The Poisonous World of American Universities

Essays, stories, and books of mine have been taught at colleges and universities around the country, so I’ve been invited to speak at many different institutions over the years, from Ivy League schools to community colleges.

They’ve all had something in common. Invariably, a faculty member will take me aside during my time there and tell me about somebody wildly eccentric or even out-of-control in their department. Or about a scandal, a schism, some long-simmering vendetta. And I think to myself, “You can’t make this stuff up…”

There was a professor who told me she had to quit serving on hiring committees because a senior professor announced that he didn’t like a candidate because “He smells.” Nobody else had noticed anything (not that it should have mattered) but they yielded to the professor’s seniority. Another related the story of a professor who unexpectedly and savagely attacked his own student at the student’s doctoral defense just to undermine a rival professor on the committee who liked his student. Crazy, right?

I’ve heard of people with barely any publications get tenure through favoritism and then when they achieved their ultimate goal of becoming administrators, they become petty, smiling dictators over faculty with far more experience and reputation. There’s constant infighting, piss-poor collegiality—but worst of all, the sad stories of contemptuous professors who treat their students like dirt. And lately, of course, stories of sexual harassment and abuse have darkened the picture.

I love teaching and come from a family of teachers. I left academia after over a decade of teaching because I wanted to write full-time, and my editor at St. Martin’s Press encouraged me to start a mystery series set in that environment. Outsiders slam academia for not being “the real world,” but I disagree 100%.

At times it’s far too real and so are many of its denizens: petty, vain, hypocritical, self-righteous, power-hungry, wildly egotistical, obsessed with stats (perceived or real).

I set my series at the fictional State University of Michigan in “Michiganapolis” somewhere in mid-Michigan. Outsiders can make great observers and sleuths, so my sleuth Nick Hoffman is primarily a composition teacher there. That’s made him low man on the totem pole in his Department of English, American Studies, and Rhetoric—especially since he enjoys teaching this basic course. He’s even more of an outsider because he’s published something useful, a bibliography of Edith Wharton, as opposed to a recondite work of criticism only a few dozen people might read or understand. On top of all that, he’s from the East Coast, he’s Jewish in a mostly Gentile department, and he’s out.

Seven years ago, I was recruited to teach creative writing at Michigan State University when the chair of the English Department realized I’d published more books than the entire creative writing faculty put together. I’ve had amazing students to work with, known a few friendly colleagues, and most importantly, I was able to pass on the terrific mentoring I got in college. But in my years at MSU I’ve heard more stories of mistreatment, poisonous arrogance, and basic cruelty on campus and from friends teaching across the country. It’s all material, of course–but it shouldn’t have to be.

Lev Raphael teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of 26 books in a wide range of genres including the just-published State University of Murder.

Charlie Huston’s Zombie Classic “Already Dead” is a Perfect Summer Read

When I teach creative writing classes, I assign fiction in different genres to inspire and stimulate the students. They’re almost always books I’ve learned from myself as a writer and that I think have a lot to offer to new writers. I need to enjoy a book intensely or I won’t be able to share that enjoyment with students and offer the book up as both pleasurable and instructive.

I’ve had students in a handful of creative writing classes read Charlie Houston’s hilarious, blistering Already Dead and the response is always positive. I’ve read it half a dozen times at least and I never get bored.

It’s a sizzling mix of mystery, thriller, zombie, vampire, and private detective novel in which Manhattan is secretly divided up by different vampire clans. They keep a low profile so that humans don’t hunt them down, and some of them are very powerful. In Houston’s take on vampire lore, it’s the “Vyrus” of ancient origin that makes these creatures what they are—and that disease is almost a character all its own.
As the book opens, the borough is suddenly and mysteriously filling with zombies. They’re of course too witless and hungry for brains to stay out of the public eye, and any kind of attention to them could expose the vampire underworld.

Who ya gonna call? Joe Pitt. He’s a freelancer, not strongly connected to any of the clans, but a killer for hire. He’s tough, foul-mouthed, and funny. His case in the first book of Houston’s series involves a young runaway and finding out where all those zombies are coming from. Who’s infecting them, who is Zombie Zero? How is the missing girl mixed up in this hot zombie mess?

Like every good PI sleuth, his hunt brings him into conflict with unseen forces, and cynical, hardboiled Joe gets rubbed the wrong way by condescending rich people—another staple of the genre. He’s hassled by thugs, too, of course, one of whom still says with admiration, “Joe don’t take nothing from nobody, good or bad.”  Like Humphrey Bogart and ever classic sleuth, he take a lot of damage.

Pitt is armed with amazing abilities to analyze all the scents in a room and to see in the dark, which make him dangerous and also fascinating. His infected blood also helps him recover from all the beatings you expect a PI to get and makes him incredibly strong, but one of his best weapons is his mouth: he’s got a smart-ass line for almost every occasion. Like when someone asks if he has a moment:

“Perhaps I have a whole shitload of moments. Perhaps I have moments squirreled away all over the place, and perhaps I plan to keep them for myself. What of it?”

The book is told in his voice and Houston’s made him one of the best story-tellers you’ll ever meet, in the dark or anywhere else….

Lev Raphael is the author of The Vampyre of Gotham and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He teaches creative writing online at writewithoutborders.com.“Studying creative writing with Lev Raphael was like seeing Blade Runner for the first time: simply incredible.”
—Kyle Roberts, MSU Class of 2016

Five Reasons Why You Have to Stay on Facebook

Besides cute animal videos, that is.

Everywhere you go, people are talking about giving up Facebook because their data has been exposed, it’s a time suck, or Russian fake accounts have compromised our democracy. Don’t give in. Facebook is essential in this wildly narcissistic age because it keeps people humble.

1—Are you excited about posting a link to your first blog? People will be sure to comment about the title without having read the blog, and disagree with it somehow in a way that makes you feel very small. Or if they’ve read the blog, they won’t comment at the site where it appeared, or even say anything on your Facebook page, but will FB chat you about your typos.

2—Are you delighted about something as innocuous as finally having seen every movie that Helen Mirren’s ever starred in and you start your day by posting that news, hoping fellow fans will chime in? Someone you know will post about having had lunch with Mirren and talk about how charming and unassuming she is. Ditto Ian McKellan, who dropped by for dessert.

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3—Are you proud of having written 1500 words on your new novel? The book it took you months to plot? Well, count on this: Dozens of your Facebook buddies will let you know that they write twice as much as that a day. On a bad day. Even after having had surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome.
4—Are you pleased that you got a weekend away and went to the beach where you happily posted photos of surf and sand? At least one of your pals is sure to post pictures of the fabulous villa they recently rented in Spain for a month, including shots of smiling sexy locals, and let you know how their shopping sprees, drinking binges, mani-pedi sessions, yacht hopping are going, moment by moment.
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5—Are you thrilled that you finally got a book published? Someone will humble brag about not being able to figure out where the newest foreign language edition of their umpteenth novel came out, but they think from the look of the title if might just possibly be Bulgaria? Which isn’t that big a market really compared to Germany where their book was also published last year and Angela Merkel wrote such an awesome blurb….but she’s just a politician….I mean, so….
Lev Raphael is the author of 26 books in genres from memoir to mystery.  He now teaches creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com.

12 Ways Not to Comfort Someone in Mourning

Worried about how to react when a friend has lost a spouse or partner? Try avoiding the following, all of which have been reported to me by friends as extremely unhelpful.

1—Hey, nobody lives forever.

2—Don’t you think it’s time for you to move on?

3—God was running out of angels.

4—Life is for the living.

5—Sell your house–it’s too full of memories.

6—She had a great life.

7—It could have been so much worse—it could have been you!

8—You look so much nicer when you smile.

9—It was really his time.

10—Come on now, you’re not the only one who’s ever suffered a loss.

11—You have so much to live for!

12—Have you tried hot yoga?

Lev Raphael is the author of eight comic mysteries and seventeen other books in a wide range of genres, including Writer’s Block is Bunk.

“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.

 

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)

The Secret to Get People Reading Your Blog

So you’ve started your blog and there’s minimal traffic?

A sure-fire way to generate an audience is to write smack about somebody famous, especially if that celebrity just died.

Just see what would happen if you blogged that Prince’s music was over-rated, that he hadn’t really written any hits lately, that he was derivative, that he always looked like he got dressed in the dark–or whatever nastiness came to mind.  The comments would explode.

prince orangeIf you dissed Prince so soon after his death and all the memorials praising his genius, you’d be endlessly re-tweeted on Twitter. Now, people do respond to the 5 Ways to De-Clutter Your Sock Drawer blogs, but when a blogger targets somebody popular, it’s like swatting a bee hive with a bat.

You can do better than that, though: don’t just attack a person, attack a whole genre.  Look at Curtis Sittenfeld.  Never heard of her?  That’s true for lots of readers.  But she recently generated a ton of publicity by saying that most romance novels are badly written.

Bingo!  She got tons of press and widespread attacks by romance writers and readers.

Of course, she was after bigger game than blog readers because she was publishing an updated version of Pride and Prejudice which she thinks is a romance.  But the strategy could work just as well for you: diss a popular genre with a provocative blog title, and watch the comments mount.  Try writing a blog “Crime Fiction is Crap.”

The comments won’t be pretty. You’ll get dissed as a hack or moron or worse.  Ignore all that.  Ignore all the negatives, because what’s the point of getting into a conversation with someone who wants to insult you?  Just watch for the people who agree–because those people will show up, too.  And who knows, they might stick around….

BlogLev Raphael is author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir.

How to Grab Attention as a Blogger

The best way? Write something that’ll really stir people up.

One approach is to be super negative.

For instance, Adele’s new album has been breaking sales records and she has zillions of adoring fans. Imagine writing a blog that says 25 is crap, she’s over-rated, and not remotely as good as Lana del Ray or any other singer of your choice.

You’d be sure to get lots of hits and people would RT like crazy in their rage. But then among that crowd would also be lots of people who actually agreed with you–so you’d get those readers, too.

Another approach: Defend a common target of ridicule.

Example? Blog that the Kardashians have been misunderstood. Say they represent the best in family values. Say they stand for everything that makes America great. Given their high profile, one way of another, anything about them is likely to generate hits, and that’s what you’re after: click bait.  A sexy title and photo or two helps.  And some funny gifs.

Now, what do you then do about the myriad badly spelled, contemptuous emails from people who think you’re a total moron and should be put down like a rapid dog? Or just think you’re uppity and should crawl back into your hole?  And the tweets that vilify you in worse terms? And the comments pointing out the smallest typo and trashing everything from your writing skills to your sanity?

Ignore them.

You’re not blogging to start a conversation or prove you’re God’s Gift to Blogging. Your aim is publicity, and the best way to generate that is by posting a controversial blog.  But beware, that can happen even by accident.

So.  Are you tough enough to handle it?

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir.