Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Crafting a Chair

When I'm working on short fiction, invariably I have half a dozen books lying open--a kind of loose reference to see how an accomplished writer evokes their magic in a turn of phrase or when utilizing tone--if only to remind myself what I'm attempting to do with my 6500 word story that is on the fourteenth draft, the fifth title change, and contains more mixed metaphors and false sentiment than a Harlequin romance.
The books I'm looking at (at the moment) are Paul Theroux's The Collected Stories, Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers, Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth and Norman Rush's Whites. You can't go wrong with such a stellar selection (one of these is a novel, and McEwan is about as masterful with tone as Yehudi Menuhin). Or maybe you can.
The best writing looks effortless because maybe it is--for a master. For the rest of us, I think reworking a story beyond reason becomes apparent in the reading. I can't tell how many times I've had a story idea that I worked and reworked to the point where I should have simply put the thing out of its misery. Too many to count. I'm sure this is the case for a lot of writers starting out, and once you find your "method" or at least a method that works, you shouldn't linger any longer in the workshop than you have to.
Chris Abani once told me writing fiction should be like crafting a chair. I interpreted his words to mean you go into the workshop with a clear objective in mind. Maybe you pick up where you left off the day before, and you can see this chair is going to take a few weeks. But you are working to get it finished. Hopefully it will be beautiful when you are done. It's not about mass production, in other words. Too often I compare my story to another writer's story as that is what it suggests to me--in other words, it's a kind of copy cat style--trying to replicate what another writer has done successfully. Which is both the danger and solace of returning to those reference works. You can try too hard with a story to make it fit into a mold that it will not fit into--and the organic growth of the story isn't there. 
There isn't anything wrong with imitating a successful story, as long as what you end up with is distinctive enough to stand on its own. Once it takes on that life it will never (or rarely) be compared to what has gone before. But the best stories I've written, the ones that have gotten me notice and acknowledgment from editors and readers are definitely not the ones that I am still working on after nearly two years and more than twenty or thirty drafts. (And is there a limit? Maybe seven or eight solid drafts. If you can't get the story down in the first two or three, maybe the idea is half-baked and you should let it sit until you can finish a first draft.) On the other hand, the best ones are written in a kind of fever of inspiration, where I took the trouble to commit it to paper. In a sense, I felt as if I had to write it. I'm grateful for that. I think you can force inspiration, but it's sweeter when you can trust it to come to you, eventually.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Philosophy Made Me

As I read this article, "Against Readings," in The Chronicle Review, it reminded me of my own literary beginnings, which really began with philosophy. 
While studying fiction in grad school for creative writing, there was an expectation to treat the books we were reading as academic exercises. But I felt there was something alienating with literary interpretation; as much as I would have liked to have considered I had the potential to undertake that work, I had always preferred my own approach: unhindered reading, culling from a well of intuition, and drawing my own conclusions. I discovered that my advisors--steeped in and perhaps blinded by their academic backgrounds--often had a hard time with my open approach. 

Unless one is incapable of thinking deeply, carefully and thoughtfully about what they read, I have never understood why any approach other than a self-interpretive one makes sense. I think this rings true for someone like me who indoctrinated himself in philosophy out of curiosity and circumstance. Stuck every Saturday at the mall for two hours, after boredom with video games (or I ran out of money), I wandered the aisles of B. Dalton's and found The Myth of Sisyphus, Walden, the Tao te ching, Being and Nothingness, and Bertrand Russell's The Conquest of Happiness (believe it or not at a ripe fifteen). Eventually, there were generous readings of Emerson and William James. After the enlightenment of half a dozen courses that touched on these subjects in my undergraduate years, I ended up with some clever misinterpretations of Derrida via a whacked out architecture curriculum with undigested bits of Foucault thrown in for good measure until, searching for solace amid this despair, I finally discovered literature capital L (Henry Miller, Thomas Mann, Borges), landing in a no man's land of my own making. But I wouldn't have gotten there without philosophy. 

Early on there was no one to talk to about what I was reading--that would have to wait for college and some surprisingly astute teachers--I didn't know anyone who had read these works, and I wasn't finding copies of them in high school. I was secretly proud, and quietly uncertain, but somehow affirmed to have discovered my own rejected thoughts in their alienated majesty in books written long before I was born. 

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Little Book

To someone who considers himself fly-by-night with grammar--or more aptly, as if a proficiency with grammar is a bit like dowsing for water--this critique of Strunk and White's esteemed little book is highly entertaining. Besides which leaving me further clueless on the subject.

International Super Hype

With the economic meltdown there is constant talk of the publishing world collapsing, but you wouldn’t know it to read the reviews. The latest big books are still promoted and heralded--winning prestigious prizes in France, no less, a sure sign of literary inflation--and bid upon at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and the book lovers get caught up in these things (I am one, usually). The latest hype is for Jonathan Littell’s, The Kindly Ones (at the Complete Review here, another here, and Laila Lalami's L. A. Times review, here.)

I've read the glowing and scathing reviews, encomiums and apercus, enough to be marginally intrigued to look into the book. The publisher's (Harper Collins) page provides a generous sample to read. Along with the mixed reviews, the opening pages were enough to put this reader off.

Ruth Franklin’s review in The New Republic sums it up: "The Kindly Ones is not an important novel, because it fails absolutely to add anything of significance to our understanding of its subject [...]"

It's subject is a one size fits all Nazi cog (to use Franklin's term) who yet revels in his twisted personal depravity, explaining his complicity in the mass killings because he's just like every other human being on the planet.

My distaste for the subject matter and its execution are clear. Franklin talks of the Nazi functionaries: “They were, the overwhelming majority of them, unremarkable men, "small cogs" in a killing machine, who showed little initiative of their own but were prepared to obey orders unquestioningly and then go to dinner.”

Franklin talks about how we want to attribute to men capable of this behavior the embodiment of “absolute evil.” But there are shades of gray, maybe what Littell is attempting to portray; the only problem is that it Littell's character sounds like he is clearly over the edge, definitely not in a kindly margin. (For some reason this called to mind an interesting spectacle on Nightline a few weeks ago where Deepak Chopra squared off with two Christian fundamentalists to argue, “Does Satan Exist?”) 

I think what unnerves about the subject and its fictionalization is that it’s taking the crime of the century and treating it as if it were something less than what it was. This can be seen to attempt to diminish the crime through the humanizing of (one of) its proponents.

However, when it’s said that truth is stranger than fiction, there is a resistance to fictionalizing an event that should have never happened. Any sympathy for such a character is seen to ameliorate or apologize for the horrific reality. Unfortunately, that’s also what makes it a controversial--and challenging--choice.

As with any book, there is probably a great deal of calculation for the writer to write what might be controversial, what might catch on. If you’ve got the ability, then you tackle it. I understand this. This is the scaling of a great peak. You don’t take it on unless you can stay with it. So, no criticism to the writer his accomplishment there.

In this case however, I'm grateful to let the reviewers wade through this 900 page monster.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Short Story Purgatory?

A. O. Scott’s piece in the Times, “In Praise of the American Short Story,” trumps out yet again a silent consensus that the short story has been getting short shrift for far too long--note that’s the “American” Short Story. But to keep mentioning the denigration of the short story only ghettoizes it some more. The tide is probably turning as these things do, over time.

For those of us in the trenches of fiction writing, short stories are the best--maybe the only?--game in town. It’s the one way to get yourself published though it doesn’t necessarily lead to the payoff of a novel’s reception. As for success? I think writing a good story and having it recognized is quite rewarding. I think because a story is short and has so many venues, as well it doesn’t have a single designated venue, it is looked down upon. But short story writing is where writers begin if they want to be published. It isn’t always the case that writing short fiction will get noticed, but there are many writers I admire who started out with short fiction and have largely become known for their novels (Philip Roth, Norman Rush, Paul Theroux, Ian McEwan, Denis Johnson, Junot Diaz, to name a few). With a short story, if it appears anywhere at all, it’s usually in a journal of which there are thousands upon thousands, or it appears in a collection that is the sum of parts, i.e., what is considered inferior to a novel.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Under the Knife

Prescriptions for writing abound. “Eliminate repeated words.” “Never write a boring sentence.” These come from the Gordon Lish school of writing via n+1. In the Lish arena, the student would be asked to read their piece aloud until they came to a boring sentence--called out by the master with great mocking fanfare, undoubtedly--and the student would be forced to sit down.

In my fiction, I was eliminating repeated words because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Also, I had an editor once return a story with repeated words circled. As for never writing boring sentences, it’s never easy. Of course you can hold up these ideas to the point that you lose the sense of the writing, if you had it to begin with.

And that seems to be a prescription, too, to be clear about what you are going to write before you begin.

Another good idea might be to eliminate as many words as possible--I’m not talking about repeated words, but excess words--avoiding wordiness. Maybe you pare it down and rewrite it a few times. I’ve sometimes shied away from this procedure, if only because a first draft sometimes has a rhythm inherent in the linkage of sentences as written. Perhaps even a poetry.

Why is it that poetry is so often invoked in fiction writing--what does it mean exactly? I suspect I have a bias against poets because they can be so precious about their work, romanticizing their little gulag. Poetry is rarely exciting, to me. Poets seem like the martyrs of the writing universe.

Yet, I like poetry in fiction, if I understand it correctly.

What does it mean to say a fiction writer’s writing is poetic?

I look at E. L. Doctorow, because I’m reading Loon Lake at the moment. Besides the actual use of a kind of verse in the novel (although I’m not sure if it’s bona fide verse, in the sense that it’s made up for a fictional work), here is a passage that I would say is poetic:

“They were hateful presences in me. Like a little old couple in the woods, all alone for each other, the son only a whim of fate. It was their lousy little house, they never let me forget that. They lived on a linoleum terrain and sat in the evening by their radio. What were they expecting to hear? If I came in early I distracted them, if I came in late I enraged them, it was my life they resented, the juicy fullness of being they couldn’t abide...”

This also happens to be the opening to the novel. Which is where you are going to notice poetry and in a sniff decide if this is a book you should read, should a reading of such be your thing.

It’s not a fellow writer’s thing. He occasionally laments how writing is literary or maybe that’s too literary because he believes he is secretly a blockbuster writer who has a commitment to providing airport fiction as he sees this as the only way to break in to publishing.

I don’t get it. Those airport reads bore me. But I’ll also admit that sometimes the literary stuff bores me, too. The problem with those (non-literary) books is that there’s no love of language. Maybe there’s a bit of craft in storytelling--there would have to be, it seems--but generally the work feels mired in a lack of spirit.

Getting back to revision...How do these approaches necessarily lead to good prose?

The Lish school as I’m calling it seems to approach the writing on the level of sentence and word choice, which is fine, but what happens when you need to stretch your legs--which is where all good fiction should inevitably go? (this can be argued, and I’ll shortly contradict myself...) I think of this because another writer who I’ve been looking into again lately (leave it to the NYTimes to get me to dust off my shelves), Donald Barthelme, seems to write in this style that Cheever had a hilarious comment on (“The stuntiness of Barthelme disconcerts me. . . . Blooey. It’s like the last act in vaudeville and anyhow it seems to me that I did it fifteen years ago” (this in the Bookforum review of Cheever's ouevre)). What is it about this style that feels like McSweeney’s co-opted as if it were a province of their (some might say) elitist identity? I think this is what we talk about when we talk about being clever. It’s whatever no one gets, or gets in only their way, but that a clever writer can imitate enough so that only a select few think they get it. So many journals claim and decry cleverness in equal measure, that it ruins it for those writers of us who don’t necessarily look at what we do as trying to be clever; maybe that’s the point, that if you actually are good at what you do, not everyone is going to get it. They’re only going to see you as a wannabe... Maybe I’m hypocritically doing the same thing criticizing McSweeney’s.

I never thought of “Seven Dreams Under the Knife” as clever. I had a woman run away from me when she read it. (How’s that for intrigue?) But this is also a woman who had plastic plants and scant aesthetic taste and thought my minimally appointed rooms here in the Mission resembled Van Gogh’s room at Arles. Initially, I was flattered by these revelations; upon reflection, I’m guessing that it was a perception of “cleverness” dogging me.

Maybe I could have stretched my legs on that piece, but after all the prescriptions about revision, I considered it done. I saw it as a gem that I didn’t want to do anything more with than see published. Which, however humbly, it is, finally.