Sunday, May 14, 2023

Pilgrimage, a poem


The shrine is distant yet; barefoot I walk the road
in pilgrimage, in search of healing. Spring became
the summer as I made my way, the woods grew green

and cool beside my path. Cool, too, it will be in
that grotto where the sacred waters rise to heal
these fevers. Shall I drink deeply there, slake thirsts,

end weariness? Life may be pain but is pain life?
I ask this of the sun, companion of my days,
and of the rain. I ask the sentry stars each night.

None answer. So I journey onward. So I seek
my sacred destination, emptying myself
along the way. Yes, farther along, farther along,

a prayer dropped each mile to mark the distance traveled.
All roads join as one. I shake the dust from my feet
and walk in pilgrimage; the shrine is distant yet.

Stephen Brook ©2023

Wednesday, May 10, 2023


Literary fiction, as I would define it, is fiction that is strongly informed by literary theory. It is connected, at least to some degree, to one ‘ism’ or another. Such schools of artistic theory first came to the fore in the Nineteenth Century, with Realists and Impressionists and Symbolists and all the rest, and have continued to the present day.

To be sure, theory has always played a role in the arts. Writers seize on new ideas and some are apt to formalize them. Others only note them, incorporating what they find of use. Poets and painters are more inclined to identify with and follow an ism, a school of theory, than novelists. Hemingway’s technique was certainly informed by the varied theorists of Modernism—and the Imagist poets, in particular—but his work is not generally regarded as literary fiction.

More broadly, we might say literary fiction focuses on concept. Concept is one leg of the tripod that supports all fiction, in conjunction with characterization and plot. Art in general in the Modern period (that is, since about 1910) has had a strong conceptual component. This has not always aided understanding—one sometimes feels the need of a guide book to ‘get’ both Picasso and Joyce.

To be sure, good art will be enjoyed without understanding. We needn’t know theories of light and color to appreciate Monet. Woolf’s stories are completely readable without any knowledge of the literary criticism of her time. But work that relies too heavily on concept—or on any leg of that tripod I erected—will not hold up.

Note that I do not mention style as a component of fiction. Style, I feel, is largely an expression of concept—indeed, in much work it is the most obvious expression of it. Flaubert’s Realism depends greatly on his language; his sometimes obsessive search for le mot juste, ‘the right word,’ is one mark of literary fiction. Some popular authors do not seem to care about this at all (at least, so far as I can tell).

What is typically labeled as literary fiction today tends to be ‘contemporary realism.’ Some would claim only such realism can qualify—most commonly academics, insulated in the writing programs of one college or another. Contemporary realism I would call a genre, genre being about subject matter. Literary fiction is not a genre; these days it serves primarily as a marketing category but we needn’t get into that, as it has nothing to do with actually writing.

I would posit that one can write literary fiction in any genre. It has nothing to do with the subject matter (except in the sense of the media being the message). I would also say its borders are, at best, nebulous. There is a gradation from fiction that is obviously not literary to that which is. There is no point in trying to fix any given book to a spot on that scale, but recognizing its existence might aid in our understanding of it.

Or, again, we can simply read and enjoy.

Stephen Brooke ©2023

Thursday, April 13, 2023

The Wrong Causes

Individuals fought for all sorts of reasons during the American Civil War, states’ rights, preserving the union, and, yes, definitely slavery. If one asked the ordinary Confederate soldier why he was fighting, he might well have answered ‘Northern tyranny’ (not too unlike the answers you still might get from, say, a Trump supporter today, except ‘Northern’ would become ‘liberal’ or something of that sort). All these ‘reasons’ for fighting were bound up together and difficult to sort out.

However, the cause of the war is not necessarily the same thing as the reasons people fought. I would say the primary underlying cause was the economic domination of the South by northern bankers and industrialists; in many respects, the South had become their colonial possession. Of course, the southerners chose altogether the wrong way to push back, by doubling down on an already broken system—one that relied heavily on slavery.

It is perhaps naive to think that the economic power-brokers of the North, those who financed the war, were concerned about slavery. Individually, of course, many were very much against it, but the establishment wanted to keep the Union intact so they would not lose their power and markets in the South. Preventing secession was good business.

Whom did Jesse James target in his personal continuation of the war? Banks and railroads. As many others, he recognized they were oppressing the common man of the time (but he took it rather personally). The same impulse that led him to rob led others to organize politically, to form unions and the Grange. Seen in this light, the Civil War is part of a great economic upheaval taking place in America. That the South felt it necessary to oppose the ‘robber barons’ by defending an evil system of their own, that is, slavery, was a tragedy.

Perhaps we should see today’s unrest in the same light. People are hurting economically and lashing out but don’t really know at what, and, in the process, are backing the wrong causes.



Stephen Brooke ©2023

Thursday, March 16, 2023

And the Sea

 A poem and a setting, this piece appeared in Stephen Brooke's collection VOYAGES

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Readability Versus Legibility

Thoughts on type choices for authors and small/self-publishers, by Stephen Brooke

One might think readable text is the equivalent of legible text, but they are two different typographic goals. Readability brings quick, effortless reading, without tiring the eye, each letter and word flowing into the next. This is what we desire in a printed book of fiction. The drawback of highly readable text is that we are less likely to note typos and other mistakes, and also that comprehension might not be as good as with a text that gives us a slower read.

Legible text lets us see everything. This is obviously desirable for headlines, advertising, and so on, but not so desirable for print fiction. For books where we might wish to slow things down a bit and increase comprehension, as in poetry or textbooks, a slightly less readable font might be the way to go. Legibility over readability is also the preference in books for small children. Perhaps magazine articles should sometimes slow down the reader a tad, as well. Still, all these do need reasonably readable text.

Now, when I write drafts of my fiction I use a highly legible typeface. Century Schoolbook has been a favorite for this—and also for such applications as textbooks, children’s literature, and legal documents. Recently, I have gone to Sitka which has the advantage of coming installed on every Windows PC as a system font. That certainly simplifies moving documents from one computer to another (yes, I know some use Macs or Linux—as have I in the past—but I do not expect to ever work on anything but Windows in the future). Sitka also displays well on-screen, and (like Schoolbook) has large, easily recognizable punctuation. Punctuation is one of the major problems with many readable typefaces; it sometimes becomes difficult to recognize just what punctuation is being used. Quotation marks can particularly be a problem.

At times, I have gone to monospaced fonts for drafting (and still prefer them for poetry and songwriting). These make spotting mistakes even easier. A personal favorite is Bitstream’s Prestige 12, but there are other perfectly good choices.

I use the typical readable typefaces in my published fiction (all this holds true for self-publishers and indies in general). Garamond and its many variants and descendants is generally a good choice (but not always, mind you—there are some strange, spiky Garamond derivatives out there that are better avoided). Caslons are usually good. The many versions of Palatino? Maybe not quite so readable, though certainly acceptable. They are my default for printing poetry. Incidentally, Palatino was never intended for text, being designed by Herman Zapf as a titling font to go with his Aldus typeface. If you can get hold of Aldus, consider using it instead in prose books.

Plantin has been a safe choice for a century. Crimson Pro might be seen as an open license alternative for today (available free from Google Fonts). Keep in mind that the bulk of the free, open license type available is not particular intended for nor suited to use in your novel. Some that look promising are really better suited to legible text on a web site. Libre Caslon, for example; one could get away with using it in a print book but there are certainly better choices.

And by all means avoid Times New Roman. Its tight spacing works well in narrow columns but it is neither readable nor particularly legible spread across a wider page. There are loads of choices, really, some free, some economically priced (like Softmaker’s Megafont collection). Just make sure the license allows commercial use if you are going to use them in print or embedded in a PDF ebook (embedding in an EPUB is an whole other matter—I only specify ‘serif’ as the typeface in mine and avoid all that).

Of course, none of that matters for the typeface you use to write your drafts. Pick one you like, one that lets you see what you need to see. It needn’t be anything like what will be used in the final product; indeed, it’s better if it is quite different, so you don’t get used to seeing the same type all the way through the editing process. In other words, start legible and move to readable when the work is ready.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

Tarzan's Home


That, according to the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels, ‘Tarzan of the Apes,’ is where the parents of John Clayton, the future Lord Greystoke and Lord of the Jungle, were shipwrecked, Tarzan was born, and where they died, their infant son being adopted by a ‘great ape.’ Incidentally, those apes were not gorillas, nor seemingly chimpanzees nor even bonobos, but an unknown and more manlike species. But that’s not the point here.

That latitude would place young Tarzan in Angola, not too far south of the mouth of the Congo River. Most of the supporting story would corroborate that being the area in which the book is set—not that Burroughs was any kind of expert—with the natives he encounters being refugees from the Belgian Congo, just to the north. Though Burroughs had his occasional racist moments, he did disapprove of the abuses of the Belgians in Africa and did not hesitate to condemn them.

Although in the later novels Tarzan might seem to be established further north, perhaps in the area of Kenya, with adventures north into Ethiopia, in the early ones he definitely lives further south with his adopted tribe, the Waziri, possibly in what is now Zambia and was then Northern Rhodesia. Or just maybe he was a little further north in the Rwanda-Burundi locale. Many of the stories seem to take place in the mountainous regions bordering the east and south of the Belgian Congo. Opar is somewhere in those mountains, and lost Pal-ul-don with its dinosaurs and tailed ‘humans.’

The Waziri might well have been inspired by the people of Rwanda. Certainly the mountainous jungle terrain through with Tarzan moves at times would suggest that area. But, again, Burroughs was no expert on Africa and probably did little more than glean a few facts from books. He set Tarzan up in true colonial fashion as the master of a wide African estate—somewhere, be it Zambia, Rwanda, or even Uganda or Kenya.

It may be noted that during the First World War, that estate was raided by the Germans (from what was then German East Africa and later Tanganyika). Rwanda-Burundi is definitely in striking distance (the events in “The African Queen” were along its borders), not that motivated soldiers could not have penetrated well into Northern Rhodesia. Uganda or Kenya seems less likely.

Arabs, maybe not so much, and Tarzan does have a problem from time to time with Arab raiders. The term Arabs is used very broadly—Burroughs notes that at least some are black or of mixed ancestry. Calling them Arabs was enough for the stories; generally they were up to no good, after slaves or ivory or, of course, that wealthy Englishman’s secret hoard of gold! It doesn’t really matter much whether such men ever raided as far south as Tarzan’s abode (wherever exactly it was located); they were a plot device.

I really do not favor the Kenyan location for Lord Greystoke’s lands (though Philip Jose Farmer used it). Rwanda seems better, but I definitely don’t discount the possibility of Zambia. That area does give the ape man more room and opportunity for adventure. We can’t ask Edgar Rice Burroughs at this point—and, honestly, he might not have had a clear idea himself. Tarzan simply lived somewhere in that region of central Africa along Congo’s eastern borders.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Grip, a poem


I lost my grip on reality,
it slipped right down to the floor;
I tried to catch it and put it back
but it ran out the door!
I am too tired to chase it again,
I think I’ll let it go;
from now on I’ll just make stuff up—
I doubt anyone will know!
Stephen Brooke ©2023
a bit of light verse I dashed off in a couple minutes this morning