In my 2019 “A Year in Reading” entry, I wrote about the way Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie engages with itself on a moral level. In short: Spark’s controlling headmistress Jean Brodie metaphorizes Spark’s controlling narration, and the whole book serves to—among many other things—interrogate the value of this kind of domineering control in fiction. The novel does not settle for merely telling a story and telling it well; it also on some level considers that story and frames it, in doing so giving the narrative a greater dimensionality, what we might describe as moral depth.
I wrote about the feeling I have had, for some time, that this kind of novel is being written less and less frequently. I don’t mean a novel of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’s quality—novels of that quality have always been written infrequently. And on a related note, I’ll allow for the likelihood of some selection bias here—in other words, that I’m comparing great novels of the past to decent novels of the present. That said, over and over, I find myself reading well-reviewed contemporary novels that seem unwilling or unable to engage with themselves on a moral level. They tell a story, perhaps tell it well. But I finish the book and close it with no sense of what the book thinks about the story it told.
After writing the “A Year in Reading” piece, I found myself unsatisfied with merely diagnosing a (possible) condition. I wanted to consider whether it was a disease or symptom, or both, or neither. And I wanted to think about why—if this is a real change in the way people are writing—it might be happening.
As so often seems the case with questions like this, the most obvious, likely correct, and exceedingly boring answer is: the internet. Two decades of internet usage has rewired (and in some cases, broken) our brains. Since the advent of the internet, more people are writing than ever in human history, and the dominant mode of all this writing is first-person, in the form of tweets, Facebook and Instagram updates, Tumblr posts, Amazon and Goodreads reviews, and so on. I wrote here, about the move from third to first-person as our primary storytelling point of view, a shift borne out by opening any Best American Short Story collection from the last few years, and one from, say, 1995.
But authors have always employed first and third person to varying degrees, and literary tastes and trends are constantly changing. What seems more important here is less the current hegemony of first person, and more what feels like an accompanying change in the expectations of what a piece of fictional narrative can—or should—do. What I’m talking about is a cultural change that has accompanied the internet’s rise: the primacy of the subjective.
This primacy is expressed in a number of ways, large and small, obvious and less so. There is the bespoke, à la carte, curated nature of almost all entertainment, for example. Mostly gone are the days when a vast number of people tuned in, at a certain time, to watch a show they all agreed on. We are now delivered not only the content we want, but content we might want suggested on the basis of previous listens or views, and in this manner our consumption of music and film can be insidiously siloed. I’m not bemoaning the death of network television, and I find streaming services as convenient as the next person, but someone younger than I am (44) might not be fully aware of the paradigm shift this represents, in the way the world has been miniaturized and streamlined to service individual taste.
Our politics have, as well, become almost exclusively subjective. In some ways, for the good—#MeToo, for example, prioritized women’s individual claims of abuse out of necessity, in response to a rape culture that so often denies justice and even a voice to victims of assault. Cancel culture, more trickily—though still understandably—seeks to erase from the public record works of art by artists accused of bad behavior. Whatever one thinks of this, it signifies a stunning change in expectations from most of the 20th century, when, as articulated by the New Critics and their Intentional Fallacy and later by Roland Barthes’s The Death of the Author, the inviolable, objective separation between artist and art seemed more or less a settled matter. Finally, and to the unquestionable bad, the internet has allowed the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories that, like Netflix and Spotify, are curated at the level of individual taste depending on one’s personal cosmology of fear and desire. Trump’s election represented, in many ways, the victory of subjective paranoia and ignorance regarding immigrants, racial politics, and climate change over objective facts that were somewhat more difficult to ignore in a pre-internet era. Fifteen years ago, it felt stunningly cynical, not to mention stupid, for a Bush apparatchik to accuse a reporter of living in the “reality-based community,” but it now feels horribly prescient.
All of which is to say that one feels a consistent, accompanying shift toward the subjective in the fiction of our moment, in what it does and does not do. What it does do: relate intensely personal lived experience, depict trauma, and—maybe especially—project personality. What it does not do: usually attempt any sort of objectivity or try to situate a narrative in a moral framework.
The problem with this is, from my point of view, situating narrative in a moral framework is what novels do better than really any other type of art. No other narrative form can so dexterously tell a story while critiquing it, a sleight-of-hand enabled by the engaged moral interplay of an author/narrator with his or her narrative. The reluctance to engage on this level may become an inability, and this is a loss. Not just artistically, but socially, as well. During times of moral crisis like the one we’re living in, we need books of moral power and daring that challenge us. Books that are willing to take a stand, and in doing so, dare us to do the same.
On a less grand, but possibly more important level, the problem is also that so many of these books are boring. The reluctance to engage on a moral level is closely related to a reluctance to engage on a plot level. This is because the basic mechanics of plot—a character encounters trouble, makes a choice, and endures the consequences (which usually occasion further choices and consequences)—almost unavoidably raise moral questions. Is it good that she chose this thing and not the other? Are the consequences just or warranted? And what does the book think about all this? I suppose it’s conceivable to write plot without placing any moral weight on the character, and by extension the text, but it’s difficult to imagine in practice. Action and choice occasions a moral dimension—even dumb superhero movies usually manage a bit of this kind of depth, however microscopically thin.
Consider, as a refreshing recent counterexample, Adelle Waldman’s excellent The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P, a novel published only seven years ago, but one that feels stylistically of an entirely different era. Love Affairs begins as its protagonist, Nate, encounters a former girlfriend on the subway, who calls him an asshole. The entire novel is premised on asking this question—is Nate an asshole?—and the questions that this question raise, among them: What constitutes being an asshole, and is it even possible to not be an asshole in the sexual marketplace? The book offers Nate a real choice, between a more complicated woman and less complicated woman, and he chooses the less complicated with all the consequences that choice brings, good and bad. By forcing Nate to take a stand (several of them), the messy drama of Nate Piven’s romantic life is acted out in a larger moral theater, though Waldman resists easy formulations. In the end, the novel finally seems to ask how fit we—the reader or the narrator—are to judge anyone else’s romantic happiness.
But in recently published novel after recently published novel, a reader encounters something closer to this: a BIG EVENT happens proximate to the narrator, which makes them FEEL things and might remind them of other BIG EVENTS to which they’ve been proximate in their life, all of which occasions a lot of aimless, if lyrical prose. Various feints may be made in the direction of actual choices and consequences, but in the end, the novel’s imagined space is as safe and padded as a childproofed house. It is all about summoning atmosphere and suggesting the potential for action and choice, without actually having a character make any choices, and, more importantly, without having to dramatize any consequences that might arise from a choice. Again, to do so would risk saying something that might feel like an objective moral position, if only in the context of the novel.
To return to Muriel Spark: in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Miss Brodie acts in a manner that damages her students, and Sandy Stranger, in return, betrays her teacher and brings about Miss Brodie’s downfall. These choices and consequences are important in themselves, in the creation of a dynamic piece of narrative, but also, again, they are important in the way they dramatize a larger point about the dire consequences of authoritarian control, in real life and in the novel—a question Spark is clearly wrestling with regarding her own artistic tendencies. In a broad sense, it’s clear what the novel’s intentions are, what the moral implications are for the characters, for the reader, and even perhaps for the author.
Published today, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie would seem to run counter to the larger cultural mood, the sense many smart people may have that we are past—regrettably or not—creating work that presumes, however obliquely, to tell other people how to live. At first glance, it seems odd to think this might be the case, given the sheer volume and stridency of opinion to be found online. But this is mostly simple moralizing, mostly about creating in-group dynamics within one’s curated political space—an intensely subjective and affirming performance of one’s felt beliefs. It is not about the kind of serious inquiry and deep self-reflection at which novels as an art form excel—a moral dimensionality that complicates, rather than simplifies, our sense of other people and the world. The subjectivity that has characterized our consumption of art and our participation in politics has also begun to characterize our sense of morality, and it therefore may seem quaint to write with the objectivity required to hoist up and secure a fictional narrative in a larger, moral architecture.
And so it is not difficult to imagine a first-person version of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, published in 2020, from the lone perspective of Sandy Stranger. In this book, we would also get marvelous descriptions of Edinburgh and the rolling fields by the river. We would also get tender moments between the girls. We would get, perhaps, an ominous sense of Miss Brodie’s despotic personality, and we might, at some point, get the news that Mary had died on a misadventure to Spain. But we would likely not get Miss Brodie’s manipulation of Rose, we would likely not get Sandy’s affair with Mr. Lloyd, and we would almost certainly not get Sandy’s betrayal of Miss Brodie. In the end, Sandy would graduate from the school, having grown apart from the crème de la crème, feeling a bit wistful and disabused, but not much worse for the wear.
A concluding question here might be, even if one accepts that what I’ve described is true, is there anything to be done about it? That depends, I suppose, on if one sees cultural movements as something inevitable, or something that can be affected on an individual level. In truth, it’s probably both: No, there’s no putting the Me genie back in the internet bottle; yes, we can try to write, and reasonably expect to read, fiction that thinks more deeply about life than the average Tumblr post. What we want, really, is a well-read modern fiction that represents the historical moment we’re in, with all of its solipsism, its confessional honesty and sometimes wonderful theatricality, while remembering the encompassing moral intelligence great fiction is capable of when, now and then, it gazes away from its own navel.
Image credit: Priscilla Du Preez
In her essay “The Getaway Car,” now included in her nonfiction collection This is a Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett describes well-meaning readers who approach her at events with ideas for books. To them, it’s a simple equation: their premise plus Patchett’s prose equals literary gold. Patchett deftly points out that ideas for stories are everywhere and easy to find; it’s the sitting down and writing them that takes hard work.
Now that I’m finished with my forthcoming novel, I see what she means. Without a long-term project to obsess over, I find myself channeling ideas all the time. A new premise will possess me for a few minutes or hours, my brain asking What if? or Why would that happen?, until, like a fly at a picnic, I alight on another, juicier narrative. Patchett is right: there are so many stories! Alas, I have only one life, and one voice, and only three days of childcare a week to write.
But maybe the ideas that don’t snag my prolonged attention would occupy another, different writer. Let’s try it: Here are a few novels I won’t write. Maybe you will.
The Doctor Is In
When I was pregnant with my daughter I read Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History and the Wonder of Childbirth by Mark Sloan. There are so many remarkable details in this book, from the cool, weird things a fetus does in the womb, to theories about why labor is so easy for gorillas and so difficult for human beings. I was especially compelled by the story of James Barry, the first surgeon to perform a successful cesarean (meaning that both mother and child survived). Barry, born in the late 1700s, was an Irish military surgeon in the British Army, and Sloan describes him as not being particularly likeable: pushy, without tact. After his death, it was revealed that Barry was born a woman but passed as a man for decades. When I read that I couldn’t believe his story hadn’t yet been told (or not adequately; whoever does this book right will have a bestseller followed by an HBO adaptation). Because I am not up for the task of writing historical fiction, I nominate my friend Anna Solomon for the job. She would be perfect: her two novels, The Little Bride and Leaving Lucy Pear, explore gender, sexuality, and motherhood in bygone eras; plus, she’s the co-editor of an anthology of birth stories called Labor Day (one of mine is in there).
Trouble in Oakland
This summer, the East Bay was rocked by a police scandal that included officers in Oakland and Richmond, as well as deputies in the Alameda county sheriff’s department. As of mid-September, criminal charges have been made against seven officers and Oakland has witnessed one Police Chief after another step down, with Mayor Libby Schaaf struggling to explain the multiple resignations. In June, a sex worker going by the name of Celeste Guap revealed in an on-air television interview that she’d had sex with a handful of police officers, some of them when she was a minor. As the East Bay Express reported:
According to text messages between police officers and the victim, at least three OPD officers leaked her confidential information about undercover prostitution stings. One Oakland cop obtained police reports and criminal histories and shared them with the victim, which is against department policy. Guap also said she slept with cops as a form of protection.
In a quote from Guap that I keep coming back to, she said that she and one of the officers would hook up “like every Saturday night for three months straight…He had a mattress in his back seat and slept in his car in the OPD parking lot, so we would hook up after work.”
This scandal exists against a much larger backdrop; it coincided with the release of Stanford University’s 2013-2014 research study of the Oakland police department, which found “a significant pattern of racial disparities” regarding who is stopped, handcuffed, and arrested; according to the report, police officers showed implicit bias against the African-American community. For many in the city, this came as no surprise. Mayor Schaaf made relations with the community even more tense when she identified the race of officers involved in a totally different department scandal; according to the Oakland Black Officers Association, Schaaf had never before identified the race of officers involved in an investigation.
Fiction has always helped us understand and grapple with the complexities of the real world, and a book like this, in an era of highly visible police violence, feels necessary.
Who is this young woman? Who is this young cop? This would be a big, multi-voiced novel, with community members, law enforcement, and savvy political players. I nominate Attica Locke, author of three crime novels that deal with race in American life, including The Cutting Season, about the discovery of a dead body on a plantation-turned-tourist attraction-and-event space. (Though Ms. Locke might be a little busy right now — she’s currently writing for, and producing, the TV show Empire…)
In early September, Rachel Cusk published an essay called “Making House: Notes on Domesticity” in the New York Times Magazine that so closely aligned with my interests I was practically levitating with excitement as I read it. First, I love Cusk’s writing, in particular her essays about mothering in A Life’s Work. Second, I read design blogs daily and enjoy browsing furniture catalogues and real estate websites; if I’m anxious, nothing calms me more than thinking about sectionals in imaginary living rooms. Third, I am interested in the ways women’s identities are shaped and influenced, and this line from Cusk felt truer than anything I’d read in a long time:
Yet there are other imperatives that bedevil the contemporary heirs of traditional female identity, for whom insouciance in the face of the domestic can seem a sort of political requirement, as though by ceasing to care about our homes we could prove our lack of triviality, our busyness, our equality.
Well, that explains my shame at admitting my couch-fantasies here — shouldn’t I be above all that? Cusk’s essay led me to think about depictions of household maintenance and design in fiction. I’m usually a plot-lusty reader, but one of my favorite sections in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman was when its hero…cleaned his apartment. I still remember how gracefully it transported me to the more mundane aspects of life. I recently loved The Stager by Susan Coll, which is in part about a woman who prepares properties for the housing market by changing their furniture, painting a few walls, and so on. I could’ve read about her work for hundreds of pages! I wonder, could someone write a domestic drama which contained no drama, only its domestic details? Can a novel exist on descriptions of laundry alone, on musings about where to best mount a living room television? I’m thinking the main character wants a “clean” house, like so many of the women on House Hunters. This would be a short and intensely claustrophobic book — but also, somehow, sexy. I nominate Rachel Cusk to write this book. If she’s unavailable perhaps Nicholson Baker wants to take on the challenge.
Ice Age Coming
A few days before my senior year of college, I did mushrooms with my best friend. Aside from walking into a field of corn shrieking, we also sat in his car and listened to Kid A by Radiohead. When the song “Idioteque” came on, and Thom Yorke began to sing, “Ice Age coming, Ice Age coming…” I had an entire vision about a novel set during a new ice age, with people grappling with the elements, wearing furs, re-purposing ceiling fans as weapons, and turning bathing suits into flags. I thought this idea was so brilliant that I refused to tell my friend about it for fear that he’d steal it. (I hadn’t yet gotten the memo from Ann Patchett about ideas v. work.) Sometimes I think about this unwritten ice age novel, and how fun it would be to read. I was going to nominate a Jean M. Auel type to pen such a saga when I read about The Sunlight Pilgrims by the Scottish author Jenni Fagan. Set in 2020, it shows us a world much like our own, but cold, and getting colder. In her review of the novel, Marisa Silver highlights Fagan’s poetic prose: “Early on, we are told that in this worst of winters “icicles will grow to the size of narwhal tusks or the long bony finger of winter herself.”” I’m putting on mittens and reading this! Thank you, Ms. Fagan.
Crystal Geyser by CG Roxane
Have you ever read the label on a plastic bottle of Crystal Geyser water? (Why would you? The graphic design is horrendous.) Well, I did recently, and was struck by the words I found there:
Alpine Spring Water
by CG Roxane
Now, I realize I could turn on the magical Google Machine and find out that CG Roxane is a corporation or whatever. But what’s the fun in that? Instead I imagined this CG Roxane as a person. He’s got on a Stetson cowboy hat and a large-collared Oxford shirt. He’s obsessed with water. His mother calls him Charles Gomez, which is what the “CG” stands for. In my mind, this book would be a little like the movie There Will be Blood, or a fictional version of the Robert Caro biographies of LBJ. A story about power, politics, insanity. It could also be a satire — an absurdist, playful romp. If that’s the case, I nominate Mark Leyner to write it. In 2012 the New York Times Magazine described Leyner’s Et Tu, Babe as “an adrenalized, needle-to-the-red satire of (among many other things) the derangements of celebrity mass worship in a disjunctive culture-gone-wild.” That’s pretty much what I had in mind with this story. Imagine Charles Gomez Roxane. He wants to own all the water. All of it!
What novels won’t you write?
Hookup culture is destroying relationships and intimacy, Nancy Jo Sales declared in a 2015 Vanity Fair article. She quoted everyone from banking bros who bragged about their numbers of Tinder conquests, to social scientists who believe hookup culture is as revolutionary as the introduction of marriage 10,000 years ago. But what if you aren’t hooking up? Where do you fit in?
Emma Rathbone asks these questions in her second novel, Losing It. Her protagonist, Julia Greenfield, is a directionless 26-year-old fixated on the fact that she’s still a virgin. Not for lack of interest, but misplaced optimism — she declines a high school boyfriend’s request to have sex in a pool, assuming she could “afford to decline, if only to make the next proposition all the more delicious.” Except the next proposition never comes, and as the years pass Julia’s fear of having to tell men she’s a virgin consumes her and ruins any chance she has of sex. When her parents suggest she spend the summer with her maiden aunt Vivienne in Durham, North Carolina, Julia decides this will be her opportunity to lose “it.” A new girl in town during a hot North Carolina summer seems like the perfect scenario, but awkward Julia self-sabotages: taking a boring office job where everyone is old and married; going on online dates with misogynists; and learning that Vivienne is a 58-year-old virgin, Julia’s own worst nightmare. As she writes, “That was the problem — to want something so badly was to jam yourself into the wrong places, gum up the works, send clanging vibrations into the cosmos. But how can you step back and affect nonchalance?”
We’re supposed to be rooting for Julia, but just as Julia concludes that there is something “too much” about Vivienne’s personality that prevented her from pairing up, there is something likewise lacking in Julia’s that keeps her single. She picks bad lovers, says the wrong thing, and completely misjudges any romantic moment to tragicomic effect. It’s a testament to Rathbone’s writing that we still find Julia sympathetic even as it becomes clearer that Julia’s own poor decision-making is part of the issue. She is an anti-hero of her own story, solely because of a fluke of sexual chemistry and opportunity. As a middle-class, well-educated, heterosexual white woman, Julia should’ve had dozens of opportunities to have sex, but she is a statistical anomaly, who doesn’t quite fit in with the hook-up generation of her peers, or with the self-declared spinster Gen-Xers before her.
If there is a poster girl for sex-positive millennials, it’s Lena Dunham. In the 2012 pilot of her HBO show Girls, we see Dunham’s character engaged in bad couch sex with her not-quite boyfriend. This was her sexually liberated battle cry, that millennial women were hooking up and not ashamed of it. Dunham’s own writings have followed suit, with much of her essay collection, Not that Kind of Girl, devoted to her own sexual experiences in college and beyond. In “Take My Virginity (No, Really, Take It),” Dunham writes about being “the oldest virgin in town” (with “town” being Oberlin college) as a college sophomore; already, virginity is a burden that must jettisoned to fit in with the anything-goes sexuality of her liberal arts school and her later career.
This freewheeling upper-middle-class millennial archetype appears frequently in fiction, too. Adelle Waldman explores the male perspective in The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P (a book Dunham also praised), in which the titular protagonist sleeps with his intellectual circle as a distraction from the book he’s writing. Sex is presented as an afterthought, though clearly it seeps into all aspects of life, even as everyone pretends not to care. The challenge of so-called laissez-faire sex is the main theme running through Katherine Heiny’s short story collection, Single, Carefree, Mellow. The characters are anything but what the title suggests, spending most of the stories conflicted about their supposedly casual affairs. In these books, it’s never a question of will they or won’t they, but whether it will mean anything after they do. The very impetus of the story is sex, hence there are no stories for the sex-less, intentional or not.
The generation ahead of the millennials has reclaimed singledom as a social movement. Kate Bolick’s memoir/history book Spinster is about redefining the formerly pejorative word. To Bolick and the women she profiles — among them Edith Wharton and Neith Boyce — spinsterhood isn’t about virginity or chastity, but rather about proudly living as an unmarried, and thus unemcumbered, woman. She concludes that “spinster” is a dated concept: “The choice between being married versus being single doesn’t even belong here in the twenty-first century.” Rebecca Traister develops the thesis further in All the Single Ladies, her nonfiction examination of just what it means socially and politically when women have more choices than just marriage. The first single women spawned revolutionary movements from abolition to suffrage, and with only 20 percent of Americans married by age 29 today, single women could continue to change the dominant culture. “Single women are taking up space in a world that was not built for them. We are a new republic, with a new category of citizen,” she writes. Being single is a call to action in these books, but it’s also a choice.
Of course, this new singledom can come with unexpected hitches. “In a culture that has more fully acknowledged female sexuality as a reality, it is perhaps more difficult than ever to be an adult woman who does not have sex,” Traister writes. She continues to tell the story of sexually willing women who couldn’t find the opportunity to have sex, including herself (Traister didn’t lose her virginity until age 24), describing it with increasingly negative vocabulary: freighted, loom, frigid, cumbersome. Virginity is pathologized after a certain age.
While millennials and Gen-Xers ultimately have different views on singledom and sex, both are fighting against a previous narrative that dictated social mores (particularly for women). But someone like Rathbone’s Julia Greenfield was never part of the narrative to begin with. This doesn’t leave her much room in literature or even culture. Indeed, literary virgins with any agency are few and far between.
The most infamous example is Charles Dickens’s Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. After being left at the altar, she retreats to a mansion, where she never takes off her wedding dress and is described as a witch. She is a pitiful wreck whose forced virginity pushes her to mental breakdown and full removal from society. Even Jeffrey Eugenides’s titular virgins in The Virgin Suicides are more figurative than literal virgins. They are trapped by both their strict parents and the narrative the neighborhood teenage boys impose on them, effectively fetishizing their virginity. All of these women’s fates are decided and described by men, both by the domineering men who keep them virgins and the male authors who write about them. They are modern-day cautionary tales.
This is what makes Losing It subversive. We understand Julia’s hesitation, which is almost radical in this world of swipe-happy 20-somethings. But even though her characters may be ashamed of their virginity, Rathbone isn’t ashamed on their behalf, and so gives voice to a silent subgroup. This isn’t just Julia’s story; it’s also Vivienne’s, and Rathbone decides not to give us a definitive reason for why Vivienne is still a virgin. There are no Miss Havishams here. Sometimes nothing is wrong; sometimes it just doesn’t happen. (And sometimes, in Julia’s case, it does.)
Writing the final pages of a novel is difficult enough, but then comes the final challenge. It’s the end of the end, the last stop on the line, the dazzling dismount: a damn good closing sentence.
I finished my novel while sitting in a movie theater, watching a documentary on light pollution. I’m not sure what it was about The City Dark that helped me get there. Maybe it was the documentary’s eerie central question — Is darkness becoming extinct? — or perhaps it was the church-like quiet of the theater. Maybe it was that, in my utter absorption, I’d for once stopped thinking about the novel. Whatever it was sent me scrambling for a pen and a receipt and then, when I couldn’t find either, repeating one line in my head like a mantra: I knew there was nobody watching me. I wasn’t sure that it was elegant, or even grammatically sound, but I did know it was just how my narrator — who spends the novel negotiating issues of privacy and voyeurism — would want the book to end. Grammatical or not, it was my last line, and I was sticking to it.
Read on to see how six authors found theirs.
1. Rufi Thorpe, author of The Girls from Corona del Mar
For my debut novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, I had no idea what the last lines would be and finding the ending was kind of like fencing by yourself in a giant gymnasium in the dark. I just kept writing and writing. Where was it? It had to be around there somewhere. There couldn’t NOT be an ending. I parried and thrusted and eventually I found an opponent in the darkness and somehow the damn thing got written, but it was not graceful. It was an awkward and sweaty process. Clearly there had to be a better way.
John Irving, of whom I am an ardent and really inappropriately effusive fan, claims to start with his last scene first and then write the whole novel toward it. How elegant, I thought. What a beautiful way to work. So that is what I attempted with my second novel, which Knopf recently bought and which will come out, you know, eventually. So I wrote the final scene of the book first, and then I started at the beginning and I wrote toward it. This is not as easy as it seems! The book, like a sewing machine going too fast, kept veering off in unexpected directions, taking huge looping digressions. And yet, what was there to do but follow where the characters led me? When I write, I tend to write a lot and then discard a lot, and so I patiently followed my characters and eventually, low and behold, they wound up right where I had started, at the ending I had chosen for them in the beginning. I added one extra scene-let, more of a coda really, and then that was it, but mainly because it felt somehow incorrect to end a novel on an airplane. You have to land, right? You just have to. So I let them land, and then that was it: the trip was over.
In the end, I am not sure one strategy is actually more effective than the other, and both cause a tremendous amount of anxiety. In the first case, you are terrified there is no ending and your characters will just continue on like Schrödinger’s cat, half alive and half dead, with nothing at all resolved. But in the second case, you doubt constantly that the ending you initially chose was the right one. What if you are forcing your characters into actions and behaviors that no longer make sense for them? What if their destiny is no longer their destiny and you are just like a bad matchmaker trying to force through an arranged marriage out of pride? So far as I can tell, there is no best option, and in fact part of how you know you have finished a novel and that the ending you have found is the ending you were meant to find, is that the entire process is awkward and sweaty and appalling and at the end of it you vow never to do it that way again.
2. Meg Wolitzer, author of Belzhar
My character’s name is Jam, and she’s been sent to a boarding school for “emotionally fragile, highly intelligent” teenagers, because she cannot get over the tragic loss of her boyfriend. It’s revealed early on that this boy once gave Jam a jar of his favorite kind of jam. Throughout the
book, she says she will never open the jar; doing so would be letting go of her love for this boy and everything they had together. I will get to the last line, but to give it context I first have to mention what comes right before it. The very end of the book reads:
‘This stuff is supposed to be pretty good,’ I say, and then, trying to look casual, I grasp the lid of the jar and give it a turn. It makes a surprisingly sharp pop, as if it were releasing not just air, but something else that’s been dying to get out for a long time.
Then I sit cross-legged on my bed, leaning against the study buddy, facing DJ, and with a slightly bent knife stolen from the dining hall, I spread some of the dark red jam on a couple of crackers—one for her, and one for me. When I put mine in my mouth, the sweet taste startles me. I let it linger.
I let it linger. I was excited to write that very last line; it felt right, coming after the description of opening the jar, which is a big deal for the narrator. The last line serves as a kind of coda, a way to hold on to what’s just happened — to give not only Jam a chance to see that her action matters, but that its effect will have some staying power. This, of course, is what all writers want their readers to experience; we hope that, somehow –– at least for a little while –– the words will linger.
3. Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
I struggled a lot with the final chapter of Nathaniel P., last line included. I worried about being too heavy-handed, inflecting the ending with too much of my own point-of-view. Although I definitely favor a certain reading, I tried to refrain from any overt signaling of what I think because I wanted to remain true to the book’s character, Nathaniel. The last line reads:
He’d no more remember the pain — or the pleasure — of this moment than he would remember, once he moved into the new apartment, the exact scent of the air from his bedroom window at down, after he’d been up all night working.
I wanted the line to be ambiguous in its meaning, to convey a feeling that is acute and earnest but can nonetheless be interpreted as the fleeting nostalgia of the moment — something that can be forgotten without consequence — or something more important, the kind of deeper truth that can be inconvenient and unsettling and which we might prefer to bury under the chaos of day-to-day life. I think such ambiguousness is true to life: as we go through our lives, we rarely know how to read what we feel, how much weight to put on this or that passing mood. I wanted the novel’s presentation of psychological and moral life to be as complicated and prone to shape-shifting as our actual private lives.
The line also contains a nod to another book, but this is so subtle — practically imaginary — that it’s for myself rather than because I expect anyone else to see it. For me, the reference to the smell of morning from a window recollects a scene in George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The charming, handsome Arthur Donnithorne has spent the night worrying about a romance he started in spite of his better judgment; he resolves to end the relationship before it goes too far. But when he wakes up the following morning, to a lovely day, and breathes in the fresh morning air from his window, his late-night anxiety seems overwrought. He puts aside as melodramatic the resolutions he made. In the course of the novel, it turns out he was right to be worried; it was the cheerfulness and bustle of day that was misleading. I think this scene is incredibly perceptive about how people, myself included, actually behave, and I liked the idea of calling back to it, ever so subtly.
4. Ted Thompson, author of The Land of Steady Habits
I wrote many, many drafts of this novel and each had a different ending, and a different final sentence. Some were mean and cutting, some were attempts at hopefulness, some were vague in a way I hoped a reader would make sense of (since I certainly couldn’t), and all of them were overthought. I was trying so desperately to control the readers’ experience of that final moment that I forgot about the characters and the story. Somehow, with final lines, it’s so often impossible to separate from them my own feelings about the work as a whole, so that I find myself trying to cram as much meaning as possible into a single sentence, trying, I suppose, to redeem the project from all the ways it has fallen short of what I’d hoped it would be.
So how did I find a final sentence I was satisfied with? The short answer is that I ran out of time. We were supposed to leave on our honeymoon the following day. It was summertime, August, and we were visiting my parents in northern New York. Everyone in my family was outside in the sunshine and I could hear them through the open windows laughing and chatting, occasionally someone diving into the pool, and everything inside me wanted to be out there with them. But the novel was a year overdue, and somehow I couldn’t bring myself to leave on this trip knowing that the cloud of this book — and all its subsequent distractions — would follow us onto our honeymoon. So I sat at the desk in that bedroom writing and rewriting the final paragraph by hand. I wrote it and scratched it out and rewrote it, added arrows and clauses, read it aloud to myself again and again, trying to listen for the right feeling. Finally, as the afternoon sun began to change, I knew everyone would soon be headed back inside, so I said to hell with it. I typed it into the manuscript and emailed it to my editor. Then I went outside, announced that I had finished, and went swimming.
5. Michelle Huneven, author of Off Course, Blame, Jamesland and Round Rock
In three of my four novels, I knew well before I was halfway done what the last line was going to be. In fact, I wrote to those last lines. I had to see my way clear to them. They pulled me through. In my fourth novel, Off Course, I didn’t know the last line and I overwrote the ending by 20 or 30 pages. (Sometimes a book just ends, no matter how hard you try to tack on something else). Only after cutting those pages and packing what I could use from them into the preceding chapters did I locate my last line in a serviceable, finalizing bit of exposition. Who knew?
My favorite last line comes from my second novel, Jamesland.
Jamesland begins with 30-something Alice Black waking up in the middle of the night to find that a deer has come into her house. She chases it out and goes back to bed, but in the morning, she can’t tell if the deer was a dream or a fact. Either way, she’s sufficiently disturbed to discuss the event with various people, including a minister who suggests that Alice look into what deer might mean to her. In her own inadvertent way, Alice does look into this. She learns, for example, that in Buddhism, the deer is a symbol for listening; in Persian carpets, the deer is a symbol of worldly cravings; in the Psalms, the deer thirsts for water like the soul thirsts for God, etc. You might say that deer become a vehicle for meaning in Alice’s life. Although she never pins down what, specifically, deer “mean to her,” her whole life changes as she pursues the question.
One thing that happens is, she takes up with Pete, a chef who, at the end of the novel, has just opened a new restaurant. On a cool, winters day before the dinner shift starts, he’s walking up through Griffith Park to meet Alice, and he sees a deer leaping over bushes on the hillside.
Now, whenever I’ve come across deer in the wild, I am always awed; I think they’re beautiful, graceful, wildness incarnate. But some people see something else.
Pete, watching the deer, pats his pockets for a pen or pencil to jot down a note. But he hasn’t got a pencil. So here is the book’s last line: “He’d just have to remember, then, to put venison on the menu.”
6. Marie-Helene Bertino, author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas
I’m not one to approach the craft of writing with any sort of metaphysical bent. Those who speak of themselves as detached vessels through which prose flows can find me in the corner, rolling my damn eyes. However, there are a few aspects of the writing process I regard with a reverent wonder approaching the realm of soothsaying. None more so than last lines. I write the following with the typing equivalent of a straight face: before I know who the characters are, before I even know what the story is about, I hear its title and last line. I hear the last line, and then I write toward it. Not all the time, but usually.
This doesn’t mean I’m trapped. Knowing the airy location at which the story terminates does not mean I have any idea where the story will take me, or who I might invent as I journey. I don’t even know what the last line will mean to the characters. If an X marks the spot of where the story ends, the map still has no lines or countries, and the X could be a trap door leading to another dimension.
It’s really that simple.
Bring your sorry shit back tomorrow.
I vacillated between two possible last lines for my novel 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas. The difference between the two was the decision of who I wanted to end the story on — the young jazz singing protagonist, who we’ve struggled with for 280 pages, or a heretofore minor character. The former would leave the reader in an enclosed space, the room in which the little girl is rehearsing. The latter would end in an expansive place, literally and figuratively, leaving the door open for (what turned out to be) spirited interpretation. It would be impossible for me to convey the importance of the last line without you reading the novel, but I can say this: I knew the last word would be “tomorrow.” For a novel that takes place over the course of one day, that for the most part eschews flashbacks in order to keep all momentum pointed forward, it was important that the last word acknowledged the idea of a next day.
First lines are a challenge for me. They feel like work. If you want to know how to write a first line, I’d ask Kevin Wilson or Amy Hempel or Charles Baxter. If first lines belong to the story and its launch, last lines belong to the story’s effect. The last line launches the reader into what he or she will end up thinking about the story. Maybe that’s why they must feel delivered, and my job is to keep myself open in the way most conducive to hear them. I know, I know. Roll your eyes. I don’t blame you one bit.
I’d most likely never admit any of this had I never heard Amy Hempel say at a reading that she normally hears her last lines first, too. That, along with so many other things she has said about writing, validated the most internal of internal inclinations I’ve grown up feeling about the craft.
So if this all sounds like hooey to you, please take it up with her.
See Also: The Art of the Final Sentence
Image Credit: Geograph.
The latest installment in The Believer’s “What Would Twitter Do?” series (which we’ve mentioned before) features London Review of Books editor Christian Lorentzen, whose Twitter feed, Sheila Heti writes, “seem[s] like what someone who only expresse[s] himself as a fiction writer within the universe of twitter might come up with.” Meanwhile, Heti has a review of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman in (where else?) the LRB.