Readings for Literary Lions: A Caveat

The Literary Lion must read. This is a truism, its implications seldom drawn. 

Photo by All Bong on Unsplash.

If you aspire to Literary Lionhood at all, you are already a person for whom reading is an unalloyed pleasure. Maybe even a chief cornerstone of your life. 

But when you are a serious writer, reading is a job requirement. 

As anyone who has ever had a job can tell you, there is some distance between an unalloyed pleasure and a job requirement.

Kinds of Reading

Let us consider the kinds of things you might read.

Books for meals.

First of all, there is Unalloyed Pleasure Reading—any book or books you are so eager to read that you pick them up whenever you have a spare moment. You take such a book with you to the doctor’s office to make good use of your waiting time. You read it on the bus. Those are the books I’m talking about. For me, anything by John Grisham, John Steinbeck, or Jack Finney.

Donna Leon. Photo by Michiel Hendryckx, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Second, there are Exemplar Books. These are either so well-written or so ill-written that reading them will help you become a better writer. You can emulate their prose, or avoid it, as you evolve your own unique and compelling voice. Such a book may or may not give unalloyed pleasure. Even if it’ s a chore to read, you grit your teeth and get through it. For me, the phrase “good writing to emulate” brings to mind William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries, among others. I won’t mention a specific example of writing to avoid. Suffice it to say, they are legion. You will discover them on your own.

Third are the books about how to write books. At least a million are in print, with hundreds more published every day. They are all above average. More than two-thirds of all writers who have written any book at all have also written a book about how to write a book.* (*Proceedings, Institute for Fabricated Statistics, Vol. X, pp. y-z.) In fact, many writers who have never written a book have nevertheless written a book about how to write a book. This could get out of hand. Take my advice: choose one or two of those listed below, and let it go at that.

  • Poetics, by Aristotle (No last name. You know: That Aristotle.)
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
  • Story, by Robert McKee
Books to the left of my laptop.

Fourth are books about how to sell books. There are works about how to find an agent, how to get your book published, and how to sell lots of copies once it is published. It seems every writer who has written a book about how to write a book has also written one or more books about how to sell your book once you have written it; and every writer who has written a book about how to sell anything at all has also written one or more books about how to sell, specifically, books. As to recommendations: Even I, Dear Reader—your reliable Guru of Literary Lionhood, famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread—even I tremble to recommend any one of these volumes. If you are thinking of consulting any part of this 21st-century cornucopia of unsolicited-yet-pricey advice, consider this free bit of wisdom from the late Sir William of Goldman: 

“Nobody knows anything.” 

He was talking about the movie business, but it applies equally to all forms of publishing. This may strike you as dismal news, but consider it in this light: You know as much as anybody, so plunge in. Just do something. Or don’t do something; just stand there. It might work as well as anything.

Books to the right.

Fifth are the Obligated Reads. These are books by friends or acquaintances which you have agreed—perhaps unwisely—to read and review. Some are beta reads, works in progress whose authors want useful feedback from you, so they can make their work better. Others are published books whose authors want your endorsement, in the form of a published review or a blurb for the book cover. When the author is a particular friend and the book is something you just can’t hack, then you are stuck with what our cousins across the Pond call a sticky wicket. If the book happens to be the second or subsequent installment of a series, you have an easy out. “Author Johnny Johnson has done it again!” Otherwise, you’re sunk.

Sixth are books you need to read, or at least skim, as research for something you are writing. For us historical novelists, this kind of reading is broad and wide-ranging. But almost any writer* will need to do some research. 

*Well, not writers who are actually Artificial Intelligence programs. AI bots can just make something up that reads as if it is based on research, but it’s actually just pieced together with likely-sounding phrases stolen from thousands of real, and mostly starving, writers. But then, you’re not an AI bot. Are you? I feel like I should insert a Captcha box here.

Coping With the Deluge

All these reading demands can actually get in the way of one’s writing.

Books awaiting attention.

Upon becoming a Literary Lion, I increased my already liberal use of the South Central Wisconsin Library System. There’s something called LINKCAT, which is a wonderful thing. I can go online, find any book that exists anywhere within 51 included libraries, place it “on hold,” and it will be delivered to me at my local library, usually within a few days. 

Because of the numerous reading interests noted above, books—those being read, those to be read, or those already read—reside in stacks all over my house. 

I repeat, it’s getting out of hand. Last week, I realized these demands were forcing me to avoid reading what I most wanted to read, because I had to read something less pleasurable and, in the grand scheme of things, less important.

So I’ve drawn a line in the sand. From now on, I will only acquire books I actually look forward to reading, in the sense that I have a credible expectation of joy; or, those needed for specific bits of research. That’s it—only Unalloyed Pleasure or Necessary Research. Away with all other pesky categories! I hope that holds up.

A Final Word

I tell you as a bona fide Literary Lion: Get yourself a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style

As Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have friends who aspire to be writers, give them The Elements of Style. Then shoot them while they’re still happy.” 


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Pandemic Politics

“Pandemic” was an adjective before it was a noun.

It means, “prevalent over a whole area, country, etc.; universal, general . . . .” It is usually applied to disease, thus giving rise to its use as a noun, “a pandemic,” meaning, “a disease which is pandemic.” But it could really be used for almost anything that is widely distributed over the world. 

Politics is pandemic. As was oft remarked of Chickenman, “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!” 

No, Fair Reader, you can’t escape it; for, as Aristotle observed, “Man is a political animal.”

In the midst of our current angst over COVID-19, President Trump has been accused of downplaying the threat. Trump’s opponents have been accused of weaponizing the fear of a dread disease. Players on both sides of the line of scrimmage are ripping up the Astroturf, wailing, “Unfair! They are politicizing a national disaster!” 

So, what else is new? 

If you read this blog regularly—a Recommended Best Practice—you may wonder, “Whence comes this commentary on current events? Is not this blog supposed to be about ‘seeking fresh meanings in our common past’?”

Okay, Dear Reader. You asked for it:

It Was Ever Thus

Politicians have made political hay out of all things sacred since the moment after time started. Many earnest combatants believe that everything is political; that exploiting all events to advance one’s political agenda is the purest form of service. (“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that, it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”—Rahm Emanuel, 2008.)

Those who seek to serve society must understand the political context in which they operate. Military leaders, in particular, often feel that war should be exempt from politics. But they would be extremely foolish to suppose that it actually is.

General Promotions

Elihu B. Washburne U.S. Congressman, Secretary of State, Minister to France. Mathew Brady-Levi Corbin Handy photo. Public Domain.

During the Civil War, General Ulysses S. Grant showed a canny cognizance of the political winds which blew all around him. In that conflict, almost every general, North or South, was appointed and advanced politically. Even Grant, who demonstrated the highest ability, would never have received the opportunity to demonstrate that ability without the sponsorship of his local Congressman, Rep. Elihu Washburne. The Congressman put Grant in for a brigadier general’s star, immediately began thumping for his promotion to major general, and in every possible way championed Grant’s career.

In 1863, Grant was tasked with taking the city of Vicksburg, which President Abraham Lincoln saw as “the golden key” to unlock the Confederacy. Take Vicksburg from the rebels, and you re-open the Mississippi River to Union navigation. At the same time, you dreadfully complicate Confederate efforts to get men and materiel from the Trans-Mississippi West (Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas). Vicksburg in Union hands would be the beginning of the end of the rebellion.

Major General U.S. Grant. Public Domain.

Trouble was, Grant’s first try—aided by loyal subordinates Sherman and Macpherson and the ambitiously disloyal McClernand—had come to naught, for reasons beyond Grant’s control. “The strategical way according to the rule,” Grant wrote in his memoirs, “would have been to go back to Memphis; establish that as a base of supplies; fortify it so that the storehouses could be held by a small garrison, and move from there along the line of the railroad, repairing as we advanced, to the Yallabusha, or to Jackson, Mississippi.” 

However, “At this time the North had become very much discouraged. . . . It was my judgment at the time that to make a backward movement as long as that from Vicksburg to Memphis, would be interpreted, by many of those yet full of hope for the preservation of the Union, as a defeat, and that the draft would be resisted, desertions ensue, and the power to capture and punish deserters lost. There was nothing left to be done but to go forward to a decisive victory.

What Grant delicately omitted was that political powers in Washington wanted Grant removed and replaced with McClernand—an officer who, despite his loyalty to the Union, was unfit for high command. So long as Grant was actively campaigning against Vicksburg, it was not too hard for Lincoln to resist these demands for his scalp. But any movement that appeared to be a retreat—back to Memphis, for example—would  most likely seal his fate. I am not the first to suggest that if Grant had done anything other than what he did—go forward through the Mississippi lowlands with no established supply line, feeding his army off the land—he would have lost his job. So that’s exactly what he did.

Grant could not afford to ignore politics.

In the end, he found a way to win without losing his job.

So What?

How does this history apply to the present day? Simply in this: Those who wish to serve the country need to be entirely apolitical; but they cannot afford to ignore the politics of the situation.

There are a lot of players, political and otherwise. One is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, an interesting figure. He is on the opposite political team from the president—but neither of them can afford to make trouble with the other in facing the coronavirus challenge, both for political reasons, and for the sake of people’s health.

Cuomo, like any experienced governor, knows quite a bit about handling emergencies. I saw him on TV the other day, revealing one of the key things about emergencies—a lesson I learned years ago as a worker in Wisconsin’s state emergency operations. There are two things, Cuomo said—I’m loosely paraphrasing—two things: One is the objective state of things: the resources, the damage, the things that need to be repaired; or in the case of a pandemic disease, the infection rates, testing kits, all that operational stuff. The other thing is the public perception of the situation. The latter is what drives rumors, panics, compliance with relief plans or the lack of compliance, etc. Often, Cuomo said, that second factor, the public perception, gets to be a greater problem than the disaster scenario itself. 

Cuomo is dead accurate on that. (Your New Favorite Writer’s note to self: Write a blog post sometime about the 1996 Weyauwega, Wisconsin, train derailment.)

The only thing leaders can do about the second factor, the public perception, is to provide a steady flow of factual information from official sources. Credibility is key. People know when they’re being lied to, and it’s the kiss of death in handling an emergency.

Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. NIAID photo, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Enter Dr. Anthony Fauci, and his sidekicks Dr. Deborah Brix, Admiral Brett Giroir, and Surgeon General Jerome Adams. These people are the key medical players on the President’s Coronavirus Task Force. They are physicians with impeccable credentials and experienced public health leaders. Their usefulness on the task force is based on their ability to help move key decisions. But just as important is the straightness of their dialog with the American public as principal briefers of this ongoing emergency. 

What makes them useful is that they never say anything that is not factual. Their credibility is gilt-edged. It is a remarkable feat, day in and day out, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, from the epicenter of a hurricane of fear, anxiety, and political games. 

As Executive Branch employees, they work under the authority of President Donald J. Trump—a gargantuan figure and one who speaks in momentarily expedient approximations. Fauci ranks as a genius, saying what is true and correcting what is false, while affirming truths uttered by the president and never crossing swords with him over statements that may be less reliable. 

Without being himself a politician, Anthony Fauci knows how to survive in a tough political environment, giving good service and straight advice with an easy grace. 

He reminds me of Ulysses S. Grant, who made virtues of necessities and got the military job done without having to bother Abe Lincoln overmuch with messy details.

Funny how often parts of the present resemble parts of the past.


Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)