Sunday, February 15, 2009

'Hi. I saw your ad for that position in daycare..?'

Today's blog is growing by the minute, but I just realized that the New York Post finally ran its Page 6 Magazine* feature on A-list celebs and their favorite gurus. I'm quoted in the write-up on Deepak Chopra (in connection with my December Journal piece on alt-med and his caustic response in Huffington Post) and again in the item on Rhonda Byrne. The quote the writer used for Deepak was taken out of context and is an unfortunate choice, I think, as it implies accusations that were not lodged specifically against him, but rather the SHAMscape as a whole. (Chopra is a licensed MD, and may feel that he's been unfairly maligned.) Should be interesting to see what, if anything, evolves.


With the unemployment rate in the Greater Lehigh Valley now topping 7 percent for the first time in some years (nationally, we're at 7.6 percent), the so-called employment section of my local newspaper has no actual jobs to advertise, so it fills the space with a long how-to article on prepping yourself for a serious assault on the nonexistent market. I'd venture that there are several thousand words in the piece, and many of those words probably would be quite helpful; but I also find the article disturbing, because it makes clear that you are unlikely to be taken seriously in your job hunt unless you leave interviewers thinking of you as confident, positive and a team player.

I'm sorry
and yes, before you write to tell me, I know that I'm going against human nature here; I've already been informed of that by the wifebut I don't think those vague, highly subjective personality judgments have any place in hiring decisions. It shouldn't matter if someone "seems confident" or "exudes a sense of camaraderie." What has the person achieved? People should be hired based on their resumes (which should be truthful), by what they can document in black and white, by their demonstrated grasp of the subject realm during the interview process. Frankly, I don't even think it should matter whether or not people come across as likable. Can they do the job, and can they do it better than candidate X or Y? That's all that should matter. (Just as, in court, a person shouldn't be convicted of a crime because the jurors dislike him. And yet that is what often happens, suggests the research materials for my article on crime for Skeptic. The evidence is secondary. If the jury doesn't like you, you're toast.)

To the list of desired prerequisites we expect in a candidate, we have now added all sorts of touchy-feely attributes drawn from SHAM doctrine; the tragedy here, as I've written at length in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, is that there's no evidence that people offering those attributes (confidence, PMA, etc.) perform better at their jobs than people who, say, have a strange gleam in their eye and seem they might have dead sparrows or a bloody awl stored in the glove compartment of their car. The only evidence for a link between confidence and success is tautological in nature: We're more likely to hire and promote "confident" people, therefore they're more "successful." Tall people and nice-looking people are also more successful. Is that fair?

So, "What's wrong with confidence?," then, is that it misguides/misdirects. It gives people who merely seem capable an unfair edge over people who are. Further, because it's a lot easier to affect confidence than to actually be excellent at the skill set required for any given job, it waters down the standards for society as a whole.

If you own a business, whom do you want working for you? The most talented workers? Or the most "optimistic"? As a business owner or high-level manager, do you really care that much if someone is "a team player" as long as the work gets done in a way that allows you to beat the competition? I've said this repeatedly about sports (and I once got into a bit of an email war with ESPN editor John Papanek over it), but most of the attitudinal qualities that we worship in our star athletes are totally irrelevant**. It doesn't matter if a guy is a team player; if he can hit, he can hit. This is why I've come to love White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. To my knowledge, among all MLB managers, he is the only one who openly dismisses all the hype about attitude as nonsense, except Ozzie uses a different term.

As Guillen himself might put it (I've said this before, too, and I'm going to keep saying it till it catches on):
Give me nine sociopaths, all of whom refuse to hit behind the runner, high-five (or even talk to) their teammatesbut who bat .320 with 40 home runs apiece—and I'll bring you home a championship trophy every year.


On an unrelated, "technical" note for writers/avid readers only: I am reading, or trying to read, John Grisham's The Innocent Man. Though I've seen the films adapted from his work, several of which were quite good, to the best of my recollection I've never read any of Grisham's books (which, I guess, makes me unique among living Americans and many of the dead ones, given his sales numbers). And so I must ask: Is it me, or is Grisham the Kenny G. of writing? Which is to say: very little artistic talent or craftsmanship
to the point where I'm almost embarrassed for him in spotsbut he's got "that certain something" that resonates with an audience? Jesus, the book even has tracking errors. (For the novice, that means we don't always know exactly where we are in the story in some chronological, geographical or thematic sense.*** That is considered unforgivable in narrative writing.) Enlighten me please....

* which is now going quarterly, or going under, depending on who you listen to.
** or at least, they haven't been proven relevant.
*** And no, he's not doing it "on purpose," like, say, Joyce or Pynchon.


Steve Salerno said...

NOTE: I hit the wrong button, inadvertently rejected this comment from RevRon's Rants, and I don't seem able to undo that. So I've cut-and-pasted it. My apologies, Ron:

Steve - The folks doing the hiring are generally human, as I would venture are a significant percentage of the applicants they interview. For that reason, isn't it inevitable that those very subjective traits you wish to ignore would be a part of the hiring decision? Can we really expect employers and applicants to be highly qualified automatons?

When I was a corporate manager, I would generally choose prospective employees who had the basic skills required, the potential to learn the required specialized skills, and the "right attitude" over those who were 100% qualified but lacked social skills. That approach really paid off, as the employees in the departments I managed were very loyal, and pretty well maintained the well-being of their department as a priority.

Granted, these were not strictly technical positions; inventory analysts, production schedulers, PBX operators, computer technicians, maintenance and janitorial workers, and security personnel. Several were absorbed from other departments that were reducing their labor costs via layoffs. In particular, I offered a couple of experienced sheet-metal fabrication workers positions within my maintenance crew as an alternative to being laid off. They were not really qualified as building engineers, but were good workers who were grateful to have jobs when others around them were being let go. Their "attitudes" made them great employees, and facilitated their rapid acquisition of the required skills.

Were I selecting a surgeon or (especially) an attorney, I wouldn't care a whit about their attitude, so long as they were the best at completing the task I required. But if I were hiring either as a permanent member of my own firm, I would certainly consider their attitude - and their ability to function as part of a team - as well as their specific qualifications. After all, a brilliant employee that causes discord in an organization can wreak significant damage, no matter how well he or she can perform specific tasks.

Anonymous said...

Something I've noticed with the 'big-hitter' novelists of recent years is that the successful ones no longer craft a story for the book reader but with an eye on the eventual adaptation for TV or cinema screen, so story and character development and plot is secondary to pace and eye-popping visuals. This might have a bearing on the 'poor craftsmanship'
you notice. Most aspiring young writers of my acquaintance reject the old notions of plot, character, story development completely.

Steve Salerno said...

Anon: Could be. Could also be that this is (again, to my knowledge) the only true-crime book he's written among a sea of novels, so maybe he was just out of his element here. In any case, he "phoned it in."

One factor that I think counters your theory of "writing for the screen" is that there aren't many eye-popping visuals, either. In fact, another cardinal sin of which Grisham is guilty, in my view, is that the 50 pages I've read so far are just paragraph after paragraph of telling, not showing. If I were a screenwriter trying to adapt this, I'd have a hard time, I think, as there aren't enough specifics to work with. (Then again, he probably gets to do his own adaptations, too.)

RevRon's Rants said...

An old friend of mine, the late Herman Holtz (who had over 60 of his books published) once stated that in order to be a bestseller, a book had to be either extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad, and that books that fell somewhere between these extremes were doomed.

Especially given the fact that a successful book proposal nowadays bears a closer resemblance to a business plan than to a literary treatise, I think old Herm was right.

Anonymous said...

Oh, but what about Stephen King, whose writing is as bad as the movies/TV disasters made from it?

But I digress.

My real purpose is to ask a question, Steve: who is this... person on the pic accompanying your post? And please (please) tell us he is not applying for that position in daycare?

Steve Salerno said...

Rev: Your line about the proposal/business plan is classic and very much on-point. In fact, over the years I've definitely noticed an evolution in my agents' preferences wherein the "overview/synopsis" (i.e the part that tells editors what you actually want to write) grows shorter and less important and the "marketing info" (i.e. the part that tells editors who you expect to buy this book and why) grows larger and not just "more important," but essential.

Steve Salerno said...

Eliz: You know what's funny, though? King's book about writing--titled, shockingly enough, On Writing--is brilliant. As good as any I've read; I think you'd be stunned at how insightful and even literate it is, in its way.

Anonymous said...

Steve, at least you get points for consistency. It is good to see that your jealousy knows no bounds, and you now can be as petty and hypercritical of mainstream authors like Grisham as you've been all along about the successful self-help authors. You only wish you could write a page turner like The Firm, The Rainmaker, I could go on and on. I don't know where you get the nerve to say some of these things which are so transparent! The great Steve Salerno criticizing the writing skills of John Grisham, what a joke.

RevRon's Rants said...

Just out of curiosity Steve, why do you even publish comments that offer nothing to the discussion save for petty snipes? I would think that, at the very least, you'd refuse such garbage from people who choose to hide behind the anonymous curtain.

I realize you strive to allow everyone their voice, but I think you go overboard in allowing people with nothing to say to vent their spleens on your forum. My own inclination is that if they can't even be bothered to invent an identity when they're braying at you, why provide them with a soap box? Screw 'em!

Anonymous said...

Anon, I too would like to be as successful and as rich as Grisham, King, or Tony Robbins, for that matter. But, you know, crappy writing is crappy writing. In general, crap is crap*; yes, crap sells, obviously, but is this the reason to get down to it and produce more of it? (Yeah, well, for some it is, no doubt.)

And, jealousy (as it may be) aside, should we not point out when something is crappy when we consider it so and when there are strong indications that it is so, just because its author is fabulously successful? Should the brilliant light of material success blind us to reality behind it and paralyze our critical faculties? (Speaking of crappy writing...;)

*We had the crap discussion on Whirled Musings not that long ago and established, collectively (I think), that crap comes with its own wisdom and philosophy, but this may be beside the point here (I think).

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, Eliz (and anyone else who quietly sympathizes): Thank you for your commiseration. I've explained before that I feel obliged to allow people somewhat more leash when the target is me, especially in connection with a post where I've voiced strong/cynical opinions about another individual by name. I would not allow the same kind of (pointless, baseless) invective if it were aimed at other participants.

For the record, there are many highly successful authors whose work I admire. One might also keep in mind that at various points in my life I would've loved to make a name for myself in jazz and/or baseball, yet I think my admiration for those who've enjoyed great success in those realms is clear.

This isn't about jealousy. It's about calling a spade a spade (at least in my view, which is the only view I've got), and it's about intellectual honesty, as best as I know how to render it.

Anonymous said...

The quote of the day, from Mark Twain seems fabulously apt:

My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine—everybody drinks water.
Mark Twain

Tonestaple said...

I do think John Grisham is the Kenny G of modern novelists, except I bet that's a bit mean towards Kenny G. I read two or three of Grisham's books and they were just awful. The second was a complete rip-off of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and, as I recall, the other two made almost no sense at all. I haven't even felt motiviated enough to get a more recent novel from the library to see if he improved - the early ones were that bad.

Elisabeth, I think Stephen King is a good writer, clearly competent, but definitely not a great writer. Problem is, he's gotten boring and is repeating himself. Plus, seriously, the guy needs to get over Richard Nixon and Watergate. When I read the older stuff, like The Shining, or Salem's Lot, or It, I really feel like he's telling me a story. The later stuff, not so much.

Steve, when it comes to attitude, it is going to depend entirely on what I'm looking for. If it's a salesman, I totally want an optimist, who can shrug off failure like a duck in the rain. If it's an accountant, optimism is just about the last trait I would want to see.

Steve Salerno said...

Tone: Thanks for weighing in. Very nice points all around. Your remark about the accountant is especially pertinent in this, the season of the tax man, though I'm--optimistic?--that my 1040 will set off no alarms or buzzers at IRS this year.

Cosmic Connie said...

Eliz wrote: "We had the crap discussion on Whirled Musings not that long ago and established, collectively (I think), that crap comes with its own wisdom and philosophy, but this may be beside the point here (I think)."

LOL, Eliz, and thanks for the mention.

For years I was a bit of a literary snob (not that I'm suggesting that anyone here is, but I WAS). I was also kind of squeamish. So for both of those reasons I avoided a lot of popular fiction, and especially horror stuff, e.g., Stephen King.

Well, a few years ago I decided to start reading more pop fiction, including Grisham, King, Dean Koontz, and numerous other popular authors. I found some of Grisham's fiction to actually be tolerable -- mindless entertainment, anyway. And I'm sorry to disagree with friends here, but I think that when King is good, he is very, very good. (I know that at least one person here agrees with me: Ron. The rest of you, please don't laugh me out of this discussion.) Oh, and I agree that King's "On Writing" is one of the best books I've seen on the subject.

Even Dean Koontz has cranked out a few good ones, once he got over being so in love with weighty metaphors, sappy moralizing, and a certain unsubtle touch with female characters (either very, very good, or very, very bad). I kind of like the Odd Thomas books. Oh, you still have the occasional groan-inducing metaphor, and Odd's dead girlfriend is still sort of on the saint-ish side, but overall the books are pretty good. For mindless entertainment, anyway.

I very much agree with the Anon commenter who says many authors write as if visualizing a screen play. In other words, they write as if they have no respect for their medium. And that's too bad.

For my money, one of the worst and yet consistently successful contemporary novelists is Jodi Picoult. I made my way through one of her books a few years ago, "Keeping Faith." It was full of anachronisms and narrative problems... just awful.

But damn, if I could churn out dozens of brainless books a year, and get paid well for it, I sure would do so. Just not under my own name. :-)

verification word: elityl

[sounds like a drug one would take to make one an elitist. :-)]

Anonymous said...


[sounds like a drug one would take to make one an elitist. :-)]

Or to cure one from being such. :) It's too late for me, but you can still save yourselves. Generic versions are available, of course! Call your doc ASAP.

BTW, VW: curater... Now, how can we not believe? (LOL)

Anonymous said...

BTW, in my defense it is not elitism (I swear) as much as attention deficit. A book has to grab my very modest attention capacity from the moment I open it on a random page (because it's never at the beginning) and keep it tightly, otherwise it's a premature g'bye. It's rather embarrassing, but I can count on my fingers the number of books I have read in their entirety in the past decade. (SHAM is one of them, of course. :). No, seriously.) Quite frankly, most of the written stuff is just not worth reading, in my very humble opinion.

And 99% of the books I have successfully completed (as a reader, obviously) are not fiction, for which I simply have no patience or proper concentration. It does not help that the characters and their stories seem, by and large, completely irrelevant to me. This may be a cultural difference in part, but not entirely, I'm sure.

Alright, the first VW was spillin, the second immat. It's clear that the Blogger gods are sending me a not-so-subtle message.

Cal said...

Your comment about confidence has always been a bugbear for me. One of my first job interviews out of college I was told that I didn't project enough "confidence". My answer is how do judge confidence vs. cockiness or arrogance? So I just had to try to fake more confidence, even though I disagree with the whole concept.

We had "confident" people who run these bank companies that are eventually going to be nationalized. How many new coaches at their press conferences say they are confident that their style of play will work? And then how many last five years? We have a confident POTUS, just like the ones previous to him. But he doesn't run the economy, despite what many people think.

literary lioness said...

May I weigh in on the literary landscape? As of right now, there are more writers than readers of fiction. You know that problem with supply and demand. If there is no one demanding it, why keep supplying it? I wish more of these fiction writers would actually start reading literature. Wow, what a concept!

Has anyone seen the fiction section of their local library? It is a broom closet in the back of the stacks. If Virginia Woolf and Ernest Hemingway have gotten stuck in the broom closet, what does that say for any other fiction writer? The fiction market is very small and only getting smaller with more and more writers who think they are the next John Updike.

Stephen King is hit or miss with me and Grisham a waste of my time. Even Toni Morrison struck a sour note with her latest offering, Mercy. She has a Noble Peace Prize, so she is in the clear though.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks, Lioness. These are obviously very subjective calls. I know a number of people (including this one) who wonder how Toni Morrison ever got a deal for Beloved; I thought it was dreadful. I thought Steinbeck was OK, Hemingway had a great ear, Updike was generally overrated (as you know, there's an actual competition to mimic his clumsy rendering of sex scenes). I like Joan Didion a lot. A lot. Mailer at his best (The Executioner's Song) is, IMO, probably better than anyone in fiction. (As a rule, I prefer nonfiction.) Dorothy Parker was terrific. James Baldwin, at one time, was The Man, to me, but I now find him a bit wearying. I regard some writers who are considered "pedestrian"--Joe McGinniss, for one, Belva Plain (no, I am not kidding) for another--as equal in talent to most of the demigods. Capote got a lot of kudos for In Cold Blood, which supposedly launched "faction," but I think several of his imitators did it better. I don't like any of the brat-pack writers who came along a while back (Easton-Ellis, McInerney or however you spell it).

For my money the absolute best writer in America for more than a generation, with no contenders, was in fact an editor: Lewis Lapham of Harper's. More than once I would finish his column with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, marveling at the majesty--and the sheer intellectual power--of it all. For my money, no one, ever, was better at making a point that needed to be made.

Cal said...

I also think this article touches on how the "confident" people missed the economic crisis.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal: Yes, thanks. I seem to recall writing something on a more-or-less similar theme for the Wall Street Journal. ;)

Voltaire said...

Confident, positive, and a team player. I've always regard these weasel words as code for "If we hire you, you have to suck up to us." Personally I've always thought that if I were in a position of management I wouldn't want to be surrounded by a bunch of suckups. Even though it would make the job harder to have people under me who aren't, I've always thought it more important to have people with a realistic view of how things are and no fear of telling it as they see it. This is because as a manager I think the most important thing I can have is accurate information, which you can't get with a bunch of yes people.

As far as the Kenny G of fiction goes (thanks for teaching me a new idiom), for a long time now I've had a saying "if it's populer it's usually bad." I find the popular trends in almost anything to be distateful to me. It really depends on what you're looking for. If you want the rare book with scintillating prose and thoughtful observations on the human condition, you can't get those from the bestseller lists; you have to move outside the bell curve of popularity.

This is why I've never read any of Grishom's books. Anything that explodes on the scene and then is gone in a short time is anathema to what I'm seeking, which is the true and timeless. I'm very weary of quick kicks that just leave you hungering for yet another quick kick.

That's one reason why I like Steve's SHAM book: it poked a hole in the glittery unreality of popular culture and did it's best to tell me what's really going on.

RevRon's Rants said...

Ever notice how we tend to project our own issues onto personality attributes? Since when is "confident" necessarily synonymous with smug or manipulative? As a one-time employer, one factor I looked for in a prospective employee was how well I thought he or she would integrate into the workplace milieu - a "team player" who could function with others without causing undue friction. Able to bring fresh ideas and (yes) energy to the equation, but not so different as to create a rift within the department. That certainly doesn't equate with the person being a "suck-up," and any employer who doesn't consider such qualities is either too stupid to be in a supervisory position or is working to sabotage the operation, IMO.

As always, there's a balance between extremes, and as long as we focus upon the extremes, we'll continue struggling with them. I didn't tell applicants that I wanted them to be confident, and the successful ones didn't claim to be. If it was there in proper measure, it was obvious. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher: Being confident is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of writing, a while back there was a captivating essay on the subject by Norman Mailer, in The New Yorker, titled "Birds and Lions." It's available on-line here, but you have to be registered to read it in full.

This is its synopsis (which
does not really give the piece justice, but so it goes):

Novelists are oxymorons. They are sensitive and insensitive. Full of heart and heartless. You have to be full of heart to feel what other people are feeling. On the other hand, if you start thinking of all the damage you are going to do, you can’t write the book-not if you’re reasonably decent. (Of course, a malicious person might kick off the traces, and feel young and happy again at being so mean.) The point is that you are facing a true problem. Either you produce a book that doesn’t approach what really interests you or, if you go to the root with all you’ve got, there is no way you won’t injure family, friends, and innocent bystanders...

There is a touch of writer’s block in almost every working day. It is part of the experience of writing. When you are faced with this situation, there is a tendency to force a continuation, but that can be equal to blowback. From its point of view, the unconscious has done its job. It’s damned if it’s going to give you any more right now. If you insist, flatness of affect will be your reward-nothingness, the dread antagonist. One of the most painful elements in the act of writing is to live so much of the day with that nothingness. It is why many talented men and women produce a good book or two, then stop. To deal on a daily basis with nothingness is vitiating. Writers who have been at it for decades often do not keep a vital inner life.

...Suppose the unconscious has a root in the hereafter which our conscious mind does not. If so, it will have deeper notions about death than we do. Let us then dare to surmise that the unconscious is on close, even familial, terms with that most elusive presence in the conscious mind-our soul. If that is the case, the unconscious will feel exploited by the novelist’s push to extract so much of its resources...

Writer relates an anecdote from John Ford Noonan’s very funny play, Talking Things Over with Chekhov, in which Chekhov is delighted at being told by Tolstoy that he is even worse than Shakespeare... Writer concludes, Sometimes you have to wait.

(Love that last line. :)

Anonymous said...

Being confident is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren't.

Drats, Ron. Now you tell me?!

literary lioness said...

I said it before and I will say it again, fiction takes complete honesty. You can't be worried about how someone is going to feel when they read it. You got to be you, whoever and whatever you are.

I remember teaching a creative writing class where everyone wanted to be a comedian. If you are naturally a comic, that is fine. If you are not naturally inclined, Arthur Miller comes to mind, than it is forced and artifical. Humans are simians. Monkey see monkey do. If you get one student who has a comic flair and pulls in the reader/audience, the other students want to do the same. I kept writing "you're not funny, STOP" on short stories that semester.

That is the hardest thing to teach fiction writers. Humans want to be included, but good writing just might exclude you and most are afraid of this prospect.

Good fiction writing is not for the faint of heart.

Anonymous said...

That is the hardest thing to teach fiction writers. Humans want to be included, but good writing just might exclude you and most are afraid of this prospect.

A good point, Lioness. But doesn't it create a dilemma, that need for unflinching honesty vs. the desire to protect *others,* not so much the writer herself/himself?

Is good writing more important and/or valuable than the feelings and/or well-being of someone you love and care about?

(I'm not a writer, as you can tell. :)

Dimension Skipper said...

Elizabeth said: Is good writing more important and/or valuable than the feelings and/or well-being of someone you love and care about?

I don't want to give anything away in case some folks have not seen it and may want to someday, but that reminds me of Stranger Than Fiction which I saw in the theater and just happened to rewatch on DVD this past weekend. It ends up dealing with that very question quite directly. I highly recommend the movie if you've never seen it.

literary lioness said...

"Is good writing more important and/or valuable than the feelings and/or well-being of someone you love and care about?"

In nutshell, yes. That is what nom de plumes are for. If someone truly loves me, they know this is who I am and accept me. If they do not, I'm not the right flavor for them to begin with. I take masks off, I do not wear them.

Many amazing writers have lived their lives in isolation. It was never a real choice for them. Asking them not to write/tell stories would be like asking them not to breath. Writing is a solitary pursuit in the end.

As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate being an artist/writer. When I was younger, my gifts made me feel excluded and weird. I was not like everyone else and I did not think like everyone else. I never said the socially correct niceties and chit chat. I still do not engage in those activities, but I'm memoriable.

I had to find my own way and create my own tribe. I know the people in my life value me, as I do them. I am able to lead an authentic life. That was the life I always wanted anyway.

I think that is the dream of every true writer.

Anonymous said...

I take masks off, I do not wear them.

Lioness, that's an excellent way to put it, I think. Yes, I can see that this is what (good) writers do.

But (of course there is a but) there is a not-so-thinly-veiled cruelty -- or at least its possibility -- involved in the process of stripping off masks and illusions, especially where other people are concerned. For them, this unwelcome unmasking of their characters and lives by the writer may be more traumatizing than liberating. Not to mention the very real possibility that what the writer considers to be the mask-less truth may be (and usually is) his/her idiosyncratic (and perhaps damaging) perception of other people's characters and lives. By necessity, there seems to be certain ruthlessness involved in the craft.

DimSkip, I've seen Stranger Than Fiction, mainly for the incomparable Emma Thompson (whose collaboration with Hoffman has resulted in their newest movie, which I hear is delightful, Last Chance Harvey. It has been described as the "Before Sunrise" for the over-45 set. And "Before Sunrise" is one of my favorite films -- it's very close and personal, it reminds me so much of my own youth. (Boy, that sounds... old.))

Anyway, I'm digressing all over the place, while I just wanted to say that you are right, "Stranger..." does address the issue of writing vs. protecting people's feelings (and fate) in direct and unexpected ways.

WV: giese -- a flokc of dyxlesic gooses?

literary lioness said...

"By necessity, there seems to be certain ruthlessness involved in the craft."

Living is ruthless, whether one writes or not. I think artists are just more honest about it. It takes ruthlessness to be true to yourself and your vision. If a person wants to be everyone’s best friend, that’s wonderful, but he or she better not think their writing is going to be anything interesting.

I remember writing a short story in ninth grade English about two adolescent boys fighting over a girl. One of the boys had an alcoholic father, but he was not the central figure. He was just this shadowy presence in the back. My English teacher loved the story and wanted me to read it in class. I went to an all girls’ school and no one would speak to me after I read that story. They were pissed . My English teacher said, “Congratulations, you’re a wonderful writer.”

The whole point of wearing a mask is to take it off in the end anyway. That's what masquerade balls are for! If you are wearing a mask, don’t be surprised if someone is watching it slip anyway. Being a good writer is also about observation and someone is always paying attention, even if you think you are a perfect actor. Besides, I think the goal of humans is to be known.

I'm reminded of William Faulkner's penchant for lying to everyone. He never told the truth about anything! He felt that was his prerogative as a fiction writer and he should have fun with it. Yet when he wrote, he mined from his very rich personal roots.

No one can be responsible for everyone, whether they write or not. My mother thinks every character I write is her! I have never written about my mother, but maybe there are pieces of her in what I write. My husband hopes he is my main Muse, but I have been inspired by strangers on the street. Who knows what fuels it, as long as I am true to it.

If that is ruthless, so be it.

Steve Salerno said...

Lioness: With all due respect--and that's not a throwaway phrase, because a lot is due--I've been following this sub-thread from the sidelines for a while, and it seems to me we're talking almost entirely in epigram and cipher and metaphor that devolves into nothingness once you look an iota beneath the surface. In the same comment, above, for example, you appear to be saying that artists are both honest and dishonest. Throughout this whole thread we've had masks going on and coming off, and I don't think I'm a dumb person--further, I happen to be a writer as well--and I confess that I have no clue what's going on.

What exactly is it we're trying to express here? Some of those held up as the most extraordinary writers of our generation (or at least mine) were inveterate liars, even whey they swore they were telling the truth. (Capote and In Cold Blood comes to mind.) Others have written words that are now held up as iconic, timeless--and I will use, as I have before, the opening lines of Anna Karenina, which sound profound but are absolute b.s. and mean nothing. If what you're doing is advancing the argument made by the "you have to tell lies about life to capture the truth" school, then I'm not sure I buy that either. Can we be a bit less florid and more specific? Or maybe that's the problem in a nutshell?

I intend no offense to anyone. I'm just honestly confused.

Steve Salerno said...

Let's also keep in mind that the most honest writing would simply be, in essence, a transcribed video of the writer's day, perhaps also including sections of internal monologue that mirrored the writer's own narration as he or she did what he or she did.

Who would read/watch? What, if anything, would we learn? So clearly writing can't just be about "taking off the mask and being totally naked to the world."

Plus, that outlook assumes that we know what we're about, which is another assumption I'm not prepared to buy.

literary lioness said...

"In the same comment, above, for example, you appear to be saying that artists are both honest and dishonest. Throughout this whole thread we've had masks going on and coming off, and I don't think I'm a dumb person--further, I happen to be a writer as well--and I confess that I have no clue what's going on."

It's called a metaphor, a device used in fiction. The mask is a metaphor for our personas of who we think we are. I'm a fiction writer and my stock is being florid. I thought Elizabeth was talking about fiction writing and I was addressing the question as such.

Do you write fiction Steve? I was under the impression you were a non-fiction writer. You have stated you don't care for fiction, as do the majority of people if book sales are any indication.

The thread can die if you like, but I was just addressing what Elizabeth asked me in regards to fiction writing, sorry if it confused you.

Steve Salerno said...

"It's called a metaphor"? "A device used in fiction"?

I don't see any reason to be snarky, especially since I say in my comment that "it seems to me we're talking almost entirely in epigram and cipher and metaphor..." [emphasis added]. This is why I asked the question. Because in my experience--and this applies whether or not one writes fiction--people sometimes hide behind metaphors the way others hide behind, say, masks. (Poets do it all the time.) It is not that hard to reel off a metaphor that sounds pleasing and even profound, but sometimes when you desconstruct it, the thing doesn't quite stand up to the deeper scrutiny.

Just so you know, and I'm sure this won't improve my standing in your eyes, or my fitness to be a part of the discussion, I have written award-nominated nonfiction memoirs for some of the nation's top literary magazines, including Confrontation and The Missouri Review. I've also done "fiction-style" narratives for Harper's and elsewhere. So--though I'm not trying to trumpet my bona fides--I'm saying that I'm not exactly a Philistine who should be dismissed from the conversation with a casual smart line.

literary lioness said...

"Can we be a bit less florid and more specific? Or maybe that's the problem in a nutshell?"

Short answer: yes. That is why literature is studied. This is also why there are volumes written about Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Milton. What were they really trying to say? Who knows, but what they said touched us in many ways, or they would have been long forgotten.

There are only so many stories going around. At last count there were four. You are born, you love, you hate, and you die. That is the human experience. A fiction writer's "truth" is about observing that experience and expressing it honestly, whatever way that fiction writer observed it.

I don't know if you ever read Updike's great short story "A&P", but it was a wonderful observation on class structure told by a cashier who made note of his regular customers. That was honest.

literary lioness said...

"I've also done 'fiction-style' narratives for Harper's and elsewhere. So--though I'm not trying to trumpet my bona fides--I'm saying that I'm not exactly a Philistine who should be dismissed from the conversation with a casual smart line."

I was not being snarky, nor was I dismissing you, but answering your question. Though you are illustrating Elizabeth's point for her.

Steve Salerno said...

Sigh. OK. I recuse myself again. Carry on.