Is the paranormal “unconstrained whimsicality”?

Apropos of my discussion of the paranormal and Marlborough Street, here (via Jerry Coyne) is an excerpt from an article by the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins:

One aspect of the paranormal versus real science should not go unremarked. As in other forms of obscurantist pursuit, such as religion, it is so easy to make time-wasting speculations. The paranormal is effectively unconstrained whimsicality. Original suggestions in real science emerge only after detailed study and the lengthy and often subtle process of testing whether current concepts are adequate. Only if all this hard work fails is a scientist justified in edging forward human understanding with a novel and possibly revolutionary idea. Real science is desperately hard work; the paranormal is almost entirely the fruit of armchair fantasizing. Real science is a regal application of the full power of human intellect; the paranormal is a prostitution of the brain. Worst of all, it wastes time and distorts the public’s vision of the scientific endeavour.

(Neither Coyne nor Atkins takes any prisoners.)

This seems perfectly true to me. And this is an aid in writing fiction that involves the paranormal: you get to make up the rules, and no one gets to tell you That’s really not how it works. You are the one doing the “armchair fantasizing”; you’re not advancing human understanding, but you may entertain a few people. The hero in Marlborough Street can find missing persons and occasionally dip into someone else’s mind; the heroine of Summit with great mental effort can force a person to change the way he thinks and acts. The only limitation is the limitation of all fiction: internal consistency.  It’s your fictional universe, but once you’ve set up its rules, you have to live by them.

The paranormal and Marlborough Street

When I was writing Marlborough Street (ebook now available!) I did a good bit of reading about the paranormal, especially “psychic detectives,” since my hero, Alan Simpson, was such a beast, the reluctant owner of a gift that allowed him to find missing persons, living and dead.

I decided that there wasn’t much there.  The scientific study of the paranormal didn’t reveal anything, and the anecdotes weren’t much better. I recall reading the autobiography of one self-proclaimed psychic detective, and by the end I realized that she hadn’t really solved a single crime or directly found a single missing person.  As evidence of her prowess she would point to vague hints she had provided the police that later proved to be generally accurate.  But that’s the stuff of newspaper horoscopes — if you say “I see a dark forest near a lake,” occasionally you will end up being sort of right.  But which forest?  Which lake?  How near the lake?  Where’s the body?

But I went ahead and wrote the novel, because, you know, reality is not a novelist’s problem.  I liked the idea of a protagonist whose gift was more a curse than a blessing (and I used the same general concept in Summit for a character with a very different kind of psychic ability).  Anyway, Alan spends a good bit of time pondering the fickle nature of his “gift,” as in this passage, in which it has once again let him down:

He had long ago come to the conclusion that his gift had a consciousness of its own and was determined to be perverse. The worst possible frame of mind was to care about what it gave him.

He recalled the time he had volunteered for a psi experiment at Harvard. He was a freshman, and temporarily in love with rationality. Surely ESP was the next great frontier of science, and surely he could help to conquer it. And if it helped him to understand himself, so much the better.

The researcher was a middle-aged psychology professor who, secure in his tenure, had evidently tired of running rats and wanted to dabble in the occult. In this experiment, a computer randomly generated simple drawings. The subject sat in a booth and tried to reproduce the drawings.

Nothing could be easier. Alan sat down and drew better than he had ever drawn before. The images flowed easily and vividly: a cow crossing railroad tracks, two black boys listening to the radio, a vase of roses lying on its side… When he handed in his booklet he was grinning with delight. You’re onto something now, Professor, he wanted to say.

Then he waited. If the professor was onto something, he wasn’t letting Alan know about it. Finally Alan camped outside his door during office hours and managed to get a few minutes of his time.

“Simpson, Simpson…” The fellow poked around his desk, littered with blue books and overflowing ashtrays, until he found Alan’s folder. “Ah, yes. A. Simpson. Chance level. Some interesting drawings, though.”

It took a moment to sink in. And as it did he was inside the professor’s mind for an instant of utter clarity: God, I’m tired. Maybe that sweet little thing with the black tights will show up. Dental bills. A Cognitive-Affective Theory of Perhaps you’d like to discuss your paper over a…

Chance level. I should mention the black tights, Alan thought. What were the odds on that?

But then he realized what his gift was up to. If I mention the black tights, they’ll probably be wrong too. And Alan started to laugh. “Sorry to bother you,” he said. “Just curious.”

He didn’t feel like laughing now. No VW, no Julia, no cat—but he knew the gift remained, lurking in the shadows of his psyche, waiting to play its next trick. Alan kicked an empty motor-oil can and headed for the exit.

I like the idea of the paranormal lurking mischievously in the background, determined not to be caught by science and rationality.  Do I believe it?  Well, no.  But it makes for a good story.

Marlborough Street is now available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble!

Kindly purchase it for the Kindle or the Nook.  Presumably it’ll show up in other places before long.  It’s only $2.99, and Christmas was expensive this year.

Marlborough Street’s summary and first chapter are here.  And here’s the cover, which maybe is OK:

Marlborough Street cover

I have to tell you that Marlborough Street is a pretty strange novel.  It’s partially about the meaning of life (which, incidentally, I explain on the last page), but it’s also about the difference between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, and what it means to be a psychic.  It’s a suspense/thriller/horror type of thing, but I also tried to make it funny.  It all makes sense to me, but your mileage may vary.

In which Wikipedia gets annoyed with my friend Jeff

In response to the Philip Roth brouhaha, my friend Jeff fixed an error in my brief, uninteresting Wikipedia entry.  The fix is still there, but it clearly annoyed Wikipedia, which has now added this statement:

This article relies on references to primary sources or sources affiliated with the subject. Please add citations from reliable and independent sources.

So there.  I guess I could add some references to secondary sources about the publication date for Marlborough Street, but learning their editing model will take more time than I care to give it just now.  WYSIWYG it isn’t.

Does a real living breathing human being look at all these changes and pass judgment on them?  This is either very impressive or very depressing.  Probably both.

Wikipedia standards and the Roth affair

Here we discuss Philip Roth’s open letter to The New Yorker to get Wikipedia to change the “Inspiration” section of its article on his novel The Human Stain.  For those of you who just can’t get enough of this story, here is a deep dive into the back and forth in the revision history of the article, where we see the editors actually adding more detail to the incorrect discussion of Anatole Broyard possibly being the basis for the novel’s main character.

The post clears up one point for me.  Roth couldn’t have just posted his “open letter” on his own blog and claimed it was a secondary source.  Wikipedia is wise to that one:

Anyone can create a website or pay to have a book published, then claim to be an expert in a certain field. For that reason self-published media—whether books, newsletters, personal websites, open wikis, blogs, personal pages on social networking sites, Internet forum postings, or tweets—are largely not acceptable. This includes any website whose content is largely user-generated, including the Internet Movie Database (IMDB),,, collaboratively created websites such as wikis, and so forth, with the exception of material on such sites that is labeled as originating from credentialed members of the sites’ editorial staff, rather than users.

So Roth had to transform himself into his own secondary source by getting his letter published in The New Yorker.  That worked.  (We’ll probably never know why Roth felt the need to go to these lengths to correct the article. Presumably he didn’t write letters to the editor complaining when all those reviews raised the possibility that the novel was based on Broyard. And the fact that the reviews did raise the possibility is sort of noteworthy in its own right–perhaps not about the novel itself, but about the context in which the novel was written.  That’s a point that the Lawyers, Guns & Money blogger raises at the end of his post.)

I’m OK with Wikipedia’s policy on secondary sources, although I haven’t thought deeply about it.  Crowd-sourcing content obviously has its limits, and Wikipedia obviously has had to figure out a way to avoid complete anarchy.  I’m not sure I could come up with a better solution than they have.

So where are we with my little Wikipedia problem?  Jeff has kindly fixed the error in the publication date for Marlborough Street, and the fix is still there a day later.  The article uses this site as its source, which also has the date wrong, so that’s the problem.  But then there are any number of other sites offering used copies for sale and listing the publication date as 1987.  Do they count, I wonder?

Philip Roth writes a letter to Wikipedia, and we should all read it

This is pretty funny, and a little sad.  Philip Roth came across an inaccuracy in the Wikipedia article about his novel The Human Stain.  The article stated that the novel was “allegedly based on the life of the writer Anatole Broyard.”  But it wasn’t.  Roth informed Wikipedia of the error, but the Wikipedia refused to make a change:

Yet when, through an official interlocutor, I recently petitioned Wikipedia to delete this misstatement, along with two others, my interlocutor was told by the “English Wikipedia Administrator”—in a letter dated August 25th and addressed to my interlocutor—that I, Roth, was not a credible source: “I understand your point that the author is the greatest authority on their own work,” writes the Wikipedia Administrator—“but we require secondary sources.”

So he wrote an open letter to The New Yorker instead, giving the background of the novel, which is about a college professor who gets caught up in a political correctness scandal.

Anatole Broyard was a literary critic who never acknowledged that he was of African-American ancestry.  The main character of The Human Stain is a professor who never acknowledged his African-American ancestry.  So that’s where reviewers made the connection.  But Roth goes to great lengths to make the case that this connection isn’t correct. “Novel writing is for the novelist a game of let’s pretend,” he says.  He took a germ of an idea–a muddle-headed remark made in class by a friend of his at Princeton, and its consequences–and populated a novel from it.

The Human Stain is great, but I particularly admire the shorter novels he been writing lately.  The Humbling was too over-the-top with the standard Roth sexual fantasies for my taste (and that of most critics, I think).  But Nemesis, about an imagined polio outbreak in Newark in 1944, was powerful and moving.

But back to Wikipedia.  Its article about The Human Stain is now up to date, citing Roth’s explanation of the novel’s genesis.  They don’t waste any time!  And now I may be inspired to tackle an error in my brief and uninteresting Wikipedia writeup: it says Marlborough Street was published in 1975, but it was actually published in 1987; I still hadn’t learned how to write in 1975.  They’ve got secondary sources that also list the book as being published in 1975, so apparently they’re not going to take my word for it.  I have no idea where that date came from.  I wonder if they’ll accept this blog post as a source?  I suppose I could post a photo of the copyright page . . .

New, lower prices on my ebooks

Regular blogging will now resume.  I hope you found other ways to entertain yourself in the past week.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out that my ebooks are on sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble — and probably at other places as well.  My new publisher’s marketing scheme appears to be to set a list price of $4.99 on Amazon, and then discount from that, so the books look like they are on sale.  Which, I guess, they are.  So buy them while the prices are low.

Senator remains free. It’s been interesting to see how it has fared on the “bestseller” list of free Kindle books.  It peaked somewhere in the 100s on the overall list; now it’s down in the 800s.  For a while it was #1 in the political genre; it has now faded to #6.  It was also in the top ten for a while in the suspense genre; it is now at #24.  As the Underpants Gnomes say: Profit!!

Replica is now available for $0.99.  That’s a pretty good deal!  But has not yet broken into the top 100,000 for Kindle.  Shoot.

Pontiff and Summit are both available for $2.99.  Oddly, Pontiff is much higher on the paid Kindle bestseller list than either Replica or Summit.  I’m guessing that, at the sales level we’re talking about, a few copies can make a pretty big difference in a book’s ranking.

The ebook release of Dover Beach is going to be delayed so we can publish its sequel, whose title may or may not be Locksley Hall, at the same time.  But it shouldn’t be very long.

My goal is to get the ebooks for Forbidden Sanctuary and Marlborough Street out the door by the end of the year.

Then we’ll have a party.