The writinginginginginginginging

I’m not even attempting to talk about the stuff I’m reading or watching anymore. Although my media consumption continues unabated (in fact, might even have increased, now that I’m playing games again), my attention is mostly occupied with these revisions!

Last night I finally had this moment where I was like, “I really like the revised version of this book.”

This is also probably the last time, before it gets published, that I’ll be able to really pull the book (my second YA novel, We Are Totally Normal) apart and put it back together. I’ve done this now five or six times to this book, and each time it’s gotten exponentially better, but at some point enough is enough. However this version I think is much closer to the right one. It’s so much cleaner than the previous versions, and all the conflicts and relationships fit together way better. We’ll see what my editor thinks though.

I’ve learned quite a bit in the two years I’ve been writing this book, and now I’ve a much better idea of the kinds of stories I want to write and the tools I have for writing those stories. Actually I’m feeling pretty creatively energized, and in addition to this book I’ve been working on a variety of other projects. Probably tomorrow my creative sphincter will be shut up tight and I’ll be moaning about how I have no ideas for anything, but today I’m feeling good.

Revisions revisions revisions revisions

My mood continues to bounce all over the place in accordance to how my revisions are doing on any given day. Today I’m doing well, but that’s mostly because I haven’t really started yet. Sigh. Avoidance behavior. I’ve learned over the last year though to pay attention to my avoidance instincts, because they usually indicate that there’s something which I know is wrong, subconsciously, with the draft, but that my conscious mind has glossed over the problem. It’s very easy to have a “plan” for what comes next, but for your plan to be boring. Not sure if that’s what is happening right at this exact moment (I still experience normal procrastination too), but it could be!

Revisions are due on August 1st, and I’m anxious to turn this around and get back to other projects. I have a novel for adults I’m working on. I’ve also toyed with the idea of writing a screenplay. I’ve never been a fan of the idea of writing for the screen simply because it exists or because it’s a more popular form; I’d only write for the screen if I thought I’d have something to say. And since my interest with novels has primarily been with voice, which is generally pretty lacking in screen- and teleplays, I’ve thought that the screen had nothing to offer me. But in the last year I’ve watched ALOT of movies (sixty since July 1, 2017), and I’ve started to become more interested in the blankness of the screen–the way that you don’t know why things are happening or what the characters are thinking.

I don’t know. It’s a thought. Attempting to have a career in writing for the screen is even more punishing than attempting to have a career in the writing of prose fiction, but I just think it’d be fun. In some ways, the remoteness of ever actually selling anything is freeing and makes it easier to work.

Every time a friend of mine sells a book, I kind of sigh, because I know that for them writing is going to become much harder, at least for awhile. It’s almost inescapable. The transition from writing purely for yourself to writing within the marketplace is so punishing. I think this, more than anything else, kills writing careers. It just stops being fun. And if you’re getting paid, that’s one thing, but usually you have to struggle to make money too, so if it’s not fun, and it’s not remunerative, and you’re not particularly proud of your work (because pride in your work falls when the fun-ness falls), then why do it?

think I’ve overcome this hurdle when it comes to prose fiction, but you can never fully return to paradise. After you sell a book, you’re never again as free as you were when you were unpublished.

Revisions continue apace

After several weeks of not feeling good about my revisions, I am unexpectedly, today, feeling much better.

The problem I think is simply that I’ve grown a lot as a writer in the year since I last worked on this book. The book isn’t at fault. The book is still good. I mean it got me an agent, and it sold to HarperTeen. The book still contains so much of what I wanted to say and do and feel.

But in the last year I’ve learned a lot about storytelling. And what I mean by that is the simple mechanics of aligning character, plot, and image so that they’re all working on the same level and working with the same themes. Right now the book is sort of all over the place when it comes to the actual events on the page. Although the essence of my story is still buried in there, it needs a lot of work to really come out. In this revision, I’m essentially doing what I’ve done with every revision to this book: I’m pulling back, making it less dramatic, more character-oriented, making the characters less powerful and less sure of themselves, less archetypical and more complex. The characters were already, even in this draft, much more complex than anything you’ve seen in YA before, but in the next draft they’re going to be so human.

Over the last year, in the interval when I was waiting for this book to sell and waiting to get comments back, I worked on a novel for adults–tentatively titled The Storytellers–and in that book I really pushed myself to write only about the things that mattered the most to me. And I think it’s that experience, in which I learned to recognize and follow the heart of longing, that’s now influencing this book quite a bit.

I’ve been writing and submitting for fifteen years. For at least eight of those years I’ve been writing novels. And this is the tenth novel I’ve written, the fifth to go on submission, the second to sell. And I’m still learning. Although maybe it’s safe to say that at this point I’m not so much learning “how to write a novel” as I’m learning “how to write my novels.”

Anyway, for right now, at this moment, I am happy with how the work is turning out.

 

In other news, I’ve been reading a lot of John O’Hara lately. I started with Appointment in Samarra, his most famous work, which was good, despite its rather severe flaws. John O’Hara was a novelist of manners who wrote in and about the 30s, 40s, and 50s. He is most often compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I’d say he’s more of a realist than Fitzgerald. O’Hara was quite famous in his lifetime and had a very high opinion of himself–every year he stayed awake on the day they were announcing the Nobel Prizes because he was positive that a call was coming. Nowadays his books are still in print–I’ve been reading them in Penguin Classics versions–but I think it’d be fair to say his literary stock is rather lower than it was.

This is, to my eyes, largely due to fashion. From any era, only a certain number of writers can remain well-known, and the writers who remain known are largely the ones who, to our eyes, embody the literature of the time. O’Hara’s time, at least in America, was the hey-day of modernism, which frequently involved conscious experimentation with form and language. As a result, the survivors have been Ralph Ellison, Faulkner, Hemingway, Salinger, Mailer, Shirley Jackson, Nabokov, Kerouac, Capote, Flannery O’Connor, etc. John O’Hara, in contrast, is writing wonderful, highly-polished, highly-mannered novels that would not have been too out of place at the turn of the century. He’s more the heir to Edith Wharton, early Henry James, Sinclair Lewis, and the realist half of John Steinbeck. I venture to say that if he’d written either fifty years later or thirty years earlier he’d be a lot better remembered. Instead, like other realist writers of his era–Louis Auchincloss comes to mind–he hasn’t fared as well.

I like his work a lot though. The novels of his that I’ve read BUtterfield 8 and Appointment in Samarra have been marred, to my eyes, by an insistence upon the dramatic. Appointment in Samarra involves a half-baked gangster subplot and BUtterfield 8 ends in a nonsensical suicide. Both books are best when they dwell on the simple minutiae of their characters’ lives and desires.

His short stories, in contrast, especially in the volume I read (The New York Stories) don’t have this defect at all. They almost never outstay their welcome. Nor do they do this modern thing of hitting the ending too hard. They slip out quietly at the end, trusting to the narrative to do the work. I’m thinking, for instance, of the janitor who wins an office pool, fifteen dollars, and instead of taking it home to his wife, uses it to buy baseball tickets for himself and his son. It’s a quiet story that focuses on very simple and human dramas: it’s a story that elevates an ordinary day in an ordinary life.

Many of his stories feature female protagonists, and most of them were quite good, but seeing all of his female protagonists lined up end to end was a little exhausting. They were universally either beautiful women or fading beauties, coasting on the past. Too many of them were actresses or singers. In aggregate, the stories felt a little bit too much focused on the effect these women had upon men.

Oh, but I forgot to mention the most interesting thing about the collection. I listened to it on audible, and the audiobook has an incredible cast! The stories are narrated by a diverse set of film and TV actors. About a third seemed to be voiced by Dylan Baker, a character actor with a slimy drawl that is perfect for these stories. Jon Hamm makes a surprise appearance as the narrator of one story. And I particularly liked Gretchen Mol, who narrates many of the female parts.

This is going to sound middlebrow, but I have a preference for celebrity narrators (over work-a-day voiceover artists), and it’s because I find they tend to give the performance a little more personality. The problem with professional audiobook narrators is that in their career they need to voice alot of books, so they can’t be too distinctive. You can’t think, every time you listen to a Grover Gardner book, “Oh, here’s Grover Gardner again.” But that means their narration tends to be quite workmanlike and efficient (They do tend to be a lot better than the stars at doing all the disparate voices in piece however). Whereas TV and film actors are only going to do 4-5 audiobooks, so they’re free to be themselves. Thus, if you listen to Jeremy Irons narrating Brideshead Revisited you are definitely gonna be listening to a voice that’s unmistakably Jeremy Irons. But that’s fine, because Jeremy Irons is great!

Frustrated with the way so many authors play it safe when it comes to questions of morality

Recently listened to a book, The Wicked Girls, that to me is clearly based on the real-life story of the novelist Anne Perry, who along with another girl, killed a woman while a teen (also the basis for the movie Heavenly Creatures). Perry’s story, assuming she hasn’t killed anyone as an adult (which seems a safe assumption to me), gives rise to questions about the nature of evil, cruelty, and rehabilitation. Some of these same questions are tackled by this thriller, which is about two women who meet again, twenty-five years after committing and being prosecuted for a murder as eleven year old girls, and find themselves entangled in a serial killer’s rampage. To be honest, I found myself wavering considerably on this book. To me the whole thing hinged on the construction of the murder that they committed as kids, and this is precisely the issue that the novel spends most of its length trying to obfuscate. What makes Perry’s case so disturbing and interesting is that the murder she committed was quite premeditated. Her friend’s mother was going to take her friend away, so they killed the mother in order to stay together. The killing was not quick or simple; it required twenty whacks on the head with a brick. And now the person who committed this crime is free, and she walks around as easily as you or me, writing books, giving interviews, and living a very normal and, to all appearances, quite matronly existence. That is fascinating. The story told in this book is much less so.

However, I understand why Marwood wrote it this way. This is the third book I’ve read recently which featured a character who had acts that the reader was meant to think are vile or morally gray. In one of those books (unnamed because this is a spoiler), it turns out that the murderer actually killed another guy in order to stop him from raping and killing a girl in a war-zone. And in Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days, a kid is ostracized because he sends a text message and his friend’s attempt to reply, while driving, result in him crashing and all the passengers in the car dying (note, the protagonist of this book isn’t in the car, he’s just a guy, somewhere else, who sent a text message). In both of these cases, the act is so far from being morally ambiguous that I threw up my hands in frustration. Like, we all agree that killing in self-defense or defense of another is okay, but if you want it to be even _more_ okay, then surely it’s alright in a warzone, where there is no law, and where your victim is a soldier who is abusing his authority. Similarly, there is nothing wrong about sending a text to someone who is driving. If there’s any culpability, it’s in the person who engages in texting while driving, not the person they’re texting with.

The problem, however, is that if these books were written in a way that was actually morally ambiguous, they would’ve been taking something of a risk. In Zentner’s book, the obvious solution would be if the protagonist had been the driver of the car and if he’d been the only person to survive. Texting while driving is not good, but it’s also something lots of people do, and yet it’s only when you crash that suddenly you’re a murderer. That would be a classic examination of moral hazard and of hypocrisy. But if that’d been the story, people would’ve hated the protagonist, and they would not have enjoyed the book. Which is absurd, because literally three quarters of people have texted while driving. It’s sort of an Emperor’s New Clothes situation (similar to, say, underage drinking or using illegal drugs or cheating), wherein a massive percentage of the population is doing something–if it’s not you, then it’s your father, your mother, your kids, or your husband–and yet we pretend it’s somehow beyond the pale.

 

I don’t think it’s impossible for a book to succeed commercially if it contains ambiguous morality. I mean, it’s especially true when we have thrillers. Gone Girl contained some terrible people. The protagonist of The Girl On The Train was a terrible and terribly self-absorbed alcoholic. But in general, and this is entirely my own unscientific impression, it seems that the authors of most commercial hits have tended to play it safe when it comes to moral questions.

Thoughts on books I’m currently reading

Been awhile since I’ve posted, and I apologize for nothing! It’s now two years since my last book came out, and it’s almost two years until my next book will come out, and I feel like I’m not really blogging to attract or impress anybody. In general I’ve gotten a lot more sparing with my words, both here and in my writing, and a lot more interested in following the flow of my own interest. In my work, this means cutting out, even on a micro level, the sentences that don’t interest me. I won’t have somebody open a door and walk into a room, unless that interests me. I won’t write a conversation just because the information needs to be in the book. I won’t even include white space, unless it serves a purpose. Probably this does the work no favors, but I don’t care.

With this blog, I too sometimes have ideas, but writing them out bores and tires me. For instance, I’ve little interest in writing descriptions of most of what I’m reading. I am beginning the third and final volume in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and each volume has been better than the last. It’s really less about the Roman Empire and more about the development of Western Civilization (which includes, essentially, everything west of India and north of the Sahara) between the death of Marcus Aurelius and the fall of Constantinople. It’s an incredible work, and all the more incredible for having been written in the 1700s. I mean, it’s pretty racist, too, but not as racist as many things from that era can be. Also, many of the racial prejudices are somewhat quaint, for instance, the characterism of ‘Oriental’ (i.e. Persian and Egyptian and Asian Greek) people as being addicted to despotism. I think the author genuinely finds himself confused, at times, over how to reconcile the modern (i.e. 18th century) prejudices against Middle Eastern, Italian, and Greek people with the fact that, well, historically speaking, those places were the center of all that was civilized. Most authors treat the Mediterranean peoples from antiquity as if they were completely different from those of the modern era, but since Gibbon is dealing with that very transition from Late Antiquity to Early Modern, he has trouble performing this leap of imagination.

Anyway, it’s good. Each volume is about as long as five regular novels though.

Simultaneously I’m reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club by Alisa Valdes. I was intrigued after reading her description of her relationship with Junot Diaz, which also contrasts the difference in the acclaim their novels received. I think that writers of commercial fiction who write realist novels that are essentially modern comedies of manners find the system of genre distinctions particularly perplexing. It’s not per se obvious why Diaz’s book should get the Pullitzer Prize while Valdes’s would never even be considered for it. Where writers of science fiction and fantasy can at least say, “Oh, the system discriminates against non-realist fiction” (not entirely true, but at least it’s an easy explanation), the writers of romance novels, women’s fiction, and chick-lit face an even more arbitrary distinction.

Anyway, reading The Dirty Girl’s Social Club and contrasting it, in my mind, with Oscar Wao has been an illuminating experience. I’ll leave it to other people to more directly contrast the two books’ quality, but I’ll note that Valdes’s novel has many virtues, not least of which is an honest examination of mores. I really liked the woman who’s in love with a social worker but is upset, essentially, because he’s cheap and poor. Or the other woman who’s really turned on by this drug dealer she meets. This all feels very real to me, and it’s not something I’ve encountered in other novels.

I think the worst part of the system of genre classification is the sexism that’s at its core. But the second-worst thing is the way it impoverishes literary fiction of realistic depictions of desire, of friendship, and of relationships, and I think that if you want those things nowadays you’re almost required to read commercial fiction (or to watch contemporary television). Which is a little sad, because depictions of manners are at the core of what novels are about.

Writing is going really well

I’m experiencing that loss of motivation that comes whenever the writing is going really well. It’s such a rare event that I want to slow down and enjoy it. Was just thinking today that right now I’m working on my eleventh novel. That’s definitely something. I wouldn’t say that I have absolutely no idea how to write a book, but I do feel I know very little. It’s a bit astonishing to me, still, that I’ve sold two of them. Actually, I’m more astonished today than I was when I first sold Enter Title Here (almost exactly) four years ago. Back then, it felt like an inevitability. I’d worked hard, served my apprenticeship, gotten better, written a great book, and now, of course, it was getting published.

But I’ve learned that this is far from a normal course of events. The writing world doesn’t reward hard work. And it doesn’t even necessarily reward the writing of a good book. There’s so little upside to publishing any given book that you sometimes wonder why these companies even bother (I think they often wonder the same thing themselves). As a result, the writing world has a genteel aspect, but it also ends up feeling very random. When you sell a book to a publisher, all it means is that an editor decided, for some reason, to use their capital, within the company, to attempt to buy your book.

Hopefully, that also means that they loved it and that the company loved it. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes books get bought simply because this is the sort of book they feel they ought to be buying.

It’s such a strange world.

“Writing for yourself” doesn’t mean ignoring all criticism…just most of it

Am borrowing a friend’s house in Nevada City so I can get away this week and do some writing. It’s pretty incredible. I generally have few enough responsibilities, but it’s nice to have absolutely zero. Trying to make some progress in my writing. Did a fair bit today, so I’m feeling good. But there’s always more out there to be done.

Sometimes I get depressed, when I write, at the thought, “Oh, here’s another character that people are going to hate.”

When I wrote my debut, Enter Title Here, I never imagined people would have such a negative reaction to my protagonist. I always sympathized with her wholeheartedly, and I still do. I’ve never fully understood why people abhor cheating in school SO much. Because the fact is, most people have cheated at least a few times. Whenever I’m standing around with parents or teachers, and they’re like, oh, plagiarism in school is such a problem, I’ll ask, “Didn’t you guys ever cheat?” And inevitably around half of them admit to having done it at least a time or two (and those are just the ones who admit to it!)

And I think most people understand the difference between cheating in things that really matter (like your profession or your creative work) and cheating in school, which is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless assessments designed to sort you out into strata that ultimately are correleted less with intelligence and skill and more with parental education and income.

I think these opinions of mine came through pretty clearly in the book, and I don’t have much in the characterization that I’d change. All you can when you write is be honest. In fact, one thing I’ve learned over time is to make characters exactly as bad as they truly are. It’s very tempting, if you’ve got a character with anger issues, for instance, to make them go around hitting people. But there’s really no need. You can show them speaking sharply to people instead. Or just getting visibly defensive and flustered. I find that the lightest possible touch is the best, because that’s the truest.

If anything, authors have a tendency to weight the scales against their characters, because they can’t tolerate ambiguity. But, ironically, this often works out for them, because it’s harder, usually, to sympathize with the character who speaks sharply to their friends or their spouse, because their lack of force betrays a certain hesitancy and insecurity in their character, and this hesitancy feels too real to us. It makes us confront our own powerlessness and the ways in which we ourselves can be villainous.

That’s why audiences can sympathize with characters who engage in vigilante killing or who steal millions of dollars, but not with a character who cheats in school.

 

I’m speaking too generally, of course. Many people sympathized with my main character in Enter Title Here, and I’m sure many will sympathize with my character in the new book. But I also know that lots of people won’t like him. And not for anything he does, either, because he really doesn’t do anything even as bad as cheating in school. If anything, he’s much better than most guys. But they won’t like him because he’s selfish sometimes (just like we’re all selfish, when it comes to love). There’ll be a feel to him that we won’t enjoy. Something in the texture of the narration. Most fiction is full of elisions and little lies, particularly when it comes to teenage boys. Young adult fiction pretends we are so much better than we are. That’s one of the reasons I loved Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book was, at least in small part, about how difficult it is to love a teenage boy and about how many concessions girls need to make to keep that fantasy alive. But because of these elisions in typical YA fiction, any book that breaks the illusion comes across as disturbing.

 

What I don’t want to do is seem entitled. People are allowed to like whatever books they want. Certainly I have books that others love which I don’t like. What’s interesting, from the writer’s standpoint, is how you deal with these issues. It is hard to write when you know that most of the audience is not going to approve. That if you went against your deepest instincts and your sense of what’s true, the book would probably be more critically and commercially successful.

I’m also well aware that this is exactly what really shitty novice writers say when you try to tell them that nothing is happening in their book. They’re like, well, it’s not like all that other crap out there. My book is doing something innovative and new.

Sometimes they’re right, of course. I read so many books that are not written the way I’d have written them, but which are still very successful. I’m thinking of Proust, for instance, which strikes me as so overwritten, with so many relationships that parallel each other and situations that recur over and over. But his book is a masterpiece, and it was the product of a singular vision, and, most importantly, it’s given me about as much pleasure as anything I’ve ever read.

That’s the problem. Your instincts usually lead you down wrong pathways in addition to the right ones, and both good and bad end up so inextricably mixed that it’s hard for you to figure out which is which. Usually the result is interesting, at the very least to yourself, but there’s no guarantee that what is interesting to you will be interesting to anybody else in the world. Peoples’ comments can give you information about how the book is being read, but they can only go so far.

When it comes to revision, I am incredible. I mean it, I’m a great reviser. This wasn’t always true. I used to never revise. But nowadays I’ve gained this ability to re-envision my work and figure out ways of setting aside what I’ve actually written and thinking of ways to simplify and streamline it. In some ways I’m a very cerebral writer. I do actually think, explicitly, about themes and character arcs and how the different strands of a story play out against each other. And my books change radically through the revision process.

And yet I’m also not a huge believer in this idea that revision can turn a hater of your book into a lover. When people love or hate a book, they’re usually responding, in my opinion, to its core. For instance, I just read an early work of Asian-American literature, John Okada’s No No Boy. This is a book about a Japanese-American boy who refused to fight on America’s side in World War II and was sent to prison as a result. After he gets out, he wanders around Seattle frothing with wordless rage and getting into fights with Japanese-American men who’ve recently been demobilized from the army.

It is…not well written. Everything is repeated so many times. The themes and thoughts are stated so baldly. The writing is purple, but not lyrical, and the character development is very slow and fitful. And yet I really liked the book, because its core was the protagonist’s deep ambivalence about his own actions. He took this highly principled stand, but he feels like a coward. He wishes, on some level, that he’d been able to go abroad and fight, and yet he’s angry with those who did. His relationships are so complex.

And people who hated the book are also, usually, responding to this core. They thought it portrayed the Japanese-Americans in a bad light and gave support to the white people who had called for internment.

The book would’ve been improved immeasurably by greater revision, but I don’t think any number of rounds would’ve turned those haters into lovers. Both they and I ‘got’ the point of the book, we just responded, because of our own history and propensities, in very different ways.

So when I revise, it’s not really with an eye to the critics. Instead I revise with an eye to the people who are going to love the book. When I revise, I think, “How can I trust my audience more? How can I surprise them and delight them more? How can I give them more to remember? How can I quicken their pulse and heighten their sense of longing?”

And, most importantly, I think about the integrity of the book itself. “How can I make this book more perfect? How can I better express the essence of what it is?”

Because that’s ultimately what it’s about. I think it’s very possible for your own ego to come between you and the book you’ve written, and criticism, when it’s useful, is only useful for me in that it reminds me that the book has a soul of its own that’s totally separate from any thoughts and desires that I or my agent or my publisher or my fans or all the reviewers on Goodreads might have for it.

 

Writing is going really well, I feel pleased

Not sure what else to report in this space, but I do feel bad going more than a week without posting something. I’m writing. It’s going well. Writing usually doesn’t go well. It usually goes poorly. So I am always pleased when that’s not the case. Every night, I tell Rachel, “Writing was good today, but it’ll probably fall apart in the morning.”

Sigh, it’s so exciting to be in the midst of the act of creation. Really it is. This feeling that there was nothing, and now there’s an entire living world. What I like best is the feeling that anything can happen. No, I mean, even more than that, the feeling that I am excited to see what’s going to happen–the feeling that this story is something so incredible, and I just can’t wait to see the end.

That thing, though, that sense of life, that feeling that I’m telling myself a story–you’d think it’d be something very easy to conjure up–what I mean is that you’d think after awhile it would come more easily, and I’d be able to conjure it up whenever I sit down to write–but the opposite is true–that feeling becomes harder and harder to capture–and yet when you do–when you actually grab hold of it–the feeling is so astonishing, because it really is nothing like reading a story. Reading a story is a dream within a dream compared to the writing of a story. There’s just something so real about a story that you write yourself. It lives inside of you in the way that no other story can.

In a way, it’s almost nice that I have lower expectations for future fame and success, because before when I was in the midst of something, I’d always think, “Oh, this is going to be a best-seller; it’s going to win awards; it’s going to…etc, etc,” and that’d take me out of the reality of the thing itself. Now I hardly think about that stuff.

It’s something you can’t explain to writers who haven’t put out their first book yet–the way that you become more and more focused on the writing itself and less focused on the publishing aspect–oh well, if people are lucky, they’ll eventually find out for themselves.

Really feeling excited about reading and writing again

Don’t have much today that’s important to say. I am sick and it’s Friday, so, you know, it’s a free day of sorts. My dad bought me the Aaron Sorkin Masterclass a year ago, and I’ve finally gotten around to listening to it. There’s good stuff here and there, but the part I liked best was where he was like…it takes me about eight to twelve months to write a script, and most of that time is not spent writing. Most of that time, I get up, go through the day, and go to sleep, and I have not written anything. I spend more time trying to write than actually writing.

That was sort of a relief! Nice to know that not everybody out there is just this productivity machine.

I also recently read Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, in which this critic, writing in 1938, attempts to analyze the things that stop a person from fulfilling their initial promise as a writer. And the thing he identifies as being the most pernicious is success.

And I think this is so true. I mean I think of the other YA authors in my debut year who had big successes in their first books, and because of that their publishers put them on the one book a year treadmill. And of course you don’t actually get a whole year to write the book, because what happens is they spend four months deciding on or editing your proposal, and then you get three months in which to actually write the first draft of the book. Then the publisher is just always holding the whip to them, trying to keep up their sales momentum, and of course the quality of the books is never what it was with their debut book.

The result is that their debut book, which should’ve been their worst published novel (because obviously you ought to get better the longer you write, or at least during the first decade or two of your career), ends up being their best novel, and although they might publish for a long time, they don’t ever get their feet underneath them for long enough to produce the work they’re truly capable of.

Unfortunately, if you want to earn a living by writing, this book treadmill is the only way (aside from having one book that becomes a perennial seller so that you just make fifty thousand dollars a year, every year, no matter what you write). Otherwise you’ve got to teach, and although teaching is great, I think I’m with Cyril Connolly in saying that it too is an ‘enemy of promise.’ I think here the evil is more subtle. It’s just that unless you write a very particular kind of book, teaching is inevitably going to take you away from your source material.

For instance, if you write beautiful books about life in the Mississippi bayou, your reward is that you end up getting a job, probably, at Michigan or Iowa and never see the bayou again! For some writers–those whose work already instinctively breathed the air of academe–this isn’t a problem. But for others I think being cut off from your source material ends up, after a few years, killing off some part of your creativity.

But what can you do!? People need to live! They have to eat!

I don’t know. There’s not an easy answer. Having a non-writing-related day job and laboring in obscurity avoids several of these traps, but then there’s the issue of time. Can you really take the time you need to write when you’re doing something else for most of the day. Also, people write because they love writing. Ideally they’d like to do it more of the time. If they loved selling insurance, they probably wouldn’t need to write. So there’s always an impulse to find some way to make this your job.

Anyway, I am lucky, in some sense, that I escaped the book a year treadmill (see: the three and a half year gap between my first book and Winter 2020 when my next book will come out). I got to take my time to write a book that I really loved, and I feel very grateful for that. Of course, nobody ‘gave’ me that time. It was just a natural interval caused by me not being a runaway success and hence my publisher not feeling too stressed about getting another book out of me. But nonetheless it was valuable.

Maybe someday I will be a runaway success. That would be awesome! But for now I do treasure the way I still have a normal life. I’m still in contact with my source material. Most of my friends are non-writers. I live in a very unintellectual city, where I frequently encounter people who have very different values from me. This is good. I like it. Money isn’t the least complicated thing about my situation, but I’ve so far made it work (my book advances have helped a lot with this!)

I don’t know. We’ll see. I’m slowly learning the value of taking my time and of tolerating failure. I used to think of all my many, many, many false starts as failures. Now I just think of them as getting me one step closer to a beginning that will actually work. It takes time though. An incredible amount of time.

Nothing in my life has been more rewarding than reading books from the canon

Last week I was in Baltimore, giving a reading at Johns Hopkins, where I got my MFA. Although I was sort of dreading it–I don’t know, I wasn’t really sure what I had to talk about with my old professors–I actually had a great time! In fact, one of the things that I found most charming, as I interacted with people from the Writing Seminars, was the mustiness and austerity of the program.

I know lots of people hate this about English and/or Creative Writing departments, and I’d probably hate it too if I had to make my career within one, but I like how committed Johns Hopkins, in particular, is to the classics. Because, okay, I just don’t know if there’s a politic way to say this, but…if you’re in the business of studying how to be a great writer, you should probably start by studying great writing.

There is this myth that the stuff being written today is basically as good as the stuff that was written in the past, and you can pretty much level your gaze on any genre or any time period and find more than enough good writing to last you a lifetime.

This myth is both true and untrue. What’s true is that people were not better writers in the past. There are novels coming out this year that are the equal of House of Mirth or Mrs. Dalloway or The Sorrows of Young Werther or whatever other book you might care to name.

The thing that’s untrue, though, is that you’ll be able to find those novels. Because, regrettably, we seem to be completely unable to look at contemporary art with any sort of sense of perspective. I mean, the Pulitzer committee doesn’t set out every year to pick the year’s biggest flash-in-the-pan, forgotten-by-tomorrow book, and yet somehow, nine out of ten years, that’s exactly what they do. And it’s not their fault! You or I would probably do the same thing. I mean when The Goldfinch came out, I too was like…this book is legit. I enjoy reading it. Now, five years later, I’m like…nobody’s life is going to be changed by TheGoldfinch. It’s just sort of an okay novel.

The thing about great literature is that it often changes our definition of what’s good. Which means that when it comes out, lots of people read it, and are like, “This book is not very good.”

The thing about good literature, on the other hand, is that it often conforms very well to our definitions of what’s good. Which means people read it and they instantly think, “This is a great novel.”

Your taste isn’t special. You’re probably not going to be able to recognize all the books coming out in a given year that are truly world-changing, which means if you only read contemporary books, you’re going to read a lot of good novels that are masquerading as great.

It seems absurd to me that in 2018 a writer should need to defend the classics. Possibly it seems absurd to you as well. After all, the classics have basically all of the power of the State behind them. In some metaphysical way, the classics are books that are backed up by authority. If you cannot graduate high school without studying Pride and Prejudice (as is true in a public school I just visited), then Pride and Prejudice, no matter how wonderful a book it might be, has become a tool of social control, and it’s very difficult to love a tool of social control.

So I very much understand if high school or even college students don’t love the classics. Were I they, I’d hate them too. In fact, when I was in high school, I did hate and resent the classics. What I didn’t like was how they made me feel stupid. I was a person who loved books, but because I didn’t love Pride and Prejudice I somehow had terrible taste? I was somehow not a very thoughtful person? What bullshit!

I don’t think people are bad if they don’t love the classics. Nor do I think you need to read the classics to lead a moral or well-rounded life. In some sense, I think rebelling against the classics is healthy. It certainly is aggravating to be forced to read Pride and Prejudice in high school, and I think only a very tenuous case can be made for the book’s educational value (ironically, it’s assigned largely because teachers think it’s one of the few 19th century novels that the average teenager might be able to connect to).

But I do think it’s sad when I meet young writers who dismiss the classics. In my mind, I’m like…what the fuck are you doing? Why even bother to read if you’re not going to read the best that literature has to offer?

If you hate the classics because they’re all men, then fine, read Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Lady Murasaki, the Bronte sisters (even Ann, I think she had a lot to say), Jane Austen, Shirley Jackson, Elizabeth Gaskell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Flannery O’Connor, Patricia Highsmith, Nathalie Sarraute, George Eliot, Aphra Behn, or any of a bunch of other amazing female writers. In fact, this is a particularly unfair criticism for a reader of English to make, because we’re unusually blessed (compared to, say, French, German, or Russian) with a number of incredible 18th and 19th century female British authors.

Similar lists could be made of canonical queer authors (Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, Henry James [yes I’m including him!], Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein, John Cheever, William Burroughs, Evelyn Waugh) or canonical non-Western authors (Natsume Soeseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata, R.K. Narayan, Chinua Achebe, Luo Guangzho).

But I also have to say that I don’t think reading the dead white men is a terrible idea either. It would sadden me if somebody eschewed the ancient Greek and Latin writers just because they were white men (if ‘white’ can even have any meaning at a remove of two thousand years). Antiquity is such a different place from the modern world that it seems absurd to say, “Because I want diversity in my reading, I’m not going to read these works that are incredibly different from anything that people write today.”

I was going in this article to make a case that reading books from the past opens you up to structures and forms that nobody adopts today. You get something from older books (and from translated novels) that you literally cannot find in modern English literature. And that’s true, but only to a point. For instance, Knausgaard is basically the same, formally, as Proust’s novel. And The Goldfinch is basically a Dickens novel, both in terms of style and structure. All of these influences have been so deeply internalized that they’re still around in today’s literature.

More and more, I think the case for the classics is the simplest one. They’re just some of the best books. I’m not saying that there aren’t greater novels than Anna Karenina, but…what are they? If you have any ideas, please let me know, so I can write them down in a list, discuss them with other people, and maybe get them added to college syllabi

(Although actually I don’t think Anna Karenina is taught very often in college, because it’s too long. It’s actually astonishing how few of the ‘classics’ ever get assigned in class, precisely because they’re too long. Most American English majors will graduate without ever having to read Middlemarch or David Copperfield. And if you want statistical proof of these assertions you can find it here.).

I know that the canon isn’t just a list of amazing books; it’d be absurd to pretend that the classics are not a tool of institutional power. There’s a reason that nobody recommends that young Americans go out and read the Quran, even though it’s an incredible literary achievement that kind of does make you believe, at least for a little bit, in the possibility of divine revelation. It’s because reading the Quran doesn’t really do any good for any powerful people in America. It doesn’t sell books. It doesn’t create jobs. It doesn’t make the reputation of any literary critics. The Quran is something fundamentally not under the control of any white people, not even in a local sense (the way that, say, Edward Seidensticker could be an American expert on Genji), and thus there’s really very little constituency, within letters, for the Quran.

So I admit that. But still, I mean, can’t we also stipulate that IN ADDITION to being a tool of social control, the canon IS ALSO a collection of amazing books?