The state of the union is extremely precarious. Regardless of anything our fraudulent president might have to say when the delayed (through his own arrogance and stupidity) State of the Union address eventually takes place, it is beyond dispute that the United States is more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War.
To say we are “polarized,” though, is an incomplete explanation. Further, it implies a rough equivalency between the two estranged sides. There is no equivalency. On one side there is liberal democracy. On the other, a crude, atavistic nationalism that is being used by the extremely wealthy to further their own interests.
To make matters worse, the same grim scenario is now playing out in Europe. Nationalism is growing so rapidly there that 30 prominent European intellectuals recently issued a call to action to defend democracy. Many of the phrases in their brief document could be applied to the U.S. as well:
“A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism.”
“We believe it [liberal democracy] remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.”
“In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us.”
There is, though, one important distinction which may yet be America’s salvation. Europe is a collection of nation-states attempting to act within a common framework (the EU). We are a collection of states attempting to act within a national framework.
The importance of our national framework was clearly evident during Trump’s recent, longest-ever government shutdown, when planes couldn’t land at LaGuardia and millions couldn’t get paid or live their normal lives.
Every American citizen depends upon the U.S. government, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is these ligaments, these much-maligned civil servants, that currently hold us together. Trump and the Republicans would retain only enough government power to maintain their place at the top.
We must fight, as Europe must, to keep liberal democracy in place. Without it, we will have no union.
This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.
None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times100 Notable Books list.
Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.
If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?
The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.
The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.
Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.
I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.
Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.
As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”
People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.
Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.
If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.
Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.
Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.
The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.
Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:
Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).
If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).
I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.
My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.
Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.
As the midterms approach, some people are expressing hope that things can begin to change. If only the Democrats can take the House, at least there will be some check on Republican power, they say.
I believe this is short-sighted, wishful thinking. The Democrats could take all of Congress, and take back the presidency in 2020, and there would still be some 40% of Americans festering in ignorance and hatred. Despite its name, this country has been only sporadically united, and then only under severe external threat (financial ruin, world war). We have always been divided. I believe it’s time to acknowledge this fundamental truth once and for all.
Creating separate blue and red Americas is fraught with danger, of course. Yet the alternative—trying to remain together—is at least as perilous. Hatred and violence are growing by the day, and the current nation’s gun “policies” are insane. Rather than the constant, growing battle for social and cultural supremacy, why not let each side go its own way? Why not appoint ambassadors from each side to negotiate a separation agreement?
Well, one reason is that the more perceptive residents of Red America would quickly recognize they were getting the short end of the stick. The international power and clout of America reside largely in the blue states, as does America’s intellectual and cultural capital. The ordinary red(neck) citizenry might say “good riddance,” but the smarter denizens of Texas and Missouri would soon realize they’d be at a considerable disadvantage as a stand-alone country.
Does the above paragraph reflect my anger and contempt for Trump-supporting America? You’re goddamned right it does—political animus is by no means restricted to the backward-looking heartland.
What, then, is the answer? Should Blue America simply secede? Much as I’d love to live in that new country, the answer is, probably not—secession would almost certainly lead to some sort of new, 21st century civil war, or at the very least to an escalation of the already intolerable level of everyday violence.
We’re at an impasse, folks. What to do with that problematic 40%? The Democratic Party doesn’t seem capable of taking and holding power in this country. And holding power would be necessary, if for no other reason than to reestablish a strong public education system to stamp out the appalling ignorance that underlies our present situation.
With all its inherent difficulties, then, some sort of formal separation seems to be our best bet going forward. But it won’t be easy.
R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.
I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.
The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.
Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.
The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.
Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.
“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.
To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.
Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.
Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.
I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.
(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)
To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.
Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times sum up the miserable state of the country as another July 4 has come and gone. The first, published on July 3, is headed “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” It describes the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, with particular emphasis on the 14th Amendment, which includes these lines:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
Simple, straightforward, but of course still unfulfilled. Yet the promise is there, clearly evident in the words “any person.” Unfortunately, as the Times notes, the promise is receding even further as the Supreme Court continues to tilt right.
The second piece, published by columnist Roger Cohen today, is headed “America Never Was, Yet Will Be.” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” and it too deals with a promise that remains unfulfilled. A deep, magnificent promise that was once resonantly symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. A promise still alive for many around the world, even in our current dark times, even if it can never be realized under Trump’s appalling administration.
In his poem, Hughes addresses America’s downtrodden, still plentiful today. Such people are the spiritual ancestors (I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart) of many of Trump’s current supporters, and those supporters remain fooled, too distracted by “fake news” to see the truth and act accordingly.
Here is “Let America Be America Again” in its entirety:
Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be. Let it be the pioneer on the plain Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed— Let it be that great strong land of love Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath, But opportunity is real, and life is free, Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. I am the red man driven from the land, I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek— And finding only the same old stupid plan Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that ancient endless chain Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil. I am the worker sold to the machine. I am the Negro, servant to you all. I am the people, humble, hungry, mean— Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers! I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream In the Old World while still a serf of kings, Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true, That even yet its mighty daring sings In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned That’s made America the land it has become. O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas In search of what I meant to be my home— For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea, And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me? Surely not me? The millions on relief today? The millions shot down when we strike? The millions who have nothing for our pay? For all the dreams we’ve dreamed And all the songs we’ve sung And all the hopes we’ve held And all the flags we’ve hung, The millions who have nothing for our pay— Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again— The land that never has been yet— And yet must be—the land where every man is free. The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME— Who made America, Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain, Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain, Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose— The steel of freedom does not stain. From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives, We must take back our land again, America!
O, yes, I say it plain, America never was America to me, And yet I swear this oath— America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death, The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies, We, the people, must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain— All, all the stretch of these great green states— And make America again!
As the last American Nobel Laureate for Literature once wrote (and sang), “the times they are a-changin’.” Of course they are, they always are. But it’s not everyday that people are unlucky enough to witness cataclysmic change in the making, as at present. Change this large and this momentous filters out to everything, naturally including the arts.
Bob Dylan’s controversial Nobel Prize in 2016 is one recent example. Dylan is widely acclaimed for his “lyrical compositions of extraordinary poetic power,” as a special 2008 Pulitizer Prize citation noted. One of his ballads (“Boots of Spanish Leather”) was even included in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th edition. But the Nobel Prize for Literature? That was unexpected and, many believe, undeserved. Meanwhile, Philip Roth, who had been expected to win this prize for years, has died.
Now we have another sign of changin’ times, in the latest Pulitzer Prize for Music. It went to hip hop artist Kendrick Lamar for his album DAMN. This 2018 award marks the first time someone from outside the realms of classical music and jazz has won.
It should be acknowledged at this point that both of these famous prizes, and in fact all prizes, are inherently flawed—they frequently do not go to the most deserving recipient. Indeed, after winning a Pulitzer in 2003, composer John Adams expressed “ambivalence bordering on contempt” because “most of the country’s greatest music minds” had been long ignored. Just as Philip Roth was repeatedly ignored by the Nobel Committee (which will not make an award in literature this year due to a sex scandal, another sign of the times).
DAMN, in context, is actually quite good. Lamar has an inventive rhythmic sense that lifts these songs out of the ordinary; his lyrics surpass the current general standard as well. Songs like “DNA” and “Humble,” while recognizably hip hop, have musical appeal beyond the genre. If “genre” is even the appropriate word here—hip hop is now the most popular “popular music” we have. In addition, songs like “Fear” express current racial relations in this country quite powerfully. All in all, then, if the Pulitzer people had to shake things up, they shook things up in a generally positive way. Still, I hope the prize reverts to a composer next year.
I went through the American public school system at a time when it was highly regarded, at least in many states. In school, I learned about a number of important American historical events, including slavery and the Civil War. I also learned about American’s westward expansion and the concept of “manifest destiny.” But I was not taught about lynching (which, if it was mentioned at all, was only referenced in passing) or the massive genocide conducted against Native Americans.
Things didn’t improve much during my first year at the state university, where I read purported American history written by Samuel Eliot Morison and others of his ilk that elided many essential events and facts (I later transferred to a better school). In fact, it wasn’t until after college, when I discovered The Nation and Howard Zinn, that I began to piece together some understanding of this country’s genuine history, including long-running atrocities like lynching in America.
Late last month, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial is an astounding creation, documenting the true history of the racist terror campaign behind lynching like nothing else before it. A product of the Equal Justice Initiative and its extraordinary founder and executive director Bryan Stevenson, the memorial and its adjacent Legacy Museum catalog some 4,400 lynchings in total, including hundreds which had gone undocumented until now.
The memorial’s centerpiece consists of some 800 rusted steel columns suspended over a descending walkway. Each column is etched with the name of an American county and the people who were lynched there (many of the names are listed as “unknown”). Some of the killings are described in short summaries along the walk. For example (from the New York Times): Parks Banks, lynched in Mississippi in 1922 for carrying a photograph of a white woman; Caleb Gadly, hanged in Kentucky in 1894 for “walking behind the wife of his white employer”; Mary Turner, who after denouncing her husband’s lynching by a rampaging white mob, was hung upside down, burned and then sliced open so that her unborn child fell to the ground.
Stevenson took his inspiration in part from the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, believing that a single, national memorial was the most effective way to depict the scale of the horror. Germany and South Africa have done a far better job than the United States of confronting their horrific pasts, even if elements of those ugly legacies seem to be on the rise again in both countries. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a breakthrough first step for the U. S. in confronting the evils of its past—and its present too, of course.
But this particular evil had a distinctly local face as well. Whole families would make a festive outing of a lynching, the kids running around with horrific grins on their grimy little faces, the adults smiling malevolently. This was evil with a lasting legacy, still very much with us today.
Even so, the memorial offers some reasons for optimism. The site also houses duplicates of every one of the steel columns, which are intended to travel to the counties where the lynchings were carried out. People in those counties can request “their” column, but to do so they must demonstrate that they have made efforts in their communities to “address racial and economic injustice.”
I will acknowledge at the beginning that articles such as this one can be viewed as a distraction from, or evasion of, “real” writing. And God knows I have several projects I should be working on instead. But I find the tools writers use to be a fascinating subject (and I’m not the only one). Moreover, the focus of this piece—using open source tools to do your work—strikes me as especially timely in light of recent concerns about the intersection of commercialization, privacy and technology. I think most writers should find something of interest below.
This article, then, will provide a brief evaluation of a number of open source programs designed for writers. The one prerequisite for inclusion here is that such programs run on Linux. While I do much of my work on a Mac (which remains, in many ways, the “creative” platform), Linux has become increasingly important in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation and privacy (Tim Cook’s protestations notwithstanding). The OS is in the process of becoming quite a decent platform for writers, as well.
I’ll mention a few commercial writers’ programs up front, just for contrast. One of the problems with proprietary software is clearly demonstrated by the recent decision of Ulysses to employ a subscription model. I regard this form of pricing as a kind of extortion: pay us a monthly fee, or else. Unfortunately, this model has become more prevalent in recent years. Blame Adobe, the company that started it all. Microsoft isn’t helping, either.
Another potential problem with proprietary software involves security and privacy. Not every software maker is as transparent as it could or should be, and there are times when you should be very cautious as a consequence. For example, I was initially impressed by the program Write!, which I’ve mentioned more than once on this site. But the program’s developers have not offered any public transparency concerning their location and personnel (both are potential issues), and the program itself still requires you to log in order to use it, which is both unnecessary and quite dubious from a privacy and security standpoint. I no longer use this software and can’t recommend it.
Not every proprietary program is potentially hazardous or exploitative to use, though—Scrivener is generally exemplary in its pricing, customer relations and overall quality. As I noted in my recent review of Scrivener 3, the program looks as though it will run fine under Wine on Linux, and I will be happy to buy a license to use it there, as well as on my Mac. But Scrivener is arguably an exception. You’re likely to encounter pitfalls of one sort or another with much commercial software, not least an endless, too-frequent “upgrade” cycle. Free and open source software is another paradigm altogether.
OK, then. Let’s start our survey with LibreOffice Writer, an extremely capable word processor that in my opinion renders Microsoft Word unnecessary for the majority of writers. Yes, Word remains the publishing “standard” for both books and periodicals. But Writer is so adept at producing compatible .doc and .docx files that Word really isn’t necessary in this context. Writer’s Track Changes feature operates seamlessly with Word’s, at least in my experience, and formatting for novels, short fiction and poetry is straightforward enough that compatibility issues are a thing of the past. It wouldn’t hurt you to have Word available for some unforeseen contingency but as a writer you really don’t need it. And Writer is available on Mac and Windows, as well as Linux (the same is true for all of the software mentioned below).
What’s more, Writer can be customized for particular needs. There is a terrific plugin called Organon which turns Writer into a Scrivener-like tool for novelists which can organize your work by chapter, scene or section and also give you a place to store notes on characters, locations, etc.
For shorter work, look no further than Graeme Gott’s excellent FocusWriter. This is a very attractive distraction-free writing program that can handle switching between individual scenes or chapters and also offers basic tools like daily goals and the ability to save to .rtf and .odt formats. FocusWriter deserves a review of its own, which I’ll try to provide at some point.
The following three programs try to do what Scrivener does so well: provide an environment conducive to longer creative work, especially novels. None of them can yet equal Scrivener but they are surprisingly capable in their different ways.
There is an update for the general summary of Bibisco below. The 2.0 version of the program is now based on node.js rather than Java, and it’s not backward-compatible. However, the look and feel are much the same as they were before (though full-screen mode is now possible). The program has now been divided into a “community edition” (free) and a “supporters editon” (minimum €10 donation). For the donation you get the option of enabling the ubiquitous “dark mode” that seems to have overtaken most of today’s software. Now, I have no objective to supporting open source projects with donations—I support several of them. But I think this new Bibisco “freemium” mode is inappropriate for an open source project. Either go commercial or don’t, but don’t try to split the difference.
Bibisco (I have no idea what this name means, but it sounds nice, like biscuits and cookies) is open source software from Andrea Feccomandi in Italy which is aimed at novelists. It is very much oriented toward planners rather than “pantsers” (as in “seat-of-the-pants” writing born of experience and instinct). The program asks you to define your characters and their desires in quite extensive detail before you begin writing, although of course you can choose to ignore this. Such extensive preparatory organization will suit many people; it doesn’t match the way I work (though I do appreciate having a section to define characters in briefer detail). Other sections are devoted to narrative strands and locations and the program does a decent job of exporting to .pdf and .rtf formats, though some after-export tweaking may be necessary.
Bibisco is Java-based and comes with its own runtime. It is the least attractive of the three programs we’re discussing here, in my opinion, and also the most rigid—there is no full-screen option, for example, let alone a distraction-free environment. The main editing/writing window is rather small and can’t be resized. Nevertheless, if you can work within the software’s current constraints it does offer all the basics that planning a long work of fiction requires. Many people seem to like it and I think it does show some definite promise.
Manuskript and Plume Creator are more to my taste, both in the way they work and in their appearance. Both of these applications also come from Europe and were developed by Olivier Keshavjee (Manuskript) and Cyril Jacquet (Plume Creator).
Let’s check Plume Creator first. The application is organized logically, with the editing/writing space prominent in the center and various tools located in panels to either side. The right panel can be hidden entirely and there is a distraction-free full-screen mode available. Many other tools in various stages of development are also available—for example, there is a “Workbench” view you can overlay on the main interface in which you can provide synopses, notes, POV and status for various scenes. Workbench is somewhat akin to the Organizer view in Writer’s Organon plugin.
There is also a separate, standalone Notes area—Plume Creator is in development and many features are still being sorted out. Despite this, the program seems quite stable and it offers a great deal of flexibility in how you arrange things.
The program offers an attractive dark theme as an alternative to the light theme shown above, and as already noted there is a distraction-free mode. This lets you shift from scene to scene while still in full-screen view: quite handy.
BTW, that red highlight on the 4,052 word count is to let me know that the story’s draft exceeds its target of 4,000 words. Again, quite handy. Plume Creator does an excellent job of autosaving your work and a credible job of exporting to .pdf and .odt (minor tweaking may be required). Given that this software has yet to reach version 1.0, it is quite impressive—I like it a lot.
But my favorite of the three open source Scrivener-inspired programs we’re examining here is Manuskript.
Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is logically organized with the writing area centered between two side tool panels. In this case, the left panel can disappear entirely while the right panel can be minimized. There is an excellent full-screen, distraction-free mode (borrowed from FocusWriter) which can be customized.
Manuskript, again like Plume Creator, is still working toward version 1.0. But the program seems very stable and I feel pretty confident my work is safe while using it (likewise with Plume Creator). I prefer Manuskript for its somewhat more intuitive organizational scheme and its somewhat greater flexibility; the program just “feels right” to me and I also think it looks more attractive than the other two.
Where Manuskript does fall down somewhat is in its exporting performance; both Bibisco and Plume Creator do a better job at present. Manuskript uses Pandoc to export (or “compile,” as Scrivener does) to a wide range of formats, including .epub, .odt, .docx, .pdf and even LaTeX. But there seems to be some sort of mismatch with Pandoc when exporting from Manuskript’s graphical interface. I’ve discovered a workaround of sorts on a Manuskript GitHub page: simply export to plain .txt format, then use Pandoc on the command line, like so:
pandoc -s -o myprj-output.odt myprj-export.txt
where “myprj” is the name of your Manuskript project. This will give you a LibreOffice Open Document file that at least separates your scenes properly. A more direct solution is to simply copy-and-paste finished scenes from Manuskript into LibreOffice Writer. I feel confident the developer will improve the export function in future versions of the program.
And there you have it: a (relatively) brief overview of today’s most popular open source creative writing tools. Since all of these programs are available for both Windows and Mac you can easily try any of them that pique your interest. With luck, you’ll find a writing app that helps improve your workflow, provides some added privacy/security (as long as you download the software from the developers’ sites linked above) and saves you a bit of money in the process.