I hope to blog later today, but don’t let that stop you from commenting while I wait. I know you’ve been wanting to say something, so go ahead.
Five-time Christy Award Judge Jana Riess talks about this year’s batch of first novels. After praising some specific books, she writes:
As a judge, every year I’ve been able to say quite honestly that despite generally uneven quality and a few total dogs in each batch, the overall picture for Christian fiction continues to improve. This year, however, gave me pause. What was interesting was that my main criticism in the past — that the novels tended to be overly didactic and preachy — was not a common problem among the 25 novels I read. There were only a few that hammered readers over the head with A Message. Instead, this year’s problems were technical: characters who were important in the first half of the book who entirely disappear in the second. Plot threads that go absolutely nowhere. Stock characters and plots that are almost entirely predictable. Overuse of sentence fragments. And excessive conjunctions at the beginning of sentences.
Read on. [seen in on JMarkBertrand.com]
Congratulations to Nicole Mazzarella for her debut novel, This Heavy Silence.
Thomas Sowell writes: “One of the many failings of our educational system is that it sends out into the world people who cannot tell rhetoric from reality. They have learned no systematic way to analyze ideas, derive their implications and test those implications against hard facts.”
I guess we forgot in some circumstances that talk is actually cheap. We understand that in relationships, but not in world policies.
I came up with something in the comments on my Wednesday post, and I liked it so well I’ll repeat it here, for the sake of those of you who don’t read comments.
It occurs to me that much of what passes for art today is a kind of “nihilist kitsch.” You know what kitsch is. It’s sentimental or cutesy art produced on the cheap for people without much taste. Black velvet paintings are kitsch. Pictures of Jesus with moving eyes that seem to follow you around the room are kitsch. Garden ornaments that depict a fat guy leaning over so that all you can see is his legs, his butt and his butt crack above his jeans, are kitsch.
When a little old lady, not very bright but devout, looks at her 3-D Jesus portrait, she sees it as very beautiful. This is not because it’s really beautiful (it’s actually pretty disturbing), but it’s lovely to her because she associates it with her sincere love for Jesus.
I think the pleasure an art connoisseur feels when he/she looks at a piece of art consisting of blood or urine or dung or garbage is a reverse form of kitsch. The viewer knows that what he or she is looking at is in no sense beautiful. But he/she enjoys it and praises it because it represents an assault on things that he/she hates.
So we’ve got the kitsch of love and the kitsch of hate. Both of them are kitsch.
But I know which one I prefer.
A little more about Jonathan Kellerman’s nonfiction book, Savage Spawn.
It’s a frightening book about children who seem to be born bad, and who can’t seem to be stopped except by death or lifelong incarceration.
Kellerman’s opinion (and he admits he can’t prove it) is that the cause is a combination of genetics and nurture. Some kids may be genetically designed for psychopathy, but a good upbringing might prevent it.
So how do we as a society intervene to rescue these marginal kids before bad environments send them on the road to something like Columbine?
Kellerman has a number of suggestions, which he admits are generally utopian. I don’t agree with all of them (especially the one that would make it a crime to teach a child to use firearms). Many of them make sense. None of them seem likely.
The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve reached a cultural impasse. If we could give the government new powers to intervene radically in families, it might be worth it (if the power could be limited), if we had confidence that the government would use that power wisely. Unfortunately, “government” and “wisdom” are for the most part mutually exclusive terms.
My opinion is that the kind of radical evil in children that we see today is mostly a new thing, and it comes from the way society has changed. In the past most people lived in small, homogeneous communities—villages or tribes where everybody believed the same things, valued the same things, and were intimately involved in each other’s lives. The kids were monitored all the time, by the whole community.
When Hillary Clinton said “It takes a village to raise a child,” she was being disingenuous. She was right about the village, but the new-style village she wants is not a village but a bureaucracy (I’ve blogged about this before).
I think people need close-knit networks of likeminded relatives and neighbors, all gathered in the same place, to raise children in the most healthy way. But today we value diversity and individuality, which means a terrible, dangerous environment for children.
Will we figure out a new way to build villages? I hope so. But I don’t know how we’ll do it.
I’ll be off the blog for a couple days now. My relative Trygve from Norway will be in town, and I’ll be giving him the grand tour. I’ll tell you about it when it’s over.
Today it rained. This is a good thing, just here and just now. We’ve had it mighty dry for a spell in these here parts. I think a lot of farmers got a drink too, which is, needless to say, a lot more important than the state of my lawn.
I picked up a book called Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, the mystery writer. I’ve already told you how much I enjoy his novels, so I was interested to check out this book, which is not fiction but a book of popular psychology about children who become cold-blooded criminals.
I’ll probably say more about his conclusions tomorrow, but today I want to quote a passage that impressed me:
Psychiatrist Thomas Millar, in an eloquent essay titled “The Age of Passion Man,” written nearly two decades ago, decried the tendency of contemporary Western society to glamorize hedonism and antisocial behavior, and to confuse psychopathy, which he regards as a form of malignant childishness, with heroism….
Confusing creativity with morality and psychopathic rebelliousness with social liberation led Norman Mailer to predict that psychopaths would turn out to be the saviors of society. Mailer was as terribly wrong about that as he was when he worked hard to spring career criminal Jack Henry Abbott from prison. Shortly after his release, Abbott murdered an innocent man. Oops. What impressed Mailer were Abbott’s writings, summarized in a thin book titled In the Belly of the Beast. A coolheaded review of this volume nearly two decades later reveals it to be a crude, nasty, sophomoric collection of self-justifying diatribes—prototypical psychopathy.
Muddled thinking about evil is by no means limited to the political left. Sex murderer Herbert Smith, sentenced to execution for raping and bludgeoning a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat, was able to turn a phrase with some skill, and he conned William Buckley into thinking he was innocent. Buckley campaigned to get Smith out of prison, finally succeeding in 1971, whereupon Smith promptly and viciously attacked another woman. Smith then admitted that he’d been guilty of the first murder. Oops again.
Kellerman identifies here what I consider a major problem in our culture today. Beginning in the days of the Romantic Movement, we began to see the titanic, rebellious, Promethean social rebel (like Shelley or Byron) as the hero, the one who would free us all from Rousseau’s chains, who would liberate us all to become the gods and goddesses we were born to be. The parallel Romantic current, the more Christian and conventionally moral Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, found few followers. That strain was less sexy. It lacked the sweetness of forbidden fruit, and was much harder work.
Thus we came to believe, first of all, that great, creative souls must always reject conventional morality. Further down the slope we came to believe that whatever was socially transgressive must by definition be a work of genius.
This has given people with artistic pretensions a wonderful excuse to live lives of selfishness and self-destruction.
It has also been responsible for a whole lot of lousy art.
Mark Bretrand is blogging about his experience reading 22 mystery/suspense books for this year’s Christy Awards. (link defunct)
That’s when I made my first discovery: a lot of these books began by giving the full name of the main character as the first two words in the novel. And when I say a lot, I mean a lot. . . . I found myself wondering if there was a rule I didn’t know about . . .
Before I say anything else, I want to give you this link from Blue Crab Boulevard concerning a new replica Viking ship that recently made its trial run. Why news outlets waste time on Middle East wars when they could be covering really important events like this, I’m at a loss to understand.
In the Comments yesterday, I said I’d write a little more about Sir Robert Anderson, the English Secret Service official, Scotland Yard commander, lay preacher and amateur theologian.
I wanted to tell you a story he told that I read some years back (in Decision Magazine, I think). I can’t find it online, so I’ll retell it from memory. I always thought it was neatly put (unfortunately you’ll be getting my words, not his).
Sir Robert recalled a visit to his office by a wealthy woman. She confided to him that she was unable to feel secure in her salvation. She felt that God demanded something more from her in payment for her sins.
“You already do many good works,” he said. “I’ve been told that you frequently host meals for the poor.”
She admitted that she did that.
“Do the poor pay you for these meals?”
“No. Of course not. They have no money to pay.”
“But surely they have something! They could give you the clothes they wear, for instance.”
The woman laughed. “If you were to see the filthy rags those people wear,” she said, “you’d know that I wouldn’t ever even want them.”
“And that is precisely how it is with God!” said Sir Robert. “The Bible says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags to Him. He does not want your filthy rags of good works in payment for His forgiveness. His forgiveness is already paid for out of His infinite abundance in Christ.”
Also via Mirabilis, there appears to be evidence that, contrary to what you’ve been told all your life, the Spanish did not in fact destroy the Aztec civilization by bringing in smallpox, to which the native Americans had no immunity. It appears from this article that the Aztecs knew all about smallpox long before the white man came, and the disease that devastated their empire was nothing like it. The Spanish probably won’t escape all blame, since the deaths are still blamed on lowered resistance due to the enslavement of the natives, but the easy explanation (as is so often the case) may well be wrong.
This may change the way some books are written on the subject. Won’t change movies, though. Not for a long time. You can be sure of that.
I was thinking about Hollywood and nuance today. Hollywood people like to think that they are much more sophisticated and nuanced in their thinking than Jethro in Flyover Land.
But by and large, it seems to me, movies tend to be essentially black and white.
One of my favorite movies is The Outlaw Josey Wales. Perhaps the last great “classic western” (as I’d define it) ever made. I’ve read the book Gone To Texas, by Forrest Carter, on which it was based. One difference between the book and the movie that hit me right off was that in the book Josey’s young friend is wounded as he and Josey are robbing a bank. In the movie, the boy is shot with all his comrades as he tries to surrender to the Union Army, at the end of the Civil War. It’s all the fruit of a plot by an evil (clearly Republican) senator.
Hollywood can’t resist making this kind of change. Nuance is for books. In movies, we have to judge people by their actions. If you (the filmmaker) want us to like a character, you’ve got to show him doing wonderful, wonderful things. If you want us to hate a character, you show him eating babies, lynching blacks, or cutting taxes. These broad, semaphoric signals are part of the vocabulary Hollywood inherited from the silent era, and they’ve never really strayed far from it.
More examples, from a couple more westerns: In The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, with Paul Newman, the salty but lovable judge hangs a Texas cowboy for killing a Chinese man, although the cowboy protests that it’s not “against the law to kill a Chinaman!”
The original legendary story (which may or may not be true), had Judge Bean bringing the cowboy to trial, only to find himself surrounded by a large crowd of the cowboy’s heavily armed friends, ready to rescue him by force and shoot up the town. Bean is supposed to have flipped through his law book and to have said, “I don’t see anyplace in here where it says it’s against the law to kill a Chinaman!” So he let the fellow go.
Little Big Man, with Dustin Hoffman, is a good movie, but not nearly as thoughtful as the book it was based on, written by Thomas Berger. The movie begins with the hero and his sister being rescued by Cheyenne braves from a massacre committed by another tribe (I forget which one offhand). In the book, it was the Cheyenne themselves who performed the massacre, under the influence of alcohol, sparing the children on a whim. The children grow to love the Cheyenne anyway. The book was a multifaceted picture of the real conflicts and moral dilemmas involved in the opening of the American West. The movie was an Indian tract.
Remember these things the next time a Hollywood celebrity lectures you on nuance.
Mickey Spillane, 88, recipient of lifetime achievement awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Private Eye Writers of America, died today in his hometown, Murrells Inlet, SC. His first novel, “I, the Jury,” starring Mike Hammer, was published in 1946.
The AP reports: “Spillane, a bearish man who wrote on an old manual Smith Corona, always claimed he didn’t care about reviews. He considered himself a ‘writer’ as opposed to an ‘author,’ defining a writer as someone whose books sell.”
This article from the London Times (via Mirabilis) tells how a copy of Sir Robert Anderson’s memoirs, annotated by Chief Inspector Donald Swanson of Scotland Yard, may give the true identity of Jack the Ripper.
I believe I’ve read about this copy of the memoirs before, so I don’t think it’s actually new news. The Times article also doesn’t mention the reason I’ve most often seen given for the suppression of the serial killer’s identity, that the police were afraid there might be antisemitic riots if Jack was revealed to be Jewish.
Sir Robert Anderson, by the way, was a prominent and vocal evangelical Christian, besides being a senior police official. I’ve often thought there was a great Christian novel in the story of his investigation of the Ripper murders.
I’ve been reading Roy Jacobsen’s blog, “Writing, Clear and Simple,” with the intent to link to a post, but I can’t decide what to link to. He has a few interesting posts on the home page, including a grammar puzzle and rules of thumb for writing. Read on.
Can you name the top three bestselling authors worldwide? Let me help. The third one is Paulo Coelho from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. His most recent hardback, The Zahir, is about a bestselling novelist who loses his wife, a war correspondent, in what may be adulterous betrayal. Another novel (republished by HarperCollins) is The Devil and Miss Prym, which deals with man’s struggle with good and evil.
Unlike the other two current bestselling authors on our list, Coelho has never sold the film rights to his books. On his website, he says, “I have never allowed [his books to be made into movies]. I recently made a US$2 million offer to recover the only rights I ever sold, The Alchemist (to Warner Bros.). They are studying the matter. I don’t intend to sell any film rights, because I think the film should be in the mind of the reader. My books use the creativity of those reading them.”
Are you familiar with Coelho? Do you know who the other two authors are?
Author Katha Pollitt has turned a bad review into an interesting article in the NY Times on whether publicity is bad only when it’s unnoticed.
“Actually, this is good,” my editor said when my book got panned. “It’s a long review by a well-known person. It’s on a good page. It’s even got a caricature of you.” . . .
“Yes, it was pretty negative, and your arms looked like tree stumps,” said one friend, helpfully. “But so what? That just means you’re a star!”
I wonder how many people told her to avoid watching Amazon’s sale rank. I understand the appeal having checked my own site stats more often than I knew I should, but what is an author’s alternative? Do publishers let you know how many of your books sold in a certain time, say quarterly at least?
[first posted September 24, 2003] I found a fat, orange spider on my car this afternoon. He was as big as my thumb, and though he showed sufficient fear when I poked at his legs, I dispatched him to the underworld. He was scary. I thought his bite would hurt should he decide to stake a claim on the car’s interior and run out trespassers, but I’m not heartless. I took artistic photos of him so he could live in immortality, which is more than any spider could hope for.
Driving home this evening, I had my window down. The Autumn Equinox has encouraged me somehow. My evening commutes are more heartening than they have been lately. While stopped at a light, a honey bee landed on my arm. I turned to look, and he was inches from my nose; but I blew him off and continued waiting without even a rise in blood pressure. He wasn’t scary.
Why am I afraid of the fly-catcher and not the honey-maker? Maybe since I haven’t stroked the back a fat spider while he was gathering pollen from a dusty lawn weed, I haven’t bonded with one like I have with a bee. Touching the back of honey bee like you would a baby’s nose has magic in it [In fact, I touched one again yesterday, July 15, 2006]. I am a friend to them now. Perhaps, they let me walk in peace. Whatever it is, I don’t fear them like I do some other bugs.
Has anyone ever been smothered with a pillow in real life?
It happens all the time in fiction, but I’ve tried holding a pillow tight over my own face (as an experiment, not as a suicide attempt), and I’ve always been able to get sufficient air in.
But maybe that’s because I have a larger than average nose.