May 2007


According to this morning’s Richmond Times-Dispatch, a search warrant of Michael Vick’s property where dog fighting regularly took place still hasn’t been executed. The wheels of justice turn slowly for the rich. According to Vick’s pal Portis, Michael should be able to do whatever he wants with the dogs since they’re his property. When I was researching Time and Time Again, I found several gruesome accounts of fights between slaves staged by their owners for their gambling pleasure. These were no-holds-barred contests that often resulted in one of the men’s death, but hey, those guys could do whatever they wanted with their property, right? It’s one thing when we brutalize each other, but when humans breed and brutalize animals for entertainment, we sink to a new low. I’m not much on prisons, but in this case, perhaps the dogfighters could be adorned with pork chop necklaces and thrown into a cellar with a pack of hungry pissed off pit bulls, and they could discuss their property rights with them. Since Vick is a rich athlete, however, I doubt anything will happen to him.

I was discussing with Sarah a realistic novel she’s reading, and she related being bounced out of the fictional dream by a lapse in plausibility. The emotional power of the scene in question was completely undercut by her doubts that the characters would have gotten themselves in that situation to begin with. My favorite summation of the issue is by Edith Merrilees: “Plausibility is the morality of fiction.” This issue comes up all the time in creative writing classes in which students will defend an implausible bit of plot in a story based on “real life” by objecting, “but that’s the way it really happened!” Too bad. The bar is set higher in fiction. It has to be more persuasive because it’s fiction, and the reader assumes it never really happened. I’m currently immersed in Kelly Link and Jeffrey Ford stories where anything can happen and often does, but especially in such stories in which the narrative logic creates its own reality, plausibility is essential. If the imagined reality is inconsistent, then the reader is jarred out of the dream. Beginning writers are fond of giving characters immense magic powers, but then can’t explain why the characters ever have any difficulties the magic won’t solve. The Matrix movies always left me wondering why anyone would waste time fighting in a virtual world. Coincidence presents a particular difficulty. Life is full of them. Novels are full fo them. In general, however, a reader will accept an unlucky coincidence before a lucky one. Bad luck, I suppose, seems more plausible than good luck. A story can begin with good fortune–someone winning the lottery or discovering a magic amulet—but after that the reader will be skeptical of any more happy accidents.

Reading snippets from all the graduation speeches passing out advice to future leaders, future followers, future whatevers, I thought I’d address aspiring writers with my two cents worth. First off, I suppose, is to read everything. Don’t like to read? Don’t write.

Learn to live cheaply. Learn how to cook, to sew, to take care of yourself. Shop in used clothing stores. Do without a car. Use your own body to get around, to do things. You’ll spend quite enough time sitting on your ass developing back trouble and hemmoroids.

Fall in love. Trust. Be trustworthy.

Write. Write some more.

Rejoice.

The righteous chest-beating debate drones on, denouncing illegal immigrants as nefarious lawbreakers destroying America. I’m reminded of similar debates in my youth of the lawbreaking civil rights protesters who wouldn’t eat where they were supposed to eat or go to the schools made just for them. If you’re my age (about to turn sixty) you don’t have to ask too many agemates to find someone who recalls their grandparents who immigrated from Europe. Many speak of their grandmothers “who never learned English” and who didn’t wait in long lines to get into the country but basically “just had to show up.” My parents spoke fondly of the neighborhood where they grew up in Denver being filled with immigrants from several different countries. Most were poor, hard-working, looking for a better life. Most were white. Now the lines are years and years long, and most regular folks shouldn’t bother to queue up since they haven’t a chance of ever getting in legally. My friends who are here legally face no end of harrassment from the INS and have little chance of becoming citizens. The Statue of Liberty, once the proud symbol of America’s welcoming ways is to be replaced by bigger and better walls. Don’t give us your poor anymore; we only want Ph.D.’s. It breaks my heart.

“The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel, without incurring the accusation of being arbitrary, is that it be interesting.” That’s Henry James in the “Art of Fiction.” If your readers get to the bottom of the page and turn it, you’re in the game. Don’t listen to complaints that you’ve violated this genre boundary or ignored some aesthetic principle or other. It’s not a sport. There’s no rulebook for fiction. Conversely, no matter how well a piece of fiction captures your Original Vision or suits your (or your writing instructor’s) favorite program for Good Fiction or how damn smart you feel when you write it, if it’s dull, then Henry James and I humbly suggest revision.

Rereading Neil Gaiman in preparation for a class I’m teaching this summer, I’m reminded of the importance of voice in fiction. Read him aloud—the prose sings. During the process of writing and rewriting, I often read aloud, and before a piece is done—poem, novel, short story, doesn’t matter—I print it up and read it through as if for a public reading. Anything I stumble over or doesn’t sound right, I revise until the voice is right. Ideally each piece should have its own distinctive voice, inseparable from the story being told. A story’s not just words on a page, pixels on a screen, it’s someone speaking, inviting others to listen.

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker began a recent column with the following:

“In a nation where 91 percent of citizens profess to believe in God, it’s a safe bet we won’t see an atheist in the White House any time soon.”

I don’t doubt her assertion, but it did raise a few questions in my mind. I’m an atheist, but I’ve voted for Christians , Jews, god-believers of all sorts, without hesitation. I’ve counted among my friends ministers, priests, rabbis, and wiccan priestesses. Is there something about the belief in God that prompts religious intolerance? Clearly, if her numbers are right, there must be people in that 91 percent who murder, commit treason, steal, lie to the American public. Clearly belief in God is no guarantee of anything. Kropotkin in his Ethics and in Mutual Aid lays out but one moral system that doesn’t depend upon God, and Taoism is a moral, but godless religion. So what’s your problem, God-believers? Don’t you believe in religious tolerance? Should the pledge read “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all—except atheists”? Or maybe Kathleen is wrong and belief in God doesn’t close people’s minds. Maybe someday there will be an atheist president. What do you think?

Virginia Wright, an artist who took my science fiction class at Virginia Commonwealth University last summer sent me the picture below, her sculpture inspired by the the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (I show both the ’56 and ’78 versions in the class). I think it’s terrific!

Mother’s Day wasn’t always another excuse to consume. Julia Ward Howe’s “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” proclaimed quite a different purpose for such a holiday in 1870. It seems particularly relevant these days:

Mother’s Day Proclamation

Arise, then, women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts,
Whether our baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”
From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace,
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God.
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And at the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

The makers of OxyContin just admitted that they knowingly and deliberately deceived doctors—and chronic pain sufferers—by saying that their drug was not an addictive opiate, thus addicting thousands. The local street dealers at least tell you what they’re selling you (unless it’s talcum powder) and nobody ever lost an election by calling for locking those guys up and throwing away the key. But if you’re rich enough, you can pay a big fine with the profits you make off your drugs, and keep selling the drugs to boot. No one’s going to serve a minute of hard time, because, well, they’re rich, aren’t they? So if you want to be a crook, think big, incorporate, make a contribution to the economy, and you can keep doing business. It’s the American way.

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