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Interview – Ron Carlson


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Ron Carlson Interview 7/10/2010

William H. Coles

Ron Carlson

Ron Carlson is Director of Creative Writing at the University of California, Irvine. He received a Masters degree in English from the University of Utah. He has published widely both novels, his most recent The Signal (2009), and short stories. He wrote Ron Carlson Writes A Story, a nonfiction book for writers. His stories have appeared in many anthologies, including The O'Henry Prize Series and The Pushcart Prize Anthology. He is a popular lecturer and teaches in workshops throughout the country.

It's June 23rd, 2010, and I'm with Ron Carlson who is Professor of Creative Writing at the University Of California, Irvine.  We're at Kenyon College's annual Workshop where Ron often teaches.  This evening he is presenting an eagerly anticipated reading of his work.

WHC

Ron, I'd like to thank you very much for agreeing to talk to StoryinLiteraryFiction.com.

RC

You bet.

WHC

I'd like to start with basic definition.  How do you define "short story?"

RC

Well, wouldn't it be great if we could just get a definition?  But it's elusive.  Of course, a short story is not a single thing done a single way.  It is constantly being invented.  One of the conventional ways we can talk about it is something happens in time to someone.  People go through an event which [reveals] something [about them], what kind of characters they are.  Event reveals character.

WHC

Is there a difference in your mind as a fiction writer between essay, character sketch, memoir and fiction?  Does the use of the imagination or a specific structure set the fictional short story away from other genres?

RC

Well, there is a great deal of talk about this now.  We have two instruments–memory and imagination.  We think [of] imagination as being wild and free and memory as being responsible.  In fact, neither is totally objective.  More to your question: Stories have a rise and fall.  They take place in-scene.  Although there are scenes and commentary in memoir, its purpose is to deliver information more than it is to ask a question dramatically.

WHC

What is the importance of story to humans?  Why do humans seek out stories?  What is it about stories that makes their lives better?

RC

Well, I don't think they are really separate.  People live by the evidence around them, and that evidence is stories.  We learn in family, groups of friends, and society and culture.  They’re stories we all share, stories we are all drawn to, and stories we reject.  Stories that are offensive, arresting, and so we are . . . I don't think of it as secondary.  I don't think of it as frosting on the cake of culture.  I think of stories as the center of culture.  Sometimes we confuse it with literary studies that are often arcane or off to the side, but in fact a father and a son, a mother or a daughter, are constantly sharing stories.  It's the way we learn to live.

WHC

Do you find that readers experience different stories of yours in different ways?  And if so, what makes the difference in the interpretations?  The reason I ask is because a fiction writer may wonder if he or she shouldn't write for a certain reader who reads in a certain way.

RC

Well, there are a lot of answers to that.  My answer is that the reader's not going to come along unless I write the story.  The only reason I write the story is because I want to read it.  So I'm the reader.  There are many things about my stories that are provocative for me, but I'm not sure I can offer the best explanation of any of my stories.  And so, yeah.  People come up to me and they respond to different parts of a story.  I think they got something different than I intended.  But in fact, that's the way it is.  I'm writing with everything I've got.  I only have one speed.  When I'm writing I don't think about the reader.  I'm trying to make the best story, the story I want to read.  Many times I'm writing to find out what the heck is going to happen.  So, I'm not surprised that people come back and remember a specific image or another moment.  It almost seems secondary [to my process].

WHC

Do you feel differences in interpretation, when they are multiple, are a result of the strength of your story?

RC

I don't know.  It all depends.  As I said, I'm not good with this side of it.  I get into my stories.  So many of my stories I don't understand; I'm trying to figure them out.  I write them as well as I can.  Although as a teacher, I figure what should be done to someone else’s story, it's not something I would like to do to my own.  If I were working with a table of writers, I would almost never mention the reader.  Clarity is important, and we all know the importance of establishing the narrative side.  But to tailor something for a reader . . . I mean, when you write, no one else can be in the room.  Not your priest, your rabbit, your brother, your sister, your children, and if they are, you're working for market, in a way.  They're people who write for market.  People who write for television write for market.  And it's fraught with a kind of compromise.  I think of myself as a sort of benevolent writer, but [in] writing you can't compromise.  As soon as you start cutting corners, the [word] gets around.  We have a lot of that writing that gets published.  It's all right.  When I read someone's story, I want to read his or her story.  I don't want to read their culture’s story, their family's story; I'm very interested in what that person's thinking.

WHC

What is voice in fiction?

RC

It's not clear.  It's spoken about a lot.  Everyone talks about voice.  It's related to point of view.  Really, what it is, at its finest, it is prose that's occupied with a sensibility.  So that we understand when someone is describing changing a tire, [with] certain writers [we] understand there is something more going on.

WHC

It has purpose?

RC

Well, it's . . .

WHC

. . . or meaning?

RC

No.  It's simply this.  We could call it attitude; we could call it sensibility.  The prose is charged with a person.  People are always talking about liking the voice.  We think about it in the first person, or someone with a dialect.  It's not that.  It's the angle of prose and the way it fits . . . sometimes it's authorial, third person, sometimes it's first person.  So it's talked about a great deal but it is still ambiguous.

WHC

In addition to the character voices, first and third person, and the authorial voice, is there always a narrator voice also?

RC

Yes.  If you look in the big book of technical terms, there are nine, but the truth is there are probably more than nine.  There's a voice you use to tell a story to a child, "Once upon a time . . ."  There are others that start in the first person vernacular.  People want a fiction checklist: dialogue, imagery craft, point of view and voice.  If you look at Updike writing the Rabbit stories, the novels, it evolves and it becomes his senses and his sensibility.  It's that little bit of humanity in the prose.  That’s as close as I can come.

WHC

When you're in scene as a writer, is it important to keep the voice, not the point of view voice but your sensibility voice, clear for the reader so there is a more significant impact of that scene?

RC

Clarity is the goal.  But clarity has a lot of different faces.  Sometimes you have somebody who writes in staccato fragments, and we understand the pressure of the prose.  Other times someone writes in five-line, elegant, complex sentences, and we understand that.  So consistency and clarity are always the goal.  A writer develops her voice over the course of five, six, eight, ten stories.  Not that there is the same voice in each story, but there is a confidence that begins to come into the prose where you understand these language elements are not just being laid together like bricks.  There is a larger force at play.

WHC

So there is the authorial voice — you said "her voice" — always there in the fiction, in the stories.

RC

Well, there is a lot of flat-footed writing.  Where someone–obviously the juice goes off–and she leaves the library, gets her books, gets in her car and goes home and has a drink.  It sort of becomes bricks without mortar.  I'm not exactly sure about that.  I know that sometimes you can write an entire story where you can get a certain type of voice . . . I'm writing a detective story now and I like the guy very, very much.  I have no idea what's going to happen to him.  But he's very self-deprecating.  His precision . . . he's trying to attempt precision in the way he talks that is right at the edge of being comic, and I like it.

WHC

Do all characters need to be likeable?

RC

No.  There is a lot of talk about this.  A character needs to be effective.  By effective, [I mean ] there is a contact point between the character and the writer.  For some reason the character’s engaging.  And Bundren in As I Lay Dying is not a likeable character, but you can't look away.  Again and again it's like that.  We have a mix.  Characters should be some type of mix.  Even Iago (Othello), who comes as close as any famous literary character.  Nobody is just all bad.  But he's engaging.  There's contact.

WHC

Is there a need for respect?

RC

Well, it depends on the reader.  I think no.  Readers read.  If the story is engaging on a certain level, we take the characters seriously and understand there is moral authority.  If the story is not well made, we can see through the costumes of the actors and [see] who is holding the light . . . then we wonder.  It's like in Huck Finn, where he can see the one guy acting; and Huck loves the actors who are so histrionic you could see it, and he thought that was acting, as opposed to an actor who acts in such a way it disappears and you are sort of threatened by what the characters do.

WHC

Is there a need for a touch of hero in every fiction character?

RC

I don't know about that.  I'm much more interested in a touch of credibility.  Hero is a big word.  Full of charge.  People do their best.  And sometimes it's not very good, I think.

WHC

What do you think of credibility in first person?  Because all story information comes through the consciousness of a single narrator, there is always the question of credibility and reliability.  If that's true, how do you handle it?  Is there a way to use credibility or lack of credibility to best purpose in your story?

RC

When you tell a story in the first person there are always two stories.  There is no such thing as an objective narrator.  Even if you write a letter to your friend about your trip to Russia, it's always going to be tilted, there are going to be elisions.    When the first person is used we understand that there is going to be: A) the story of the events; and B) the effect of the events on the narrator, implied or stated.  So that allows us to begin to understand.  I'm acknowledging that I have my proclivities, and my vulnerabilities, and my liabilities.  As a narrator, I'm going to tell the story anyway.  There is no greater first sentence than: There is no way I can tell this story without getting in trouble, getting some on you.  So we have in the first person the worst possible narrator–one pretending to be (or the author would believe to be) fair minded, even handed, level headed.  A window instead of a prism.  First person is always a prismatic lens.  Never a clear lens.  Once you acknowledged that, you can really go.  So a baseball player who is telling the story of the game is fabulous, but a baseball player who is telling a story because of his error is a better narrator.

WHC

Is the distance between narrator and narrator as character useful in terms of credibility and reliability?  Do you understand what I mean?

RC

Yes.  The narrative distance, the distance between when I'm telling the story [and when the story happened].  The factor of time and point of view is never talked about.  If I'm looking back and I'm telling a story about what happened to me in sixth grade, that's different than if I'm looking back and telling something that happened to me this morning.  One of the things about telling a story in the sixth grade, I might have polished those lies so well you can see them as sort of enamel.  The story of this morning would have other features.  Being unreliable doesn't mean not being unforceful.  So it can have power and be unreliable.  Unreliability takes a lot of forms.  The minimizing, the maximizing, the euphemisms, et cetera.

WHC

You teach the advantages of, after starting a story, providing exposition for the reader (footnote 2-1-3 exercise) to build character, through exposition, as soon as possible [in a story].  Are there ways to provide exposition without stopping the story action?

RC

Well, exposition is not necessarily the story.  Some stories have zero exposition.  When there was no exposition in a lot of the stories–that came along in the eighties–we called it minimalism.  And it was minimal because there was minimal amount of story information.  In Ray Carver's stories, and other successful minimalists, so called–a word that didn't last very long, which is sort of good–the exposition is implied.  So a person tapping his lip at a window, we'd understand that he was having pressure and having trouble not drinking.  Minimalism came along because it was a reaction to the turgid and deadening exposition that we'd seen in the conventional stories of the forties and fifties.  When you get something going like a man and woman out to dinner and then you flash back to how they met and how they were in college it just became burdensome–like I said, turgid.  Now in a story we want to know who the characters are.  Many times the value of a story is established in exposition of scenes, which have their own energy.  Narrative evidence, that is to say short stories imbedded in the story itself, don't necessarily create drag.  I never have to worry about pacing in most of the stories I see by students.

WHC

Do you have suggestions for framing scenes in terms of pacing?

RC

I talk about scene.  What you're offering is scene.  (I'm not exactly sure what you mean by framing a scene.)  You have things that take place.  That's the framing.  So you have people in a moment or a room or situation, and you remember they are in bodies and there is kind of a dance going on and you see what they're saying, honoring the fact that people may not be able to say what's on their minds, or capable of their own distress in that regard, or articulate.  When you ask somebody how they are, you rarely get the story.  Scenes are about real people and real places . . .  and the complexities.  You can't explain it.  You're setting it out.  Then you have to pay attention and see what they do.

WHC

In relation to long descriptive narrative passages, I've heard you use the term "energize."  Are there specific ways to energize narrative?  Is it word choice?  Is it syntax?  How do you do it?

RC

I don't know about it.  Your story is alive.  The writer is interested in surviving the draft.  What most stories need is coherence, more specificity, and more drama/bodies–like putting people on stage.  If you put two people on a stage, they don't announce their ideas to each other; they have to talk to each other about what they are doing.  Put them together see what they do and how they do it.  A good scene, for example. would be between two people putting together lawn furniture, and one of them wants to explain to the other where the gold is hidden.  But it's hard to do, so they say, "Hand me that wrench."  There is always an in and out.  There is the thing going on in the current moment between two people in the world, and then there is what they're thinking.  And most often. what deadens a scene for me is when the ideas start to creep out, and the author starts to use characters as announcers for those ideas.

WHC

You have many ways for finding a stimulus for a story.  In fact, you recommend keeping a writer's notebook for ideas.  Once you have found stimuli for stories, how do you determine which are the best to develop into good stories?

RC

Well, you gather what you can, and I think indiscriminately you gather things that stick to you.  We're all like magnets.  A story you think is worthy I might not think is worthy.  One of the things you can't teach is what a person chooses to write.  Nor should you.  When you choose to write your story, I want to read the story you chose.  I don't want to choose it for you–write a story about diabetes.  If it matters to you, then it has a legitimate claim on your time.  So when I look at the list of the story ideas that I have, there are certain ones that want to claim me.  There are certain ones I know.  Usually it is a matter of image, and I do not know the sort, but I do know they’re going to drag me in such away I'll have to swim the length of the pool before I touch bottom again.

WHC

This is a slippery question, but what is the effect of reality TV and all TV on stories in general on the fiction writer's approach to stories?  Has it changed what writers write?  Is it influencing them?

RC

I don't know what media does to readers.  I think there are readers and TV came along in '52, '53.  I think TV is TV.  It's a little bit like what EL Doctorow said when they asked what he thought [making a movie] did to his book.  He said, "They didn't do anything to my book; it's right over there."  I think reality TV is comical and sad.  It's not very satisfying.  I think the Bounty Hunter is magnificent.  I'm smiling [about that].  I think much more to the point is the Internet and the national addiction to email and online as we go to this constant input.  One of the biggest issues young people have now is to be fifteen in this country and to have an ongoing stream of media input.  When I was fifteen, I had no media input.  I had a television and bicycle.  I got a little television every day, but not much.  And I had a radio, but not much.  When the phone rang, it was not for me.  I did not have a telephone.  So I had a lot of time to have outgoing.  I had ideas.  I had empty time.  I was alone.  I daydreamed.  I generated things.  I talked to myself.  I goofed off.  I doodled.  And I worry about that alone time, because you smother people.  You put a phone in every fourteen-year-old's pocket, and all of a sudden they're connected all the time to everyone all the time.  I think the alone time, the focus, and the intensity to write a book is being diminished, but we won't know that for thirty or forty years.  So I don't know.  I'm sorry that people don’t have a little more time alone.  I want more writers to be honest about the fact that if you're using the Internet, that is not right.  That is some type of community yahoo.  It is not a useful activity for writers.

WHC

You're referring to Facebook, and Twitter, and things like that?

RC

All of it.  Email.  As soon as you open the window on the world and let everybody else in.  I'm very interested in what other people are thinking from time to time.  So I wouldn’t read the paper all day long.  Nor would I want something blowing in my ears all day long.  And so I think we'll learn to be more discretionary in use of media.  I was just down at dinner and someone said the longest tennis match in history of Wimbledon is underway.  I said, "Really."  She pulled out her phone and read me the article.  It has just ended.  It's dark there.  These guys had been playing for two days.  A hundred games of tennis.

WHC

This excessive social networking is peeking into individual lives.  I wonder if some [writers] don't see that as a resource.  I'm thinking of film credits and book jackets that declare, "Based on a true story."  It brings up the question whether truth needs to be in fiction.  Does it?  After all, fiction is made up.  Should fiction writers be thinking about truth to be effective?

RC

No.  Not at all.  Because Hamlet is based on a true story, is it better?  The truth is that most films are mismade.  Only 10% of films are designed well because there is so much committee work and so many people have their hands on it that the original talent gets muted and insulated by all the commercial instincts, and committees, and focus groups.  Fiction is an art because [readers] say, "Did that happen?"  And I would say, "No."  And they say, "Is it true?"  And I say, "Yes."  And it's like painting.  Where it reaches us . . .based on true story is a very popular phrase because people think it's a marketing term.  And if you think of it as a marketing term, you're sort of talking down to the masses.  You're saying, oh, they need information.  Not only is this an interesting story, that the bear really did eat the guy.  It's sort of goofy.  The movies are goofy.  But come on.  It's got to be scary as hell.  The people I've known that made movies spent a lot of money, and they were all out there.  But if I spent a lot of money, if I spent six million dollars, I would do everything that I could to contact everyone I could . . . I'd tell 'em, yeah, it's about a little girl with pigtails loose in the mountains.  No, it's about a talking cow that drives a helicopter.  Yeah, and it's got some mice who cook.  They're fabulous, actually rats.  And I would market the hell out of it.  When you write a book, you don't have to spend six million dollars.  You can write a novel for about sixty dollars.  I have a table.  It leaves me free.  I can bring in the elephants when I want to.  And then, when I consult my committee, it's just me.  That committee changes and I don't think I'm right all the time.  I'm stubborn, and I'm passionate, and I'm intense about my view given the day I'm having it.  I'm very interested in readers saying, "Oh, I read your story; I wasn’t sure.  Were they in the warehouse in the last scene?"  And I say, "Oh, that's not clear?"  So, yeah.  That's great.  Thank you.  But I do not want  them to say, "That was terrible, that what happened to the women, there should be more music at the end of the story."  And I'm thinking, well . . . I love music too, but no, not in my story.  If it was a film, I'd be stuck with it.  You'd have to bring in music.

WHC

Are there any films that you recommend for fiction writers to see to get a sense of progression and dramatization?

RC

No.  I don't know any that would help a writer except taking a bath in the great films: King Kong 1933; Frankenstein, James Wales,1931; The Lost WeekendHarper [Jack Smight]; Paul Newman's film The Hustler, which is like a novel, it's a beautiful film (Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason).  These are just movies that I've seen recently.  It's interesting about No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy's novel, because if you read the novel and then see the movie, the fidelity to the novel is remarkable.  And I haven't seen a movie follow a book so closely in twenty-five years that I remember.  I watch popular culture.  I watch television.  I don't watch reality television.  Sometimes I watch a little junk TV.  I just saw Splendor in the Grass with Warren Beatty, that fifty-year old movie.  So I believe in seeing what other people do with movies.  I was astonished that when I was in my thirties, I was enjoying movies that I would not have written.  I was allowing people who had made decision that I had considered generic to have their way with me.  It was a liberating thought.  I thought, "Wow, I would never have made that choice."  Yet they made that choice and it sort of got me.  That's the difference between being a writer or a reader, or a writer and a viewer.  So, yeah.  You look at it all.  I mentioned Hitchcock earlier this week.  One thing about Hitchcock, there is always stuff in his movies.  Even The Birds, which is sort of silly, has some birds in it.  I don't want to offend any Birds fans, but that movie left me flat.

WHC

I agree.  Just to extend this: Are there instructive works of fiction, both short stories and novels, that you feel are iconic for instruction of writers in fiction?

RC

Well, I think a person reads.  A writer reads all the time.  And a writer reads everything.  You don't put down a book until you know why you're putting it down.  It's not necessary to read everything.  I just read Tobbacco Road, and I thought it was an awful book.  And that book sold a hundred and ten million copies.  It was on Broadway eleven years.  But I think the classics we read all the time.  I love to read the old stories by Poe and Hawthorne and then going forward in American literature.  Twain is a great writer, all of his stories and essays.  Huck Finn.

WHC

Melville?

RC

Moby Dick.  I taught and read Moby Dick for years.  And then Hemingway is hard to beat.  I think he is a very, very powerful influence, but the ratio of things to words is nice and tight.  He screwed it down tight for the first time.  After Hemingway, the twentieth century opens up.  There are lots of good writers–Carver, Anne Beattie.  I like Richard Ford's Stories.  I love John CheeverJohn Updike's novels . . . and his stories too.  Flannery O'Connor.  DH Lawrence . . . his stories.  But they’re all so different.  I'll be reading something and there are choices I wouldn't have made.  And I like Cormac McCarthy.

WHC

Would you recommend VS Pritchett?

RC

Sure.  I don't know his work very well.  I think if a person is reading steadily . . . I think the kind of open secret is that when you sit at a table of writers, they're all under the influence of what they think a story is.  Many times in undergraduate classrooms, that comes from film.  So there's a problem in the rise and the fall.  And there is television.  Half of my work is dismantling their understanding of a story and opening  their tolerance for complexity so they can deal with it.  That honest-to-Pete darkened shadowed that people have.  So the idea of reading is so valuable.  If you were trying to explain baseball to some one who had never played it, and you came to the ball park and they say, wait a minute, it's [only] ninety degrees; you mean three quarters of the world you don't use?  And we don't.  Well, that's interesting.  In literature, how wide is the ball field?  I have writers who come to stories and think it's only between first and second.  They haven't read.  It's a big ball field.  I remember reading Virginia Wolff and all of a sudden the playing field kept getting wider and wider.  Oh, you can do that?  We find and seek influences that wind up being . . . emulate, emulate, emulate–imitate, listen, listen, and we find ourselves in the middle.

WHC

As we begin to wind down, I'd like to ask about presentation.  You're an excellent presenter and reader.  How do you choose the right story to be read aloud, and how do you prepare?

RC

Well, you've read your work aloud in the study.  Nothing goes out of my room without being read aloud.  And every time I read things aloud . . . reading aloud is better than a focus group for me.  Because I can find and hear the metrics and the lyrics that fit my mouth.  The other thing is, I've been doing it for a thousand years.  I try to slow myself down.  I try to be very considerate of the audience because they're out of their houses at seven-thirty at night, it's God awful, they're looking at me and I'd better have confidence, and deliver this thing with the kind of confidence that doesn't embarrass anybody or make them squirm.  And then I pick things I like, that I want to hear.  I try to pick new work that is not published in a book, because if people want to see my books they can buy them and read them.  I've never read from a book in order to sell the book that night, and I know writers who do it.  And that's fine.  It's just not what I do.  I always travel with one or two new drafts, things I've done in the last six to eight months, and that's a great joy for me.  This has been my custom now for thirty years.  And I've had some really good readers tell me that I'm a good reader.  Tim O’Brien said that once to me.  It meant a lot to me.  I'm not an actor.  When actors read your works, you hear a whole other thing.  And bless them.  Actors have another strand of DNA that I don't know about.  I'm a teacher.  So I want my work to stand up.  I want it to be clear.  In an evening of entertainment, I don't want to particularly make a lesson, but I want to deliver the manuscript, the story, in a way that's coherent to the group.

WHC

What consideration do you give to the length of presentation?

RC

If  you're reading alone, you can read for forty minutes if they've invited you.  If it's a hall, you can take questions and answers, and the evening can go an hour.  It cannot go an hour and one minute.  If you're reading with other people, you always want to be the person who reads last.  And I always want to be the person who reads the shortest.  If I go last, then I can make it fit.  I have material.  I have four-page material and I have twelve-page material.  If you read alone for over forty-seven minutes you are not going to go to heaven.  If reading with another person and you read over twenty-five minutes, you're putting your chances in jeopardy.

WHC

You’re an excellent teacher . . .

RC

Thank you.

WHC

. . . and I’m sure many of your readers will want to study with you.

RC

They all will have.  Everybody's been my student.

WHC

I see.  Everyone in the world (smiling).  How can they access your teaching?

RC

Ron Carlson Writes a StoryWell.  I've done one or two conferences, and I travel four times a year to various universities and places and speak.  I'm going to write another book on writing.  I wrote a little book on writing called Ron Carlson Writes A Story, and in it is my quintessential view of being a guided tour–frank and honest, and very simple.  I tried to be as honest as I could about every decision that I make in writing one's story.  And I'm not embarrassed in writing that book.  But I think creative writing and the teaching of creative writing is changing in this country–getting more pragmatic — and I think there are a lot of terrific teachers who are not only [competent] but also inspirational.  It's been a good time to be a teacher of creative writing in my generation because I felt there has been a little shift.

WHC

What can we anticipate in your work in the future?

RC

The Signal by Ron CarlsonI write steadily.  My novel The Signal just came out in paperback this summer.  I'll deliver another manuscript this year and probably in the fall or winter of '11, this novel will be published.  It's untitled, I'm so sorry to say, [but] for the record, and just out of curiosity, it's called Oak Pine now, two trees and the name of the town; a novel about four men who meet in their fiftieth year in the town where they grew up.

WHC

Terrific.  It has been a pleasure being with you and thank you very much for participating in this interview.

RC

Absolutely, Bill.



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One Response to “Interview – Ron Carlson”

  1. Why Contemporary Literary Fiction Fails to Achieve Excellence | Literary Story Fiction Writer's Blog.com Says:

    [...] may find these interviews with Butler, Shepard, Carlson, Spillman and others interesting. They provide insight into the differences in the ways authors [...]

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