Warning to Writers: Don’t Diss Your Peers

“Writers should not attack their peers.”

That’s what a famous author I deeply admired told me near the start of my career, and what he meant was personal attacks.  He’d made that mistake and it launched a feud that lasted years. 

I’ve been careful in my career not say much in public when fans ask me what I think about fellow authors if they’re not my favorite writers. If I do express an opinion, I keep the comments to something technical. So I might focus on their most recent book and say I wasn’t convinced by the point of view if that’s one of the problems I saw, of course.  I don’t make things up.

Even after a reading at a reception or a restaurant when things are more relaxed, I’m cautious, because whatever you say may travel much further than you expect and end up making you look bad. And what you say can end up on Twitter in seconds.  That’s what my mentor was trying to explain to me well before social media created firestorms.  He regretted disparaging another author personally because it made him look bad and they became enemies.

I saw something similar happen in my own career, though without the feud. A celebrated American author I’d never met and who had never insulted me in the U.S. apparently decided to mock me personally in an interview in a foreign magazine when he was on tour in Europe. He didn’t know the freelancer he was talking to was an acquaintance of mine who reported the incident in detail, with some scathing comments about the author who should have known better.

Feuds come and go in American fiction, and some of them raise questions of literary taste, commercial vs. literary fiction, sexism among reviewers, but what about rudeness and bad taste?  Jonathan Franzen has been a lightning rod because critics have praised him so highly.  Is that his fault? Best-selling author Jodi Picoult has dismissed him as nothing but a “literary darling,” ditto Jennifer Weiner who’s done so while publicly reveled in her wealth and mocking those at The New York Times who’ve ignored her as balding (a “hairist” remark if ever there was one). Whatever the legitimacy of their complaints, should authors be engaging in this kind of snark?   I guess the mockery had an impact because Weiner eventually became a contributing opinion writer at the Times….

But authors let loose on reviewers too.  Franzen himself has outdone them when he attacked Michiko Kakutani a few years ago after she panned his last book, calling her “the stupidest person in New York.” And Alice Hoffman attacked the Boston Globe reviewer who gave her novel a mixed review, actually asking her followers on Twitter to call this reviewer and express their outrage. None of this makes authors look good, no matter who the target is.

A writer friend of mine was once banging out a rebuke to a reviewer when his wife came up behind him and read what was on his Mac screen. “Do you want to be respected for your work,” she asked, “or have people think you’re an asshole?”

It’s a question every author should consider when getting ready to light into a peer.  It’s one thing to talk about the work, another to diss the writer.

Lev Raphael’s 27th book is the mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(free image from Pixabay)

Kate Winslet’s Bore of Easttown

After years of reviewing crime fiction for the Detroit Free Press and other news outlets, I’m used to genre misery. Mare of Easttown is no exception. It’s set in a grimy middle-American Pennsylvania town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. The first two episodes have dealt up a suicide, a missing girl, alcoholism, lousy parenting, teens gone wild, bad marriages,  catfishing, stalking, two assaults, an angry mob–and of course murder.

That’s pretty heavy, but to be expected. It’s a show about crime, after all. What I don’t expect, what I hope for with a crime series is clichés swarming like bees.

Mare herself is way overdone.  She’s a stereotypical rude, super-tough detective given to wearing a parka and flannel shirts as if daring someone to offer her a makeover.  She of course eats cheese steaks in case you didn’t realize she’s in Eastern Pennsylvania, and she chugs beer out of the bottle. She also stomps around town with a sour expression like a basilisk who’s lost the power to kill people with a glance.

The murder case she’s handling has so many local complications it feels like the family tree of the Hapsburgs. People don’t trust her to solve it alone, and she’s predictably pissed off when some wide-eyed detective is brought in from out of town to assist her. She won’t even shake his hand. Isn’t that original? The ice starts to melt when he brings her coffee and she accepts it. That’s as lovely as a fairy tale and just as stale.

But things look a bit sunnier for Mare when a shabby-chic Pulitzer Prize-winning author inexplicably moves from Vermont to the small local college nearby (what’s his story?). They meet at a bar and he of course confesses his pick-up line was practiced and cheesy–and yes, he actually calls her beautiful. That’s the best the writers could do. He’s played by Guy Pearce and seems too smooth for his own good. Or hers. They hook up of course–what else?

By the way: he never wrote another book. Cliché Alert!

Failed/Successful Writer invites Mare to a college shindig in his honor. Damn, I thought, here come more clichés. And yes, they tumble out like rabbits from a frowzy magician’s hat.

Mare is going to have trouble figuring out what to wear. Check. She’s going to open up a chaotic makeup drawer and some of that mess she scrabbles through will likely be gross. Check. She’ll show up at the event looking really pretty but still be ignored—by every single person there. Because of course nobody present has ever interacted with her in a town where everyone knows everyone else. Check.

There’s more and this one’s the topper.  She’ll be offered a canapé and she’ll try it, scowl, spit it out in her napkin, wrap it up and gauchely hide it someplace–like under a cushion or tuck into the couch. Check to all of that. Oh, yes, she and Pearce will argue because she’s been ignored. Check again.

This whole sequence is apparently the Human Interest Break from the crime and grime, unless of course it turns out that Mr. Adorable is a psycho killer. Then it’s Human Interest Red Herring. Tune in if you can stay interested or want to hate watch.  I’ve only hit the cliché highlights.

Putting her through her paces the way they have, it’s as if the writers of the series consulted Crime Writing for Dummies, Chapter Seven: Low-class Miserable Women Sleuths. Winslet deserved better, and so did viewers.

Lev Raphael is the prize-winning author of twenty-seven books including the just-published mystery Department of Death which Publishers Weekly called “immensely enjoyable” in a starred review.

(Pixabay image by Robin Higgins)

An Academic Nest of Vipers

When I do readings from my mystery series, people ask, “Are universities as loony and vicious as all that?”

Yes.  Absolutely.  And how do I know? Because I didn’t just escape that world with lots of notes, I have friends who are still there, reporting fiction-worthy incidents on a regular basis.

One chair I heard of had a bizarre approach to resolving a conflict between two professors: He suggested that the two of them get drunk together at the annual Christmas party and all their problems would be resolved—they would be friends forever! That’s on the ludicrous side, to be charitable.

Another held academic cage matches. Adjuncts competing for the possible tenure-track positions that might, just might be opening up each year had to present their work-in-progress every week (!) and put it in the best possible light and hope they’d win the prize. The pressure was intense, the competition ugly and brutal. Then there’s a department chair I heard of who revealed personal psychological information about a professor during a department meeting while supposedly “worrying” about her mental state, totally violating that professor’s privacy.

There’s another who knew a faculty member was going to complain about his disregard for university regulations and not only tried to stop her from a formal complaint at a university committee, but sat behind her at the meeting along with one of his henchmen and muttered derisively when she read her statement, trying to intimidate her.

A religious studies chairman I was told about argued with a rabbi teaching as an adjunct in his department–a rabbi!–that Judaism was absolutely not a culture, but could only be spoken about and taught as a religion. The rabbi was fired for disagreeing.

When my office mate at Michigan State University reported that a graduate student in the department who was an ex- burst into her apartment, roughed up her current boyfriend and threatened her, the department chair did absolutely nothing.

And reports from another department I know of describe the current atmosphere as “Stalinist.” While there’s significant disapproval of actions the chair is taking to limit academic freedom and free speech, faculty members who disagree are afraid to speak up for fear of harassment and punishment. The faculty listserv is now off limits to discussion of anything remotely “controversial.”

My Nick Hoffman series is satirical, extrapolating from real situations and making them more ridiculous and threatening–but the emotional core is ultimately true.  The psychological toll this kind of rampant and widespread abuse of various kinds can take is also true.

There’s no evidence that George Bernard Shaw actually said “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh,” but whoever is the source, that quote has guided me through my series and will continue to do so.

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from mystery to memoir.  His latest book Department of Death just earned a starred review from Publishers Weekly.  It will be available only until the end of 2021.

Guidelines For a Last-Minute Faculty Hire

Stop sign 01

 

Greetings!

We’re thrilled that you can be teaching for us on such short notice. Speaking as chair of the creative writing program, we’re all so very proud to have you, especially since you’re an alumnus and live in-state. Here are some important guidelines we didn’t discuss in our texts and emails:

Please do not mention in class the tenured professor who you’re replacing and his unfortunate tirade about what he wrongly called “cancel culture” and “the Twitter mob” after he quoted James Baldwin and was justly excoriated. We all wish him a speedy recovery. He’ll be back next semester after his guided retreat of struggle and self-interrogation.

You have absolute and total freedom to assign any writing exercises and readings you choose in your introductory and advanced fiction courses, but they cannot include trigger or pre-trigger words of any kind whatsoever, and so I urge you to contact the Vetting Committee ASAP. You’ll find them very thorough.

We also expect you to submit your course materials and each syllabus to the Committee on Cultural Appropriation and Misappropriation and abide by their decisions as well as those of the Vetting Committee. Both committees work with dispatch and I must say a keen sense of honor and duty. You’ll feel inspired.

We picked you for your distinguished publishing record, but we urge you not to refer to yourself as a “working writer”–which you did more than once in our communications. This label could be seen as offensive, derogatory, and demeaning by other faculty who are proud that they’ve made their homes in academe. Mentioning your Pulitzer also validates hetero-normative and hierarchical notions of value.

In our discussions, you presented yourself as knowing “the publishing world inside and out” and said this was something special that you could offer students. I surely don’t need to point out that all of our creative writing faculty offer students something special. Your statement could be seen as arrogance, puffery, and blatant self-promotion.

You were an obvious and natural choice, having published more books in more genres than the entire creative writing faculty combined (please keep that to yourself). Making too much of these accomplishments might overwhelm your students and be interpreted as bullying or intimidation, while also disrespecting your colleagues (see above).

When students speak their truth, it is incumbent on you to not ask for explanations, clarifications, or in any way seem to challenge what they say. Your part is silent. Do not display any change of expression and definitely do not ask other students to comment. These actions will be reported and you could face dismissal.

Lastly, as a temporary professor, you will not be sitting in on any faculty meetings as your presence would most likely be anomalous and disruptive. We also won’t be giving you a plastic name sign for your office door since you’ll be here for just the one semester, but feel free to mention us in any interviews you do. We would appreciate the publicity.

Have fun!

Lev Raphael is the author of Department of Death and nine other mysteries set at the fictional State University of Michigan.

“Stop sign 01” by kirstyhall is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Crime Writer C.S. Harris Gets the Regency Right

Critics lavished Bridgerton with praise for supposedly making the Regency relevant to a modern audience–as if that had never been done before.

But without gross anachronisms or improbable plot lines, C.S. Harris has been writing a dazzling world-class mystery series since 2005 that couldn’t be more relevant to our time.

The Regency she offers us has plenty in common with the American world we’ve recently been living in.  There’s a vast gulf between rich and poor; intolerance and hypocrisy among the powerful; a war that’s lasted for decades; grievous childhood poverty; a skewed judicial system; xenophobia; a sexist culture suppressing women’s opportunities; widespread and rampant violence. Oh yes, and a seriously disturbed head of state.  Sound familiar?

Her touchstone for all this reality and relevance is a nobleman, Viscount Sebastian St. Cyr.  He’s no superhero, but he’s a strong, determined man with a troubled past who invariably finds trouble when it doesn’t find him.  A  freelance crime solver, he has access to the high and mighty through family and marriage connections, and the rest of London through myriad contacts across its many different social classes.  There’s little he can’t discover, sooner or later.

His case in What the Devil Knows, based on a true crime, involves unbelievably brutal murders that defy understanding and shake even a man like him who’s seen the horrors of war.  A wanton killer who has even slaughtered infants and their mothers seems to be at loose again in London and St. Cyr can’t help but worry about his wife and young son as he scours the city for clues.

From lavish parlors filled with exquisite rosewood furniture and ballrooms crowded with London’s most powerful men to alleys filled with rotting fish heads, we follow the indefatigable sleuth interviewing English citizens high and low.  Harris excels at giving readers entree into a world beyond the rich and powerful, but one filled with myriad professions including bakers, maids, sailors, rag pickers, brewers, cooks, tavern keepers, seamen, night watchmen, landladies, vicars, valets, prostitutes, drivers, thieves.

On the home front, Harris writes about St. Cyr and his wife Hero with deep sympathy, but she’s never maudlin.  The details of their daily life and the lives of everyone around them ring with authenticity.  That warmth makes the extreme violence St. Cyr faces more terrible, violence that might for some readers conjure up recent attacks on peaceful demonstrators and the 1/6 assault on the Capitol.

She doesn’t indulge in foolishness like the hokey duel in Bridgerton that totally ignored the strict rules of that ritual.  Harris respects the past and has brought it to life in book after book with prose that’s smooth and seductive.  She’s one of the most evocative writers in crime fiction today.  She makes you smell the nasty, ever-present London fog; hear the creak of wheels over cobblestones or the whinny of horses sensing danger; treasure the tender warmth of candlelight; dread the footfall of a robber.

In What the Devil Knows, you won’t feel mired in the bonbon-eating Lifestyles of the Rich and Vapid, but you’ll relish a world where people do more than just live for the next scandal sheet.  Many of them are desperately trying to make a living, and since this is a crime novel, some are just trying to stay alive.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, the Washington Post and other publications as well as several public radio stations.

 

 

When Did Writing Become a Damned War?

 

Lately I’ve been feeling like writing is a bloody battlefield — not for me, but for tens of thousands of writers across the Internet.

I’m talking about writers who seem frantic or depressed because they’re not writing fast enough every single day, as if they should be queen bees in a hive squeezing out their quota of eggs and the hive might collapse if they didn’t keep producing.

I read cries for help on social media from writers begging someone, anyone, to offer ways they can write more than 500 words a day, as if 500 words a day isn’t enough. And then I read jaunty, triumphant posts on those same platform from writers bragging about writing several thousand words a day.   

The writing world in America is infected with its own special virus. The sensible suggestion that beginning writers should try to write something daily to get themselves in the habit has seemingly become interpreted as a diktat for all writers all the time. What we write doesn’t matter, it’s how much we write every single day, as if our careers — no, our lives — depended on it. As if we’re the American war machine in 1943 determined to churn out more tanks, planes, and guns than Nazi Germany because the fate of the world is at stake.

I was mentored as a writer in a time when quality not quantity was the standard and I’m happy that’s the case, because yesterday I probably wrote fewer than a hundred words. But they were crucial words because they completely re-shaped the first chapter of the sequel I’m writing to my dark novella The Vampyre of Gotham set in 1910 Gilded Age New York.

I hadn’t written anything at all for a few days before that: I was just puzzling over what needed to be done before I was ready to return to my PC. If I don’t write anything more this week, that’s fine because what I did was exactly what was necessary for the new book to move forward. And I know, anyway, that I’m writing subconsciously now that I worked out the kink in my story line.  Writing happens to writers all the time, everywhere: we don’t need tablets, laptops, pens or pencils. 

And we don’t need to be driven by false quotas or to feel shame because somebody, somewhere is writing a short story every week (or maybe two!) and some weeks we can barely manage to piece together a decent metaphor.

There’s nothing wrong with having a daily goal if that works for you as a writer, but why should you feel crazed because you don’t reach that daily goal — what’s the sense in that? Why have we let the word count bully us and make us feel like miserable?

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery and his fiction and creative nonfiction has been taught on college campuses across the country.  With twenty years of teaching experience, he now offers mentoring, tailored workshops, and editing at writewithoutborders.com.

Photo credit:madamepsychosis

Why Did I Ditch “The Undoing”?

Because it was boring and obvious. The murderer had to be Hugh Grant. But I kept up with the story since my spouse watched it religiously for the New York wealth porn (clothes!  interiors!).  So I got regular plot reports, and I also read media updates which tried to stir up a frenzy about a lukewarm project that had none of the electricity or coherence of Big Little Lies.

How did I know who the killer was? Well, one way was patterns. I’ve reviewed hundreds of mysteries and thrillers for The Detroit Free Press and other newspapers and read many hundreds more on my own over the years. I’ve also written a crime series that’s earned kudos from major national newspapers like The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times.

In classic crime fiction, the killer is often the least likely person. In this case, there was a meta piece to the puzzle. When you cast an actor renowned for his supernatural charm, there has to be one major reason: it’s a red herring.  “Hugh Grant?  But he’s such a sweetheart?  He can’t be a crazy killer!”  Well, duh, of course he can.  He has to be.

As for the other suspects? There just weren’t enough of them, enough to be believable, that is. Nicole Kidman didn’t know about the affair so how could it be her? Neither did Donald Sutherland. The son? Puh-leeze. Sylvia? What compelling motive did she have? Grant was the super-obvious choice from episode one and each subsequent episode nailed that coffin shut. 

In addition to the regular plot updates from my spouse, nothing about the snippets I occasionally caught when I wandered into the living room tempted me back to watch the miniseries. Things just didn’t add up. Kidman was a counselor when she looked dressed and groomed for a holiday in Paris staying at The Ritz? Inconceivable. It would be too distracting to the clients, and my psychologist spouse agreed. Kidman took late night walks in New York alone? Were the writers on drugs? My spouse and I both grew up in Manhattan and her solo strolls were totally unreal.

TIME magazine put it quite well: The show was “littered with predictable plot twists, hoary genre clichés, thin supporting characters and relatively little to say.”

But maybe it appealed to Americans in lockdown, the way Depression-era fans flocked to see Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies.  Too bad the miniseries didn’t have their wit or pizazz.

Lev Raphael is the former crime fiction reviewer for the Detroit Free Press and has been moderator or panelist at dozens of panels at mystery conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  He’s published 26 books in a wide range of genres and hundreds of short stories, essays, reviews, and blogs.  His work has been translated into fifteen languages.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons, by wajakemek | rashdanothman

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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In my breakout mystery The Edith Wharton Murders, two rival Wharton societies are brought together in one conference–and murder results. I got the idea at a Wharton conference.

Nobody was killed there, but I think a lot of people had their pride wounded.  One of the keynote speakers subtly dissed the attendees for paying so much attention to Wharton (!) when there was another writer this professor considered more important. The keynote speaker went on to praise this lesser-known writer.

That was before smart phones, so nobody was able to look the writer up while the keynote address went on. I’ll always remember how that moment typified the jockeying for position that goes on in academia 24/7. But that’s the mild stuff.  Professors undermine their rivals’ reputations with gossip and hostile journal essays, poach each other’s graduate students, launch Twitter campaigns to get them removed from programs or even fired.

Of course it’s all much more entertaining in a mystery if you have actual corpses.

My college mentor, a Wharton bibliographer, was at the conference, and so I wrote her into the book as a best friend and relative of my sleuth Nick Hoffman. He’s been given the thankless task of bringing two warring factions in the Edith Wharton field together and thinks of them as no better than gangbangers with advanced degrees.   I invented snark of all kinds, inspired by stories people across the country had told me about Ivory Tower insanity, and motives for murder were easy to come by.

St. Martin’s Press published the book and I met with the editor who was in love with the whole idea at my favorite café near Lincoln Center. I was in New York for the American production of Tom Stoppard‘s stunning play Arcadia. I’d seen the original production in London a few years before, so the night was filled with glamour and excitement for me, and all of that comes back whenever I think about the book.

The mystery earned me my first review in the New York Times and it was a rave: a writer’s dream come true.  I will never forget how thrilled I was when my agent faxed the review to me.  One of the coolest things I heard about the book’s reception out in the world was that it wasn’t just showing up on mystery shelves at bookstores, it was also being shelved alongside books of Edith Wharton herself.

The Edith Wharton Murders is out now with a fourth publisher and a fun new cover (its fourth!). You can find a review and a book giveaway at the following website: https://www.krlnews.com/2020/09/the-edith-wharton-murders-by-lev-raphael.html

An Amazing Rave Review Thrust Me Into the Spotlight

The New York Times ruled in my family when I was growing up in Manhattan.  My mother especially loved the Sunday Magazine articles, my brother relished the daily puzzles, and I enjoyed reading book reviews and features about authors.

I wanted to be an author myself as early as second grade, when I started writing short stories.  And of course, I wanted to have a book of mine reviewed in the Times, someday because I thought that would be the ultimate sign I had made it.

Well, years later, I was heartbroken when I heard from a writer friend that he had heard my first book of short stories was going to be reviewed there.  I waited and waited, but nothing happened.  Then I published a biography and study of Edith Wharton’s fiction.  No review.  Two strikes.

At that point, I was discouraged enough to think I would never be reviewed in the Times.  I should have taken hope from lines Russian poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

But, as know, precisely at the moment/when our despair is deepest, fresh winds stir.

One Monday, I got a call from my agent that my second mystery had just gotten a rave review from Marilyn Stasio, the most important mystery reviewer in the country.  My agent’s assistant faxed it to me and as I read the review, I actually jumped up and down for joy.  Friends started contacting me, my editor was thrilled as was my publisher, and I started hearing reports that the book wasn’t just being shelves in Mystery and Gay Literature sections in bookstores, but sometimes in Fiction right next to Edith Wharton.  And face out, which makes a big difference when it comes to sales.

The review offered great pull-quotes like this one:  “Killing is too kind for the vindictive scholars in Lev Raphael’s maliciously funny campus mystery.”  And because it was in the New York Times, publishers would use various parts of the review on  mysteries I’d write after that one.  Likewise, many people introducing me at events where I’ve done talks and readings have referred to the review.  It’s a kind of touchstone, even though I’ve gotten many more good ones in other newspapers and magazines since then.   The Times is that impressive.

The Edith Wharton Murders has recently been re-published with a gorgeous new cover, a foreward by noted author Gregory Ashe, and an introduction the publisher asked me to write.  Seeing it reborn brings back the thrill of being a new author having his biggest dream come true.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His work has been translated into 15 languages, and Special Collections at Michigan State University’s Library archives his literary papers.

 

Amazing Anniversary of My Breakthrough Debut Collection

I published Dancing on Tisha B’Av almost thirty years ago and the book capped ten years of publishing groundbreaking stories about gay Jews and children of Holocaust survivors. More than that, it fulfilled my childhood dream of having people read a book of mine because I was so crazy about stories even then. I had longed to see a book of mine on library shelves and in bookstores.

I’ve now published twenty-five more books in genres from mystery to memoir and I’ve loved writing each one, and have never known where any book would take me.


Dancing had a unique trajectory. It won a Lambda Literary Award and launched me as a public voice of gay Jews, as someone building bridges between Jews and non-Jews, gays and straights. It started me on what has seemed like a never-ending series of book tours that has included hundreds of invited talks and readings across the U.S. and Canada and in England, Scotland, France, Germany, Israel.

It opened me up to the magic of reaching an audience, however large or small, and how exciting that could be. Thanks to having been a classroom teacher and taken theater classes in college, I knew something about being in front of an audience but needed more experience which I got, in spades. I also received “director’s notes” from my husband (then partner), who came on many of the tours, and I trained myself to become the best possible performer of my own work that I could possibly be, rehearsing before each event.

My career took many turns after that: I reviewed for fifteen years for a handful of newspapers and radio stations, even producing my own local radio show where I interviewed authors like Doris Kearns Goodwin and Salman Rushdie. I launched a mystery series featuring a gay sleuth and his partner. I published in genres I never expected to, like horror, The Vampyre of Gotham, and historical fiction, Rosedale in Love. More recently I returned to university teaching for six years at Michigan State University, which inspired two new crime novels set in academia.


I always counted myself fortunate in having an amazing writing and teaching mentor in college, and when I asked her how I could thank her, all she told me was to “Pass it on.” And that’s exactly what I’ve aimed for in both my writing and teaching over the years, and it’s what I continue to strive for in my online mentoring today. Her guidance is always with me. Truly, that Lutheran professor helped make me the Jewish writer I am today.


Lev Raphael’s author website is levraphael.com, and his online mentoring website is writewithoutborders.com.  His collection Secret Anniversaries of the Heart gathers 25 years of his fiction.