I read Amazon reader reviews (and if anyone, hem, wants to review mine, it’s available from Amazon and I would enjoy reading a review), and I don’t know why I do, because it’s torture. I’ll be blunt: a lot of readers have peanut butter for brains. The things the write make me scream as I read them. I click on the link that lets me tell Amazon their review should be removed and when it asks why I want to write “Because reviewer is an idiot.” But that doesn’t actually work. Trust me.
The single biggest comment that drives me bananas is, “I didn’t like the main character” (or sometimes “I couldn’t relate to anyone”). So many great books get one star reviews because “None of the characters were likeable.”
What boils my blood is, did it ever occur to the reviewer that maybe the character(s) was (were) supposed to be unlikable? Or to do it another way, why must all main characters be likable? Don’t we learn more from characters who are unlikable?
When reviewers say they want likable protagonists, they’re telling me they want to insert themselves into the role of the main character so that they can feel heroic and good.
I can’t think of a more shallow reason for reading. Or writing, I thought we passed the superhero stage when we were children, and we realized no one was as squeaky clean and all American as Clark Kent.
Don’t get me wrong. Clark’s a great guy, but can we, as readers, ever learn anything from him? No.
The wonder writer Francine Prose says this is why she doesn’t cotton to anyone who tells her how she should feel. The purpose of good writing is to discover how you feel yourself. The writer is a guide but not a dictator.
It means the journey isn’t pre-decided and pre-digested for you before you start.
I’ll repeat that.
It means the journey isn’t pre-decided and pre-digested for you before you start.
For some reason this is so hard for so many readers—particularly American readers—to get. Actually I’m being disingenuous (look it up) when I say for some reason; I know the reason. It’s how reading is taught in American schools.
Anything controversial isn’t touched anymore, for fear of backlash. So children are given pablum (look it up). College isn’t much better these days. And when people read on their own, well, look who the most popular writers are: Stephen King. Dean Koontz. Dan Brown. J.K. Rowling.
All these writers give you “reliable narrators.” Whether it’s a first person or third person narration, we’re supposed to take what they say at face-value. We’re not supposed to exist on a layer higher than them, evaluating what they as protagonists or guides present. But ladies and gentlemen, that’s where the fun is. That’s where you really learn to read.
“But,” someone said to me just the other day, “in Melville’s day people weren’t carting Moby-Dick to the beach either. They liked easy reading back then.” They did. The difference is they knew it was easy reading. No one would have called
great writing, unlike today where people smugly post that “they know what great novels are” because they teach Stephen King and Stephenie Meyer in colleges. People who carted this rather than Moby-Dick around knew they were reading escapism, and didn’t think “all things were equal,” but in our egalitarian world of today that is the mantra. It sells merchandise in the short run, but it does overall growth of any art long term.
For those who retort by citing examples of material that was considered junk in its own time but is now revered, I’ll just point out that for every one example of that there are countless more examples of junk that is…still considered junk.
You should always want to be challenged, at least a little, when you engage in culture, any culture. I want to be challenged when I write. When I start something I often don’t know what I’m going to write, how I’m going to conclude. Readers who diss works because the author didn’t hold their hand aren’t doing themselves a favor. It’s like a diet of nothing but sweets.
And we know what that does…to the teeth and to the mind.
Another post I wrote a while back about this same topic is here.
The other day I was at a restaurant listening in as a group at the next table talked about their favorite books.
This always gladdens me. I love to hear people discussing books with the sort of enthusiasm reserved for movies or rock bands these days. But what I heard next made me sad.
One of the women was praising some novel she’d just read, and she sold it by saying, “It’s short. You could finish it today if you started. And it’s real easy. A quick read.”
…Why in the world would that be a virtue?
Now, I understand War and Peace is daunting to all of us. I still haven’t gotten to it. (My wife’s better than I am.) But why do we want assurances we won’t have to spend long with something we’re supposed to be enjoying?
Can you imagine someone saying, “Star Wars The Force Awakens is short. You could see it and be back here in an hour. A quick flick”?
I’ve also heard many a “book lover” say they were intimidated by thick books?
Why, I wonder? Is there some sort of prize for finishing off more books. Do people get paid commissions to read? If a book is five times thicker than the average book, maybe there’s five times more good stuff in it. (Maybe not, and I’ve read some rambling tomes that needed an editor, but still, the size alone won’t persuade or dissuade me from approaching a book.)
But if you enjoy reading, why would you want it to be “quick”? (It begs all sorts of analogies…well, okay, just one.)
We sure live in a rush-rush-rush culture, which is part of what Entertaining Welsey Shaw is about. We don’t take the time to see what’s going on around us. Right in the opening chapter, when Daniel sees the famous actress in a Starbucks for the first time…
I’m sitting by myself, leafing through a picture book bought after a long meeting and a long lunch. If anyone would look up, they might notice that Welsey Shaw is standing here. True, she’s in faded jeans, scuffed brown boots, violet scarf and green sweater. Someone at a table behind her gets up and shoves his chair right into her buttock. She jumps. He excuses himself without really looking at her face. He and his companion, a matronly Asian woman with short, spiky hair that belongs on her daughter, leave their cups and teabags on the table. They have an air about them that says they are only slumming here. She folds up a laptop much newer and sleeker than mine, sticks it in a leather bag and they are off.
I blink, and Welsey Shaw is still there.
I’ve often wondered how many famous people have passed me by that I didn’t notice because I was in a hurry to get to somewhere. And sometimes we’re not even in a hurry for a reason. We’re just in a hurry because it’s our default setting.
Not only do I not want to rush through a book, I will, if it’s good enough, go right back to the beginning and start again. It’s amazing what you notice the second time around; indeed, if it’s great fiction, you can’t grok everything the first go, and you’ll read a completely different book with the second pass. This isn’t true of something like, say, Gone Girl, but Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog or José Saramago’s The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis will yield treasures in repeated readings. In fact, that’s the idea. Deborah Eisenberg sometimes spends years crafting a single story. I don’t think she’d want you to skim through it in an hour. I’ve read some of them half a dozen times, and with each reacquaintance they’re so different I almost wonder if she doesn’t sneak into my house and alter the text when I’m asleep.
So when I hear people, like these women, selling a book by bragging how short it is, how fast it reads, how you don’t have to spend a lot of time with it, I have to wonder what their point is? If a book (or a record, or a movie) yields up everything quickly and easily, I kind of feel like I’ve been jipped. There’s supposed to be more to it than that, isn’t there?
What do you think?
It sounds like a scene from Entertaining Welsey Shaw. Many scenes, in fact. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most sought-after actresses in the world, says she is in fact lonely most of the time.
Lawrence said in a magazine interview recently that she spends most weekends home and has a hard time meeting people. That is indeed tricky to do when you’re more famous and worth more than literally every other person you come into contact with.
This mirrors what other A-listers—Kristen Stewart, Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley, Claire Danes—have said about their lives in the past.
“I feel like I need to meet a guy, with all due respect, who has been living in Baghdad for five years who has no idea who I am,” Lawrence said in the interview, adding, ““I am lonely every Saturday night. Guys are so mean to me. I know where it’s coming from, I know they’re trying to establish dominance, but it hurts my feelings. I’m just a girl who wants you to be nice to me. I am straight as an arrow.”
It’s hard for most of us to believe that someone with everything—money, fame, looks, glamorous friends—could be unhappy. For that matter, it’s hard to believe they could be lacking anything in life.
This was the very premise that got me writing Entertaining Welsey Shaw, the thought that people who look like they have it all so often don’t. After all, why would someone like that feel insecure? Or unhappy. As Lawrence herself says:
“It’s strangely exhilarating, because you keep trying to fight for that validation. You want to have [validation] before you get married, so that you don’t seek it out once you are.”
This need to be validated sounds familiar. Claire Danes has famously said, “People confuse fame with validation or love. But fame is not the reward. The reward is getting fulfillment out of doing the thing you love.” And also, “Acting is the greatest answer to my loneliness that I have found.”
The major theme of Entertaining Welsey Shaw is how, despite her incredible success, she is lonely and isolated. I find it odd that novels and other fiction featuring celebrities rarely deal with this side of their lives. They’re usually portrayed as imperious, egocentric, mercurial…everything but vulnerable. Of course this is the image they have to project, as it’s part of their brand. And the cynical contrarian in me says they may sometimes overplay their “ordinary guy/gal” as well, because that’s good for their brand too. After all, nobody likes a star who is constantly reminding us how much better than us she is, no matter how clean her bowels are.
Jennifer Lawrence may know this too. She’s hardly the first star to claim she spends date nights home alone, watching TV and maybe spooning some Haagen-Dazs. We like to believe this. It makes it seem like we could sit down on the couch next to them and maybe have a conversation. Now change that to sit across from them in a coffee shop and talk about everything and anything in your life and you have the very premise of Entertaining Welsey Shaw. It’s a premise I think a lot of celebrities would be able to relate to. —I wonder what Jennifer Lawrence would think of it?
It’s National Novel Writing Month…again.
“The World Needs Your Novel” the event’s webpage proudly proclaims.
Amateur scribes everywhere are being encouraged to put pen to paper and fingers to keyboard and bang out a novel, that most complex of art forms, in 30 freaking days.
I think this is very stupid.
I realize my opinion will not be very popular. But seriously, I don’t see the point of a 30-day deadline. I know some people need deadlines, but why 30 days, which is unrealistic.
Sure novels have been written in less than 30 days. Hemingway slammed out The Sun Also Rises pretty quickly, though not quite in a month. Kerouac penned On The Road in about 20 days, though he’d traveled for seven years, saving up his thoughts, before starting, so maybe that’s not a good example. And I don’t know if he finished any books in less than a month, but Isaac Asimov certainly was prolific.
There are the slowpokes, too: Flaubert and Larry McMurtry. Junot Díaz and J.R.R. Tolkien. Jonathan Franzen supposedly took years on Freedom and his friend David Foster Wallace took even longer with Infinite Jest, but those are tomes and it’s easy to understand why. However, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a slim and lithe work, took many years, and I believe his next (and most recent) book, The Dog, was also slow in coming. And I have a friend who’s been working on a novel about two lovestruck jazz musician college students for at least ten years!
In short, novels, like all forms of writing, can be born rapidly or gradually, with a few revisions or many. But I don’t see why you should try to make yourself write one in a month. You should take however much time and space you need. You don’t get medals for speed.
If you can write a masterpiece in a month, more power to you. I wish I were you. But if it takes you as long as Mitchell or O’Neill, that’s fine too. And I have a feeling that most great novels take a while. Remember what Orson Welles used to say about wine? It’s true. Maybe not about that particular wine, but it’s true.
My biggest problem with making it 30 days (why not 90 days, or six months?) is that this short-sighted deadline will encourage most people to quit before they’re really done, while thinking they’ve done it, they’ve done the same thing that Richard Yates or Amy Tan did. It’s 30 days. Did it! But you’re not going to look at it dispassionately and see what you really should do with your idea, because it’s over. It’s 30 days, after all.
So you’ll never take that work to the next level to see what it actually is. It’s your second and third drafts where you really discover what you’ve written. Often the real story’s inside the one of the first draft. Often the best idea is hidden in the supporting actor, not the star chewing the scenery.
But you won’t discover that in 30 days. Heck, when you’re finally done your first draft, no matter how long it takes, I believe you should set your novel aside for at least 30 days. Maybe a lot longer. Then reread it. After you pour yourself a nice stiff drink.
Those kinds of novels the world needs.
There are plenty of…the other kind.
Usually I don’t reblog other people’s stuff, but I really enjoyed this post by Curtis Sittenfeld, so here it is. Take it away, Curtis. (I particularly like no. 14, and wonder if no. 13 is true.)
Ten years ago, my first novel Prep came out. Three novels later, here’s what I’ve learned about the publishing industry and writing since then.
1. When it comes to fellow writers, don’t buy into the narcissism of small differences. In all their neurotic, competitive, smart, funny glory, other writers are your friends.
2. Unless you’re Stephen King, or you’re standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody you meet has ever heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised.
3. At a reading, 25 audience members and 20 chairs is better than 200 audience members and 600 chairs.
4. There are very different ways people can ask a published writer for the same favor. Polite, succinct, and preemptively letting you off the hook is most effective.
5. Blurbs achieve almost nothing, everyone in publishing knows it, and everyone in publishing hates them.
6. But a really good blurb from the right person can, occasionally, make a book take off.
7. When your book is on best-seller lists, people find you more amusing and respond to your emails faster.
8. When your book isn’t on best-seller lists, your life is calmer and you have more time to write.
9. The older you are when your first book is published, the less gratuitous resentment will be directed at you.
10. The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career.
11. The farther you live from New York, the less preoccupied you’ll be with literary gossip. Like cayenne pepper, literary gossip is tastiest in small doses.
12. Contrary to stereotype, most book publicists aren’t fast-talking, vapid manipulators; they’re usually warm, organized youngish women (yes, they are almost all women) who love to read.
14. If you tell readers a book is autobiographical, they will try to find ways it isn’t. If you tell them it’s not autobiographical, they will try to find ways it is.
15. It’s not your responsibility to convince people who don’t like your books that they should. Taste is subjective, and you’re not running for elected office.
16. By not being active on social media, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. That said, faking fluency with or interest in forms of social media that don’t do it for you is much harder than making up dialogue for imaginary characters.
17. If someone asks what you do and you don’t feel like getting into it, insert the wordfreelance before the word writer, and they will inquire about nothing more.
18. If you read a truly great new book and feel more excited than jealous, congratulations, you’re a writer.
19. Fiercely, fiercely, fiercely protect your writing time.
20. It’s OK to let your book be published if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be published if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.
21. Talking about how brutally difficult it is to write books is unseemly. Unless you’re the kind of writer who’s been imprisoned by the dictatorship where you live and is being advocated for by PEN American Center, give it a rest.
22. Books bring information, provocation, entertainment, and comfort to many people. You’re lucky to be part of that.
23. Sometimes good books sell well; sometimes good books sell poorly; sometimes bad books sell well; sometimes bad books sell poorly. A lot about publishing is unfair and inscrutable. But…
24. …you don’t need anyone else’s approval or permission to enjoy the magic of writing — of sitting by yourself, figuring out which words should go together to express whatever it is you’re trying to say.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novels Prep, The Man of My Dreams, American Wife, and Sisterland. She is currently working on a contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Ohio.