Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Shakespeare. Show all posts

25 October 2019

Spooky Writers, Forgotten Graves, and Vengeance from Beyond the Tomb




It's that time of year, when Pumpkin Spice becomes a thing, and sketchy Halloween costume shops take over even sketchier strip malls.  As the fall chill settles, one starts to wonder: Are those spookiest of writers, Edgar Allen Poe and Ambrose Biercetruly in their final resting places? Like, tucked away, with at least six feet of hallowed earth separating them (the dead) from us (the living)?





I can offer you no such surcease of sorrow.

In this corner, the friendly,
modern-day
Jack O'Lantern...
...and in this corner, a
Samhain-era Jack O'Lantern.
It's made from a turnip, and it
will swallow your soul.
Halloween, based on the Celtic Samhain (which itself is comes from Chthulu-era pagan rituals), is the night when the dead come knocking. Some for treats, some for tricks, and some for righteous beyond-the-tomb payback.








Edgar Allan Poe. I dare you to photo shop
a straw hat onto this.
Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce specialized in tales where death wasn't always a sure bet. Both left this mortal coil with scores to settle. And there is grave uncertainty as to where either is interred.  These are three good motives for any unrestful spirit to don a hockey mask (or William Shatner mask, or fedora and sweater combo or, ok, there are a lot of costume options), grab a machete (again, options), and come calling this Halloween. One would hope that enough post-mortem praise has been heaped on Poe and Bierce to put contented smiles on their rotting faces; to sway them to let bygones be bygones.

Don't count on it.

If there's anyone who'd warrant vengeance from beyond the grave, its Edgar Allan Poe. The means are questionable, but the motives are as clear as a gold bug on a black cat.

First, Poe's death is shrouded in mystery. I don't believe he ended up in that Baltimore gutter wearing someone else's clothes just because he was at the tell-tail end of a bender. I like the cooping theory. In those days of rampant voter fraud (not to diminish our own era of Russian meddling), travelers were kidnapped, cooped up in rooms (hence "cooping"), and force-fed booze and drugs. A pretty sweet deal for some, but deadly for others. The blitzed-out saps were coerced into voting repeatedly at different polling stations. Their clothes were switched so they wouldn't be recognized.

Poe was found near a polling station, out of his head. He was wearing farmer's clothes, including a straw hat. There's no way that The Godfather of Goth cavorted amongst the literati of Virginia and New York in a straw hat like some Leatherstocking Tales reject. This man was cooped.

Rufus Griswold wrote a scathing
review of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
(pictured here). Whitman mockingly included
the review in later editions.
Second, Poe's reputation was sunk by Rufus (rhymes with doofus) Griswold, a third-rate literary rival. In popular culture Poe is often seen as a drug addicted outsider who mirrored the creepiness he wrote. Actually, Poe was a respected writer and editor, a literary celebrity who made a lot of his money in live appearances. He is probably the first American writer to live solely off his writing. Rufus Griswold was a hacky "anthologist" and the target of one of Poe's biting you'll-never-live-this-down criticisms. When Poe kicked off, punk Griswold saw his chance for cowardly payback.

Griswold wrote a scathing obit of Poe for the NewYork Tribune that was widely reprinted. Next, Griswold conned his way into being Poe's literary executor. He wrote a fake biography of Poe that appeared in Poe's anthologies.  It portrayed Poe as an addict, gambler and army deserter. This false image of Poe as an evil, pathetic genius stuck.

Edgar Allan Poe's grave marker.
It's likely that Poe is nearby.
Lastly, in 1849, Poe was dumped into an unmarked grave in the Westminster Burial Ground in Baltimore. It wasn't until decades later when a succession of grand headstones attempted to mark the great man's final resting place. In a scene reminiscent of Poe's fiction, the city of Baltimore repatriated Poe's corpse to a more scenic view. The sloppy handling of Poe's remains gave rise to conspiracy theories.

In 1978, the Maryland Historical Magazine published Charles Scarlett, Jr's "A Tale of Ratiocination: The Death and Burial of Edgar Allan Poe." Scarlett proposes that through a series of grave-marker mix-ups, Baltimore botched Poe's reburial. Instead of digging up Poe, Baltimore disinterred the remains of Phillip Mosher, a young fallen soldier from the War of 1812.  Scarlett presents a pretty interesting theory.

George W. Spence, a sexton who oversaw the first exhumation of Poe, said that he lifted up Poe's skull, and "his brain rattled around inside just like a lump of mud." Brains rot pretty quickly. Bullets don't. If Phillip Mosher was killed in the War of 1812 by a shot to the head, the hunt for Poe's corpse continues.

Ambrose Bierce and skull.
Around the time when the search for Poe's grave began, a young soldier and Poe fan was facing real-life horrors that rivaled those that Poe wrote about.

Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez
put their own twist on the Ambrose Bierce
legend. Edited by yours truly.
I'm a film and TV editor, and I cut a horror flick that stars Michael Parks (lead on the ultra-cool TV series Then Came Bronson) as cantankerous author Ambrose Bierce. In it, Bierce falls in with outlaws, battles vampires, and eventually joins the ranks of the undead. That's one way to explain Bierce's mysterious disappearance.

Bierce, most famous for The Devil's Dictionary and his short story "An Occurence at Owl's Creek Bridge," was a Civil War vet who saw the bloody horrors of war up close. Bierce hilariously said war was "God's way of teaching American's geography," but he found little humor on the battlefield. He fought on the Union side in hellish battles at Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. His writing is imbued with those experiences.  Bierce suffered a head wound at Kennesaw Mountain, which some claim was the cause of his bouts of booziness and unmatched orneriness.

Bierce's most famous story collection, which
includes "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge."
In his lifetime Bierce was known as a San Francisco journalist, but his lit legend is based on his short horror stories with surprise endings. "An Occurrence at Owl's Creek Bridge" is one of those works of fiction that has been repeated so often, and in so many mediums, that many are unaware of it as the source. It's the story of a Civil War Southerner about to be hung from a bridge. He is dropped off the side, but the rope breaks. The Southerner escapes to his home. As he's running into the arms of his wife he's stopped by a heavy blow to his neck. In the most famous of Bierce's twist endings, we learn the man imagined the escape during the time between his fall from the bridge and the rope breaking his neck.

Pancho Villa: General, Mexican revolutionary,
and maybe one of the last people to see
Ambrose Bierce alive.
In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, Bierce travelled by horseback, first to visit Civil War battle sites, then to Mexico. His stated aim was to report on Pancho Villa and the Mexican Revolution. Many claim Bierce was running away from old age, seeking a one-way ticket to an adventure that would carry on into the after life. His last postcard was mailed from Chihuahua City, Mexico. Bierce was intending to ride out with Pancho Villa. What happened next is shrouded in mystery, but according to numerous eyewitnesses, Bierce died many deaths.

Bierce was killed at the Battle of Ojinaga, fighting the Federales alongside Villa.

Bierce was only wounded at Ojinaga, but eventually succumbed to his injuries at the Marfa refugee camp.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Icamole.

Bierce was executed by a Federale firing squad at the desert village of Sierra Mojada.

Others believe Bierce offed himself somewhere in the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite hangouts. There are no eyewitnesses, reliable or otherwise, to support this claim.

At least Poe got a coffin and a handful of mourners. If Bierce died in battle, he was likely dumped in a mass grave and burned. Death by firing squad meant he got his own hole in the ground but none of the other trimmings. There's a small monument for him at Sierra Mojada, but the remains of Bierce are nowhere to be found.

I'd say the best way to placate Poe and Bierce this Halloween is to read their works. You don't even have to read the scary stuff. Poe's tales of ratiocination starring amateur sleuth C. Auguste Dupin are a must for any fan of crime fiction. Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary holds up as a manual of biting-though-meaningful sarcasm.

You may want to read some Shakespeare, too. In 2016, archaeologists examined Shakespeare's grave using GPR scanning. The study showed that the grave was disturbed after Shakespeare was buried. GPR images also revealed that Shakespeare's skull is missing.


Happy Halloween!

I'm Lawrence Maddox. My latest novel Fast Bang Booze is available from Down and Out Books (downandoutbooks.com). You can contact me at Madxbooks@gmail.com.

24 December 2018

The Christmas Spirit


by Steve Liskow    



"Brown Eyes Crying in the Rain," my take on the Ghostly Hitchhiker legends, appears in the upcoming issue of Occult Detective Quarterly. It didn't occur to me until a few days ago how appropriate that is. Tomorrow is, of course, Christmas Day.


The British have told ghost stories as part of the holiday celebration for centuries, apparently because the winter solstice is only a few days earlier and the Christians co-opted December 25th to celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth and overshadow the Pagan Saturnalia. Ghosts presumably walk more freely on the longest night of the year, which celebrates the death and re-birth of the sun.

Oliver Cromwell, never the life of the party, didn't want Christmas celebrated as a holiday. He wanted the workers to labor for another long and underpaid shift. During his tenure as ruler of the Commonwealth, he even banned Christmas carols. Barrel of laughs, that Ollie.

But the ghost story is still alive and well (Is that an oxymoron?), and it may have reached its peak of popularity in the Victorian era, when Charles Dickens published short novels for the season, many of them ghostly tales. His most famous is A Christmas Carol. Does anyone even know how many films and theatrical adaptations of that one work exist? My wife and I attended a stage version at the Hartford Stage Company this year, where it has been an annual event for twenty years. It still sells out the thirty performances.

Other British writers have offered ghost stories, too. In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale (1611), Prince Mamillius says, "A sad tale's best for winter. I have one/ Of sprites and goblins." We never hear the tale because Mamillius dies before intermission. Mary Shelly Wrote Frankenstein when Byron challenged her and others to write a ghost story, and she dated the beginning of the book in mid-December. Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell revived the faltering tradition along with Dickens. Algernon Blackwood, Conan Doyle and M. R. James carried it on.

I don't remember Poe setting any of his stories at Christmas (I can't find my copy of "The Devil in the Belfry" on my shelf. Is that set at yuletide?), but Henry James sets the telling of The Turn of the Screw around the fire during a Christmas celebration.

Remember the popular (Well, in my day...) Andy Williams song, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year?" The third verse ends with "...There'll be scary ghost stories/ And tales of the glories..."

I seldom set stories around a holiday, the only exception being "Santa and the Shortstop," which appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine a few years ago.

But who knows? A little more eggnog and maybe I'll be in the spirit to write another ghost story for next year...

In the meantime, Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good fright.

17 September 2018

Who Wrote It?


by Steve Liskow

When an anonymous "senior administration official" published an op ed in the New York Times two weeks ago, he (or possibly they ) set off another firestorm in the current presidency. Countless articles and online posts have tried to identify the author(s) and the suspects range from Mike Pence to Dan Coates to Steve Bannon, and one even suggests Trump wrote it himself, which I seriously doubt.

Hand-writing analysis has been with us for even longer than the "forensic linguistics" that people are using to identify this writer. But there are stumbling blocks to the approach in this case. It's a small sample and we don't have anything else we can compare it to. We need another article on a similar subject of about the same length by each of the 100 (I love that!) suspects to make a meaningful decision.

The experts look at how certain words are used, how a writer punctuates and uses paragraphs, and many other clues. The good ones claim the science is almost as solid as DNA, but that may be pushing it. More than one expert has pointed out that we don't know how much the Times altered words, phrasing or punctuation to bring the piece in line with its own style guides.

In any case, while there are writers who had a distinctive and usually recognizable style, such as Hemingway and Faulkner, both of whom had contests involving people writing a pastiche of their work, there are others who change style and voice often. Laura Lippman comes to mind. Some writers have been identified even when they use a pseudonym. Patrick Juola, presently at Duquesne University, used forensic linguistics to prove that J. K. Rowling wrote The Cuckoo's Calling, even though the name on the book cover was Robert Galbraith. Gary Taylor boosted his reputation as a Shakespearean by identifying an unattributed (and not very good) poem to the Bard.

When I was still directing plays, I had a reputation as a minor-league expert on Shakespeare. I have read most of the plays several times, acted in a dozen of them, and directed still others. While teaching, I assigned fourteen different plays at one time or another.
 In 1990, Charles Hamilton published a text that he claimed was Shakespeare's lost play Cardenio, basing his conclusion on handwriting analysis, which is problematic because authorities argue over which of several samples really is Shakespeare's hand--if any of those samples we have really is his own. Hamilton said The Second Maiden's Tragedy, credited to Thomas Middleton, was really the text of Cardenio, possibly co-authored by Shakespeare and John Fletcher.

I read the play and disagreed. Thomas Middleton wrote a play called The Witch, which Shakespeare borrowed heavily from for the witch scenes in Macbeth. Shakespeare and Fletcher collaborated near the end of Shakespeare's career, and Cardenio--inspired by a section of Don Quixote, which was published in English in 1612--didn't fit what Shakespeare was producing at that point. I say this as someone who devoured John Barton's and Cicely Berry's books on how Shakespeare used language because they helped me direct. So does the First Folio.

Cardenio was supposedly written between The Tempest and All Is True (Henry VIII), just after The Winter's Tale and Cymbeline.  I've acted in and directed separate productions of The Winter's Tale (about 20 years apart) and participated in two productions of The Tempest. Compared to them, the language in Cardenio is clumsy and immature. The cast is much smaller than in any of Shakespeare's other plays (remember, bit players often played several roles), and the structure is even more truncated than Macbeth, which is complete but always feels like something's been cut. Even on his own, John Fletcher was better than this. So was Kit Marlowe. So were the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Derby and Francis Bacon.


Truthfully, the authorship is fine topic for yet another graduate thesis, but I don't care who wrote the plays as long as good directors and actors continue to perform them for the rest of us.

Same with the New York Times op ed.

I don't care as much about who wrote the piece as I do about the admission that the White House staff is undermining Trump's actions out of self-interest instead of taking the appropriate steps to invoke the 25th Amendment for the Greater Good.

25 July 2018

An Upstart Crow


David Edgerley Gates

Bernard Cornwell's newest book, Fools and Mortals, is a romance about Elizabethan theater, in particular about Shakespeare and the first production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. A lot of Cornwell's books are swashbucklers, the Sharpe novels, the Last Kingdom stories, and this one has its share of derring-do and hair's-breadth escapes, but much of it is theatrical in the literal sense, how a play was staged in 1595, thirty-seventh year of Elizabeth's rule.



Shakespeare isn't uncharted waters. He's had leading parts and cameos before. The yardstick is the Anthony Burgess novel Nothing Like the Sun. Burgess himself calls the period "a word-drunk age," and his novel is a headlong rush of language, told in Shakespeare's own voice, both confident and sharing confidences. (One of my personal favorites is Bitter Applesa novel within a novel, John Crowley's reimagining of that tiger's heart, wrapped in a player's hide, in the first book of his Aegypt quartet, The Solitudes.)


Cornwell gives us a convincing and fully-realized world, the rivalries between the acting companies, the politics of religion, the sexual opportunism, and the internal dynamics of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, onstage and off. In their petty intrigues and their generosity, their authenticity and pretense, a mirror of their betters, and the audience.  Cornwell does his homework, and his careful detail pays off. He always gives it flesh and bone, smoke and odor and tallow. It smells, and not of the lamp.


Which leads to a different question. Using real people in fictions. It's one thing if they're a walk-on (Hitler overheard in the next room, say), and we've likely got more freedom of invention the further off they are from us in history, but whether in the wings or front-and-center, they still have to ring true.

Gore Vidal in Burr, to take an example, confounds our expectations of the Founding Fathers. It's a poisoned-pen letter, but a salutary corrective to the hagiography of Parson Weems. Mary Renault, The Last of the Wine. Socrates is entirely plausible, and no doddering old fart or department store Santa, either. Cecelia Holland. Robert Harris. Philip Kerr. Janice Law's sly mystery series featuring that unapologetic dissolute Francis Bacon. Here lurks a clue, perhaps.


If we don't know for certain what Francis Bacon was doing on a particular Monday morning (although we know he was an air raid warden, during the Blitz), we can make it up. The same goes for Shakespeare or Socrates. Or if we do know, we can fit that into the timeframe and fabric of the story. The trick, it would seem, is putting them in a plausible circumstance. I've used real people, although not in the lead, as a rule. Gen. Leslie Groves has a bit part in "The Navarro Sisters," which is about the Manhattan Project. Owney Madden makes an appearance in a couple of the Mickey Counihan stories, and so does Bumpy Johnson. It's local flavor. I've even hired Elfego Baca as a lawyer, once upon a time, to get a kid off a murder rap in El Paso.

You don't spoil a good story for lack of the facts. Then again, you can't bend the facts to suit yourself. The best case is when you can fill in a few cracks in the existing narrative. There's a famous deleted scene in Ford's movie Young Mr. Lincoln, when Abe Lincoln first rides his mule into Springfield. Another young man steps out of a doorway, onto the plank sidewalk overlooking the street. There's a playbill on the wall next to him, advertising an upcoming theater performance. The two young men make eye contact briefly, and then glance away from each other. The second guy is of course the actor John Wilkes Booth.

*

Best wishes and Godspeed to Art Taylor, who's taking a sabbatical from this forum, picking up the reins of the blogsite First Two Pages, as well as becoming new assistant director of creative writing at George Mason University.  

30 April 2018

Smile and Be a Villain


by Steve Liskow


By sad coincidence, two of our cats died several years apart on April 23, Shakespeare's birthday. Last week, the Bard turned 454 (I didn't send a card) and his plays still merit constant performances the world over. Shakespeare thought he would be remembered for his poems (except for the sonnets, only slightly better than John Dillinger's) and retired at age 47 a relatively wealthy man, especially for a writer.

It's easy to talk about his brilliant images and use of symbols and all that high-school-worksheet stuff, but his plays would live on anyway because he wrote brilliant conflicted characters, especially his villains. He constantly reminds us that everyone needs a goal or motive, especially the bad guys. They aren't just "bad by nature"--although Don John claims that he is in Much Ado About Nothing.

In King Lear, Edmund tells us he's standing up for bastards,
but he's jealous because his little brother Edgar, born of married parents, will inherit Gloucester's estate even though he's younger than Edmund. Jealously and sibling rivalry are powerful forces. Look at the women in the same play: Goneril and Regan want their father Lear's estate, but the younger Cordelia is daddy's favorite...until she can't flatter him enough and he kicks her out with the tragically incorrect proclamation that nothing will come of nothing. Actually, it will lead to at least eight deaths.

The older sibs in both families are monsters, but we understand why they lie, stab servants, commit adultery, scheme against each other, plan to murder their spouses, and tear out Gloucester's eyes. The sins of the fathers live on in the children. Lear may be my favorite Shakespearean play and I'd love to direct it if I thought I could find fourteen strong actors in community theater. Unfortunately, age is a factor for at least three men, and the women are stuck as Goody Two-Shoes and the Bitches, a darker version of Gladys Knight and the Pips.

Macbeth is the only other Shakespeare play still on my directing bucket list (I've directed six)--if I could find an appropriate time period that hasn't been recycled into cliche and decide how to present the witches (I've considered young, nubile, scantily clad and dimly lit because they personify temptation, Macbeth's loss of innocence). Macbeth is a war hero who goes to hell in blank verse because those bearded sisters offer him a tempting look at the future and he makes the mistake of telling his wife. His fall gives us two of my favorite monologues, the "If 'twere done when 'tis done" speech as he contemplates murdering Duncan and the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" tour de force while the walls buckle around him. That speech also gives us "it is a tale full of sound and fury, told by idiot, signifying nothing."

Lady Macbeth is a difficult role to play (I've seen it done badly more often than not), but the actors or directors miss the point. Lady M is the forerunner of the modern groupie, and power is her aphrodisiac. Listen to the rhythms of her "come you spirits of the night" speech and you'll hear her bare her soul.

Iago feels Othello has unfairly passed him over for promotion, so he vows revenge, always a clear motive. He sizes up Othello as a man who loves his wife so much that he will believe the worst, and turns innuendo into high art when he "suggests" that Desdemona and Cassio are intimate. His attention to a handkerchief makes Professor Moriarty and Snidely Whiplash look like Boy Scouts.

I've played Claudius, the adulterous uncle/step-father in Hamlet. He loves Gertrude so much he kills his own brother to be with her, but his futile prayers ("My words fly up, my thoughts remain below./Words without thought never to heaven go.") show he knows he's still going straight to hell.
Hamlet stabs him with the envenomed epee and pours the poisoned chalice down his throat (talk about overkill) to hasten him on his way. His "Oh, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven" speech is  as powerful as his stepson's monologues, but seldom quoted.

Technically, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice isn't a villain so much as a victim, but he makes his case to Antonio and Bassanio when they "cut" the deal for Antonio's pound of flesh. "You call me misbeliever, cut-throat, dog, / And spit upon my Jewish gaberdine..."
Rehearsal shot (note unpainted floor) from my 2006 Merchant

They don't write them like that anymore.

'Tis true, 'tis pity, and, pity 'tis, 'tis true.


As a footnote, tonight is Walpurgisnacht, the night the demons walk. It's the night the lovers in A Midsummer Night's Dream wander in the woods before getting everything sorted out for their weddings along with Theseus on May Day.

And, as BSP, my story "The Girl in the Red Bandanna" appears in the latest issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, along with a story by our late blog partner, B. K. Stevens.

07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds


by Janice Law

We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

14 March 2017

The Sensitivity Police


by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s post, a little BSP. I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. In fact, I’m blown away. I want to thank everyone who voted for it! And I’m tempted to give Sally Field a run for her money and say, “You like me, you really like me,” or at least my story 😉. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 


***
And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.



After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”


And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”

The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

*** 

And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


09 November 2016

Old Mortality


by David Edgerley Gates

I don't imagine Sir Walter Scott is much read these days. Back in high school, for some of us, IVANHOE was on the reading list, maybe QUENTIN DURWARD or THE TALISMAN. All three of them were made into pretty successful movies, in the 1950's - romantic swashbucklers, not particularly credible, I admit, but incredibly rousing.  


His reputation now perhaps in disrepair, Scott in his lifetime was quite possibly the most widely read novelist in English, and maybe in translation. He's the first brand-name author, at least in trade publishing as we know it. He falls somewhere between Shakespeare and Dickens. not just chronologically, but in how he inhabited the popular imagination. If you look at expressions that have entered out common vocabulary, the Bible of course comes first, with Shakespeare a close second, then Dickens, and then Scott, you might be surprised to realize. The rest of us are back in the pack. Shakespeare, Dickens, and Scott. They're the most-quoted writers in the English language, although more than half the time, nobody's consciously quoting them. Something rotten in the state of Denmark. The best of times, the worst of times. Every dog has his day. Recognize the source? A lot of us wouldn't. They've become commonplaces, There's an interesting transition with the generic. Years ago, Xerox fought bitterly against their name being used as a synonym for copying - "let's Xerox it" - and Rollerblades has done it too, more recently, calling it trademark infringement. Fridgidaire once tried the same thing. Hard to see Dickens complaining about being Uriah Heep'd - it gave him legs.

Shakespeare and Dickens both set out, from the starting blocks, to be rich and famous. Neither of them came from privileged backgrounds, and their ticket to stardom was their skill as writers. Scott had more advantages. He was well-educated, and read for the law. Writing was at first an avocation, not a career. And neither was he drawn to commercial genres. He was fascinated by the Borders, the bloody history, the clan feuds and the religious wars, the Covenanter Rebellion and, later, the doomed Stuarts. His first book was a collection of Border ballads. He'd met Robert Burns when he was fifteen, and it had decided him on being a poet.

Let's be plain about this. Poetry was a gentlemen's profession. It was literature. In the early 1800's, the novel was below the salt. They were written for women, and not to be taken seriously - some obvious irony, here. Scott launched the novel in a new direction. The first of his historicals, WAVERLY, was published in 1814, and it took off like a rocket. I don't think Scott anticipated its success. He wanted to popularize the Jacobite legend, and maybe at the same time, bring it down to earth, make it accessible but show it for the folly it was.

Scott tapped into a hungry audience. They were waiting for it. He
was the missing piece, and he hit the market at exactly the right time, although he hadn't calculated for it. The early books were simply gobbled up.  Of those novels, my own opinion, the best is OLD MORTALITY, which has a political and moral complexity Scott never pulled off again. Yeah, the hero's kind of an insipid boob, but the heavies are jaw-dropping, the Royalist general Claverhouse and the Presbyterian assassin Burley. Think, perhaps, of the IRA Provos, or Islamic fanatics. OLD MORTALITY is deep in those dark woods.  

Scott didn't trade on his celebrity. It was an open secret in Edinburgh literary circles who the so-called Author of Waverly was, but his name never appeared on the title pages of his novels. A quaint convention? Maybe. He put his name to THE LADY OF THE LAKE, which sold like hotcakes, but it was of course epic poetry.

And then the inevitable happens. Scott's success catches up with him. It isn't hubris, or over-reaching, but his publisher, James Ballantyne, goes down. Scott has been a silent partner in the business for years, and his books have supported Ballantyne's bad business decisions. Scott could have thrown them over the side, but he's way too honorable for that. They declare bankruptcy, Scott writes them out of debt, and it kills him, at 61.

This is an over-simplified version of a complicated story. I admire the fact that Scott took responsibility. It speaks to the man. but the later stuff isn't that good, with the exception of ST. RONAN'S WELL, which is patently playing to the romance market, Austen and Bronte, and Scott doesn't shy away from admitting it. 


Seriously, can you envision anybody doing this, in the present predatory publishing climate? I think it's astonishing. The guy's loyal to an old friend, who's been a fool, but not devious. The guy believes that his good name, and his legacy, is more valuable than immediate profit. The guy wants to finish an enormously ambitious building project, Abbotsford, but he won't mortgage his reputation. In other words, Scott's willing to break his ass, and risk his physical health, to make good on his debt to history. I'm not at all sure we could meet that bar.  


08 October 2016

Mrs. Malaprop Lives!


by B.K. Stevens

Affectation, Henry Fielding declares in the preface to Joseph Andrews, is "the only source of the true Ridiculous." I think that principle holds true for language. We may get irritated with people who confuse "your" and "you're" or "accept" and "except." Usually, though, we're not tempted to ridicule them--certainly not if they're very young or haven't had many educational opportunities, probably not even if they're well-educated adults who ought to know better. After all, everyone makes mistakes. Unless something is so riddled with errors that it's obvious the writer didn't even try to proofread, most of us are more inclined to forgive than to ridicule. (I certainly hope you'll forgive me for any mistakes I've made in this post. It's terrifying to write on this sort of subject, knowing I could slip up at any time.)

But when writers are guilty of affectation--and especially when affectation is compounded by ignorance--ridicule begins to seem like an appropriate response. Some literary characters have become famous for sounding foolish when they try to impress others with inflated language. In Shakespeare's Much Ado about Nothing, Dogberry announces that he and his men have "comprehended two aspicious persons" and later declares a prisoner will be "condemned into everlasting redemption" for his misdeeds. (I checked several copies of Much Ado, by the way, and they all said "aspicious," not "auspicious." So you don't have to forgive me for that one.) In Sheridan's The Rivals, Mrs. Malaprop complains she has little "affluence" on her niece, who is "as headstrong as an allegory on the banks of the Nile." When these characters make us laugh, I think we're laughing at their affectation, not their ignorance: They become ridiculous not because they have limited vocabularies but because they're trying to show off.

And Dogberry and Mrs. Malaprop have plenty of modern descendants. "My new thriller is the penultimate in suspense!" a novelist proclaims. The poor thing probably thinks "penultimate" means "more than ultimate." But since it actually means "second to last," "the penultimate in suspense" isn't much of a boast. "If you're searching for the meaning of life," a motivational speaker says, "I can offer you a simplistic answer." The speaker could have said "simple" but probably thought it sounded too--well, simple. Instead, the speaker opted for the extra syllable, unintentionally admitting the answer he or she is about to give can't adequately explain life's complexities. "If you follow my advice," the astrologer promises a potential client, "you will always be fortuitous." The astrologer may think "fortuitous" is a more elegant way of saying "fortunate." But to the extent his or her promise means anything, it means the potential client will always be ruled by chance. In all of these examples, the real problem is affectation, not ignorance. (True, we sometimes laugh at the things people say even when there's no affectation involved. For example, it was hard not to chuckle when Yogi Berra said, "You can observe a lot by just watching" or "Half the lies they tell about me aren't true." But an affectionate chuckle isn't the same as ridicule. Yogi wasn't putting on airs, just scrambling things up a bit--that makes a big difference.)


People who dress up their sentences with foreign words or phrases may also be suffering from affectation affliction. I love HGTV--like Food Network, it's one of my default channels--but the constant use of en suite grates on my nerves. "Here's your magnificent master bedroom," a star of Love It or List It or some such show will say, "and here's your spa-like en suite." Then he or she throws open the door to what used to be called a master bathroom.

Has en suite become fashionable because "master bathroom" sounds politically incorrect? I don't think so. After all, the same people who use en suite still say "master bedroom"--once, I heard an HGTV host refer to a "master en suite." And if the connotations of "master bathroom" make us uncomfortable, we can always say "owner's bathroom." No, I think en suite is appealing because it has that special air of sophistication, that added note of elegance, that je ne sais quoi. In short, it's appealing because it sounds so darn French. Unfortunately, to anyone who knows even a little French, it also sounds silly. "En suite" is a phrase, not a noun; it means "in a suite," not "bathroom." Two or more rooms that form a unit might be described as rooms en suite, but referring to a single room as "an en suite" doesn't make sense.

It also doesn't make sense for invitations to ask people to "please RSVP," or for menus to say a roast beef sandwich is served with "a cup of au jus." And if the menu also lists a "soup du jour of the day"--sacre bleu! The point isn't that we all need to know French--certainly not--but that we shouldn't try to sound impressive by using words or phrases we don't really understand. The advice George Orwell offers in "Politics and the English Language" can save us from a lot of embarrassing mistakes: "Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent."

Linguistic affectation can take other forms, too. Malapropisms are silly but relatively innocent. Driven by a desire to impress, people abuse the language without realizing it. But sometimes, I think, people are so driven that they push ahead even when they're fully aware of what they're doing.

That brings us to the world of politics, and to the world of television journalism. Like many others during this election year, I've been watching far too much cable news lately. And I've heard far too many reports that go more or less like this:
Top Democratic advisors meeting today to discuss strategies for the next phase of the campaign. On the other side of the aisle, Republican spokespeople responding to the latest controversies and countering with charges of their own. And both candidates issuing statements predicting victory. In Florida, officials warning of worsening conditions. In international news, NATO leaders calling for more joint action against terrorism, North Korea announcing more missile tests, and Vladimir Putin posing shirtless for more photographs.
Here we have five so-called sentences but not a single complete verb, just a plethora of present participles. As a result, we don't really know when things are happening. Have top Democratic advisors already met today? Are they meeting now? Will they meet later this afternoon? We can't be sure. We might think the present participle at least rules out the possibility that the meeting already happened, but that's not a safe assumption. I've often heard news anchors use the present participle, without any auxiliary verbs, to refer to past events.

I don't know when this preference for verbs without tense began. Maybe it's a recent development, or maybe it's been around for a long time, and I just haven't noticed it until now because I don't usually watch so much news. It does seem to be widespread. I sampled three cable news networks to make sure, and I never had to wait long to hear an ing string. I also don't know why the trend developed. It could be that news writers are so determined to use only "strong" verbs that they avoid all forms of to be and other auxiliaries. My best guess is that news writers (or, more likely, producers or executives) decided that unadorned present participles are more dramatic than regular old verbs, that they're sexier, more immediate, more exciting. "FBI investigators revealing startling new facts"--if we don't know exactly when something is happening, we might think it's happening right now. Better stay tuned. If that's why news networks are dangling all these enticing participles in front of us, I'd say it's another form of affectation. And it's a particularly calculating form, a deliberate misuse of language to mislead and manipulate. I don't want to overstate the problem, or to suggest news networks have evil intentions. At worst, they're guilty of trying to drive up ratings, and I suppose that's natural enough. But I don't like it when people twist the language to try to limit my understanding or control my reactions. And as a long-time English professor, I know that plenty of students already have a hard time understanding what a sentence is. If the news networks are muddying the waters still further, that's a shame.

We probably can't do much to reform the language of cable news, and malapropisms of one sort or another will probably always be with us. Affectation has deep roots in the human soul. But we can at least try to keep our own use of language as free of affectation as possible. To the extent that our writing has any influence on others, we can try to make sure our influence is positive. How can we do that? I've always found some advice E.B. White offers in The Elements of Style helpful, even inspirational. "The approach to style," White says, "is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity."

That about sums it up.

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Do you have favorite examples of malapropisms, or of other forms of inflated language? I'd love to hear them.