Friday, 27 April 2012

Random thought about a character in a future fiction

He is one of those people who thinks modesty corrodes the soul.

Saturday, 21 April 2012


Warning: rant ahead

I have been asked to write an article about six first-time American novelists and 'recent trends in American fiction'.  The book reviews editor of the Sunday supplement in which this article will appear chose the six novelists on the basis of reviews published in leading American newspapers. The books were delivered to me with a strict injunction that I was not to read other reviews of these books. I found the books well written and competent but not in the end exciting. I didn't come away with the feeling that I had encountered major new talents, and I didn't add any of the author's names to my watch list.  (None of the six books has appeared, or will appear, on my reading list 'Books 2012' here.)

All six of these 'serious' novels begin with an acknowledgements section. Five of the six authors list the writing courses or seminars and certificate programmes they have attended. Three of these five authors list one course; two authors list two. The sixth author apparently has not attended a formal course in writing, but she thanks her writing circle as well as an arts organisation that gave her a grant that allowed her to stay at a artists' retreat for several months and finish her book. All six mention feedback from an impressive array of friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues, as well as the help of agents and editors and other publishing personnel. Three of the authors cite specialists who helped them with points of law, medicine, and psychology. More than any other aspect of these works, these acknowledgements pages attracted my attention. Since that subject is outside my brief for the article I am writing, I decided to discuss it here.

Such acknowledgements are not confined to serious works. As anyone who has glanced at the Books 2012 page here will know, I consume a lot of junk food for the mind, such as mysteries and science fiction. Over the past three decades, writers of such works have come increasingly to include an acknowledgements page listing, among others, the experts who gave them technical help.

Does any of this matter? Without much effort, one could compile lists of competent writers who never had a lesson in writing as well as those who have emerged from writing programmes. It also would take little effort to list many incompetent published writers from both groups. Writing programmes and courses do force an aspiring author to write, and practice in writing is never wasted. Some of these aspiring writers would probably arrive at the same point on their own; the programmes simply provide an environment that forces them to work out their problems with writing. Any participant in these programmes would undoubtedly benefit from the critical eye of a good teacher. Works written for such programmes tend to incorporate the instructors' views, however, especially if getting a good grade in the course and eventually receiving the certificate depends on satisfying the teachers. There is always the danger that rather than helping a writer achieve a personal voice, the programme will teach them to write to a formula or to think of writing in terms espoused by the teacher. (I have found that graduates of such programmes tend, for example, to be obsessed with 'point of view' and to be on continual alert for any violation of a unitary point of view in a work. This seems to be the latest successor to the Three Unities. I think the better advice would be to always be aware of how point of view can be exploited and played with.)

Friends, relatives, teachers, and colleagues can be helpful, but advice per se is not necessarily useful. And more often than not one receives a different opinion from each of them. The writer still has to choose, and it's been my experience that authors (like all of us) are quite capable of dismissing, indeed ready to do so, views that diverge from their own or would require a lot of work. Some of the most injurious advice comes from those who praise an author. The last thing an author needs to be told is how good the work is--the best advice deals with how to make the work better. But when confronted with praise from X and criticism from Y, how many of us are going to think more of Y, especially if it means a major rewrite?

By consulting experts, an author may improve the accuracy of the details in works that touch on specialised subjects or fields, but it does nothing to improve the quality of the writing or of the overall work (there are many of the opinion that the accuracy of details is a major factor in assessing quality; I happen to feel that this ignores the nature of fiction, but that is quite a different subject from the one I am discussing here--this may become the subject of a future posting). The apparent purpose of acknowledging the experts an author has consulted is to lodge a claim of accuracy and to make the story seem plausible. I have consulted an expert in dart throwing and hence the poison-tipped dart that pierced Lord Darlington's heart is a realistic means of murder. These claims are often followed by "Any remaining errors are my own", which is nothing more than a disingenuously modest assertion that the credit really belongs to the author.

Agents' opinions are directed mainly towards what needs to be done in order to improve the works' chances of finding a publisher--their concerns tend to be driven by the market (after all, their income depends on pleasing the market). Editors can be extraordinarily helpful in catching inconsistencies as well as grammatical errors, typos, and misusages, but they, like agents, are ultimately concerned with the market--their livelihoods depend on sales.

As must be apparent, I am doubtful about the benefits of credentialing. For me, the interesting question is not Is this valuable? but Why do authors and the publishers who include these acknowledgements think readers will be impressed? Does a certificate from the University of Iowa Writing Program convince us that the work that follow is worth reading? Does a list of the names of the twenty-five readers who offered the author comments on the work as it was being written guarantee that the work is good?

The purpose of all this credentialing appears to be to reassure the reader that the author is qualified to write and has done the research necessary to make the work accurate. Credentialing as a phenomenon seems to have begun in scientific and technological fields. Should I need an operation, the list of letters after the surgeon's name is at least some assurance of competence. I could dress like a surgeon and wield a scalpel, but it would be unwise of you to let me near you with one in my hand. As skills have become more technical and the acquisition of bodies of knowledge more time-consuming, credentialing has assumed more importance. The perceived need for credentialing in these fields seems to have spilled over into other fields, where a certificate of training is less necessary or even totally unnecessary.

Another reason for the growth of credentialing may be the growth of education. Our higher-education systems now offer degrees in an incredible range of subjects, and along with this growth has come a need to justify the necessity of these degrees. There seems to have been a progression from the view that a degree in, say, history indicates some knowledge of the past to the not unreasonable view that those with degrees in history may have more knowledge of the past than those without such degrees to the somewhat iffy view that they are hence better qualified to speak on the subject. The danger is that this sometimes becomes only those with degrees in history are qualified to speak on the past. The last is certainly an option exercised by many academic historians, who can be quite ruthless in dismissing the opinions of anyone without the proper licenses to have an opinion. Granted training in historical 'science' may help develop the skills historians need, but these are not difficult skills to master. The insistence on the proper acquisition in accredited schools of the skills of 'the science of history' owes much to the desires to limit entrance to the field and to justify the ego-defenses necessary to maintain a feeling of superiority to 'amateurs'.

And now credentialing is spreading to fields that depend primarily on talent, such as writing or painting or music-making. All the training in the world, all the mastery of theory or bodies of knowledge, will not make anyone a good writer or a good painter or a good musician. A course in oil painting may introduce one to the basics of mixing paints--indeed one may become a master in mixing paints as a result of the course--and that knowledge may improve the quality of one's output, but it remains no more than a skill. Properly mixed paints don't create a good painting by themselves. Following the precept that one 'should show and not tell' does not guarantee that what one is being shown is worth reading. A unitary point of view is simply a unitary point of view, not a guarantee of a good story.

It seems to me that many of these courses concentrate on the mastery of techniques. This is understandable--technique can be taught and mastered; talent cannot. A writing instructor may point out to a pupil that his characters are wooden and stereotypical and may even be able to show the writer how he should be thinking about his characters to make them more lifelike. But if the student is tone-deaf psychologically and simply can't understand others, no amount of training will help him overcome this defect. Authors offer stereotypical characters not only because they are lazy and resort to clichés but also because that's how they envision other people.

IMHO, aspiring authors should spend their time reading rather than taking courses.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Home and the dying

A friend of ours died last week of a condition called Levy's syndrome. It's one of those awful brain and nerve deterioration diseases. It is described as a cross between Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. People who have it lose both motor control and mental abilities. The first apparent symptom, a problem with walking, appeared about two years ago. Within a few months he began forgetting how to do simple tasks, such as how to get water into a drinking glass. The progress of the disease is not constant. Some days he was fine and lucid and relatively in control. Other times he had hallucinations or could barely walk.  Last October, he had to be put in a care home because he needed full-time professional nursing. About two weeks before he died, he lost the ability to swallow and had to be fed through a tube. His white blood cell count was over ten times the normal level, and his kidneys ceased to function.

His wife had to make some terrible decisions. When his kidneys failed, she was given the option of dialysis, which would have meant loading her husband into an ambulance, transporting him for nearly an hour to a dialysis centre, and then returning him to the care home in another ambulance. She was told that dialysis is painful and that it would stave off death only by a few days, a week at most. She decided against that. I suspect that, like most of us who have had to care for someone who is dying, she concluded that further treatment would be cruel and that allowing the person to die is the final kindness one can do. That knowledge doesn't make the decision easier.

The doctors and the nurses can only outline the options and try to present them as factually as possible. The standards of their professions don't allow them to counsel allowing the patient to die. Our priests also cannot condone assisted suicide or murder through neglect. Their standards tell them to offer prayer and hope and to counsel acceptance. These professionals' ability to help one decide is limited but they do acquiesce, silently but efficiently, when they feel the decision is right. Friends and relatives can be a bit more open, but the burden always falls on the spouse or children to make the final decision.

All of us know the rationalisations--'It's what he would have wanted,' etc. In truth, guilt and relief go hand-in-hand. It's difficult to avoid that thought that in ending someone else's suffering, we are also ending ours.

The care home was a torment for our friend. By the end he had forgotten most everything except that fact that he wanted to be at home. That was often the only thought he had. When we visited (which became harder and harder to do), he would repeat over and over, 'Take me home. I want to go home.'  He knew his wife almost until the end and knew that she was the only person who could decide to remove him from the care home. He sometimes became very angry with her that she wouldn't do this for him. When we spoke with her after his death, she focused on the fact that her husband had wanted to go home and that she hadn't been able to grant his wish. She felt guilty about that--unnecessarily. All we could do was to assure her that she had made the right decision.

One of my aunts spent her last weeks in a care home. She, too, was constant in her demands to be taken home. My father chose to die at home rather than in a hospice, even though he knew that it meant a lower standard of care. People with terminal illnesses seem to have this desire to be somewhere they identify as 'home'. Even when the person knows that death is imminent, 'home' seems a refuge. That feeling is understandable when the other choice is a hospital or a care home, which are gruesome at best. I have been inside only one hospice. It attempted to provide a 'homey' environment, but that made its institutional nature all the more evident. One's lair or den seems the best place to die.

All this prompted another discussion between Lewis and myself, assuming that we will have a choice. It's made more complicated in our case because we are not legally spouses in many places and our legal right to make such decisions would not be recognised. We have living wills, but again those are not legally binding in many places. Niamh, I know, would accept Lewis's decision. Lewis's nearest relatives are his two siblings, one of whom lives in California and the other in Boston. Lewis has told them of his wishes. I don't think there will be a problem, should it become necessary. The worst would be to be kept in a twilight state because of a legal problem. I hope we can avoid that.

A related thought: I have read that married people live longer. Of course, these statements take heterosexual couples and marriage as norms. Long-term unwed heterosexual or same-sex couples are not factored in, as far as I know.  We seem to be counted automatically among the lonely unweds. The implication of most of these studies is that marriage makes people satisfied and happy, and that happy and satisfied people live longer. I think there might be another explanation, and that is the power of nagging. A partner (married or unwed) is likely to encourage the other partner to seek medical help if there is a problem.

I had my annual check-up a few weeks back. My doctor's office asks people to turn the mobiles off. I had barely exited the office and turned my phone back on before Lewis rang to ask if I had remembered to show the doctor the dark spot on the skin under my right eye. Had I mentioned the stiffness in my legs and asked about post-polio syndrome? What did the doctor say about the arthritis in my right thumb? Was my high blood pressure improving? A week later, I no sooner walked into our house than Lewis handed me a letter from my doctor with the lab results and ordered me to open it and show it to him. The doctor said that there were no problems except for a slight dip in the 'good' cholesterol reading and that I should get more exercise and to see him if my legs got worse. More nagging. Because of my blood pressure, salt has become a dirty word in our household, and soda bread has been banished. I am sick of hearing about post-polio syndrome and being watched for problems with moving and having my stiffness fussed over. (I'm getting old, Lewis. Some stiffness is normal.) It's great to have someone who cares so much and I hope that Lewis is healthy, but I would like him to have at least one small problem that I could nag him about.