I admire a tightly-constructed narrative, but I’m not sure they’re particularly important

My wife has grown very familiar with my habit of checking my watch during all the major plot-points of movies. I’m sure it gives the impression that I’m bored, but she knows what I’m actually doing is noting where we are right now in the three-act structure. I’m like, “Wait the couple is finally having sex? Yep, here we are at the midpoint.”

Hollywood films are notable for always hitting the right beats at the right times, to the point that it’s almost more noteworthy when a film _doesn’t_ do this than when it does. However, most Hollywood films aren’t what I’d call “well-constructed.” They’re like stories told by drunk people. They have the outer form of a coherent narrative, but the actual events don’t add up. 

For me, a well-contructed story needs to do more than have tension that rises and falls at the right moments. It requires a broader coherence between plot, premise, character, tone, and theme. Essentially, the events in the story should be the right ones to bring out the conflict that’s inherent in the premise. The most illustrative examples in this vein tend to be noir thrillers. One of the best-constructed books I can recall reading is Scott Smith’s A Simple Plan (which was filmed more or less faithfully by Sam Raimi). In the novel, three friends find a bag containing four million dollars, and in order to make sure that nobody comes looking for it (they have an inkling that the bag is from a bank robbery) they decide to wait at least six months before spending it.

Well of course this falls apart almost immediately. But the book is relentless in the way it simply allows its characters to grind away at each other. And every element, from the small-town Ohio setting to the mobsters who eventually make an appearance, is designed only to increase the tension and to serve the book’s central theme: “What would you do in order to escape from a dead-end life?”

Obviously this theme is an age-old one, and I don’t know that A Simple Plan is particularly thought-provoking in its treatment of it. The breakout character of the novel is actually the protagonist’s wife, who initially seems like a voice of reason and then gets more and more wrapped up in the plot. Otherwise everyone behaves more or less as they need to. 

I wonder now if the book’s strength isn’t actually its weakness. Its tight construction means that there aren’t very many opportunities for the protagonists to slip their leash and truly act against type.

I’m revising my own second YA novel now, and in every phase of revision I’ve tightened the construction. Where once it was shaggy and meandering (and ran to over 90,000 words), it’s now narrow, tightly-focused and clocks in at just over 60,000. The plot proceeds with what is, to me, relentless focus, and every element is carefully aligned to increase the pressure.

And yet I wonder how different the book truly is from the previous, much shaggier versions. There’s an aesthetic joy in a well-turned plot, but I don’t know that it’s the kind of thing that makes a book truly timeless or great. Yet for some reason I’ve found myself obsessed with aligning all the story elements–to the point where I literally rewrote the entire book just four months ago, and now in this second revision pass, have rewritten at least 25% of it.

So much of writing a book is a matter of structure. It’s my feeling that if you can write something that feels novel-like, then you’ve come most of the way towards writing a salable book, even if your plots, characters, and premises are shop-worn and your writing is merely serviceable. The mechanics of pulling people through a book really are sort of a simple thing, but they’re so essential to the novel.

What’s hard, I think, is integrating that sense of mechanics with the story that you want to tell. Because at least for me the story doesn’t automatically come out fully-formed. And every attempt to turn the story into a better-formed object has the potential to lead you down a false path, because when trying to craft a plot, it’s very easy to reach into the old familiar bag of tricks. You find this oftentimes when getting comments from veteran editors or grizzled old writers. They almost have an intuition for twisting your story into something that can sell. But the result is oftentimes not the story you want to tell.

And yet some stories cannot be told. Protagonists, in my experience, need to have at least a hint of the heroic. Most attempts to tell a story about ‘ordinary people’ (where ordinary is synonym for weakness, self-pity, cowardice, and selfishness) are doomed to failure, simply because those are precisely the qualities that are unworkable within a traditional story structure. In order to even enter into your story (to fight to keep the bag of money, for instance, instead of chickening out at the first sign of trouble and reporting it to the police) your protagonist needs a hint of the larger-than-life. 

Which leaves authors in a troubling position. The more unrealistic your characters, the easier it is to tell a story with them. And if your aesthetic aim is to present characters who are real, or at least more human than normal, then your job becomes correspondingly harder. And perhaps that’s where my obsession with well-crafted stories comes from. Because the truth is that structure is the glue that holds together the story, and if you want to make something truly striking and unique, then you need a glue that’s much stronger then if your story is merely following convention.

Being a writer is great, if you can afford it

It’s a truism that all the fun and meaningful careers tend to be competitive and poorly compensated. I’ve been seeing a therapist lately, and when my insurance sends me the amounts they pay him, I’m consistently shocked: it’s less than I bill as a freelance writer.

But writing corporate blog posts is not at all fun or satisfying, while presumably therapy is, so the latter, despite its extensive training requirements, gets paid much less.

Of course, the inverse isn’t true: unpleasant labor isn’t necessarily well-compensated. Working retail seems pretty unpleasant; it’s also not very well-paid.

They say that wages are set by supply and demand, but I wonder about this. All my life I’ve been paid well for things that I’m fairly certain most college-educated people could do. For much of that time, unemployment has been very high, with lots of people looking for and unable to find the work that I’ve been doing.

So I have given up on understanding the economy, except for this one point: anything at all fun or satisfying tends to be very poorly-renumerated.

Perhaps doctoring and software development are the exceptions. Doctors are well-paid (although most doctors I know would disagree with that) and many doctors find their work satisfying, but the supply of doctors is also artificially constrained by the extremely low number of medical school spots.

I’m at a loss to understand why software development is such a well-paid profession, since it seems fun and simple-to-learn. I’ve at least a dozen friends who’ve landed six figure jobs after taking just a twelve-week courses in how to code.

I guess the moral of the story is that you should learn to program computers. Not everybody has the mind for it, but I’ve been surprised at the people who can pick it up. Even some friends of mine who seem very left-brained (including one who majored in cultural anthropology in college) have successfully learned how to code.

 

Writing fiction is incredible. It’s everything people say it is. Well I mean it’s agony, of course, since most of the time I have no idea what to write, and even when I do write something, it usually doesn’t sell, and even when it does sell, very few people read it. But it’s still a meaningful occupation. And high-status too! People are quite impressed if you’ve published a book. They don’t necessarily read the book (and I don’t expect them too), but you still have status in their eyes, just the same as if you were a professional chess-player or a professional ballerina. People know it’s not easy to get a book published.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the relationship between money and writing. The truth is that over the last four years, I’ve done okay, but that’s mostly because of the large advance I received for Enter Title Here.

It’s hard to believe I’ll ever get one of that size again. There’s very little security in this field. Even the concept of being a ‘working writer’ seems a bit meaningless. All you have is your last advance. There’s no guarantee there will ever be another one. I’ve heard of NYT best-sellers who’ve had trouble selling another book. You’re constantly in danger of losing your financial footing.

Not me, I’m fine. I have other income streams. And some savings. And I’m married to a doctor.

I suppose these are reflections prompted by my revisions on my second book. It’s coming close to the time when the text will be put into production. At that point, this poor book will have to fend for itself.

With every book, you hope it’ll catch fire and turn into something. I have those hopes for this one too. I think it can hold its own with the best YA novels that’re out there. But you also realize that your opinion isn’t necessarily shared by other people. Success is not guaranteed.

And with writing, it sometimes feels like there’s no middle-ground: if you’re not a best-seller, then the industry boots you out.

That’s not entirely true. I have other tricks up my sleeve. I can change genres. That’s it, actually, that’s my only trick. I can change genres. Each time you write in a new genre, you start with a blank slate, and so far as I can tell, a writer can do this as many times as they want.

It’s so different from other careers. My other friends have mostly achieved some stability by now. They have skills. They’ve gone to grad school. They get head-hunted on LinkedIn. Writing isn’t like that. Even success doesn’t last. The person winning awards one year doesn’t even make the ballot in the next. The big book of the summer goes out of print within five years. I was thinking recently of a famous author from the early aughts and wondering why we don’t notice anymore when he publishes a book. He’s just irrelevant: the culture is done with him, at least for now.

For me, writing is something between a hobby and a career. In many ways, I don’t feel like my relation to it is very different from back in 2012, when I hadn’t yet sold a book. I still mostly spend my time playing around. In fact, the best thing about this last year is that I finally got rid of the mouse (ahem ahem) that was hanging onto my back and turning the writing game into such a stressful experience. It’s been a relief to recover my sense of exploration.

I spent two years writing sub-par books. After that experience, you can never again regard your creativity as something that’s under your control. It comes, and it goes. Which means writing can never be a career in the way that other things are.

The writing world never interested me much, and now it interests me less. Writers aren’t uninteresting people, but the element of careerism that runs through writing circles is extremely dull to me.

(Once someone objected to that opinion of mine, saying, “Why shouldn’t people of the same profession spend their time talking about that profession?” and I didn’t have an answer. Of course people should talk about whatever they want. But I find it so unhelpful to talk about career issues in the writing field. None of it can be planned. None of it can be managed. You cannot set goals and achieve them, because you cannot control, on the most basic level, whether anything happens when you sit down to write.)

I can’t pretend that the time I spend alone with the written word is particularly satisfying. At times it is, but mostly it’s a dull, intractable struggle. I try out idea after idea, approach after approach, and ninety-nine percent of them fail. My wife assures me that scientific research operates the same way.

On Wednesday I saw the latest remake of A Star Is Born, and in the movie Bradley Cooper is always telling Lady Gaga, in his raspy Johnny Cash imitation of a voice, that a singer “has got to have something to say.”

I think that I have many things to say, but I wonder what my big ideas and my big themes are. I feel like my real work hasn’t yet begun, and lately I’ve been thinking, “Oh wow, I need to watch my health, because there’s a good chance it’ll be another twenty or thirty more years before I’m able to write the novel I’m meant to write.”

That expectancy sits like a stone in my stomach, and yet I know that looking back on this period, twenty or thirty years from now, the thing I’ll envy the most will be that same sense of hope.

 

 

Got my 1600th short story rejection

The other day I got my 1600th short story rejection. It’s taken me a very long time! I used to rack up a hundred rejections in nine months or so. But I see that I logged my 1500th more than two years ago! I know, I’m such a slacker. It wouldn’t have happened at all if I hadn’t decided to do some more submissions to literary journals. Since you can simultaneously submit, it’s easy to get a lot of rejections in a short time.

In the last 100 rejections I’ve sold five stories, including my first two sales to the “Big Three” (the remaining science fiction and fantasy paper digests): “Bodythoughts” to F&SF and “The Intertidal Zone” to Asimov’s. I’ve also sold a solicited story to A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, and I’ve sold stories to Lightspeed and to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Not a terrible haul, especially considering I haven’t written many stories in the past two years.

Lately I’ve gotten back into writing short stories as well. It’s sort of come out of a sense of play. It’s a little hard to feel a sense of play when writing a novel. That’s for many reason. There’s the length of time involved (you have to write this thing day after day, whether you want to or not). There’s the high stakes (your career hangs in the balance). But, most of all, there’s simply the rigidity of the form. Novels live or die based on their structure. And once you’ve begun a book, the process of writing is largely the process of finding its ideal structure. It’s not really a process of discovery, more it’s a process of trying to see the things you have to do in order for it to work. With short stories, it’s a lot easier to just start writing and see what’ll happen. It’s fun.

The process of submitting is also a game. It’s fun to send things out and see what’ll happen. When I was younger I used to live or die on the basis of the responses to my stories. Now I care a lot less. It’s simply not very important. When the story is published, it tends to sink without a trace, so what does it matter whether it gets published or not? It’s a very inside-baseball sort of thing. You want to publish in Asimov’s for the benefit of the few hundred people who might be impressed. You want to send Charlie Finlay a story he’ll like. So you keep trying. But it’s not a very high stakes game.

I was reading a book lately, Overwhelmed by Brigid Schulte, which is part of the genre of pop nonfiction books about how moms are overwhelmed nowadays and have a really difficult time. The book was only okay, but it contained a large section on ‘play’ and on the idea that adults have no time to play.

My mind immediately leapt to computer and video games, of course, which constituted most of my play as a kid. But more, I thought about imaginative play. I thought about all the little daydreams I had as a kid, and the ways I would enact those daydreams. For instance I remember spending days creating my own utility belt, full of odds and ends, that I’d use in case of emergency.

To my mind, it’s not that adults don’t play, it’s that adults just play so much more seriously. When an adult rearranges their closets, that’s a form of play. It’s a deeply satisfying endeavor, and it’s part of a process of reimagining your own life. When a child plays, they dream the impossible, but when an adult plays, there’s always a desire to turn that dream into a reality. I would hesitate to say that writing is a form of play. It’s sometimes struck me that I could write literally anything. I could write an entire novel about being a gaseous being who’s stuck in an unhappy tripartite marriage with a black hole and a neutron star. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to just jazz around. I want to write the things only I can write.

But, as opposed to the writing, the career stuff–the marketing and the submitting and the maneuvering–all seems to me very playful, in that you try out a lot of things, and maybe some of it works and some of it doesn’t, and in the end it’s pretty much all doomed to failure, but hopefully you have fun along the way.

As always, here’s a list of my previous rejection milestone posts!

Saw A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL. It was definitely very English. And very great.

I never got into the BriTV craze. Not saying there’s anything wrong with British TV; the moment for me just never came when I could be like, “I am a lover of British TV now.” I love British novels. I am astonished at the number of classic British novels that’ve been turned into TV series. I mean when you’ve turned CRANFORD and DOCTOR THORNE into TV shows, that’s definitely a commitment to keeping your own culture alive.

Which is a long way of saying that I just watched A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL, which is a BBC show that I think Amazon is involved in somehow (anyway it’s on Amazon), and it’s only three episodes long, and it was so good. Whoever cast Hugh Grant in this role was a genius. He isn’t really acting. He’s just being the same smarmy and adorable Hugh Grant that we all remember from the 90s and early oughts, except instead of wooing Julia Roberts, he’s trying to kill the former lover who’s attempting to out him.

The show has the curiously British quality of being a show about politics and politicians in which there’s very little actual political content. I first noticed this with Trollope’s Palliser novels, but you can also see it in Yes, Minister and in Middlemarch and, really, in any British book that touches at all upon the political system. At least in their fictive treatments of politics, they don’t really spend too much time thinking about ‘issues’ or ‘ideology.’ It’s much more about personal character: honesty, integrity, and honor. That’s why they love to write about war-time governments. Because when all the parties are united in prosecuting a war, you finally have a playground on which all these personalities can come together and clash and squabble. (Whereas the American way, in which during wartime we give our President effectively unlimited power, is much less dramatically interesting).

Anyways, the show is about the leader of the Liberal party (a fairly marginal third party) who throughout the 60s and 70s has to dodge the attempts of a former lover to out him. Hugh Grant is a delight to watch, but Ben Whishaw really gives the series’ command performance. His Norman Scott is just so multi-faceted. Right from the beginning he comes off as slightly mentally unhinged, and everything bad that’s ever said about him–that he’s cowardly, unstable, publicity-made, etc–has an element of truth. But, as the series points out, the exact opposite is also true. He’s also strong, stalwart, and publicity-averse. And yet there remains an essential unity to his character. By the time the show is over, you do feel as if you understand him, and you feel as if you’ve seen him grow. It’s certainly worth watching.

Recently read a trio of novels that weren’t appreciated in their time (and also maybe are still not appreciated)

I love Edith Wharton. So much so that I slogged through her memoir A Backwards Glance. It wasn’t worth it. Most of it was not about writing. A substantial amount was about interior decoration. But there was some good stuff in there! For instance, Edith Wharton was _not_ really a part of literary high society, either in the US or in London. Her main writer friend was Henry James, with whom she was extremely close. But she does describe the literary productions of a few other friends, amongst whom were Howard Sturgis and David Graham Phillips.

Well what I always say is that if they’re good enough for Edith Wharton, then they’re good enough for me! I promptly ordered Sturgis’s Belchamber, which wasn’t even available from Project Gutenberg! Damn, you’ve gotta be obscure when even Gutenberg won’t archive your book. You’ve gotta be obscure when even the NYRB classics series, which specializes in reissueing obscure out of print books, has allowed their edition of your book to fall out of print.

And it was really good! I honestly don’t know why the book hasn’t gotten a great reception. It’s about this dude, Lord Belchamber, who is heir to a great fortune, but who is just a shy, bookish, timid, retiring guy. The problem is that his brother and his cousin are terrible wastrels, and because he has the purse strings, it falls to him to reign them in whilst also not allowing them to be ruined by their own excesses. Belchamber, although shy, has a strong sense of right and wrong and of his own responsibilities. He is the British sense of propriety, divorced from the British sense of masculinity. Lots of readers, apparently, hate him, but I thought he was sweet! Very, very worth your time.

Susie Lenox, David Graham Phillips’s book, is a bit more of an acquired taste. It’s about a girl in turn of the century Indiana who has an affair and runs off with this dandy, who of course promptly abandons her. Then she begins a picaresque adventure that takes her through the Cincinnati and New York underworlds. It’s like a mash-up of MOLL FLANDERS with HOUSE OF MIRTH. Lennox constantly flirts with prostitution, in various forms, but then flinches away, only to flirt with it again. The book goes on a bit too long, but I was quite engaged throughout, and I thought it had interesting things to say about morality, propriety, and relations between the sexes.

The third book I read that was unappreciated in its time, although Wharton does not mention it, was Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. So good!!! I read Agnes Grey, her first novel, a few years back, and I was struck even then by how different this book was from anything else I’d read from that period. She seems far more influenced by continental authors, by Balzac and by Stendhal, in particular, than by any English writers. There’s not a touch of romanticism in Agnes Grey. It’s all about the dreary, day-to-day experience of being governess to two brats.

But The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was even better!!!! Here the eponymous tenant, Mrs. Graham, details the story of her disastrous marriage to a rake and spendthrift. Bronte is excellent at making her husband seem initially to be not that bad, and to even be loving, before everything starts to slide downwards. Graham does her best to save him, and then she does her best to protect their son from him, and, finally, she feels she’s been left with no other option than to flee.

The book is a work of astounding moral force, and I loved the characters (except for the somewhat flat narrator of the framing tale, which is about a man who falls in love with Graham after she’s fled from her husband), but I was also struck by how much more mature the writing was than it is in many 19th century novels. The landscape, the architecture, the flowers and the plants, they all have a critical role to play in the symbology of the book, and unlike in many comedies of manners, you really feel like you’re inhabiting a living world (compare, for instance, Jane Austen, who never describes anything). It’s mostly a work of realism, but there’s a slight touch of the Gothic that, in my opinion, really improves and elevates the novel. I would definitely class it above Wuthering Heights (a book to which it bears many surface-level similarities, in setting, situation, and structure). I’m sorry Anne didn’t live longer; she would’ve written some great stuff.

On the other hand, maybe she would not have, because her book was panned, when it came out, for, essentially, its moral laxity. The reviewers faulted Anne for writing vulgar scenes where the husband and his friends are partying and tormenting the protagonist, and they fault her protagonist for choosing to leave the husband! Anne ripped the mask off of some realities that Victorian-era book reviewers really wanted to keep ignoring, but, more importantly, from the modern perspective, she did it while retaining her own humanity. This isn’t a novel about an oppressed woman; it’s about a woman struggling to live a decent life within oppressive circumstances.

In the end, that’s what all three of these novels share. These books are all deeply moral. They’re about people who have a strong sense of right and wrong, and who find that although their society pays lip service to their ideals, it does not expect them to actually follow those ideals.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more and more interested in the ways that ideals and morality impact personal behavior. There is so much fiction about how social systems interact with people and how people interact with social systems, but less about how it affects the ways they interact with each other. Or perhaps moral fiction has always been rare, but it’s only the moral fiction that survives. These three books, while they were not successful upon release (Susie Lennox was probably the most successful, and I see that it was adapted into a movie in the thirties, but Wharton refers to it as unjustly forgotten), all still have tremendous power even after more than a hundred years, and not many books of that (or any) era can say the same.

When should I revise something?

I recently read a critically acclaimed (and quite good) novel that was horribly overwritten. I could’ve gone through with a red pen and cut twenty thousand words of internal rumination without seriously harming the plot or character development of the book. To be honest I felt a little sorry for the author. Because the book did rather well in its current form, they’re unlikely to alter their style, and they will forever after be hampered by this unnecessary wordiness.

Of course that’s only a matter of opinion on my part. And it’s very likely that the author is aware of this criticism of their work. Perhaps they even at this point agree with it. Now, at three years remove from finishing my first book, I can see all the issues with it, and when I happen to pick it up I almost immediately note things about the book that I would like to change.

People put rather a lot of faith in editors to catch these sorts of mistakes. They say, “Didn’t this book get edited?” or “I hear nobody bothers to edit anymore.” But the truth is that there’s a limit to what an editor can do. At bottom, an editor is nothing more than a very sophisticated reader who (hopefully) has a keen understanding of what makes books succeed or fail in the marketplace. Many errors, particularly errors of style, have zero effect on how a novel performs, and thus editors are somewhat disincentivized to comment upon them.

Moreover an editor isn’t necessarily right. When it comes to your novel, you’re the only person who really knows how it ought to go. Perhaps you strongly believe that pages upon pages of internal rumination are a critical element of your style, and that to elide any of it would ruin your book. And you might be right, but you might also be wrong.

Obviously, it’s all subjective, but I am of the opinion that it’s possible to make improvements to a book that will, for the sophisticated reader, turn it into a more beautiful and satisfying work of art. However, a book is also a statement of values; in its form, it tries to say something beautiful and unique. Each great book teaches its readers how to appreciate it. So it’s possible that the choices I most disagree, because they conform the least to my own vision of a good book, are actually the best parts of the book.

I don’t know how an author decides whether something is essential or not. I think…in my own work, I’ve noticed the difference between times when I’m trying to ‘get away’ with something and times when I’m in control. I’ve a story circulating now that relies on a very subtle and persistent sense of unease that a reader ought to feel from the beginning to the end. I’ve no idea whether editors get it, but I am certain that it’s in there, and that it’s working as it’s supposed to. But I’ve also written stories where I’ve ended things on an uncanny note just as a sort of, “Well, let’s see if this works” gambit, and in those I’ve just felt like for whatever reason I wasn’t in control.

As I’ve advanced as a writer I’ve learned to distrust that out of control feeling. Generally whenever I’m uneasy about something in a book, I’ve found it profitable to go back and rethink it. But I still make plenty of mistakes. I just abandoned the book I’ve been writing for adults–a book I was pretty excited about–because I realized it had gotten away from my true interests. It’d be nice to skip right to the end and just write the final draft first, but that’s a thing much easier said than done.

They’re turning Wordpress into Medium

Wow, they really changed the WordPress interface, now it’s a lot like Medium’s. I approve of this blatant stealing. It reminds me from a quote by the guy who was running Netflix, “Our goal is to become HBO faster than HBO can become us.” This amuses me.

Got a good response from my editor on my book! Feeling pleased about this. Was walking with Rachel the other day and was like, “Oh my god, I’ve been operating on the assumption that this book is never going to be published, but now it seems like it might actually happen.” 

I am so pessimistic about publishing stuff. Advances are typically split into 2-4 parts, only one of which you receive upon signing, and I mentally write off all advances until they’re actually deposited in my bank account. This book is going to be a good one.

Still working a bit on other projects. Sold a story to Asimov’s after fifteen years of trying (and 55 rejections), which has inspired me to get more short story submissions out there. Working on the book for adults (though progress on that has been slow). Exploring some other genres. And of course working on revising the YA novel. Been trying to read more. Not that I don’t read a lot, but lately I’ve been feeling the pressure of all the books I’ve never read. It’s stupid, for all I talk about how living your life is more rewarding than reading books, I still largely choose to spend my time, even when the weather is absolutely beautiful like now, sitting in my apartment and reading books. I guess the human commitment to ephemera just runs really deep. At least it’s better than playing video games, I suppose.

If you’re bored by it, don’t write it

I was going to write today’s blog post about how to organize your reading life. I had some trenchant observations to offer, apropos of my reading a few books of literary criticism. But instead of writing that post, I sat here staring at the blank screen for fifteen minutes.

Lately I’ve learned to listen to my own disinterest. Because there is no point in putting more words out there just for the sake of entertaining an invisible audience that may or may not care. I’m not saying my post on the reading life would not have been interesting, or that you wouldn’t have gotten something from it. But, for me, that is not enough. There has to be something more.

I’ve also had many thoughts lately on skepticism. Recent replication failures, particularly in the field of social psychology, has me questioning much of the stuff I thought I know in the social sciences. It turns out that even scientists aren’t amazing at determining even the correlations between things in the human world, much less the direction of causation. It’s very difficult to know anything, and I’ve begun taking all arguments about patterns, particularly those patterns that are created after looking at the data, with a lot of skepticism.* But, again, everything there is to say about skepticism has already been said. My opinions are just David Hume mixed with Thomas Kuhn mixed with Daniel Kahneman. These ideas exist pretty readily out there in the world, and anyone can find them. So what’s the point?

More and more I feel like writing the things that only I can write, and I really don’t think I’ll ever contribute much that’s new to the world of ideas. Sometimes I read essay collections, and I’m like, “Wow, this is so organized and so interesting. Maybe I should write an essay.” But then I think about all the research that’s involved, and I get exhausted and depressed. It’s only an hour or two later, that I’ll be like, “Wait a second, I don’t have to write an essay. I don’t have to write anything. I can have my own thoughts, for my own elucidation, and never write them down.”

I can’t be the first author to have thought this. Last night I was skimming Edith Wharton’s memoir A Backward Glance, and in the chapters about Henry James, she writes that it’s a pity nobody ever recorded his conversation, because he was one of the most thoughtful, interesting, and witty people she had ever met. She said this entire side of him, the joking side, never came out in his published writings and only rarely in his letters. Now…Henry James wrote alot, and it’s pretty staggering to think he was able to use language in ways he never put on paper. But the man was also a genius, and maybe he realized that while he was funny, his humor in no way matched what he was able to do in other arenas (now if you come back at me and say that Henry James’s writing is funny, I will have to disagree with you. There exists humor within it, but jokes? there are almost none).

The practice of following the thread of my own interest is one I’ve been using a lot this year. I think it’s hard when you’re used to school, where you have to write on assignment, or freelancing, where you write for money, or genre fiction, where you write under contract, or the workshop, where you write because you’ve a slot to fill. Following the thread of your own interest doesn’t come easily, because, especially early in one’s writing career, you essentially have nothing to say, or at least no idea how to say it, and so ‘following your own interest’ would more or less mean silence.

Nor is that thread a very strong one, especially at first. Usually when you tug on it, the thing snaps. And sometimes this is good. Maybe I wasn’t very interested at all. But before I learned to listen, the voice of my own interest was a very quiet one, and it was easily overpowered by the voices of fear and of ambition. It takes a lot of quietness to listen to your own interest, because it’s not very insistent, and it’s extremely willing to be overruled.

In my current work-in-progress, I had one situation that repeated itself (essentially, two different characters, in two different chapters, did something that was very similar). And it was very easy to convince myself this was a stylistic choice. Whenever I felt a sense of dissatisfaction, I was like, “But I’m doing it on purpose!”

It took faith to go back and delete the repetition and search for another answer. But the moment I had done it, I knew that it was the right decision. Similarly, in re-reading the book, I’ve noticed places where I get bored: situations that are perfectly well-drawn, but which simply don’t cut to the heart of what I’m interested about. Cutting these parts will leave gaps in the story that I’ll have to fill, and I won’t be able to say precisely why they’re being cut, but it’s still something that has to be done.

Following the voice of my own interest means, most often, not writing something. So many times over the past year, I’ve looked at the opening lines of a story or a novel, and I’ve said, “This doesn’t work for me.” Which is an easy thing to say when it’s just a line or a paragraph or a scene, but about when it’s an entire concept? What about when it’s something you’ve had in your idea box for years? What about when you haven’t finished anything in a month, and you sit down every day, and nothing comes out right? At that point there’s a very strong temptation to just force it. And I think if you’ve a very good sense of narrative structure (a much stronger sense than I), then that forced result can often be published and perhaps even acclaimed.

But the biggest damage there is not to your career or to the public, but to your own sense of what you’re interested in. I don’t know, I shouldn’t phrase this in the second person. Authors all have their own ways of finding inspiration, and many of them (including a few great ones, like Anthony Trollope) seem to profit from just churning stuff out. But there are entire years in my life (I’m thinking of 2014 to 2016, the years right after selling Enter Title Here) when I was completely unable to get in touch with my own inspiration, and once you’ve gone through a period like that, you don’t ever want to risk losing touch with yourself again.

*Human beings, when we look even at random data, can usually assemble some sort of pattern from it. For me to even come close to believing in a person’s assertion, one of two things must be true: i) they must have tested it in some way, using protocols and methodologies established before data collections; or ii) it has to fit with my preconceived biases =]

I recently read a paper book

I can’t recall the last time I read a paper book cover to cover (I think it was a Kent Haruf novel given to me by a friend six or twelve months ago), but recently I wanted to read Keigo Higashino’s Naoko, and it was only available in paper, so I purchased and read it.

The tactile quality of the paper book was undeniably pleasant. I enjoyed the feeling of pages flying from my right to my left hand. Progress through the book was a physical adventure, and I seemed to pick up momentum as I got through it. With each page, I could see that I was completing a greater and greater portion of the remaining text, and my subjective feeling was that I completed the book faster than if I’d read it on the Kindle.

Reading in artificial light was difficult. I felt like no matter how many lamps and overhead lights I turned on, the paper was still dimly lit. But reading in daylight, even with just the light from a partially-blinded window, was extremely simple and caused no perceivable strain. This was true even though the type on the book was much smaller than I’m used to on the Kindle. And I was put off by the difficulty of highlighting passages or looking up terms in a paper book. Since Naoko was set in Japan, it would’ve been most helpful to have been able to look up the various place names and cultural references.

I’m often told that people experience some form of sense-pleasure, often attributable to nostalgia, when they hold a paper book. I don’t believe that this was the case for me, but the human mind is a strange thing, and perhaps there was a deeply submerged element of that emotion within me.

All told, I was pleased by my paper book adventure. In fact, in the interim time I was inspired to inspect my wife’s bookshelves to see what other paper books I might read, and within the course of a few hours I read Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, in which I also experienced the same feeling of motion that I think is perhaps a peculiar attribute of the paper book. I am sure this sense of motion could be replicated in electronic format, but since it’s directly related to the bulk of the paper book, whereas the strength of the e-book is in its weightlessness, I think these two qualities will forever remain opposed.

I am still not certain in what situations a paper book is superior to an e-book. Sense of an Ending and Naoko are very different books. One is somewhat meandering literary mystery, the other is a metaphysical thriller, but both are quite short. I think reading a longer book in paper format would be difficult for me. The last time I tried was with Herman Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke. The book was excellent, but the print was quite small, and by the time I was done I had a splitting headache. Lately I’ve had back troubles however, and I did enjoy that the paper book can be read in a greater variety of physical positions than can the e-book, and I think perhaps for this reason a longer book would be more comfortable to read. I just wish they didn’t make the print so small (and yes I know about large print books, but the problem is that it’s the longest books that have the smallest type!) In any case, I will soon experiment further.

Getting sort of tired of all the oppression-based critique of narrative art

Have been feeling a little disenchanted lately with the literary world lately. Every book and every movie and every television show seems to get judged according to the same analysis of power relations. If a book has an orthodox (for the reviewer) view of all the possible power relations (i.e. it acknowledges every form of oppression inherent in its storyline) only then does the reviewer bother with assessing its aesthetic worth. Obviously this is only my subjective view of the current state of affairs, and I won’t seek to prove for you that it’s true. If you don’t believe me, or if you think this sort of critique is only a minority or an exception, then you’ll only find this blog post useful as a view inside the mind of a very politically misguided person.

I don’t disbelieve in oppression, and I don’t think it should be ignored. If there’s something ‘problematic’ (the most common term for when a work seems to be ignoring an oppressive power relationship) in a work then I think it should be pointed out. But while I don’t object to the political aims of oppression-based critique, I find myself somewhat in the position of a liberal from the 1930s who dearly wants to love social realism and hate the fascism-tinged Modernism, but who just can’t do it. Because although oppression-based critique might be good in political terms, I think it’s harmful to the aesthetic worth of narrative forms of art.

In my opinion, narrative art exists because mere ideas are insufficient to quantify the experience of being alive. An idea is a limited thing, it’s a set of relationships that have been fully expressed, while a good story is inexhaustible. It contains a set of relationships that can always be mined for new meaning.

I was recently talking to someone about The Iliad, and I think what makes the Iliad truly great is that you can read and reread the work and still not be sure what to think about the concept of heroic virtue. People in the story live by the adage of death before dishonor, but they also suffer for it. Achilles could’ve lived a long and happy life as King of the Myrmidons, but instead he goes to war, knowing he will die young. Although in later years its often been cast as a story about the folly of war, The Iliad is a tale that will challenge both militarists and peaceniks, fascists and socialists. The tale simply cannot be made to say what you want it to say.

And if I was to subject the Iliad to an oppression-based critique, there’d be so much to say. Achilles is a rapist, for one thing. You know Bryseis didn’t fully consent to being taken by him. And that might be fine if he was portrayed as wholly evil, but he’s clearly the hero of the piece, and even though he has epic flaws, most notably his petulance, he’s obviously also a role model. And what am I to think about this war? How can there be anything right or heroic about a war fought for such a trivial reason?

These critiques are mostly contained within the Iliad itself–though I’ll admit the book doesn’t spend much time thinking about the fate of Briseis (those sorts of musings would be left to Euripides, who truly did have a modern take on war and is astounding in every possible way)–but it’s easy to imagine an Iliad that leaned further into those critiques. It’s easy to imagine an Iliad in which Achilles was wholly a monster, perhaps one with admirable physical virtues, but otherwise clearly portrayed as evil, while Hector was portrayed as clearly his moral superior.

That’s where I fear an over-reliance on oppression-based critique will lead us. This sort of critique doesn’t have any concern for nuance. If a work doesn’t perfectly adhere to the political orthodoxy of this moment, then it’s worthless. But then what’s the point? Why bother to even open a book if I know it’ll tell me that racism is bad and that queer people just need to accept themselves and elderly people are just as capable of being heroes as young people? There is no room here for thematic nuance. Because in narrative art there is room for a complexity that we don’t have when writing an essay. When you and me are talking, we can only say “Racism is bad”, but in narrative art, there is room to write about the mayor of a small town who sees his community’s very strength as coming from its exclusiveness. There’s room to talk about a confused teen who maybe has sex with men but doesn’t know whether he’s gay or not. There’s room to talk about an older person who’s lost her mobility and can’t go out running on the beach every day like people do in commercials. This isn’t philosophy. It’s not ethics. It’s just a story.

There is a reason that so many of the stories we love have “problematic” elements, and it’s because those elements are part of what makes it good. Yes it’s terrible that villains are so often queer-coded, but why do fans love those villains so much? Isn’t it partly because so many of us associate queerness with rebellion and individuality? And yes it’s bad to use a foreign country as a mere backdrop for a white character’s personal growth, but we all travel don’t we? Isn’t there something very real about those travelogue stories? Don’t they capture exactly the way we do use foreign countries? Maybe the thing that makes you feel uncomfortable with, for instance, Lost In Translation, isn’t a problem with the work. Maybe it’s a feature.

I don’t think this is universally true. There are problematic elements in fiction that I think they’d be better off without. The Chronicles of Narnia would probably be better if Susan didn’t get banished for using lipstick or if the evil God wasn’t a thinly-veiled Allah. Many problematic elements have no aesthetic worth. My concern is not for those. My concern is for the readers and viewers who already think they know all the answers before they even open the book, and who, because of that, are missing out on the entire purpose of reading books in the first place.

For myself, I find very little in the oppression-based discourse that’s interesting. Again, not because I think it’s wrong or bad or harmful. In many ways I think this sort of discourse probably helps to cure exactly those wrongs that it’s devoted to recognizing. But to me that kind of discourse simply has very little to do with creating the satisfying and intelligent stories that are my ultimate goal as a writer.