On Reading fiction

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A student in my War, Peace and Strategy course recently e-mailed me, “…it is extremely difficult to put oneself into the mind of Putin.” To which I replied, “Getting into the minds of others is where reading (and writing) fiction comes in. It teaches you to think outside of your own experience or worldview.”

A decade after September 11th, I taught a politics and literature course. The course was taught as part of the political theory subfield. Previous syllabi consisted of excerpts from classic writers and theorists. Since I was not a theorist, I chose a different tact. Instead, I would look at political themes in contemporary literature.

  • The question of radicalization and political violence was explored by reading The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. By the way, the movie version is a disaster partly because it removes the ambiguity about the two main characters’ roles.
  • Reading Lolita in Tehran (technically not fiction) looked at women’s roles under a theocracy. We used it to discuss different views of society, feminism, freedom and tolerance.
  • The Jungle is customarily read to see progressive politics or socialism. However, we looked at the universality of the working class immigrant experience and how the Eastern European experience is being repeated with recent Latin American and African immigrants.

Although I heard about the immigrant experience from my mother (a refugee from Nazi Germany), I have learned more from recent authors.

  • Ha Jin is one of my favorite authors (defined as I’ll read anything they wrote). His two books, A Free Life and A Song Everlasting describe recent Chinese immigrants’ experiences.
  • Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake tells a different tale, that of Indians balancing assimilation to American culture and maintaining their Indian identity.

One of my dissertation advisors once told me that he could not remember the last time he had read a book of fiction. All I could think of was, ‘How sad.’ He was an international scholar, including work in political psychology. I thought of how much he was missing by not allowing himself to place himself in the minds of those whose experience is different than his own.

  • Kim Richardson’s two books, The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek, are emotional trips to the world of Depression and 1950s Appalachia and the prejudice for someone that is only ‘slightly’ different.
  • Even though I was a student of World War 1, it wasn’t until I read fellow Coloradan Aimie Runyan’s Girls on the Line that I had more than a cursory understanding of their lives and importance. Aimie has taken on the task of telling the story of women in both World War 1 and 2, a series of enthralling books. I also recommend her two books on women in French Colonial Canada – Daughters of New France.

I can’t write about this subject without recommending two authors who may both claim to be great historical fiction writers.

  • Kate Quinn, whose The Rose Code and The Diamond Eye need to be made into movies immediately. They are high-tension thrillers about women in nontraditional roles in World War 2.
  • Ellen Marie Wiseman’s books tell the stories of marginalized women and children in the early Twentieth Century.

NOTE: Rather than clutter this with links, I leave it to interested readers to find in their local libraries or from their favorite booksellers (independent ones, if possible).

On the use of history and writing historical fiction

In my other job (the one that pays), I always caution students about using history.

The first issue is selection bias, defined as choosing your case on what you are trying to prove (the dependent variable). Given over 5000 years of recorded history, it is almost always possible to find a historical case or cases that will make your point. This is why I caution them about when anyone ever starts an argument with the term, “History shows . . .” For every case that students present, I can and do present a counter-example. This has been evident in the justifications by the Russians for their invasion and the Ukrainians for their sovereignty.

The second issue is interpretation. Even if there is agreement on which case, what that case means is subject to the analyst’s worldview. For example, when I was still a graduate student researching my dissertation, one of my cases was the Cuban Missile Crisis (or the Caribbean Crisis in Soviet/Russian journals). In 2000, I found over 130 peer-reviewed journal articles in the political science literature. As a friend in the history department told me – history told the first time is glorification, the second time it is told is revisionism, and the third time you are starting to get to the truth.

Although this is a problem in the social sciences, at least there are criteria and tests that are applied to fix both problems.

For a writer of historical fiction (my third career), it presents a challenge – how do I write an entertaining story with fictional characters and still present a true account for what happened? This is why caveats and history notes become so important.

And remember that as long as we have done our research, we are probably no better or worse than historians.

A Writer’s Dilemma

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I’ve started to work on a story about the ‘Canaries‘ of World War 1. These were the female munition workers during World War 1. They were called canaries because the chemicals used in manufacturing explosives tinted their hair and skin yellow. This story is part of the series of stories I have written about the war. My goal is to have it accepted to the Northern Colorado Writers Anthology, Exception/All centered around the question of ‘What does normal look like? and ‘Is anything ever truly normal?’

Many of these women had never worked or had been in traditional female roles such as household service. Yet, they responded to a national need and were significant contributors to the war efforts. When the war ended, many were dismissed. Their jobs were given to returning soldiers as the country returned to ‘normal.’ However, they and others showed that women could serve in these non-traditional roles. Their mistreatment motivated many to join the suffragette movement and demand the vote and equality under the law. Vivien Newman examines these changes in Changing Roles: Women After the Great War. The changes in society, such as the role of women, are just part of my fascination with World War 1

So, here is my dilemma.

  • I have the characters. Anne and Carol are two housemaids that were dismissed when their house closed and had to find employment. They were able to find it as munition workers.
  • I have the dramatic narratives and history of women that had done this work to provide context and source material for the story.

In other words, I have all the components of a good story. What I don’t have is a story that meets the three-act structure of a five-thousand-word short story and also serves the goal of showing that society is constantly changing.

And this is my dilemma, which I suspect is familiar to many historical fiction writers. How do I tell an entertaining story that fits within the historical context and provides lessons for today?

I have until August 15th and any suggestions will be gratefully accepted.

POST SCRIPT – I finished the story in time to submit it. One of my Beta readers thought it had the makings of a longer story or short novel. We shall see.

Words, Words, Words

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I’ve always been fascinated by words, meaning, and nuances. Editing honors theses and my work; I would get lost in finding just the right word to describe something or evoke an emotion which is why I found Pip Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words so intriguing treatment. Although on the surface, it is an account of the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary, the better story is the subject of excluded or ‘lost’ words and why some terms are acceptable and some are not.

As a graduate student, one of my required readings was Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, in which he talks about language’s purpose is confusion and control and not communication. I was also introduced to what at the time was a new theory – constructivism. Many contemporaries in grad school (this was in the mid ‘90s) did not think much of the theory. However, I found the argument that words have multiple meanings and the interpretation has a political impact intriguing. For example, Alexander Wendt famously wrote that “Anarchy is What States Make of It.” In IR, anarchy or the absence of government is a significant concept. Saying that it did not have an agreed-upon definition undercuts critical concepts and theories.

This is the heart of Williams’ The Dictionary of Lost Words story. The connection of words and power. Williams’ ‘lost’ words are excluded because they are used by lower classes and women and therefore not ‘proper’ speech. By declaring them not ‘proper,’ it delegitimizes the speakers and dismisses them as members of the decision-making classes.

My point is that we are seeing this with the rise of rules about acceptable speech in the public sphere. Limits are established by ‘hate speech’ rules, tech company exclusions of ‘fake news,’ and the American government’s recent establishment of a Disinformation Governance Board. Unfortunately, the name has shades of the Soviet Union and Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

Unfortunately, this narrowing of speech is most evident in academia, where we are taught that defining what we are studying is the first step of an investigation. The rise of speech codes has limited discussion of important topics because students and nontenured faculty (over 50% of all undergraduate teachers) know that they will be penalized for using those words. Therefore, discussions of topics such as abortion, group versus individual rights, and policy issues such as COVID and Climate Change are absent or constrained.

In teaching and researching decision-making and public policy, I always highlight the influence of agenda-setting (what is important) and framing (how to talk about it) on the outcome. Prospect theory is based on how the framing of risk changes its perception. By restricting speech in academia and the public sphere, we end questions about the validity of policy and the possible solutions.

The fight for free speech is essential to our existence. As Wittgenstein said —

Libraries and Librarians

After three weeks, I finally had time to post. University duties, building a set of book presses (for my wife) and monitoring the Ukraine conflict (for my classes) have kept me occupied over the last few weeks.

Speaking of Ukraine, this post about Ukrainian librarians canceling a conference until they have ‘vanquished the invaders’ has been viral on my Facebook feeds.

This motivated me to write about what I see as a new historical fiction genre – books about librarians and booksellers.

I think that the grandaddies of this category may be 84 Charing Cross, the epistolary novel set before and during World War 2. The focus is the relationship between an American author and a British bookstore. However, the focus is on the books and not the conflict. By the way, this was turned into a lovely movie with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins (pre-Hannibal Lector).

In the last few years, it seems that this has been augmented by an outbreak of new novels.

  • Although it overlaps with World War 1, the conflict in The Personal Librarian tells the story of Belle da Costa Greene, J.P. Morgan’s librarian and the woman that built the Morgan Library. Her conflict was with both racial and gender stereotypes. The story of how she overcomes these and class distinctions is an amazing story of intellect and belief in one’s self.
  • The Paris Bookseller has been getting a lot of press and it should. Like The Personal Librarian, this is the fictional account of a real person. In this case, it is about Sylvia Beach, who started Shakespeare and Company, an English language bookstore in Paris. The real heart of the story is her trying to get Joyce’s Ulysses published in the United States. At the same time, it describes the life of the ‘Lost Generation.’ Details of their lives and loves added much to an appreciation of their work
  • Moving from historical fiction based on real people, there was The Last Bookshop in London. A charming book, it is situated in London during the height of the Blitz. It details the effect of the bombings and death on the population and how they found salvation through books. My heart broke when a favorite character was killed (no spoliers), but I loved the way it ended. A great read for anyone whose idea of a good time was an afternoon in a bookstore (preferably an independent).
  • I am currently racing through The Paris Library about the American Library in Paris during World War 2. The novel is split between Paris before and during the war, and 1980s rural Montana. It is about survival and intergenerational connections through a love of literature.
  • More Rom-Com than historical fiction, I am including The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend in this list because it is just a fun read. After reading the from tales in these other books, you need to take a break.

The links for the books are to Amazon. This is not an endorsement, nor do I get money for the links. It was just the simplest way to add details to the listing. I got most of these from my local library in Longmont, and I recommend that you get your copy from your local library because they can use your support.

By the way, if you have any recommendations, please add them in the comments.

HAPPY READING!

Free Speech?!

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This is probably the only time that I agree with Chomsky

Since I ‘do’ politics every day as a university instructor, I have tried to keep this blog ‘politics-free.’ However, a trend that I’ve seen as my students make me fear for my third career as a writer.

In both classes in political rhetoric and conflict studies, I’ve had students advocate for limits on speech. When I ask them what speech should be limited, they say that ‘hate speech’ or any speech that advocates violence should not be allowed. Unfortunately, their definition of hate speech is generally anything that offends a ‘protected class.’ (For those not familiar, protected classes are defined as individuals or groups defined by a particular trait.)

I point out that as a veteran I am a member of a protected class. Joining the service in 1973 (when I went to the Military Academy), I had individuals wearing that sign swear at me. — What if I say that the peace symbol is offensive? Should I get it banned as a symbol of hate speech?

As for promoting violence, I ask if they would ban the Declaration of Independence or Thomas Paine’s Common Sense both of which were cited as reasons for violent actions?

The sad part is I remember the Free Speech Movement which started on campuses and with the left. It seems now that the sensitivity of modern society and students has made a joke of these efforts.

I won’t get into the banning of books (ALA – Banned and Challenged Books) which looks like a list of great literature.

I don’t have an answer. You can classify this as a rant. But I fear for politics, society, and culture when banning any material because it might be offensive becomes acceptable and a norm.

I leave with this quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart who I remember as a great defender of free speech.

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Images in the Future

My collection of photos, postcards and stereoscope pictures have served as a reference and inspiration for my stories about the Great War. I also have a collection of my own time in the service, which I regularly look through. At the same time, the thousands of pictures I’ve taken with my digital cameras and phone are rarely looked at unless I am searching for a specific image.

With everyone carrying cameras with their phones and chronicling their lives with social media, there is the possibility of recording almost every moment of life. This is the premise of Dave Eggers’ two novels, The Circle and The Every. According to my students that are veterans, the same occurs in combat zones (creating an operational security nightmare, I’m sure). I asked if they ever looked back at the pictures (which they can access on their phones at any time), and most said no. Not because of the images’ subject matter; it just doesn’t occur to them.

Changing phones, computers or just memory errors can lose all these photos. Even if you are backed up to a cloud account, change accounts or subscription to a backup service, and you may no longer have those pictures.

More important is how few people catalog those photos. I’ll admit that I don’t catalog outside of downloading after hikes or events and labeling the folder; I don’t catalog. I suspect most people don’t. Even in my family, it is not done except for my son, a photography hobbyist. Meanwhile, I can look at the shelf of my photo albums. Each is labeled with dates and pages with flat memorabilia like programs, tickets, and photos. I can remember going through my parents’ albums and telling me the stories of their lives.

This brings me to the question – will future historians and writers have this treasure at their fingers when recounting the past?

That is why I leave you with this suggestion. Do what you did when you were younger (if you are my age) or what your parents did – print the pictures, label them and put them in an album.

Writing Space

My YouTube feed has been showing these videos about authors’ workspaces (Writers and Their Writing Desks. There was no ‘typical’ set-up and while I was jealous of the large offices with fantastic panoramas, I smiled when I saw that Stephen King worked in an attic and Ray Bradbury (one of my favorites) worked what looked like an unfinished basement.

Which is exactly where I write – an unheated corner of the basement with heating ducts (top of picture) and water pipes (just in view on the left side). It is also my office as a university lecturer and with repeated transitions to remote learning, my teaching podium.

The desk itself is what is left of a computer desk bought in the 1980s. It was unfinished lumber, but now has a patina of spilled coffee, various ink explosions, and the sheen you get from decades of human contact. The left side is for writing and drawing with an array of fountain pens and colored pencils at hand. My laptop is in the middle with my planner (still handwritten) and notepad on the right. Inspiration for my historical fiction comes from the framed magazine pages on the wall (it separates me from our crawlspace).

On the other side of the footlocker (which doubles as an armoire), are my references. These range from the modern to memoirs and manuals published during and immediately after the war. The prize in this collection is a bound set of The Stars and Stripes newspaper. Additional inspiration comes from the collection of postcards and trench art.

Not pictured is the Carhartt blanket that keeps me warm as I write.

So that’s my space. If you are a writer, I would like to see where you write.