Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘J.M. Coetzee

Reading while writing

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Norman Mailer

When Norman Mailer was working on The Naked and the Dead, still in his early twenties, he fell back on a trick that I suspect most novelists have utilized at one time or another. Here how he described it to his biographer Peter Manso:

I had four books on my desk all the time I was writing: Anna Karenina, Of Time and the River, U.S.A., and Studs Lonigan. And whenever I wanted to get in the mood to write I’d read one of them. The atmosphere of The Naked and the Dead, the overspirit, is Tolstoyan; the rococo comes out of Dos Passos; the fundamental, slogging style from Farrell; and the occasional overreach descriptions from Wolfe.

I haven’t looked into this in any systematic way, but I have a feeling that a lot of writers do much the same thing—they select a book by another author whom they admire, and when they start the day’s work, or feel their inspiration starting to flag, they read a few pages of it. If you’re like me, you try to move straight from the last sentence of your chosen model to your own writing, as if to carry over some of that lingering magic. And if you’re lucky, the push it provides will get you through another hour or so of work, at which point you do it again.

I’ve followed this routine ever since I started writing seriously, and it isn’t hard to figure out why it helps. One of the hardest things about writing is starting again after a break, and reading someone else’s pages has the same effect as the advice, often given to young writers, as retyping a paragraph of your work from the day before: like the running start before the long jump, it gives you just enough momentum to carry you past the hardest part. I’ve also developed a set of rather complicated rules about what I can and can’t allow myself to read while working. It needs to be something originally composed in English, since even the best translations lose something of the vitality of a novel in one’s native language. (Years ago, I saw one of Susan Sontag’s early novels described as being written in “translator’s prose,” and I’ve never forgotten it.) It has to be the work of a master stylist, but not so overwhelming or distinctive that the tics begin to overwhelm your own voice: I still vividly remember writing a few pages of a novel shortly after reading some Nabokov, and being humiliated when I went back to read the result the next day. I stay away from such writers for much the same reason that I avoid listening to music when I write these days. It’s all too easy to confuse the emotional effects produced by proximity to another work of art with the virtues of the writing itself. When you’re reading in parallel, you want a writer who bears you forward on the wave of his or her style without drowning you in it.

Ian McEwan

This also means that there are books that I can’t allow myself to read when I’m writing, out of fear that I’ll be contaminated by their influence, for better or for worse. Obviously, I avoid bad writers, but I also steer clear of great writers whom I’m afraid will infect my style. In practice, because I’m nearly always writing something, this means that I’ve avoided certain books for years. It took me a long time to read Cloud Atlas, for instance, because it seemed like exactly the kind of overwhelming stylistic experiment that could only have a damaging impact. Mailer makes a similar point:

I was very careful not to read things that would demoralize me. I knew that instinctively. There’s a navigator in us—I really do believe that—and I think this navigator knew I wanted to be a writer and had an absolute sense of what was good for me and what wasn’t. If somebody had said, “Go read Proust,” I’d say, “No, not now.”

Or as the great Sherlockian scholar Christopher Morley noted: “There is no harm in reading any number of unimportant books for pastime, but the significant books must be taken cautiously. You don’t want them to get in the way of what might perhaps be growing and brooding in yourself, taking its own time.

And this search for books in English that have a great style, but not too much of it, has led to some curious patterns in my reading life. Usually, when I’m working on something and need a helping hand to get me over the rough patches, I go with Ian McEwan. I’m not sure that I’d describe him as my favorite living writer, but he’s arguably the one whose clean, lucid, observant prose comes closest to the ideal that I’d like to see in my own work. You can’t really go wrong with an imitation of McEwan, whereas there are other writers in the same vein, like Updike, who are more likely to lead you astray. With McEwan, at worst, you’ll end up with something boring, but it probably won’t be outright embarrassing. (It reminds me a little of what T.S. Eliot once said along similar lines: “If you follow Dante without talent, you will at worst be pedestrian and flat; if you follow Shakespeare or Pope without talent, you will make an utter fool of yourself.”) McEwan is the closest I’ve found to a foolproof choice, which is why I’m currently reading The Children Act, a few pages at a time, while I’m working up a new short story. James Salter and J.M. Coetzee are two other good options, and if I’m really stuck for inspiration, I’ll often fall back on an old favorite like Deliverance by James Dickey, or even Mailer himself, for early drafts when I’m pretty sure that I’ll have a chance to pare away any excesses of style. Every writer eventually develops his or her own personal list, and there aren’t any wrong answers. You just listen to your navigator. And maybe you don’t read Nabokov.

How much description is enough?

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He is tall and wiry; he has a thin goatee and an earring; he wears a black leather jacket and black leather trousers. He looks older than most students; he looks like trouble.

This description of a character’s appearance appears early in J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, one of my favorite novels of recent years. For our purposes, it doesn’t necessarily matter who the character is. (For the record, he’s the thuggish older boyfriend of the student who is having an affair with the novel’s protagonist.) The description isn’t particularly detailed or specific—it sees the character only on the surface, and is really just a record of a first impression—but it more than serves its purpose. We see this character clearly enough to retain a consistent mental image of how he looks, and, more importantly, how he appears to our protagonist. Like just about every sentence in Coetzee’s novel, this is good, concise writing, economical and concrete. Given the character’s significant but ultimately secondary role in the story, that’s probably enough. Or is it?

James Wood would say no. In a pointedly skeptical review of Coetzee’s book—of which he says “It sometimes reads as if it were the winner of an exam whose challenge was to create the perfect specimen of a very good contemporary novel”—Wood uses this particular description as an example of the limits of Coetzee’s tight, compressed style. No real person is ever really adequately described in just a few sentences, Wood argues, and Coetzee’s refusal to look at this character more closely is a sign of authorial coldness, or even resistance to reality. (He says elsewhere that elements of Coetzee’s style “would not be out of place in a mass-market thriller,” which he clearly regards as a devastating insult.) Wood, famously, is a devotee of Saul Bellow, one of the great writers of character descriptions, and when he criticizes Coetzee for not going deep enough, one suspects that he’d rather see a description like this one in Humboldt’s Gift:

Rinaldo was extremely good-looking with a dark furry mustache as fine as mink, and he was elegantly dressed…His nose was particularly white and his large nostrils, correspondingly dark, reminded me of the oboe when they dilated. People so distinctly seen have power over me. But I don’t know which comes first, the attraction or the close observation.

But is there a right or wrong way to describe our characters? The difference between the styles of Coetzee and Bellow—between the concise signifier of appearance and the luxuriant jungle of personal description—strikes me as pretty fundamental, and every writer will tend to come down on one side or another. In my own case, as a writer, yes, of mass-market thrillers, I prefer to describe characters in the compressed Coetzee fashion, allowing the reader to fill in the blanks. This is partly because I think it’s closer to the way we actually tend to see the people around us, in a sort of nonverbal shorthand. When I read the riot of noticing in authors like Bellow or Updike, I’m impressed and delighted, but not quite convinced that this is really how their characters would see the world. And even if I grant the author the freedom to notice things more deeply, a detailed physical description often makes a character seem less real and distinct to me—I have trouble seeing them through the flurry of adjectives.

My own ideal, which isn’t for everyone, is a kind of fictional transparency, with as little as possible interposed between the reader and the story—and if that means I need to stint on specificity for the sake of momentum, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. In The Icon Thief, I devote maybe a sentence to the looks of each main character: I provide a few tags—like Powell’s “thick glasses and alarmingly high forehead”—and trust the reader to supply the rest. And different characters require different approaches, even within the same novel. In The Silence of the Lambs, for instance, Thomas Harris describes Hannibal Lecter at length—his red eyes, his head sleek like a mink’s—but I don’t think there’s a single line of description for Clarice Starling. (“She knew she could look all right without primping” is the most we get.) It’s easy to see why: Lecter is seen from the outside, while we spend most of the novel inside Clarice’s head. And even if we aren’t told how to picture her, she’s still utterly real. Not bad for a mass-market thriller.

Written by nevalalee

June 5, 2012 at 10:19 am

In defense of plot

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Earlier this week, critic John Lucas of the Guardian wrote an article alarmingly headlined “Has plot driven out other kinds of story?” He points to what he calls the resurgence of plot in literary fiction—giving Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad Love Story [sic] as an example, although he gets the title wrong—and wonders if contemporary fiction, influenced by film, has privileged plot above all other elements. (This seems manifestly untrue, at least on the literary side, but we’ll ignore that for now.) He wonders if Kafka would be published today, conveniently overlooking the fact that most of Kafka’s work wasn’t published at all until after his death. He makes the common but unsubstantiated claim that plotless or unresolved fiction is truer to life than its plotted equivalent, and gently slaps the wrist of novels in which, heaven forbid, “every scene advances the action.” In his conclusion, not surprisingly, he hedges a bit:

Plot, as one of many literary strategies, is fantastic: employed carefully it can lend extraordinary emotional resonance to a text. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is not the only pleasure to be derived from great literature.

Lucas’s article isn’t a bad one, but I disagree with almost everything it says. Take the assertion in the second sentence quoted above. I don’t think that anyone, anywhere, has ever claimed that plot is the only pleasure to be derived from great literature. If anything, the opposite is true: people tend to underrate the importance of plot in our greatest writers. There’s a common assumption that Shakespeare, for instance, didn’t care about plot, or wasn’t especially good at it, because he took most of his stories from conventional sources. The fact is, though, he was great at plot, and clearly relished it. The sources of Hamlet or Lear contain only the barest outlines of the story, which Shakespeare ingeniously enriches with incident, character, and structure. His plays have the busiest plots in all of literature, and they’re far more intricate than merely commercial considerations would dictate, which implies that he enjoyed plot for its own sake.

I’ve talked about the merits of plot in a previous post, so I won’t repeat all of my points here. To me, though, plot is a joy, both in my own writing and in the work of others. Plot is both a heightening of reality and a reflection of it: life is full of plots and stories, and the construction of a plot that feels true to life and satisfying as art is one of the most extended challenges a writer can face. Removing the plot, with its necessary pattern of constraints, leaves the author free to indulge all of his worst impulses, a freedom that few writers have the discipline to survive. Indeed, I’d argue that the greatest thing about plot is its impersonality, even its coldness. In On Directing Film, David Mamet reminds us that a story is moving to the extent that the writer can leave things out, especially what is deeply felt and meaningful. And in the honest construction of a logical, surprising, inevitable plot, there’s very little room for affectation or self-indulgence.

In the end, plot isn’t the enemy; bad plots are—just as we need to guard against bad style, characterization, and theme. No element of fiction is inherently more worthwhile than any other, and attempts to privilege one above all others generally lead to what John Gardner calls frigidity, an elevation of one’s own personality over the demands of the story. Conversely, when all the elements work together, the effect can be overwhelming. A novel like J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which the Guardian‘s sister paper recently named the best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel of the past twenty-five years, is as beautifully plotted as they come, a work in which the structure of the story is inseparable from its deeper themes. For most of us, then, plot is the necessary matrix in which a novel can grow in ways that are true to the fictional dream, not to our own preoccupations. Plot, at its best, is a cure for vanity.

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