Universities Can Be Minefields

When I was in graduate school, my wonderful dissertation advisor told me that he was determined to do a good, humane job getting me through without delays.  Why? Because his own advisor had been a hyper-critical nightmare.  My advisor kept his word: thanks to him, I finished writing my dissertation and defended it successfully in under a year.

campus-photoHorror stories about abusive dissertation advisors and feuding dissertation committees are common in graduate schools across the country–you don’t have to look hard to find them.  Even casual cruelty makes the life of graduate students miserable.  Because I write an academic mysteries series, people share these stories with me from around the country.

Just recently I heard of a PhD candidate whose rigid advisor refused to let the student show ongoing work to anyone else on the dissertation committee.  That left this student feeling isolated and extremely anxious.  Talking about  mistreatment to other graduate students in the program felt impossible–that’s how strong the professor’s grip was.

sad-writer-2Then there are the adjuncts or “contingent faculty”: overworked, underpaid, uninsured, and treated at some schools almost like pariahs.  Sometimes they don’t even have office space, or too many of them share a tiny office.  Tenure-track faculty belittle them unconsciously or even openly, no matter what they might have accomplished in their field.  Department chairs treats them like cannon fodder.

I know of one university where an adjunct who had the same degrees and had published far more than tenure-track peers was shut out of teaching upper level courses because of faculty jealousy.  Qualifications and experience didn’t matter–it was all about people protecting their tiny fiefdoms.

medieval-knightAnd students probably suffer more than anyone.  Stories reach me about how they’re bullied and put down publicly by their tenured professors.  I’ve been told about students reduced to trembling and even tears in the classroom.  Sometimes the mistreatment is more subtle: a professor will only call on favorite students, or might ignore something one student says but praise another student for making the identical observation.  Do students complain?  Rarely, because they’re afraid to, despite flashy news stories about campus protests.

None of this brutality is like the sexual violence on campus we read about, or the bigotry targeting various minorities–but it’s part of the atmosphere all the same. No matter how scenic the campus, colleges and universities can be surprisingly toxic for more people than outsiders imagine.  So when people at my book readings ask me, “Aren’t you exaggerating?  Are colleges really that bad?”  I don’t hesitate saying “No.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books including Little Miss Evil and seven other Nick Hoffman mysteries set in the dangerous world of academia.

Is Your Novel Having Bad Sex?

I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction.  Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the boxload, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.

Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince because it was clumsy, improbable, or even grotesque. I was surprised and disappointed that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment, or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.

But I did start to notice two major trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up: problems with timing, and depersonalization.

Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it add depth to the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work.

I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend thankfully pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, so I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a short flashback.  It worked.

A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a jumble of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers seem so determined to be un-puritanical that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it can be something more than just itself. And if it’s casual or “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.

As my first editor at St. Martin’s Press said: “Sex reveals who people are in unique ways–it’s crucial to get it right.”

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from mystery to memoir.  This blog is adapted from his guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk.

Travels Through Europe’s Heart of Darkness

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 had grown 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.

Some people didn’t even seem to know where Czechoslovakia was, anyway. Now of course, it’s not on the map at all, having split into 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 had been variously part of Russia, Poland, Lithuania–but for the majority of those interwar years a Polish city. It had also twice been invaded and ruled by the Germans.

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.

Armed with fluent 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 who have been pinballed over the centuries, 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 le mot juste and just the right quote or anecdote s 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 or borderland nations always to know yourself through the stories or other, 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 the eastern Ukraine keep blasting into the news.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

“Less” is a Brilliant Satire of the Writing Life

Author tours sound glamorous to people who don’t do them. The truth is more complicated, even if you’re happy with your editor and publisher, love the cover art of your new book, and you’re in such good health that nasty recycled air can’t undermine it after all those hours trapped on planes.

You’re always onstage, always being observed by everyone you meet. You never know if your bags will get lost, your flight delayed—or if enough people will turn out for your event to make you feel it was worth the time and trouble. If you’re on a panel, will you be bored, or worse, be seated next to another author who despises you? If you’re interviewed, is the journalist prepared or just filling an assignment, does she admire your book or have an agenda?  One interview started off by cheerfully saying, “My! You’ve written a of books, haven’t you?”  I could tell this was someone working off my author bio and nothing more.

And then there are the people of all kinds—readers, hosts, other writers—who say stupefying things to you without hesitation. It can be a kind of hell.

Andrew Sean Greer’s gives readers The Mother of All Author Tours in his new novel Less, a book of sly wit and comedic gusto. His victim, Arthur Less, has actually constructed his own around-the-world author tour made up of wildly disparate events—all of this to escape an ex-lover’s wedding. Less is a novelist who’s “too old to be fresh and too young to be rediscovered.” Facing fifty has doubled his sense of failure and doom.

His ports of call? Mexico, Italy, Germany, India, France, Morocco, Japan—all of which he observes and appreciates with the eye of a poet. And why not? He spent years in love with an older, Pulitzer-winning poet—a certified genius who was as hard to live with as a tiger.  That demanding, driven poet unintentionally deprived him of a separate identity. Less is still better known for his ex-lover than for his own work—and he’s not remotely Kardashian enough to make a career out of that.

Wherever he goes, Less faces “writerly humiliations planned by the universe to suck at the bones of minor artists like him.” He’s publicly pronounced to be mediocre, he’s informed that his work isn’t gay enough, he’s mocked in Germany where he confidently speaks enough German to confound and annoy people around him because of his awful blunders.  Yet this holy fool is sexually charismatic in his own way, apparently able to stun men with just a touch…though he’s not a great lover.

I laughed all the way through the book, recognizing publishing types like the withholding literary agent, and I rooted for Less to become more. More forceful, more insightful, and more in control of his own life. I won’t reveal whether he does any of that, the ending, or how ingenious Greer’s narrative is, but I have to praise his gift for striking, off-kilter images like these:

The view out his window was of a circular brick plaza, rather like a pepperoni pizza, which the whistling wind endlessly seasoned with dry leaves.

In the suburbs of Delaware, spring meant not young love and damp flowers but an ugly divorce from winter and a second marriage to buxom summer.

Less was so deeply satisfying I put everything aside to read it straight through.  Colorful, hilarious, incisive, and surprisingly moving, it deserves to be read alongside satirical classics about the writing life like Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ale and Updike’s Bech at Bay.

Lev Raphael is the author of Rosedale in Love, A Novel of the Gilded Age, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

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 Your 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, a new mystery, a new memoir, and a novel set in The Gilded Age.  Some are notes, some have been started, some have research files–and one is almost done.

What I really need is a clone who can finish all the books 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.

And 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.

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

What Should You Do When You Get a Bad Review?

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.