Paul Beatty’s The Sellout Inspires a Search to Define “Comic Masterpiece”

Prominent in the cover art of the paperback for Paul Beatty’s The Sellout lies the blurb that misled me. “A Comic Masterpiece,” pronounced NPR.

Who wouldn’t want to read such a book as an antidote to these times. Unfortunately, the disconnect between a desire to read an actual comic literary masterpiece and reading one is less than amusing. Blame rests with words, as it often does when talking literature. MORE…

Quick Peek Behind the Scenes at Thug Notes

As do all good stories about a faux gangsta imbibing Hennessey while deconstructing the English literary canon whilst emerging as a popular online sage and source for high school students, university professors, and the numerous in between, the story of Wisecrack—the company behind Thug Notes’ Sparky Sweets, PhD—begins with a cute meet of two Jewish undergrads, Jacob Salamon and Jared Bauer, during a University of Texas/Austin astronomy course. And then, quickly, it moves on. MORE…

Have We Reached the Time and Place for Bad Writing Awards?

typing, behatted chimpBook honors aplenty litter the calendar. A person or group decides a collection of words are best in a designated class and thus an honor is issued. All well and good, but do the prizes promote superior writing or just encourage sales? Has a Pulitzer, Christy, Hugo, Nobel or any other literary award spurred an author to create a better novel than he or she would have otherwise? Has a publisher ever said let’s do less (copy) editing since this work definitely will (or won’t) be honored? Has an agent ever contracted a writer simply to score a few banquet tickets?

Improbable, right?

In this age of More Fine (enough) Artist factories, academia creates gobs of “good” writing, but it is also true that (more from original Easy Street essay)

Do You Miss Spelling?

IMAG0499A no judgement zone is an unlikely no judgment zone.

Not in seven months of visits to Planet Fitness with the former phrasing stuffed into the graphics on rows of machines and splattered across walls did I make out the extra “e.” The letter that makes sense, but also makes the word incorrectly spelled, finally popped while I stared at the signage on the machine in front of me between reps. Suddenly it was everywhere and I was overcome with a shaming indictment of my proofreading. Since the company had communicated its message to me perfectly well for a long time, what did it matter if they had thrown an extra “e” into the mix? … More from Original Article posted on Easy Street


A Jot of Literary Theorizing

aristotle1The four stages of literary appreciation theory, which is unnamed and still very much a work-in-progress, arrives with apologies to Aristotle and other great theorists, snippets of whose thoughts I skimmed, tried to comprehend while being schooled, and now re-regurgitate.

The goal is an aid for writers trying to consider who their audience might be as aid to story structure and creation. The working outline is of appreciation evolving through four levels, reflective of both our physical aging process as well as emotional and mental development.

First there is interest in the schnook to king (or queen) tale — a plot arc most appreciate when very young. “Schnook” and “King-Queen” are used as stand-ins for the lowly and highly placed.

The next stage of development takes places somewhere within or between the elementary school years and end of high school the primary desire is to read how the K-Q is actually a schnook (or by a plot element is exposed as the schnook s/he always was).

As the mind matures and life experience adds up there is an appreciation for twists and turns where the schnook turns into a K-Q and then back again (and sometimes back again, again).

Later in life, when a full maturity cloak is settled about the shoulders, there should be appreciation for the story that starts and ends in a different place, takes in the hills and dales, moves from where is started, but with a K-Q/schnook antagonist who neither starts nor ends at either extreme. The key attraction for the audience is the complexity of the journey that mirrors real life (while also creating a larger drama and so entertaining  escape from the reality that is being “funhouse” mirrored).

While the theory should (hopefully) develop, a germination point appeared while staring at racks of labeled books and trying to figure out why some were “fiction” and others “literature” as well as a recent discussion that touched on genre writing. The current working hypothesis regarding labeling is that “fiction” fits within the strictures of one of the first three stages while “literature” lands within the confines of stage four. (There are, of course, also marketing aspects to the labeling, but those must be set aside for now.)

And now comes the big caveat: With all things communication, as much as we know (see Arthur C. Clarke below from nearly 40 years ago), we will never know everything. The glory comes from a current generation being entertained and instructed, and later generations appreciating how much was correct.

Two Plus Two Might Equal Chipmanzee

typing, behatted chimpEfficient written communication may be considered as if it were a process similar to math or chemistry. So, trying to help a student frustrated with his/her writing, I’ll often hear myself plead, “you just have to learn ‘the formula’.” A petard (perhaps canard to some) upon which I recently found myself hoist.

As in … the mother of a student recently thanked me for his SAT writing score increasing from 610 to 710. I was pleased for him and for her, but was struck with the sadden (sic) realization that a number was being interpreted as a creativity measure. One hundred more points shouldn’t define anyone as a “better” writer, when what it really measures is an improved mastering of a process.

In this case, the process is creation of a standard five-paragraph (two-page) essay, skeletalized as:

  • Address the question in the first sentence, preferably with an thought interesting to reader and not just a recitation of what is asked
  • List and create thematic links for three main arguments in the first paragraph to support what will be said on the topic
  • Begin each of the next three paragraphs by expanding on how one of the arguments is relevant, and then add two to three specific examples and evidential support
  • In final paragraph acknowledge others differ, before briefly highlighting how they focus on the question from a more limited scope, or use tainted evidence
  • Conclude a couple sentences later suggesting that the actual conclusion is at least slightly more far reaching than specifically detailed in the essay
  • Edit with an eye out for tics that put off readers. These include sentences under (somewhat arbitrarily) five words or more than 15 and paragraphs of fewer than four or more than six sentences. Reduce or eliminate qualifiers (such as “maybe,” “possibly,” “at least,” and “seemingly”), and review for spelling, grammar and repetitious use of words that can be deleted or replaced with synonyms.

Checking off the points leads to SAT score improvement and a likely ace of Freshman English. My student had written better, but from the short time in which we worked together I knew he had cared little and perhaps not at all about his subject. Effective is not necessarily affective. For that kind of communication to happen, the creator has to have passion for the subject, which is never formulaic. SAT scoring be damned, real communication between writer and reader requires that the never-formulaic be aped.

King for a Reason

Stephen King glides to the rescue for all who are flummoxed when arguing the why’s of teaching writing or English. In a frillless-and-fantastic Q&A with The Atlantic’s Jessica Lahey he explains for every level the importance of good communications skills and joys to be found in reading, as well as how to teach them to even the most recalcitrant and obstreperous (as examples of words not to use) students.

Highlights include:

  • Always ask the student writer, “What do you want to say?” Every sentence that answers that question is part of the essay or story. Every sentence that does not needs to go.
  • I would say [to high school students], “The truth is always eloquent.” To which they would respond, “Mr. King, what does eloquent mean?”

Not to throw another stick under the boil being made of the Common Core, but while Stephen King is too busy to design the common core for English and writing instructions, all the “chefs” should keep his recipes at hand.

As a note, the article grew from King’s On Writing, which those of you “cooking” at home are well-advised to keep at hand next to your Strunk & White.

Give Me An Audience or Give Me Death vs. Let Me Type in Peace

knife in bookFor the writer hoping to gain an audience and (or) money, the advice pendulum swings between two smart men.

According to James Boswell, according to Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” According to Mark Twain, “Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

Caught in the middle of the sages, you have to write for yourself, but always with the hope of reaching others. You cannot count on them to care like you about what you care about. But be fair, what they care about may not inspire the most memorable brain to fingertips connections. Which, again, is why not every person who is able to type or tweet or cast pods or communicate with words gets to make a living as a writer. In most cases, it would certainly be beneficial for everyone if people in the States cared more about the written word (particularly mine … and maybe yours), but it is important not to get too caught up in what cannot be or at least currently isn’t. Often it is a hazard to actually working.

Also, if a certain story coming out of Russia is true — that a gent stabbed his friend for loving prose more than poetry — then maybe its best that writing doesn’t always inspire life or death passions and one should let the comic-tragedy serve as a reminder to put one’s head back down, one’s fingers back on the keyboard, and one’s attention back to putting out the best possible of one’s own words because that is what you do, for whatever reason you do it.

9 Ways a Writers’ Group Is Equivalent to a Haggle of Corporate Consultants

Thurber husband wife sealIt’s not that either being part of a writing group or engaging corporate consultants are bad ideas, per se. They’re just not always a good idea either, depending on how their “collective wisdom” is put to use. Not to endorse the writing or communicative form, but just to note the current fad for the Buzzfeed-like listicles currently sweeping a click-driven, social media-frenzied writing society, here are nine equivalencies between working with a peer group of scribblers and a haggle of consultants (or murder of crows, smack of jellyfish, pack of mules, etc., if any of those work better for you).

  1. Often companies hire consultants to tell them what they already know they need to do: similarly most writers “know” how to fix their work, they just don’t want to, because it includes rereading their prose with a critical eye and killing particular words or phrases they have fallen in love with, but that don’t fit, or they recognize they will have to do the hard work of rethinking and rewriting when they would really like to be done and receiving praise for their genius.
  2. Pretty much all flattery without qualification should be eyed suspiciously (at best) and accepted with an eye on  the motives of the flatterer.
  3. Corporate consultants and writing group peers most often talk a much better game than they’ll ever play. (A key to consider is that many consultants and writing group peers have limited, sometimes even no real success for the field/genre for which they are providing opinions.)
  4. Companies and writers go wrong when they take on a completely new idea, too far outside their comfort or competency zone.
  5. Neither the group nor haggle are useless, as in addition to “giving permission” to do the burdensome, they sometimes offer an insight into implementation. (As a writer, the key is to listen to the advice given by the voices in your head. If there are too many there’s a problem, if there’s only one, yours, the work will suffer. Work to discover the chorus.)
  6. Advice profferers often begin to contradict themselves when pressed to move beyond the glib and apply the details of how their solution eases the problem. (Make sure to press!)
  7. Advisors often impose their own baggage (prejudices and preferences they often won’t admit to) in their study and solution to their advisee’s work.
  8. Peers and professionals can turn the experience of “advice-giving” into a jackals-tearing-at-the-flesh one if you (or the company management) doesn’t stay firm to core mission, which, whether related to the essence of the business or most important themes, characters and conflicts of the work, is better understood before the process is begun.
  9. Corporate consultant and writing group advice isn’t always wrong or distracting from core mission and values, but it must always be intellectually ingested with a grain  (or perhaps a full tablespoon) of salt — if such as an image can be swallowed — or else it will likely cost more (in money or emotional distress) than the benefits provided.

* Thanks, of course, to the great James Thurber for the perfect illustration of how pretty much everyone should listen to advice.