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Category: nonfiction

A Penny for Your Ism (newsletter)

Thanks to continuing official outrages against People Of Color piped to me by the media on almost a weekly basis, the corrosive effect of racial prejudice never strays far from my overstimulated mind. Obama’s “post-racial” presidency didn’t change hearts and minds automagically; that takes struggle, such as opposing the hundreds of GOP-filed state laws restricting voting access if not rights, which rub the salt of racism onto our civic wounds, laws that all but Republican lawmakers seem to see as targeting POC.

But racism is a slippery concept, I’ve found. And looking into the word led me to want to know more about how applying that little suffix to a noun turns a thing into a concept, if you can pin it down. Perhaps there’s a better ism to describe racial prejudice. I’ll get to that, but first, a brief tour of the wonderful, wacky world of isms.

Ism is a little noun ending that means, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, a “distinctive doctrine, theory, or practice” at least since the 1670s, noting “the suffix -ism used as an independent word, chiefly disparagingly.” So right off the bat, to some extent, isms are objects of ridicule. Reasons for bashing isms vary, but it seems that their detractors are far more united than their proponents and their rationales for opposing a given ism are far less nuanced and coherent. Consider all the political brands those who embrace “socialism” have to choose from, while those who decry the term indiscriminately despise the lot of them.

The suffix–ism tends to occupy more neutral territory: OED (that is, the above website, not that OED) defines it as a “noun ending signifying the practice or teaching of a thing, from the stem of verbs in –izein [GR], a verb-forming element denoting the doing of the noun or adjective to which it is attached.” As I had expected, the Greeks coined it first.

You can find 322 isms listed at OED, from ableism to Zoroastrianism, many of which are breathtakingly myopic. Some of the more provincial ones include cledonism (literary), dudeism (sociological), incivism (political), melanism (medical), misoneism (cultural), naderism (eponymous), onanism (psycho-sexual), sciolism (snarky), thanatism (anti-religious), and verism (aesthetic—to which I tend to adhere, come to think of it).

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Getting the Better of a Protagonist and Vice Versa (newsletter)

It saddened me greatly when my principal muse David Cornwell—aka John le Carré—passed away last December twelfth at 89. By my lights, the Brits should make that date a national day of mourning. Were it not for the spell of the holidaze, I would have said something about it at the time, so please allow me to pay my respects now.

David Cornwell / John le Carré, recent photograph

He was a gifted storyteller. It wasn’t just how scrupulously he constructed his characters and how mercilessly he deconstructed them that I admired; he also kept me guessing about outcomes, so many of them equivocal. As in real life, few of his protagonists triumph, and some don’t make it. Along the way, he tends to adjust the attitude of some and lets others slide into more august or shrunken versions of themselves—until, like George Smiley and Peter Guillam in his 2011 A Legacy of Spies, they leap out of retirement. (Le Carré scholars reckon that Smiley would be a centenarian at the time, having cut his espionage teeth in 1930s Berlin.) Being billeted throughout Central Europe by the Foreign Services through the 1960s and having traveled widely since, Cornwell’s settings bubble with both old- and new-world authenticity.

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Tell Me a Fractal

Spaces that stories can inhabit

This craft essay and book review was featured at medium.com in May of 2019. In it I conjecture what it might be like to fashion a novel as a fractal. The novel I was thinking of writing was a sequel to my 2018 thriller Turkey Shoot that would feature its female protagonist. With that in mind I began writing Her Own Devices the following month, completing the first draft a year later. It turned out not to be another thriller, as I’d expected, but a crime story. Is it a fractal? Not in any formal sense, but it does feature certain repeating elements. I’m currently fractalizing its fourth revision.

See the original story here (counts as one of three free articles non-subscribers to Medium may view each month).

“What I hope this book now will leave behind: the idea that new patterns like spirals or explosions or vortex streets might open our eyes to other natural shapes underlying our stories, might let us step away from the arc sometimes, slip under or through that powerful wave, glorious as it can be. I hope that other patterns might help us imagine new ways to make our narratives vital and true, keep making our novels novel.”

Jane Alison, Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative, Catapult, 2018, pages 248-9.

Think of a snowflake forming around a molecule of water clinging to a tiny particle of something, how it blossoms and diverges as other molecules join in, seeking their hexagonal destiny, becoming a perfect thing of beauty. Then think of it melting, its sharp edges blurring, its interstices blotting out until it plops to earth. That’s a story, right there, in full surround. Matter, space and time at play.

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Coronavirus is your friend, in a way

Here in Massachusetts, yesterday the number of suspected or confirmed Covid-19 cases grew 30 percent overnight and will probably top 400 today. Most non-critical facilities are now locked down. And so, with a lot of new-found time on their hands more people than ever in my suburban neighborhood are out and about, enjoying the spring weather — biking or walking alone, as couples, with dogs or kids, and actually stopping to talk. Amid all this tsuris, it’s exhilarating to see such stirrings of a community makeover.

The good news doesn’t stop there, so let’s get on with my facile attempt to divert you from your apocalyptic musings. Instead of enduring a pitch for my work this punishing month, find here a public service announcement of sorts.

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