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.

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.

 

 

 

5 Things Nobody Tells You About a Writing Career

When I published my first short story in Redbook after winning a prize, I thought my career was set.  I was my MFA program’s star; I’d made a lot of money (for a graduate student) from the prize and the magazine; I was getting fan mail and queries from agents.  But even though I’d spent over two years in the program, nobody told me what my career could be like.  When I got my degree I had no idea what the writing life was like and learned five key things the hard way.

road1-You need to accept from the start that you have very little control.  You can polish your work as much as you can, read widely and educate yourself as an author; attend seminars; find a terrific mentor; network like crazy; get a top agent and even land a book contract with a great publisher–but what happens to your book once it’s born may seem completely random at times.  Other books just like it will swamp yours.  Books that are far worse will get great reviews or better sales.  Your book may simply be ignored by reviewers of all kinds for reasons you will never know.  So you have to focus on what you can control: being the best writer you can be; enjoying what you do while you do it, plan it, revise it, and research it.  And then, try to let go and move on to another project.

2-Writing is a business.  It always was and always will be.  Expect pressure from all sides on you to sell, sell, sell. When I started out, bookmarks and other petty swag were in.  Then I was urged not just to attend conferences but to advertize in conference programs.  Later came building my web site, book trailers, establishing a Facebook and Goodreads presence, blogging, tweeting, blog tours.  There’s always something new which is the magic answer to making you successful.  But the competition gets fiercer all the time and you can find that promotion is a rat hole.  It’s important to establish parameters for yourself since you can’t do everything and be everywhere.  Never let promotion become more important than writing itself, and just because something works for someone else is no guarantee it’ll work for you.

social_media_strategy1113-The writing life will be lonelier than you can imagine despite all the writers you might meet and hang out with, and they’re not always the easiest people to be around.  Let’s face it, are you?  Ask your significant other.  As paradoxical as it might seem, don’t let writing take over your life.  If you haven’t already, start building a life for yourself that has other compelling interests.  Travel.  Learn to play an instrument.  Study a foreign language.  Garden.  Train for a Triathalon.  Get a dog.  It doesn’t matter what you do as long as writing isn’t the be-all and end-all of your existence, because otherwise those days (or weeks or months or even years) when things go south you’ll feel empy.  And make sure you have plenty of friends who aren’t writers so that you’re not constantly talking shop.  Normal people can be interesting, too.

4-Exercise is crucial for people like us who spend so much time sitting hunched over a laptop.  It’s important to break away on a regular basis and walk, swim, jog, lift weights, do Zumba, take Pilates, spin, do yoga, anything that gets you out of your head and into your body.  There’s nothing like physical activity to give your mind a rest–it’s almost as good as napping!–and surprisingly, you’ll often find that when you might feel stuck, instead of obsessing about it or heading for the fridge, the best thing to do is get out and get physical.  Let your subconscious take care of the writing problem and solve it for you while you’re taking care of your body.  You’ll also be breaking the isolation of the writer’s life and may even get some good story ideas along the way.

Watching-TV-while-on-a-Treadmill-25-Be prepared for surprises in your career because they will come.  Good surprises.  Your career will take you places you would never imagine because your imagination is boundless if you have the courage to let it be.  I started out as a short story writer and novelist but one day suddenly had an idea for a psychological study of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. After that came a mystery series which got me my first New York Times Book Review review. And gradually over the years I’ve published in wildly different genres, books I never would have guessed I’d write, including a vampire novella, a memoir about what Germany has meant to me as the son of Holocaust survivors, a historical novel set in The Gilded Age, a children’s book and many more.  Don’t rule anything out, and don’t be a genre snob. One of my favorite authors, Henry James, gave this advice to a young writer: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”  It may sound a bit formal in 2015, but it’s advice that I’ve never forgotten.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.