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Do you read nonfiction as well as write it?

I write nonfiction, but I read fiction for pleasure.

Years ago, before the age of self-publishing, someone told me that only about 15 percent of books published in America are fiction, in all genres, while the vast majority of books fall under nonfiction. I imagined that those statistics indicated that editors slave more thoroughly over fiction than facts, parsing more sentences, correcting more errors, enhancing more nuances.

So I read fiction, I tell myself, because the writing is intrinsically better than in nonfiction. I am more likely to encounter a memorable phrase or aptly used arcane word in contemporary fiction than in heady books penned by politicians, potters and patients for whom writing is not a first language.

Recently I asked librarians and booksellers if I was correct about the ratio of domestic books. They had never considered the question and had no answer. So I wrote to the Library of Congress.

A librarian named Abby Yochelson responded: “I think the quality of editing probably depends on the publisher rather than fiction vs. nonfiction. I know plenty of people who complain about the quality of fiction editing, too!” She asked Andy Lisowski, of the institution’s information-technology staff, to run a search.

“In terms of figuring out percentages,” she wrote later, “you would have to figure out the number of books we have compared to our overall collections.” The most current compiled information is for Fiscal Year 2013. “Fascinating Facts about the Library of Congress” reports that the Library of Congress owns about 160 million items, about 37 million of which are books and other print materials.

The library’s annual report includes an appendix listing books by class. Class P covers language and literature: English, American, etc., plus fiction, literature, children’s literature, poetry, drama, essays, literary criticism, biographies of writers, etc. Andy could not identify fiction specifically, Abby says. The two of them “Concluded that trying to count genre fiction would not work. Including a genre category is fairly recent in terms of library cataloging. Many works have multiple genres, so something could be categorized as a love story and suspense fiction.”

Abby went all out, making me value this remarkable federal resource. Who knew all this stuff even existed? Not I.

“I also attempted to make use of the subdivision fiction as it can be used with subject headings: libraries-fiction, railroad trains-fiction, writers-fiction,” she wrote. “I used the advanced search in our catalog. I typed fiction in the search box and used the pull-down menu to indicate SUBJECT ALL (KSUB).

“Unfortunately, the maximum number of records the catalog can retrieve is 10,000, with no idea of how many records there are over that number. In addition, fiction didn’t always appear in subject headings, so this search would miss thousands of older books.”

Abby even searched OCLC WorldCat, a database showing the holdings of more than 70,000 libraries. (Here’s the free version.) When you use the advanced search, you can limit to fiction or nonfiction and to adult or juvenile. Unfortunately, you can’t just click on the limits without searching on something.

“I don’t really ‘trust’ any of the numbers above about the Library of Congress holdings or think they are sufficiently accurate to quote.”

So there are no facts on which to base my preference for reading fiction while continuing to write nonfiction. And that’s the truth.

What about you?

Death of SAT essay doesn’t matter

Samson Street closed


Since people can’t write when they graduate from college, what difference does it make whether they can write when they enter?

People earn undergraduate and graduate degrees, build profitable careers in business, the arts, whatever — and still don’t know a command verb from a comma.

Having taught a thousand adults to write nonfiction — and that’s the truth — since 1988, I know that basic grammar is a lost art. It kills me. Doctors can’t write, lawyers can’t write, chiefs of staffs can’t write. I wonder how they communicate with patients, clients and the rest of the world.

Each year I notice a marginal decline in writing literacy. Recently it’s getting worse. Many people are victims of inadequate educations, even from name-brand universities.

Once a man hired me to train his advertising staff to write better. We did 10 hours of classes. Soon after, I encountered him in a movie theater. He introduced me to his wife, an English teacher in a Philadelphia high school. “My students don’t like grammar,” she said, “so I don’t teach it.”

Flabbergastation overwhelmed me. I thanked her for breeding my future students.

Not that a good grasp of grammar guarantees good writing. It don’t.

Good writing matters. Many people claim writing skills they clearly lack. Whom to blame? One high-school teacher? College professors focus on their courses’ content — even instructors of English literature, and even in schools with writing-across-the-curriculum programs — and sidestep plain, ordinary writing skills. Whether profs don’t know or don’t care about grammar, the results are the same: unschooled writers at graduation.

The ones who gall me the most are those who call themselves professionals and charge for their services. Those who passively accept passive voice because they don’t recognize the alternative.

Even though I write for a living, I don’t claim to be the best writer on my block. But since I cannot subtract or divide, I don’t promote myself as a bookkeeper. I hated science classes, so I don’t consult on bridge construction, electrical engineering or ravaging influenza viruses. How can someone who cannot organize a three-sentence news release earn $$$ to write website copy?

But, you might say, one can tell a great story without writing well. Yes, and think how much more compelling the tale would sound if one tightened the copy and used more-precise words. Writing is a dying art, you say. True. But so are penmanship and steam engines and virgin weddings.

Someone still needs to write manuals for the next generation of tech tools, speeches for not-yet-elected officials and books and magazines for your pleasure. Writing can never die. It can get weak and powerless and boring and fuzzy. Wait: That’s where I started.

Try this at home: Think of a story you tell often: an anecdote about driving, diving or donuts. Write it. Can you make it sound as fun, as poignant, as energetic as the one you recite?

When organizations invite me to review their existing written material, I cannot believe that no employee nor expensive consultant has noticed that they spell their town’s name wrong on their stationery. That their website never specifies what the company does. That they omit the dollar amount in their requests for funding.

Too many Americans fail to organize their writing projects, covering all necessary points, focusing on the essentials, eliminating the chaff.

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary to write a eulogy, a love letter, a plea to an elected official, flyers for a nonprofit or sales reports to the boss — it helps to be able to link sentences together into cohesive, coherent paragraphs and pages. The writer has to do the work, I tell students, so the reader doesn’t.

SAT essays are still optional. College applicants can write them in crowded spaces surrounded by other terrified teens, using No. 2 pencils on lined paper. How anachronistic. Even though teachers have quit teaching handwriting, adolescents have to write legibly — now, under extreme pressure.

The anxiety to write neatly, filling a random but fastidiously strict length, can kill the creativity and writing ability in most candidates.

In 2012, Les Perelman, then a director of writing at MIT, met with David Coleman, soon to become president of the College Board, which owns the SAT. He recalled the conversation in a New York Times Magazine article:

“When is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about?” Coleman asked. “I’ve never gotten an e-mail from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes.’ But that’s what the SAT does.”

Since these essays prove little about the writing ability of future freshmen, dropping them or making them voluntary changes nothing.

Once I taught “effective writing” (an ineffective title), in a non-credit program. In the first session, each person submitted a paper proving that their grasp of writing resembled my grasp of sub-quantum kinetics. Before the evening ended, I mentioned my decision to amend the syllabus to include a session on grammar. One woman, the worst offender, actually, rose and headed for the exit. I asked if she would be returning. No, she said. “I graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with A’s in English. I don’t need to learn grammar.”

I responded that I had graduated from the same U with B’s in English, but that it seemed as though some remediation was in order. What must she have written on her SAT essay?

A woman in an essay-writing class once brought a haunting piece about the graveside funeral for her cranky grandmother. Everyone at the funeral was welcome to speak, but no one did. After several awkward, silent moments, a boy said, “She made good cookies.”

At the funeral for the SAT essay, I am keeping my mouth shut.


NOTE: This article appeared March 26, 2014, on Newsworks.org.

The best book I never wrote

Christ's home office

My friend Jackie spent 10 years in a convent, exiting about 20 years before we met. Raised Jewish, I had never before known a nun. Now I do. Though we have identical views on almost everything, we never discuss abortion, and we have the rest of the universe to share.

Jackie hosts 3-day reunions of 7 women who were “in” with her, and I concocted an idea to write about their experiences. The ex-nuns, as they call themselves, agreed to invite me to one such gathering. They instantly became wonderful, open, welcoming friends.

Only one, he who had undergone sex-change surgery and played basketball while the others washed the dishes, did not want to participate in my book. I see the others often, but never again the one they call Ned the Nun.

Jackie, an elementary-school teacher in the convent, continued teaching. She met and dated several Catholic men, who, she reports, talked so much about memories of knuckle-rapping that they couldn’t visualize her romantically. She married a lapsed Presbyterian man who knew and cared nothing about nuns. They still live happily ever after.

Among the others, Margie is the most amusing, unconventional, mouthy woman – the most, in fact, like me. After the convent, Margie realized she was a lesbian. Since we met, Margie applied for and became headmistress of a proper, private school for girls. During the interviews, she came out as a woman who loves women but not as an ex-nun. That, she believed, would stigmatize her.

Jackie, Margie and the others entered the convent because of deeply held beliefs. They felt called to do God’s work in that particular way. They grew disillusioned as they slowly realized that, while they signed up to serve God, they mostly served men: men of the cloth with power and freedom far beyond their own.

For each woman, the decision to leave was far more agonizing and painful than the decision to enter. And they left in relative silence, not able to confide in each other. Their annual get-togethers, the parts I am not privy to, help them deal with that lingering, if dissipating pain.

These women’s commitment to doing the right thing mirrors my own values, so we always have lots in common. Their religious passion and personal bravery are alien to me, so I wanted to learn how they gained such strength.

I wanted to write about the women’s lives after the convent. About Barbara, with her native-Irish brogue, who spent most of her career, during and after the cloister, in South America. And about Bridget, who, in her late 60s, reconnected with a priest she had faithfully served. They have become lovers, since he cannot afford to leave the economic safety of a priestly retirement home, and she cannot join him there.

I was curious about the sister I never met, the one afraid to attend reunions. She married and had 2 daughters, whom she never told she was once a nun. I shiver to imagine how angry they will be when – if – they learn the truth. 

I mentioned my book idea to a successful writer/friend. She asked how I was planning to organize the material, and I said to write one woman’s tale after another. “You can’t do that,” Arlene cautioned. “Editors don’t want that. That’s what they call ‘a string of pearls.’” I figured she knew. Crushed, I abandoned the project.

I have never forgiven myself. “Breaking the Habit” is the book I was born to write. A heartfelt inquiry into passion, humanity, women’s innermost thoughts. I blew my best chance. By the time I realized my error and tried to start again, the women had no time to get involved.

If there’s a lesson to learn, it is this: Never let someone deflect you from what you want to do. Never walk away from a dream you know is right. Believe in yourself.

If you have a book in you, write it.

Long live the Washington Post

comeing soon

The recent sale of the Washington Post feels like a death.

It’s only a death knell, really, to be followed by the demise of print journalism within 20 years. I will mourn when that happens.

I have nothing against the buyer, Jeff Bezos, from whom I have bought books and Bluetooth headsets. But he is an investor, not a traditional publisher with ink flowing through his veins and smearing his white shirt cuffs. He knows how to turn a profit, but does he have a nose for news?

The best sketch of the value of print journalism comes from the pen of Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law, former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. His essay appeared on Bloomberg News, a website.

“Newspapers create what we might call an architecture of serendipity, in which readers encounter all sorts of stories, facts, ideas and opinions that they didn’t select. Much of what they encounter seems boring, irritating, wrong or offensive, but on occasion it turns out to be surprising, delightful, alarming, important and even life-changing.

“A lot can be said on behalf of serendipity. In your daily newspaper, you might learn about a new book – on neuroscience, say, or folk music – and, to your great surprise, it might pique your interest and broaden your horizons. You might run into a story on how to improve your health or save for retirement, and it might lead you to alter your habits, even if you don’t much like thinking about your health or your retirement.”

You don’t encounter chance stories when you are homing in on the sports scores or sale prices you seek. In the end, sans newspapers, you learn less. We all learn less.

I wish Mr. Bezos well with his purchase. Newspapers are a terrible thing to lose.