Category Archives: literary fiction

Staying a Step Ahead of the Competition in Publishing: Music Video Book Trailers

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

Velvet Love by Andy Platon

MUSIC VIDEO BOOK TRAILERS: Staying a Step Ahead of the Competition in Publishing

by Claudia Moscovici

Both publishers and authors are becoming increasingly concerned with the question of how to promote books effectively, capture the interest of readers and generate sales. Given the number of books out there, without an outstanding publicity campaign, each given book risks passing unnoticed. Currently, the competition for readers is tremendous. An  astronomical number of books are published each year. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) cites that roughly 2,200,000 books are published annually. Out of curiosity, I looked up the two countries I write about most which, not coincidentally, are also those where I’ve lived: the U.S. and Romania. In 2010, 328,259 were published in the U.S. and in 2008 14,984 books were published in Romania. Given this large number of books published in the U.S. alone, it’s difficult to believe how difficult and competitive the process of publishing can be (as I explain in an earlier article on the subject):

in English:

in Romanian:

And yet publishing your manuscript is only the beginning of the gargantuan task of rising to the surface in an ocean of books. In fact, the UNESCO study probably doesn’t even count the number of self-published books via Amazon Kindle, Lulu and many other self-publishing options. On the one hand, the mass media makes sharing our cultural products easier in some ways, by facilitating access to an audience. For instance, anyone can self-publish and promote a novel nowadays, through blogs, twitter,  youtube and other popular venues on the internet. But this apparent democratization of culture also makes it a lot tougher to stand out from the crowd. Each cultural product–be it a novel, a collection of poems, a song, a film or a painting–competes with tens of millions of others. It’s hard to find or discern anymore what we value and what we don’t in this tidal wave of information that assails us from all directions on a daily basis.

noise

To draw another analogy, it’s as if we heard talented classical musicians playing their instruments at the same time as others howl, scream, talk and yell in various languages. Or, if you prefer to avoid making any value judgments, as if we heard them playing at the same time as other talented musicians practice other songs. Either way you look at it, what reaches our ears will sound like a maddening cacophony, to the point that we can no longer discern the music we prefer from  the surrounding noise we’d like to ignore. In a world of information (and publication) overload, effective publicity and keeping up with the rapid changes in the mass media can make the difference between success and failure.

bordersbooks

When I taught literature and aesthetics at the University of Michigan, I also helped organize a few  panels in the Ann Arbor Book Festival for several years. In this function, I witnessed up close and personal the struggles of one of the biggest book stores internationally, the Borders Group Inc., which was one of our main sponsors for the book festival. As is well-known, Borders faltered in the face of growing competition from Amazon.com as well as its direct competitor, Barnes & Noble. After downsizing for a few  years, the company eventually declared bankruptcy in February 2011. Barnes & Noble swallowed its former rival, taking over Borders’ trademarks and customers.

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A similar phenomenon can be witnessed in the world of publishing. Two decades ago, when I first began creative writing, there were dozens of small presses in the U.S. Now there are hardly any left, both because they can’t compete with the major publishing houses and because self-publishing has taken a big bite out of their sales. Many of those that survive have been assimilated into larger publishing houses. And they are not alone. During the past decade, even the mainstream publishers often group together into larger conglomerates. For instance, one of my favorite publishers of literary fiction, Farrar Straus & Giroux, which has published internationally renowned authors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Franzen and  Jeffrey Eugenides, forms a conglomerate with the MacMillan Publishing group. On July 1st 2013, two of the biggest publishing houses, Penguin and Random House, joined forces to form Penguin Random House. This megapublisher is predicted to account for a quarter of book sales in the U.S., as  Julie Bosman explains in her July 1, 2013 article on the subject in The New York Times:

This merger may be partly in response to the fact that starting in 2009, Amazon.com, the biggest online book seller in the U.S., launched several (selective, as opposed to self-publishing) imprints of  foreign and genre fiction. These include AmazonEncore (out-of-pront or self-published books that sell well), AmazonCrossing (books in translation), Montlake Romance and Thomas & Mercer (mystery novels). In May 2011, Larry Kirshbaum, the former CEO of Time Warner Book Group, took over Amazon Publishing to create a new general-interest imprint.

amazonpublishing

To summarize the increasingly competitive and volatile environment of the publishing industry: many authors are choosing self-publishing rather than wallowing indefinitely in the “slush piles” of highly selective and largely inaccessible literary agents; small presses have been swallowed by bigger ones (or gone out of business); large book sellers have faced bankruptcy and even mainstream publishers have had to merge to continue to thrive in the industry. But even these changes may not be enough. More publishers will sink and more publicity is needed–for authors, book sellers and publishers alike–to survive in such a highly competitive environment, where mainstream success is almost as statistically rare as winning the lottery.

Effective book publicity has become a necessity. Unfortunately, even for authors publishing with the big mainstream publishers, a decent publicity budget is not easy to come by. Ebooks continue to grow in popularity, which may be great news for readers but not necessarily for writers and publishers. Even taking into account the fact they largely eliminate the distribution cost and entirely eliminate the shipping and handling cost, ebooks generate smaller revenues than print books, which means, overall, fewer profits. This, in turn, means a general decrease in publicity budgets. Also, please keep in mind that publicity budgets aren’t equally distributed among authors. The major publishing houses allocate most of their annual publicity budget on a handful of books they predict will sell that year, most of which are written by celebrities (like Paris Hilton or George Bush) or authors who already have proven sales. This leaves the vast majority of published authors to fend for themselves and generate their own publicity: through blogs, social networks, twitter, contacting libraries and bookstores, however they can.

This discussion brings us full-circle to the initial problem I broached in this article: the difficulty of standing out in this deluge of mass media communication, where pretty much every author does his or her best to be heard and read. So how can you stand out if you aren’t one of the lucky few who get a major publisher’s annual publicity budget? I’d like to propose a new method–music video book trailers–that is innovative, cutting-edge and appeals to potential readers’ senses and imagination, to awaken their interest books.

I came upon the idea of music video book trailers partly through good fortune (of working with a cutting-edge major publishing house in my native country, Romania, Curtea Veche Publishing)–and partly because I was actively seeking opportunities of getting involved in such a project. Ever since I’ve been a teenager I loved pop music and jazz and was intrigued by the power of music videos to capture viewers’ attention not only through catchy music, but also through spectacular filmic scenes that can rival the best movie trailers.

Cover Intre Doua Lumi

Once I found out from my publisher that  my first novel,Velvet Totalitarianism, would be launched in Romanian translation (under the title Intre Doua Lumi) in September of 2011, I began exploring the possibility of collaborating with talented Romanian composers and musicians for a music video/book trailer of my novel. Via LinkedIn, I met the Romanian singer, composer, director and producer Andy “Soundland” Platon, who ended up doing a wonderful music video based on my novel, called Velvet Love:

 

Andy Platon is a Romanian pop music prodigy.  I say “pop music” only because that’s what he excells at best. But Andy has enormous range both in terms of the scope of his talents–as a composermusic video director and producer andsinger–and in the versatility of his musical abilities, from classical music to pop music and everything in between. Andy made his debut while still only a teenager in 2009 with the song Lost Without You, which became a finalist in the competition Battle of Songs. This show  was featured not only in Romania, but also in France, Russia and Turkey. Lost Without You was also nominated for the Shockwave NME Music Awards 2010. More recently, he’s known for his collaborations with Troy Lynch – The BeatBoyz (T.I.Gucci Mane, 112), Loredana Groza and  Marius Nedelcu  featuring  Alexandra UngureanuIrina PopaXoniaAnthony Icuagu (ex. Insane), Ianna Novac (ex. ASIA, Ladies). Recently, he has established his own production company, called Fonogram Studios and is collaborating with internationally renowned musicians, such as Kris Searle.

Andy Platon’s new single and music video,  Velvet Love,  performed by the talented singer Marcel Lovin, captures with feeling and sensibility some of the most poignant scenes of my novel  Velvet Totalitarianism, including the complex dynamics between the main characters, Radu and Ioana, as they struggle with the tension between their love for each other and harassment by the Secret Police. As an art critic I found the video to be very artistic–almost photographic in feel–showing clearly Andy’s eye for capturing each scene in a single image, as well as the talent of his co-producer and Director of PhotographyAnthony Icuagu. The main actors–Ioana Picos as Ioana and Mihai Marin as Radu–did a wonderful job playing the romantic couple in the novel, whose risky love for each other may be saved by their parental love for their son, Lucian, played by Alia Anastasiei.

velvetmoscovici

In general, music video book trailers have the following advantages for generating publicity for both authors and publishers:

1. They appeal to most of our senses. At their best, they’re musically catchy, visually stimulating and dramatic enough to stage a narrative that leaves viewers eager to find out more about your book.

2. They’re international. If posted on youtube, vimeo and other public venues, music video book trailers can quickly reach an international audience. If you wish to target only readers who speak a certain language, such as Romanian, French or Russian, then you can do them in that language.

Seducer Cover

3. Music video book trailers allow for a flexible budget. They can be as expensive as you can afford or as inexpensive as you desire. Before meeting the music composer and producer Andy Platon, I did my own music video book trailers and posted them on youtube. Though they certainly lacked professional filming equipment and original music, they still reached thousands of readers and were effective advertising tools. I’m including below my music video book trailer for my second novel, The Seducer:

4. They involve fruitful collaborations among the arts–music, film, acting and literature–so they’re by nature artistically complex and interesting.

5. They are amenable to various sources of funding, such as donors, investors and crowd funding, which do not depend strictly on the publicity budget your publisher is willing to allocate for your book. In fact, crowd funding has become an increasingly popular and effective way of raising revenues for artistic projects. For information about some of the most promising crowd funding options, I’m including below Chance Barnett‘s article on the subject, published in Forbes Magazine:

6. Best of all, like crowd funding itself, music video book trailers offer a more or less democratic means of advertising. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this method generates equal results for all authors. But it does mean that it’s accessible to every author: whether or not they published with a mainstream publisher, independent publisher, or self-published; whether or not their publisher invested their annual publicity budget in their work; whether or not they have connections in the entertainment industry, and whether or not they have a lot of money at their disposal for book publicity. Moreover, since this method of advertising is relatively new, music video book trailers offer can offer authors and publishers a way of staying ahead of the competition.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

 

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Filed under Andy Platon Velvet Love, Andy Soundland Platon, Barnes & Noble, book publicity, book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Curtea Veche Publishing, Editura Curtea Veche, fiction, Fonogram Studios, Ioana Picos, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Staying a Step Ahead of the Competition in Publishing: Music Video Book Trailers, The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici, Velvet Love by Andy Platon, Velvet Totalitarianism

Interview about my novels The Seducer and Velvet Totalitarianism with Ziare.com (in English)

photo credit Romani Celebri

photo credit Romani Celebri

I’ve translated below parts of my interview with Diana Robu, which was originally published in Romanian in Ziare.com (Newspapers.com).

1. Tell us a little bit about when and under what circumstances you left Romania.

1. I left Romania in 1981, at the age of 11. I haven’t returned until 2011, for the launch of my first novel Velvet Totalitarianism in Romanian translation, Intre Doua Lumi (Editura Curtea Veche). My father defected from the country two years before my mother and I legally immigrated to the U.S. He was a world-class mathematician and his boss was Zoia Ceausescu. She had let it be known that he wouldn’t be able to travel abroad to mathematical conferences anymore (because Nicolae Ceausescu was tightening the Iron Curtain). So he decided to take his chances, as several mathematicians had before him, and defect to the U.S. in the hopes that we would rejoin him soon. I filter aspects of our struggles to unite our family in my first novel, Intre Doua Lumi, as well as describing aspects of the adaptation to the U.S. (even though I fictionalize everything, of course, since I wrote a novel not a memoir).

2. What was your reaction when you returned to Romania, so many years later?

2. When I returned to Romania for my book launch decades later, in 2011, I was shocked and impressed to see how much the country has changed in its physical aspects, in its modernization, and in the standard of living. Of course, I only caught a privileged glimpse of Bucharest, from the perspective of an author on a book tour. So I didn’t get an inside glimpse, nor a global view of the country. It was a very brief and limited, but also very positive experience.

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3. Tell us about your professional life and impression of the American academia.

3. In the academia, I taught in several departments–philosophy, art and comparative literature–since I love all of these fields. I emphasized love of art, love of literature, and clarity of expression. Personally, I subscribe to Albert Einstein‘s wise saying: “If you can’t explain something clearly, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

4. What would you advise Romanians who might be interested in moving to the U.S.?

4. I’d advise any Romanian who is thinking about immigrating to the U.S. to visit the country for a considerable period first and find out about professional opportunities and day to day life. Just as it was easy for me to idealize Romania when I was a tourist there in 2011, it’s easy for anyone visiting the U.S. as a tourist to do the same. You never know how you’ll feel in a country until you actually live there, and find a place to work and a place to live. There are some professions, like medicine, where the degrees from one country don’t automatically get accepted in another. Many doctors from Romania have had to start from square one (medical school) or do something else related to medicine. It’s always more prudent to know exactly what you’re getting into before you make any drastic move.

Cover of Romanticism and Postromanticism

5. Do you wish to visit Romania again?

5. Yes, I hope to return to Romania for the book launches of my art criticism book, Romanticism and Postromanticism, translated by the writer Dumitru Radu Popa, and for the launch of my second novel, The Seducer, which hasn’t been translated yet. During this period I hope to get to see more of the country outside of Bucharest, such as Drobeta Turnu Severin and Timisoara, where some of my family lives.

Cover Intre Doua Lumi

6. Is your first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, autobiographical? If so, in what ways?

6. Velvet Totalitarianism, translated into Romanian by Mihnea Gafita under the title of Intre Doua Lumi, does incorporate some of our family’s struggles with the Romanian Securitate and the challenges of immigrating to the U.S. However, I fictionalized the entire plot, included a fictional spy thriller element (the Radu/Ioana plot line) and changed everything structurally to make the story work as a novel. Reality was only a point of departure (and research). But the novel is, after all, fiction.

Cover of The Seducer

7. You write books in several different domains. What leads you to do so? 

7. Since I was young, I loved several fields: art, literature and philosophy. The arts are, in fact, conceptually very closely related. They’re separated only by institutions and how they’re taught. But it’s natural to look at them, and appreciate them, together, which is exactly what I do. I write about the international art I appreciate on my art blog http://fineartebooks.wordpress.com. In 2002, I founded an international art movement, called postromanticism, devoted to celebrating verisimilitude, sensuality, and beauty in art. It was intended as an alternative, not a replacement, to more abstract and conceptual traditions in art. I believe in pluralism, not dogmatism, in the art world, particularly since matters of taste and definitions of art are more or less subjective. I also spend part of each week working on my new book, Holocaust Memory. Finally, I write literary reviews from time to time about books I really like. I also enjoy learning about and writing about different fields related to my areas of specialization. My ideal is of the salonnieres and philosophes of the eighteenth century, who could write and converse about all aspects of the arts and humanities, often even mathematics, physics and natural science. I’ve lost any hope, however, in being able to know much about science or math. My parents, Henri and Elvira Moscovici, are both mathematicians, and I saw how different (and difficult) these fields are from the arts and humanities. But even in this day and age, of focused specialization, we can still do our best to expand our horizons.

8. How do you see Romania’s future?

8. I see Romania’s future as being increasingly open to international collaborations and the country as being more visible internationally. Of course, success stories like Herta Muller and Cristian Mungiu add to the country’s visibility. I predict that there will be more success stories like this. In the field of journalism and literature, Romania already has collaborations with Conde Nast Publishing, Forbes Magazine and others. I think such international collaborations in journalism will expand. Culturally, in every country groups and individuals create worthy art and literature and compete for limited consecration and power. The content of the art or literature are often inseparable from the institutions competing for influence. This is part of human nature and won’t change. The politics in Romania is the wild card. I don’t know enough about the ins and outs of politics in the country to make any predictions about it. It would be best for the country and its people, needless to say, if the infrastructure and laws of a democratic nation are taken seriously.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, Diana Robu, fiction, Henri Moscovici, Intre Doua Lumi Curtea Veche Publishing, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, Velvet Totalitarianism, Ziare.com, Ziare.com Claudia Moscovici

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

Seducer Cover

How writers write fiction: Marching to the beat of your own drum

by Claudia Moscovici

In an earlier article, entitled Why writers write, I explored some of the reasons why writers write fiction by looking into common misconceptions. I argued, for instance, that most writers don’t write in order to achieve fame or fortune, both of which are cosmically unlikely and therefore equally unlikely to last as primary motivations for writers past a very young (and naïve) age:

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2012/09/12/why-writers-write-common-myths-about-being-a-writer/

Now I’d like to explore the process of writing (and misconceptions about it as well), by relying on my own experience as a novelist as well as by using as examples a few of my favorite fiction writers. Basically, I believe that there’s no rule, regimen or standard way of writing fiction: not only in terms of content and style (the diversity of fiction speaks for itself and renders this point quite obvious), but also in terms of the writing process itself.

The diversity in styles and approaches to fiction writing makes the job of those who teach Creative Writing un-enviably difficult. I’ve often read interviews with fiction writers and advice given writers offered by Creative Writing seminars, courses and websites that indicate certain standard procedures of writing fiction. Those usually include making a plot outline; writing a scheme for the structure of the short story or novel; disciplining and pacing yourself as a creative writer in specific ways. Some teachers, writers and courses even suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media, email and other external “distractions” in order to concentrate better on writing fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I think such advice can be very helpful to many writers. Yet, at the same time, I still maintain that the creative writing process is as individual as writing styles. Each writer writes at his or her own pace and requires specific conditions.

Anna Karenina

There’s no doubt that all fiction writers need some uninterrupted periods of time to write fiction and a good place to do it, or A Room of One’s Own (1929), to allude to Virginia Woolf’s famous essay.  The reason for this is quite obvious: fiction writing requires stepping into imaginary situations and entering the minds of imagined characters. This delicate creative process would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in short spurts of time or with constant interruptions. Speaking from personal experience, this is part of the reason why my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism (2009), which I wrote when I was an academic teaching philosophy and literature and a young mom of two small kids, took me ten years to write. Once my children became older and more independent and (especially) once I became a full-time writer and art critic, I had the right conditions to finish The Seducer (2011), my second novel, in only three years. But I wouldn’t take this common denominator of fiction writers—needing some uninterrupted chunks of time, a space to write and periods of peace and quiet—to an extreme, to suggest that fiction writers need to isolate themselves from social media or external input in order to write fiction. There’s a delicate balance between needing external input and isolating oneself to write fiction (or to create art, a similar creative process). Nobody can dictate to any writer or artist what that balance is because it’s as individual as the personality of each writer and his or her writing style.

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In fact, probably many creative writers and artists find themselves in the position that Pablo Picasso describes to his  partner, Françoise Gilot: namely, that of needing external stimulation and contact with others as a rich source of inspiration for art, yet also, because of that, not having enough time to focus on each work of art. As Gilot recalls in her autobiography, Life with Picasso:

“Sometimes Pablo would begin a canvas in the morning and in the evening he would say, ‘Oh, well, it’s done, I suppose. What I had to say plastically is there, but it came almost too quickly. If I leave it like that, with only the appearance of having what I wanted to put into it, it doesn’t satisfy me. But I’m interrupted continually every day and I’m hardly ever in a position to push my thought right up to its last implication.’ […] I asked him why he didn’t shut out the world, and with it the interruptions. ‘But I can’t,’ he said. ‘What I create in painting is what comes from my interior world. But at the same time I need the contacts and exchanges I have with others.’” (Life with Picasso, Françoise Gilot, Anchor Books, New York, 1989, p. 123)

Cover of Velvet Totalitarianism

In our times, this balance between external contacts and inspiration and the solitude necessary to perfect any art form is probably even more difficult to reach because we live in an era of inundation from social media on a daily basis. Nowadays, fiction writers and artists rely upon the social media—Facebook, blogs, interviews with journalists–not only to speak about their art and share with readers (or viewers) what they’ve already produced, but also to find new sources of inspiration. For some fiction writers–particularly those who write historical fiction, true crime novels and psychological–  research and external input may be indispensable. Once again speaking from my own experience, when I wrote the historical novel Velvet Totalitarianism (Intre Doua Lumi), I had to read literally dozens of books on the history of Romania and about Romanian communism in order to be able to draw a historically accurate fictional depiction of that era. I couldn’t rely simply on inspiration or on fading childhood memories, since I had left the country at a relatively young age and wanted my novel to be partly based on actual facts, not only about invented characters and situations. When I wrote my second novel, The Seducer, on the subject of psychopathic seduction, I became even more dependent on external sources of information. I relied especially on blogs, since at the time there were relatively few books published on the subject of psychopaths and other social predators. Most of the information on the subject, particularly testimonials by victims which were extremely helpful, could be found on blogs such as lovefraud.com, which I read with great interest as background for writing fiction about a psychopathic seducer.

I believe that how you write—the process of fiction writing itself, starting from the space you right in; how fast or slow you pace yourself; the conditions and interruptions you choose or that are imposed upon you—does NOT determine the QUALITY of your fiction. But these conditions, and the balance you find as a fiction writer between isolation and external input—has a significant impact upon the QUANTITY and even the style of your fiction.  The best advice I can offer any fiction writer is to find his or her own balance that works for them rather than rely upon generic advice. I guess that’s a paradoxical way of saying the best advice I have is not to follow any general advice and choose instead what works for your situation, personality and style.  To support my case for the importance of marching to the beat of your own drum, I’d like to offer examples from some of my favorite writers.

balzac-la-comedie-humaine

1. Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and La Comédie humaine

As a scholar of Comparative Literature specializing in 19th-century French fiction, it’s not surprising that my main examples will come mostly from the French classics. One of my favorite novelists, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), rivaled Napoleon in his ambition. In his wide-ranging work, La Comédie humaine, Balzac aimed to paint a literary portrait of “all aspects of society” during the period of the Restoration and the July Monarchy (1815-1848).  He wrote about 91 finished stories, novels and essays that capture almost every facet of French society and culture following the fall of Napoleon in 1815. Like many writers, his creative genius was spurred on by failure. After finishing school, Balzac apprenticed to become a lawyer, but decided pretty early on that he didn’t like the field. He then experimented with publishing, printing, becoming a critic and even a politician. All of these more traditional professions didn’t suit him, however.

Ultimately, Balzac decided to follow his dream of being a fiction writer. Given the scope of his literary ambition, he set for himself an extremely rigorous routine. He wrote at all hours of the day and night, staying awake by drinking many cups of strong coffee that ultimately damaged his health.  Throughout his life, Balzac’s difficult writing schedule—and lack of financial stability—strained his relationship with his family and even with friends. Despite writing dozens of novels and short stories, Balzac didn’t write quickly. He just worked long hours. Biographers document that he wrote approximately 15 hours a day. He took a nap after supper from 6 p.m to midnight, then woke up to write during the evening and night again. The author’s novels are greatly influenced by his life experiences, even though they’re not exactly autobiographical. Like Zola did after him, Balzac uses his observations of society to create fictional characters that offer a sweeping sketch of his era. His writing is a reflection of the balance he found between living and interacting with so many people from very diverse social backgrounds and the strenuous discipline he imposed on himself in order to fulfill his vast literary ambition.

2. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) and Madame Bovary (1856)

Of course, writing a little may take just as much discipline and time as writing a lot. At the other end of the spectrum (at least in terms of quantity of writing), my favorite French writer, Gustave Flaubert, was far less prolific than Balzac, even though he was equally ambitious. Flaubert achieved international fame for his unforgettable novel, Madame Bovary (1856), as well as for a beautiful, innovative yet starkly honest (and even cynical) mode of writing that the author polished to perfection. For Flaubert, style was everything.  Avoiding all clichés, he edited fastidiously his short stories and novels, pursuing what he called “le mot juste” (the right word). Perfecting style in a few works took as much work for Flaubert as sketching an entire era in nearly 100 works did for Balzac. In his correspondence, Flaubert states that this perfected style didn’t flow naturally out of him. He had to work hard, and edit constantly, to approximate it.

Like many writers, Flaubert encountered his share of challenges and setbacks. By the time of his death, however, he became known as the master of French realism (despite his lyrical style, which is also regarded by critics as the last echo of Romanticism). The publication of Madame Bovary (1856), the story of the disillusionment and eventual suicide of a provincial doctor’s wife who (fruitlessly) seeks love and meaning through a series of adulterous affairs, was greeted by the public with scandal rather than admiration. When chapters of the novel were published in La Revue de Paris (October 1956 to December 1956), Madame Bovary was attacked as “obscene” by the public prosecutor. Flaubert became acquitted, however, the following year. Afterwards, the novel quickly became a best seller, going far beyond a succès de scandale. By the time of his death, Flaubert was considered as one of the greatest French writers of the century (and he still is).

No rule, advice or measure could apply equally well to a writer like Balzac as to a writer like Flaubert, except perhaps the very general tenet that each found his own balance and discipline in the process of writing to suit his writing style, personality and literary ambition.

rubato1

3. Snippets of the interview with Romanian writer Razvan Petrescu: Marching to the Beat of your own Drum

Perhaps no writer shows the relativity of the writing process—and even casts doubt upon the boundary conventionally drawn between fiction and nonfiction, or fact and imagination—as my friend, the Romanian writer Razvan Petrescu. I have already written about his latest collection of short stories in the following article:

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/razvan-petrescus-rubato-the-coordinates-of-world-class-romanian-fiction/

This article has been translated and published in Romania on Editura Curtea Veche’s blog:

http://www.curteaveche.ro/blog/2013/01/15/rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=rubato-de-razvan-petrescu-coordonatele-unei-proze-romanesti-de-clasa-mondiala

To continue our discussion, I recently interviewed him about his books, his life and the writing process for a series of articles published in the Romanian magazine Scrisul Romanesc and the blog Agentia de Carte. To my mind,  Razvan Petrescu exemplifies the meaning of the English expression “marching to the beat of your own drum,” both as a person and as a writer (since the two aspects are, after all, intertwined). What struck me most about his interview, from which I’m translating only a few bits and pieces here, is the fact that his nonfiction (meaning his answers to my very traditional, journalistic questions) reads like some of the best fiction I have ever read. His first answer, to my very standard question “When did you begin writing fiction?” reminds me of lines from one of my favorite novels, Lolita (1955), by the man I consider the greatest American novelist, the Russian-born Vladimir Nabokov. In this beautiful and lyrical passage of the novel, the narrator, Humbert Humbert introduces Annabel, his first love and the precursor to Lolita: “All at once we were madly, clumsily, shamelessly, agonizingly in love with each other; hopelessly, I should add, because the frenzy of mutual possession might have been assuaged only by our actually imbibing and assimilating every particle of each others soul and flesh; but there we were, unable even to mate as slum children would have so easily found an opportunity to do” (Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, New York: Vintage International, 1997, p. 12).

Although Petrescu has a style of his own, of course, like Nabokov, he’s a master of style, whether he writes fiction or nonfiction. Speaking of which, if you believe that any course, author or teacher can draw a sharp distinction between fiction and nonfiction or tell any creative writer how to write, you may change your mind after reading parts of this humorous, honest, chaotic and–above all—unique and original interview with the writer and editor Razvan Petrescu. Enjoy the (non)fiction!

razvan-petrescu-foto-attila-vizauer

Claudia Moscovici: When did you begin writing fiction?

Razvan Petrescu: Around the age of 15, when I fell in love for the third time. She had long, wavy red hair and well-formed breasts. My wonder knew no bounds when I was faced with this enigmatic pyramidal structure. I was fascinated by other zones and became absent-minded. Which didn’t provoke any particular happiness, given the fact that I was still expected to do various practical things, which included painting the walls, as I was dreaming with my hand shielding my forehead. I was thus overcome by a terrible love. It was autumn, the leaves were falling, the baby birds were hatching, while I was meandering in front of her house in my high school uniform with the number of my school inscribed on my left arm, my face turning melancholic-green with despair. She wasn’t in love with me yet. She would become swept in the feeling only at the moment when it left me and, because I had already read a whole slew of books (especially police thrillers and stories about submarines), I started writing her verses with an eye makeup pencil on a little notepad. I would read them alone at home and would cry seeing how much pain those words stolen from maximum suffering could provoke. When I read them again three years later, I couldn’t believe that I was able to write such idiocies and was overcome with a boundless sense of shame.

CM: What inspires you to write fiction?

RP: Almost anything. The blade of grass upon which climbs a little insect. The insect falls over, moves its little legs, I step on it with my shoe, a shoe meant for such events. The purplish clouds crossed by planes at sunset on the Paris-Slobozia route awaken in me aviatico-poetic catastrophes. I see the terrified passengers placing on their oxygen masks, screaming in them, waving their arms. The oxygen doesn’t work, the airplane changes course at the last moment exactly above IOR Park, over a little pond upon which floats a little ship with a hole in it. They all die of asphyxiation on the plane, while those on the ship drown in the greenish waters. … Usually I transform banal events with regular people into tragedies, or vice versa. I’m attracted to the dramatic, the grotesque, the painful. I describe what I observe, adding as many imagined things as possible to make the story more plausible, or conversely, more absurd.

CM: Who are the writers that inspire you most?

RP: Bach, Chekhov, Céline, Salinger, John Osborne, Raymond Carver, Mozart, Miles Davis, Donald Bartholomew,  Joyce, Faulkner, Schubert, Mahler, Lester Young, Cortazar, Buzzati, Garcia Marquez, Truman Capote, Coleman Hawkins, Chopin, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson, Haneke, Pachelbel, Fellini, Tarkovsky, Beethoven.  The harmony of the piano. The king of the flies. Friday or the languages of the Pacific. … In order not to become mixed up, I’ve gotten into the habit of including my answer to this same question, which I’ve been asked by others and asked myself in other contexts, adding to it nonsensically titles, names, kinds, in order to leave an impression of culture pure and simple. But, above all, I do this in order to avoid boredom…

CM: No fiction is strictly autobiographical, but did you express any personal elements in your fiction. If so, which ones?

RP: I didn’t express anything, for the simple reason that everything I write and experience is fiction. In other words, if I included autobiographical elements in my fiction, they’re fictional. Example: the fact that I studied medicine. I didn’t. I wasn’t a doctor. I never lived in Bucharest. I didn’t go to high school number 43. I didn’t try to sleep with the high school beauty queen in ninth grade. I didn’t have a friend in kindergarten that died, and I didn’t go to her funeral. … I wasn’t a writer, I didn’t have a job, and thus I didn’t work at the magazines “The Word,” “Amphitheater,” the “Literature Museum,” the “Ministry of Culture,” All Publishing, Rosetti, Brukenthal and Curtea Veche Publishing….

CM: To follow-up my last question, what is the relation between your personal life and your life as a writer?

RP: It’s one of total harmony. They overlap. Any object or being that overlaps with another is happy. Given that I don’t need a job in order to make a living, I write all the time, especially at night. I’ve dedicated my life to literature for well over two decades. My personal life has been fulfilled in being a writer and vice versa. I had the good fortune of receiving good money by selling books and, also, through translations. Last month, when I signed a contract for the translation of my most recent book in Macedonia, they offered me almost 150 Euros. I had to renounce the retribution, since I know my value and it’s not quite so big. If I had accepted the payment for the author’s rights I’d have lost it completely, so I asked the editor to allow me to give him money.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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The Cube has landed (in bookstores)! Nat Karody’s new science fiction novel

The Cube by Nat Karody

The Cube, a new novel by Nat Karody, has landed (in bookstores)!

 

Were you disappointed by the ending to the series Lost? What follows is a story with as intricate a mythology as Lost’s but with an important difference: in the end it is all explained mechanistically, without resort to mysticism or religion. At the conclusion of the novel, the following summary of the core mystery, taken from the opening chapter, will be perfectly sensible: The Oopsah told a story, a majestic, exalted, beatific story of the coming of the end times and the rise of the Controller.

He learned how the world would end, who would destroy it, and how he, Zranga, could prevent it. He learned that he had been appointed by destiny – by the Controller himself – to carry out this mission. But above all he learned of the existence of a perfect being, the demigod Celeste, trapped beyond time in a cycle of eternal death. Only Zranga could rescue her, and to do this he had to place a giant door on the bottom of the Silent Sea, and kill the Great Man. Read on to found out how far Ivy Morven will go to stop Tobor Zranga from realizing his destiny, and how this alternative universe is bizarrely structured so that the most rational acts are the most extreme.

The Cube is well-written, ingeniously crafted and has great character development. Although clearly a science fiction narrative, The Cube also transcends its genre, to attract a broad audience. It tells the Romeo and Juliet story of a  young couple from adjacent sides of a  cubic planet who meet at an edge and develop a relationship in the midst  of a war that threatens to  destroy the planet. The story is unique  in creating an alternative  universe from first principles:  all matter is   oriented in one of the six Euclidian directions.

This simple deviation  from our own universe leads to the creation of cubic celestial bodies and   allows a reimagination of  transportation, power generation, warfare,   architecture, and lovemaking, among other things. As an example, the  political conflict   leading to war is that both inhabited sides of the   planet generate hydroelectric power by draining a large body of water on   one side   through edge sluices, a cheap and easy source of energy that will ultimately destroy the planet if the water is drained too far.

What  drives this story is the relationship of the two main characters,  a girl  escaping from a classified weapons facility with terrible secrets she   refuses to share, and a rural boy who literally catches her  when she leaps   over the edge and soon learns he is the target of international espionage.   The novel is organized around a series of   revelations of the girl’s   secrets culminating with an answer to the ultimate question — who is  Celeste?

As you can probably tell even from my brief description, The Cube is a multidimensional narrative (pun intended!) that could simultaneously described as a science fiction novel as well as a moving love story and a dystopic utopia fiction,  similar  to George Orwell’s 1984.  You can discover this alternative universe, governed by different laws of physics but similar political motivations and machinations for power as in our world, on the links below:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXP7xYtrVeU]

Claudia Moscovici, literaturesalon

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Interview with BookMag about my novels Velvet Totalitarianism and The Seducer

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

Below is the interview with Virginia Costeschi, published in Romanian on BookMag, on the link below:

Virginia Costeschi: You are a complex writer; you have nonfiction books, a poem volume, and novels. You teach, you started the postromanticism movement. How do you manage this creative diversity?

Claudia Moscovici: If judged by scholarly standards of specialization, I’m seen as having wide-ranging  and diverse interests: in art, poetry, philosophy and literature, exactly as you state. My daughter, however, who plans to study chemistry in college, tells me my interests are very narrow. All of them fall under “arts and humanities” (as opposed to mathematics, science, or business for example, fields about which I know very little). I think both perspectives are correct. My daughter is right because the arts and humanities are separated only artificially. Art, history and literature have so much to do with one another and are actually very close. Yet it’s also true that the domains became very specialized during the 20th century, so my interests are diverse, from this perspective. Personally, I much prefer the Enlightenment model, of the philosophes and the salonnieres, where the various branches of arts and letters are seen as inseparable. Because in my eyes, they still are.

V.C.: What is postromanticism about and why did you initiate it?

C.M.: Postromanticism is, as we call it, “the art of passion.” It’s the aesthetic movement that values sensuality, beauty and passion in contemporary art, which I started in 2002 with the Mexican sculptor Leonardo Pereznieto. Since then, dozens of very well-regarded international artists have joined this art movement. We hope to bring it to my native Romania, when my book about it, Romanticism and Postromanticism, which has been translated by the writer and critic D. R. Popa, will be launched by Editura Curtea Veche. My main motivation for launching this art movement was a positive one. I wanted to highlight what I saw as very positive aesthetic values in contemporary art. However, I was also motivated by a critical spirit. I thought that art today that is inspired by the Romantic and Realist movements was systematically excluded from museums of contemporary art and insufficiently reviewed by reputable art critics. I wanted to put my training in philosophy (aesthetics) and art to use in correcting, as much as I could, this glaring omission.

V.C.: Which internal resorts determined you to choose literature and writing?

C.M.: My main motivation in becoming a writer was the fact that I adored reading literature. My favorites were the great nineteenth century French writers, such as Tolstoy and Flaubert. I also admired the marvels an immigrant writer—Nabokov—could do with the English language. I think their tradition of writing, more or less realist in style and with incredibly rich characterizations, continues today in writers of mainstream “literary fiction” such as Jeffrey Eugenides, Wally Lamb and Jonathan Franzen. I couldn’t resist the internal drive to turn my love of reading into a love of writing, particularly about the historical and psychological themes that obsess me most.

V.C.: Why did you write Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: Jeffrey Eugenides wrote a comic epic about Greek immigrants in Middlesex. I wanted to write such an epic about Romania and Romanian immigrants in Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi. Communism was, of course, a very dark period in Romanian history. Yet even during this very difficult period people loved, laughed and smiled. I wanted to capture both the darkness and oppression and the lighter aspects of the communist era. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi shows several facets of the totalitarian experience: the love of family and romantic entanglements; the secret police (Securitate), spying and political oppression, as well as the sometimes comical challenges of being an immigrant. Besides, comedy is not always lighter than tragedy. It can be, as it is for Caragiale or Shalom Aleichem, “laughter through tears.”

V.C.: How did you choose the characters in Velvet Totalitarianism?

C.M.: In a sense they chose me by being on my mind for a long time. Leaving my country and family was something we needed to do for political reasons. But it was very difficult emotionally. I loved my country and my family and was well-integrated with my friends and teachers at school. Fundamentally, I felt Romanian in upbringing and culture, which I still consider myself today despite the fact I have some difficulty speaking and writing the language.  When I left Romania at the age of 11, I told myself that even if I couldn’t see most of my family and my country—for who knows how many years–I would one day write about them. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi represents my effort to preserve the past and keep it alive, through fiction, for both myself and others.

V.C.: Irina, the girl that leaves Romania for United States seems an alter ego of the author in Velvet Totalitarianism. Is it right?

C.M.: Yes, many aspects of Irina are autobiographical. However, many are not. To write about some of the historical and political aspects of Romanian communism, as well as the spy plot, I had to read a lot of books on the subject, and create fictional characters that brought those aspects to life. So a lot of Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi is based on real life, yet at the same time everything is altered and fictionalized, to fit harmoniously into the novel (as fiction).

V.C.: How was your meeting with a totally different society, customs, social rules, life style?

C.M.: It was a culture shock. Because I’m an emotional person and a nostalgic by nature, immigrating to the United States and leaving most of my family and all of my friends in Romania was very difficult. I also didn’t speak English, so I had to learn it very quickly if my goal was to get good grades and go to a good university (which I definitely wanted to). But ultimately my adaptation was a survival mode, and in a way, superficial. I still feel mostly Romanian culturally. If you look at my Facebook friends, about 90 percent or so are of Romanian origin. And even though I hadn’t seen my native country for 30 years, when I came for the launch of Intre Doua Lumi in the fall of 2011, I felt completely at home (only Bucharest was so much more modernized and beautiful, of course, than it was when I left the country). I think that human beings adapt to new cultures to survive and accomplish their goals in life. But it doesn’t change much who we really are, on the inside. Inside, I’m Romanian more so than American.

V.C.: Velvet Totalitarianism seems a very difficult book to write, I guess. You have alternate temporal planes, many characters (some of them very complex and profound), love stories, traitors, a dictatorship and a very vivid description of the communist Romania.

C.M.: Yes, you’re right, Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi was difficult to write for several reasons. First of all, I didn’t have enough time. It took me ten years to finally finish this novel because I was a full-time academic and a mom, which left me very little free time for writing fiction. Second, I had to integrate a lot of historical and political information about the Ceausescu era, the Securitate, the CIA, the Romanian orphanages and the revolution of 1989, but in a way that reads like fiction rather than like a political science or history textbook. The fictional characters couldn’t be illustrations or mouth-pieces of history, they had to come to life in their own right. The biggest challenge was tying the two parts of the plot—the spy thriller/love story between Radu and Ioana and the Irina and Paul love story—together. The novel includes two separate plot-lines in it. In  a movie, the director would probably need to choose one or the other. But in the novel they were tied together.

V.C.: The characters in the book have any correspondent in reality? Did you use real life stories to describe the so-called procedure of leaving the country, a dissident’s life or Romanian Security Service?

C.M. Almost every aspect of the novel is inspired either by my family’s experiences in communist Romania or by historical research. However, I fictionalized all of it. Velvet Totalitarianism/Intre Doua Lumi  is not really historical fiction. It’s more a family epic, a love story, a thriller, all rolled into one novel.

V. C.: How did you see the last two decades of Romania? Before 1989, there was a cultural résistance, how does it look now?

C. M.: Some cultural resistance existed in Romania before 1989, but it was little compared to countries like Poland. I think the internal dissidents gained a lot of momentum from the other anti-communist revolutions which preceded the one in Romania. This doesn’t take anything away from their courage. The time was ripe, politically, for the revolution.

V.C.: You also have a prolific online activity. Please give us some details about all your blogs – Literaturesalon, Postromanticism, and Psychopathyawareness.

C.M.: Blogs offer one of the best and most immediate ways for an author to communicate with readers. If you want the communication to be both ways, you have a comments section. If that turns out to be too time-consuming, you just post articles. There’s so much flexibility in blogs. It’s also a system of writing which is very democratic, in that it isn’t based on what professional connections you have. Anyone can write and can build a readership based on the relevance and effectiveness of his or her writing. I love this democratic nature of blogging and the freedom it gives writers.

V. C.: How do you see the Romanian national book market?

C. M.: Although I’m Romanian culturally, I’m also Americanized. So I see the Romanian book market through American eyes. I love the fact that there are so many thriving book review blogs, such as BookMag. To me, that’s the direction of books, internationally. I love the fact the major Romanian publishers are also publishing ebooks, which is going to happen more and more, also internationally. I was very impressed by the fact that the publisher of Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche, was extremely progressive in terms of a multimedia campaign, with a book trailer by Claudiu Ciprian Popa and a music video trailer by Andy Platon. For the next book launch, of postromanticism, I’d love to integrate dance. Book launches, to my mind, should be celebrations: a form of artistic entertainment that doesn’t take away from intellectual content, but enhances it. On the negative side, I was disappointed to find out that The New York Review of Books left Romania after only a few years. Culture is international, no matter how much you respect the individuality and traditions of your own country. Reputable international collaborations, such as with Hachette Publishing Group, Conde Nast (and others) are very valuable in Romania. They’re a big asset to the country. Once lost, it’s more difficult to bring them back. I’d love to see more, rather than less, of such cultural collaborations: something like The Huffington Post Romania (as there already is Le Huffington Post in France) and Oprah’s Book Club in Romania. If there’s any way I can help make such cultural collaborations possible, you can count me in.

V.C.: Please tell us about The Seducer, your latest literary work and when it will be translated in Romania.

C.M.: The Seducer takes the structure and plot line of one of my favorite classic novels, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and makes it contemporary by changing Vronsky’s psychological profile to that of a psychopathic seducer: a social and sexual predator, in other words. I think in reality very often serial seducers are extremely dangerous men (usually men, but they can be female, as in the case of “black widows”). For such individuals seduction isn’t about love, or even about sex in itself. It’s a hunt; a game. The women they seduce, trap and hurt are their prey. Such dangerous seducers initially disguise themselves as madly in love; as caring, wonderful people. They wear “a mask of sanity,” as it’s called in psychology. Psychopaths are not insane, just calculated, cold and evil. They lack empathy and a conscience.  Research shows that this deficiency is mostly neurological, not based on their upbringing. What they want from their prey differs, but the common denominator is power. Psychopaths are driven by a desire to possess and control others: be it an entire nation as for Stalin, or a few women, as in my new novel, The Seducer. I just gave a copy of The Seducer to Editura Curtea Veche this week. I don’t know when or if it will be translated into Romanian, but hope that it will be, since I believe this theme will resonate a lot with Romanian readers. I don’t think there are many women who haven’t been burned by psychopaths at some point in their lives. Usually they don’t know what burned them, however. This novel will reveal aspects of their own lives in a classic literary structure, inspired by Tolstoy. This theme and novel are all the more relevant now that Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is being made into a movie, starring Keira Knightley.

V.C.: We have a national reading campaign, and we would like to have your message for Romanian students about reading, literature and their contribution to one’s success in life.

C.M.: I’d like to say to Romanian students that reading—literature and the arts in general—stimulates their imagination in a way that few other activities ever will. All of the media that entertains them–youtube, TV, movies, videogames—will never rival books in engaging their imagination. The more realist the media—such as movies—the less work our own minds do to process the information; to interpret it. In reading books we not only learn about the subjects they depict, we help create them. We imagine them with our mind’s eyes. In being readers, we are therefore also co-writers in some way. And that experience is unique, valuable and timeless, no matter how much the future of publishing will change.

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Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portrait of the Communist Era

a)    Thank God for Cannes!

In an interview with Domenico La Porta given on May 19, 2012, Cristian Mungiu, winner of the Palme D’Or for feature film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for his movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, explains the reason why his movies are more popular abroad than in his native country, Romania: “Our industry’s problem is not funding, it’s cultural. Films that are not entertainment are not popular in Romania. This is why we receive less money from the state for arthouse films, and why I had to look for international funding. My film will be seen much more abroad than it will be at home. That’s just how it is. We have to hold on and continue to produce good quality films also aimed at the Romanian people.”

This problem, unfortunately, is global.  In popular culture, it’s easy to make fun of Cannes and the movies it features, awards and promotes. Often described as political, boring and pretentious in its consecration of avant-garde cinema, the Cannes Film Festival is very prestigious (with movie critics and directors) yet… oddly unpopular with the general public. There’s even a (pretty good) joke about it in Romania that one of the movies that received an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 was shot by accident on surveillance cameras. And yet… let’s turn it around. Take a moment to imagine how much easier it would be to make fun of today’s popular Hollywood movies! Formulaic plots, broomstick, one-dimensional characterizations, weak acting, lots of special effects as a distraction for lack of substance: for the most part, these are the movies that draw the public make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, internationally.

Frankly, I can’t understand how viewers manage to stay awake, much less laugh, during yet another formulaic romantic comedy about one-night stands becoming love of one’s life; another Las Vegas vacation gone wrong; or another “friends with benefits” scenario that ends up, predictably, becoming a hot and heavy, meaningful romance. In its prejudicial preference for hyper-promoted, over-funded and, frankly, silly films as “real entertainment,” the general public risks missing out on well-acted, beautifully shot, and incredibly moving and entertaining movies, made both by independent and by some Hollywood filmmakers.

b)  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portait of the Communist Era

In the same interview I cited above, with Domenico La Porta, Cristian Mungiu discusses his recent movie, Beyond the Hills (which won an award for “best screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival 2012, and for which the leading actresses, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, shared the “best actress” award). Mungiu states that his movies are not intended to be portraits of an era. He states that Beyond the Hills in particular doesn’t make any general comments against religion: “There is no generalization, and I’m not describing Romanian society through this little community. A film is not able to be all-encompassing.” I would beg to differ with the last statement. I find  that the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days–which, along with The Lives of Others (2006) is one of my favorite movies–is an accurate and sweeping portrait of the drab and repressive communist era. In fact, I remember thinking of Mungiu’s movie and of The Lives of Others as I was writing my novel about the communist epoch under Ceausescu, Velvet Totalitarianism (translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche 2011). These two  movies showed me that you don’t have to try to describe all aspects of a society or of a historical period to offer a sweeping portrayal of that epoch.

In fact, it can be much more effective to show compellingly and in-depth a slice of life, as Mungiu does in  4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, that offers viewers (or readers) a glimpse upon the vaster forces—of repression and corruption—that governed society and culture in Ceausescu’s Romania. A. O. Scott from The New York Times declared this movie the “number one film of the year”. The high praise is well-deserved. The movie describes how two close friends—Otilia, played by Anamaria Marinca, and Gabita Dragut, played by Laura Vasiliu, cope with the practical and moral difficulties of one of them getting an abortion during the 1980’s. This is not an easy decision, morally or practically, given the fact that birth control and abortion are outlawed at this time in Romania and those who violate the law risk facing severe penalties. I’d like to offer a little background into the period, which the movie captures so well.

c) “Pronatalist” Policies in Communist Romania

From the beginning, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s tyrannical communist dictaor, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.

The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. As Mungiu’s movie illustrates as well, doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.

d) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Compelling characterizations and stunning cinematography

So what did women do when they got pregnant and did not want to raise children in such dire conditions? They often made the difficult choice that Gabriela Dragut was forced to make in the movie 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days: getting an illegal abortion. This choice carried with it two inherent risks. First, there was the obvious one of violating the law and getting caught, which could result in loss of job and status and even long jail sentences.  But as the movie illustrates, there was an even greater danger of falling into the hands of those who habitually violate laws: unscrupulous sociopathic predators. This is precisely what Gabriela and Otilia encounter in the man they desperately appeal to for help: the illegal abortionist that goes by the name of “Mr. Bebe”. From the beginning, we get the sense that there’s something not quite right, psychologically, with Mr. Bebe. He takes charge of every situation and appears as a bully even when he doesn’t raise his voice. He’s also exceedingly controlling. For instance, he forbids his own mother from exiting the apartment to buy sugar. We know that’s a red flag, since sociopaths foster isolation and minutely control their victims.

Taking charge of the two young women as soon as he finds himself alone in the hotel room with them, he bullies them into accepting to sleep with him. Typical of a sociopath, he presents this act of rape as a moral highground. Turning the tables on them, Mr. Bebe makes them feel immoral and cheap. He screams at them that that he’s not a beggar and that he’s not going to perform an illegal action which may result in the loss of his freedom for a mere 3000 lei, the amount of money the girls were able to scrounge up to pay for the illegal abortion.  Not seeing any way out, the young women agree to his price, which emotionally is far heavier than they had anticipated. While they are very traumatized by this experience of prostituting themselves for an abortion, Mr. Bebe takes it all in stride. After he sleeps with them, he even begins to address them in a familiar and friendly fashion, as if nothing happened. The sociopath’s shallow emotions contrasts sharply with the emotionally charged, devastated response of the two young women.

The movie captures the darkness of the communist era not just in its compelling characterizations and realistic plot, but also in its spectacular cinematography. Almost every shot is gray or dark, with the exception of the clinical, white images of the medical scenes. Otilia is usually shot from the back, to suggest that she lacks agency when the choices she is forced to make are so limited and abject. After Mr. Bebe leaves their hotel room, the two young women ruminate about the situation, going over their mistakes and what they could have done differently to avoid the deep humiliation they just endured. Otilia blames her friend for getting her into such a difficult and dreadful situation, almost shifting the blame from the sociopathic predator beyond her control to her sweet, helpless and passive friend Gabita, who is a fellow victim. Yet their situation is symptomatic of what practically every Romanian citizen endured at the time in many life decisions: a severe limitation of one’s freedom, of one’s choices and the repeated violation of one’s moral and emotional boundaries. When most normal aspects of human life are forbidden, as they were during Ceausescu’s repressive regime, one is forced to take drastic—and often illegal—measures, which are often the domain of the most unscrupulous and usurious people on earth: of sociopaths like Domnu Bebe.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has skilled and stunning cinematography appropriate to the subject and period it depicts; historical accuracy; realistic and moving characterizations; wonderful acting and above all great directing. If this is not  real entertainment—from which viewers will also learn something about history and about human nature—then I don’t know what is! Before Hollywood embarks on yet another predictable romantic comedy or cartoonish action movie, I think it should take a few notes from Cannes.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Why Writers Write: Common Myths about being a Writer

The Seducer by Claudia Moscovici

In my career as a writer–of both fiction and literary/art criticism–I have encountered many myths about why writers write. Some of them I even believed myself when I was younger. It is tempting and glamorous to believe that writing is a profession that brings with it fame and fortune. In fact, the Romantic movement disseminated such a myth, presenting the writer as a free spirit that achieves greatness and immortality via his art or fiction. The reality of being a writer is, in most cases, very different and therefore so are the main motivations of contemporary authors. I’d like to describe some of those motivations by going over a few common misconceptions about writing.

Myth 1. Writing is a profession.  It’s true that full-time writing takes as much time as any profession does. Moreover, writers seldom take breaks or vacations from writing. It is often an all-consuming enterprise. Ideas and inspiration don’t have a set schedule, even if the writer is very disciplined and writes regularly. Furthermore, a profession implies a more or less steady salary. However, few writers receive a steady income–enough to support themselves and their families–by writing. So, in that sense, writing is not a profession, at least not in the conventional sense of the term. It’s more of an all-consuming passion and a way of life in which the monetary rewards are uneven and uncertain. In the United States, where I live and publish, writers receive about 5 to 10 percent royalties from the profits made by their books. The percentage depends upon how many copies of their books are sold, how much they cost, and what kind of contract their literary agent (or they, themselves) have negotiated with the publisher. Generally speaking, the more books they sell the larger the author’s royalties, but it seldom exceeds 10 percent.  Needless to say, unless your books sell as well as the Harry Potter or Twilight series—and sell movie rights on top of book sales—it’s difficult to imagine making a steady income for an entire family just by writing and publishing books.

Myth 2. Writers want to be famous. As they say here, good luck with that! As far as popular culture is concerned, you have much better chances of becoming famous if you’re an actor or pop star. We can take the Harry Potter series as an example, since it’s so well known internationally. The principal actors of the films—Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson—are far better known than the author of the series, J. K. Rowling, who is nonetheless one of the best known contemporary authors. Generally speaking, far more people would recognize in the street the actors as opposed to the authors of very successful books that have been made into movies. So if you want fame or external recognition, it’s best that you select a profession that is more visible in mainstream culture, such as singing or acting. 

Myth 3. Writers want immortality. This is a very tempting Romantic thought for anyone who aspires to achieve greatness. But most professional writers are quickly disabused of this notion. “Immortality” is not a pure Romantic ideal; it’s more of a political and pragmatic reality. It depends upon the processes of cultural consecration. One of the best authors I have read on this subject is Pierre Bourdieu. His books, The Field of Cultural Production: Essays on Art and Literature and Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, explain all the politics and social hierarchies involved in making it into the canon, be it in art, music or literature. Attaining this kind of artistic “immortality”—which is so human and ephemeral after all—depends upon a very complex and heavily politicized process that does not favor most authors or lie within their (or their publisher’s) control.

Myth 4. It’s easy to publish. That depends on the avenue of publishing you try. Self-publishing is easy, since now anyone can print their e-books on Amazon Kindle. But the problem with that is that there are so many books out there that it’s tough to reach an audience. If you select this path, you won’t have the promotion or distribution budget that the major publishing houses have at their disposal.  And if you want to publish with a large publishing house, at least in the U.S., then you have to go through the usually challenging process of finding a reputable literary agent who is able to place your book.  A few years ago, I had the opportunity to have an inside peek at this process. When I was teaching at the University of Michigan, I organized a few panel discussions at the Ann Arbor Book Festival (in 2005, 2006 and 2007). In 2007, Amy Williams, who is Elizabeth Kostova’s literary agent, and Susan Golomb, Jonathan Franzen’s agent were two of the guest speakers in these panels. They discussed, among other things, the publishing process, explaining that they receive as many as 100 to 200 submissions a day from authors seeking representation. This deluge of queries is colloquially called “the slush pile”. Like most very successful agents, they usually sift through the queries and focus mostly on submissions by successful authors they know of or authors recommended by successful authors they know. Only rarely do they find in the slush pile unknown and unrecommended authors they wish to represent, and even in those cases, they are usually students at very reputable M.F.A. programs or have published with important magazines or literary reviews.

So if writing is not a great way to become famous, immortal or even earn a steady income, then why do so many of us want to become writers? I certainly can’t speak for everyone, but I can say that my main motivation for writing has been intellectual and artistic freedom. It’s something that many artists and writers prize dearly. There are few human endeavors as closely tied to freedom as writing. Here’s why.

a)   First of all, a writer can’t really thrive without living in a country that respects and protects the freedom of speech. Granted, great writers emerged even during the worst totalitarian regimes. Maxim Gorky, the most prominent writer during the Stalinist era, is a prime example. But even he had to compromise his creativity and abide by the motto coined by Yury Olesha and paraphrased by Stalin himself: “The Production of souls is more important than the production of tanks. And therefore I raise my glass to you, writers, the engineers of the human soul” (Joseph Stalin, “Speech at home of Maxim Gorky,” 26 October 1932). This subordination of art and literature to ideology is one of the saddest thing a culture can do human creativity. It is an engineering of a state of soullessness rather than of the human soul. Writing and the freedom of expression are closely intertwined.

b)    It is difficult to write as told. The creative process—particularly for writing fiction–is delicate, quirky and individual. Writers write not only in different genres, but also at different speeds; at their own pace. Some take a lifetime to write their masterpiece; others, like Balzac, write a novel a year. Some require daily discipline; others write in periodic spurts of inspiration.  Nothing and nobody can dictate, from the outside, how writers should write. I know this is part of why I preferred being a writer to being an academic. Academic writing is constrained by area of specialization and technical jargon. Fiction is constrained by nothing. Only your capacities and imagination are the limit. “Everything you can imagine is real,” said Picasso. How true!

c)  Your creativity is your only real guide. As a writer, you generally have to have in mind a target audience as well as what publishers can sell, to market your book. However, these are very abstract parameters. Nobody can really predict the public taste: not writers, not literary agents, not publishers. For publishers and literary agents, publishing success is like a very well informed gamble. Well informed because they study the market closely and have an intuitive understanding of what sells well. But nobody can predict the next best seller with a high degree of accuracy. That’s why literary agents represent between 100 and 200 authors and why the big, mainstream publishers in the U.S. publish about 200 to 300 books a year. Some of them are with established, brand name authors that are sure to sell well, but many of the new authors have only moderate success. Nobody could have predicted in advance, for instance, that a book of erotic fiction like Fifty Shades of Grey—a genre usually relegated to small, specialized erotica presses and that hasn’t been so wildly popular since Marquis de Sade made a splash in the eighteenth-century—would be this year’s best-seller. Go figure! For writers, agents and publishers alike, public taste is a wild card. You can aim to please a large mainstream audience, but your aim may or may not hit the target.

d)   Writing is a celebration of freedom. This is a personal reason. It may not be applicable to all authors, but it was my main motivation for writing fiction. I left Romania as a child, while the country was still in the throes of the worst phase of Ceausescu’s repression. The communist regime had clamped down on the Iron Curtain, instituting increasingly stifling and repressive measures. I wrote my first novel, Velvet Totalitarianism, translated by Mihnea Gafita into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi (Curtea Veche Publishing, 2011), in order to record palpably, through fiction, a very challenging historical period in Romanian history. I hoped that those of us who lived through it would remember it and that the new generations would learn about it. It’s important to keep in mind the communist past because it’s so easy to repeat it. Not necessarily in the same way, but through supporting similar forms of political repression or corruption that risk depriving us of the basic human rights and freedoms that make not only writing, but also living possible.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

(Note: This essay was originally published in Romanian translation, in Orizonturi Cultuale, on the following link: http://www.orizonturiculturale.ro/ro_proza_Claudia-Moscovici.html)

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Filed under book review, Claudia Moscovici, contemporary fiction, fiction, Intre Doua Lumi, literary criticism, literary fiction, literature, literature salon, literaturesalon, myths about writers, on being a writer, publishing, The Seducer, Velvet Totalitarianism, why writers write, Why Writers Write: Common Myths about being a Writer