“House of Gucci”: Opera in Film Form

There are certainly several mixed reviews and criticisms about Ridley Scott’s latest film, “House of Gucci,” which chronicles the life of Patrizia Reggiani, a working-class social climber who marries into the Gucci family, helps build the company, and then orders the murder of her husband Maurizio. The Gucci family has shunned the film, saying they were not consulted, and that the portrayals are inaccurate. Former Gucci designer Tom Ford has admitted to laughing at the film and has criticized its inauthenticity. However, taken at face value, the film is a fantastic, epic piece of entertainment that does everything a good film should (admittedly, with some problems with the Italian accents.

To begin with, Lady Gaga is terrific as Patrizia Gucci. She is not just an American actress speaking with an Italian accent: as a fluent speaker of Italian who has spent time in Italy and who has many Italian friends, I can confirm that she speaks English like an Italian. Her inflections, mannerisms, and personality as a scrappy go-getter are spot-on. The emotional continuity in her performance never wavers, and it builds in intensity –Ridley Scott has gotten an excellent performance out of her. She carries most of the film and has a natural strength on camera. I am not a fan of her as a musician, as I find most of what she does is very derivative and not original (legend Grace Jones has said the same thing in not so many words). But as an interpreter of others’ works when guided, she is excellent. Al Pacino as Uncle Aldo steals any scene he is in; with his gravitas and gravelly voice, he has presence with a capital P. Jared Leto’s performance over the top, campy, expressively Italian, and exaggerated, as is fitting for an eccentric family member. Unfortunately, Adam Driver’s inability to grasp a convincing Italian accent diminishes his dramatic abilities, as he is otherwise credible as the meek, non-confrontational Maurizio. Overall, the acting is very strong, as the cast is full of Oscar winners and industry heavyweights. They play off each other beautifully, with every character somehow enmeshed in another character’s life. They are a family, and with family come all the ups and downs we expect.

In addition to the accents, one of the great criticisms of the film is that it is melodramatic, campy, factually inaccurate. To which I say, yes. But that is what we want, because we want entertainment on a grand scale. The tone and scope of this film is operatic; that is, it is grand, visual, visceral, and emotional. Every turn provides intrigue. Just like in great opera such as Don Giovanni, we have love, sex, lust, revenge, plotting, jealousy, and ultimately murder. What’s wrong if Paolo Gucci is flamboyant in velvet suits, emoting at every turn? If Aldo Gucci is mafioso in manner? And if Patrizia is a great schemer like Lady Macbeth or murderess like Lucia di Lammermoor?

Like a grand opera, we expect great sets and costumes, and the film never fails to deliver on that front. We see palazzi, penthouses, fancy cars, and sophisticated settings. The clothes, by Gucci, of course, are a parade of good design and collectible dresses and suits and shoes. These things are crucial to the plot and not merely eye-candy, for the business of the characters is image and object. The Guccis trade in the visual, and so the film must reflect that, form following content. 

Finally, music is an integral part of this film. There are, of course, many arias and opera extracts throughout the film (especially Rossini), but also pop and disco from the 70s and 80s. Granted, some of the song choices are asynchronous; they are not from the particular time period shown on screen. But all the music choices serve to heighten the emotion of the film, giving it more glamour and creating more of the cultural atmosphere.

We don’t often get a film that is well-crafted and well-acted, and is trying to accomplish one goal: pure entertainment. “House of Gucci” succeeds beautifully, even with its flaws.

“Spencer” Film: Royally Bad

Not having really enjoyed other films by Pablo Larraín, and despite mixed reviews, I still saw the latest work by the Chilean filmmaker, “Spencer.” I will freely confess that one of my hobbies is royal watching, and I hugely admired Princess Diana. My initial hesitation was about Kristen Stewart playing the role of the beloved icon, but the greater faults lay with other things. It is truly a horrid work, even for die-hard (Di-hard?) fans.

Music can, in a very subtle way, really enhance or detract from a film, contribute to the atmosphere or character. In this case, it is simply grating. The film begins with classical music as Diana is driving to Sandringham House, and it morphs into discordant string music and then jazz that goes on interminably, presumably to represent the madness in her head. Anytime Diana has an “episode” with bulimia, we get the music, like a bad migraine before one vomits.

The tone of the film is grim. It could have worked, given that the subject matter is not jovial: this is Diana’s last Christmas with the royal family at Sandringham before the divorce, and she is on the verge of a mental breakdown. However, Larraín hits the viewer over the head with this, as if to constantly say “This Is a Serious Film.” (I have a similar feeling about “The Crown”—while definitely more enjoyable than “Spencer,” it constantly tries to remind viewers that it is Serious with a capital S.) Larraín makes terrible directorial choices, such as too many extreme close-ups, blurring out the other characters but keeping only Diana in focus, directing Kristen Stewart in a very one-dimensional way where she is only portrayed as unhappy, and showing only the scenes where Diana is suffering (with only a couple of exceptions).

And that brings me to the next problem: the script is terrible. Another woman from my social group with whom I went to see the movie said it was one of the worst scripts she has ever heard. The dialogue is simplistic and silly, rehashes what we already know or expect happened during Diana’s unhappy times. We know she was bulimic; do we have to see every instance of her vomiting, the gooey strings of gastric fluids dripping out of her mouth into the toilet? Do we have to hear her argue over and over about the order of dresses she is expected to wear during the day?

Scenes with other members of the royal family are kept to a minimum or eliminated; we don’t see how others treat her during meals, during the opening of Christmas presents, etc. All we see are Diana’s reactions, and they seem to be in a vacuum, with no clear cause. The overall problem is that the portrayal of Diana is unsympathetic–we wonder why the screenwriter chose to only show her tantrums and tears or her episodes that are leading toward a mental breakdown, therefore creating a portrait of a Diana who was mentally unstable and badly behaved, rather than the victim of an unsympathetic, bullying, gaslighting family and royal system that caused her to be depressed and cope in unhealthy ways. Why screenwriter Steven Knight made the choices he did is simply baffling. He tries to be profound with the symbolism of her father’s jacket, appearances from the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and the visit to her childhood home, Park House, but these fail, because they are not integrated into the script and feel like non-sequiturs that are tacked on. This is not to say that any biopic must be completely realistic or accurate; one good example is “Rocketman,” where the film functions on a metaphor of Elton John dressed as a devil in rehab. It can be a very good thing, aesthetically speaking, when a director and writer take a particular angle on a well-known figure if done well.

Kristen Stewart as the late Diana Spencer/Princess of Wales gives a much better performance than I expected. She physically embodies the character, with her elegance and royal gravitas, and the costume designers chose the appropriate wardrobe for the character. Stewart truly captures the melancholy and internal turmoil of Diana: we believe her as a fragile, broken, and suspicious woman who is so vulnerable and desperate for love. As above, it is unfortunate that the director only chose to show her in these negative states, except for when she is with her children. Even when talking to the staff, Diana has no composure, whereas by all accounts in real life she was always charming and warm with staff and the public, even when depressed. We only see one side of Diana, which was certainly the intention, but it makes for a poor film–Stewart’s talents are wasted.

The art direction and production design are beautiful, as one might expect from a film featuring palaces and stately homes. All the other characters are beautifully clad and the actors believable. Their talents are also wasted in this film, for they could have contributed so much more. 

Fans of Princess Diana would be better off saving their $8/$10/$15 and watching a good documentary about her on YouTube or PeopleTV instead. 

Do Make a Spectacle!

Yesterday, I attended a (masked) symphony Halloween concert where all the musicians dressed in costumes. Some of them were group costumes (such as the double basses who were nuns or the trumpets who were cleverly gender-reversed: four men were Playboy bunnies, and the woman was Hugh Hefner, complete with burgundy robe!) The different conductors wore garb related to the pieces they were conducting (such as many scarves for conducting “The Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salomé), and the audience was also encouraged to dress up as well. 

Each section of instruments took their turn displaying their costumes on stage before settling into their seats, giving the audience a chance to enjoy what they were wearing. The orchestra members played their instruments in the aisles, providing background music. The house lights were bright in the beautiful, historic auditorium where the concert was held.

It made me think–what is it about a grand event like this that is so fulfilling to people?

We human beings need pageantry and spectacle. We need something out of the ordinary, and there is nothing quite like costume to lift us out of our ordinary lives. We need things that are larger than life, not only figuratively but literally, to be in spaces that are not small. We need sound, light, and color to transport us into another world. In other words, we need things that are not human-scaled.

Drama has been around since the early days of humans. So has music. Most of the world’s religious traditions build massive houses of worship, decorated with jewels, gold leaf, stained glass, stone carvings, bright colors, and dress the deities in the finest fabrics. We pay exorbitant sums of money to attend rock concerts in arenas with gigantic screens and light shows, or Broadway musicals with stunning revolving sets. Royalty built edifices that corresponded with their rank: consider a baron’s humble country mansion with an imperial palace.

Even a walk through a Halloween store where they sell all kinds of accoutrements for creating a costume and interesting objects like motorized demons that pop out at you is a delight, a pleasure to see the sheer array of possibilities and imagination. It’s true that Halloween has become grossly commercialized; however, that does not take away the joy of walking through a store where the whole point is to celebrate the fantastical and spectacular.

It is interesting to think that while screens have gotten smaller and smaller and fit on a smart phone, televisions have gotten bigger and bigger: one can have a “home theater” in one’s house with the screen that approaches something in a small movie theater. This only affirms our love of seeing large images. Outside the home, we enjoy going to IMAX movies, because we get a more palpable sense of what it’s like to be on a rocket or seeing dinosaurs at what would have been their approximate size.

After nearly 2 years of living with a pandemic, and being cooped up for most of it, stuck in our own little lives and spaces (even those who live in mansions), there is something so soul-soothing about going into a big space and seeing big images, something that transcends our quotidian world. Here’s to the human phenomenon of the spectacle.

Women and Money: Breaking the Stigmas and Fear

We talk a lot about various aspects of feminism, such as reproductive rights, workplace equality, childcare, even dissect words when it comes to gender. But there is one area that we don’t talk about enough: how women manage money. In the recent decade, we have seen an explosion of great podcasts and programs by women on financial wellness, while we have been guided by financial guru Suze Orman for decades. More women have been getting into positions of power that naturally entail astronomical salaries. This is all good news and shows that women are moving in the right direction. I still believe, however, that women don’t talk enough about managing money, and even high earners are not always aware of how to invest and take care of their assets, often leaving it to their husbands, their 401(k)s, or simply neglecting it beyond putting it in a bank. Why is this? 

Fundamentally, our financial system in America was developed by men, and a certain type of man at that: upper-class, white, from the Northeast, likely the scion of a wealthy family. As America developed into an industrial society with largely unchecked, rampant capitalism, these men became very wealthy, while the rest of Americans earned what they did and kept their money in a bank. Women often managed the domestic economy, taking care of the finances at home. Those whose husbands had died or left them had to understand how to navigate a very male world. There were a few women who were involved with investing and finance (the subject is too detailed to go into in this post), and their contributions were significant. Unfortunately, these women were few and far between, and did not represent the majority. The way for women to be wealthy was to marry into wealth, or to come from wealth.  There is nothing wrong with this in theory; the problem has been that women have not often gotten enough education about how money works even when provided for. 

With the rise of credit cards in the 1950s and the subsequent decades, women became excluded from this area of personal finance in that a woman could not apply for her own credit card–only through her husband. Thankfully in 1974, the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed women to get their own credit cards. Through the 70s and 80s, women came into lucrative professional careers, and began to take an interest in their personal finances, even when married. Some women chose to keep separate bank accounts from their husbands, and even do so today. 

The question is, with women in so many professional careers making a lot of money (and sometimes being the breadwinners), why don’t enough women understand how to invest or even discuss money with their friends? I believe there is a good deal of fear about investing and still a bit of a stigma for women to talk about how much they enjoy money (other than spending it). We have a shameful gender pay gap, and women still hesitate to ask for pay raises or higher salaries, whereas men have no problem with this. A woman can be regarded as “too manly” or even “a bitch” if she speaks up about money. Very rarely in social settings do we hear men listen to women give financial advice. It is sad that money is regarded as a very masculine arena, though many women have been proving this wrong for decades.

Women need to become empowered to learn about personal finance and investing. They need to see it is something that they can do, even if they are “bad at math” (again, an area that is regarded as male-dominated). The data shows that women make better investors and are extremely shrewd when it comes to dealing with personal finance. And yet our media rarely highlights this; yes, we get Suze Orman and Martha Stewart, or TV hosts like Maria Bartiromo, but we never see women trading stock tips over martinis on a TV show. More fathers need to educate their daughters about investing, and if they themselves are not familiar with the topic, they should also learn.  

It would be wrong to say that our extreme capitalistic financial system excludes only women, because there are many men, especially those of lower classes, who are excluded as well.  Those who control our financial system take advantage of the lower classes on both the right and the left; unfortunately, the right-wingers scapegoat the left, immigrants, and minorities.  Many minority groups, such as African-Americans, are largely excluded from our financial system and it has statistically been proven that they have a harder time getting credit cards and have lower credit scores, which make it harder to buy a home. 

We need to educate women, lower income men, and minorities on how our financial system works and how to thrive within it. There is no question of the intersection between race and class and gender when it comes to money in America. As I’ve often said, the big elephant in the American room is *class*.  Learning how to manage one’s finances is a great way to effect class mobility and be more informed to have necessary discussions about money in our American lives, and to make structural changes toward greater equality. And ladies, don’t wait till a divorce, split, or widowhood to learn about investing and money management!

The “Bad Art Friend” Controversy: My Two Cents

I am not qualified- or knowledgeable enough to truly comment on the recent “Bad Art Friend” controversy written about in the New York Times involving Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. (Sonya Larson was in the same MFA program I was in, Warren Wilson, and one semester we even had the same advisor. We had also corresponded about a panel discussion at an alumni conference on questions of representation and non-white writers.) But I can comment on the issues that are raised, such as about using materials for details from another’s life.

Writers are observers; we are always taking in the events and circumstances around us, however consciously or unconsciously. This is inevitable. I believe also that writers should be able to write about characters from backgrounds different from their own. This needs to be done respectfully and complexly, of course. But fiction is fiction because it is not autobiographical. For many of us, our characters are composites with elements of people we have encountered as well as figments of our imagination. 

However, there are always the issues of a) direct quotation, a.k.a. plagiarism, of what somebody else has written are said and b) good boundaries and taste. The former is easier to criticize and go after; the latter is something much harder to teach and for many people to learn. In this era of social media, people very frequently have bad boundaries and there has been a decline in empathy and emotional intelligence that has been quantitatively measured by social science researchers over the decades.

Here is one good solution–imagination. A writer who is grounded in craft and who understands how to write dialogue can come up with good fiction that draws on one’s experiences and knowledge filtered through technique. I liken it to method acting, where an actor or actress brings their emotional memory to the character they are playing. You might use the feelings from a bad breakup to play Ophelia or frustrations with your man to play Maggie in “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” but you are ultimately always playing Ophelia or Maggie, not yourself. If writers think about the audiences they are writing to, and not just about expressing their own feelings, this might make them more conscientious and aware of how their work will be perceived. Telling a good story is a skill that is underrated in literary fiction, in my opinion.

One of the common phenomena in writing workshops is the prevalence of autofiction and writing about oneself. This is one easy way to circumvent the issue of writing about others. It reminds me of a saying that goes something like, “The good thing about egoists is that they never gossip about others!”

Social media is something I find frightening and disturbing. People use it as a means to publicly humiliate others. There are numerous examples I could cite, such as one student haranguing another student for having posted questions three times on their graduate program’s Facebook website, telling them to ask the director of the program instead.

Writing programs can often have cliques, different factions, and (sorry to say) emotionally unstable people who will gossip behind people’s back and do hurtful things. There are problems with both racism/racial insensitivity and people playing the race card unnecessarily and inappropriately. Many writers are extremely thin-skinned, and some can be jealous. Being a writer is an isolating thing, so when writers get together, they want to feel connected to others, and sometimes this ends up in creating in-groups and therefore ostracism. There is the common stressor of schoolwork and an advisor’s expectations. Out in the real world, this translates into deadlines, editorial decisions, and dealing with notorious characters.

All of this can make a writer feel like one should lock oneself in a room and write, not deal with others at all. Some writers choose to do this, and it is easy to see why.

At its core, the joy of being a writer is about being able to translate what one hears, thinks, sees, imagines in one’s head into words. It is a solitary process, but it does not have to be lonely. Not everything is a Dorland versus Larson. Supportive writers will bolster you, give you constructive criticism about your craft, encourage you when your energy is flagging, and congratulate you when you have published something or have completed a work. It can take little effort to find these people, but they are out there. 

Ted Lasso: Even If You Don’t Like Soccer!

I had heard so much about the Apple TV series “Ted Lasso.” The promo image of the Ned Flanders-esque face did very little to pique my curiosity, though I learned that it had recently won Emmys. I happen to have a free subscription to Apple TV and had seen it listed among the programs. Waylaid with a bad headache, I decided to give it a go, and I was simply blown away by it. And I am not even a fan at all of soccer (“football” as they call it in England and overseas)! The show is truly well done on so many fronts that it continues to amaze me, halfway through the first season. These are the things that make it such a delight to watch, from an artistic standpoint.

First, it is not a show about soccer. The English Richmond football team (called “AFC. Richmond”) is indeed the key player–pardon the pun–in the show, but the show is about the characters, rather than the game. “Ted Lasso” shows us a good example about how to tell a story about a very specific subject that people might not be familiar with or interested in: make it relevant and about the people. This show could have worked if Ted were trying to take over a bakery, an orchestra, or a corporation. There is enough commonality and universality in the situations in each episode that the viewer is engaged. 

Second, the premise is absolutely engaging: a second-tier American football coach (Jason Sudeikis) is hired to coach an ailing English football team by a bitter ex-wife of the former owner (Hannah Waddingham), precisely because she wants the new coach to run the team into the ground. So, it makes for fertile comedic ground. There are endless cultural clashes, strong personalities, and interesting situations for the characters to work themselves out of. The show also highlights class differences in a very subtle way, with the flashy, lowbrow Keeley (Juno Temple) who is a very streetwise, emotionally-intelligent foil to the upper class, repressed Rebecca, who are so archetypally British, contrasting with the archetypally American egalitarian, optimist Ted.  The show also pokes fun at British class differences and life to a T.

Third, “Ted Lasso” is a perfect mix of comedy and tragedy. As the series progresses, we get moments of deep tenderness and sadness, as both Ted and Rebecca are recently split from their spouses. We see Ted’s unfailing optimism start to show cracks as he is served divorce papers. We learn that Rebecca was once a very fun-loving, vibrant woman who has lost her sense of self, as she was under the thumb of her tycoon ex-husband when they were married. Ted is far away from his beloved son, Jamie is coming to terms with his arrogance, given his hardscrabble background, and Roy is aware of every athlete’s nightmare: the effects of age on one’s performance. Nate, the trusty assistant and go-fer, is bullied by team members, and yet he is able to fight back and analyze each team member’s performance, telling them to their faces what they need to do to improve their game. He is given this chance by Ted.

Fourth, Ted is an optimist whose subconscious motto seems to be “kill them with kindness.” And that is what makes it such a feel-good show. We see, in each situation, the triumph of goodness and morality over ego and depravity, or at least the attempts to act with integrity. That is a uniquely American quality, and Ted is the metaphor for it. The positive athletic coach who wants people to be their best is an important figure, as that person has to be aware of each person’s strengths and weaknesses and know how to articulate them. This could potentially be very corny and maudlin; however, the use of comedy and even poking fun at Ted’s cheerfulness through the lens of British grumpiness, and the reality of difficult situations under the sunny surface make the execution strong and enjoyable.

Finally, for any women having doubts about watching the series because of it being a “jock show” about men and football and coaching, the women hold equal weight and airtime in the show. I would even argue that it is quite feminist, for the owner of the club is a woman, the female characters are all very empowered and pursuing their own goals, and they call out the men on their bad behavior. If you like the film “Bend it like Beckham,” you will certainly like this show. The cast is rightly diverse, people from all ethinic backgrounds, as is the case with much of England.

In all, “Ted Lasso” has been an exciting discovery, one of the best shows (along with “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”) that I have seen in a long time. Highly recommended!

Analysis for Synthesis

Last night I was speaking with an accomplished writer friend who teaches in a well-known low residency MFA program. She is a close friend, and we always like to talk about our experiences in studying writing and teaching.  I attended a low residency MFA program, Warren Wilson, where half (or more than half) of our work consisted of analytical writing. I told my friend that, though there was so much of this that sometimes it took away from time for writing fiction, nothing teaches a writer about craft better than analyzing the great masters. I mentioned that I learn best by doing, by writing and getting feedback from others and “tearing apart” fiction to see how it works. She immediately agreed. Her experience was studying in traditional, residential MFA programs, and now that she is in a low residency program that asks students to submit analytical work with every packet, she really admires this exercise in analysis. My friend said that she thinks it is a good way to learn craft that one eventually applies to one’s work.

At Warren Wilson, we called the analytical exercises “annotations,” which is really just a fancy word for craft essays. We had the freedom to choose a topic on the text we had been reading and write an approximately three-page essay. This taught me how to read for craft, how to read like a writer. What things jumped out at me from a particular story or [passage in] a novel? What was this “secret code” I had to crack to understand a particular writer’s skill? It became like a game, and I grew to enjoy it very much.

Here are some of the things I learned from my annotations. (Please DO NOT plagiarize this material or use it without direct permission from the author!)

-From Flannery O’Connor, I learned how dialogue works. It can serve to advance something with the plot or indicate something about the characters’ personalities. For example, in “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” I found that dialogue was deception. The characters were not saying what they meant, which was indicative of their dishonesty.

-Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift uses metaphors that anthropomorphize inanimate objects; this serves the key theme of the novel, which is that writing can bring to life that which is no longer living. Therefore, your craft and metaphors can affect the structure of your novel, the craft reflects the content.

-Shakespeare’s Othello shows how the careful choice of words (a.k.a. diction) spoken by Iago eventually linguistically poisons the title character, as Othello begins to repeat his words and believe the negative lies. We can find passages of dialogue repeated word for word. This is how Iago gains control over the situation, as we can see that he physically does very little (i.e., does not commit murder, stage a coup, etc.) So, a story or piece of fiction can be quite active even with very few actions taken. Shakespeare is always known for beautiful language, as is Toni Morrison, a modern master of diction.

-A “hologram” chapter. When I had to write a long paper discussing omniscience in two works (Pride and Prejudice and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye), I noticed that both novels had something in common: a chapter that seemed to summarize all the key themes and events that would unfold in the novel, with key characters present. This chapter laid the groundwork for the whole book, setting up a reader’s expectations. When I discovered this, I thought it a brilliant structural device and was surprised at how these two very disparate authors were doing the same thing.

-Metafiction is more than a quirky, clever literary genre. If we look at Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed, it is a story within a story, about a director who has suffered a situation similar to the protagonist of The Tempest is putting on the play at a prison. It is self-referential, it calls attention to itself in a very enjoyable, even comic way. However, in doing this, we better understand the masterwork by Shakespeare, what sorts of choices a director needs to make when putting all the work, what the play is really about, and (in a retelling as this) what choices the author needs to make in terms of retaining elements from the original.

Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” is a masterpiece of metafiction. On the surface, it is incredibly funny, a “theme-and-variations” gem that shows us how a woman and a man fall in love and how their story can play out comically, tragically, or something in between. But if we look deeper, Atwood is teaching us about plot points, what happens with the same cast of characters when put in different situations and environments. How do we get from point A to point B? How do we create a plot? She asks us at the end, as readers and writers, to “Now try How and Why.” This is one of my absolute favorite stories of all time, and it accomplishes so much in a short space.

These are just a scant few of the things I learned in analyzing fiction. One thing my MFA program taught me was how to be a better reader, and this helps with my own work as well as when I read the work of others. I can’t emphasize enough how critical this is for any writer, this process of deeply investigating how a well-established author is crafting their work. Give it a try, even if it seems daunting, and you might find that you have learned way more than you expected.

What I’ve Learned from Giving Feedback on Writing

So much of being a writer, or any artist, is about receiving feedback from others. One must have the humility to learn what is working and not working with one’s art. Perhaps your sound is not “in the mask” as an opera singer when you are going to a particular passage, or you have a character who is underdeveloped as a writer, or your lines are not in the right planes as a ballet dancer. Other people have eyes that you don’t have for yourself; therefore, it is imperative to understand how other people are perceiving your work.

There is the flip side, which is what one can learn by giving feedback. In seeing the flaws of others, one can learn things that do or don’t work in a piece. It is hard to make general rules out of these things, because critiquing each piece or work of art or performing artist is so individual and specific. However, these are some things I have learned as a writer over the years of giving feedback to my colleagues and peers, and this is by no means an exhaustive or complete summary

-Detail. Detail must serve the thrust of the story or the piece of writing. Too many extraneous details are the darlings that one has to kill, as per the proverbial writing adage. Are they helping build character or plot, setting the scene so the reader understands the world that the writer is building? Some writers want to include every bit of minutiae, and the reader who is giving feedback is probably crossing out large sections with their pen. This is a very common problem one sees in manuscripts, and it is understandable. Any writer wants to tell the reader about everything that is in their head and create that same richness on the page.

-Backstory. This is such a tricky one. The reader needs enough backstory to feel grounded and understand the context of characters. Novels, by nature of their longer form, allow for more backstory, but this is not to say that short stories don’t require this as well. One of the trickiest questions with backstory is placement, for the writer is in danger of an “information dump” where they spill all the information about a character or something from the past when only parts of it are relevant to the present action. Also quite challenging is how much should be told and how much should be shown; will pieces of the backstory be revealed as the novel or story unfolds, or will it be up to the reader to deduce what has happened? Not enough backstory makes a piece of writing seem superficial and too much in real time; too much makes the piece static. Conventions of writing have changed over the past couple of centuries, and nowadays, there is a favoring of not explaining all the information from the past.

-How much does the reader know about a particular context or group of people or type of person? A 20-something may not appreciate a historical novel and want the writer to use more current conventions or imagery, not understand why a woman had to get married by the time she was 20. Whereas a senior citizen who is reading a story by a Brooklyn hipster may not understand the reason for using the present tense and trendy vocabulary. This becomes even more serious when looking at matters of race and culture: many African-American (and other non-white) writers have lamented the fact that white critiquers do not understand the literary conventions which the writer is coming from and are stuck in Eurocentric notions of “good” writing. Also, for writers who have a foot in the door in cultures overseas and are writing about non-American culture, there is always the challenge of knowing how much to explain or define particular terms. Generally speaking, immediate, overt descriptions come across as clumsy–i.e., “she ate a gulab jamun, an Indian dessert of fried milk and flour balls soaked in a sugar syrup flavored with rose.” The issue of culture/ethnicity is highly charged, and up for much debate. There is a fine line between a reader’s insensitivity or ignorance and a BIPOC writer’s weak craft that needs to be corrected, and it can be very difficult to know where that line is.

-The “architecture” of a piece. This relates to plot and structure and how events and character development are unfolding. Maybe a story should begin two pages in from where it currently begins, or maybe on page 9, there is a great sentence that really sums up the theme of the story and should be put at the beginning. Do the events feel organic? Is there clear causation, because it may not be evident to us readers? Sometimes things have to be shuffled around for the story or novel to flow better. 

            From my own experience recently, feedback I got from my Bread Loaf workshop led by Charles Baxter made me realize that I had to stop rotating various points of view so quickly and stay in one point of view for a longer period. This led me to re-sequence the first few chapters, and now it flows much more smoothly. And conversely, a story I read last week did not clearly lay out the premise at the beginning, and so I encouraged the writer to choose a paragraph or line from several pages in to put at the beginning to make the story’s intentions clearer.

-Point of view. There are times when a manuscript is suffering because of the wrong choice of point of view. Or perhaps the point of view keeps shifting. is this writer really saying what they want to say through the point of view they have chosen, or are they being limited by it? One story I read recently abruptly shifted to a minor character’s point of view, when omniscience would have been a better choice to encompass the lead character as well as the supporting characters.

-Is this the right form or length? Sometimes a story is aching to become a novel, because there is so much richness in it and such a large time span that it needs the space. Sometimes a story should be cut, because there is too much extraneous detail, and it can say what it wants in a short space. And then there is also the situation where a story can be a story in its current version, but have different versions: a longer one, a shorter one, or eventually developed into a novel or novella! This was the case recently in a writing workshop, where a story was quite interesting as it was, but it felt like it could be an episode in a Bildungsroman about the lead character.

These are only a few of the myriad of things I have learned from writers’ workshops for over the years. Hopefully these musings will be of interest to other writers because it is all too easy to look at the polished work of renowned writers and admire what they have done, but we have to be aware of the steps in the process.

“Over-the-Top” Is Not a Bad Thing

(Let me begin by expressing gratitude to my readers, new and old–I thank you deeply for your support!)

In our Protestant-influenced American society, there is a great emphasis on modesty, propriety, and realism, even in our entertainment. We might dislike something because it is not realistic, because it is outsized or pushing the limits. However, one can argue that this makes for good art and humor. Playing it safe instead of taking risks can lead to boring outputs, and some might say it is better to go big or go home.

Some of the most wonderful works of art, in my book, are the ones that do just that–they go big or over-the-top. Well, not just a work of art but an entire genre: opera, even the more verismo works, is not meant to be real. It is exaggerated, grand, emotional, and most certainly not realistic. In what other art form, in the span of three hours, could there be blood, lust, murder, seduction, and trickery the way there is in Don Giovanni? Or what other kind of music could be as grandiose as a Rossini opera overture, complete with crescendo/accelerando, or a Wagner opera overture, scored for so many instruments that they make the floorboards thunder? In the world’s best theaters and stages, the productions are lavish, and you might get live animals, a car, dozens of dancers like the Radio City Rockettes or any other manner of showy set design–who wouldn’t absolutely love it? Old Hollywood gave us this abundance of performers on screen, such as with Busby Berkeley films or the splashing human mermaid Esther Williams.

But think of visual art as well. Picasso’s “Guernica” will leave a profound impression on the viewer when it is seen in his full, huge majesty, and the gory images recall the tragedy of war. You can walk through a Richard Serra sculpture in a museum, provided that the museum actually has enough space for it. Similarly, Frank Gehry and the late Zaha Hadid’s magnificent buildings are out of the ordinary, something futuristic that looks like it has arrived from another planet (think Gehry’s Walt Disney Concert Hall or Hadid’s Broad Art Museum at Michigan State University.)

Another area in which being over-the-top is welcome is in humor. Consider the 90s classic film “Election” starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick. At first, it looks like a simple, plausible tale of an ambitious, goody two shoes student running for student body president and a disgruntled teacher who wants to thwart her. But the stakes get upped as the satire unfolds: a brother steals a girl from his lesbian sister who decides to avenge him, the teacher cheats with his best friend’s wife, and more. The movie gets funnier and funnier as it becomes more unrestrained, and in the end, everyone gets their due. All of this suggests a particular artistic device that helps things become more bombastic, and that is caricature. Think of our love of cartoons, and how the characters can do things and be in situations that humans can’t. “The Simpsons” is a prime example, for everything is exaggerated, outlandish, and beyond normal. Finally, no discussion of over-the-top humor can be complete without a mention of the late genius Robin Williams. We loved him because he was like a human cartoon, full of funny voices, outrageous statements, and zany energy. There would have been no humor had he sat quietly, making modest observations about the human condition.

Certainly, there is always the risk of the over-the-top becoming grotesque or vulgar, unpalatable. Many people felt this way about Madonna when she arrived on the scene, decorated with O-ring bracelets and lace midriff crop tops, writhing and dancing and singing about her sex life. There is always going to be the question of taste, and people who do not like overly dramatic, exaggerated art. But when done well, great artists really have something to say when they do something out of the ordinary on a scale that is larger than normal.