Writing Advice/Review: J. P. Jones's A Witness in Tunis

Reviewer Tony D’Souza’s first novel, Whiteman, received the Peace Corps Writers Maria Thomas Prize for Fiction, and is loosely based on his Peace Corps service in an Ivory Coast headed for civil war. His second novel, The Konkans, is loosely based on his mother’s Peace Corps service in India from 1969 to 1970 where she met and married his father. Tony has contributed fiction and essays to The New Yorker, Playboy, Esquire, Outside, Granta, McSweeney’s, the O. Henry Awards, and Best American Fantasy, and is the recipient of two NEA Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and gold and silver medals from the Florida Book Awards. He lives in Sarasota, FL, with his wife Jessyka and two young children, Gwen, 18 months, and Rohan, 6 months. The D’Souzas are spending the next few months traveling in India.

Here, Tony uses J.P. Jones’s novel A Witness in Tunis to offer advice to RPCVs on how to get their novels looked at honestly by editors at the major publishing houses.

witness-in-tunis-140A Witness in Tunis
by J.P. Jones [pseudonym for Phil Jones (Tunisia 1966-68)] Booksurge
January 2010
410 pages

Reviewed by Tony D’Souza (Cote d’Ivoire 2000–02 & Madagascar 2002–03)

While it certainly has its moments, J.P. Jones’ self-published novel A Witness in Tunis is a good example of the RPCV books which pass across editors’ desks without ever really being considered for commercial publication. It’s not that these books are bad, they aren’t, it’s more that early on in their narratives they commit certain fatal errors that editors are trained to quickly sniff out the way pigs in France find truffles. It’s hard to fault the publishing world’s gatekeepers for reading our oeuvres with the rejection stamp at the ready; there are simply too many manuscripts waiting to be read and too few shekels to go around for them to spend time on anything that raises red flags.

In the case of A Witness in Tunis , I’d wager that the stamp hit the very first page of the book. In just his first two sentences, Jones’ commits a major fault that would give most editors more than enough justification to pull the rejection trigger: word repetition.

The unshaven, half-dressed man was begging for mercy as the policemen pulled him down the alley by his hair. Following behind the man were his three children who wailed and screamed, begging for the release of their father . . .

The use of the word “begging” twice in two sentences might not bother a lay reader, but for an editor, it is one of the hallmarks of bad writing. It’s not something that Jones does often in his book, in fact I can’t think of another instance. And so I’m left scratching my head as to why he allowed himself the transgression in the all-important opening paragraph.

What passes through an editor’s mind in this case is: This writer has repeated a word he could have easily found a substitute for, therefore this writer is either lazy, has a limited vocabulary, doesn’t have his heart in this, or is untalented. The writing will lack color and not get better. Time to move on to the next manuscript. The end.

Ah, I can hear you saying to you computer screen now as you read this, D’Souza is a windbag, editors are not turned off by such small gaffs as repeated words, heck, they are not even turned off by bad, even wretched writing. Case in point, The DaVinci Code.

True enough. But what makes Witness in Tunis, indeed the vast majority of RPCV penned novels, different from The DaVinci Code is that RPCV writers’ books leave the gate never having a shot at reaching a wide, money minting, general audience. Often, as is the case in Witness, they are set in obscure Third World countries where the RPCVs served, contain a plethora of arcane information about those countries and the cultures in them, are usually earnest and serious about recording those cultures properly, and demand a level or awareness and engagement with our world and its people that Dan Brown simply does not ask.

Witness in Tunis is one of those RPCV books that hits an editor’s desk with a number of strikes already against it. Firstly, it is set in Tunisia, a country that most Americans do not know exists, one which has neither suffered a major, recent disaster, nor with which are we at war. The novel contains a liberal sprinkling of Arabic and French words, which annoys general readers, and it mildly criticizes US policies in the Arab world. While it does have murder and sex in its pages, plenty of more user-friendly books do as well. An editor considering Witness, along with so many other RPCV manuscripts, has already decided even before reading it that the book cannot reach a wide enough market to justify its publication, therefore it has to be of such immaculate literary merit that it has a shot at the National Book Award or a Pulitzer Prize — and sales at a later date. Therefore the editor will hold up the writing to the very best authors who have previously covered similar literary territory — in Jones’ case, Paul Bowles and Albert Camus. Camus, it should be remembered, won the Nobel Prize for his writing. And yes, an editor reading  A Witness in Tunis will want it to be as good as that.

Another, and perhaps, more intrinsic problem that editors have with RPCV books such as Witness is that the world has changed in the past half century with the end of colonialism, and with the increasing numbers of native writers emerging everyday with a greater right to tell the stories of places like Tunis. As RPCVs, we of all people must count this as a historical success, but it will certainly not help us get our books published.

Jones and  A Witness in Tunis in no way deserved to be the focus of this critical assessment, and I must thank the author for being an unaware, luck-of-the-draw guinea pig on this assignment. In fact, I enjoyed Jones’ novel, found myself wrapped up in its tale of Jewish-Arab conflict in a contemporary police-state Levantine country. The villain of the novel, a dangerous and brutal Tunisian police inspector named Taieb, is memorable and chilling, and the way that Jones has the Tunisian authorities turn a politically charged killing into prostitute-and-orgy-smeared intrigue feels as complex as it does real.

Many RPCV novels are as good as this, and it’s a shame that more cannot find homes at major publishing houses. For those RPCVs with manuscripts hoping to see the light of day through a traditional house, the point I’m trying to make is that the writing must be absolutely perfect because editors are looking for any reason at all to tell you, “No thanks.”

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  • Yes, I cringed somewhat at reading this overview, because I know it’s true. The post-colonial business is especially troubling and in some ways hard to accept — that for some of us, our tales of our adventures are seen as not just quaint but embarrassing and in some cases, offensive to the new young crop of litterateurs. For some of us, our time is past.

  • A few weeks ago in this site I read a review of a novel by Moniker or Monninger, a well established mid-list “pro.” I recall that the reviewer liked the mid-life crisis love affair and tragic death by terrible disease. And she said also something like wow I’ve never seen a novel with so much kissing in it. Give that writer a prize for chick-lit kissing superabundance, she, the reviewer said, and yes let’s celebrate how much the book just oozes “peace corps values.”

    D’Souza is so brilliant and focused that while I have no idea who he is, I wonder if he has not had a book rejected himself once or twice in his lifetime?

    Now I can only wonder—what if D’Souza had reviewed the maine wilderness love story by the established writer and the woman reviewer had reviewed Jone’s — would she maybe have
    Opened her review with “I enjoyed Jones’ novel, found myself wrapped up in its tale of Jewish-Arab conflict in a contemporary police-state Levantine country. The villain of the novel, a dangerous and brutal Tunisian police inspector named Taieb, is memorable and chilling, and the way that Jones has the Tunisian authorities turn a politically charged killing into prostitute-and-orgy-smeared intrigue feels as complex as it does real.”

    I can only wonder. I am just grateful that Peace Corps values are being kept alive and vital.

  • John, wow your reviewer D’Souza can write. Fascinating analysis about why our RPCV thoughts/novels/stories about our half-century- old takes on our countries are not sought after (you’re competing with Albert Camus), and some great comments. You must enjoy this terrific stimulation. hugs, Woody

    RPCV Ethiopia 1966-1969
    Peace Corps staff 72-78, 80-83, 93-98

  • I’m constantly telling my students to tighten up their writing. These two opening sentences need editing. I quickly eliminated seven words and changed a verb: “Unshaven and half dressed, the man begged for mercy as the policemen yanked him down the alley by his hair. Following behind, his three children wailed and screamed for the release of their father.” As an editor, I’d already be thinking of the time and effort necessary to do such tightening up of the prose for the length of the book. I’d discard it after two sentences and pick up another manuscript.

  • As a former editor in New York, I am paranoid about repeating words. So, of course, I overlooked “begging” in the very first paragraph of his work. For some reason unknown to myself, I added the second phrase about “begging” in a quick last-minute edit. Ah well, such are life’s little ironies!

    As for the rest of the review, I’m not exactly thrilled to be Mr. D’Souza’s guinea pig about what to avoid, but I can’t argue with anything he said. However, I would like to put in a good word about self-publishing and the growing need to avoid the the more commercial channels for publishing serious novels. In my case, I chose to self-publish precisely because I wanted to write about a country little known to the “general readers” of America. Frankly I also wanted to include foreign words/phrases and info about the local culture and Tunisia’s variant to Moslem extremism because I wanted to stretch the minds of the “general reader,” not kowtow to his and her alleged shrinking interests and reading capabilities. Moreover I didn’t want to put up with the attitudes of today’s major publishers, agents, et al. toward what used to be called mid-level books. As for small, niche publishers, I figured I could do as well on my own as go with a tiny publisher who probably couldn’t place my books in more than two or three bookstores. A final point: although D’Souza is undoubtedly right that general readers are shifting to books written by authors from other countries, I think there should always be a market for books written by outsiders. It would be a shame if we let all books about, say, India be written by Indians.

    Phil Jones

  • After countless rewrites and the intervention of two editors and six test readers, I finally held my new book. The pages were stiff as I found two typographical errors and e-mailed lament to my chief editor. He responded, “I am seated in my office. On the shelf facing me is a copy of the Bible- the word of God. It too has type-os.”

  • Thanks, Phil Jones, for your sensible and grown-up reply. As a self-published novelist working in academia, I have had to put up with continual dismissal of my book because of how I ended up getting it into the world. Yet I know it has been bought and read by hundreds more people than the typical academic book. And I also appreciate and am comforted by your affirmation of the value of books by “outsiders.” The idea of an American as an outsider is at the heart of most Peace Corps novels, and the ways in which we have been changed by our experience as outsiders often make us “better” when we get home. I wish some of my colleagues saw it that way; I have the feeling that the Peace Corps novel is seen these days as a bit passe.

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