Not long ago, I finished my first novel. When I began to actually write it, i.e., to put complete sentences in a semi-coherent order, a strange thing happened: I could not read other people’s fiction.
Whenever I picked up a novel, I would become anxious and unhappy; my mind would race. I don’t have a better explanation than self-consciousness or maybe envy, but anyway that’s what happened. So after a post-collegiate lifetime of reading mostly novels, I became for a while a militant reader of everything but fiction.
I emphatically did not read any books about writing fiction, because those have pretty much always made me anxious and unhappy. Instead, I read non-fiction books that I thought might indirectly tell me something about fiction, even though they were really about something else. That, it turns out, made all the difference.
Someone told me once that books present themselves when we need them most, and if there’s a happy ending here it’s that the (best) non-fiction books I read taught me exactly what I needed to know to write that novel. These are the books I needed most, and this is what they taught me.
Duc de St-Simon, Memoirs
From the Duc de St-Simon, I learned the power of scale. His canvas was vast — he must touch at least briefly on the better part of the French aristocracy who were alive at the time, and in his hands this slice of life gathers such momentum and has so much raw life-force that it comes to feels like a memoir of an entire culture, and maybe even of the entire world.
St-Simon was the 8th-ranking duke at the court of Louis XIV. He knew everyone and nearly everything, and what he didn’t know he speculated about in the most infectious way possible. It’s gossipy, in the best sense, but it’s also a sort of oral history of that special kind of depth and appreciation of complexity that may still go by the name of sophistication. Here’s St-Simon on an elaborate scheme by a member of the King’s family (Monsieur le Prince) to enrich a friend by means of an advantageous marriage:
They unearthed the hereditary Duchesse de Piney’s daughter by a second marriage…the girl was appallingly ugly, like a great vulgar fish-wife in a herring barrel, but by the elimination of the children of her mother’s first marriage she would be immensely rich, and appeared…to offer an ingenious method of endowing Bouteville with a peerage.
Emerson says somewhere that no orator can compete with someone who gives good nicknames; it might also be true of the teller of anecdotes, especially if they can sustain the narrative for more than a thousand pages.
George Lukács, “The Intellectual Physiognomy” from Writer & Critic
If anyone were to read just one piece from this list, it should be this. Lukács showed me that a truly lifelike character is only possible if that character’s understanding of his or her larger social situation is authentically transparent to the reader:
The basis of great literature is Heraclitus’s common world of men “awake”, the world of men struggling in society, struggling with each other, acting for and against each other and reacting actively, not passively, to each other. If there is no “awake” consciousness of reality…no character can achieve…the full vitality of individuality.
I personally struggle with this particular thing; I sometimes think that clear objectives in a character are sort of disappointing. I tell myself, in these dark moments, that I’m aiming to convey something less tangible about characters than that they must stay alive in a river full of alligators or find the briefcase with the magical light it or defeat He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Lukács’ response to this line of thought would almost certainly not be polite. I think he would argue that, above all, transparency of the character’s thought process is absolutely non-negotiable, especially in a main character. No amount of good writing or lively dialogue, he explicitly says, can compensate for a character’s lack of a clear “intellectual physiognomy” as Lukács calls it. Which seems like a cold-eyed and important thing to remember.
Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life
Braudel taught me to think more expansively about what we include in a novel’s fictional world. Why are the houses shaped the way they are? Who does and does not say grace at dinner, and why? Why might the protein content of grass matter to the owner of an island farm?
In 1929, two French historians founded a journal for academic historians called Annales. The “Annales School” focused on elements of history previously dismissed as the mundane data of the world — family structures, the geography of towns, primary data from courts and municipalities, and (later) the specific mentalities of its subjects. Braudel was not of that founding generation, but from the next one — he was a consolidator of its legacy, and this is arguably the masterpiece of the entire school of thought.
The Structures of Everyday Life examines, in minute detail and with ingenious data, the material conditions that have informed human choices made nearly everywhere over the last 500 to 1,000 years. Here is Braudel, in a typical passage, swinging from miniature to epic register in describing the long-term ramifications of the invention of the horse collar:
In the twelfth century, [horses’] performance suddenly improved, like an engine increased to four or five times its power…Until then they had been animals of war; thereafter they played a very large part in harrowing, tilling and transport. This important transformation was one of a series of…factors in the rise of northern Europe.
Mary Douglas, “The Abominations of Leviticus” from Purity and Danger
This is a denser piece than some, but for me its technical lesson is simple: an effective way to intensify and clarify the actual story is to put the surrounding world in opposition to it.
Douglas takes an often skipped-over part of the Bible — Leviticus’ extensive rules on purity and defilement — and intuits a whole worldview about the connection between what is holy and what is mundane. It is a tour de force.
[For the Israelites], the dietary laws would have been like signs which at every turn inspired meditation on the oneness, purity and completeness of God. By rules of avoidance, holiness was given a physical expression in every encounter with the animal kingdom and at every meal.
Our everyday habits, Douglas suggests, are also small gestures of holiness in a profane world, and also forms of ritual defense against whatever there is around us that might be predatory. We have in Leviticus a guide to holiness, then but also a strong reminder that what’s in the Levitican background is constant warfare and persecution and also the inevitable dirt and difficulty of many people (i.e., the Israelites) living in in the wilderness.
I take that as a reminder to put good characters among bad, rich among poor, and to remember above all that light is always brightest next to shade.
Lee Strasberg, Transcripts from the Actors Studio
Reading Strasberg, I found the connection between acting and writing fiction to be more direct than I’d suspected. The Method, as Strasberg’s approach is often called, is even today often parodied as a form of self-indulgence and caricaturist acting. What I found in this book was an almost Emersonian approach to art as fundamentally aiming for vitality, surprise — for “life”:
…the actor can be helped really to think on the stage, instead of thinking only in make-believe fashion. Once the actor begins to think, life starts, and then there cannot be imitation.
More technically, something Strasberg returns to over and over is that any vagueness in a performance, any cliché at all, is not in the first instance so much a failure of imagination or talent, as a lack of preparation.
So by Strasberg’s logic, any revision of a story or novel should first and foremost set out to flag sentences, paragraphs, characters, and plotlines of low energy and then work backwards — away from the manuscript — to see where the world has been insufficiently imagined. This line of thought, along with some comments from an old friend, caused me to do an extra year of work on this novel’s manuscript when I rashly had thought it was already done.
If we do this work of preparation right, Strasberg suggests, it helps us push our performances — our books — to a place where they are more internally coherent, more alive, and above all more reflective of ourselves, for better or worse.