Literary-friendly entertainment fiction: the “progressive rock” of books



I had an interesting discussion with the Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress about more literary sci-fi and its sales potential the other day, and was reminded of this when I heard the audio of a Coldplay concert last night.
My daughter had attended live and went gaga about how this was the best concert she had ever heard. Having listened to about 2 hours worth of Coldplay, I can hear why this band is popular. It’s definitely a cut above today’s pop music — which is, of course, damning with very faint praise. It also has a few clever harmonic touches — but they are added in, for my taste, homeopathic doses, and smothered in pop cheese and endlessly milked hooks. (I was actually surprised they had a live drummer: the drum parts are so monotonous to my ears that I was convinced they were using a drum machine with very good samples.)

But apparently, that is as much musical sophistication as you can add and keep a mainstream pop audience nowadays. Sgt. Pepper era Beatles, or ELO in their heyday, are far-out progressive rock in comparison — heck, so is even Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys! But here’s the point exactly: they know their market, and they produce exactly what the market wants. If they are at all disaffected musically, they are suffering all the way to the bank.

All this has a parallel in fiction. Allow me to explain.

In pure entertainment fiction, everything is secondary to “the meat and potatoes” of the genre: in military sci-fi or space opera, for example, those would be a strong, sweeping plot, protagonists you can root for, credible antagonists, lots of action, and the like.

And no, that does not mean “dumb” fiction: plots and characters can be very complex, and about certain special interests that are central to their chosen bailiwick, genre writers and their fans alike can be detailed and obsessive to the point of “weaponized autism”. So if, say, Larry Correia geeks out about guns, or David Weber about orbital mechanics, that is not just tolerated but expected. (Never mind the level of painstaking detail seen in police procedurals and the better techno thrillers.)

But for anybody who is well-read, the prose in many works of genre fiction can be irritatingly pedestrian, if not outright “dumbed-down”. This is especially true of the American market: a few recent contemporary romances I read for “market research” seemed to have been deliberately written at an 8th-grade reading level. British readers seem to expect somewhat more polished prose.

At the other extreme, in pure “literary fiction”, one can often be forgiven for assuming that entertaining the reader is an afterthought at best. Writers of such books are often academics or academic wannabes, and peer approval is more important to them than anybody actually reading their book for pleasure.

There are writers that are trying to steer a middle course: combine entertainment mainstays with prose that those who love the language for its own sake will find pleasant to read — and if some readers need to look up a word on their Kindles, well, so be it. Often such books have philosophical, sociological, and/or spiritual themes running through them. “Literary-friendly entertainment fiction”, if you like. Dave Freer and Brad Torgersen are examples in the sci-fi field. Yet discussions with, among others, our BbESM suggested that the market for “literary-friendly entertainment fiction” is limited.

The musical equivalent of “literary fiction” would be contemporary classical music — which for the most part has no mainstream audience, and is written by academic musicians for academic musicians.

The Freers and Torgersens (and up to a point, Lois McMaster Bujold) would be like progressive rock: music that tries to retain some of the accessibility and energy of rock and pop music while also seeking a broader musical horizon. Now the best bands in that genre — take Yes or ELP in their heyday, or Genesis before they turned pop, or Rush and Dream Theater in a somewhat harder vein — have rabid and faithful cult fan bases — but “cult” is the operative word. I am sure the three guys in Rush made a ton of money over the years by building up a like-minded audience and reliably delivering the goods to it — but aside from airplay for “Tom Sawyer” , “The Spirit of Radio”, or “Limelight”, their mainstream appeal is always going to be limited.

There are artists with “two-track” outputs: nice tuneful pop songs or rock anthems for the casual listener, and more profound work for the serious aficionado. There’s a couple Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin songs that everybody knows, for instance, but they only scratch the surface of what these artists could do. Similarly, there are fiction writers who bankroll their more serious output with occasional crowd-pleaser offerings. Some people would call this “selling out”, but the “two-trackers” are basically following in the footsteps of Ludwig van Beethoven (!): he would write reams of bagatelles (short, inventive piano pieces playable by amateurs) and song arrangements to pay his bills and stave off the creditors, while he worked on the symphonies and piano sonatas that earned him his place in the pantheon of classical music.

Sarah Hoyt seeks a slightly different course (like her acknowledged literary guiding light, Robert A. Heinlein). Yes, there are philosophical elements and literary allusions in works like Darkship Revenge — and not always in small doses, mind you —  but they are blended in subtly, carefully mixed in with the “meat and potatoes”.  Similarly, Lois McMaster Bujold (possibly my favorite living writer in any genre) has deep psychological material in her novels, but makes sure not to skimp on the things that Baen’s target audience wants in a novel. In music, this would be a “progressive pop” approach, with Coldplay at the more timid edge and Steely Dan at the more daring edge.  (More experimental artists like Frank Zappa would actually derive quite a bit of their appeal from extra-musical factors, such as shockingly bawdy lyrics.)

What does all this mean for a writer? The answer will, of course, be different for those trying to make a partial or complete living off our pens, and for those of us for whom fiction writing is a labor of love rather than an income stream. Robert Heinlein used to quip that his favorite five words in the English language were “pay to the order of”, and until late in his career made sure to write books that are easy to read on the surface — but that reveal several layers when read in depth.


Writers, which classical composer are you?

Some time ago, Sarah Hoyt wrote a long post at MadGeniusClub on making oneself “write like the wind”.  Somewhat tangentially related, Christopher Nuttall blogged in the same venue about the three types of writer: the “wannabe”, the “amateur”, and the “professional”.

The wannabe was memorably depicted by Albert Camus (in “The Plague”) as a civil servant named Joseph Grand who wants to write a number but has spent ten years looking for the perfect opening sentence. The amateur does get things written and published, but for him, the writing is just a hobby (perhaps even with a therapeutic aspect) and (s)he treats it as such: if he is too tired to write or the creative juices aren’t flowing, then so be it. For the professional, on the other hand, writing is a day job, and bills don’t get paid unless books get written. [A commenter would add a fourth category: the “moonlighting” writer who has a day job to pay the bills, but treats the writing as a second job.]

In a nutshell, the recommendations of both writers boil down to: if you want to make a living from writing, (a) treat it like a job, and make yourself write whether you want to or not, whether you have inspiration or not; (b) make yourself write fast, because the more you write, the better you get at it, and the more there is for people to buy. Especially (b) is a far cry from the romantic fantasy of the writer as an “artiste”-demiurge.

But is there only one path to being a writer? As I see it — if I may use a musical metaphor — it boils down to which composer one wants to be.

At one extreme are the Mozarts and Vivaldis. A snide joke among some classical musicians has it that Vivaldi didn’t write 400+ concertos, but 400+ times the same concerto. Of course this is a cheap shot, but even people who generally love classical music would be hard-pressed to name any Vivaldi composition other than the Four Seasons.

Disparaging comments aside, “The Ginger Priest” did help establish the concerto as a classical music form, which in itself is no mean musical legacy. None other than J. S. Bach  studied his work diligently and transcribed several of his concerti for keyboard instruments. You might say Vivaldi was a kind of E. E. “Doc” Smith among composers.

Mozart was every bit as prolific and crowd-pleasing as Vivaldi—which elicited from the always sharp-tongued Glenn Gould the notorious quip that “Mozart died too late rather than too early”. The main reason so many of Mozart’s compositions did endure (while the likes of Ditters von Dittersdorf have been forgotten) is very simple: Mozart was a transcendent genius. He simply preferred to write lots and in a very accessible idiom, even as he occasionally ventured into ‘learned’ composition for his own pleasure and was very skilled at it. He was perennially short of money, as he enjoyed the good life and had no steady patron—he might have nodded in agreement at Heinlein’s statement that his favorite five words in the English language were ‘pay to the order of’.

At the other extreme stood Maurice Ravel. Nicknamed ‘the Swiss watchmaker’ by colleagues, he was a total perfectionist with a very modest output (after WW I, he averaged about one composition per year). Financially secure as a tenured professor of composition, he had no need to “compose to pay the bills”. In fact, he was as well known as an orchestrator of other people’s music as for his own compositions — Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition was originally solo piano music, which Ravel orchestrated. Impervious to others’ opinions but relentlessly self-critical, he quipped to fellow composer Arthur Honegger: “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately there’s no music in it.”


Anton Bruckner was eternally plagued by self-doubts. In response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues, he would endlessly revise his symphonic works  — for example, there are at least five extant versions of the First Symphony — in response to suggestions and criticism from colleagues.


The creative struggles of Beethoven in his major works — the symphonies and the 32 piano sonatas, which have been named “the New Testament of solo piano music” — are legend, as evident from the minefields of corrections and erasures in his manuscripts , which drove copyists and score engravers alike crazy.  The resulting financial woes he addressed in part through patronage, but also through a parallel “pay the bills” compositional output written to publisher’s order: folk song arrangements, variation cycles, and “Bagatelles” — short, inventive piano pieces accessible to a somewhat skilled amateur. Yes, even this archetype of the “artiste-demiurge” wrote to pay the bills sometimes! The writer who churns out popular romances or mysteries under one pen name in order to subsidize a more literary output under his/her own name took a page, so to speak, from Beethoven’s playbook.

Liszt is a special case that has no real parallel among fiction writers: a wildly popular concert virtuoso who wrote piano showpieces and arrangements of symphonic works for his own use in performance (making the most of his unique technical skills), then retired to focus on more profound compositions.

And then there was Johann Sebastian Bach. As Mauricio Kagel memorably put it, “Perhaps not all musicians believe in G-d, but all believe in Bach”. A virtuoso on multiple instruments (not just keyboards), with an intellect that probably exceeded even Mozart’s, Bach was a scholar as much as an artist, and had an active interest in the practical side of instrument design. His work ethos struck an interesting balance.

In Bach’s days, one couldn’t live strictly off composing: Bach’s principal income streams were as a church organist (legendary in his day), a court musician, and eventually as the musical director and assistant principal of the St.-Thomas high school in Leipzig. (He generated secondary income streams from music all his married life, as an organ building consultant, as a reseller of Silbermann’s early pianofortes, and the like.) As part of his duties in Leipzig, for several years he wrote a fresh cantata every week [!], many of which have sadly been lost (though over 200 have been preserved). He was thus every bit capable of churning out works on demand on a tight production schedule. (To be sure,he routinely recycled material, and levels of thematic borrowing that nowadays would be considered plagiarism were accepted in his day.)

At the same time, at the works that mattered most to him, he worked slowly and painstakingly — the first autograph MS for The Art Of The Fugue, for instance, dates from 1741, while the final fugue was still unfinished at Bach’s death nine years later. Most unlike Beethoven, few erasures are evident in Bach’s manuscripts until his eyes started faltering near the end of his life: he would write the whole composition in his head and at the keyboard, then put it down on paper when it met his exacting standards of quality. Fairly little of his music was published during his lifetime, primarily cycles of keyboard works. Bach studied music of other composers with great attention and mined it for forms as well as themes (to which he applied his never-surpassed mastery of counterpoint), but was essentially indifferent to public acclaim or fashion: while he took his musical duties seriously, the very notion of writing to fit the popular fashion of the day was alien to him. At the end of the day, this devout Lutheran with an impressive collection of theological books wrote his major works S. D. G. (soli Dei gloria, for the glory of G-d alone), as he was wont to write on his manuscripts.

Coming back to Sarah’s “Write Like The Wind” post. She mentions that endless revising and agonizing about language will not be noticed by one’s readers. Like with so many things in life, the ‘law of diminishing returns’  — just like a $20m Stradivarius obviously will not sound 1000x better than a violin custom-built by a luthier for, say, $20K. Sure, there is a reader segment (yours truly included) that enjoys exquisitely crafted prose for its own sake. However, beyond a certain point one is better off finishing up and moving on to the next work. One would like to believe that there is a golden mean between assembly-line hack work on the one hand, and toxic perfectionism on the other hand.


Fair Use: what does it mean for writers and scholars?

Academics, writers, musicians, video producers, publishers, and other creative professionals have all heard of the “fair use doctrine”, that under certain circumstances allows us to quote copyrighted text, images, or sounds. But what is it, in plain English?

First of all, a disclaimer: I am not a legal professional — I have merely acquired a working knowledge of the concept through my day job — and nothing I write here should be taken as legal advise.

Second, while the concept existed in common law for a long time before that, “fair use” was officially enshrined as statutory law in 1976 as 17 U.S.C. § 107 

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 17 U.S.C. § 106 and 17 U.S.C. § 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

[Emphasis mine in the above.]

This four-part test was actually first formulated by US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1779-1845; “what’s in a name?”) in the ruling on Folsom v. Marsh: this case concerned somebody who had published his own two-volume condensation of a 12-volume biography of George Washington. SCOTUS decided that yes, such derivative works were within the rights of the original copyright owners (the plaintiff), and that Marsh, the defendant, had violated their copyright.

In plain English: Justice Story argued that by publishing an “all the good bits” abridgment, Marsh had greatly reduced the sales potential of the long original.

Let me illustrate the four-part test with a few concrete examples:

(1) Quoting another scholarly author’s argument in a scholarly work, with proper source attribution, and clearly marking it as a quotation rather than one’s own words: fair use, and common established practice.

  • typically, the works being quoted are noncommercial to begin with
  • typically, the quote is a very small percentage of the full paper or book
  • the “market value” of a scholarly paper is measured in citations, and your action will generally only increase those

(2) Quoting a phrase, quip, aphorism,… of another author in one’s novel, clearly marking it as a quote? Accepted practice. Typically, the quote is 0.00x % of the whole book, and this is actually a way of bringing tribute to the writer being name-checked.

(3) Quoting a few lines from a poem or song lyric in your fiction book? Aha, now this is another matter — because even a few lines constitute a nontrivial percentage of the original work, so this would fail the amount and substantiality test.

My editor taught me a serviceable workaround: paraphrasing the lyrics in my own words. It is the words that are subject to copyright, not the ideas conveyed in them. [Cf. the idea-expression divide in intellectual property law.]

And if the poem in question is in the public domain (e.g., Shakespeare, Tennyson,… or generally anything published before 1923) then of course no issue arises.

(3b) Quoting a picture or graph from one work in a scholarly work of yours? Well… as “masgramondou” put it, “one picture is worth a thousand words — assume the same holds for copyright purposes”. The way I think of it: the image is a complete unit unto itself, and it would be more akin to quoting an entire chapter or section of a written work (or an entire verse or chorus of a song lyric).

And so, where for a textual quotation source referencing would be adequate, one would have to apply for copyright permission to the original copyright holder. In practice this is less of an imposition than it seems: most scholarly publishers have a (semi)automated mechanism in place where one can apply online with full personal details, details of the work being quoted, details of the work it’s being quoted in (review articles are actually the most common scenario), and commercial or noncommercial character of the derived work. (The last time I needed such permission for a paper in my day job, it cost me $0 and all of two minutes.) The licensed picture is then almost invariably accompanied by a statement along the lines of “From H. Slowcoach and L. Tortuga, Journal of Chelonian Reproduction 12, 345 (1967). Copyright American Association for Herpetology. Reprinted with permission.”

(3c) Recycling somebody else’s artwork in your own commercial fiction book? Unless it’s in the public domain or you licensed it form the copyright holder, you are setting yourself up for litigation or at the very least “cease and desist” letters.

Stock photos are another matter. They are “works made for hire” from a copyright point of view: once you bought them, they are yours to use. Their use in book covers can entail other issues — such as when two authors use the same stock photo — that one may wish to avoid, but they are in a different realm than copyright infringement.

Coming back to scholarly nonfiction for a moment: The scientific world in recent years has seen the emergence of licensable image libraries (e.g., Springer Images). Particularly in the life sciences, where diagrams and elaborate artistic renderings are more common than straight plots or data visualization, such image libraries have their places, and can save money compared to hiring a skilled visual artist with the appropriate background.

(4) What about music?

• In a music-centric novel, describing musical compositions in great detail — short of actually including transcribed scores — is apparently fine.

• Using audio of a well-known popular song for an audio book or a book trailer in practice means licensing. It can get tiresome enough that people might instead hire a musician to compose something “in the style of [insert popular song]” and use that instead

• most classical compositions are in the public domain, but specific audio recordings (e.g. for use in an audiobook or book trailer) need to be licensed. As part of the “open culture movement”, there are artists that make their own recordings of classical pieces available under Creative Commons licenses: these may be a good alternative. Otherwise, you know what? Go to your local conservatory and offer to pay somebody to record the track for you.

(5) Reproductions of visual works of art

• What if I, say, wanted to use a digital image of a Renoir painting as a book cover? (Assume it’s a “literary fiction” book, since that’s what cover designers tell me such use would signal.) The copyright here applies to the photograph, strange as this might seem. Museums that allow downloading of digital images of their collection typically stipulate that such images are “for personal use only”. In some cases, if photography in the museum is permitted, one can legally visit the museum in person, take a picture (usually without a flash) and use that.

Speaking of book covers: who “owns” the copyright to a book cover? They are generally produced as “works for hire” by a cover designer, and whoever commissioned the work and paid for it owns the rights to the cover (typically: the publishing house, or the author if it is an indie publication). Recycling by somebody else as artwork for commercial publication projects without licensing or permission constitutes copyright infringement.

Very recently and importantly: Concerning the special case of “thumbnails” showing up in searches or use in product links, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in Perfect 10 v. Amazon  that these are a highly “transformative” use and that they are to be considered fair use. The ruling gave much weight to “the public interest” [in search engines etc.]. It also  held that hyperlinking to such images does not constitute “secondary copyright violation”.

(6) What about parody?

Parody (if clearly recognizable as such) is an affirmative defense: a landmark court case on the matter is Campbell vs. Acuff-Rose Music, a.k.a., the “Pretty Woman” case. It involved the rappers 2 Live Crew, fronted by Luther Campbell (stage name “Luke Skywalker”), who had recorded their own “version” of Roy Orbison’s classic song: they had kept only the iconic bass riff (which I presume they  programmed into a Roland TB-303) and chanted (I would not dignify their performance with the term ‘singing’) their own lyrics over it (which focused on such features of the woman as her derrière, hair in certain places, promiscuity—you get the drift). They had in fact approached the copyright owners (Acuff-Rose) for licensing the song for a parody but been told to take a hike, then recorded their own version anyway. The court found in their favor, ruling that parody was a “transformative” use [in the legal sense of the word] rather than a merely “derivative” one.

Marcel Duchamp’s parody of the Mona Lisa is often cited as a classic example of a transformative work

So for example, if I were to release an album and issue an ad with a picture of my own album cover, plus one of “St. Anger” by Metallica as “this is not what you will get”, I would be over the line — a picture is a complete unit, and promotional material is clearly not scholarship or commentary. If instead I drew a parody cover of a fictional album “St. Anal” by “Banalica”, I would probably be safe — but even then I might get legal advise first to be on the safe side.




  • there is a simple 4-factor test for “fair use”
  • in general, scholarly use is much more permissive than commercial use
  • anything quoted should be a trivially small percentage of the whole work, and in particular should not be a self-contained unit of the whole work
  • use should not detract from the commercial revenue potential of the original
  • there are commonly accepted usages; there are abusages that are manifestly illegal; and there is a gray zone in between when one might wish to get legal counsel, or at the very least err on the safe side.

Media companies tend to be very aggressive (often to the point of seeming absurdity) in asserting their rights: for noncommercial use, a recent development has been Lenz v. Universal Music. (a.k.a. the “dancing baby case”). The plaintiff, Stephanie Lenz, had posted a YouTube video (less than 30 seconds) of her baby dancing to the Prince tune “Let’s Go Crazy”. Universal Music sent a takedown notice under the DMCA: in response, Ms. Lenz sued Universal, and the case eventually reached the Ninth Circuit Court, which held for that

[copyright holders have a] “duty to consider — in good faith and prior to sending a takedown notification—whether allegedly infringing material constitutes fair use”.

This almost creates the legal situation that exists in Israel — where “shimush hogen” (fair use) is legally a right rather than an affirmative defense, and one can actually sue a company for not permitting fair use. However, to be clear: this does not mean that use that is obviously not fair in the legal sense of the word now magically has become so.


By way of dessert, here is a musical example of a “transformative work” I rather like. The original was a Rob Dougan track called “Clubbed to death” used in The Matrix soundtrack. It ironically itself starts off with a sample from an orchestral performance of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. I remember thinking “boring, but could be a good track to jam over” when I first heard it — then a guitarist named Tom Shapira recorded this amazing improvisation over it. Enjoy!



Memorial Day: “Myrmidon Tears” by Jonathan LaForce

Fellow Dinerzen, writer, and former Marine Jonathan LaForce posted this poem some time ago, then reposted it on his FB wall in honor of Memorial Day.


“Parade rest!”

At once, 600 pairs of boots stamp into the grass,
Palms crossing in the small of our backs.
7 months and 2 weeks after it started,
This is how we end the deployment.

“Murderous muscle-bound myrmidons!”

Two hours under the sun,
Performing a final act to honor a good man.
And though we’d rather leave
Discipline demands we stand,
As if performing the Birkenhead Drill.

“Jack-booted gun-toting thugs!”

The man’s name is stated,
His deeds recounted, and of him,
No foul word nor claim can be said.
A genuine truth this, for he was
In all regards a Christian gentleman.

“War criminals! Baby killers! Rapists!”

He was twenty-one that day
Old enough to drink, to vote, to shave
Old enough to pick up a rifle
Old enough to start a family
Old enough to wear the symbols
Of an American Marine.

But Death cares not for such things
And a roadside bomb laid him low.
It’s why we’re here today,
Listening to his mother plea for her baby.

El D-io, Mijo, Padre Celestial.

“First Sergeants, call the roll!”
We brace ourselves, knowing what’s on the way,
Sure as G-d, sure as death.
“PFC Josue Ibarra! PFC Josue Ibarra! PFC Josue Ibarra!”
Not once, not twice, but thrice his name’s repeated,
A white hot brand searing into our minds.

The boots come out, placed with care,
Then a rifle, held in place by the bayonet
Stabbed deep into the soil.
Finally a helmet to cap it all off.
This is the marker of a man who fell in battle.
It dates back to earlier days,
Tarawa, Belleau Wood, Chapultepec.

They escort his mother up first
We watch as she faints,
Falling over unable to contain the grief.
And all of it makes us angry.

Rage and grief combine as we approach that marker.
Paying our respects to the fallen.
Wishing for one awful moment to trade him places
Before we send him on to the eternities.

Our society hates us…
The ruling elite despise our symbols
Celebrities mock us at every turn,
Fearing and hating our capacity for violence.

They fervently believe that all we are
Is unthinking, unfeeling, uncaring beasts of war.
They’ll never know what it means
To “stand to” by dawn’s early light;
To run up the colors each day,
Wondering if you’ll live to see them lowered,
In the southern Afghan desert;
To plug a slashed jugular
And save a young marine’s life as bullets crack over head.
To load and fire and load again
Cannons roaring like dragons.

They’ll never see the myrmidon’s tears,
Etching scars not just in our faces
But our minds, our hearts, the fabric of our souls
They never see the drinking, the grief,
The ways we harden ourselves outwardly;
They never see the guilt of surviving
Of living and wishing to die,
If only so that at one better than you could live.
Angels never cry,
We give hope to those we protect.

No one sees the myrmidon’s tears

Cpl. Jonathan LaForce, USM, 2014

Dering v. Uris, QB VII, and Pyrrhic courtroom victories

Like many, I devoured Leon Uris’s Exodus as a teenager. By modern standards, it is a severe romantification of a story that hardly requires it (the great Jewish historian Howard Sachar described the book as “a shallow swashbuckler”), but there is no denying Exodus is an immensely entertaining read. Published in 1958, it not only became the greatest bestseller in US history since “Gone with the wind”, but became a samizdat (underground publishing) classic among Soviet Jews.

A single line in the book gave rise to one of the most remarkable libel trials of the 20th Century, Dering v. Uris and others. (See also Jack Winocour’s long 1964 article here.) The trial is thinly fictionalized in Uris’s later bestseller courtroom novel, QB VII (“Queen’s Bench Court Seven”).

The backstory of one of the main Exodus characters, Holocaust survivor Dov Landau, contains this line about Auschwitz:

Here in Block X, Dr Wirths used women as guinea pigs and Dr Schumann sterilised by castration and X-ray and Clauberg removed ovaries and Dr Dehring [sic] performed 17,000 `experiments’ in surgery without anaesthetics.

Auschwitz chief physician Eduard Wirths had committed suicide after his arrest, while Carl Clauberg had died of a stroke in pretrial detention and Horst Schumann had fled to Africa after the war. (At the time he was living in Sudan.)

Clauberg, a prewar gynecology professor of some renown, and Schumann, an undistinguished physician who had earlier been  a “veteran” of the mass euthanasia program Aktion T4, were carrying out experiments on human subjects trying to find an inexpensive method of mass sterilization, to be applied on the Reich’s slave labor population of so-called Untermenschen (subhumans). Clauberg favored injection of caustic chemicals into the womb — which were to cause blockage of the ovarian ducts through scarring —  Schumann irradiation. The ovaries and testicles of the irradiated prisoners were removed for pathological examination by Schumann himself and by two prisoner doctors, the German Jew Maximilian Samuel and the Pole Wladyslaw Dering (see Robert Jay Lifton, “The Nazi Doctors”, pp. 246-249 for more about him).

Dering was a surgeon who had been imprisoned at the Auschwitz main camp for resistance activities. As Lifton tells the story (much of which came out during the libel trial), Dering at first enjoyed a good reputation among the prisoners, then became embroiled with the medical experimentation, and eventually was taken away by Clauberg to come work at his private clinic in Silesia. (In order to enable his release from the camp, Dering is said to have been administratively declared a Volksdeutsche — an ethnic German.)

After the war, Dering  had made it to England with the help of fellow Poles in the British army. He actually spent a year and a half in prison there following an extradition request by (now Communist) Poland. After a witness, who had been castrated at Auschwitz, was unable to recognize During (he had in fact been ‘operated’ upon by another prisoner doctor), the request was denied on grounds of mistaken identity. Following his release, Dering worked as a physician for the British Colonial Service in Somalia (then a British protectorate) for about a decade, before eventually being knighted (OBE) and returning to London to work as a physician for the NHS.

Following publication of Exodus, Dering was confronted with his past when his wife Maria and her daughter from a previous marriage came across the offending passage while reading Exodus. Dering took legal counsel and eventually sued  printer, publisher, and author for libel.  The printers quickly issued a note of apology;  Uris and his publisher (William Kimber, Ltd.), on the other hand, decided to fight the libel case on grounds of substantial truth.

Dering’s complaint was that, while he had completed operations, it was nowhere near 17,000 and he never did so without anaesthetic. He also said that he obeyed Nazi physicians’ orders under threat of death. The printer issued an apology and settled with Dering. The other two went to court and ran truth as a defence. It was the Holocaust on trial again.

While Uris and his publisher admitted that they could not prove 17,000 operations, they did proffer a list of 130 individuals on whom shocking operations were performed.

Uris’ solicitor took 2 years to compile evidence and find witnesses.

The trial was held before a jury of 12 (10 men, 2 women) in Queen’s Bench Court VII. It lasted 18 days, having started on 1 April 1964. It was conducted in Greek, Polish, Hebrew, English, German, French and Ladino. The judge was Justice Horace Lawton. Lord Gerald Gardiner, later Lord Chancellor of England, appeared for Uris and the publisher.


The plaintiff called 7 witnesses, some of whom were fellow Polish prisoners. The defendants called 22 witnesses from Auschwitz.


Some of the evidence on behalf of the defendants included this:

  • In October 1943, 10-12 Greek girls aged 15-19 had ovariectomies conducted on them without any medical, physical, psychological or legitimate reason;
  • In 1943 Dr Dering removed 1 or both testicles from 12 young males for no legitimate reason; See British Medical Journal Vol 1, 5393 16 May 1964.
  • 8 witnesses gave evidence of having received ovariectomies;
  • 6 gave evidence whose testicles had been removed;
  • A list was obtained from the Auschwitz Prison Hospital Register. It included the names of 130 people who received surgical operations, where Dering was either the surgeon or assistant. The list was at least partly in Dering’s handwriting.
  • While the defendants could not show that Dering operated without anaesthetic, there was evidence that operations were conducted under painful spinal anaesthetic that left the patient conscious;
  • 3 prisoner doctors gave evidence for the defendants: Dr Kleinova, Dr Breuda and the defendants’ star witness, Dr Adelaide Hautval.

Dr. Adelaide Hautval (who appears as “Susanne Parmentier” in QB VII) was a French psychiatrist (the youngest daughter of a Protestant minister) who had been arrested for aiding Jews and sent to the Auschwitz main camp. (“If you love the Jews, you will share their fate,” she was told.) After the war, she was made an Knight in the French Legion of Honor for her resistance and humanitarian activities in the camp, and Yad Vashem bestowed the title of “Righteous Gentile” on her. Recently a geriatric hospital in the Paris suburb of Villiers-Le-Bel was renamed in her honor.

Dr. Hautval quickly discovered that the project entailed inhuman experiments, performed without anesthesia, on Jewish women prisoners. She told Dr. Wirth that she would not participate in his experiments and added that no person was entitled to claim the life or determine the fate of another. When forced to assist in the surgical sterilization of a young woman from Greece, Dr. Hautval told Dr. Wirth that she would never again attend such a procedure. When Wirth asked Dr. Hautval: “Don’t you see that these people are different from you?” she replied, “In this camp, many people are different from me. You, for example.”

Notably, Dr. Hautval was not even punished for her refusal. This demolished Dering’s argument that whatever he had done, he had done under pains of death. (Admittedly, Hautval was somewhat safer as she was racially considered an Aryan, while Dering was still considered a Slav.)

Technically, Dering “won” the trial, but was awarded “the smallest coin of the realm”, one-half penny, in damages. Dering was also assessed the hefty costs of the trial (about 30,000 pounds, or 3/4 of a million dollars in today’s money). He died one year later.

As mentioned above, Leon Uris turned the experience, and the massive amount of documentation he had gathered, into the bestselling QB VII. While including some dramatic license as well as some romantic subplots, the novel in general sticks so close to the actual trial as to qualify as a roman à clef. The fictional concentration camp “Jadwiga” and its satellite extermination camp “Jadwiga West” are clearly stand-ins for Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), respectively. “Adam Kelno” was a colonial physician in Sumatra rather than Africa, but otherwise appears to substantially be based on Dering. “Abraham Cady”, the womanizing fighter pilot turned writer, was of course the fictionalization of Uris. “Thomas Bannister”, a “future Prime Minister” (rather than Lord Chancellor) is of course based on  Gerald Gardiner, and so on. The Jewish prisoner doctor Boris Dimshits was elderly, suffered from eczema, and was sent to the gas chamber when no longer able to operate well enough — just like the real-life Maximilian Samuel. (According to Lifton, the cooperation of the latter — a decorated WW I veteran — had been secured by false promises his 19-year old daughter would be spared. )

One lurid detail about the medical “examinations” — too obscene to be repeated on a somewhat family-friendly blog — that I was convinced had been added by Uris for dramatic effect,  turns out to be based on an actual “invention” of Horst Schumann. In general, despite some minor glitches (such as the cringe-worthy nonsense IDF rank of “Sergent (Captain)” when “Seren” is clearly meant), the book was as thoroughly researched and fact-checked as one could hope to see before the Internet and Google era. Possibly in order to forestall another libel suit, Uris did, however, make sure to use fictional names wherever he could, and some character names are linguistically so improbable that they appear to have been chosen deliberately to ensure nobody with that background would bear said name.

Some suspense is created in the novel with the hunt for Egon Sobotnik and his medical log book: in fact, the log book was obtained from the Auschwitz memorial site, although its role was as central to the real as to the fictional trial. While the fictional Sobotnik is the key witness in QB VII, the testimony of Dr. Adelaide Hautval’s fictional stand-in “Suzanne Parmentier”s is given pride of place, and contains extensive word-for-word quotes from Hautval’s at the real-life trial.

King Pyrrhus, after winning a battle at enormous cost in lives, is supposed to have said “One more such ‘victory’ and I am undone”. If there ever was a case of a Pyrrhic victory at a libel trial, it would be this.

First or third person? To I or not to I?

One of the questions a beginning writer struggles with is: which person to write?

It’s also a subject that some writers are very passionate about. My Beautiful But Evil Space Mistress™, for instance, describes how she was taught one can only write “real literature” in the third person — and in response embraced first-person with a vengeance. (She does, however, state pros and cons in her article.)

You will have people arguing that first-person is only for beginners, because it looks easy. (“Play bass, because it’s the easiest instrument” comes to mind — not so, if you want to play like Geddy Lee, John Entwistle, Chris Squire, Jack Bruce, or any other bass virtuoso.) On the other hand, others argue third person is easier for a beginning writer, as you’re not tied to a single character’s POV (point of view, perspective) and there’s the largest variety of classic examples to ‘learn from by osmosis’.

Personally, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The choice between third person and first person reminds me a bit of learning English vs. learning a “strong grammar” language like German, Russian, or Hebrew. English is much easier to learn than those, but paradoxically more difficult to master. As a beginning writer, I wrote my debut novel, On Different Strings, in third person omniscient because I basically couldn’t imagine how to tell this tale otherwise.

First, a couple more definitions:

  • grammatical person (which I prefer over the ambiguous ‘viewpoint’) refers to whether one writes as “I”, “He”/”She”, or (quite rare) “You”.
  • POV (point of view) is exactly that, POV. True, in first person you substantially have just one POV, except by stratagems such as included letters, reports, … or a telepathic protagonist. But in third person, the ‘camera’ can switch angles many times in a book. Doing so too abruptly may be disorienting, hence the oft-quoted rule: ‘no more than one POV per scene’.
  • as ‘voice‘ I would define the idiolect — the specific way of speaking — of each character, as well as (in third person) of the narrator. If one does not give them distinct voices, everything will merge into one ‘glop’.

First-person definitely complicates plotting and character description — I see it almost as a form of constrained writing. On the other hand, you do not have to worry about the mechanics of “proper” viewpoint switching as there is none. Also, it simplifies character “voicing”  — the narrator and the viewpoint character are one and the same. Also, it becomes more natural to hold back information from the reader and not give the plot away.

The first time I wrote anything in first person — which was The Tenth Righteous Man for the CLFA Anthology “Freedom’s Light” (the story appears in full in the “Free Preview” of the book on Amazon) — the people I sent it to all remarked on how “immediate” the writing was. (That it was based on truly mind-boggling actual events did not hurt.) Note that I did not write in a chatty contemporary American idiom: the character spoke in my head in his mother tongue, with the formality befitting his social status, and I tried to capture the cadence of that speech in the English prose I wrote.

Encouraged by the response, I wrote the psychological romance Winter Into Spring likewise in first person, but now in the American idiom of its Midwestern viewpoint character. Unlike in The Tenth Righteous Man, where substantially only a single ‘voice’ is heard, the second protagonist and their antagonist needed distinct speaking voices—the limited parts of the supporting characters less so.

In third person, as already mentioned, you can “switch camera angles”, you can get in multiple character’s heads (which is only possible in first person if the protagonist is a telepath), and you must have a distinctive narrator voice aside from the character voices. The narrator voice seems like a natural outlet for those who like to write more formal, literary language — this is a bug to some who want to read/write a whole book  ‘written the way people talk’, and a feature to the rest of us. In the case of On Different Strings, since one of the two protagonists is an academic of upper-class British background with a neo-Victorian outlook on life, his voice is the most formal and literary in the book, while the narration is more informal, though less so than the plain speech of his best friend and eventual soulmate, a rural Texan woman with limited education but immense musical talent.

Little did I know there’s more than one kind of ‘third person’. Pat Wrede distinguishes between three subtypes, for which I will quote her figurative descriptions (highlights mine):

  1. Tight third person (also known as intimate third-person, third-person-personal, limited third person, third person subjective, etc.) This is the viewpoint where the writer sticks with a single viewpoint character, providing his/her thoughts and emotions directly. The only way for the reader to find out the other characters’ emotions is for the viewpoint character to guess or infer them from what those characters say and do.
    [Wikipedia uses the term “third person subjective” for alternating single viewpoint characters.]

  2. Camera-eye third person (also known as third-person objective, observer-in-the-corner, third-person-impersonal, fly-on-the-wall, third person indirect, camera-on-the-shoulder, [third person dramatic], etc.). In camera-eye third person, the narrator does not give the reader anyone’s thoughts or emotions. The writer just describes expressions and actions, provides dialog and tone of voice – the stuff that a camera or observer could see, and nothing more. Sometimes the writer’s “camera” sits on one particular viewpoint character’s shoulder; sometimes it’s further away, or changes focus; but it always shows only what is happening from the outside.

  3. Third person omniscient [a.k.a. “all-knowing narrator”, a.k.a. just “omniscient” — what one might irreverently call “G-d perspective”, Ed.], in which the narrator is an invisible character who knows everything that has ever happened or will ever happen and everything that anyone is thinking or feeling, and who can report as much or as little of this as seems appropriate.

In case this wasn’t obvious, most classic works of literature were historically written in third person omniscient. And in fact it is still widely used to great effect. But yes, there is intrinsically a bit more ‘distance’ from the characters — which may be a bug or a feature, depending.

And then there’s alternating persons. One variant, alternating first person, is fairly common in genre romances: the narrator voice switches back and forth between the two sides of the relationship, usually at chapter breaks or at most at scene breaks. Some indication is needed to see which character’s side of the tale we are told: simply putting their name in italics atop the chapter/scene seems to work reasonably well.

Rarer, and to many readers disorienting, is alternation between first persons and a third-person narrator. I have seen this used to great effect, but it strikes me as the literary equivalent of a Jack Russell Terrier (or its American cousin, the Rat Terrier): I couldn’t imagine a better dog than mine, but they are not for first-time dog owners.

There are additional modes of telling a story. A fairly old one is the epistolary novel, which first became popular in the 18th century — Dangerous Liaisons and The Sorrows of Young Werther come to mind. The tale is told through a sequence of letters, documents, newspaper articles… sometimes interspersed with small connecting passages. In a contemporary or futuristic novel, Email messages, blog posts, instant messaging chats,… can be used in a similar fashion. In fact, limited inclusion of epistolary material can greatly enrich a first-person or third-person tale: consider, for instance, the quotes from the fictional Encyclopedia Galactica in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, or the ‘book within a book’ The Theory And Practice Of Oligarchic Collectivism  inside Orwell’s immortal Nineteen Eighty-Four.

At the end of the day, of course, there is no single answer: whatever gets the tale told most compellingly works.

Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — a guest post by Nitay Arbel

My guest post at the writer’s blog Mad Genius Club.

The Scientist must put things in order. Science is built of facts, as a house is built of  stones [and a book of words]. But a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house [or a stream of words a book].
(Henri Poincaré.)



Of heaps of stones, facts, or words — Nitay Arbel

Thus spake our Beautiful but Evil Space Mistress’s sensei in “The Notebooks of Lazarus Long”:

What are the facts? Again and again and again — what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what “the stars foretell,” avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable “verdict of history” — what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your single clue. Get the facts!

Amen. It is impossible to do science (or engineering) without facts, just as it is impossible to write a book without words. But are facts all that is needed? Or for that matter, are words all that is needed to write a book?

Robert Heinlein always liked Renaissance (wo)men, and had he ever met the French polymath Henri Poincaré…

View original post 1,112 more words