Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

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A few thoughts on Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”

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During my recent escape to Düsseldorf, I picked up a copy of Nabokov’s “Laughter in the Dark”.* While I enjoyed reading it and saw a few points to improve my own writing, I found it interesting primarily as a counterpart to “Lolita”, with strong parallels in behavior and situation between the respective male protagonist (Albert** Albinus resp. Humbert Humbert) and female temptation (Margot resp. the eponymous Lolita): in both books, an older man falls for a younger woman, makes himself a fool and ruins himself as a result, with an end involving a confrontation with a gun and death*** for the protagonist. Indeed, the similarities are large enough that the one might amount to a reworking of the other by a more mature author, as “Lolita” is considerably longer and later.

*Apparently, originally published in Russian as “Kamera Obscura”, and subsequently translated by the author into English. Even with a translation by the author, it cannot be ruled out that the original differed in some respects, e.g. prose quality. Oddly, the two main characters are from Berlin, where much of the book plays.

**This name is used, but sufficiently rarely that I am not certain whether it is his actual given name or some type of joke/pet/whatnot name or even an error. I cannot (without re-reading) rule out that the given name, too, is “Albinus” (paralleling “Humbert Humbert”), or that the given name is “Albinus” and that the family name goes unmentioned.

***Albeit postponed and, possibly, unrelated in “Lolita”, as Humbert died of natural causes while awaiting trial. (I.e. it is not a given that he would have lived if not imprisoned.)

In particular, in a footnote to an older text, I once wrote:

As an aside, one of the other books that I picked up was Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which I am currently reading. While a very different type of book, it does take the daughter–father version of wife–husband to an extreme. Still, the eponymous Lolita appears to have a stronger will and more to say in the relationship, while barely straddling the border between childhood and womanhood, than the thirty-something heroine of [“A Discovery of Witches” by Deborah Harkness]. I might also consider Lolita and Rebecca [of the book “Rebecca” by Daphne du Maurier] something of kindred spirits.

This goes together with larger doubts as to who predated on whom in “Lolita”, which fits the stereotypical adult-male-abusing-an-innocent-child poorly, with manipulations and machinations by Lolita that often leave Humbert the lesser villain and the more sympathetic character. When we turn to “Laughter in the Dark”, the situation is crystal clear: Margot (young, but adult) is the predator from the first step to the end of the book. Examples include deliberate attempts to sabotage Albinus’s marriage, the (secret) intent to marry him unless her paid-by-him movie career takes off, and outright defrauding in favor of a secret lover (Axel Rex) after Albinus goes blind (literally—not “with love”; although, a deliberate symbolism might be intended).

While an interpretation from one book to another is risky, I do see my impressions of Lolita and Humbert strengthened. (But Lolita comes of as a better person than Margot and Humbert as a worse one than Albinus.)

However, there were two other works that popped up in my mind again and again while reading: Kipling’s “The Light that Failed” and the movie* “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. In the first case, the protagonist sees an unending stream of misfortunes, including the loss of his sight, his love interest, and his life. In the second, a perfidious wife and her lover take advantage of an older husband with car crashes** playing a key role.

*The original 1940s movie. I have not seen the remake or read the original novel.

**Albinus loses his sight in one, while there likely are two in “The Postman Always Rings Twice”: one staged to murder the husband, one truly accidental to kill the wife and send the lover to prison (the respective second “ring” for them). Unfortunately, Margot was still alive and at large at the end of “Laughter in the Dark”. (But I have some hopes that the overall circumstances will lead to her demise at some point after the end.)

The first two paragraphs of the book are interesting with an eye on my own doubts as to when more and when less detail is appropriate: the first summarizes the book in a very bare-bones manner; the second gives a motivation for why the book, beyond that first paragraph, might still have a value as a (much) more detailed way of saying the same. From another point of view, comparing that first paragraph with the overall book gives quite a few pointers as to why and when detail is important, e.g. what motivations different characters had and why events played out as they did. (This, in turn, but off topic, shows why it is risky to take even factually-true journalists at face value—let alone those who distort events and interpretations to their own preference. Cf. a number of earlier texts.)

The blurb at the back of the book is worthy of some remarks of its own:

An aspiring young Berlin actress turns the tables on her lustful middle-aged admirer, in Nabokov’s deadpan, deliciously cruel story of hopeless infatuation and horribly inventive revenge.

(With reservations for transcription errors.)

Apart from the extremely poor writing, this matches the contents of the book very poorly. I strongly suspect that the writer of this blurb either fell for prejudice about typical male and female behavior* or that a catering to a certain type of female reader (think “dragon tattoo”) was intended. From this blurb, the impression arises that he used and/or abused her, and that she took revenge on him, which turns the story on its head in an inexcusable manner. The only instance of “table turning” (that I can recall) is when Margot, at the end of the book, literally manages to turn Albinus’s gun at him, when his (justified) feelings of betrayal and atrocious mistreatment cause him to try to take revenge—despite being blind. Any revenge involved was neither horrible nor inventive—and certainly not successful. There were many horribly and inventive acts, by Margot, but the only way to consider them revenge were if she took out her feelings for others on Albinus.

*E.g. typical Feminist propaganda that men use women for their own ends.

Indeed, if Albinus did someone wrong, it was his wife (and, possibly, daughter), and much of that damage was only partially* his fault. Despite this, the wife took care of Albinus in the later stages of the book, while Margot only used and abused him. Similarly, if anyone did Margot wrong, it was not Albinus. A much better case can be made for Axel Miller, who briefly “kept” and then abandoned her when she was sixteen—and who resurfaced in her life as the aforementioned Axel Rex. But Axel Rex she treated well …

*Yes, he did have an affair and he did spend considerable money on his mistress (i.e. Margot), which should not be excused, but she only found out through Margot’s malicious intervention, and the marriage, based on later events, might very well have been salvageable, had the wife taken the fight instead of running away. (To avoid misunderstandings, I do not blame her from an ethical perspective for doing so, but my impression is that she wanted a continuation, which makes her actions pragmatically ill-advised.) He also seemed to have had enough money that the practical impact on the wife, pre-flight, would have been limited. To boot, the affair might never have gone beyond an unrequited infatuation or a guilty flirt, had not Margot pushed very hard for things to happen and move forward.

The aforementioned first (alone) or first two (together) paragraphs would have made a much better blurb, giving the serious reader both a better idea of the contents and a greater wish to read the book. (In my case, I bought it based on my very positive impression of “Lolita” and Nabokov’s generally high reputation. If I read the blurb pre-purchase, I do not even remember it, and if it would have had any effect, at all, then a deterring one.)

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July 23, 2020 at 5:55 pm

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The struggling author VI

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Unfortunately, the nine* days since the previous installment have brought no improvement in the construction work. It has, mostly, not been as bad as last summer, but it is still bad enough, with a lot of hammering, drilling, various machine noises, … Two weeks for now, and no sign of an end.

*Eight, counting yesterday. As will be clear, I cannot speak with certainty for today, but going by the odds …

The situation is made the worse by the behavior of one or several parties of neighbors. Notably, this Saturday and Sunday (11th/12th) were a horror, including wild stomping* and other unacceptable noises for minutes on end, even past midnight.

*To new readers: beware that I am not speaking of someone just walking in shoes in an apartment or running down the stairs, but of outright stomping, a manner that can serve no legitimate purpose, and (often) times of day and night where even noises with a legitimate purpose would remain unacceptable.

Not only is my quality of life severely reduced, but it is next to impossible to work productively, especially as the mental stress continues even between disturbances, and factors like a lack of sleep and the aforementioned stress damage my health.

Yesterday, around noon, I had had all that I could take and am now in a hotel room in Düsseldorf—and to think that I bought an apartment to live cheaply …

As to what will happen after these few days, I will have to see, but, at this juncture, hiring a lawyer seems almost unavoidable.

Looking at my claim that my book is almost finished “in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense”, the question is how much time—even construction work aside: I have recently started on Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, and I have another “feeling like a rank amateur” period (cf. the previous installment and Conrad). The mixture of fluid prose and how seemingly unimportant detail give color to the text is quite impressive. The style of writing would likely not work very well with my book (and, generally, books with different purposes do not necessarily benefit from the same methods), but there is still a lot for me to learn and applying at least some of it could make my book better.

As a counter-point, I did not set out to make my first book a master piece that would instantly ensure my place in the halls of history’s greatest authors. (And I would have been a fool indeed, if I had.) The point was rather to learn the craft sufficiently well that the next book would be of quality. (Which is still a far step from the great masters.) Indeed, the early works of even great masters have often been far below their later level, as exemplified by e.g. Cup of Gold, the quite poor first novel of John Steinbeck, a later Nobel Prize winner. Rome was not built in a day and an attempt to reach perfection with this, my first, book would put completion years into the future. Indeed, with a continual improvement of ability to judge quality, I might never finish.

To boot, different authors have different strengths and (like their works) different purposes. J. K. Rowling* and Terry Pratchett, e.g., have** strengths in areas like a great imagination and the ability to build fantastic and fascinating worlds, but they fall well short of Waugh in terms of prose and style. In my own, subjective and partial, assessment, I too am ahead (in this area). In terms of e.g. “higher values”, I should be past at least Rowling, who is fairly superficial—-while she is likely ahead at writing books that sell by a very considerable distance.

*Disclaimer: I have to date only read the “Harry Potter” books, and her later works might be different. Even if they are, however, her early works are a more interesting comparison at the moment.

**The present tense is inappropriate for the late Pratchett, but I will stick to it for ease of formulation.

In the overlap between the details of Waugh, the worlds of Rowling and Pratchett, and my own book (which does fall in the fantasy genre), there is the question of how much detail is to be spent at different worlds, cultures, whatnot, both with regard to invention and to narration. Hogwarts is essentially a British boarding school with magic, Pratchett draws heavily on Earth (the UK in particular), most “high fantasy” seems to land in broadly “medieval Europe” settings, etc. In reality, if someone were to step into a foreign world through a magic cupboard, the variations might be similar to e.g. those between medieval Europe and medieval Japan, with corresponding differences in e.g. religion, morals, approach to art, ways to dress, writing systems, … (Or e.g. between current Europe and Paleolithic Europe.) In the case of non-human civilizations, the differences might be enormously larger yet.* Then, with an eye at realism, effort needed, effect on the reader, risk of inconsistency**, etc., where should the line be drawn? This point of struggle will likely not have any further impact on my current book (where I have kept things comparatively simple), but it might well do so on future works.

*Yet, here they are often almost ignored, especially in bad sci-fi. Of course, in some cases, there might be a deliberate element, e.g. in that C. S. Lewis might have used dwarfs, fauns, talking beavers, whatnot partially to illustrate aspects of humanity or human behavior. This is certainly the case with some animal fables.

**E.g. in that the author forgets his own fictional premises in favor “the real world” or that the intended consequences of something turn out to be unrealistic.

Excursion on judging quality:
While there is Sisyphean aspect to my continually shifting standard and to negative comparisons like the prose of Waugh vs. my own, this is actually a good thing. It might be frustrating in the moment, but it simultaneously points to a prior improvement in ability and opens the door to future improvements, as I now have a better idea of what I should work on, might experiment with, etc.

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July 14, 2020 at 8:55 pm

The struggling author V

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The prior installment of my “struggling author” series, appears to have been published last November. Time for an update:

I have almost finished the book, in that 99%-there-but-the-last-percent-will-take-time sense: most of what remains is polishing and tuning, fixing up details, improving the language, whatnot. In this, there is obviously a risk of pushing things too far, as there is always something left to improve. There will be at least several weeks before this becomes a concern, but it does lead me to my current main struggle:

With time, I have become better and better, gained a better and better eye for what works, is good literature, whatnot, and grown less and less satisfied with prior works. As a consequence, my satisfaction with the book has not improved as much as its actual quality, leaving me with the paradoxical situation that it is much better* than I would have hoped for this time last year, but that I am still unsatisfied. Similarly, every now and then, I see some pages by someone else that make me revise my standards and give me an impulse to improve something—as with Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”: the early descriptive sections left me feeling like a rank amateur. I deliberately have not used much description, Conrad is a high bar indeed, and the rest of his book appears** less ambitious in this regard, but I still have the urge both to revise the descriptive scenes that I do have and add some more. (Whether I will, I leave unstated. If not, the impulse might affect my next book instead.)

*As in “I like it”. I make no statement about what publishers, readers, and critics will think, but no matter their reactions, I will have the knowledge that I went well beyond my own expectations for my first work, I will consider the time taken well spent, and I strongly suspect that I will love reading it, myself, ten years from now, when my memory has faded. But: if I stop revision today, I will fall short of what I could have accomplished.

**I read a chunk as I escaped construction noise this Friday, and have postponed the remainder with an eye on what might happen on Monday (i.e. tomorrow). I also read it once as a teenager, but my memory is very vague and I was less discerning at the time.

Looking at large stretches of my early efforts, just putting words on the page has been a major obstacle, to come up with something that makes sense plot-wise, to overcome my natural tendency to describe a running dog named Spot with “Spot runs”, etc. During the spring, this changed, likely, for two reasons: Firstly, I had reached some level of critical mass. Secondly, I learned to adapt my work to my strengths, including what is often a weakness when blogging: when my mind is occupied with something, ideas tend to sprout off that something*, and then new ideas off those ideas, etc. Similarly, when I see something, I tend to see things that could be improved, even though I might not have been able to spot the improvements during the planning stage. So then: “Spot runs” might be shitty text, but it is a text, and once I have “Spot runs”, I can improve it from there.

*Which explains e.g. the many “excursions” of my (blog) texts and, partially, the footnotes.

Of course, “Spot runs” is a metaphorical example, but the general idea holds true. For instance, once I have my characters in a certain situation, I might (at that point or two days later) see how something that they say or do in that situation would improve characterization or lead somewhere else, which in turn leads to some other improvement, and so on. Similarly, putting them in one situation might ring a bell regarding some accidental* detail in another situation, which causes me to add a plot development connecting the two, which in turn might add something to a third scene or give the inspiration for an entirely new scene. In one case, I had a chapter with a good idea, which seemed both thin and lifeless when written. To boot, it had the flaw that an intended plot-twist did not work, being (in my eyes, at least) too obvious. I tried to remedy the latter through adding a “guest character” (a virtual Spot) to serve as a decoy, and another character for symmetry. A day later, the chapter was twice as long and alive, as the amount of interaction between characters increased and a few sub-plots appeared—both in a manner that I had not at all foreseen as I added the new characters.

*The amount of things that have so far arisen more-or-less accidentally is enormous. In many ways, it is as were the book a river that I am merely navigating—not a canal that I am building. (As an example, above I mentioned “Heart of Darkness”. Here I coincidentally spoke of “river”. This is something that I might have been able to spin out.)

When I revise, the text tends to become longer. This is a further reason to watch the perfectionism, as too long can be worse than too short, and as the accepted wisdom is that revision should cut the old more often than add something new. So far, knock on wood, it has worked well, however, as I start from a comparatively “thin” position and as every revision tends to also improve quality. (There is at least one scene which is much too long, a “cut scene” (in movie parlance) waiting to happen; and one or two chapters that feel too much like have-a-nap-while-we-wait-for-the-real-story. They will be improved or cut, however.)

Incidentally, this way of working parallels what I often did as a software developer, and writing software and writing novels does have a thing or two in common. The former is not the perfect training for the latter, but it is not bad as a component of the training. My particular approach, which is not the only one, particularly resembles refactoring and test-driven development.

The last few weeks, I have been a little troubled to get work done again. This in part, because I needed a breather; in part, due to the current “interesting times” (note my increased blogging); in part, because the construction work is here again.

As to the last, I still do not know for how long. Friday’s disturbances were short and, unlike large portions of last year, there was no work on Saturday.* This might mean that everything was done by Friday afternoon—or just that someone was lazy and that things will start up again on Monday, to continue for months on end. If it is the latter, frankly, I do not know what I will do. Somehow, I will have to move out, or I will never be able to finish, my health will be ruined, and I will be driven to the edge of a nervous break-down. Note that around six months of construction work last year wreaked havoc on my writing (not to mention mood and health), and that the (non-construction) disturbances of someone stomping around for hours a day during the COVID-19 lock-down did a lot of damage on top of that. It is a wonder that I have managed to get as far as I have.

*Sundays are work-free by German law, but then there is usually some idiot neighbor who sees Sunday as a day to make a ruckus, again and again—better than construction, but annoying enough. This especially when the preceding week would have made peace and quiet the more important. (And, yes, I suspect that it is the same idiot who ruined the COVID-19 lock-downs. It is rarely as bad, however.)

To finally revisit the Künstlersozialkasse: These idiots are still making trouble, costing me a few hundred a month. As it appears now, they refuse to admit me, because they do not believe that I am actually serious about writing. Their pseudo-arguments include that, as I have not taken a formal course in literature or writing, there are no signs that I would have a serious interest—never mind the fact that I have spent an enormous amount of time on this book, have it completed to the point of just-needs-polishing, and that I have foregone having a regular job in the interim … (To this, note that the formal, legal criteria for admittance are comparatively low, and that the Künstlersozialkasse appears to invent its own, illegal or extra-legal, criteria to artificially keep writers out. A formal requirement that someone needs to have taken a course does not exist, neither in the law, nor in their own official information. It is excuse making—nothing more, nothing less.)

Excursion on noise and health:
(What would one of my texts be without even just one, short, excursion?) The type of health damage that can occur through e.g. months of construction or the COVID-19 lock-downs should not be underestimated. Someone might seem to bounce back fine in the short term, but what about the long-term? Possibly, something like this can make the difference between having a fatal and a near-fatal heart-attack at 75, cutting of ten years of life? I have genuine concerns that my life is being cut down at the far end through the behavior of others. Health damage often becomes obvious only when the reserves run low, e.g. with old age or when a major disease strikes. (Something, incidentally, demonstrated by the much larger effects of COVID-19 on the elderly.)

Written by michaeleriksson

July 5, 2020 at 7:34 pm

Some follow-ups based on receipts (and some thoughts on VAT)

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Sorting my private and business receipts for the past quarter for my VAT declaration, I found two that have some impact on past texts:

My receipt from the the Swedish book sale:

As I see from the receipt, the VAT on books (and in general) in Sweden is an absurd 25 %. The German rate is a more civilized rebated 7 % (to a standard rate on most products of 19 %—already very hard to defend).

This is something that I failed to consider when complaining about prices, and it does explain a portion of the price disparity. Say, for easy numbers, that the pre-VAT price of a book is 10 Euro (or its equivalent in SEK). Then the post-VAT price is respectively 10.70 and 12.50. At least for cheaper books, this might explain most of the difference in price. For more expensive, unfortunately, the lion’s part remains.

(A completely fair comparison would also consider factors like purchasing power, but that would require too much research. However, for the record, the purchasing power of low earners tends to be higher in Sweden, but that of high earners lower, relative Germany.)

My receipt from the post-flight meal from my Finnair fiasco:

In the text, I write that “We hit the ground again at 18:48; the time until official landing was obviously longer, and likely left us still about an hour late (scheduled landing was 17:55).” and “At this point, I had no eye on the time anymore, but I was likely done [with the meal] shortly before eight.”.

The receipt claims that my “tab” was opened 19:09 and closed 19:47. Add a few minutes before and after, and this would be a good estimate of my stay. The “shortly before eight” is verified, and the “about an hour late” seems plausible, as I had no checked luggage and could move fairly directly to the restaurant.

Excursion on VAT:
The above is a good illustration of one of my own pet theories: Governments like VAT, because the enormous amount of money diverted to the government usually flies under the radar.

With income tax, the earner knows that he has earned amount X*, but for some reason only received amount Y. Why? The government. With VAT, he sees the price tag including** VAT to begin with and if the price is too high, who is to blame? The store. (Or the manufacturer, capitalist greed, whatnot.) That the government might well be the single party earning the most money on the purchase, and might well be responsible for the lion’s share of the difference between end-price and accumulated costs, that does not register with most people.*** (And, cf. above, even those who are aware of it, might fail to consider it in all circumstances.) Assume, in contrast, that customers saw the pre-VAT price of products cited and, again and again, had to shell out that Swedish 25 % extra at the cashier’s. The acceptability of VAT, I suspect, would drop very considerably.

*However, this amount is also often distorted, if not so blatantly as with VAT. Consider e.g. the Swedish “arbetsgivaravgifter” or the portion of social-security and health-insurance the German employers pay on behalf of their employees. In both cases, the increase of employment costs push the nominal salary down by a similar amount, implying hat they are actually paid by the employee, but in such an indirect manner that many are unaware of it.

**At least in every country that I have made purchases in. From fiction, I have the impression that this is different in at least some parts of the U.S.

***This will depend on factors like the overall markup on an item and what business has charged what business what amount during production. Note hat Value Added Tax is fairly agnostic on how the value has been added, and treats hard work by employees no better than a luxury markup. (Of course, this is just looking at VAT, without factoring in e.g. the income tax on salaries and taxation of company profits. Overall, the government is almost always the main earner in e.g. Germany.)

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April 13, 2020 at 5:59 am

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Re-visiting the yearly Swedish book sale

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My very first post through WordPress, almost exactly ten years ago, was on the yearly Swedish book sale. A few days ago, in Sweden to renew my passport, I visited it again for the first time since (probably) 1997.

I left highly disappointed, managing to pick up only three books from one of Sweden’s largest bookstores*:

*The Akademibokhandel in central Stockholm. During a longer stay, I might or might not have tried some other bookstore.

  1. Most of the books for sale were uninteresting junk and/or targeted strictly to the mass-market. Among the exceptions, there was a considerable portion of “public domain” works that are available for free from online sources, e.g. works by Strindberg.
  2. The books on sale were mostly hardcover, giving a rebate on the heavily marked-up hardcover price, leaving the remaining price no better* than I would expect from a (non-rebated) pocket book. To this I note that pocket books are usually the superior format to begin with (and the more so in my current case, as I was trying to save weight for my flight). Indeed, there were several books that I at least would have investigated further, had they, even at the same price, been in pocket. (But also a few that were too large to be suitable for the pocket format and which I might have been interested in, had I not had the airplane to worry about.)

    *I have, obviously, not made an in-depth comparison and the individual book might have rated higher, lower, or roughly the same. The point is that by just buying pocket books, I would have had roughly the same price, even without the benefit of a sale.

  3. There were plenty of pocket books, but they were almost all in English and not part of the sale. (My focus was on Swedish books, for obvious reasons; however, in all fairness, the English sections were excellent by a German standard.)
  4. Among books not on sale, I was astounded by the price level, with prices far higher than in Germany or the U.S. Extremes included a one-volume dictionary for well over 500 SEK and a book of possibly eighty pages for more than 300 SEK.* Even outside the extremes, however, I again and again looked at a potentially interesting book, turned to the price, and decided that I was not going to buy it at 10-or-more Euro above what a comparable book would have cost in Germany. As I later understood my father, this high price level is not restricted to Akademibokhandeln but reflects industry practices in Sweden. (Also cf. my original post.)

    *As a rough rule-of-thumb Euro, Dollar, and (with a larger error) Pound equivalents can be reached by dividing by 10.

  5. While the non-fiction portions of the bookstore were considerably better than in the Wuppertal bookstores, they were not truly strong for what is supposed to be one of the largest bookstores in Sweden—and from a chain originally targeted at academia, at that. The large* Mayersche in near-Wuppertal Düsseldorf, e.g., is considerably stronger (even for fiction); compared to the Berlin Dussmann, a truly good bookstore, Akademibokhandeln is a complete joke.

    *Beware that the chain Mayersche has several stores in Düsseldorf alone, and that the rest are crap.

Written by michaeleriksson

February 29, 2020 at 12:34 pm

A few thoughts on “The Dark is Rising”

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Among my many recent re-readings we have Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series—which was a great favorite of mine as a child*. This especially the eponymous second book, which introduced Will Stanton, who to me was (what I imagine that) Harry Potter became to a later generation.**

*I do not remember the exact ages when I read this series in the past, but my first reading was well before I turned 11 (cf. **) myself and, excepting a nostalgia reading some ten years ago, I doubt that I read them past “Mellanstadiet” (years 4–6 in the Swedish school system). The childhood readings were, obviously, of a Swedish translation; the adult in English.

**Indeed, I strongly suspect that Rowling borrowed a fair bit from Cooper, including a British boy whose magic powers are revealed when he turns 11. Generally, Rowling used a great many ideas from the works of others for the “Harry Potter” series (unless she independently came up with the same ideas).

By and large, at age 44, I find the books disappointing. “Over Sea, Under Stone” was boring to me even as a child; and the too long, too haphazard, too pointless, too nightmarish* “The Lost Land” sequence in “Silver on the Tree” leaves me with just the same feeling as back then (as, to a lesser degree, do some other sequences from that book). However, the stronger books (in my recollection) now leave me a lot colder, and I see some outright deficiencies. The most notable among these is the very black-and-white approach to good and evil, including the apparent evil-for-the-sake-of-evil, which poorly matches real evil, and the common description of sensing almost tangible evil, malice, whatnot, again much unlike real evil.** This is possibly not that unusual in literature for children, but others have done it better—even Voldemort was more nuanced, including an unhappy childhood and a wish for power; and he was a real person, not some abstract force of evil. Other deficiencies include how Will jumps into the camp of the good guys more-or-less based on their own word that they are the good guys (well, apart from that almost tangible feeling of evil emanating from the other camp …), how problems often come close to solving themselves (instead of being solved by the heroes) or how just following a near-trivial instruction resolves the problem, how confrontations between the camps often amount to nothing but abstract forces clashing like two weather fronts, and how the behavior of the camps often does not make sense***.

*As in having that weird, distorted, “wrong” quality that nightmares often have—not in the “is scary” sense.

**This deficiency is what tipped the scales when I contemplated whether this text was worth the trouble. Note a few earlier texts dealing with the nature of evil, including the quite recent [1] and [2].

***Possibly, there are hidden rules, the revelation of which would change this impression. If so, however, too much of the rules are hidden, leaving the reader in a sea of arbitrariness. How, by analogy, is someone supposed to truly appreciate a football game without understanding the rules and without being able to interpret what happens (or does not happen) why? Similarly, would he not enjoy a game with rules that make more sense, e.g a game of Quidditch that does not boil down to just catching the golden snitch?

Two of the greatest strengths of “The Dark is Rising” (the book) in my child’s eye were the atmosphere and situations created (a) around the family of Will and in the family house, and (b) the scenes in the snowed-in mansion. These had a much smaller effect on me today, which could give me some pointers on how different people might experience the same scenes differently.

Looking at (a), Will was the opposite of Harry Potter, having an unusually large*, loving, and (relatively speaking) harmonious family. My own family, at the time, had been cut by divorce and was anything but harmonious—me, my mother, and a sister that I could not stand. Brothers there were none and the family dog was dead. Despite my introversion and comparatively low interest in socializing, his situation seemed so much better. Today, my interest is even lower and I suspect that I would have gone bonkers had I had his family—“Too many [children]!”, to quote the very first words of the book. Here there was, I suspect, a strong “the grass is always greener” effect in play.

*I could not find the exact number during a quick look at the book, but Will was a seventh (and youngest) son and there were sisters, two parents, and a few animals to boot.

Looking a (b), I have long held a fascination with being snowed in, fighting the cold and dark, and similar, likely partially as a side-effect of my life in Sweden, but somehow the scenes did not click this time around. This possibly partially because there were, again, very many people involved, both as a plus back then and a minus now; however, too haphazard writing and a too short duration might also have something to do with it.*

*Generally, thinking back on my recent re-reading, I have the feeling that there were quite a few crises and periods of suspense that loomed large for a short time and then were gone, almost anticlimactically, where a longer duration might have been more realistic and/or more captivating. What if they had jumped straight to the duel in “High Noon”?

Compared to works by some other authors, there is also quite little going on under the surface. The Narnia books definitely had more depth, as (going by vague memory) did the Prydain books.* To some degree, Cooper’s books are quite simplistic, as with the treatment of evil (cf. above) or the caricatured or cartoony bad guys—more Blyton than C. S. Lewis. Even Rowling, against whom I would raise a similar criticism, is ahead of Cooper.** Off the top of my head, there is only one major exception (and a few minor): the sub-story of Hawkin in “The Dark is Rising” (book), which is thought-worthy, tragic, and almost paradoxical—and the largest reason why I still rank “The Dark is Rising” as number one among the books (cf. excursion).

*These were, together with the-for-an-older-audience Tolkien and “The Dark is Rising”, the big book series of that period of my life, all with multiple readings.

**In some earlier text, I noted that books for women often had similar problems, while books by women gave me no reason to complain. “The Dark is Rising” series is written by a woman for, likely, mostly boys; while “Harry Potter” is by a woman and at least slightly tilted towards boys. With a few similar examples, I might have been too optimistic with the “books by women” part, and I begin to suspect that male authors are more likely to produce “depth” than female ones. (But my sample might be too small. Certainly, there are individual women, even in fantasy, e.g. Le Guin, who do better, and plenty of men who are as bad.)

The question of length is interesting with an eye on child-me vs. adult-me (also note an earlier footnote): children tend to read slower and have a shorter attention span, and what might seem short or too short to an adult might not be so for a child. (Generally, I do realize that viewing a children’s book from an adult’s perspective might not be entirely fair.) However, Cooper can be quite long-winded in other regards, and I had repeated occasions when I found my self skipping half a paragraph just to avoid boring dead-weight, often of a descriptive kind. If she had cut material where it served little purpose and inserted more material where it would have, then the books could have been improved.

On the upside, Cooper has a quality of language that is considerably higher than some modern authors, including Rowling (which seems to be part of a more general trend of less and less attention being paid to grammar and style as time passes).

Excursion on ranking:
My personal ranking of the books, now as then, would be “The Dark is Rising” (chronologically 2), “The Grey King” (c. 4), “Silver on the Tree” (c. 5), “Green-Witch” (c. 3), and “Over Sea, Under Stone” (c. 1). This is interesting in two regards: (a) The books with the Drew children do not fare well, and the fact that I clicked less with them as characters than with Will (and Bran) might play in.* (b) “Silver on the Tree” appears to be the most lauded by others, but is in the middle of the pack for me. I grant that this is the most ambitious of the books and likely (at least attempted as) a bit deeper than the others, but there is too much in it that does not work well as written, including (cf. above) the “The Lost Land” scenes (good ideas, poor execution). As a child, I also reacted very negatively to the revelation of Blodwen as a “double agent”; today, however, I see it as one of the few points where something thought-worthy is introduced, and evil actually has the guise of good, instead of being too obviously evil.

*But it should be noted that the order might be distorted by “Over Sea, Under Stone” being written considerably earlier than the other books, implying that Cooper might simply have been a less accomplished author at the time and that the other books might have benefited from ideas for the series gathered over the years. Moreover, “Green-Witch” is quite short, which might have had a negative effect on its ranking.

Written by michaeleriksson

December 17, 2019 at 2:03 am

Thoughts on Hornblower

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Recently, I have re-read most of the Hornblower books by C. S. Forester, for the first time since I was a teenager (and likely a fairly young teenager). This has been a very positive surprise, be it as a reading experience or as a means to improve my own writings. While the main target group likely remains young men and older boys who wish to be entertained, there is a lot of brilliance that make these books well worth the effort even for older readers—and I would not classify them as “young adult” books (quite contrary to my expectation). The too young reader is even likely to miss a lot of the benefits in terms of e.g. psychological insight or speculation—I certainly did.* Similarly, a pre-employment reader might miss the possible use of Hornblower as a model of professionalism and dedication, or the value of many discussions on interacting with superiors and subordinates.**

*Quite a few of my early readings, including e.g. the works of James Herriot, were pure entertainment when I was young, but have turned out to contain a lot of potential insight and items worthy of thought when I have re-encountered them as an adult.

**There are similarities between the Royal Navy and school, e.g. relating to press-ganging (mandatory schooling) and enforced rules; however, Hornblower’s (officer) career starts in a position that would not map well to a school student, which limits the applicability of the books for students and their ability to compare and contrast own experiences. A mapping of his career to a school might go from beginning teacher to principal.

A great positive is how exciting the books are: I am quite blasé when it comes to the excitement part of fiction and, nowadays, hardly ever have that “on the edge of my seat” feeling, even when it comes to e.g. thrillers and horror movies. Indeed, it is so rare that the repeated occurrence during these re-readings caught me off-guard, the feeling itself lost from active memory. Forester’s success in this at least partially lies in keeping his hero in a dire situation, where even a single mistake can lead to disaster, for pages, where someone else might have jotted down a few paragraphs. (Of course, this requires the skill to keep these pages “alive”, which not everyone might be able to do. I will certainly revisit his writings again to gain a better understanding.) Forester does not even shy away from killing off important or sympathetic characters, even when the reverse would be expected. (For instance, modern narrative approaches almost demand that Bush would have popped up alive, miraculously saved, at the end of “Lord Hornblower”—but when everyone survives all the time, who cares about apparent danger?) Similarly, bad things do happen to Hornblower, e.g. in that this or that “acting” promotion is not confirmed. The result is an occasional level of suspense that is almost Hitchcockian, if of a different character.

This is also a book series that sees the hero outwit the villains, having Hornblower repeatedly defeat nominally superior enemies or escape seemingly inescapable situations by using his head. (Of course, this is another factor that contributes to excitement, because the odds tend to be stacked against him.) Intelligence can also play in more indirectly, e.g. in that he values a well trained crew and ensures that training takes place, so that his ship is able to navigate better, his guns able to fire more often, etc., when a conflict is at hand. Then again, he sometimes shows an odd stupidity, as with e.g. the short-story “Hornblower and the Widow McCool”—to me, it bordered on the obvious that McCool was engaging in trickery, and I spotted the “bee” and the “eye” almost immediately, while Hornblower might have taken weeks or months (the exact chronology is not obvious). Similarly, it puzzles me how he could have missed a potential connection between the escaped prisoner and the two hundred pounds* that his wife wanted in “Hornblower in the West Indies”. (Both might be explained by a limited insight into the psychology of others on a “good with numbers; bad with people” basis. Also note that I have the benefit of knowing that Hornblower moves in a work of fiction, which can alter my expectations compared to real-life situations.)

*An amount that he felt was extremely large and unexpected in the circumstances, and for which he could see no plausible reason.

On the downside, the unfortunate order of writing* has lead to a number of continuity issues, including a five-year difference in Hornblower’s birth year. The books written earlier might also have placed unfortunate limits on the events of the books that play earlier in Hornblower’s life but were written later, as with e.g. the situation around (first wife) Maria and their children. A particular annoyance is the jump from the end of “Hornblower and the Atropos”, where he comes home to find his children suffering from smallpox, to the beginning of “The Happy Return” several years** later. This is highly frustrating for the reader who follows the internal chronology, and might have expected the next book to continue from that very point, to follow the care of the children and to discuss their fate. For the reader who follows the order of publication, including those who once read the books as they were published, the situation is toothless, because the deaths of the children of smallpox had been established years earlier.

*The book first written (“The Happy Return”) starts about half-way through the roughly three decades ultimately covered by the books. The next few books continue this chronology, after which a jump back to his career beginnings is made, after which the years tick upwards again for a few books. Forester then starts to jump back-and-forth in the timeline.

**There are a number of similarly sized gaps, which might or might not have been filled over time, had not Forester died prematurely. (Indeed, with one book, “Hornblower and the Crisis”, incomplete.)

A negative or neutral, depending on the point of view, is that events later in the chronology might, in some sense, be too large or too hard to reconcile with the historical record. Consider e.g. his attending a dinner with the Russian czar and the Swedish king simultaneously present; or his key role in a rebellion* of Le Havre against Napoleon, a city of which he then became the governor. Similarly, it might have been better to not have the short-story “The Last Encounter”, set years after the novels, turn him into admiral of the fleet—a position very visible in historical record and far less anonymous than that of rear admiral (as last seen in the novels). Here, if not earlier, we move from historical fiction to alternate reality.**

*I am uncertain whether this has any historical background, but if a real-life rebellion did take place, it was without his assistance and without a governor Hornblower.

**Historical fiction necessarily has some element of alternate reality, because otherwise it would be plain history. However, there is a difference between the type of historical fiction that might have taken place approximately as described without being incompatible with today’s world and the type that cannot. For instance, having Hornblower on one of many ships participating in the naval blockade of France is historically unproblematic; having him, hypothetically, switch sides, rouse ten thousand soldiers, and help Napoleon to a victory at Waterloo, well, that is a different story.

Some other observations:

  1. I have often complained about characters* who keep their plans and ideas too close to the chest, even at the risk of associates making mistakes or not cooperating out of ignorance, or being put in unnecessary insecurity and fear. (“Doctor Who” contains many examples.) To date, I have mostly considered this a way to keep an unexpected twist secret to the reader/viewer for as long as possible, in order to increase the surprise or the suspense leading up to it. Hornblower provides an alternate set of explanations around the need to keep discipline on board, appearing infallible to his subordinates, and similar: if his intended plan fails, he loses little or no face if no-one knows about the plan; if it succeeds, he seems the more far-sighted. (Note the special situation of the then British navy.)

    *Mostly in fiction, but some real-life people have been similar.

  2. The books are quite explicit about differences in intellectual abilities between different persons, including noting a great many very stupid or otherwise incompetent (non-officer) seamen and quite a few somewhat stupid or otherwise incompetent officers. While this is realistic with an eye on my own observations of the world, I have some doubts whether books making such claims would fare well in today’s political climate, where this attitude might be labeled as “elitist” and, therefore, unacceptable.*

    *I strongly contend that we need more elitism and that today’s attitudes are highly damaging. I have a follow-up text in planning with some ideas of how to go about this. Also see e.g. [1], [2].

    As a special case, naive, emotional loyalty to a superior officer is depicted as to some degree relating to stupidity. This also matches my real-life observations.

  3. Hornblower is paradoxical through simultaneously being almost superhuman, notably intellectually, and having unexpected weaknesses, e.g. in that he, as a navy officer, has bouts of sea-sickness. This is quite different from many characters in less well made works, who are superhuman—period. It is also clear that he has had his share of luck and that brilliance alone would not have been enough to get him where he is. (Regular luck, not “Gladstone Gander” luck.)
  4. Somewhat overlapping, Hornblower appears to suffer from what today would likely be considered “impostor syndrome”, in books written decades before the “discovery” of the impostor syndrome—and, notably, with a man as the self-perceived impostor. (Whereas the impostor syndrome was originally naively considered more of a female thing.) This is a good example of the limited intellectual depth of certain “scientists”.

    As an aside, the impostor syndrome, or at least something resembling it, is quite easy to predict by the fact that the “impostor” often (a) has a good knowledge of his own strengths and weaknesses, (b) will tend to view the things that “come easy” to him as easy. If he lacks enough insight into the weakness of others or if others show that they do not understand the reason of his success (e.g. through underestimating hard work put in or attributing success to divine inspiration) then self-perception and perception by others is highly likely to be incompatible.

    In particular, there is no reason to be puzzled by why more recognition, e.g. an award, could increase the feeling of being an impostor, instead of reducing it: On the one hand, the recognition is unlikely to do anything to alter the self-estimate of abilities of someone with a strong self-knowledge—a ship captain does not become better at using the sextant by receiving an award, for instance. On the other hand, the recognition will demonstrate the perception of others and risk an inflation of the difference. When the difference is inflated the feeling of being an impostor is increased.

  5. Similarly, the books provide yet another example of how the Feminist or “gender studies” claim that the male role would be unexplored is unfounded. Here we have books (probably) mostly read by non-adult boys, written before “gender studies” appeared on the chart, which run through many issues helpful as “food for thought” for a boy or a man to find himself and his place in the world, including issues of duty to various entities, how to handle a marriage in unfavorable circumstances, ethical dilemmas, the contrast between rules/laws and ethics, coping with adversity and injustice, self-sacrifice, … (But none of that might matter to the Feminists, because not one word is spent on whether Hornblower should have stayed home with the children while Maria fought the French.)
  6. The strength of the books often come from the restrictions placed on Hornblower, not the abilities at his disposal. For instance, it is not the ability to fire a broadside that makes a naval battle work—it is the need to navigate into a position to fire it without being shot up by the other ship, the need to reload and adjust aim, etc. For instance, if Hornblower could have gone on the radio and talked directly with any ship in the Royal Navy or with the admiralty in London, many things would have been too easy to be interesting, many complications could simply not have taken place, etc.
  7. The books are historically very interesting, including insights into sailing, naval warfare, etc. (And, obviously, portions of the Napoleonic wars as historical events.) A particular point is the extreme discipline on board, the hard and dangerous work (even battles aside), the poor diet, and the large scale press-ganging. I have not investigated how historically accurate Forester’s depictions are, but by-and-large they match my impression from other readings. To re-iterate a point that I have made in the past: when we look at e.g. the U.S. slavery era, it is important to use the world as it was as a bench-mark—not the world as it is. This both when comparing conditions and when looking at what behaviors were or were not acceptable in society.
  8. A strength of the series as a whole is the varying stations and situations that occur as Hornblower reaches different positions in the navy, which creates an automatic variety. A particular issue is the gradual move from predominantly following orders and keeping superiors content to predominantly giving orders and keeping subordinates content.

This text is not the one mentioned in [3]. I am still developing my ideas, Hornblower is merely the impetus, and it could be a while before I get around to writing something. Also cf. “more elitism” above.

Note on names of books:
Some of the works mentioned might be known to the reader by a different name, because of changes over time or differences between countries.

Written by michaeleriksson

November 24, 2019 at 10:21 am

The struggling author IV

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Currently, I am stuck at three overlapping complications, which have brought me to a temporary standstill. If I forge ahead before I have come to a conclusion and then discover that I was heading in the wrong direction, I could end up with an enormous amount of re-writes. On the other hand, a conclusion can be hard to reach without further practical experimentation. It might be time to write a few short stories.

  1. How close to stick to the bare-bones of the events and how much to flesh it out, be it in terms of side-events or details of the events:

    My writing so far has been fairly bare-bones, which makes for a good tempo, a lack of a waste, and results in something that I find enjoyable to read. However, looking at the writings of others, there is often a great amount of fleshing out, and the result is often still enjoyable. There is a loss of tempo and sometimes too much irrelevancy is added, but this is also a source of atmosphere (or e.g. suspense), it can make an important scene longer and thereby more memorable, it allows more opportunities for character exposition, etc.

    Currently, I am considering to start with a bare-bones version of a scene and then to add material until I find a decent compromise. This has the obvious advantage that it is usable on what I already have written. (But note the contrast to the common advice of removing material over time.)

  2. How much to (explicitly) divulge of the inner workings of the characters:

    Early on, I tended to be extremely low on such information, but I have since tended to include more and more. The former might appeal to the more intellectual reader, give more room for interpretation by the reader, and leave me with more options in terms of later choices, because I have not nailed myself down. However, there is also fair chance that most readers will fail to connect the dots and/or will arrive at the wrong conclusions (in those cases where I do have a specific intention). I also have a suspicion that diverting too much of (even the intellectual) reader’s attention to deciphering the characters’ words and actions could be a misprioritization, and that this attention might be better spent on other aspects of the text.*

    *This might be a special case of the author wanting to achieve too many things in one go, which I suspect is a current weakness of mine.

  3. How much information to provide about how something is said:

    If we look at a line from a movie, how something is said is often as important as what is said. This includes indications about mood, emotions, intended irony or sarcasm,* urgency or stress, etc. Writing a book, such information has to be foregone, communicated by explaining text, or communicated (alone) by the words spoken by the characters. (Or some combination of the three.)

    *As a note to the U.S. reader, if the twerps on “The Big Bang Theory” considers something sarcasm, it is almost always irony. Sometimes, it is also sarcasm, but probably in less than half the cases.

    The last seems to be a common ideal,* but few actually try it—and I am honestly uncertain how this could work: it would leave so much up to the reader that (a) readers will disagree as much about the contents of the book as they might about how the characters look, (b) readers might stroll down a path of interpretation that is incompatible** with later parts of the book.

    *Up to the point that I have seen the recommendation to only ever use “said”, as in e.g. “[…] said Tom.”, “[…] said Dick.”, “[…] said Harry.”, irrespective of the circumstances. Variations like “[…] scoffed Tom.” and “[…] said Dick sarcastically.” would then be ruled out.

    **E.g. in that a strongly verbalizing reader has “heard” one of the characters say something in anger, while later events make clear that he said it in jest, without even pretend anger. Note the difference to the previous item, where later information might force a re-interpretation of events, but where a revision of what the reader “heard” is not needed. (Just like we might need to re-interpret experiences from our own lives without having a need to re-imagine how the experiences actually played out.)

    For now, I tend towards including as much information as needed to make the rough intent of (at least) the surface action shine through. In particular, I doubt that even a true master always can manage this using only words spoken by the characters. (Often nothing will be needed, because there is nothing particular going on, e.g. when two characters calmly discuss a topic. Often words will be enough in context, e.g. because a “Fuck!” will usually be interpreted correctly. Always? That is a different matter.)

    As an aside, theatrical plays are not a counter-argument, because they are usually intended to be consumed through the interpretations of actors, who provide the missing clues. The interpretations might be different from run to run, or even performance to performance, but they are not left to the fantasy of the reader. This is perfectly legitimate, and might well be the reason for the enduring success of e.g. Shakespeare, but it is a different situation.

To revisit some issues from the previous update:

I am still in discussions with the Künstlersozialkasse. Highly disturbingly, a recent letter from it tried to exemplify why the rejection was justified by pointing to an earlier court case. I looked into this case (superficially), and it actually appears to support my stance. If in doubt, the Künstlersozialkasse lost the case … This falls in line with prior observations of Germany governmental agencies, who tend to just throw out names of various court cases alleged to support their points of view—without bothering to check whether the respective case applies to the issue at hand.* In this case, it might go even further—just throw out the name of a court case, at all, and hope that the counter-part does not check up on the details …

*A fundamental observation about court cases and precedence is that there has to be substantial similarities between cases for precedence to apply. Without such similarities, the reasoning behind the prior court decision(s) need not apply, and when the reasoning does not apply, the conclusion is left in the air.

The construction work appears to be ended, but it is far from silent. At least one party (yet to be identified) in the building engages in truly excessive noise making, including stomping or jumping on the floor for hours per week, and often at unfortunate times at that. Note: Not “walks”, even be it clumsily or in shoes. Not “runs in the stairs”. Not “has a brief fit after a lost game”. We are talking about outright, prolonged stomping, someone deliberately driving his feet into the floor with force—on a daily basis and for hours per week. Notably, this is loud enough that it is impossible to sleep through even when using ear-plugs; notably, it often happens in the late evening or early morning.

Moreover, the source of the construction work has (accidentally) identified herself: To my great surprise, this was another person in the building, who had bought a second apartment for her daughter. She waylaid me and another neighbor when we were about to enter the building, blocked the way, and started a long speech about “problems in building”. I thought that she was rightly concerned about the noise levels, but no: she alleged that there had been repeated break-ins in the cellar, affecting all the storage units. (I found no trace of a break-in for my unit. Only one of the other units, at the time, showed damages in the lock area.) She also blamed the broken glass in the front-door on these burglars. Interesting: I had hitherto assumed that her construction workers were to blame … As a further oddity: if any reasonable person were aware of burglaries and wanted to bring them to the attention of the neighbors, the obvious measure is to write a letter and post it in the hall-way, so that everyone can see it immediately. She appears to have chosen to pick off individual neighbors person by person, with a considerably induced delay. (To boot, my personal suspicion is that she was more interested in gossiping and trying to turn the neighbors against each other. She struck me as that type of trouble-maker from her behavior and she seems to fit the profile of an angry and bitter aging woman with nothing better to do. During our one prior meeting, she was boiling with fury because someone allegedly had misused the paper recycling. In all fairness, speculations based on two meetings should be taken with a grain of salt.)

Written by michaeleriksson

November 23, 2019 at 9:12 am

The struggling author III

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Looking back at my last update on the theme of the struggling author, I am now in a very different place. This includes having a much better understanding of writing, both as a process and as a means to produce fiction that works or does not work. It also includes having actually reached both a text mass and a sufficient maturity of outline that I probably could wrap up a readable book in just another few weeks time.

This I will not do, however, because that book might be readable, but also highly unlikely to satisfy myself and equally unlikely to be published. (Getting even a good book published is not trivial.)

Instead, I will take my time, aiming for a completion somewhere during next year’s summer. This will allow me ample time to modify both plot and text in light of increasing competence. Even now, most of what I wrote two months ago seems sufficiently weak that I am set on rewriting it—and that includes text that I was reasonably happy with at the time.

(To avoid misunderstandings: This is a good thing. It shows that I am improving. If I had not improved, then I would have cause to question my career choice. The time plan is set in the hope that I will continue to improve, so that my first book will not just be “OK” but something that I am actually happy with.)

There are still things that I struggle with. A notable example is the question of which of several alternatives to choose in key situations. Each choice can simultaneously open and close doors, and many choices can have an effect on the long term plot. Sometimes, it is possible to eat the cake and keep it too; sometimes, it is not. Consider, by analogy, questions from real life like “What if I had chosen a different major or college?”, “What if I had given that girl-/boy-friend a second chance?”, “What if I had not married that woman/man?”, “What if I had accepted respectively turned down that job offer?”, etc.

Looking at my own life, it would, e.g., be possible to have me go through both with my time as an exchange student in Germany and a later life in Sweden, with closer contacts to my family, less language issues, likely an easier career, etc. It would not be possible to combine this later life in Sweden with the actual continued life in Germany, unless the German part was cut much shorter than it was, missing much of the experiences that do make up the “book” of my life. True, even now, I could return to Sweden, but it would now be too late for many of the experiences that could have been a part of the alternate “book”, including differences in early “character development”.

Or, to take the excuse to segue into a different area: What if the last five (?) months had not seen my house terrorized with construction work? (The “book” of my life might be less interesting, but the book that I am writing might be considerably further along.) As is, the amount of noise has been considerably lower the last week or two, but simply will not end. I suspect that the apartment renovations are over and that some other party is now performing lesser works somewhere else in the building. This, however, includes such absurdities as loud hammering for several minutes at 5 AM (yes, AM!) two days ago.

Another considerable annoyance is the Künstlersozialkasse, ostensibly created to ease the financial burden of struggling authors and other artists through covering those portions of various pension and health-insurance fees that are paid by the employer for those in regular employment. I am a perfect case of someone for whom the Künstlersozialkasse is intended, and by the current law, the decision to include me should have been a trivial rubber stamping. Instead, the treatment of my application has been extended over more than two months—and then rejected. Moreover, this rejection has been given a motivation that is simply not compatible with the actual law. (Such misbehavior is, unfortunately, quite common in Germany, where e.g. the “IRS” often willfully ignores laws and precedence in favor of its own internal instructions, to the point that individual tax payers might need to go to court over something that has already been decided in favor of other tax payers; or need to go to court to for the same misbehavior several years in a row, even when they won in the previous years.) Moreover, the resources of this agency (or whatever might be the appropriate term) are often wasted on non-artists, like free-lance journalists, whose inclusion is contrary to the original intentions.

Written by michaeleriksson

October 19, 2019 at 9:53 pm

Questions/exercises at the end of a chapter

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The questions and exercises* at the end of a chapter of school literature always annoyed me as a child. Even then they seemed like pointless busy work to me and they rarely made sense. To some part, this was my own laziness: if I liked the book, I wanted to read on; if I disliked it, I did not want the spend more time with it to answer some “stupid” questions. However, to a large part, my opinion was actually correct:

*I will typically stick to “question” below, for simplicity.

Recently, I have both revisited some of my old Swedish school-books during visits to Sweden and read a handful of college level texts from the softer sciences. I find that I still have a similar aversion, if one more nuanced and held for a better reason: Outside of the hard sciences, even in more advanced literature, these questions tend to focus too much on just repeating the stuff of the chapter, where true value would be found in making the students think about the material and to help them towards the areas and ways of thought that best help with a deeper understanding. In this, they are largely a waste of time, energy, and motivation. This especially because many questions can be unduly time consuming relative their value, should an honest attempt be made, as e.g with “find five other examples of X”, or even time-consuming and open-ended, e.g. “find as many examples of X as you can”. (That type of open ended question should be grounds for an immediate firing.) In contrast, a “Y is a similar example. Can the same arguments be made in that case?” would be a much better question/exercise—especially, when the answer is “no”. (The exact formulations used might need adjustment to the appropriate age bracket, both here and below.)

In contrast, the exercises* found in e.g. a math or a physics book actually force the student to use his head (or fail at answering)—here what has (ideally) been learned is actually tested, various ideas and approaches are often given new spins, the student is motivated to go back to the text to check what he might have missed that will help him solve a problem, etc. Importantly, mere learning, e.g. having memorized a formula, will rarely be enough if an understanding is not present. It is much harder, even if not impossible, to get through a math class without understanding than through a class from the softer sciences.

*Those with little exposure to math should note that these questions tend to have a very different character from the arithmetic tasks of the early years. They soon include solving problems and applying techniques, and even a first-year college text might ask for an own proof of a theorem. (At least for me in Sweden—with the continual dumbing down and whatnot, no guarantees can be made for the future or other countries.)

Many other fields are too different in character for this to always be possible and it is only rarely possible in the same manner—but why is the attempt so rarely made? Worse, when the attempt is made, it is often in a misguided or irrelevant direction, e.g. “How do you think that X felt, when […]”. In contrast, assuming that this question arose from a conflict,* a better question might focus on (a) exploring different perspectives of an issue, (b) learning that there are almost always different perspectives and that it is valuable to try to understand them, (c) approaching a question with reason and impartiality, e.g. in that a conflict is examined based on who has what ethical case (as opposed to e.g. who feels what). Another common error is a too great focus on personal opinion, e.g. “Who do you think was in the right?”, which is likely to result in an unreflected top-of-the-head answer from most younger students, usually based on emotions or identification—and will be seen as patronizing and unproductive by most older students (assuming that they do not still given an unreflected top-of-the-head answer). Here a better question would be e.g. “Who do you think was right and why?”. Better yet, leading to better thinking and removing the need to artificially side** with one party: “What arguments could X and Y make for their respective case?” This not followed by a “Who do think would be more convincing?” or similar.

*It need not have. I have seen similar questions asked e.g. relating to a happy event or an accidental misfortune.

**Which is unfortunate on at least two counts: Firstly, it can lead the student to lock himself into one position. Secondly, most realistic cases will cause good students to not side entirely with either party, and forcing such a choice is unproductive and/or forces a fake answer. A personal example of the latter: In one of my first school-years, we were supposed to name our respective personal idol. I did not have an idol. (It can be disputed whether I have ever truly had one, even now.) I just picked Björn Borg (or possibly Ingemar Stenmark), because he happened to be a very plausible answer for a Swedish boy at the time (1982?)—and I had to answer something.

Even my suggestions above are potentially too simplistic, unproductive, patronizing, whatnot. Much better questions are e.g. those involving a hypothetical, as “what if” Hitler had not invaded Poland*; those that cause the student to investigate commonly believed facts and assumptions; those that force a critical investigation of a line of reasoning; those that focus on abstracting and generalizing; those that point to the “why” of matter (e.g. why someone did something or why something did or did not work); etc.

*A scenario that I consider much more interesting that the more common the-Axis-won-WW2 scenarios. And, yes, this is a very open-ended question, but it is open ended in a different manner than “find as many […]”.

A downside of such questions is that they rarely have a short and definite answer, which make them fit poorly in e.g. the context of a typical answer/check-the answer workflow. But why should they—the point is not to have the right or wrong answer, but to think, to develop a better understanding, and, even, learning to ask the right questions for one-self. Moreover, such questions are not best asked at the end of a chapter—they should ideally be in the mind of the student while reading the chapter.

Excursion on repetition and filtering:
There are two aspects of typical questions that some might feel come up short with more productive questions.

Firstly, repetition. Here I counter that just reading a chapter once and then relying on questions for repetition is unproductive. It is better to read the chapter several times, preferably spaced out over a greater time interval. If need be, a short summary or a check-list is a better means of providing repetition. (As could more reader-centric work be, e.g. the reader writing an own summary.)

Secondly, knowing what is or is not important. Here I counter that such limits tend to be unproductive, because they cause the student to focus just on the “important” parts; that the opinion of what is important held by the book author need not be shared by the student (or his teacher); and that, again, a short summary or a check-list is a better means.

Excursion on other problems:
Generally, I often found various tasks, questions, whatnot, in school unnatural, unproductive, poorly thought-through, whatnot. This often because they were; often because no-one bothered with telling the students why the task was there. A telling example of both: In early English, we were given a set of questions to answer, with no further instruction. I promptly answered them in a reasonable manner, e.g. by “yes”, “no”, a name, …—and was promptly scolded by the teacher with the pseudo-argument “That is not how you would have answered those questions in Swedish!”. Yes, it bloody well was! In Swedish, I would have answered with “ja”, “nej”, a name, … While I am more verbose today, there is a wide range of questions that I would still answer in that manner, even as an adult and in any language. Very often, such a short answer is not only the most economical, but also the most natural and what benefits the asking party the most.

What the teacher did not do, was to explain the purpose of the exercise—to train active language skills. We were supposed to use formulations like “my name is […]”* in order to master such phrasings as a speaker/writer. Had she done that, I might** have been more receptive and/or improved my own study approach at an earlier date. Her approach is also a good illustration of how too many teachers behaved—instead of giving a good argument, all they had was usually pseudo-arguments or some variation of the “because I said so”/“because the book said so” theme.

*Honestly, how often does this phrase actually occur among native speakers? Most often, I suspect, the speaker will just state his name; and the majority of the remaining cases will be some variation of “I am”. Similarly, “mitt namn är […]” (resp. “jag heter […]”) is not that common a phrase in Swedish, nor “mein name ist […]” in German.

**I make no guarantees, seeing that I could be extremely stubborn and disliked this type of exercise. However, the approach she actually used was a complete failure, almost by necessity, in terms of being convincing, and even if the improved version had also failed with me, it would likely have been more successful over a wide range of other students.

Written by michaeleriksson

July 19, 2019 at 7:52 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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