The Pulitzer Prize Was Once Yanked From The Real Winner

Two of my favorite authors were involved in a scandalous incident that made Pulitzer Prize history. Edith Wharton’s loving but barbed evocation of Old New York, The Age of Innocence, won the Pulitzer in 1921. Very popular and critically acclaimed, it explored the world of her parents which she re-created brilliantly. Yet her book wasn’t the judges’ first choice.

Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a gigantic bigger best-seller, was originally picked by the three-judge panel. That novel swept the nation because it dared to make fun of small-town life, which at the time was as sacred as our flag.

Columbia University’s advisory board had the power back then to over-rule the decision, and it did, because Main Street was deemed “unwholesome.” Scandal broke out when the angry judges went public.

Wharton was embarrassed, but Lewis was gracious about his loss and they developed a friendship of sorts.  He admired her work and she thought he was one of the few American authors with “guts.”

Lewis eventually got to have a perfect vindictive triumph. A few years later he rejected a Pulitzer for another book.  A few years after that, he was the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Both events garnered him enormous publicity.

Main Street and The Age of Innocence deserved awards and are eminently readable classics of the early 20th century. But I’ve wasted too much time over the years with books pushed at me by people with the sole recommendation being their prize status.

I don’t care. Is the story-telling hypnotic? Is the voice compelling? Is the prose striking? Are the characters memorable? Is this a book I’ll lose sleep over? And is it something I’ll feel I haven’t read before?

Any of those will hook me. But I know from people who have served as judges for various contests and awards that prizes can be given to books for reasons that have nothing to do with their quality. The publishing world isn’t any less venal now than it was in the 1920s.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.

Who Says You Need to Go to an Elite University to Be a Success?

Reading all the current articles about kids getting into prestigious universities thanks to shady parents and corrupt officials, I find one thing missing.

Nobody seems to be talking about the importance of being mentored in college, and you don’t need a big name school to find a mentor. Back when I was applying for colleges, I chose Fordham University at Lincoln Center for one main reason: I’d heard there was a fantastic creative writing professor there and I wanted to study with her.  I was born and bred in Manhattan, but didn’t bother applying to NYU, Columbia or any other prestigious school in New York state.  I put all my chips on Fordham.

I won.  At Fordham I found the perfect mentor in Dr. Kristin Lauer.  Thanks to her, I’ve published over two dozen books, seen my work translated into 15 languages, had international book tours—and much more.  I’m not famous, but I’ve lived my dream of being a published author.

Dr. Lauer was endlessly encouraging and inventive in her choice of assignments. Beyond that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia years later. She did not believe in pointing out everything that was wrong with your work, in bullying you like a coach, in making you tough because “the world is tough.” Her approach was to use humor and encouragement. She did her best to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, making you feel like she was communing with it, and communing with you.  It’s much harder than it sounds.

More than once, she predicted that I would publish and win prizes someday if only I wrote something “real.” That was my City of Gold, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication in a national magazine. It was a story drawing on my own life as the son of Holocaust survivors, a story I needed to tell but was afraid to.

She midwifed that story. I would read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. The story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, then-editor of the yearly volume The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which had 4.5 million readers at the time. It wouldn’t have lived without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and teaching genius.

Almost every time I’ve walked into a class or a workshop I’m teaching at a writers’ conference, she’s on my mind: muse, guide, inspiration.  I wasn’t interested in prestige when I was thinking about colleges in high school.  I applied to a school where I hoped I would find inspiration, and I hit the jackpot.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders. He’s the author of two dozen books in genres from memoir to mystery including a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.  His author web site is levraphael.com.

Writers: Have You Ever Had Your Work Stolen?

The New York Times recently did a story looking at possible plagiarism in A. J. Flynn’s best-selling novel The Woman in the Window because it seemed very similar in ssignificant ways to Saving April by Sarah A. Denzil.

This is murky territory, because as someone who’s reviewed crime fiction since the 90s, I find thrillers often work with similar ideas and even plot twists. Is it theft? Or is it the fact that the genre has certain tropes that appeal to readers and smart authors stick to the tried and true?

I have been definitely plagiarized in my own career. Years ago I was the first person studying Edith Wharton to notice that the feeling of shame cropped up all through her fiction. Searching the literature about her, I found that nobody had examined this theme or even remarked on it.  I started publishing articles about shame and her fiction, working with Silvan Tomkins’ Affect Theory.

In addition to unveiling this neglected them, I also discussed works of Wharton’s that had never been written about in any academic article.  I shared copies with one Wharton scholar whose next book lifted my ideas without any footnote. When I contacted her about it, she said brightly, “Well maybe we were working on similar tracks at the same time.”

When I reminded her of the articles I had sent her, she was silent. I asked if she could have her publisher add an erratum slip, which academic publishers do when there’s an error in the text. This small printed slip of paper tucked into a book is an inexpensive way to make a correction or note something was left out. Sounding agitated, she said, “But that would look like plagiarism.”

That was very revealing.

Then there was a less obvious borrowing when a well-known author in The New Yorker lifted something I wrote about Edith Wharton and William Dean Howells in an online magazine. He and I had previously appeared in the same issue of that magazine, so I assumed he had read my article as I had read his there.  I wasn’t being paranoid to think he was lifting what I wrote because a professor at Michigan State University noted the similarity and said, “He owed you a reference.”

More recently, after a terrific week in Ghent, Flanders, and because I’d published travel blogs and a travel memoir, I pitched a “36 Hours in Ghent” article to the New York Times Travel section.  They hadn’t done one before and I was planning a return trip. There was no reply, but this week, sure enough, a “36 Hours in Ghent” article showed up in the Travel section. Was the author working on the same idea seven months ago when I made my pitch? Maybe.  Maybe not. It definitely felt creepy,.  You’d think if the Times had already assigned a piece like that–or was planning to–they would have rejected my query with an explanation.

That’s unfortunately the life of a working writer.  And while I haven’t had direct theft of actual lines, these experiences have been bad enough.

If you’re a writer, have you ever had your work stolen?  Add your comment below.

Lev Raphael offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Famous Things Three Authors Never Said

The Internet is awash in bogus quotations and here are three of my favorites.

I’ve often seen this quotation from Mark Twain all over Facebook, and the first time was early in the morning, spoiling my first cup of coffee: “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on or by imbeciles who really mean it.” My warning bells went off immediately because the whole thing sounded too contemporary, especially “putting us on.” Not that Twain couldn’t be scathing about politicians. In A Tramp Abroad he wrote, “An honest man in politics shines more there than he would elsewhere.”

While I haven’t read nearly as much Twain as Eliot, I know The Gilded Age well, having read James, Howells, Wharton, and other novelists of that period extensively. I also researched it for a few years to write my own Gilded Age Novel, Rosedale in Love: The House of Mirth Revisited.

There’s one very popular quote people seem to relish during NaNoWriMo that’s supposedly by William Faulkner: “Don’t be a writer, be writing.” It doesn’t show up on searches of Faulkner websites, but it’s on Pinterest and Wikiquotes, and there are lots of Google images of it. That’s grounds for suspicion as much as the Yoda-like quality of the phrase. I prefer certifiable Faulkner, like the advice he gave in a famous Paris Review interview: “I’ve heard people say,’If I could just stop doing this, I would be a writer.’ I don’t believe that. I think if you’re going to write you’re going to write, and nothing will stop you.”

Another outrageously obvious misquotation I frequently see online was supposedly uttered by the brilliant Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Seriously? That sounds like a Nike ad at best. It’s not witty, it’s blunt and ungraceful. But Wilde did write in a letter to Alfred Douglas that “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” I wonder what he would have said about people who disseminate fake quotes?

If you have a favorite classic author, there’s probably a website devoted to sorting the spurious quotes from the authentic ones for that specific writer. So here’s a thought: Before posting an inspiring author quote on Facebook or elsewhere, or tweeting it, why not verify whether the author actually said it? As Jane Austen put it so well, “The truth is always at our fingertips, if only we dare reach far enough.”*

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

*I made that one up. 🙂

Travels Through Europe’s Troubled Borderlands

I was born in New York City to immigrant parents, and when I was young, the question “Where do your parents come from?” wasn’t an easy one to answer.

My father grew up in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia which had different names over the course of his youth: Subcarpathian Ruthenia, Carpathian Ruthenia, and the Carpatho-Ukraine. But it didn’t belong there anymore. It had been absorbed by the Ukraine and was now part of the USSR.  His country of birth doesn’t exist anymore, either: it’s now two nations, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

The city my mother grew up in northeastern Poland was Wilno, but as Vilnius, it was the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic. In her years there as a child and a young woman before the Holocaust, it was variously part of Russia, Poland, and Lithuania, but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It was also twice invaded and ruled by the Germans in her lifetime.

Both my parents spoke a bewildering array of languages and lived in “borderlands,” as Pulitzer-winning author Anne Applebaum calls them in her dazzling travelogue Between East and West.

Blessed with fluency in Polish and Russian, the author records amazing interviews and fascinating, lost history as she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, visiting almost two dozen cities like Odessa and Minsk whose names are well known in the West. But she mainly stops at smaller cities and towns that have been swept up in endless wars, invasions, and border changes. En route, she also traverses some areas of Eastern Europe likely unknown to most Americas, each with its own dramatic, many-layered history: Ruthenia, Bukovyna, Moldova.

Some cities have been crushed by neglect, Sovietization, bombing—or all three. Others seem like lost jewels. Everywhere she goes, people from peasants to professors open up to her to reveal contradictory identifications. Russian speakers across these lands, for example, might think of themselves as Ruthenian, Polish, or Ukrainian. The locales she travels through have known immense suffering and chaos, and many of her interviewees come across as shipwrecked. Best of all, her grasp of complicated history in every location is faultless. She’s as observant, canny, and in command of just the right quote or anecdote as Rebecca West was in her masterpiece about the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Here she is in discussion with a fascinating Ukrainian linguist with a Turkish surname who tells her he feels like an outsider in his own country:

“And that, he said, was the most Ukrainian thing of all: to read the history of your country as if you were reading it through an outsider’s eyes. It is the fate of borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories of others, to realize yourself only with the help of others.”

Between East and West is one of the most compelling and thought-provoking travelogues I’ve read in years—and vitally important cultural/historical background now that places like Crimea and Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Marie Kondo Joy Isn’t Just For Humans!

My six-year-old Westie loves watching television, even if there aren’t any dogs, horses, or other animals to bark at or observe. When we’re done with our dinner, he’ll sit close by and wait for his cue. When I say “We’re going to watch television,” he troops off to the living room, picks a chair, sits or lies down facing the large screen and waits for us to start the evening’s entertainment.

He’s a big fan of action scenes and chases, but more than that he enjoys dramatic close-ups when couples are arguing or just having an intense interaction.  I’ve watched his ears flick back and forth, his eyes widen as he surveys what’s happening.  Sometimes he rears back when he’s startled.

He was especially fond of Babe, which had lots to keep him focused, and sat through a whole hour of it, then wandered off, perhaps over-stimulated.  After the movie, though, he came back, stared at us and moved his lips just as the animals in the film seemed to do.  Maybe he was asking if there was a sequel.

So given his responsiveness, I thought I’d have him watch some of Marie Kondo’s show, and while he’s not very good at folding, he did seem fascinated.  That’s when I thought it might be time to organize his toy basket because some of the stuffed animals looked pretty disreputable after a few years of chewing, tugging, and chomping.

He clearly rejected several of them by turning his head away.  Between us we managed to reduce his toys by 1/3 and the ones that stayed clearly give him joy-joy feelings as they say in Demolition Man.  He’ll play tug of war with them, throw them around as if subduing a rabbit or some other yard demon, and basically have a great time.

I wonder if he’ll be willing to consult with me when I de-clutter my library.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.comHe’s the author of the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder and 25 other books in a wide range of genres.

Research is One of the Best Parts of Writing!

There are a lot of things I didn’t learn about writing as a career in my MFA program.  One of them is how enjoyable and even exciting researching a book can be.  And I don’t just mean tracking things down online or spending time in an archive.  I mean talking to experts.

Working on book after book, I’ve found how helpful experts can be, and how much they enjoy opening up about their fields of expertise.  One of the first was a county Medical Examiner I interviewed because my firts mystery had a body found in a river.  We talked about decomposition and a lot of other aspects of the situation, and went very deep (pun intended in our hour-long chat.

I’ve spoken with lawyers, cops, private investigators and have never found anyone unwilling to talk about what they do and love.  I tell them who I am and why I’ve contacted them and ask if they have time.  The majority of interviews get done in person, but once or twice I’ve had to work on the phone if the expert was an inconvenient distance away.

These interviews don’t just help ground my books in reality, whatever the genre, they also take me out of my own world into worlds I don’t know and find fascinating.

In my current novel-in-progress, music plays a role and so I’ve interviewed a cello played I know and a friend who’s played the piano for years, and a professor of piano at Michigan State University.  I have eight years of piano behind me, but don’t know much about repertoire and the kinds of issues professionals deal with and the talks have been fascinating.  I’ve also interviewed a fire chief and the head of an advertising agency.  Each one has been unfailingly generous with their time and of course will be acknowledged when the book comes out.

It may not take a village to write a book, but it definitely takes human resources who live in very different worlds than I do, and enjoy sharing their wisdom and experience.  Talking to them doesn’t just augment the reality of whatever book I’m working on, it almost always opens up new possibilities.  Better still, it breaks the isolation of writing a book, and that makes me very grateful.

Even if you’re shy, contacting the expert you want is easy via phone or email.  What’s most important is thinking out your questions in advance and being prepared for the book to go in a different direction or take on aspects you hand’t imagined, based on what you learn.  As Henry James advised a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com and is the author of 26 books in many genres including the forthcoming mystery State University of Murder.

Literary Snobs Aren’t The Only Genre Snobs

Writing in The Guardian, author Emily Maguire complains about literary snobs who look down on the sorts of books she likes to read, without listing any of them.  In general, though, they’re not in “the canon,” not written by :”dead white men.”

As if the canon has never changed and has never included Jane Austen, Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, George Eliot, the Brontes, Elizabeth Gaskell, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton–and many others.

Literary snobs may have gotten in the way of her self esteem, but genre snobs  come in all shapes and sizes. The owner of Michigan’s wonderful mystery bookstore, Aunt Agatha’s, once griped on Facebook about academics in her college town dissing mysteries, and rightfully so. But mystery fans themselves aren’t above genre-bashing.

I’ve been on a mystery readers’ and writers’ listserv for about fifteen years and way too often a predictable thread emerges. Somebody complains about being sneered at for reading mysteries by somebody else off-list who thinks they’re silly, trashy, mindless “escape reading.”

The list starts to seethe: some of the “victims” quickly turn victimizer and start trashing “Literature” or “literary fiction.” What’s that? Well, as defined by a best-selling mystery author at a conference I attended years ago: books where not very much happens to people who aren’t very interesting. Wasn’t he insightful? He certainly knew his audience—people roared their approval. Snobbery clearly works both ways.

What usually happens next on the list is that more people chime in with complaints about Proust or whoever they think is highfalutin and boring. That expands to include all Modern or Contemporary Fiction, however it’s defined, which is usually whatever book that person doesn’t like. Or disliked in high school. Or was told was brilliant but they hated. Or anything dubbed “classic.” And the authors and their fans are of course elitist.

The contempt these mystery readers sometimes feel directed at them seems to get recycled as they express disdain for books which have been written and enjoyed by people they have to denigrate. That’s not an argument or even a defense: it’s insecurity.

Sometimes they’ll point to all the crime writers on the bestseller list and sneer that literary novels only sell “a few copies” and are usually written “for the author’s friends.” Or they’ll make lavish claims and say something like “Anne Perry is a better writer than George Eliot.” I’ve had dinner with Anne Perry and I doubt she would make that claim. I’ve also read Eliot’s novels extensively. You can’t compare the two authors.

I’ve done radio and print book reviews since the early 90s and I’ve found plenty of bad writing in every genre. If you don’t like a certain kind of book, don’t read it. But trashing a whole genre doesn’t make you sound authoritative or thoughtful, it only makes you sound like you’ve got a giant chip on your shoulder.

Lev Raphael is the author of The State University of Murder and 25 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing at www.writewithoutborders.com.

Looking for Sexy, Exotic, Escapist Fun? Try “Tidelands”!

After the Polar Vortex kept me housebound for a few days, I was in the mood for something on the trashy side, so this past weekend I binge-watched the Netflix Original from Australia, Tidelands.

This exotic, eight-episode series is set in a small seaside town in Queensland (northeast Australia) and its heroine Cal–who resembles a young Isabelle Adjani–has just been released from prison where she served 10 years for murder after being incarcerated at 14. Those years have made her tough, indomitable, and resilient.

Growing up, Cal always felt a bit different, even freakish, and the town she returns to is every bit as weird as she is. Apparently sirens–those mythical creatures luring men to their deaths with their song–are real and have been preying on the town’s men forever. The men drown, but later on the sirens give birth (you can fill in the blank).

There’s a whole small community nearby made up of Tidelanders, half-human, half-siren who all have mommy issues. Their queen is Adrielle, an imperious woman given to satin nightgowns as daywear. Fans of the Fast and the Furious movies will recognize the actress as Elena.

While Cal is trying to discover how she wound up in prison as a teen and why the town is so screwed up, Adrielle has one of those fantasy thriller missions: assembling the shards of an object that will give her tremendous power. It’s been broken and scattered around the world and finding the pieces costs a fortune, which she can spend because of her involvement in a drug smuggling ring.

Don’t ask why the dingus wasn’t pulverized in the first place.  Or why Russian mobsters play a big role in the story.

There’s lots of murder here along with magic and a mysterious prisoner.  The handsome cast also has lots of sex at unexpected moments, and not always with the partner you might expect.  There’s even a soft core orgy scene.

Cal’s full name is Calliope who was the Greek muse of epic poetry. There’s nothing poetic about this show, but it does resemble the musical instrument calliope. It’s goofy at times, fascinating at others, and perfect popcorn entertainment. This is apparently the first series in Australia combining a thriller with supernatural elements. No word yet on whether there’s going to be a Season 2.

Lev Raphael is the author of the supernatural novella The Vampyre of Gotham and 25 other books. He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithotuborders.com.

Marie Kondo Doesn’t Understand Book Lovers!

Marie Kondo is all the rage when it comes to de-cluttering, but her advice to cull your books by only keeping the ones that “bring you joy” reveals that she doesn’t understand all the different meanings that books can have for their owners.

I’ve kept books that I read years ago in college not just because I might re-read them, but because they remind me of classes, teachers, and even fellow students.  They’re part of my history.  Some of them helped inspire me to become a writer.

Other books relate to my professional life. I have a whole book case of review copies of books I reviewed for The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, and other newspapers as well as on various public radio shows. I might re-read some. I might not. What matters is that those seven packed shelves, carefully alphabetized, are a window opening to my life as a reviewer.  They remind me of the editors I worked with, the deadlines I met, and the way I learned to write and revise with tight deadlines.

Then there are the books in my den which track my reading interests over the years: The Tudors, Shakespeare, Ancient Rome, The Middle East. Few of them spark joy, but they leave me with a sense of contentment and there’s always a chance I might re-read one or more. They’re certainly useful resources if I need them for some project.  They, too, are part of my history.  Likewise, as a writer of memoir, I’m not planning on emptying my revolving bookcase of memoirs because I may want to consult them at some point, and many of them inspired me in my own memoir writing.  There presence is encouraging, supportive, invaluable.

The several thousand books in my study are more varied and go deeper: biographies; Judaica; drama; poetry; American fiction, British Fiction, French, German, and Russian fiction; books about France and the French language; Psychology; The Gilded Age.  And then there are twelves shelves of books by and about Henry James and Edith Wharton, two of my favorite authors.

I also have multiple copies of a number of novels because I wrote notes in my books and when I want to re-read one that’s heavily annotated, I start over.  Likewise, there are books that contain notes I made about a book or story I was working on while reading them.  Get rid of them?  That’s almost as silly as her advice to tear out the pages that give you joy and pitch the rest.

That’s not de-cluttering, that’s vandalism.

Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  His forthcoming academic mystery is State University of Murder.  He teaches creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.