Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The empty mirror

When people criticize my novels, a common complaint is that I spend too much time explaining my characters with back story, memory, etc. I do indeed do a lot of that, though I never think of it as explanation. I think of it as something interesting that happened in the character's past, which I want to get to write about. Sometimes I can't bear to edit it out later, even if it comes to seem gratuitous.

I'll take this a step further, though, and suggest that maybe protagonists don't need to be developed all that much, period. Maybe all that matters is a voice for the reader to buttress with their own assumptions and imagined detail. Secondary characters, you need to develop better, because they aren't who the reader is identifying with. But the protagonist, quite often, is there to be filled up with parts of the reader's self. All the writer needs to do is hint, and the reader will supply natural psychological explanations based upon their own experiences and feelings.

Of course in some cases the back story is the point; in some cases the novel consists of the protagonist explaining himself, or trying to explain himself and failing (e.g., Kazuo Ishiguro). But for a lot of books, it just isn't necessary. Think of Chandler's Marlowe, or Denis Johnson's Fuckhead, or just about anybody in Flannery O'Connor.

Ultimately it's a matter of confidence in your writerly ability to evoke a personality. Like the Rembrandt drawing above ("The Single Greatest Drawing Ever Made," according to David Hockney) it's as much what the artist chooses to leave out as what he puts in.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Tricking yourself into working

Though writing is my profession, it often feels like my hobby, in that nobody really gives a crap whether I do it or not. Oh, I'd like to think there are some readers out there who are waiting for a new book or story. But they're probably not waiting all that eagerly. There is no urgency to it. If I get up tomorrow morning, and don't write a word, there will be no effect whatsoever on anyone on earth but myself. The act of writing is publicly invisible, as is the non-act of not writing.

So why not just work on your stamp collection or flower arrangement? The reason, presumably, is that writing is not just a hobby for most writers--it's a compulsion that is closely connected to one's sense of self-worth. And so to not do it is often more painful than doing it.

But it's hard to motivate oneself to do work that nobody is waiting for (hell, they don't even know what it is, specifically, that they are anticipating, and probably the writer doesn't, either), and is going to take forever to finish even if you do buckle down and do it this time. And of course you might end up erasing everything you do today anyway.

And so the writer has to generate some kind of artificial urgency. For me, it's an ongoing feeling of panic that, if I'm not creating something, I might as well be dead, or never have been born. Writing makes me feel real. This is irrational, but useful. Relaxing, conversely, makes me feel like I'm fading away to nothing.

Needless to say, this apparent advantage can quickly turn into a disadvantage--a person should be able to relax. I tried that this weekend--alone in the house, I did no writing for three days, and in fact didn't even try to, or think about trying to. And indeed, I felt a little like I was disappearing. But it wasn't a bad feeling, not entirely.

Tomorrow I have to ratchet up the imaginary urgency again, though, and I wonder what will happen to me if the illusion eventually fails me, and I stop panicking. Perhaps my career will be over. Or maybe, given room to actually think for a change, I'll write better.

So what twisted logic or internal emotional blackmail do you use to make a pile of pages?

Note: a little word of sad regret here at the death of Jay Bennett, former Wilco agitator and frantic multi-instrumentalist. It's never nice to see someone creative die so young.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Why I'm having trouble reading Sag Harbor

The new Colson Whitehead, that is, which I have looked forward to for some time. I haven't posted much here about Whitehead, but perhaps that's because he's such a staple of my literary imagination--I feel a real kinship to this writer, aesthetically speaking, and we are the same age and gender, and have a similar taste for the wacky conceit. I don't know him personally, but I feel right at home in his nerdy, off-the-cuff prose--he's the writer I think of when I think of whom my contemporaries might be.

I've written here before about his first novel, and so have a lot of other people, so I won't get into it here. Suffice to say it's a minor classic, and I teach it at Cornell often. It is famously about an elevator inspector with identity issues. My favorite of his books, though, is John Henry Days, the tale of a press junketeer with identity issues, and I liked but didn't love his last novel, Apex Hides The Hurt, which is about an advertising executive with identity issues.

The new book is a quasi-autobiographical meander through the Sag Harbor of Whitehead's childhood. It is a detail-packed recreation of the mid-1980's, complete with knockoff Members Only jackets, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, and bright white Fila sneakers, and let me say right off that I'm only 50 pages in, and I may not finish it. So this is not a review of the book. I guess what it is, is a review of Whitehead's apparent aim here--or rather, my discomfort with that aim, given how I feel about this writer. So yeah...this is a review of me, reading Whitehead.

I'm given to wonder if Whitehead worried that he was becoming a gimmick writer--that he trafficked a little too freely in the story of a black person reconsidering his/her identity against a backdrop of some not-quite-science-ficitonal alternate reality. Certainly Apex felt a little overly familiar. Maybe he felt as though it was time to write something real--a sentimental journey, about the creation of an imagination.

But the opening pages of Sag Harbor weren't doing it for me. The terrific prose is here, the instantly identifiable characters, the lavishly detailed setting. In a way, the Sag Harbor of the eighties is an alternate reality here, or it might as well be, for all the effort Whitehead is putting into making it real. And indeed, I feel very much in the book with him: it is his particular talent to be able to do this so skillfully, so thoroughly.

So what don't I like about it? Nothing really. Liking it isn't the problem. Reading this book is a little like hearing your brother tell some new friends a great story you've heard him tell before. You know all the details, you're delighted by your brother's ability to work his audience, and you feel a particular filial love for him as he does so. But you don't really need to hear it. You were there, and you've heard it all before.

Whitehead spends a lot of time (at least in the first 50) painstakingly recreating the objects, habits, and prejudices of the 80's, and I guess in the end this is what bothers me. Because he isn't inventing this world, he doesn't seem to know which details are important. And so we get paragraphs like this:

I'm talking frozen food here. Swanson, of course, was the standard, the elegant marriage of form and function. The four food groups[...]lay pristine in their separate foil compartments, which were in fact, presto, a serving dish[...]All hail Stouffer's! Pure royalty, their bright-orange packaging a beacon in refrigerator sections across the NY metro area. French Bread Pizzas--so continental!

And then we get Boil-In-Bag meals, Howard Johnson's fried clams, Chunky soup...and it's true, he gets it right on. I was there, man, pulling those french bread pizzas out of the toaster oven with him. But...I don't want to hear about my eighties. I want to hear about his eighties--an eighties I never saw before. He does that here, too--there is some good stuff about race on Long Island, the social heirarchy of the town, the street/suburb dichotomy, and it's a pleasure to read.

Ultimately, though, I think there's too much muck, too much window dressing, and because it's all real, he can't see that it isn't important. In his other novels, the conceit forces invention. It's not a crutch, it's a whip.

I do think this book will be a huge hit and will probably win a major award, which Whitehead will deserve, for being Whitehead. People are not usually awarded for their most brilliant inventions, but for the less inventive work that brought them a larger audience. This is that book for Whitehead, I think. But I, a hardcore Whiteheadian, will be waiting for the next one.

And yeah, yeah, I will finish this book. If it turns into something else along the way, I will update this post. Until then, though, have you read it? What do you think?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The dead page

I was reading a pretty decent mystery the other night when I came upon a completely dead page. In the book, a retired cop was being provisionally brought back onto the force to help solve a crime very similar to one that happened back when he was active. Up to this point, the book was all mood and character, but at this point it changed--it turned into a book about logistics. The scene in question consisted of the cop's former colleague reintroducing him to the rest of the investigation division, and explaining what he'd be doing. It was all information we already knew. But it would have been odd not to have a scene like this, and to merely summarize the scene in a few lines would have thrown off the rhythm of the book.

So what was the real solution to this problem? Answer: there wasn't one. The scene actually ruined the book for me, and I didn't finish it. It was absorbing enough, but the writer had taken a turn for the conventional and mundane, and there was no turning back.

Is it possible to write a mystery novel without scenes like this? Yes, it is. It's possible to write any kind of novel without scenes like this. But it's a challenge. I've faced this very dilemma many times--I come to a point where I have to impart vital information, and there's no way to do it that doesn't bore me. In the past, I used to just slog on when I came to these junctures, figuring there was nothing else I could do.

But increasingly I have been trying another tack--going back and finding where I went wrong. The path that led me to the dead page usually forked off from the main path just a few pages back. But sometimes it's a few chapters back. At least once it was eight months back, when I got the idea for the novel, and framed it in my mind in a certain flawed way. I was never able to get past page 50 or so of that one. Yet another novel with a flawed conception never even made it to the first sentence. I only wasted half a year of cogitation and note-taking.

You can write a book that's packed with logistics--thriller writers do it all the time. But the skills required to make such a book interesting are highly specialized, and I don't have them. For me, the dead page is most easily avoided by basing the structure of the book on character, voice, and mood. This expands my choices, and defines the narrative by something other than logistics. The problem with this, of course, is staying interesting to the reader. But the books I write, by definition, have a more limited readship than a mystery or thriller might. I have to find readers who are willing to go along with my plans.

The dead page, more broadly speaking, is the result of a lack of confidence, and a lack of engagement with the imagination. This is something all of us have to endure at some point or other. But during those times when obsessive attention to one's strangest desires is possible, dead pages are few and far between.

Who in the hell has time to pay obsessive attention to their strangest desires, though? This is why there are fewer writers than we'd like, and fewer books than we'd like from the writers we have.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Momoir

Sometimes I imagine my sons, who are 9 and almost-12, sitting around in their dorm rooms during their first week of college. Everyone's trading life stories, and my kids say... what? What will their formative memories be, the things they take from the lives we made for them? Sometimes I worry that we haven't given them enough material. We're not alcoholics (yet) and we've never done cocaine, let alone in front of them, and never slapped them with wire hangers. There are no diagnoses in the picture, no boarding schools, no wars, no fame, and neither wealth nor poverty. We can be sort of crabby, and I'm pushy about them practicing their instruments, but other than that, the only source of drama around here is an aggressive rooster. Well, no doubt they'll come up with something, if, heaven forfend, they get the memoir bug. But please, please, let it not be a Momoir.

There are two kinds of momoir: the ones about one's mother, and the ones about being a mother. The ones about one's mother are usually unflattering, and the ones about being a mother are usually about difficult children. After all, if everything is nice and pleasant, there's not much to say (there are exceptions). I find them both horrifying, yet irresistible.

I can understand the urge to write about your mother if she's dead: you want to memorialize her. It makes sense. But why write about your mother if she's still alive? Plenty of memoirists -- Susanna Sonnenberg, Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff, and others mentioned in this New York Times Book Review essay -- have done it. I can only think of one reason: revenge. I disapprove. Don't hurt your mom! It is just bad karma.

Anyway, the trend -- which started, I guess, with Mommie Dearest -- has more or less run its course. Newer, and more shocking, are the memoirs about people's terrible, brilliant, troubled, or otherwise remarkable children. (There are also many memoirs about losing children, which are pretty damn near unbearable to read. Elizabeth McCracken's An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination is an exception, and is simply a beautiful book -- she lost her first son just before giving birth to him -- while Ann Hood's Comfort, which is about the death her five-year-old daughter, is too painful. It's excruciating. And I've thought about it almost every single day since I read it.) Debra Gwartney's Live Through This is possibly the most fascinating of these "troubled kid" books. Her two oldest daughters, at 14 and 15, ran away and lived on the streets for a time. Gwartney is unusually self-lacerating and spends much of the book blaming herself for the terrible relationship she had with her daughters, which puts the reader in an unusual position -- do we agree, and blame her? But what if it happens to us???

David Sheff's Beautiful Boy is another book about the mystery of a child's unhappiness in the face of his parents' efforts to give him a good, normal, upper-middle class life. (A Dadoir, I guess.) Sheff's son became a meth addict. It's really a horror story -- classic Stephen King. But interestingly, Sheff's son wrote his own memoir, and his book, Tweak, is both more sad and less scary. It gives the impression that he became a drug addict because he was really, really devastated about his parents' divorce and having to live several states away from his mom. Of course, I would read it that way.

Michael Greenberg's Hurry Down Sunshine is a memoir of his teenage daughter's first descent into mental illness, and it's unusually self-effacing, lovely, and saturated with love for her.

There are more of these memoirs to come: I just glanced through the galley of a book called something like Hell is Other Parents, by the mother of the child actor who plays the young Spock in the new Star Trek.

And what about mine? Or my sons'? Let us hope they are a long, perhaps infinite, way off.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Do we need back story?

I heard an interview on NPR this evening with the novelist Colm Toibin, in which he was asked an unusual question, unusual at least for the evening news. The reporter had heard that, in his fiction workshops, he opposed back story, and she wondered is this was true. I didn't hear his answer, as I was loudly frying up some garlic and onions. But the question got me thinking.

"Back story" is what fiction nerds call flashbacks--things that have happened before the events of a story or novel's main temporal territory, and which are delivered to us either in the form of a character's memory, or, in the case of a less close third person, a bit of narratorial trickery. Back story, for the experienced reader, is essentially invisible--we're accustomed to being yanked around in time, in a book. So it doesn't generally create confusion.

There are disadvantages to using it, though. One is that it breaks up the rhythm of the narrative. If that's what you're trying to do--write a disjointed story that mirrors the mind's own scope and reach--then fine. But if you're not, you might not get your desired result. Back story also puts the narrative at risk for accidentally explaining all the nuance and mystery out of itself. In my new novel, Castle, I actually took this risk, intruding upon a mostly linear narrative with a violent event from the narrator's past. My intention was to explore how the character's memory works, and the way events in the present cause him to think about things he'd rather avoid. But it's possible that some readers will think I'm being reductive--that the back story serves to "explain" all that comes later. This is a bad thing, in a novel, when present events are shown to be the direct result of past events--we know that real life is stranger than that, and more interesting.

I just read Denis Johnson's new novel, Nobody Move. It's a real cracker--the tight, spare prose style of Jesus' Son brought to bear on a fast-paced crime story. And while it's not completely linear, it relies very little on back story to move the narrative forward. We get all the details we need from the way the characters talk, feel, and behave. (One of these characters, a villain named Gambol, is a marvelously memorable creation, cruel, shrewd, and filled with unexpected joie de vivre.)

I always get excited about something when I am deep in the middle of doing something else--in this case, a long, flashback-soaked literary novel. But Johnson and Toibin have got me thinking about other ways to work. Maybe sometime next year I'll try a new tack--a "slim vol" that doesn't have much to say, and never looks back.

(And by the way, thanks to all of you who came to my readings in Portland and Seattle last week! Those are always good towns for a book tour, and this time around I had my best events yet.)