All posts by Phil W

Recovered Essay on Extraterrestrial Life

Who comes to mind as a public figure who has written an essay on the possibilities of life on other planets?  Not a high school paper, but a fairly scientific essay that concludes, “With hundreds of thousands of nebulae, each containing thousands of millions of suns, the odds are enormous that there must be immense numbers which possess planets whose circumstances would not render life impossible.”

Would you believe Winston Churchill wrote these words?

The essay written in 1939 reportedly has a strong understanding of contemporary astronomy and how scientists would approach the question of extraterrestrial life. It was found by Timothy Riley, director of the National Churchill Museum at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri. He recommended the essay to astrophysicist Mario Livio, who was thrilled to examine it.

Churchill did his homework, Livio reports. Though he probably didn’t pore over peer-reviewed scientific literature, the statesman seems to have read enough, and spoke with enough top scientists—including the physicist Frederick Lindemann, his friend and later his official scientific adviser—to have had a strong grasp of the major theories and ideas of his time.

Burned-out Author Forges On, Lands Deal

Nancy Peacock has done well as a novel writer, and her path has been a challenging one. Speaking of her mindset about ten years ago, she writes,

At the time, writing and publishing another book was the last thing on my mind. Although, even as I say it, that feels like a bit of a lie. I think publishing is always on a writer’s mind; I also think we have to forget about it. We have to write without feeding any fear regarding the future of a book, how we’re going to publish, how we’re going to reach an audience, and how the book will be received.

She describes how she soured on traditional publishing, chose to self-publish her third novel with professional help, and the key that turned her back to traditional publishing.

How an Indie Author Landed a Traditional Book Deal

Peacock doesn’t talk about her experience with queries, but whatever mistakes she may have made, I’m sure she didn’t make any of the ones agent Steve Laube lists in this post on odd queries he’s received.  Here’s one of them.

An email proposal with a cover note that reads, “I am sure you get a lot of proposals, but this one is worth your time to read.”
But the author claims they looked at what we agents want and then sent us something we specifically say we do not represent. Then says they followed our guidelines for submission but didn’t follow one of them. And then claims the Holy Spirit told them to write it and gave them the words. They must not have read what I wrote a while back “God Gave Me This Blog Post.”

8 Steps to Revive Christian Fiction

Christian fiction has been pronounced dead in some circle, and E. Stephen Burnett is running with that idea. If it really is dead, how can it be reborn? He offers eight steps.

  1. Figure out what fiction is even meant to do, starting with Scripture.
  2. Find fans who have similar biblical conviction and imagination.
  3. Stride forth with winsomeness, a confident voice, and ‘swashbuckling.’
  4. Encourage bravery about certain words and topics.
  5. However, do nothing for outrage’s own sake—that is the dark side.
  6. Budget each month to buy great Christian novels you’ve heard about.
  7. Don’t ‘ban’ any genres: romance, fantasy, mystery, literary, popular.
  8. This is ‘Christian fiction,’ so let’s see more than generic Christianity.

I like this last one. Let’s write stories with true-to-life people in them, people who attend close-to-actual churches with real theological traditions. I’d be willing to believe many novels depict vaguely Christian characters because their authors have vaguely non-denominational beliefs. But I don’t know what a survey of Christian authors would produce. Perhaps their theological depth is no deeper than that of the reading public.

Happy Valentine’s Day

My love for you is like a slough
of water flowing out
that soaks the town of Kilkey Down
whose folks pray for a drought.

That one’s for you, dear reader, but here’s another bound to enliven a lover’s heart. From Ogden Nash.

A flea and a fly in a flue
Were imprisoned, so what could they do?
Said the fly, “let us flee!”
“Let us fly!” said the flea.
So they flew through a flaw in the flue.

Isn’t that sweet? Here’s more on Ogden Nash in The Hindu.

Mimi Matthews has a few creative verses for telling someone who may or may not be interested in you to seek other pastures.

Don’t credit the advertisements
In paper or in serial,
You cannot manufacture charms
With ugly raw material.

Exploitation in Humanities Departments

There’s an idea that college professors should be free to pursue whatever interests them, to go wherever their professional curiosity takes them without concern for the market, but that’s close to the fantasy of fan-fiction, stories written for the fun of it without an eye on their publication (even though that too is changing).

Adjunct professor Kevin Birmingham brings up this point among others in his talk on the native exploitation by college humanities and English departments. On the one hand, adjuncts aren’t paid well.

An annual report by the American Association of University Professors indicated that last year “the average part-time faculty member earned $16,718” from a single employer. Other studies have similar findings. Thirty-one percent of part-time faculty members live near or below the poverty line. Twenty-five percent receive public assistance, like Medicaid or food stamps.

These teachers are easily hired, easily dismissed. Funding for actual classroom instruction has been declining, but administrative roles are increasing. Apparently, teaching students is a declining priority for many of our universities, which makes news of another closure more tolerable.

On the other hand, graduate programs are milling out Ph.Ds at a rate that far exceeds the need. Universities, Birmingham explains, have the only job market for these graduates, but they produce roughly four times the number of candidates for the available jobs and availability is shrinking.

English departments do this because graduate students are the most important element of the academy’s polarized labor market. They confer departmental prestige. They justify the continuation of tenure lines, and they guarantee a labor surplus that provides the cheap, flexible labor that universities want.

Like a migrant worker system.

Many market principles could be learned here. One broad one would be morality cannot be based on market realities (or just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should). Colleges exist to teach, and qualified teachers should receive the honor and compensation they are due. When you have the money to pay them well, you should.

But another one may be that if some universities don’t care to teach, others should be able to pick up that slack and grow, keeping a focus on their students’ well-being in mind and not treating them like grist for the sake of the program.

28 Recommendations of Black Children’s Books

For Black History Month, librarian and poet Scott Woods likes to recommend children’s books that don’t focus on boycotts, buses, or basketball. Here’s his list of “28 children’s picture books, most of them featuring Black children doing what all children do: play, make up stories, learn life lessons, and dream.”

These titles look like great fun for a library afternoon in the short seat section. I wonder how many of these my library has. (via K.A. Ellis)

Caimh McDonnell Listens to Audiobooks

Lars’ review of Caimh McDonnell’s first novel yesterday drew the attention of McDonnell’s publisher on Twitter. That lead to my discovery of this interview of McDonnell posted yesterday. Blommin’ Brilliant Books asked the comedian what genres he preferred.

Typically most of the novels I like to read either fall into the crime or sci-fi genres. Having said that, quite a lot of the ‘reading’ I do is actually audiobooks. I can often spend 16 or so hours in a week driving to gigs and I fill that time by devouring audiobooks. I think the influence of that can be seen very clearly in my writing. I write to be read out loud and I believe dialogue is usually the best way of conveying information. I have also read hundreds of TV and film scripts as I’m completely self-taught as a TV writer. People have said that dialogue is my biggest strength as a writer and I guess if you’ve spent as much time as I have forensically examining the work of Aaron Sorkin, that’s no great surprise – not that I’m anywhere close to his level.

He also said he drew one of his characters from an actual, living being. “Phil Nellis is heavily based on my friend and fellow comedian Phil Ellis. In fact, I did it specifically to annoy him.”

Standing In for Thomas Pynchon

Comedian Irwin Corey, who regularly lampooned the educated classes, died this week at age 102. The NY Times tells a story of how he impersonated author Thomas Pynchon to receive the National Book Award for fiction in 1974.

No one in the crowd had any idea what the reclusive Mr. Pynchon looked like, and when Mr. Corey arrived to accept the award for him (the novelist had approved the stunt), many people thought they were getting their first look at Mr. Pynchon.

They soon learned otherwise. Beginning his remarks, as he often did, “However,” Mr. Corey referred to the author as “Richard Python” and said, “Today we must all be aware that protocol takes precedence over procedure.” He continued: “Marx, Groucho Marx, once said that religion is the opiate of the people. I say that when religion outlives its usefulness, then opium will be the opiate. Ah, that’s not a bad idea.”

The Times reported the next morning that Mr. Corey’s “series of bad jokes and mangled syntax” left “some people roaring with laughter and others perplexed.”

See Corey and hear his acceptance speech from the National Book Awards here.

Learning to Love the Bomb

Cheryl Magness says she’s been an editor all of her life, but she’s given up her Grammar Nazi ways. Style guides disagree and change over time. English words and usage change, at least in a limited sense. Really what we all want is clarity and internal harmony.

One of the rules that has rubbed me the wrong way is how to indicate possessives for names ending in s. I’m still most comfortable with the old style, like you would use for a common noun, such as the hounds’ kennel, but the current rule is to use an apostrophe s for all names. It’s Jesus’s robe. It’s Theseus’s spear and Xerxes’s dog biscuit. It would be Roberts’s rules, if Robert had an s at the end of his name, which he doesn’t, so that one is still Robert’s rules.

If I were to edit your manuscript, I’d reflectively correct towards to toward and forbid your using whilst. In fact, I would snicker behind your back if you used whilst anywhere but in the mouth of a stuffy English statesman.

Cheryl offers a good example in the acceptability of sentence adverbs and whether we should allow statements such as “Hopefully, it will rain.” How many that’s should be allowed on a page is another good one. For the unpolished writer, these are somewhat critical choices. They approach the territory of an editor’s real work: verb agreement, word choice particularly in the troublesome word area, and readability. You want an editor to help you put our language its best use, one who knows what the rules are and when to push them aside to make a better story. Grammar Nazi’s usually aren’t too good at that part of it.

Close to Realizing a Brave New World

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, says everyone’s reading 1984 to see the parallels with current events, but Trump is not Big Brother and America is not Oceania. He’s not trying to control everyone or tap everything down so it all looks orderly on the surface. But there are dangers to watch for.

One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.

In the Washington Post yesterday, Nichols says the constant media outrage over every little bit of news coming from the White House is only deadening our ears to honest critique or curiosity over actual policies.

This continual panic is short-circuiting any reasonable debate about the president’s policies by indulging Trump’s fiercest opponents in the belief that something could destroy his presidency before it has a chance to govern. Still furious over the outcome of the election, Trump’s critics seize on every move as if there is a Watergate moment to be found if only they look hard enough.

Roots of Black History Month

Dr. Carter G. Woodson, founder of what has become Black History Month, wanted to spotlight the many social and academic achievements of African Americans.

“For serious, solution-oriented black conservatives today,” Chidike Okeem writes, “Woodson provided a model of how one can be enthusiastically pro-market, doggedly anti-Marxist economics, and do so while being unapologetically African. He demonstrated that endorsement of free market economics does not have to coincide with self-hatred and anti-blackness.”

“Black Americans have African ancestors who were marvelously accomplished, built civilizations, and were intrepid innovators. African Americans, despite a history of oppression, have demonstrated that same entrepreneurial spirit throughout American history.”

Read Langston Hughes’ Stories

Justin Taylor recommends we read the short stories of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

“If racism and race-based slavery was America’s original sin,” Taylor says, “Hughes demonstrates that racism and the legacy of slavery were alive and killing us in the middle of the last century.”

But for a winter of heartache, we can still see a spring of hope.

For Hughes, humanity—sheer cussed humanness—is always breaking out and defying the lies of the racialist.”

Reading Wiesel as Protesters March Outside

I’m glad we’re talking about refugees, immigration, and what loving our neighbors means in practical terms. I hope all of this becomes perpetual opportunities for the gospel, the life-transforming gospel, not just some shell of good wishes.

On Sunday in New York, a large group met at the Jewish Heritage Museum to read from Elie Wiesel’s Night to remember the Holocaust at the same time other New Yorkers were protesting the US administration’s policies on immigrants from terror-watch countries.

“By the end of the [Rwandan] genocide I lost my entire immediate family, my parents, my siblings, most of my family members,” Jacqueline Murekatete told the audience. “As any child of that time, I witnessed a lot of horrors, people being killed around me and losing my family…but I was fortunate that I had an uncle that lived here [America].

She said Wiesel inspired her as a teenager. Night “became a catalyst for the genocide prevention work that I do now.”

There cannot be a 1:1 comparison between Holocaust or Rwandan genocide and what is happening in Syria and other countries. We live in a different world now. I could understand if President Trump were to say, “We are working very hard to provide safe passage to select Syrian communities who are being targeted and have nowhere to run, because frankly, people, we went over there and made a huge mess, a gigantic, stupid mess.” But that’s not his stance today for reasons that should be completely understandable to everyone. There are enemies among us.

But perhaps Wiesel would not agree. In his Nobel acceptance speech, he said,

Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Whenever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must—at that moment—become the center of the universe.

How Victorian Literature Inspired African-American Writers

Despite many arguments to the contrary, many writers and literary advocates have yearned for unique voices within single cultural traditions. In the early days of this country, we wanted to forge distinct American literature that was not dependent on our British roots or British authors. We continue that yearning in all artforms today. You’ll remember that one of the strength’s of the Netflix original Luke Cage is how culturally black it is.

In his fascinating and original new book, Reaping Something New: African American Transformations of Victorian Literature, Daniel Hack provocatively joins the contrarian chorus by examining the relationship between one of the most marginalized literary traditions and one of the most dominant. He has found that a wide range of the most important 19th-century African-American writers drew from and engaged with writers of equal importance to the Victorian literary tradition.

While it may be natural to want one’s own voice in art, many of us may unrealistically define that uniqueness. We may chafe at anything at smacks of dependency while ignoring the relationships and influences we cannot avoid. Nothing, after all, is truly original. (via Prufrock)