Good Writing

The Most Prolific Writer of Fiction? Isaac Asimov credit:

The Most Prolific Writer of Fiction? Isaac Asimov

As an example of good writing I offer the following short essay by a favorite author, Lee Child. Titled Telling Tales, it is from the New Yorker magazine’s online newsletter and it struck me as a little masterpiece. Its candor is immediately attention-getting and, like all good writing, it is information-dense. There are no boring parts, no unnecessary words. And there is profundity, an insight on the place of fiction in human endeavors, even though I do not necessarily agree with his conclusion. It is grist for thought, and perhaps, if you are so inclined dear reader, for discussion. I love discussion.

The other day I saw my father, who is ninety-two years old, and in very poor health. Physically, he’s a wreck, and mentally he’s not much better. At his peak, he was a capable and intelligent man, by nature rational to the point of coldness. But the other day he was full of childlike fear of the darkness that lay ahead. He’s religious, in an austere way. So I knew what he meant. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “You’re a good man, and you lived a good life.” In fact, neither thing was true. But what else could I say? I’m sure he said the same to his own father, for the same reasons, and with the same reservations. Don’t we all?

Ten thousand fathers ago, we would have said nothing, because we didn’t yet have language. We didn’t yet have much of anything. A passing U.F.O. would have written us off as a certain dead end. Our contemporary competitors, the Neanderthals, would have got the nod. We were weak and slender, and often sickly, and shabby toolmakers. Then we developed language, and everything changed. We had grammar and syntax, which turned out to be the best tools of all. Now we could plan, and discuss, and theorize, and speculate. We could coördinate ahead of time, with a plan B and a plan C already in place. A coöperative pack of early humans was suddenly the most powerful animal on Earth. So that if the U.F.O. came back today it would have to admit that its first impressions were wrong.

But along the way something extraordinary happened. At first, we prospered by planning and speculating based on what we knew to be true, or could reasonably and responsibly infer to be true. In other words, we lived in a nonfiction world. We still do, in every practical way. My wife might tell me that her phone says it’s going to rain, so I should take my umbrella, and every step of that transaction would be meaningless without the fundamental assumption of truth. Most of life is like that. It’s a great strategy. Ten thousand generations ago, our bones were piled high in hyenas’ dens. Now Voyager has left the solar system. Or not, depending on how you—reasonably and responsibly—interpret the Oort Cloud. These are the things we talk about, and this is how we talk about them.

At some point, though, we invented a parallel option. We invented fiction. We started talking about things that hadn’t happened to people who didn’t exist. Why? Not for entertainment during our leisure time. We were still deep in prehistory. We had no leisure time. Everything was a desperate struggle for survival. We did nothing unless it had a chance of keeping us alive until morning. Fiction evolved for a purpose. Warnings and cautionary tales could be sourced from the grim nonfiction world. A sabre-toothed tiger will kill you. O.K., got it. Fiction pushed the pendulum the other way. It inspired, and empowered, and emboldened. It said, No, actually, there was a guy, a friend of a friend, who came face to face with a sabre-toothed tiger, a huge one, and he turned and outran it, all the way back to the cave, safe as can be. So don’t panic. It doesn’t always turn out bad. Then, perhaps a hundred generations later, the story evolved, and the friend of the friend killed the tiger. The action hero was born. Strength and courage would save us. And it worked. Fiction in its various forms proved just as powerful to our survival as any other factor. Some would say more powerful. Some would name us not Homo sapiens but Pan narrans: the storytelling ape. Would Voyager be leaving the solar system if we hadn’t long ago formalized and mythologized our inchoate desire to wander?

But the bad things would not be happening, either. Every bad thing depends on the same two components as every good thing: people prepared to lie, and other people prepared to believe them. The habit of credulity, bred into us, albeit inspiring and empowering and emboldening, has led to some very bad outcomes throughout what we know of our history. From small things, like a father believing a son, to much larger things, like a billion miserable and terrified dead. All balanced against the good things. Is it fifty-fifty? Or worse than that? And what about babies and bathwater? Could we give up the stunning joy that the good side of storytelling brings in order to erase the appalling horrors of the bad side? Where does the balance lie?

It’s ironic, given my profession, but the more I learn the more I would uninvent fiction.

Posted in Culture, writing | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Make America What Again?



Prime among the apparent reasons for the political ascent of the phenomenon of Donald Trump is his theme of “Make America Great Again.” This has captured a populist revulsion for the ethnic and cultural changes that have been trending for decades now, most prominently the increase in Hispanics and Muslims. Pat Buchanan, not surprisingly waxing nostalgic for a White America, joins with Trump in advocating immigration control as a solution.  A large part of the country is buying into this, at least on the “conservative side”. In an interview,  (thanks to Bud Morgan for the link) Buchanan says,

Anybody that believes that a country can be maintained that has no ethnic core to it or no linguistic core to it, I believe is naive in the extreme.

This idea is certainly arguable. America is of course a melting pot of diverse ethnicity, and, as Buchanan asserts, of language as well. But is the solution immigration control? A wall? Isolationism? Personally, I think that is even more extreme, not to mention impractical.  People seem clueless about the immense lowering of the cost of goods that the global economy has brought about.  If Trump is successful in overturning international trade policies, it’s is going to hit the economy like a hammer.

What is it that makes a country? What is the glue that holds it together, that gives it political and cultural identity if not language and ethnicity? Is it the Constitution? Well, the Constitution provides the political structure that makes the country successful, but that’s facilitation, not impetus. Most American citizens would be hard-pressed to write down the Bill of Rights, except of course for the Second Amendment, and maybe the First.

Are we bound together because we all got schooled in history the same way? I don’t think so. Native American history differs from that that which has long been fed to us Anglo’s. Because we are all fans of American sports? Sounds absurd, but there’s a lot of commonality in that. Seventy-five years ago, we were forced by war and the necessity of conscription into a common national identity and political cooperation, but now wars are fought much differently and common sacrifice is no longer part of the glue. (This may, ironically, be a big part of the current political problem.) No. Personally, I think language is the main cultural glue we have left.

I have long been an advocate of making English the national language, although I wouldn’t expect to see a lot of change if we did. English is the natural default already. Second languages? No problem there with me. So, I understand Trump’s appeal on this issue, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to vote for him. As I heard someone say yesterday, his opinions and pronouncements have a shelf-life of about 24 hours.

So, what’s the solution? Maybe, just maybe, it’s that we need to buckle up and do the long, hard slog of public education better. Any other ideas?

Posted in Culture, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 25 Comments

What Will The GOP Become?



The winds of political change are blowing strongly and the rise of Trump is characteristic.  He is said, by virtue of being publicly outrageous, to be the beneficiary of about $2 billion in free publicity!  This is unprecedented.  What forces are behind this strange development, that the public is so attracted to such transparent demagoguery?  But even more to the point, what does this mean for our two party political system?

My friend, Bud Morgan, sent me this analysis from HuffPost Politics.  (Thanks, Bud.)  It is remarkably well-written and seems spot-on to me.  What do you think?

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 6 Comments

Artistic Genius?



I don’t get it.  I just don’t.  My inner curmudgeon demands expression.

The artist formerly and lately known as Prince is being hailed, almost universally it seems, as a musical genius.  Admittedly, I’ve only listened to samples randomly encountered, but his stuff sounds discordant to me.  I wondered then about the lyrics to his signature piece, Purple Rain.  Maybe, I thought, the genius is in those.  So I looked them up:

I never wanted to be your weekend lover
I only wanted to be some kind of friend
Baby, I could never steal you from another
It’s such a shame our friendship had to end

Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
I only wanted to see you
Underneath the purple rain

Honey, I know, I know
I know times are changing
It’s time we all reach out
For something new, that means you too

You say you want a leader
But you can’t seem to make up your mind
I think you better close it
And let me guide you to the purple rain

Purple rain, purple rain
Purple rain, purple rain
If you know what I’m singing about up here
C’mon, raise your hand

Purple rain, purple rain
I only want to see you
Only want to see you
In the purple rain

Compare this to, say, these lines from an older style:

You must remember this
A kiss is still a kiss
A sigh is just a sigh
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by

And when two lovers woo
They still say I love you
On that you can rely
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by

Moonlight and lovesongs never out of date
Hearts full of passion, jealousy and hate
Woman needs man
And man must have his mate
That no one can deny

It’s still the same old story
The fight for love and glory
A case of do or die
The world will always welcome lovers
As time goes by

Now you tell me which one’s more genius.  I’ve got my own opinion.

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments


A couple of years ago, if you had asked me whether a completely impractical political assertion could withstand public exposure to humor I would have said no.  But Donald Trump has proven me wrong.  I’m talking about his Mexican wall.  Here is John Oliver to expose it in all its absurdity.  Now we just have to sit back and watch his poll numbers fall. Right?  Right?  Please, tell me I’m right.

Posted in Humor, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 19 Comments

Trump U

Got 'Cha

Got ‘Cha

It is clear to me, this far into the primary election season, that it is no longer possible to get much substance out of most candidates. However, humor abounds. I just wanted to share with you, dear reader, an insightful piece from my favorite magazine, the New Yorker. Does this tickle your funny bone, or is the reality a little too chilling?  I’m interested.  You can tell me.

Posted in Political partisanship, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , | 22 Comments

Where’s Globocop?

I just sent this letter to the editor of our local paper in reaction to a letter by Geoff Caldwell.




Globe columnist Geoff Caldwell (March 20, 2016) echoes The Economist journal in asking, “Where is Globocop?” His concern is the rise of ISIS and the failure of not propping up the failed and inept Iraqi state and its feckless military, a legacy from the Bush administration. He and the journal say our allies are “nervous” about this. Never mind that the latest study of the cost of the disastrous second Iraq war and its aftermath (from Brown University) is 1.1 trillion dollars and still counting. (That’s one-thousand billions plus one-hundred billions of dollars, put another way.) As in past columns, Mr. Caldwell blames president Obama for, well, everything, and now including failing to police the world.

“Where is Globocop?”, the Economist asks. Well, we are still pumping out Cold War munitions at a crazy pace, including a destroyer program that is now running over $3 Billion per ship and a gold-plated fighter bomber program exceeding $1.1 Trillion, if that means anything, although thanks to President Obama, the U.S. body count is hovering around the single digits lately. The column prompted me to look up what capabilities our nervous allies might have if they had to, heaven forbid, engage ISIS on their own. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia:

Country     Defense $B     Battle Tanks   CombatA/C    Active Military
U.K                 61.8                       227                278                 205,000
Germany      43.9                       410                245                   183,000
France            53.1                       200               395                    228,000
Turkey            10                       2,500               335                    410,000
Saudi A.          80.8                     600               313                     233,500
Israel               21.1                      500                440                    176,000
Italy                 24.3                     160                 440                   320,000

Here are some questions. Is ISIS really too much for our allies to handle? Is it just possible that the rest of the Western world has grown so used to the U.S. defending them that they now expect it? Might it make sense for them to grow up and take responsibility for their own back yard? The U.S. defense budget is, get this, $580 Billion dollars. Doesn’t it make sense to let our allies do some stuff while we spend some of that money on, say, preventing lead poisoning in children and bridges from falling down? (Not exactly shock and awe, I know.  Well, shock maybe.) Or even paring the national debt the GOP has been so worried about? So many questions.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments