“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 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.

Falling in Love With Ghent

The psychologist Otto Rank wrote that artists are perpetually in conflict with life.  They need seclusion to produce their work, but they also need to go out into the world for stimulation to create their art.

Whatever takes me away from home, I’m always receptive to possible locations for stories, essays, and books–and I return with lots of notes and photographs.  I was recently in Ghent, Belgium on a travel grant, liaising with officials from Ghent University to explore the possibility of a study abroad program with Michigan State University.  The city is widely called “a hidden gem.” It’s all that, and more.  Day after day I felt bombarded with impressions and ideas I knew would fuel my writing down the road.  I fell in love with a city I’d known almost nothing about, and fell hard.  Here’s why.

First there are the people. As my favorite author Henry James would have put it, “the note” of the city is friendliness. I got that vibe everywhere, whether in sandwich or coffee shops, stores, restaurants, and even from strangers who helped me when I got slightly lost. Some of them walked a short distance with me to make sure I was headed in the right direction.

As a writer, I seek comfort and quiet when I travel and the Carlton Hotel Gent was the epitome of those things. Family owned, boutique-style, it was smoothly run, ultra-quiet, close to the train station, served delicious breakfasts, and the owners were perfect guides to the city and its restaurants. The hip Café Parti was nearby and if could’ve eaten every lunch and dinner there, I would have. It served Belgian specialties that I’d sampled before in Brussels and Bruges, but they were exceptional, especially the stoofvlees, a beef stew made with dark beer, and the onglet, hanger steak better than any I’d had in the U.S.

I liked the modern lines of the hotel and the Café Parti (above) because Ghent has so much history in its architecture, from the Renaissance buildings along the canals, to the Romanesque St. Bavo Cathedral and the medieval Gravensteen fortress at the city center. Dipping in and out of these different periods was intensely enjoyable. And so was sampling my favorite Belgian chocolate, Neuhaus, and a Ghent specialty, neuzekes, candies filled with raspberry syrup that look like little pointed hats and are partly made with gum Arabic. They’re sensational.

Bikes are king in Ghent, or so they say, and it apparently has the largest bike-friendly zone in Europe. Ghent was the first city to designate a street as a “cycle street”—meaning that cars have to stay behind bikes. They’re everywhere, weaving through traffic and around the trams which snake along the sinuous streets which seem unlike any other street plan I’m familiar with from my previous years of visiting Western. There was something very calming about riding a tram or just watching one.

For a city which is the third largest port in Belgium, and has 250,000 residents, Ghent never felt overwhelming. It welcomed and fascinated me, and unlike the more famous Bruges half an hour away (which has twice as many tourists), it didn’t feel like a museum despite the amazing architecture from so many different periods.

Before I got there, I had plans to set a novel elsewhere in Flanders, but after this past week, the novel-in-progress has moved to Ghent.  Frankly, I wish I could, too.  For awhile, anyway….

Lev Raphael is the author of the memoir/travelogue My Germany and 24 other books in many genres. He speaks French, German, and some Dutch.

Quick! Stop That Runaway Character!

I’ve been doing readings from my award-winning fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

writing-handsMy answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, and then they tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.  And casts authors as at least mildly eccentric, and not entirely in control of themselves or their work when the truth is completely different.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving me advice. It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of a guide to the writing life, Writer’s Block is Bunk, and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

How Reading Henry James Changed My Life

I had an amazing senior year of college reading (and reveling in) George Eliot, Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence Durrell, Fitzgerald, and Henry James.

While all of them inspired me to be a better writer of fiction–my goal in life–it was James who was the catalyst for perhaps the deepest change.

I was reading The Portrait of a Lady–which many consider The Great American Novel–at 3 AM when I came to the famous Chapter 42.

lady(Nicole Kidman in Jane Campion’s 1996 film of Portrait)

That’s where the American heiress, Isabel Archer, has started to understand that there’s something wrong with her marriage and her life. She’s hoped for intellectual and emotional freedom, but life with her dilettante husband Osmond has turned out to be very different. Her Roman palace is a prison.

….she had seen where she really was. She could live it over again, the incredulous terror with which she had taken the measure of her dwelling. Between those four walls she had lived ever since; they were to surround her for the rest of her life. It was the house of darkness, the house of dumbness, the house of suffocation.

It may sound like a cliché, but I was thunderstruck. That was my house. My emotional house. Because I had never really talked about or written abut my parents’ experiences in the Holocaust, what that legacy meant to me. In the years to come, this subject matter would become central to the fiction and nonfiction I published and was known for.  My first prize-winning story, published in Redbook, would be about a son of survivors and it launched my career.

Within days of reading Chapter 42, there was a clear difference in my work that my creative writing professor noticed. James had opened me up to myself in a way that no other author ever had. I was never the same man or writer again.

Of course, it wasn’t just the story that swept me away: the sumptuous prose, James’s sly humor, and his sharp depiction of the conflict of Americans and Europeans in that era transfixed me.

I’ve read Portrait many times since, always in new editions because I mark up my copies with comments, stars, and underlining.  It keeps meaning different things to me, but I always remember that sense of discovery and liberation, and always be grateful.

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books of fiction and nonfiction in a wide range of genres.

 

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.

 

 

What Do Writers Really Want?

The answer is simple: Everything.

Roxane Gay once pointed out in Salon that discussions about whether women writers don’t get enough press coverage miss the point.  Even successful authors are easily dissatisfied: “What most writers have in common is desire. We want and want and want and want.”

I learned this early in my publishing career when an author I was getting to know told me about another writer whose first novel had been reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. It was subsequently on the NYT best seller list, and sold about 500,000 copies. That’s the kind of exposure, notoriety, and sales record most writers would kill for.  My friend had lunch with this author who turned out to be miserable. Why? He hadn’t been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, and couldn’t let go of the disappointment.

Unhappy-at-workI’ve met a millionaire author of thrillers whose books sell worldwide and have been made into movies–but that’s not enough. What’s missing? Respect from established literary critics. Another writer friend who’s spoken all across the country and has taught writing workshops in Europe is eaten up by not being invited to keynote an annual writer’s conference back home in a small college town.

No matter what level of achievement writers reach, many of us just can’t stop hoping for more. Sadly, we don’t wish we were writing better books, we wish we were better known, richer, more respected, had more exposure or just had something other writers had–whatever that is. And in the end, it wouldn’t be enough, because for many writers, there’s never enough.

frustratedwomanRoxane Gay’s essay was another voice in the controversy launched  when novelist Jennifer Weiner went public about about not being as admired as Jonathan Franzen, not getting his level of respect or review coverage. She’s a writer of popular fiction, she’s been a New York Times best seller, she’s made millions from her books and more than one was turned into a movie. It’s an enviable place to be, but she apparently envies literary novelist Jonathan Franzen, who’s been on the cover of TIME and endlessly praised by the literary establishment.

Whatever you think about her complaints or about her writing, I can’t imagine Weiner would be happy if she had everything she thinks she wants, because there would be something else beyond her reach. She’s a writer, after all.  For way too many of us, our favorite music is what the poet Linda Pastan calls “the song of the self.” It’s a one-voice melody that runs up and down the scale “like a mouse maddened/by its own elusive tail.”

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.

 

Following Elmore Leonard’s Rules?

Since his recent death, people have been posting and re-posting Leonard’s well-known rules for writers, which added together seem to suggest that you should write in a very lean way.  Kind of like Leonard himself.

One of the rules is “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”  But does Leonard follow his own advice? Here are some passages about the thug Richard Nobles in the novel LaBrava  (aren’t those great character names?)

He was thick all over, heavily muscled, going at least six-three, two-thirty.  Blond hair with a greenish tint in the floodlight: the hair uncombed, clots of it lying straight back on his head without a part, like he’d been swimming earlier and had raked it back with his fingers.  The guy wasn’t young up close.  Mid-thirties.  But he was the kind of guy–LaBrava knew by sight, smell and instinct–who hung around bars and arm-wrestled.  Homegrown jock–pumped his muscles and tested his strength when he wasn’t picking his teeth 

An ugly drunk.  Look at the eyes.  Ugly–used to people backing down, buying him another drink to shut him up.  Look at the shoulders stretching satin, the arms on him–Jesus–hands that looked like they could pound fence posts. 

Nobles, with his size, his golden hair, his desire to break and injure, his air of muscular confidence, was fascinating to watch.  A swamp creature on the loose.

I see plenty of rich, evocative detail there, and it’s all superbly well-chosen.  We get bits and pieces of the physical that create Nobles as an individual who’s anything but noble.  We also see him as a type known to LaBrava who’s assessing him, and the images are powerful (swamp creature, pounding fence posts).  Better yet, we have a tremendously evocative portrait of Nobles’s impact on people, the dangerously violent aura created by his mood and by his muscles.

It’s easy to quote Leonard, but it’s far more interesting to read him and see how closely he sticks to his own rules.  And then the question is, does it matter?