Works of Palliative Fiction

Let me prescribe a few of these.

Yesterday, we introduced the concept of palliative fiction, stories designed to ease suffering and renew strength. It can be hard, in our contemporary literary marketplace, to find the aisle where these over-the-counter aids are located. Just this morning, in fact, I saw a book praised for being “unsentimental,” a very sad and contemporary trait to celebrate. No, let’s look for some books that are, in fact, sentimental. Books that are motivated by generosity and hope.

Let’s start with an easy one: Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit. Yeah, the Netflix show was great, but you don’t know this story until you get into the weeds of this book. We meet Beth at age eight, when she arrives in the orphanage after her parents are killed in a car accident. Over the next couple of hundred pages, we watch Beth learn her powers at the board, occasionally falling to better players but using her anger at those losses to drive her to greater capability. We watch Beth become addicted to tranquilizers at the orphanage, watch her become more deeply held in their grip, watch her develop strength to resist. We watch her with her aimless adoptive mother, watch her learn some empathy for a woman she disdained. And none of her growth requires sudden superpowers. She has two superpowers right from her first moments at the orphanage: she’s fiercely intelligent, and she notices everything. Those two gifts underlie every action in the book, from sex to friendship to international chess tournaments. It is from front to back a novel with interest in agency, in Beth’s ability to see and then to act. 

How about The Calligrapher’s Daughter, by Eugenia Kim. Just an amazing story, so rich, so careful. The Confucian culture of early 20th century Korea comes through in every sentence, every gesture, every refusal to speak. The complications are vast. Tradition and modernity. Confucian and Christian. Brother and sister. Husband and wife. Elite class and servant class. Good child and bad child. Occupier and occupied. Wife and mistress. Teacher and student. At every step, with every person she encounters, Najin has to make choices, and she agonizes over every single one, never certain upon which ground she stands. I increasingly value stories about people who always try to do the right thing, even when they have no idea what the right thing is. I’m tired of cynical, opportunistic, craven stories. Give me a story of someone generous, someone smart, someone intelligent enough to know that they don’t know. The Calligrapher’s Daughter is exactly that.

Or maybe the best novel of the past twenty years that scarcely anyone’s heard of: Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness, by Jennifer Tseng. Mayumi, the narrator of this story, is a Japanese-British-American librarian who lets us completely, unguardedly, inside her mind as she navigates a web of relationships—family, work, and (most especially) otherwise. She is disgusted and at peace with her husband, loving and exhausted with her daughter, at home and alienated from her work. And she is ashamed and impatient and delighted and brazen with her lover. Mayumi and the Sea of Happiness is a treasure, a powerful and humbly honest story that defies summarization. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

I haven’t read his other books, but I stumbled across Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night, and I was immediately taken. Two small town neighbors, an older widowed man and and older widowed woman, turn to one another from simple loneliness and discover so much more. And together, they take on the project of reclaiming her grandson from his meager, uncaring family. A multidimensional book about the families we inherit and the ones we make.

YA literature is filled with books of hope and discovery. Two of my favorites are Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park. Any book where outsiders discover their capabilities, and discover people who can see and love those capabilities, is a win, and YA does that better than any other genre, because teenagers haven’t yet learned that being unsentimental is a good thing. Alexie tells the story of Arnold Spirit Jr., a delightfully profane young man who loves his family and friends but simultaneously wants something undefinably more, and struggles through his time away in a predominantly white high school to reconcile those two dreams. And Rowell puts two kids together who really don’t want to be, the Goth girl and the comic book boy, and lets them discover each other’s strengths.

There’s plenty more, but let’s start with these. I’ll write you another prescription later after you see how these go.

Palliative Fiction

Yeah, it’s tough, but we’ll make it. Maybe some of these books can help.

Palliative Care: an approach that improves the quality of life of patients and their families facing the problems associated with life-threatening illness, through the prevention and relief of suffering by means of early identification and impeccable assessment and treatment of pain and other problems—physical, psychosocial, and spiritual.

World Health Organization

Last night, Nora and I watched the first episode of the Lynn Novick / Ken Burns series on Ernest Hemingway, in which one of the chattering commentators praised him for fully capturing the “brutalizing era” that he saw around him. I’ve written before about the artistic valorization of suffering that supposedly makes literature serious. And Hemingway brought us fully into the violence of life: into war, into the bullring and the sport-hunting trip, and always into his toxic relationships with women. And I wonder, I really do, what we as readers gain from that. I’ve missed out on a vast amount of important literature because I’m just not interested. I finally three years ago read The Great Gatsby, which really isn’t anything more than an extended cut of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, in which every character has exchanged their last scraps of honor and decency for champagne and nicely wrapped shirts, covering the shambles of their misery with an expensive skim-coat of gaiety.

What do we gain? Can attending a dog fight do anything other than brutalize us just a little bit more?


A friend of ours wrote a few days ago that his obituary should include the line “and also penned what has been described as the two most profound books of poetry never to have been published.” Nora was deeply touched by that, and wrote back to him about the importance of doing work that may never be seen. And she wrote the following about my work: Herb talks about readers and wanting people who take pleasure in the characters he shapes, who identify with them, see themselves as better because of them…but then I have always said he is a pastor in writer\academic\municipal leader’s clothing. And that’s true. As a college teacher, I was less interested in teaching what I thought students “should know,” and far more interested in sharing my enthusiasms so that they might find their own.

Any career has three elements, and each of them requires a different role from its guides.

  • There’s technical or content knowledge, the things our tribe knows that others don’t. Our body of knowledge, our mode of discourse. College is really good at content knowledge, and the teacher’s job is to convey that.
  • There’s logistical knowledge, the tasks and tricks that we need to know in order to employ our content knowledge. We need to know how to schedule and how to budget, how to acquire good materials and how to quickly discern materials that won’t last. How to build and manage a team, how to find funding, how to keep a client happy. The training of that comes from the supervisor.
  • And finally, there’s emotional and strategic knowledge, the reasons why we do whatever it is that we do. We need to know what draws us, both in the proximal sense of interesting projects and in the distal sense of life mission. And that’s fostered by the mentor.

When I taught at Duke and at the Boston Architectural College, I was an adequate teacher and a decent supervisor, but I was attentive every day to being a mentor. That notion of “the life of the mind” really did speak profoundly to me, far more than any specific expression of it. My best students have gone on to be lawyers and doctors, writers and historians, urban planners and engineers. I’m agnostic about the mode of joy any individual chooses, favoring joy itself in whatever form it emerges.

I had a conversation once with the president of a college now loosely affiliated with a religious denomination. I asked whether there was any tension for him between the intellectual and religious roles he played. He said, “We can teach students what to think, or we can teach them how to think. It isn’t possible to do both.”


I’ve struggled for a long time to find a rapid descriptor of my “genre.” I’ve tried out men’s romance, which is kind of true but self-denigrating. I’ve tried out men’s fiction, as a mirror of women’s fiction ( the WFWA defines “the driving force of women’s fiction is the protagonist’s journey toward a more fulfilled self”), but men’s fiction just sounds like more of the Hemingway macho adventurism that got us into this mess in the first place.

But Nora’s comment last night clarified things for me. I want to ease suffering and encourage enthusiasm. I want to find a character I care about and write them toward safety—and by so doing, to write my readers toward safety as well. We have all suffered, and we’re all going to die. Our condition seems to be terminal. So a palliative fiction, borrowing from the WHO’s definition of palliative care, would be one that improves the quality of life of readers and those around them through prevention and relief of suffering, addressing pain that is physical, psychosocial, or spiritual. That feels like a worthy enterprise to me.

So, for the moment, palliative fiction will be the shelf tag. Tomorrow, I’ll recommend some.

Peer Review

Yeah, funny.

I think often about the differences between art forms: different expectations for who does them, how often, with what level of review or oversight or feedback. I have a friend who’s a brilliant wood turner, for instance. He treats each piece of wood as its own event, has almost never made the same thing twice. But he doesn’t take a bowl or a vase that’s drying after having been turned, and carry it to a colleague’s house and say “have a look, tell me what you think about that curve there.” No, he trusts his experience and his eye and he does what he wants. And when he’s accepted to a juried show, the jurors carry no expectation that they’ll be able to say “We’ll take it, but we have some recommendations…” No, they accept it or they don’t.

But writers are different from that. We belong to writers’ groups, send our work to be workshopped, sometimes more than once, while we’re working on it. If we’re lucky enough to have an agent take it on, that agent feels entirely warranted in making substantial recommendations about the book they see hiding inside the book we wrote. And then if that agent is lucky enough to sell it, the author goes through it all over again with an editor. I’m not complaining about that—I’ve had really wonderful relationships with a couple of different editors who’ve helped me make stories better—but I’m just noting it as a fundamental difference between craft practices.

That wood turner has made about five or six hundred beautiful things in a dozen years of work; that works out to maybe one a week. Each one might be two years in the making, but he’ll be working on a bunch of them at once, turning some and drying others and finishing yet more. I’ve made a dozen things in seven years, not quite two a year. And in the writing world, that’s suspect, the notion that someone might be able to write a novel in four or six months. It must be rote, formulaic. Hack work. (And working fast certainly CAN produce hack work. I read a novella today as one of my free downloads on my new iPhone, by a writer who’s written almost three dozen books in the same period since 2013 that I’ve been writing fiction. And good lord, it’s awful.)

So we have different expectations by pace, different expectations by nature of review and editorial input. It’s fun, as a counterfactual exercise, to imagine taking on another way of working. To say, as a writer, that I’m going to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about stories, and the people who’ll like it will like it. Everybody else can go on to the next booth.


I’ve been doing some academic coaching lately. And without putting a precise dollar amount on it, I can say that I’ve made about the same in the past five months of that work than I’ll have made from everything I’ve ever published in thirty years. (You can make your own case as to whether one is underpaid or the other overpaid.) And that coaching is only possible because I’ve had twenty years of practice at doing what I do around assessment. I’m able to work rapidly, trust my training and my instincts about how colleges work, and get good products onto the table reliably and fast. The novelist William Saroyan once wrote that “I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”

I watch my friend Aimee make jiseung. She’s been doing it for decades, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Now she’s in Korea, watching the “intangible cultural resource holder” Bak Seong-chun make bamboo screens. He’s been doing it for seventy years, works incredibly fast and without oversight, and produces beauty. Jazz players improvise every night. Decades of practice makes them reliable. But in the twenty-five years since he became a professional golfer, Tiger Woods has had a daily swing coach in all but six of those years, seeing the things that Tiger himself could not, tinkering and tweaking every day toward incremental perfection. So the role of collaboration and oversight varies even at the highest possible levels of different art forms.

I’m self-taught in almost everything I do, though that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had feedback. And we all are, aren’t we. We all taught ourselves how to cook and how to be parents or friends. We all taught ourselves how to drive, really, and how to read, really, with only the lightest forms of coaching along the way. No state licensing board requires a masters degree in parenting before one’s first child, and THERE’s a high-stakes practice, isn’t it? And with only a few guides along the way, I’ve taught myself how to write.

As Marge Piercy wrote in her brilliant poem “For the Young Who Want To,” every artist lacks a license to hang on the wall. We just do the work, over and over, and occasionally we ask someone to look over our shoulder.