Monday, September 28, 2015


Michael Adelberg wrote two novels that we published: A Thinking Man’s Bully, in 2012, described by Publishers Weekly as “A fresh perspective on bullying and the consequences of brutality into a novel brimming with personality and narrative brio,” followed,  in 2014, by Saving the Hooker. Kirkus called it "A funny tale of a lazy and unprincipled  postdoc whose brain resides firmly in his crotch. Well-crafted and enjoyable if you are up for a rather raunchy read.” So it comes as no surprise that Mike titles his blog: Giving Voice to the Asshole.

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"From the Greek tragedies, to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Voltaire, European stories were frequently built around prideful men doing terrible things. But the United States set out to be different. With few exceptions, they were optimistic. America’s first literary hero, Natty Bumpo, Horatio Alger’s “rags to riches” boys, and the plain-spoken heroes of the great westerns and detectives all tread the same path. Readers fully understood that virtuous heroes would overcome the odds and beat the villain in the end.

"Even amid the tumult of the 60s and 70s, when so many of America’s cultural norms were challenged—the goodness of the hero persisted. Hawkeye Pierce of M*A*S*H and Randal McMurphy of One Flew over the Cukoo’s Nest were womanizing boozers bucking against society. They were more complicated than John Wayne’s “aw shucks” western heroes, but Pierce and McMurphy were still true heroes, driven by great inner integrity. We easily rooted for them against simplistic symbols of the status quo. 

"In the 1980s, heroes grew simpler again, particularly in Hollywood, where a new generation of fearless muscle-bound nit-wits (Rambo, etc.) set box office records. While there were exceptions here and there, popular American stories have always featured heroic main characters. But if you look closely, that truism is becoming increasingly less true. 

"Perhaps the tipping point came with the huge success of Seinfeld. The most popular television program of the 1990s starred a character who was a shallow narcissist. The so-called “show about nothing” built plots around waiting for a table at Chinese restaurant—there was never an existential threat to overcome, and only rarely a villain to best. By 2000, Americans were ready for something more interesting. 

"We started patronizing stories with deeply flawed, non-likable main characters. In 2003, Edward Jones won the Pulitzer with The Known World, a non-judgmental meditation on slavery that reminded Americans that free African-American owned slaves in the Antebellum South. Peter Carey’s The True History of Kelley Gang, a fictional memoir about a non-contrite 19th Century murderer rationalizing his sins to his daughter, won the Booker Prize shortly after that. Meanwhile, authors such as Brett Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and political satirist Chris Buckley built followings on novels starring non-admirable main characters. 

"The foible-filled memoir-ish stories of David Sedaris and Augustin Burroughs found markets without heroes or big plots. Erik Larsen’s best-seller The Devil in the White City, took readers inside the head of a 19th Century murderer through journalistic narration. Even well-established, high-end authors like Philip Roth (Operation Shylock) and Don Delillo (Fallen Man) offered darker stories. It is hard to imagine a big publisher like Harper-Collins publishing something as dark as Alissa Nutting’s Tampa (unapologetic pedophile teacher gets away with raping a minor and manslaughter and starts up again elsewhere) even a decade ago.

"As is generally the case, small presses show the big presses what is possible. The Permanent Press, for example, has published several wonderful books with non-heroic main characters: The Double-Life of Alfred Buber (an older American attorney takes a prostitute bride in Thailand), Pretend All Your Life (Manhattan plastic surgeon operates on his son to help him flee his pre 9-11 life), and Time Among the Dead (aging English noble disparages his lineage, neighbors and society). I am honored that my own two novels starring non-admirable main characters are stablemates of these fine books.

"With small presses pushing the envelope, today’s best television programs are darker than ever. House of Cards, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Girls, and others, are all built around main characters who are basically assholes. Hollywood has not yet embraced this trend with open arms—but the success of The Social Network and The Wolf of Wall Street suggest that even a risk-averse Hollywood now understands that Americans will pay to see a complicated anti-hero in the starring role.

"Why do Americans increasingly love the villain? Perhaps it is because the typical hero-villain tale has grown boring. We have seen the hero overcome the odds to beat a simplistic asshole villain dozens of times over. Today’s reconstituted James Bond and today’s reconstituted Batman are basically the same person—they just dress differently. Yawn.

"Writers have long loved their villains even while forced by convention to vanquish him (or, very rarely, her). There is a reason that Milton’s Lucifer (Paradise Lost) and Heath Ledger’s Joker (The Dark Knight) have all the best lines. Recent trends, however, finally free writers to embrace anti-heroes and develop their complexities.

"To misappropriate Tolstoy’s observation about families, 'All heroes resemble one another, all assholes develop in their own way.' So authors, let’s keep developing our anti-heroes and continue giving voice to the asshole."

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I invite you to comment on Mike’s blog. You may also contact him directly at

COMING NEXT WEDNESDAY be sure to tune in to yet another weekly blog.



Charles Holdefer teaches at the University of Poitiers, France, and at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival, Rosemont Writers Retreat and elsewhere. He has published four novels with the Permanent Press, including The Contractor, which was also translated into Italian and Russian. His essays have appeared in The New England Review and World Literature Today, his reviews in New York Journal of Books and Dactyl Review, and new short fiction is forthcoming this fall in Chicago Quarterly Review.  This is his blog. 

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The Blind leading the blind is how Flannery O’Connor once referred to writing workshops. O’Connor is arguably the most important writer to emerge out of an MFA program, and her opinion is not something I take lightly.

“For most of the year, I don’t teach writing. I’m a literature teacher at a French university, and despite their tradition of écoles des beaux-arts, French institutions do not welcome “creative writing.” It’s viewed with suspicion as a dubious “Anglo-Saxon” import, a sort of New Age intellectual junk food. I’ve been here long enough that perhaps some of that scepticism has rubbed off on me. (That’s surely why O’Connor’s remark resonates.) When it comes to literature in the classroom, we tell ourselves that we are defending a sort of rigor.

“In the summer, though, I board an airplane and come back to the U.S.A. to see friends and family and, yes, to lead writing workshops. The experience is a marked shift, like switching into another language.

“Workshops are fundamentally different from literature classes because they address the question of process. From a teacher’s point of view, it’s messier and requires improvisation. How do you stoke the creative impulse? Is it possible to generalize for a group of individuals with different tastes and experiences in life?

“This is a slippery zone, and perhaps because I hear O’Connor’s voice at the back of my mind, I’m at pains to warn students of common stumbling blocks: issues narrative arc, characterization or word choice. I also give manuscripts some hardnosed line editing, in defense of a kind of rigor which, truth be told, is sadly lacking in much academic writing. (It’s the profs who are a bunch of snowflakes, in my opinion, not the novelists.)

“Still, these are only first steps, encouraging competence. But there’s more to writing than competence. Truly excellent writing—this is what O’Connor is concerned about—must push beyond the comfort zones of competence and take risks. It has to dance along the precipice of conventional expectations. It cannot play safe and it might need to offend. It has to push toward something unknown.

“And this is where process comes into play. A workshop is not really a class that a writer completes and gets a grade. (Even if some institutions like to pretend otherwise.) Rather, it’s a moment that a writer passes through, engaged in a highly personal exploration that only he or she can pursue. No teacher or peer can tell the individual where to go next or what the “answer” is. (Or what merits an “A”.) But the group situation can make an individual more aware of this predicament, of this artistic solitude. This, in itself, is pedagogical.

“Usually, I try to plant questions, to steel the writer for the sterner tests ahead. What are you going to do when you leave a cozy workshop circle where people readily agree to read and discuss your work? What are you going to do when you’re denied the comforts of groupthink? What the hell is driving you? What are you looking for when you face the page, alone?

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“Here’s a true story: when I was getting an MFA at the University of Iowa, one of my odd jobs to support myself was in the Special Collections department of the university library. I was briefly assigned the task of organizing the personal papers of Paul Engle, who’d served as director of the Iowa writing program for many years.

“These papers were a terrible mess. They’d been kept in a ramshackle barn in Engle’s back yard that also served as his office. I remember personal correspondence with Robert Penn Warren covered with bird shit. There were letters from W.H. Auden, Carl Sandberg and a youthful Gwendolyn Brooks.

“My assignment was simple: to shake off the bird shit and other detritus and put the materials in chronological order. An easy task, really, but I was a bad worker, because I got distracted and spent a lot of time reading the correspondence. (That wasn’t supposed to be part of the job, but snooping in someone else’s mail can be irresistible fun.) Eventually my supervisor grew impatient with my slow pace and shunted me off to another task.

“There was one letter from the late 1940s that made a strong impression on me. Engle was away from campus and spending a sabbatical in Florida, and a colleague at Iowa sent him a chatty update about goings-on at the workshop. He dropped various names of writers clearly considered as hot prospects (none of which were recognizable to me) and it’s only later, buried deeper in the letter, that there’s an allusion to a certain ‘Flannery.’

*        *         *

“Well, she did all right. Too bad this teacher appears not to have fully recognized her gifts. (Though it should be said that others in her workshop circle realized she was someone special, and championed her work.) In the end, though, her achievements remain the idiosyncratic artistry of someone who learned and then moved on.

“And what do I mean by moving on? It’s not necessarily a simple symbolic break of leaving home or school or a writing circle. O’Connor, after a brief time in the northeast, resettled on the family farm near Milledgeville, Georgia, where she spent the rest of her life.

“Geographically or professionally, she didn’t go far. Failing health, sadly, was one reason. But it was also because her personal exploration had attained another level. She was working through answers to the question, “what the hell is driving you?”

“It’s well-known how important O’Connor’s religious convictions were to her fiction, but it’s also worth saying that a reader or aspiring writer doesn’t have to share those convictions (I don’t) in order to learn and delight in what she accomplished.

“Such a powerful yearning to make sense! Yes, it’s an imperfect, sloppy, perhaps “fallen” world. This is blatantly obvious in our institutional settings. Yes, blind lead the blind.

“But isn’t that a testimony to how much we want to see?”

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If you want to contact  Charles Holder you can  contact him at  and I hope you will also leave your comments here.

COMING NEXT WEEK a blog from Mike Adelberg entitled GIVING VOICE TO THE ASSHOLE. This is one you surely don’t want to miss.


Wednesday, September 9, 2015


Chris Knopf is one of three co-publishing partners at The Permanent Press, and for many years has been a partner in a very successful advertising agency, Mintz + Hoke, with 55 employees. His thirteenth thriller, Cop Job, a return to his Sam Acquillo mystery series, has had excellent pre-pub reviews and will be published this September. Chris has won the Nero Award, one of the major mystery awards, and has been a finalist for many others, and his books have been translated widely. Beyond that, no further introduction is necessary. This is his blog.

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For decades I worked on fiction whenever I could steal the time from my life as an advertising creative.  Though the ad world can be all-consuming, and exhausting, I actually found the escape into this made-up world a welcome diversion, a creative pursuit of an entirely different character.
While actually writing, I enjoyed the solitary nature of the work.  But when I thought I had something that could be a finished product, I suddenly felt isolated, sort of professionally deaf, dumb and blind.
Unlike the literary world, advertising is highly collaborative. The basic unit isn’t an individual, but a creative team, usually composed of an art director and copywriter.  You create together, huddled in a room somewhere with drawing pads and magic markers.  You build off each others’ ideas, volleying back and forth when things are flowing, goofing around and debating nonsense when they aren’t. 
When the team either feels they have something to show, or they’re just out of time, other people enter the process.  The creative director does her winnowing and shaping, and then frequently the ideas end up with a researcher.

This is where we’d learn if the people we hoped to influence with our creative work were, in fact, influenced.  The myth both within and outside advertising is that market research is a science.  In some cases it’s pretty scientific, but when checking out creative work, it’s much more of an art.  And a lesson in humility.

I did a lot of this myself, researching my work and the work of others.  In its simplest form, you take rough renderings of your ideas and put them in front of people who represent the audience you want to reach.  If you’re doing it right, they know as little as possible about what you’re trying to do.  To use the term of art, you want unaided respondents.  Because any foreknowledge will tend to skew the results. 
How does this relate to creating fiction?  Most inexperienced writers make the mistake of either clutching their writing to their chests, fearing the consequences of criticism, or showing it to friends, family, co-workers, etc. This is a terrible idea.  What you’re likely to get are reactions that are either too kind or too harsh.  Or simply uninformed.  Thus, bad feedback is worse than no feedback at all. 
To overcome my sense of isolation with my first book, I had a brainstorm.  I contacted a friend who lives in New York, and is also an accomplished short story writer.  I asked her to pick a reader whom she felt had decent literary judgement, but with no professional axe to grind.  The other criterion, the most important, is that this person didn’t know me from Adam.  Knew absolutely nothing.   100% unaided. 
What I got back was priceless.  I revised the draft, Marty and Judy Shepard liked the book, and there you go.
I still do this with every book, though by now I also have readers who know me well.  But I trust their judgment.  Aided respondents also have their place, though that’s a subject for another post.
 A word about writers groups.  Good ones can be very valuable; not-so-good are dangerous.  With good ones, you leave your ego at the door, and you hold up your end with honesty and seriousness of purpose.  As soon as your get-togethers turn into group therapy, the efficacy is lost.  Or turns destructive. 
There’s one thing that’s even more important than untainted feedback.  Your own judgment.  Take everything you hear with a grain of salt.  Consider everything with an open mind, capturing what improves the product, rejecting what doesn’t.  
At the end of the day, you’re still the god of your made-up world.

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You can reach Chris by email at or by responding on this website.

WE WILL BE TAKING A SHORT BREAK after this blog, a brief time off from our Wednesday blogs for five consecutive months.  We also invite anyone having anything to do with books to submit a blog to either Chris or to me, Marty Shepard, at

Wednesday, September 2, 2015


Karen Owen is a freelance editor of manuscripts, a monthly opinion columnist at The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, VA, and the former publisher of Van Neste Books.  She lives with her husband, novelist and Hammett Prize-winner, Howard Owen, in Richmond, Virginia. 

This is her story, and a perfect follow-up to Daphne Athas’ THE GRAMMAR OF POWER which was posted last week.

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“As a former newspaper editor and former publisher/editor of literary fiction at Van Neste Books, I’ve been in a love affair with the English language for quite some time.  I also do freelance editing work on manuscripts in many genres, from novels to memoirs to local history.  While I continue to write a monthly opinion column for a daily newspaper in Virginia, what I enjoy most is the editing process.

“When I was a publisher, I did not have the financial wherewithal to hire any assistants.  I was chief financial operator, editor, creative director, book-packer and promotions person, and the joke was:  ‘I am Van Neste Books.’  Unless a manuscript grabbed my attention by the second chapter, I did not have the luxury to finish reading it.

“The same was true if I ascertained that the editing required to whip the manuscript into shape would be too onerous.  Assuming the writer was no William Faulkner, there were times when I was forced to move on to the next item in my in-box.

“And forget Thomas Wolfe.  For most publishers, the days of indulgence by a Maxwell Perkins are gone.   They don’t have the staffs or the time to wrestle a story to the ground.   It may sound shallow, but neither do they want overly long word counts, as the costs to publish these books can be prohibitive.

“What I try to do as an editor is to turn a diamond in the rough into what I call a lean, mean fighting machine, while preserving its inherent creative quality.

“A manuscript may be beyond redemption:  In these rare instances, after taking a look at sample chapters, I return it to the writer with the sad news that I cannot take money from him or her under false pretenses.  A book is either publishable, or it is not—unless a writer is willing to self-publish.

“Here are the kinds of things that I, as a professional editor can, offer.

“Most writers, even those who are professionals themselves, simply cannot edit their own work.  (I confess that I can’t edit my own creative endeavors.)  Even when I get a second or third book from one author, I often encounter the exact same mistakes that I did in his first.

“I generally read a book twice: Once for spelling, punctuation or factual errors, and a second time for inconsistencies in plot, redundancies in dialogue or expressions, or questioning the meaning of a particular sentence or the motives of a character.

“I can sense when a writer needs to tighten up or cut to the chase.  The best first sentence of a chapter, often buried beneath throat-clearing, is sometimes three paragraphs in, and the end of the chapter often could be cut short by two or three paragraphs. 

“Common mistakes by writers include:  Too many adverbs are used.  Characters are said to have ‘shouted’ or ‘grinned’ or ‘grimaced’ or some such other word when ‘said’ or ‘asked’ is all that is required. Exclamation points are overused or ellipses are used incorrectly or too many words are in italics or all upper-cased.  Sometimes these devices are used at the same time.  Dialogue is either too literal—needlessly adding ‘er’ or ‘um’—or is unrealistic, telling readers information better offered in general narration. 

“Sometimes the writer advances the plot too quickly, via sheer laziness:  A woman in the process of getting a divorce somehow encounters no resistance at all in a legal settlement with her husband, sometimes twice in the same book!  The same writer may become bogged down by descriptions of attire or interior decorating. 

“A character, paralyzed by the thought of a lover in a dalliance with someone else, time and time again allows herself to be distracted from confrontation by the prospect of terrific sex.  A judge seeking to preside over a speedy trial remonstrates to this effect repeatedly, yet inexplicably calls a recess 15 minutes after court has been called to session. 

“A famous line in a movie is misquoted.  The motive for murder or war is misunderstood or misstated.  A football player jumps up and down on a mattress after having suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon. Modern communication, such as texting, is too literally and liberally described, as are current, soon to be obsolete, expressions of speech.  New characters are introduced and given specific names but are never heard from again.  An “aha!” moment comes to a character in a dream.

“Words are misspelled.  Commas are omitted.  Quotation marks are misplaced.  Too many words are used.  Too many words are upper-cased, getting in the reader’s way.  Writers refer to ‘2 p.m. in the afternoon.’

“Consistency is a big problem for many fledgling writers:  It doesn’t matter whether a character’s interior voice is written as “No, no, no, no, no” or the more stream of conscious ‘No no no no no,’ nor is Cormac McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks in dialogue a problem.  But whatever device is used, it must be consistent throughout. 

“A character’s name or eye color changes. Whether a character sees a college mate every single day alters from chapter to chapter.  A turn of phrase is overused because the writer has forgotten it was employed in the first place, sometimes just on the previous page. 

“Long experience has taught me to never ignore the faint, teensy-tiny inner voice that questions a fact, or timing, or misuse of a word.  In the end, that is what is required, even when a missing comma is overlooked. 

“A writer often expresses reluctance at paying what is—for the time spent on a manuscript—a fairly modest fee.  If he doesn’t want to pay for a good editor, he should find a trusted friend, family member or educator—preferably one with knowledge of the English language—to read and correct the manuscript before he seeks an agent or publisher.

“A writer has but one chance to make a first impression. That opportunity must not be squandered.” 

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If you want to contact Karen, her email address is and I hope you will also post a comment on this blog.

COMING NEXT WEEK: Chris Knopf’s blog on What Authors Can Learn From Market Research. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


Some years back, Joe Schwartz interviewed  Daphne Athas for a Chapel Hill newspaper when her memoir, Chapel Hill in Plain Sight: Notes From the Other Side of the Tracks, which covers the Depression, World War II, McCarthyism and the present was released. She knows a good story, even before she knows she'll write it. "I just knew I knew things that other people didn't know," she said of her last book. Schwartz described her as being “treasured by her creative writing students at UNC for her wit and creative idiosyncrasies and noted for Entering Ephesus, a Chapel Hill-inspired novel originally published by Viking Press in 1971. It was hailed by the critics, made  Time Magazine’s Ten Best Fiction List, won the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for fiction in 1972, and was published in England that year by Chatham and Windus to equal acclaim.

This tale about three school-aged sisters was republished buy us in 1971 under our Second Chance Press imprint, with Publishers Weekly calling it “a big book in every sense of the word, glorious, fascinating and holding up perfectly in the 20 years since its first publication. Written in nearly mesmerizing language, it’s an unforgettable story.”  And it is still in print with us.

Daphne’s other titles were Crumbs for the Boogie Man, a book of poetry, and Gram-o-Rama, a textbook of modern-day grammar exercises.

I’ve always been so impressed by her, still on the faculty of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where she began teaching six decades ago, and still, at age 92, a remarkable writer who has her own blog. What follows comes from her own posting on July 13th, THE GRAMMAR OF POWER.

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“I’m sitting in a fishing town on the south coast of Crete on the weekend of June 19th and 20th with nothing to read but my Kindle stoked with Victorian novels and ancient Greeks: Aristotle, Thucydides, Herodotus. Non-evanescent reading. My only alternative: the International New York Times, which used to be the International Herald Tribune.

“To vie in silent awe with the inspiring mass of night sky, stars, and the lick of the Libyan sea, I read the headlines: Taylor Swift has just yanked her album 1989 from Apple’s new three month trial period free streaming. When in doubt as to who wields power over who, check financial pages.

“She did it on Sunday, day of rest posting on, her letter of reaction to Apple’s plan to stream pop artists and singer-song-writers free. No royalty payout. She wrote: ‘To Apple, With Love, Taylor’ telling them their announcement was ‘shocking,’ ‘disappointing,’ and uncharacteristic of a company she deemed the most historically progressive in the world.

“ ‘We don’t ask you for free iPhones. Please don’t ask us to provide you with music for nothing,’ the INTNYT quotes her as saying.

“She used the respectful ‘Please’ despite the huge TV mug shot of her painted doll-face, tarted-up lipstick and eye liner looming over her tiny dancing onstage body, expressing in naked, possibly self-demeaning words the emotion: ‘Why is it fair to ask artists and pay them nothing?’ She tells them casually she speaks for other artists, and it’s true; lots of them asked her to.

“You could feel Apple on the receiving end as if it were a person not a corporation or a fruit. Even the Supreme Court judges corporations the same as individual citizens. You could feel Taylor’s raw hurt like Dear Johns, and Hurt Parents whose children have betrayed the family love, smarts, and trust. Betrayal!

“You feel her moral justification like boiling blood, but it’s really ice-cold.

“Apple, the smartest, most loveable company in history? Like Google and other smart, progressive, successful companies, Apple deals politics of self-righteousness. Self-righteousness begets self righteousness. But Group think is not Individual Think.

“Like Google’s weekly cute film cartoons, Google the Gentle Giant Teacher encourages people to better themselves. ‘Read, Exercise, Love’. Six months ago I refused to click the Google cartoon of a bearded old man wagging his head above my incoming mail, suspecting it might be Tolstoy. But my curiosity won. I clicked, and yes, it was Tolstoy.

“Why is Google giving me my lesson on Life Values on Tolstoy’s back? Why should I give it my respect? This was not Taylor’s first nose-thumb to the corporate. She’d dumped Spotify in the past.

“Within twenty-four hours a man named Eddie Cue, Senior Vice President of Internet Software and Services caved. ‘When I woke up this morning and read Taylor’s note,’ he is quoted, ‘it really solidified that we need to make a change.’ Apple thenceforward offered a different plan: three months with more than full payment for the artists.

“ ‘Thank you,’ Taylor wrote back. ‘I am elated and relieved. Thank you for your words of support today. They listened to us.’ Who is ‘They?’ Did she mean Eddie’s pressuring peers? Did she mean her ravenous fans? (Did she tweet or did she email?) Who did she address it to? Her sole antecedent is: ‘Words’ but words don’t have ears. Only humans do. Words have effects. I had a teacher long ago who attacked students justifying themselves with ‘But they all do it!’ The old teacher attacked History too: ‘History proves this that or the other. Who is History?’ he asked ‘Is History a person? Can History speak?’ Why did Taylor change from treating Apple like a person, and introduce us to the shadowy pronoun ‘They’? Is her unhinged writing the fault of INTNYT? Did they leave her antecedent by mistake? All we’ve got is muddled writing.

“In the 50s Carson McCullers wrote a best seller, Member of the Wedding, and with Tennessee Williams, transformed it into a popular play and movie. Frankie, the adolescent girl, is in love with her older brother, but he’s getting married, and she faces abandonment forever. The plot shows her struggle to reconcile the separation of male and females selves in her own psyche. Only when she realizes the bride will become a part of her does she discover her mantra: ‘They are the We of Me.’

“Taylor may be swift but she’s been tailored to be. She knows how to bifurcate a plural pronoun and switch from relief and elation to secret codes of corporate usage. At least she is the They of She. Who is Apple the They of?

“The only info we get is Eddie cueing us (or Taylor) in. Eddie uses the impersonal construction: ‘It’ solidifies for ‘It’ signifies. Sounds more like a loose bowel movement turning into a firm deposit.

“In case anybody thinks I meant my title to mean The Power of Grammar instead of The Grammar of Power they’re wrong. There are clues to codes passing themselves off as Aesopian Morals. ‘Learn Grammar. Understand Better. Be Smarter.’ That’s inspirational. Gram-O-Rama doesn’t aim for Inspirational Ick; it doesn’t promise Money. It wants the challenge of Fun.

“About the second ‘who’ of the question in the second paragraph of this blog: I deliberately omitted the letter ‘m’ on the second ‘who’. Who wants to be an Object? I’d rather be colloquial.”

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This entry was posted under The Grammar Guru Speaks. You can get in touch with Daphne directly by email daphne.athas@gmail, or by posting a comment here. You can also email me at

COMING NEXT WEEK is a perfect follow-up from Karen Owen, THE BOOK DOCTOR, who continues this discussion, Be sure to stay tuned for next Wednesday’s posting.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Eighteen years ago, Doran Larson wrote a novel we published and in the interim we’ve lost sight of one another. But early this year he contacted us about publishing a prison memoir, Concrete Carnival, written by Danner Darcleight, an inmate sentenced to twenty five years to life. Judy and I were overwhelmed by the story itself and the brilliance of the writing, and immediately decided to publish it, even though we invariably publish fiction only. In this post, Danner reflects on the personal experiences of a fellow inmate facing his time in prison and the many disappointments that came with each parole board hearing.

I can think of no better way to introduce Darcleight’s blog than by turning this over to Doran, who, during those seventeen years we were apart became an authority on prison writing as the following introduction makes clear,

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Concrete Carnival instantly places Danner Darcleight in the very top tier of writers working among the 2.3 million Americans held inside prisons and jails.  But this is not simply a prison book.  Darcleight’s verbal dexterity and streetwise insights, his honesty, humor, his narrative skills and unyielding search for the humanity in all of his subjects announce a writer who deserves a place upon the broad contemporary literary landscape.  Like Jack London, Chester Himes, Nelson Algren, Malcolm X, George Jackson, Edward Bunker, Angela Davis, Patricia McConnell, Donald Goines, Iceberg Slim, Malcolm Braly, Mumia Abu-Jamal and many others, Darcleight shows once again that any distinction between American literature and American prison literature perverts our understanding of what America is as a literary enterprise.

Prison walls quarantine bodies and minds.  They also incubate thinking and writing that strip bare the human costs of the contemporary order.   In an era of unprecedented, mass-scale incarceration—with nearly three quarters of a million citizens released from prisons and jails each year, and more than one-in-five citizens marked by a criminal record—we need this book in order to help us understand the very nature of the American experience today.

—Doran Larson, Wolcott-Bartlett Professor of Literature & Creative Writing, Hamilton College; editor, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America; Director The American Prison Writing Archive.

*         *         *

“Years ago a friendly old timer named Ralphie told me that I wasn’t yet doing time, that my bid would truly begin once I see my first parole board and get denied release for another two years. I didn’t understand him at the time, though Ralphie’s words have begun to bubble back up and repeat on me like a greasy, late-night meal. After serving twenty-five years, I will see a parole board in 2024.

“Ralphie went away in 1965, before Vietnam was a household word, and is still hashing off years on a twenty-to-life sentence. Fifty years in prison, and counting. How he handles that math, I have no idea, and hope I’ll never have to learn for myself. After appealing his tenth parole board’s decision, he was mistakenly sent pages from his file meant only for viewing by parole commissioners. The most damning: a letter on official stationery from the former mayor of a large city—who is friendly with the affluent family of victims—stating that Ralphie should never be released. Ralphie is an old man now, in failing health, and it seems this administrative fiat will serve as an extrajudicial death warrant. As far as his case is concerned, the system has fallen back on Machiavelli’s advice that men should either be caressed or crushed; might as well tell him, Arbeith macht frei.¹ During the seven or so years we locked near each other, I sat with him in the numb days following three of his parole denials, “hit” in local parlance. There was nothing I could say, nor would I dare offer palliative clichés.

¹ Work sets you free, is the wrought-iron signage on the gate to Auschwitz.

“I tried to imagine these parole commissioners watching Ralphie totter in, bald and pudgy like a cherub; peering up at them, his eyes look tremendously big behind thick glasses. The senior commissioner begins the interview, while the others half listen to what is going on, scanning the folder of the next case.² Ralphie speaks well and advocates for himself, but it does not really matter, does it? Not with that mayoral coupe de grâce serving as a cover page to his file. So, he sits there as they berate him, and when they ask what his plans are if he’s to be released, well, he tells them. His wife of many years recently passed away; yet, a group of Quakers has written to the parole board pledging to house Ralphie, ditto the director of a program for ex-cons, who would guarantee employment for him administering their database (the old man learned to code in the nineteen-eighties and, remarkably, has kept his skill set current). And then it’s over, just a matter of waiting about a week to receive the denial in the mail, a terse, boilerplate invite to the confab two years hence.

² ...half listening to what is going on, because they are focusing on the next case” were the words used by Vernon Manley, former New York State Parole Commissioner, to describe the parole process during a panel discussion held by the New York City Bar Association, February 15, 2007.

“Disappointing, he says, but no surprise. Stoic. But alone, the night after receiving his denial: crushed, gutted. Two days later, he opens the accordion folder that holds a copy of his appeal to the previous denial, two years earlier when the parole board meted out its pronouncement. He highlights names, dates, and other changes that will need to be made on this go round. That appeal was never ruled on, nor were any of the ones that preceded it, each one made moot by not being heard within two years. This is a Catch-22 by way of Kafka, and only someone who’s learned patience from decades spent in a cell can face it without decompensating. On one hand, Ralphie knows that, after spending countless hours assembling and mailing his appeal, it will be mooted by his appearance at the next board, which will hit him again, which will lead to this retrieving his appeal yet again from the according folder, revising and resubmitting; but on the other hand, he has to work the process, do what is expected of him, and hope that one day soon the Fates will tire of making him their plaything. The days go by, and we go with them—but don’t start counting too closely.”

DANNER DARCLEIGHT writes from and about prison. His essays have been published in  Stone Canoe, The Minnesota Review, The Kenyon Review, and Fourth City.

COMING NEXT WEEK: 92-year-old Daphne Athas, an influential author and educator, shares her thoughts. 

Wednesday, August 12, 2015


First, let me say this. I love The New York Times and have read it faithfully since I was 13 years old, travelling from Jamaica, Queens to The High School of Music and Art as an art student on 135th 
Street and Convent Avenue in Manhattan. That goes back 67 years.

In 1979 when my wife Judith and I founded The Permanent Press and Second Chance Press, we were indebted to the Times, for Thomas Lask, who had a column in the Sunday Book Review, wrote about our interest in republishing worthy titles that were at least 20 years old. (Another tip of the hat to the Book Review that over the years treated us well, from the days when Harvey Shapiro, Rebecca Sinkler, and Charles McGrath edited it...and recently again with Pamela Paul in control).

Over 400 books were sent to us by authors after the Lask article and we choose six of them to republish under our Second Chance Press imprint. We were blessed to have a full review on August 14, 1980 of Richard Lortz’s The Valdepenas, written by Anatole Broyard in the weekday Arts section. Reviews in this section of the paper were under the direction of the Culture Desk at the Times. It was a most auspicious beginning.  That was 35½ years ago.

For those who don’t read The New York Times, the Arts section covers culture in general and includes theater, art and gallery openings, dance, film reviews, performances, and one-title-a-day book reviews from Monday through Friday, which I always enjoy reading. With only five books reviewed each week I realized how few opportunities there were to get coverage.

Two weeks ago however, it occurred to me do some mathematical calculations. It turns out that 9,230 full reviews at the Culture Desk were published during that time period. Another mathematical calculation: of our 425 titles in print up to this year, our authors have won 107 awards and citations (one can look this up in our online catalog). Our mystery writers alone have been winners and finalists for every major mystery prize over the past couple of years and several minor ones as well.  Permanent Press writers have been published in 20 countries: Canada, Mexico, Spain, Germany, France, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Turkey, Japan, China, Taiwan, Poland, Korea, Italy, The Czech Republic, England, Macedonia, Australia, Greece, and Russia. During that time we’ve also had reviews in nearly every major newspapers in this country (many now defunct) and several Associated Press reviews.

In 1991, Sandra Scofield’s Beyond Deserving was one of five finalists for the National Book Award. There was a gala awards ceremony. But nobody at the weekday Times reviewed it or commented it. “How come”, I asked the editor who was in charge 24 years ago. The answer was “Well she didn’t win it, did she?”

So unrequited love does not refer to the Sunday Book Review at all, but only to books assigned for review coverage in the Arts section.

A bigger mystery concerns why our authors cast no shadow at the Culture Desk. So the beat (or rather the lack of it) goes on. Then again, who can account for unrequited love anyway, something all human beings have experienced, just as all who’ve suffered from it eventually get over it. So I’m not expressing any bitterness at all here. As said, The Times is my go-to-one-and-only newspaper. Still mathematics are mathematics, and in the end I have to think this is our cosmic destiny arranged by the Great Assigner in the Sky.

At this point in life I am more bemused than perplexed, since logic can’t solve what otherwise would be an unsolvable mystery, and I will continue to send out our books to those at the Culture Desk at the Times who decide what gets reviewed in the Arts section. I shall do this without any expectation of success (one can’t be disappointed if one has no expectations) other than doing my job of calling attention to some remarkable novelists.

I think of myself as an ancient Johnny Appleseed, tossing out grains and hoping they might flourish, and success has happened elsewhere. Perhaps it might even happen at the Culture Desk. But if not, I’m comforted by the fact that we’ve discovered and launched the careers of many wonderful writers, who have won more awards per title than those published by the Big Five, and who are known throughout the world.

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COMING NEXT WEEK, a blog written by Danner Darclight, the author of Concrete Carnival, a rare non-fiction title from us which we will be publishing next year. Danner, who is serving a 25 years to life sentence, has been hailed as one of the best prison writers in America. Be sure not to miss this one. In the meantime, I welcome your responses to Unrequited Love.