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The Collapse Of Globalism: And The Reinvention Of The WorldThe Collapse Of Globalism: And The Reinvention Of The World by John Ralston Saul

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Very briefly, I have always enjoyed what I’ve read by Saul and find myself in agreement with him, but having just finished reading this one I can only wonder if his case for Globalism having ended was not several years premature. He seems to underestimate the tenacity of its proponents, and the pusillanimity of its opponents.

But he does to a wonderful job of shredding it… tying it to Mercantilism and separating it from The Invisible Hand. Brilliant.

One wonders when the American Left is going to awake from its Foucaultian delusions to the fact that we are all being screwed in the same way by the same people, and it makes not a damn bit of difference what our gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation is.

That there was nothing inevitable about what happened to us economically in the past 40 years is Saul’s main point. And the fact that the left focused on problems of identity rather than class made it all that much easier to roll everyone at once. The classic Alexandrian strategy of divide and conquer.

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The Great Canards of Creative Writing

Write What You Know

Having read reams of slush pile fiction, I have waded into numerous manuscripts that give the lie to the principle of Write What You Know. Frankly, it leads to a lot of writing about mundane daily routines, what might be called the workplace novel, or perhaps, even, the house spouse novel, that could not be more atrocious as fiction.

They are all pretty much the same. They begin with waking up in the morning and getting breakfast together, dealing with the spouse and the kids, arriving at work and greeting ones’ office suite mates, or greeting one’s patients in a dentist’s office. If one doesn’t have a story to tell, or something to say that would interest others, then what is the point of writing? Such manuscripts will be round filed by the middle of sentence one.

I once sat through a reading by a woman of the first chapter of her “workplace novel.” It consisted entirely of sentences such as this:

“Mabel was our first customer. As she came in with Fifi, her poodle, we said, “Hi Mabel, It’s been awhile, how are you and Fifi today.” Mabel said, I’m alright, but Fifi’s got a touch of the mange.” Then Mr. Drake came in with his Macaw. The Macaw said, “good morning,” and we all thought it was so amazing that Mr. Drake’s Macaw knew exactly what to say. And we all said good morning to Mr. Drake and his Macaw.” A few minutes later, Saundra French came in with her Manx cat…” This drivel went on for at least ten minutes, but you pretty much got the picture by the end of line one.

A much better idea is to write what you can imagine, using knowledge of matters that interest you to enliven and inform your fiction, and research what you need to know to make it believable to others. Unless there is some particular drama occurring in the home or the workplace that is universally interesting and pertinent to a story line, it is best to refrain from writing about the events of ones day. Follow the principle that every word you write should be germane to the story, the theme, or the character development and you will avoid this common mistake.

Correction: Know What You Write. Don’t Write What You Know.

Express Yourself

Another principle that needs discarding is that art, in general, and writing in particular, is self-expression. I prefer to think of creativity as a process of self-abstraction. It is all about making decisions, of choosing what it best for the work. Looking at the etymology, what do these words tell us? To abstract is to draw away, implying a process of reaching within and plucking out the gems, or so one would hope. To express oneself is to press out, and what is it that we tend to press out? I rest my case.

Correction: Abstract Yourself, Don’t Express Yourself.

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Point of View

One of the choices we face as writers, when approaching a new project, is how best to establish a narrative point of view. Third person omniscient (the author as narrator, thus able to enter the mind of every character) used to be standard, and is still used by many popular authors. It gives the author Godlike powers, and seems easier to bring off successfully than it is. The transition from one character’s head to another can be a problem, as is the temptation to explain to the reader far more than she needs to know.

The more contemporary practice is to establish a point of view character who tells the story the way he sees it, as he cannot enter the minds of others. This requires discipline to avoid omniscient “head-hopping” and can cause problems for the author in developing other characters, as the POV character must be ever present. It is, however, the most true to life, as we can never know the truth of what others are thinking, feeling, or doing, except by being present and using our senses to observe them.

Another choice is whether to make the POV subjective or objective, reliable or unreliable. Kazuo Ishiguru, for example, is famous for the subjectivity and unreliability of his point of view characters. They are among the least self-knowing protagonists in all of literature and self-involved to the point of blindness. It is a testament to Ishiguro’s artistry that he is able to reveal to the reader what his POV characters cannot grasp.

A subjective POV can be confining to both the reader and the writer. It may rely heavily on narrative, and can limit the development of secondary characters, whereas a more objective point of view allows for more development of secondary characters and opens up space for dialogue and plot development through dialogue, regardless of the narrator’s relative reliability.

The second person POV also has interesting possibilities but can also be fraught with danger. It is often described as the reader being placed in the center of the action by being addressed as “you,” as Tom Robbins uses it in “Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas.”

Cover of "Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas"
Cover of Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas
Bright Lights, Big City (novel)
Bright Lights, Big City (novel) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney uses it in place of first person narration, to give the reader the sense that the character is critically observing himself. Finally, there is the way that Moshin Hamid uses it in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, as a way of addressing someone to whom the narrator is telling the story of his life.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
The Reluctant Fundamentalist (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I used the second person POV, in my first attempt at a novel. The narrator is already dead and addresses his antagonist (as you) from beyond the grave. The story consists of him trying to resolve the mystery of his own betrayal and death. The problem I ran into was the confining subjectivity of it, but that may not have been inherent in the form.

In my novel, Dead Fat-Cat Bounce, I used what is known as the illeistic third, in which the narrator speaks of himself in the third person. It was an instinctive choice for me, but I later learned it is a common choice for a POV character who is judging himself from some remove, thus it was used in the same way as the second person in Bright Lights, Big City.

To resolve the problem of developing the other major character I created two separate narratives, one follows the narrator, the other is a travel diary written by the love interest, but edited by the narrator. Working from the character’s notes, and addressing her always as you, the narrator rewrites the diary entries in a more acceptable style, and pokes fun at her for the way she writes for “your eyes only.” Thus it becomes a means to develop both characters. The second person narrative voice seemed like the best solution to the problem of the limited point of view. I could also continue to use the “you” voice as he addresses his thoughts to her when she is no longer with him.

First person narration is is a form that I find awkward. It almost requires a consciousness stream, and I’m not enamored of consciousness streams. I use it a little in the novel for the protagonist’s own diary entries, but using second or third person allows me to be more decisive and adhere more closely to a story line rather than a stream of consciousness.

I also write as an act of discovery and feel too self-conscious writing in the first person. I do not wish to develop myself into a character in my stories.


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Hit Lit and Lit Fic

I recently finished reading James Hall’s excellent book on the craft of the bestselling novel, Hit Lit. He describes the many elements that bestselling novels share, with the coda that they are not, by themselves, enough to make a book a bestseller. What is needed, in addition, Hall says, is the passion of the writer for his subject matter and his characters. I particularly enjoyed his enlightening opening chapter, in which he writes about the novel’s historical function as a form of popular entertainment. But novelists were also public intellectuals and social critics, much of whose broad appeal was based on telling truth to power.

It was only after motion pictures took over the role of story telling that the novel became a form of high art. What photography did to modern painting, the movies did to literature. Form became more important than story, and formal innovation more essential than communication. As literature became more abstract, it lost much of its humanistic function and with it its popular appeal. In its place we get “literary fiction” today, an indefinable category of aesthetically rarified writing, created by credentialed professionals and vetted by corporate arbiters for the leisurely ladies who read the stuff and discuss it over tea and crumpets.

I also had a look at John Steinbeck’s Nobel acceptance speech on youtube in which he briefly takes to task the learned professors of literature, who would have us view the novel as a form of high art that can only be interpreted by a properly anointed priesthood.

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