Book Notes: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Noise, noise, noise filling the roaring silence. This was an uncomfortable read. The narrative was incessant and seemed always to roll right past me, leaving me with the feeling I’d missed something.

Nothing was happening. But I couldn’t put it down.

In the end, I found what was missing: It was Kathy H.’s outrage and despair. And this is where Ishiguro’s genius lies.

From cover to cover, our protagonist chatters on about the small and the meaningless, and with painstaking detail. Yet in all her obsessive rumination, she never once contemplates the horror that frames her entire short life and how she knows it will end. It’s like watching someone live in a rotting corpse of a house—ghosts and all—intent on filling its corners with gayly colored second-hand gaud and hiding its putrid walls beneath cheap chintzy wallpaper.

Ishiguro’s themes mirror the ongoing oppression in our social realities and the blind arguments we make to excuse them and keep them alive: They’re not like us. The subjugation of people of color by white power. The cruelty of the meat industry. Cold indifference. Outright denial.

But on a more personal level, I had to admit that Kathy H.’s (infuriating) dissociation was familiar. Don’t we all worry about lost cassette tapes, dirtying our favorite shirts, and petty arguments that we’ll soon forget, all the while ignoring bigger pain? Don’t we all just do what we can, with what we have, as long as we can? Distracting ourselves and filling the deafening silence with noise, noise, noise.

“Only idiots need editors.”

Ouch. I’ve literally just heard someone say, “Only idiots need editors.”

“Tell that to J.K. Rowling,” my husband responded. At that, my inner Macaulay Culkin (circa Home Alone 2) dropped on one knee and fist pumped with an emphatic “YES!” because:

(a) my guy reflexively stood up to a bully for me (which is awesome),
(b) he appreciates Rowling (which means he mustn’t hate the countless hours of HP talk I’ve subjected him to), and
(c) he gave me a great argument to use here in this article. Thanks, Paul!

Editing is a rather broad term that fails in every language I speak to cover the breadth and depth of what kind of support it actually is. This is why I think the perpetrator (insert stink-eye emoji here) probably meant no harm but spoke (at least primarily) from ignorance.

Editing is not spell-checking. Otherwise, you could ask just about anyone to review your writing, and even your word processor can tell the difference between their and there in context. (And by the way, it doesn’t take an idiot to overlook a spelling mistake.)

Instead, editing is an integral part of any manuscript’s lifecycle. Spelling is, of course, a concern, but there are different kinds of editing, and each is approached with a specific focus and varying degrees of intensity.

If you want to be less ignorant than that guy, check out this page for more on the kinds of editing that masterful authors have always depended on for professional, objective feedback and guidance in the development of their stories—fiction or otherwise.

P. S. A humble shout out to writer and J.K. Rowling’s editor, Arthur A. Levine, who doesn’t, in fact, work for an idiot.

Now Reading: Now is the Time by Melvyn Bragg (A Review)

When I first discovered Melvyn Bragg, I was told he was something like a national treasure here in the UK. And after reading the Adventure of English: The Biography of  a Language (nonfiction), I was sold. The Adventure of English revealed the tiniest sliver of at least a hundred stories I wanted to hear. English is our protagonist, a bit of a victim to the whim of culture and conquest through the ages before growing into a blazing language of power—solidarity, global connectedness, and hegemony included.

41wulq8oswl-_sx324_bo1204203200_So then imagine me stumbling upon Now is the Time at the book store: Melvyn Bragg? A historical novel? A gilded matte-finish cover that begs to be handled? It was like falling in love at first sight—completely reckless.

I was prepped and primed for Now is the Time, the telling of a medieval peasant’s revolt, which (not coincidentally) also sheds light on part of English’s struggle to survive to serve as a language of state and religion.

As I write this, I have already finished the novel (misleading title, I know), and I suffer from a guilt-ridden ambivalence toward Bragg’s narrative approach. I so wanted to love this book into a 5-star review.

First, the praise: I love that Bragg chose to tell this story. It’s a fascinating moment in history that reminds us how much (and how little) our social worlds have changed since 1381. The portrait of the sociolinguistic context was perfect and can serve as a insightful reflection of power in modern diglossia. (This is particularly fascinating since most of us have a difficult time imagining English with the short end of the stick.)

BUT… I can’t help but feel that Bragg tried to accomplish too much in 350 pages. I wish that he had simply committed to fewer aspects of the revolt and its major players. The storytelling felt crowded with actors and motives, which left little time for settling in with any single character. Point of view shifts often and the pages are flooded with names that I have already forgotten since their last mention. Imagine an entire season of Game of Thrones (plus all the relevant background information) packed into a single episode or two.

For writers of many genres, there’s definitely a lesson to learn here. All the research and development of your characters and their worlds is bound to be fascinating (even if only to you). But (unfortunately) that doesn’t mean that every bit of it belongs in the telling of a single story, especially one with multiple plot lines. More on this in another post, I suspect.

I’ll finish with a final bit of love for the book and Bragg: The last paragraph, which I wouldn’t dare share here (even though I’m tempted cause I love it so much) is gorgeous homage to such ‘blips’ in history. First they are—audacious and undeniable. Then they are weathered—still there, even if only as a shadow. And finally, they are no more. That is, of course, until gems like Melvyn Bragg dig them back up and invite us to remember. For that, I’m grateful.

Why You Should RUE: Resist the Urge to Explain

RUE (i.e., resist the urge to explain) is a brilliant yet common-sense concept from Browne and King, the authors of one my favorite editing resources, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. Importantly, this is not just a wise warning for fiction writers but a principle to be observed by nonfiction and academic writers as well.

What resist the urge to explain means is (hopefully) self-evident, but the grounds for RUE may be less so. There are plenty of reasons to avoid unnecessary explanation, but let’s skip the mindless enumeration and take a look at an example of R.U.E. in action.

Last night I watched Hidden Figures, a nonfiction-book-based film1 that follows three female African-American mathematicians working for NASA during the Space Race with the USSR and, importantly, the U.S. Civil Rights movement. Let’s explore R.U.E. using my favorite line from the film, a simple yet powerful response delivered by Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan, an acting computer supervisor who is repeatedly denied an official promotion and the corresponding raise. After a brief but icy exchange that follows weeks of sharpening tension, her immediate supervisor, played by Kirsten Dunst, stops Spencer on her way out of the newly desegregated ladies’ room:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Spencer stops. Turning to look at Dunst, she says, “I know you probably believe that.”

Bazinga! Simple, yet powerful. As Spencer exits (leaving behind a thoughtful Ms. Dunst), I’m grinning like a buffoon and throwing a million mental high-fives in Spencer’s direction from my beanbag.

But what’s this got to do with R.U.E.? Let’s explore another take of this exchange:

“Despite what you may think,” Dunst says defensively, “I have nothing against y’all.”

Annoyed by the fact that Dunst clearly doesn’t get it, Spencer stops and turns to face her. “I know you probably believe that,” she says ironically. “Maybe you think you’re not racist, and maybe you aren’t consciously, but if being Black means that I’m less fit to be a supervisor than you, then I’d say, yes, you’re holding something against me: my skin color.”

Dunst was bewildered by Spencer’s accusation. She stood in stunned silence as she watched her leave.

Okay, I added a bunch of rubbish here, but hopefully I made my point. Not only have the explanations (of emotion, manner, and the meaning of the utterance) insulted our intelligence by assuming that (a) we wouldn’t have been able to figure it out on our own and (b) our imaginations wouldn’t have been able to fill in the blanks, the exchange has also completely lost its bazinga! factor. By adding “defensively,” I’ve intruded upon your interpretation of Dunst’s character and her statement. I’ve made it one-dimensional and “boxed it in” by limiting the way the readers’ imaginations may have played the scene out. Furthermore, we certainly didn’t need clarification that Dorothy’s statement was ironic or that her supervisor’s cluelessness really ground her gears.

In the case of fiction and creative writing, Browne and King’s discussion of RUE specifically addresses the naming of the emotion behind a character’s behavior or language, as in the addition of defensively and ironically to the dialogue tags and the description of the emotional states bewildered and annoyed. The trouble with descriptions like these are connected to the Show, Don’t Tell rule:

[The] tendency to describe a character’s emotion may reflect a lack of confidence on the part of the writer. And more often than not, writers tell their readers things already shown by dialogue and action. It’s as if they’re repeating themselves to make sure their readers get the point. So when you come across an explanation of a character’s emotion, simply cut the explanation. If the emotion is still shown, then the explanation wasn’t needed. If the emotion isn’t shown, rewrite the passage so that it is. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 17)

In nonfiction and other genres, writers have to be cautious to avoid providing unnecessary explanations (like my addition of the meaning behind Spencer’s original line). Yes, of course, you should explain concepts or arguments that won’t be clear to your readers otherwise, but every reader can be assumed to have some level of critical-thinking ability, so don’t think for them.

A final quote from Browne and King on the work of a writer who managed to RUE throughout her novel. Although they’re still talking about fiction, the principle applies equally to all genres of writing:

Also, by never explaining her situations, by trusting her readers to keep up her, [the author] pays her readers the compliment of assuming them to be intelligent. And that’s a compliment any writer would do well to pass along. (Browne & King, 1993, p. 37)


1based on the autobiographical novel by Margot Lee Shetterly