On Viking novels and “cultural misappropriation”

On Viking novels and “cultural misappropriation”

OSLO — I’ve spent the past two weeks in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway visiting museums and researching Norse history with an eye to, perhaps, one day writing a novel about the Vikings and their 11th century encounter with the First Peoples.

While I’ve been traveling, elite literary circles have been roiled over the question of “cultural misappropriation,” of whether “white” writers should refrain from writing about the experiences of minorities (the Other). As a novelist whose work has touched upon other cultures, I’ve watched the debate with interest, and with some dismay.

It began when American novelist Lionel Shriver argued at the Brisbane Writers Festival that “fiction writers should be allowed to write fiction — thus should not let concerns about ‘cultural appropriation’ constrain our creation of characters from different backgrounds than our own.” Her challenge to the notion of “cultural purity” was not well received by the literary left, which has embraced identity politics with a vengeance. The New Republic ran a response by Lovia Gyarke entitled “Lionel Shriver Shouldn’t Write About Minorities.”

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I suppose under the new rules of cultural purity, my Viking novel would be acceptable. You see, one side of my family is Swedish (my maternal grandmother, Mormor, made meatballs as succulent as any in Stockholm), and the other side claims Native American ancestry from the colonial period. Of course, it’s absurd to think that matters. My DNA should have nothing to do with my writing a Viking novel.*

There simply shouldn’t be any barriers based on identity. The gay Jamaican novelist Marlon James, winner of the Man Booker Prize, has made this point, noting that while he is known for his Caribbean fiction: “I’ve been threatening to write a Viking novel for almost 10 years now.”

In my view, the only question a novelist needs to answer is: Am I drawn to tell this story? I know I won’t make the necessary investment in time and energy unless I can answer with a strong “yes.”

I’ve fashioned characters from different cultures, different walks-of-life, different sexualities, different races. That’s what writers do. That isn’t to say that culture doesn’t matter. It does. But love, jealousy, resentment, lust, hate, joy, and all the other emotions human feel are not restricted by age, class, or time period. (Read Li Bo’s Tang Dynasty poems of longing to be reunited with his wife, Zong, or the tortured and erotic love poems of Catullus. Universal. Timeless.)

Some writers will butcher cultures that aren’t their own. They’ll condescend or distort or stereotype. In short, they’ll fail. But so what? That’s a small price to pay for artistic freedom. There will be misses, but also hits.

I’d like to believe that this ugly intrusion of identity politics into the imaginative world will pass. There’s a not-so-faint whiff of the totalitarian in the campaign to narrow what’s “acceptable.” Even those sympathetic to the cultural purity argument who think fiction should be politicized, like Jess Row, admit that there’s a chilling effect for “white” writers (“What made you feel you had the right to write that book?”)

The best course for a writer is to carry on and ignore the static. I’m not going to let calls for literary cultural purity change what I choose to write about; I’ll let readers decide if I’ve hit or missed the mark. And if Marlon James ever does publish his Viking novel, I’ll be sure to read it.


* Shakespeare somehow managed to fashion Othello and Shylock without being African or Jewish. I find Kazuo Ishiguro’s English butler of the 1930s, Stevens, completely believable. (And Yo-Yo Ma plays Baroque music brilliantly, and Misty Copeland does more than justice to Balanchine’s classical ballet steps.)

Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

A voice of one’s own

A voice of one’s own

The late poet and novelist Jim Harrison (best known for Legends of the Fall) told the New York Times earlier this year that: “I can’t read novels while I’m writing them because of the imitative nature of the brain. So I get along with a few European mysteries and lots of poetry.”

Harrison’s concerns were surprising. It’s true that many songwriters avoid listening to music when composing for fear of unconscious imitation, but you wouldn’t think that a seasoned novelist would worry about (mis)appropriating what he or she had read.

Writers work differently, of course, and I can only speak for myself. When I write, the words that I hear in my head and translate to the page are in my own voice. No doubt it’s a voice that has been shaped by my childhood exposure to plain style writing (the King James Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Jane Austen, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, etc.). My writing naturally reflects those influences.

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Unlike Harrison, I don’t worry about reading someone else’s fiction when I’m working on a novel. I don’t fear unconsciously imitating another author’s style or lifting extended patches of prose—anything borrowed wouldn’t make it through my revision process. I revise line-by-line by reading out loud and changing what doesn’t sound right to me—that is, what doesn’t match the voice in my head.

I’m even less concerned about imitation when reading an author with a distinctive and unique style. For example, I just reread Mark Helprin’s wonderful novel Refiner’s Fire; when I look at the passages I’ve underlined in the text, I’m not worried about imitation. I know if I tried to match his voice it would ring completely false. Consider the following bit of dialogue crafted by Helprin:

“I have been learning English. Since the time of Erasmus we Dutch have envied the English. What an ecstatic language, a language to fill the boots of the greatest dream, a language of milk, a language of jewels. In itself it is worth more than nations. It strives and it loves, in words and phrases. Needless to say, like the waterbug, or the needle, we too love it and respect it as our king.”

Wonderful stuff—I admire Helprin’s word play, his poetic ear, and his sense of rhythm. But I can’t imagine writing (or imitating) something like this, even if I wanted to. It’s not the way I translate what I see and experience in the world into words. And when I read it out loud, it’s an intriguing and lyric voice—but clearly not mine.


Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

A work in progress

A work in progress

A new year, and a work in progress—a novel set in 1959 Berlin.

I’m far enough along in the writing process to be able to see the shape of the finished work; so I’m past the point of writerly no return. Sometimes it’s better to walk away from a partial manuscript, when the imagined story somehow isn’t translating to the page. Fortunately, this isn’t one of those times, but I do have some works in progress that are no longer in progress—abandoned when I realized that they were falling short of the storytelling mark.

Leonid_Pasternak_-_The_Passion_of_creation

There is no one way to write fiction. I’m a block writer who works from a very loose outline. After composing blocks of dialogue and scenes, I stitch them together and then begin revising and rewriting. In contrast, sequential writers start at the beginning of a book and work their way methodically to its conclusion.

I’m not wired to write sequentially. Block writing allows me to skip around and make some progress every time I sit down to write. Since the length of the finished novel will be somewhere between 85,000 to 100,000 words, every word composed today means one less that I need to write tomorrow.

After the first draft is complete, I turn to revising. It’s the final write-throughs of a novel that I find to be the hardest part of the process. Nagging questions require answers: Does the narrative flow? Are the characters fully developed? Is the writing—the prose—clear? Is it specific enough? Is the story one I would find worth reading? And then I try not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good—it is possible to spend years rewriting the same book and in all that time no story is being told.

I take inspiration from those time-lapse videos of artists completing their paintings. First, the painter sketches a pencil or charcoal outline on an empty canvas, followed by the application of layer after layer of paint. Watching as a talented artist returns to the same spot on the canvas and alters previous brushstrokes (and in some cases scrapes off some of the existing paint) is a reassuring validation of the revision process I employ.

With any work in progress, I find it useful to focus my energies on step-by-step, day-by-day progress. If I do the work, meet deadlines, and rely on craft (not talent), the story will emerge, a story I trust will be worth telling.


Copyright © 2016 by Jefferson Flanders

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2016

Top Spy Thrillers and Espionage Novels of 2016

What are the best spy novels of 2016? During the course of the year, we’ll review the top espionage thrillers, some of which may become bestsellers and others that are great reads but not as well-promoted.

Note that this list leans toward historical spy fiction with a literary flair.

The Other Side of Silence by Philip Kerr – TOP SPY NOVEL OF 2016

Philip Kerr had to be persuaded by his publisher to continue his series of Bernie Gunther novels. His latest (his eleventh), The Other Side of Silence, proves that Kerr made the right decision, at least as far as his readers go—it’s a clever, entertaining thriller that also zeros in on the sorry state of British intelligence in the mid-1950s and touches upon some of the morally-suspect Cold War bargains made by both sides of that protracted conflict.

The Other Side of Silence

Kerr has no use for the fiction—advanced by Ian Fleming and John le Carré among others—that the post-war British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) was particularly effective or competent, or that it deserved the trust or respect of the American intelligence community. (The BBC’s recent video release of British traitor Kim Philby describing MI6’s lax security to a group of East German spies underscores the awkward, and ugly reality of the dysfunctional and compromised agency.)

As The Other Side of Silence opens in 1956, Kerr’s cynical protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is working as a concierge at Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat on the French Riviera during the summer of the Suez crisis. Gunther’s checkered past as a Berlin cop, private detective, and (coerced) SS officer once again catches up to him. He’s blackmailed into helping the famous British novelist W. Somerset Maugham deal with a blackmailer threatening to expose Maugham’s connection to England’s gay demimonde (homosexuality is a crime in mid-century Great Britain).

Gunther quickly learns of the Maugham’s tangled history with both MI6 and members of the Cambridge spy ring, those upper-class Brits—like Donald Mclean, Guy Burgess, and Philby—who betrayed their class and country by spying for the Soviets. The Other Side of Silence is filled with plenty of intriguing twists and turns, a fair bit of black humor, and an uncompromising perspective on the ugliness of European history in the 20th century.

Like his hero, Kerr is a populist at heart, and he paints a devastating portrait of the arrogant and dimwitted upper echelons of Anthony Eden’s England. Gunther wisecracks somewhat less and ponders life somewhat more than in Kerr’s earlier novels and yet he notes: “Experience has taught me that it’s better to be serious and I should know; I’ve tried and failed to be serious on thousands of occasions.”

The Divided City by Luke McCallin

The Divided City

Post-World War II Berlin has attracted the attention of noted thriller authors Joseph Kanon, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr. In The Divided City, Luke McCallin brings his protagonist, ex-intelligence officer Captain Gregor Reinhardt, back to Berlin in 1947. Like Kerr’s Bernie Gunther, Reinhardt served on the Weimar-era city police force and has a checkered wartime past (in Reinhardt’s case, involving his actions in the Balkans).

The Divided City captures the Hobbesian-environment of Berlin in the early years of the Allied occupation. With much of the city in ruins, residents do what they have to in order to survive. Reinhardt, back on the police force, is tasked with solving a series of gruesome murders of former Luftwaffe personnel. In doing so, he attracts the interest of British, American, and Soviet intelligence—to say nothing of a band of embittered German veterans.

McCallin’s considerable strengths as a novelist lie in his evocative prose and memorable characterizations. His plotting, is, in a word Byzantine; I’ll confess to having gotten lost at times in following the complex twists and turns of the story. Yet The Divided City is still an intriguing read, filled with suspense and a compelling cast of characters.

The Girl from Venice by Martin Cruz Smith

The Girl from Venice

Martin Cruz Smith’s latest thriller, The Girl from Venice, features a mythic opening. It is 1945 in Italy and the end of the war nears. A fisherman, Cenzo, finds a beautiful young Jewish woman, Giulia, floating mermaid-like in the Venice Lagoon, and quickly discovers that she is on the run from the Germans and their Italian Fascist allies. Cenzo decides to shelter the woman, and that decision not only opens wounds from his past, but plunges the couple into the turmoil surrounding the final days of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

The novel straddles several genres: it’s a mystery, but also a romance, with elements of a spy thriller. Smith gets the details right. Whether it’s the craft of fishing at night, or the art of forgery, he seamlessly blends fact and fiction. He has few illusions about the human condition, and Smith is at his best when he portrays the corrosive effects of greed and corruption on people.

At the same time, The Girl from Venice illuminates the powerful pull of love, romantic and familial, and touches upon themes of loss, betrayal, and redemption. The novel is an engaging read, and Cenzo and Giulia are wonderfully-drawn characters.

The Unfortunate Englishman by John Lawton

Writing an effective sequel can prove to be can be a tricky thing: provide too much backstory, and readers who enjoyed the initial book may be bored or turned off; offer too little context, and new readers may be lost. Making sure that the “next book” stands by itself isn’t easy.

The Unfortunate Englishman

The challenges of crafting a seamless sequel are apparent in The Unfortunate Englishman, a spy thriller by John Lawton. His cynical protagonist, Joe Wilderness, is tasked by British intelligence to return to Berlin in 1965 to negotiate a spy exchange. Wilderness has a checkered past in Germany (a failed romance, involvement in the black market) and proves willing to cut corners, legal and ethical. The narrative jumps around in time, as Wilderness tries to complete his mission for MI6 while resolving unfinished business involving a pre-Wall smuggling operation.

There’s a lot to like in The Unfortunate Englishman. Lawton is a clever and talented writer, with a dry English sense of humor, and an ear for dialogue. He paints a convincing picture of Cold War Berlin. The book’s plot line can be hard to follow, however, made more complicated by the numerous flashbacks, and I found myself wishing that I had read the first Joe Wilderness novel, Then We Take Berlin.

A Hero of France by Alan Furst

Alan Furst’s A Hero of France brought to mind one of my favorite novels about the Second World War, H.E. Bates’ Fair Stood the Wind for France, first published in 1944. Bates told the story of Franklin, the pilot of a downed RAF bomber, and his quest to escape from occupied France. Furst’s latest elegantly-written historical spy thriller also focuses on Resistance efforts to shelter and exfiltrate British airmen shot down over France.

A Hero of France

A Hero of France begins in 1941, before Hitler had turned on Stalin and when French Communists had been instructed not to oppose the Germans. It’s a time when only Gaullists are resisting the Nazi occupiers. Furst’s protagonist, Mathieu, leads a Resistance group in Paris that has established an escape line to Spain but, as he is reminded by an arrogant English spy, such cells are typically discovered within six months. Before long, a French-speaking detective from Hamburg is dispatched to France to help the German military police hunt down Mathieu and his people, and it seems it’s only a matter of time before the operation is betrayed.

Mathieu is a typical Furst hero: vital, intelligent, well-educated, attractive to women, and reluctantly drawn into the violence necessary for clandestine work. Through his eyes, we see how living under occupation alters behavior: how some people collaborate, some seek to profit, some have the courage to resist (passively and actively) and some just hope to remain neutral and sit out the war. The backdrop is Paris, the City of Light, and Furst once again paints a brilliant and admiring portrait of the city, capturing its sights and sounds.

French historians and intellectuals have debated the extent and effectiveness of La Résis (largely since the 1960s), with many suggesting that antisemitism and collaboration with the Nazis was much more widespread than had been acknowledged, and that the number of French in the Resistance had been grossly exaggerated. By its very title, A Hero of France suggests where Furst comes down on this question. He reminds us that there were indeed those who risked all and put their lives on the line to fight the Nazis, both in occupied and Vichy France. They were helped in small and large part by many of those around them. The Resistance may have not been as large in numbers as legend or myth would have it, but there were heroes, and Furst’s novel is a fictional reminder of that reality.

An Honorable Man by Paul Vidich

An Honorable Man

Paul Vidich has set his first novel in 1953 Washington, D.C., during the early Eisenhower Administration, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy represented a powerful presence in the Capital, and the FBI sought to surface clandestine Soviet agents in the government. The protagonist of An Honorable Man is a burnt-out CIA agent, George Mueller, who has been assigned to a team hunting for a mole, code named Protocol, inside the Agency. CIA officials want to catch the double agent without alerting the witch hunters in Congress. As the investigation begins, Mueller realizes that he may not be above suspicion himself—and finding the penetration agent is the only way to clear his own name.

An Honorable Man is a solid, and entertaining, spy thriller. Mueller and the supporting characters are well-drawn. Vidich handles the action scenes in the novel with aplomb, although at least one—set at a Russian Embassy summer house—seems a bit forced. Nonetheless, An Honorable Man‘s intricate plot turns will keep the reader guessing at the identity of the “traitor within” until the very end.

Some advance reviewers have likened Vidich to John le Carré (the lazy clichéd comparison often used for espionage novelists). In fact, Vidich’s noirish prose style is closer to Olen Steinhauer’s, and for plot twists he borrows more from Raymond Chandler than le Carré.

The Travelers by Chris Pavone

The Travelers

Chris Pavone’s latest effort is a strange, and entertaining, mixture of spy tech fantasy, comic takes on Manhattan life, and meditations on the tensions of modern marriage. If you’re looking for a realistic spy story, one that delves into how intelligence agencies work today, this is not the book for you. With its breathless, hidden conspiracy-driven plot, The Travelers is closer to the spirit of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, than to traditional espionage fiction.

The Everyman protagonist of The Travelers is Will Rhodes, and His Hero’s Journey takes him from innocent travel magazine writer to hunted man on the run. Along the way, Pavone treats us to some funny riffs on New York media people, Brooklyn hipsters, American tourists in Europe, fitness-crazed trophy wives, and backstabbing office politicians. It’s easy to lose track of the plot twists—some which call for an ample suspension of belief—because they keep coming, but all is resolved in the end.

If you’re in the market for an escapist thriller, with sly asides about The Way We Live Today and detours to Argentina, Iceland, and Sweden, you can’t go too far wrong with The Travelers.


Here are past lists of top spy thrillers. You can click for:

2015’s top spy thrillers

2014’s top spy thrillers

2013’s top spy thrillers

Ten classic British spy novels


Copyright © 2016 Jefferson Flanders
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A few thoughts on fiction and history

All novelists take liberties when they write historical fiction, drawing on their imaginations and from the raw material of the past. The question, then, is: how much should they stray from the historical record? How much should they rearrange facts, events, and timing to suit the needs of their plot?

Clio

For some postmodern authors, the very idea of “facts” or of a “historical record” is an illusion. They’ll blithely deconstruct and distort because they argue that what we call history is a subjective narrative by and for the powerful. (Include E. L. Doctorow and Robert Coover, among others, in this camp). Along those lines, the novelist Don DeLillo has written: “There is pleasure to be found, the writer’s, the reader’s, in a version of the past that escapes the coils of established history and biography and that finds a language, scented, dripping, detailed, for such routine realities as sex, weather and food, for the ravel of a red thread on a woman’s velvet sleeve.”

For counterfactual historical fiction (“what if Hitler had won the Second World War?”), there’s also a heavy reliance on elaborate fabrication. For example, novels like Robert Harris’ Fatherland or Dominion by C. J. Sansom—which all imagine a world altered by a Nazi victory—change history and then consider the ripple effect.

I prefer historical fiction grounded in reality. I like reading novels that are well researched about a given period of time and that are (for the most part) accurate in their depiction of events and personalities. It’s a more engaging way to learn about the past—Rudyard Kipling claimed that if history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten. When authors stray too far from the record, or when their dialogue includes jarring contemporary phrases, I feel let down.

In writing historical fiction, I try to avoid errors of fact and also of interpretation on matters small and large. So I’ve spent time researching the cost of a pay phone call in New York City in 1949, and the footwear of Manchu women in Beijing in 1794. Details matter, because they help create a sense of time and place.

Sometimes there are questions without clear answers, or where historians disagree. I’ve encountered some of these unresolved questions during my research. Why did the French Revolution descend into savagery in the summer of 1793, into the Terror? Could there have been a different, and peaceful ending, to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956?

In the end, it’s a balancing act. An overemphasis on the historical can weigh a novel down; a lightly-researched book can feel weightless, untethered to historical reality. The trick is to breathe life into the past—a different country.

Literary scholar Daniel Aaron had it right: “Historical fiction isn’t history in the conventional sense and shouldn’t be judged as such. The best historical novels are loyal to history, but it is a history absorbed and set to music.”


©2015 by Jefferson Flanders