Monthly Archives: December 2015

Exploring why Review Swaps are Dicey and the Mind of an Evangelical Christian

I burned Cate's book today in the woods as a symbolic conclusion to this project.

I burned Cate’s book today in the woods as a symbolic conclusion to this project.

The independent publishing world is a tough mountain to climb. Even though it is cheap and easy to get a book “published” it is tough to get anyone to actually buy and read the book. Authors struggle for months and months (perhaps years) to write their books. This requires lots of time alone struggling to commit ideas to paper. This requires hours and hours of editing. This requires a great deal of soul searching and hope. All this effort occurs before the author actually “publishes” his book and makes it available to the public. There is a great deal of vulnerability and expectation in this moment. The author is putting his baby out there for the world to judge and of course the baby is a reflection of the author himself. Accordingly any judgment of the book is judgment of the author. But for most authors this can be a moment of great disappointment. Because, I suspect most independently published authors never have their book actually read except by a friend or two. It is even more difficult to get a book reviewed. But if there are numerous independent authors seeking readers and reviewers of their books the obvious solution to this problem is to have this population of independent authors read and review each other’s books.

With this solution in mind, I agreed to read and review “The Child” by James Cates in exchange for him reading my novel “The Book of Bud.” I have heard it said that Amazon frowns on this type of review swapping. After going through this process I now have a better idea as to why Amazon feels this way. The problem with review swaps as I see it is that one or both parties will probably feel obligated to give a good review of the other’s work either because he is afraid of offending the other or he is afraid of a negative review in return. The flipside of this is that a genuinely positive review is automatically suspect. That said, in my initial brief interchange with James Cates we both agreed that we would give honest reviews of each other’s work and that is what I set out to do. I do not think either of us deserve or would benefit from anything less than that.

I will first say that I would never want to disparage someone who wants to create. I think being creative is the joy of life and no one, regardless of skill, should be denied the opportunity to put themselves out there. This is especially true with the rise of the internet and the self publishing industry. As I indicated above, writing a book is no easy task for most people. I know this from person experience. Cates certainly had a vision for a novel and actually performed the hard work of thinking it through and creating a finished product. For that he is to be commended and I mean that sincerely.

However, I ended up giving his book only one star because there were a number of problems. Again, I do not think giving him a false positive review would do him or me any good. But honestly, his book was poorly written. There were too many spelling errors and grammar mistakes. Some of this is forgivable but when there are too many errors of this kind it takes me out of the flow of the narrative and I begin to loose faith in the author. The plot was overly complicated and there were too many undeveloped characters that I did not care about or whose motivation I did not understand. In the actual review I go into the plot a little more deeply and I do not really want to go over that here. Suffice to say, I really did not enjoy reading his book and as a result had to do some real soul searching regarding how I would actually write the review.

The final point I would like to discuss is the Christian theme of the novel. Cates is (I am assuming) an evangelical, protestant Christian. I am a Christian of the Roman Catholic persuasion and I am definitely not an evangelical, protestant Christian. As such, I am obviously not part of Cate’s world. But in a sense this was one aspect that made his book more interesting to me because it offered me a look into the mind of an evangelical protestant Christian. In many ways it seems like a very black and white, us against them type of world. Interestingly there is not so much theology but there is a heaping helping of violence and rape. No one is actually raped in the book but there is a lot of talk about different characters wanting to rape other characters. I could go deeper on that subject but I do not want to. It is not my intent to stand in judgment of Cates. In fact I want to encourage him to keep being creative even if it never results in a single sale because in my experience being creative is one of the greatest joys in life.

James Cates has yet to review my book.

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Loving Thy Neighbor and Ebenezer Scrooge

NeighborIt should not surprise me that my neighbor reads Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and takes the position that Scrooge was better off before his conversion. He feels the problem in the story truly lies with Scrooge’s liberal neighbors who judge him negatively for his conservative values. My neighbor feels that they are hypocritically disobeying the Second Commandment to love thy neighbor when they judge Scrooge in this manner. I cannot entirely dismiss my neighbor’s point of view. Often times “judgment” does not come from a place of love and compassion. Frequently judgment of others results from the ego trying to mitigate the pain of its own shame. In this sense judgment is the ego telling itself, “Look! I am better than him.” Accordingly, to the extent Scrooge’s liberal neighbors did judge him in this way they certainly were not acting in accordance with the Second Commandment.

However, not all of Scrooge’s neighbors judged him in this manner. Certainly, Scrooge’s nephew did not judge him this way. Fred made a special point of inviting Scrooge to dinner despite his uncle’s abusive behavior. Fred did judge Scrooge in the sense that he made clear that he disagreed with Scrooge’s perspective on Christmas. But in my reading of the story this judgment came from a place of compassion. Fred truly wanted to connect with his uncle and not to put himself above uncle for the purpose of gratifying his ego.

It could be argued that Dickens himself is judging Scrooge in the egocentric sense. Certainly the following paragraph exudes this type of energy:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone. Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster…

Now, if I know my neighbor (and I think I have had enough experience with him to know him well enough although he does possess the ability to surprise me often enough) I can anticipate how he would react to that description. I suspect he would say that this is Dickens’ description and Dickens is the same type of judgmental, hypocritical liberal as are Scrooge’s neighbors. Assuming this actually reflects my neighbor’s potential reaction, it is interesting how he can project such a consistently schizophrenic view of the world into every situation. To him, even the author of a story (the creator of a universe in a sense) is unaware of his own warped, destructive and self-annihilating view of the world. It is as if there is a real story about Scrooge that exists elsewhere and Dickens’ version is a contrived piece of propaganda serving some nefarious purpose. If I am correct, my neighbor sees the story “A Christmas Carol” itself as a humbug in the fullest sense of the word.

I would argue, however, that the story is not written from an egocentric, judgmental perspective but from a compassionate one. True, in the opening scenes we see him acting abusively towards his clerk, his nephew, the two solicitors and the young caroler. When the ghost of Christmas Present displays scenes from his past we see that he seemingly valued money more than the love of his fiancé. All these exhibits display the negative aspects of Scrooge’s value system. But then we also see the reasons why this behavior came about. We hear of Scrooge’s neglectful upbringing by an abusive father who blamed him for Scrooge’s mother’s death. We also see glimpses of Scrooge’s good nature; his gratitude for Fessiwig’s kindness and his compassion for Tiny Tim. We see his remorse for pushing away his fiancé and his fear of dying an unredeemed man. All these examples are to show that Dickens wrote this story from a place of compassion for Scrooge. As readers we pick up on this energy and root for Scrooge despite his negative behavior.

Therefore, I cannot agree with my neighbor’s assessment that Scrooge was better off as a bitter, lonely, old man. Nor can I agree with my neighbor that all of Scrooge’s neighbors were hypocritical, judgmental liberals who hated Scrooge for his conservative values. Nor can I agree with my neighbor’s shame-based, egocentric judgment of the “liberals” he seems to despise. His judgment does not come from a place of compassion and in my assessment is in violation of the Second Commandment. I now must examine my conscience to determine where my judgment of my neighbor comes from.

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The Solipsism of Scrooge

ScroogeThere is a great deal of evidence in Charles Dickens’ novella “A Christmas Carol” to suggest that Ebenezer Scrooge lives within a solipsistic universe. Solipsism is the theory that the self is all that can be known to exist and possibly all that does exist. If Scrooge did in fact live in a solipsistic universe then the world he perceived himself to live in including all the other people inhabiting that world would be merely creations of his own mind. They would therefore have no real form or substance of their own. In his solipsistic universe only Scrooge would exist. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the idea I am going to relate. For the purpose of understanding I submit the following exhibits into evidence.

Exhibit A – Solitary as an Oyster

Scrooge himself felt very alone in the world. Dickens describes him as “solitary as an oyster” and that “… the very thing he liked [was to] edge his way along the crowded paths of life warning all human sympathy to keep its distance…” He lived alone in a dark, empty, “gloomy suite of rooms, in a lowering pile of building up a yard, where it had little business to be …” hidden behind other houses. I have read many books on dream interpretation that interpret a house in a dream to represent the human mind. If it was Dickens’ intent to have Scrooge’s house represent his mind I think the metaphor is apt. Finally, Scrooge pushed all other people aside as if they were truly “surplus population” and not entirely real to him. We see this when his nephew comes to his office to invite him to dinner, when the two solicitors visit and when the child sings a carol on the steps of his office. We also see it quite clearly in the way he treats his clerk, Bob Cratchit.

Exhibit B – Bah Humbug

Scrooge’s go to catch phrase is “Bah Humbug.” In my last post we discussed how the actual definition of “Humbug” is “language or behavior that is false or meant to deceive…” It is this deception that lies at the heart of the solipsistic universe. In other words, the other people in Scrooge’s world are not separate beings but rather creations of Scrooge’s mind. The fact that they appear to be separate on the surface level is the deception. Scrooge sees his universe as a humbug because the truth of it is not how it actually appears. In a sense there are two minds at work; one that is of the universe and lives within it (i.e, his ego) and one that is aware of the falseness of the universe (i.e., his true self).

Exhibit C – Jacob Marley

Marley’s ghost tells Scrooge that the purpose of his visit is to warn Scrooge that he has a chance to escape Marley’s fate. Scrooge sees that Marley is fettered with a ponderously long and heavy chain. Marley tells Scrooge he wears the chain he forged through his neglect of his fellow man and that Scrooge’s chain was as heavy as Marley’s chain currently appears to be seven Christmases ago. Scrooge is not aware of his own chain but the implication is clear that he will become painfully aware of the chain once he dies.

When Marley first appears, Scrooge explicitly states that he does not believe Marley is real and that he assumes Marley is a creation of his own imagination. There is then a dialog where Marley’s ghost attempts to convince Scrooge that he is real. Scrooge argues that Marley is probably the byproduct of poor digestion. This is not particularly convincing but it illustrates the point that Scrooge assumes himself to live in an (at least somewhat) solipsistic universe. Marley finally frightens Scrooge into admitting he believed in Marley. But what exactly does this mean that Scrooge “believed” in Marley? I think the only logical answer to this question is that when Scrooge says he believes in Marley he means to say he believes Marley is a separate person and therefore repudiates his own belief that he lives in a solipsistic universe. Perhaps this is repudiation is necessary in order for Scrooge to believe the redeeming power of the apparition. Perhaps this belief is necessary for his redemption.

But even if Scrooge is forced to admit that he does not live in a solipsistic universe this does not necessarily prove that his universe is more than just his mind. Consider the question, why was there no ghost that appeared to Marley before he died? Why does Scrooge deserve this chance at redemption and not Marley? It could be argued that Scrooge actually deserves redemption less than Marley given the relative sizes of their respective chains. The fact that Marley appears for Scrooge’s sake but no ghost appeared for Marley’s sake appears to be evidence that Scrooge does in fact live in a solipsistic universe.

Exhibit D – Your Past

The final piece of evidence I will present to support the argument that Scrooge lives in a solipsistic universe is what the Ghost of Christmas Past says to Scrooge when he makes his introduction. When he tells Scrooge who he is, Scrooge replies, “Long past?” to which the ghost counter-replies, “No. Your past.” The ghost is in effect telling Scrooge that his whole reason for being is for Scrooge’s benefit. In a sense the ghost would not have a reason for being if Scrooge did not exist. This only makes sense if Scrooge lives in a solipsistic universe. One can assume the subsequent ghosts exist for the same reason.

Conclusion

I think it is important that Scrooge’s universe is solipsistic because it explains both how and why his redemption takes effect. First of all, there must have been a repressed subconscious part of Scrooge that desired redemption. This subconscious part of him was his true self that had been suppressed by an overbearing ego. This ego had its genesis in Scrooge’s mother who died in childhood and his father who blamed him for his mother’s death. Scrooge “feared the world too much” and built up defenses against it by allowing his ego to take control. With the onset of advanced age his true self reached a point where either redemption happened now or it would never happen. Because Scrooge lived in an egocentric solipsistic universe his subconscious true self was able to send Marley and the three ghosts to ferry Scrooge through the redemption process.

This redemption process, however, was a transformation from solipsism to a world where the other had real form and substance. In a solipsistic universe, there is only the self. The “others” cohabitating this universe have no real existence. As such, they can be easily marginalized as “surplus population” and treated as lesser beings. But this is a lonely, dark, hostile and ultimately undesirable world to live in. When one lives in that world for too long he becomes like Scrooge; angry, bitter, afraid and distrustful of the other. Redemption can only happen when one frees himself from the shackles of the ego and migrates from its self contained, solipsistic universe into the real world in which the other exists with real form and substance. In order for the command to love thy neighbor to be meaningful, the neighbor must be real and other. Otherwise love of neighbor is merely a love for a phantom created by the mind.

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Humbug and the Spirit of Christmas

FredIn Stave I of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” Fred debates the value of the spirit of Christmas with his uncle Ebenezer Scrooge. The debate takes place in the evening on a dark, cold Christmas Eve in his uncle’s office. Fred invites his uncle to dine with him on Christmas Day and his uncle declines calling Christmas a “humbug.” I have always thought the term “humbug” meant something frivolous or devoid of meaning. It turns out the definition is a little more specific than this. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary “humbug” is defined as “language or behavior that is false or meant to deceive people.” If this is the definition of humbug Charles Dickens intended it casts a slightly different shade on why Ebenezer Scrooge chose this word to describe Christmas.

Throughout the novella Scrooge retorts “humbug” to various things he encounters. For example, when Marley’s ghost appears in his room he utters “humbug.” It seems clear that by “humbug” he means that he does not believe what he sees to be actually real. But according to the definition of the word it would seem that he does not believe what he sees because he feels that someone or something is trying to deceive him. In the same respect he tells his nephew that “Christmas is a humbug” which I therefore take to mean that he does not believe in Christmas because he sees it as some sort of grand deception. Given his material preoccupation I assume he sees Christmas as a deception by the people who profit from the economic activity associated with the holiday. But perhaps he also senses a more spiritual deception going on. This would explain all the ghostly activity to come later that night.

In reaction to his uncle’s branding of Christmas a humbug, Fred begins to defend the holiday’s good name by saying:

… I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round — apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that…

Here he pays a winking acknowledgement to the reason for Christmas (i.e., Christ’s incarnation) but does so in a way to suggest that this is not the thrust behind this story (i.e., A Christmas Carol). I do not believe this is a Fox News “War on Christmas” type of thing. It is merely to say that the story Dickens is telling, although set within a Christian context is not about Christianity per se. Rather, it is the story of one man’s spiritual redemption from himself. In a sense Scrooge in this story has pulled the wool over his own eyes. He is perpetrating a humbug on himself, so to speak.

Fred further describes Christmas as:

 … as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. 

I assume most people recognize the childlike spirit of the season he describes. I remember feeling this more intensely when I was younger. Essentially, there is something about the Christmas season that makes people want to be nicer to each other, to relax their egocentric judgment and to pay less attention to false excuses for division such as politics, race and indeed religion.

Children are not as fixated on these things. They only come to value them when they are taught to value them by adults. Jesus himself said, “… Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” (MT 18:3). Perhaps this childlike spirit of Christmas is a glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. Perhaps this childlike spirit is revealed when one pulls back the various humbugs of adulthood.

Clearly Scrooge is the antithesis of the childlike spirit Fred describes. For one thing, he is old. I have often heard people react to “A Christmas Carol” by saying that even though Scrooge redeemed himself he must have been disappointed or regretful that his redemption did not happen earlier in life. But this observation misses the point, I think. It is precisely Scrooge’s age in spirit that required redeeming. He had to become more childlike to enter the kingdom of heaven. As such, his physical age is symbolic of his spiritual age which exudes all the traits of ego dominated adulthood.

Fred continues:

And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Here he contrasts this childlike spirit of Christmas with the materialism with which it stands in opposition to. A childlike spirit is not cynical. It does not suspect a humbug around every corner. It is not greedy, grasping or full of ego. It is not mean spirited, judgmental or racist. Rather, the childlike spirit of Christmas is open hearted, compassionate, full of life, anticipation and excitement. It exposes the humbug of division and reveals the true fact that we are all “fellow passengers to the grave” and this earthly existence and our physical, skin deep appearances are not what is ultimately important.

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