Blog Censorship

I’m constantly finding blogs and even comments on blogs where people will use asterisks in this way: s**t or even sh*t.

You’ve seen it plenty of times, I’m sure–and it extends to other four-letter words, too. They’re partly printed, but letters are left out and replaced with one or more asterisks.

Is there anyone in the world who looks at those words and wonders what they mean? No. They read them for what the original speaker or writer actually meant.

So why cover up the reality? Who are we hiding from?

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When you leave some letters out and fill them in with asterisks you’re not hiding anything. You’re just making your readers fill in the blanks and pronounce those words in their heads. Isn’t there something prudishly weird and hypocritical about that? Aren’t you in fact emphasizing those words, calling more attention to them, rather than the reverse?

Instead of using a few asterisks, why not eliminate the word entirely? Substitute asterisks or a blank line and make the reader guess what you wanted to write.

Which would create a carnival of profanity.

So that wouldn’t work either, would it?

Oh **** !

Head-smack

Lev Raphael is the author of the comic Nick Hoffman mystery series which you can find at Amazon along with his other books in genres from memoir to vampire fiction.

The Editor Who Worked My Last Nerve

I’ve been fortunate in my career to have terrific editors for stories or essays appearing in magazines and anthologies.  The same goes for all my books, whether the presses were large or small. Well, almost all my books.

An editor at a good trade press once asked me out of the blue if I had a book for him–now isn’t that every writer’s dream? The dream became tarnished within a year. I was headed on a German book tour for another book while “his” book was in press and he told me the schedule had been advanced several months.  He insisted on sending me the e-galleys for correction while I was going to be in Germany. I told him I couldn’t go over them because I’d be on and off trains and rarely in one city more than one day. It wasn’t feasible: I wouldn’t have enough uninterrupted time to concentrate and do a good job. I thought I was being a responsible author, but he ignored my concerns.

db-overview-3This was my first book tour in Germany and it would turn out to be the worst flight I’d ever have going to Europe.  Trouble started with being in a seat that didn’t recline behind an over-sized passenger who reclined all the way. Then I was right across from a toilet so I was enveloped in that chemical smell for the whole flight.  A kid threw up in the aisle just a few feet away from me and soon after that, the plane turned back somewhere over the Atlantic because a man had a heart attack.

We landed in Newfoundland in complete darkness which was terrifying, and I knew for sure I would be late getting to Schiphol in Amsterdam. Very late.  And that’s a confusing, crowded airport anyway.

schiphol 2I was able to make some calls when we landed in Newfoundland, but I was totally stressed out and unable to sleep when we were back en route to Europe.  In Amsterdam, I had to run through that enormous crowded airport to make a connecting flight, and arrived in Berlin sleepless and exhausted.  There was just enough time for me to wash my face at my hotel, put on deodorant and change my shirt before being rushed to my reading (which I still managed to introduce in pretty good German).

berlin at nightBecause I used only a PC at home, I didn’t have a laptop in Germany and discovered to my horror that Internet cafés had German keyboards–well, of course, why shouldn’t they? But the layout and letters threw me and my emails looked like I was drunk.

Proof my book under those extra-trying circumstances? I explained to this insistent and clueless editor that even if I had time it couldn’t happen, so I asked him again to please wait till I got home in a few weeks–or proof the galleys himself. I’m not sure if he bothered, because at the next stage, back home, the book had a major goof which, he, I, and the copyeditor had all somehow missed.  This happens in publishing all the time as any author will tell you: mistakes slip through. But if I’d had the galleys and had time for them (say, with only half as many readings on my schedule), I would have caught the problem.

It was too expensive to reset the book at this late date–that’s what the publisher told me. So the book I was so proud of wasn’t published in as polished a form as it should have been, and the editor I was originally flattered to work with turned into an unsympathetic jerk.

An author friend told me when my career had just gotten started that the only thing worse than not being published was being published.  It opened you up to a range of shocks and disappointments you never knew existed. But I’m glad my career has proven his wisdom true only sometimes, and that this editor was a very rare exception for me.

Happy-Writer1Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in many genres which you can find on Amazon, including Assault With a Deadly Lie, a suspense novel about militarized cops, which was a finalist for a Midwest Book Award.

The Day I Defended Fifty Shades of Grey (!)

Fifty-Shades-of-GreyYes, I know the book is awful in every possible way. I’ve blogged about it several times on The Huffington Post and just recently, in a sex writing workshop, I used one of its sex scenes as an example of very bad writing. Here’s some of the excerpt  I chose:

His hands run down my body and over my breasts as he reaches the dip at the base of my neck with his lips. He swirls the tip of his nose around it then begins a very leisurely cruise with his mouth, heading south, following the path of his hands, down the sternum to my breasts. Each one is kissed and nipped gently and my nipples tenderly sucked. Holy crap. My hips start swaying and moving of their own accord, grinding to the rhythm of his mouth on me….Reaching my navel, he dips his tongue inside, and then gently grazes my belly with his teeth. My body bows off the bed…..His nose glides along the line between my belly and my pubic hair, biting me gently, teasing me with his tongue. Sitting up suddenly, he kneels at my feet, grasping both my ankles and spreading my legs wide.

Holy shit. He grabs my left foot, bends my knee, and brings my foot to his mouth. Watching and assessing every reaction, he tenderly kisses each of my toes, then bites each one of them softly on the pads. When he reaches my little toe, he bites harder, and I convulse, whimpering. He glides his tongue up my instep–and I can no longer watch him. It’s too erotic. I’m going to combust.

When they read this scene, the students quickly identified all the things that were wrong with it in a spirited and hilarious discussion. Short list: the sex is all exterior and clinical; the “geography” is weird; the voice shifts in peculiar ways; the writing is anything but erotic; and you should never have to tell readers a sex scene is sexy.

asterisk blog photoTo prepare for the workshop, I’d gone over Fifty Shades of Grey carefully a month before which is why when I saw the excerpt below all over Facebook recently, I had to cry Foul!  I knew it was fake. And I was also pretty sure I had previously used the same freaky and funny lines quoted when handing out a list of winners or runners-up in the Bulwer-Lytton bad writing contest to a fiction writing class. Or I’d at least considered using them.

bogus quoteAs bad a writer as James is, this isn’t her special kind of bad. This is different. It’s just a shade more grotesque. And while Christian Grey is lots of things, none of them interesting, he doesn’t mewl. Maybe the book would have been better if he had.

So there I was on Facebook, letting people know the quote was bogus, after defending such greats as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain from misquotation.  I asked people not to re-post it.  Why? Because E.L. James deserves full recognition for her own brand of lousy writing and nobody else’s, thanks to her trademark lines like “My subconscious has reared her somnambulant head.” and “I slice another piece of venison, holding it against my mouth.”

A classic is a classic, after all.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Is Reading Greek Mythology Toxic For Students?

That’s the buzz at Columbia University where students published an editorial complaining about reading Greek myths in one of their classes. They said in part:

“Ovid’s ‘Metamorphoses’ is a fixture of Lit Hum, but like so many texts in the Western canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom,” wrote the four students, who are members of Columbia’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board. “These texts, wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression, can be difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.”

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I would expect Columbia students to write somewhat better and not misuse the word “wrought,” and also to have italicized Ovid’s long poetic work that retells Greek myths rather than using quotation marks of any kind. Those things aside, what are they doing in that class? Why are they reading any texts in the Western canon if they feel the way they do?

I was in love with Greek mythology when I was in elementary school and I came from an extremely low-income background. These amazing stories fired my imagination, and though I wasn’t a person of color, I was a minority as a Jew in a majority Christian country. Worse than that, I lived in a house steeped in horror and trauma because my parents were Holocaust survivors. Greek mythology offered me escape, not oppression. It didn’t exclude me, it offered me wings. Anything that was different and exciting gave me a pathway to freedom.

Is there any book anywhere that couldn’t require a trigger warning? Think of The Great Gatsby which some students have complained about for its domestic abuse, graphic violence, and suicide. As blogger Abigail Breslin puts it so well:

“In reality, trigger warnings are unrealistic….They are the dream-child of a fantasy in which the unknown can be labeled, anticipated, and controlled. What trigger warnings promise — protection — does not exist. The world is simply too chaotic, too out-of-control for every trigger to be anticipated, avoided, and defused.”

What would be helpful and productive is for professors to do what many I know already do: ask students at the beginning of a class to inform them privately if they have any issues that might interfere with classroom learning and proceed from there. But blanket warnings on syllabi or books themselves are a waste of time and verge on the ridiculous.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Writing Crime Fiction Changes Your POV Forever

I’ve been publishing mysteries since the 90s and whether I want to or not, I often figure out a twist in a thriller or mystery without even trying–especially if it’s a movie or show.  I just can’t stop that part of my mind from working even if I want to be an ordinary audience member.  And something about seeing it rather than reading it makes the upcoming twist much more obvious to my writer’s mind.

Recently fans of Scandal went berserk when a hero of the show, Jake Ballard, was stabbed and left for dead, and the preview for the next week showed his bloody body laid out on a table, with one of the show’s character’s, Quinn, yelling that he was dead.  Even though I was emotionally caught up in the surprise attack where Jake was viciously stabbed, as soon as it was over, I knew for sure that he wasn’t dead.  I blogged about it for The Huffington Post while the Twitterverse and Facebook erupted in disbelief and rage. The mystery writer in me knew that when writers want someone indisputably dead, that person’s throat is cut deeply to make sure they die ASAP or they’re stabbed in the head like a zombie ditto or in the heart.  Jake was stabbed in the torso; people survive worse injuries in real life and this, after all, was only TV.  The next week’s episode proved me right.

Scott-body-042115That same week in Vikings, the third season finale ended with great drama. Ragnar Lothbrok, the King whose army had unsuccessfully attacked Paris twice was apparently dying of battle wounds.  He’d also been mourning his dead friend Athelstan, a monk captured in an earlier raid on England.  In a deal to leave “Francia,” the Vikings received a huge amount of gold and silver, but Ragnar demanded to be baptized and then later get a Christian burial. The Emperor Charles agreed and we saw Ragnar’s beautiful coffin, reminiscent of a Viking ship, borne into the walled city’s cathedral.  Watching this impressive scene, I mused, “Wouldn’t it be something if he rose from the dead, popped out of the coffin and attacked the king?”  That’s exactly what happened. His funeral Mass was a terrific ruse for sacking the city.

RagnarI wasn’t trying to figure out either plot or second guess the writers, it’s just that the many pleasurable years of writing (and reading) crime fiction have shifted my perspective forever.  I don’t enjoy thrillers or mysteries or a show with a plot twist any less, but that inner watchful eye (much friendlier than the Eye of Sauron), just never seems to blink.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books–including The Nick Hoffman Mysteries–which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

 

My Mother’s Last Phone Call

I had never believed in ghost or spirits or anything like that until my mother came to me after she died.

Actually she called. From New York.

new_york_skyline-wideA heavy smoker, my mother had suffered from multi-infarct dementia for almost a decade.  The last time I had heard that voice, she was speaking soft Russian baby talk, having returned to her first language. It was strange but oddly comforting because she was in a mental hospital for observation, yet as calm and affable as a hostess at a party trying to put an awkward guest at ease.

The deep smoker’s voice I remembered speaking many languages besides Russian when I grew up became more and more distant over that decade she was ill. I missed talking to her, which was deeply ironic, because my mother was such a voluble, excited, intelligent talker that she often ignored whether you were interested in what she was saying.

Opinionated and extremely well-read, she didn’t just love the sound of her voice, she reveled in the workings of her own mind. She was like Katharine Hepburn who once told an interviewer that she didn’t drink, “Because cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”  And she had that actress’s steely determination.

katharine-hepburn-9She was also a fierce believer in my talent as a writer who never got to see my career take off. Perhaps most bitterly for me, the woman who had been reading mysteries for as long as I could remember succumbed to her dementia before she could read even one of mine.

I didn’t miss the conversational juggernaut my mother could sometimes be, but I missed her voice. And then I heard it again. I was in Michigan in bed and the beige retro phone by my bed rang around 3 AM. “Cookie?” It was one of my mother’s childhood nicknames for me, and I hadn’t heard her use it since I was in elementary school.

retro desk phone“Mom, is that you?” I repeated it several times until she said “I’m all right.” Then she hung up.

The phone rang again. This time it was my brother telling me that our mother had died a little while ago.  “I know,” I said sleepily. “She just called me.” He didn’t ask what I meant, though later he told me how disappointed he was that she hadn’t spoken to him after she died since he was one of her caretakers, so I assume he believed my story.

Right after my brother’s call, I couldn’t figure out if I’d been dreaming, or if somehow she had actually called me, or if I’d been dreaming and she had entered my dream. Whatever really happened, the shock of her being dead was assuaged by the fact that I more and more believed she had in some way reached out to me from somewhere to comfort me. Better still, she had given me a precious gift: the sound of her voice.

Now, you could say that my mother was ill and had been in a rapid decline for weeks, so this was nothing more than a wish fulfillment dream, just my longing to be in touch with her one more time. You could say that my subconscious created the illusion of the call to make accepting her death easier, and that I was easily persuaded because I wanted to be connected to her.

But I wouldn’t.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books ranging from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.

Commencement Speeches Are Not 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 simply 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.”  That’s 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,A 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 uninvited.  Free exchange of ideas?  The only exchange is the speech the speaker gives and the check that speaker leaves with.

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.

Has a Teacher Changed Your Life?

This is Teacher Appreciation Week and I’m giving a shout-out to the writing professor who changed my life.  Her advice and guidance in college echo in my mind decades later now that I’ve been teaching at Michigan State University as a guest for several years.

I had dreamed of being a writer since I was in second grade, but it wasn’t until I took my first class with Kristin Lauer at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center campus that I fell in love with writing itself.

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She was my first and best creative writing teacher and was endlessly inventive in her choice of assignments. But more than that, she was a model for how I would teach when I entered academia myself right after graduate school to teach for a few years before I quit to write full time. She didn’t 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 tried to work from the inside out of your story or sketch, to see it the way you did, making you feel like she was communing with you, not knocking you down.  And her overall goal was to create a community of learning, not set students against each other as rivals.

I took every class she taught and read two authors in her American Novel survey course who’ve stayed with me for thirty years, Henry James and Edith Wharton.  Dr. Lauer is one reason why years later my second mystery The Edith Wharton Murders has two (fictional) Wharton societies at war with each other. In a tribute to her, I made my sleuth the author of a Wharton bibliography, just as she was. I also based one of the continuing characters in the series on her because she loved mysteries so much and I wanted to feel her presence in the books as I wrote them.

She said to me more than once in college–privately–that I’d publish and win prizes some day if only I wrote something emotionally real. That was my El Dorado, the mystical goal that I reached with my first publication. 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.

I had already graduated and was in an MFA program, but she midwifed the story because she knew I was so anxious about broaching the subject matter. She made me read a bit to her on the phone and she’d comment and then urge me to keep writing and keep calling her. That story won a writing contest judged by Martha Foley, editor of The Best American Short Stories, and was published in Redbook, which then had an audience of 4.5 million readers. It wouldn’t exist without Professor Lauer’s dedication, commitment, and mentoring.

And I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had or be the author I am today whose literary papers have been purchased by the Michigan State University Libraries. When MSU’s English department invited me to start teaching for them a few years ago as a guest, I realized that Dr. Lauer’s imprint was still so strong on me that I was teaching the way she did, interacting with students the way she would–filtered through my own personality, of course. And I remembered that after a terrific class one day I asked her how I could thank her. She smiled and said “Just pass it on.”

great-teachersLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.