Is “What Belongs To You” Truly An Instant Classic?

Back when I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other newspapers I used to feel that my colleagues sometimes had a pack mentality. One would start howling praise for a book and soon the cries would echo across the nation. The raves were sometimes so over-the-top they often triggered the contrarian in me: was the book really stupendous? When I’d go on a tour for one of my own books, people at all sorts of venues would take me aside and confess that they didn’t like this latest literary sensation, and seemed embarrassed to admit it.

Last year, the panegyrics about Iowa MFA graduate Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You  put me off, especially one by James Wood in The New Yorker, since he’s not a critic whose opinion I rely on. But when a student recently told me he was reading the book, I decided to check it out.

The narrator’s a gay American teacher in Bulgaria who gets involved with a hustler he meets in a public toilet. One British reviewer said the novel made her tremble; another hailed it as “incandescent”; a New York Times reviewer hailed the novel as an “instant classic.” Many reviewers have marveled at the prose, but I found too much of it dull and straining for effect. Using initials for characters’ names also seemed like a gimmick to make the book feel edgy.

But the major problem I had was with the hustler who’s a dull, obnoxious, demanding, dishonest grifter. We’re supposed to believe in the narrator’s intense attraction to Mitko, yet his most distinguishing features are a chipped tooth and a big penis. The sex scenes are very bland, which is problematic since the narrator’s obsession is what drives the plot forward, or at least nudges it. The novel’s framing sections are just way too languid. The middle section works best because the prose is more direct and compelling, less writerly, as we experience the narrator’s terrible nightmare of shame growing up with a brutal father and a treacherous, manipulative best friend.

I didn’t quiver reading that part of the book, and my iPad screen didn’t get brighter on its own, but I felt the author was more deeply engaged. He spoils it, though, when he has the narrator find a horse in a Bulgarian monastery at the end of the section. “It was tied up, I saw, it could have wandered off anytime it chose; but there was nowhere for it to go, of course, and the cart I supposed was heavy and there was something meager to be had there where it stood.”

Did we really need a heavy-handed reminder that the narrator was trapped in Sofia and living on emotional crumbs? This was like one of those melodramatic songs at the end of a movie whose lyrics explain what you just saw–in case you weren’t paying attention for the previous two hours.  I almost stopped reading at that point because it struck me as the sign of a writer who didn’t have faith in his readers’ intelligence.  Or in his own talent.  I kept going though the novel never really recovered from that low point.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in many genres, from memoir to mystery. His most recent book explores police over-reaction: Assault With a Deadly Lie, which was a Midwest Book Award finalist.

Writers Need to Respect the Audience

I just heard from a friend who attended a conference workshop where a professor droned on endlessly, repeating what was on his elaborate, dull PowerPoint. I’ve seen this happen in the academic world myself, and it shows a profound lack of respect for the audience. What could be more boring and alienating?

But that kind of approach isn’t limited to academics. I’ve attended too many author readings and presentations where the writers seem to have no sense of their audience. No sense that the event isn’t just about them, it’s about making a connection, about reaching and moving the people in whatever the venue, whether it’s a bookstore, a library, a theater, or a hall.

I’ve seen authors reading from their books in a low, dreary monotone, barely glancing up at the audience. I was at one event like that where a writer friend next to me fell quietly asleep and woke up full of questions because she’d missed some crucial passages.  She asked me as softly as possible: “What accident? Who was driving? Who was the girl in the ditch?” The answers didn’t really matter because the author kept on in his sleep-inducing mode.  That was one writer who not only had no audience awareness, he had never bothered learning something basic: how to project his voice.

I’ve also seen writers allotted fifteen minutes in a panel presentation go way over their time limit and be totally oblivious to the rising tension and anxiety of the other panelists.  These time hogs clearly hadn’t rehearsed at home what they were going to read and timed it.  And then gone one important step further: cut the piece by a few minutes so that just in case they slowed down during the actual event, they would stay within their scheduled time slot.  By going over, they were treating their fellow authors with unconscious disdain.

And I’ve seen writers make cringe-worthy comments that set the audience on edge.  “I wasn’t sure what I was going to read tonight.”  Really?  You’re the professional, you should be sure.  “This next part always makes me cry.”  If that’s true, then don’t read it, because if you don’t cry people will be wondering why not, and if you do cry it’ll interrupt the flow and likely be embarrassing.  And aren’t we the ones who are supposed to be moved, not you?  “The reviewers hated this, but I love it.”  Sorry, but a reading isn’t the time for unloading snark.

Author readings and talks are performances.  They demand planning and thoughtful consideration.  Anything else is cheating the audience, it’s taking listeners for granted, and not treating them with the respect they deserve.  Too bad not enough authors realize that.  Instead, they come to their events minimally prepared, as if all they have to do is show up, be themselves, and wait for the applause.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres included a guide to the writing life: Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Writers Don’t Need Strangers’ Ideas–They Need Time

I’ve lost track of how often people over the course of my career have told me at parties or on book tours  great ideas they had for my next novel. I’m glad they’re enthusiastic, but my response is always, “Thanks.  You should write it.”

I don’t need ideas.  I have too many of them.  Right now, the books I’m working on include a WW II novel, a medieval novel, a novel set during the Russian Revolution, another set during the First Century in Judea, and one taking place during The Gilded Age.  Some are notes, some have been started, some have research files.

What I really need is a clone who can finish all the novels I wish I could finish the research for and write.  My time has become more limited ever since I started teaching creative writing and literature at Michigan State University.

I’ve generally taught only one course a semester, but I twice did MSU’s English Department a favor and filled in for someone who was promoted one Spring, so I taught two courses that semester.  I also taught a six-week summer course in London, filling in for a professor who had a family issue.  I love teaching, it’s in my DNA since my mother and her father were teachers, but to do it well and to mentor students means my writing can’t be on the front burner the way it used to be.

So the very last thing I need is anyone “offering” me a book.

What these helpful volunteers don’t realize is this: I don’t want other people to do my imagining for me–that’s one of the great joys of writing.  Getting suggestions, especially when they’re very detailed, is like being splashed with a bucket of cold water.

I’ve published 25 books, but I’m not a machine like some writers I know who can crank out one or more books every year, year after year.  I’m not a fast writer in general.  I need time to reflect, and that reflection is a solo job until I’m ready to share what I’m working on with my spouse who’s a great sounding board and copyeditor.

If you’re a writer reading this: how often do people hand you “prefect books” to write?

Among Lev Raphael’s many books is The Nick Hoffman mystery series, set in the wilds of academia.

How Writers Should Handle Bad Reviews

Don’t tweet that the reviewer is an absolute moron who deserves exile to Chechnya or at least a lifetime of bad sex and lukewarm meals. It’ll only make you seem nutty, and most people won’t know about the review until you tell them anyway.

Don’t make snarky, veiled remarks about this reviewer when you’re interviewed, because sulking and bitterness will just end up making you come off as a crank who should get a life or see a shrink.

Don’t take to substance abuse, stalking, or looking up all the other reviews this nimrod has done to see if yours is the worst, or otherwise push the dagger in any further.

Don’t write the reviewer directly or write the publication the review appeared in to complain. You’ll only come off as an asshole and invite a public reply which always leaves the reviewer with the last word.

So what should you do?

Accept it.  Bad reviews are as much a hazard of publishing as losing an editor, hating your latest book cover, suffering low attendance at a book reading, and people endlessly asking you if you know Stephen King.

Spend some time re-reading your good reviews if you can’t let go of that bad one, and remind yourself that not everyone is as blind, lacking in taste, or mentally deficient as that reviewer is.

Go out and party–or better yet, sit down and write something terrific because you know that one thing is for certain, as the Latin saying has it: ars longa, vita brevis.  That means “Reviewers suck and most of them are losers.  Sad.”

Most importantly, have someone you trust examine the review dispassionately just in case the reviewer might have possibly stumbled on something remotely helpful. Then have that person write it down, put it in a bottle, seal the bottle carefully and throw it into the nearest body of water.

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

10 Reasons Why Anyone Can Be a Writer

1–Because writing is just a craft like carpentry and if you can build a bookcase, you can write Infinite Jest, or at least Pride and Prejudice.

2–Because even your mother did NaNoWriMo. Twice.

3–Because there are apps for everything.

4–Because spell check does half the work and bestsellers can’t be all that hard anyway.

5–Because all you need is passion, patience, and a fondness for rejection–just like stalkers.

6–Because agents are a dying breed, traditional publishers are thieves, and Amazon is wide open.

7–Because there are more people willing to take your money in creative writing programs than there are people phishing for your social security number.

8–Because anyone can be a dancer, a musician, a painter, an actor, or a neurosurgeon–you just have to want it badly enough. Talent doesn’t matter.

9–Because every other writing blog filled with writing tips tells you so.

10–Because there are a million inspiring fake Mark Twain quotes on the Internet  that will give you the courage to try.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in a wide range of genres from memoir to mystery.

(this list originally appeared on The Huffington Post)

Commencement Speeches Have Nothing To Do With Free Speech

It’s that special time of year when protests erupt over commencement speakers at various colleges and universities around the country.  Then editorial writers and talking heads blather endlessly about the subject, and comment sections on web sites erupt in abuse and foolishness.

2014-09-30-talkingheadsI’ve watched the yearly uproar about commencement speakers being invited (or uninvited) with disappointment.  Why?  Because the discussion is consistently off base.

One thread that comes up over and over is that students protesting a speaker’s invitation interfere with free speech. That’s just idiotic, and completely misunderstands the Bill of Rights.  Someone like Dick Cheney, for instance, is free to speak about his beliefs, his past, his hopes and dreams, his view of foreign affairs, whatever he likes anywhere he wants to.  And he does. He’s a public figure and can appear on TV talk shows, can publish Op Ed pieces, blogs, essays and books.

But the First Amendment says nothing about people who are invited to speak somewhere and are paid to do so.  It specifically refers to government intervention in individual expression.  That’s just not the case where a speaker proves controversial and campus protests arise.

Just as foolish as invoking “free speech”: the noxious moralizing about how students should be open to a free expression of ideas.  The Washington Post editorial board hasn’t been alone in taking that tack, but are they for real? After four years of college, you don’t want a lecture in the middle of a grueling, dull, long ceremony in the heat–and you shouldn’t get one.  Some schools even have two speakers from opposite political sides of a question to “promote open discussion.”  What a joke!

graduates_1Commencement speeches aren’t seminars or workshops with Q&A.  They’re supposed to be inspiring and entertaining.  Funny, if possible.  They’re throwaway, forgettable, a moment’s ornament as Edith Wharton put it in another context.  And that’s okay, because graduation is about transitions, about moving on, about celebration.  The ceremony isn’t an intellectual milestone for anyone involved. It’s not meant to go down in history, and the speaker sure isn’t Moses coming down from the mountain top.

Academic freedom doesn’t suffer and nobody’s rights are interfered with if someone gets invited at a very hefty fee to speak to a graduating class of students, and is suddenly uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  What a laugh. The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with or gets in the mail.

colbertLev Raphael is the author of the suspense novel Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in many genres which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Was Shakespeare Shady?

Recent studies show that conspiracy theories are highly democratic. These loony beliefs “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” So despite all the evidence, there are people who maintain that President Obama wasn’t born in the U.S., and just as tendentiously, there are people of all kinds who fervently believe that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays.
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They’ll present a blizzard of proofs that melt  under close inspection and have suggested dozens of candidates as the “true author” over the last 150 years including Ben Jonson, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sydney, The Freemasons, Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, The Rosicrucians, a whole assortment of nobles, poets and playwrights—and even Queen Elizabeth.There are many ferocious arguments and they start with a bogus negative. The Refuseniks simply cannot believe that someone who wasn’t upper class and a world traveler could have been a brilliant writer. This shows a gross misunderstanding of the creative mind and contemptuous snobbery. What about Jane Austen, the Brontës, James Joyce, and Dickens?

The  Shakespeare Deniers make lots of flimsy claims, as well as assertions that are anachronistic. These might look solid at first glance, convincing people who don’t know the period Shakespeare wrote in. Deep-fried Doubters want you to believe that there have always been suspicions about “authorship,” but that’s completely false.  Nobody in Shakespeare’s time and for years afterwards every doubted that he wrote the plays. The “controversy” started in the middle of the 19th century.

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And one of the main “proofs” that he didn’t write the plays is this: we don’t have any of his manuscripts or his handwriting. Well, guess what? That doesn’t mean anything at all. University of Chicago’s David Bevington, a Professor of English, notes that “the lack of manuscripts, of handwriting samples . . . are what one would expect of a playwright of the period, even the most famous. We don’t read and preserve movie scripts today, and often do not even know who wrote a movie we particularly like. Play scripts were like that in the Renaissance. They existed to enable an acting company to put on a play. The wonder is that so many of Shakespeare’s plays were published at all. We have no manuscripts of plays by Marlowe or Jonson or Webster, even though some of their plays rival Shakespeare’s in their literary and dramatic qualities.”
The Nonbelievers also argue that Shakespeare was barely mentioned in his own time. But that’s simply not true if you bother to read that great Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro’s book Contested Will. There was solid contemporary commentary about Shakespeare. People who claim otherwise are discounting inconvenient evidence that shakes and topples their conspiratorial Tower of Babel.
Shapiro dives deeply and amusingly into the slumgullion of falsehoods and half-truths cooked up with rabid intensity by a thriving industry that can easily convince the gullible and the uninformed.  But let’s face it: going against the settled truth of a few centuries is a good way to gain notoriety and generate headlines. A few years ago, the widely distributed magazine Reform Judaism devoted a badly edited cover story to proving Shakespeare was actually an obscure Jewish woman poet. It ignored the highly inconvenient fact that she wasn’t really Jewish because Jewish descent has traditionally been matrilineal and her mother was not a Jew. It also side-stepped her authorship of a viciously anti-Semitic poem that’s a stone dud and shows nothing like the artistry of his plays whatsoever. But hey, why let any of that that get in the way of a good, sexy theory? I’m surprised the story didn’t throw in Queen Elizabeth and the whole Tudor court as secret Jews for extra points. That could have been the real reason Spain sent the Armada….
It’s probably exciting to uncover a “secret,” to feel like a hero, to connect disparate dots as if the fate of the world depended on your dazzling acumen. It likely gives people a sense of power and control, and can make any life seem like a Dan Brown thriller. And as in The X Files, these people see, to desperately want to believe—for reasons of their own—that the truth is out there. So Shakespeare Skeptics and the legion of cranks who think our moon landing was faked might have more in common than you’d think.
Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and many other books in genres from memoir to writer’s guide.
This blog was adapted from an article in Bibliobuffet.

Wonderful Writers I Have Known

Nobody tells you that one of the best things that can happen when you become an author is that you get to hang out with other authors. At panels, conferences,  book signings, and just casually when you run into them on your travels. It may not be the Fellowship of The Ring, but there’s a connection.

When I had only been publishing for a few years I was lucky enough to be on the Jewish Book Fair circuit at the same time as Walter Mosley.  We were both appearing in Houston and when I told the fair’s director how much I admired him, she graciously asked if I’d like to stay an extra day and meet him (!).  I not only joined a group for dinner, I heard him give a splendid reading.  Later Mosley and I had drinks and talked about the dynamics of building a series.

I’ve had dinner with the witty and urbane Edmund White in Paris after meeting him at an awards ceremony in D.C.  He gave me an insider’s advice about what to see in and near Paris that first-time tourists usually miss, and thanks to him I spent a glorious day at the amazing chateau Vaux-le-Vicomte. As he had predicted, it was almost empty of tourists.

At a summer Oxford University conference, thriller writer Val McDermid rescued me from the humiliating spectacle of passing out in an overcrowded, boiling hot lecture room which had just one measly fan (the Brits, you know).  She deftly got me to the river where we sat cooling off for a few wonderful hours and chatting about our careers, life, and love as we watched little boats pass by.

I can’t count how many authors have been gracious enough to write blurbs for my many books, and one who was too busy to read that particular book actually invited me to teach at the summer workshop she ran instead.  Author after author has been unfailingly kind to me in one way or another.

There’ve been some very colorful exceptions.  My favorite was the New York Times best seller who I had been exchanging some notes with because we admired each other’s work. That author invited me and my spouse over for drinks the next time we were in New York.The visit was going to be one fun piece of a blowout birthday weekend that included dinner at the Russian Tea Room.  When we got to New York and I called from the luxury hotel we’d splurged on, the writer insisted I had the date wrong. That wasn’t possible, since, well, I did know my own birthday and had said I was coming in for it. This literary star was super frosty on the phone and even sent a postcard later telling us about the wonderful menu we had missed at his home (it actually didn’t sound that great).

But a childhood TV hero of mine was staying at the hotel, and when I saw him in the lobby, I got to tell him how much I loved his show; I spent time that weekend with my best friend from college; the hotel’s Sunday brunch was stupendous; and I had terrific seats to see B.D. Wong and John Lithgow in M. Butterfly.

This wasn’t the only weird interaction with an author, but in the end, the generous and friendly ones have vastly outnumbered the others.  And the exceptions have given me great material….

Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

 

Feeling at Home, Abroad

As a writer, I’ve always had a particular kind of wanderlust: I’m not into doing anything extreme or uncomfortable.  I like going someplace where the challenges are along the lines of learning a new language, or deepening the command of one I already know.  Someplace where I’ll be drawn into deep contemplation of a landscape, a street, even a marvelous meal.  I have hungry eyes.

I’ve never felt the need to rack up “points” by seeing a lot, though. I want to savor a place I visit.  When I was in London a few years ago, I went to my favorite museum The Wallace Collection twice, timing my second visit when there would be as few other visitors as possible so that I could spend as much time as possible contemplating paintings I wanted to see again and truly appreciate.  And a perfect day in Florence for me was visiting a church and enjoying its art, savoring a long lunch, then taking in another church followed by a long dinner–with both meals at the Piazza Santo Spirito, and the churches nearby.

If I’m abroad and I find a restaurant or café I enjoy after having tried a few others, I keep going back.  I don’t need to continue trying others, looking for some Holy Grail of Dining.  In the new city the familiar setting, staff, and menu appeal to me and I’d rather try as many different dishes on that menu as I can.

Spending a week in Ghent recently, it didn’t take long sampling eateries around the train station of Gent-Sint-Pieters to decide that Café Parti was where I could happily have lunch and dinner as often as possible.  The vibe was hip and neighborly. The staff was friendly and I used as much of my newly-acquired Dutch as possible, though my French is so much better.  I got good recommendations for specials, and I chatted just a bit about what I was doing there, where I was going (Antwerp for the Rubens Museum), and when I got back, the differences between Antwerp and Ghent.  It made me feel as If wasn’t just skimming across the surface of the culture.

In the same way, I took more cabs than trams in Ghent because I’ve often found that I learn a lot from cab drivers in foreign cities.  My father was a cab driver years ago in New York and that’s always a point of connection; I sit in the front passenger seat to make conversation easier.  When my Dutch failed me, I asked if I could switch to French, which was usually fine, but there was always English as a fallback.  I learned that in Ghent, tourists came predominantly from Germany, The Netherlands, France–and China.  And, unexpectedly, that the park near my hotel wasn’t especially safe at night.  I got a colorful and detailed warning despite not needing one, but hey, he was being friendly, and Ghent prides itself on being “The City of Trust and Love.”  Of course, for me as a writer, there’s a story in that conversation….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres.

A Writer Falls In Love Abroad

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.