Books

I’m a little tired of this.

Donko needs a rest

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a pretty good guess. I’m getting tired of this repetitive, circular (is that the same thing?), and essentially useless discussion and debate about the death of bound book publishing, the future of the book, genetically modified thumbs for texting speed, the lost art of reading, the ipad generation to come, the takeover of culture by cadres of bean counters, and the rest of the silliness that dominates otherwise intelligent life.

It has occurred to me that there is an obscene discrepancy between how much time I have been spending on impotent arguments and discussions about these topics when compared with how much time I have spent with the writing itself.

Making a presumption that it is the writing itself that remains fundamental.  We alive and writing today may be the last generation (me toward the end, some of you in the middle, and a few at the beginning) who even know how to do this — tell stories by writing them down. I think we have a moral cultural obligation to be the best generation of writers if we are the last generation of writers. It is the only thing we can control. Bound books may survive, or not; book publishers may go the way of Western Union telegrams, or not; we may all grow Sissy Hankshaw thumbs, or not … nobody is in control of these things; they have been tossed over the cliff, and changing one’s mind in midair is not going to fix it. We are in control and responsible for what we write. Period again.

I am of the opinion that conversations about writing are not of much value, among people who actually write, I mean. Maybe conversations about writing among readers is worth something. But I don’t think writers ought to waste time talking about what they do. Because there is an inevitable leaching between us, an unwitting absorption of particular, distinctive creative consciousnesses that dilute the work. I was having a conversation recently with one of Donko’s Dozen about this problem. The best way for writers to talk about writing is to have a conversation about anything else.

I’m reminded of a student writer once asking me what I thought was a good job for writers. Gas station attendant, I answered, and only partially facetiously. Actually, as I’ve mentioned, by favorite job as writer was being a janitor in athletic field house. I gave this job to the writer character in The Common Bond. If a writer has to do something besides write to survive, then I think the best thing to do is whatever requires the least mental effort. If you are writing well, then you are going to need all the mental reserves you’ve got. The assumption being that you are writing well, the best you are capable of.

So I’m giving a rest to all this subsidiary noise about things that are out of my control. When I have something to say here, it will either be directly about the writing itself, or just interesting or intelligent conversations we can have on the bench about cars, or girls, or weather, or chess, or touring, or food, or wine, or the view from a window.

I hope you’ll take a seat and get a conversation started.

Advertisements

15 replies »

  1. I weary as well. It’s been my contention that the only thing I can control is what I put on the page, so I work at honing those words. The rest is beyond me and largely, words spent into air. Let us go back to writing and looking at girls, or out the window perhaps. Look! There’s a bird on a thin branch, rather intent in the swoop of wood. Does he understand he’s a claw-slip away from death? Or perhaps not. That fucker’s got wings.

    • I think if a person can write what is outside his or her window in such a way that I am standing beside him or her looking through the same glass, and if I can smell the wood, if I can see the bird and hope for it, if I can feel the warmth of a body near mine … give me that and you are a writer. If you cannot do this, then there are beans that need counting somewhere, probably in some soap selling NY publishing office, and you will make a lot more money anyway.

  2. Weary as well. Unless you have some specific technical interest in something upcoming – one of my FB e-book buddies just posted about how they are giddy with anticipation about receiving an iPad – it will be what it will be and we have very little to do with it.

    Brad, you’re a monster of submitting, my friend. Hope you get some good results, if not on April Fool’s, then shortly thereafter.

    As for myself, I’m going to commence adding in quote marks to all the dialogue in my whole novel. Drudgery yet I’m oddly looking forward to it.

    Although for the most part I agree that writers have better things to discuss amongst themselves then their writing, I do think there is some value in discussing technical issues among like-minded sorts. For instance, the value of quote marks. I was at a conference last weekend where people were Phd-ed experts in various areas of Asian studies. Though many of the presentations were utterly arcane to 99.98% of folks, I found them totally engrossing (the good ones, anyway). I similarly find such technical literary discussions, about the merits of semicolons, say, to be equally engrossing, when they are discussed amongst peers.

      • The proximate cause is our good friend Donigan. He is as erudite a reader as one could hope to find, and he found the flow of my paragraphs confusing without them; when they were added in, the confusion cleared up instantly. It even made it easier for me to read. And, for Christ’s sake, if you’re the writer, and even you sometimes stumble, change is clearly needed.

        The more distant cause is my long-term, very slow reckoning with various of the literary conventions. But that’s a much longer topic, and I’ll not hog Donigan’s space here with such arcane discussion.

        • Is arcanity a word? Apparently not, since it just got red underlined. I don’t mind arcanity and I relish the conversation.

          Here’s the deal. This has come up before in the blog that went to the Cyberspace landfill. There are essentially two approaches a writer, and I am referring here exclusively to novelists, may take, and while they are not always mutually exclusive, they often are.

          You can write for yourself only and do anything you like, you can exchange all the periods for semi-colons and only capitalize the last word in a sentence, or even forgo sentences and write in endless circles. You work under the assumption that someone may read it, but that’s not why you’re writing it. Some writers have done that to great success: James Joyce. Once.

          Although it is not true Joyce didn’t give a hoot about readers, he courted them madly, and fretted for years because nobody would publish his work. It is also worth noting that in fact he never got many readers; how many people do you suppose ever read all or even much of Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake? It’s one of those things people will buy and display but know nothing about. It’s one of those cultural pretensions we have, reminding me of the apocryphal story of the piece of a highly-praised work of modern art that hung upside down in a museum for years.

          Moving along … the other novelist writes a novel hoping it will be bound into a book, go to libraries and bookstores, be read by hordes, or at least hundreds. This novelist is required to be a lot more careful and thoughtful, as well as cognizant of readers, than the fuck ’em all writer.

          Trying to be the first while hoping for the results of the second is doomed most of the time. (That it’s not all the time creates writers like John Barth.)

          Now our friend Court has written a novel with some intriguing ideas about style. I have read the beginning quarter or so of two versions. I thought the first was a mess from the point of view of any typical book reader. Court read through it again and saw the problems I saw. He wrote it again (the most natural activity in the life of a novelist) and fixed the jumbling story line of the original.

          All Court asked of me was to share my experiences with how a “professional reader” would most likely respond to his work. I want no part of work-shoppy things, but don’t mind offering an opinion of a practical “Is there a chance this will get published?” nature, based on my 30+ years going through the process of seeing my novels published.

          My answer to Court was probably not, not with the mix of unconventional style and complex opening scene. For example, because he chose not to use quotation marks, I thought there were two awkward shifts in person in the first page — a 3rd person voice in the same line with a 1st person voice — and I thought either he had made a mistake or I had missed something earlier. Twice I went back to the start and read the opening page again, before realizing that he was not making any distinctions between the narrator’s overview voice, the character’s voice, and inner monologue.

          I suggested that in my opinion, no “professional reader” would have gone beyond the first page, so it didn’t matter how good the rest of it is.

          I justify this with my ardent belief in John Gardner’s notion of “the fictive dream.” I know this to be true in my case as a reader. You pull the reader into the dream world you’ve created until he becomes more real when reading than his immediate world. You do what I commented about above regarding the view out the window. If you awaken your reader from the dream often enough, you won’t get him back into it.

          Having a well-read, literate person (such as yours truly) compelled to go back to the top of page twice trying to figure out who is saying what, who is thinking what, and who’s voice is this, is a big wake up.

          This is a decision Court and all my writer friends have to make. Why am I doing all this blood, sweat, and tears work? If the answer is because you want people to read your novel, to submerge to the depths of your story, and especially if you want bean counters in NY to see how they can make money selling your book, then you have to not get in their way with artsy-craftsy theoretical style.

          At least not the first time out of the box.

          That’s the quotes thing, Brad.

          • I think Gardner’s fictive dream is the same thing as Nabokov’s admonition to read with base of you spine and really experience, not just read, but experience, a book. He was referring novels already in the pantheon, but that sort of state is what we, as writers, are striving to induce in our readers, as Donigan says. Therefore whatever breaks that spell – the lack of quote marks, for instance – ought be discarded. At least in the case of my manuscript, I can see how quote marks are a dealbreaker.

            I would disagree, Donigan, that Joyce is the only one who ever broke with literary convention. He’s just the one who’s gotten the most famous for fucking with convention the most. Let us note that he died debt-ridden and in poverty …

            Over Christmas I read a book called Tinkers, by Paul Harding. It was published in 2009 and it featured no quote marks around dialogue. However, and this is the key point, it has very little diaglogue; it is mostly a narrative. When dialogue does appear it is clearly delineated and rarely last more than a couple lines. So the reader is not confused. Whereas in my manuscript, as Donigan will attest, dialogue is not only heavily mixed with narrative right inside paragraphs, it is also very prominent and in places carries (for better or worse) the story. So in the case of my manuscript, quote marks will be a nod to convention that simply make the thing readable, and that trumps any sort of lingering issue I have with that particular convention.

            Donigan is the one who really pointed this out and he’s exactly right. If the story comes clear by inserted those upside down gooses feet, then I’ll do it. I’m not going to fall on my literary sword for that one.

            Tinkers, by the way, was not a great novel. It read like an MFA thesis, which it probably was. It had a sort of precious pretentiousness to it, which – yes – was particularly evident in the lack of quote marks. As though it were shouting “Look at me! Look at me! I’m not pulp! I’m art!” Very high concept, as they say.

  3. For clarity, all I am saying here is that writers have choices to make, and the best way to make them is with thorough and accurate information. Our work arises from and is fueled by imagination, but outside of that there is a real world, a real world that isn’t stable or static, that keeps changing while we aren’t paying attention to it.

    If you read that exchange of comments between someone who claims to work for Random House and me in the post preceding this one, it may help to illustrate what I mean by a changing reality, in this case, in the publishing world. In spite of what RH worker claims, virtually no one in the publishing industry believes that it is today very much at all like what it was 30 or 50 or 80 years ago. I can speak with experience from 30 years ago, and it is a different world today. Not a better one to my mind. But doubtlessly changed.

    This is the time of the conglomerate takeover, in books as well as many other businesses and industries. That changes things. Whether in beer, soap, soy beans, or books. Thirty years ago there was almost no conglomeration of publishers, almost all were independent, and in many cases operated as publisher by the person or two or three persons who owned the house. That simply no longer exists. And it changes things. I refer to the Gottlieb comment referred to in that post, and if anybody should know the difference, Robert Gottlieb is that person.

    When a publishing company, especially one that owns 30 or 40 other imprints that were once independently operated, is itself owned outright by a conglomerate that is in the business of increasing profits for stockholders, it does not take much consideration to see how that impacts the chain of decision-making. Claims to the contrary have no credibility, mainly because they are unreasonable on the face of it.

    This conglomerate dominated decision-making chain has resulted in, and this is patently evident by paying even slight attention to the contemporary publishing world’s reality, a lessening of the chance-taking style of the old days, replaced by a narrow focus on using bean counting methods to figure out what sells, and then keep repeating that. In the time of the independents, books could be published because someone in the house really liked it; hoping it would sell enough to earn its way, but willing to take a shot even if the odds of profit weren’t all that good. Those days are over. BookScan, which is like the Neilson ratings for TV, is the ultimate authority now.

    It is not a far stretch of imagination to see that very many of the greatest books of American literature would have never been published in today’s book world. If you are writing in that style, neither is your book likely to be published today.

    There are many alternatives to “traditional New York” publishing, and over time they will gain more prominence as the traditional publishers finish committing suicide. If you are not interested in traditional bound book publishing companies in New York City, then none of this applies to you.

    But if you do want one of those traditional New York City publishers to turn your work into a bound book and ship it out to all those Barnes & Noble, Borders, WalMart stores, and into all those public libraries, then you need to understand the basis on which that decision will be made. I have no doubt that “telling a good story with strong characters” remains a strong consideration, maybe the first consideration, but do not fool yourself into thinking that is enough. After an editor comes the bean counters, and the buck stops there. Or starts there, if you are lucky.

    Anyone who tells you otherwise is not telling you the truth and is setting you up for a continual string of brutal disappointments.

    These comments are getting so long maybe I should have put this into a new post.

      • Yes, I wouldn’t like to count up how many hours it took to do it, but, a lot. Funny, too, how they can all be removed with a couple key strokes.

        I think it’s better. I think you were exactly right.

        As previously noted over on the blog, I’m currently reading Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie (excellent so far, btw). And that book features quote marks. And of course, you don’t even notice them. Whereas in books without quote marks, you notice the absence of them.

        Given that it is almost a convention of literary fiction to break with standard English usage, it only makes sense that in order to guide a reader along, you ought to include the standard markings.

        Anyway, the manuscript is, I think, much improved. Funny what 8305 inverted duck’s feet can do for you.

  4. Usually, but sadly not always, conventions of all kinds exist because they simplify access, even as stereotypes are created and exist to simplify (often negatively) making judgments.

    Take indenting to designate a paragraph. Until very recently, European books did not indent for paragraphs, so a page was flush left and ragged right. When I first encountered this, I asked someone how they knew there was a paragraph break, and they, having actually never wondered about that before, told me you knew because the last line before the paragraph ended short. But how would you know if that line does not happen to end short and goes all the way to the right? The answer to this was that paragraphs aren’t all that important anyway.

    Our poor American brains are trained to see rhythmic breaks and patterns on a page of writing. Writers use rhythm and paragraph breaks to guide readers into a way of thinking or seeing as the story unfolds. So I found it utterly impossible to read a novel in a European edition; it befuddled me to see all the lines flush left with no way to be certain if this part belonged with what came before or what comes after or is on its own. Paragraph length stimulates readers to set and achieve tacit goals; this is a subconscious mental process equivalent to taking a breath or holding one’s breath.

    This is the question: Are you telling a story that you want others to find so compelling that they cannot stop listening to it, or reading it? If so, then you need to stop throwing up barricades. Most people don’t think of reading a story as jumping hurdles. Or, are you more interested in creative, artistic forms of exercise for your own edification or amusement? Pick one, because they are incompatible.

    Another thing about European books, by the way. You ever noticed that they are bound in what is to we slow-witted Americans upside down? That is, if the books lies flat with the front cover up, the printing on the spine is upside down. For the spine to be readable, the book cover has to be turned down, with the back facing up. If you shelve books like these with the fronts facing right, which I do, all the titles on the spines are turned around and upside down. Small thing, but an irritant all the same.

  5. I would find that very irritating when laying my books out on a bookshelf. Also, I didn’t know that about European books. Are you talking books in French, Spanish, Italian, etc.? Because British books are printed with indents … aren’t they?

    Convention is surely just that, convention. Thai, for instance, lacks any punctuation of any kind, although under Western influence they have started to use paragraphs. How do you know where one sentence ends and another begins? Well, you just know.

    And Japanese, a language I know much better, in literary form is printed right to left, top to bottom in vertical rows. They do have paragraph breaks for dialogue and so forth, though, as well as increasing use of commas, periods, and even quote marks. This is because of increasing Western influence. Older Japanese stuff is like Thai, utterly without punctuation. Effectively there is no such thing as a run-on sentence in Japanese, and very often the meaning of the sentence, which can stretch on for lines and lines and lines, doesn’t become clear until the last few words, when the actual overall verb appears. This makes for a very effective literary device, but is a bitch to try and read if you’re not a native speaker of the language.

    I wish I could claim I was operating under Asian influence when deciding to not include quote marks earlier. However, it was decidedly more the influence of Faulkner, and all his camp followers, of which I must still, even with quote marks, still count myself as one.

    • Brits don’t think of themselves as European, they are not a part of “the continent.” No, this was and often still is the case with books published in most European countries, that is, in all the European countries I have been in, and I think it’s most of them. As you point out the westernizing conventions finding their way into Asian languages, Europeans have recently begun Americanizing their print style, although for the most part, they still put the bindings on upside down.

      When I read Faulkner over a period of a decade or so more than 35 years ago, I was gobsmacked, as our Brit friends say. I tried rereading The Sound and the Fury last year and just couldn’t make it work anymore. But I did just notice at the bottom of this page that the “theme” of this blog format is “Quentin.”

      • I’m still gobsmacked by the Faulkner – the good stuff, that is. In my opinion, he wrote 2 immortal novels (The Sound and As I Lay Dying), 2 great novels (Absalom, Absalom and Light in August), and a whole bunch of other stuff that I could take or leave (The Reivers, and The Bear), and even stuff that was downright awful (The Wild Palms and pretty much every short story).

        But man, those great novels, they are truly great. And, as has been mooted here many times, utterly unpublishable today. They’re sort of like magnificent fossilized skeletons from an extinct when lumbering literary greats ruled the earth.

        The opening section of As I Lay Dying gives me little chills every time I read it, however many times I read it.

        And ah, yes, the Brits. I forgot how they don’t consider themselves European. I once had a Brit tell me he would rather the UK become the 51st state of the US than join the EU. I told him I wasn’t sure we were taking applications and even if we were, that I didn’t know if the UK had the stuff to make the cut … I think I thought it was funnier than he did.