The early sixties, a golden era for American literature

As I approach the end of a re-read of Catch-22 I am again reminded of, and astonished by, the incredible literary wealth of the first few years of the ’60s. Talented authors took on big issues, and achieved novels that commanded wide readership. Everything from Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. These novels frequently exhibited an optimism and hopefulness that was characteristic of the time (at least some of the time). Did the Cuban missile crisis snuff it out? The Kennedy assassination? Was this just the death rattle of the fifties? Even Faulkner had a hopeful message in his Nobel acceptance speech. We seem so much more sophisticated and cynical now. We have so much more, and seem so sad.

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Warren Adler on Amazon reviews:

A modest, informed view on de-corrupting online reviews:

http://www.warrenadler.com/how-to-fix-amazons-review-system.shtml

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I recently read the first twenty-five pages of John Le Carre’s The Night Manager, having some thought of re-reading the whole thing. What struck me was the question of whether Le Carre became stylistically more adventurous in his later work, or whether due to his huge commercial success he was freed of editorial restraint. Compare a temporal transition early in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy:

“It had been from the start a day of travail.”

to one early in The Night Manager:

“Another film cut, and they were traversing the great hall to the tune of “When I Take My Sugar to Tea,” played by Maxie the pianist to two old ladies in gray silk.”

So disconcerting to me, as if Cormac McCarthy abruptly switched to the style of Tom Wolfe. I’m sure he could probably pull it off, but I’m equally sure that he’d never care to.

By the way, a terrific post on Cameron Crowe’s web site about Joni Mitchell in Her Own Words, by Malka Marom: http://www.theuncool.com/2014/11/25/joni-mitchell-in-her-own-words-an-excerpt/#more-9493

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The Eternal Contract

I’m receiving a bit of attention for work I did in 1983. There’s a documentary film being shown at the Sundance Festival next month, “The 414s,” that’s about a group of young computer hobbyists in Milwaukee that I investigated over thirty years ago. It was the FBI’s first hacker case, and it was my first experience with a media feeding frenzy. For the most part my name was kept out of it back then. I was the affiant for a search warrant that was made public, but the attention was on the story of the hackers. One of the young hackers got his picture on the cover of Newsweek.

The producer of the film, Chris James Thompson, phoned me one day a couple of years ago, and told me about his project. He wanted to interview me on camera. As I’ve done with my novels about fictional FBI Agent Rob Hanson, The Magician’s Secrets and Devil’s Oath, I did what I’m obligated to do by a contract I signed at least twice, once upon joining the FBI and again just prior to retirement. I followed the mandated policy of pre-publication review. I asked the FBI’s permission to grant the interview.

The FBI said “yes” with a set of instructions regarding what I must say (that I was not speaking on behalf of the FBI), and what I couldn’t say (I was to reveal no secrets). Chris and his crew showed up a few months later, and for the three or so hours I was “on camera” I did my best to stay within bounds. There were still details, thirty years after the fact, I felt obligated to keep to myself.

I haven’t timed it, but I estimate I’m on screen less than a minute. And that’s quite enough. I handled a difficult assignment (mostly due to the novelty of the crime, at the time) competently, and that’s what FBI Agents are supposed to do.

It did remind me, though, of FBI Agents and other federal employees who for various reasons fail to comply with the pre-publication review requirements. For example, just about every retired agent who shows up as an “expert” in this or that on news broadcasts. And many who’ve authored books about their work, fiction and non-fiction. The ones who do it for fame and fortune distress me.

My emotions are much more mixed regarding the whistleblowers. Mark Felt, aka “Deep Throat,” brought down John Mitchell and Richard Nixon. Technically, he didn’t violate the policy since he had authority as Deputy Director to approve his own releases. He did, though, keep the fact that he was the source from the Director and the Attorney General. Coleen Rowley and Frederick Whitehurst put their jobs on the line when they, after pursuing internal channels with little success, revealed to the public flaws they perceived in counter-terrorism investigations (Rowley) and laboratory forensic procedures and testimony (Whitehurst).

And then there’s Edward Snowden. Mark Felt only had to trust Woodward and Bernstein for his protection. Snowden has to trust Putin for his. Although many do, I believe we should not judge the whistleblowers too quickly.

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Half-price sale

The Kindle price of all three of my novels, Double Feature Boy, Devil’s Oath, and The Magician’s Secrets, have been cut in half to $2.99 each. Happy Holiday Reading!

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Serious Writing

Three serious works, all three brief and insightful, that seem at times largely forgotten, are Camus’ The Fall, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, and Willa Cather’s Death Comes For the Archbishop. They each look to “foreign” cultures for insights with regard to our own, with a focus on religion or its lack. They are all favorites that I wholeheartedly recommend.

Cather:

“When they left the rock or tree or sand dune that had sheltered them for the night, the Navajo was careful to obliterate every trace of their temporary occupation. He buried the embers of the fire and the remnants of food, unpiled any stones he had piled together, filled up the holes he had scooped in the sand. Since this was exactly Jacinto’s procedure, Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace, like fish through the water, or birds through the air.”

Wilder:

“The Archbishop knew that most of the priests of Peru were scoundrels. It required all his delicate Epicurean education to prevent his doing something about it; he had to repeat over to himself his favorite notions: that the injustice and unhappiness in the world is a constant; that the theory of progress is a delusion; that the poor, never having known happiness, are insensible to misfortune. Like all the rich he could not bring himself to believe that the poor (look at their houses, look at their clothes) could really suffer. Like all the cultivated he believed that only the widely-read could be said to know that they were unhappy. On one occasion, the iniquities in his see having been called to his notice, he almost did something about it. He had just heard that it was becoming a rule in Peru for priests to exact two measures of meal for a fairly good absolution, and five measures, for a really effective one. He trembled with indignation; he roared to his secretary and bidding him bring up his writing materials, announced that he was going to dictate an overwhelming message to his shepherds. But there was no ink left in the inkwell; there was no ink left in the next room; there was no ink to be found in the whole palace. The state of things in his household so upset the good man that he fell ill of the combined rages and learned to guard himself against indignation.”

Camus:

“I had to submit and admit my guilt. I had to live in the little-ease. To be sure, you are not familiar with that dungeon cell that was called the little-ease in the Middle Ages. In general, one was forgotten there for life. That cell was distinguished from others by ingenious dimensions. It was not high enough to stand up in nor yet wide enough to lie down in. One had to take on an awkward manner and live on the diagonal; sleep was a collapse, and waking a squatting. Mon cher, there was genius—and I am weighing my words—in that so simple invention. Every day through the unchanging restriction that stiffened his body, the condemned man learned that he was guilty and that innocence consists in stretching joyously. Can you imagine in that cell a frequenter of summits and upper decks? What? One could live in those cells and still be innocent? Improbable! Highly improbable! Or else my reasoning would collapse. That innocence should be reduced to living hunchbacked—I refuse to entertain for a second such a hypothesis. Moreover, we cannot assert the innocence of anyone, whereas we can state with certainty the guilt of all. Every man testifies to the crime of all the others—that is my faith and my hope.”

In the face of a binary extremism in the interpretation of Islam (one can “voluntarily” embrace Islam or be put to death–no exceptions), we need to understand and exercise, while respecting those who have made different choices while refraining from imposing theirs on us, our embrace of freedom of choice. We need to recognize what’s worth fighting for, and what’s worth fighting against. That is perhaps the critical moral issue for the world.

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Warren Adler on Amazon’s Review System

An informed, well-reasoned post on de-corrupting online reviews:

http://www.warrenadler.com/how-to-fix-amazons-review-system.shtml

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Finding the common language

“At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business. We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”

That’s the opening paragraph of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Contrast it with the opening paragraphs of Steven Millhauser’s Portrait of a Romantic:

“Mother of myself, myself I sing: lord of loners, duke of dreams, king of the clowns. Youth and death I sing, sunbeams and moonbeams, laws and breakers of laws. I Arthur Grumm, lover and killer.

“And you, dark angels of my adolescence: you too I sing, O restless ones. Setting forth this day in my twenty-ninth year, on the voyage of my dreaming youth. I, Arthur Grumm . . .”

And the second paragraph of Stephen King’s The Body:

“I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago . . . although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me. Especially on the nights I wake up from dreams where the hail falls into his open eyes.”

Finally, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.  They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.  They’re nice and all — I’m not saying that — but they’re also touchy as hell.  Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.  I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.  I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all.  He’s in Hollywood.  That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end.  He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe.  He just got a Jaguar.  One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour.  It cost him damn near four thousand bucks.  He’s got a lot of dough, now.  He didn’t use to.  He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home.  He wrote this terrific book of short stories, “The Secret Goldfish.”  It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money.  It killed me.  Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.  Don’t even mention them to me.”

Each author is making a candid and fairly transparent offer of a coming of age story to the prospective reader. Which (if any) offer do you accept, and why? I say “you” because the process is quite personal and individual.

Perhaps the initial question is whether you want to read a first-person coming of age story. Are you interested at the moment in how some big event changed the life view of an adolescent male? If so, which one?

King is simple and direct. Chabon is complex and direct. Millhauser is complex and indirect. Salinger is simple and indirect. I suppose lesson one is that the combination of complexity and indirectness is unlikely to lead to wide readership. Amongst the other three possibilities, simplicity appears to rule.

To be continued . . .

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My hope from a novel

I want a glimpse of the author’s soul. That’s all. For me, structure and other aspects of writing technique are mere tools for discovering, between author and reader, a common language. I believe the concept of genre is merely a deeply flawed system devised by publishers to aid booksellers in deciding where to shelve fiction, as well as aiding editors in guiding authors into convenient and effective marketing pigeonholes (and embraced by academics eager to explain and disdain popular fiction). The notion makes sense for non-fiction. There’s a fairly clear distinction between cookbooks and biography (though hardly absolute). Fiction is far more problematic. Is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a “Western?” Is it “Southern Literature?” Is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness an “Adventure?” Are any of Jodi Picoult’s many novels “Literary Fiction” (Barnes & Noble shelves them thusly)? Will James Patterson be showing up on the same shelf (shelves, really) sometime soon? Will the “P” shelves collapse under the burden?

James Wood, in his non-fiction book on literary criticism, How Fiction Works, makes the argument (though I don’t believe he ever says it exactly thus) that “Literature” teaches the reader new language. Stephen King, in his “Second Foreword” to his non-fiction work on writing craft, On Writing, makes the admission, “[f]iction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” I agree with him to the extent that I believe, most of the time, the creation of “Literature” is a happy accident. Glimpses of the author’s soul are provided inadvertently (and I believe, more often, are hidden deliberately). And an author who sits down determined to write “Literature” is much more likely to create an unreadable abomination than a masterpiece. Thinking about metaphor rarely produces a compelling story.

I applaud authors who share something worthwhile that’s heartfelt. The fourth chapter of James Lee Burke’s Burning Angel begins: “After you’re a police officer for a while, you encounter certain temptations. They come to you as all seductions do, in increments, a teaspoon at a time, until you discover you made an irrevocable hard left turn down the road someplace and you wake up one morning in a moral wasteland with no idea who you are.” I’m sure it’s sentences like these that caused him to be called “the Faulkner of crime fiction,” not unlike Elmore Leonard being called “the Dickens of Detroit.” Hyperbole unfair to everyone, particularly if they start to believe it, but clearly illustrative of the marked tension between creating and marketing. Marketing wins, most of the time.

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Ernest Hemingway forever

I’m re-reading “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” this morning. The story has so much to offer in so many ways. Hemingway’s familiar emotional battles are prominent with a full catalog of the enemies, all of which restrain his writing: 1) the finiteness of life (God as editor, so to speak)(and the paradox that this finiteness provides dramatic interest to this and most of his stories); 

 “So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this was the way it ended in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.

“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.”

 and

 “There wasn’t time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right”

 2) the need to satisfy editors, critics, and readers;

 “Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names? What’s the use of slanging me?”

 and

 “It was not her fault that when he went to her he was already over. How could a woman know that you meant nothing that you said; that you spoke only from habit and to be comfortable? After he no longer meant what he said, his lies were more successful with women than when he had told them the truth.

 “It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.”

 and 3) the temptations of leisure and lethargy (comfort);

 “You kept from thinking and it was all marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that  you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it. But, in yourself, you said that you would write about these people; about the very rich; that you were really not of them but a spy in their country; that you would leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of [thumb in your eye, Scott Fitzgerald]. But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all.”

 The technique he uses is noteworthy, starting the clock with the first sentences:

 “The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

 Here is “Larry,” terminal with full awareness of his coming death. Close third-person, punctuated by flashbacks. Dialogue versus inner monologue. Too raw for memoir. Then for the final five paragraphs, the viewpoint shifts to that of Larry’s lover, because Larry is gone…

A master at work.

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