Megillat Esther through the eyes of a 21st century writer, or It’s okay if G-d saves the day if there’s forshadowing

This year, in preparation for Purim, I’ve been rereading the megillah at a class given by my LOR (local Orthodox rabbi). Of course, it’s not the first time I’ve read The Book of Esther, as it’s called in English. We do that every year on Purim–twice! And it’s also not the first time I’ve learned it with this particular rabbi. But it is the first time I’ve read it with commentary, guided by my rabbi, since I officially became an author (whatever that means). And boy, is there a difference.

The Big Literary No-No All Over the Megillah

book of esther theater poland

A Purim Spiel in Poland. Photo shared in the Wikipedia Commons by Henryk Kotowski.

When you’re writing fiction, there is a big no-no that you’re told never to do: rely on deus ex machina. In short: don’t get your characters out of a tight corner by dropping a deity down from the sky to perform an instantaneous rescue. The audience will roll their eyes, at best.

The term originated with actors playing deities in the theaters of Greece. But for a religious writer of a different persuasion in the 21st century, it causes problems. Continue reading

How Texans lost their accents and the newly religious found one

How do we place a person? Partly by the way they talk. But the accents that we use to locate people are constantly in flux.

Apparently Texans are losing their distinct accents. Still others have mastered mainstream American dialects as well as their own distinct drawl and codeswitch according to the demands of the situation, a recent study at the University of Texas asserts. The L.A. Times article on the subject explains some of the reasons, which include exposure to mass media and immigration to Texas from a variety of sources.

The article piqued my interest in part because I happen to be reading Sarah Bunin Benor’s new book Becoming Frum which contemplates the ways the newly religious adopt the language and cultural markers of Orthodox Jews. Like with the Texans discussed above, some use of the in-group dialect is conscious, while other use is not. But in either case,  it marks the users of certain types of speech as members of a distinct group.

What this means to writers: A sprinkle of regional dialect or in-group word choice can help establish a character in the social landscape of our story/book and make them sound authentic. But misuse of language based on out-dated understandings of a community could annoy readers just as much as heavy-handed overuse. Pretty soon, we might not be able to write characters with Texan drawls anymore without sounding ridiculously retro. It’s good to have a handle on these nuances of language use before jumping in to this writing strategy.

Can you trust the reviews you read?

I mentioned briefly in last week’s post that authors have been hiring other writers to review their books and sometimes even to bash the competition. (This happens for reviews of all types, in fact, from hotels to toaster ovens.) Media coverage of this issue has been growing lately–see this revealing expose of the practice and this equally eye-opening explanation of how to detect faux reviews for details.

Since Judaism has an idea of geneivat hadaat–misleading knowledge as a form of theft–you’d think that the Jewish book world is immune to it. However, Jewish publishers and authors do buy reviews. Often, the review appears on an “advertorial page.” Perhaps this isn’t deceptive after all–it’s marketing, not true reporting–and so permissible under law, Jewish or otherwise, but the casual reader usually doesn’t know the difference.

Why is everyone making a whoop-dee-doo about this? Because people look at reviews for guidance about how to spend their money. Consumers expect reviews to be sufficiently objective to weigh the pros and cons of the product in question. Can you count on a review being objective if the author received money for it?

On the other hand, if an author sends you a copy of their baby (ahem, I mean “book”), then it’s clearly hurtful to turn around and bash the book publicly. If they are making the effort to market themselves, they want to protect themselves (hence payment offered for positive reviews). I can understand that authors are afraid to gamble on whether the people they ask to read their book will heap praise on it or tear it to shreds. However, we still get knocked back to my point above–consumers expect reviews to be trustworthy.

I’ve been approached recently by several different people to write reviews of their books, partly because I’m an author, partly because I’m a blogger, and partly because I (briefly) used to be paid by a magazine (not an author, not a publisher) to review books. Some have offered money, some have not. I’ve reviewed a few of these books, but I made some rules for myself so that people can trust my evaluations.

Rule #1 – I will accept money from a magazine or newspaper that prints a review, but not from the author or the publisher of the book.

Rule #2 – If you provide me with a free copy of your book, either in print or digitally, I will read your book. That’s all I can promise.

Rule #3 – If I like it, I’ll review it positively. If I don’t, I will not backstab you and write a bad review. However, I won’t write a good review about the book either–I just won’t review it at all. (So far, I’ve only refused to review one book sent to me this way.)

Rule #4 – If I have more than a passing acquaintance with the author, I’ll state it in the review.

I hope that others will adopt these rules, or similar ones, so that people can trust reviews again. After all, I’m a consumer, too.