Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Loving an Author You REALLY Disagree With

Last August, I posted a review (more of a reaction) to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt called "An Indian's Reaction to the Racism in 'The Goldfinch'."


And now, I'm on page 449 of 629 of The Secret History, her debut novel.

As my review made obvious, Tartt and I have a lot to disagree about. A lot. In that review, I also dismissed the idea that The Goldfinch deserved the Pulitzer. I'd like to slightly amend my views.

I still think The Goldfinch has many, many ethical problems. But see, that's the thing. They're ethical problems. The novel still has problems of craft and execution but in my furor over the ethical nature of the novel, I exaggerated the problems in craft. And, as I'll show later, I have no right to discredit a novel's artistic merit due to its ethics, simply because ethics are subjective.

Donna Tartt's novels are among the most ambitious novels I've ever read. The ambition and scope of the two novels of hers that I've read/almost-read are on par and even exceed many classics. For that alone, reading her work is a pleasure.

But then the prose. What gorgeous prose. I can read anything by her for the prose alone! It's in the top three best prose list I have in my head (I have lists for basically everything reading-related -- best plotting, characters, etc. I'm a maniac, seriously). Pairing the prose with the scope in her novels... it's a winning combination. I haven't read The Little Friend and I'm not sure I will because of its meh reviews; if I do read it, it'll be for the prose.

Yet, I still stand by what I said in my original reaction. Not as much in The Secret History (because of the Arab scene), but in The Goldfinch there is a definite nostalgic desire for pre-'diverse-loving' America(if that's what you can call the USA right now). A longing for an age where the great cultural contributions of whites reined supreme, not denigrated by modern 'diverse contributions'. A sympathy for those who want to go back to those days exists in that novel, very Gone With the Wind in nature. A desire for an age that erased people of color, pretended their hardships and suffering did not exist because all that mattered where white people and what their problems were. I don't know why, but I saw a lot more of that in The Goldfinch than The Secret History. I can guess what Tartt's true intentions are (I did so in my review), but that's unfair because I don't know her.

Yes, I disagree the ethical sentiment in The Goldfinch. Of course I disagree with that. But I still love Tartt. I tried denying it before, but she really is a tremendous author, one of my favorites (although I still don't think The Goldfinch deserved the Pulitzer - maybe it won  there was no better contestant? Because of the amazing prose and incredible scope of that novel - and that amazing opening scene?).

And that's the thing. If I meet Tartt, I'd squee and ask her to sign my book and everything. I'd love to sit down and have dinner together, just talk for hours and not aggressively at all, simply to see what she meant. And if she does have that nostalgic desire, great. It's not for me to get angry about. In fact, I think we'd have a much greater discussion than I'd have with any author I agreed with on every subject.

There's a tremendous pull to equate love with agreement and hate with disagreement. Disagreeing with someone doesn't require hate, nor does it exclude love. A person and their ideas are separate. Hating one doesn't require hating both.

It's a problem with a lot of social activism in the media. With 'don't reply to the trolls' quickly slipping into 'don't discuss a topic with anyone who disagrees with you', I fear we're going to fall into a predicament similar to the one of the construction workers pictured below.

There are generally two sides to social activism in the media: a conservative view and a liberal view. Discussions have been growing in number and in voice, but each side is getting louder and louder as they build their half of the bridge. We assume we're going to meet in the middle, finally join and understand what the other side is saying. But I truly fear we are simply talking past one another. I fear that soon, it'll be too late, and we'll keep talking and talking in this echo chamber until we look behind our shoulders and realize...dang. Those people we hoped to change, they walked right past us, talking and arguing in another echo chamber.

There's no point hating someone for their ideas. Yes, it's a really hard thing to do and I'm struggling really hard to do it. But it's important. If we don't join into one conversation, practically speaking, very little will get done. And an additional point, it might surprise people that (gasp!) maybe there's a pro-lifer too afraid to speak in the YA author section of Twitter. Instead of generating meaningful conversation around these topics, all that's happening is bullying and unintended censorship (down with writer self-censorship!). Engage the trolls! They speak things that the rest of the population thinks in silence.

This does not necessitate compromise in the same way Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did not and should not have compromised with Jim Crow; a wrong idea, no matter how popular, is still a wrong idea. But we do need to start talking together, or the bridge we're trying to build will be as bad and useless as the one above.

The good thing about constructing things, though? You can always tear things down and build again.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Do You Read Nonfiction? Why You Should

For the most part, I write contemporary novels. Modern issues find their ways into my books.

Rightly so, writers like JK Rowling, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury have established the crucial importance of constant reading for anyone to be a decent writer. Read read read read read is the overarching theme; read everything you can.

For a long time, I've thought that only meant fiction. Yet, all the nonfiction that I've read (which isn't nearly enough) has helped to create a more believable and honest depiction of contemporary issues and life.

How does a writer balance reading nonfiction and fiction? And by nonfiction I don't mean narrative nonfiction, I mean actual, academic, fact-based nonfiction.

I have nonfiction books on my nightstand, but whenever my fingers itch to pick them up I grab something else. It's a waste, right? To read nonfiction when reading fiction - as all these great writers have said - is the key to being a good fiction writer. There's little emphasis on prose, no such thing as plot or characterization, and no allegory or metaphors or any such fictional devices. How can we fiction writers learn from nonfiction?

But here's the thing. Apart from it being, in my opinion, required for good social activists or public figures, reading nonfiction might be the key to great fiction writing. Seriously. I think it's the next big breakthrough in fiction writing (shhhh, don't give the secret away).

True, most writing and art is simply an autobiography (it's a cynical view of art, but I've found it to be true), but I assume that most of us aren't writing literal autobiographies. We're writing fiction, and we have characters that go through issues we don't go through.

The key is to portray these characters honestly, whether they be in a fantasy novel, a romance, a sci-fi, a mystery, anything. The problems that living beings face are universal and they have universal nuances and complexities that a simple 'I'll guess my way through it' attitude cannot address. These problems are usually also part of a societal structure, a structure that can be analyzed and understood more thoroughly.

It's one of the (few) problems I had with Harry Potter. How does race play a role in the wizarding world? How do Muggleborns not speak up against the tyranny of owl mail when text messages work so much faster (and would have solved Harry's dilemma of finding Sirius Black quite quickly - and electric objects do work in Grimmauld Place, they only don't work in Hogwarts). Where are all these complexities? The series's saving grace is the fact that it is fantasy. Rowling already painstakingly created such a nuanced world that expecting any more from her is just cruel and unusual punishment. Plus, she is Queen. I just wanted to show that these complexities and nuances (learned from nonfiction based on this world) could be translated to fantasy.

And even further complexities and nuances: gentrification, health care, law, policy, scientific methodology, university structures, etc. These exist in the real world and can exist in fantasy worlds as well.

I've completely revised my novel based on information I learned within the last few months. Pulling up an article or Googling a quick fact for research works well but not nearly as well as really researching and reading the best books on your topic. Not to mention, taking the first bit of information you receive can be dangerous.

For example. In The DaVinci Code, Robert Langdon speaks to a group of prisoners about the Mona Lisa's supposed gender duality. Using the Egyptian god Amon and the goddess Isis (or L'isa), Langdon, a Harvard professor, uses the fact that the two names rearrange to Mona Lisa as part of his proof that Mona Lisa smiles because she promotes the divine union of male and female.

Well. Well. Da Vinci never named the painting. Never. It's called La Gioconda traditionally (yes, not Mona Lisa, we English-lovers!) and was named Mona Lisa centuries after Da Vinci's death. Ugh. Just read this, it explains it all. Harvard professor? I think not.

But the fact of the matter is, how would someone have known the painting's naming history without doing thorough research? It's not a fact that most even imagine to research about. The only solution is to just research everything.

Not only did Dan Brown alienate much of his readership (I almost but the book down after reading that part), but he lost credibility with many people. But you can't really blame him. It's the case of a 'take the first bit of information given and not look into it further'. It's something we all do to save time and make quick decisions.

But fiction writing is not fast. We all know that. It's a slow-cooked meal, and the slower you cook it, the better it gets (unless it's super slow - try being good, but not overly perfectionist!). Do your research. Read nonfiction!

Reading all these books will take long. Reading nonfiction that has little to do with your subject matter is crucially important too, because having a broad knowledge base lets you pick where your novel can go, giving you a much bigger canvas to paint on. I mean, we read fiction books outside our genre, right? Why not read nonfiction books outside our topics? It'll give us the honesty that we all reach for when we write.

First on my reading list, after I finish my current book, is Merchants of Doubt or Alan Turing's biography, still have to decide.

Do you read nonfiction? Why or why not?

Friday, January 9, 2015

Very Inspiring Blogger Award!

Wowowowowowow!!!!!!!! Thank you so much P.D. Pabst for nominating me. Go clicky clicky her post to find out more about her.

The award rules are:
  • Display the award on your blog
  • Link back to the person who nominated you
  • State seven things about yourself
  • Nominate bloggers, link to them, and notify them about their nominations (I'm just going to nominate a few bloggers that really inspire me instead of a set number :D)
(It's so great that the number is seven because seven is awesome number in Harry Potter.)
  1. I love writing. I realized it after taking a two-week long break that I really just love writing, especially in winter months for some reason. The white light reflecting off the snow just feels so great to write in! And writing has saved my life. Seriously mean that.
  2. I love traveling. I'll always budget in a vacation no matter what my salary will be now and in the future (but, you know, hopefully it's $$$$ instead of $ - GOOD LUCK TO ME).
  3. I love complaining about Chicago winters even though they are nothing compared to Canadian winters.
  4. Canada is awesome.
  5. I hate censorship - and yet I think writers (writers!) censor themselves more than anyone censors writers. So I try to fight that. Because if writers are too afraid to speak, who will?
  6. Writing is my passion, but art (especially painting) is my ADDICTION. I love both of them in different ways. Art is more of an unbridled, emotion-filled, crazy passion, while writing requires a lot more professionalism. Maybe it's because I haven't tried getting into any art galleries. That's a beast I won't touch until later.
  7. I say 'awesome' way too much and have to edit my blog posts to get rid of the most excessive uses of that awesome word.
  • Wendy Morrell. Love her blogging style, her humor, and her heart. She's the one who inspired me to blog about things I'm passionate about, not just writing-wise. Thank you thank you.
  • Alex J. Cavanaugh. If you've seen the amount of work he puts into building such a big community and how much time he spends visiting so many blogs, you'd know how inspiring he is.
  • Michelle Hauck. Joyful, happy, and incredibly hard-working.
  • Mike Anthony. Along with Michelle, the best contest co-host anyone could ask for.
  • Morgan Shamy. The honesty in her blog posts mixed with her NEVER-ENDING friendliness and kindness make her very, very inspiring.
Thank you thank you all of you!!!

I definitely left some people off of this list, and for that I truly apologize. This is my first post in over two weeks and I'm excited to hop back into writing and Twitter and everything. I LOVE ALL YOU GUYS! THANK YOU!