Author: GB

Provincial Life and My Difference of Opinion with Virginia Woolf

Middlemarch First Edition

I find Virginia Woolf to be remarkably clear-headed.  Her A Room of One’s Own is one of the few pieces of purely feminist (or purely political, for that matter) writing that I’ve ever read which feels that it was written by someone who was intelligent and thoughtful first and foremost, as opposed to someone defined by their agenda.  It is not only readable, but actually brilliant.

Unfortunately, when it comes to George Eliot‘s Middlemarch, I find myself disagreeing with Woolf violently–which is bad because I’m pretty sure most people will come down on Woolf’s side in any argument, and also because she has been dead for ages, and I can’t actually discuss it with her.

Woolf, as some of you might know, probably gave the most famous review of Middlemarch when she expressed the opinion that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”  Writing from the vantage point of 1902, that is very dismissive of everyone from Austen to Thackarey (and let’s not forget the Bell brothers).

Such a ringing endorsement made Middlemarch a must-read.  So read it I did.  And it fell reasonably flat (which is what all the other critics were saying, but I went and believed Woolf!).

Yes, it is for grown-ups.  Of that, there is little doubt.  But it is not for every grown-up.  It is for those men and women whom earlier generations referred to as “Serious-minded”, which seems to mean earnest people obsessed with important issues and for whom smiling was something of a lost art.  Humor, of course, is for children and the unwashed masses.

A Room Of Ones Own by Virginia Woolf, First edition Cover

In that light, Middlemarch works very well.  It plods along logically and earnestly, eventually becoming a character study of many of the types of people you would have found in the English countryside in the late 19th century.  It’s not bad, but one can’t help feel that it would have benefited from having Jane Austen edit it.  Better still, Thackeray whose character studies as much more biting.  No, wait…  Best of all would have been Oscar Wilde.

What I’m trying to say here is that the book is too lineal and earnest for its own good.  Real grown-ups, no matter what Virginia Woolf said, are people who appreciate humor as well as obligation, people who understand that a good life life contains levity as well as grey porridge.

Perhaps the lucid Woolf of A Room of One’s Own wasn’t the real one.  Perhaps she really was as humorless and agenda driven as so many others before and after her have been when they dedicated their lives to a particular cause.

But I choose to believe not.

So the only thing left to do is to read To The Lighthouse, I guess.  That should settle the matter pretty definitively, and show once again how little provocation is required for me to pick up a random classic book.

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At Least a Favorable Reference to the Devil

Today we present a new excerpt from Stacy Danielle Stephens monumental work-in-progress about WWII and the events that led to it.  Those of you who’ve been following along at home know that these pieces never fail to deliver – and now we’re reaching the war’s endgame… and one of its most mysterious episodes.

 

May 6th, 1945. London–As his capitol was overrun by the Red Army, Adolf Hitler appears to have sought asylum in the one location from which there can be no extradition. Although reports of a German surrender were only optimistic speculation, news of Hitler’s suicide has been confirmed. He named as his successor neither of the obvious candidates, Himmler or Goering, but the less widely known commander of the German Navy, Admiral Donitz. How the Admiral intends to prosecute the war is unclear. What is clear is that, regardless of the Admiral’s intentions, Germany lacks the means to continue any meaningful opposition to United Nations forces.

If there is no surrender soon, surrender itself will become a moot formality. The Royal Air Force, as well as the US Eighth and Fifteenth Air Forces, ceased all bombing of Germany two weeks ago for lack of targets. There is no traversable length of railroad still intact, no refinery still operating, no factory able to produce any usable weapons, no aggregation of rubble large enough for a group of desperate soldiers to hide behind.

And there is still no surrender.

Perhaps this reckless determination to fight on is nothing more than a desire to die in combat with a semblance of honor rather than face responsibility for what is increasingly clear. That crimes and atrocities which only one month ago would have been dismissed out of hand as too incredibly heinous be be seriously countenanced have undeniably occurred.

There has never been a military man more even-tempered or fair-minded than General Eisenhower. What he has personally observed at concentration camps in Germany is so far beyond description that it need not be described. It is sufficient to say that it has sickened and angered him to such an extent that every German, in uniform or not, knows better than to anticipate any mercy from their conquerors.

by Stacy Ketcham, Omaha Chronotype-Mercury

* * *

Bloodstains in Hitlers Bunker

 

The stuffiness of the room had grown more oppressive, and the shrill insistence of the slightly inadequate ventilation fan more penetrating. Or perhaps Eva had nothing better to hold her attention.

“Would you like me to go first, Princess?” Adi asked.

He had never called her Princess before.

“No,” she replied, suddenly overcome with tears. She put her head on his shoulder. Silently, she told herself that she was not afraid, and realized what an abominable lie that was. The truth? She was more afraid of living an hour longer than of dying in another minute. She recovered her nerve. She had to be steady for him. Steely. She lifted her head.

“We agreed,” she resumed. “You should wait to make sure that I am–” Her breath seemed to congeal in her throat. “–safe,” she concluded.

“Do you know, Eva,” Adi suddenly said, “when I was a child, I wanted to be a priest?”

“I’m not surprised by that.”

“No?”

She picked up the brass capsule containing the bit of serious business.

“Hold out your hand,” she said. He did. She unscrewed the capsule and pulled the two pieces apart so that the ampule dropped into his palm. Tossing the shell aside, she opened her mouth, the tip of her tongue resting on the edge of her teeth, just inside of her lower lip.

He smiled, the same shimmering smile he’d displayed so shyly the day they met for the first time. He took the ampule gingerly between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand. Tenderly, he placed it onto her tongue.

One could not but wonder what that moment of transcendence would comprise. Of course, death would not be like anything. There was nothing in life that could serve as a simile for it.

She knew she should repent of this madness, and spit the thing out. Yet she knew just as well that she was able to do this with a clear conscience, because her conscience was improperly formed by years of compromise. Her faith, once white hot, had gone lukewarm and then stone cold, and was now already dead, although still as strong as it had ever been. She and Adi had never been to Mass together. In sixteen years, neither of them had said a single Hail Mary, or even once made the sign of the cross over themselves, and yet, if pressed on the point, each of them would have insisted that they were Catholic.

Smiling at Adi, she bit into the glass. He heard it cracking between her teeth. Then she was translated. She slumped over the arm of the sofa, and he saw the discolouration around her nose. That quickly, sixteen years had passed.

His pistol–the 7.65 mm Walther–was on the table. Like a chalice on the altar, he thought. He remembered the many times as a child when he stood on a chair at the kitchen table, wearing an apron as his vestment, celebrating the Mass.

Fondly recalling his first communion, he knelt at the table, then lifted the pistol to his lips. As his finger settled on the trigger, he was reminded of the delicate silver bells jingling during the Mass, announcing the descent of the Holy Spirit as it settled on the unleavened wafers and they became the resurrected Body of Christ. As an altar boy, he had held those bells, and beckoned to the Holy Spirit with this very finger. Now, as this profligate finger curled more tightly, summoning his own spirit in another direction entirely, he strained to remember the gentle sound of those tiny bells, softly resonating in the hushed stillness of the church, but could not. He only heard the harsh chirping of the distant ventilation fans, and trapped in his ears, echoing in his mind, the brutal cracking of the glass in Eva’s mouth.

The trigger at last succumbed to the pressure of his finger. He felt the action release the firing pin, and heard the shot rushing from the chamber. With it, he received no absolution, but only abrogation[1].

* * *

How does one make sense of Adolf Hitler, a peculiar but heroic soldier who earned the respect and admiration of comrades and commanders alike, then went on to take his country to the brink of annihilation with much of Europe close behind? How do we understand this little boy who wanted to be a priest, but instead became the eponym of evil at its most absolute by leading his nation in their effort to exterminate an entire people?

Millions of words have been written in pursuit of Hitler’s presumed hatred for Jews, with no evidence of his ever being so much as rude to even one Jew, let alone the discovery of a fury intense enough to bring about ten million deaths.

In the early days of the Nazi Party, another Party leader asked Hitler what the Nazis’ program would be. Hitler replied that the program was unimportant, it was only power that mattered. When this same leader argued that power must always be wielded with purpose toward a goal, Hitler dismissed the argument as pointless intellectualism.

Every Jew who met Hitler personally found him to be kind and courteous. Every Jew who knew him was convinced that the anti-semitism he espoused was nothing more than agitprop, palaver poured out to get himself and his party elected and into power, and Hitler is known to have said that everyone in Germany would recognize Jews as a common enemy, if they were arbitrarily selected by the Nazis to serve as a focus for national unity.

But if Hitler’s vaunted anti-semitism were only a ruse, why, then, the final solution?

More so than soldiers of any other nation, Americans were infused with the righteousness of their involvement in the war. From the noble clarity of their goals there followed an expected purity in their actions. They were not engaged in a war of vengeance, but a holy crusade to restore the world to justice. Yet there were occasions when these righteous crusaders would physically abuse or shoot prisoners of war. A disinterested observer could ascribe most of these incidents to anger or frustration in the heat of a few horrible moments. Some justification may be found for excusing these violations of the Geneva Convention. But the fact remains that even the best of soldiers may become murderers when circumstances permit murder.

It has been said that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

If it seems preposterous to you to suppose that a man might send millions of innocents to their deaths simply for the pleasure of doing so, then you have probably never walked among armed combatants seeking battle, and you have certainly never noticed that every word of the United States Constitution is about restraining the exercise of power.

By the time of the Final Solution, it was clear that the Soviet Union would not be defeated as easily as France had been, and evident that it might never be defeated. When the United States entered into the war, Hitler had little reason to hope that Germany would ever win. Frustrated and angry, he could console himself easily enough by exercising absolute power while it was still his.

This is not to suggest that Hitler’s decision to have eleven million[2] people put to death was made on the spur of the moment, or that the Ka-tsets would have been shut down and all the prisoners inside them released if Germany had won the war. Hitler had written about his proposed Entfernung of Jews as early as 1919.

When speaking of tattoo removal, a German will use the word Entfernung. There can be no doubt what becomes of the tattoo. How could there be any doubt what Hitler intended for the Jews of Europe as early as 1919?

When Bertold Brecht was deported from the United States, German newspapers reported his Entfernung. There could be no doubt that Bertold Brecht was alive and unharmed.

It would be both naive and asinine to assume that Hitler had not carefully chosen that word for its ambiguity. While it cannot be proven that Hitler had begun to plan, as early as 1919, for the extermination of all European Jews, neither can it be denied that this eventuality was among the possibilities he had considered at that time.[3]

* * *

As early as 1937, President Roosevelt had decided that in the event of war with The Empire of Japan, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast would be interned. It was only after this decision was made that the rationale for it was formulated. Internment, it was said, would be necessary to ensure that any disloyal individuals among these people did not escape detection, and in order to protect them from their suspicious white neighbors.

Adolph Hitler claimed that German emigrants remained citizens of his Reich, and that their children and grandchildren were German citizens as well. He insisted that all persons of German ancestry owed their loyalty to him and no one else. He believed that German-Americans were entirely German, and not at all American. The existence of the German-American Bundt would suggest that a number of German-Americans shared his belief.

The FBI, conducting the largest investigation of its kind, determined that there was no similar belief held by the government of Japan or by Japanese immigrants in the United States, or by any of their children or grandchildren. The Japanese government had never made any effort to recruit even a single spy or saboteur from among the Japanese-Americans, nor had any Japanese-American, whether resident alien or United States citizen by birth, ever made any effort to further the interests of Japan to the detriment of the United States, even by peaceful and legal means, let alone through any attempts at espionage of any kind.

Tule Lake Japanese Internment Camp

Sociologists engaged by the State Department determined that no immigrant group was more loyal to the United States than the Japanese-Americans, and no group was more truly American. In Japanese culture, emigrants are not merely transplanted into their new country, they are grafted onto it. They will retain a Japanese appearance, and they may retain the Japanese language, but they are not Japanese. Among any other nationality, as many as one-third of immigrants arriving in the United States would, within twenty years, return to live in their native country. Japanese who came to America rarely went back to Japan.

Investigating the question of conflicted loyalties, the State Department learned, as had the FBI, that Imperial Japan had no wish or intention to use Japanese-Americans as spies, recognizing first that they had no loyalty to Japan, and secondarily that they would be of no use, since white Americans would not trust them. Instead, Imperial Japan chose to rely on the already existing German and Italian spy networks.

Although he was fully aware of all these facts, President Roosevelt did not allow himself to be dissuaded by them. In 1942, he ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans, precisely as he had planned to do all along. Today, it is profoundly disturbing to see how easily that order could be given, and to see the docile facility with which it was carried out. Without investigation or probable cause, without trial or arraignment, with no semblance of due process, all persons of Japanese ancestry abiding in California, Oregon or Washington State, whether resident aliens or citizens of the United States, were simply removed in just a few days.

However plausible the justifications for this relocation may sound, whatever explanation one might wish to accept, a single photograph of any white American standing proudly beside his sign–WE DON’T WANT ANY JAPS! EVER!–looking exactly like a German standing beside his sign–JUDEN RAUS!–makes clear that this arbitrary corralling of an ethnic minority by a racially prejudiced government was, in fact, Entfernung.

* * *

Because the internment of Japanese-Americans happened in Twentieth Century America, every fact and detail of it is utterly harrowing. With each paragraph one reads about it, with each story one hears, there is a renewed desire to scream, because it was a heinous injustice perpetrated by Americans against other Americans. Yet there is one inescapable facet of the whole picture that transcends expression, a realization so horrible that one can only see it and turn away.

Of all military construction in the United States during the Second World War, only Los Alamos was more remote than the internment camps. The Manhattan Project was the only war-related activity of their government about which the American public was told less than the internment of Japanese-Americans. While one simply cannot imagine President Roosevelt authorizing a final solution to the Japanese-American problem, one must–if one is honest–recognize from the placement of the camps and the silence surrounding them that this eventuality was among the possibilities considered within the War Department.

 

 

[1] In his movie, Little Nicky, Adam Sandler supposes Hitler gets a pineapple shoved up his ass every day, but that would be letting him off easy. Hell? The Russians are approaching, Eva is dead, and the pistol won’t fire. Every day, over and over. The Russians are approaching, Eva is dead, and the pistol won’t fire. He spends the day, every day, alone in the bunker, remembering the face of every young man whom he sent to an early and horrible death, remembering every conversation with Himmler, remembering the footage of unreleased documentaries he watched with Goebbels. Then it’s morning again. The Russians are approaching, Eva is dead, and the pistol won’t fire.

[2] The Wannsee Conference planned to “involve” eleven million European Jews in the Final Solution, but the precise number of deaths that occurred in the Ka-tsets cannot be known. Although an estimate of twenty million is the largest number which cannot be discredited, it staggers the imagination. The estimate generally considered to be an accurate minimum is ten million. In either case, six million of these are known to be Jewish.

Although Common Criminals and Prostitutes were sent to the Ka-tsets with the expectation that they might die, and Gypsies, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Politicals were sent with the expectation that they would die, only Jews were sent specifically for the purpose of extermination. The death of a Jew was not merely expected, it was intended.

In the moral sense of the word, each of these deaths–whether of a Jew or a Gentile–was a murder, but in the strictest legal sense of the word, they were not. Pragmatically, the millions of Germans and other European nationals who participated to some degree in every one of these deaths could not all be hanged, so it was held that these deaths occurred within the jurisdiction and under the authority of the German government. Individuals who had given orders were guilty of war crimes; those who obeyed these orders were presumed innocent, and every murder that was committed became only a death which had occurred.

[3] A plausible argument can be made that the Wannsee Protocol, Section Three, Paragraph Seven: “jews should be put to work in the East. . . . Any final remnant that survives… will have to be dealt with appropriately” was a precise enunciation of Hitler’s long-intended Entfernung.

Viewed in retrospect from this conclusion, Hitler’s actions can be generally seen as a series of planned steps moving toward that goal. Militarily, the sole object in this scenario was the conquest of Soviet Russia as a repository for Europe’s Jews, in which they could “be dealt with appropriately.” This conquest required that the bulk of the German army be deployed from Poland. The necessary encirclement of Poland required the occupation of Czechoslovakia, which was itself first encircled through the Anschluss of Austria. That France and England became combatants in opposition to Germany was an inconvenience anticipated and prepared for with the occupation of the Rhineland.

When realization of the expected repository failed, concurrent with the failure of the Soviet Union to be conquered, the Nazis adapted the plan to an accelerated schedule, intending to “involve” as many Jews as they could apprehend before the war ended.

For this argument to be valid, Hitler’s anti-semitism would have to be a profoundly irrational, superstitious variety of prejudice. Precisely that sort of anti-semitism can be found throughout the world, and is particularly virulent in Eastern Europe even today.

James Bond? Not Exactly…

I’m a fan of Joseph Conrad.  I believe that his novella Heart of Darkness is one of the greatest explorations of what really resides in the souls of men ever written.  Today, it has fallen somewhat out of favor because certain vocal literary critics focus on the colonial trappings… and thereby manage to miss the point of the book entirely.  In fact, I like this book so much that I became a bit of a scholar regarding it, and was even asked to write the introduction to the edition linked above.

So when I sat down to read a Conrad book about spies and conspirators, I thought to myself “I am in for quite a treat.”

Turns out I wasn’t.

The Secret Agent - Conrad - First Edition

The Secret Agent, a seminal book about a terrorist plot in England seemed dry and stale and boring.  The bad guys seemed painfully incompetent and unimaginative, and the plot moved at the speed of frozen molasses in quicksand, ti mix three metaphors.

This was the book that, directly or indirectly led to–or at least influenced–the spy genre as we know it?  This is the one that inspired the Unabomber?  Really?

Well, yes, and the secret to understanding what went awry in my own reading comes down to one thing: expectations.

What I was expecting was a fantastic story about glamorous spies that flirts with the edges of plausibility.  What I got was the slightly dramatized retelling of a real-life story of badly-organized and somewhat incompetent anarchists.

Let’s start with that second part, first.  The bare bones of the plot are based around a failed bombing in London in 1894 whose only victim was the bomber himself (a man who intended to plant his bomb and walk away unscathed).   Names are changed, but that is the story. Not only is the plot uninspiring, but it is also told from the viewpoint of the bad guys… which is cool if your protagonist is Al Capone, or someone equally competent, but not so motivating in this case.

So yes, the book is somewhat at fault–even in 1907 there had to be better secret villains to write about–but let’s look at my other point: fantastic vs. slightly dramatic.  In hindsight, it becomes clear that, as the secret agent novel gained popularity, more baroque and twisted stories needed to be concocted and the heroes slowly migrated from regular men in extraordinary circumstances as in The Thirty-Nine Steps (another book with an intro by yours truly… I’m beginning to sense a pattern here) to very exceptional men and women tested to the limits of their own enormous capabilities.

Joseph Conrad

When we read a book in this niche today, we expect the writer to stand on at least some of the shoulders of the giants who came before him.  Yes, the Fleming books from the sixties are tame by today’s standards, but at least some of the tropes are already present, and the cover art is marvelous.

This immediately leads to the question of who those giants are.  And that is where this volume truly comes into its own.  When you dig into the mass of names: Fleming, Buchan, Householder, standing near the bottom, holding up many of the cherished authorial heroes, is old man Conrad.

So, if you are going to read one Conrad book in your life, read Heart of Darkness.  But If you want to understand where Tom Clancy and John LeCarré are coming from, The Secret Agent is worth the effort. At the very least you will have a good example of art that was a victim of its own success.

The Good and the Bad of Critiques

This time, our columnist Richard H. Fay brings us an opinion piece–one that, as writers and editors ourselves, is close to our hearts. You’re mileage may vary but one thing is certain: you will definitely learn something about the ins and outs of the process in the piece that follows.  If you like his pieces for us, we remind you that his blog is here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Walt Whitman Manuscript

While critiques and literary criticisms often contain useful advice for the aspiring author and poet, there is a dark side to this sector of the literary realm. What I hate most about the world of critiques and criticisms are critical insults cloaked in the guise of constructive feedback. Although critiques can help a budding writer’s skills blossom, and can even help more established writers catch unnoticed flaws, some writers claiming to dish out critiques (or comments resembling critiques) miss the entire concept that personal opinions, tastes, and interpretations of what is “good” and what is “bad” differ tremendously from person to person, from reader to reader, from “critter” to “critter”. They feel that their individual opinion is literary law, and that their personal interpretation of this law is written in stone. Clearly, this is not the case.

During my quest to become a published poet, I’ve encountered some comments and attitudes that obviously went well beyond mere criticism of my poetic works. In certain circles, I’ve been called a wannabe and a poetaster, remarks that were clearly less examples of constructive criticism and more examples of critical insults – “bad critiques”, if you will. However, in different circles, I’ve been called a master poet. Some people may strongly disagree with the way I write, finding fault in my preferred choice of voice and style. Others see great merit in the way I pen my works, and applaud my cadence, verbiage, and overall approach to poetry composition. Who is right, and who is wrong? Should I change the way I write poetry because some people feel it isn’t worthy, or should I keep doing what works for me, and what works for certain editors and certain publishers (and many of my readers)?

Should a writer listen to what others have to say? Of course, as any artist, a writer should learn to grow and develop their craft. And feedback from others, both positive and negative, is a vital part of this never-ending process of growth and development. I have certainly grown as a poet after listening to what some editors have said to me in personal rejection letters and revision requests. I have often followed their advice on how to add more depth, substance, and artistry to my work. However, I don’t feel a writer should dwell on critiques. A writer is not required to act on every negative critique or criticism received. At some point in a writer’s career, they have to rely just as much on their own judgment and instincts. They have to consider the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis. They have to realize when the critique being given is truly constructive, and when it is merely counter-productive. And sometimes, even a critique given with the best of intentions can fall far from the intended mark. It can be crazy out there, and quite toxic at times, and critique is one of those areas that can all too easily slip into the toxic versus the beneficial.

In my opinion, the difference between a “good critique” and a “bad critique” can often be a matter of the difference between critiquing the written work at hand and critiquing the writer of that work. It is the difference between stating that the story or poem under question is flawed, versus claiming the creator of that piece is a flawed writer or poet. Few human beings respond positively to personal insults, no matter how eloquently worded or full of literary jargon those insults may be. And even those critiques of a writer’s general skills that avoid blatant insults may still lose sight of the bigger picture, arriving at an improper judgment of someone’s overall ability based on the paltriest of evidence.

Ideally, an editor, slush reader, or “critter” shouldn’t really judge someone’s overall skills as a poet or writer based on only one or two pieces, especially if that writer or poet has already penned and sold several works which could be used to better judge that individual’s overall skills and abilities. Such commentary becomes a general criticism of the writer or poet, instead of a specific criticism of the story or poem under consideration. That sort of attitude strays too close to those that fling about the terms “wannabe” or “poetaster” for my own personal comfort. And, it could be argued, it certainly smacks of a personal dislike for an individual’s work, whatever the underlying reasons may truly be.

In terms of the nuts-and-bolts of critiques and criticisms, I grow especially irritated when opinions and tastes are presented as literary absolutes, which often happens with such things. Differing opinions of my work from different editors and readers leads me to believe that most criticisms are not literary absolutes. I suspect that the aspects being criticized are not unalterable laws that all poets and writers must follow, or else. Plus, in terms of critiques, comments, and rejections from editors, it may be sacrilege, but I don’t feel that editors walk on water. I believe that they can be wrong on occasion, that they can let their personal preferences shade their views, just like the rest of us. And some editors may plain dislike an individual’s style, while putting an editorial sheen on that dislike to make it look like literary criticism. Does this mean that the writer must change their style because of what one editor (or one group of editors) says, especially if that very same style works elsewhere? I honestly don’t think so. It brings one back to the idea of judging the value of each critique on a case-by-case basis.

Perhaps I simply found my literary voice, and confidence in that voice, early-on. Others still finding their literary voice, still searching for a style that fits, may approach critiques and criticisms differently. However, because I have developed a confidence in my voice and style, I don’t feel the need to make wholesale changes to my preferred voice and style based on individual critiques and criticisms. I may listen, but I don’t necessarily act on what I hear. I have no desire to make changes just to fit in at a certain market, just so I can add another notch to my tally of venues conquered. In some instances, I don’t think I could change enough to fit in anyway.

Many moons ago, I came to the realization that my style may not work for all markets. It happens. Writers and poets have to acknowledge that reality sooner or later. Some places just aren’t a good fit, no matter what one does to try to fit in. However, there are other markets, other publications, out there. And some of those may be a much better fit for one’s work anyway. It may take some trial-and-error, and the use of market listings like Duotrope’s Digest and Ralan’s Webstravanganza, to find the right venue, but it can be done.

As for those on the other side of critiques; if you are addressing potential problems with the text, then you are doing your job as an editor or “critter”. After all, a writer’s work should display a functional grasp of grammar and syntax. Writers should show that they have at least some understanding of what works and what doesn’t. And sometimes you need to be a bit harsh if a written work contains many glaring flaws. However, there is a difference between a harsh but honest criticism and an insult. You don’t have to insult the writer’s abilities in general when criticizing a particular example of that writer’s work. Insults may just stir negative emotions, rather than eliciting a positive change.

Critiques, whether positive or negative, are going to be reflective of the critic’s personal preferences and biases. While writers should never let hubris blind them to the opportunities to grow found within individual critiques and criticisms, such commentary should always be seen as one opinion among many. Other critics with different tastes may evaluate the same material differently. Those handing out literary critiques should keep the same thing in mind. Never let critical insults take the place of constructive criticism. Avoid the path to the toxic.

(Originally published in the Creator and the Catalyst, August 2009.)

Acton Bell was the Best of them

It’s quite possible you’ve never heard of Acton Bell.  After all, this was a writer overshadowed by better-known siblings Currer Bell and Ellis Bell.

What?  You haven’t heard of them either?

Ah, you must not be a collector of first editions or a student of literary history.  You see Currer Bell published a novel entitled Jane Eyre, while Ellis was responsible for a tome entitled Wuthering Heights.

first edition tenant of wildfell hall

Yes, they were.  Google the first editions if you don’t believe me.

All right.  In their era, it was difficult to get published, so the Brontë sisters sold their work under male pseudonyms, Ellis, Acton and Currer being the sobriquets chosen by Emily, Anne and Charlotte.  But while even the most casual readers are familiar with the work of Emily and Charlotte–either via the written word or the countless TV and film adaptations of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights (or, for absolute bizarreness, the music video of the latter)–very few have been exposed to Anne’s work.

There is a reason for that.  Charlotte, who was the only one who didn’t die terribly young, kept Anne’s novels from being reprinted after her death (she is also rumored to have burned a manuscript of a second novel by Emily).  So while Charlotte’s work was becoming ever more well known, Annes languished, only beginning to get critical recognition much later, with the early feminist movement.

Political use of her work aside, it’s a true pity that Anne seems to be the forgotten sister (brother Branwell, by all accounts, squandered any talent he might have had due to a dissipated lifestyle).  Judging simply by her writing, she seems to have been, by far, the best of the three.

Yes, I know. That’s supposed to be Emily, the firebrand whose prose scars you as you read.

Yes, it’s true that Emily’s writing, and her characters are both more memorable than Charlotte’s.  They are tortured, egoistic souls stymied by their preferences and circumstances and as melodramatic as it is possible to be.  Definitely better than Charlotte’s stultifying boredom (yes, I know there was a madwoman in a tower.  Still boring)…

Anne Brontë by Branwell Brontë

But Anne, as a novelist, took more risks than Charlotte, and wrote a clearer, better-paced story than Emily.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is the best of the Brontë novels.  If you don’t believe me, that’s because you haven’t read it.  It contains sympathetic protagonists who defy the conventions of their time enough that they feel almost modern, and the story is about the way they struggle against those conventions and the consequences of rebellion.  Also, it has an antagonist who deserves to be despised.

Though the novel’s re-acceptance into 19th century canon is cause for rejoicing, it’s a bit unfair that it’s been tarred with the “early feminist novel” brush.  That alone will keep many people from approaching this book–anyone familiar with the writing of Kate Chopin will have learned their lesson: writing that only survives because of a political push is always terrible, even if the politics are sound.  It’s a pity that this should be so because Anne’s novel is actually good literature, despite the anger that might or might not have informed some of its more memorable scenes.

Yes, the very act of writing and publishing this book was a feminist act (as was that of Wuthering Heights, which is just about the most un-feminist book I can think of), and yes, when Anne’s protagonist leaves her husband, it was the first time something like that had happened in a major English novel.

But there are more important things going on in this book, and the political significance, whether contemporary or post-mortem, was given to it by others.  It’s really just a book about characters dealing with their world as best they can.  And it excels in that light.

So go to your library and ask them for something by Acton Bell.  Hopefully, a librarian should know what you mean… if not, send them here!

Book Recommendation: Incursion by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past four years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published yet another new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here (not the first time we’ve used these words–he had published one called Siege late last year!)!

Incursion by Gustavo Bondoni - Cover

It was supposed to be a desperate suicide mission, a holding action designed to delay a deadly enemy bent on destroying humanity: five starships sent to their doom, thousands of men and women knowingly laying down their lives to buy time for the besieged human race.

And then things got really hairy.

Tristan, a highly trained shock marine, wakes up after the trip to find that nothing works: not his equipment, not his ship, not even his body…

He joins the race against time to bring their equipment back up to fighting trim and begin to understand what has happened to them and to unravel the layers of confusion and betrayal.

But the enemy waiting for them doesn’t care about any of that. They just want to destroy the human incursion as quickly as possible.

Despite having been launched recently, this one already has at least a few good reviews,and you can buy it from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Fairy Thefts

Fairies and Jewelry

Richard H. Fay is back to the occult this week for his final occult post in this series (but check back next week for a post on a different subject!).  The darker side of fairy lore is something that most people don’t think about…  But he sets the record straight.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Fairies seem to have a confusingly contradictory nature when it comes to their interactions with mankind. Even though the Fair Folk frown upon mortals prying into their secret affairs and may take drastic action when angered by interfering humans, they also display a strange dependence upon the race of Adam. Fairies have been known to rely upon humanity for certain goods, services, and even spouses. Possessing a moral code paradoxical to human minds, the Good Neighbours don’t always exhibit neighbourly attitudes toward mortal rights of ownership. Sometimes they borrow, while at other times they steal, what they want or need. Those that steal may pilfer foodstuff and livestock. They may rob the goodness, or “foyson”, from victuals and cattle. They may even abduct human children and adults. Although selfish individuals are most susceptible to visits from fairy robbers, all mortal kind should be aware of the fairy proclivity for thievery and take the proper precautions.

Members of the often light-fingered other crowd have no qualms about lifting mortal provender needed to sustain their own existence. Fairies will filch a portion of a farmer’s crop and carry off sheaves of corn one straw at a time. On occasion, they make off with milled meal instead of unprocessed grain. Invisible sprites scrape smidgens of butter from pats being sold in the market place. Brownies magically ingest ill-gotten junket under the very noses of dishonest servants. Buttery spirits and abbey lubbers devour the food and drink of shady taverners and self-indulgent monks. At times, the Little People lure mortal-owned cattle into their knolls to be milked, bred, or butchered for a feast. At other times, they steal milk right from dairy cows browsing the meadow or sequestered in the barn.

More often than thieving the items themselves, fairies may simply remove the goodness, or “foyson”, from desired food and livestock. What is left behind looks solid enough, but it lacks true substance or nourishment. Cheese thus denatured floats in water like a cork. Bannocks so altered appear hearty enough, but they never fill a man’s stomach no matter how many are eaten. Cows whose spirits have been whisked away to Fairyland may continue to wander farmer’s fields, but they produce no milk. An elf-taken ox sickens and dies, and upon its death will prove to be merely an alder wood simulacrum of the actual animal. Land with its goodness stolen by the Gentry yields a slender harvest and produces fodder empty of sustenance.

Midsummer Night's Dream

Far worse than the theft of goods or the removal of the substance from such goods, the fairies also steal away mortal children and adults. The Fairy Queen’s dark butler, the far dorocha, fetches men desired by his mistress. The Gentry in general nab nursing mothers so they can suckle fairy infants. Midwives carried off are expected to perform their duties in Fairyland. Young craftsmen beguiled into service become fairy bond-slaves. Handsome lads and pretty lasses captured by the Fay are paired with fair spouses to replenish the dwindling fairy strain. Golden-haired babes and children looked on with envy are especially vulnerable to abduction by the Wee Folk. The youngest of mortals taken beneath the fairy hills either grow into full members of fairy society, or find themselves offered as part of the Teind, the septennial tithe the fairies pay to Hell.

As with stolen cattle, the Good Neighbours may leave behind a substitute for the kidnapped human. This substitute is called a changeling. In the case of abducted adults, the fairies frequently replace the mortal with a replica body, or stock. In the case of snatched children, the changeling may be a cantankerous old fairy well past his prime, or a sickly fairy child, or a wooden stock roughly formed to look like a human babe and imbued with glamour to simulate life for a short while. In almost all cases, if the truth of the changeling’s identity is not soon revealed, it eventually appears to wither and die.

According to some, fairies only take from miserly mortals or humans who grumble about that which they do not deserve to have, but this may not always be the case. However, laziness or carelessness definitely makes one more likely to be a victim of fairy theft, especially if one ignores certain precautionary measures. The mark of the Cross on the first bannock stops the Fair Folk from sapping the nourishment of the whole batch. Bells, spells, or rowan and red thread protect cattle. Daisy chains worn by small children drive off potential fairy abductors. An open pair of scissors hung above an infant’s cradle, or steel pins stuck crosswise in the babe’s clothes, keeps the child safe from being switched with a changeling. An iron horseshoe hung over the threshold protects the whole house.

Food seemingly devoured by mundane pests may have actually been pilfered by the Fay. Disappearing livestock or missing persons might now be residing in Elfame. Greed or an unappreciative nature can make humans more vulnerable to attention from light-fingered fairies, but all men who neglect traditional protections risk the theft of food, cattle, or even the abduction of their wives and children. After all, as the old saying goes, it’s better being safe than sorry, and those who’ve become victims of the thieving Wee Folk may be sorry indeed.

 

Sources:

An Encyclopedia of Fairies by Katharine Briggs

Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee

A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by Bob Curran

A History of Irish Fairies by Carolyn White

The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Fairies by Anna Franklin

The Vanishing People by Katharine Briggs

Writing Ideas Come from the Strangest Places

Today’s post is written by writer Gustavo Bondoni, who also happens to be our Editor-in-Chief. He speaks a little to that age-old question about where writers get their ideas.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey Cover

To be brutally honest, I thought that my reading of Thomas De Quincey’s best known work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, was going to be another of those things that I would simply have to file away under “I read it because it was supposed to be a classic, but it’s not really all that enthralling.”

This isn’t to say that the book wasn’t memorable. The subject matter, and the first person perspective combined to ensure that it is a deeply visceral work.  The main problem with it is that it manages, somehow, to be dry and overwritten at the same time.  The fact that it became a best seller was due more to the controversial nature of the work than the writing.  Both the subject matter itself and the fact that De Quincey seemed to harp upon the pleasures of laudanum and downplay the pains both contributed to a good number of books sold.

When I finished it, I was happy to have read it and thought about it for a bit, but did not feel that it would be among those books that would influence me when writing my own work.

The above just proves how much I know.

A year after finishing Opium Eater, I found myself writing a noir novel set in Buenos Aires during WWII.   Argentina was neutral in the conflict, and the cabarets of the city were likewise unaffiliated, catering to Axis, Allies, rich and poor alike.  And I found that laudanum and the opium it was made from played a key role not just in the recreational activities of the characters, but also in the political background.

Bottle of Laudanum

Now, I don’t know if the drug would have been there or not if I hadn’t read De Quincey’s book.  After all, there were fewer recreational drugs available back then, and there was a war on, which meant that some products–especially those from Asia–presented more interesting logistical and political ramifications than, say, cocaine, which is from the Americas.  So it’s possible that opium would have been present anyway.  But one thing that I’m certain of is that the image of how addicts behaved, the shape of  that particular situation in my mind, certainly wouldn’t have been the same.

So, of the dozens of books I read in a year, one that I expected to pass unnoticed had contributed significantly to one of my novels.  I certainly didn’t see that coming, but those things happen.  I had Incursion under contract by that time, so I wrote that book, which has no sign of opium in it at all.  Normality, it seemed, had been reestablished.

After incursion, I decided to writer a sort of elegy for the life of pre WWI Italy.  My next novel took place in the late spring and early summer of 1914.  It was a book that I initially intended to be a tale in the vein of Brideshead Revisited, with a sort of misty, soft-focus nostalgia made infinitely more poignant by the fact that we all know what happened after that summer, and we know all about the waste and suffering of the Great War.

But as I began to write, the characters decided that they had their own ideas about how they should act and what the book would be about (other writers will know what I mean), and the edge that was supposed to be delivered by the reader’s own knowledge of events began to make its way onto the pages.  Suddenly this wasn’t a comment on that last glorious summer of the traditional European aristocracies, but became a comment on both the good and the bad of their way of life.  Sex crept in (much more copiously than I’d planned–this one is by far the raunchiest of my books), as did the abuse of power relationships.  And drugs.  You can’t have a good post-fin-de-siécle blowout without a drug or two.

And which drug played the most prominent role?  Why, laudanum, of course.  And De Quincey is back once again.

I’d never list the man as one of my major influences.  I still feel he hasn’t contributed much to my style or my subjects.  But he seems to have delivered my particular drug of choice–at least for my mainstream novels set in the past century…

It just goes to show that you never can tell.

Food Scares in the 21st Century – and the misguided, albeit well-meaning people who propagate them

Monsanto.

For a certain kind of activist, and for many people who get their news through social media (and worse, believe what they read on other people’s feeds), this is possibly the dirtiest word on the planet.

frankenfood propaganda 2

But Monsanto is actually just a symbol.  An easy-to-point-to enemy that represents the terrible evil that is the genetically modified food industry.  There are many other companies, and more than one government behind the scenes, involved in the same debate.

The anti GMO activists are well organized and have learned to use powerful words such as Frankenfood to use consumers’ ignorance and fear against them.  This isn’t really the fault of consumers, of course.  Most people won’t have the time–or, let’s be honest, the interest–to do any kind of research around genetically modified foods, so if someone says that Frankenfoods are bad for you, they will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Another thing working in the activists favor is that eco-groups such as Greenpeace are getting more and more respectable every day among intellectuals and postmodernist thinkers.  A statement from one of these groups creates a feeling of legitimacy behind a claim of GMO food being bad for consumers, wildlife, biodiversity, or the planet as a whole.  But mostly, and smartly, they focus their attentions on people’s self-interest and insist that GMO foods are bad for you and your family.  It’s a smart strategy because while people might be concerned about biodiversity, they won’t change their behavioral patterns because of it… but tell them they will die if they eat Frankenfoods, and they’ll go out and buy organic.

Finally, there’s the perception that GMOs are mainly used by big farming consortiums.  And everyone knows that big business is Evil (note capital “E”).  More reason to avoid them.

So the case against GMOs is pretty clear.  The question, one supposes, is what works in favor of GMOs?

Reality, mostly.

Let’s take this from the least important point first and work our way up to why people who know what they’re talking about will calmly and happily eat any GMO product you put in front of them, and feed them to their families, too.

The myth that farming corporations use GMOs and local farmers don’t is silly.  Local farmers are mostly using the same seed suppliers, but even if they are actually trying to avoid the corporate seed conglomerates, there’s no way to avoid genetically modified crops.  You see, human beings have been modifying crops and livestock through selective breeding for thousands of years.  The most basic non-GMO seed available on the planet is… not even remotely non-GMO.  So one can have one’s mind at ease regarding that particular point.

The second point that doesn’t hold up at all well is that environmentalist groups are against GMOs.  That must count for something, right?  Well… While these groups do excellent work to create conscience around important environmental issues, they are equally often overcome by the enthusiasm of extreme factions within and will often take action before the science is completely understood… simply on general principles or because they feel it is an important issue.  While one must admire their courage, this simply isn’t the right way to go about things.  Greenpeace’s stance on GMO potatoes in Mexico in the late 90s and early 2000s was a clear indication of enthusiasm overruling science.

(We take the time to point out a conspiracy theory question here.  We have no proof, so we present it for you to reach your own conclusions.  Is it just coincidence that the European Union, many of whose governments support Greenpeace, is way behind on GMO use when compared to places like the US and Latin America?  We don’t know, but tend to think it isn’t).

frankenfood propaganda

Finally, there is the science itself.  Many different disciplines argue that GMOs are one of the best things that has ever happened to humanity, but let’s choose just two.

Mathematics is the first.  And we don’t even need to go much further than the four basic operations.  It’s not in doubt that crop yields have grown thanks to the modification of seed stock, and losses to parasites have been driven down.  At the same time the population of the planet has also been growing steadily.  If you do the math, you will be able to conclude that without GMO, a good chunk of the world is now starving.  Not in countries that export food, perhaps, but how would you like to be in England without GMOs and with a new-age, enlightened and postcolonial population who won’t let you simply invade the nearest third world country and steal their crops?

For the second, let’s choose medicine.  After exhaustive research, the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that there is no evidence whatsoever that genetically modified crops pose a health risk to humans.  This article from the Alliance for Science gives an overview.  Interestingly all the people who think otherwise, including Greenpeace, were invited to give testimony.  The conclusions were unshakable.

So, in this solemn act, we hereby officially demote GMO-bashing to the level of pseudo-science.  Welcome home!  Take your place alongside astrology, homeopathic medicine and pop psychology!

The Darker Side of Fairy Lore

Richard H. Fay is back to the occult this week.  The darker side of fairy lore is something that most people don’t think about…  But he sets the record straight.   You can read his blog here, and we also recommend checking out his Zazzle Store.  

Many people today think of fairies as rainbow-winged pixies prancing about in a sylvan wonderland. However, traditional tales about the denizens of the fairy realm spoke of beings and practices that were far from benign. In the minds and hearts of country folk across Europe, fairies posed a real and dangerous threat to life and well-being.

Although many fairies held an ambivalent attitude towards mortals, some maintained an undying hatred of all humankind. The Scottish called the various types of malevolent fairy the Unseelie Court. This unsavoury collection of malignant entities contained the evil trooping fairies known as the Host or Sluagh, as well as a variety of solitary miscreants.

dover fairy and frog talking

The unsanctified dead banded together during the darkest hours of the night in the roving host known as the Sluagh. These wretches flew in clouds above the Earth and captured unprotected mortals. Those unlucky enough to fall into their clutches would be dragged along, beaten, and made to fling paralysing elf-shot at cattle and other humans.

Shod in heavy iron boots, Redcap haunted ruined peel towers on the Scottish Border. This fiery-eyed goblin carried a pikestaff in his left hand and periodically re-dyed his crimson hat in human blood. Impervious to ordinary weapons, this vicious fiend could only be routed by Holy Scripture or the sight of a cross.

Duergars, the black dwarfs of northern England, hated mankind with a bitter passion. These taciturn beings clad in lambskin coats, moleskin trousers, and moss caps would use illusion to fool any unwary traveller into taking a fatal misstep. Only those wise in their ways could avoid the wrath of the duergars.

Female beings of a decidedly malicious nature lurked beneath the waters of various English rivers. Peg Powler resided in the Tees, while Jenny Greenteeth inhabited Lancashire streams. Grindylow and Nelly Long-Arms were similar water-demons found in other waterways across the English landscape. All delighted in drowning and even devouring naughty children who strayed too close to the water’s edge.

Monstrous trolls troubled the people of western Scandinavia. These hirsute beasts dwelt in mountain caves and preyed upon humans. They were only seen during the hours between dusk and dawn, for the light of the sun would turn then to stone.

Goblin

Underground spirits known as kobolds plagued German mines. They harassed miners as they worked, frustrating human attempts to find precious metals by stealing tools, meals, and water, and replacing silver ore with that of nickel or arsenical cobalt. However, there were times when kobolds could be unexpectedly helpful.

Bogies, bogles, and bug-a-boos delighted in causing mischief. Some merely played annoying pranks, while others attempted to inflict grievous harm through their malicious tricks. Many, such as the Hedely Kow, possessed the ability to change shape. This trait was often used to torment unsuspecting mortals.

Even those fairies with a kindlier disposition towards humanity still posed a hazard to mankind. Beneficial brownies could become troublesome boggarts if their work was taken for granted by ungrateful farmers. Prying into the secrets of the fair folk was dangerous business, often rewarded with bruises, blights, blindness, or other ills. A mortal partaking of fairy food while visiting their enchanted realm risked eternal entrapment. The fair folk were also responsible for a variety of thefts, including the theft of mortal children.

A coveted child, especially one that lacked the protection provided by Holy charms or cold iron, was at risk of being whisked away by the fay. A changeling would be left in the babe’s stead. This replacement may have been a wooden stock imbued with fairy glamour to look alive, a deformed fairy child abandoned by its own mother, or a cantankerous senile fairy disguised as a youngster. In any case, the changeling drained away all of the good fortune of the human household until it was driven from the home, usually through the use of fire or heat. Then the mortal child would be returned unharmed.

Any encounter with the fair folk, “good” or “bad”, could be perilous, given their alien morality and emotions. Mortals had to tread with care through a countryside inhabited by a wide variety of potentially dangerous beings. Those that ignored the proper respect toward the “good neighbours”, or who didn’t protect themselves from their powers, faced possible injury or death. Humans that sought to learn fairy secrets faced savage retribution. Perhaps the best advice regarding the fay came from the Fairy Queen herself, in what she told William Butler Yeats:

“Be careful, and do not seek to know too much about us”.

 

Further Reading

An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures by Katharine Briggs.

Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee.

A Field Guide to Irish Fairies by Bob Curran.

The Celtic Twilight by W. B. Yeats.

 

 

(Originally published in Doorways Magazine, Killer Holiday Issue, Issue 4, January 2008.)