Books in General

Who Gave You the Right to Tell That Story?

1 November 2019

From Vulture:

A few years ago, a writer named Ashima Saigal from Grand Rapids, Michigan, witnessed an incident on a bus in which a group of black kids were mistreated by the police. She was disturbed, and soon after, she wrote about it. Later, reading over what she’d written, she realized the story wasn’t working. She’d tried to write from one of the kid’s perspectives, but Saigal, who is Indian-American, wasn’t sure that she had the skill or knowledge to write from the point of view of a black child. She decided to sign up for an online creative writing course called “Writing the Other.”

The course was founded by the speculative-fiction writers Nisi Shawl, who is black, and Cynthia Ward, who is white, nearly twenty years ago. They’d met a decade or so earlier, at a fantasy and science-fiction workshop, and were inspired to design their own writing class after a conversation with another classmate, a white friend who’d declared that she’d never write a character who didn’t share her background or identity because she’d be sure to get it wrong. “My immediate thought was, ‘well that’s taking the easy way out!’” recalled Shawl. While imagining the lives of people who are different from you is virtually a prerequisite of most successful fiction writing, the consequences of doing it poorly have grown more serious since the pre-Twitter, pre-woke ’90s, as the conversation about who gets to tell whose stories has moved from the fringes of publishing into the mainstream. J.K. Rowling, Lionel Shriver, and Kathryn Stockett have all caught heat for botching the job. In the young-adult fiction world, a number of books have been pulled in advance of their releases for clichéd and problematic portrayals of minorities. The conversation is often depicted in the media as a binary: On one side are those who argue that only writers from marginalized backgrounds should tell stories about people who share their cultural histories — a course correction for an industry that is overwhelmingly white — while on the other are those who say this wish amounts to censorship.

. . . .

One of the goals of the course is to shift the conversation from “whether” to “how.” The class is predicated on the idea that “writing the other” is a skill that can be taught and learned, like any aspect of the craft. Shawl and K. Tempest Bradford, a speculative fiction writer who co-teaches the class, urge their students to get comfortable describing a character as black or Asian or white. They warn of common pitfalls — like comparing skin tones to chocolate and coffee and other kinds of food, which carry colonial associations and can make people sound like commodities, intended to be consumed. Students learn to analyze their identities and the unconscious biases that shape their work. They consider why some identities are more challenging to render than others. They practice taking risks.

After taking the course, Saigal decided to set the story she’d been working on aside. “There was something about being in that class that helped me recognize I don’t have enough skill yet to do that,” she explained.

. . . .

I spoke to ten authors about how and why they decide to write outside their identities. Some found their interior lives uninteresting; others were compelled to represent the diverse worlds they inhabited. “There is no exact formula,” says Laila Lalami, author of the National Book Award finalist The Other Americans. “It’s not as if you can give a prescription to a writer: Take two teaspoons of empathy, a drop of research.” They each approached the work in different ways, and none were immune to the fear that they might get the other wrong. “It’s scary to be bold,” says the horror novelist Victor LaValle, whose seventh book will be his first with an all-female cast of protagonists. “But that’s what makes the work exciting.”

. . . .

Cross-Racial Longing

Jess Row

In grad school, the curriculum I was taught was virtually all white. Very few people, if any, were talking about writing cross-racially — the necessity of it, the dangers of it. It took me a long time to even admit to myself that that’s what I wanted to do. It wasn’t until I’d struggled with a novel that I tried to write for six or seven years, that was a complete disaster, that I had this idea which became my 2014 novel, Your Face in Mine. It’s about a white American who undergoes racial-reassignment surgery and becomes a black person. I did a lot of research. There’s a whole American literature on the subject — books like Passing. But the other thing I had to do was really search my own background. As a white kid growing up in Baltimore in the early ’90s, just totally obsessed with hip-hop, saturated in the golden era of Public Enemy and De La Soul — how did that affect my identity as a young person? And how did it shape me later, when I went to college, where I was effectively told that I had to forget that side of myself?

My editor and I had a lot of questions about why exactly my protagonist chooses to do this. Does he authentically feel like he’s a white person in a black body, or does he do it as a kind of fraud? When the novel came out, critics dove into those questions in interesting ways — is it possible for someone to actually want to be black? Why? Is there really such a thing as a transracial person who actually believes that they are black? My answer to those questions was yes. I do think there’s a relationship between longing to be black, and the decision, as a white writer, to write outside one’s own identity. I’ve always experienced cross-racial longing, and that translates into my fiction. My profound skepticism about my own whiteness drives me to write the kind of fiction and nonfiction that I write. When I went out on the road with Your Face in Mine, a student asked me a version of that question: ‘How can you be comfortable writing from a nonwhite perspective?’ I said to the student, ‘That assumes I’m comfortable writing from a white perspective, and I’m not.’ I’ve never been comfortable with normative representations of white American characters. I’m always looking to undermine and deconstruct and take apart those representations. That’s the material I’m drawn to, and it’s also the material of my life.

. . . .

The Inevitable Critique

Sarah Schulman

I’ve always written characters who were different than I was because I came of age in a multiracial lesbian community. I had an experience of interracial life that straight white people of my generation often didn’t. Take Meg Wolitzer — because she was straight, she was in an all-white literary world. Another significant factor: I did not go to an MFA program, and those were very whitening until like, yesterday. My writing training came from working in the underground feminist and gay newspapers of the late ’70s and early ’80s. I learned by writing about the people who were reading those newspapers. It was a very interactive readership — if they didn’t like what I wrote, they would tell me. My first characters with AIDS showed up in People in Trouble. I was surrounded by mass death, and the people around me were dying very quickly, and there was no record of the things they said about their own lives. What I was writing was witness fiction: I listened to people with AIDS and wrote down what they said.

In my first book, which came out in 1984, there were two characters of color — one worked, one didn’t. The one I think worked was an Asian lesbian rocker named Melanie Chang. She was kind of based on someone I knew. And then there was a kind of fake black best-friend character who didn’t work. She wasn’t based on anyone I knew. The characters who were based on people I knew were better characters at first. I’ve been told I got it wrong. Jacqueline Woodson told me I was wrong to have one of the protagonists in Shimmer be concerned by a biographical detail — that her black grandfather was once married to a white woman. She said a black person wouldn’t be hung up on this. I thought, Okay, I didn’t have the awareness to be accurate. It motivated me to work harder. Although, her statement has since been contradicted by other people. That’s the other thing. There is no monolithic black opinion. Still, I would have finessed this character differently. The Cosmopolitans, which came out almost 20 years later, has a black protagonist and a white protagonist. I asked Tayari Jones to read that manuscript and she said, ‘Yep, they’re black.’ It’s about being in conversation with people. But that only goes so far. I can never be in a room where there are only black people because as soon as I walk in, that’s ruined.

Link to the rest at Vulture

PG will note that writing about other persons and places who were much different than oneself has been widely accepted for centuries.

Would today’s world be improved in any way if Mark Twain had never written Huckleberry Finn? Or if Shakespeare had never written Othello?

What about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, thought to be the best-selling novel of the 19th century (it sold over one million copies in Great Britain). Her book depicts black people in a demeaning manner which is highly offensive to 21st century sensibilities. Her book was also widely credited with galvanizing the Abolitionist movement which kept the North fighting when a great many thought the cost of the war in money and lives was too great and that an armistice should be negotiated with the Confederacy. (According to recent studies, The Civil War resulted in an estimated  650,000-850,000 casualties. One out of ten white males in the US were killed in the war. About 22% of the population of southern men between 20-24 lost their lives. It was an enormously costly war.)

PG suggests that authors write about the people and topics they feel moved to write about.

Fortunately, an author writing in the third decade of the 21st century doesn’t have to run a gauntlet of timid publishers located in the rigid,  provincial confines of New York or Boston to offer her/his thoughts for sale in the largest bookstore in the world.

Harriet, who was turned down by many publishers before finding a brave one, would be envious of the broad path available to authors who have important things to say to the world today.


New Google Chrome Security Alert: Update Your Browsers As ‘High Severity’ Zero-Day Exploit Confirmed

1 November 2019
Comments Off on New Google Chrome Security Alert: Update Your Browsers As ‘High Severity’ Zero-Day Exploit Confirmed

From Forbes:

It takes a lot to scare anyone on Halloween night, but Google Chrome engineers were spooked enough to issue an urgent update announcement for the browser across all platforms. So, what gave Google the heebie-jeebies? The answer is not one but two security vulnerabilities, one of which has a zero-day exploit out in the wild already.

The October 31 disclosure from Google confirmed that the “stable channel” desktop Chrome browser is being updated to version 78.0.3904.87 across the Windows, Mac, and Linux platforms. This urgent update will start rolling out “over the coming days/weeks,” according to Google.

. . . .

Although any vulnerability that is given a high severity rating has to be taken seriously, there remain different levels of risk for average users and those likely to be of interest to nation-state hackers for example. Unlike recent Android security alerts including the now infamous Joker malware, it would appear that the real-world risk isn’t too critical for most people.

“For me, it’s relatively low risk, with Google quickly acknowledging the vulnerabilities,” Mike Thompson, an application security specialist, “it’s another day at the ‘zero-day’ office where, in my humble opinion, the likelihood of any real damage is minimal.”

John Opdenakker, an ethical hacker, agrees that it’s good to see Google acting so quickly, “particularly as far as the one that’s already been exploited in the wild is concerned,” he says.

Having done some further digging, as ethical hackers have a habit of doing, Opdenakker says, “this most severe vulnerability can only be exploited via specially crafted websites,” which means, “the average user shouldn’t lose any sleep.”

Link to the rest at Forbes


Out of the Office

1 November 2019
Comments Off on Out of the Office

PG has been out of his office since early this morning, helping out an old friend.

He’ll get a few posts up today and expects to be back in the saddle tomorrow.


Renaissance Nun’s ‘Last Supper’ Painting Makes Public Debut After 450 Years in Hiding

1 November 2019

The original of the painting pictured above is 6 1/2 feet high by 24 feet wide. At the OP, you may need to widen your browser as far as it will go to see the painting edge-to-edge.


Around 1568, Florentine nun Plautilla Nelli—a self-taught painter who ran an all-woman artists’ workshop out of her convent—embarked on her most ambitious project yet: a monumental Last Supper scene featuring life-size depictions of Jesus and the 12 Apostles.

As Alexandra Korey writes for the Florentine, Nelli’s roughly 21- by 6-and-a-half foot canvas is remarkable for its challenging composition, adept treatment of anatomy at a time when women were banned from studying the scientific field, and chosen subject. During the Renaissance, the majority of individuals who painted the biblical scene were male artists at the pinnacle of their careers.

. . . .

Despite boasting such a singular display of skill, the panel has long been overlooked. According to Visible: Plautilla Nelli and Her Last Supper Restored, a monograph edited by AWA Director Linda Falcone, Last Supper hung in the refectory (or dining hall) of the artist’s own convent, Santa Caterina, until the house of worship’s dissolution during the Napoleonic suppression of the early 19th century. The Florentine monastery of Santa Maria Novella acquired the painting in 1817, housing it in the refectory before moving it to a new location around 1865. In 1911, scholar Giovanna Pierattini reported, the portable panel was “removed from its stretcher, rolled up and moved to a warehouse, where it remained neglected for almost three decades.”

Plautilla’s Last Supper remained in storage until 1939, when it underwent significant restoration. Returned to the refectory, the painting sustained slight damage during the momentous flooding of Florence in 1966 but escaped largely unscathed. Upon the refectory’s reclassification as the Santa Maria Novella Museum in 1982, the work was transferred to the friars’ private rooms, where it was kept until scholars intervened in the 1990s.

. . . .

According to a press release, AWA (Advancing Women Artists) raised funds for the project through crowdfunding and a donation-based “Adopt an Apostle” program. The Florentine nonprofit’s all-woman team of curators, restorers and scientists then began the arduous process of restoration, performing tasks including removing a thick layer of yellow varnish, treating flaking paint and conducting an analysis of the pigments’ chemical composition.

“We restored the canvas and, while doing so, rediscovered Nelli’s story and her personality,” lead conservator Rossella Lari says. “She had powerful brushstrokes and loaded her brushes with paint.”

Link to the rest at

PG notes that the OP includes much-larger photo of the painting plus a photo of the painting before it was restored, which has given him more respect for the artistic talent and skill of those who restore great art.

Over the last decade, AWA has restored over 50 works by women artists from the Renaissance to the twentieth century.

Here’s a link to Advancing Women Artists, the restorers, and here’s a link to a page showing the other female Florentine artists, both ancient and modern, or works of female artists that are found in the museums of Florence, for whom AWA has or is providing restoration work.

The Fear of Being Buried Alive (and How to Prevent It)

31 October 2019

PG is not sure how this item might relate to books, but suspects it might be a stimulating writing prompt.

Plus, Haloween

From JSTOR Daily:

Anxiety over being buried alive dates back centuries. Roman author Pliny the Elder remarked: “Such is the condition of humanity, and so uncertain is men’s judgment, that they cannot determine even death itself.” Declaring if someone is dead has not always been easy. There is still debate today over when “legal death” occurs, as the brain can stop functioning while the body remains on life support. The fear of waking up in a mortuary or, worse, a casket, endures. It even has a name: Taphophobia.

This dread reached a crescendo in the nineteenth century, culminating in the 1896 founding of the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial. “Blending middle-class unease over Britain’s lax death certification standards with residual working-class worry about defilement at the hands of anatomists, the association labored to publicize the hazards of hasty interment,” the historian George K. Behlmer writes in the Journal of British Studies. The distributed pamphlets related anecdotes about close calls with premature burial. And the association’s members asked Parliament to take action to spare its constituents from this fate. “Their warnings about the nightmarish potential of misdiagnosed death sounded all the more dire to a population that was deeply ambivalent about the ambitions of medical science,” Behlmer adds.

. . . .

An 1898 article in The British Medical Journal on the “prevention of premature burial” lists the protocol for practitioners in Philadelphia in declaring death. It includes holding a mirror or glass under the nostrils of the deceased and touching the skin with “a piece of iron or steel heated red hot for at least the space of ten seconds.” These tactics were not that different from what a doctor may have done in the eighteenth or seventeenth centuries.

Popular literature, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 “The Fall of the House of Usher” and 1844 “The Premature Burial,” in which the narrator states that “no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death,” contributed to this fear. The narrator of Poe’s story remodels their family vault with elaborate mechanisms, stores for food, and openings for light and air just in case they are buried alive. Although there were “safety coffins,” or devices to release a wrongly interred person before the nineteenth century, the era saw a new wave of preventative tools to sell.

. . . .

The best way, however, to find out if someone was dead, was rather simple, if unpleasant and time-consuming: wait for them to rot. “The mortuary was created to prevent premature burial,” the historian Marc Alexander writes in The Hastings Center Report. “In the mortuary the corpse could be left to putrefy in hygienic isolation. It could be observed until the last possible moment.” The idea predated the nineteenth-century rise in concern with premature burial: the French physician François Thierry proposed the concept of a mortuary in a 1785 book. Paris opened its mortuary by the turn of that century.

Link to the rest at JSTOR Daily




The Real Dracula Is A Detective Story

31 October 2019

From Crime Reads:

Though it might have you think otherwise, the epistolary Victorian monster novel Dracula is a detective story.

Written by Bram Stoker in 1897, it tells the story of six middle-class professionals who track down an out-of-touch Eastern-European vampire on his feeding frenzy throughout London. Though its story is mostly well-known throughout the last century of pop culture via a host of watered-down adaptations, the (long) novel itself is a transcontinental, multi-generational, polyphonic, supernatural ensemble chase narrative built out of a collection of small documents. Dracula is convoluted, energetic, and sometimes even a bit confusing—sometimes the result of overly-ambitious plotting (there are nine central characters) and sometimes due to a seeming-lack of editing (there are few explanations for specific connections or events, and any well-edited critical edition of the novel will point out how many times Stoker accidentally mis-dates his characters’ letters and diary entries).

But the periodical disjointedness of Dracula only helps to categorize it as a text particularly overwhelmed by possibility (which the detective story, fundamentally initiated by a question without an answer, is, as well). The epistolary Dracula itself embodies, and is thematically about, material excess: too many characters, too many documents, too many clues, too many victims, too many possible answers. It is an overstuffed file-cabinet; a massive, multi-colored evidence board of a novel. And it exists in this expansive, immense way, in drastic pursuit of a single explanation—or, really, two: what monster is responsible for the bloodshed in England, and, once he is identified, how can he be stopped?

. . . .

Dracula begins in the rural backwaters of the Carpathian Mountains, where the credulous young solicitor Jonathan Harker is visiting a wealthy Transylvanian nobleman, Count Dracula, to facilitate his purchase of an English estate called Carfax Abbey. The Count has terrible breath, hairy palms and weirdly intense Anglophilia, but he and Jonathan hit it off and spend long nights chatting, until Jonathan discovers that his host is a vampire. He’s then nearly seduced by a bunch of the Count’s wanton vampire wives and held captive while the Count begins preparations to sail to England, for what Jonathan now fears will be the killing spree of the century. He logs all of his creepy experiences and theories in the journal he keeps with him. He tries to kill the Count and escape the castle. And then he disappears.

These are the novel’s first four chapters; the story then shifts fifteen hundred miles away and a few months back in time, to England, allowing the mystery of what has happened to Jonathan Harker to linger unanswered. Back in England, Jonathan has only just left for his journey to Hungary, and his thoughtful fiancée, Mina Murray, a schoolteacher, spends her summer vacation teaching herself shorthand, learning how to use a typewriter, and writing letters to her friend Lucy Westenra, a beautiful young woman who wants to talk about how three men are totally in love with her and she’s not sure whom she should marry. As the summer moves on and Mina travels to visit her friend in the charming seaside town of Whitby, word from Jonathan ceases, a creepy ship arrives in an English harbor with its whole crew dead or missing, and Lucy begins to sleepwalk, growing sicker and sicker with each passing day. Meanwhile, a zoophagous patient at the local sanatorium (run by Lucy’s suitor Dr. Seward) has begun to predict the arrival of his “Master.”

. . . .

Dracula arrived at the tail of the decade, in 1897, stalking the flock of monster-centric texts that emerged circa the turn of the century, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Rudyard Kipling’s “A Matter of Fact” (1892), H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and War of the Worlds (1897), and Richard Marsh’s The Beetle (1897)—the last of which is rarely read now but actually outsold Dracula when they were concurrently released.

Modern critics have read the mass-emergence of the monster novel as responding to a late-Victorian culture that was completely, (to some) horrifyingly transforming—in terms of technical and scientific progress, but also regarding social organization (the expansion of the working class and the increased opportunities for female advancement) and colonial expansion (as well as the permeating fear of reverse-colonialism, in which the empire would immigrate to England and racially co-exist there). Dracula, itself, is packed with all these tensions and euphorias—as scholar Bram Dijkstra notes, it celebrates a forward-thinking professional woman while simultaneously expressing terror at female desire and sexuality.

. . . .

Dracula’s critical versatility is one of the likely reasons it has stayed alive, all these years; it is, much like the vampire himself, a shapeshifter. Alas, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has written, “The monster is… an embodiment of a certain cultural moment—of a time, a feeling, and a place. The monster’s body quite literally incorporates fear, desire, anxiety, and fantasy (ataractic or incendiary), giving them life and an uncanny independence. The monstrous body is pure culture.” The monster becomes a means to ask questions, to interrogate a particular system.

. . . .

By the time of Dracula’s publication, the newly-developed “detective story” genre had been firmly established—starting in the 1850s, with the publication of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories about the virtuosic amateur detective Dupin. Its conventions were cemented in 1868, with the publication of the first full-length English-language detective novel The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins. Both the mystery novel and the monster novel have shared roots in an earlier literary tradition, as well: the Gothic—which wonders about supernatural entities as much as, and often connected to, violent crimes. Generally speaking, the monster story presents a set of baffling clues that lead towards a hidden explanation, with the distinction being that the explanation exists in a realm of potential rather than practicality. The monster story is about figuring out what might be possible, rather than, as in the detective story, about solving what has simply happened.

Link to the rest at Crime Reads

Why Aren’t Female Celebrities Writing More Novels?

25 October 2019

From Slate:

Last week, an acclaimed author published a sequel that further examines the darkest parts of American culture. I’m referring, of course, to Sean Penn’s Bob Honey Sings Jimmy Crack Corn, the follow-up to his debut novel, Bob Honey Who Just Do Stuff.

The first Bob Honey was almost universally panned by critics last year, and the follow-up edition is no better, written in ostentatiously alliterative prose that falls somewhere between juvenile tongue-twisting and unhinged rambling: “Catholic catagonia caged poor Annie’s exculpatory rapture, leaving investigators singing psalms.” It includes footnotes explaining obtuse military slang and references to William Golding, making sure we know that Penn understands them but not sullying the actual text with anything resembling clarity. But hey, Salman Rushdie said it was “fun to read” and Paul Theroux called it “comic, cauchemaresque, crackling with life.” Such literary lions wouldn’t steer us wrong, right?

. . . .

Last year saw the publication of novels by David Duchovny and Michael Imperioli, and in 2017, Tom Hanks’ story collection was almost as beloved as Tom Hanks himself. Going back a bit further offers work from James Franco, B.J. Novak, Jesse Eisenberg, and Ethan Hawke. But for the past few years, such A-list wordsmiths have all been dudes. So where are the novels and short stories by famous women?

. . . .

There’s a long history of celebrities, male and female, entering the publishing world to diversify their brands, telegraph that they’re intellectuals, or—more generously—write because they are agnostic in their creative pursuits, though mostly they write nonfiction or children’s titles. There are a handful of exceptions—Amber Tamblyn, Krysten Ritter, and Molly Ringwald have all written novels—but by my count, 40 well-known men (mainly film and TV personalities, but also musicians, sports stars, and political figures) have published books of adult fiction in the past two decades. There have been 19 women who have also done so. It’s worth noting that almost all of these authors are white, and Nicole Richie is the only woman of color.

In today’s literary landscape, famous women are recommending fiction instead of writing it. Members of Emma Watson’s feminist book club, Our Shared Shelf, discuss authors like Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood every two months on Goodreads. Emma Roberts’ Belletrist book club features a different title and independent bookstore on social media every month. Book of the Month Club has a large roster of well-known, predominantly female guest judges, including Gabrielle Union and Constance Wu. Sarah Jessica Parker helms an eponymous imprint at Random House. And Reese Witherspoon—taking the baton from her friend Oprah, the grande dame of book recommendations—picks one book each month to promote, which then gets a Reese’s Book Club designation. Which means that Reese’s and Oprah’s names are on novels, but not as the authors.

In these cases, female celebrities are seen as readers, not writers, consumers, not creators. Women fill the slot in which they’ve historically been placed: supporting and encouraging, rather than competing. Famous women are clearly leading literary lives.

Link to the rest at Slate

PG gently suggests that maybe female celebrities understand they can make much more money doing what made them famous in the first place instead of writing novels.

It also occurred to PG that some of the male celebrities mentioned in the OP probably used ghostwriters. Plus, as far as male celebrities are concerned, PG had to look up Michael Imperioli to discover he was a supporting actor in The Sopranos.

Speaking of “A-list wordsmiths,” PG doesn’t think that James Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), B.J. Novak (Punk’d), Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale), and Ethan Hawke (Assault on Precinct 13) would make it anybody’s A-list unless you were grading on a very generous curve.

Why do I write?

25 October 2019

Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air. A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, girded with words, a beat outside.

Why do we write? A chorus erupts.

Because we cannot simply live.

~ Pattie Smith

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