Strangeness abounds in the literature we teach — from the poetry of William Blake and W.B. Yeats to the fiction of Toni Morrison and Thomas Pynchon — and yet teachers often cultivate orthodoxy in the creative writing classroom. This is not a surprise. Syllabi need to be approved. Curriculums for majors need to be aligned. More than other disciplines, creative writing has a crisis of self-worth: it is not merely up for debate what is the best way to teach creative writing, but whether it can be taught at all.
My years teaching creative writing to college and high school students have made me sympathetic to this tendency toward a conservative approach. I have previously written for The Millions about my commitment to teaching students about the business of creative writing. I certainly want to prepare my students for the worlds of publishing and graduate school, but I also fear Flannery O’Connor’s warning about the danger of mere competence in creative writing. Acceptable has become the new exceptional.
Art is taught in studios, but creative writing is taught in the same classrooms where we teach literary analysis, history, and business. We might be romantic and say that teacher and student need to create art through imagination, but in education, form is function. We need to shake things up in the creative writing classroom. We need to remember that writing is a messy, fractured, intensely personal pursuit that must not be neutered by the institutional needs of our classrooms.
One solution is to embrace the strange; one method is to imbue the strange into writing exercises. Graduates of American creative writing programs are familiar with John Gardner’s writing exercises at the back of The Art of Fiction. Two representative examples: “Describe a landscape as seen by an old woman whose disgusting and detestable old husband has just died. Do not mention the husband or death,” and “In high parodic form, plot one of the following: a gothic, a mystery, a sci-fi, a Western, a drug-store romance.”
Louis Menand says the collective goal of Gardner’s exercises is “about acquiring a knack for adopting different styles and assuming different points of view.” In short, Gardner wants a writer to gain fluidity with form. William Gass described his novella The Pedersen Kid — a story Gardner originally published in his magazine MSS — as an “exercise in short sentences.” Although Gass would scoff at the idea, one can imagine some of his fiction arising from Gardner’s mode of exercises.
Gardner, of course, is not alone in his unique approach to writing exercises. Louise Erdrich, along with her sister Heid, taught a writing workshop at Turtle Mountain Community College in North Dakota. According to The Paris Review, the workshop was unique:
One afternoon, participants took turns reciting poetry under a basswood tree beside the single-room house where Erdrich’s mother grew up. Another day, they ate homemade enchiladas and sang “Desperado” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” accompanied by a fellow workshopper on the guitar. In class, the writing is personal, the criticism charitable. It helps that Erdrich does the exercises, too — reading out the results in her mellifluous, often mischievous voice. In tidy fulfillment of an assignment entitled “very short fiction,” she wrote, “You went out for the afternoon and came back with your dress on inside out.”
In 1991, Robert Coover created Hypertext Hotel, a hypertext fiction workshop course at Brown University. He viewed the course “devoted as much to the changing of reading habits as to the creation of new narratives.” Coover claims that writing students are “notoriously conservative creatures,” stubborn to a tradition and style, so “Getting them to try out alternative or innovative forms is harder than talking them into chastity as a life style.” Coover’s solution was to “confront” students with “hyperspace;” they even projected their hyperfiction onto a screen during workshop. The hotel was an online space where “writers are free to check in, to open up new rooms, new corridors, new intrigues, to unlink texts or create new links, to intrude upon or subvert the texts of others, to alter plot trajectories, manipulate time and space, to engage in dialogue through invented characters, then kill off one another’s characters or even to sabotage the hotel’s plumbing.”
Was Coover’s Hotel a writing exercise, or something else entirely? Wag’s Revue, Brown University’s literary magazine, wrote a post-mortem: “Almost two decades later, the Hypertext Hotel still stands, but without upkeep over the years it has decomposed into a creaking mass of dead links and empty rooms. And meanwhile, contrary to Coover’s prediction, linear narratives are still being printed by the ton, while the genre of hypertext fiction has dwindled almost to extinction.” This dwindling does not make Coover’s experiment a failure, but it does speak to a problem of creative writing pedagogy: creative writing is more based in play and performance than other disciplines, so what should we expect in terms of process and production, learning and result?
One of Coover’s contemporaries, Donald Barthelme, had another approach. According to Menand, while Barthelme taught at the University of Houston, he “assigned students to buy a bottle of wine and stay up all night drinking it while producing an imitation” of John Ashbery’s poetry. One of Barthelme’s students in another workshop was Brian Kiteley, a novelist and prose-poet who teaches at the University of Denver. Kiteley is the author of the prototypical collection of strange writing exercises, The 3 A.M. Epiphany. Kiteley’s own practice in creating prose and poetry hybrids results in an uncommon perspective toward literary creation.
For a student-writer open to innovation and experimentation, Kiteley’s book is a treasure. In his introduction to the collection, Kiteley explains that the goal of these exercises is “to teach writers how to let their fiction find itself.” Although other artists and athletes “take the notion of practice and exercise very seriously,” Kiteley believes “Too many writers make a fetish of the natural, untroubled writer who just breathes out a great story.” The exercises seek to “cajole a writer into playfulness and useful accident, making the usually daunting prospect of writing prose into something of a game.” A descent into strangeness helps “beginning and experienced writers rethink their methods by playing with form, style, paragraphs, sentences, and words, and in so doing, appreciate the value of their infinitely varied experiences.”
Kiteley extends his exercise method to the traditional workshop model, which he believes “presumes you cannot teach creativity, instincts, beginnings, or sources. The workshop takes what it can once the process has already been started.” In contrast, Kiteley uses “exercises in my workshops to derange student stories, find new possibilities, and foster strangeness, irregularity, and non-linearity as much as to encourage revisions and cleaning up after yourself” — meaning that it must be the responsibility of the student to finish the work.
Kiteley believes this fragmented approach to workshop — sharing unfinished scenes and sketches, building them toward longer stories, and then re-focusing on smaller sections — hearkens back to the earliest connotations of workshop as a place of measured creation. Students can leave these strange workshops with a new skill: “The more you understand why you’re writing something, the easier it is to see the pathways you’re trying to create for it.” If students force everything they write to become a full story, they will inevitably write many poor, or merely competent, stories. But if students write a plethora of exercises, they will train themselves to find their best work and polish it, and trash the rest.
In one exercise, “Exes,” writers “use the letters of the first names of four or five ex-boyfriends or ex-girlfriends as your only alphabet for a very short story …See if you can look back to earlier failed relationships with something like affection — or at least some balance.” Kiteley followed his earlier volume with The 4 A.M. Breakthrough, which includes an exercise titled “Lost:”
Write about a town that has disappeared. It could be a Palestinian village on a hillside in what is now Israel, forcibly evacuated in 1948 and then “erased” from maps and view (though there are vegetable remains of the town). It could be a ghost town in the American west — a silver or gold rush boom town which remains in substantial form but is empty of people. It could be an African town erased by the encroaching Sahara. Or it could be a village sunk under a reservoir formed in 1933 in Massachusetts. Write about it in the present and at the moment of its last human habitation and at its most vibrant, lively apex.
Amen to the renewing power of the strange within the creative writing classroom. In my own courses, I have taken students outside to read Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Inversnaid” and then write exercises to evoke the linguistic progression of rills, streams, and rivers. I have asked students to write fiction to make me cry without becoming sentimental. I have created geometric mazes of phrases that exist as skeletons on the page, for which they must develop a fluid, connecting narrative. I have also given them an infamous assignment, a “dexterity poem,” that is reproduced below.
At this point in my creative writing course, students have written fiction of various lengths and forms, and are making the transition into poetry. I learned early that poetry assignments without parameters to beginning poets result in abstraction, highly personal writing that is indecipherable to outside readers, and regurgitation of common narratives and phrases. Some teachers might reach for fixed poetic forms; I reach for free verse compression. The dexterity poem requires students to think, plan, find patterns, draft, revise, re-write, set-aside, and return. In upending their ability to construct free narratives, it pauses and then renews how students approach the building of poetic story. The assignment is initially met with skepticism that borders on frustration. That frustration soon develops into the type of interest that riddles can create. Students become more focused than I have ever seen them before as they work on this assignment; an absurd activity that forces them to achieve syntactic mastery across lines. I offer this exercise to teachers as a resource, and to writers as a challenge. Try it. Follow the guidelines, and post your best (and strangest) attempts in the comments.
INSTRUCTIONS AND RULES:
Write a poem using any combination of at least 35 words or phrases in the chart below. A phrase counts once; you may use any words or phrases as often as you need to, but they only count once. The words and phrases must remain largely intact– you can change number, tense, insert punctuation and capitalize, but not order.
You may use any of the words in this list as often as possible: of, and, but, for, is, are, to, toward, in, out, him, he, she, his, her, it, should, could, can, can’t, the, or, if, after, before, that, this, & Vermont.
You may also choose any 20 words not available in the chart (these are your “wild cards:” choose wisely!)
Consider multiple connotations for words. Avoid lists (these poems must make narrative sense).
postage stamp, baby
sweet callus, yo
we watched Dazed and Confused in earnest
he won a Tony
sweep the leaves
penne with vodka
don’t yell fire
“Rock the Casbah”
what happened, happened
it is over, four leaf clover
there’s too much oregano in my marinara
I’ve never seen Mean Girls
I refuse to ask for guidance
key club was cancelled
you forgot your teeth
awkward as an aardvark
I am going to open a spa
where did Dave Chappelle go?
The Food Network
Jon Bon Jovi
count your blessings
so much of what we do
Twins was a decent movie
laugh your way to
stop, and then begin
I hate your beard
lose the attitude
I’ll have the house dressing
please cancel my subscription
crafted with painstaking precision
lower your voice
jam this, peanut butter that
look, there’s a notornis
cackle while you spackle
it was a tradition
stop or I’ll tweet
Image Credit: Flickr/Bistrosavage
In a 1978 debate with William Gass at the University of Cincinnati, John Gardner said the fiction of Anthony Trollope is rarely taught “because it’s all clear.” In contrast, “every line of Thomas Pynchon you can explain because nothing is clear.” The result: “the academy ends up accidentally selecting books the student may need help with. They may be a couple of the greatest books in all history and 20 of the worst, but there’s something to say about them.” Gardner warned that “The sophisticated reader may not remember how to read: he may not understand why it’s nice that Jack in the Beanstalk steals those things from the giant.”
Neither Gardner nor any other single critic is the final word on what belongs in a classroom, but I admit some deference to his voice. His books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist were influential to me as a young writer, and his playful debate with Gass has been invaluable in showing my students the tension within American fiction during the late ’70s. Yet Gardner’s polemical On Moral Fiction soured me a bit. He opted for a bullhorn where a flute might have been more appropriate. Gardner’s critical shouting was a show, a way to carve out a niche for his own literary identity. In a later interview with The New Orleans Review, Gardner is more measured: he calls Pynchon “a brilliant man, but his theory of what fiction ought to do is diametrically opposed to mine, and while I think he’s wonderful and ought to be read — besides which it’s a pleasure — I don’t want anybody confusing him with the great artists of our time. He’s a great stunt-man.”
I end my senior AP Literature course with the stunt man. The first text I give my students is Gass and Gardner’s debate; we finish with The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon. Between Gardner and Pynchon, the students read a significant amount of poetry, as well as novels by Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, and plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. I end with Pynchon because his fiction is difficult, dated, and frustrating: exactly what my students need to read before they go to college.
Difficult, dated, and frustrating requires some explanation.
Pynchon is difficult because of his syntax. Consider the first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” Pynchon’s sentences are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.
Pynchon is dated. The novel’s first chapter contains references to The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, parodies of television legal dramas and ’60s local radio station DJs, and Timothy Leary’s consciousness-bending theories. The next chapter introduces Miles, a manager of a local motel, who is “maybe 16 with a Beatle haircut and a lapelless, cuffless, one-button mohair suit,” whose band is called “The Paranoids.”
Pynchon is frustrating. Although my students read difficult books, ranging from Morrison’s layered representation of trauma in Beloved to DeLillo’s absurd mash-up of linguistics and football in End Zone, each previous novel builds toward a resolution. Pynchon tricks, trips, and nearly pummels the reader with herrings of every color. Oedipa’s search is continually diverted with distractions, and that’s before she learns of The Tristero or Trystero, the multinational, historical conspiracy that has culminated in an underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E.
Pynchon has written six novels since The Crying of Lot 49, so why teach this early book that Pynchon himself said was a work “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then?” Because I know that students, pushed by a teacher who believes in them, will rise to the difficulty of the material presented.
We read Pynchon for the same reasons that others might not.
Pynchon’s difficult syntax forces students to juggle two methods of reading: reading for language, and reading for content. That previously quoted first sentence has a lot of noise, but it is not cacophonic. Pynchon’s convoluted syntax mirrors Oedipa’s increasingly chaotic world. His sentences force students to rethink their assumptions about the purposes of not only traditional prose, but also experimental language. I do not intend Pynchon’s work to convert them to more postmodern interests in literature; rather, Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.
Although Pynchon’s references and comedic timing within The Crying of Lot 49 might feel dated, the novel helps students understand mid-’60s American fiction, particularly work from the West Coast. One might update the curiously self-deprecating band The Paranoids for our present as Big Data, a Brooklyn-based act founded by Harvard graduate Alan Wilkis. In a recent interview with NPR, he spoke about his “paranoid electronic pop project,” and how “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Internet.” Big Data’s great debut album, 2.0, leads with “The Business of Emotion,” a send-up of the “Facebook mood experiments:” “Feel good, make you feel good / I’m looking for emotion so I know just what to show you.” Students realize that, more and more, they are becoming Oedipa, buried in data: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Finally, student frustration with Pynchon evolves into curiosity. Rather than becoming angry at Pynchon’s lack of linear progression and profluence, students are often intrigued by his parlor tricks. For years they have been taught to unearth and discover meaning in texts — English educators love to use manual labor metaphors, but don’t always want to get their hands dirty — yet The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal. The movement toward skills-based education in the humanities has also created an effort-return mentality: the expectation that a text can, or should, be distilled into a single sentence. Don’t we want students who know how to handle messes?
There are many other difficult novels that could fit the aforementioned criteria. What is special about Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49?
Published in 1965, Pynchon’s novel fits nicely within the decade of media theorist and “electronic prophet” Marshall McLuhan’s essential works: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). As Mark Greif notes in The Age of the Crisis of Man, his excellent consideration of American fiction between 1933 and 1973, “Pynchon [puts] a TV set in every room of his fiction — often to drive the action.” McLuhan’s “electric light” illuminates Pynchon’s fiction.
Oedipa is the protagonist that McLuhan might dream of, a woman thrust into an electronic world she did not create but is forced to understand. Early in the novel, Oedipa and Metzger, her part-time lover, part-time legal mentor, visit The Scope, a nightclub on the outskirts of Los Angeles with “a strictly electronic music policy.” A “hip graybeard” explains “They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We’ve got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man.” As Oedipa drives through San Narciso on a Sunday, “She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit.” Oedipa’s world is wholly electronic; in fact, considering Pynchon’s sensibility as a jester-Catholic, holy electronic.
My students watch McLuhan’s 1976 appearance on The Today Show and are entertained by his dissection of the presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. “I never saw a more atrocious misuse of the TV medium,” he quips, and calls the moment when the sound cut during the debate a “rebellion of the medium against the bloody message.” If the bloody message is linear, progressive, and climactic storytelling, Pynchon’s novel is rebellion through performance. Greif notes that “‘Man’ as a being and a concept is put into jeopardy for Pynchon, not first by high-technological machines or weapons but by the use of ordinary materials and the creation of mundane objects — the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits.” I don’t want students to smash their iPhones, but I do want them to think twice about what type of data they offer their devices.
At its worst, Pynchon’s prose is a beautiful failure. At its best, Pynchon’s prose is revelatory. I agree with Greif that, in the end, The Crying of Lot 49 and Pynchon’s canon as a whole are concerned with data: “whether remains are transmitted beyond each individual communication, buried in the material facts of the founding of the system of communication, and whether this residue may shadow and smudge the prospect of those who join such a system, without them even knowing it.” Not a bad lesson for students to learn, somewhere between thinking of giants, beanstalks, and other noise.
In August 1954, just months after he graduated from Harvard, John Updike had his first story accepted by The New Yorker. He was 22 years old. Three years after that, having spent a year studying drawing in England and two years as a staff writer at The New Yorker, Updike gave up his office job and set out his shingle as a freelance writer. For the next half century, he pumped out a steady stream of award-winning novels, poetry, criticism, and stories, often averaging more than a book a year.
Updike was an excellent student — all A’s from 7th to twelfth grade, summa cum laude from Harvard — and a ferociously hard worker, but he had little formal training in the craft of writing. In fact, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography, Updike, the future two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner was rejected, twice, in his bid to take English S, Harvard’s most prestigious creative writing class taught by Archibald MacLeish. Yet from 1957, when he left the staff at The New Yorker until his death in 2009, Updike supported four children through two marriages without ever holding down a job other than writer.
Interestingly, Updike’s mother, Linda, was also a writer. Like her son, Linda dedicated her life to the craft of fiction, spending 25 years revising Dear Juan, a ponderous historical novel about the Spanish explorer Ponce de Léon, which remains unpublished to this day. She did eventually publish 10 stories in The New Yorker, along with two story collections (one posthumously), but Begley goes to some length to assure readers that without her famous son’s help rescuing her stories from the slush pile, they likely never would have been published. “I had only a little gift,” Linda once told an interviewer, “but it was the only one I got.”
In many ways, the tale of the two Updikes is a familiar one. Anyone who knows more than a few writers knows one or two who have achieved great things and dozens of others who have worked just as hard, cared just as much, and seen their work come to nothing. But this reality — that for most writers, “a little gift” is all they’re going to get — runs counter to the prevailing ethic of the creative writing world. Talent is overrated, apprentice writers are told over and over; what matters is a sense of vocation and a dedication to the craft of writing. “[T]he truth is,” writes John Gardner in the preface to his seminal book The Art of Fiction, “that though the ability to write well is partly a gift — like the ability to play basketball well or outguess the stock market — writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing.”
This ethic finds its purest expression in the genre of public performance known as a craft talk. If you have ever attended a writing conference, you have been to a craft talk. An eminent writer — the poet Robert Hass, say, or the novelist Jennifer Egan — stands at a podium and delivers an hour-long lecture on an aspect of literary craft. Done well, these talks can be interesting and useful. Some years ago, I attended a craft talk at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop in California in which one of the faculty authors suggested that the secret to writing good scenes is keeping them short — no more than two or three pages, if possible. I thought this absurd until I started looking through novels I liked, and noticed that, with a few exceptions, the scenes were shorter than I’d thought, often two pages or less. Then I looked at my own fiction and noticed that my scenes were, well, longer.
So, the problem with craft talks isn’t what is being said from the podium. The problem is the unspoken message of the genre of the craft talk itself, which is that one becomes a successful writer by mastering a series of discrete elements of literary craft. You learn to keep your scenes short. You gain a deeper understanding of the role of voice in narrative fiction. You remember to always put a little bad in your good characters and a little good in your bad characters, and — poof! — one day you open your laptop and discover you have written A Visit from the Goon Squad.
This is a species of magical thinking. It is, of course, impossible to write a good book without a deep appreciation of how language and stories work, but it doesn’t follow that successful writers have simply worked at it harder than less successful ones or that their understanding of the craft of fiction is any more acute. What successful writers have that their less successful counterparts do not is talent.
This inconvenient fact offends our sensibilities because it is elitist and because it means that for all but a very lucky few of us, literary greatness remains beyond our grasp. A belief in the transformative properties of craft also undergirds an ever-growing industry of creative writing education that, one way or another, now pays the bills for most working poets and literary writers. For these reasons, we have constructed a culture of discussing creative writing designed to skirt the obvious. Because craft exists outside us and can be improved through effort, a focus on craft gives us a way to talk about bad writing that is less hurtful to the writer. The successful writer is saved from having to tell the less successful one, “Sorry, but you have no talent.” Instead, the successful writer can say, “You need to work on your craft.”
More insidiously, the cult of craft encourages apprentice writers to tell themselves the same thing: “My work isn’t good, but I can fix that by getting an MFA or going to writing conferences to work on my craft.” This line of thinking is all the more alluring because it contains a not inconsiderable kernel of truth. Anyone who attends an MFA program and pays attention will learn valuable things about writing, and anyone who writes on a regular basis will get better. But that doesn’t mean they will get good. Becoming a good writer, one whose work speaks to a broad range of readers, is ultimately — and frustratingly — beyond our control.
None of this is to say that a concentrated focus on literary craft is a waste of time, or that writing can’t be taught, but as creative writing education continues to expand from a narrow field pursued by a devoted few to a profitable industry employing thousands, perhaps we should pause a moment to reflect on precisely what is being sold and what assumptions underlie the transaction.
By some estimates, there are now nearly 1,300 degree-granting creative writing programs in the United States, and as I reported in a recent issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, private, non-accredited writing programs are starting to pop up around the country, many run out of their owners’ living rooms. This doesn’t count the many writers offering one-on-one craft advice and manuscript critiques, nor the fresh batches of writing conferences, festivals, seminars, and retreats that seem to appear with each new season, each offering up another slate of famous or near-famous authors leading workshops and delivering craft talks. These can be expensive exercises. Bread Loaf, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious writer’s conference, where two summers ago I paid $2,725 for a ten-day stay as a contributor, recently announced that it will charge contributors $3,050 in 2015 — a 10 percent hike in just three years. And this is nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars students can expect to shell out in tuition to attend some of the pricier MFA programs.
This creative writing industrial complex has become a vital source of income for writers, especially midlist ones who have seen their ability to profit from books and print magazine publications eroded by digital disruption. For many writers today, teaching others to write has become a steadier, more lucrative profession than writing. Once upon a time, during the high-water years of the print era, readers paid enough for the short stories and novels they enjoyed that writers like John Updike could go on producing them. They did not, as readers do today, endlessly swap his work for free on Facebook and Twitter and download copies of his books at deep discounts off Amazon, and then pay thousands of dollars to sit in a room and have him offer tips on how they could become the next John Updike.
This signals an important shift in the relationship between writers and their readers. No longer are readers paying exclusively to enjoy a writer’s work; increasingly, writers are giving away their work for free or allowing it to be sold for far less than it cost them to produce it and making up the loss by teaching their readers how to become writers themselves. And the rhetoric of craft, which rests on the premise that anyone willing to put in the time can become a great writer, makes that possible.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, and even if there were, we can’t put the digital genie back in the bottle. The fact is, the business of teaching writing supports many more literary writers than the old model ever did or could. The present model also promotes a more inclusive literary community, one in which writers and readers exist on a more equal plane — and can even switch places — in ways that would be unimaginable to the proud professionals of Updike’s era.
But writers have to be honest about what produces good writing. Craft matters, and under the right circumstances, with the right teacher, writing can be taught. But there are limits. Poetry and literary fiction, as they are practiced at its highest levels, are not merely learned skills. Writing isn’t a craft, like carpentry or knitting. It is an art form. No number of scouring MFA critiques, no profusion of summer writing conference sessions or visits to low-residency programs, ever could have turned Linda Updike into her son John. Only talent could make that happen.
An essay made me cry on May 8, 2007. I sat in a public library in Bedminster, New Jersey, waiting to pick up my wife from work. I’d spent the past hour running full-court with some college players, but traded hoops for a long table at the library and the 2006 edition of The Pushcart Prize, opened to page 67. “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle. My tears came during the final section of the essay, and were absolutely unexpected. I hid them from the man who worked on a laptop at my right, and the woman who tutored a young boy on my left. I shifted my unlaced hightops and tugged at the gym shorts that dipped below my knees. I was a 26-year-old man, and literature was not supposed to make me cry.
My grandfather’s crucifix hangs above the door in the room where I write. He built my parents a dry sink on a table-saw powered by a belt-driven motor that would jump like a startled heart. It now rests in our living room. My grandfather died when I was 18 months old, but I carry him with me. I am his skin, his blood, his son’s son. During the short time we shared life, he added a room to my parents’ home. I would stand amongst sawdust and fallen wood on the driveway, and watched him work. My mother had to carry me back into the house because I would stay with him forever. “He’s quite the boy,” he would say about me, and I now hear my father’s cadence in those words.
My grandfather built houses in Lake Mohawk, New Jersey, and when he came home he built his own house while his family lived in the few finished rooms. His real work was always done at night, when restaurants closed or businesses locked their doors, his hard hands in the half-dark, making a world for the people in the light. My father still uses my grandfather’s tools: cross-cut saw, rip saw, chisel, awl. The metal has never dulled.
I have only seen my father cry once. His palms were on the dining room table, and he was talking about cleaning out my grandfather’s apartment after he passed. My father, the physically strongest man I know, otherwise holds in his tears. He has never made any of his children cry.
Why do men hold back their tears? Why do writers hold back their feelings?
I have never been a cold person, but for most of my writing and reading life, I have avoided emotion on the page. One possible origin is The Art of Fiction by John Gardner. In his “Common Errors” chapter, Gardner identifies sentimentality in fiction as not a fault of “technique,” but a fault of “soul.” He differentiates between sentiment in fiction, which is authentic, earned emotion or feeling, and sentimentality, which is emotion or feeling that “rings false, usually because [it is] achieved by some form of cheating or exaggeration.” I misread Gardner a bit. I should have recognized that he is clear that “without sentiment, fiction is worthless.” I chose to focus on his critique of sentimentality, which felt more like a mortal than venial sin.
Gardner is more useful as a teacher of craft than a critic, but it is useful to recognize the context for this discussion. Gardner participated in a series of public debates with writer and philosopher William H. Gass during the late 1970s. The most thorough debate occurred on October 24, 1978 during the Fiction Festival at the University of Cincinnati. Thomas LeClair said the event’s organizers “wanted some sparks,” and John Barth and John Hawkes, another possible pair, were “mutually admiring.” Gass explained in a 2003 e-mail that he and Gardner engaged in similar “long lubricated arguments around kitchen tables” at Gardner’s Carbondale, Illinois farm, and elsewhere. They “enjoyed” their differences, with neither feeling “insecure or threatened.” Gardner was “confident about moral values,” while Gass “was sure of my esthetic ones. He wrote, he said, to uplift mankind. All I want to do is kick it in the ass.”
Gass mainly disagreed with Gardner’s idealistic conception of the “vivid” and “continuous” fictional dream, an idea better suited to a book of craft than scholarship. I suspect that was why Gass was willing to have those long, lubricated arguments; Gardner’s passion for fiction is clear, even infectious. But Gass could recognize that there was a time for theory, and a time for art.
Gardner did make salient points about sentimentality. He decrees, “In great fiction we are moved by what happens, not by the whimpering or bawling of the writer’s presentation of what happens.” As he so often does, Gardner follows with a concluding note of moderation: “On one hand, don’t overdo the denouement, so ferociously pushing meaning that the reader is distracted from the fictional dream, giving the narrative a too conscious, contrived, or ‘workshop’ effect; and don’t, on the other hand, write so subtly or timidly — from fear of sentimentality or obviousness — that no one, not even the angels aflutter in the rafters, can hear the resonance.”
Following Gardner’s lead, I have equated sentimentality with melancholic hyperbole more than its other permutations, including literary representations of sex. Here at The Millions, Julia Fierro investigated that perceived sin in “A Sentimental Education: Sex and the Literary Writer.” Fierro recalls how creative writing workshops “converted” her to believing that “subtlety trumped all, even emotion.” In both implicit and explicit ways, Fierro connects criticism of sentimentality to criticism of her work as a woman.
The connection between charges of sentimentality and criticisms of writing by women, particularly about childbirth and motherhood, are examined wonderfully in an essay by poet Sarah Vap. “Poetry, Belligerence, and Shame” appeared in a symposium (pdf) on poetry within an issue of Pleiades. The essays were curated by Joy Katz, who co-chaired a panel on sentiment during the 2010 AWP Conference. In her introduction, Katz quips that modernism “cooled the heart of poetry; confessionalism warmed it up; and post-structuralism threw a bucket of ice water on it.”
I like Vap’s conception of sentimental poetry as work that tries to “manipulate” the reader to “feel some particular way.” While she dislikes pure sentimentality, she does not think sentimental poems are “actually dangerous” in the way some are repulsed by poetic stretching for the heart. Rather, Vap thinks the reach toward sentiment creates the best type of poetry, and that risk should be rewarded rather than dulled into silence. She hates the “monitoring” and “naming” of sentimentality in poetry, and the “connection between this censorship and the belittling of certain life experiences and wisdoms, the diminishing of whole cultures or their ways of experiencing the world, the degrading or silencing or quieting or diminishing of whole subject matter or voices or ways in poetry by associating them with the term ‘sentimentality.’”
Vap is correct. Perhaps the great sin of sentimentality is the “dulling, this pulling of everything toward a center,” a center far from the heart. Vap uses the example of how Catholicism formed her literary imagination; “all my instinct for prayer or joy or connection was channeled through highly ritualistic Catholicism.” Yet, if she uses such language in poetry, she risks being labeled sentimental. And, as a woman, if she writes about pregnancy or her children, she risks the same fate. Sentimentality might be a literary sin, but it has also become a way to name and neuter subjects.
A few works have made me feel long after their final word: “Crossing” by Mark Slouka, “Black Elvis” by Geoffrey Becker, “The Disappeared” (pdf) by Blake Butler, the essays of Andre Dubus, and Dana Gioia’s devastating elegy for his son, “Planting a Sequoia.”
Gioia’s poem is a perfect example of Vap’s lament that ritual is often unfairly labeled as sentimental. Gioia is a meticulous craftsman of lines, and here trades his typical wit for solemnity. The poem appears in The Gods of Winter, which is dedicated to the memory of his son, Michael Jasper Gioia. The second stanza begins with an explanation of the scene: “In Sicily a father plants a tree to celebrate his first son’s birth.” Gioia, half-Sicilian, would trust that the ritual was truly “a sign that the earth has one more life to bear.” Yet his son passed at four months old, so “today we kneel in the cold planting” the sequoia as a funereal act. Gioia wraps a lock of his son’s hair and a piece of his birth cord in the roots of the tree. The tree is planted, and the poem ends:
And when our family is no more, all of his unborn brothers dead,
Every niece and nephew scattered, the house torn down,
His mother’s beauty ashes in the air,
I want you to stand among strangers, all young and ephemeral to you,
Silently keeping the secret of your birth.
The poem wounds me in the same way as “Joyas Voladoras.” I read Doyle’s essay to my students each year, and though I prepare myself for the recitation, I am scarred anew. Doyle begins his essay with a sentence that is part request, part offering: “Consider the hummingbird for a long moment.” Is that not one of the main goals of literature, to decenter us, to make us pause? We learn that a hummingbird heart is the size of a pencil eraser. Hummingbirds can dive at sixty miles an hour, they can fly backwards, and they can travel over five hundred miles without rest. Hummingbirds need motion, because “when they rest they come close to death.” If “they are not soon warmed, if they do not soon find that which is sweet, their hearts grow cold, and they cease to be.”
I have read enough of Doyle to recognize his Joycean movements: he is by turns hilarious and encyclopedic, one of the most genuine writers on the page I have ever encountered. He evades sentimentality in this essay because he is in control of his emotions and his narrative. He hammers forward; he does not blink. The hearts of hummingbirds are “stripped to the skin for the war against gravity and inertia, the mad search for food, the insane idea of flight.” The fast life brings them close to death. They “suffer heart attacks and aneurysm and ruptures more than any other living creature.” They exhaust their nearly two billion heartbeats in two years.
Doyle moves from hummingbirds to blue whales, who “generally travel in pairs,” because who or what can bear to be alone in this world? He goes on to mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, insects, mollusks, and worms, because we all have hearts, and “We all churn inside.”
When I reach the final section of Doyle’s essay now, I am primed. The tears have been rehearsed. But I can still remember that one hot afternoon in 2007, when I was only married for a year and had no children. I wrote Doyle afterward, and he said he cried while finishing the essay, for his son Liam was born missing a chamber in his heart. Doyle often writes of Liam. He often writes about hearts and people born not whole but holy.
That afternoon I was fully torn by these sentences:
You can brick up your heart as stout and tight and hard and cold and impregnable as you possibly can and down it comes in an instant, felled by a woman’s second glance, a child’s apple breath, the shatter of glass in the road, the words I have something to tell you, a cat with a broken spine dragging itself into the forest to die, the brush of your mother’s papery ancient hand in the thicket of your hair, the memory of your father’s voice early in the morning echoing from the kitchen where he is making pancakes for his children.
There are times when it is athletic and beautiful and right to make marks on the page to show what language is capable of, to reveal the flexibility of thought. And there are other times when, our hearts “tight and hard and cold,” a poem, a line, a word can shatter us. Should shatter us.
Tired from teaching, frustrated from traffic, I stand in front of my daughter Amelia’s crib and close my palm around her shoulder while she tries to sleep. My wife is feet away from me, doing the same to Olivia, Amelia’s twin. Amelia shudders and breathes, and her small hand closes around my finger. I cry. I do so in the dark, and I do so even if I am unsatisfied with the rest of the day or not looking forward to the next morning. I cry because it is fine to open my heart. If sentimentality is a sin, it is only because feeling can be so beautiful. One moment of sentiment in literature is worth a thousand failures. We often cannot see the rafters in the dark, but what a shame it would be to never reach for them.
Image via Jez Elliot/Flickr
William Giraldi spent more than half of his 2008 review (pdf) of Cary Holladay’s A Fight in the Doctor’s Office considering the etymology of “novella,” identifying the history and characteristics of the form, and suggesting essential writers. He claims that the demands of character development are one way to separate novellas from novels, noting that Gustave Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice does not require the 800 pages necessary for the titular character of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. Giraldi’s introductory thoughts seem like a rather long preface to evaluate a work of new fiction under 150 pages. Such an observation is not meant as criticism. To write about novellas is to engage in a form of literary apologia. Giraldi’s approach is the norm. Most reviews of novellas begin with similar elements: the writer’s arbitrary word count parameter, why “novella” sounds more diminutive than “short novel,” and a lament that publishers are unwilling to support the form.
This essay is not such an apology. I am tired of threnodies. Writers of novellas have nothing to be sorry about. Novellas deserve critical attention as individual, not adjacent, works. We might begin by mining appreciative notes rather than simply cataloging criticisms. Tucked between Giraldi’s prefatory critical observations in “The Novella’s Long Life” are notes of admiration: “an expert novella combines the best of a short story with the best of a novel, the dynamic thighs of a sprinter with the long-distance lungs of a mountaineer.” He continues a critical tradition whose modern genesis might have been the novella-loving 1970s, when even novels were short; think The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane, or A Good Day to Die by Jim Harrison. In a 1972 essay he would later develop into a book, Robert J. Clements considers the oral tradition behind the novella form as helping him “define its length as long enough for a dry split birch log to be consumed by a blazing bivouac fire.” That image was still popping in 1977, when Graham Good, in the journal NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, almost elevates the novella beyond the novel, noting that the shorter work often focuses on “simple natural or preternatural exigencies: apparitions, cataclysms like great storms or earthquakes, and individual declines or deaths.” Of course novels also contain deaths, but it’s the speed and tension that matters: the “novella is a closed form whose end is latent in its beginning: there is usually some initial indication that the end is known, and this enhances the narrative art of holding in suspense what it is.”
Fast-forward to very recent memory. At The Daily Beast in 2010, Taylor Antrim considers the focus on novellas by presses such as Melville House and New Directions, and the publication of the “wispy thin” Point Omega by Don DeLillo and Walks With Men by Ann Beattie, as proving that the form is in “pretty healthy shape.” Citing works as diverse as “The Dead” by James Joyce and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, Antrim claims that “novellas are often structurally syncopated…their effect tends to be not instantaneous but cumulative.”
In “The Three-Day Weekend Plan,” from the 2011 anthology The Late American Novel, John Brandon offers a tongue-in-cheek suggestion: hoard your novella. Best to “downplay the novella in casual conversation,” and instead keep the form to “ourselves, the adults.” The novella is a personal document, something that will “let us find out, in the writing, how we truly write.” Work to keep in a closet or desk drawer, “away from any and all publishing apparatus.”
In “Notes on the Novella,” published that same year in Southwest Review, Tony Whedon waxes lyric about the form: “novellas are not so much told as dreamed aloud; they inhabit a realm of half-shapes and shadowy implication.” Historically, they “[thrive] on travel and adventure and [are] often set in exotic climes.” Whedon stresses the need for control, and uses language that mimics John Gardner’s oft-quoted definition of the form: all “subplots need subordinating to their main storyline.” That control, in the formal sense, enables time and tense shifts. That temporal compression increases tension and pacing, resulting in a “swirly and gunky” effect. Novellas are “implosive, impacted, rather than explosive and expansive.” I read this as novellas refract rather than reflect. They are something shaken, but not spilled.
“The Return of the Novella, the Original #Longread” by Jon Fassler appeared last year at The Atlantic. Fassler laments that novellas are tucked into short story collections as an afterward, or packaged with other novellas to be “sold as a curiosity.” Although Fassler’s piece is primarily a profile of Melville House’s success with re-issuing older works in their “Art of the Novella” series, he concludes that “a renaissance in the mid-length non-fiction” form, the “journalistic equivalent of the novella,” is enabled because of electronic editions.
Upon the release of his 2012 novel Sweet Tooth, in which a character publishes a novella, Ian McEwan quipped a series of imagined critical reactions to the short form in The New Yorker: “Perhaps you don’t have the necessary creative juice. Isn’t the print rather large, aren’t the lines too widely spaced? Perhaps you’re trying to pass off inadequate goods and fool a trusting public.” McEwan confidently calls the novella the “perfect form of prose fiction,” citing a “long and glorious” lineage: Mann, James, Kafka, Conrad, Camus, Voltaire, Tolstoy, Joyce, Solzhenitsyn, Orwell, Steinbeck, Pynchon, Melville, Lawrence, and Munro.
A few weeks earlier, at that year’s Cheltenham Festival, McEwan claimed that he “would die happy” if he “could write the perfect novella.” Although he worries the form is unseemly for publishers and critics, readers love that they could “hold the whole thing structurally in your mind at once.” Inverting the typical criticism, McEwan claims that the “novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection. Too long, sometimes too much like life.” In sarcastic response, Toby Clements at The Telegraph thinks that McEwan is “lucky to be allowed to publish novellas.” Clements quotes Philip Rahv, who says that the novella form “demands compositional economy, homogeneity of conception, concentration in the analysis of character, and strict aesthetic control.” Returning to McEwan, Clements considers the foolishness of word and page count definitions. At 166 pages, On Chesil Beach was considered a novella by McEwan, but a short novel by the Booker prize judges. Giraldi notes that “Adultery” by Andre Dubus is identified as a short story in one collection, and a novella in another. I would add Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor to that list. I have defaulted to italics appropriate for a short novel, but many consider the work a novella. Confusion, idiosyncrasy, beauty: welcome to the world of the novella.
While charting the lineage of novella discussions is worthwhile, as a writer of the form I am most interested in application. Perhaps the most writer-friendly treatment in recent memory is “Revaluing the Novella” by Kyle Semmel from the December 2011 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle. Rather than formal comparison, Semmel focuses on what successful novellas contain. Like Giraldi and Whedon, Semmel applies John Gardner’s definition of a novella, as explicated in The Art of Fiction. He supports Gardner’s claim that novellas move through a series of small climaxes. Semmel rightly stresses the “series” element of the definition. The mode of the novella is athletic, forward-leaning.
Gardner splits his definition to contain three modes of novellas: single stream, non-continuous stream, and pointillist. The nomenclature might be idiosyncratic, but Gardner’s criticism was always homegrown. Semmel adds to Gardner’s discussion: often novellas contain “resolution; there is closure.” He admits that the point might sound obvious, but it stresses that novellas are not meant to be top-heavy or flimsy. A necessary point to make, as even Antrim, an admirer of novellas, claims that the form “has ambivalence built into its DNA…[it] serves up irresolute endings.”
Semmel considers a range of examples, from “Voices from the Moon” by Andre Dubus to Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. He also considers “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” by William H. Gass, but quickly dismisses the work as a “gangly prose poem” of more interest to “literary scholars” than readers. My literary heart sunk. I have loved Gass’s longer novella, “The Pedersen Kid,” ever since it was recommended to me by novelist Tom Bailey, while I was an undergraduate at Susquehanna University. Bailey thought novellas were defined by time—a season or a weekend—and Gass’s piece was offered as an example.
Gardner devotes several sentences to that longer-titled, shorter work, but spends pages explaining why “The Pedersen Kid” is “a more or less perfect example of the [novella] form.” It is important to note that Gardner stressed not only the stream of climaxes, but that they were “increasingly intense.” Yet what interests me most is Gardner’s further qualification that these climaxes are “symbolic and ritualistic.”
It should not be surprising that Gardner loves this novella: Gardner published it in 1961 in his magazine, MSS. Gass’s novella nabbed the magazine thirty charges of obscenity, one of which, co-editor LM Rosenberg shares, was “‘nape,’ as in neck.” Federal fines caused the magazine to fold after three issues, but Gardner never stopped appreciating the novella. His summary of the plot: “In some desolate, rural landscape . . . in the dead of winter, a neighbor’s child, the Pedersen kid, arrives and is discovered almost frozen to death near Jorge’s father’s barn; when he’s brought in and revived, he tells of the murderer at his house, a man with yellow gloves; Big Hans and Pa decide to go there, taking young Jorge; when they get there, Jorge, making a dash from the barn to the house, hears shots; Big Hans and Pa are killed, apparently — Jorge is not sure — and Jorge slips inside the house and down cellar, where at the end of the novella he is still waiting.”
I reread the novella each winter. I also revisit Gass’s preface to the collection, which explains the composition of “The Pedersen Kid.” He “began by telling a story to entertain a toothache.” Such a story must contain “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” After weeks of writing he “began to erase the plot to make a fiction of it.” He “tried to formulate a set of requirements for the story as clear and rigorous as those of the sonnet.” He cast away a focus on theme for devotion to the “necessity for continuous revision, so that each word would seem simply the first paragraph rewritten, swollen with sometimes years of scrutiny around that initial verbal wound.”
“The Pedersen Kid” was planned end-first, with all action “subordinated” toward “evil as a visitation — sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable.” It was “an end I could aim at. Like death.” And yet, also like death, “I did not know how I would face it.” He imagined the book as a work of visual art: “the physical representation must be spare and staccato; the mental representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed. It falls, I think, into three parts, each part dividing itself into three.” Three also correlates to the story’s main characters — Jorge, Big Hans, and Pa — who enter the blizzard to find the Pedersen’s abandoned home. Although Whedon does not consider Gass’s work in his essay, it fits one of his theses that symbols in novellas “present themselves orchestrally in the form of leitmotifs that dovetail with disparate time sequences to create a strong over-arching moral theme: hence the novella’s connection with allegory.”
Gass’s novella contains extended spaces between words, which John Madera calls “caesuras,” and Samuel Delany thinks are “actual suspensions of sound.” Gass says that he “wanted pages that were mostly white. Snow.” He practiced typographical and pictorial experimentation in another novella, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The novella form is short enough to be both art and artifice. Experimentation does not become exhausting.
The novella is ritual: for Gardner, for Gass, for Whedon, for me, but for others?
Despite claims about the paucity of options, writers continue to draft and publish novellas in literary magazines and as standalone books. Big Fiction, At Length, A Public Space, PANK, New England Review, Seattle Review, Glimmer Train, and The Long Story have published novella-length work; The Missouri Review included one of my favorites, “Bearskin” by James A. McLaughlin. Ploughshares Solos releases novellas as single e-books. Miami University Press and Quarterly West have revived their novella contests. Iron Horse Literary Review holds an annual chapbook contest that publishes a novella-length work during select years. Texas Review Press has its own annual contest, the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize. Readers and writers of speculative fiction continue to embrace the novella form. Consider Ted Chieng, Jason Sanford, and Kij Johnson; not to mention the nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novella. The most recent winner was Brandon Sanderson, for The Emperor’s Soul.
Deena Drewis founded Nouvella, a press devoted solely to novellas, in 2011. Drewis initially considered works as low as 10,000 words, but became worried that some readers would consider such standalone books as “long short [stories].” She admits that defining a novella is difficult, and instead uses the work of Andre Dubus, Jim Harrison, and Alice Munro as formal affirmations.
At 4 x 6 inches, Nouvella books can feel too bulky beyond 40,000 words, so form requires practical function. Her longest release, The Sensualist by Daniel Torday, “occupies more temporal space” than her other books. Torday told Drewis the work had originally been a novel, but she received the manuscript “pared down to its working limbs. It doesn’t feel compacted the way a short story is often a work of compression, but it also doesn’t take the liberty of meandering, like a novel sometimes does.”
Nouvella’s stated mission is to “find writers that we believe have a bright and dedicated future in front of them, and who have not yet signed with a major publisher.” She finds that the form is “a good point of entry for readers to discover emerging authors.” If readers enjoy a short story from a new writer, they need to do the legwork to find other stories, “or wait until a collection comes out, but that requires a good deal of dedication and perseverance.” Instead, a novella “allows you to spend a little more time inside the author’s head, and because it’s a stand-alone book, it demands more attention from the reader. It’s also not a novel, which for readers, can seem like a big commitment.”
Drewis is prescient: Daniel Torday’s debut novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, will be published in 2015 by St. Martin’s Press. Such evolution is not exclusive to Nouvella. Andrew Ervin’s Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas from Coffee House Press, preceded his forthcoming debut novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Mark Doten, who acquired Ervin’s title for Soho Press, notes that “having a strong favorable opinion” of Ervin’s shorter work “was certainly a factor [but not the only one]…in that book going to the top of my reading pile.”
Of course writers are not simply drawn to the novella form for its exposure opportunities. Tim Horvath has always written fiction “on the long side…[before he] knew a thing about word counts and literary journals and what they were looking for.” “Bridge Poses,” his 9,000 word story, was published in New South, yet he was unable to publish another, longer work, Circulation, in literary magazines. An editor at AGNI, while encouraging, “warned that it would be difficult to publish in a journal because of its length.” Bradford Morrow, the editor of Conjunctions, wrote some paragraphs in support of the work, and that convinced Horvath to remain with the piece. Sunnyoutside Press ultimately released the novella as a book, and Horvath appreciated how the story’s manageable length meant that the work’s “cartographic and library obsessions” could be “echo[ed] throughout the design elements of the book.”
Horvath is drawn to “stories that feel as though they encompass multitudes, that take their sweet time getting going, that have a leisurely confidence in themselves, that manage nonetheless to feel urgent, their scale necessary.” That macro approach can be compared with Peter Markus, whose novella collection, The Fish and the Not Fish, is forthcoming from Dzanc Books: “every word in this new collection is monosyllabic, [and] you would maybe think that such limitation would limit such things as the length of the piece, how much can and can’t be done, how long such a project might be sustained. The interesting thing here is that the restriction worked the other way. The river flowed up the mountain, so to speak.” Markus has always been interested in “short novels or long stories” like Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, “The Pedersen Kid,” Faulkner’s “The Bear,” Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard, and the novellas of Jim Harrison.
The novella form’s length afforded Horvath and Markus a particular sense of control over structure and presentation. The same approach might be applied to The Mimic’s Own Voice by Tom Williams, which he viewed as a “parody of an academic essay.” After he published a story in Main Street Rag, the journal’s publisher, M. Scott Douglass, approached Williams about being a part of the press’s new novella series. The form matched the writer: Williams wonders who would not appreciate “fiction that equally borrows the short story’s precision and the novel’s potency.” Williams uses the same word as Gardner — “perfection” — to describe the unique tightness of novellas, citing his list of favorites: Cataclysm Baby by Matt Bell, Nothing in the World by Roy Kesey, Honda by Jessica Treat, Seize the Day by Saul Bellow, Sula by Toni Morrison, and Goodbye Columbus by Philip Roth.
My own forthcoming novella, This Darksome Burn, began as an experimental, long story; early readers thought it a one-act play. I expanded the manuscript to a novel, reaching 300 pages, but was unsatisfied. Subplots upon subplots had blurred the central narrative. I started-over a year later. I turned the manuscript into a pitch, treatment, and finally a film script. Thought was subverted to action. Everything existed on the page. The script became a novella, and Erin Knowles McKnight, my editor and publisher at Queen’s Ferry Press, suggested I switch to present tense, which allowed me to increase the story’s immediacy. My dark story about an overprotective father in the shadow of the Siskiyou Mountains had found its form: a novella. I had found my form: I placed a novella about opium traffickers and atomic bomb scientists in storySouth, and another novella about a defrocked priest is coming from CCM Press in 2015.
I have practical and ritual reasons for being drawn to novellas. I am the father of five-month-old twin girls, and my writing is done in bursts, late at night. I spend my days living—preparing bottles, changing diapers, writing reviews, teaching, having lunch duty in my high school’s cafeteria, mowing the lawn, and watching my girls grow—but the cadences of story remain like a faint metronome. My old office will become a playroom for the twins, so I have migrated to a smaller room downstairs, the walls lined with books, and, proper to my Italian Catholic sensibility, a cross above the doorframe. I close the door, and in a small space, within a small page amount, I try to write stories that stretch their invisible seams. I love novellas. That doesn’t mean I won’t attempt a novel, or short stories, or essays, or poems. But my heart is set on that form that feels both mysterious and manageable. No apologies needed for that.
From October of 2008 to May of this year, America’s Greatest Self-Published Novelist was a guy from New Jersey named Sergio De La Pava. Clearly, this was a title that begged certain questions — sort of like being America’s Best Left-Handed Barber, or America’s Funniest Nun. Nor was De La Pava’s claim to it undisputed; in terms of sales velocity, Amanda Hocking and E.L. James would have blown him out of the ring, and C.D. Payne (Youth in Revolt) and Hilary Thayer Hamann (Anthropology of an American Girl) had racked up strong reviews well before Hollywood and Random House (respectively) came calling. But what Hocking and James were selling was fantasy of one kind or another, and even Payne and Hamman kept one foot in the junior division. The main event — at least as De La Pava saw it — was several weight classes up, where Dostoevsky and Melville and Woolf had battled penury and anonymity and madness to make literature that might endure. And with the great Helen DeWitt in transit from Talk Miramax to New Directions and Evan Dara’s Aurora Publishers falling into a gray area, De La Pava’s first novel, A Naked Singularity, was left more or less in a category by itself: a 690-page XLibris paperback that could withstand comparison with the classics.
I first heard about the book in the summer of 2009, in an email from one Susanna De La Pava, of Amante Press. She’d read something I’d written about Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men; if I liked “both underdogs and meganovels,” she suggested, I might want to check out A Naked Singularity: “a debut work of literary fiction that combines fascinating and complex themes of morality, crime and theoretical physics.” The pitch was unusually thoughtful, but its failure to mention the book’s author seemed odd, and Amante Press wasn’t ringing any bells. When a web search for “naked singularity amante” turned up a coincidence between the author’s last name and my correspondent’s, I thought, A-ha! A vanity project! Did I want to “add it to [my] reading pile?” No offense, but Jesus, no!
If this sounds discriminatory, the fact of the matter is that every reader is. Our reading lives, like our lives more generally, are short. With any luck, I’ve got enough time left between now and whenever I die to read or reread a couple thousand books, and only rough indicators to help me sort through the millions of contenders. I may be breaking a critical taboo here, but the colophon on the spine is one of those indicators. The involvement of a commercial publisher in no way guarantees that a given book isn’t atrocious; I’d be safer just sticking with…well, with Melville and Dostoevsky and Woolf. Over time, though, a given imprint amasses a kind of batting average based on its degree of overlap with one’s tastes. (My Benito Cereno and Mrs. Dalloway might be your The Hunger Games and A Game of Thrones, but that’s an exercise of taste, too — one the folks at Scholastic and Bantam are happy to facilitate.) More importantly, the layers of editorial oversight at these imprints help to filter out hundreds of thousands of manuscripts that aren’t likely to overlap with much of anyone’s taste. To open my reading queue to pay-to-publish outfits like iUniverse or Trafford Publishing — to be forced to consider (and here I’m just plucking titles at random from a recent iUniverse/Trafford Publishing ad in The New York Review of Books) Cheryl’s Kidnapping and Her Odyssey, or Breath of Life: The Life of a Volunteer Firefighter, or Letters to the Editor That Were Never Published (And Some Other Stuff) — that way lies madness.
Then again, to cling to a prejudice against mounting evidence is its own kind of madness. Some time after Susanna De La Pava’s email had disappeared into the bottom of my inbox, I came across a review of A Naked Singularity by Scott Bryan Wilson at The Quarterly Conversation. “It’s very good — one of the best and most original novels of the decade,” was the leading claim. This in turn sent me back to a piece by Steve Donoghue at Open Letters Monthly, which I vaguely remembered Ms. (Mrs.?) De La Pava linking to in her email. “A masterpiece,” Donoghue declared.
These raves got my attention, because The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly are venues I’ve written for, and that cover the kind of books I tend to like. It’s worth noting that both (like The Millions), started out themselves as, essentially, self-publishing projects; maybe this is what freed them to devote resources of time and attention to A Naked Singularity back when when Publishers Weekly and Slate wouldn’t. Over the years, by exercising a consistent degree of quality control, each had amassed credibility with its audience, and this is exactly what the business models of Xlibris and iUniverse prevents them from doing; neither has an incentive to say “No” to bad writing. To, in other words, discriminate.
So anyway, I exhumed Ms. De La Pava’s email and asked her, with apologies, to please send over a copy of A Naked Singularity. It was time to apply the first-paragraph test. Here’s what I found:
Hmm. Maybe it was time to apply the second paragraph test.
My getting out or what?!
Okay. Paragraph three. Here goes:
Eleven hours and Thirty-Three minutes since meridian said the clock perched high atop a ledge on the wall and positioned to look down on us all meaning we were well into hour seven of this particular battle between Good and Evil, and oh yeah, that was Good taking a terrific beating with the poultry-shaped ref looking intently at its eyes and asking if it wanted to continue. We were what passed for Good there: the three of us an anyone we stood beside when we rose to speak for the mute in that decaying room (100 Centre Street’s AR-3); and in that place, at that moment, Evil had us surrounded.
There were things here that excited me, from that plucked chicken of a referee to the Sunday-matinee rhythms of the closing lines. I also thought I detected, however, a dose of self-indulgence. (Why not just, “It was 11:33?”). I read on, through a digression on the Miranda Rights, and then 40 pages of dialogue between night-court defendants and their lawyers. Both were good, as these things went — edifying, amusing, and reasonably taut — but I still couldn’t figure it out: aside from demonstrating how smart the author was, where was this going? And here’s the second place where the imprimatur of a commercial press, and all that goes with it, might have made a difference. Had there been some larger cultural pressure assuring me my patience would be rewarded, I would have kept going. As it was, I abandoned the book on my nightstand.
It would likely still be lying there, had I not gotten wind last fall that A Naked Singularity was about to be reissued by the University of Chicago Press. At this point, the story around this novel seemed too interesting for me not to give the story inside it another try. Or, to put it another way, the constellation of extraliterary signals was shining brightly enough to propel me past those first 40 pages, and then another increasingly engaging 100. I devoured what remained in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, 2011.
And it’s a funny thing about those extraliterary signals — superficial, prejudicial, suspect, but also a natural part of the reading experience. Up to a certain point, they’re unavoidable, but beyond that, the accumulated effect of sentences and paragraphs starts to outweigh them. In this case, I won’t say that certain caprices of De La Pava’s prose (not to mention all those missing commas), faded into invisibility. On the whole, though, a good big novel lives or dies at a level far removed from considerations of teachable “craft” — the level Henry James and Michel Houellebecq gesture toward when they speak, in different contexts, of “intensity.” (i.e., as James’ preface to The Ambassadors puts it, “The grace to which the enlightened story-teller will at any time, for his interest, sacrifice if need be all other graces.”) And at that level, A Naked Singularity is, if not a masterpiece, then certainly a roaring success. To call it Crime & Punishment as reimagined by the Coen Brothers would be accurate, but reductive. Better just to call it the most imaginative and exciting and funky and galactically ambitious first novel to come down the pike in I don’t know how long. And if a book this good was consigned to XLibris, it meant one (or more) of three things. 1) Literary trade publishing was more gravely ill than I’d imagined; 2) My judgment was way off-base (always a possibility), or 3) There was some piece of this story I was still missing. The simplest way to find out was to go and talk to the author in person. I emailed Susanna, who presumably talked to Sergio — unless she was Sergio? — and by the end of January he and I had a date to meet at the most nouveau of nouveau Brooklyn’s coffeehouses.
This latter may have been a perversity on my part. On the jacket of the handsome new trade paperback of A Naked Singularity, the author bio reads, in its entirety, “Sergio De La Pava is a writer who does not live in Brooklyn.” In fact, as of January, most of the details of De La Pava’s personal life — age, occupation, place of residence, education — remained shrouded in near-Pynchonian occlusion. A Google Images search yielded exactly two results: one a blurry black-and-white mugshot from the comically low-fi website anakedsingularity.com, the other a sawed-in-half portrait posted alongside an interview in the fantastic Mexican literary journal Hermanocerdo. They might have been two different people; the only common features seemed to be curly hair and an intensity of gaze. As I rode to meet De La Pava, I wondered: what if the reason it had taken him so long to sell his book had to do with the author himself? What if De La Pava never wanted to be published commercially? Or what if he’d sold his book in 2007, but then refused to be edited? What if he’d emailed his manuscript in Zapf Dingbats font? Or forgotten to attach the attachment? Or what if — I speculated, as the man across from me on the subway struck up a conversation with voices only he could hear — De La Pava was certifiably crazy?
When I finally reached our rendezvous point, though, I found Sergio De La Pava as sane as any serious writer can be said to be: a small man in glasses and an off-the-rack suit, waiting patiently by the counter. About the only thing I recognized from his photographs were the corkscrew curls, now longer and slightly disarranged, as if he’d rushed over from somewhere important.
As it turned out, he had. He was coming, he told me, from his job as a public defender in Manhattan. His wife (Susanna!) also works a public defender. Later, they would both return home to New Jersey, where they lead an unexceptional suburban existence with their kids. As for the biographical cloak-and-dagger, the third-party emails, etc., De La Pava suggested several explanations. One was an old-fashioned sense that biography is irrelevant to the work of art — that the artist is, as a character in William Gaddis’ The Recognitions famously says, “just the human shambles that follows it around.” But a more practical consideration is that De La Pava’s dayjob brings him into regular contact with criminals. “My life is probably different than the lives a lot of readers of novels are familiar with,” he said. People in his line of work tend to be tight-lipped about their personal lives and daily routines, because otherwise “someone might put a bullet in someone’s head.”
This was, it turned out, a typically De La Pavan way of attacking a question. For someone so reticent with the public, he talks abundantly and well, his thoughts tending to organize themselves into fluid, almost lawyerly paragraphs of narrative and argument, with these little hard-boiled explosions at the climax. This is also, not incidentally, one way of describing the voice of Casi, the hypercaffeinated first-person protagonist of A Naked Singularity. As the interview went on, I came to see the riven idiom of both author and hero — on the one hand, leisurely abstraction; on the other, urgent volubility — as matters not just of style, but also of psyche.
Like Casi, De La Pava grew up in New Jersey, the child of Colombian immigrants. The basic happiness of his upbringing — home-cooked empanadas and “school clothes warmed on the radiator” — suffuses the scenes of immigrant life that recur throughout A Naked Singularity and help humanize our hero. But it also seems to have been, like most childhoods, one shaped by conflict. On the most obvious level, there was the jostle of languages — his parents’ native Spanish, the English of which De La Pava is something of a connoisseur. (At one point in our conversation, he would spend five minutes critiquing Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude).
Then, too, there was the drama of the dreamy child in the striving household. From an early age, De La Pava was attracted to the logical harmonies of various intellectual systems — theology, physics, classical music, math. “My earliest memories are of philosophical problems,” he told me, utterly in earnest. Reading the great philosophers was like “being welcomed into a community of like-minded individuals.” Later, at Rutgers, he would pursue philosophy more seriously, specializing in modal realism — the study of the coexistence of multiple possible worlds. But as a teenager, De La Pava was also into heavy metal. And his was a boxing household, where watching the fights was a sacrosanct activity. “Boxing, that’s my fucking religion,” he says.
His adult life has in some sense been an effort to synthesize these hot and cool impulses — the adversarial and the communal, the sweetness and the science, Yngwie Malmsteen and Rene Descartes. One socially acceptable outlet for both aggression and ratiocination was a law career. And although one of the first things a reader notices in A Naked Singularity is its anger at the Kafkanly facacta state of the criminal justice system, De La Pava remains in love with his chosen profession. In the abstract, “the law is so strikingly beautiful and logical,” he says, as opposed to “the faulty process of human beings…I feel annoyed for some reason when the criminal justice system fucks up, because I feel a great attachment to it.”
Still, De La Pava always thought of himself first and foremost as a writer. “I find myself constantly making up little stories in my head,” he said at one point, nodding across the coffeehouse. “Like if this woman making the phone call fell down right now, what would happen?”
Until then, he had been addressing me heads-up, as if I were a jury he was attempting to sway. As our talk turned to writing and literature, though, he began to look down and inward, a boxer tucking into a crouch. “I’m not that well-read,” was the first thing he said on the subject of influence. When I suggested that his conspicuous engagement with two broad novelistic traditions — the philosophical novel and the novel of erudition — seemed to contradict him, he amended the claim: He’s not that well-read in contemporary fiction. “I have old-fashioned taste.”
Reviews of A Naked Singularity have tended to name-check the white male postmodernists who are its immediate forerunners – Gaddis, Pynchon, David Foster Wallace — but De La Pava’s reading in the po-mo canon has been unsystematic. The Gaddis book he knows best is A Frolic of His Own, a late work centered around the law. Despite an apparent nod in his novel, he has not read Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Of Wallace, he will cop only to having read “all the nonfiction.” Unusually, for a novelist of his generation, De La Pava came to these writers through their own forerunners: the great 19th-century Russians, especially Dostoevsky, and Moby-Dick. This perhaps accounts for the mile-wide streak of unironic moralism that holds together the book’s formally disparate pieces. He does say, however, that Gravity’s Rainbow “turned me on to the possibilities of fiction.”
In his teens and early 20s, he produced some fiction that was “pretty terrible” at the level of skill, but ambitious at the level of content. He was determined to avoid the school of autobiographical offspring-of-immigrants writing he calls “Bodega Heights,” and to pursue instead those “possibilities.” One way his decision to work as a public defender instead of a corporate lawyer paid off, then, is simply that the hours were shorter. “I used to have a lot of free time to write,” he told me. The other is that it gave him something most young writers hunger for: a subject larger than himself to write about. In this case, it was the system Michelle Alexander has memorably called The New Jim Crow — a self-perpetuating prison archipelago populated by low-level offenders, disproportionately poor, disproportionately of color. Justice, in all its manifold forms, had been one of Dostoevsky’s great themes, and now it would be De La Pava’s. And that center of gravity began to pull the variegated worlds De La Pava had spent his youth exploring — vibrantly Spanglished New Jersey suburbs, crappily furnished starter apartments in Brooklyn, airy philosophical castles — into something “nebulous and dreamlike”: a vision of a novel.
“When I write, I almost begin with the end product,” De La Pava explained to me, as we started in on our second coffee. Midway through the first cup, he had begun to tug on the ends of those corkscrews of hair, and now he was working them furiously. “It’s similar to the way you try a case: you think of the summation first.” And what was that summation, with A Naked Singularity? Quickly, almost unthinkingly, he flattened out the rolled New Yorker he’d been carrying and began to doodle something with pen in the margins. He was talking now about the structure of Beethoven’s Ninth, but I was distracted by the peculiarly entropic energy of what he was drawing. Or whatever is the opposite of entropic. It was a single line, like an EKG or a lie-detector test, swinging above and below the baseline with swoops that grew smaller and tighter as X approached infinity. Finally, the line ended at an emphatic black dot. A singularity. “I wanted to take all this stuff and put it in in a way that would at first feel chaotic. I was interested in the question: at what point does something become a novel?”
This effect of dissonance and resolution is, in fact, exactly what had thrown me about the first 40 pages of A Naked Singularity, without my having a sufficient sample of the book to see it whole. Which means, among other things, that A Naked Singularity managed to stay true to a formal vision that is the inverse of most first novels’ (start with something singular; degenerate into randomness as ideas run out). De La Pava’s indifference to the prevailing trends of the marketplace helps to account for the number of rejections he would receive from literary agents (88, according to The Chicago Tribune.) But it’s also what’s so alarming about his novel’s close brush with obscurity. It suggests that traditional publishing has become woefully backward-looking, trying to shape the novel of tomorrow based on what happened yesterday. Could A Naked Singularity have benefited from a good editor? Of course, but books like this — singular, urgent, commanding — are supposed to be what good editors live for.
As to the question of when the book’s various gambits cohere into a novel, there’s an ironic twist in all this. Right around page 150, De La Pava introduces into his bricolage of Gaddis-y dialogue and Malamudian bildungsroman and potheaded discursus that most commercial of plots, the quest to pull off the perfect caper. It’s this set of generic tropes, rendered with a perfection of their own, that starts to pull De La Pava’s other concern toward that convergence point he’d drawn for me. By the halfway mark, A Naked Singularity has become exactly what every publisher is looking for: a very difficult book to put down.
“I was 27 when I started, 34 or 35 when I was done,” De La Pava, now 41, told me; “I didn’t know anything.” Only that “This wasn’t The Old Man and the Sea.” A book he likes, he hastened to add. But with the help of his wife, a voracious reader who keeps abreast of new fiction, he realized that he needed representation. The first excerpt he sent out excited several literary agents enough that they asked to see more. Almost uniformly, though, the response to the sheer bulk of the complete manuscript was, “You’ve got to be kidding.” De La Pava, having poured seven years of his life into the book, wasn’t ready to see it chopped into something smaller and less risky. “My attitude was, I’ll take my ball and go home.” (Though one doubts he would have stopped writing; a second novel, Personae, less successful but still interesting, was published through XLibris in 2011).
Susanna, however, wasn’t ready to give up on A Naked Singularity, and began to lobby him to self-publish it. “I think it cost about $10,000” to print it through XLibris, he says. “We had a book party and everything,” after which they ended up with “all these copies.” Susanna then took on the role of publicist…and proved adept at it as her husband had at the role of novelist. Her strategy was to send out targeted emails to bloggers and critics who had written about Infinite Jest, offering to send them something they might like. Some of them, like me, failed to take her up on it, but after Donoghue’s review, and then Wilson’s, things began to snowball. Soon “we’re selling like 100 books a month. And then we hear from University of Chicago Press.” A publicity director there (who was also The Quarterly Conversation’s poetry editor) had become obsessed with the book. A self-published magnum opus was, to say the least, an unusual project for a prestigious academic press. It had to pass muster with the board of faculty members and administrators that signs off on each book published. But, thanks in large measure to statements of support from the novelist Brian Evenson and critics including Steven Moore, the press decided to acquire the rights to the book. From there, it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to the window of my local Barnes & Noble, where I passed it just this week.
This can’t have been exactly the path to prominence De La Pava dreamed of. For one thing, I thought I detected an element of rope-a-dope in his protestations of literary innocence. In the course of our two-hour conversation, he capably paraphrased John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, tossed off two allusions to “The Big Six” (a term I had to think about before I got it) and name-checked half a dozen titles from recent Knopf and FSG catalogues. There’s also the matter of that New Yorker, rumpled from use.
And then there’s the way A Naked Singularity returns again and again to the theme of ambition. It becomes almost a counterpoint to the theme of justice. At first, Casi’s desire to do great things pulls him toward justice; later, it’s a source of frustration that borders on madness. As with the scenes of family life, the writing here is too personal not to have come from firsthand experience. When Casi says, for example, of a brief he’s preparing to file, “I’m determined to create a document so achingly beautiful and effective and important that should I drop dead as the final draft is being printed it would matter not the least,” we can hear the novelist standing right behind him, speaking, as it were, over his shoulder.
“Achingly beautiful and effective and important:” I imagine that, as he neared completion on his huge manuscript, De La Pava must have had an inkling that he’d achieved at least two of the three. And I imagine he believed, like Casi, that he was still living in a world where that would be enough. The doors of the great publishing houses would fly open, and then the arts pages of the newspapers, and then the doors of homes across America. This is what most writers believe, deep down, as the private dreaminess of the early drafts begins to give way to the public competition for attention, and money, and fame.
Yet De La Pava’s more tortuous path has afforded him certain gifts that outrageous good fortune might not have. Chief among these is something both the MFA and the NYC trajectories Chad Harbach sketched in a recent N+1 essay tend subtly to conceal: the knowledge that one is free to write the kinds of books one wants, with the kinds of effects that engage one’s own imagination, however rich, complex, and challenging. “That kind of freedom is important to me,” De La Pava told me, as we sat in the heart of Mayor Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk New York, in a neighborhood I could no longer afford to live in, amid the artisinal cheese-plates and the coffee priced by the bean. “I’m very into freedom as a writer.” I asked him what his ambitions were for the next book. “I want to preserve this mode of doing things,” he said. “The rest I can’t control.” Then we paid up, and said our goodbyes, and he walked out the door, bound for the wilds of Jersey.
Bonus link: “Reasons Not to Self-Publish in 2011-2012: A List” by Edan Lepucki
Bonus link: De La Pava boxing piece at Triple Canopy: “A Day’s Sail”
Image Credit: Genevieve McCarthy
In his essay, “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons: The Case Against Writing Manuals,” Richard Bausch protests the proliferation of instructional books about writing, and laments all those wanna-be authors who, rather than read novels or short stories, seek out books on how to write their own. He asserts, and rightly, “The trouble of course is that a good book is not something you can put together like a model airplane. It does not lend itself to that kind of instruction.”
I never read how-to books on writing until I was faced with the prospect of teaching writing; before then, I simply read, period. The writers I loved (and even the writers I hated) taught me, indirectly, about writing. In a class of beginning writers, the ones with the strongest sense of storytelling and character, and with a grasp for prose that is vibrant and surprising, are often the ones who read voraciously, widely, and deeply. A good reader isn’t necessarily a good writer, but a good writer must be a good reader.
In the past few years, though, I have sought out some books and essays on craft and technique. I’ve found that some of these texts are useful for articulating the intuitive; it’s when I’m having trouble with my work–or, more likely, wrestling with my manuscript in revision–that explicit instruction has led me out of whatever hole I’ve dug myself into. I haven’t read the kinds of how-to manuals Bausch rejects; I prefer the books that deal with “the aesthetics of task,” as he puts it. I’ve read and enjoyed–and, sometimes, enjoyed disagreeing with–such books. I’ve also enjoyed, in preparing a lesson for an introductory course, going back to the basics. It reminds me of taking a ballet class for non-dancers; as someone who studied ballet for years (never seriously, mind you), the painstaking review of the plié can be illuminating. After all, it’s the step that allows the dancer to do everything else. One just has to remember that learning to plié spectacularly won’t make one a spectacular dancer–or even a dancer. There’s technique, but there’s also passion, soul, grace, daring.
There are a few books on writing that I’ve not only been useful for teaching, but also inspiring and instructional to me personally. They have me thinking deeply not only as a writer, but as a reader, too; perhaps that’s the difference between such texts and the ones Bausch rejects. Aside from the usual suspects–The Art of Fiction by John Gardner, for instance, or Mysteries and Manners by Flannery O’Connor–here are some of my favorite books on craft:
How Fiction Works by James Wood provides an excellent explication and appreciation of the free indirect style, or, as I prefer to call it, the close third person. The third person is the trickiest of points of view, in my opinion, for it can vacillate wildly in terms of distance from the character(s); Wood’s way of describing a close relationship between narrator and character makes this one approach to point of view easy to understand without stripping it of its complexity. I also love the short chapter breaks–often only a couple of sentences long. They’re pleasurable to read.
Now Write!, edited by Sherry Ellis, isn’t a book on craft at all, but, rather, an anthology of writing exercises from writers like Dan Chaon, Alexander Chee, and Jayne Anne Phillips, among many others. I use this book all the time when assigning shorter pieces to my students. I’ve also recommended it to students who want to keep up a regular practice of writing without the pressure of working on a longer, self-designed project. A couple exercises a week–from “Why I Stole It” by Robert Anthony Siegel, to “The Photograph” by Jill McCorkle–will hone anyone’s powers of imagination and description. I’ve done these exercises along with my students, and they remind me that writing without a final product in mind can open new avenues, and introduce me to characters and story lines I heretofore might not have entertained. This kind of writing feels as fun as reading.
Lately, I’ve been obsessed with The Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter and published by Graywolf Press. In each slim volume, a notable writer examines one element of writing from a craft perspective. Baxter’s own volume, The Art of Subtext, explores plot and scene without reducing them to formula, without turning fictional characters into pawns on a chessboard. He manages to discuss character desire and motivation in a way that doesn’t make me think of overly-simplistic screenwriting rules. My class had a great time discussing Baxter’s analysis of the great J.F. Powers story “The Valiant Woman,” which introduced many in the room to an oft-overlooked writer.
I’ve recently been re-reading Joan Silber’s The Art of Time, discussed on this site by J.C. Sirott. One of the things I love about writing fiction is how I can play with time, compress it and expand it, and I love analyzing these approaches with my students. Is there nothing sexier than starting a paragraph with, “Five years passed”? Is there nothing juicier than crouching into a dramatic moment between two characters? Silber’s discussion of “selected concreteness” in The Great Gatsby is sharp, as is her examination of Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling.” Again, the reader in me delights, asks me to look again, and look more closely.
Lately, I’ve been reading the series’ books on poetry. A couple of weeks ago I assigned Mark Doty’s The Art of Description; what Doty says about poems and their capacities can be applied to fiction:
What descriptions–good ones, anyway–actually describe then is the consciousness, the mind, playing over the world of matter, finding there a glass various and lustrous enough to reflect back the complexities of the self that’s doing the looking
If that’s not a new and beautiful way to articulate perspective and point of view, I don’t know what is.
I’ve also found a few essays on writing online, which I’ve taught with great results:
Zadie Smith’s “Fail Better,” an essay on voice and what it means to write well, informed my reading of Emma Donoghue’s Room (and my subsequent review). I find myself coming back to it, both in my own work, and in my teaching. The essay asks: What is voice and truth? What does it take to write well? How can one refine one’s consciousness?
William Boyd’s “Brief Encounters” is a succinct overview of the short story from the perspective of one of its best contemporary practitioners. I like his distinction between a event-plot story and the Chekhovian one.
Elizabeth Bowen’s “Notes on Writing a Novel” is full of strong opinions, none of them supported with examples (She writes: “What about the idea that the function of action is to express the characters? This is wrong. The characters are there to provide the action.”). The piece is a series of declarations about the novel, and some of them wow me, some confuse me, and some leave me cold. Whatever the declaration, though, I admire Bowen’s confidence, and there are some nuggets of real genius here: “Nothing can happen nowhere” (when she’s discussing scene), and (regarding dialogue): “Speech is what characters do to each other.”
Now, I’d like to know–teachers, students, writers and readers–what are your favorite books on writing?
Let us turn now to three faults far graver than mere clumsiness – not faults of technique but faults of soul: sentimentality, frigidity, and mannerism […]
Mannered writing, then – like sentimentality and frigidity – arises out of flawed character. In critical circles it is considered bad form to make connections between literary faults and bad character, but for the writing teacher such connections are impossible to miss, hence impossible to ignore […] To help the writer […] the teacher must enable the writer to see – partly by showing him how the fiction betrays his distorted vision (as fiction, closely scrutinized, always will) – that his personal character is wanting.
-John Gardner, from The Art of Fiction
John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction has been a standard in writing classes for decades. Along with Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners (“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them,” she wrote), I think of The Art of Fiction as the masochist’s craft book. In Gardner’s text, you’ll find no warm fuzzies or self-helpy exhortations to discover your inner artist (as in Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within or Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way), or to keep at it, no matter how shitty your drafts (as in Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird). Gardner treats the writer’s vocation with strict gravity; the path is both narrow and demanding, poseurs be warned and beware.
Thus, one reads Gardner for a trenchant kick in the ass; or, perhaps, when one has been working wretchedly at writing for some time and is ripe for someone to put him out of his misery: Not everyone is a writer, Gardner (and O’Connor, too) might say (to the horror of writing programs across the country who want your tuition dollars). Why not try your hand at water colors?
As both a student and teacher of writing, the above passages from The Art of Fiction have stopped me in my tracks. Faults of soul? Show the writer that his personal character is wanting? Imagine if book reviewers, as common practice, heeded Gardner’s entreaty. We’d see reviews that looked something like this (italics represent text from The Art of Fiction):
Jack Scribbler’s description of the protagonist Billy in his moment of crisis shows Scribbler’s essential frigidity; that is, clearly, Scribbler is less concerned about Billy than any decent human being observing the situation would naturally be. Scribbler’s essential indecency is the problem here; it is clear that he lacks the nobility of spirit that enables a real writer to enter deeply into the feelings of imaginary characters. In a word, Scribbler is cold-hearted and turns away from real feeling, he knows no more of love, beauty, or sorrow than one might learn from a Hallmark card.
Or, like this:
It is clear that Jill Hack, in repeatedly intruding herself into the narrative with stylistic tics that do not serve the subject matter, is primarily focused on proving herself different from all other authors; apparently, she feels more strongly about her own personality and ideas than she feels about any of her characters or all the rest of humanity.
In other words, reviews would be pointedly personal; what is wrong with the writing equated with what is wrong with the author. What would it mean if we all began drawing such short, direct lines from the work to the person? Likely we’d see an increase in reviewer-writer rows — online a la Alice Hoffman, or at Graydon Carter’s Waverly Inn – and many of us, helpless to survive such sharp knives to our souls, might give up the literary ghost earlier rather than later in our careers.
But what if we flip the supposition and consider the converse: if bad writing “arises out of flawed character,” it would follow then that the wellspring of good writing is good character (to be clear: good character – as in the cultivation/manifestation of the writer’s humanity – not good characters, which is, of course, another way of going at it). For aspiring writers, there will always be matters of craft and style; but how many of us, writers and teachers alike, imagine focusing our development as writers on personal character? And what, at any rate, would that look like?
Well… it would look like Chekhov.
A new film adaptation of Chekhov’s 1891 novella The Duel, from award-winning director Dover Kosashvili, recently opened at Film Forum in New York City and has me thinking about all the ways in which Chekhov is studied, admired, referenced, emulated, and, yes, adapted. Chekhov in fact rivals Shakespeare in the most-frequently-adapted-for-the-screen category.
Given how readers typically respond to screen versions of their most beloved books, it may not be surprising that the film left me wanting – to reread Chekhov’s exquisite novella, that is (which, subsequently, I did). It’s a fine film – well-acted, near-perfectly cast, shot beautifully to capture both the open landscape and confined domestic settings of a Caucasus seaside town (Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described the film as “very satisfying and tonally precise”) – but the project of condensing and dramatizing a Chekhov story may be a bit like trying to see figurative shapes in a Rothko painting: some things – works of art which approach perfection, in particular – simply are what they are.
Praising Chekhov, I realize, is a little like rooting for the Yankees (or Duke; or Roger Federer). Writers across the aesthetic spectrum, from Nabokov (“Exact and rich characterization is attained by careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features”) to Cornel West (“If I have to choose between Chekhov and most hip-hop, I’ll go with Chekhov”) to Flannery O’Connor (“Chekhov makes everything work – the air, the light, the cold, the dirt”) to Tennessee Williams (“Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!”) laud the good doctor as unmatched in the short story form. Writing teachers and books on fiction craft invariably herd students to the altar of Chekhov – “Read Chekhov, read the stories straight through,” Francine Prose urges, in a chapter devoted to Chekhov in Reading Like a Writer. I am aware of just one literary giant who bucked the crowd: “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories,” wrote Hemingway. “But he was an amateur writer.”
Yet it’s difficult, and arguably fatal, to teach Chekhov’s “style.” “Chekhovian” is in fact no compliment, it implies a near-replica, which, in the case of Chekhov, is worse than no replica at all. As Annie Proulx notes, in a Chekhov story, “everything seems chaos and only a little is revealed or resolved. But enough is revealed and resolved to give shape and form to the story. I do not like the pseudo-Chekhovian trailing away.” Eudora Welty described Chekhov’s stories in this way:
The revolution brought about by the gentle Chekhov to the short story was in every sense not destructive but constructive. By removing the formal plot he did not leave the story structureless, he endowed it with another kind of structure – one which embodied the principle of growth […] in each and every story, short or long, it was a structure open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning. It took form from within.
But what to do with such abstract analysis? “Open to human meaning and answerable to that meaning” sounds right, and profound; trying to emulate (or adapt) something which takes “form from within” is another matter.
The quietude of Chekhov’s talent contributes, perhaps, to the whiff of backlash one sometimes detects in the air; a dubiousness of the emperor-has-no-clothes variety. Somerset Maugham wrote:
[Chekhov’s characters] are not lit by the hard light of common day but suffused in a mysterious grayness. They move in this as though they were disembodied spirits. It is their souls that you seem to see… You have the feeling of a vast, gray, lost throng wandering aimless in some dim underworld;
and Virginia Woolf wrote
We have to cast about in order to discover where the emphasis in these strange stories rightly comes… The soul is ill; the soul is cured; the soul is not cured.
I understand both Maugham and Woolf to be enthusiasts of this mysteriousness, this strangeness; and yet, given their assessments, it is perhaps understandable if a contemporary reader of Chekhov finds his stories boring, shapeless, lacking in dramatic movement, unsatisfying — even if, lacking Hemingway’s balls, said reader feels sheepish saying so in the company of the literary set.
In “The Husband,” a man and his wife dislike and misunderstand each other; both are miserable, they grow only more impermeable, yet each seems to reach for something – empathy, intoxication, or something ultimately unnameable. In “The Two Volodyas,” a young woman married to an older man has a fickle and restless heart and falls into adultery, only to find herself as restless as before, albeit more acutely intimate with her own “shabby,” fretful soul. In “The Black Monk,” an overwrought young scholar retires to a country estate and begins to grapple with madness – or the light of genius, we don’t know which – the normalization of which, for the sake of his fiancée, results in a life of mediocrity, and death in isolation. In “The Lady With a Pet Dog,” a vain married man flirts with an unhappily married woman; an affair ensues, grows tiresome, but then rekindles, and the two find themselves strangely, unexpectedly devoted to each other despite the hopelessness of their situation. And in “The Kiss,” a shy, undistinguished army officer is the beneficiary of an aristocrat’s daughter’s mistake — she kisses him in the dark, thinking he is the other half of her secret tryst — and a euphoria fills his imagination as he fantasizes a continuation of the intrigue; only to realize bitterly that the incident was a non-sequitur and that no such consummation will ever come to pass.
Why, then, do these stories of anti-climax, of unconsummated longing, of isolation and impenetrability, inspire me so? And how might they make me both a better person and, following our line of argument here, a better writer?
I read Chekhov repeatedly, in marathon sessions, story after story, for consolation and for a kind of cleansing out of both personal and writerly bullshit. I go to him not exactly for writing instruction, so much as to enlarge my writer’s vision; which is to say to deepen my capacity to see and feel more honestly (Chekhov is “all eyes and heart,” Ted Solotaroff wrote). Chekhov teaches me to sit still and steady, companionate with all of life’s unseemly warts, unexpected beauty, sadness and futility; and to settle in with all of it — my creeping perfectionism, self-importance, and fidgety A.D.D. be damned. I go to Chekhov, frankly, when I am anxious or depressed. His stories invariably unlock and loosen a stuckness in my spirit — maybe like what nicotine or alcohol has done for writers throughout the ages – and nourish me in a way that helps me both to keep writing, and to keep living.
What we learn best from Chekhov is, then, this writer’s character – in Gardner’s words, “nobility of spirit,” and “decency”; in Solotaroff’s, “all eyes and heart” — without which we cannot possibly tell the stories which must be told, in a way that, as Annie Dillard’s writes, “seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered […] press[ing] upon our minds the deepest mysteries.” In reading Chekhov we begin to develop a profound underground system of roots that feeds the life and growth above. His stories burst our bubbles, yes, by flouting the climax-and-resolution paradigm; but they also pull back the veil on how much untruth we generally wallow in, and how petty fears, vanity, and self-delusion breed (tragically and often unnecessarily) all manner of soul sickness – not to mention frigidity, sentimentalism, and mannerism in our writing.
Perhaps most importantly — most skillfully — Chekhov does all this with gentleness and humor. Reading his stories keeps us honest, and humble, but somehow also light-hearted. (It was perhaps that tender touch of silliness – Laevsky’s rather hilarious, panicky ennui – and Chekhov’s loving characterization of Nadya as hungry for life, not merely vain – “all of it, together with the heat and the transparent, caressing waves, stirred her and whispered to her that she must live, live…” — which I missed most in Kosashvili’s adaptation.) To my mind, nowhere is there a more direct line between man and work – in the positive sense, as opposed to Gardner’s negative sense — than in the case of Chekhov. In other words, to write like Chekhov, one must be like Chekhov — see what Chekhov sees, feel as Chekhov feels, love as Chekhov loves – which is to say recognize and embrace life as it is, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health — which he helps us to do by writing stories that have, as Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it, “the impact of direct experience.”
“To be an artist means never to avert your eyes,” the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa said. With his keen yet gentle gaze, Chekhov reminds us that to be a human being means the same. And with perhaps a more compelling, living argument (i.e. his body of work) than the austere Gardner, Chekhov challenges us to consider which comes first, the artist or the man.
The “staff picks” shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own “Staff Picks” in a feature appearing irregularly.Signed, Mata Hari by Yannick Murphy recommended by EdanYannick Murphy’s short story “In a Bear’s Eye,” from the O. Henry Prize Stories 2007, stunned me with its beauty and strangeness, and led me to her new novel, which is just as lovely, and just as strange. Murphy’s Mata Hari tells her life story from a prison cell in Paris as she awaits trial for treason. The book fluidly moves from the Netherlands, to Indonesia, to various cities in Western Europe, switching points of view throughout, the language begging to be read aloud it’s so musical, so dream-like. This novel is erotic (oh lord, some parts left me breathless), sad, and fascinating. Check out Bat Segundo’s interview with Yannick Murphy for more.+ Coming Through Slaughter (Vintage) by Michael Ondaatje recommended by AndrewAfter cornet player Buddy Bolden suffered a mental breakdown during a parade through the streets of New Orleans about a hundred years ago and had to be put away, rumors began to swirl about his life. Michael Ondaatje’s first novel, from 1976, is a jazz riff on all the possibilities of Buddy Bolden. A work of fiction, the narrative line running through it involves his friend Webb’s search for Buddy after his sudden disappearance a few years before the breakdown, through the resurfacing, and then his final silencing on that fateful day at the parade.That’s the thread. But this short novel unfolds, or rather, explodes, like a scrapbook filled with bits and pieces of Buddy’s life. Interviews with his former lovers, with his friends and band-mates, with the denizens of the underbelly of New Orleans circa 1907. A poem here, a list of songs there, these fragments seem so haphazard, and yet these contextual glimpses all hang together, swirling around Buddy. And when the music ends, they leave you with a rich story of a jazzman who swung to his own rhythms.+ Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau recommended by GarthTexaco, by the Antillean writer Patrick Chamoiseau, won France’s Goncourt Prize in 1992. It has pretty much everything I look for in a novel: a sweeping plot, a great heroine, a rich setting (geographic and historical), an ingenious structure, and – especially – an exploration of the possibilities of language. In a resourceful translation by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov, Chamoiseau’s fusion of French and Creole seems positively Joycean. Recommended for fans of Faulkner, Morrison, and 100 Years of Solitude.+ My War Gone By, I Miss it So by Anthony LoydRecommended by TimothyWar is not only hell, it’s also addictive, at least for British war correspondent Anthony Loyd, who for severals years covered the conflict in Bosnia for The Times. In this honest and poetic personal account – no index of names and places – the young reporter breaks some of the traditional rules of journalism by taking sides in the multi-ethnic war and revealing how the high he gets from life on the battlefield is matched only by the high provided by heroin during the occasional trip back to London. “War and smack: I always hope for some kind of epiphany in each to lead me out but it never happens,” he writes. In the war zone, Loyd befriends civilians whose resilience is almost unfathomable. He also introduces us to modern-day mercenaries – not the highly organized and well-funded security details found in Iraq, but gritty thrill seekers from across Europe. These are fighters who don’t necessarily believe in a cause, unless that cause is war itself. The book is by no means a primer on the events that unfolded in Bosnia; it simply tells how in war some people get by and others die.+ Hellfire by Nick Tosches recommended by Patrick”The God of the Protestants delivered them under full sail to the shore of the debtors’ colony, fierce Welshmen seeking new life in a new land.” So begins the first chapter of the finest book ever written about rock and roll, Nick Tosches’ brilliant biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, Hellfire. Not a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis? Hate rock and roll? Couldn’t possibly care less? Doesn’t matter. Tosches’ style – mock-biblical, profane, and wild – will amaze you:Old rhythms merged with new, and the ancient raw power of the country blues begat a fierce new creature in sharkskin britches, a creature delivered by the men, old and young, who wrought their wicked music, night after dark night, at Haney’s Big House and a hundred other places like it in the colored parts of a hundred other Deep South towns. The creature was to grow to great majesty, then be devoured by another, paler, new creature.+ Water Music by T.C. Boyle recommended by MaxI’ve read nearly all of Boyle’s books, but his first (and the first I read by him) remains my favorite. Boyle is now well-known for his mock histories that refigure the lives of prominent eccentrics. But if those books are sometimes held back by the inscrutability of their protagonists, Water Music sings on the back of Mungo Park, an 18th Century Scottish explorer who ventured deep into the heart of Africa, and Ned Rise, a thief from the gutters of London who meets him there. It’s part Dickens, part comic book, and, as one reviewer once put it, “delightfully shameless.”+ The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem recommended by EmreEmbedding Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill, racial dynamics and the explosive 1970s at the heart of its narrative, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem delves into the white world of Dylan Ebdus in the black heart of a changing neighborhood. It is the story of a motherless white kid estranged from his father and “yoked” by his schoolmates. It is also the story of Dylan’s brilliant journey from solitude to friend of burned-out-soul-singer’s-son Mingus Rude, to neighborhood punk, to Camden College drug dealer, to San Francisco-based music reporter. The trip is outward bound, but the reader is given the benefit of also traveling through Dylan’s heart and mind – be it through a delicious sampling of the era’s music, fashion and city life, or through exploits with Mingus and a ring that gives them superpowers. Lethem paints a brilliant cultural portrait of the U.S. by presenting Dylan’s isolation, desire to fit in – somewhere, anywhere – and transformation to readers. And, for music junkies, there is the added bonus of identifying endless trivia.+ Conversation: A History of a Declining Art by Stephen Miller recommended by EmilyStephen Miller’s Conversation: A History of a Declining Art is a smart yet approachable account of an art that most of us take for granted: the lively and friendly exchange of ideas among equals on topics lofty and commonplace, otherwise known as conversation. While Miller’s book is indeed a history – including different manifestations of conversation in the ancient world (the Spartans, for example, were known for their compressed, economical use of words and thus the word “laconic,” Miller tells us, comes from Laconia, the region surrounding and controlled by Sparta) – it focuses mainly on what Miller considers the heyday of conversation, eighteenth-century England, an age in which conversation was considered an art worthy of study and about which manuals and essays were written. Miller’s book – which he describes as an “essay – an informal attempt to clarify a subject, one that includes personal anecdotes” – is a nostalgic one, which views our own culture as averse to genuine intellectual and emotional exchange undertaken in a spirit of goodwill. We are either, he shows, too aggressive or too timid to converse about the opinions we seem to declare so boldly on t-shirts and bumper-stickers, and thereby we deny ourselves what the likes of Adam Smith, James Boswell, Jonathan Swift, and Samuel Johnson considered one of life’s greatest pleasures, as well as a means of sharpening one’s intellect, polishing verbal expression, alleviating melancholy, and acquiring new knowledge. “Society and conversation” Miller quotes Adam Smith, “are the most powerful remedies for restoring the mind to its tranquility, if, at any time, it has unfortunately lost it.” A timely, thoughtful book and one not to miss.+ The Art of Fiction by John Gardner recommended by BenOnce upon a time, in a land far, far away, a friend told me that anyone who is serious about writing needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve since read the book a half dozen times and feel confident in amending the statement: “Anyone who is serious about reading needs to read John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction.”Although Gardner is best known for Grendel, his retelling of the Beowulf legend from the monster’s point of view, The Art of Fiction, finds him at his most engaging. This is no mere how-to book. In simple, captivating prose, Gardner lays out his theory of writing, stopping along the way to add anecdotes about his own experiences as a novelist and commentary on works he admires. In the process, he thoroughly examines the structure of the modern novel, from plot to word choice. The first read changed the way I viewed both writing and reading, and I’ve come away from every encounter with new insight.If you only read one book about writing, this is the one.