BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Conversations, Volume 3 Jorge Luis Borges [Int: Osvaldo Ferrari]

Conversations, Volume 3Conversations, Volume 3 by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


This book of interviews with Jorge Luis Borges has me jonesing to read a collection of his short fiction. I must admit that, despite Borges’ great stature as an author, I’ve only ever read one of his stories, and that was lost amid a huge anthology (also perhaps a poem or so under the same constraints.) However, I was intrigued by the possibility of gaining some insight into the Argentinian author credited as one of the founders of the magic realism genre in Latin America. I not only gained said insight, but I also developed an affinity for Borges as a thinker. These interviews not only discuss literature, but also philosophy, politics, language, and other topics as they interact with the literary world. The chapters, of which there are almost thirty, are topically organized and a few pages each.

The interviews are published as dialogues between Osvaldo Ferrari and Borges. That is to say, they are in transcript form so that one can experience the question and response as if you were witnessing the conversation. I found this worked well, and one could sense a camaraderie between the two men.

Let me answer a few questions about which readers might be interested. First, I came in late to the game, and one might wonder if there was any problem reading this, the third volume, first. It caused me no problems. Once in a while Ferrari would reference something the two discussed at an earlier point, but I didn’t feel any confusion (it was never necessary to have heard what they said earlier to interpret a reply.)

Second, given that the conversation is between two Argentinians, readers from other parts of the world might wonder if there is any difficulty following the discussions if one doesn’t know much about the art and social worlds of Argentina. Again, I would say the answer is no – for the most part. There are brief forays into Argentinian literature and politics, but the bulk of the discussion is cosmopolitan. I’d say there was considerably more page space devoted to Irishmen (e.g. Joyce and Yeats) and Americans (e.g. Emerson and Whitman) than there was to Argentinians.

Finally, if you’re wondering whether the book is highly focused on Borges’ work, the answer to that, too, is no. Borges discusses his own work enough, for example, that I now feel I know where I should begin my reading of him. However, he generally seems reticent to discuss his own work and the interviewer was responsive to that preference and picked his questions carefully.

If you’re interested in literature, I’d highly recommend this book. I found Borges penchant for minimalism and simplicity appealing, and yet he had deep insights to offer into a wide range of topics.

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5 Posthumous Gods of Literature; and, How to Become One

There have been many poets and authors who — for various reasons — never attracted a fandom while alive, but who came to be considered among the greats of literature in death. Here are a few examples whose stories I find particularly intriguing.

by Thomas Phillips, oil on canvas, 1807

5.) William Blake: Blake sold fewer than 30 copies of his poetic masterpiece Songs of Innocence and Experience while alive. He was known to rub people the wrong way and didn’t fit in to society well. He was widely considered insane, but at a minimum he was not much for falling in with societal norms. (He probably was insane, but cutting against the grain of societal expectations has historically often been mistaken for insanity.)  While he was a religious man (mystically inclined,) he’s also said to have been an early proponent of the free love movement. His views, which today might be called progressive, probably didn’t help him gain a following.

4.) Mikhail Bulgakov: Not only was Bulgakov’s brilliant novel, The Master & Margarita, banned during his lifetime, he had a number of his plays banned as well. What I found most intriguing about his story is that the ballsy author personally wrote Stalin and asked the dictator to allow him emigrate since the Soviet Union couldn’t find use for him as a writer. And he lived to tell about it (though he didn’t leave but did get a small job writing for a little theater.) Clearly, Stalin was a fan — even though the ruler wouldn’t let Bulgakov’s best work see the light of day.

3.) John Kennedy Toole: After accumulating rejections for his hilarious (and posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning) novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole committed suicide. After his death, Toole’s mother shopped the draft around and brow-beat Walker Percy into reading it, which ultimately resulted in it being published.

2.) Emily Dickinson: Fewer than 12 of Dickinson’s 1800+ poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson is the quintessential hermitic artist. Not only wasn’t she out publicizing her work, she didn’t particularly care to see those who came to visit her.

1.) Franz Kafka: Kafka left his unpublished novels The Trial, The Castle, and Amerika, as well as other works in a trunk, and told his good friend Max Brod to burn it all. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon your definition of a good friend), Brod ignored the instruction and the works were posthumously published.

In brief summary, here are the five ways to become a posthumous god of literature:

5.) Be seen as a lunatic / weirdo.

4.) Live under an authoritarian regime.

3.) Handle rejection poorly, lack patience, and / or fail to get help.

2.) Don’t go outside.

1.) Wink at the end of the sentence when you tell your best friend to burn all your work.

BOOK REVIEW: Wired for Story by Lisa Cron

Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First SentenceWired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence by Lisa Cron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

There are countless books offering advice to writers. Some are good. Some are not. Good, bad, or ugly, few of these books offer anything new beyond particularly artful (e.g. humorous or poetic) explanations or superior examples. In other words, if you’ve read five writer’s guides you’ve read five thousand. Cron’s book is the rare guide worth a read even if you’ve read a hundred other such books. It’s not that Wired for Story offers radical or novel advice on story building (its writer’s tips are orthodox.) It’s the way this book couches the arguments for what can admittedly be hackneyed advice. As the title suggests, Cron’s book is about how our brains are wired to love stories–as long as said stories contain certain attributes that the brain finds appealing. (Conversely, there’s a reason why books that go wildly off the reservation with “experimentalism” are doomed.)

While I’ve read many a book on writing, I picked up Wired for Story more out of an interest in the subject of the neuroscience of story. The book doesn’t delve deeply into the science, but it does cite leading thinkers in the field as well as providing a good layman’s overview of the neuroscientific principles that inform the book’s tips. Cron’s background is in publishing and her bona fides to write this book are as someone who came from a career reading and rejecting / accepting manuscripts. However, I believe she did a good job of laying out science.

The central idea is that humans love stories because the narrative structure allows people to simulate a nasty chain of problems without suffering the real world consequences. The brain loathes uncertainty and randomness, and loves whenever it can learn about how to face a problem or make sense of the world. This is why we love conflict, tension, and an unrelenting unfolding of worst case scenarios in our stories even though we tend to hate those characteristics in our own lives. This results in both the tried advice to keep putting the protagonist through the wringer, and the qualifications that a writer should do so in a way that is believable (our brain’s BS-detector is ever on) and which will eventually force the protagonist to change. Cron offers a definition of story that has the usual elements: “A story is how what happens affects someone who is trying to achieve what turns out to be a difficult goal, and how he or she changes as a result.” As with many guides, the definitions of plot, the protagonist’s issue / goal, theme, and tone are elaborated at length—as well as being differentiated because these topics tend to be confused by neophytes—often resulting in a failure to clarify one or more of them.

Stories also give us an opportunity to anticipate what others will do, and forecasting the behavior of others gives one a nice little dopamine dump. The ability to foresee what others will do has always been a powerful evolutionary advantage, and those who did it better passed on their genes more than their oblivious counterparts. Owing to this idea, there is a great deal of advice about what should be in the book (only what is relevant), and how it should be revealed (in a way that eschews attempts to play “gotcha” with your readers.)

One may wonder why I’m so pleased with a writer’s guide that gives common advice about writing–just because it explains said tips in terms of evolutionary biology. The answer is that it’s far easier to keep these lessons in mind when they’re held together by a logic rooted in what all readers have in common (e.g. conscious and unconscious minds, emotions, instinctual drives, etc.) For example, knowing why readers hate an overly simple resolution for a problem that’s presented as insoluble (i.e. robbing them of dopamine reward for figuring it out) helps one better recognize this pitfall in all its forms and to avoid it. Such an approach allows for a deductive approach and is far more useful than having memorized “avoid deus ex machina” as a disparate tip that’s attached to a specific example. In short, it’s both easier to remember and broadly implement these ideas when one understands the rationale from the ground up.

Beyond the reason in the last paragraph, I enjoyed this book for reasons that have little to do with its advice to writers. While I now know that there are other books on the evolutionary biology of story that deal with the subject more from a scientific perspective (while I haven’t read it yet, you might try this book), this was the first book that I stumbled across on that topic. And, it’s a topic that’s well worth understanding whether you’re a writer or not. No matter what one does, understanding the universal appeal of a story can be beneficial, whether it’s in the context of teaching, parenting, or business.

I’d recommend this book for writers—particularly those who think about the world in scientific terms. Beyond writers, if you have cause to construct or use stories in your life—or suspect you should—you can benefit from this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Gotham Writers’ Workshop: Writing Fiction by Various

Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York's Acclaimed Creative Writing SchoolWriting Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Alexander Steele

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This workbook-style guide to writing fiction is put out by the well-known New York City creative writing school. With 11 chapters, it delivers lessons on all the elements of fiction including: character development, plotting, establishing point of view, honing description, building realistic dialogue, varying pacing, establishing voice, determining a work’s theme, and carrying out revisions. It also has a chapter that goes into the business of writing (as opposed to the craft of writing which is the bailiwick of the first ten chapters.)

There are a couple of features of this book that set it apart from the vast canon of writers’ guides. First, this isn’t a single author work, which means the reader has access to a much broader pool of experience than one would in a single author text. It also means that an author can be assigned a topic according to his or her strengths as a writer.

Second, across the chapters, they use Raymond Carver’s Cathedral as an example work, and they provide that story in an appendix for those who haven’t read it. It’s not that the authors exclusively use this short story for examples. But it’s useful to have a common story and to include it because there are so many great stories and novels available that no matter how well-read one’s readership, there will be works that some haven’t read. (e.g. Much as I should’ve, I haven’t yet read nor seen the movie Gone with the Wind–a common exemplary work because it’s a beloved book, a movie, and because pop culture references [e.g. The Simpsons] have made the gist of it available to even those slackers who’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie.) There’s a reason why writers’ book authors often use movies to describe story elements, because there are many fewer movies than books and vastly fewer good movies—thus a higher likelihood of a common experience. Yes, there are a few works common across most school curricula, but there’s no better way to ensure that a book doesn’t get read thoroughly than to assign it as required reading.

A third useful feature of this book–but not one that is in any way unique to it–is that it offers writing exercises throughout to help build one’s skills through practice. This is where the value of such a book truly lies. The advice such books offer are almost always the same—sometimes hackneyed but almost always valuable. (A lot of tired advice is tired because it bears repeating owing to the constant infusion of new writers who repeat the same errors.) A final useful element of the book—but also one that features in many similar guides—is a checklist in the appendices that allows one to rapidly consider the book’s key questions as they apply to one’s own writing project.

I’d recommend this book as one of the most useful writers’ guides that I’ve read.

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BOOK REVIEW: 250 Things… by Chuck Wendig

250 Things You Should Know About Writing250 Things You Should Know About Writing by Chuck Wendig

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

You’re not going to get any visionary insight from Wendig’s book. What you will get is a lot of practical advice on writing salable commercial fiction delivered in a concise and humorous package. However, be forewarned, Wendig’s humor isn’t for everyone. It’ll appeal most to frat boys and others who enjoy the gratuitously bawdy.

The book really is arranged as a list of 250 pieces of advice on writing commercial fiction. These items are arranged logically into chapters covering topics such as character, setting, plot, description, screenwriting, and marketing your manuscript. The book offers a good way to review a lot of information if you enjoy the author’s sense of humor.

Rather than recommend the book without reservation, it may make more sense to make a couple lists of my own.

List I: People who will love this book.
-If you watch Robot Chicken and Archer, you’ll love this book.
-If you want to be the next Chuck Palahniuk,…
-If you send freakish porn to co-workers and are shocked by their stunned silence,…

List II: People who will hate this book.
-If you watch Downton Abbey and The MacNeil Lehrer Newshour, you’ll hate this book.
-If you want to be the next Chaucer,…
-If you are a deacon or lay minister in your church,…

Wendig’s language doesn’t leave a lot of room for middle-of-the-road views. His attempts to entertain as he informs will make the book quite readable for some and unpalatable for others. However, I suppose if you’re in the Venn intersect of those who watch both Downton Abbey and Robot Chicken you might have middling views on the book.

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Drunk, Narcissist, or Buddha: What Kind of Writer Are You?

IMG_0173I read a story in The Guardian the other day entitled “What drives writers to drink?”  It was actually an edited excerpt from a book by Olivia Laing entitled The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink.

I found this piece fascinating despite the fact that the title question seemed readily answered with another question, “In what other occupation must one regularly, repeatedly, and thoroughly get punched in the soul in order to succeed?” Writing is a personal act, and no piece of writing that is read escapes the assault of criticism, invited and uninvited, which ranges from sagacious to ridiculous.

One somehow has to find the courage to wade through what feels a lot like attacks on one’s intellectual self in order to discover what is useful and what is not. If one summarily rejects all criticism and advice, one will neither grow nor is one likely to be published. If one accepts all criticism as having merit, one may find a psychiatric ward in one’s future–and one is likely to remain unpublished. So the trick is to be able to answer the question, “What within this writing is genuinely bad?”

The problem is that it feels like the question is, “What about me is flawed?” It’s like holding a mirror up to the core of one’s being and noticing that you have some rot.

How do writers do this? There are probably innumerable approaches, but three common ones come to mind. The first is the one thoroughly addressed in Laing’s book; that is, some writers self-medicate. The article references a quote by Tennessee Williams, “…you felt as if a new kind of blood had been transfused into your arteries, a blood that swept away all anxiety and all tension for a while, and for a while is the stuff that dreams are made of.”

A second unhealthy approach is to reject any assertion that contradicts one’s perfection. In other words, be a narcissist. These are the writers who meet each and every piece of criticism with statements like, “you just don’t understand what I was trying to do there, my misspelling was actually a clever commentary on the zeitgeist of 20th century Armenia.”

The narcissists have the advantage not becoming clinically depressed by the constant rejection and criticism that is a life of writing. The downside is that they have to live in a world in which everyone else on the planet is ignorant and incapable of recognizing brilliance when it’s shining in their faces, and that is depressing in its own way. Only a few in this group manage to get published, and they do so through a combination of being truly great and, at least early on, being willing to tarnish their awesomeness by accepting some editorial suggestions.

The third approach is the one that we should all aspire to, but it’s a bitch getting there. In the title I used “Buddha” as a code word for the enlightened approach. What is the enlightened approach to dealing with rejection and criticism? First, one must realize that equating one’s writing and one’s self is illusory, and that criticism of one’s work isn’t criticism of self. Before any writer gets to the point of submitting works to agents, editors, or publishers someone along the line has told one that one’s writing is good. This fatal compliment causes one’s self-worth to become entangled in one’s writing.

Second, one must develop a confidence that isn’t rooted in external validation. In less pretentious words, one mustn’t feel it necessary to be loved by everyone with whom one comes into contact. This is hell if one’s entire life is writing. The value of published writing is inseparable from how it’s received. My only suggestion on this point is to find something else in one’s life that allows one to build self-confidence. For me, this has been martial arts. Sure there are usually rank tests, which are about validation from one’s teacher. However, what it really comes down is whether one experiences success in training and sparring. If one sees some success, the rank starts to be irrelevant to one’s confidence. I think outdoorsmanship is another such skill– for those less scared of bears than being beaten ugly with a stick. There are few activities in which other’s evaluation of one is ultimately irrelevant, but those are the activities with which one should seek to balance one’s writing.

If anyone needs me I’ll be guzzling Bourbon and contemplating how the publishing industry is run by poop-weasels.

10 of My Favorite Quotes on Writing

Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college. –Kurt Vonnegut


Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for. –Mark Twain


The faster you blurt, the more swiftly you write, the more honest you are.  –Ray Bradbury


Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. –Elmore Leonard


The first draft of anything is shit.—Ernest Hemingway.


Omit needless words. –William Strunk


The only rule for writing I have is to leave it while I’m still hot… –William Faulkner


Whoever wants to tell a story of a sainted grandmother, unless you can find some old love letters, and get a new grandfather?  –Robert Penn Warren


When you write the thing through once, you find out what the end is. Then you can go back to the first chapter and put in a lot of those foreshadowings. –Flannery O’Connor


As far as I’m concerned the entire reason for becoming a writer is not having to get up in the morning.  –Neil Gaiman