Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Christmas Meditation

Until recently, I had read very little of the work of Marilynne Robinson, the prize-winning American author. Then came her interviews in the New York Review of Books with President Obama last month, in which he confesses to being a great fan of her thoughtful fiction, which is seen as unique in today's world by being both intellectually challenging and infused with Christian thought. She has been praised for being critical yet also positive in viewing cultural conflicts (gun violence, atheism, gender, etc.).

Robinson strikes me in some ways as another Gary Wills, a public intellectual who looks at big issues historically and from the perspective of a committed Christian, deeply informed about American culture. Both can be opinionated, contrary, original, and deeply engaged in the main issues of our time, including the relation between science and faith. Whereas Wills is a Catholic historian, Robinson is a Protestant novelist and intellectual.

Robinson tackles many such issues in her newest book of essays, The Givenness of Things.  I am especially intrigued by her fresh take on Calvin in her essay on metaphysics, which she defines in her own way.

One piece struck me as giving some fresh insight into the mystery of the Incarnation, which Christians celebrate this week: the Son of God becoming man.  Robinson, reflecting on several Biblical passages (including the opening of the Gospel of John and Col. 1: 15-20), tries to show what it means that, even before he became human two thousand years ago, Christ existed as the "first-born of all creation."  Christ was implicitly present, she suggests, in the poor and humble from the very beginning, "from the primordial moment when human circumstance began to call for justice and generosity."

So before there was Jesus there was always Christ, the divine Son, existing (not merely in some vague heavenly realm) metaphysically in humankind before the Nativity, before he became physically present as a man. "In the beginning was the Word. . ."

I welcome this elegantly thought-out reflection since I need a fresh way to think about these timeless mysteries, and I am grateful to Ms. Robinson for her essay. I must now read more of her work.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Trumpeting Hatred

The most disturbing thing for me about the Donald Trump phenomenon is not just his arrogant, toxic disregard for truth or his constant media attention or the failure of the Republican establishment to remove him from the spotlight, as Senator McCarthy was finally removed.  What bothers me is the fact that he has generated millions of followers and supporters to whom he panders. They make him a national embarrassment.

Like all demagogues, Trump appeals to the self-interest and fear of many people who are understandably confused by the threat of terrorism to this country and the challenge of refugees.  He allows these people to vent their anger, based on fear; and in this sense he serves a purpose. But the time for this public display of venom to end has passed.

What Trump-ism reveals to me is the power and appeal of hate: how much easier it is to hate than to love. Love takes effort and attention to someone other than the self; it takes patience.  Hate is easy: it bubbles to the surface when fear turns into anger, as when issues of injustice in race, gender or ethnicity arise.  The powerless feel empowered by hating; they feel important, and so they attack what they resent or fear.

The fact is, people enjoy hating, and the world-wide media enjoy covering the frenzy of Islamophobia unleashed by the Trump candidacy. His followers feel better--temporarily. But citizens probably felt the same way in the 1930s, when fascism took hold in Europe.

We know where that led. That's why the most disturbing thing for me in today's news is that millions of seemingly rational Americans agree with the fear-based hatred represented by Donald Trump. To dismiss him as a clown is to undervalue the dangerous impact of his appeal.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Tips for Fiction Writers

My main tip for would-be writers is to read a lot of good stuff. And of course, to write regularly.  If you write contemporary fiction, you can't go wrong in checking out the Provo Canyon Review, whose editorial guidelines are revealing:

They seek short fiction that is "deeply moving without being sentimental," tender, with a mix of grace, vulnerability and compassion. And that shows attention to style and language.

These qualities and more are abundantly present in the recently published volume of short stories, Fine People, by the Review's co-editor, Chris McClelland, whom I have known for some years, starting from his graduate work at the University of Central Florida.

Chris is a master of the short story, having read and absorbed what he has read; as a result, his readers who also write can learn some valuable lessons from his work. For example, about how to have a strong opening sentence that propels you on to the narrative that follows; characters that wrestle with complicated emotional issues and become believable because of what they say; and narratives that are concise, with carefully crafted sentences.

Consider the title story, "Fine People," about the grief and anger of a couple traveling in Mexico sharing their grief unexpectedly with the owner of a cantina. This is the kind of powerful story that makes us want to read the other stories in the collection, which do not disappoint.

Chris McClelland, in his deeply felt and well-crafted fiction, has much to teach the reader about how the short story works.  He experiments with various points of view, uses various locales, and never flinches from hard truths about the human heart.

His book would make a fine holiday gift for someone: only $9 on Amazon for the paperback, only $4 for the Kindle edition.  Just a suggestion.

And if you're a writer of short fiction, consider submitting your work to after you have seen what work they are looking for.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Errors and Expectations

I have high expectations when I open a book published by a noted publisher. I expect, or used to expect, a factually accurate, carefully revised and edited text, with full documentation to sources consulted, and an unbiased stance.

Today, with electronic publishing and cut-backs in the cut-throat world of publishing printed books, I have to settle for less. At least the New Yorker maintains the traditional standards, being conservative in punctuation and style, hiring line editors to proof every article more than once, and fact-checkers to double check each statement. Few other outfits today spend the money for all this, and the public suffers.

Mark Twain, suspicious of health fads and knowledgeable about printing, once said that in reading a book giving advice on health, you have to be careful or you might die of a misprint.  I suppose that is still true, perhaps even more so on the internet where editing in the usual sense is rare.

According to a study a few years ago, sixty percent of articles published in American newspapers and magazines contained errors; only 20 percent were ever corrected.  The New York Times remains one of the few publications with a full-time corrections editor, who lists amended versions of 3,500 items a year; but many go unnoticed.

Students in graduate schools learning research methodology are taught, or should know, the importance of reading sources with a healthy skepticism, taking time to double check facts and quotations for accuracy.  Other writers are well advised to double check the meanings of words, as I do from time to time.

Ultimately, the author is the one responsible for being accurate, and by going public, he or she should expect to be challenged not only for unwarranted statements but for statements of fact--something lost on several leading political candidates these days, whose wild assertions are laughable, yet get circulated in the media so that people come to believe they are true.

Given the statements made by Donald Trump and others in his party, the little errors I worry about in printed books seem inconsequential; still, when I find one, it causes me to wonder how reliable the author really is.  An author is one who writes, supposedly, with authority. . .  .Ah, well.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Cost of Giving

Yesterday was called Giving Tuesday, the day when many charities and non-profits asked for donations, just in time to cash in on the holiday spirit, apparently, when many people consider giving gifts.

We shouldn't need reminding, of course, and we shouldn't need a season for giving. Yet it does often take an effort; it's not easy to reach outside our own needs and anticipate the needs of another, even to know what gift might please a friend. Quite often, we buy things we might like, failing to consider the recipient.

The challenge of giving, and its relation to attention (and thus to love) is explored by David Whyte in his little book I referred to earlier, "Consolations."  He mentions that, as far as we know, no other creatures on earth have the ability "to fully acknowledge the spirit of another," which he sees as central to giving. I quote Whyte:

"Giving means paying attention and creating imaginative contact with the one to whom we are giving. . ." Thus it is a way of acknowledging and giving thanks for lives other than our own. It is, I might add, a form of prayer, gratitude being central to prayer.

The cost of giving often goes well beyond the money or time involved.

Many forms of giving, however, are also valuable but less personal, less a matter of attention.  Consider dropping money in the Salvation Army bucket during this pre-Christmas season. Or sending a check to a charity.

Here's a even easier practical idea for anyone who wishes to give without the challenge suggested by Whyte: click regularly--I do it daily: it's free!--on the Hunger Site:  This website, in addition to generating food for the hungry around the world, has links to the Literacy Site (389,000 books were given to children last year alone).

It takes only a minute or less to click on one of these sites, where sponsors contribute funds for the needy based on the number of clicks. So, especially in this season, you can make a difference and give regularly. Sometimes, giving can cost nothing.