Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Announcing New Blog and Website

The Recalcitrant Scrivener blog concluded in January 2011. The complete collection of Recalcitrant Scrivener essays is available as an ebook through Amazon Kindle, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and  iTunes.

The Recalcitrant Press website is now active at www.recalcitrantpress.com

You can read the latest Recalcitrant Press blog at http://recalcitrantpress.blogspot.com

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Strange Case of Jim Carroll

Jim Carroll has been dead for more than a year. I hadn’t intended to write about him. What changed my mind was reading his posthumous novel, The Petting Zoo, and then looking up some of the reviews the book received. They were mixed at best, but as I went through them, what struck me was how the majority of reviewers appeared to be reading through multiple layers of preconception. There was some disappointment this wasn’t a hipster screed, a longer version of Forced Entries or “The People Who Died.” Publishers Weekly criticized the book on stylistic grounds (“clever and profound sentences jostle awkwardly with lumbering, bathos-soaked platitudes.”) It occurred to me that you could say exactly the same thing about much of Dickens and you would be right. Few novels consist of a steady stream of perfectly formed sentences. Richard Hell wrote a stylish but strangely academic review in The New York Times Book Review in which he suggested that the novel lacked form. This of course is one of those things a reviewer can say that sounds impressive, as long as no one asks, “what do you mean, exactly?” In this case, if the reviewer meant that the plot is lacking in structure or inevitability, he is wrong.

The other problem is that some reviewers have read The Petting Zoo as yet another installment in a Jim Carroll autobiography. It isn’t. Thomas Mallon in The New Yorker described the novel as Jim Carroll without the sex, drugs, or rock and roll, and he found this disappointing. My view is that it is Jim Carroll without the bullshit, which is considerably more interesting than Jim Carroll the cult figure or Jim Carroll the heroin addict.

The Petting Zoo is the story of Billy Wolfram, a painter who suffers an attack of nerves at the opening of a Velasquez retrospective at the Met. It is 1989 or thereabouts, Central Park still a bit rundown, the Zoo closed for renovations. Wolfram has what used to be called a nervous breakdown and is hospitalized for several days. When he emerges, he is unable to paint, unwilling to leave his loft, and is assailed by a multitude of memories, none pleasant. He also has an enigmatic visitor, a talking raven, who may or may not be an hallucination.

The reader either buys into this or doesn’t. A novel shouldn’t attempt to interest everyone—to do so is not simply to pander, but necessitates a dilution and diminishing of intent. In the case of The Petting Zoo, I bought into the premise.

This is a novel about the difficulty of creating art, and of balancing the demands of art and of life. It is largely a novel about failure. It is not a young man’s book. Carroll may have been 40 when he started it, but he was close to 60 when he delivered the manuscript to his publisher in 2008. Whatever else, this is a novel in which the author stares death—his own as well as that of his main character—in the face. This will not appeal to every reader, but it ultimately makes for an emotionally wrenching book.

To put it mildly, Jim Carroll was a problematic individual. As it happens, I went to the same school he did—I was a couple of years younger. When I later read the selections from The Basketball Diaries that were published in The Paris Review in 1970, I knew it was most certainly fiction—satire yes, but fiction. I wonder how many kids have read the book without wondering why we never read about Carroll’s parents or, given the title, why we never have a decent description of a down-to-the-wire basketball game. And, more to the point, the originals for Carroll’s satirical treatment (I’m thinking of a seriously eccentric and unhinged teaching staff) were far stranger and far more interesting than he or any of us realized at the time.

What I remember is listening to Carroll regale his friends in the basement snack bar with tales of having hung out all night with Allen Ginsberg (this circa 1966 from a lanky kid wearing a blue school blazer, his tie askew). And I remember seeing him striding down the basketball court with an air of inevitability, a sort of Larry Bird avant la lettre. As a point guard, he had the uncanny ability to pick apart the opposition, making the right split-second choice on whether to pass the ball, shoot, or charge the basket.

Later I remember him showing up with a delectable girl who wore a very short corduroy mini-skirt and was rumored to be a soap opera actress. There was also the story that he missed a large portion of the basketball season in his senior year due to a stint on Rikers Island. This is mentioned in The Basketball Diaries but not covered in detail.

Years later, when I asked a couple of friends of mine who were on the poetry scene in the 1970s about Carroll, they dismissed him as someone who was always nodding out from heroin. Someone I implicitly trust is convinced Carroll robbed his apartment, stealing a number of first editions. The title Forced Entries for his second set of diaries wasn’t just a trope, it seems. Not something to be proud of.

As for his writing, the poetry is uneven but worth reading, though I don’t expect the poets I know to be enormously impressed. The Basketball Diaries and Forced Entries will continue to attract the most readers, but they are his least serious work. The Petting Zoo is the real thing. After all, we don’t all have the nerve to write our own death.

No doubt, someone will write a biography of Jim Carroll. Let’s hope they do their research, talk to people who really knew him, manage to extricate the truth from the myth, fabrications, and contradictions. The greatest mystery of all is how this self-described street kid became interested in writing in the first place.

For anyone interested in a personal but realistic portrayal of Jim Carroll by someone who knew him in high school and throughout his life, I recommend R.H. Cato’s memoir, “Calm Under Fire,” which is appearing on the Catholicboy website, http://www.catholicboy.com/RHCato.php

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Who Rejected These Novels?

As friends, acquaintances, various bartenders, and my wife all know, I am obsessed with the idea of literary fiction. Not with deciding whether a given novel meets some predetermined set of criteria for admission into the literary pantheon, but with the distinction between novels that are written expressly to fill a marketing niche and those that are written from some deeper place. Most published work falls somewhere between these two extremes. The market-driven novel, the sort of novel that excites agents, editors, and sales reps, is not something I am interested in reading.

Nor do I usually keep track of literary prizes. Nevertheless, I was taken up short when a horse player I know informed me that this year’s National Book Award for fiction had gone to a virtually unknown author whose book about a down-and-out racetrack in West Virginia was published by a small press. Now, as a racing fan and occasional bettor, I enjoy reading about that self-enclosed world, anachronistic and hard-bitten as it is. But this was not what immediately caught my interest. I fully intend to read Jaimy Gordon’s novel Lord of Misrule. I have not had a chance to do so yet.

What intrigues me is that both the 2010 National Book Award and the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction have gone to novels from small presses that no one—including several of the judges—had ever heard of. Something rather revealing is going on here.

Earlier in the year the Pulitzer went to Tinkers. This visionary novel by Paul Harding is published by the Bellevue Press, most recently listed as publishing exactly two fiction titles a year:

George Crosby remembered many things as he died, but in an order he could not control. To look at his life, to take the stock he always imagined a man would at his end, was to witness a shifting mass, the tiles of a mosaic spinning, swirling, reportraying, always in recognizable swaths of colors, familiar elements, molecular units, intimate currents, but also independent now of his will, showing him a different self every time he tried to make an assessment.

Any editor who read this passage and didn’t think this novel was at least worth considering for publication is really in the wrong business. Either they are simply incompetent, incapable of recognizing the real thing when it is in front of them, or else they simply have no interest in literary fiction. How many editors at major publishers turned down Tinkers? How many turned down Lord of Misrule?

I would like to believe that at least one or two editorial assistants or lower-level editors fought for these manuscripts and were shot down by the people above them (“Who is the audience for this novel?”), but I have my doubts.

The major book publishers cannot have it both ways. They cannot dedicate themselves to the maximalization of unit sales and still claim a role as the gatekeepers of literary culture. At this stage of the game, book publishing and literature are mutually exclusive terms.

It’s worth remembering that publishers, regardless of what they might say or even believe, don’t actually write novels. They sell them.

Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for fiction, is published by McPherson & Company.

Tinkers, by Paul Harding, winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is published by Bellevue Literary Press.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why Vampires Suck

Perhaps, and I say this guardedly and with the utmost trepidation, perhaps, dear reader, the vampire craze that has seized book publishing by the throat shows signs of subsiding. Never would I make such a claim for vampires on film, for there the undead are always with us. But the vampire craze of the last few years has stricken publishing with a particular vehemence. There are no doubt several reasons for this. Before analyzing them, it may be worth taking a look at the origins of the genre.

During the latter part of the eighteenth century, reports of disturbed graves and of living corpses emanated from Eastern Europe. This according to Michael Sims, whose recently published anthology of nineteenth century vampire tales, Dracula’s Guest, is the source for much of my information.

The first vampire fiction in English appears to have been “The Vampyre,” by John Polidori, first published in 1819 and initially attributed to Lord Byron. Throughout the eighteenth century, the English reader’s taste for tales of the sinister and macabre had already been whetted by The Castle of Otranto and the works of Ann Radcliffe.

Coleridge wrote what is generally interpreted to be a lesbian vampire narrative poem, Christabel (1797-1800), which, overripe as it is, still causes something of a sensation. Then came the stormy summer of 1816, when several English travelers of note—Shelley, Mary Shelley, Byron, and Byron’s physician John Polidori—saw fit to entertain each other with stories of the supernatural. Nineteen-year-old Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is the most famous. Byron contributed a fragmentary tale, “The End of my Journey,” which appears to refer to the demise of a vampire. But it was Polidori who wrote a story that we would recognize as being very much part of the genre. Deadpan as it is, there is a certain sly humor in the telling—the vampire, Lord Ruthven, a pale seducer and ruiner of a series of young women, is patterned after Byron himself. The poet wasn’t pleased—he broke off relations with Polidori soon afterwards.

With these early examples, it’s easy to see the genre is fairly dripping with sex—the deflowering of naive young women, their complete enthrallment to their seducer, the traces of blood on their necks—it’s all there. The vampire is the ultimate outsider, the epitome of forbidden sexuality. Throughout the nineteenth century, novelists would convey this through the heaviness of their prose, the layering of adjective upon adjective, as is often seen in latter day romance fiction. Bram Stoker merely codified a style. 

When literary vampirism made a comeback in the 1980s, it coincided with the emergence of AIDS. Ann Rice’s books have always had a significant gay as well as general readership. Kathe Koja and others have expanded on the more outré aspects of the genre. At the lower end of the scale, we have vampire porn, a series of highly lubricated yet still bloody descriptions. Beyond this lies parody.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a reader of vampire fiction. Not that I’m immune to the theme, merely that films and television have provided as much vampirism as I’ve wanted. My favorite vamp, not surprisingly, is Barnabas Collins, though I was also much amused by the more recent character Angel, portrayed by David Boreanaz on the show of that name. Then there’s the film The Hunger, with Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie, all much younger than they are now.

The problem with most vampire fiction is that it’s relatively boring, even when well written. There are only so many variations on the theme. I may be perfectly willing to spend two hours watching a film, but I simply do not have the level of interest to devote to a novel, particularly one that is entirely predictable.

Clearly this is not the case with the millions of readers worldwide who have purchased the Twilight books of Stephanie Meyer. I was intrigued to read in Michael Sims’ introduction to his anthology that Meyer came up with the idea for Twilight as a result of a dream. This is as it should be. And it makes perfect sense that teenagers should be the target audience for such dreamy sensuality and violence. After all, adolescence is a time of seething hormones, thwarted desire, and the tomblike imprisonment known as high school. Escape is a necessity.

There is of course a parallel between the vampire and the heroin addict, but only a specific type of addict—William Burroughs or a young and dissipated rock and roller, not the street-level junkie. “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” as Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron.

Rumor has it that the conglomerate Hachette is forecasting doom and gloom in its earnings reports due to a leveling off of sales from the Twilight series. After all, if the entire world is undead, who will want to read such things?            

Now far be it from me to draw a parallel between book publishing and vampirism. Who after all would be sucking whose blood? It would be entirely inappropriate, not to mention inaccurate, to suggest that publishing has any sort of parasitic or predatory relationship to literature. Wouldn’t it?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Thoughts

Random House really isn’t one of the older American publishing houses, as it was founded by Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer in 1927. They had previously purchased Modern Library from Liveright in 1925, clearly two young men on the make. Whether they really said they were simply going to “publish a few books at random” or not, the name stuck. I remember Bennett Cerf from my childhood, or more specifically, from the television in our living room, as he was a regular panelist on “What’s My Line,” a game show that exuded a sort of Manhattan cocktail hour sophistication, albeit in the very low-contrast black and white of early television. Today, Cerf and Klopfer would probably be Internet entrepreneurs, though they would doubtless still be drinking martinis.

In the twenty-first century, Random House, USA is a division of Random House Worldwide, the umbrella name for the book publishing arm of the international conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, which is based in Germany.

What intrigues me about the Random House headquarters on 55th Street and Broadway is that here is a publishing company that actually appears to pay homage to its past and to the titles it has published. Walk into the lobby and you will be met by a vision of hardcover books, their jackets facing out from behind plexiglas: Doctor Faustus, Ulysses, Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Big Sleep, Mencken’s American Language, Freud’s Moses and Monotheism, Thunder on the Left by Christopher Morley, Rudyard Kipling’s Verse, and The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes, to name just a few. On the other side of the room,  you would see Shelby Foote’s three-volume Civil War history, Portnoy’s Complaint, and In Cold Blood, among others.

One could almost be in a bookshop that sold twentieth century first editions. The security guard lets you know that you aren’t. As a friend of mine has pointed out, a lot of dreck was no doubt also published back then, roughly 1927 to 1970. Nevertheless, the standard is pretty damn high.

In a very real sense, Random House put itself on the map with Ulysses, by fighting the famous court case in which the estimable Judge Woolsey ultimately decreed that the book may have been disgusting but was not obscene (he actually seems to have enjoyed it.) It is unimaginable that a major publisher would go to court to defend a work of literature these days. A celebrity biography accused of libel, yes, but an avant-garde novel? I doubt it.

The Random House lobby stands in sharp contrast to that of Penguin, the first floor of which yields no clue that a publishing company resides there. This may be intentional: after all, Penguin shares the building with the advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, whose name the building bears. The publisher relocated there in the wake of the Salman Rushdie affair. I remember when bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the place in the early 1990s. 

It’s distinctly strange, though no doubt also intentional, that in the lobby of neither Random House nor Penguin is it possible to buy a book, even though there is a newsstand in the Penguin lobby.

Some readers will no doubt find it sinister that Random House is publishing both Tony Blair’s memoirs and George W. Bush’s reminiscences of his presidency within a month of each other. I find it more comical than not. For neither of these works is really a book at all. Rather, they are edited transcripts that have been placed between two cardboard covers, somewhere between fiction and nonfiction. Will anyone be talking about them next year?  Does anyone care what Bill Clinton said in his book that appeared in 2004, also published by Random House?

For the role Bertelsmann played in Nazi Germany during the Second World War, I refer the reader to the BBC News World Edition story of October 8, 2002.

The real issue, given all the storied literary history, is this: does the current front end of Random’s fiction list come up to the standard of its past?

I will leave that as an open question.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Recalcitrant Scrivener Returns

The Recalcitrant Scrivener is back. I had originally started writing a blog as a way to make a series of points about the dysfunctional relationship between literary fiction and the publishing industry. This led to a discussion of the role of electronic publishing as a possible vehicle for change. After I had brought the initial series of essays to a close, the world of books continued to change. Nothing stands still, to partially paraphrase Heraclitus.

No one precisely knows where the electronic dissemination of literature will lead. The major publishers hope that e-books will simply function as a new delivery medium, a sort of web-based version of the mass market paperback. This scenario is entirely possible, though not desirable.

In a Guardian interview last month, Gail Rebuck, chief executive of the Random House Group, the UK division of the company, offered the following:

"Publishers are relevant. We have practical expertise and, of course, money. We give our authors advances which enable them to concentrate on their work in hand… My idea of hell is a website with 80,000 self-published works on it – some of which might be jewels, but, frankly, who's got the time? What people want is selection and frankly that's what we do."

A bit strange, in that Random House currently sells its books on a website that features several hundred thousand titles, some published by major book publishers, some not. This, of course, is Amazon. When chain bookstores have disappeared, or are greatly reduced in size and scope, web sales will be the primary means of moving books, electronic or otherwise.

My vision of hell is one in which extremely aggressive but not particularly literate people decide what the rest of us should read.

Nearly every day, I walk by the New York headquarters of Random House on my way to work. Featured in the ground floor window is a selection of new titles, among them Worth Dying For, by Lee Child, Third World America, by Arianna Huffington, and The Cat in the Hat Knows A Lot About That, which is actually a series of books. Indeed, I am not at all surprised that the Cat in the Hat knows a considerable amount about both murder and downward mobility. Conspicuously lacking is any mention of Dr. Seuss, the proverbial Cat’s progenitor.

And so, let us raise a glass to Marshall McLuhan and to Alexander Pope. There is more scrivening to be done.

The first series of Recalcitrant Scrivener essays is now available as an e-book on Kindle. The original blog entries remain available online, for a short time only.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Epilogue

The Recalcitrant Scrivener was always planned as a closed-end blog. Which is to say, it isn’t so much a blog as a series of short essays. To all its readers, I would like to thank you for your willingness to investigate the entries. To anyone who is new to the site, I would recommend scrolling down to the initial entry of November 10 and reading forward by date. Otherwise, one should read as one wishes.

The entry of February 2 contains a very brief history of book publishing, with a view to the future. It is my belief that the physical book will continue to exist for a long time, but that electronic books, articles, and pieces of all sort will became the norm, sooner rather than later. Small independent presses will play a central role in keeping the physical book alive as a primary aesthetic object.

My main complaint about traditional corporate publishing is neither the retail price nor the low royalty rates that authors receive, though both are vital issues. Publishers on the whole are afflicted by an endemic philistinism, a deformation professional so intense that their idea of the value of a novel is entirely related to the number of copies it sells. This is to condemn any work of even moderate complexity to the remainder bin or the rejection pile.

There are roughly six major New York book publishing conglomerates, with more consolidation on the way. If they all think more or less along the same lines, that I believe would fit the definition of herd-like behavior. It is a prescription for disaster. Comparisons with the banking industry and Detroit carmakers come readily to mind.

My contention is that the publishing industry exerts a tyranny over the written word in general and over literary fiction in particular that should no longer be allowed to exist. That tyranny will come to an end when it no longer has an economic rationale. It has never had an aesthetic or moral rationale.

Now things will get interesting…

Postscript - February 15
Actually, things have already "gotten interesting." In an article that appeared February 11 in The New York Times, one of the writers interviewed expressed something like amazement that many of his readers were complaining on the Amazon site and sending him e-mail about “greedy authors” who had raised the price of their books on Kindle. Now, it’s very easy to dismiss readers who don’t understand that authors have absolutely no say in how their books are priced. The general public doesn’t realize the extent to which the writer is indeed at the bottom of the food chain in book publishing.

I would suggest to this author that these are in fact his readers.
If you write for the less informed, less sophisticated end of the reading public, maybe you get what you deserve. Nevertheless, these consumers are comparing the price of an e-book with the price of a mass market paperback. They really aren’t going to pay $26 for a hardcover or $14.99 for an e-book. They evidently have better things to do with their money—like pay their electric bills.

Maybe the economics really have turned against conglomerate publishing. We shall see…

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Ghosts of Publishing Past and To Come

Everyone knows about Guttenberg and the Bible, but it was William Caxton who was the first English printer of record, and who created editions of The Canterbury Tales and Le Morte d’Arthur in the fifteenth century. But note, he was a printer and entrepreneur, not a publisher as we know the term. There was no copyright, but nor were most of his authors living.

For the next few centuries, authors came to printers to have their works mechanically reproduced. They either paid for the printing themselves, or had a patron or investor who paid for the work. To the extent that a bookseller (ie, someone with a bookshop) paid for printing costs, he might be considered a publisher of sorts. There eventually arose a system by which shares were sold to investors, who would then retain rights to any profits from a book. Nevertheless, the writing was entirely the author’s responsibility, unless the writer was working for hire, usually to create a pamphlet attacking or supporting one of the political parties or, in some cases, an individual. Those writers who took on this sort of work were known as hacks, and their place of abode was Grub Street, near Westminster.

The individuals Alexander Pope rails against in his scathing Dunciad, initially published in 1728, were the booksellers and hack writers of his day—not publishing companies, which didn’t exist as yet. It is no accident that the ever-prescient Marshall McLuhan focused on Alexander Pope and the eighteenth century London book trade as a pivotal point in the history of the printed word (vide The Guttenberg Galaxy).

Around 1800, the Rivingtons and Longman were among the first in the London book trade to dispense with the retail selling of books; instead they selected works to publish, print, and subsequently sell wholesale to bookshops. In A History of British Publishing, John Feather states the definition of a modern publisher as someone who “no longer lived over the shop” (ie, didn’t sell books to the public). The further distinction is that the publisher paid for the printing but was also responsible for collecting any revenue from the booksellers and for paying the author. The man who “no longer lived over the shop” became the proprietor of a company with an office and employees.

Throughout the nineteenth century, these family businesses expanded, and others joined them. The Longman name still exists, though not as an independent company. Harper & Brothers was one of the first such companies in the United States, founded in 1817 as a printer, but operating as a publisher from 1833. Scribner’s and Dutton came later in the nineteenth century. The modern book publishing industry is scarcely 200 years old.

Writers and Publishers

Writers have thus been around far longer than either book publishers or the printing press (ie, several millennia). It is a safe bet they will be around long after book publishing as we know it has ceased to exist.

Remember, no one edited Jane Austen. No one told her where to put a comma. No one told Henry James to add more action to his narrative, though they may have tried. It wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that we see publishers and their editors emerging as the overseers of the writer’s work. This trend has accelerated from the 1940s onward, to the point where the published author is often no more than a worker on an assembly line—and is treated as such.

Electronic publishing offers an opportunity to alter the dynamics of writing and publishing, to shift the power relationship in the writer’s favor to a considerable degree. Book publishers are attempting to adapt to the new technology and to incorporate it into their customary way of doing business. They will no doubt succeed, in part. But there is an entirely different business plan that emerges.

What if writers assumed responsibility for their own works, what if they hired an editor, a publicity person, and, yes, an electronic distributor as necessary? Doesn’t this at least diminish the gate keeping function as practiced by publishers, with all the clichéd thinking, ingrown practices, and mediocrity the traditional industry entails? No marketing meetings, no more selection of titles by committee. No more editing of manuscripts by people who don’t understand or even like them. No more coloring by the numbers.

This is an industry that, with a few exceptions, turns out a distinctly mediocre product: second-rate literary fiction, commercial thrillers that don’t thrill, practical nonfiction books that take 200 pages to tell you what could be clearly said in twenty. I don’t think all this will be swept away, but it will have less of a rationale for existing. There will be less of a safety net for mediocrity.

My guess is that some books will be a lot worse. And some will be far, far better. With millions of would-be writers clamoring for attention, the situation will be chaotic—much like the eighteenth century in England, in the era before the emergence of publishing companies. Ultimately, readers would decide what they wanted to read, and writers would decide what they wanted to write.

There is such a thing as freedom of expression. And it does count.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Editing and Revisions

Editing is a sensitive issue—for writers, for editors, for everyone involved. Virtually all writers can benefit from working with a good editor. But note: the key terms here are “with” and “good.” Which is to say, the writer and editor have to be well matched—they have to understand each other and be able to communicate. What most writers resent is an editor who has a very different view of the trajectory of their work and then attacks the manuscript in a vigorous manner based on that view.

Most notably, editors are essential for serving as a sounding board for ideas, catching unintentional repetitions, and identifying passages and plot developments that don’t work. Word by word revisions are less important, and in some cases counterproductive. Finishing the manuscript of a novel is after all very different from writing and editing a magazine or newspaper article.

Two Case Studies…

In recent years, two cases in particular have called into question the issues of editing and rewriting. In 2007 Penguin published On the Road: The Original Scroll. This was the quasi-mythological first draft of the manuscript that Kerouac showed to publishers in the early 1950s. The novel wasn’t published until 1957, in a very different form. Many readers consider the earlier draft to be more interesting: with no paragraph breaks, the writing seems livelier, more rhythmic, more that of an avant-garde novel. The published version of On the Road pales by comparison. A major problem with the published novel is that the characters aren’t particularly sympathetic. Read by an adolescent, On the Road is exciting; read later in life, the book is dull as dishwater, the characters either pitiful or unintentionally comical. With the earlier version, this may be less of a problem, since the language of the novel stands out as the main character.

Legend has it that the editors ruined Kerouac’s book. As it turns out, this isn’t true. The novel as originally written simply wouldn’t have been published by a mainstream American publisher. (True, a decade later, Grove Press might have brought it out, as they did Naked Lunch.) And so, Kerouac went to work revising his manuscript, over a period of years. Malcolm Cowley brought it to Viking, several times. The Viking editor who finally acquired it was Keith Jennison; the manuscript editor was Helen Taylor. Neither of them “ruined the book.” The major revisions were by Kerouac himself. This information comes from a Publishers Weekly article by Sterling Lord, Kerouac’s longtime agent (August 27, 2007).

Instead of a being a writer who produced an unpublished, avant-garde work, Kerouac wrote a bestseller and became a cultural icon, seemingly overnight. He hated himself for it, and never recovered. The moral here doesn’t so much concern what editors do to books, as what publishers and the culture demand and the extent to which writers are willing to compromise in order to be published.

A different but equally problematic case is that of Raymond Carver. It appears that Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor at Esquire and Knopf, heavily rewrote a number of Carver’s stories, changing endings, deleting large amounts of material, altering the style. Carver reportedly was not happy, but he allowed the changes. The problem isn’t whether Lish did a good or bad job—one would have to study the original versions, which are now available thanks to Tess Gallagher, and compare them to the published stories. The real issue is whether an editor has the right to radically rewrite literary fiction to this extent—and if he does so, shouldn’t he be credited as a coauthor? Lish may have been a despicable person with a crazed ego, or he may not have been. The thing is, no writer with an ounce of self-respect should have allowed such radical revision to take place.

Bad Editing and Good

How and at exactly what point agents assumed an editorial function is a tale waiting to be told. I can imagine an agent who is a skilled editor—they no doubt exist—but I have never encountered one. Salesmanship and attention to written detail are not characteristics that are necessarily or commonly found together.

The worst case scenario is when an agent pulls a manuscript in one direction, and the editor subsequently pulls it in another. The writer then feels abused, like a rag doll, as if he or she is writing a work for hire and has very little control over the work. It’s the literary version of sitting in a noisy cube and dealing with incompatible demands. Marx, I believe, used the phrase “alienated labor.”

Editing and requests for revisions are tricky enough when coming from people who know what they are doing. Things go downhill fast when one is revised by an editor who doesn’t actually know the rules of English grammar and who doesn’t understand what the writer is trying to do. This is similar to having an incompetent electrician rewire your apartment. And yes, over the years I’ve seen this happen—editing that actually makes a manuscript worse. (Fortunately, it wasn’t mine.) An editor who knows grammar but is deaf to the rhythm of prose is even worse—they will have grammar on their side but will run roughshod over the subtlety not to mention spirit of the text.

Aside from incompetent editing that simply screws up sentences, there’s also the request for revisions aimed at making a manuscript more sensational (ie, “appeal to a wider range of readers.”) We see this in an attempt to transform a literary novel into a commercial one. The result rarely strikes the right tone for either. One can also imagine editing that weakens or dilutes a manuscript, whether out of general timidity, fear of offending, or from some other motive. This is something like what happened to On the Road.

Nearly as problematic is editing that makes a manuscript neither better nor worse, just different. This seriously ups the ante in terms of confusion. It also adds to the publisher’s costs without delivering any clear benefit to either writer or publisher.

What Makes A Good Editor?

To my mind, the most important thing is that writer and editor listen to and understand each other. If I were to attempt a list of attributes that are desirable, I would suggest the following no doubt incomplete ones:

An editor should be widely read in the literature of the present and the past, have a knowledge of the arts and of the world that goes beyond the confines of popular culture, and should be sensitive to the nuances of language and to differences of style. He or she shouldn’t think that “one size fits all” or that the same solutions are necessarily appropriate to different manuscripts.

Writers can make things easier by not being arrogant or convinced of their own infallibility. But nor should they allow themselves to be induced to make changes they think are simply wrong.

Ah yes, and if life were perfect, we’d have healthcare reform that actually worked.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The “Show, Don’t Tell” Fallacy

If there is one maxim that is relentlessly driven down the throats of writers who are starting out, it is that fiction should “show, not tell.” Whenever you hear this statement in its purest, unadulterated form, you may be sure you are in the hands of a hack.

What is usually meant by this extremely simplified directive is that fiction should be vivid rather than abstract, dramatized rather than descriptive. This is fine, as far as it goes. However, there is a problem.

An enormous number of books that claim to present rules for writing fiction have appeared in recent years. With a few exceptions, these guides recycle the same well-worn clichés. The people who write these books are usually writers whose own works have not sold very well. A recent, particularly comical trend is for agents to publish books on how to write fiction. This is a somewhat akin to Ashley Dupré writing a guide to marriage. One well-known agent suggests that writers should heighten the best attributes of their main character—or else heighten their weaknesses. This is moderately reasonable advice, equally applicable to a Hollywood action script, a comic book, and perhaps even to a commercial novel. But not necessarily to a literary novel.

Somerset Maugham once amusingly remarked, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” More to the point, I would suggest: No one agrees what they are.

Of the hundreds of books that discuss the mechanics of fiction writing, one that I still consult is Revising Fiction by David Madden. This actually takes a highly nuanced view of writing, a view that is as applicable to writing first drafts as it is to revisions. But even as intelligent a writer as Madden presents the “show, don’t tell” advice with only minor qualifications.

Contrary to this approach I would cite Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, first published in 1961. Here the author engages in a sustained critique of the “show, don’t tell” maxim. One of Booth’s main accomplishments is to demonstrate that there are a nearly infinite number of gradations between absolute telling and absolute showing, and that these can be used by fiction writers in a variety of ways. It’s worth noting that this is a work of criticism, not an off-the-shelf “how to” book.

My intention is to take Booth’s argument further. My claim is that the partisans of “show, don’t tell” suffer from a very specific conceptual confusion. The truth is that in an absolute, literal sense, narrative writing can only tell.

The bullets whizzed by my ear. My guts fell to the floor.

The shots narrowly missed Pearson. He felt his nerves tighten.

Contrary to what certain people would tell you, both these sentences are forms of telling. The first is clearly more vivid, but it is nevertheless written as first-person narration, a manner of telling. If I were sitting next to you in a bar and said “The bullets whizzed by my ear…” I would be telling you something. I would have shown you nothing.

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.

This, as most readers will recognize, is the first sentence of Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Is anyone seriously suggesting that the sentence should have been deleted by an alert editor? Does anyone seriously think the opening of the novel would be improved by doing so?

You know how it is there early in the morning in Havana with the bums still asleep against the walls of the buildings; before even the ice wagons come by with ice for the bars?

That’s Hemingway, the notorious first sentence of To Have and Have Not. The writer may be painting a picture, a type of showing, but he is doing so by addressing the reader directly, most definitely a way of telling. Whether it works or not is open to debate.

The Rationale for the Maxim

“Show, don’t tell” is the most clichéd of nostrums. Like all clichés, there is a reason for its existence. It’s worth considering how this strategy became a rule.

David Madden cites Chekhov as its possible father. Booth focuses more on Flaubert. What these writers were rebelling against was the heavy-handed authorial presence, which is to say, editorializing or winking at the reader, as well as against bland description. Their major prohibition was against extended philosophizing, against haranguing the reader. What they were breaking with was the Victorian novel as practiced 150 years ago. In case no one has noticed, things have changed since then. Movies, television, and computer games show us things with far greater speed and enormously greater impact than does narrative prose. It doesn’t really make sense to still be in revolt against the Victorian novel. What’s more, action-packed, hyperactive writing can definitely grate on the soul.

There are nevertheless ways in which narrative fiction can indeed “show.” Most interestingly, it can do so by leaving things out, by not showing. We can listen to a narrator and realize that what he is telling us is unreliable. We can read between the lines of dialogue to see that two characters are falling in love, or that one character is swindling another. These are incisive yet indirect ways of showing.

If a writer describes a character sitting outside his former lover’s door, this is probably more effective that simply writing “he was still in love with her.” Then again, it depends on the use to which the scene is put. It depends on what comes next. The relation between showing and telling is thus more subtle and more complex than is usually assumed. What is commonly called “showing” in narrative fiction is in fact a form of “telling.”

And so, here’s my advice: The next time you hear someone say “show, don’t tell,” just show them the door. Unless they’re Anton Chekhov, that is.

Postscript
A few days after writing this, I reread Chekhov’s story, “Lady with Lap Dog.” Even using the conventional definition of showing and telling, it should be noted that this story is overwhelmingly composed of narrative and description. There is very little “showing” of any kind.

To trace the origin of the maxim further: Chekhov is rumored to have said, “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Presumably he said this in Russian, perhaps in French. Nevertheless, Chekhov rarely uses images this colorful or poetic in his own writing. When he does, it is for a specific purpose.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Commercial Fiction

This is by definition fiction that is intended to reach the widest possible number of readers, fiction that can earn its authors millions of dollars, as long as the royalty check doesn’t bounce. Ah yes, commercial fiction, the lifeblood of book publishing. There are bestsellers and blockbusters, runaway bestsellers and must reads. There are even bestsellers that don’t make it to anyone’s bestseller list and bestselling authors whose books don’t make back their advances. If any of this makes sense to you, it’s likely you’ve been working in publishing way too long. Bestselling fiction is the embarrassed raison d’être of the book industry.

The strange thing is there are commercial novels that are terribly written, some that are not written by the author named on the cover, and some that are very well written indeed. At first glance, neither publishers nor the reading public appear to distinguish among them.

Nevertheless, thrillers are meant to thrill, and if they do not, they will disappear rather quickly, shredded or remaindered. Unless one happens to be Dan Brown. It really isn’t my intention to denigrate this writer to any great extent. The Da Vinci Code was wildly successful because it relied on a very powerful myth, that of Mary Magdalene, a sort of meta-myth for the subjugation of women under Christianity. The curious thing is that Dan Brown not only didn’t invent this myth, but he actually borrowed its contemporary iteration from a book that had been on the nonfiction bestseller lists some 20 years earlier, Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Nominally nonfiction, this volume was the brainchild of three English writers, Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. The idea of a very human Christ whose wife survived him and whose descendants are still among us is strangely compelling.

Without the Magdalene myth, Dan Brown is pretty standard fare. I’ve actually read the opening 50 pages of Angels and Demons, his first novel. It isn’t exactly terrible, but nor was I compelled to read further. As for The Lost Symbol, Philip Hensher writing in The Spectator unleashed about as devastating a review as I would want to see. And if you want secret conspiracies about who really rules the world, I think Taylor Caldwell used to do this sort of thing a lot better.

Genre—or Not

Now aside from blockbusters, there are genre titles, another species of commercial fiction. This would include writers whose individual titles may or may not make it to the bestseller lists but whose books sell successfully, one after another. Nora Roberts, and one presumes her staff of writers, actually writes quite well, given the genre she is working in. She most definitely writes for her audience, in the nearly 200 books she’s published. If she truly does write each and every word of the novels herself, she is indeed a genius of sorts.

And I have to admit I have a soft spot for Dick Francis, the former steeplechase jockey who has written several dozen mystery novels, some set in the world of horse racing, some not. It would be difficult to dislike a man who was on his way to winning the Grand National in 1956 when his horse skidded to a halt on its belly some 50 yards from the finish line for no apparent reason. Neither horse nor jockey was injured. The photos can be seen in Francis’s autobiography, The Sport of Queens.

Not quite selling on this level, there are a multitude of novelists, most commonly authors of well-crafted mysteries, who publish book after literate book. Iain Pears and Michael Dibdin come to mind, but I would also count writers of historical mysteries here—Caleb Carr, Ann Perry, David Liss, and Ross King, to name just a few. The irony is that the best of these books are better written and more intellectually engaging than many self-styled literary novels.

I’m not in any way qualified to talk about horror or science fiction, as I haven’t read anything in either genre for many years. But writers everywhere should be grateful to Stephen King for two reasons. The first is for demonstrating in 2000 that a writer could release a novel directly on the web and make serious money. The second is for championing the late Raymond Carver’s initial drafts against the pernicious and generally creepy editing of Gordon Lish.

When bestselling authors realize they don’t need publishers at all, the game is well and truly over.

Postscript
One of the more bizarre episodes connected with the blog was an e-mail message from an angry individual who was convinced I had written something positive about Dan Brown. Now, it should be clear that Dan Brown is an atrocious prose stylist. This is obvious and has been demonstrated by dozens if not hundreds book reviewers around the world. I did not feel it necessary to repeat what others had written. As for my correspondent, there was something familiar about the hectoring tone. It then occurred to me that he might be a grumpy middle-aged writer of my distant acquaintance who remains strangely impervious to the uses of understatement and irony.

There is something about Dan Brown’s financial success that renders grown men extremely unhappy. Whether his wide readership has been achieved in spite of or because of his lurid adjectives and deficient sentences I will leave as an open question.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Reader’s Role

In my most recent post, “Literary What, Literary Who?” (December 21), I spent an inordinate amount of space attempting to define literary fiction. My conclusion, not entirely unprecedented, was that a literary novel is one that approaches narrative in a more complex fashion than does commercial fiction.

It wasn’t until a few days later that a reader drew my attention to an article that appeared in The Atlantic back in 2001. In “A Reader’s Manifesto” B.R. Myers launched a sustained attack on the literary novel as currently practiced. Not on the concept of “the literary,” but on the pretentiousness of what the publishing industry considers to be literary fiction. Myers was in a sense attacking the issue from a viewpoint opposite to mine—he argues that literary fiction is wildly overrated, awarded a prestige it does not deserve. He proceeds to attack a number of writers much celebrated in the 1990s. Had he written the article today, he would perhaps have selected a slightly different set of works to attack, but I suspect his conclusion would have been the same.

The technique is to take passages out of context and dismantle the prose style. In this way, writers as diverse as Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and David Gutterson are found wanting. Several of these are writers I’ve read and enjoyed. Nevertheless, much of the writing Myers uncovers is simply bad, some of it laughable, nearly all of it stilted and pretentious. Now, it’s very easy to do this—one could similarly find passages in Henry James or Proust, take them out of context, and expose them to ridicule. I remember coming across a couple of volumes a number of years ago in the Gotham Book Mart, The Best of Bad Hemingway and The Best of Bad Faulkner. True, these were parodies written in the style of these authors. But they worked because the parodists knew the originals very well.

My complaint about contemporary literary fiction is somewhat different. There is a distinction between pretention and ambition. Most current fiction doesn’t aim very high. I am extremely tired of reading about characters I would not want to spend any time with. I’m not talking about Captain Hook, Dracula, or the Marquis de Sade, colorful but dangerous characters. No, I am driven to the point of violence by reading about characters who lead shallow lives and whom I would find frustrating and irritating in real life.

The writers Myers attacks are intelligent, sophisticated people. For the most part, their characters are not. This is a serious problem. When Dickens wrote about the poor and dispossessed, he did so with overwhelming humanity. When Sapphire writes about an illiterate girl, we feel sympathy for the character. But in clever, knowing literary fiction, how are we as readers supposed to view characters their author looks down upon, whether consciously or unconsciously?

My other major complaint is the lack of intellectual content in contemporary fiction. And by that, I mean subtle, fully integrated intellectual content, ideas that cannot otherwise be paraphrased (vide “The Heresy of Paraphrase,” by Cleanth Brooks). Dickens’ emotional content is more subtle and more highly nuanced than simply saying “Poverty is bad.” Proust says something infinitely more complex than “Time and memory are strange.”

Far too much literary fiction, particularly short stories, reads as if it was written in a writing workshop. Which is to say, written in an attempt to impress an audience of people who know a bit about writing, a bit about their own lives, but not much else beyond pop culture. There is a certain amount of cleverness, a very shallow cleverness. This does not wear well.

How did things get this way? Well, yes, perhaps we do live in a second-rate culture, the culture we as consumers have created. Writers who are a product of this culture cannot help but express it, even as they think they are providing criticism. And if the gatekeepers of literary culture have faulty, second-rate taste, the works they publish will be mediocre at best.

And so, dear reader, perhaps we get the literature we deserve.