Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for November 2010

Good sex in fiction

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Today’s awarding of the Bad Sex in Fiction prize to novelist Rowan Somerville (whose book, The Shape of Her, is unfortunately unavailable in the U.S.) raises the obvious question of what good sex in fiction is, exactly, and how a writer should go about writing it.

When I think about sex in fiction, I’m reminded of what Julia Roberts says about her refusal to do nude scenes: “To act with my clothes on is a performance; to act with my clothes off is a documentary.” In the case of a novel, this means that sex often takes the reader’s attention away from the story and puts it squarely on the writer—on his word choice, on what he chooses to describe (or not), even on his own sexual proclivities. (I know I’m not the only reader who has wondered about, say, Nicholson Baker.) And that’s the last thing any writer should want.

In general, the rules for writing about sex are the same as writing about everything else: be concise, revise, don’t take the reader out of the story, and, unless you’re John Updike, tread very, very carefully. Which brings me to my own favorite sex scene in all of fiction, and one of my favorite scenes of any kind, from Updike’s Rabbit is Rich.

Near the end of the novel, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, middle-aged and married, on a trip to Jamaica with three other couples, ends up engaging in a bit of wife-swapping, although not with his first choice. He goes reluctantly to a hotel room with Thelma, his friend Ronnie’s wife, and as they’re on the verge of adultery we get this wonderful moment:

Thelma asks, “You mind using Ronnie’s toothbrush? I’ll be a while in here, you better take the bathroom first.”

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

And so on, for almost a page, as Rabbit looks at Thelma and Ronnie’s bathroom supplies and wonders what Consumer Reports had to say about toothpaste. Only then, does he step back into the bedroom, where Updike spends the next twelve pages describing a series of increasingly awkward sexual encounters.

Updike, of course, won the Bad Sex in Fiction prize’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. The fact is, though, that he wrote really well about sex, as he wrote really well about everything. I’m not going to destroy this scene with too much analysis, except to say that Updike’s sense of how Rabbit’s adulterous eye would stray to shaving cream brands is a reminder of what made him the best American novelist of the last half century. It’s also a reminder, in case we needed it, that most sex in fiction is inherently ridiculous.

So just play it safe.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Fanfic and the writer’s apprenticeship

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Fuel Your Writing has a nice little piece this morning on whether fanfic is worth a writer’s time. I have two tidbits of my own:

1. There exists a Kung Fu Panda fanfic, “A Different Lesson,” that is 632,000 words long. (According to TV Tropes, “very little of it is filler; there’s just that much going on.”) By way of comparison, War and Peace weighs in at a mere 460,000 words. I don’t have much else to say about this, except that it’s possibly my favorite fact ever.

2. If you believe, as I do, that a writer’s apprenticeship is best served in public, then fanfic is incredibly useful. Back when pulp magazines were still thriving and a strong market existed for paperback originals, it was more than possible for a young writer to learn his craft in public, with actual readers, and even get paid for the privilege. These days, when most pulp magazines have folded and publishing is increasingly focused on a few big books, that kind of public apprenticeship is all but impossible, except for a lucky few.

Which is where fanfic comes in. Given the broad range of fanfic that exists—for every television show, most big movies, and an incredibly large number of literary sources—it isn’t hard for a writer to find a fandom that might accommodate the kind of writing he or she wants to do. And stories written in a popular fandom, if executed with even a modicum of style, will be read, for pleasure, by real people. Even novels. Even screenplays. Even radically experimental works. And the author will get feedback, much of it encouraging, from people under no obligation to read his or her work at all.

Writing this sort of fiction, of course, poses problems of its own. Among other things, a fanfic writer’s capacity for creating original characters can easily wither and die. But if approached with care, fanfic can be an extraordinary opportunity for a writer to develop craft and find a voice in front of a real audience. (Naomi Novik, among other novelists, has credited her work in fanfic with much of her development as an author.) Anyone interested in writing for a living would certainly be advised to consider it.

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 12:52 pm

Progress report

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Because my thoughts on writing are inevitably colored by my own experience of the publishing process, I’ll occasionally be posting updates as Kamera works its way to bookstores. Here, then, is the story so far:

On September 10, my agent submitted Kamera to publishers. On October 6, after a fairly grueling submission process, we received an offer from New American Library, a subsidiary of Penguin Books, to publish Kamera and an untitled sequel in a two-book deal. After speaking briefly on the phone with my new editor, I immediately headed off on a two-week vacation to Peru and Bolivia, which my wife and I had planned some months before. (Needless to say, I was very glad to get an offer before our departure.)

On November 17, I received a five-page editorial letter from my editor, outlining various changes and revisions, mostly minor, that he wanted to see in the manuscript. I’m currently finishing up this revised draft, which I’m scheduled to deliver to NAL by the middle of next week. After that, I’m flying to New York, where I’ll finally have a chance to meet my editor in person, and hopefully get a better sense of what happens next. Stay tuned!

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 11:07 am

What I’m reading this week

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Mailer by Peter Manso. Purchased for $2.65 at the Borders on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. (It’s closing in January, so everything is marked down 20% or more.) I’d devoured this book growing up—it’s an oral biography with a lot of gossip—but hadn’t seen the revised edition, with its incredibly vitriolic afterword by Manso. His disillusionment with the last two decades of Mailer’s career isn’t hard to understand, but his tone of condescension and bitterness toward everyone involved—including Mailer’s wife and kids—makes it difficult to take him seriously. Still, this is a mostly fine book that I’m glad to have in my library again.

The New Cold War by Edward Lucas. Research for my second novel, which I’m scheduled to deliver in September.

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. I recently realized that I could put together a complete collection of Calvin and Hobbes strips for only $24 by shopping the bargain bin at Better World Books (easily the best online used bookstore around), so I snatched them up right away. This collection, which came out in 1992, probably represents the strip’s creative peak.

The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. This is the most useful recent guide I’ve seen on the publishing process, with hundreds of pages devoted to what happens after you sign your book contract. (The only thing missing, as far as I can tell, is a guide to writer’s taxes.) Not to be confused with The Essential Guide to Lesbian Conception, Pregnancy, and Birth, which is the first thing that came up when I searched for it on Amazon. (Although that looks pretty interesting, too.)

Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 9:28 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

November 30, 2010 at 8:05 am

Posted in Movies, Quote of the Day, Writing

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MFA, NYC, and the Classics

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On Friday, Slate published a long article, which originally appeared in N+1, about the dueling literary cultures of New York City and the typical MFA graduate program. The article is a bit of a slog—the author, Chad Harbach, while clearly talented and smart, veers uncertainly between jargon words like “normative” and precious coinages like “unself-consciousness”—but it’s hard not to grant one of its underlying points: that it’s now possible for a writer to make a comfortable living, primarily as a teacher, by appealing to a tiny slice of academic readers, and that this approach is, if anything, easier, safer, and more of a sure thing than the writing of “commercial” fiction, even as it manages to portray itself as the more honest and authentic way of life.

Now, I don’t have an MFA. And I’m the author of what is intended, frankly, as a big mainstream novel. (Whether it succeeds or not is another matter entirely.) But I do know what Harbach means when he notes that MFA programs are becoming “increasingly preprofessorial”—that is, a credential on the way to a teaching job, rather than preparation for a life as a working writer. It’s a trajectory that seems very similar to that of the Classics, which is something I know about firsthand.

There was a time, or so some would like to believe, when a classical education was seen as an essential part of one’s training for the larger world: it was taken for granted that our lawyers, doctors, and politicians should know some Latin and Greek. These days, though, such departments seem primarily interested in training future professors of Classics. And, perhaps as a direct result, there are fewer and fewer Classics majors every year. (In my graduating class, there were something like fourteen, out of a student body of sixteen hundred.)

The same thing, I think, is likely to happen to MFA departments, if they continue along the track that Harbach describes. If author/professors continue to produce short stories exclusively for one another, interest in literary fiction will gradually die, no matter how many anthologies continue to “disseminate, perpetuate, and replenish” the canon. Like the Classics, university writing programs will remain a comfortable career option for a lucky few, but enrollment will inevitably decline, along with the sense of urgency and risk that all good fiction requires.

The major difference between an MFA and a Classics degree, of course, is that the former is much easier. That, too, is likely to change, especially if, as Harbach tentatively predicts, the MFA comes to focus more on the novel, rather than the short story, and continues to put its primary emphasis on literary theory. After all, with only so many tenured professorships available, there has to be some way to thin out the crowd. And if you don’t believe me, just look at the Classics. If you want to restrict a field to the professorial class, such an approach certainly works. It works only all too well.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Posted in Publishing, Writing

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Quote of the Day

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If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.

—Stephen King

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2010 at 11:41 am

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