Reading Lists

Last year, I set out to make 2015 my year of writing. Although I never reached my goal of finishing a draft, I did write more words than I expected and perhaps more than I ever wrote in my life. Through this writing, I realized that my reading was utterly inadequate, and I resolved to make 2016 my year of reading. I have always been a slow reader and I do not expect this to go well, but I will try to read as much as I can.

I would not be the first person to make such a resolution. Some guy named Andy Miller (who pointedly makes his own sandwiches) also did that, and read fifty books he thought were “great” and, true to form, wrote a book about it.

But what will I read? My Amazon.com “save for later” basket contains about 90 books, none of which are fiction. No wonder my reading is inadequate. I all but stopped reading fiction since my student days. I need to read more books, both fiction and non-fiction, and as far outside of my regular genre as possible.

So I looked around for some reading lists and found some intriguing examples. First off, there is the reading list at the end of Stephen King’s On Writing. Just about the only things useful he teaches in his book are “read a lot” and “persevere”, so it is only natural that he was asked to provide a reading list. The first list contained 96 volumes and he added another 82 volumes in a follow-up list in the tenth anniversary edition of the same book. Just a quick scan will tell you what kind of a omnivorous reader this writer is. The first list contains the first three installments of the Harry Potter series along with Heart of Darkness by William Conrad and Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham. The second list contains The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kid along with War and Peace by Tolstoy and Revolutionary Road by Yates. I think I prefer the second list, but since the whole point is to read outside of my natural tenancies, I will pick something out of the first list as well.

Hit Lit by James W. Hall analyzes twelve 20th century American best sellers and figures out what they have in common. The book was quite insightful, but now I have to read all twelve novels.

Of course everyone has a different list for what the best new books of 2015 are, most of the mainstream lists seem to be promoting A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma, Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Another intriguing list that has been making the rounds recently was the list of 100 books recommended by the late David Bowie. There is an eclectic reader for you. I don’t even know what most of these books are about.

I never would have stumbled on the 80 Best Books Every Man Should Read list compiled by Esquire magazine if a screechy feminist at Literary Hub did not criticize it. This is one of the best reading lists out there and one I would happily recommend to my younger self. You may think Esquire is a silly magazine whose main function is to advertise slick designer suits and pricey colognes, but they have run some outstanding stories in the past (some of which you can read here) and nurtured such writers as Raymond Carver.

Just to balance things out, I searched out 21 Books From The Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read. Of course, I had never heard of most of these books, so it serves the purpose of introducing me to books outside my usual field of vision. But I was surprised to find The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot on the list. This book has been on my to-read list for a long time. I better catch up on it.

The world is full of too many books to read. And there are too many reading lists. Even Bill Gates has a reading list. But looking through a lot of reading lists it seemed to me that the purpose of exhibiting reading lists like underwear on a laundry line was to shame and intimidate the reader, potential reader, or the non-reader into reading more books. They act as that store keeper in the philosophy section of your bookstore pretending to be dusting the books, but whose real function is to glare at you when you try to put a book back into the shelf. In that respect, I found that the most intimidating store keeper of them all was the list of required readings of the top US universities. The titles, like Leviathan by Hobbes and Wealth of Nations by Smith, are quite familiar but I admit that the only volume I ever read from this list is Elements of Style by Strunk and White. I can see the virtue of reading these books. The Prince by Machiavelli and Robinson Crusoe by Defoe have been on my to-read list since forever.

I am a busy professional and I do not have the time to read them all. I will try to read as many as I can. And I hope I will finish enough of them to be able to say that 2016 was my year of reading.

Writing Tips From Famous Writers

Advice on writing used to be precious. You had to scrounge through the local library, if you were fortunate enough to have a good one with a good librarian, for little gems hidden within the pages of irrelevant essays and memoirs. Today, all you have to do is Google the words “writing tips” and presto! You are smack face to face with a title like “21 Harsh But Eye-Opening Writing Tips From Great Authors“. You think you are in cyber heaven until you scroll through the list and find at the bottom the advice from Lev Grossman: “Don’t take anyone’s writing advice too seriously.”

There, in a nutshell, is the bane of information abundance. When you were scavenging through the darkest corners of libraries and book stores in search of the vaguest hints on how to write fiction, you thought you were in the jungle cutting your way through the underbrush with a dull, undersized machete. Today when you are faced with an avalanche of advice-bites, and wade through the deluge of conflicting instructions, you realize you are in the jungle again, this time a very different one, but once again you must cut open your own path.

Read 20 Writing Tips from Fiction Authors23 Tips from Famous Writers for New and Emerging AuthorsTen rules for writing fiction, (and its part 2), and be bewildered at the conflicting opinions. Leave home. Stay put. Go to New York. Go to Paris. Write fast. Write slow. Write sober. Write drunk.

“Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique,” says William Faulkner. “The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory.” Barbara Baig says that you should practice writing as you would practice baseball, and promotes focused technical practice. “Practice, not randomly or mindlessly, but strategically.”

Writerly advice spans the scale of “mystical” and “artful”. “Mystical” is the school of thought that says that writing cannot be learned, or taught in schools and seminars. You are either born a writer or you are not. The idea paints the writer as some kind of a wizard or a sage, not anything like a craftsman. “Artful” is the way of thinking that presents the writer as a skilled artisan, the kind of people who get to Carnegie Hall through practice. The former was once the dominant view on what writing is. The latter view is relatively recent.

Once upon a time there were no editors. The earliest books were copied by hand. Paper, or whatever material they were written on, was precious. Therefore, few books survived and those that did were abridged and condensed through the passage of time as they were copied a page at a time. Time was the ultimate editor, and it still is. Eventually, professional editors came onto the scene and their job was to keep the attention of the book buying public, thus insuring higher sales, and to cut typesetting costs. In short, the mother of editing is economy and time.

Eventually, we came to understand “good books” as books that withstand the test of time or demonstrate high sales figures. Again, economy and time. If you judged books by neither, and only by the impact they had on the readers, books like Sangetsu Monogatari, believed to have been lost for centuries (though a plausible copy was recently discovered), that was known only through references in other books, might be considered “good”. In many societies there were books written that were meant only to be read by the king and no one else. In some cases, these books were burned once the king had read them. The objective of such a book was to deeply influence the reader, and not to gain public acclaim or immortality. They could only be judged by the influence they had on the reader. Such books are the “mystical” ones. You cannot teach people to write them. “Mystical” books will deeply impact its few readers and influence their writing, or even alter the course of their lives. But they can neither survive through time nor produce sustainable sales.

If you embark on the writing of such a book, you may find only one reader in the world who will “get” it. And you will have to resign yourself to such a fate. A great man once said “All I need is for one person to understand.” If that is the kind of book you want to write, then no one can teach you how to write it. It does not mean that the book has no value. Many great movements and ideas started out from the writings of long forgotten authors.

Later on, when book production became easier and mass readership came into existence, the most expensive and laborious process of making a book was type setting. Once the type was set, you could make a tin cast of the type and preserve the printing plate for the next printing. In order to publish a new manuscript, you had to set the type from scratch. Thus it was cheaper to print the same book from an old plate over and over. A publisher was more profitable if they had a stable of books that sold for long periods of time. Book critics were instrumental in deciding which books would have their tin plates stored and which plates were to be melted down.

That was the nature of book criticism when, in the 60’s and 70’s, new innovations made type setting more economical and efficient. Meanwhile, the cost of keeping old books in print remained the same. Publishers began to prefer explosive best sellers to long selling classics. This also coincided with the shortening of expositions in scene descriptions of novels.

To critics, who saw their mission as sifting the gold from the sand, this trend was not agreeable. They thought the abridged expositions of the new novels were a method of pandering to readers with shorter attention spans. They also accused blockbuster writers of crowding out more worthy books from the market. King, Ludlum, Benchley, and Grisham took the blunt of these criticisms.

Historians now understand that the kingdoms along the Silk Road lost their prosperity because shipping routes were discovered that bypassed their territory. The Golden Age of Islam faded simultaneously because the Silk Road ran mostly over Islamic regions. But for those caught in the upheaval, it was all the fault of some evil group of people of one persuasion or another that their kingdoms crumbled. They never realized it was all about new developments in the economy.

The same can be said of the revolution in publishing. The book critics blamed the popular writers for the decline of the kind of books they were trained to praise, when in reality it was the result of technical innovation.

If you are trying to write a book that has the greatest chance of becoming a bestseller, or one that might be remembered by many, then you are an artisan. You are no different from a furniture maker trying to make the perfect chair. There are many techniques that can be learned and practiced, even perfected. And there is plenty of room for innovation and individuality. There are also a variety of practical templates that your creations might fit into and from which you can develop your own shapes and styles.

So that is the difference between “mystical” and “artful”, but it is not a dichotomy. It is a scale. No single book or author ever completely belongs to a single school. No matter how good or bad your book, you can be anywhere along this scale. Consequently, even if your book belongs in the “mystical” end of the scale, there are some elements to your writing that can be taught, learned, and honed.

Books on how to write fiction exist along another scale that spans between “inspirational” and “instructional”. “Inspirational” books on writing do not teach you how to write but merely tries to motivate you into writing. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is representative of this group. “Instructional” books actually teach you how you should be writing. Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King are instructional. Again, every book is partly instructional and partly inspirational.

Depending on your mood and your developmental stage as a writer, you may find one more useful than the other. Some writers, who are desperately seeking instructional books get frustrated when they can only find inspirational books, or vice versa. Many writers tend to go back to their favorite inspirational writing books time and again, but also go back to reading their instructional books.

The attitude of writers can also be grouped into “plotters” and “pantsers”. This is a very recent jargon created by the participants of the National Novel Writing Month. “Plotters” are people who plot out the flow of their story before starting to write. “Pantsers” are people who “write by the seat of their pants” without outlining their stories in advance, letting the story take them where it may. James Patterson is a meticulous plotter who plans where every critical twist, every obstacle and every keen piece of dialogue will fall before the first chapter is written. Stephen King is a famous pantser who will let the story carry him from beginning to end. John Irving is in the middle of the two extremes. He plots a sparse outline, and decides on how the story will end, then lets the story carry him as he improvises between the bars.

Instructional books on writing will either tell you to plot, or improvise, or do something in the middle. They all land somewhere on the axis that spans “plotter” and “pantser”. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews by Samuel R. Delaney is definitely a pantser book. Structuring Your Novel by K. M. Weiland is a plotter book.

So now we have three vectors with which to sort all writing guides: “Mystical – Artful”, “Inspirational – Instructional”, and “Pantser – Plotter”. On this three dimensional graph, we can place almost every book and essay that educates you on how to write fiction. This will help you sort through the jungle of conflicting literary opinions.

But of course, that will not be enough. Stephen King says that he writes only two drafts. His second draft is about ten percent shorter than his first draft, and is ready for publication. This is quite incredible and not recommended to anyone but King himself. Most writers must go through five or six drafts before completing something remotely publishable. Not all writing advice is applicable to every writer. Some advice can even be harmful.

There are only four things about writing that all writing advice agree upon:
1. You must read a whole lot.
2. You must write a whole lot.
3. The first draft is never the completed work, and
4. Writing is very difficult.
These four must be the only universally agreed truths to writing fiction.

All other opinions are partly a matter of objective, partly a matter of style, and partly a matter of temperament.

In the age of digital publishing, we have to decide for ourselves what “good” books are. The internet has made it possible to reach micro-audiences. There are some readers out there who still prefer to read books with lengthy expositions, wandering digressions, and philosophical ponderings. Digital publishing enable these books to stay in print indefinitely, so books designed for long shelf life instead of instantaneous mega-sales are making a comeback.

Today, almost everyone tells you to ditch the expositions and cut straight to the action. That is not how The Lord of the Rings is written, or any of the Dickens novels. Since the economics of publishing have once again changed, there is a possibility that such books are now viable. Which means that the “Artful-Instructional-Plotter” end of the spectrum is not necessarily the direction that all literature is going, although it is where the lemmings are headed. There is nothing to be ashamed of if lengthy expositions are your thing. Your place on the three dimensional plot graph does not have to be the same as everyone else.

Micro-audiences

One of the greatest advantages of the internet is that you can reach niche audiences with very specialized information. It used to be that you had to go to large cities to find rare merchandise that might suit your very special needs or find magazines on the racks of bookstores that cater to your peculiar interests. I remember my cousin from Tokyo, an igo fan, complaining about the dearth of igo magazines at our local book stores. Today, the internet has given everybody everywhere the ability to find information on the most obscure hobbies and find like-minded souls. That is how I got to learn how to make netsuke in the rural area where I live. Thanks to this development, formerly unprofitable ventures can find the small number of consumers that can provide enough to make some sectors viable.

You can manufacture ultra-accurate miniature table saws specialized for making model ships and railroads, or prefabricated shell inlay material for luthiers (musical instrument makers) and build a sustainable business.

Writers too can benefit from this because, for example, if there is only a small demand for samurai and ninja fiction in the world, I could theoretically find my own niche in this area if I can come up with some quality product. There is an audience out there for books about sailing, or nautical adventures. There is an audience out there for stories about antique curators and wine tasters. Maybe there is a niche market for books about Australian vampires that breed zombie kangaroos. You never know.

The bottom line is, micro-audiences are real. Non-fiction writers are taking full advantage of it. I used to think that a community of pickup artists was a niche thing. Today you can find an audience of extreme misogynists, reverse misogynists, religious nut cases, cults, racists, victimhood pushers, end-timers, anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists of every hue and texture, and political extremists of an array of flavors all making good coin off their respective micro-audience echo chambers. Why can’t fiction writers do the same thing?

Books about how to write fiction used to be hard to find in the provinces. Today there are so many you can’t keep up with them. Writers are a small group of people. There are much more surfers than writers. Yet people are making a living off of this small audience. How about car enthusiasts? If you are knowledgeable about cars, you might find a niche market writing about people in suped-up cars. Of course Japan would have motorcycle literature. Yoshio Kataoka et al wrote about life with motorcycles (and a whole different biker culture from what you know in other coutries). We can go much more niche than that today. How about some bio-chem thrillers? Mermaid romances? Young android adventures? Dremel porn?

(Editing dilemma: Which is funnier, “Dremel  porn” or “sapiosexual pornography”?)

Even before the internet, there were specialized magazines for some very niche interests. There is a magazine for enthusiasts for building wooden boats. And everything there is a magazine for, there is room for books. Even fiction books.

You have to focus on a small but passionate audience. How about existentialist soul quests for digital nomads? How about a Jurassic botanical park of giant venus fly traps for the vegan readership? Retrograde amnesia mysteries for mnemonists?

If you can find a passionate micro-audience, no matter how small, and provide a quality product, you can cultivate your own custom tailored market. That much is a given. It is just difficult to figure out what exactly might be out there.

Trauma

The internet is full of advice on how to deal with trauma, or even PTSD (which is an extreme version of psychological trauma). Writers tend to be a little crazy, so when you come across a writer who had been through some trauma, you sometimes wonder which came first, the trauma or the madness.

I do not believe myself to be an adrenaline junkie, but the some of the happiest moments of my life was when I was beating the crap out of each other in the parking lot with my friends in a sort of pre-Palahniuk fight club when I was eighteen years old. You know you have to have a few screws loose to find joy in something like that.

I grew up with the kind of father that Will Hunting had in the movie Good Will Hunting. But unlike Will Hunting, I caved. When my father got violent, I squealed like a pig in a vise, and confessed to every fictional sin that I was accused of and apologized profusely just to make him stop. I begged him to stop the interrogation and skip to the punishment. To this day, the shame makes my bones ache.

But it is not my cowardice as an eleven year old that I am most ashamed of. When you are suffering from trauma, you do many embarrassing things way down the line. You lie, make up stories about yourself, you make a fool of yourself. You are constantly on the defensive, trying to puff yourself up to make you look bigger than you are. Each and every instance of those embarrassing actions chew at me more than the cowardice I displayed in the face of violence.

Maybe that was why it was so much fun fighting barefoot in the parking lot. I was a bad fighter, but at least I was fighting. My weak, skinny body in full display, not even caring that the other guy could feel how weak my punches were. I was out of my shell and daring to expose myself. I was naked and I felt free.

Writing has the opposite therapeutic effect. I can tell any tall tale I want so long as I make it clear in advance that it is a work of fiction. It is an outlet for the pent up war stories.

A friend sent me a link to a YouTube channel by Terrence Popp, which is series of hilariously misogynous rants. But no goofy clown is ever just a clown. Terence Popp is a Purple Heart decorated combat veteran suffering from PTSD and his barrage of political in-correctness is, for him, a kind of therapy. His repeated message is “I am just a dude. You are just a dude. Make peace with it.” It echoes the words of Tyler Durden in Fight Club “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact.” But while Palahniuk’s character agitates for anger, Popp urges that you accept it.

The reason we want to see ourselves and millionaires, movie gods, and rock starts, (of the future if not the present) is not only because “advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.”, we are trying to compensate for the humiliations, the rejections, and the embarrassments of life. At least some of us are. We want, most of all, respect. And it is not coming from anywhere.

Behind all his overblown misogyny, Popp presents a time honored wisdom; “Have respect for yourself, or people won’t have respect for you.” When trauma becomes unbearable, we stop respecting ourselves, yet start seeking respect from others in a futile search for compensation for our humiliations and losses. This leads to all sorts of relationship problems and obstacles in life. So we should accept the fact that “you are just a dude” and stop seeking respect from anyone but yourself.

If you respect yourself, and show it, and the people around you still do not respect you, whether they are your girlfriend, spouse, subordinate, or your boss, they do not deserve you. You must draw the line right there.

It is not easy to grow out of the trauma. You think you were out of it when you catch yourself puffing you up like a peacock again. Your insecurities drive you but your accomplishments never satisfy you. On top of that, if you are a fiction writer, an activity that demands that you live in your imagination for at least a portion of your day, you are playing with incendiary material.

And then, when the dust you kicked up turns into a sand storm, you wonder, did my trauma lead me to this madness, or did my madness court the trauma?

World Building (3)

Writing is all about reading. At any given time, you should be reading at least five to ten times as much as you are writing. Japanese novelist Motoko Arai is known to read a book every day as a form of pre-writing ritual. She would not start her day’s writing until she has finished a volume. And if you are not writing, you should be reading more than when you are writing.

If you intend to write a story that entails a great deal of world building, you should read a great deal more than the usual fiction writer. Specifically, you should be reading non-fiction. Books on history are the most important sources. Dig up as much details as you can about obscure periods of history like the Capetian Dynasty, the Muromachi Shogunate or the Banten Sultanate. Find out how events unfolded and why.

You also need to read a lot of philosophy and psychology. Works of Freud, Jung, Jaspers and Heidegger as well as tenets of Zen Buddhism and Taoism frequently appear in science fiction and fantasy novels. If you have wise men and wizards, they need to sound wise. C. S. Lewis not only wrote The Chronicles of Narnia and chaired the Mediaeval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University, but also wrote deeply controversial works on philosophy, theology and Irish history. So evidently, he had studied a lot.

Scrounge for obscure words from odd places. Characters in Frank Herbert’s Dune fly military vehicles called ornithopters, which is a word for a flying machine with flapping wings described in the journals of Leonardo da Vinci.

You should also learn different languages. J. R. R. Tolkien studied Old English, German, Icelandic and Welsh. Ursula Le Guin studied French and Italian. Anthony Burgess made good use of his knowledge of Russian. They not only provide sources for strange sounding words, but also open doors to a wide array of folklore, historical facts and trivia that is not available in English. One of the best books ever written on the lives of the samurai is an eye witness account of a Jesuit minister available only in Portuguese.

All this makes a book involving heavy duty world building very difficult to write, and not really a recommended project for a young writer. When young Ken Follett proposed an idea for an historical novel about building a cathedral that required elaborate world building, his agent talked him out of it. He finally published The Pillars of the Earth at the age of 40. Frank Herbert was 42 years old when he started writing the Dune series. J. R. R. Tokien was 45 when he published The Hobbit and 62 when he published the first of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. George R. R. Martin was 48 when he published the first of The Song of Ice and Fire books titled A Game of Thrones. J. K. Rowling was a mere youngster when she finished the first Harry Potter book at age 30.

If you have read over a dozen books on how to write fiction, it is quite likely that not one of those books teaches you about world building. There is a good reason for that. World building is one of the most difficult elements of writing fiction. If you have mastered plot, pacing, tension, conflict, point of view, structure, dialogue and style, you are ready to write a book. But if you are trying to write a historical novel, or a science fiction/fantasy that requires a lot of world building, it is a completely different story. It takes a great deal of knowledge and research to build a convincing world. This is why good world building is so rare.

Inspiration can come from very strange places. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was inspired by Nordic and Finnish mythology. Frank Herbert’s desert planet was inspired by Abe Kobo’s The Woman in the Dunes. Martin’s Westeros was inspired by Ivanhoe. It requires a lot of quirky reading habits to come across an inspiration for an original world.

But if you enjoy reading non-fiction, in particular, history, philosophy, psychology, religious studies, linguistics and trivia, you just might be the right person to embark on a massive world building project. Fair warning in advance: It could take a lifetime.

The Muse

She was looking over the railing at the park down below where old ladies with tiny dogs and parents with small children on a leash ambled around the fountain and the lone hot dog vender, when the man poked his head into her view from her side.
Her first thought was that he must be a pervert. He certainly had the look. A middle aged man with a creased face and longish disheveled hair generously mixed with grey over Asian black, dressed in an outdated tweed jacket and ancient scarf, with an overall air of a washed-up music conductor.
“Excuse me, miss,” he said. “I believe you are a writer.”
“What? Yes. Why? Who are you?”
“I am your muse.”
“What?”
“I am your muse. I am here to solve your writer’s block. You haven’t written a word all week. Your eyes were sore from staring at the screen. You came out here in hopes that some fresh air will give you inspiration.”
“How do you…?”
“Writing is like riding a bicycle, don’t you think? We scoot along in a balance between motion and inertia. The wheels roll and the frame remains erect. When the wheels lose motion, the frame topples. When writing, your vision is the motion, while the words are the inertia. The balance of the two keeps you going. Do you follow?”
“No.”
“Don’t focus on what word to write next. Feel your story with your senses. What do you see in the scene? What do you hear? Not just the characters talking but the distant sounds, like children playing on the grass, or the leaves rustling in the breeze. What do you smell?” He sniffed the cuffs of his sleeve. “Envision what you taste.” He stuck out his tongue and touched it with a grubby finger. “And touch. Focus on the senses, not the words.”
“You’re gross.”
“That’s an emotion. Very good. An emotional reaction. Much better than a cerebral understanding. Plot your emotions on a graph. It sometimes helps. One axle scaling from satisfaction to frustration, the other axle between eagerness and apathy.” He drew a cross in the air with his finger. “Are you hungry?”
“No. I’m fine.”
“Then your hunger is up here, near satisfaction. But you may not have been very eager for food in the first place, so it would be about here, closer to apathy than eagerness.” He plotted in the air with his finger. “You have satisfaction of a weak desire.”
“How is that going to help my writing?”
“Plot the emotions of each of your characters in each scene. How do they change? Do they have a trajectory? What direction are they going? And what is the next natural step?”
“Why are you doing this?”
The man heaved a heavy sigh.
“Because when you reach a point when aged Scotch is younger than your children, when movies stars whose names you remember are senior citizens, when the technical innovations that guided your writing career has run out of spare parts, a writer must walk outside and bark at the moon in hopes that something will come out of it.”
“That is why you are my muse.”
“That is why I am your muse.”
“You chose to become a magical creature out of apathy and frustration?”
“Nothing so magical about it, is there?”
“No. It’s kind of sad.”
“Well, I suppose that is why my magic failed to work.”
Two little children were fighting over a toy. After a brief tug of war, one took the toy and run off, the other fell backwards on her bottom and began to cry. A young woman, perhaps a babysitter or a nanny, somehow she did not seem like a mother, rushed to the child and picked her up.
“But what if you did?” she said.
“Pardon me?”
“What if you escaped out of your body and became a magical creature? An invisible ghost who haunts writers?”
“And whispers into their ears hints on how to write?”
“Yes. Wouldn’t that be an awesome story?”
“But what would happen next?”
“Well, one day he meets a writer who would not listen to him. So he decides to go back into his body to regain physical form and talk to her in the flesh.”
“Does it work?”
“No, it creeps her out. He knows all about her because he has been haunting her for weeks and it comes out kind of creepy. And he hasn’t walked in his body for a while, so he behaves kind of odd.”
“Then what happens?”
“She pushes him away. He gets frustrated. He bursts into tantrums like those kids fighting over a toy.”
“I see.”
“Excuse me. I have to get home and write this story.”
“Good. You do that. And don’t forget to buy coffee on your way home. You haven’t had caffeine all day.”
“Thanks. And thanks for the tip.”

The Other Murakami

I just suffered through a bitter, vitriolic essay titled 80 BOOKS NO WOMAN SHOULD READ by Rebecca Solnit, a feminist writer. My head still hurts from the purposeful ignorance of this entrenched ideologue. She is objecting against, of all things, a reading list put together by Esquire, a men’s magazine. She inserts a curt sentence “Of course, ‘women’s magazines’ like Cosmopolitan have provided decades of equally troubling instructions on how to be a woman”, apparently to cover the bases, then goes on a full blown tirade against manly books, but the whole thing reads like an excuse to serve up some poison on men rather than a critique of a book list.

Half way through the third paragraph, her anger is already so palpable, you can hear her voice screeching through your head. Clearly she has no intention of convincing people who disagree with her. She just wants like-minded ideologues to nod in agreement. This essay is a virtual book burning fest. Non-believers are not invited.

I would like to add one more author to her lengthy list of writers to hate. Ryu Murakami. When I first heard that Haruki Murakami was being nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought the reporter had made a mistake. I thought it had to be Ryu Murakami, who writes gritty stories about war, injustice, bigotry and its origins. His books are harder to translate into English and thus he is less known in the English speaking world.

Ryu Murakami pointed out in his best selling series of essays (back in the 1980s), that all men are expendable. Men fought wars while women stayed at home for millennia because wombs are precious, and it takes only one pair of healthy testicles to service a large number of wombs. Thus, in a biological sense, men are expendable while women are not. Male lives don’t matter. Murakami argues that the subconscious understanding of this biological standing is the bases of how wars, politics, religion, social class, and gender inequality are structured. Boys must become “The Man” or remain nobody at all.

Solnit writes (on Hemingway) “Manly sentimental is the worst kind of sentimental, because it’s deluded about itself”. I respectfully disagree. Hemingway’s stories are about manly death, in Murakami’s words, death of an expendable man. If there is any delusion here, it is the hopeful delusion that maybe this individual expendable man might matter in the world. About the one-night-stand described in On The Road by Jack Kerouac, Solnit notes “It assumes that you do not identify with the woman herself, who is not on the road and not treated very much like anything other than a discardable depository”. But that is exactly how men are treated in the world and have been for thousands of years. Murakami pointed out decades ago that that is the very essence of male literature.

Solnit admits, in a smart-alecky sort of way, “Scanning the list … I was reminded that though it’s hard to be a woman it’s harder in many ways to be a man, that gender that’s supposed to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness.”  Yes, it is exactly that. The male existence is a constant struggle not to be expendable. Yet she continues: “I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders. Which are the extreme expression of being a man when the job is framed this way”. No, it is the other way around. Men think and behave this way because we are expendable. 99% of the males could be wiped out and the species can continue. “Kill the men and take the women” had been the rule of war for almost all of human history. This mass murder is the underlying foundation of all gender based attitudes. Men’s attitudes are not the cause, but the result of mass murders.

In the 21st century, we live in a world where women are no longer breeding machines and men are no longer expendable sperm providers. Women accept combat missions in the military, and men can become stay-at-home dads. Yet society is still riddled with remnants of the expendable man paradigm. Eurocentric feminists of the Solnit school willfully ignore the biological expendability of the male gender and its effects on society, and chastise men for their lack of “empathy”. They reject the notion that the gender that needs to be incessantly defended and demonstrated through acts of manliness is itself in need of empathy. They are stuck in the pre-Murakami era; i.e. the seventies.

Some men are still raised in a culture that evolved from a world based on biological reality. Most corporations, bureaucracies, political bodies, and religious organizations still base their structures on this biological reality. Women who don pant suits and walk into occupations previously reserved for men chafe at the sexism every day and still refuse to see it. They are willfully ignorant that the societies that are so unwelcoming for women are structured that way because men are expendable. Feminists complain that men are egoistic, violent, selfish, obsessed with winning, strength and size, but refuse to see how society prizes those qualities. Nice guys still finish last.

Of course we want a kinder, gentler world. We are not cave men anymore. We should be able to create a society that is divorced from the biology that our current flaws are based on. But sometimes, men are forced to be realists in a mean world that is designed to treat them as pawns unless they stand out. The so-called male literature is designed to teach us to navigate through such a world. They are in that sense “instructions” on how to be men. Burning these books, however figuratively, is not an “empathetic” response to the biological plight of men. And it is not going to change the society that fostered the books. You are quite blindly killing the messenger.

The comments from the readers tend to support her and praise her sense of humor. Frankly, I don’t see what’s funny about it. Maybe it is because I am Japanese that I don’t see the charm of this Eurocentric trope. Women are under-represented in literature because you only read in English. In medieval Japan, male writers used feminine pseudonyms to disguise the fact they were men. Modern Japanese writers are overwhelmingly female. But for the likes of Solnit, non-English literature don’t count.

Solnit concludes her reverse-misogynistic essay by saying that she favors books that are “instructions in extending our identities out into the world, human and nonhuman, in imagination as a great act of empathy that lifts you out of yourself, not locks you down into your gender”. If such instructions exist, she is painfully in need of them herself. Maybe she should read Ryu Murakami, just a suggestion.

 

 

World Building (2)

I tried to write an essay on gun control but failed miserably. What can I say? I do not live in the culture and it is a difficult topic. As a friend put it “everyone is stuck in their position like insects in amber” which eloquently states all that I wanted to say. I believe that each argument in the gun debate has its merits and each side is a little bit wrong. I believe there is plenty of room for compromise, yet nobody is changing their mind.

That is the fictional world we are always trying to create; a world where the villain is not really a villain, the hero is not really a hero, the Holy Grail is also the Curse, where everyone is vulnerable to poor judgement and the result is universal tragedy. World building is not about creating names for places and people. It is about creating beliefs, obsessions and denials.

The topics pertaining gun control run the alphabetical gamut from age limits to zoning. The arguments are endless. But when you strip away the statistics and the pedantisms, one side is saying that guns kill people and the other side is saying that people do. On this point, both sides are right. One side is saying that the problem is not the guns and the other side is saying that the problem is not the people. On this point, both are wrong. Guns kill people AND people kill people. The same applies to all other major arguments. Both sides are both right and wrong.

I have no desire to change American gun laws. I am not an American and I do not live in America. My concern here is writing fiction. Specifically, world building. Every fiction is about creating conflict. World building is about building a conflicting world, a world in a schism. In order for a schism to work, both sides must be right and wrong at the same time. Both sides must be entrenched in their beliefs with no tolerance for middle ground. Both sides must be in denial of their contradictions.

Nobody reads fiction for the debates. So more needs to be implied than written. Who is the rightful king? Which is the true belief and which is heresy? On which side should the war be fought? There is always a central question, a central conflict, in world building. There is a library full of arguments on both sides. You cannot tell all of it, but the arguments are there and it pervades the life of the characters. There are lines drawn among them over which king they support, what beliefs they follow, or which army they wish to join.

Another thing we can learn from the gun debate about world building is the variation in interest. Some of your Facebook friends no doubt post something on the topic every other day, while some never do. Same situation with global warming, the presidential election or any other topic. In Lord of the Ring trilogy or A Song of Ice and Fire series (aka Game of Thrones), you will find characters with varying amount of interest in the impending doom, or issues that are dividing the world. Not all characters in Star Wars take sides with the Empire or the Rebellion. Some people are just oblivious to issues that other people feel are important. The fantasy world is a familiar place.

And then, there are people like me, a person who lives in another country for whom the American gun debate is something of an abstract interest. You find people like that in fiction quite often. Someone who is distant or above the fray. The grave digger in Hamlet, say, or the goat herder in Cold Mountain.

I have written before that world building is about the emotions attached to the places, people and events. Whether weddings are held like merry festivities or quiet religious services, whether people feel pride or fear at the sight of their marching knights, or whether wizards feel peer pressure are important elements in world building. But world building is also about the conflicts and passions. It is about creating divisions and alliances. You are creating a huge shifting stage on which your characters play out their destinies.

 

In Coming: Refugee Literature

Winston Churchill once said, “If you are young and not liberal, you have no heart. If you are old and not conservative, you have no intellect.”

Many people who started out as young liberals, have gradually turned conservative as they grew older, sometimes on an issue-by-issue bases being liberal on some matters and conservative on others, sometimes wholesale. Sometimes, when your lot improves with age, your position on taxation of the rich may change. Sometimes, as you gain disposable income and understand the difficulties of business, you begin to have second thoughts on whether all information should be free of charge. Sometimes, you get jaded and start to feel that idealism is unrealistic.

But it is not only because you age that you find yourself disagreeing with your former ideals. Liberalism is by nature a moving target. Democracy was once a very radical concept. Once democracy was established, it became a principle to conserve. Once we attained women’s suffrage, we moved on to gender equality. Once we won civil rights, we moved on to race sensitivity. Once we had gay rights, we moved on to gay marriage. People who agreed with civil rights may chafe at political correctness. People who supported gay rights may scoff at gay marriage.

Sometimes, liberal leaders can get confused. Feminism is essentially a fight against sexism and an effort to seek equality for women, but it has frequently veered into infighting among its leaders over who is the true feminist; by definition, a fight over orthodoxy. Liberalism can be self-contradictory that way. Orthodox liberalism is conservatism. Liberalism is the process of cutting a foot path through the jungle. Once you rest on your laurels, you are no longer active in the process.

Liberalism relies on a world in need of progress. Luckily there is no shortage of injustices in the world. However, like the man who searches for his lost keys only near the lamp post because the light is better there, liberals do not always go to areas in need of correction but find fault with things that are easiest to change. Nobody jumped to the gay marriage issue in the 1960s, although gay people were just as unable to marry then as they were a few years ago. Meanwhile, why do women have to wear bras?

On top of this basic structure, modern liberalism force sells compassion through victimhood in a passive aggressive manner. The template was created in the time of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, who used non-violent demonstrations to emphasize the violent injustice being delivered to peaceful protesters. These people were fighting real injustice and trying to bridge disagreements and resolve differences. But due to the ebb and flow of political tides, the template is currently applied to low hanging fruit. There are still real injustices in the world, but too many people are classifying themselves as victims just so that they can apply the template “I am hurt, therefore you must amend your ways”.

There is an old story about a surgeon called in for surgery which found renewed life on the internet. In the story, the surgeon rushes to operate on an injured boy. The boy’s father is furious that the surgeon took so long to arrive. He insults the surgeon over his lack of devotion to his job. The surgeon talks with a smile to the father and asks him to calm down, but he does not, and continue to harangue him as he enters the OR. The doctor eventually emerges from surgery, tells the father that the boy survived and rushes out, leaving the rest of the explanation to the nurse. The father is furious. Why is he so arrogant? Why can’t he stay to tell me the details himself? How can such a heartless man call himself a doctor? The nurse informs the father that the doctor’s son died the day before. He was at his own son’s burial when he was called into surgery. He rushed back to finish the burial.
In this fairy tale,  the father gets the message and decides not to judge someone without knowing what they are going through. But in real life, the liberal victimhood tactic rarely takes into account the other side of the story.

Last year, I joined a closed group on Facebook of aspiring writers. I looked through the profile of the posters there and noticed that the majority of the active members were women, with many smiling pictures, often posing with husbands, boyfriends or family. With no ulterior motives or hidden agendas, I posted “I have to say there are a lot of very attractive women in this group”. Some people seemed offended and told me that the comment was inappropriate. I am a middle aged Japanese man living in Japan and I had never before been told that complimenting women on their looks (from a distance of about five thousand miles, give or take) was in any way offensive.

So in order to gain more perspective I started a new thread asking specifically why this was inappropriate, and within a few days I was banned from the group. This was the first time I came in contact with concepts like “trigger warning” and “safe space”. I eventually understood that complimenting an unspecified group of women in a forum about creative writing was out of place and inappropriate. But that education came with an immediate reaction of insults, accusations and judgmental pronouncements that labeled me something akin to a sex offender.

What if I had been a Muslim immigrant? A refugee from Syria who was stepping on Western soil for the first time? The people who found my compliment offensive appeared to be politically liberal. The thread I started, asking opinions on the compliment, counted over fifty thousand words within seven hours, mostly composed of vitriol. Some people said that I was a creepy potential rapist, among other things (which evidently must have been considered less offensive than saying that women were attractive, since I was the one who was banned from the group). Was this the kind of welcome a person from a different culture could expect for not understanding what a “safe space” was?

Sadly, there actually are people in the world who need trigger warnings to protect them from unwanted compliments. But it is the people who purport to be speaking on their behalf who deliver the most hysteric responses. At best, this is retaliation with rudeness to someone who had no intention of being rude, at worst, it could be perceived as a cyber lynch mob.

Ironically, it is the same liberal people who are in favor of accepting Muslim refugees from troubled areas of the Middle East, where rape victims are sent to prison and good people, both men and women, are raised to believe that this is moral justice. What kind of a mine field will these refugees be walking through when they are faced with a culture of victimhood?

And here lies the central contradiction of modern liberalism. “When I say it hurts, you have no right to say that it doesn’t” is a dogma that only works within limited parameters. It is not universal and is inherently elitist, if not entirely racist. And let’s face it: First world elitism is just a different face of bigotry. Anyone who cannot handle the oyster-forks of political correctness is deemed a lesser being, a barbarian who does not belong in the tea party.

Unlike conservatism, liberalism is not driven by people who are motivated by something logical, like money. It is driven by people who are willing to pay the price for speaking the truth and doing the right thing for the sheer satisfaction of being the few who will dare to challenge the status quo. Holier-than-thou elitism is the lifeblood of liberalism. And when taken too far, the inherent elitism of liberalism becomes its own tripwire. That is the dark side of the liberal movement.

We old timers often ask, what has liberalism turned into? It was so nice back in the day. But then again, this contradiction had always existed. The founding fathers were land-owning gentry, women’s rights were first pioneered by society matrons, and racism was first opposed by the maharajahs. People who wanted to alleviate the sufferings of the poor were often very rich. In spite of the contradictions, these progressive mavericks made significant headway for a while, until the contradictions surfaced and it all turned Animal Farm. Progressive movements have a habit of turning into something unsavory every now and then. It must be written in the stars that, in every other generation, the hippie Jedi produces a self-centered Sith.

And now, when the third world refugees meet first world political correctness, the refugee experience will likely produce a very new literary expression. It is not the Muslims versus the Donald Trumps that we should be focusing on. That conflict may cause trouble but not literature. From the point of view of writers and readers, refugee literature is the thing to look out for.

Fictional Author

I came across an author page on Facebook with this header:

“I’m a fictional author and this page is designed to get to know me as a person, as well as myself getting to know you. Here to share my ideas and thoughts.”

This is from a person who self-published two novels and calls herself a “freelance writer, freelance editor”. Unfortunately, she is not entirely fictional. Her Facebook author page has nearly four hundred followers.

Charles Bukowski once wrote “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts and the stupid ones are full of confidence.”
I have my doubts whether I fall among the intelligent people or not, but I definitely do not have the confidence to call myself an editor. On the other hand, I also know that I couldn’t come up with something like “I’m a fictional author and this page is designed to get to know me as a person, as well as myself getting to know you” if I tried very hard to do it on purpose.

Maybe this lady is a truly talented intuitive writer. Maybe she is the next E. L. James. While plenty of aspiring writers on the internet ask questions like “What if I am not cut out to be a writer. What if I am deluded?” others seem to be brimming with misplaced confidence. But these oddly confident people may in fact be the undiscovered best selling writers they believe themselves to be. After all, history has shown us that good writing, or even decent grammar, is not mandatory for a book to sell huge volumes.

Pushing your product with confidence is sometimes all it takes to make a sale. It takes humility and self criticism to polish your craft. The requirements to become a good writer is opposite to the requirements of a good salesperson. At the end of the day, it is a tough call whether the wordsmith will triumph over the book pusher. They often don’t.

These days when the writer must do a chunk of his/her own marketing, the shift in importance from wordsmith to salesperson is inevitable. But every writer should at least read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. When I bought Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs by Marcia Riefer Johnston, I thought I made a bad purchase. No writer should ever need a book this basic. Apparently, I was wrong. Please read Word Up! by Marcia Riefer Johnston. Please read Stephen Wilbers (Keys to Great Writing and Mastering the Craft of Writing). Please read William Zinsser (On Writing Well). Please read lots of books on grammar and style.

Please do not be a fictional author.