Thursday, January 20, 2011

Cheese Pizza Effect

Nothing is more disheartening to a fiction writer than a rejection letter with a carefully worded reasoning that interprets the entirety of their three hundred and seventy-five page novel based on thirteen percent of it. And yet this is the norm in the industry.
There is often talk of how if As I Lay Dying were submitted to a publisher today, it would never be published. Of course the assumption is of this being a first novel by an unknown writer (it was in fact the sixth novel of the, in 1930, not yet well-known William Faulkner), and that the narrative is just too formula defying and experimental so that no publisher with a tenuous bottom line would touch it. This may be true, but would Faulkner have written As I Lay Dying today if he was also reading “How to Get Published” books?
A formulaic approach can ruin a narrative, yet so often we are told that the “partial” (usually the first 50 pages), unless it hits the benchmark items on an idealized fiction checklist, will fail to be picked up. See any “How to get published” or “How to land an agent” books out there, for example, and invariably these suggestions, as specious and broad as they may be, are touted as “keys” to a novel’s success. If you have a narrative that evades these rules, you may begin to doubt your inspiration--as non-formulaic and deeply satisfying as was the writing of your novel--and may try to second guess your first fifty pages, as that is likely the first and only impression most agents and editors will have of your work.
The problem with formulas is that, beyond an MFA or years of trial and error writing several novels, they don’t assume a writer can trust their own voice. One needs to learn their own rhythms and patterns, and what it is they like, or, more emphatically, what they love. Ideally, one is better off writing a lot so that they come to know their own predilections (know thyself) and discover their own formula--rather than ascribing to one from without. Practice, not formula.
Publishing may try to play it safe, but too many rules and guidelines ignore the subjectivity of the creative act. The inspiration. In design we called this phenomenon the cheese pizza effect: since there are too many options to satisfy everyone, play it safe and order only cheese. I could stretch the metaphor and say you’re either lucky, or maybe boring, if you actually prefer cheese pizza.
For short stories, I wrote about placing emphasis on the opening sentence so that an unwitting reader will want to read further. I think similar narrative strategies can apply to longer fiction, and some rationale is better than none, but re-thinking the first fifty pages of a narrative that works can feel like self-sabotage. Yet, after repeated rejection, how can you say what you have works? As Stephen Elliot in The Daily Rumpus (e-mail newsletter) says: “If you write every day for a long time you should get to the point where you know when your story is working and when it isn't. Not that something is perfect, or can't be improved upon, but certainly if it's good at not [. . .] Otherwise, what have you learned?”
There are plenty of novels out there that wouldn’t have been published but for the singular connection an editor or agent made to it, and few of these novels can be reduced to the items on a checklist. Drawing in a reader is not ultimately only about the success of the first fifty pages screaming out the triumphant success of the novel, though it’s hard not to think about the possibility in preparation for when someone finally does request the manuscript.
That powerful transaction of writer to reader, and reader to writer, is more important, and completely unquantifiable, and completely non-formulaic. There are no shortcuts. Write a good novel first, and you will have a better chance of getting the wheels rolling.
I think as writers we should assume that our ideal reader is out there, someone who is interested in the art that we create. A great percentage of what we do is to rake through hot coals to find a compelling idea because it inspires us; an idea does have to motivate one enough to invest the time. The practice of writing fiction can’t be about filling in a checklist. The pursuit of the craft is private and unique, one shouldn’t try to out-wit an industry. Just make art, not cheese pizza.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Memorable Nonfiction 2010

Reading feeds the desire to write, and writing in itself is often an extension of reading. This explains why I read novels above most other works. Since I read so few biographies, memoirs, essay collections, and letters, I’m more selective, though maybe I ask of these works the same thing I ask of novels: that they feed my thinking and get me motivated to write. Three non-fiction books stood out for me this year.

The best biographers give you the life complete, baggage and all, written with no distracting bones to pick with their subject. The biographer takes on the self-erasing task of subsuming themselves in the life story, and sifting through the expected mundanity in order to reveal the exceptional. This could be difficult to accomplish for anyone compelled by their subject and trying to interpret the life, yet a degree of fandom is essential, as well as restraint. One of the best literary biographies for having covered this ground, and yet not shying away from either critical assessment, or candid and sometimes difficult judgment, is Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life. Though I was mostly a casual reader of Cheever’s well-known short stories before I picked this bio up, I came to admire the conflicted writer who, at heart, made a unique and solitary venture of his fictional output over a long and sometimes troubled life. This reading sent me to Cheever’s overshadowed novels.

David Shield’s Reality Hunger: A Manifesto had me riffing on its provocations. Like any good book of philosophy, this one forces a reader’s reaction. The numbered paragraphs are widely borrowed from attributed sources and compiled to construct a number of dubious arguments (the novel is dead, “sampling” is the future of literature, truth is more worthwhile than fiction). Nevertheless, the resulting compendium is provocative for the daring of the broad sampling ( a preponderance for several quotable essayists), often rewritten to make Shield’s points, which proves or at least validates that his de-contextualization experiment might just be a hybrid form of memoir-slash-manifesto. Though it also provides a convincing case that the novel is alive enough to provoke diatribes against it.

The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940, are almost too specific, direct and intimate, like catching one side of an eavesdropped conversation, that a guilty taste of voyeurism is unavoidable. What comes through the young Beckett’s missives is a hubristic certainty, a kind of unassailable arrogance, as well as an authority tempered by doubt and perseverance, as when he declaims to his cousin Morris Sinclair: “Here I strut about, I cannot and will not do otherwise, and have no idea if God helps me or not.” One would have been honored and maybe intimidated to have received from Beckett a multi-lingual letter laced with multiple literary references. But even a partially committed Beckett completist will be curious to thumb through this first of four projected volumes for prime examples of an endangered, if not yet extinct, form of writing from a modern master.