Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thoughts on Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp

The prize bestowed on Dragon’s Ark notwithstanding, it’s been a bumpy ride for me for a while, the latest pothole being an attack of acute bronchitis (though it hardly seems cute to me) that often has me curled up in bed like Gregor Samsa in a hot skillet.

Nevertheless, the Editorial We must find a way to struggle on through miasma, typos and all, even if it’s only to offer my thoughts on a notable book I’ve recently read.

That book would be Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp, a Berkeley Emeritus in the Classics.

How I came to read this book is a little more convoluted than my energy reserves can handle right now, but I will say that I often think that if my life had been kinked slightly in one direction or another, I’d be a Ph.D history professor at some distinguished university—via Oxbridge of course—and writing excellent books like this one, books that open complicated history to a larger and curious audience and shine lights on areas that should be better known.

In this passionate, clear, and incisively written book, Professor Knapp sets out to show just how limited, and often distorted, our view of Ancient Rome is. I think he succeeds.

Nearly all our notions, all our imagery, all our sense of Ancient Rome come from an extremely narrow perspective, based on a limited number of surviving manuscripts, nearly all of which were written by members of the Roman elite—the wealthy, the powerful, the upper class.

(One exception: Aesop’s Fables do seem to have been written by a slave.  Other major shadows and hints emerge from numerous epitaphs and books such as Interpretation of Dreams and the Carmen Astrologicum; novels such as Petronius’s Satyricon and Apuleius’s The Golden Ass and the New Testament, especially the Four Gospels. The evidence is rarely direct, but when all these sources are drawn together and compared, much can be inferred.

As for the people below, well, they were just about as invisible as a people could be. It’s this obscurity that Knapp overcomes successfully, considering how little there is to help fill in the gaps. Those in the middle and the huge number of people are only glimpsed, often through a distorted lens, then dismissed.

But they are unmistakably there, providing the understructure of the society that dominated them, often cruelly and arbitrarily.

This is not story-telling history, but analytical history. Professor Knapp orders his book into sections, each of which portrays a different stratum, starting with the mass of ordinary men and ordinary women. Separate chapters deal with the poor, slaves, freedman, soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, and bandits and pirates (who formed societies separate from the empire).

There’s not much “dash and action” here, but for anyone writing such books, fiction and non-, this is a readable and invaluable resource.

Not surprisingly, the Roman Empire was an extremely reactionary-conservative society, from top to bottom, from Senator to slave, from Praetorian to peasant.

Many slaves wanted to escape and many many tried to--most notably Spartacus—but all of them accepted the system as it was. (Many slaves even did well within it, after a fashion, sometimes achieving status as “freedmen.”) Aesop never spoke of injustice and revolution. For the ordinary men and women, neither history nor future existed. Nor did romantic love

Earthly power came down from the upper classes, from the Roma elite and—especially—the military, whose crumbling into tyrannical decadence seems to have been a major factor in Rome’s downfall. Whatever it happened, it was the way the gods and fate had set things.

Notions of free will seem to have barely registered. It wasn’t until the appearance of Christianity that signs of a new consciousness arose (a struggle that continues despite efforts to reverse, deny, and obscure it).

It's important to understand just how people's outlook differed from ours, two thousand years later. If you made it to your thirties in ancient times, you were old. (The age given of many of the epitaphs are very low.) The list of things that could kill you was long. Death lurked everywhere. Everyone from rich to poor lived in some kind of peril.

From our point of view, hopping the Wayback Machine would be a discouraging experience for all but the most militantly myopic (and even they might well run into trouble, as militants often do.) Women lived in what we would call apartheid, were all but absolutely separated from men and lived limited lives in a few set roles, but within those roles, many found a certain flexibility and prosperity. Somehow some people managed to be happy.

All fresh facts and insight aside, this is a pleasurable book to read. Professor Knapp is a clear, engaging writer, both passionate and astute. If you’re interested—or just think you’re interested (especially fans of the HBO series Rome), this one comes with high recommendation.

Now back to bed.

(reedited 7/29/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Breaking Bad's Slow Roll-Out


By Thomas Burchfield


(Bits of this appear on Slate TV Club’s Breaking Bad page)

Here’s another thing I’d never want to hear from Walter White:

“I forgive you.” Right up there: “I’m not going to cheat you” and “This gun isn’t loaded.”

Breaking Bad’s fifth season has gotten off to a relatively low-key, but still pleasing, start. After last season’s explosive finish, trying to top itself right out of the gate would have been a bad idea. Start leisurely, let the fires burn slow. The best way to create great suspense.

I like the stop-and-start tension in the scene early on where Walter’s wandering through his house, trying to clean up the leftovers from the bomb he used to blow up Gus Fring: how he stops, relaxes, pours a drink, then realizes he’s forgotten something else, and hurries on, until Walter Jr.--still sweetly oblivious--Skyler and Baby return home. Why, I wonder, won’t he watch the coverage of Gus’s death with his son? Afraid he’ll be caught gloating, that he’ll let something slip . . . or is this there some feeble puddle of conscience left shining in him?

Ominous portents rose throughout this episode, starting with the traditional opening enigma—Walter, his hair fully returned, sprouting a full beard, purchasing an automatic rifle, in a town far away from New Mexico, maybe in New Hampshire (whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” the episode’s title. He looks about finished. A showdown looms. I’ll need a few more episodes in my brain before I start laying wagers. Too many equal possibilities, for now.

Big reveal: Hapless Ted is still alive and termbles before Skyler’s apparent awesome power. Whether he’ll keep his promise not to talk . . . eh. He’s still in shock from his “accident.” Inevitably, anger, rage, resentment will boil to the surface, where he realizes he has nothing to lose by spilling.

Jesse seems to be a junior partner again, a bit in the background this time. This is pointed up amusingly in the scene where Walter and Mike argue what to do about Gus’s laptop, now in police custody. The solution of the powerful magnet is ingenious, constituting the episode’s big action scene and once again allowing to Walter to reveal his towering hubris: “Because I say so!” Man speaks as God. (One possible slip-up: why didn’t the magnetic force rip away any of the metal on the evidence room guard’s uniform? Don’t cops wear any metal at all anymore? I also wondered if the bottom would be torn out of that truck)

A curious thought: I read recently that a group of Ayn Randroid libertarians threw a shindig in tribute to Don Draper of Mad Men, celebrating him as an upright libertarian hero (!?). On top of that, both Alec Baldwin and Michael Douglas recently commiserated on how the outright villains they portrayed in in Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street are also seen as cool heroes. (This is an old story, unfortunately.)

So, outside of the professional criminal class of drug dealers etc., are there any Idiot-logues out there running in circles, waving the hero flag for Walter White? This superb essay in Salon (via the L.A. Times) discusses how Walter White is, in part, an expression of that libertarian, every-man-for-himself ideology. (It’s a great essay on Breaking Bad for other reasons. Go read it. I now regret I haven’t read Paradise Lost.)

I shuddered at the closing scene: Walter and Skylar in the bedroom, Walter embracing her: “I forgive you”; the look of fear on her face; how his eyes shift in darkness. Would Walter murder Skylar? After all he’s done up to now, why not? Will he? That also remains to be seen.

As we followed Hank and the investigators, it struck me that I didn’t want them to close in on Walter too soon. Not because I think Walter’s a hero and want him to escape, but because I will be sorry when this show ends. I can’t think of a higher compliment to pay to this remarkable series.

(re-edited 7/17/12)

(Photo from AMC webpage)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

This Man Must Die

You’d all better get out of the way and take to your couches Sunday night (or the next day if you DVR) because here comes Walter White. You don’t want to be in his way.

And if you happen to be in Albuquerque, New Mexico, you might want to leave. Now.

Make no mistake—Walter White, Breaking Bad’s hero-schmo cum arch villain, geeky wallflower turned vicious criminal—has only 16 episodes to live. He is doomed. (“Doomed DOOMED to die!” as I sometimes boom, my finger pointing at whatever pathetic lug is about to take the Big Dirt Nap).

Two large questions remain in this rightfully classic series. Who will take him down and who will he take down with him?

Partner Jesse, wife Skylar, son Walter Jr., brother-in-law Hank, Cleaner Doug, uproariously sleazy Saul, even Hank’s wife, Marie?

It could be any of his many victims and enemies who have crossed his orbit. He’s become a tornado now, plowing a blackly violent path across the gorgeously bleak New Mexican landscape, sucking the guilty and the innocent into his funnel.

“I’ve won,” he whispered, his voice a sand-choked, triumphant whisper after Gus Fring straightened his tie for the last time. Such a beast does not retire from the field he’s conquered. Doom and death are coming down on him.

Walter White, of course, is the one ultimately responsible. Walter is the one finally taking Walter down.

Not since Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen have serious TV viewers been presented with such a riveting character, both a distinct individual and a picture of larger forces of decadence in our society. Once a normal guy, now an evil madman, with only a thin patina of pathos left, Walter White is a creature I no longer worry for. I tore up the paper on him when he let Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit in Season 2. The final nail came when we learned the secret behind the floating eye in Walter’s swimming pool. What started out as an understandable act of desperation had made a hard irrevocable turn. Walter White was no longer an Everyman—he had turned into a deadly alien Other.

This man has to die.

If I didn’t take such pleasure in how Breaking Bad is made, how precisely, elegantly and ingeniously it is plotted and written, acted and directed, photographed and edited to deliver maximum power, I might have hit the off button much earlier. Without some precise, well-located and portrayed sense of decency to pose against Walter—Jesse, Walter Jr., even annoyingly goofy Hank,  Walter could have become a monotonous presence and Breaking Bad an exercise of faux nihilistic droning ‘tude, another arch, ersatz Tarantino imitation. Whatever it takes from the great genre movies of the past, those steals are not its reason for being. Breaking Bad is a series truly interested in the world, not just its own gestures.

The Walter Whites of this world, whatever their IQs, are empty vessels. A big brain, no matter how capacious, can’t save the souls. His last name suggests a newly painted bleached wall, a lack of depth: someone you don’t see and when you look, it may be neatly done, but there’s not much there. The “legacy” he so violently claims he wants to leave his family is purely materialistic, constructed of transient things, not gifts of character and soul. He protests his virtue far past the bounds of virtue. He has fallen beyond the reach of grace.

While compelling in the gory havoc they wreak and the way they wreak it, sociopaths become hollow and boring if the world around them, the people, the characters aren’t there to stand in opposition somehow (this includes hapless Jesse, who, more than anyone seems, set to become the show’s oddball moral center).

I even feel pity for Saul Goodman. But Walter . . . he has to go.

Like many of my favorite genre works, in both literature and film, Breaking Bad is about unintended consequences. It presents a colorfully conservative outlook (in the old best sense), where duty and loyalty to ideas larger than ourselves exist to counteract our greedy selfish selves. Vince Gilligan, its creator, is said to have attended a Catholic seminary and while he may not be of the cloth anymore, the kind of questions that get asked there resonate here: in gaining the world, Walter White has lost his small soul.

To me, materialism, and its accompanying greed, are Breaking Bad’s true villains and Walter White is their avatar. Even Tony Soprano and Al Swearengen would shudder. Even after confronting the worst of what he’s done, Walter paints another layer of whitewash on the wall of his self. Like a psychopath, he’s a genius in the moment only, improvising one crime on top of another.

Breaking Bad prides itself on its unpredictability (though it sometimes plays its cards a little obviously (Sorry, I saw Gus’s end coming a little earlier than maybe some of you, once Walter visited Hector Salamanca at the rest home. The term “rig explosions” leapt to mind). Still, it plays narrative cards so deftly, with such grace and unbuttoned imagination that knowing Walter will fall in no way compromises the fundamental pleasures of Breaking Bad.

There are many paths to death. When we fans sit down Sunday night, we’ll know there’s so much more to happen on Breaking Bad.


Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Every Writer Needs an Editor

A couple weeks ago, on a site where some successful mystery writers gather to talk shop, one contributor made an astonishing assertion: Novelists don’t need to hire—for pay—copyeditors to do a final review of their book. All they need to do is have the writers in their affinity group, be it website or writers group, copyedit their manuscripts as they’re passed around for review.

“So let’s start passing those manuscripts around RRRRIGHT NOWWWW!”

[Here, I lean out over the table, my hand raised in objection: “Excuse me! I have a problem with this!”]

First a couple of digressions: The writer in question—who shall go unnamed in this small town--has likely sold more books than I ever will. He’s also published by an established imprint, where, I presume, his books are copyedited in house.

(However, that may also not be true, as it’s said that more and more trad publishers are shouldering authors with the burden of hiring their own copyeditors, not to mention doing their own marketing, their own publicity . . . say, what is it you people do, anyway? Oh, you just collect most of the money. Oh, OK . . . .)

Secondly, as I am an independent author/publisher, the writer’s assertion that I can rely on a team of my fellow authors is a luxurious mistake none of us lone cowboys can afford to make.

I’m not saying this simply because, in addition to being a novelist, I’m an underemployed editor. (I don’t copyedit fiction, for reasons I’ll explain some other time.) If we have any pride in what we do, we want our books to be almost indistinguishable, from cover to colophon to comma, from the best that the Big Six have to offer.

As a novelist, I don’t want another novelist copyediting my novel, unless he’s already a professional copyeditor, and we have a business agreement where he will copyedit my novel. And I mean copyedit it. Not read and review as a fellow novelist and reader. I mean copyedit.

Because copyediting is different.


I have been a copyeditor—professionally trained and certified through the University of California, Berkeley—for the last seven years.

Copyeditors are disinterested third parties. While we should have an affinity, or sympathy, for the genre a writer works in, or a keen interest in the subject matter, we are firstly technicians, craftspeople, grammar and language geeks who work mostly on the level of computer programmers and coders. Many of us write on the side, but when we copyedit, we are not writing. We employ a very different skill set. Our Inner Tolstoys are packed in away in a locked closet.

Are you the successor to Herman Melville? Or another hack with dreams of buying the mansion next door to Stephanie Meyers?

We don’t care. (Actually, I do care a little, which is part of the reason I don’t copyedit fiction.)

By the time a manuscript reaches us, the majority of it has, hopefully, been done: looked over by developmental editors, writing coaches, or an astute group of readers. Most of the factual, intellectual, and literary issues have been settled. (Sometimes they’re not. But that’s another issue and more money.)

Copyediting is a separate stage that ideally takes places just before the manuscript, usually done in Word, is sent to the interior designer to be converted in a published manuscript, using a program such as InDesign.

We strive to see that whatever style decisions have been made, they have been applied consistently throughout the book. We check your usage, spelling, and your grammar; your commas and your semi-colons. We check for continuity, sense, and flow.

Some paragraphs may need switching around, or broken up and rearranging. There may be lumpy redundancies here and there. Is your character bald as an egg on page 22 and then suddenly sprouting curly yellow locks on page 222? Have you given her a sudden gender change? (And then back again?) Your plot gets muddled and confused on page 158. Did you know that manzanita trees don’t grow in Delaware? It’s your last chance, chum!

We’re here to catch things like that, goofs that all writers make. Count the author of Dragon’s Ark—me, a copyeditoras chief among those goof-makers. When this copyeditor writes a novel, he wants a copyeditor who is not the guy in the mirror to do the copyediting.


When I submitted my third draft of Dragon’s Ark to my readers, I specifically asked them not to copyedit, not to sweat those little, though essential, details. I asked them to the look at the forest and not squint at the trees, the leaves, the bark, the roots, and the loam from which the roots draw their nourishment. I wanted them to look at larger, broader things and I believe Dragon’s Ark was a better book for it.

When I read a draft of another writer’s novel, I read it the same way: for its literary qualities; for its characterizations, setting and action; for pleasures it provides and pleasures missing; for how closely it fulfills the writer’s goals and what he might do to get it there. (I mean, I’m reading this book for free anyway.)

Only after all comments had been returned and digested and I’d finished my final draft, did I hire a copyeditor, that disinterested professional, to look out for those many, small, last details.

How did that work out? Well, next time I have to be more careful in my search and be willing to spend more money . . . because, with few exceptions, quality costs more.

Despite the cost and difficulties, I don’t see what benefits I would have accrued by having my beta readers also copyedit my book. To ask an author-colleague to take on the specifically technical act of copyediting (for free, no less), would have been, at best, insulting to him and likely end in something less than what it should be.

First off, few writers are professional copyeditors. And of those who are, few of us would be willing to look at the same manuscript with two different pairs of glasses, especially at the same time. I know I wouldn’t. No matter how much I love you.

Further, having several writers putting in their dime on comma placement on one book can only end in confusion and fatal inconsistency. Those commas and connectives matter. You may not notice them consciously, but your unconscious does and it affects your experience of the book.

It takes one set of eyes, one mind, to achieve that necessary consistency. Editors differ in their styles to start with, so setting a bunch of them loose on my manuscript would have made a mash ending in a confusing reading experience. A single copyeditor may make some errors, but more copyeditors will only make more errors. One copyeditor per book, take my word for it.

I would never ask any fellow novelist, no matter how intense our mutual admiration, to copyedit my book, for love nor money. Hell, I wouldn’t ask Nabokov if I had the chance (and I’d run and hide behind the Moon if he even offered). I don’t want a writer to edit. I want an editor to edit.

And should a fellow novelist should ask me to copyedit his book, I’m likely to give him my snakiest bullet-eyed stare as I calmly open my hand: “When I’m paid . . . .”

Because I don’t edit for free. I need to be paid. We all do. (And, again, I don’t copyedit fiction.)

And so, when it comes time to copyedit your book, by all means, pay the fifteen (hundred) dollars. Your novel will be better for it, whether you’re Melville or Meyers.

Photo by author.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.