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.

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.

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.