Archives for category: Writing

“Often, at night, solitude loses its soft power, and loneliness takes over. I am grateful for when solitude returns.” Donald Hall’s late productivity is notable. This video by Paul Szynol is published by The Atlantic.

If you don’t see a video here, please click on the title of this post in order to view it in your browser.

The New Yorker published a longer article about Mr Hall’s burst of late creativity. Donald Hall died on June 23, 2018, at the age of 89.

The quotation at the head of this piece puts me in mind of Thomas Moore’s “Oft in the stilly night” sung here by the immortal John McCormack. (Don’t think there’s something wrong — there’s no image in this “video”. The sound’s enough! Perfection.)

“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”. We all know literary (or any other artistic) influence is essential to the development of art. Conscious or more often unconscious copying happens all the time. A hundred years ago people no doubt didn’t altogether approve of straight copying, but only rarely had to confront the evidence. If you are reading along in War and Peace, are you really going to check that tinkling bell by rushing off to read Evgeny Onegin all the way through to check on your suspicion that Tolstoy’s really quoting Pushkin? (This is a notional example. I’m not saying Tolstoy did, or did not quote Pushkin or anyone else.) But a digital world allows for word searches which can quickly bring such things to light. A special subset of this sort of search tool is plagiarism software systems, designed primarily to prevent students just copying and pasting in order to get to the required word count in their essays, and appear to have a solid grasp of the subject. I recently learned that many school pupils in Britain have to submit their essays with a plagiarism score attached. (I have not heard of publishers making this sort of demand of their authors, but who knows what goes on in the dark?) Now that it’s so easy to check the vocabulary and structure of any piece of writing, it’s not too surprising that lots of people are running this sort of check, and all sorts of “plagiarism” scandals can rise up to appall us.

Now it’s reached the top. Dennis McCarthy says he wouldn’t accuse Shakespeare of plagiarism after detecting an apparent source for bits of Shakespeare’s writing. The New York Times tells the tale. Plagiarism is a heavy charge, and you’d be crazy to level it at Shakespeare and expect not to be slammed by most of the academic community. So you decide to call it not plagiarism but creative influence.

Page from George North’s A Brief Discourse of Rebellion and Rebels which is claimed to be the source for some of the “Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York” speech in Richard III. If they say so! Much seems to depend on the rarity of some of the words used and the order in which they occur.


Book Business links to a Guardian article on plagiarism. As the Helen Keller story illustrates having a good memory can be a burden. Of course having a poor memory can also be problematic as you fail to remember ever having read about this brilliant plot turn your muse is whispering into your ear.

See also Plagiarism, which contains a link to online plagiarism checkers.

The Digital Reader brings us news of what is being presented as suicidal corporate greed.

I wrote about Patreon recently under the rubric Patronage. The idea behind the site seemed like a good one: funding for creative artists including authors by members of the public who believe in what these people are doing and are brought together by this site. They report over one million active patrons. But now it looks like the owners of Patreon may kill the goose because of their desire for a larger share of the golden eggs. At the moment they keep 5% of donations, with another 5% retained to cover costs. The Passive Voice has a thoughtful piece on the situation, focussed mainly on rights which Patreon take as they try to evolve into a SaaS (Software as a service) platform, helping in content creation. Rights ownership may be one method they want to use to increase profitability. While a writer might be willing to cut their patron in on some of the rights in their writing, granting that to the website facilitating the patron/client transaction might seem less obviously acceptable.

Patreon has been providing a service since 2013 and lots of artists have benefitted from it. As The Passive Voice points out, with an internet-based business “raising prices is very difficult because someone else is always ready to clone the business plan and offer the service for less”. The financial pressure may in fact be coming from the payment processors, basically bankers. Please stop at the edge and reflect on whether 5% of an amount which keeps growing isn’t better than having your client-base desert you. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”. There are alternatives, including PayPal apparently, but Patreon does seem to be a useful option.

Of course there need be nothing ominous in a business offering new services. If some people want them, fine, and if nobody does, one hopes they haven’t become essential to the company’s survival. The company has raised $106 million in venture funding, and obviously needs to show some return. It’d be nice if something like bringing patrons and creators together could be done on a modest scale, but it seems like everyone with an on-line business wants to be a unicorn these days.

A Patreon reading list can be found here at TechCrunch. This piece contains an additional link to a helpful post from the same source entitled The Business of Patreon.


Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish-Iranian asylum-seeker held on Manus Island, Australia’s holding-pen for immigrants it wants to slow-track, has just won the Victorian Premier’s prize for non-fiction and their top award for literature with his book about life on Manus, No Friend but the Mountains. The Guardian reports on the prize award. This morning the BBC carried a report in its World Service Newshour broadcast. Mr Boochani appears to be a cultural phenom: articles, poetry, songs and a movie have all been created. The BBC reported on the film in October. Yes, he has his own Wikipedia page.

Without having read the book, one of the most interesting things one can tell about it about it is the method of composition. Mr Boochani wrote it on his cell phone as a long series of text messages sent via WhatsApp and other messaging services to Omid Tofighian, his translator from the Farsi in which the book was written. The authorities were not ecstatic: his phone was twice confiscated. “The main reason I wrote this book on my phone, and sent it out bit by bit, was really that I didn’t feel safe with the guards and authorities”. But after almost five years of composition the book was completed and was published last July by Pan Macmillan.

Now, of course, the judges for the Victorian Premier’s award are not members of the Australian government, but it does make for an ironical comment that the country’s top literary prize should be given to a writer who the government tried to stifle. Although the detention center on Manus Island has been officially closed it seems Mr Boochani is still there, and was not allowed to attend the prize-giving ceremony.

The Mellon Foundation has just made a grant of $2 million to The American Academy of Poets. Here’s The New York Times story, (via LitHub). “The funds are divided into two grants. The first will help start a new fellowship program to support poets laureate of states, cities, United States territories or tribal nations across the country.” “The second grant will go toward the Poetry Coalition, a national alliance of more than 20 poetry organizations, several of which are nonprofits.”

It is great to see rich dead men supporting the arts. Maybe we can raise our maximum tax rate to 70% (as proposed by AOC) and allow more of the living ones to do the same.

As it happens poetry seems to be doing pretty well on its own. Lots of publishing going on, and lots of books, periodicals, pamphlets being bought. Here’s The Guardian reporting a couple of days ago about the trend in Britain.

Forbes has just released its list of top-ten-earning authors for 2018. They are

  • 1. James Patterson: $86 million
  • 2. J.K. Rowling: $54 million
  • 3. Stephen King: $27 million
  • 4. John Grisham: $21 million
  • 5. Dan Brown (tie): $18.5 million
  • 5. Jeff Kinney (tie): $18.5 million
  • 7. Michael Wolff: $13 million
  • 8. Nora Roberts (tie): $12 million
  • 8. Danielle Steel (tie): $12 million
  • 10. Rick Riordan (tie): $10.5 million
  • 10. E.L. James (tie): $10.5 million

According to Shelf Awareness of 19 December, James Patterson gave holiday bonuses of $750 each to 333 independent booksellers — individuals not businesses. His generous support for bookselling is well-known and much appreciated. Of course all of these authors, and all others, support bookstores by providing books which they can sell.

These are really quite impressive numbers, and remind us that there’s not too much point in paying any attention to those Jeremiahs who love to moan about the death of the book publishing industry.

Tim Parks, fluent in Italian as well as in serious thinking, wonders in his NYR Daily piece, Why translation deserves scrutiny, whether a reviewer is in duty bound to point out linguistic errors in a translation. He maintains that the experience of reading the book which provoked his thought piece was great, despite clangers as extreme as mistaking a bench for a bank. People tend not to like their reviewers to dwell on the negative, and he does emphasis that it was a good read. Obviously to some extent any translation is a new book, and needs to be judged on two dimensions — as a book in its own right, and as a version of another book.

One problem he indicates is that any new translation of a modern work is likely to remain in sole possession of the field for several years. Copyright law means that to translate a recent work requires permission, and publishers are unlikely to want to authorize lots of competing versions of their books. So if it’s been done wrong, we’ll end up having to live with it for the rest of our lives.

I tend to shy away from reading books translated from languages I know, mainly, I like to claim, because of an almost moralistic belief that I should be reading a French or a German book in the original language. But, under Mr Parks’ stimulus, I now see that there’s also at work a good dose of that tiresome effect of reading a translated sentence and recognizing a point where that slightly unusual word choice almost certainly conceals a misunderstanding on the part of the translator. This, and a sort of echo of German or French word order, often lead to a gradual loss of confidence in the translator, which can begin to destroy the enjoyment of reading the book. Now, as I am a rather lazy chap, this means that I rarely read the books in question, as it undoubtedly take me longer and calls for greater mental focus to read in a foreign language rather than in English. Cynic that I tend to be, I find myself importing this suspicion of odd word order, or occasional unlikely word choice into translations from languages I know nothing about, and thus upsetting my reading balance. So I certainly subscribe to the view that translators should be fluent in both the language they are translating from, and that they are targeting.

When it comes to poetry one is hit by a different set of desiderata. Eliot Weinberger boldly tells us at the start of Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, that “Poetry is that which is worth translating”, adding later “Great poetry lives in a state of perpetual transformation, perpetual translation: the poem dies when it has no place to go”. I believe that the aim of any translation should be to replicate in some way the experience a reader of the original would have when they read it. Dumb maybe in that every reader is liable to have a slightly different reaction to any work, and individuals will also react differently when reading a book at different ages. Still, otherwise, I can’t really see any reason to translate poetry, well, lyric poetry anyway. The meaning of the individual words is just that, not the poem; this is why Nabokov took the literal route in his Pushkin. Maybe a sense-only translation of Os Lusiads is enough, though Camoens might object that he spent a lot of care over the form, and would prefer that English-speaking readers should be able to appreciate something of that. I’m not altogether sure how I feel about team-translation, for example Ezra Pound’s translating classical Chinese poems under the title Cathay, using notes on the meaning provided by Ernest Fenellosa. In the end I have to conclude that we have to value these things not as translations but as as poems. With a poem maybe the ideal might be that every translation took two forms: one a straight literal version, and the second a “real” poem endeavoring to evoke the same reaction in a reader of the second language as many readers of the first might have felt.

Publishing Perspectives of 12 November, 2014 featured editors discussing the special task of editing translations.


Photo: Irish Times

The sun is shining
The wind moves
Naked trees
You dance

Maybe this isn’t the greatest poem you ever read, but it’s probably not the worst. As the work of a computer, acting on inspiration supplied by this photograph, it becomes a horse of a different color. Not too shabby I think we have to allow.

Book Patrol brings this to our attention, citing Microsoft Research Blog as its source.

I have speculated on machine writing before, here and here. I’m not sure there’s anything much to fear in this. In fact we are forced take on trust the reality of most of the authors we read: we don’t sit face to face with them after all. And if, say, Hemingway surprisingly turned out to have been a cunningly-designed robot would that make any difference to our enjoyment of his books?

How many successful writers have children who also become successful writers?

Amis authors, father & son at the right. Photograph: Daniel Farson/Getty Images

“One of the perks of being the son of a writer is not that you come automatically equipped to write novels, it’s that you don’t bother much about praise. Kingsley never bothered much about praise and dispraise. My stepmother did care. She was desperate for praise, and very much wanted it from me.” Thus Martin Amis in The Guardian. No doubt such insouciance can be passed on.

Abe Books brings us a list of ten examples of father-son writing continuity. Of course lots of people will write a book: and with self publishing now well established more of course than one could previously ever have imagined, but by writer don’t we want to mean more than just someone who writes? I think we imagine the term to imply “able to make a decent living by book writing”. Now I have no idea what monies Charles Dickens junior was able to pull down; it sounds like they were earnings rather than royalties. Alexandre Dumas Père et Fils leave everyone else in the dust in a listing of successful father and son authors. Some combination of the Waugh dynasty looks pretty good too, but notable inter-generational success is a bit of a rarity isn’t it? Not included on the list, Leslie Stephen/Virginia Wolff, and John Cheever/Susan Cheever would probably qualify. Anthony Trollope’s mother wrote novels which are not much read nowadays: three of them are available at Project Gutenberg. His brother Thomas wrote sixty books which seem to have quietly drifted into obscurity, though four do survive at Project Gutenberg. Trollope’s sister-in-law (Thomas’ second wife: the first had been a poet) was also a novelist: two of her books are also at Project Gutenberg. And her younger sister was Dickens senior’s mistress, keeping up the family’s literary activities.

Here’s the announcement of Joe Hill’s dad’s first big break.

This family seems to be as well established in the book-writing business as the Trollopes. Here’s Owen King writing at The Guardian about the difficulties of collaborating with Dad.

Of course following in your father’s profession is by no means unusual: many a weaver has sons who become weavers. My granddaughter is following in her Mum’s footsteps and studying medicine. And lots of children inherit the family business. Such succession is far from unusual: what’s rarer is the talent needed to make a success of the enterprise. Often the second or third generations who took on woolen mills in the Borders ran into difficulties. Of course business conditions had changed since patriarchal times, but there did appear to be a shortage of magic touch. My school-friend Charlie Stewart is a conspicuous exception. The Buddenbrooks trap all too often seems to catch us out. (Erika, Klaus, Golo and Monika, Thomas Mann’s children, were all successful writers however. I don’t mean to imply any aspersion here on the third generation: I know nothing of them.)

How many footballers have sons who grow up to be footballers? More I suspect than writers. Being familiar with the business helps, as well, I imagine, as being able to internalize at an early age that such a life is actually possible. Of course there is the problem of the very public inter-generational comparisons which you’d have to have the intestinal fortitude to put up with: is Kasper Schmeichel as good as his dad? Still I suppose that sort of intestinal fortitude would have to come with any form of celebrity: whether you are being compared with a family member or a stranger, you still risk an unpleasant shock.

Of course there is the concern that authors make terrible parents. The Walrus tackles this. Czeslaw Milosz said, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.” If you don’t want your quirks coming up for excoriation in some future novel, be sure to discourage writing in your offspring. The Walrus article quotes William Faulkner’s response when his daughter tried to intervene in his alcoholism: “Nobody remembers Shakespeare’s children.” Obviously a writing parent will need space and quiet to commune with the muse: rambunctious kids are doubtless about as incompatible with such a state as it’s possible to get. Maybe habits of silence predispose a child to internalization, reading, and mental story-telling preparing them for one kind of life only.

Interesting Literature has 10 of the Best Poems about Fathers. For fairness’ sake I point out that they link there to their previous post of poems about mothers.

Here for a little balance is a Lit Hub gallery of photos of authors with their mothers.






When I was* a runner I used from time to time to run over in my mind some lines of verse: the thump, thump of one’s footfall lends itself to the “Into the valley of death” sort of thing. My problem was not being very good at memorization, so I’d quickly run out of material. This Literary Hub piece, Counting feet: On running and poetic meter, is written more from the point of view of the running poet. If I’d been making up my own stuff as we bumped along, maybe I’d have been a more successful runner/reciter.

You can imagine getting along pretty well with W. B. Yeats’ words ringing in your ears:

As I came over Windy Gap
They threw a halfpenny into my cap.
For I am running to paradise. . .

This is one of fifty poems for running provided by PoemHunter. An audio version might be the ideal accompaniment for the runner. The audio which accompanies the poems is a bit too mechanical though.

Rhythm counts in both activities. Apparently marathon champions will dot along at something like 180 to 200 steps a minute. I flake out at 100, and doubtless would be happy to be managing 20 after 20 miles. I insist that I did always keep moving though. It’s desirable to maintain the same cadence so that you get into the habit. Bikers go on about cadence a lot too. It’s probably more straightforward for them: they can switch down a gear when they start going uphill. I suppose the spondee might be the target for most runners, but a constant diet of DUM-DUM will probably drive you mad. “We all know the sound of the iamb (dah-DUM dah-DUM dah-DUM); its opposite, the trochee (DUM-dah) comes from the Greek trokhaios pous, or ‘running foot’. Trochees, known as ‘falling feet’, can move forwards with an urgent pace (‘Tyger! Tyger! burning bright / In the forests of the night’).” My falling feet would rapidly lead to a state of falling runner, I fear.

For reciter-runners here’s advice from Matt Seidel at The Millions. The meter is obviously important. The writer comments “Reciting the metaphysical poets costs me about a minute per mile, not to mention attracting some strange looks from passersby” so he’s obviously got the puff to be reciting in quite a loud voice. He finds Burns and Blake get him going faster, but keeps Keats for long runs when he can take his “time with the great odes”. This guy obviously has a lot of poetry by heart, though he does confess to forgetting more and more as he progresses through middle age. I do like his thought that reciting the same poem again and again while running brings a fresh appreciation of its overall shape and rhythm.

The word cadence comes from the Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary gives as its etymology “< French cadence, < Italian cadenza ‘falling, cadence in music’, on Latin type cadentia , noun, < cadent- present participle of cadĕre to fall. The literal sense is ‘action or mode of falling, fall’, and in this sense it was used by 17th cent. writers; but at an early period the word was in Italian appropriated to the musical or rhythmical fall of the voice, and in this sense occurs as early as Chaucer.” This “action or mode of falling” can obviously be used of footfall as the feet hit the ground. Whatever the benefits of cadence when running, falling down is never a good idea.


* I am working towards a return after a partial knee replacement. Lots of bending and stretching going on. Cadence is out the window for now I fear, unless an irregular cadence can count.