The Bedpost of Intellectualism

I just read a wonderful essay by Sasha Chapin on the effect David Foster Wallace has on aspiring writers: He makes them want to imitate his style. Wallace, though widely hailed as a once-in-a-century genius, does not really write like a genius in my view. Instead he writes cleverly, but extremely so. He draws on extensive knowledge and vast vocabulary to draw relatively simple pictures that line up to create off-kilter stories. Chapin writes that Wallace appeals to a readership who is “into being smart”. People who are snobbish about their intelligence tend to gravitate towards the works of Wallace, in the sense that people who are snobbish about wine gravitate toward obscure vintages of Romanee Conti. They are enticed by the illusion that consuming it enhances their personal worth as human beings.

Being an old bilingual reader gives you a different perspective about these things. I was raised a snobbish reader in a long line of snobbish readers who collectively believed that reading high-brow material enhanced your standing like notches on a Lothario’s bedpost. And writers like Lu Xun, Natsume Soseki, Ueda Bin, Nitobe Inazo, and Mori Ogai who peppered their prose with preposterous levels of scholarship and an overwhelming armory of pedagogy, blended seamlessly into similes and metaphors, were sought after like starlets for the philanderer’s bed.

Writers who bedazzle their readers with astute observations and tidal waves of learning are not unusual in Asian literature. Lately, Kyogoku Natsuhiko has adopted the style. He writes thousand-plus-page tomes which are basically creepy ghost stories with some cerebral detective plots written in vocabulary drawn from the past thousand years of Japanese literature and some foreign languages. Think of a cross between J. K. Rowling and Stephen King in the stylistic hybrid of Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

Chapin writes that he spent years in a futile effort to imitate Wallace’s style. His problem was that he was trying to fly by flapping his bare arms, and not by building an airplane.  Writing like a scholar takes actual scholarship. You cannot just try to imitate a style when the style is based on deep rooted knowledge. That would be like sticking olive leaves in a flower pot hoping it will take root.

This epidemic of the desire to imitate Wallace, which Chapin calls “Wallace Disease”, reflects how naive American readers are to true scholarship. Jessa Crispin (of Bookslut fame) recently wrote for the Guardian that she found Infinite Jest a waste of time (“Ack! Men!”) while she enjoyed Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language, but only because “it makes me feel clever for getting the jokes. It references and sends up French structuralists and post-structuralists, makes jokes about gender studies and analytical philosophy, name-drops figures like Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, and others whom I have already read.” She points out that people like Infinite Jest and The Seventh Function of Language because it fits their prefabricated tastes. She then asks “But shouldn’t art do the opposite? Shouldn’t it make us curious about other worldviews, other demographics, other ideas and ways of living? Shouldn’t it be expansive and disruptive, rather than reinforcing?

Yes, sort of, but that is not the whole story. Pedantic literature is just one style out of many. Some people just love to draw on their encyclopedic knowledge of whatever they know and insert it into their work. Hayashi Joji is a writer with an incredibly intimate knowledge of World War II military technology which he uses to map out fantasy scenarios of how Japan could have won the war against the United States in his alternate history novels. Not the stuff of high-brow literature, but an impressive flexing of scholarly muscle on display. His metaphors are clever to the extreme and his observations are sharper than a trooper’s bayonet. But that does not make it high literature, only cerebral entertainment.

Japanese readers have been celebrating pedantic intellectualism in literature since at least Sei Shonagon‘s time. If Americans would stop insisting that Latin is a dead language and look into the cultural heritage stored in it, they will find the same could be said about Europeans for at least as long. The world is full of Wallaces and Binets. People read them as indulgences: Sort of inside jokes that mark them as in-the-know, as well as oyster forks to distinguish themselves from the arrivistes. They are not expansive or disruptive. They are country clubs on a page.

Chapin writes that as a young boy he thought “one day, I was convinced, the girls who wouldn’t dream of touching my greasy teenage hair might regret that decision” when he produced evidence of his superior intellect, in his case through writing. He may not know how close he was to the mark in thinking so. Every bit of pedantic knowledge is a point you earn, or a Pokemon you collect, in the long game of amassing enough scores to gain entry into the secret club of intellectualism where the members are bonded by mutual sapio-attraction, and where the pecking order is decided by the notches on your bedpost.

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Deep Reading “Bel Canto”

Let’s make it clear right off the bat: This is not a book review. This is an attempt to glean off some lessons about what makes a book good from Ann Patchet’s novel Bel Canto. This book is a New York Times best seller and the winner of the Pen/Faulkner Award, which is a lot more than the majority of us will ever achieve with our novels, so whatever its faults (and there are many) there is definitely something to be learned from this book. Naturally there will be some spoilers, so if you have not read the book, Spoiler Alert.

Go to Amazon, or Goodreads and you will find a healthy mix of good and bad reviews. Here is a part of a good one:

Bel Canto is one of those novels that is good on so many levels, it’s taken me days after finishing it to put my thoughts about the story and the characters into words. This work is as lyrical and dramatic as any opera, and the word “brilliant” isn’t excessive to describe the talent of author, Ann Patchett.

Here is a part of a bad one:

From the get go I felt my heart sink and chapter after chapter I read in disbelief that this was the same book that others gave such accolades. The book rang so false to my ear. The melodrama and overly disgustingly sweet sentimentality was jarring, discomforting and infuriating.
I somehow suspected that Ann Patchett had subcontracted a junior writer from Disney Animation and another burned out writer from Harlequin Romance to come together and churn this out while she joined their ideas and linked them with a very few gorgeous passages. The characters were absolute caricatures with extreme gender and ethnic stereotypes. The emotions and story line were completely illogical and the whole experience left me both angry and depleted.

By every measure, this is a successful book. It sold over a million copies, and its sales are certain to increase once the movie adaptation is released. (It is rumored that a central role will be played by Ken Watanabe, who, one hopes, will finally be able to show his character depth for the Western audience.) It has been translated to over 30 languages. It has won the Orange Prize for fiction and the Pen/Faulkner award for fiction, and was short listed for many others. It has been praised by book critics from around the world. There are over eleven thousand reviews of this novel on Goodreads alone, with a four star average. And most importantly, it has caught the ire of numerous intelligent readers who hate this book with a passion, which is usually a sign that the writer has done something terribly right.

The book is about a terrorist plot gone wrong. A group of terrorists in a Latin American country break into a private opera concert in the hopes of taking the president hostage. It turns out the president stayed home to watch TV. What was intended to be a quick breach-and-grab operation turns into a prolonged hostage crises in which an opera singer, her accompanist, an interpreter, and a hodge-podge mix of multinational dignitaries are kept in the vice president’s mansion. Monotony sets in as the hostage situation stretches on for months and the captors and hostages slowly descend into Stockholm syndrome. The story comes to an abrupt and bloody ending as the SWAT team charges into the compound and eradicates the terrorists along with some inevitable collateral damage.

The story was inspired by the Japanese Embassy hostage crises which happened in Peru in 1996, but the story is only very loosely based on real events and the country is never named. The material could have been used to write a political thriller, instead what Patchett created might be called the polar opposite. The story genre is classified as “magic realism”, which usually means there are no Harry Potters and Vondemorts, and the stage is set on planet Earth, not Arrakis, but you might find something mystical, magical, or fantastical along the way. Therefore, it could insult the sensibilities of people who want a more realistic portrait of human suffering, or a clearer insight into the socioeconomic background of Latin American rebellions, or a clinically accurate depiction of hostage psychology, all of which is a given. Sure enough, most of the complaints about the novel is that it is “unrealistic”. One disappointed reviewer wrote:

It upset me to realize that Patchett was using a piece of Peruvian history with no intention of telling a story of Peru or its political unrest or even including a proper description of the country.

Peru is not even mentioned. In fact, what country the stage happens to be is irrelevant to the plot. This book is not at all about the politics of Latin America. The hostage crises is just an excuse for Patchett to turn the occupied mansion into an isolated capsule, a magical world closed off from the rest of the universe, a Hogwarts in the here and now. You cannot please everyone, and Patchett started off by boldly dismissing a huge segment of the reading public. This novel is not for you, gents. Please find books to your taste elsewhere. Not necessarily a good marketing scheme, but a clear and gutsy writing decision, one that every writer needs to make to some extent.

The novel seems to deliberately defy story writing convention. Anyone who has read a reasonable amount of instructional books on how to write tight, tense, suspenseful novels would immediately see where Bel Canto deviates from the template of “marketable” fiction. There is much telling where there should be more showing and too much showing where the story could be told. Four pages into the first chapter, the story flashbacks to the childhood of one of the hostages instead of focusing on the action involving the terrorists breaking into the house. The novel fits the seven point story structure very badly, if at all. The inciting incident is recognizable, but there is no catalyst, no inflection point, and no obvious climax (The SWAT team bursts in the house a page and a half from the end of the last chapter and finish off everything most unceremoniously). Half way through the book, it is still not clear who the main character is or what he/she wants. The only thing that is clear from the beginning is that this cannot end well. There is much foreshadowing about the deadly outcome, but there are also many spoilers along the way about who will survive. Chapter six begins with these words:

Years later when this period of internment was remembered by the people who were actually there, they saw it in two distinct periods: before the box and after the box.

“He” would remember “this”, “she” would remember “that”, would each give away who will survive. She tells us in the first chapter that the terrorists would not. These giveaways barely serve any purpose other than enhance the ambient mood. Even though it is obvious that many of the characters will eventually die, the author steadfastly refuses to build any suspense around who will come out alive.

If you tried to read this book with any expectation of finding a thriller or a realistic political adventure, you will no doubt be frustrated. It is only when you accept that this is a story set in a magical floating world that the events make any kind of sense. This is a fairy tale without the fairies, a fantasy without the wizards, and characters bounce around aimlessly like balloons in a playpen. Even in the face of death, people find it difficult to understand what they really want. The novel is not realistic because it drops all pretense of realism in order to focus on the core truth of the human existence.

Ann Patchett is a remarkable writer who is not afraid to write bland prose. In fact, if I posted some sections of her work on a writing group in Facebook as my own, it would most likely be diced, sliced, and mutilated. Deceptively slack passages and seemingly careless expositions abound. Maybe the reader should be on Ecstasy to better capture the vibe. The author dedicates the book to her editor, which is understandable because any editor who did not “get” the drifting style of the author would be sorely tempted to tighten up the narrative.

This is the opening sentence of her novel:

When the lights went off the accompanist kissed her. 

Not particularly sharp or mysterious, and the sentences that follow are competent but not exceptional. Many paragraphs follow before even a careful reader detects any profound artistry in the sentences. It is not that the author is incompetent. She is so confident with her craft that she does not care to impress.
And then, nearly half way into the book, it is revealed that two of the terrorists are not young boys but young girls. The hostage negotiator learns of this from the interpreter and is flabbergasted but the interpreter is drifting somewhere else.

“Such a remarkable thing and no one even mentioned it,” Messner said.
“We were all thinking about the new accompanist,” Gen said, his knees feeling looser with every step. Femur, patella, tibia. “We had already forgotten about the girls.”

Who would have thought inserting the Latin names of the bones in one’s legs – femur, patella, tibia – would so vividly express the rhythm of an uncertain gait? Such rare magic of words are thrown in at the least dramatic places almost wastefully. The author does not bother to open the book with a slick line, or to finish it with a particularly memorable one. Nor does she bother to inject powerful words in chapter divisions or inflection points in the story. But she throws in magical sentences when we least expect it, hitting us like sudden death. Even in this, she defies convention.

She also defies common image associations. You do not associate a staid middle-aged Japanese businessman with love, romance, and sex. If this story was written by a Japanese man rather than a Caucasian female, I would have said that the author was delusional, or perhaps that he was projecting his fantasies in his fiction. A rebel boy’s talent is first foreshadowed through his ability to perfectly dice eggplants. An unlikely romance is triggered by an unwelcome confession of unilateral love from a large sweaty Russian, who tells a story about his mother’s treasured book of impressionist paintings. The story is brimming with unlikely pairings.

One reviewer on Goodreads had this to say:

The writing is so well-crafted sentence by sentence that it ends up being somewhat characterless and a little dull in large portions. The prose in Bel Canto almost seemed as if it was written to specifically defy any editorial criticisms. It does this with aplomb, but the problem is that it never takes any risks either.

I disagree. This book takes plenty of risks. Too many by far. It defies our expectations of a novel about terrorists and hostages. It dismissed the entirety of the Latin American audience by saying nothing about Latin America. It ignores the structure of story telling. It gives away the ending. It pairs unconventional imagery. It almost never uses crafty prose at the pinch points. It has practically no action at all. And that is before we even reach the infamous out-of-left-field epilogue. And yet, this is an award winning, critically acclaimed, million selling best seller. Now, let’s try to figure out how a book that defies almost every element of a marketable story can end up being so successful.

If this book teaches us aspiring novelists anything, it is that there is life after James Scott Bell and Joseph Campbell. If you have been indoctrinated to adhere to the “hero’s journey”, the seven point story structure, and pacing the story through “motivation-reaction units”,  you will find this meandering-of-consciousness either a breath of fresh air or an abomination. This book goes against everything we have learned from How-to-Write-a-Marketable-Book instructors. Maybe being tightly plotted, fast moving, and emotionally gripping is not all there is to a book.

Another thing this book teaches us is that we should not be afraid of bad reviews. This book was destined to displease some people. Lots of people. It breaks so many conventions, there is no way it could have avoided bad reviews.

So how does this book work at all? Firstly, what kind of fiction is it? It does not seem to fit any of the seven basic plots (overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, rebirth, rebellion against the one, mystery). It is actually more like an opera than a novel. Eugene Onegin is a dull story if it were not for the music. Patchett herself says she wanted to writes something like an opera. The story matters less than the sounds.

I think it was Richard Corliss who said of the trend of intricately designed other-world movies of the early ’80s, like Alien, Bladerunner, and Dark Crystal that “texture matters more than text”. When the world you are creating is utterly compelling, what actually happens in that world does not matter as much. This can also apply to books. The first few hundred pages of the Lord of the Rings trilogy might fit this description. The texture is beautifully written, while the story hardly moves at all.

But the real strength of the atmospherics comes from the music. I looked through the internet to see if anyone had made a compilation of all the songs and musical pieces that appear in the novel. (Somebody should have made that compilation by now.) There is a big difference if you can hear the music when you read the novel or not. I am not a big fan of opera and I could not recognize some of the names of the music, and there is a marked difference when you can hear the tune in your head. This is probably one of the reasons there is such a difference in the reactions among the readers.

Japanese author Kaoru Kurimoto once wrote in her instructional book that all you really need is one sensory image that sticks to your reader’s minds. In the case of Bel Canto it is an auditory one. In particular, it is the one in which the teenage peasant guerrillas hear the soprano opera singer for the first time in their lives while trying to infiltrate the mansion through air ducts. It is from that moment on that the music becomes the “texture” that binds the story.

Ann Patchett has written quiet character studies before, but The Patron Saint of Liars was a portrait of three people. The Magicians Assistant was a portrait of two. Bel Canto features at least six central characters and as many supporting characters. The thing that ties it all together is the built-in background music. Strangely enough, the author writes that she was not an opera fan until she started researching for the book.

Bel Canto is proof that you can write a million dollar book while defying every convention of a marketable novel. It is a difficult task, but it might help you pull it off if you managed to implant a strong sensory image.

Review: “The Book in a Box Method” by Tucker Max & Zack Obront

Try to get this around your head: A book on how to write a book by Tucker Max.

If you do not know who Tucker Max is, here is his self-introduction from TuckerMax.com:

My name is Tucker Max and I am an asshole. I get excessively drunk at inappropriate times, disregard social norms, indulge every whim, ignore the consequences of my actions, mock idiots and posers, sleep with more women than is safe or reasonable, and just generally act like a raging dickhead. But, I do contribute to humanity in one very important way. I share my adventures with the world.

His best selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, is a memoir chronicling his frat boy antics. You can read some of the stories in his book on his website. He published three more books in the same vein, before writing the book I am reviewing here.

Before you bulk at the thought of getting writing lessons from the same man who tried to secretly video tape having anal sex with his girlfriend (yes, you can read that story on his website too), you have to understand that this man is also the mentor to Tim Ferriss, of The Four Hour Workweek fame.

The Book In A Box Method explains how busy professionals can write non-fiction books about their professional expertise with minimal effort through a combination of efficient outlining and dictation. Max currently runs Book in a Box.com, a full service book production firm that helps busy people publish non-fiction books by having them dictate over the phone. The client is asked to talk on the phone for a total of about twelve hours and the firm does the rest. This book explains how the firm operates and instructs would be writers (who may or may not be able to afford their services) how to efficiently write non-fiction books the Tucker Max way.

With a little imagination, the book can be useful for the fiction writer as well, although the overall efficiency may bog down somewhat. I classify all books on writing on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. This book is all about outlining in advance, and highly instructional, but is hard to place on the beginner-advanced scale. If you want to take this book at face value and use it to write a non-fiction book on, say, how to build a canoe, the book is very easy to understand, the principles are straightforward, the application is relatively simple, and the book, a slim volume of 129 pages, is a quick read. If you want to apply the principle to writing fiction, however, you would have to be an experienced and knowledgeable writer who has done a lot of writing excercizes and is thoroughly familiar with plotting and outlining fiction. You would also have to have a somewhat detached attitude toward your fictional world, which is a rare attribute for story tellers. So if you are to use this book for writing fiction, I would have to say that this book is for advanced writers only.

Dictating books, both fiction and non-fiction has been tried in the past with varied rates of success. Max succeeds by acknowledging that the spoken transcription is a different language from written text, and that editing process is more of a translation. He proposes writing the edited text directly on top of the transcribed text or, as a translator would do, write the edited text side by side on the screen next to the transcribed original. You do not delete and correct the transcribed text as you would a written text. For anyone who actually spent any time translating, this makes a lot of sense.

It is not the same thing as Hemmingway’s dogma “First drafts are always shit.” You do not treat the transcription as a first draft, but as something in a different language.

The rest is quite familar. You start out with a focussed objective of what you want to write, for what audience, to what effect. You create a detailed outline punctuated with questions that need to be answered. You insert good openings, transitions, and conclusions to every section, large and small, of your book.

The book is, of course, partly a promotion for his business. As such, it is generous with its secrets, but candid about the problems of doing it alone. If I were to write a non-fiction book about my professional expertise (of my day job, that is), I might employ his services (with the added benefit of being able to brag that I wrote a book with Tucker Max).
Depending on his rates, of course.

Review: “On Writing” by Stephen King

Before The Ring became a Hollywood movie starring Naomi Watts, it was a Japanese horror movie starring Nanako Matsushima. Before that, it was a record breaking best seller by Koji Suzuki. He was a student in a writing seminar where he wrote the first chapter of his novel as a short story. It was so popular among his fellow students, they kept asking for more, so he kept on writing every week until the novel was finished. By all accounts, it is a gripping page turner, but the prose was so poorly written I could not get past the first few pages.

This happens in every language: Badly written books becoming phenomenal best sellers.

Some writers can get away with bad writing. It is a mystery for a struggling writer like me. There is not a single book out there that teaches you how to create a badly written best seller. Most books teach you how to write well. But if your objective is to sell a lot of books, good writing is actually optional. I for one would rather be E. L. James than Faulkner.

Stephen King’s On Writing is the only instructional book I know that practically skips the issue of good writing. I do not think Stephen King is a poor writer, though he had been criticized as such. He was at the forefront of subtracting exposition from the narrative, a revolution in story telling that was highly maligned early in King’s career, but is now the standard in most fiction. (Back in the day, serious fiction had pages and pages of exposition without dialog or action, like Joseph Conrad.) Other than that, King is not Shakespeare, but he does not deserve the vitriol he took early on. That said, On Writing is short on how to write good prose and long on how to tell a good story.

I classify all books on writing on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. I would say this book lands in the pantser-inspirational-intermediate category. Stephen King is famously a pantser. He does not plot, outline, or diagram in advance. He just starts typing at the beginning and lets the story take him where it will. Sometimes, what he intended to be a short story grows into a sprawling novel.

On Writing is not structured like an instructional manual and it is frustrating to go back to it to find the lessons you picked up. But it is a much easier read than most instructional books. The author entertains while dispensing his wisdom. The book serves more to inspire rather than instruct.

The book can be destructive if taken too literally by a novice writer. According to the book, King types away two thousand words a day letting the story guide him until the first draft is done, then he turns that into a second draft which is about ten percent shorter than the first and turns it over to the publisher. Apparently, King is so talented he can practically type out the final draft in the first try. Most writers cannot do this and should not attempt it.

He also says you should not keep idea notes because they will only preserve mediocre story ideas that you are better off forgetting. He believes good ideas would be remembered. That is another piece of advice you should not follow.

He does tell you to read a whole lot and write a whole lot. In his early years he wrote constantly, collecting a thick wad of rejection letters which he impaled on a nail in the wall. After reading and writing and reading and writing, he came to a point when he could see that his stories were better than some of the published works. Eventually, the publishers saw it too. His stories started getting accepted. He has been doing the same thing ever since. That is the part that budding writers need to take home.

Since this is a man who just sits down and writes without analyzing, he has very little in the realm of technique to teach. In fact his lessons can be distilled to a page of bullet points, most of which are inspirational quotes.

So how do you create a good story? And does King succeed in elaborating it?

The answer to the first question, as King seems to be saying, is enthusiasm. Follow your excitement. Follow your smiles. Follow the words that make you gleefully clap your hands and chuckle to yourself. Follow the fun and that is where the readers will go.

The answer to the second question is: Not very well. Stories need story questions. (Will she prevail? Will he survive? Will the child escape?) Good writers focus on the story questions, and readers read for the answers. The most obvious story question for King’s memoir is “How did he do it?” but the master of story fails to focus on it. Part of the reason is that King’s life is a series of tragedies; poverty, rejection, critical enmity, alcoholism, loss, traffic accident. He needs reassurance that he can focus on his success. So he tends to focus on his mistakes, things not to do. But that is not what we the readers are here for. Any drunk can tell us about the evils of alcoholism. Only Stephen King can tell us the secrets of his success. Yet he shies away from his main story question, to our great disappointment.

I wrote about the ingredients of Stephen King’s success before. It takes some creative reading to wean them from his book. On Writing, in King’s mind, is not about the secrets of his success, although that is what we read it for. His book is about the life of a writer and how to come to terms with its inherent miseries. But reading On Writing for its life philosophy is a little like buying Playboy for the articles.

Will this book really help you write a better book? I cannot say. But it is a good book and a heartfelt story that every writer should read. What lessons you manage to glean from it is up to you.

Review: Plot Perfect by Paula Munier

There is no such thing as a bad tool, the saying goes, only a tool used for the wrong purpose. Trying to drive a nail with a screw driver can be very frustrating, as can trying to turn a Phillips head screw with a hammer. If there is a perfect tool for every task, there should be an appropriate task for every tool.

Books on how to write are like tools; a book that does not suit one writer can be helpful to another. A quick glance through Amazon or Goodreads will show you that a vast spectrum of books on writing are rated four stars or more (which is utterly unhelpful when you are trying to choose a book to buy). This is because every book is a perfect fit for somebody. The trouble is to find the best writing book for yourself.

I rate my writing books on a three dimensional graph with three axis, plotter-pantser, inspirational-instructional, beginner-advanced. Plot Perfect: Building Unforgettable Stories Scene by Scene by Paula Munier, I would say, lands squarely on the “plotter-instructional-advanced” category. I also need to add another scale and that is “completeness”. No text book can cover all the topics completely, but this book does a good job on this measure also.

Once again, we see an explanation of cards, outlines, and bubble charts, but with special emphasis on the creation of complex, contradictory characters and well constructed plot. The author is a senior agent for a literary agency that handles content for major Hollywood studios and media conglomerates and her book is clearly targeted for the professional and equivalent. It will probably be most helpful to people who have spent a good deal of time writing and have specific skills they want to horn. Not highly recommended for the first time writer looking for an entry level text to prepare for her first participation in NaNoWriMo. Munier writes:

I have a client who’s a great writer – and he has received four prestigious Pushcart Prize nominations to prove it. But despite those heady credentials and his newly minted Master of Fine Arts, he’s having trouble with plot.

That is the audience she is writing for. Her client is having trouble with plot in the same sense that Tiger Woods is having trouble with his irons. Those of us who have neither heady credentials nor an MFA might find it a better application of our time and energy to digest something more basic and fundamental before venturing into master class territory.

The main down side of this book is that, since it is directed at writers in the know, the instructions can at times be telegraphic. Her entire lecture on story setting spans all of four pages, and her epic tome on humor is a page and a half. As knowledgeable writers, we are supposed to “get it” just by reading these curt transmissions. Inevitably there will be parts we don’t get, for which she presents suggested reading material as successful examples of the kind of writing she promotes. If there are too many passages you don’t “get”, the reading list could grow pretty long.

That said, Munier’s instructions are practical and on point. With charts, diagrams, and bullet points, she lays out the blow by blow how-to’s of plot construction and character development. There are no lofty ivory tower musings or discussions of existential angst and structuralist ambiguities.

These days, every topic of learning has been divided into fractional sub-genres. Even books on writing are specialized into books on plot, characterization, story structure, dialogue, tension, prose, and other elements. This book is primarily focused on plot, a small portion of all the ingredients needed to create a novel. Yet, within the confines of its narrow range, this is the most complete book on the market. Think of a professional-level instructional book on carburetor replacement for very serious and accomplished mechanics.

Like all good instructional books, this book will direct you to more books you should read. (Seriously. When three how-to-write books in a row directs you toward Joseph Campbell, it’s time to read Joseph Campbell.) In particular, this book should inspire you to read Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon of which Munier presents an excellent case study methodically dissecting its plot elements. It would surely be helpful for the serious writer to emulate her example and try to compose their own case study on, say, Pride and Prejudice. Exercises like that will take time, and if you are not patient enough to invest your time in your push-ups and sit-ups, you need not apply. One of the reviewers on Goodreads comments “Useful, but a bit heavy on the lists of books to read and learn from.” Suck it up. Nobody said learning to write a novel was easy.

This is a very focused and very in-depth book. It should be read as such. It could be the perfect book if it fits your needs. The sad part is that we do not see more writers who are good enough and determined enough to benefit from books such as this.

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.

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.