An American Editor

January 11, 2017

Thinking Fiction: What Novels Do Fiction Editors Read?

by Carolyn Haley

In follow-up to my survey about what editors in general read for recreation (What Do Editors Read?, I invited fiction editors to share their Top 10 favorite novels, along with something about their background and experience.

Thirty-two editors responded, comprising freelancers plus one cluster of staff and contract editors for a single romance publisher. No one working for a Big 5 traditional publisher participated, giving unbalanced results. However, I wasn’t attempting a rigidly scientific survey of the total editorial population. As with my first survey, I just wanted to satisfy my curiosity about what other editors read, and to share their recommendations for our collective enjoyment. The complete list, owing to length, is posted separately from this essay on the file downloads page at wordsnSync as “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Note that not every responding editor answered every question in the survey; or sometimes they combined answers, or gave more or fewer titles when I asked for ten, and so forth. Thus in this essay I cannot always give “X out of 32” results for a given topic. Since I was looking for patterns rather than conducting a true statistical analysis, I took the liberty of rounding numbers up or down or otherwise generalizing in cases where deviations occurred.

Common denominators

It comes as no surprise to learn that fiction editors read a lot of fiction. What is surprising is how many novels they find time to read. While one editor reports only reading fiction for work, the rest read anywhere from two to sixty (!) novels per month for recreation. Most of them also read short fiction, poetry, blogs, magazines, news media, and nonfiction of all types.

Such heavy reading is somewhat understandable, in that almost half the responders work part time. For them, as with the two retirees, more opportunity for leisure reading is theoretically available. But we can’t draw a blanket conclusion from that, because in several cases the responders edit part time and do something else for the balance of full-time employment—and of course they have the obligations and complexities of a personal life (details of which were not addressed in the survey).

The survey asked broad questions about occupation, education, writing background, and reading habits, to see what other commonalities might exist. The primary criterion for participation was that at least two-thirds of their professional editing work be fiction. In this everyone qualified. There were no other 100% matches, though several predominant features emerged. For instance, all but one responder is female. Three-quarters of the responders are older than forty, and of these, most are in their fifties and sixties. The full age span is twenty-eight to seventy-eight.

Twenty-five responders come from the United States, five from Canada, and one each from the United Kingdom and Australia. Approximately two-thirds of the group have college degrees, of which twelve are in English or a closely related subject. Seven of the thirty-two have a certificate of some sort in editing.

In years of experience, approximately half the responders have been editing professionally for ten years or less and the other half for longer. Six have more than twenty years of experience, and one has more than forty. Most have worked in fiction the bulk of their careers, focusing on novels but also accepting novellas, short stories, and flash fiction (super-short stories), along with assorted nonfiction.

A majority of the responders work with indie authors as their main clients, with a few also working with publishers and packagers. All but one report that they offer multiple types of editing and associated services (the exception being a dedicated developmental editor). Twenty-six of the editors are writers themselves, and almost two-thirds of them have published. Only one-third, however, has published in fiction.

Reading tastes

As readers, the responding fiction editors like darn near everything, with literary, crime, and historical novels dominating. But many of the responding editors enjoy romance and young adult novels, as well as science fiction, fantasy, and eclectic other. The editors read in all formats, with almost two-thirds liking a mix of print, ebook, and audiobook compared to those who prefer print only. One editor has moved entirely away from print, preferring to get her stories via ebooks and audiobooks.

Series

Many of the editors favor series or complete bodies of work by a given author. These responses skewed the results, because among the total consolidated list of 263 novels, not all are unique titles but rather representative titles of a series, or just the series name, or “all works” by an individual. Ninety-four—just over one-third—of all editor responses mentioned part or all of a series. Frequently, responders listed single titles that are part of a series, but they didn’t list the entire series (the rest I uncovered during a title/author spelling check online). I suspect that in many of those cases the responder read all volumes in the series and simply didn’t say so.

Specifics of series titles are shown on the complete list. Below are the series names that came up, and the number of times beyond one that they were mentioned, followed by the shorter list of favorite bodies of work by a given author.

Favored series:

  • A Wrinkle in Time series (2), Madeleine L’Engle
  • Adam Dagliesh series, P. D. James
  • All Souls trilogy, Deborah Harkness
  • Amelia Peabody series, Elizabeth Peters
  • Anita Blank, Vampire Hunter series, Laurell K. Hamilton
  • Atticus Kodiak series, Greg Rucka
  • Austenland series, Shannon Hale
  • Cairo series, Naguib Mahfouz
  • Checquy Files series, Daniel O’Malley
  • Chicago Star series, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
  • Chronicles of Ixia, Maria V. Snyder
  • CIA Spies series, Linda Howard
  • Colorado Trust series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • Cowboy-Fiancé series, Donna Michaels
  • Culture series, Iain M. Banks
  • Dempsey series, Jennifer Crusie
  • Detective Inspector Chen, Liz Williams
  • Discworld series (2), Terry Pratchett
  • Dragonriders of Pern series, Anne McCaffrey
  • Dresden Files series (2), Jim Butcher
  • Drumberley series, D. E. Stevenson
  • Ender series, Orson Scott Card
  • Fever series, Karen Marie Moning
  • Gallaghers of Ardmore series, Nora Roberts
  • Hainish Cycle series, Ursula K Le Guin
  • Haitian Revolutionary series, Madison Smartt Bell
  • Harry Potter series (4), J. K. Rowling
  • Hazelwood High series, Sharon M. Draper
  • Heartbreaker Bay series, Jill Shalvis
  • Heralds of Valdemar series (2), Mercedes Lackey
  • Hidden Wolves series, Kaje Harper
  • Immortals After Dark series, Kresley Cole
  • In Death series, J. D. Robb (Nora Roberts)
  • Irin Chronicles series, Elizabeth Hunter
  • Italy Intrigue series, Stacey Joy Netzel
  • I-Team series, Pamela Clare
  • Jack Reacher series, Lee Child
  • Juliette Chronicles, Tahereh Mafi
  • Kirsten Lavransdatter trilogy, Sigrid Undset
  • Law of Moses series, Amy Harmon
  • Leaphorn and Chee Navajo police series, Tony Hillerman
  • Life Lessons series, Kaje Harper
  • Little House series, Laura Ingalls Wilder
  • Lives of the Mayfair Witches series, Anne Rice
  • Lizzy & Diesel series, Janet Evanovich
  • Logan Family Saga series, Mildred D. Taylor
  • Lord Peter Wimsey series, Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Lords of Misrule series, Andy Graham
  • Manawaka series, Margaret Laurence
  • Marrying Stone series, Pamela Morsi
  • Maze Runner series, James Dashner
  • Midnight in Austenland, Shannon Hale
  • Midwife Mystery series, Sam Thomas
  • Millennium series, Steig Larsson
  • Outlander series (3), Diana Gabaldon
  • Plainsong series, Kent Haruf
  • Regeneration series, Pat Barker
  • Riftwar series, Raymond Feist
  • Riyria Revelations series, Michael J. Sullivan
  • Shannara series, Terry Brooks
  • Silo series, Hugh Howey
  • Sinner’s Grove series, A. B. Michaels
  • Song of Ice and Fire series, George R. R. Martin
  • Species Imperative trilogy, Julie Czerneda
  • Starbridge series, Susan Howatch
  • Starcatchers series, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson
  • Stephanie Plum series, Janet Evanovich
  • Sword of Truth series, Terry Goodkind
  • The Black Dagger Brotherhood series (2), J. R. Ward
  • The Black Stallion series, Walter Farley
  • The Bourne trilogy , Robert Ludlum
  • The Bronze Horseman series, Paullina Simons
  • The Cat Who series, Lillian Jackson Braun
  • The Chalion series, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • The Deed of Paksennarion series, Elizabeth Moon
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide series (2), Douglas Adams
  • The Hunger Games series (2), Suzanne Collins
  • The Lace Reader series, Brunonia Barry
  • The Lord of the Rings series (2), J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Pillars of the Earth series, Ken Follett
  • The Raven Cycle series, Maggie Stiefvater
  • The Sandman series, Neil Gaiman
  • Thessaly series, Jo Walton
  • Tillerman Cycle series (2), Cynthia Voigt
  • Vampire Chronicles series, Anne Rice
  • Vorkosigan saga, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Wolf Hall series, Hilary Mantel

Favored author bodies of work:

  • Clive Cussler
  • Harlan Coben
  • John Grisham
  • Lawrence Block
  • Lee Child
  • Nora Roberts
  • Sandra Brown (mysteries only)

Works such as J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia were sometimes listed as standalone titles and other times as series. I’ve included them under the series listing because most people who read them read all volumes.

Duplicate titles

In the main, responders mentioned individual titles. The list below shows novels mentioned by two or more responders (with the number in parentheses indicating how many more than two).

  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Disgrace, J. M. Coetzee (3)
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen (6)
  • Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
  • The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin
  • The Living, Annie Dillard
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee

Duplicate authors

Individual authors were mentioned by multiple responders in conjunction with different titles. There were instances where a responder listed different titles by the same author on their own list, and also a few cases where one responder mentioned a specific title and a second responder mentioned “all works” by the same author or a series. The list below, however, only includes authors mentioned by different responders, specifying different titles.

  • Barbara Kingsolver
  • Charles Dickens
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • C. S. Lewis
  • Daphne Du Maurier
  • Haruki Murakami
  • Jane Austen
  • Jodi Picoult
  • John Steinbeck
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Linda Howard
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Toni Morrison
  • Ursula Le Guin
  • Virginia Woolf

Oddballs and exceptions

Not every responder understood the directions in the questionnaire, or else rushed through it and missed a request. For instance, I asked exclusively for novels, but two responders included memoirs and one included a nonfiction title. Although I’ve included these titles on the complete list, I do not include them in the full count.

Likewise, the request for “your favorite novelist” was commonly ignored, or people just couldn’t answer because they had so many (with one responder saying, “You’re kidding, right?”). Among those who did answer, or listed multiple authors, there was erratic correlation between favorite authors and those on the individual’s Top 10 list. Favorite authors mentioned are shown below (with the number in parentheses indicating how many times more than once their names came up).

  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Anne Rice
  • Bess Streeter Aldrich
  • Beverly Nault
  • Charles Dickens
  • Connie Willis
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • D. E. Stevenson
  • Dean Koontz
  • Diana Gabaldon (2)
  • Dick Francis
  • Donna Tartt
  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Douglas Adams
  • Drayton Mayrant
  • Eliot Baker
  • Elizabeth Cadell
  • Elizabeth Moon
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • George R. R. Martin
  • Georgette Heyer
  • Helen MacInnes
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • J. K. Rowling
  • James Patterson
  • Jane Austen (2)
  • Janet Evanovich
  • J. D. Ward
  • Jodi Picoult
  • Jonathan Franzen
  • Joseph C. Lincoln
  • Judy Ann Davis
  • Karen Marie Moning
  • Laurel Hamilton
  • Linda Howard
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Madeleine L’Engle
  • Maeve Binchy
  • Markus Zusak
  • Mary Balogh
  • Nevada Barr (2)
  • Nora Roberts (2)
  • P. D. James
  • Patricia Cornwall
  • Peter Carey
  • Peter Mayle
  • Rita Bay
  • Ruth Rendell
  • Sam Thomas
  • Sigrid Undset
  • Terry Brooks
  • Thomas Hardy
  • Tony Hillerman

Survey overlaps

While processing the fiction editors’ questionnaires, I looked for overlaps with my first survey, even though it’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. The first survey involved thirteen nonfiction-dominant editors, while this one involved thirty-two fiction-dominant editors. Nevertheless, their tastes crossed thirteen times for specific titles and seventeen times for authors (meaning, different books by the same author mentioned twice or more). Most of these titles and authors can be considered “literary” and/or “classic.”

Title overlaps:

  • The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • The Lord of the Rings series, J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Persuasion, Jane Austen
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
  • The Curse of Chalion, Lois McMaster Bujold
  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • Discworld series, Terry Pratchett
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K Le Guin

Author overlaps:

  • Jane Austen
  • Charles Dickens
  • Charlotte Brontë
  • Connie Willis
  • David Mitchell
  • Dick Francis
  • Edith Wharton
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Ian McEwan
  • John Fowles
  • J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Michael J. Sullivan
  • Sarah Waters
  • Terry Pratchett
  • Umberto Eco
  • Virginia Woolf

Conclusions

Putting it all together, I observed three superstars—Jane Austen, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis—whose names came up multiple times no matter what criterion I used to view and sort the reading lists of the fiction and nonfiction editors I surveyed, separately or combined. Another standout was Terry Pratchett, whose enormous Discworld series appealed to editors of both types.

While I was not surprised to see these and many other familiar names on so many people’s lists, I was surprised to see who didn’t appear. Agatha Christie, for example. She is considered one of — if not the — top-selling novelists of all time, yet none of the fiction responders in my survey mentioned her. She did, however, appear once on the nonfiction editors’ list (also on my own list, which was appended to that essay but not counted in the results).

Among the fiction editors, there seems to be a gap between classic and contemporary works that leaves many vintage mega-sellers behind, such as Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey, Jackie Collins and Barbara Cartland, Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon, Georges Simenon and Erle Stanley Gardner, and many others, all of whom were hugely popular in their day. Also notably absent is household name Stephen King (who did, unexpectedly, appear on one nonfiction editor’s literary-biased list). But J. K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame had a strong presence, even though that series was marketed for young adults, whereas Danielle Steele, still writing prolifically with an enormous fan base, wasn’t mentioned even by the editors who gobble up romance and women’s fiction.

What I found to be significant among all the editors surveyed was how widely their tastes range. See for yourself the complete fiction editors list here: “What Fiction Editors Read: List of Titles”.

Postscript: Apparently I’m not the only one doing this type of survey. For a literary take, see “The Most Important Books of the Last Twenty Years”. A handful of titles and authors on this list overlap both my surveys.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of two novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.com or through her websites, DocuMania and New Ways to See the World. Carolyn also blogs at Adventures in Zone 3 and reviews at New York Journal of Books.

December 7, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part III)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay was divided into halves. The first half was published previously as “Plot or Characterization? (Part II).” For the first part of this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Though Anne of Green Gables lacks a cohesive plot, it more than makes up for that defect through characterization. In addition, every flouting of modern rules of story structure follows from there and finds its justification. It’s also a book written in anger, often a good spur to the imagination.

Lucy Maud Montgomery doubtless knew about the dire fate of orphans. Prince Edward Island didn’t have an orphanage until 1907, so Anne comes from Nova Scotia in a book set in the late 1800s. Some institutions there were worse than others, and Anne probably came from a more respectable place, one that fitted girls for domestic work. In the Halifax Poor House, orphaned children were housed with adults who had mental disorders until after 1900, and the doors had no locks or even doorknobs. If the children weren’t sexually abused before they left, they’d likely experience that fate once people who wanted cheap labor adopted them. Anne names everything around her but animals — animals were considered of more use than lower-class children, so it’s probably a veiled expression of outrage. Still, it was the Nova Scotia Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals that stepped in to help abused and neglected children after 1880. Before the 19th century, orphan asylums didn’t exist at all, and the efforts of women’s groups and churches to help were only fitful after that. (The horrifying details are spelled out in an appendix to Oxford’s Annotated Anne of Green Gables.)

In Anne’s fairy tale, the general view of orphans at the time is only hinted at when in the first chapter busybody Rachel Lynde talks of the dangers of letting children from who knows where get too close. Anne doesn’t suffer the prejudice and contempt that was the lot of most orphans in real life. Who wants too much reality in a children’s book?

Despite, or perhaps because of, her grim childhood up until we first see her, Anne is vibrant, full of fantasies and imaginings. In Chapter 28, she tots up her disasters and gives a moral to each of them.

“Well,” explained Anne, “I’ve learned a new and valuable lesson today. Ever since I came to Green Gables I’ve been making mistakes, and each mistake has helped to cure me of some great shortcoming. The affair of the amethyst brooch cured me of meddling with things that didn’t belong to me. The Haunted Wood mistake cured me of letting my imagination run away with me. The liniment cake mistake cured me of carelessness in cooking. Dyeing my hair cured me of vanity. I never think about my hair and nose now — at least, very seldom. And today’s mistake is going to cure me of being too romantic.

I have come to the conclusion that it is no use trying to be romantic in Avonlea. It was probably easy enough in towered Camelot hundreds of years ago, but romance is not appreciated now. I feel quite sure that you will soon see a great improvement in me in this respect, Marilla.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Marilla skeptically.

But Matthew, who had been sitting mutely in his corner, laid a hand on Anne’s shoulder when Marilla had gone out.

“Don’t give up all your romance, Anne,” he whispered shyly, “a little of it is a good thing — not too much, of course — but keep a little of it, Anne, keep a little of it.”

I don’t buy Montgomery’s excuses for her repetition of the scrape plots. But I never minded the repetition when I repeatedly reread the book when I was young. Anne is no doormat — in fact, she’s characterized by anger and feuds — but she’s the creature of a woman torn between feminism and womanly duty. Anne is unconsciously rebellious and unconventional, and she sheds her glory on almost everyone around her, rather as Pippa seems to do in Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes, now known more for a verbal gaffe than for its literary merits. As Anne passes along, she opens minds and hearts. So she talks too much and with odd words? Don’t we all in the editing business? Actually, Maud didn’t yammer on — unlike Anne, she was too afraid. But Anne wasn’t afraid. We can put up with her monologues in part because they’re completely in character, and they’re charming and illuminating.

Despite the emotional depth of Anne’s story as she looks for love and a home, Montgomery isn’t sparing on the humor and satire that go along with life in a small town — like busybodies, bad teachers, and boring preachers.

The novel is in certain respects a bildungsroman, a book about growth, which is by nature a stumbling process. Thus the Bildung takes a while, at least for Anne. It’s more obvious with Marilla, the spinster who adopted her, and who, incidentally, takes charge of the point of view more often than Anne does, according to Genevieve Wiggins (L.M. Montgomery [Twayne’s World Authors Series, 1992], 39). In fact, the top of the four major storylines that Waterston (Magic Island, 13–14) lists is the growing familial love felt by the repressed Marilla for Anne and by Anne for Marilla, who was an airbrushed and retouched version of Maud’s loveless grandmother. (See Gammel, Looking for Anne, 122 for the technique.) Margaret Atwood pegs Marilla as the real focus of the novel (“Reflection Piece — Revisiting Anne,” originally published in 1992, but easily found in L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture [1999]). Here’s Atwood’s concluding paragraph (226):

It may be the ludicrous escapades of Anne that render the book so attractive to children. But it is the struggles of Marilla that give it romance for adults. Anne may be the orphan in all of us, but then, so is Marilla. Anne is the fairy-tale wish-fulfillment version, what Montgomery longs for. Marilla is more likely what she feared she might become — joyless, bereft, trapped, hopeless, unloved. Each of them saves the other. It is the neatness of their psychological fit — as well as the invention, humour, and fidelity of the writing — that makes Anne such a satisfying and enduring fable.

Like Burnett, Montgomery was screwed over because she wasn’t a boy, but she also seemed to know that she’d be happier if she didn’t vent her depression and misery in too edgy a way, even after Victorian ideas about the importance of portraying “the beautiful child” had passed.

Everything around Anne plays into Maud’s fantasy of a happier life. Even the descriptive passages, though not what you’d expect in “literary” novels, point up the heroine’s character. As Epperly (30) says, “This rhapsody of light, colour, and sound is the poetic wish-fulfillment of the beauty-starved, love-starved orphan.” And when half the second chapter of Anne is taken up with description, as the old, shy bachelor drives Anne back from the railway station to certain doom, the beauty is fraught with ugly suspense. The reader knows that Anne’s dreams are about to be dashed. So every glorious tree and petal loom over us — darkness visible. Except that the light takes over.

Before Anne leaves Green Gables to get a teaching certificate, she has come to see that her fantasies about herself as a romantic heroine don’t come close to the joy she has right now (Chapter 33).

“Well, I don’t want to be anyone but myself, even if I go uncomforted by diamonds all my life,” declared Anne. “I’m quite content to be Anne of Green Gables, with my string of pearl beads. I know Matthew gave me as much love with them as ever went with Madame the Pink Lady’s jewels.”

Even at the end of Anne of Green Gables, when darkness is all around, and when Anne gives up her ambitions and her fantasies — for a time, at least, out of duty and love — it’s all good. Life wasn’t so delightful when Maud had to give up everything to take care of her grandmother — and her grandfather had essentially cut her out of his will despite her years helping out the two of them. But she could dream.

The quiet and introspective Maud was enthralled with her open and talkative Anne (see Gammel 129), as are Anne fans all around the word. Yes, the book breaks rules aplenty. Aristotle, with his insistence of the primacy of plot, would have scoffed at the way Anne’s character drives the story. But the reader is drawn along by her compelling personality and the comic disasters it gets her into. Cohesive plot? Who cares when confronted with such a girl?

Anne is someone you’d like to have a drink with — I’m talking nonalcoholic raspberry cordial, not the homemade currant wine that got her banned from her bosom friend’s company for a time (Chapter 16). Anne is more interesting than Little Lord Fauntleroy, the young hero who made Frances Hodgson Burnett’s fortune and ruined the life of one of her sons. Young Fauntleroy is cute and flawless, and he immediately wins over the embittered and unhappy people in his sphere, whereas Anne, who is far more flawed, takes more time in transforming the people around her. And L.M. Montgomery revels in her character’s flaws. According to Wiggins (26), “In a society bound by convention, Anne is a disrupting influence. She is the rebel, the nonconformist, the independent spirit who appeals to the child reader who chafes at adult strictures or to the adult who sometimes feels restricted by society’s expectations.”

The novel, with its episodic nature, is often compared to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I’ve always been more a plot person than a character person, so Anne is only my third-favorite children’s book. Yet I consider Anne Shirley more of a close friend than I do the heroines of my top two, and whenever I’m forced to travel, all three of the plucky girls go along with me.

The book Anne of Green Gables is in effect a miniseries. The famous TV miniseries, which I’ve never seen, apparently has a cohesive plot. But the problem with that plot is that the focus seems to be on a happy romantic ending between Anne and her nemesis, Gilbert Blythe. Unfortunately, that’s not what the first book in the first trilogy is about.

In this first book about Anne, we watch the character as she careens and careers through life, trying, like Maud, to reconstruct a lost family. Maud couldn’t, but Anne did.

And there’s no place like home.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

December 5, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part II)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: Because of length, this essay has been divided. The second half is scheduled for Wednesday [see “Plot or Characterization? (Part III)”]. For the first essay in this series see, “Plot or Characterization? (Part I).”)

Write what you know? I tried to write a romantic fantasy loosely tethered to a miserable job I once held. Consider this story: The heroine, an uptight but understatedly gorgeous newspaper copy editor, has a run-in with a billionaire because he dislikes one of her (completely accurate) headlines. He gets her fired without meaning to, and atones by hiring her in public relations. And he falls for her utterly because she keeps correcting his grammar. Of course! Everyone loves that!

I worked that plot up when newspapers still had copy editors. Now it’s too far divorced from the real world to sell.

But many authors manage to take darker elements from their past and turn them around to make them happier and more elevating.

A great case in point is the story of Anne Shirley, the heroine of Anne of Green Gables and several sequels. Like many romantic heroines, she’s an orphan, cast adrift and unprotected. That yields instant drama, which grows even more dramatic for Anne when she goes to a house on Prince Edward Island hoping to find a real home at last after years of drudgery and starved emotions. She burbles happily all the way from the railroad station to the house in Avonlea, and then discovers that the aging brother and sister who live there wanted a boy to help around their little farm. Anne’s adoption was a mistake.

Still, despite a defect of temper, she’s plucky and witty and loving, and she manages to fight through the disadvantages of her life and through other people’s prejudices against orphans and girls with gumption and imagination.

Scholars know a lot about the story behind the Anne books because the author, Lucy Maud Montgomery (aka Maud), wrote hundreds of pages in her journals. (The standard biography is Mary Henley Rubio’s Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings (2008). We know, or can know, about the largely depressing life Maud led, from living with and catering to rigid and repressive grandparents after her mother died and her father hared off west. Or, perhaps more accurately, we know about her impressions; who knows the truth? And we “know” that the girl was ecstatic when her beloved father summoned her from Prince Edward Island to what’s now Saskatchewan. But instead of finding a true home, she discovered her true mission: to provide free child care for her stepmother. Soon back with her grandparents, she was later lifted out of a severe depression by writing Anne of Green Gables. She married a man as prone to depression as she was, and the older of her two sons was a mooch, an adulterer, and a thief. Because of the sad state of medicine in the first half of the 20th century, Maud and her husband were treated for depression with barbiturates, to which they became addicted, and they were poisoned to boot with bromides (outlawed for humans in the United States since 1975). Did Maud commit suicide? (See Rubio 550ff. and especially 575ff., for the larger picture; for a shorter discussion, see Mary Beth Calvert’s “Perspectives on the Circumstances of L.M. Montgomery’s Death: Was It Suicide or Accident?”)

In any case, there was no happy ending here. But just as misery can make great comedians, it can also make compelling authors, ones who don’t wallow in their despondency but who transform it; as Irene Gammel says in Looking for Anne of Green Gables: The Story of L.M. Montgomery and Her Literary Classic (2008), 40,

Maud believed that literature should engage with the real world by transforming negative realities. Never should a reader’s pleasure be spoiled by the fact that some of the cheeriest episodes in Anne were sparked by the darker side of life. Indeed, Maud’s losses and disappointments fueled her imagination into high gear, transforming bleakness into hope.

Anne isn’t Maud’s alter ego. She’s her altered ego.

And if you want to see a boatload of copy editors gasp and swoon, to say nothing about Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, just mention Anne. And yet the novel breaks many of the sacred rules of current fiction.

  • The book is episodic, in many ways a series of short stories — not surprising, because Montgomery started out as a short-story author and even cannibalized some of her earlier stories in writing the book. But there’s no complex or unified plot, and Anne doesn’t change very much for the first two-thirds of the book.
  • In How Not to Write a Novel (2008), 36, Sandra Newman and Howard Mittelmark say, “NEVER use two scenes to establish the same thing.” Anne is rife with repetition. For much of the book, you’ll see paired chapters, with Anne first in a scrape because of her rabid daydreaming and then triumphant (see Elizabeth Waterston, Magic Island: The Fictions of L.M. Montgomery (2009), 16. And Elizabeth Rollins Epperly, in The Fragrance of Sweet-Grass: L.M. Montgomery’s Heroines and the Pursuit of Romance (1992; an updated version is available; its new preface covers the explosion in scholarship about Montgomery between 1992 and 2014, among other things), 21ff, notes five confession/apology scenes, full of self-drama until the last one.
  • The narrator is omniscient, which is not surprising in older children’s books, particularly those with a fairy-tale bent. But the point of view wanders even within scenes. And even, in a sense, in the first sentence.
  • The first sentence is 148 words with three semicolons, and the voice shifts several times; the main POV could be said to be the brook’s (see Epperly 20):

Mrs. Rachel Lynde lived just where the Avonlea main road dipped down into a little hollow, fringed with alders and ladies’ eardrops and traversed by a brook that had its source away back in the woods of the old Cuthbert place; it was reputed to be an intricate, headlong brook in its earlier course through those woods, with dark secrets of pool and cascade; but by the time it reached Lynde’s Hollow it was a quiet, well-conducted little stream, for not even a brook could run past Mrs. Rachel Lynde’s door without due regard for decency and decorum; it probably was conscious that Mrs. Rachel was sitting at her window, keeping a sharp eye on everything that passed, from brooks and children up, and that if she noticed anything odd or out of place she would never rest until she had ferreted out the whys and wherefores thereof.

  • Anne’s speeches are similarly long and winding; take this 239-word example from the novel’s fourth chapter:

“Oh, I don’t mean just the tree; of course it’s lovely — yes, it’s radiantly lovely — it blooms as if it meant it — but I meant everything, the garden and the orchard and the brook and the woods, the whole big dear world. Don’t you feel as if you just loved the world on a morning like this? And I can hear the brook laughing all the way up here. Have you ever noticed what cheerful things brooks are? They’re always laughing. Even in winter-time I’ve heard them under the ice. I’m so glad there’s a brook near Green Gables. Perhaps you think it doesn’t make any difference to me when you’re not going to keep me, but it does. I shall always like to remember that there is a brook at Green Gables even if I never see it again. If there wasn’t a brook I’d be haunted by the uncomfortable feeling that there ought to be one. I’m not in the depths of despair this morning. I never can be in the morning. Isn’t it a splendid thing that there are mornings? But I feel very sad. I’ve just been imagining that it was really me you wanted after all and that I was to stay here for ever and ever. It was a great comfort while it lasted. But the worst of imagining things is that the time comes when you have to stop and that hurts.”

  • Lengthy descriptive passages feature heavily in the novel. Nature is especially big league, and Epperly counts eleven sunsets. Compulsive adult readers might enjoy the botanical and geographical help offered in Oxford’s The Annotated Anne of Green Gables (1997), though I don’t remember worrying about any of it when I read the book over and over as a girl.
  • Montgomery litters her work with numerous allusions to songs, books, poems, and plays from the 19th century and before, most of which her modern audience wouldn’t have read. (See The Annotated Anne at appropriate places in the text and in the appendixes starting on p. 452.) Two in particular seem somewhat inappropriate for a book aimed at young girls. Yes, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King is still often read in high school, perhaps as a cautionary tale against adultery, but Anne comes to grief over the poem at age 13, and she regrets that she didn’t get the dramatic part of Guinevere — instead, she almost dies when playing the dead Elaine. The allusion to Robert Browning’s Pippa Passes is brief, but it’s clear that Montgomery had read the poetic drama about an innocent walking past adulterers, murderers, suicides, prostitutes, malevolent students, an assassination plotter, and even a Monsignor who is tempted to kidnap Pippa, his brother’s long-lost heir, and force her into prostitution.

So why does the book succeed? My answer lies in the second half of this essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

November 28, 2016

On Today’s Bookshelf XXVII

It’s the holiday season and because I am surrounded by books, both for my work and my pleasure, I think about giving books as holiday gifts to family and friends. I would guess that many of you do the same. Consequently, it is time for the my next On Today’s Bookshelf.

There are a goodly number of past On Today’s Bookshelf essays, which you can access by clicking here.

Since my last On Today’s Bookshelf post (On Today’s Bookshelf XXVI), I have acquired the books listed below, among others, for my library. They have been added to my to-be-read pile. Most are hardcovers, but some are ebooks.

Nonfiction –

  • Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt
  • Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Matalon Lagnado and Sheila Cohn Dekel
  • The Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798: Testing the Constitution by Terri Diane Halperin
  • Turner: The Extraordinary Life and Momentous Times of J.M.W. Turner by Franny Moyle
  • Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After, 1939-1962 by Blanche Wiesen Cook (previously purchased volumes 1 and 2)
  • American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White
  • Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution by Nathaniel Philbrick
  • The General vs. the President: MacArthur and Truman at the Brink of Nuclear War by H.W. Brands
  • A Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the American War of Independence by George C. Daughan
  • No Mercy Here: Gender, Punishment, and the Making of Jim Crow Modernity by Sarah Haley
  • Birth of the Chess Queen: A History by Marilyn Yalom
  • The History of the Hudson River Valley: From Wilderness to the Civil War and The History of The Hudson River Valley: From the Civil War to Modern Times (2 vols) by Vernon Benjamin
  • The Gestapo and German Society: Enforcing Racial Policy 1933-1945 by Robert Gellately
  • Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips

Fiction –

  •  Shadow of Victory by David Weber
  • At the Sign of Triumph by David Weber
  • Night School by Lee Childs
  • Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
  • A Banquet of Consequences by Elizabeth George
  • The Counterfeit Agent by Alex Berenson
  • Shadowfever by Karen Marie Moning
  • Oath of Fealty by Elizabeth Moon
  • Blood Red Snow White by Marcus Sedgwick
  • The Hermit by Thomas Rydahl
  • The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens
  • Fall from Grace by Tim Weaver

Finally, if you are looking for a great book on the business of editing (to give or receive), check out The Business of Editing: Effective and Efficient Ways to Think, Work, and Prosper (ISBN: 9781434103727), which is available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble or directly from the publisher, Waking Lion Press.

Please share with An American Editor your suggestions for good books to give as gifts this holiday season. Also share the books you are hoping to receive as gifts or that you have purchased for your own pleasure reading.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

October 24, 2016

Plot or Characterization? (Part I)

by Alison Parker

(AAE Note: For subsequent essays in this series, see “Plot or Characterization? (Part II)” and “Plot or Characterization? (Part III).”)

Anyone can write romance and make big bucks off it. You just have to know the formula.

Sorry. I was dreaming. Romance fiction used to be the most reliable way to make money in fiction. In 2011, unknowns could breeze into Amazon and other such places, and their indie stuff would sometimes rake in amazing sums. One untutored author I know picked up a million bucks in her first year of indie fiction. Harlequin wouldn’t have her, and what’s now Harlequin Enterprises had long been accused of paying most of its authors on the down side.

Unfortunately, the marketplace even for indie romance is glutted now because everyone sees romance as a quick and dirty way to make a few bucks without breaking much of a sweat.

I’ve been reading short-form romance fiction for more than four decades. So could I write it for the indie market? Of course not — it takes a careful understanding of the audience for this sort of work and an odd sort of wit.

It’s also essential to put out roughly (the word roughly used advisedly) a book every two months; otherwise, readers find someone else to glom on to. I’ve been able to edit contemporary romance, but writing romance and winning readers can be tough. And the rules for success are many and often confusing.

The manuals and the trends in the short romances that I like to read fly in the face of Aristotle’s position that plot comes first and characterization second. Here’s what the ancient philosopher says about tragic drama in his Poetics:

The plot then is the first principle and as it were the soul of tragedy: character [ēthos] comes second. It is much the same also in painting; if a man smeared a canvas with the loveliest colors at random, it would not give as much pleasure as an outline in black and white. And it is mainly because a play is a representation of action that it also for that reason represents people.

To Aristotle’s way of thinking, giving characterization pride of place offers up something like modern art. It can be pretty, but not everyone gets it.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Your Romance Published doesn’t agree. In Chapter 7, we learn that “Characterization is probably the most important element of your story.”

Former Harlequin author Leigh Michaels might seem to find middle ground here in On Writing Romance. Though she says that character is all-important in romance — see Chapter 3, “Essential Elements” — she has to start out with the framework, which means plot. I have to add that The Complete Idiot’s Guide mentioned above also walks you through plot before moving on to character. But we’re all romantics. And those manuals were written before the indie revolution.

And if your romances go on for only 55,000 words, you can’t flesh out even the protagonists, let alone add vivid minor characters. Or at least the standard conventions since about the year 2000 won’t let you do that now. The hero is almost always an “alpha male,” quite often a billionaire (even if he’s a backwater fire chief), with a fear of commitment and often bent on ill-considered revenge. The heroine doesn’t have to be a virgin anymore, thank heavens, but she has to have greater moral fiber and less money than the hero to be able to delta her alpha.

Still, writers who focus on characterization give it the old college try. It took Harlequin/Mills & Boon some time to allow the man’s thoughts into the equation, and in the beginning it was a good thing, but now it can be all thought and little action, even in the sex scenes. We get pages and pages of mooning and lust and insecurity, but the plot doesn’t move forward. In fact, the conflict and the revelation scenes are sometimes lost in what I’d call not head-hopping but head-hugging drama.

And at least in indie romance, this tack seems to fail. I’ve followed a few authors of contemporary indie romance on the Amazon boards, and the only one who has been making it consistently into the top 100 of paid Kindle authors of any stripe doesn’t seem to be distinguished by good characterization or good writing. Tight and careful plotting doesn’t even matter all that much in her books. But a lot happens, and there’s a lot of conflict.

One more thing is important in the indie market. The author I just mentioned is careful to put out a new ebook roughly every two months. You have more leeway in publishing houses, but for readers of Kindle books and the like, fans will wander off to other writers if the adrenaline fix isn’t in quickly. And they can get thousands of cheap or free fixes through sites like BookBub and BookGorilla. I amassed more than a thousand of them before I bailed. No, I haven’t read them, but you never know when you’ll get desperate.

Customer reviews on Amazon, iBooks, and the like can be useful. The first batch isn’t — fans on an author’s “street team” (in this case, people committed to promote a favorite writer on social media), or the invited group of Facebook beta readers, will be urged to rush off and give five stars.

Soon after, you’ll get the grumblers. “I paid for this?” In the one-star reviews, you’ll see a lot of people recoiling at the filthy language and explicit sex scenes. Yes, you have to wonder why the poor saps didn’t do a little more research. “Sweet” and “inspirational” romance is out there and easily found, though it doesn’t sell the way sex does. Go figure.

But the other complaints head another way. Some dissatisfied customers speak of cardboard characters — what did they expect from barely edited romance fiction? — yet readers seem to growl more often that the protagonists are thinking or feeling all the time and that it all gets boring. The thrill is gone when you’re slogging through the initial disgust and the endless sexual tension on the way to the “HEA” — the happily-ever-after — when there’s nothing to watch. And you should see the howls from readers when they thought a book was going to give them the story that they really wanted but left them hanging at the last minute. You got the first book for free, perhaps, or maybe for 99 cents, but you have to buy two or three more to find out that Aristotle was probably on to a good thing.

After this cliff-hanger, we’ll learn better things about the value of characterization next time. Maybe.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

September 26, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part III)

by Alison Parker

Have you ever heard about the inverted pyramid?

I have. You write your news stories with the important facts up front, and because news copy has to fit around the ads, you can easily slash and burn from the bottom. It’s hardly pretty, but you might meet deadline because copy of that sort is easy to cut. Sadly, you still won’t win any prizes. “All the news that fits we print.”

You lose the all-important ending, the big bang. And after the first two or three paragraphs, it’s just the facts, ma’am — if that. Every discussion of proper news writing focuses on the “lede.” Suck the poor basters in with a boffo beginning. (I want to be fair. For a generally positive take on the pyramid, see “Writing from the Top Down: Pros and Cons of the Inverted Pyramid” by Chip Scanlon [Poynter, June 20, 2003].)

That boffo beginning isn’t a bad idea for starters, but what happens when your story trails off? Yes, you need drama. And you won’t have drama without conflict. You probably know the basics: woman versus woman (or man, of course), woman versus her environment, woman versus herself. Et cetera. I just read an interesting book on the subject, James Scott Bell’s Conflict & Suspense (Writer’s Digest Books, 2012).

Bell writes suspense novels as his day job, and his take on conflict is consequently skewed just a bit toward action. And why not? We all like fight scenes, don’t we? Most of you are too young to have seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton tussling in the hayloft when Petruchio (Burton) is trying to get the better of “Kate” (Taylor) in The Taming of the Shrew (Columbia Pictures, 1967). It’s a classic, and no clear winner emerges at the end of either Shakespeare’s play or Franco Zeffirelli’s film. (For an overview of critical response to the play, see Barbara Hodgdon’s introduction to the Arden edition, 3rd series. For a lighter take, see the high school movie based on the play, 10 Things I Hate about You [Touchstone Pictures, 1999].)

But violence between romantic leads doesn’t make everyone happy. And in Kate Walker’s 12-point Guide to Writing Romance, for example, we’re told that conflict doesn’t necessarily mean duking it out in any way, physically or verbally. By this calculation, the impossible situations that keep two “soul mates” apart drive the suspense. Even when readers know that a happy ending will come — if they bought a book in a reliable category (or series) romance and are smart enough to avoid cliff-hangers — the difficult logistics of overcoming the odds and the obstacles will keep the pages turning.

Still, the rape romances of the 1980s (see Janice A. Radway’s Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature [2nd ed., 1991]) are mirrored in the bondage fun and games selling nowadays.

I prefer verbal fireworks to fisticuffs or handcuffs — at least in a romance. My bookshelves are doubtless nothing like yours — we all know different things and we all feel different things — but for my taste, I can think of no scene more dramatic than the one in Pride and Prejudice in which Elizabeth rejects Darcy’s first proposal. “You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way than as it spared me the concern that I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentlemanlike manner” (Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen, Ch. 34).

He had assumed that she’d say yes. After all, no one richer would offer for her, and with her lack of fortune and social standing, she had little choice but to get married as soon as possible. Good guess but bad judgment on Darcy’s part.

It takes Darcy a little while to figure out Elizabeth’s virtues in full. She’s not like the generally more submissive heroines in other Austen books, but those heroines aren’t playing off prickly, insulting men. Still, Austen’s favorite protagonist (yes, Elizabeth) isn’t at all like the “kick-ass” heroines of books such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth’s Divergent.

Times change and tastes change. When published library lists gave a seal of approval to children’s books (see, e.g., the discussion in Beverly Lyon Clark’s Kiddie Lit: The Cultural Construction of Literature in America, 21–22; see also 29ff), The Secret Garden didn’t make the cut in the early days. But it’s now the Frances Hodgson Burnett book taught in courses on children’s literature. The heroine, Mary, starts out as a little shrew, and she never quite gets over that failing. She is most effective when she rails at her even brattier cousin, Colin, who has been terrorizing the servants at Misselthwaite Manor almost since he was born.

It was not until afterward that Mary realized that the thing had been funny as well as dreadful — that it was funny that all the grown-up people were so frightened that they came to a little girl just because they guessed she was almost as bad as Colin himself.

She flew along the corridor and the nearer she got to the screams the higher her temper mounted. She felt quite wicked by the time she reached the door. She slapped it open with her hand and ran across the room to the four-posted bed.

“You stop!” she almost shouted. “You stop! I hate you! Everybody hates you! I wish everybody would run out of the house and let you scream yourself to death! You will scream yourself to death in a minute, and I wish you would!” A nice sympathetic child could neither have thought nor said such things, but it just happened that the shock of hearing them was the best possible thing for this hysterical boy whom no one had ever dared to restrain or contradict.

He had been lying on his face beating his pillow with his hands and he actually almost jumped around, he turned so quickly at the sound of the furious little voice. His face looked dreadful, white and red and swollen, and he was gasping and choking; but savage little Mary did not care an atom.

“If you scream another scream,” she said, “I’ll scream too — and I can scream louder than you can and I’ll frighten you, I’ll frighten you!”

Mary’s outburst, I should tell you, comes late in the book, after the secret rose garden and a number of good people have almost redeemed her. Oops. Some scholars believe that Mary’s continuing unfemininity might explain why the spoiled little boy, Colin, suddenly walks off with the story. Are post-Victorian heroines allowed to be persistently imperfect and still command pride of place? Phyllis Bixler, in her 1996 study The Secret Garden: Nature’s Magic, delves into the problem of class and gender, and Peter Hunt gives a nice overview of scholarly reaction to the ending in the introduction to his 2011 Oxford World Classics edition of The Secret Garden. Short answers to the heroine’s demotion: Some critics believe that Mary’s shrewishness is being punished, and at least one thinks that Burnett is working out her own “ambivalence about sex roles.”

Devotees of traditional heroines can’t be as worried about A Little Princess, which doesn’t operate in the same way. Though Sara was far from perfect in the original magazine serial, she’s a constant nurturer of the oppressed when Burnett turns the novella into a novel. Still, there’s conflict. Because the reputedly hot and oppressive climate of India was thought to be particularly dangerous to females (note the scene in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in which the climate in Calcutta is treated as a killer), Sara’s father thinks he has to leave her at a cold boarding school in London. The similarly cold headmistress hates sweet little Sara almost from the start, as do some of her envious classmates. But because Sara was brought up by a loving father, and because of his example and her vibrant imagination, which helps her understand other people’s feelings and sufferings, she cares about the oppressed even before she becomes one of them. “If Sara had been a boy and lived a few centuries ago,” her father used to say, “she would have gone about the country with her sword drawn, rescuing and defending everyone in distress. She always wants to fight when she sees people in trouble.”

But when she’s called upon to defend Lottie, an annoying toddler who has lost her mother and whines about it incessantly, Sara’s real fight is with herself. Because she’s trying to emulate the restrained behavior she considers proper for princesses, she resists her impulses toward physical violence.

Lottie cuddled up to her with a consoled sniff.

“Come and sit in the window-seat with me,” Sara went on, “and I’ll whisper a story to you.”

“Will you?” whimpered Lottie. “Will you — tell me — about the diamond mines?”

“The diamond mines?” broke out Lavinia. “Nasty, little spoiled thing, I should like to SLAP her!”

Sara got up quickly on her feet. It must be remembered that she had been very deeply absorbed in the book about the Bastille, and she had had to recall several things rapidly when she realized that she must go and take care of her adopted child. She was not an angel, and she was not fond of Lavinia.

“Well,” she said, with some fire, “I should like to slap YOU — but I don’t want to slap you!” restraining herself. “At least I both want to slap you — and I should LIKE to slap you — but I WON’T slap you. We are not little gutter children. We are both old enough to know better.”

Here was Lavinia’s opportunity.

“Ah, yes, your royal highness,” she said. “We are princesses, I believe. At least one of us is. The school ought to be very fashionable now Miss Minchin has a princess for a pupil.”

Sara started toward her. She looked as if she were going to box her ears. Perhaps she was. Her trick of pretending things was the joy of her life. She never spoke of it to girls she was not fond of. Her new “pretend” about being a princess was very near to her heart, and she was shy and sensitive about it. She had meant it to be rather a secret, and here was Lavinia deriding it before nearly all the school. She felt the blood rush up into her face and tingle in her ears. She only just saved herself. If you were a princess, you did not fly into rages. Her hand dropped, and she stood quite still a moment. When she spoke it was in a quiet, steady voice; she held her head up, and everybody listened to her.

“It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess so that I can try and behave like one.”

After Miss Minchin tells young Sara that her father is dead, that she’s penniless, and that being kicked upstairs into a bare and unheated attic and turned into a drudge is a kindness, our little princess only rarely displays her less princesslike feelings. Rage and abject grief don’t figure into her fantasies. When she finally breaks down in tears under the cold, the hunger, and the loneliness, one of her young friends, Ermengarde, is absolutely gobsmacked at the melting of “the unconquerable Sara.” In the original story, I should note, Sara tormented poor Ermengarde with nightmare-making stories of the Bastille. In the remake, Sara uses those stories as a form of comfort, not passive aggression. She’s fierce but motherly.

Even when there’s no apparent conflict, there’s a big opening for conflict. You just have to be clever about working it in to your story. Or about complaining to the author (mildly, of course) when the novel you’re editing just doesn’t trip your trigger.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 15, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part II)

by Alison Parker

Aristotle was obsessed with aha! moments. Metaphor, he tells us in his Rhetoric, is superior to simile because simile goes on too long and detracts from the drama. Perhaps like adverbs in dialogue tags in modern fiction? No, the old philosopher didn’t say that. But he did say that metaphor can light up the synapses. “Oh!” the listener or reader will say to himself. “This is that!” See, for example, Aristotle’s Rhetoric 3.10.

And the recognition or revelation scene in drama — the anagnorisis — satisfies Aristotle even more. Here we come to the point in the plot at which a character or characters recognize their or someone else’s true identity or motives, or even the nature of their situation. Eyes are opened, either for good or for bad. And everything changes after these revelations.

The classic example in Aristotle’s Poetics is Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos/Rex (Tyrant is a better title word than King historically, because Oedipus isn’t considered a king in lawful succession from father to firstborn son until the end of the play). In this pioneering whodunit (except that the audience knows who did it, though not how it will be discovered in this play or what will happen afterward), the protagonist plays sleuth to find out who killed the former king of Thebes, the first husband of Oedipus’s wife, Jocasta. Oops.

Other great examples include Othello — don’t forget that Iago’s wife has her light bulb moment, if you’ll forgive the anachronism, just before her husband stabs her and shuts her up in Othello’s presence. And check out the plot of the Hildebrandslied, when father and son meet in battle.

Recognition scenes in ancient comedy are often more mechanical, relying on tokens like rings or necklaces. See, for example, Terence’s Hecyra (“The Mother-in-Law”). While her new husband is out of town for some months, a young woman starts shunning her mother-in-law, and when the husband returns, he finds his wife in childbirth. The baby can’t possibly be his! Things look dire for a while. But a ring that the hero stole from a girl he raped during a drunken spree reveals that his wife was his victim and the child is his. Everyone is happy.

Aristotle considered tragedy superior to epic and more philosophical than history. (The novel is a later literary development.) But Homer’s Odyssey has a bang-up set of recognition scenes when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after twenty years: Odysseus’s poor dog! The scar! The bed! Aristotle thinks of this epic as appealing to a lower audience, and the best drama of Sophocles to a higher one, but to heck with Aristotle. When drama is properly injected into narrative, the synapses still fire up. And I’d suggest that this goes for all genres, fiction and nonfiction alike.

Granted, with A Little Princess we find ourselves in fairy tale territory. But Frances Hodgson Burnett has set up her revised Cinderella plot to make almost perfect sense within the parameters of fantasy and romance. Every incident follows by probability or necessity from the scene before.

In Sara Crewe, the precursor to A Little Princess, Burnett gives the reader an impressive recognition scene. After the monkey belonging to the ailing gentleman next door escapes over the roof, Sara catches the monkey and returns it. She meets the gentleman, Mr. Carrisford, and — whoa! — after he asks her an idle question to which he already knows the answer (“You live next door?”) and then follows it up, he discovers that she’s the daughter of his dear departed business partner. We will soon learn that Mr. Carrisford has been searching for Sara for years, eaten up by guilt for the way he seemed to have defrauded her father when an investment looked bad. Quite the surprise to the reader, especially because the gentleman had been mentioned only once before at any length in the short story, and Burnett has to use most of the rest of the tale to tell the reader the backstory, almost all in basic narrative.

When Burnett revisits the story in her novel, she doesn’t go for a cheap surprise ending. We’ve already come to know Mr. Carrisford, the supposedly false friend, and heard his anguish over the disastrous fallout from investment in diamond mines. And we know how assiduously he has tried to find the little girl. His lawyer has been searching for her in France and in Russia, from which he has just returned with disappointing news.

We have also seen Mr. Carrisford take an interest in the poor little girl next door, as does his manservant, and her brutal attic room becomes a fairy tale of delights because the gentleman wants to make at least one little girl happy, and suddenly Sara is warm and full fed because of his “romantic” actions. Instead of surprise and fireworks, we have suspense that leads up to the anagnorisis.

And when Sara enters his room, she says something particular that offers the man a clue of her identity.

“Your monkey ran away again,” she said, in her pretty voice. “He came to my garret window last night, and I took him in because it was so cold. I would have brought him back if it had not been so late. I knew you were ill and might not like to be disturbed.”

The Indian gentleman’s hollow eyes dwelt on her with curious interest.

“That was very thoughtful of you,” he said.

Sara looked toward Ram Dass, who stood near the door.

“Shall I give him to the Lascar?” she asked.

“How do you know he is a Lascar?” said the Indian gentleman, smiling a little.

“Oh, I know Lascars,” Sara said, handing over the reluctant monkey. “I was born in India.”

The Indian gentleman sat upright so suddenly, and with such a change of expression, that she was for a moment quite startled.

“You were born in India,” he exclaimed, “were you? Come here.” And he held out his hand.

The word Lascar is a little less than apt here. Burnett earlier defines it as meaning a sort of manservant, probably to simplify matters for her children’s audience, but she had to know a lot more about Lascars from growing up in a port city with a Lascar problem. The OED defines the word as an East Indian seaman or an inferior infantryman, and Merriam-Webster adds army servant. But outside of dictionaries, the word is sometimes used in a more ethnic sense. We’ll address this difficulty in a later essay on the expanded role of servants in A Little Princess. But Sara’s unexpected use of the word here is what triggers the aha! moment.

And Burnett doesn’t leave us with a simple and single recognition scene. In the chapter “It Is the Child!” Mr. Carrisford slumps back in his chair because of the weight of the recognition. Is he dying?

Sara, led out of the library, now thinks of the Indian gentleman as the “wicked friend” whose actions killed her father! But when she learns the whole story, and particularly the fact that the man on the other side of the row-house wall from the cold, hard school for girls was the one who supplied her with her fairy tale room — out of the goodness of his heart and because he was worried about her! — she rushes back into his house and we have a lovely reconciliation. The lawyer, Mr. Carmichael, and one who has become an important character in Burnett’s revision, and with his large, happy family a symbol of all Sara wants, lets her back in:

She went and stood before his [Mr. Carrisford’s] chair, with her hands clasped together against her breast.

“You sent the things to me,” she said, in a joyful emotional little voice, “the beautiful, beautiful things? YOU sent them!”

“Yes, poor, dear child, I did,” he answered her. He was weak and broken with long illness and trouble, but he looked at her with the look she remembered in her father’s eyes — that look of loving her and wanting to take her in his arms. It made her kneel down by him, just as she used to kneel by her father when they were the dearest friends and lovers in the world.

“Then it is you who are my friend,” she said; “it is you who are my friend!” And she dropped her face on his thin hand and kissed it again and again.

“The man will be himself again in three weeks,” Mr. Carmichael said aside to his wife. “Look at his face already.”

A lawyer with a heart. Now that’s a fairy tale! 🙂

And it gets better in the novel with the humiliation of the evil schoolmistress in a secondary recognition scene. In the original story, the drama here is nonexistent. Miss Minchin learns of Sara’s change in fortune in this fashion: “First, Mr. Carmichael came and had an interview with Miss Minchin.” We learn much later, in a one-sentence flashback in the pluperfect, that Miss Minchin had tried unsuccessfully to win Sara back.

It was rather a painful experience for Miss Minchin to watch her ex-pupil’s fortunes, as she had the daily opportunity to do, and to feel that she had made a serious mistake, from a business point of view. She had even tried to retrieve it by suggesting that Sara’s education should be continued under her care, and had gone to the length of making an appeal to the child herself.

The novel tightens and intensifies the scene, now set right after our little princess becomes fast friends with Mr. Carrisford. Miss Minchin, driven by anger, comes over to confront her annoying and too-smart drudge. The schoolmistress starts by threatening the girl with severe punishment, and ends up being reprimanded herself in various ways by the lawyer, by Mr. Carrisford, and even by Sara.

Things will go from bad to worse for Miss Minchin. Her sister, the timid Miss Amelia, falls apart and still ends up cowing her older sister. The following tertiary recognition drama isn’t in the original story:

“She saw through us both. She saw that you were a hard-hearted, worldly woman, and that I was a weak fool, and that we were both of us vulgar and mean enough to grovel on our knees for her money, and behave ill to her because it was taken from her — though she behaved herself like a little princess even when she was a beggar. She did — she did — like a little princess!” And her hysterics got the better of the poor woman, and she began to laugh and cry both at once, and rock herself backward and forward.

“And now you’ve lost her,” she cried wildly; “and some other school will get her and her money; and if she were like any other child she’d tell how she’s been treated, and all our pupils would be taken away and we should be ruined. And it serves us right; but it serves you right more than it does me, for you are a hard woman, Maria Minchin, you’re a hard, selfish, worldly woman!”

You’ll read in the dénouement a string of dramatic delights not offered by the original story. Books are remembered principally for their climaxes and their endings — at least with a well-handled climax. And recognition scenes serve as the most memorable way to move a book toward its end. But the author needs a good conflict to keep the reader from closing the book early, and we’ll discuss that in the next essay.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

August 3, 2016

On Books: Visions and Revisions (Part I)

by Alison Parker

Most people in fiction editing have trotted out the line “Show; don’t tell.” But how often does that line by itself make authors or editors improve in their craft?

I’m not denying that the line is great in theory. There’s a lot of great theory out there — start with Aristotle’s Poetics. Heck, if you deal with fiction, you have doubtless amassed quite a number of practical books on plot, character, emotion, description, and so on. I certainly have, but when I try to read these books, my eyes usually glaze over. The ideas might be practical, but they’re too often neither engaging nor inspiring. And that’s a big “fail.” It is important for authors and editors to understand how to create excitement in a reader, and how to make a reader want to continue to the end, whether the end is the end of the single book or the end of a twelve-book series. And it’s important to make authors and editors see and feel the principles and not just think them.

How to Teach Fiction?

If I ever found myself in front of a creative writing class, I’d use the old high school English teachers’ method of “compare and contrast” and make the students look at one of my favorite children’s books: A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who was once considered a leading light in realist fiction for adults and whose book The Secret Garden is still frequently taught in children’s literature classes. What should make that exercise interesting is that the book, which was published in 1905, started out as a magazine novella in 1888. And the original grew immeasurably over those intervening years. It’s not easy to find published books or stories that change so radically, and for the better, in less than two decades.

Major Changes: Character and Drama

You’ll find two major differences between the novella — Sara Crewe, or, What Happened at Miss Minchin’s Boarding School — and the novel that it became seventeen years later. First, the heroine is much more sympathetic in the later telling. Second, and more important, the book has incorporated a lot more drama in the course of its expansion. Why? The author was asked to turn the initial story into a play, which began its run a couple of years before she expanded her story into a novel. In the three-act play (for a description, see Roderick McGillis’s A Little Princess: Gender and Empire, 5–7), new characters are added, principally little girls as friends and foils, and the rat that Sara tames in her dingy attic makes its debut. And scholars have pointed out that writing it helped Burnett to change the bare-bones tale of Sara’s growth and salvation into something much more gripping.

In the 1888 story, the heroine is a spoiled little princess, so to speak, with all the advantages of youth and wealth. In fewer than a thousand words, we read mainly dry narrative about her privileged childhood and her obscenely rich and doting but feckless father, Captain Crewe, who takes her reluctantly to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in London because the climate in India can be brutal and Sara’s mother died long ago. Not many years later, he dies destitute, seemingly betrayed by his best friend. And so his beloved daughter is left to the mercy of the schoolmistress, who shows her no mercy once the money is gone. Those thousand words that open the original story run to less than a sixteenth of the whole. Only two times in the beginning narrative does anyone say anything, and those quotes can’t be called dialogue as no one responds.

When Burnett rewrote her tale, the beginning of the original story expanded to a third of the novel. And the space isn’t wasted. Though much of it is still expository, and with an omniscient narrator to boot, the narrator throws herself into the action.

The Princess Learns Politeness

Let’s consider the study of French, an important subject for all young ladies who wished to snare respectable husbands. In the novella, we hear almost nothing about the subject until the evil Miss Minchin says that Sara will soon be earning her keep by teaching the language to the youngest pupils. The newly impoverished princess is pissed off:

“I can speak French better than you, now,” said Sara; “I always spoke it with my papa in India.” Which was not at all polite, but was painfully true; because Miss Minchin could not speak French at all, and, indeed, was not in the least a clever person.

That’s not nice, and in the revision, we see the information dramatized in the second chapter, “A French Lesson.” We’re now in Sara’s first day of school, and the other students are fascinated as the show pupil, the little girl dressed up in absurd clothes by her indulgent father and whom Miss Minchin intends to trot around as proof that this seminary is higher class than it is, comes into the schoolroom and is seated in the place of honor. Lavinia, who once had that honor (and who had no name in the novella), is angry, of course, and that will play out later. But for now, the rigid schoolmistress makes unfortunate assumptions about Sara, and when Sara tries to say something, she’s shut off and forced to read an elementary French grammar. She doesn’t want to be nasty to Miss Minchin. But when the language teacher arrives, Sara speaks to him in fluent French in a desperate attempt to explain that she doesn’t have what Miss Minchin claimed was a childish prejudice against the language. Other pupils titter, and Miss Minchin, who had been afraid that everyone would learn about her inability to speak French, now starts to despise her prize pupil. And when Sara no longer appears to be a prize — Miss Minchin views everyone in terms of money — the schoolmistress’s anger increases the drama, and the conflict between her and her former show pupil keeps growing.

From Greed to Giving

Another striking difference in scene styling and in the heroine’s nature shows up in the character of Ermengarde. In the 1888 story, when Sara meets the overweight and introverted Ermengarde, our heroine thinks of the girl with contempt — until she sees the nice books that Ermengarde had received from her brilliant but pushy father.

There was also a fat, dull pupil, whose name was Ermengarde St. John, who was one of her resources. Ermengarde had an intellectual father, who, in his despairing desire to encourage his daughter, constantly sent her valuable and interesting books, which were a continual source of grief to her. Sara had once actually found her crying over a big package of them.

“What is the matter with you?” she asked her, perhaps rather disdainfully.

And it is just possible she would not have spoken to her, if she had not seen the books.

But in the novel, Sara is outraged at the bullying that Ermengarde has been subjected to, and the heroine takes the poor girl under her wings. The third chapter of the book is named “Ermengarde,” and Sara is all sweetness and sympathy to her unfortunate classmate, who can’t pronounce French to save her life.

When lessons were over and the pupils gathered together in groups to talk, Sara looked for Miss St. John, and finding her bundled rather disconsolately in a window-seat, she walked over to her and spoke. She only said the kind of thing little girls always say to each other by way of beginning an acquaintance, but there was something friendly about Sara, and people always felt it.

“What is your name?” she said.

To explain Miss St. John’s amazement one must recall that a new pupil is, for a short time, a somewhat uncertain thing; and of this new pupil the entire school had talked the night before until it fell asleep quite exhausted by excitement and contradictory stories. A new pupil with a carriage and a pony and a maid, and a voyage from India to discuss, was not an ordinary acquaintance.

“My name’s Ermengarde St. John,” she answered.

“Mine is Sara Crewe,” said Sara. “Yours is very pretty. It sounds like a story book.”

“Do you like it?” fluttered Ermengarde. “I—I like yours.”

The original story has excellent moments — without them, it wouldn’t have been published in the first place — but it doesn’t give us a suspenseful buildup to Sara’s second reversal of fortune, which the novel slices and dices up, and juices for all it’s worth. Instead, the novella puts this essential part of the plot, like the beginning, into narrative, not drama.

Although the “princess” story in its original form remains fascinating, rather on the order of tales someone just rattles off — “… and then she … and then she …” — it doesn’t engage your heart and your brain in the way the play-influenced revision and expansion does.

In this essay, I’ve focused mainly on the way Burnett increased the drama within scenes and helped turn a magazine story into what is considered a children’s classic. Next time we’ll treat something more important to the book’s reputation, effective plotting. After that, we’ll get back to the problem of character, both in Burnett’s works and further afield.

Alison Parker has held jobs in libraries, bookstores, and newspapers. She has taught university courses in classical languages, literature, mythology, and etymology. Parker helped edit legal maxims for Bryan A. Garner. Garner’s Modern English Usage acknowledges her contributions, and she was an outside reviewer for his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. She has also worked as a columnist, a book reviewer, and an editor in various capacities, including developmental editing, rewriting, and plot doctoring.

July 25, 2016

On Today’s Bookshelf XXVI

The time since my last On Today’s Bookshelf post (On Today’s Bookshelf XXV) has resulted in some interesting acquisitions for my library as a perusal of the lists below will show.

Interestingly, I have bought (and received) in the current month alone 15 hardcovers and 29 ebooks. Although I bought some of the ebooks at Barnes & Noble, most I bought at Smashwords, which is having its annual July Summer/Winter Sale. If you are an ebook reader, now is the time to head to Smashwords; the sale ends July 31.

The hardcovers I bought in July and list here are the ones I have received. In looking at my records, it appears that I have more on order that are supposed to be delivered by July’s end. Here is the list of July hardcovers received:

Nonfiction –

  • Frederick the Great: King of Prussia by Tim Blanning
  • The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America by Andres Resendez
  • Justifying Genocide: Germany and the Armenians from Bismarck to Hitler by Stefan Ihrig
  • The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America by Wendy Warren
  • In Reckless Hands: Skinner V. Oklahoma and the Near-Triumph of American Eugenics by Victoria F. Nourse
  • The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia by Ruth C. Engs
  • The Legacy of Islamic Antisemitism: From Sacred Texts to Solemn History by Andrew G. Bostom
  • The Secret War: Spies, Ciphers, and Guerrillas, 1939-1945 by Max Hastings

Fiction –

  • Summer Dragon: First Book of the Evertide by Todd Lockwood (Signed Book)
  • Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters
  • Age of Myth: Book One of The Legends of the First Empire by Michael J. Sullivan
  • Flag in Exile 20th Anniversary Special Limited Edition by David Weber
  • Fellside by M.L. Carey (Signed Book)
  • Wolf’s Empire: Gladiator by Claudia Christian and Morgan Grant Buchanan (Signed Book)

I also bought some fiction ebooks. The following is a partial list of the fiction ebooks I bought this month:

  • The Collars of Phaleran by Ashely Abbiss
  • Ice Station X by V. Bertolaccini
  • Ravens in the Sky by Will Bly
  • Children of the Trident by B. Albert Brier
  • The Ascension Trilogy by David S. Croxford
  • The Key by Brian Fisher
  • Philippa Barnes Mysteries Books 1-3 by Trish McCormack
  • The Blue Folio by Matt McMahon
  • The One Hundred by K. Weikel
  • The Safanarion Order Books 1-3 by Ken Lozito
  • Ties That Bind by Carolyn Arnold
  • Forgotten Ages (The Complete Saga) by Lindsay Buroker

Unfortunately for me, those books are not all of the books I have acquired since the last edition of On Today’s Bookshelf. Below is a list of some of the hardcovers and ebooks that I have added to my to-be-read pile since that post:

Nonfiction –

  • The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition by Manisha Sinha
  • At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others by Sarah Bakewell
  • Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck by Adam Cohen
  • The Gunpowder Age: China, Military Innovation, and the Rise of the West in World History by Tonio Andrade
  • Strange Gods: A Secular History of Conversion by Susan Jacoby
  • Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics, and American Economics in the Progressive Era by Thomas C. Leonard
  • The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home by Joyce Goldstein (I also bought copies for gifts)
  • A Scapegoat in the New Wilderness: The Origins and Rise of Anti-Semitism in America by Frederic Cople Jaher
  • The Jews and the Nation: Revolution, Emancipation, State Formation, and the Liberal Paradigm in America and France by Frederic Cople Jaher
  • Heart of Europe: A History of the Holy Roman Empire by Peter H. Wilson
  • Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation by Nicholas Guyatt
  • Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  • The Paper Trail: An Unexpected History of a Revolution Invention by Alexander Monro
  • Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination by Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter S. Onuf

Fiction –

  • Light in a Dark House by Jan Costin Wagner
  • Burned, Pierced, and Scarred (3 novels) by Thomas Enger
  • Where Monsters Dwell by Jorgen Brekke
  • The Photograph by Beverly Lewis
  • Upon a Dark Night by Peter Lovesey
  • Cold Shoulder (Lorraine Page Series #1) by Lynda LaPlante
  • Crossbones Yard by Kate Rhodes
  • Power in the Blood by Michael Lister
  • The Serial Killer’s Wife by Robert Smartwood
  • Two Strangers by Beryl Matthews
  • The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

I mentioned retirement in my last essay (see Thinking About Retirement). Part of my thinking of retirement is looking at the TBR pile and wondering how many years it will take me to read all of the books I currently have in the TBR pile, the ones that I have preordered and will be coming, and the ones I do not currently know about but that I will buy in the coming months. I keep promising myself that I will stop buying books, but buying books is the bane of my editorial existence.

I guess I will never stop buying books, regardless of whether it is likely that I will be able to read them in my remaining years, until the time arrives when I can no longer read. Are you a book buyer? Have you cut back? Do you have plans to stop buying books?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

June 11, 2016

Worth Reading: Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer” by Christopher Jencks (The New York Review of Books, June 9, 2016, pp. 15-17) is a review of the book $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer (2015, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Jencks is the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard and author of Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass and The Homeless.

I found the essay both interesting and disturbing. It illustrates the problem of political social thinking since the 1990s. If you combine that thinking with how politicians today, especially Republican politicians, want to reduce social welfare programs, you can see how the thinking is to shift from a “War on Poverty” to a “War on Those in Poverty.”

Regardless of how you view social welfare programs, this essay is worth reading. It provides a different way to look at how social welfare policy has evolved since the 1970s. I know I hadn’t looked at social welfare programs from quite the same perspective — not even when I was a social worker.

Why the Very Poor Have Become Poorer
by Christopher Jencks

After reading the essay, I have added Edin and Shaefer’s book to my To-Buy list.

Richard Adin, An American Editor

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