On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri

 

Jhumpa Lahiri
Jhumpa Lahiri

The New York Times published several pieces on Reading and Writing in the Sunday Review section on March 18, 2012.  At the time I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s eloquent essay called “My Life’s Sentences,” which I planned to reread sometime.  I kept the whole section, intending to read the other pieces, “when I had time.”  Of course I forgot about it all, until recently when I was reading Francine Prose’s (how did she get a last name like that?) book called Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who want to Write Them.  That sounded like me.  Prose’s Guide is a very interesting and valuable book, with chapters on subjects like “Close Reading,” “Words,” “Sentences,” “Paragraphs,” “Narration,” “Character,” “Dialogue…”  I’ll report on that book down the road; I’m only as far as “Paragraphs.”  But reading Prose’s chapter on “Sentences” made Lahiri’s piece pop back into my head, so I did reread it, and I’m so glad I did. It’s wonderful! http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/my-lifes-sentences/

Of course you can read the whole thing for yourself, when you have time (!), along with the other pieces in the Review section which I still have yet to read.  But in the meantime, I’ll give you some quotes from it to whet your appetite for the whole essay, which I promise is worth your while.

Lahiri, author of Unaccustomed Earth, The Namesake, and Interpreter of Maladies and one of the best writers writing today,  begins by describing how in college she’d underline sentences that struck her, “that made me look up from the page…”:

“I noted them for their clarity, their rhythm, their beauty and their enchantment.  For surely it is a magical thing for a handful of words, artfully arranged, to stop time.  To conjure a place, a person, a situation, in all its specificity and dimensions.  To affect us and alter us, as profoundly as real people and things do.” 

She cites a sentence from Joyce’s “Araby,” which appears towards the beginning of the short story:

“’The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.’  I have never forgotten it.  This seems to me as perfect as a sentence can be. It is measured, unguarded, direct and transcendent, all at once.  It is full of movement, of imagery.  It distills a precise mood. It radiates with meaning and yet its sensibility is discreet.”

It’s fascinating to me to hear her response to this sentence and her explication of what makes it special to her.  It’s worth reading her words about it again.  Prose’s book is making me more conscious of the kind of close reading Lahiri is talking about.  It’s so easy, given our sped-up attention spans, to skim over things, especially words. But to slow down and pay real attention, to savor as both Lahiri and Prose do in the examples they give, is to increase our pleasure in reading and maybe our skills as writers. 

Reading this Joyce sentence, I thought of something I try to do myself, which is make sentences do more than one thing.  I notice in sentences I read how much a single sentence can accomplish, and not just in terms of providing information.  As Lahiri demonstrates above, a sentence can do many things all at once.  When people sense that their writing is thin or one-dimensional, it may be because their sentences are only doing one thing.  Or maybe not the right things.  I’ll try to give some examples of sentences doing more than one thing in a later post. 

Lahiri describes her own writing process: Continue reading “On Sentences, Part I: Jhumpa Lahiri”

Writing about Other People in Autobiographical Writing

One of the things that comes up a lot when people are writing memoir or autobiographical stories is other people– those you’re now exposing to the world: your parents who, let’s face it, could have done a better job; your children whom you love dearly but who obviously inherited a few errant genes; your relatives whom you will still have to see for Christmas dinner;  your lover who texted you to break up;  your long suffering spouse who now has his sperm count in print; your friends who hadn’t realized you were taking notes; your enemies who got off lucky considering what you could have said… 

I’ve had some experience with some of this myself.  I called my first book “autobiographical fiction,” hoping that would give me cover for what was basically almost pure autobiography.  I told myself it was sorta fiction, in that I was shaping the material into short stories, and, hey, one story was completely made-up.  This was before memoir was so prevalent, and I wouldn’t have been able to write the stories that way anyway.  I needed the cover. 

But after Feeding the Eagles was accepted for publication, I had to face the music.  I had to show my parents and sister the horrible things I had written about them. Actually, I didn’t know if anything was really horrible.  To me the “material” had moved out of the personal into a different sphere, which I considered literature.  At least it was literature I aspired to.  And when I thought about audience, I imagined readers a few states over who didn’t know me. 

The story in the collection that worried me the most was called “The Batsons of Brown and Batson.”  It should have been called “The Bates of Byrum and Bates.”  We were the Bates, and Byrum and Bates had been my father’s radio and TV store on North Main Street in Greenville, S.C.   For many years when I was growing up my father’s store was prosperous.   But then things changed as things tend to do.  The mall opened,  there was more competition, I think Japan started making TVs – I don’t quite know, because I was hiding out in graduate school all the way across the country, not wanting to know too much about what was going on at home.  What was happening was that my parents were in the process of losing everything: the house, the cabin, the store.    So naturally I had to write a story about it.  Here’s what I wrote (cleverly disguised as the character “Miriam”) about coming home after my parents had had to sell our big house on Paris Mountain and had saved a few things for a last trip until I got home:

“The new owners, the Hardings, had spent a lot of time in Turkey. Over my mother’s wall-to-wall carpets, they had laid their own Persian rugs. My room was a sewing room. I kept my dark glasses on for the tour. Tears streamed down my face, and I had a bleery impression of a lot of brass.”

My parents did not discuss their business in public.  To my mother especially, it seemed important at the time to keep up a good front.  Maybe that was what allowed her to go on.  Here’s how I put it in the story:

“To explain to people what had happened to them, my mother said that they had sold their big house because it was ‘just too big for the two of them,’ and that they were living in the Funderburk house ‘until they could decide where to build.’ Standing beside my mother at the Winn Dixie or in Belks, hearing her deliver these lines so smoothly, I fell into a trance. I was almost a believer myself. Later, when I confronted her about it, she hissed at me, ‘I have to live in this town, even if you don’t.’ Later she said sorrowfully, ‘I just couldn’t stand to have someone come up to me on the street and feel sorry for us!’”

It was a big, dark secret, and I wrote a story about it, and it was going to be published.  Undoubtedly people in Greenville would read it.  What I had worked for and longed for, to have my collection of stories published, came with a price: a deeply uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.  I loved my parents and I hadn’t trashed them.  I had just revealed stuff that I knew was private.  It’s a dilemma that writers often face.  If you don’t write about what is most painful or troubling to you, you may not be writing what you want to write or even should be writing, maybe your best material.  Continue reading “Writing about Other People in Autobiographical Writing”

Missing Lorrie Moore’s Writing: One of the Best

Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore

If you’re following this blog with any regularity, I’m sure you’re relieved that I’m off my JCO’s A Widow’s Story bender.  I’m “recovering.”  Like they say, one day at a time…

I just had a fun weekend in Madison, which I had never been to.  It is a cool, hip, funky, populist town where everyone looks cool, hip and funky.  On Williamson Street where we were staying, I saw a guy sweeping his sidewalk whose hair was pretty much like a large, flattened broom head sticking straight up on top of his skull, held upright by some spackling substance. Very cool, hip and funky.  Every restaurant listed which local farms its food was from, and every cafe had kombucha on the menu.  Though I am certainly cool, hip and funky, the only reason I even know what kombucha is is because two women in my yoga class, an acupuncturist and homeopathic doctor, make it.  I’ve never tasted it.  For those of you not cool, hip, and funky enough to know, kombucha is an effervescent fermented tea that’s supposed to be good for you.

Being in Madison made me remember Lorrie Moore’s novel, The Gate at the Stairs, which I didn’t find particularly successful as a novel.  I love her wonderful short stories but Gate seemed disjointed, as if she had cobbled together too many things that she couldn’t meld.  Her form might be the short story and not the novel, was what I thought.  The story itself, the plot, didn’t grab me.  And there was a scene towards the end in which Tassie Keltjim, the young university student who narrates the novel, climbs into a coffin with a dead person that caused me to go, Oh Come on!

But Madison made me think about Moore, who has taught at the U. of Wisconsin there for many years. Gate is set in a Madison-like mid-western university town call Troy, “the ‘Athens of the Midwest,’” a hilarious oxymoron in my opinion, pure Lorrie Moore.  When we strolled the campus I kept hoping I’d see her.  Not that I know her, but I thought I’d recognize her from photos or a from a couple of her readings.  It’s funny how that novel, which I hadn’t read since it came out in 2009, kept coming to mind, superimposing itself on my experience of Madison.  When we ate at a nice restaurant there, I heard a faint echo, as if dinner were being narrated by Moore.

One of the characters in The Gate at the Stairs, Sarah, owns just such a restaurant as we dined in.  Tassie, who will become the baby-sitter for Sarah and her husband’s adopted baby, comments on Sarah’s restaurant:

“Le Petit Moulin. I knew of it a little. It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrée freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies…I knew Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments—timbales, quenelles—God only knew what they were…The lowest price for dinner was twenty-two dollars, the highest, forty-five. Forty-five! You could get an oil-and-water bra for that price!”

I had no idea what an oil and water bra was, so I Googled it. They are bras filled with oil and water, believe it or not.  Now I want one.

Tassie grew up in the country nearby, and seeing the landscape around Madison and some of the fresh-faced Wisconsin students on campus brought to mind this passage from the novel:

“I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, ‘the Athens of the Midwest,’ as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Columbian tribe I’d read about in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.” Continue reading “Missing Lorrie Moore’s Writing: One of the Best”

Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir

I just came upon a new (to me) book on memoir writing which I want to recommend: Fearless Confessions: a Writer’s Guide to Memoir, by Sue William Silverman ((http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/index.htm).  I learned things from it and will use some of her ideas and language in the memoir workshop I’m teaching in Key West in January.   She also has the most amazing bibliography of creative non-fiction books on her website http://www.suewilliamsilverman.com/click_here_to_see_sue_silverman_s_list_of_contemporary_literary_nonfiction__71566.htm

I thought I had read all the books on the craft of memoir, but nooooo. Lately I’ve sort of read two other (to me) new ones: The Memoir Project, by Marion Roach Smith, and Shimmering Images: A Handy Little Guide to Writing Memoir, by Lisa Dale Norton.  Of these three, I liked Fearless Confessions the best, but I can’t really do justice or say anything particularly helpful about the other two since it’s been a while since I sort of read them.  You can check them out.  I still like the “classic” Writing the Memoir by Judith Barrington, and also Living to Tell the Tale, by Jane Taylor McDonnell.  I have a memoir writing bibliography under “articles,” and it definitely needs updating.  Let me know if you recommend other guides to writing memoir that I should include.

Sue William Silverman has written two memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You, which received the AWP Award in Creative Nonfiction, and Love Sick: One Woman’s Journey through Sexual Addiction.”  I haven’t read either.  She says in the Preface that she initially conceived of her memoir guide “as a way to redeem the notion of ‘confessing’ for silenced women.”  I didn’t realize that anyone felt silenced anymore.  But I’m sure Silverman knows more about feeling silenced and writing about taboo subjects than I do.  She draws on her own experiences of writing about incest and sexual addiction to inform her guide.  I want to make clear that you don’t have to have such painful material to gain from Fearless Confessions.  She personalizes the material so that you feel she’s speaking directly to you, she uses faux-memoirs at times to illustrate points, has writing exercises, and includes examples of others’ essays to round things out.  You may not use all her ideas, but I think you’ll definitely find things here that are useful to you as a memoir writer. Continue reading “Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir”

Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder”

I’m reading the new Russell Banks’ novel, Lost Memory of Skin, and I’m pretty enthralled with it. I’ll review it here when I’ve finished it.  It’s about a young man known as The Kid who has done time for a sex crime (apparently sex with an underage girl, but I’m only halfway through and it hasn’t been fully revealed yet), has to wear a GPS monitoring device, and can’t live within 2,500 feet of anywhere children might gather—which reduces him to living under a south Florida causeway with other sex offenders.  A sociology Professor doing research on homelessness and sex offenders befriends him…but that’s as far as I’m going to go now with the plot, because that’s as far as I’ve gotten in the book.

I am a big fan of Banks’ robust writing.  I’m conscious as I’m reading Lost Memory of how much I’m enjoying the physical descriptions of people and places, especially how he evokes south Florida, and not the places tourists usually go.  Here, for example, is part of the description of Benbow’s, an old squatters fish camp on Anaconda Key near the sewage treatment plant where the Professor has gone seeking The Kid, who has been run out of his “home” under the causeway by a police raid:

“Beyond the clearing, scattered in the shade of live oaks and palm trees, in no evident pattern and to no recognizable purpose, are a half-dozen unpainted shanties and low, shedlike buildings with corrugated iron roofs. It’s a random-seeming collection of old handmade buildings, most of them windowless and half-open to the elements.  Beyond the buildings a rusted, dented, twenty-foot Airstream house-trailer with flattened tires has been set on cinder blocks.  A hand-painted wooden plaque with the name Benbow is bolted to the aluminum outer wall above the entrance.”

I love this kind of carefully observed physical detail.  Even as I was reading I noticed how pinned to the page I was by it.  Henry James had a term, “weak specification,” where the details are so general, imprecise or vague that the mind skims over the page. Banks’ writing is the exact opposite of weak specification. When I read him, I am seeing so clearly what he describes that I experience a couple of kinds of pleasure.  One is just “being there,” feeling my eyes and mind fully engaged by what he is making me see.  Another pleasure going on at the same time is admiring the actual writing itself.  I noted those flat tires on the Airstream and how they amplified and intensified my ability to see that rusted, dented Airstream trailer, making it all the more vivid, helping me visualize it all the more particularly.  Thinking about the description now, I’d say the description as Banks finalized it is an A description; a B description would be a rusted, dented, twenty-foot Airstream house-trailer… (sans flat tire and cinder blocks); a C description would simply say an old Airstream house-trailer…; and uh oh, a D description would be an old trailer…. Beyond that is writer’s block or should be.

On the next page I marked the following description to study: Continue reading “Russell Banks’ Descriptions and “Try Harder””

David Huddle’s Four Categories of Prose

 

The Writing Habit by David Huddle

One of my favorite books about writing is David Huddle’s wonderful collection of essays, The Writing Habit.  If you’re a writer and you don’t know this book, you might want to get it.  Since it came out in 1994, you can get a used copy via Amazon real cheap.  You will find much food for thought in it. 

Huddle taught writing for 38 years at the University of Vermont, and has published 17 books of fiction, poetry, and essays.  He has a new novel out this fall called Nothing Can Make Me Do This.  Reading these pieces is like an intimate conversation with an experienced, kind, modest, accomplished writer/teacher who wants to help you.

The first essay is called “The Writing Habit,” and deals with how to get writing done.  Huddle starts by saying the “major difficulty a writer must face has nothing to do with language: it is finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible.  The first project for a writer is that of constructing a writing life.”  He discusses the writing habits of several writers, and tells about his own over the years.  He’s my guy when he says “I’m convinced that naps are an essential part of a writing life, that they ‘clean’ the brain by discharging the clutter and allowing the subconscious to address some of the central issues of the morning’s writing.  If I know I want to do some writing in the afternoon, I’ll always try to schedule that session immediately after a nap.”  Now I can justify the many naps I take.  I’m cleaning my brain. 

Other rich pieces in The Writing Habit include “Memory’s Power,” “Story-Truth,” “Issues of Character,” “Let’s Say you Wrote Badly,” “On Restraint,” and “What You Get for Good Writing.”  But the essay I want to talk about today is called “Puttering in the Prose Garden: Prose Improvements for Fiction-Writers.”  I found it interesting to see how he describes the characteristics of four prose styles and I thought you might too. 

Continue reading “David Huddle’s Four Categories of Prose”

Eudora Welty on “Place in Fiction”

Eudora Welty

One of the pleasures of reading French Lessons recently (see post on November 1 ) was getting to be in Paris for a day.  I have only been in Paris once, twelve years ago, and I was due for a visit.  French Lessons is a novel that is impossible to imagine being set anywhere else, so thoroughly intertwined are the characters, themes and place.  Thinking about how essential place is to that book (and to others I’ve read recently) reminded me of Eudora Welty’s wonderful essay called “Place in Fiction,” in her collection of essays and reviews, The Eye of the Story.  With sections entitled “On Writers”; “On Writing”; “Reviews”; and “Personal and Occasional Pieces,”  Eye is a gold mine for writers, so if you haven’t checked it out, please do.  Welty’s luminous quality of mind shines through every thought she has and ever line she writes.  She was one of my favorite writers in bygone days.  I’m sorry to say I haven’t read her in a long time, but at one time, when she was still living, I read a great deal of her. I loved all her short stories, Delta Wedding, The Golden Apples, Losing Battles, The Optimist’s Daughter, and her photographs.  She was my idol and my ideal as a writer: I thought of her as a consummate artist.

She begins the essay by saying “Place is one of the lesser angels that watch over the racing hand of fiction, perhaps the one that gazes benignly enough from off to one side, while others, like character, plot, symbolic meaning, and so on, are doing a good deal of wing-beating about her chair, and feeling, who is my eyes carries the crown, soars highest of them all and rightly relegates place into the shade.”  Of course in most of her work, place in the form of the South hardly seems a “lesser angel.”  She exemplifies what she calls “the goodness—the worth—in the writer himself: place is where he [she] has his roots, place is where he stands; in his experience out of which he writes, it provides the base of reference; in his work, the point of view.” Maybe we’re so used to taking the place of narratives for granted that we don’t think much about how essential place is to making those stories real, alive, informing of the people and emotions, and how essential to the writer place is.  Welty’s essay brings all that to the foreground for me. 

She tells us that “Being shown how to locate, to place, any account is what does most toward making us believe it, not merely allowing us to, may the account be the facts or a lie; and that is where place in fiction [and I would include in memoir] comes in.  Fiction is a lie.  Never in its inside thought, always in its outside dress.” 

She gives us this beautiful metaphor for how place functions in fiction:

Continue reading “Eudora Welty on “Place in Fiction””

Productivity, Process and a Little Dinty Moore

I sat down with the Nov/Dec Poets and Writers magazine to read an article called “A Writer’s Daily Habit: Four Steps to Higher Productivity,” only to discover it was written by Ellen Sussman, whose novel French Lessons I’ve just posted a blog about.  Quelle coïncidence!  I’m always interested in how other writers get it done, and hey, I’ll try anything.  I didn’t resonate with the word “productivity,” but I suppose that’s what it comes down to.  And I liked the promise of four steps.  Four EASY steps, I was hoping… ((http://www.pw.org/content/novemberdecember_2011)

Well, the article got off to a slow start for me, as in YAWN.  There was the old saw about how you have to “claim” (or is it “own”?) that you’re a writer.  I don’t seem to be at many parties period, let alone ones where I’m put on the spot about what I do.  I’m not sure how important it is to actual writing to say you’re a writer.  Hopefully she was just warming up.

Next came “write every day.”  Okay, I agree with that, if you can.  And I was interested to see she sets a word minimum of a thousand words.  I try to do that when I’m drafting, but revising is a whole different ballgame.

She starts her writing day with five or ten minutes of meditation, to calm and clear her mind.  But the next thing was new to me.  She recommended a software program called Freedom that blocks the Internet!  It was actually a relief to see that she shares my addiction.  You can buy Freedom for $10.00 at macfreedom.com and when you sign up, it asks you how many minutes you need to block at a time.  Maybe I’ll try the Freedom thing, since I do find the temptation of the Internet and email quite a distraction.  I remember being so impressed that Jonathan Franzen cut himself off completely from the Internet when he was writing.  But then I remembered I’m no Jonathan Franzen, writing or otherwise.

Now here was what interested me the most in the article.  Sussman calls it “the unit system,” and the idea is based on research into how to help graduate students structure their time while writing their theses.  “Divide your time into units.  Each unit is one hour of time. For the first forty-five minutes of that hour, you write.  You do nothing but write.  You don’t stop writing.  Then, no matter where you are at the forty-five minute mark, you get up from your desk.  You take a fifteen minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.”

Continue reading “Productivity, Process and a Little Dinty Moore”

Revising “Fun” in the North Woods

 

We’re having fun! (Well, one of us…)

Not to horn in on Dorothy Parker’s territory too much, but if you want to hear about the gratifying joys of revision, go sit by someone else.  If you want to hear about my torturous, tedious and ridiculous attempts this week of revising my novel in the North Woods of Wisconsin, come sit by me.

Well, it WAS beautiful up there by Lake Namakagen. I was extremely lucky to have five days to myself at the cottage to dig into my novel, which my agent has not been able to sell, and which I hadn’t read in awhile.  But folks, a 285 page novel is a lot to try to revise in a week.  I worked mornings, afternoons, and evenings, and the more I did, the more I needed to do.  At least I could go out in the 75 degree sunny weather occasionally, with red and yellow leaves falling all around me, and throw a tennis ball like a normal person for the dawg.  I felt like I was chasing a ball myself at my computer all the time.  Fetch, return, fetch, return….

Okay, for starters I felt confused about which draft of the novel on my computer was the latest one.  How this could be, I can’t explain, nor did the helpful Word date that magically pops up clarify matters.  I thought I had the latest version, but then I’d sort of remember having made some changes earlier (but I wasn’t sure) and they weren’t in the draft I thought was the most recent.  I’ve had so many drafts, and named them all more or less the same thing, the title of the novel, with some catchy variation (like “old,” “new,” “revised,” “latest”) and have modified them enough to keep changing the dates.  I found myself constantly switching back and forth between two older versions in confusion as I built yet a new draft—called, cleverly, “Answer revised fall 2011.”  Sometimes I’d copy and paste a chapter from one draft into the wrong draft of another version and then be mystified about where it had gone.  Did I actually have the IQ to revise a novel?

I was further mystified about why I had so much of the novel in present tense, when in fact I now saw it needed to be in past tense.  Is there anything more tedious than changing a few thousand “says” into “saids”?  Plus all that tiny mousing made my right elbow ache and my forearm burn.  I know about find and replace, but I’ve made big messes of things before, when the computer will change words that contain the find letters and replace them in the midst of some different (longer) word, thus creating totally new, incomprehensible words.  But beyond the time consuming chore of changing the tenses, I wondered why I had felt at one time that present tense worked.  What had changed in me, to see it differently now?  It hadn’t been seven years (or had it?) so all my cells hadn’t been replaced. What had seemed so “right” about present tense earlier that now seemed so “wrong”?  Would I be changing it all to future tense next round?

Continue reading “Revising “Fun” in the North Woods”

A Cautionary Agent Tale

I read something that’s too rich in too many ways not to bring it to your attention immediately!  Or at least that’s the way it struck me.

I just bought the next novel I plan to read, We Need to Talk about Kevin, by Lionel Shriver.  I’ve known about this novel for several years, and have been afraid to read it for fear it will blow me out of the water as a writer.  I’ve written an (unpublished) novel about the mother of a serial killer, and I knew Kevin was written from the point of view of the mother of a boy who goes Columbine, murdering students and school personnel when he’s not quite sixteen.  I also knew Shriver’s novel won the Orange Prize (though I didn’t actually know what that was) and that it was a huge success.  I’ve been reluctant to see just how much better Kevin is than my pitiful effort.  But now I figure maybe I’ll learn something from it.

Reading the first page did make me feel like…well, you know. It was REAL writing, really GREAT writing…the voice incredibly detailed, vivid and THICK.  The voice of the mother in my book seems depressingly thin in comparison.  Well, it was 11:00 o’clock at night, too late to really read (and be able to sleep, given where I was headed), so I just flipped to the back and saw something called “Failed Novels, Maternal Ambivalence, and the Orange Prize,” so I began to read that instead of the novel itself.

Shriver begins by describing how when she started writing Kevin in 1999, she felt dismal.  “My last novel sat wanly on my C:drive, unpublished.  The previous six had all lost money.  Worse, numerous other authors shared the same leaky boat: with sheaves of nice reviews to keep them warm at night (paper is a great insulator—ask the homeless) but no prospects.  Nuts.  I didn’t even feel special.” 

She goes on to describe how her agent took a month to read the manuscript and then sent this email: “I don’t see how I’m going to sell this…For the life of me, I don’t know who is going to fall in love with this novel….I just don’t think anyone is going to want to publish a book about a kid doing such maxed-out, over-the-top, evil things, especially when it’s written from such an unsympathetic point of view….I can’t go out with it unless I know I can sell it.  It would be a bad business decision for both of us…I’m also extremely fearful of the idea that some kid might read this and get some copycat idea to use a crossbow.  Just imagine how that would feel.”

Don’t you just hate it when agents use language like that: “I can’t go out with it…”  I just hate that.  So self-important. 

Now get this: the agent proposed several “editorial remedies”: “’Allude to’ but never stage the very climactic murder scene toward which the entire novel progressed.  Turn the book into a comedy ‘in that way which ONLY YOU can do.’ Or write about a kid who was a little unpleasant, so long as he didn’t hurt anybody.”

Continue reading “A Cautionary Agent Tale”