – I want to read no more: Garbage in. Time for Garbage out. Many fewer words go out than come in.

I mentioned library book sales. I’ve been lucky. Early Christianity volumes in excellent condition was $5.50. A biography of Theodore Roosevelt by Carleton Putnam was $.15. Carleton from New York got his BVDs in a twist in the last 1950s, and publicly he came out against integration. No more Roosevelt volumes, but he wrote an inconsequential book about race, the nineteenth century sort of thing that relied on antidotal evidence but no studies and no research. George Washington as the French Knew Him, Chinard, also cost $.15. I’m hardly prosperous by these purchases, but I beat the world of bar codes and scanners.

None of this instantly changes my state of mind to allow me to write an original story. I have to sit and wonder at the world passing me by – current events, other artists with energy producing and my own inertia. I’ll have to wait. I can not write everyday because I don’t do [platform] [serial] [genre] fiction. So now I’ll write nothing big, but every so often I’ll write and post something like this.   

 

NONOWMO NO MO’

Many of us remember November novel writing month. I heard about it and said, What the hell? Do it but start early. [There are a long list of cheaters, cads and horse thieves in the family.]

I began with a novel about my life. I’ve always failed when writing anything factual and completely honest about myself. This was another chance. It didn’t work. My standards were too high; I couldn’t meet them. Perhaps it’s a family limitation.

Maybe I should get religion. If movies are correct Jews talk about all sorts of things, airing feelings and telling one another what’s wrong with life and the with the lives others are living. A lot of what is discussed is true. It frequently happens in the movies that issues, problems and dilemmas are happily resolved for one or another of the actors.

I could become Catholic and confess, but that takes guts to tell a complete stranger wrong deeds and tales of woe. The worst that happens is a requirement to repeat Hail Marys. I’ve seen Hail Marys work on the football field, but a team that relies on them too much isn’t very good. Once again the movies are instructive. I’ve forgotten the title but Stephen Rea is a priest hearing confessions at a church in Ireland. Suddenly the penitent bolts from the booth, and Rea whisks out yelling, “That is disgusting…” Confession is entirely too intimidating.

I don’t believe religion would work for me, due to family limitations.

I did continue to write in November, but not about myself but about my activities: writing. There’s lots of fraud and dishonesty written about writing; I advanced in a very disorderly way. Excelling was a family strength.

The writing was a mess. The longest coherent segment was 500 words. Some were a line: “I’ve never solved a Soduko puzzle.” That is a qualification for proclaiming myself a writer. Part of my approach was reading and researching while writing, and my impressions couldn’t be put anywhere. I wrote about the same subjects the other writers wrote about writing. I had 41,000 words and stopped with days to go in November.

I began cobbling things together in January. I took a break. February, I had productive days. Almost half of it was revised, but what remained needed work and thinking. I glowered at the manuscript for three weeks until Spring 2014, when getting it done was the only job I would do: 35 pages, 12 pages, 20 pages and this morning 2 pages.

From the 41,000 November words, I have 54,000 words, most of which make sense. Part of all the text can be better organized.The amount of work no longer involves the whole manuscript, only chapters. I can’t say what the genre is. There are signs of my life in it, and my impressions of writing. I call it a How-to Memoir. Time and the subconscious will write now. I’ll take another shot at the manuscript in June, when revising won’t take two months.

SHIPWRECK

The the Lighthouse            Virginia Woolf

A current fad among those promoting the conventional wisdom is to embrace Virginia Woolf as an excellent, significant writer. Trying to read this novel and stopping, I know anyone with intelligence and reading comprehension knows it is a shame they let Virginia die a natural death.

The writing in To the Lighthouse is very undisciplined. Voices of the author and Mrs. Ramsey mix; the characters are not well presented. The novel is in need of severe editing. Virginia needs to learn English punctuation and grammar and avoiding using parentheses.

I finished the first chapter of To the Lighthouse. I had bought the paperback for a buck. I got to the end and saw that Chapter 2 was six (6) lines long. Chapter 3 hard at the writing was longer. To learn whether the novel involved alternating long/short chapters, I went through Chapter 3 and discovered another discontented reader. The corner of the first page of Chapter 4 had been turned down, to serve as a bookmark. From the condition of the remaining pages and the binding, the reader who owned the book before me had stopped reading at the end of Chapter 3.

Chapter 1 is impossible. Mrs. Ramsey says to her son: “Yes, of course, if it is fine tomorrow.” The kid wants to go outside and play.

Rather than stick to the weather, the author prefers whether and evaluates the boy’s reaction:

“Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn of the wheel of sensation has the power to crystalize and transfix the movement upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsey, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores, endowed the pictures of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss.”

This is a hell of a sentence, but other than letting her son go outside tomorrow, Mrs. Ramsey said nothing. She did not speak – there are no quotation marks, a sure sign. I don’t know where the “heavenly bliss” came from, but I know no one said anything approaching that description. Inside the writing of the sentence are disjointed, unconnected clauses and phrases tossed together to extend its length but detracting from its meaning and impact. In fact incomprehensibility seems to be the purpose of the sentence: The longer it is the more meaningless it becomes, and the more profound critics of FOV (Friends of Virginia) can claim it to be. Thereby a novel of such sentences is a work of genius. HOWEVER, beneath all the words from the sentence are two thoughts: The boy is excited and delighted; he can go outside tomorrow. And, Mrs. Ramsey is mentally ill.

Mr. Ramsey speaks next: “It won’t be fine [tomorrow].” Summarizing from there to the end of that paragraph: Mrs. Ramsey wants to kill Mrs. Ramsey. He is forcefully opinionated. He has crossed her, albeit about tomorrow’s weather. But what he said was true. The children detest him after Mrs. Ramsey’s input.

The next paragraph Mrs. Ramsey sticks to her guns: “But it may be fine – I expect it will be fine.” This paragraph next dwells partially on “…how would you like to be shut up for a whole month at a time, and possibly more in stormy weather, upon a rock the size of a tennis lawn? she would ask, and to have no letters or newspapers, and to see nobody, if you were married…”etc., etc., etecera! 

I note this paragraph uses no quotation marks, as well a few periods. Perhaps the author needed a typewriter in good repair, one that had the keys controlling periods and quotation marks in good working order.

From a blurb on the back of the book, I gather this story takes place during the summer. A month or longer in the house – NONSENSE! Most of this wandering paragraph is immaterial, irrelevant and incompetent; it is filled with invented fears and other mysteries haunting Mrs. Ramsey. BEFORE SUBMITTING, EDIT THE DAMN STORY, VIRGINIA!

A house guest pipes up in the next paragraph, reporting the wind is “due west.” Mrs. Ramsey is egregiously upset about this observation, but either she [or the author] denigrate him: Tansley is “an atheist.”

Finally the atheist clarifies the point a few paragraphs later: “There will be no landings at the Lighthouse tomorrow.” This is a grave insult to Mrs. Ramsey. In one of her [or the author’s] paragraphs, it says, atheist “was such a miserable person…He couldn’t play cricket…” Obviously, this house guest is completely unstable and totally unreliable.

Mrs. Ramsey rejoins the God-gainsayer: “Nonsense.” Not only does Mrs. Ramsey want to kill her husband because he disagrees with her about tomorrow’s weather, but she can’t tell which way the wind is blowing. “Indeed,” [the author or Mrs. Ramsey]

“she had the whole of the other sex sex under her protection; for reasons she could not explain, for their chivalry and valor, for the act that they negotiated treaties, ruled India, controlled finance; finally for an attitude toward herself which no woman could fail to feel or find agreeable, something trustful, childlike, reverential; which an old woman would take from a young man without loss of dignity, and woe betide the girl – pray Heaven it was none of her daughters! – who did not feel the worth of it, and all that it implied, to the marrow of her bones.”

In the paragraphs that follow Mrs. Ramsey and the author restate their opinions of life in the house, the Bank of England and the Indian Empire. Admittedly, Mrs. Ramsey states that she cares for her daughter, but whether the weather be fine or foul, the son can play outside, come hell or high water. Mrs. Ramsey’s attitude toward her son appears to be: (1) Tomorrow, you can play on the freeway. (2) What about traffic? Tomorrow you can play on the freeway if there is no traffic. (3) There is always traffic. Tomorrow you can play on the freeway if there is northbound traffic in the southbound lanes.

I know from the blurb on the back of the book proclaims, “Mrs. Ramsey is beautiful, dominate and generous. Her power is gentle but irresistible.” I don’t see these qualities except as they are firmly imbedded in Mrs. Ramsey’s own mind but not in her speech, her behaviors, her thoughts or her attitudes.

I admit I cannot play cricket, and I see no lure in those matches. To the Lighthouse may be a distinctly British book about a peculiar woman, a very eccentric woman, am extremely odd woman. But To the Lighthouse carried the connotation that the lights are out and a shipwreck is inevitable.

In the end I believe I wrote a better description of the first few pages of To the Lighthouse than Virginia wrote in the first place.

 

RISKY EDITING

THE LITTLE FRIEND by Donna Tartt

I heard much about this author and decided to give her a try. Tartt likes long and longer sentences. When I experience authors using long sentences, I am inclined to send each a bag of periods.

In History of Florence, Ferdinand Schevill, Ungar, NY, 1961, has many long beautiful sentences conveying a paragraph’s worth of information before the period arrives:

“If we now remind ourselves that Boniface VIII belonged to a lesser clan of the Roman Campagna, the Caetani, and that throughout his early life he had been exposed to the slights of the greater lords, we have no difficulty in understanding that from the moment he commanded the unbounded resources of the papacy he resolved to raise the Caetani to a level with the oldest and most powerful barons of the capital.”(page 168)

This sentence states a longstanding motivation of Boniface VIII and supports inferences why other Roman and Italian families did not like and back the upstart Caetani clan. It also explains why in 1308 (ten years later) when the French sacked Rome Boniface VIII had no friends.

That sentence has its own motors. The reader goes from facts to more facts defining further the subject and other nouns all without a dependent clause following the verb. There are no semi-colons; colons and parentheses. The author has set up the motivation, ability to use power and the projected results of using power.

In The Little Friend Harriet, girl growing up, tells the story of the family. It is the South of the 1950s and 1960s. Every scene in the book may have happened, but readers don’t need a chronicle of a family’s life. The sense that events are similar makes them indistinguishable; family members dwell on nonsense – what-ifs and what-might-have-happened is conveyed. Here’s a sentence about Harriet’s and the family’s outlook: 

“She possessed, to a singular and uncomfortable degree, the narrowness of vision which enabled all the Cleves to forget what they didn’t want to remember, and to exaggerate or otherwise alter what they couldn’t forget; and in restringing the skeleton of the extinct monstrosity which had been her family’s fortune, she was unaware that some of the bones had been tampered with; that others belonged to different animals entirely; that a great many of the most massive and spectacular bones were not bones at all, but plaster-of-paris forgeries. (The famous Bohemian chandelier for instance, had not come from Bohemia at all; it was not even made of crystal; the Judge’s mother had ordered it from Montgomery Ward.) (page 40)

There are oblivious problems, the first being this is a summing up, which runs on. It is better if a novelist tells the story and allows the reader to sum up – reach the conclusion the author wants the reader to make. This sentence sits in the novel like it was an outline point, which should not stand out in the text.

I added the sentence in parentheses because the words or sentences in the parentheses inferentially relate to something that came before. However, it seems improbable any sentence should start with “the narrowness of vision” and link it up with the great family lie, the Montgomery Ward chandelier.

I have been around long enough to know “the narrowness of vision” and “restringing the skeleton.” The secrets and the “dirt” about families are not about whether something is gold or brass, something easily discovered on “The Antiques Roadshow.” Family secrets are about conduct, behavior and thoughts. I would know more about my family not from the filtered fables about favorite souvenirs, but how family members procured their liquor during Prohibition, from whom and how far behind was Elliot Ness.  

There is a lot of parentheses use in A Little Friend. It is irritating. I decided to look it up. Perrin, Smith, Corder, Handbook of Current English, Scott, Foreman & Company, 3rd Edition, 1968, tells, “Parentheses are curved marks used chiefly to enclose incidental or explanatory remarks.” (173) “Parentheses are used to enclose remarks and asides that are not essential to the meaning of a passage.” (174) In essence parentheses are notes or footnotes in another form. A Little Friend uses parentheses correctly but does that use make it a novel?

It is still Harriet’s tale later on:

“Pemberton Hull was driving home from the Country Club in his baby-blue ’62 open-top Cadillac ( the chassis needed realigning, the radiator leaked and its was hell to find parts, he had to send off to some warehouse in Texas and wait two weeks before they arrived but still the car was his darling, his baby, his one true love and every cent he made at the Country Club went either to putting gas in it or to fixing it up when it broke down) and when he swept around the corner of George Street his headlights swung over little Allison Dufresnes sitting out on her front steps all by herself.” (page 104)

I don’t need to know the state of repair of a character’s tuna boat. What is amazing is the car made no noise as it came up the street, and Harriet was upstairs on her bed near an open window and didn’t hear it. When Harriet talks to a boy from town, he mimics the car by sound. (108)

The realization readers have after plowing through The Little Friend (more than 200,000 words) is, how many extra words will I read by the end on page 540? After reading the first 50,000 words, I figure I had read an extra 15,000 words – 75,000 words possible total which is another novel. I refuse.

These words exist in The Little Friend because someone failed to edit it and next blue pencil the text. Long sentences, semi-colons, colons and parentheses return me to my days when I wrote law. I know legal writing when I see it, and The Little Friend is written like a lawyer wrote it. It is informative and mostly clear with a caveat: Legal writing is better organized. A Little Friend is lawyerly not literary.

The types of writing to pass information or to tell a story in a novel is a grand canyon. Each presents opinions; each should present a consistent point of view; each presents the entire opinion in steps. But informational writing follows those guides in every document in order: A, B, C, D. Opinions and their arguments in literature can bounce around: A, L, Z, Q.

In literature an author communicates her imagination; she does not communicate information. Authors shift the order of presentation of opinion: A, L Z, Q may be it. But other devices give structure and order to the story: Voices. There can be more than one. All voices must be distinct from the standpoint of the character: education, biases, prejudices, age, status. These voices pass into dialogue.  In The Little Friend Harriet’s voice seems similar to those of other characters and their dialogue. The drawback is compounded by a united style [or presentation] of writing. For the reader all the characters become the same.

The paragraph about repairs needed on Pembarton’s car would have been better placed earlier when Harriet talks to him: She had introduced him before and knows his “one-true love.” He likely would have mentioned the car, if given the chance because he talked about the car with everyone who would listen. Pembarton also talks about Harriet’s sister. The car arrives but Harriet doesn’t describe any sound, or its effect on her. (104) The sound comes from the boy on page 108. In a novel the characters and the car, obtaining character-like traits, should relay a vignette. Weave the facts into the story about the people rather than data dump: (1)Pembarton’s car, (2) Harriet’s sister, (3) who is Pembarton.  

I tired of reading informational clumps, and stopped when family members began talking about the son, ten years dead, who would now be at college in a fraternity… I realize there is a story in The Little Friend, but it is not well put together. I don’t want to read it.

P.S. I glanced at Donna Tartt’s new book, The Goldfinch (700 plus pages) and was disillusioned. There are words in parentheses on the first page! What type of author has a writing style using parentheses?

EDITION

A lifetime ago, longer as a writer, I wrote two novels: of Little Human Hearts and Bitch.. When I wanted them to be, neither were ready for publication. of Little Human Hearts is the first, and I’ll write about it here.

I self-published of Little Human Hearts, a story of the late 1950s in Mendocino County. A bright, intelligent eight-year-old boy has his first love affair with his third grade teacher and doesn’t know it. He tells the events of that school year.

I appreciated after self-publishing that the story was not ready. The text fit Mark Twain’s description: the spelling is “majestically lawless.” The word processing was done by a friend who cut and paste the same material twice to the same spot. I was impatient to get the book out and missed it and a whole bunch of other stuff.

The FIRST EDITION drew a review from the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Bruce Anderson: “ON SALE at Copy Plus is a book called “Little Human Hearts” by a youngish man named Karl Rauh. Mr. Rauh grew up in Anderson Valley in the late fifties. His book is based on events and personalities of the time, both in Anderson Valley and on the Mendocino Coast as seen through the eyes of an eight year old boy. I would think – based on my own quick reading – a number of the characters and episodes would be remembered by many old timers…”

I did not grow up in the Anderson Valley. I wrote the book, inserting characters into the setting and contriving events. I had no plausible marketing plan. I exhausted myself moving and trying to distribute the book to bookstores, some which didn’t pay after selling the inventory. I didn’t want to self publish again.

An opportunity came along. A new publisher was accepting submissions. of Little Human Hearts was accepted. I entered the text into word processing and caught a lot of mistakes, but not all. I made a few. Unknown to me the publisher italicized the jokes (humor) in the book. Rather than of Little…, the title became Of Little… The spelling was less lawless. The Second Edition was launched.

The characters were set; the setting was laid out, but the story. How did everything hang together, cogently? Was it coherent, at all? Unknown to me was a review by a reader on vacation, now appearing on Amazon: “This strange and curiously interestingly book I found tucked into the reading material of a Lake Tahoe hotel lobby. I wound up reading it for hours in that bed…Beneath the surface…are smoldering of adult trouble…It is very simply written, easy to skim quickly and yet it goes into such charming details…like hiking in a redwood forest, the sense of awe it inspires, the silence it brings to the visitors, all this he writes about with complete naiveté, like a child…Some readers may find the simplistic writing a bit annoying, but it is a valid style to convey the boy’s memories…”

This review indicates that I was able to advance the boy’s voice completely. But the story was wrong. The marketing of this edition was horrible. Not many people saw it. The First and Second Editions are online for sale at high prices.

In 2009 unprompted by me, the publisher relinquished all rights to of Little Human Hearts. I knew a Third Edition was necessary, but I had lost all feel for the book and the story. The setting was no longer attractive – Mendocino is cold, wet and humid. I’m a desert person – hot and dry. It took some concentration to contrive the energy to edit. What I brought were abilities to tell a story and better capacities to edit. I had to enter of Little Human Hearts into word processing again. While doing that I realized there were three sets of relationships – boy-teacher, boy-sibliings-other children, boy-parents. The emotional charges from one relationship had to enlarge, explicate, and  contrast with the other relationships for the book to develop and tell its story.

Along the way I believe I learned a few things: A daughter who talks to her father a lot, and he challenges her so she enjoys that engagement (female-male) is less likely to fall for the first creep who throws her a line. Next, children who squabble with siblings are doing what comes naturally: They emulate their parents; they strive for attention; they are learning to act and react within this small scale of society. The role of the parents are to limit certain activities and certain speech but never to end the squabbling.

I now sense that the emotional stimuli from the three relationships support and improve the story, allowing the reader to build and arrive at the denouement satisfactorily. I eliminated all the italics; no author needs a signpost saying, I’M TRYING TO BE FUNNY HERE! I was happy the Copyright Office gave me a copyright for the Third Edition, of Little Human Hearts, iBookstore, Michael Ulin Edwards.

BAD WRITING

After writing my manuscript in November 2013 [earlier blog], I looked at books on writing by authors. I pulled them from the public library. None of the books are gospel. Many mention issues to keep in mind to weigh and balance, but are not important while writing the first draft. The issues become important while fooling with drafts 2, 3 and 4.

There are five books:

James Thurber, Collecting Himself, Harper & Row, NY, 1989 Michael Rosen, Ed., The text mostly gives impressions of working, sometimes as a writer. The best article in the book goes back to Thurber’s days in Paris during the Twenties: “How To Tell a Fine Old Wine.” To get good from this book the reader must believe The New Yorker magazine is sophisticated, or at least clever. It may also be helpful to consider David Letterman is funny without the drum punctuating the end of “the funny line” and the once present Paul Schaffer cackle.

John O’Hara, An Artist Is His Own Fault, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbonville, 1977, Ed. Matthews Bruccolli. More than half this book is derived from lectures and speeches, none of which have been adapted to the written word. Having just read the second volume of Mark Twain’s Autobiography, vol 2, UC Press, 2013, these are by comparison poor speeches and mediocre lectures.

In his writing O’Hara displays prominent, fatal faults: “His first draft is usually is last.” He also reads little or not at all. He says the first duty of a novelist is “creation of character.” He complains that women authors are treated more gently by critics than male authors.(101) [Sour grapes.]

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones, Shombhala, Boston, 1986, Somewhat of a how-to-book which eventually turns to Zen (author is an adherent).

Page 8 is excellent advice for new writers. Generally it should not be ignored:

1.”Keep your hand moving. (Don’t pause to reread the line you have just written)….2. Don’t cross out. (That is editing while you write…)[Perhaps] 3. Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar. (Don’t…worry about staying within the lines and margins.) 4. Lose control.[This probably means get lost in the story so the words are coming from your imagination.] 5. Don’t think. Don’t get logical. 6. Go for the jugular. (If something comes [into] the writing that is scary or naked, dive right into it. It probably has lots of energy.)”

Page 35: There is bad advice about metaphors and similes, even if the author can only close the page or turn the book. Page 36-37 more advice “Writing is not a McDonald’s hamburger” That may be true, but I know the following is also true: A writer wants his writing read by everyone who eats McDonald’s hamburgers.

There are good and valuable considerations: Writers should keep physically active; they should be able to hear and listen while writing. Of interest are chapters on writing sex, being a writer, syntax and detail in stories.

Sol Stein, Stein on Writing, St. Martins, NY, 1995, tries to relabel and redefine terms of writing, and suggests the primary way to advance the story is a strong character. Character is a laborious means to write and to tell a story.

From his own books Stein presents an incomplete example: 

In my novel The Resort, the leading characters are an “ordinary middle-aged couple. Henry and Margaret Brown, who                                                             find themselves in horrific circumstances at the end of chapter one…I made the Browns just different enough to interest                         the reader, but it was important that they not seem “special.” Therefore, when calamity hits the Browns, readers from any                      walk of life can identify with their plight, which is crucial for the story. Stephen King usually has quite ordinary-seeming                      characters get involved in extraordinary circumstances.”

What Stein does not want to tell the readers, in order to give his flawed analysis, is his characters [The Browns] at the end of Chapter One are in a new setting – dangerous, uncertain, terrifying.

Character, story, setting, which is most important. It is easy to judge. A writer can easily correct flaws in character and story with details. Flaws are impossible to correct in setting without rewriting extensively or writing anew. AN EXAMPLE.

A. Buy an engagement ring from a jeweler in the suburbs. OR

B. Buy an engagement ring from a store on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills.

Man may not want fiancee with him when he buys in the suburbs, a transaction which might include barter, bargaining or under the counter payments.  Man who buys on Rodeo Drive likely will have fiancee with him.

Add another fact: Man is rich enough to buy on Rodeo Drive but buys in the burbs. Fiancee’s reaction justly asks, “What the hell is this?” “What’s going on?”

It is setting not character nor story that determines what will happen and why. Indeed, part of the story or the whole part may rely on  where the ring was bought.

There are questionable references to excellent books of history: Bertram D. Wolfe did not write “the best book in its field in any language.” Stein’s references and suggestions in non-fiction are not helpful and should be ignored, except those to Garrett Mattingly.  

Stein makes the following audacious assessment: “George Orwell’s non-fiction is far superior to his fiction.” It is likely Stein has not read all of Orwell, who is careful to communicate exactly what he thinks throughout his entire opera. Perhaps Stein considers 1984 and Animal Farm as non-fiction, but he certainly overlooks Orwell’s pre-World War II novels like Keep the Aspidistra Flying, a story with subtle environmental strains: “I don’t mind development so long as it doesn’t look like gravy on a table cloth.”

There are good passages in Stein on Writing. Unlike John O’Hara, above, Stein quotes Ernest Hemingway, “First drafts are shit.” About Thesaurus Stein accurately observes the effect on a writer using one “…surprises me with a word that I would not have thought of on my own and that gets me thinking in a different direction.” From John Gardener: “Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.” Stein gives a reference for love scenes, Helen Fisher’s Anatomy of Love. On page 118 is excellent advice about dialects.

Stephen King, On Writing, Schribner, NY, 2000, is better than I remembered it being. The library is ordering new copies, although it appears to have a sufficient supply. So is there a new edition with improvements?

Without mentioning Stein On Writing, King responds, 

I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even just one) in some sort of predicament and then watch                      them try to work themselves free…The situation comes first. The characters – always flat and unfettered, to begin with –                     come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be,                       but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things                        their way.(164)

When King says, “The situation comes first,” he refers to the setting, jewelry store or hazardous waste pit. King raises an excellent point. Fixate on character, and the author may insist the character do things his way, not the character’s way. King explains later,

…what happens to characters as a story progresses depends solely on what I discover about them as I go along –                                how they grow…Sometimes they grow a little. If they grow a lot, they begin to influence the course of the story.(190) 

There are many excellent chapters and passages in King’s book: He is wholly correct and should be followed about knowing the fundamentals of writing this language: Use Elements of Style for knowledge and information. He’s entirely correct about symbolism. He mentions Edgar Wallace Plot Wheel with the hope everyone will stay far from it. He recommends potential and all writers read, unlike John O’Hara.

There are clunky things: Unlike King I would not recommend reading Harry Potter. And James Michener did not write many of his later books; he edited them. Hemingway’s defense of alcohol would never reach 70 words; he would not use more words than Faulkner did. King cites an unHemingway defense of alcohol.

 

 

 

 

AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARK TWAIN, Vol. 2

Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2013.

Passages in this volume of the Autobiography will be found in no other book. Twain himself doubts whether any human being can be original, but this volume belies his claim. Twain is. Incidents of first impression and first expression exist therein.

While in Europe in 1896, Twain’s first daughter died in Connecticut. By the summer of 1902 his wife was in bad health. Later that year his youngest daughter had a life threatening illness (104 degree temperature; doctor sleeping in next room). The fear in Twain’s household wa wife would learn of daughter’s illness, and she would be carried off. 

Twain had a third daughter, Clara, who primarily took care of the wife. Twain himself riles wife too much; his daily time with her is limited. Clara makes up a wonderful, social, engaging social life for the daughter near death. Wife’s spirits rise. These fabrications are carried on for three months. Twain writes two letters which are included in the text. [There must be more letters.]

Twain details the life of lies to stating the sick daughter’s happy life, and that they are relayed to everyone in the household – anyone who might come within earshot of wife – must know and speak the lies. Presumably wife remembers all the lies, and so must everyone else. There are near misses. There are mistakes, quickly retorted and corrected or excused, including the schedule of a local train.

Twain observed the whole scenario could be viewed as absurd and humorous except it is real, and it involves his family. The reader can infer what Mark Twain, writer, is doing: To protect himself, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, writes a full, complete and honest account of the activities in the house and about the sick daughter’s social life. Once on paper the events are removed, in a medium where Twain is a master. It is his only defense against two more deaths in his immediate family.

More astounding was the visit of William Dean Howells during the summer 1902 prior to the grave illnesses. Howells adumbrates a story about an ill mother and then her daughter gets sick. Both were cared for by two aunts. The aunts don’t want to lie; it is a sin. But they sin every day to keep the mother’s spirits up, even after the daughter has died: The mother believes the daughter is having a wonderful social life for the first time in her life. The mother also dies. Although the aunts regret sinning, they realize it was necessary.

Mark Twain wrote that story, Was it Heaven? Or Hell? It was published by Harper’s Monthly, when Twain’s wife and daughter were gravely ill. Both of them recovered.

The Autobiography has gems about writing. Spelling: “Majestically lawless.” Twain writes about “style,” “a mysterious thing,” including involuntary “indiscretions,” ofttimes an unwanted, “trademark.” And proofreading – the message is sometimes the editor must do everything himself: Twain tells an anecdote of Bret Harte’s trying to correct “chastity” for “charity.”

An observation about human beings came out which pertains to writing. The sort of human being one is will result in the type of writer one becomes. Bret Harte is used as the example, and Twain does not like him. Harte is capable, but is also acerbic, witless, disloyal, unemotional and selfish. Flickers of brilliance come from Harte’s writings, but mostly Harte is pushing the pen. 

The Autobiography does not analyze the heart of writers generally. It raises the issue by example, the personality and the abilities and capabilities of a writer [or any artist]. Those traits and in life, circumstances, realizations, choices and adjustments, bring very individual reflections and come after one consciously mulls, considers, weighs and judges. When those forces and the results arrive unannounced, the writer is in trouble.

“Circumstance” raises another short significant issue. Twain notes, like a diary entry, attending a banquet where Elihu Root, Secretary of State, addressed circumstances as changing the way Americans viewed government and their own freedoms. [This is my summary, not part of the Autobiography.] In many ways the more Americans are brought together as one people in one nation and are supposed to think the same way – whether by innovation, culture, society or law – the more Americans will lose the distinction of being a nation of individuals. 

Twain alights on celebrity, by commenting on an article about Olive Logan. She was a female lecturer in the lyceum days. Olive had nothing to say and couldn’t have said it if she did. She was on the platform “to show off her clothes,” a “living fashion plate.” She manufactured a reputation, writing “innate, affected valueless stuff,” and marrying “a penny-liner,” a man who was paid a penny a line to get small items, true or untrue, in newspapers.

The newspapers would appear, and next came the revelation: Readers who “had not been quite aware of [the celebrity] before,” now knew. There were no explanations, just recounting daily or weekly activities, like a Facebook page or a Twitter feed: “Her name was familiar to everybody…and there wasn’t a human being in the entire United States who could answer if you asked him, ‘What is her fame based on?’ ‘What has she done?’ You would paralyze a person by asking that question.”

[The primary difference between Olive Logan then and “celebrities” today is, today Americans can now say the woman took off her clothes, or did explicit acts, and published them.]

Sadly, the life of Olive Logan wound down like the lives today. She is near deaf. Her current husband, a generation younger than she,  always drank and neglected her. She “could no longer write.” The couple was impoverished.

Twain mentions other fallibilities of the American system. He complains that the United States of America is an Unpolite Nation without remembering or mentioning that he lives in and about New York City. He notes the pace of America, “come step lively,” differs from the pace elsewhere. He mentions American diplomats and counsels, “chuckleheads,” sent “to some part of this planet because [they were] not needed in this country.”

Many passages are devoted to copyright issues and some (purported) Congressional testimony. In Twain’s day the copyright laws were antiquated and woefully inadequate. Readers other than historians, legal historians, Twain devotees and intellectual property fiends will find these parts laborious. But Twain was prominent in the push to change the laws. 

Speaking from the grave, Twain likewise discourses on religion. His views are well presented. His is not an attack on faith itself, but largely on the practice of religion and man’s distortion of faith. That is always the grind. There are distilled, more perceptive presentations of these arguments in Twain’s literature: Huckleberry Finn, The War Prayer, The Mysterious Stranger, and elsewhere.

During the last decade of life Twain did not write much – short stories, essays and articles. He explained that he no longer wanted to pick up a pen and write a novel. The Autobiography was dictated. These is a difference in quality and complete excellence between Twain’s best books and this Autobiography. Many entries are literary, but Twain’s purpose was not literature: He wanted a conversation from himself, a one-way conversation to readers. Readers gets that. The difference between his literary efforts and the Autobiography remain, and have a lesson for today’s writers: Typing at 100 plus words per minute, printing out pages of beautiful words, trying to proofread and write something literary. Unlike Twain, most of today’s word processing entrants have never lectured to audiences, have never delivered humor, do not understand the basic simplicity of a joke, yet they are trying to work at the speed of the spoken word, like they are running their mouths to monopolize conversations with friends. 

One gift this volume of the Autobiography gives to writers is Twain’s impressions and methods of lecturing and speaking, a task he could do on an impromptu basis. This volume has also left me in an uncomfortable state of humiliation: Mark Twain could lecture better than I can write.  

THE WRATHFUL GRAPE – John Steinbeck

THE WRATHFUL GRAPES

The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck.

The first chapter of this novel was excellent. It is three pages long.

Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 – at the end of that reading I had a hint, becoming suspicions, impressions and conclusions that if an editor did a hard read of this novel, they would shake 50,000 words from it, lose no content and make it more intelligible and comprehensible.

I had a sharper reaction. It seemed written by a government employee or someone working on a government program. So I checked, and I was correct. John Steinbeck spent time during the 1930s on the Federal Writers Project. No telling what he did, but government writing did do very little for him. It left Steinbeck very undisciplined. The only discipline he had was writing an outline which he followed but didn’t know how to use. This novel is the result of any government activism in the arts – poor works of literature, badly composed music, ill-conceived sculptures and paintings by applying colors identified by numbers.

Should anyone write a novel like The Grapes following an outline? It is impossible to figure out at the beginning. The length of this novel is about 200,000 words. Notating this point, explicating that point and figuring out the relationship between them is important, and how to express each, but a detailed outline [I. A. B. 1. 2. a. b.]? Idiots believe they can use microscopic analysis to make every point, identify every adverb and specify every comma and period for 200,000 words.

Indeed, reading WordPress blogs for two months, I’ve come across posts acclaiming the benefits of outlining without the writers telling what their outlines consist of, or how they are used or how the outline prompts their imaginations to produce any passage, chapter or book making the novel, story or writing memorable and excellent. Moreover, I’ve seen a blog advertise a “Storyboard” for novelists, like film writers do so they have illustrations they can show actors, art directors, directors and producers [people who do not read]. This is outlining at its worst, and removes the imagination of any writer from the process. These Storyboards reveal the accuracy and truth of George Owell’s analysis (my previous blog READ ORWELL):

“It would probably not be beyond human ingenuity to write books by machinery…Even more machine-like is the production of short stories, serials and poems for the very cheap magazines. Papers such as the Writer abound with advertisements of Literary Schools, all of them offering you ready-made plots at a few shillings a time. Some, together with the plot, supply the opening and closing sentences of each chapter. Others furnish you with a sort of algebraical formula…” (Orwell, “The Prevention of Literature,” January 2, 1946.)

Chapter 5 of The Grapes starts with 2,000 words of presentation. [Chapter 5 itself starts 10,000 words into the novel]. I suppose readers are to pay attention to identified parties – landowners, tenants, spokesmen for landowners, the Company, the banks. Steinbeck attempts to set up the relationships of all the people, and their visceral reactions to one another. In all those 2,000 words is not one character, no one to sympathize with, no one to hate, just Steinbeck’s raw, clunky social propaganda. The outcome to this outlined argument might be, tenants should remain on the land for free, although neither they nor anyone else can farm the land or otherwise live there without public assistance.

The beginning of Chapter 5 begins raw, didactic, cold and unfeeling:

“The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came. They came in closed cars, and they felt the dry earth with their fingers, and sometimes they drove big earth augers into the ground for soil tests. The tenants, from their sun-beaten dooryards, watched uneasily when the closed cars drove along the fields. And at last the owner men drove into the dooryards and sat in their cars to talk out of the windows. The tenant men stood beside the cars for a while, and then squatted on their hams and found sticks with which to mark the dust.

“In the open doors the women stood looking out, and behind them the children – corn-headed children, with wide eyes, one bare foot on top of the other bare feet, and the toes working. The women and the children watched their men talking to the owner men. They were silent.”

Let’s help Steinbeck out of this passage:

Tuffs of dust blew across the farms like last year, the dry earth yielding nothing to the red-brown sun. Closed cars motored among the farmhouses sited in the wide fields. Everyone knew these men, met by tenants in their yards while their women and children watched from the doorways of the houses. Men rolled down the windows and looked: the hard life in the faces of the woman and children, wide, blank eyes, some barefooted, always thinking before moving.

These seven lines pick up the substance of the dozen lines of Steinbeck and provide the same impact. If readers need the children’s “toes working,” [I don’t know why that is important other than to show the kids were minutely active], it can be dropped in later. How about “the tenant men” squatting “on their hams and found sticks to mark the dust.” Other than being unclear, it is out of place where it is in Steinbeck’s paragraphs. It should happen after the conversation has gone on a while.

But as it is written, Steinbeck has no movement by any human being, no one is uncomfortable, no one reacts to anyone else. Steinbeck paints a poor still-life. Everyone is robotic, which makes his passage and the 1500 following words inhuman. There is point after point, point-of-view after point-of-view. Purportedly, humans adhere to some of them, but how many? How are they said to other human beings in that setting? Which points-of-view bring sadness or laughter? [For readers who say none of this is important, you are not fiction writers and likely you are poor non-fiction writers. Your strengths are in law, advertising and other PR pursuits.]

In reality ending tenant relationships and foreclosing on land produced very human situations during the 1930s. No one made money with the dust, drought and kicking tenants and other farmers of the land. In the 1930s America, there were thousands of local banks, and many representatives of landowners as well as landowners themselves. Most tenant farmers and farmers were part of the small community. Tenants knew the bankers, owners and representatives. They and indebted owners knew why they were in debt and that they would have to leave. They knew they could not make the land productive. It is also true that the tenants and land owners lived in communities for years or decades, knowing one another, socializing and sharing community responsibilities: Church, government, schools, community events.

These is no indication in The Grapes that the landowners “in closed cars” knew anyone they were driving out to see. Likewise, did the tenants or debt-ridden landowners know anyone who was arriving “in closed cars.” Steinbeck conveys no community – a banker or owner having extended credit or forgiven a loan, or knowing something about the tenants, gone to school together, to church together, played sports together, knew about health problems in the family and knew about marriages and events affecting that family from the outside. The 1930s American midwest presented a cruel environment, once kind for so long and then taking away lives and livelihoods. And the bankers and owners were not detached; they were unhappy about the destruction of their local communities.

However, The Grapes fails to respond to these circumstances. The next writing from Chapter 5:

“Some of the men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves. Some of them hated mathematics that drove them, some of them were afraid, and some worshipped the mathematics because it provided a refuge from through and from feeling.”

I wouldn’t blame mathematics for a novelist’s inability to explain human circumstances within his medium. Nor would I give mathematics the burden of motivating owners, banks and companies. Mathematics are convenient to Steinbeck because they were abstract and let Steinbeck inaccurately describe the whole situation in a non-human way. Steinbeck is not a novelist. Novelists have told about much more complex situations: Riots, wars and meetings, and successful novelists relay thoughts and feelings. Steinbeck is guilty of the exact faults he attributes to the Banks and the Companies: There are no “thoughts” and no “feelings” in this passage. Perhaps Steinbeck gives those thoughts and feelings attached to characters later, but why is he repeating this passage later by adding human beings? He has to delete this passage or be consistent and delete the next.

There is a reason why Chapter 5 begins without an identifiable human being, 12,000 words into the novel. and goes on without any sense of story telling. Steinbeck merely goes from point to point. This is obviously someone used to writing for the government entities, stating out-of-date motives, craving money for sloppy work, but unconcerned about human beings.This passage displays no traits of a novel, but it characteristics are more like a government story or a textbook.

The film with Henry Fonda is far superior to this novel. Screenwriters have never had to luxury of writing distractions, big generalizations, insignificant minutae and off-point scenes. Henry Fonda was the ideal actor – bitter on demand and an instant sulk as he lived and griped his way on the road from Oklahoma to California. In some ways Henry got typecast to these roles. [I prefer Henry Fonda in “Once Upon A Time in the West.”]

For Schools, it is not acceptable to assign a fat book for students to read for any class, especially English. It the writing – use of language, characters, story, vocabulary – that should recommend a book to students. However, The Grapes is poor; students have nothing to learn from it. It should be marginalized, although it was once considered socially significant.

Today, the grapes are sour and outdated. Knowledge about debt and losing property is much better understood. Millions of people lost their houses or are now underwater. The shenanigans by buyers and sellers abused the whole system that will not be cleaned up. No one is innocent and many are completely guilty of raping a corruptible system. My favorite passing-the- buck-story was about loan forms signed by a woman in Florida through 2006, I believe. She signed thousands of loan forms, the basis for the debt instruments providing security [collateral] to the lenders. I can’t remember which bank or loaning company she worked for, but she didn’t get paid for her years of service because in 1995, she died.

Today, Steinbeck would call the banks, money givers, loan owners: MEANIES. Poor old so-and-so lost her husband just before losing her house (she’s been married six times, is eyeing number 7). She now has to work at a convenience store. Job training has taught her to smile during hold-ups. Security tapes reveal she has lost her front teeth. [Dental Care is not covered by Obamacare – screw everyone with bad teeth like Harry Reid and Ted Cruz.] The widow-lady can no longer pronounce fricatives; she walks around all day saying “uck,” “uck,” “uck.” She’s fired for swearing uncontrollably but brings a disability lawsuit for unjust unemployment. That’s the problem because Obamacare cannot fix the housing market.

MORAL to this story: It is easy to write a character even if the writing is nonsense.