a novel by JOHN GRABOWSKI

Posts tagged “literary

Putting your novel in a vice

Vice

Physicist Walter Lewin says that if you placed the earth into a vice and squeezed it down to about four inches in diameter, it would become a black hole.

That’s a lot what writing a 1-3 page synopsis of your novel feels like.

Many agents want a very short summary of your story. But it also has to be in the fun, attention-catching style of the work itself. So you have the dual task (almost wrote “duel task” and somehow it doesn’t feel like a typo) of being brief and interesting/intriguing at the same time, because after all you’re trying to sell the thing.

I was reminded of the Reverend Sydney Smith: “As a general rule, run your pen through every other word you have written; you have no idea what vigor it will give your style.” (I’d thought a more famous person had said that.)

I feel for agents who have to read 20-50 queries a day. (How many they receive on average.) They don’t want pages, and they surely read a lot of stuff that could be tighter, better.

But still, whittling your novel down to a couple pages while still retaining the flavor and the fun of it…thumbscrews, from a literary point of view.

I can’t believe David Foster Wallace did it for his 1100-page opus Infinite Jest. I just gave up on it, after I got 200 pages in and nothing happened. Now, I’ve read Proust, so I’m used to bricks of novels that develop slowly, and have nothing against it, but I can’t imagine what his synopsis talked about in three pages, since nothing I’d encountered so far in the book was remotely like the description on the flap.

Condensing your thoughts is good exercise, like running a race in four minutes or playing one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles. I’ve found the best idea is to really think outside the box. Don’t worry about being too literally faithful to every nuance of the plot. Just give them the general feel. Ever read the plot synopses on the backs of video boxes? Strictly speaking, they take some minor liberties.

And everyone should do this even before they finish their novel. It does a body good to see your novel from above, to see it “contained.” Try it. Like Brussels sprouts, it’s not as bad as you think. I’m glad I boiled everything down. Thank you, agents!

And by the way, if you don’t know who Walter Lewin is, you should check out his videos on YouTube. He’s a gas.

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Banned books: So what?

banned-books-week

READ BANNED BOOKS the banner at Powell’s Bookstore’s website cries. Apparently this is Banned Books week in the U.S. Browsing through the titles, I was surprised how few of them I’d read: sorry, Catcher in the Rye, Fahrenheit 451, All the Pretty Horses, and To Kill A Mockingbird have never imprinted themselves on my retina, and I couldn’t get through The Old Man and The Sea, Brave New World or Harry Potter. So sue me.

I was also surprised how uncompelling I found much on this list. I decided, after some thought, that reading banned books, at least for the fact of them being banned books, is a bad idea.

Why? Well, the whole appeal to me seems somewhat along the lines of the “bad kids” in school trying to get you to cut class and go outside into the courtyard and smoke cigarettes instead. It seems to say, “Read banned books because someone thought or thinks this is bad behavior. Be cool. Be the rebel. That’s the reason to do it.”

Not that for a moment the concept of banning books doesn’t bother me. Doesn’t anger me. But a banned book does not equate to a good book, not necessarily. While some of the titles listed on their page are great, some are, I think, mediocre, and a few are laughable. There are better books I could spend my limited time on earth with, so many.

And sometimes the reasons certain books were banned are silly. Or no longer relevant. The Potter books ruffled feathers because in the eyes of some they deal with “black magic,” aka, Satanism. Well, I think that’s a stupid reason to blackball a book—but it’s also a stupid reason to read one. There will always be those who find Satan lurking everywhere. While that’s unfortunate, I don’t see what it has to do with reading a banned book. Similarly I think The Old Man and The Sea is flat and pretentious—I don’t care if it won a Pulitzer and was influential in getting Papa his Nobel. No one should have moved to ban it, but there’s better Hemingway, banned or not.

Many of the other works listed have been banned for well-known reasons—bigotry, political or other intolerance. This is regretful and unacceptable, but I see no reason to feel compelled to read them because of it. I don’t need Ralph Ellison or Harper Lee to tell me racism is wrong, and America’s past in this regard is both shameful and regretful. Sadly, the people who most need to learn history will probably never make the effort, but as Francine Prose asks, what’s the point of reading a book of which the effect on you is pre-determined? And the people who need to read these books likely never will.

Other novels were banned for reasons that are now silly—they dealt too openly with sexuality or perhaps contained many curse words. These may have been hot-button issues at the time the novels hit the shelves. They may have infuriated prude librarians or some local PTA. But the reason for their shock is long gone. Once upon a time Elvis shaking his pelvis on TV upset the nation too, but now it’s laughably quaint.

And some titles on the list are just, well, a little ludicrous. I don’t want to read Fifty Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games and don’t feel I’ll miss out by giving them a big pass. I have nothing against you if you do, but with so much I’ve yet to crack by Updike, Doctorow, Rushdie, Kazantzakis, Kundera, Chekhov, Flaubert, Woolf, Saramago, (Richard) Yates, (Richard) Ford, and countless others, I’m not even slightly interested, banned or not.

Of course, I’m probably taking all this a bit too literally. A “banned books week” is—let’s face it—probably the work, at least in part, of marketers who want to drag people’s heads out of their smartphones. And I think that is a great idea. Read the books, if you do, because you want to. But don’t feel bad if you haven’t read a lot of these titles, or would rather read something else. Don’t think for a minute the “banned” book is necessarily more worthy. No book should be banned, but not all banned books are equal. Having said that, there are a few titles on the Powell’s page I’ve long been dying to check out. I’ll add them to my list…but not because they were banned.

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Embracing the world

Mahler

Two of the greatest composers of the late 19th-early 20th century, Gustav Mahler and Jean Sibelius, were talking about the symphony one day. The Finnish composer aimed for succinctness, compactness. His great Symphony No. 3 is short and tautly constructed. He was seeking logic in musical construction that would get tighter and tighter until it culminated in the Symphony No. 7, just twenty-two minutes long, without a pause, and airtight. But Mahler, whose own Symphony No. 3 went on for an hour and three-quarters and included massive orchestral forces, a mezzo-soprano and a choir, disagreed. “Oh, no,” he said. “A symphony is like the world. It must embrace everything.”

I was thinking of that last night as I was reading, after much procrastination and consideration, David Foster Wallace’s epic novel Infinite Jest. This book could improve my physique, whether I finish it or not, so long as I tote it around enough. It’s over 1,100 pages and includes hundreds of footnotes and endnotes. It’s semi-fictional, semi-encyclopedia, and very complex. I’m just starting it, and don’t expect to be finished it for a long time. A very long time. My eyesight will probably be worse for wear when I do.

There seem to be, broadly-speaking, two types of novels in vogue today, at least in America. One is the epic, the sort Jonathan Franzen and the late Mr. Wallace are famous for. It’s somewhat surprising to me that such novels are popular when we’re constantly hearing that people have less time to read, come to the table with shorter attention spans when they do, and don’t want to tote around books that can throw out their backs. Yet each publishing houses ushers in a couple of these babies every year, usually at handsome prices and usually hyped to the skies, and many are at least optioned for movies, though often those movies don’t get made.

On the other end of the spectrum lives the slender, delicate novel. It’s usually about 200ish pages, very “personal,” often with a confessional tone, and tends to center around a very singular theme. The tomes try to include everything but the kitchen sink,

Sure I’m generalizing, and in fact the last three novels I read before Infinite Jest defy at least some of these generalizations. Still, the thick, formidable novel with dozens if not hundreds of characters in sprawling storylines that intersect and bounce around each other and are often told out of chronological order, and the intimate, “insider” piece told in a usually hyper-realistic style are quite familiar to even casual fiction readers. I guess we have to thank Tolstoy and Flaubert, respectively, though maybe it’s Tolstoy and Woolf?

It’s not as if the slender volumes can’t be rich and complex. Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, a stunning work about post-September 11th America, is as dense as anything I’ve read in years. The New York Times‘ Dwight Garner agreed. “Netherland has more life inside it than ten very good novels.” It was published around the same time as Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, another smallish novel that is nonetheless not small in ambition and undertaking. Both novels supposedly took their authors about five or six years to write. When one lifts them one may wonder why. When one reads them and thinks, really thinks, about the intricate entanglement of the contents, one then understands.

Similarly, my favorite living writer, Deborah Eisenberg, writes only in the short story form. (There’s a single exception, a play from early in her career called Pastorale. However, it is not epic either.) When one thinks short story one thinks a few pages, a few characters, a few scenes. Beware then, when you crack open a volume of Eisenberg, for these huge (for short stories) undertakings are as complex and layered as any novels, and as difficult too. Eisenberg can pack more into thirty pages than most writers get into five hundred.

It’s interesting that Eisenberg also manages to embrace the world, but it’s cumulatively, one yarn at a time. After reading her Collected Stories, which I recommend as much as I can recommend any book to anybody (Seriously, why are you still here? Go order it and then come back.) I feel that I’ve experienced an epic just as I have with Wallace or Franzen, and a richer and more varied one to boot. However, you won’t feel that way after reading just one. Each story focuses, again with hyper-realism and even comical over-exaggeration, on certain characteristics and aspects of certain people. All put together we get a vibrant view of humanity.

Eisenberg says people frequently ask her when she’s going to write a novel. Her reply is that she already has: her short stories are tightly condensed novels, folded back in on themselves. She’s the Sibelius of our literary world. Franzen (Wallace is no longer with us) and others of his ilk are the Mahler’s, writing longer and longer symphonies. But does longer equal better? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. One thing’s for certain, though: you will not be cheated out of the great epic that is the human condition if you shun thick and chunky books for the delicate offerings of Eisenberg or Woolf or others. Size isn’t everything. To The Lighthouse looks so unintimidating on the shelf, with its modest length (about 200 pages) simple-sounding title. Then you pick it up and it owns you. It’s one of the toughest, densest creations you’ll ever struggle with. The whole world. Squeezed tight in a vice. A black hole is small too. But it’s infinitely strong, according to Stephen Hawking, and not to be reckoned with.

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“I”

It’s a natural assumption, really, but it seems that when you write in the first person, people assume the character is you.

In my case, this isn’t helped by the fact that he’s also a writer working on a novel. For the record, he’s younger than me, has never lived in a large city (I’ve never lived in a small town), and is much more handsome. Not that that’s hard.

But as I write, I can’t shake the opinion that people are going to think that every thought Daniel Ferreira entertains is mine. This isn’t unreasonable. Many (most?) authors write stories to put forth a point they believe, essentially hiding behind their main character. Many novels, we learn, are autobiographical.

I’ve never cared for this, past a point. Sure everything I write is going to be informed by what I know and believe. But that’s just as true for any of the characters as the first-person one. As the song goes, I gotta be me.

But let me cite an example of what I try to avoid. Back when I lived in another city, there was a 20-something female there who wrote the entertainment column for the local indie paper, one of those little tabloidy things you get free in downtown book and music stores, but who aspired to write bigger and better things. She frequently wrote with some disparagement about her boyfriend, her She eventually moved to New York, the city which really seemed to be superior to all others to her. She eventually buttoned down and wrote her first novel. What was it about? A 20-something female who writes for the local indie paper in Philly and then gets dumped by her boyfriend, who’s described as lame, eventually moves to New York…

I don’t get the point of something like that. I don’t know why you write. Maybe you don’t write. Congratulations, you’re saner than me. But I write to live, at least vicariously, other lives I can’t live, or am not living. I enjoy researching and putting myself in the place of people whose values I don’t necessarily share or even approve of, or maybe partially share and partially approve of. But the last thing I want to do is write about myself. I’m not that interesting.

I won’t so far as to say I disapprove of being autobiographical. Certainly there have been a lot of interesting people worthy of writing an autobiographical novel. But it seems that it’s become what most writers of “literary fiction” (I hate that term, but until something better comes along I’ll use it) feel they must do. I think that limits us. When deciding on movies to see, I tend to gravitate towards ones whose premises and ideas I haven’t seen before. (This is increasingly rare.) I avoid sequels—even Godfather II didn’t do it for me, and I was delighted to see Francis Ford Coppola tell TMZ recently that they should have stopped after the first one. (Don’t bother telling me II was better. It wasn’t. It was overly-long and incoherent. And the last scene in GF I is just about the most perfect ending you can ask for in a movie. Does anyone even remember the last scene in II?) I also admire directors like William Wyler and Philip Kaufman and Jason Reitman because they don’t repeat themselves.

I know writers are often told to “write what they know,” and so they go autobiographical. What hogwash. Was Jules Verne ever 20,000 leagues under the sea? What did Mary Shelley know about galvanism?

The one disadvantage to this, obviously, is that it takes longer. It’s harder to become someone else and some days your brain just doesn’t want to do it. And there’s lots of research to do. And you take more wrong turns.

But it’s appealing to step outside one’s circumscribed world. That was a large part of what drew me to writing Welsey Shaw: I don’t want to write what I know, because I already know it. I’ve never lived in or near New York or even visited it all that much. I’ve never lived in Callicoon, the small town Daniel comes from, though I did visit it once I started the novel. I have become more interested in living in New York since I’ve worked on this, having become of the immense intellectual capital that is there, but I still think I’m a happily-transplanted West Coaster. I’ve never been as rich as Welsey or as poor as Daniel. More than that, though, is the fact that many of the things Daniel thinks are important I don’t. He’s more provincial than he thinks he is. (Well, hopefully I’m not, but this is of course a matter of opinion.) He’s less adventurous in many ways, never having been out of the U.S. or even his little nook of the Northeastern Atlantic Coast. He’s still living in the house he grew up in. He drives a Volvo. A gray one. I’d never do that!

And another thing: Daniel hates sushi ad raw beef. He really doesn’t have the adventurous palate that I do. I wouldn’t trust him to recommend a restaurant. And that’s an important thing.


Fifty shades of reading (or more)

UPDATE: The New York Times ran this piece that is pretty much along the same lines of what I’m talking about. Interesting reading.

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I’ve been seeing something a lot lately.

So many bloggers, especially these I’m-an-omnivore-who’s-up-on-the-latest-trends types, stress how many books they read.

Usually it’s per week. Either on their own sites, or in interviews about how Enlightenment they are: “Blogger so-and-so reads twelve/fifteen/twenty books a week, and talks about it on Twitter/Facebook/Her website. Join the conversation!”

A few times I have. I find sadly that the discussions skim the surface, like a junior high book report. Yeah, you read The Long Tail, but you didn’t do anything but sum it up and offer a few words of praise.

What’s my point? I don’t know exactly. I’m happy to see people proud that they’re reading instead of sitting in front of the TV or game console. We all know that reading is better for the mind. …Or is it? I still have a memory in eighth grade of a teacher praising reading, and a student joking with her that while he reads, it’s Mad magazine. And he held up a Don Martin book.

“At least it’s a book,” she said, quite seriously.

But I have my doubts. Really, is the medium the deciding factor,? Should it be any sort of factor at all? Or, to put it another way, I have to wonder if anyone who can read twelve (another blog said fifteen, another twenty) books a week is reading worthwhile books. Currently I’m reading an excerpt of Gibbon’s Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire—not the whole thing by a long shot, just a short excerpt—and it’s taken me three weeks. It’s dense stuff. Often I have to stop and do some side-reading about the early Christians or the backgrounds of the emperors to be able to follow the narrative.

Before that I re-read Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s biography of Mozart—which went quickly—and Bernard Bailyn’s Ideological Origins of the American Revolution, which didn’t. I can’t imagine reading a book like the latter fast enough to read eleven or fourteen or nineteen other books that week. Even if I just sat there all day and made my eyeballs make contact with every word, and I managed to “finish” the Bailyn, I still wouldn’t have absorbed it. (If you don’t believe me, just check out the book. The footnotes themselves—and yes, you really do have to read them to get the depth of the argument—could be their own book.)

But more to the point, I’m starting to think that the claim “I read xx books a week/month” is like saying, “I read a book this thick” [three inches between fingers]. So what? John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty is only this thick [quarter inch between fingers] but it’s a very important book, one you should read slowly, and think about as you do.

In short, I’m skeptical of the value of gobbling up information without chewing on it. Are we reading critically? Are we parsing what the author says, examining it carefully, or are we just nodding our heads in agreement because he’s a published author and it’s a New York Times Bestseller? (Ever notice, by the way, how so many New York Times Bestsellers are written by New York Times writers?) What do we get out of this kind of reading, other than the bragging rights of having read a lot, and what’s trendy. (Anyone read The Secret Life of Plants lately? …Didn’t think so.)

I’m also skeptical about all these bloggers who read about ten books a week and then write little digests on all of them. They rarely say anything original. Rather, they just rehash the content, something you can do by reading the flap or the Amazon product description, which is what I suspect some of these people do. That same great (though my classmates thought her annoying) eighth grade teacher (History) made us write papers, lots of papers (bless her!), and she was fond of standing in front of the class with our efforts and saying, “Where’s the original thinking?” before handing the report back, often with a not-good grade. I learned a lot from that lady.

And let’s stop acting like all books are equal. While it’s good for publishers’ bottom lines that Fifty Shades of Grey is doing so well  (or for one publisher in particular, Vintage), it’s a stretch to say this marks some sort of reading renaissance or victory over “dumb Hollywood entertainments.” You can read Fifty Shades with your brain turned off (even though something else may be turned on). Which is fine, but don’t pretend it’s literature. “It’s a matter of opinion” someone opined in the comments section of a recent article. I wonder if it occurred to her that her statement was then, by definition, itself an opinion. But also, it’s instructive to look at the past. A hundred fifty years ago people weren’t toting Moby-Dick to the beach. They were reading dime novels. Sometimes you can still find these tiny books in old “antique” (sometimes just junk) shops in small towns. Look at them some time, if you do, with their gaudy covers and titles like Molly’s Rosie Romance. Read a page or two and you’ll cringe in embarrassment at the naivete. You won’t cringe at Moby-Dick. I wonder what the young woman who thinks the quality of whatever you read is all a matter of opinion would think of that. I wonder how eager she’d be to embrace Molly.

The late Carl Sagan once said, “The key is to read the right books.” He might have added you don’t have to read billions and billions.