Always find going through editorial comments to be a soul-searing experience

Am going through the editorial comments for my next book. This should be the last round of substantive edits, so it’s time to fix all the little stuff: the moments that don’t feel right or don’t ring true or might possibly offend somebody (I also need to iron out one of the major relationships in the book, but this post isn’t about that).

As my parents are happy to tell you, I’ve never been good at taking criticism. I get really defensive, really quickly, and it takes a lot of soft-pedaling to get me to listen. I’ve started to get better, both when it comes to my writing and my personal life. I’ve become a very good reviser: I’m willing to completely reimagine or rewrite a book if that’s what I think it needs. But in order to get to the point where I’ve integrated somebody’s feedback, I need to go through a week-long (sometimes weeks-long) simmering down period. And even then it’s not unusual for me to feel burned or defensive.

I’ve also gotten a lot of unhelpful feedback in my life (not from my current editor, thankfully). Ironically, the best criticism comes from people who love your book the most. If somebody’s not on board for the fundamental experience of your book, then they’re not gonna give you good criticism. Like you can’t revise Catcher in the Rye to make Holden less whiny, because that whininess is at the core of the book. 

But it’s a little unreasonable for me to wince at a little comment that’s like, “Didn’t they just shower; why are they wearing the same clothes as before?” 

It’s just odd to have my own invulnerability punctured. Like getting called out for saying something insensitive or factually incorrect, there’s nothing inherently bad about it, but there’s a certain level of exposure–the sense that people can see my real self, and it’s not a great sight–that causes difficulty. But whatever, you’ve got to do it, and in the end the book is better for it. 

P.S. I looked hard for a THREE DOLLAR CLASSIC today, but didn’t find one that looks cool. This Penguin Classics edition of two Nutcracker stories (by Alexander Dumas and by 19th German tale-teller ETA Hoffman)  is on sale though. I love Penguin Classics, and they don’t go on sale very often. I sort of buy them very reflexively whenever they’re under three bucks. If you want more THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS, sign up for my email list

Today’s THREE DOLLAR CLASSIC is Graham Greene’s best novel

Some authors’ stuff is constantly on sale online. And one such author is Graham Greene. I’ve at one time or another picked up six Greene novels on sale, and if I was willing to repurchase books I’d already read, that number would easily have doubled. 

But today the very best of them is on sale. I wrote about The Power and the Glory back when I read it in 2012, but it’s a book that’s stuck with me for many years. It’s the story of a priest in 1930s Mexico who’s being hunted down by the officer of an anti-clerical leftist regime. There are shades of Les Miserables, in that, like Javert, the hunter is honest, sincere, and incorruptible. But the priest is no Jean Valjean. He’s a drunk, and he’s broken his vow of celibacy with multiple women, and has (if my memory serves me well) at least one illegitimate child. At times, it’s not even clear how deeply he believes in God.

He is in every way exactly what his foes believe him to be: the cynical peddler of an outmoded superstition. And that’s exactly where the strength of the book lies. This is one Greene’s Catholic novels, written after his conversion, and in this book I think Greene makes the most succinct and cogent case for Catholicism that I’ve ever read.

Because despite all of his flaws, there is something very moving in the priest’s rounds. His religion is a source of strength both for him and for the people he visits. And there is magic within the rituals themselves. I think Greene does quite a job of conveying the numinous and transcendent, and the book leaves you with the feeling that Catholicism, with its hierarchies and rituals and dogmas, is an edifice that is stronger than all of the people who built–the Church is like a power generator that can energize human beings, stimulating the deepest parts of their being. The Church comes off as something that is beyond and above mankind.

Of course, I don’t actually believe that. But when you’re reading the novel you do! Get it for 1.99 today.

Honorable Mention: A completely different classic Graham Greene novel, Our Man In Havana, is also on sale today.

If you want more THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS, join my mailing list!

THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS

I haven’t posted about books on this blog for quite a while, and I’m not sure why, since I’m reading as much as ever. Perhaps because my two most recent ‘big’ reads were Clarissa and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which are both so vast that I felt there was nothing to say about them.

Anyways, I am continuing to read. Right now I’m listening to Red Rising and working my way, on Kindle, through the oeuvre of Michael Crichton. Yikes, I do not agree with many of his political views, and some of his books are downright uncomfortable to read. I just finished Rising Sun–a polemical novel, published in 1992, about how Japan was buying up all of America. The irony here is that it was published right before the great Japanese asset bubble burst, leading to fifteen years of stagnation. Where Crichton writes, in 1992, that it’s a certainty that Japan will soon be the largest economy in the world, we now live in a time where it’s become, while not irrelevant, at least something of an economic also-ran, behind not just China, but Korea as well. Anyways, I digress. 

The point is I want to write about books again! But I thought I’d do it in a slightly different way. Because, the truth is I’m a shopaholic. I am addicted to discounted Kindle ebooks. It’s a problem. I subscribe to three separate ‘deal’ emails, and every day I browse all of them, looking for books that seem vaguely interesting.

It started as a lark, but it’s gotten to be something of a compulsion. I do find some good books this way (I particularly like when I find contemporary books that were not critical or commercial successes). Just glancing over the last few months of reading, I see that as a result of sales, I’ve read a very smart thriller (The Porkchoppers by Thomas Ross), an affecting and well-written work of women’s fiction (The One That Got Away by Leigh Himes) and a fast-paced military/suspense novel (Twilight’s Last Gleaming by Walter Wager). If it weren’t for Kindle and Audible deals, I would’ve encountered none of these books.

However, during the course of my browsing, I almost always come across at least one book I’ve already read that is fantastic, and I’ve decided that I’m going to attempt to create my own little irregularly-updated deal email, called THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS. Anyway, since at the moment nobody is signed up for my email list. I’m just going to announce it here: Right now Charles Yu’s debut novel, How To Live Safely In A Science Fictional Universe is on sale for $2.99.

This is a book that, oddly enough, escaped the attention of most science fiction fans, because it wasn’t published as a science fiction novel. This distinction–novels with science-fictional elements that aren’t classified as science fiction–seems to perplex many people, but it’s not too difficult to parse. The book wasn’t published by a sci-fi imprint, and it wasn’t shelved in the science fiction section. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what major science fiction imprint would publish something like this novel (perhaps Tor, if it was written by Jo Walton). But the book isn’t actually too odd. It belongs to the category of playful metafictions that also have a heart (other practitioners of this craft: Ted Chiang, David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges). 

Charles Yu, the protagonist of the novel, not incidentally has the same name as the author, but he is decidedly not the author. Rather he’s a parallel version of the man, living in a mirror universe. His job involves rescuing time travelers from themselves (or something like that, it’s been awhile since I read the book), but otherwise he leads something of a mundane life. He’s an everyman, who’s awash in longing for his long-missing dad, and he sets out on a search to find the man.

Like the best time travel stories, the novel looks in and around on itself, playing around with form and structure in a manner reminiscent of Empire Star or The Man Who Folded Himself, but unlike many modern self-aware fictions, the story doesn’t get lost in its own cleverness or metatextuality. What I remember most about the book is that it always remains firmly grounded in the reality of Yu’s loss and longing, and that, ultimately, is what carries you through all the jokes.

Anyway, for today only it’s just three dollars! Buy it! And if you want more THREE DOLLAR CLASSICS then you can always sign up for my newsletter. If you’ve already signed up, then you can update your sign-up by specifying if you want to get three dollar classics emails.

Doodling around, looking for my next project

Now that I’ve turned in another revision on We Are Totally Normal and am correspondingly one step closer to (and only a few months away from) having put the book completely to bed, I am on the hunt for my next project.

This is nothing new for me. Some authors are so brimming with ideas that they can leap directly from one novel to the next. If Anthony Trollope (one of my favorite authors) completed a novel before finishing his daily allotment of pages, he would immediately begin the next one. And you can see exactly how, for him, that’s possible. Trollope basically takes a bunch of characters and turns them loose on the page to fight things out.

I find that hard to do. I have plenty of ideas, but ninety-nine out of one hundred fall apart once I actually start working on them. Thus, there’s always a period of some months where I really have no idea what I am doing.

It’s no secret to long-time blog readers that I find these months extremely unpleasant. For the past three years, ever since I finished working on Enter Title Here and seriously started looking for my next book, I was also under contract to Disney, I also felt considerable pressure to satisfy my publisher and complete my contract. That effort turned out to have…mixed results. (You’ll note I’m not with Disney anymore). The process produced We Are Totally Normal, my second book, but it was so unpleasant, so pressure-filled, and so filled with false starts, missteps, and abandoned novels (I wrote five probably-never-to-be-published novels in between ETH and WATN) that I would like, if possible, to streamline the process.

This past summer, I wrote a novel for adults that also turned out to have substantial flaws, though I did repurpose it as a novella (which I quite like) that’s probably unpublishable because of its length. 

All of this searching is pretty exhausting and anxiety-provoking, and I made the resolution, over Thanksgiving, that I’d let my next project develop more naturally. This, to me, means putting less pressure on the process. It means less agony and more playing-around. 

So far I’ve only been partially successful. I spent the morning doing some good writing, just some sketches and scenes, exploring stuff I might like to write about in the future, but then I spent the afternoon worrying about everything I’d written.

That’s the thing that drives me crazy. The constant obsessing about the novel–the struggle to shape every piece and force everything into place. I sometimes think this is what also makes me jump into a project before it’s fully ready, which in turn means that the end result isn’t quite as complete and complex as it ought to be. So this time around I’m going to try to tame the beast. But who knows if I’ll succeed. Probably not.

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.