the inventiveness of creators, from Homer to my aunt Jackie

As I’ve mentioned, I’m currently rereading Robert Fagles’ translation of Homer’s Iliad. In my last post, I talked about some thoughts sparked by a recent article in Archaeology magazine, in which the archaeologist Barry Powell conjectures that Homer himself may have had a role in inventing the Greek alphabet. The great innovation of the Greek alphabet, over the Phoenician alphabet on which it is based, is the addition of vowels. How did they come up with this idea? The Archaeology article, written by Eric A. Powell (no relation to the archaeologist, as far as I know), notes simply that the “Phoenician alphabet, with its lack of vowels, was not up to the task of preserving Greek hexameter.” My own thought was that inventiveness of poetry makes it too hard to read without the vowels: the unexpected language and imagery makes it too hard for a reader to guess the words; or sure comprehension, they must be completely spelled out, including vowel sounds.

This is an interesting idea by itself, but I’ve had some further thoughts. One is about the mystery of how Homer could have created such long, epic works as the Iliad and the Odyssey as purely oral poems—that is without an already existing alphabet. For Homer, thought to have lived and worked in the 8th century B.C., was in the tradition of professional bards, who would perform for aristocratic audiences at feasts or, perhaps, as part of civic games. But these poems are far too long to be sung in a single sitting. If the whole poem were to be performed, it would have to be done over many evenings. Indeed, I think that the existing “book” structure of the 2 poems probably corresponds to their performance format, with one book (what we would call a chapter) being performed in each session. The Iliad, for example, is made up of 24 books; to me this looks like a series of 24 separate performances to sing the whole poem.

But why would a bard create a single poem that took 24 evenings to perform? What gave him the idea to do that? It seems to go against the idea of a single performance for a work.

So my thought is this: what if the Iliad, say, was not a single poem before the invention of writing? What if Homer simply had a number of separate poems about different episodes relating to the Trojan War and the wrath of Achilles? Each of these was the length of a single performance—a single “book,” in literary terms. These separate poems still had all the excellent qualities of Homer’s poetry, and would be worth setting down using the new technology of writing. In the course of setting them down this way, though, they would, for the first time, take a fixed form—for all poetry of the Homeric era was improvised for each performance, and the “same” poem would never be exactly the same on any 2 performances. And this fixed form, allowed and indeed necessitated by their translation into writing, would give rise to the issues of editing or perfecting the poems—making sure that it was their “best” form that was being captured for posterity—and of ordering them. The idea might be that if the poems are to be kept together and stored together in written form, then there might also be a notion that there is a “best order” in which to perform them, read them: that they could and should be arranged to tell a broader story, with its own beginning, middle, and end. And only here was truly born the epic.

For example, right now I’m reading book 17 of the Iliad, “Menelaus’s Finest Hour,” in which the Argives and the Trojans fight over possession of the dead body of Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, who has fallen in battle. It’s not hard to imagine, in a culture for whom the Trojan War and its many episodes were already a well-known topic, that this book could form a separate poem on its own. But it seems to me that when all of Homer’s episodes were set down in this way, it would be natural for the poet to go over them all with an eye (although he was blind) to putting them into temporal order, smoothing out their inconsistencies, and getting them to flow so that one follows the next naturally and dramatically. Paul in Doll FormThe poet turns a number of separate episodes into parts of a single whole, and this single whole is a new work of art in its own right: it is an epic.

I believe that the components of the Iliad and maybe the Odyssey existed before the introduction of writing to Greece, but that they were turned into epics, into unitary works of art, by that selfsame introduction. The new technology gave the poet a new tool and expanded his range. To me it makes perfect sense.

And while I’m on the topic of the Iliad I want to share something else too. One of my aunt Jackie’s curious talents is to make doll likenesses of people she knows. In 2001, on my 42nd birthday, I opened a birthday present from her and found a little knitted image of myself in the box! It struck me as hilarious and I laughed harder than I’d laughed in my whole life up to that point. Believe me, it’s quite an experience to unexpectedly find a doll of yourself staring up at you.

But, it being a true likeness, the doll had his hands clasped reflectively behind his back, and from those hands hung a little book. And the handwritten title of that little book? The Iliad.

Was the doll artist receiving some precognitive intuition of my future connection with this primal epic? I’ll leave that for you to consider. Meanwhile, enjoy the doll.

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why vowels cost money on The Wheel of Fortune

Since I’m creating an epic (The Age of Pisces), I want to learn all I can about the epic form. What is an epic, exactly? What features turn a non-epic or sub-epic into an epic?

This is a matter of opinion and scholarly debate. And lately the ground has been muddied by the shanghaiing of the word epic to join the slang vocabulary (“it was an epic dental appointment!”). My fear is that the word will be trampled and stretched out of recognition by such use; then what will we use for real epics?

Ah well, all out of my control. I’ll stick with the word in hope that it will survive its ordeal in popular culture.

The word itself comes from the Greek epos, meaning “word, speech, or poem.” And the form of the epic was launched, in the West anyway, by the Greek poet Homer with his 2 great works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Currently, just as I’m rereading the Bible (as I mentioned in my last post), I am also rereading the Iliad. The Iliad, with notes, and my handI bought my copy in January 2008 along with its companion volume the Odyssey: the handsome Penguin editions translated by Robert Fagles. I read both of them not long after—probably within the next year or two. But now, with my new focus on epic as a form, it’s time to go back and read them again. I’m just over halfway through the Iliad, and I’m enjoying it very much.

These poems have been studied intensively over the centuries. At the Library of Alexandria, founded by Ptolemy I, a general of Alexander the Great, or possibly by his son, Ptolemy II, in the 3rd century BC, the largest section was devoted to works on Homer’s poems (the second-largest section was devoted to the works of the lyric poet Sappho). The Iliad and the Odyssey were studied with the zeal and attention that would be lavished, centuries later, by Jewish rabbis and by Protestant scholars on their respective Bibles. The Iliad and the Odyssey were, in effect, the Bible of the pagan world. To name one biblical feature, these poems were used, as the Bible would be used, for the oracular practice known as sortilege: if one had a decision to make or a problem to solve, one could open one of these books at random, drop one’s finger on a page, and read out the verse pointed to. That verse would be the answer to your problem. Bernard Knox, the Homer scholar who provides the introductions to both of these Penguin books, describes doing just this himself while he was a soldier in World War II.

But recently I came across some interesting new information about Homer’s works that got me thinking for myself about these books and about the epic form.

It was while reading the May/June 2017 issue of Archaeology magazine. The article was “When the Ancient Greeks Began to Write” by Eric A. Powell, and it looked at research into the origin of the Greek alphabet. I knew that the Iliad and the Odyssey were first written down in the 8th century BC, only shortly after the alphabet was introduced, or, perhaps better, reinvented, in Greece. The Greeks derived their alphabet from that of the Phoenicians, with whom they had trading relations. The Phoenician alphabet was a Semitic alphabet, like Hebrew, and, like Hebrew, it lacked vowels. Writers in these languages had to use workarounds to suggest vowels sounds. When the Greeks created their own alphabet, they added vowels, and thus made it possible to represent any spoken word in writing. A reader would be able to sound out a word, rather than having to guess what it was from its context, as often happened in writing without vowels.

One researcher mentioned in the article, Barry Powell, has a theory that the Greek alphabet was invented specifically for the purpose of recording Homer’s works. He even thinks that Homer himself may have been behind that invention, or even the inventor himself. (Powell recognizes that he will probably never be able to prove this.)

The idea struck me. I had read somewhere else recently—on Flipboard, I think—that the oldest written records in Mesopotamia are all administrative in nature: accounts, receipts, contracts. Those researchers were proposing that it is the need for such records that was a driving force behind the invention of writing. At some point, in city life, transactions become too numerous, too big, and too complex for people to remember; they need to be written down. Only when such administrative needs are being met by writing do people start turning their minds to other uses of the written word, such as setting down poetry.

If that is so, then it would seem unlikely that the Greeks invented their own alphabet in order to write poetry; they were civilized and would have accounting needs like others, which would call for written records.

According to the Archaeology article, current evidence points to the island of Euboea as the specific location of the invention of the Greek alphabet:

According to Powell’s theory, one person, probably a Greek-speaking Phoenician, was commissioned by wealthy Euboeans with access to papyrus to take dictation from the most famous poet in Greece. . . . The Phoenician alphabet, with its lack of vowels, was not up to the task of preserving Greek hexameter, so this scribe—Powell calls him the “Adapter”—needed to invent vowels from existing Phoenician letters.

After all, when you’re writing receipts and contracts, the language tends to become standard, and indeed eventually turns into boilerplate: stock phrases, sentences, and whole paragraphs. Words are relatively easy to guess from the context. In the shepherd’s contract with the temple, shp means “sheep,” not “ship” or “shape” or “shop.” But poetry is different: here the language is creative, unexpected, and rich in figures of speech. Even with context, it would be easy for a reader to make mistakes; and the better the poet, the more mistakes would be likely, because the poet’s imagination and powers of invention are greater.

To me, this strengthens the argument that the Greek alphabet was invented to record the works of Homer—or even by Homer himself. I find that idea appealing and exciting. If Homer was involved in the invention of the Greek alphabet, and especially with the invention of vowels, then his genius was great indeed. For vowels were a brilliant and liberating innovation. Every time a vowel is sold on The Wheel of Fortune, he should be getting a royalty.

These musings led me to  further insights about Homer and the epic, but I’ll save those for next time.

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the Western Civilization Genome Project

One of my reading projects right now is to reread the Old Testament. I’ve been wanting to reread it for a couple of reasons: it’s part of the Great Books reading program, and it is also a key text for my own work in progress, The Age of Pisces. In addition, I’m keeping my eye open for any interesting figures of speech that I come across (I’m reading the King James Version), for I learned in a National Geographic article a couple of years ago that the Bible is the source of many well-known figures of speech that we use today. (The most-used of these is the phrase, “from time to time”—did you know that’s from the Bible?)

So I’m doing all those things, but the impetus for this reread came from still another inspiration. But to explain it I’ll have to back up a step or two.

6 volumes of Toynbee's "A Study of History"

I’m impressed and inspired by Arnold J. Toynbee’s masterwork, A Study of History, which runs to 11 volumes, including the final volume of maps and gazetteer, all published between 1934 and 1961, and of which I have 6 battered paperback volumes on my shelves. Of these, I’ve read about four and a half, but I intend to read the whole set, for it is a work of genius. Toynbee’s program was to study how civilizations arise, develop, and dissolve; he set out to identify all the civilizations that have been known to exist, and to find their common features and behaviors.

One of his contentions is that all civilizations have a spiritual core and are centered on a religion or, in his terminology, a church. It is for this reason that Toynbee calls our own civilization—that is, the one in which I sit as I type these words—Western Christendom, instead of the more usual Western civilization. He shows how the civilization we call Western developed around and because of the Christian Church, that is, the Roman Catholic Church. For when the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, finally split with the West, which was still based in Rome, a separate civilization was born, namely Eastern Christendom. Eastern Christendom also lives on, embracing those countries in which Orthodox Christianity is the main church, such as Greece and Russia.

As I thought about all this, an idea came to me. If the nucleus of Western Christendom is the Christian Church, then might not the Bible be, in effect, the genome of this civilization? For it is the sacred text on which the church is based. It is the ultimate source and warrant for the idea content of the church, and therefore of the surrounding civilization.

If the Bible is the genome of Western Christendom, then what are the individual genes that make up that genome? The Bible’s books? Its chapters? Its verses? No, I decided that these are all too arbitrary to function as genes. Incidentally, for you geneticists out there, I’ve come up with my own definition of gene, and I offer it here gratis:

a set of nucleotides that acts as a unit to perform certain functions

A gene must be a functional unit, or it could not be identified as an effective entity. So what are my metaphorical biblical genes? I decided that the genes must be the episodes of the Bible.

And what exactly is an episode? Here I’ll turn to my Webster’s:

a usually brief unit of action in a dramatic or literary work: as . . . a developed situation that is integral to but separable from a continuous narrative

So an episode is a relatively whole subunit, a scene or mini-story that has its own beginning, middle, and end—and, ideally, that has its own point. An episode is there because it says something. As a dramatic writer myself, I think of a scene in my story: a little story within the story that has a point of its own to make.

I was excited by this idea. I would read the whole Bible, starting with the five Books of Moses but ideally the whole thing, breaking it down into its component episodes, and doing my best to derive the meanings of those episodes—their points, their ideas, their themes. I believe that such meanings can be summed up in sentence form as propositions. These propositions, my thinking went, would then be the actual idea genome of Western Christendom—my home civilization. Acting like mental or spiritual genes—perhaps what Richard Dawkins would call memes—they would form the operating rules, or, if you like, the program of the civilization. My thought was that, if you looked at the way our civilization behaves, what it does, then the rules for its behavior might be coded up in these “genes”—these episodic propositions from the Bible.

I’ve taken a metaphor and run very far with it. But who knows, maybe I can run all the way for a touchdown. Anyway, it has made me excited about reading the Bible again. So far, I’ve read Genesis and the first 25 chapters of Exodus, and in the 50 chapters of Genesis I have identified 118 episodes. As an example, my analysis found that episode 1 of Genesis runs from Gen 1:1–2:3. I summarized the content of the episode thus:

God creates heaven, earth, light, land, seas, plants, sun, moon, stars, animals, man, woman, and gives humans dominion over all life, and blesses the 7th day, on which he rests from his creating.

From this, I tried to draw some summary propositions:

God is the creator of the world and of the order of life within it, and has inaugurated a 7-day rhythm to life, punctuated by a sacred day of rest each 7th day.

From these summary propositions I went a step further, and formulated a set of implied rules:

God, a bachelor male, is the ultimate and all-powerful reality, and the final answer to all questions about the world. The institutions of the 7-day week and the Sabbath are holy.

What do you think? I’m doing my best to report what I find in the King James text, and not to read my own meanings into it.

I have gone through a similar process for all 118 episodes of Genesis. It’s a laborious way to read the Bible, but man, I’m getting a lot out of it. I’ve come to regard the books of the Bible as its chromosomes. So I’ve “sequenced” chromosome 1 and I’m about halfway through chromosome 2. Will my project take me as long as the Human Genome Project?

We shall see. Meanwhile, I’m reading the Bible in a way that feels exciting and that is opening the door to new discoveries. Not bad, for the oldest of the Great Books.

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not commercial, not literary—what, then?

What do writers do with their time?

I can’t speak for others; indeed, I can barely speak for myself, for I wonder where all the time goes. Partly this is an artifact of age, sure (I’m 58), but really it has always been this way for me. My method, if I can call it that, or my way of being, is not such as to produce a lot of output. This is due to some combination of:

  • divided focus
  • caution
  • project-switching
  • aversion to boredom
  • perfectionism

My wife Kimmie is currently immersed in reading Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake vampire-slaying novels. Ms. Hamilton is hugely successful as writers go, and has a massive audience for her work. She is also prolific. However, while my wife is a big fan of her work, I myself have no interest in vampire books, either as a reader or a writer. Indeed, I don’t really have any interest in any commercial genre of fiction. If I try to read those things I just get bored.

So I must be a reader of “literary” fiction then. Not really! Most of the fiction offered as “literary” (or, in Orson Scott Card’s designation, “literary/academic”) also is of no interest to me. Indeed, it’s usually of less interest to me, in so far as it tends to ignore the principles of storytelling. Storytelling is generally a concern of commercial fiction.

Maybe then I just don’t like fiction. Why bother with something that I don’t even enjoy? If I must read, shouldn’t I just stick to nonfiction?

No, I do like fiction. I can be swept up in a narrative work as much as anyone can, and I think maybe more. People who turn to fiction writing as a career are strongly affected by the art; otherwise they—we—would never suffer the indignities and inconveniences that generally attend a life in the arts. Saul Bellow said that a writer is just a reader who feels moved to emulation. You need to be moved pretty far to start emulating.

I know I still like fiction because I do find stories—books, movies—that excite me and move me. I recently finished reading, for the second time, the novel Arundel by Kenneth Roberts, published in 1929. It’s a historical novel and an adventure story about the real-life expedition led by Benedict Arnold to recapture Quebec City from the British in 1775. The story is narrated by one Steven Nason, a Maine woodsman who serves as one of the guides of the expedition. The journey is personal for him, for a French officer has kidnapped the girl that Steven loves, is holed up in Quebec, and Steven wants to rescue this girl and marry her. I’ve already reviewed the book, so I won’t go into further details, except to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it again, and got even more out of the narrative this time. I also found more things to criticize, things that I might have tried to improve or do differently if I were the one writing this story. But, in all, I felt my time reading it was well spent, and I looked forward to my reading session each day.

This time I read past the end of the book to see the list of sources Roberts used to research his work. I was impressed, and felt I was looking on the work of a kindred spirit, for I too have accumulated a significant array of research works. This is where the authority of a work comes from: how well the author knows what he’s writing about. Research takes time and effort, and, as with gardening, you can’t really rush it.

I also appreciated anew the epic dimension of Arundel. Influenced by the arguments in the excellent book The Epic Cosmos, edited by Larry Allums (and which I also reviewed here), I see epic as the genre of the birth and transformation of societies, and Arundel tells the story of a key event in the struggle that was to give birth to the United States of America. Within that broader story we see the interaction and clash of smaller, component cultures: the Maine dwellers of European descent, the various Indian nations who lived nearby, the British, the French, and even the other proto-states, who were all viewed as very distinct societies (and the worst of them all: New Yorkers). All of this is handled vividly and well; but it is a labor-intensive approach to storytelling, for creating all these different kinds of characters takes work.

So there are good stories out there—good, that is, in my estimation, which is that of a fussy, critical, and demanding reader. And since a key directive in writing is to write the kind of thing you want to read, then I have my work cut out. In this I am not different from Laurell K. Hamilton, for she says that she writes exactly what she wants to read (whether editors and publishers can be coaxed into accepting it or not). She also says that she writes long stretches of prose with ease, and finds writing a short piece comparatively hard. Here we part company, for, although I find writing to be fairly easy, the thing that I’m trying to write is just too big, complex, and mysterious for me to crack it off in a few sittings. It has absorbed my sustained attention over the years, and continues to do so.

This is why so little of my time is spent “writing.” I think of a story about Samuel Goldwyn (or maybe it was a different Hollywood mogul) walking past the offices of the writers on the studio lot: he wanted to hear typewriters clacking, and if he didn’t, he would give the writers hell. Like most nonwriters (and many writers), he had no idea how writing is actually done. The biggest and hardest part about writing, I find, is problem solving, and you can’t really solve problems by typing. You might do some typing while working on the problem, but mainly you’re just worrying at it, chewing on it, trying different ideas until something seems to click.

So: I’m not trying to be commercial, and still less am I trying to be “literary/academic.” But like a commercial writer, I’m striving to tell a story; and like a literary/academic writer, I’m trying to create a work of art. My actions are saying that I think the best literary art lies between the alternatives of “commercial” and “literary/academic.” The Buddha taught the middle way between all extremes, and it appears that I am trying to carry his advice into the realm of literary creation.

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Pursued by Furies by Gordon Bowker: portrait of the artist as a drunk

Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm LowryPursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This biography contains a wealth of detail—but is it worth it?

I first heard the name “Malcolm Lowry” in about 1968, when I was 9 years old. Our family friend, Harvey Burt, had taken my little sister Mara and me for an outing to Cates Park here in North Vancouver. We were at the eastern part of the park, called “little Cates,” walking down the long slope of grass toward the beach. Harvey must have been telling us about the squatters’ shacks that used to stand on pilings on that beach, for that is the only way that Lowry’s name could have come up. Lowry, for about 13 years, had been one of those squatters, and Harvey himself had rented a shack near his. I remember trying to repeat the name, which was so unfamiliar to me: I’d heard Harvey’s careful pronunciation of it as “Malcom Munlowry,” and repeated that to myself a couple of times. Since there were no shacks on the beach anymore, I must have asked, “Where is he now?”

“He’s dead,” said Harvey.

“How did he die?”

Harvey paused for a moment, then said, as though unwillingly but forced by the demand for truth, “He choked to death on his own vomit.”

I cringed inwardly. What a way to die!

Thus did Malcolm Lowry make a powerful impression on a 9-year-old (and probably also his little sister), even after his death. As I was to learn by reading Pursued by Furies, this was entirely in character for the writer, who had made strong impressions on people throughout his life, which ended in 1957 when he was 47. Although at times almost pathologically shy, when fortified by drink he projected a quality of engaging charm and verbal brilliance, even as he also affected the rolling gait of the longtime seaman and presented a scruffy persona, with quirks such as using neckties as belts to hold up his pants. Time and again people who knew him recall the vivid impression he first made on them, with his vivid blue eyes looking at them from a ruddy face.

Gordon Bowker has written what is no doubt intended to be the definitive biography of this man. It’s a massive book, and it narrates Lowry’s life in great detail. And while Bowker does not make as much of an effort to understand Lowry’s psychology as does Douglas Day in his earlier biography, he doesn’t shy away from trying to understand the man, and he does present some intriguing and suggestive facts that may illuminate the mystery that finally shrouds Lowry’s life.

Lowry is best known for his novel Under the Volcano, published in 1947 and still widely regarded as one of the most important works of the 20th century. If it had not been for this book, Lowry would be long forgotten, for he published nothing else of note in his life, and the works published posthumously, due to the persistence of his widow Margerie, do not approach it in quality or significance. So if you’re considering reading this biography, it’s probably because you’re a fan, as I am, of Under the Volcano.

The biography describes in detail the genesis and development of Under the Volcano (as indeed it describes all Lowry’s other works as well), which I found fascinating. I was intrigued to learn how much Lowry sought out and used the input of other people. His friend Gerald Noxon spent a whole night working with him to craft the novel’s opening paragraph. His wife Margerie was so deeply involved that she was in many ways the coauthor of the book. Indeed, Lowry was so enchanted and enthralled by others’ work that he would lift it, holus bolus, and drop it into his own. Accusations of plagiarism haunted him continually through his life and tortured his own soul from within. Lowry tried to get people to forget about his first published novel, Ultramarine, because it contained so much material borrowed from his early idols, Conrad Aiken and Nordahl Grieg. Bowker observes that many of these fears of his were exaggerated, but they form a striking and strange theme for an author whose magnum opus is admired for its originality.

But by far the dominant fact of Lowry’s life was that he was an alcoholic. Many novelists are alcoholics, but I’m sure that few of them could stand comparison with Lowry for the prodigiousness of their drinking. He turned to alcohol in his teens in England, and, while he did manage to dry out from time to time, and lead a productive and healthy life while he did so, he never escaped it for very long. By the end of his short life he was also mixing barbiturates with his booze; indeed it was a combination of these that finished him off one June night. His life reads mostly as a series of drunken episodes and mishaps.

This fact creates a certain wearying quality in his biography, for drunken behavior is random and senseless, and much of Lowry’s life was spent in this condition. And similarly, the strange, symbiotic relationship he had with his second wife Margerie (his first wife, Jan Gabrial, got fed up with him before long) was really a study in the psychopathology of codependence. All the various episodes, the rages, the assaults, the scheming, are not meaningful in themselves, but only as so many symptoms of an underlying illness that was never addressed.

That is not to say that Lowry was never “treated” for his problems—he was, more than once. His brief stay at the Bellevue mental hospital in New York provided the basis for his novel Lunar Caustic. But in those days they had no real idea of how to treat alcoholism apart from getting the patient to promise not to drink. True, by the end Lowry underwent both electroconvulsive therapy and aversion therapy for his condition, but these things were apparently agreed to only because other people, especially Margerie, wanted them, and not because Lowry himself did. While he fully realized that he engaged in humiliating and self-destructive behavior while drunk, he always believed that drinking was somehow necessary to both his writing and his life. Like all alcoholics, he lived with the fundamental error, pointed out by Vernon E. Johnson, the creator of intervention therapy, of believing that drinking was the result of his problems, and not their cause. So long as an addict believes this, he cannot break his addiction. Certainly Lowry never came to this realization, and so he choked to death on his own vomit at age 47.

While reading this biography I got the feeling that the author himself didn’t realize this, and spent much time dutifully recording many drunken episodes and mishaps, in which the prime agent was not really Lowry himself, but rather the molecule ethanol. One shocking event after another is narrated baldly; there are too many of them for any one of them to matter much. Many times the author suggests, “perhaps he thought this” or “perhaps she was trying to do that,” when all these thoughts could simply be wrapped up with “he was an alcoholic; she was codependent.”

But this is the definitive biography of Malcolm Lowry. If you want to know about his life, you will if you read this book. It is meticulously researched and documented, and the author has achieved a broad and even-handed perspective. I’m just concerned that the sound and fury of Lowry’s life might, well, not signify that much.

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meddling—but in a good way

Do you like book reviews? As a reader, I’m sometimes ambivalent about them, especially for fiction. I don’t want my impression of a work to be polluted by the thoughts of someone else who has already read it. Reading is an act of intimate engagement between the mind of an author and the mind of a reader; no matter how many readers there are of a given work, that engagement is one on one between the writer and each of those readers. To try to influence the quality of that engagement, as a review could be said to do, is like trying to tell someone what impression to have of a person he is about to meet for the first time. It seems, I don’t know, meddlesome.

But of course that’s not the whole story. Reading a book takes a long time. If you read 50 of them a year, I’d say you’re reading a lot. If you could keep that up for 70 years, then you’d go through 3,500 of them. Not bad, but there are millions of books out there—how do you choose among them?

In these days of online shopping, there are keyword searches and bestseller lists and book rankings. There’s the cover art of a book and the flap blurb—the copy the publisher puts on the cover of the book to entice you to buy it. There are also the recommendations of friends, so-called word-of-mouth promotion, said to be the most powerful stimulant for a book’s sales. But a book might come to your attention that no friend has read. Now what?

Ideally a book reviewer, whether professional or amateur, is your peer: a fellow reader who has had the experience of reading this book, and who now stands in the place of a friend who either gushes that it’s fantastic or says with a shrug, “I couldn’t finish it.” By sharing their reading experience with you, they’re trying to help you make the best use of your own reading time. And that is a valuable service.

But, like books themselves, not all reviews are created equal. At the bottom of the scale, a truly bad review is one that is biased, is poorly written, contains spoilers, and spends too much time talking about things other than the book. It follows that a truly good review is one that is objective, well written, spoiler free, and focused mostly on the book itself. A good book review is one that sets out to genuinely help a fellow reader make an informed decision about whether to buy or read the book in question.

I really try to write good book reviews. I start out by putting myself in the prospective reader’s place, and asking, “What do I wish someone had told me before I read this book?” I don’t always succeed at achieving this level of objectivity and altruism—but I always wish that I had. And, accordingly, my reviews tend to be fairly highly rated. Amazon no longer shows the reviewer his “helpful” percentage, but up until they took that feature away, mine was always about 90%. I know that I myself appreciate a thorough, objective review, especially when I’m looking at a book that is expensive. Then I really do want to know what other readers think, and not just what the publisher wants me to think.

The aspect of reviews is to look at them from the point of view not of readers, but of authors. Positive reviews have always helped to sell books, but reviews of any kind help to raise awareness of them, which is beneficial for an author. I remember reading an article by a self-published author who described how a terrible review of one of his books send him into a depression for day—but then he discovered that people were buying his book anyway, sometimes because of the bad review! The stinging review is a provocation, and makes the would-be buyer wonder, “Could it really be so bad?” Ka-ching! a purchase—or anyway a sample download.

In general, getting reviews of any kind is difficult for an author, at least if he is not yet famous. They take time and effort to write—I myself have cut down on the number of reviews that I write because I just have too many projects on the go. If I think it’s important to review a book, I’ll type a short review on Goodreads. (My most recent was a review of Malcolm Lowry, a biography by Douglas Day.) And I’m an author, a publisher, and a keen advocate of book reviewing—how much more difficult must it be for others to get to it?

Happily, nonetheless, many do, and for that we writers and publishers (and fellow readers) are grateful. One interesting approach is being taken by Reading Deals with their Review Club. Authors making use of this service provide an e-book edition of their work, and the Review Club offers this to the club members, who get a free copy in exchange for committing to provide a review of it on Amazon. You only read and review things that you want to (which might be nothing), and you place a disclaimer in the review to the effect that you have received a free copy of the book in exchange for writing an honest review.

Personally, I think this is a great idea, and so I am trying it with my own newly published story, A Tourist Visa. If you think you might like to read and review this, then go to this signup page to join the club and get your free copy. Go ahead—you even have my permission to hate the story! I only ask that you put it in writing.


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the writer-publisher on the flying trapeze

I’m reading a biography right now: Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker. I’m learning a lot about this troubled, alcoholic genius, who spent the best years of his life, by his own reckoning, living in one or another squatter’s shack on a beach 10 kilometers from here. And I’m learning that the path to publication and recognition for a writer has seldom been an easy one. Lowry’s masterwork, Under the Volcano, is regarded as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, but its genesis and its path to publication were both arduous. The book that finally appeared in 1947, and which seemed so assured in its presentation, was scarcely recognizable as the same project that the author originally drafted as a short story in 1936. The project expanded as Lowry worked and reworked the material again and again and again.

The writer in me takes heart from this fact. For it suggests that great work is not arrived at in a straight-line process, but only as as result of toil, suffering, and perhaps repeated course-changes. All the dodges, revisions, new ideas, and deletions have the effect of creating a richer work, perhaps like a house that is remodeled over the years or centuries, picking up all kinds of architectural quirks and curiosities along the way. No matter how brilliant the author, that richness could never have been arrived at in a single pass.

The publisher in me also takes heart. For now, in the universe of e-books, I am a publisher as well as a writer. Writing the book is only part of the problem; the task of getting published can often be a via crucis of its own. Earlier versions of Under the Volcano were repeatedly rejected. The version that was finally published was accepted in the form submitted only because of Lowry’s famous sales pitch to the publisher Jonathan Cape: a massive letter in which he justified the form and content of the book, chapter by chapter. Cape accepted the argument, and published the book. But the event is famous because it is so exceptional. As a rule, publishers, as the gatekeepers to the universe of readers, have lorded it over writers. And probably this has been a benefit to readers, who have received more polished, coherent works as a result. But at the top end of the literary spectrum, the end occupied by works such as Under the Volcano, rules and norms start breaking down, and publishers’ knee-jerk efforts to make books conform to them start to become counterproductive.

So this is a potentially good thing about the world of e-books and self-publishing: the author can get his work published in the form in which he intended it. But now other problems intrude. There are the technical obstacles to getting a manuscript into professional-quality e-book form; there are the administrative details of getting the thing actually published and presented on retailers’ pages; there is the time-consuming task of marketing the published work, which means writing promotional copy and finding venues in which to make readers aware of it. All these things take time and skills other than those which are associated with the creative writer, which means that they will usually be achieved at a lower level of quality than what could be done by professionals in those fields. Automation helps, but there still remains a lot of skilled effort to do. All of these things make publishing challenging, but in a new kind of way: it’s less like buying a lottery ticket and more like running an obstacle course.

But, speaking for myself, no serious regrets. Yes, my dream, like that of other writers, was always to see my work in print, to say that work we being published by Penguin Books (or whomever). But my writing career has been too willful, intermittent, and chaotic for that dream to be practicable. Whether due to character defects, personality disorder, or—who knows—the waywardness of genius, my education and output as a writer have not conduced to a normal publishing career (if there be such a thing). I have been driven, willy-nilly, into the arms of self-publishing. And, like a trapeze artist at the crucial moment in his act, I was glad to find that those arms were there when I needed them.

So I am a writer-publisher. I will be working down my publishing list, bringing out works as fast as I can, things that I have been working on over the years. This is my “backlist,” and it will be appearing in e-book form, I am happy to say. This list currently has 12 items on it. Item 1, A Tourist Visa, is already out. Indeed it is still emerging from its chrysalis, for it has yet to percolate out to all the retailers who will be carrying it. Within days, though, it will be fully out. I invite you to give it a look, and judge for yourself the merits of both the publisher and the writer as reflected in this short work.

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Smashwords SSR?

I’m in the process of publishing my short story A Tourist Visa as an e-book. It has been successfully published to Amazon, and can be seen and bought in any Amazon store. Yippee! That was easy.

For publishing to non-Amazon outlets, I’m making use of Smashwords, who offer the book through their own store, and also distribute it to a number of other retailers, including Apple’s iBook Store. A Tourist Visa is up in Smashwords’ own store, but they have rejected the book for distribution to their retail partners—a status they call “entry in the Smashwords Premium Catalog.” Rejected? I thought. Why? Here is the relevant instruction in their Style Guide:

Please do not link or refer to any online retailer other than Smashwords or the author’s personal blog or website. Our retail partners don’t want to see links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., or mention of the Kindle or Nook.

In the back matter of my book, where I ask the reader to leave a review of the book at on online store, I provide links to several online stores. If I am to be distributed to Smashwords’ retail partners, I will have to remove the references and links to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, and any mention of the Kindle or Nook e-readers.

What do you think of that? I’ll tell you what I thought: I found it irritating and troubling. I felt, well, censored.

Is that word too strong? Let’s look at the definition of censor in my new Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition:

to examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable; also: to suppress or delete as objectionable

My book has been found to contain material that is objectionable, and will not be distributed unless it is deleted. I think Webster’s backs up my impression: I’m being censored. My content is being objected to not on moral or political or religious grounds, but on commercial ones; nonetheless, censorship is what it is.

I am a believer in free speech. My belief in it arises from three separate causes:

  • I was born with an eccentric and irreverent nature, which predisposes me to thinking and saying things that do not conform with convention or orthodoxy
  • I am a creative artist, whose vocation requires me to express the urgings of my imagination, whatever they are and wherever they lead
  • I have come to hold a liberal political philosophy, which is based on the principle of individual freedom, and is devoted to protecting people from infringements to their freedom

When you mix those three ingredients together, you have someone with a positive passion for free speech. My passion for it puts me in a position which is quite politically incorrect. For example, I don’t support the placing of any limits at all on the expression of people’s personal opinions. I would not try to obstruct anyone from uttering or writing things that express hatred or contempt for anything or anyone; nor would I obstruct anyone from praising what most people regard as wrong or evil. In particular, I don’t think that anyone should face legal sanctions for sounds that he makes with his mouth or marks that he makes on paper or computer screens. Does that mean I would suffer the prating of racist, flat-Earth, Holocaust deniers? Yes I would. (Suffer in the sense of allowing them to prate; not in the sense of sticking around to listen to it myself.) Freedom means freedom.

I do recognize that there must be limits to free speech. Speech that causes immediate and obvious harm (such as by shouting “Fire!‘ in a crowded theater), and speech that causes less immediate but nonetheless definite harm (such as by knowingly publishing falsehoods about someone), do need to be controlled by law. But my notion of what constitutes harmful speech is a very restricted one. I want my neighbors to enjoy virtually unrestricted ability to express what’s on their minds, no matter how unpopular or how upsetting those things might be.

The reason I feel this way is because I want that freedom for myself. And I recognize that I have no right to such a freedom unless I am prepared to extend to everyone else.

I am so prepared. In order to enjoy freedom of speech, I am prepared to listen to other people’s crap. Well, maybe not listen to; how about hear? For my own freedom means that I am free to leave or to tune out material I find objectionable. No one’s forcing me to watch Fox News, so I don’t. But I would not censor them, either.

I have another reason for championing free speech: it’s better than the alternative. In a free-speech world, everyone can say openly what’s on his mind. At least in theory, we can say what we really think. But in a world where more and more speech is regarded as objectionable for one reason or another, we increasingly censor ourselves, and hide our true thoughts while, to get along and avoid censure, we express feelings we don’t have and profess beliefs we don’t hold. Such a society might appear to be homogeneous and harmonious; but that appearance is superficial and false.

Such a society might look a lot like the one I visited in 1982 when I traveled to Latvian SSR to meet my long-lost grandfather Alexander—the society I portray a small slice of in A Tourist Visa. In that world, my granddad told me, people did not speak openly on the streets or even look in each other’s eyes. Only in the walls of your home could you relax and let your hair down, could you be yourself.

So Smashwords is censoring me. It might seem a trivial instance of censorship, but it’s a real one. So, to be true to myself, I must protest.

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the thrice-born story

When my father arrived, at age 14, with his mother in Halifax in 1948 as a refugee from Germany, it had been 4 years since he had last seen his father, Alexander. Alexander had waved goodbye to them from the dock in Riga, Latvia, as they fled by ship from the advancing Soviet army, which was threatening to recapture the city from the Germans. The expectation was that the Germans would soon push the Red Army back again, but it was not to be: my father and grandmother spent the rest of the war in refugee camps in Nazi Germany, and stayed on as displaced persons in Red Cross camps after the war. As for Alexander, he was later captured by the Soviets when trying to make his own escape by ship to Sweden, and spent the rest of the war at a work camp in Siberia, shoveling snow from railroads. When the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe, he was marooned behind it, and was not heard of again—until about 1975, when my father was astonished to receive a letter from him in Canada.

They began a correspondence, but there was no practical way for them to meet, since it was not feasible for Alexander to leave Latvia (where he had resettled after the war), and my father ran the risk of being detained permanently in Soviet Latvia if he returned there. In 1981, at age 22, I set off on a journey of self-discovery and literary research to Europe, Israel, and northeast Africa. By February 1982 I was in Kenya, and, looking to return to Europe, I discovered that the cheapest way, by far, was to fly Aeroflot from Nairobi to Rome. But all Aeroflot flights shared a quirk: they were routed through Moscow. That’s right: the cheapest way for me to get from Nairobi to Rome was via Moscow, which is farther from Nairobi than Rome. And the idea came to me: if I have to go to Moscow anyway, why not take a side trip to Riga and visit my granddad?

So I booked the flights and went. In the cold and gray of Riga in March, I arrived by taxi at the drab concrete apartment block where he was supposed to be. I had taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet in order to recognize his—our—name in the phone book and other places, and in the lobby of the building the directory was indeed all in Cyrillic—except for the name of my grandfather. For whatever reason, possibly because he was the only ethnic Latvian in the building, it was the lone name in Roman letters: VITOLS, A. It jumped out at me and I felt a spark of excitement.

Nervously I headed up the stairs. There, at the end of the corridor, was the door. I took a breath and knocked. It was opened by a pleasant-looking woman of retirement age. I knew this to be Vallije, my grandfather’s second wife.

Not knowing either Latvian or Russian, I said, “Hello—is Alexander here?”

The woman, puzzled, nodded uncertainly and retreated back into the apartment. Soon she returned, following a tall, well-built man with thick white hair. He was frowning and looked rather suspicious.

“Hello—Alexander?” I said.

“Yes,” he said, doubtfully.

“I’m Paul. I’m your grandson.”

“Oh!” he said. Then, with a deeper level of shock: “Oh!” He reached to take my hand. “Come in! Come in!”

“I just have to tell the taxi driver to go,” I said.

A Tourist Visa - a short story by Paul VitolsSoon I had to leave Riga and make my way back home to Vancouver, and my proto-story was left unfinished. Three years later, CBC Radio held one of its occasional short-story contests, so I decided to dust off A Tourist Visa, as my story was now called, finish it, and submit it.

I dashed downstairs, then dashed back up, and was ushered into my grandfather’s cozy apartment, where they immediately started plying me with food and drink. Granddad insisted that I move from the hotel where I was registered to stay with them, and so began a visit of 10 days or so with the grandfather I had never met. To my great good fortune, Alexander had taken up the study of English as a retirement hobby, and spoke it well. During my stay he talked with me, took me on outings, and overfed me. He must have been well connected, for he had a stock of scotch whisky, which he poured unstintingly for me at lunch and dinner, and perhaps also for breakfast. I loved it!

I was nearing the end of a long, strange trip, and my impressions were stimulating my creativity. I had been writing letters and taking notes, but I wanted to write fiction again. Unable to wait, I dropped my pen and started to write about my experiences there in Riga. I didn’t really have a story idea, just a few vivid experiences, so I started writing about those. At some point I realized that I could build a story around my encounter with the local office of the Soviet Intourist Bureau, and a girl I met there.

I didn’t win the contest. There being few markets for short stories, and I having other writing projects on the go, I chalked it up to experience and filed away my carbon copy of the story. But now, with the advent of e-books and e-publishing, I realized that there is a market for short stories again. So I have again drawn A Tourist Visa from the darkness of a filing box back into the light of day—its second rebirth—and have published it for all the world to see.

The opening sentence? Here it is:

I returned to the mezzanine of the Latvia Hotel, carrying in my windbreaker pocket a little dagger to thrust in the malignant lard of the tourist officer.

How does that hit you? If you’d like to read more, visit Amazon or Smashwords—or the online retailer of your choice, and dig in. See what stirred the imagination of a young writer visiting his ancestral homeland behind the Iron Curtain.

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“I Have No Mouth . . .”

I was a breech birth. Since then, I’ve done everything in life bass ackwards.

A recent and relevant example of this is my education as a writer. Instead of first learning the craft of writing, and then studying up on the subjects I wanted to write about, I have spent most of my life studying the things I thought I might want to write about, and only recently have devoted serious attention to learning my craft. In my own opinion, this is not the best approach.

In my previous post (yes, from long ago), I suggested that the reason for this late arrival at the education of the writer was pride. I still think that has a lot to do with it, but another thought has since occurred to me: this detailed knowledge about the craft of writing, of storytelling, is quite a recent—and still ongoing—phenomenon. Many of these high-quality craft books have appeared only since the turn of the 21st century. And when they appear, it takes time for them to become known and appreciated. When I was a young writer, there were not the resources that there are now to strengthen one’s storytelling prowess.

As recently as the 17th century, the French dramatist Corneille could say

It is certain that there are laws of the drama, since it is an art; but it is not certain what those laws are.

Well, as far as I’m concerned, those laws are becoming known, and there is a growing library of works explaining them, with the aim of helping storytellers improve at their art. Looking at things from that point of view, I feel fortunate to be alive right now, and to have the benefit of this education at any age.

And another thought has occurred to me. The lives of writers are often notoriously tortured. I’ve been reading about the life of Malcolm Lowry, author of Under the Volcano, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. He was an alcoholic and an “incompetent”—someone who, as an adult, was more than once put under the supervision of lawyers and other guardians—who killed himself with a mixture of gin and barbiturates at the age of 47. Many other writers have lived lives almost as tragic. What I’ve been wondering is, how much of that suffering has been due to lack of craft? For Lowry, Under the Volcano was far and away his best and most important work. He struggled for years to produce other things, but never came up with anything as good. Would this have happened to him if he had known more of the craft of storytelling—a craft that he himself said was important to him? Did he suffer and finally kill himself because, at some level, he didn’t know what he was doing?

I recognize that writers have had plenty of other reasons to self-medicate and kill themselves: poverty, failed relationships, social ostracism. But the basic writerly problem has lurked undiagnosed, hidden behind other names: writer’s block, abandonment by the Muse, angst. They—we—have lain awake at night, wondering, “Why am I no damn good?” The answer was and is: we don’t have the craft.

I think of the title of a short story by Harlan Ellison: “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” This is the condition of the writer without craft. So those teachers who are now providing that precious knowledge, people like Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Amy Deardon, K. M. Weiland, Angela Ackerman, and Becca Puglisi, are not only making life easier and better for storytellers; they may in some cases be providing a life-saving service. And for that I thank them.

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