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Elisa Gabbert Wants Interesting Thinking, No Matter the Subject

I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive. The Word Pretty—Gabbert’s fourth book, following two books of poetry and one book of very short prose pieces—collects 22 previously published essays on a wide variety of themes. The subjects range from notebook-keeping to the guilty pleasure of reading only the front matter of books to the TV adaptation of Anne of Green Gables. Each is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.

Gabbert generously answered my questions about The Word Pretty over email.

The Millions: On Twitter, you described The Word Pretty as “a collection of [your] critical essays, rarities, & B-sides.” I love that description, in part because of the way it uses the language of music rather than literature. I’ve been wondering about the way that collections function as books, which seems different from the way that book-length works do. The Word Pretty is a good case for thinking about this, because you acknowledge its heterogeneity, and the book itself makes no claims to, say, thematic unity, yet it does feel to me like a whole. Does it feel that way to you? If so, is it in a different sense than your previous books, which are also wholes made of isolatable parts?

Elisa Gabbert: I often feel that where books start and stop is essentially arbitrary. I start to think of something as a book when it’s clear to me that I’m repeatedly returning to a certain set of concerns and a certain shape or structure or form as an approach to those concerns. Once I’m able to describe the concerns and the form to myself, it’s fairly easy to imagine the shape of the finished book. But it could always be a little shorter or longer, or arranged slightly differently and so on—at some point I just decide it’s done, maybe only because I get sick of the project and want to work on something new! The Word Pretty didn’t quite make sense to me as a book until I figured out the three sections. Then, if I wanted to add a new piece, for example, I knew which section it would go in, and I didn’t have to rearrange the whole table of contents. Sections and structure are important to me. I don’t write fiction, but I’m really interested in chapters, too, and I have a fantasy course mapped out in my head called “Chapter Studies.” In any case, after the fact of writing, I find that a book feels like a book partly because it’s time-delimited: I started it in a certain month of a certain year and finished it in a certain month of a later year. So whatever the genre, the book feels to me like a record of my thinking during that period.

TM: You told me, also on Twitter, that this book is “the kind of thing [you] always wanted to do but thought you had to be famous first.” What did you mean by that? And how did the book come about?

EG: I tweeted once—not that long ago actually, in early 2016—“I want to do one of those books of random bits and bobs of unrelated prose that only famous people get to do.” I was thinking of these collections that come out by J.M. Coetzee or Siri Hustvedt or Zadie Smith or, when they were living, John Updike or Gore Vidal—basically people who are some combination of “working writer” and “public intellectual” so that every few years, they’ve published enough essays or criticism to be packaged up into a book, and the fans buy it because they’ll read anything by that author, they just want the point of view. But debut collections of essays are usually not that freeform, unless maybe they’re on a small press. As it happens, later that same year, I had a small press approach me asking whether I had a manuscript of essays they could consider. Around the same time, I learned that my poetry publisher planned to launch a nonfiction series. So I got my wish via the small press route.

TM: I’m curious about the sequencing of the book. The essays are divided into three unnamed sections. Resonances abound, but there’s no clear thematic demarcation. In at least some instances, it seemed as if the ordering of essays within a section might be guided, in part, by shared references. For instance, “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” follows “The Inelegant Translation” (though there’s a section break in between), and both mention Lydia Davis’s introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary; “On the Pleasures of Front Matter” is followed by “Seeing Things,” both of which mention Howards End; “Seeing Things” is followed by “Impossible Time,” both of which mention The Catcher in the Rye. Am I right that you had this in mind? What other priorities guided the sequencing?

EG: In my mind, the middle section is made up of all my little “I noticed a thing” essays (a term I borrow from my friend Catherine Nichols) in the literary criticism category. Most of those started when I noticed a thing in a book I was reading (an idiosyncratic use of paragraphs, say, or a kind of POV), then thought about that thing as a thing, then started noticing how other books handled or achieved that same thing. Within that section I tried to sequence them in such a way that you might get a hint of an idea in one essay and then read an expansion on that idea in the next essay, as you suggest. That said, I’m not one of those people that tries every conceivable order of parts in a book to see if one permutation turns out better than the others—not that that’s actually possible. (Google tells me 12! ≈ 479 million—can that be right?!—and that’s just the essays in the second section.) I think on some level I’m just letting the juxtapositions do their own work. The first section and the third section could really be one section, but I wanted to split them apart, so there’s a more personal voice at the beginning and again at the end, with the more pure (-ish) criticism in the middle. Really, there’s plenty of I throughout. I got thoroughly sick of myself while proofing it.

TM: You began your career as a poet. How did you come to write essays? Do you think of your poetry and your essays as related or overlapping projects, or as discrete?

EG: I think essays are basically chunks of prose (nonfiction prose to be a little more exact), and I’ve been writing chunks of prose my whole life—papers, reviews, blog posts, whatever, they’re all essays if essays involve thinking about something for a while and then writing about it. At some point I decided to be more purposeful about calling them essays, and calling myself an essayist, probably around the time editors started asking me to write essays. Later, when I was working on a book proposal (not for The Word Pretty, but for the book I’m writing now), my agent asked me if I was committed to calling it essays—rather than, just, you know, a book—and I decided that yes, I really wanted to align myself with that tradition specifically. I think you approach a book of essays differently than a nonfiction book in chapters, and I wanted people to approach my essays as essays. (Incidentally, my second book was a collection of chunks of prose, and because, as you note, I started off as a poet, many people think of that book as prose poetry. It was actually marketed as a book of essays, but regardless of how it’s officially catalogued, it’s very obviously made of chunks of prose, and I think it reached a much larger audience than my collections of pro-forma poetry for that reason. More people read prose than poetry! No question!) But to get back to what you asked—I think my poetry and essays do have overlap in terms of my voice and sensibility and obsessions. But it feels very different to write prose versus poetry. It’s kind of like, I can either think in sentences or lines, in poetry or prose, but they’re distinct and exclusive modes. And my default mode is prose. Poetry is harder work. (At least in the drafting phase.)

TM: While I was in the midst of reading The Word Pretty, at a moment when I wasn’t actually reading it, I had this thought (which I considered tweeting, but decided not to): People talk a lot about overwritten prose, but what about the more common problem of underwritten prose? When I returned to The Word Pretty, I was surprised to find, in your essay “Writing That Sounds Like Writing,” first a discussion of overwritten prose, and then this: “of late I’ve read a few books I thought of as underwritten.” This could be a coincidence, or maybe I had read this essay of yours before (I can’t remember if I had) and was anticipating it. But another explanation would be that your essays so effectively convey your style of thinking that reading them helped me to have an Elisa Gabbert-style thought. What do you think of my hypothesis? Is that at all in line with what you think your essays accomplish, or what you intend them to?

EG: Oh, I love this story. It’s hard for me to think of a better compliment than “recognizable style of thinking.” But yes, what I look for in essays, and what I try to do in my essays, is interesting thinking. And sometimes I like when writers really show every step of the proof, as it were. Maybe they’re revealing all their missteps or false starts or the bad ideas they had on the way to a better idea. Or maybe they aren’t missteps exactly, but a series of small but necessary steps to get to something more profound. That level of thinking can be so interesting, even if you don’t really know what the writer is talking about! Like this paragraph I read yesterday, from a brief essay about Shostakovich’s 15th symphony by Tom Service:
Weird. Yes, Shostakovich has set up a sort of pre-echo of the William Tell tune in some of the rhythms we’ve heard; but when the trumpets play the tune, it’s a shock. So is it ironic? Not really, there’s a genuine musical connection, a reason for it being there. A parody? Again, it’s not that simple; Shostakovich doesn’t frame this moment as a separate kind of discourse from what we’ve heard so far, this quote isn’t in quotation marks. And in fact, I don’t actually think this is a quotation at all: what I mean is that the effect of hearing this music at this point in the symphony is so utterly removed from the original function, expression, and associations of Rossini’s tune that it becomes, in fact, a totally different object. Instead of infectious operatic cheeriness, we’re in a place of existential symphonic crisis. If anything, you hear the disjunction in meaning and context even more precisely because the pattern of the notes is so familiar. Make sense? Possibly not – but these are the kind of labyrinths Shostakovich’s symphony leads you into… (Even Shostakovich himself couldn’t properly explain the reason for the quotes in this symphony: “I don’t myself quite know why the quotations are there, but I could not, could not, not include them,” he told his friend Isaak Glikman in a tortuous bit of triple-negativity.)
I know almost nothing about classical music (does Shostakovich even count as classical?) but I read this three or four times. It’s such a great example of attention, representing the act of attention within the text, along with the uncertainty that follows attention, the questioning of what you thought you knew. Also, your story makes me think of that bit at the end of the Anne of Green Gables essay, where I talk about binge-watching TV and then feeling like I look like a character from the show, like looking at a face so much has warped my self-image. It sounds like you experienced a version of that!

TM: It’s clear that your writing is informed by a robust reading life, in which you take seriously the choice of what to read when as a part of living. Is developing a certain kind of reading life something you’ve worked at, or has it come naturally? How is your reading life related to your writing life?

EG: I have worked at it! I’ve loved reading all my life, but I made a conscious decision about five years ago to be more disciplined about it. I felt like approaching my reading in a haphazard, undisciplined way wasn’t cutting it anymore. So I made all these little, or in some cases not so little, habitual changes in order to make reading more central in my life. I started going to the library all the time—this has at least two positive effects. One, there are always stacks of unread books around, so there’s never the problem of having “nothing to read.” Two, due dates are deadlines, so I can’t put off reading a book forever. I also pretty much stopped watching TV. I know it’s supposed to be the golden age of prestige TV blah blah, but for me, good TV still isn’t as good or rewarding as a good book, and even bad TV is addictive. It’s just too easy to get sucked into, so I avoid it entirely. Another thing I started doing is documenting all the books I finish, then publishing little mini-reviews of all of them at the end of the year. I like writing them and I like when people read them so it gives me extra incentive to finish books. As for how my reading life relates to my writing life, it definitely feeds it, but lately I feel like the balance is a little off. Too much writing and not enough reading!

TM: I love the way the essays in The Word Pretty ground the acts of reading, research, and citation in your life and in the world. For instance, you thematize the act of finding something to quote in “Meditation on the Word Pretty”: You write, “I flipped through my copy of Terry Eagleton’s Ideology of the Aesthetic from grad school; I had not recalled that it paints Edmund Burke-ian sublimity as practically a loathsome side effect of testosterone,” and then you quote it. I think this is related to the way, in “Seeing Things,” you write about picturing characters and spaces in novels by drawing from people and spaces from your life. Essays that engage texts often give the impression that the essayist is a brain in a vat encountering texts in some abstract way. Yours never do that, even when you don’t explicitly dwell on or dramatize the physical or imaginative encounter. Is this grounded textual engagement a way of achieving a certain effect? Are you writing against a tendency in essays or criticism?

EG: Ah, this is one of my signature moves, incorporating notes on the process of writing an essay into the essay itself. It feels more authentic, or maybe I should say truthful, to reveal that process, which can involve chance and randomness, or cursory, passing interest in things. I don’t want to create the false impression that every time I cite a book, I’ve necessarily read the whole book or that author’s whole oeuvre. (But I’m trying not to do this move reflexively or let it turn into a tic. There’s a danger of understanding your own style too well, and then imitating yourself.) I think I’m also using, in a sense, critical or topical essays to write about my self in the world. I’m always trying to situate who and where and when I am in relation to the books or other things I’m writing about. Partly it’s an ethical position, a way of highlighting my subjectivity, and partly it’s just ego.

TM: Do you have a favorite essay from the book?

EG: Yes. My favorite essay is the last one, “Time, Money, Happiness.”

TM: I know you’re working on a new book. What can you tell me about it and how it’s going?

EG: I just finished the penultimate essay, so I think I’m allowed to say it’s almost done. Writing it while also working a pretty demanding full-time job has been incredibly stressful and difficult, but it’s a good kind of pain, I guess you could say. (As I just tweeted the other day, writing it is taking years off my life, but seeing as it’s about disasters, it’s making me want to die sooner anyway.) Working on it is giving me forward movement and purpose at a time when it would be easy to succumb to the whole “LOL, nothing matters” ethos. Nothing does matter, but also this book is important to me. I want to finish it, and I want people to read it.

Going Places No One Else Goes: The Millions Interviews Pamela Erens

I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.

Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.

Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.

Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.

The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?

Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.

But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.

TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?

PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.

TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?

PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.

There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.

TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?

PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.

Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.

TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?

PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!

The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.

They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.

TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The GoldfinchThe LuminariesA Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?

PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. MiddlemarchAnna KareninaHoward’s EndAngle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso SeaDesperate CharactersThey Came Like SwallowsJesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?

I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.

TM: What is a “big book?”

PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.

I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.

We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”

TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?

PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.

I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.

That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.

Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.

TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?

PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.

I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)

Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.

TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?

PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.

Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!

I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.

The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!

TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?

PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.

In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.

TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?

PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.

The Million Basic Plots

In 1826, the philosopher John Stuart Mill had a nervous breakdown, and one of its causes was pretty odd. “I was seriously tormented by the thought of the exhaustibility of musical combinations,” he wrote in his autobiography.
The octave consists only of five tones and two semi-tones, which can be put together in only a limited number of ways, of which but a small proportion are beautiful: most of these, it seemed to me, must have been already discovered, and there could not be room for a long succession of Mozarts and Webers, to strike out, as these had done, entirely new and surpassingly rich veins of musical beauty.
In a way, Mill was being prescient: within a hundred years, serialist composers would forge onward, like the Vikings colonizing Greenland, to combinations of semi-tones that were not conventionally beautiful. But in another way, Mill was being ridiculous: no, a contemporary composer can’t use a tune that Mozart also used, unless it’s a deliberate allusion, but she can certainly use a tune that Weber also used, because no one listens to Weber any more. Mill’s nightmare of permutational famine would only be a real danger if any motif that any composer invented was registered permanently in some sort of giant musical database. Perhaps such a database does now exist, but no composer would be silly enough to check it. I only wish the same were true for narrative art.

Discovering that the website TV Tropes began as a Buffy the Vampire Slayer messageboard is like discovering that Borges’s “Library of Babel” began as a one-volume cricketer’s almanac. Since 2004, TV Tropes has swollen into a frighteningly comprehensive taxonomy of all known plot devices across all known media. Every story that’s ever thrilled you is there in microscopic cross section. In some respects it resembles books like Georges Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations or Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots, but it’s not nearly so reductive: it’s maximalist not minimalist, always delighted to add new categories. Really, its closest cousin is the Aarne–Thompson classification system, which attempts to anatomize all the world’s folklore into about 2,500 elements. And as a writer, I find it impossible to browse TV Tropes without feeling like Mill: how will anyone ever come up with anything new?

This fear isn’t abstract. Recently, I was on the point of starting my second screenplay when I thought I might as well check at the patent office for any prior art. On the TV Tropes page for Double Reverse Quadruple Agent, I came across a listing for Cypher, a 2002 film I’d never seen by Vincenzo Natali, director of the terrific Cube. The best twist in my outline was sitting there in Cypher. Dejected, I gave up on the screenplay. TV Tropes may have saved me from wasting my time on an idea that had already been wrung dry, but it may also have prevented me from developing that idea far enough that I could find something in it that was uniquely my own. So far, the same thing hasn’t happened with my prose fiction, but perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

Of course, this is only a problem because my writing happens to be so preoccupied with plot. Most literary fiction is inoculated against TV Tropes. When Zadie Smith updates Howard’s End in On Beauty or Cynthia Ozick updates The Ambassadors in Foreign Bodies, they are assuming that the storylines are not by any means the most gripping things about those novels. I once interviewed the critic James Wood, and he told me that in his reviews he deliberately describes the entire book because he likes “destroying the tyranny of plot.” In other words, if TV Tropes gives you writer’s block, then maybe you’re not much of a writer.

And you can even make that same argument starting from the other side of the field. I recently asked the author China Miéville about TV Tropes, on which he has his own lengthy entry; because his work wallows in plot, I thought he might find the website as lethal as I do. In fact, he told me that he loves TV Tropes but he doesn’t worry about it. You don’t need a database, he said, to prove that it’s almost impossible to come up with anything truly original – just riffling through the canon will do that. Your task is just to force new tricks on old dogs. (After all, both Cypher and my abandoned screenplay were basically variations on Philip K Dick. TV Tropes itself has an entry for this called Older Than They Think.) And I agree with Miéville up to a point. But a lot of the joy of his novel The City and the City, for instance, arises from its ingenious premise. If he’d read on TV Tropes that The Twilight Zone had used the same plot in 1961, he would probably still have written his book, but I find it hard to believe he wouldn’t have been disappointed.

And the horrible thing is, it doesn’t stop there. There’s a remark somewhere by (I think) Martin Amis about how all young writers have to confront the fact that there just aren’t many new ways left to describe an autumn sky or a pretty girl. It’s like peak oil for lyricism. And in the age of Google Books and Amazon Search Inside, we have to confront this even more brutally. Every time I come up with a simile that feels like it might be too obvious, I can put it into the search box and find that a dozen romance novelists have used it before me.

The answer, I think, is to think more about your audience. The average reader just isn’t as obsessive about precedent as the average writer. She is less likely to notice an echo, and if she does notice, she is less likely to mind. In other words, she is saner. To invent some contorted new plot twist because your previous one was already on TV Tropes, or some cumbersome new metaphor because your previous one was already on Google Books, is just self-indulgence: you like your book a bit more, but everyone else likes it a bit less. It’s best to spend just enough time on TV Tropes that you’re anxious to do something original, but not so long that you’re paralyzed. That’s easier advice to give than to follow, however, and whether or not I succeed, there is one pretty humbling circumstance I have no choice but to acknowledge: that the biggest existential challenge that I currently face as a novelist comes from a website that started life as a place for people to talk about whether Buffy should really have got together with Spike.

Previously: Trope is the New Meme

Image credit: Pexels/ana-clara-de-castro.

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