Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Corrections

The purity test

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Earlier this week, The New York Times Magazine published a profile by Taffy Brodesser-Akner of the novelist Jonathan Franzen. It’s full of fascinating moments, including a remarkable one that seems to have happened entirely by accident—the reporter was in the room when Frazen received a pair of phone calls, including one from Daniel Craig, to inform him that production had halted on the television adaptation of his novel Purity. Brodesser-Akner writes: “Franzen sat down and blinked a few times.” That sounds about right to me. And the paragraph that follows gets at something crucial about the writing life, in which the necessity of solitary work clashes with the pressure to put its fruits at the mercy of the market:

He should have known. He should have known that the bigger the production—the more people you involve, the more hands the thing goes through—the more likely that it will never see the light of day resembling the thing you set out to make in the first place. That’s the real problem with adaptation, even once you decide you’re all in. It just involves too many people. When he writes a book, he makes sure it’s intact from his original vision of it. He sends it to his editor, and he either makes the changes that are suggested or he doesn’t. The thing that we then see on shelves is exactly the thing he set out to make. That might be the only way to do this. Yes, writing a novel—you alone in a room with your own thoughts—might be the only way to get a maximal kind of satisfaction from your creative efforts. All the other ways can break your heart.

To be fair, Franzen’s status is an unusual one, and even successful novelists aren’t always in the position of taking for granted the publication of “exactly the thing he set out to make.” (In practice, it’s close to all or nothing. In my experience, the novel that you see on store shelves mostly reflects what the writer wanted, while the ones in which the vision clashes with those of other stakeholders in the process generally doesn’t get published at all.) And I don’t think I’m alone when I say that some of the most interesting details that Brodesser-Akner provides are financial. A certain decorum still surrounds the reporting of sales figures in the literary world, so there’s a certain frisson in seeing them laid out like this:

And, well, sales of his novels have decreased since The Corrections was published in 2001. That book, about a Midwestern family enduring personal crises, has sold 1.6 million copies to date. Freedom, which was called a “masterpiece” in the first paragraph of its New York Times review, has sold 1.15 million since it was published in 2010. And 2015’s Purity, his novel about a young woman’s search for her father and the story of that father and the people he knew, has sold only 255,476.

For most writers, selling a quarter of a million copies of any book would exceed their wildest dreams. Having written one of the greatest outliers of the last twenty years, Franzen simply reverting to a very exalted mean. But there’s still a lot to unpack here.

For one thing, while Purity was a commercial disappointment, it doesn’t seem to have been an unambiguous disaster. According to Publisher’s Weekly, its first printing—which is where you can see a publisher calibrating its expectations—came to around 350,000 copies, which wasn’t even the largest print run for that month. (That honor went to David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, which had half a million copies, while a new novel by the likes of John Grisham can run to over a million.) I don’t know what Franzen was paid in advance, but the loss must have fallen well short of a book like Tom Wolfe’s Back to Blood, for which he received $7 million and sold 62,000 copies, meaning that his publisher paid over a hundred dollars for every copy that someone actually bought. And any financial hit would have been modest compared to the prestige of keeping a major novelist on one’s list, which is unquantifiable, but no less real. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned about publishing over the last decade, it’s that it’s a lot like the movie industry, in which apparently inexplicable commercial and marketing decisions are easier to understand when you consider their true audience. In many cases, when they buy or pass on a book, editors aren’t making decisions for readers, but for other editors, and they’re very conscious of what everyone in their imprint thinks. A readership is an abstraction, except when quantified in sales, but editors have their everyday judgement calls reflected back on them by the people they see every day. Giving up a writer like Franzen might make financial sense, but it would be devastating to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, to say nothing of the relationship that can grow between an editor and a prized author over time.

You find much the same dynamic in Hollywood, in which some decisions are utterly inexplicable until you see them as a manifestation of office politics. In theory, a film is made for moviegoers, but the reactions of the producer down the hall are far more concrete. The difference between publishing and the movies is that the latter publish their box office returns, often in real time, while book sales remain opaque even at the highest level. And it’s interesting to wonder how both industries might differ if their approaches were more similar. After years of work, the success of a movie can be determined by the Saturday morning after its release, while a book usually has a little more time. (The exception is when a highly anticipated title doesn’t make it onto the New York Times bestseller list, or falls off it with alarming speed. The list doesn’t disclose any sales figures, which means that success is relative, not absolute—and which may be a small part of the reason why writers seldom wish one another well.) In the absence of hard sales, writers establish the pecking order with awards, reviews, and the other signifiers that have allowed Franzen to assume what Brodesser-Akner calls the mantle of “the White Male Great American Literary Novelist.” But the real takeaway is how narrow a slice of the world this reflects. Even if we place the most generous interpretation imaginable onto Franzen’s numbers, it’s likely that well under one percent of the American population has bought or read any of his books. You’ll find roughly the same number on any given weeknight playing HQ Trivia. If we acknowledged this more widely, it might free writers to return to their proper cultural position, in which the difference between a bestseller and a disappointment fades rightly into irrelevance. Who knows? They might even be happier.

Written by nevalalee

June 28, 2018 at 7:49 am

Bringing the news

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“I think there is a tremendous future for a sort of novel that will be called the journalistic novel or perhaps documentary novel, novels of intense social realism based upon the same painstaking reporting that goes into the New Journalism,” the journalist Tom Wolfe wrote in Esquire in 1973. This statement is justifiably famous, and if you think that Wolfe, who passed away yesterday, was making a declaration of intent, you’d be right. In the very next sentence, however, which is quoted much less often, Wolfe added a line that I find tremendously revealing: “I see no reason why novelists who look down on Arthur Hailey’s work couldn’t do the same sort of reporting and research he does—and write it better, if they’re able.” It might seem strange for Wolfe to invoke the author of Hotel and Airport, but two years later, in a long interview with the writer and critic Joe David Bellamy, he doubled down. After Bellamy mentioned Émile Zola as a model for the kind of novel that Wolfe was advocating, the two men had the following exchange:

Wolfe: The fact that [Zola] was bringing you news was a very important thing.

Bellamy: Do you think that’s enough? Isn’t that Arthur Hailey really?

Wolfe: That’s right, it is. The best thing is to have both—to have both someone who will bring you bigger and more exciting chunks of the outside world plus a unique sensibility, or rather a unique way of looking at the world.

I’m surprised that this comparison hasn’t received greater attention, because it gets at something essential about Wolfe’s mixed legacy as a novelist. As an author, Wolfe hovered around the edges of my reading and writing life for decades. In high school, I read The Right Stuff and loved it—it’s hard for me to imagine an easier book to love. After I graduated from college, I landed a job at a financial firm in New York, and the first novel that I checked out from the library that week was The Bonfire of the Vanities. A few years later, I read A Man in Full, and not long ago, when I was thinking seriously about writing a nonfiction book about The Whole Earth Catalog, I read Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. In each case, I was looking for something more than simple entertainment. I was looking for information, or, in Wolfe’s words, for “news.” It was a cultural position for which Wolfe had consciously prepared himself, as he declared in his famous essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.” Speaking of the big social novels that had supposedly failed to emerge from the sixties, Wolfe wrote:

That task, as I see it, inevitably involves reporting, which I regard as the most valuable and least understood resource available to any writer with exalted ambitions, whether the medium is print, film, tape, or the stage. Young writers are constantly told, “Write about what you know.” There is nothing wrong with that rule as a starting point, but it seems to get quickly magnified into an unspoken maxim: The only valid experience is personal experience.

As counterexamples, Wolfe cited Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, Zola, and Lewis as writers who “assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter.” But he didn’t mention Arthur Hailey.

Yet when I think back to Wolfe’s novels, I’m left with the uncomfortable sense that when you strip away his unique voice, you’re left with something closer to Hailey or Irving Wallace—with their armfuls of facts, stock characters, and winking nods to real people and events—than to Dickens. That voice was often remarkable, of course, and to speak of removing it, as if it weren’t bound up in the trapezius muscles of the work itself, is inherently ludicrous. But it was also enough to prevent many readers from noticing Wolfe’s very real limits as an imaginative writer. When A Man in Full was greeted by dismissive comments from Norman Mailer, John Irving, and John Updike, who accurately described it as “entertainment,” Wolfe published a response, “My Three Stooges,” in which he boasted about the novel’s glowing reviews and sales figures and humbly opined that the ensuing backlash was like “nothing else…in all the annals of American literature.” He wrote of his critics:

They were shaken. It was as simple as that. A Man in Full was an example—an alarmingly visible one—of a possible, indeed, the likely new direction in late-twentieth and early-twenty-first-century literature: the intensely realistic novel, based upon reporting, that plunges wholeheartedly into the social reality of America today, right now—a revolution in content rather than form—that was about to sweep the arts in America, a revolution that would soon make many prestigious artists, such as our three old novelists, appear effete and irrelevant.

This is grand gossip, even if the entire controversy was swept away a year later by the reception of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, another vast social novel with an accompanying declaration of intent. But it also overlooks the fact that Wolfe’s novels are notably less valuable as reportage than even Updike’s Couples, say, or any of the last three Rabbit books, in which the author diligently left a record of his time, in the form of thousands of closely observed details from the America of the sixties, seventies, and eighties.

And the real irony is that Updike had quietly set himself to the exact task what Wolfe had attempted with much greater fanfare, as Adam Begley notes in his recent biography:

What did [Updike] know about his hero’s new job [in Rabbit is Rich]? What did he know about the business of running a Toyota dealership? As he did for The Coup, he rolled up his sleeves and hit the books. And he also enlisted outside help, hiring a researcher to untangle the arcane protocols of automobile finance and the corporate structure of a dealership—how salesmen are compensated, how many support staff work in the back office, what the salaries are for the various employees, what paperwork is involved in importing foreign cars, and so on. Updike visited showrooms in the Boston area, hunting for tips from salesmen and collecting brochures. He aimed for, and achieved, a level of detail so convincing that the publisher felt obliged to append to a legal boilerplate on the copyright page a specific disclaimer: “No actual Toyota agency in southeastern Pennsylvania is known to the author or in any way depicted herein.”

This is nothing if not reportage, six years before The Bonfire of the Vanities, and not because Updike wanted, in Wolfe’s words, “to cram the world into that novel, all of it,” but in order to tell a story about a specific, utterly ordinary human being. Automobile finance wasn’t as sexy or exotic as Wall Street, which may be why Wolfe failed to acknowledge this. (In Rabbit Redux, instead of writing about the astronauts, Updike wrote about people who seem to barely even notice the moon landing.) Wolfe’s achievements as a journalist are permanent and unquestionable. But we still need the kind of news that the novel can bring, now more than ever, and Wolfe never quite figured out how to do it—even though his gifts were undeniable. Tomorrow, I’ll be taking a closer look at his considerable strengths.

My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

Love and research

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Jonathan Franzen

I’ve expressed mixed feelings about Jonathan Franzen before, but I don’t think there’s any doubt about his talent, or about his ability to infuriate readers in just the right way. His notorious essay on climate change in The New Yorker still irritates me, but it prompted me to think deeply on the subject, if only to articulate why I thought he was wrong. But Franzen isn’t a deliberate provocateur, like Norman Mailer was: instead, he comes across as a guy with deeply felt, often conflicted opinions, and he expresses them as earnestly as he can, even if he knows he’ll get in trouble for it. Recently, for instance, he said the following to Isaac Chotiner of Slate, in response to a question about whether he could ever write a book about race:

I have thought about it, but—this is an embarrassing confession—I don’t have very many black friends. I have never been in love with a black woman. I feel like if I had, I might dare…Didn’t marry into a black family. I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.

It’s quite a statement, and it comes right at the beginning of the interview, before either Franzen or Chotiner have had a chance to properly settle in. Not surprisingly, it has already inspired a fair amount of snark online. But Franzen is being very candid here in ways that most novelists wouldn’t dare, and he deserves credit for it, even if he puts it in a way that is likely to make us uncomfortable. The question of authors writing about other races is particularly fraught, and the practical test that Franzen proposes is a better entry point than most. We shouldn’t discourage writers from imagining themselves into the lives of characters of different backgrounds, but we can insist on setting a high bar. (I’m talking mostly about literary fiction, by the way, which works hard to enter the consciousness of a protagonist or a society, and not necessarily about the ordinary diversity that I like to see in popular fiction, in which writers can—and often should—make the races of the characters an unobtrusive element in the story.) We could say, for instance, that a novel about race should be conceived from the inside out, rather than the outside in, and that it demands a certain intensity of experience and understanding to justify itself. Given the number of minority authors who are amply qualified to write about these issues firsthand, an outsider needs to earn the right to engage with the subject, and this requires something beyond well-intentioned concern. As Franzen rightly says in the same interview: “I feel it’s really dangerous, if you are a liberal white American, to presume that your good intentions are enough to embark on a work of imagination about black America.”

The Corrections

And Franzen’s position becomes easier to understand when framed within his larger concerns about research itself. As he once told The Guardian: “When information becomes free and universally accessible, voluminous research for a novel is devalued along with it.” Yet like just about everything Franzen says, this seemingly straightforward rule is charged with a kind of reflexive uneasiness, because he’s among the most obsessive of researchers. His novels are full of lovingly rendered set pieces that were obviously researched with enormous diligence, and sometimes they call attention to themselves, as Norman Mailer unkindly but accurately noted of The Corrections:

Everything of novelistic use to him that came up on the Internet seems to have bypassed the higher reaches of his imagination—it is as if he offers us more human experience than he has literally mastered, and this is obvious when we come upon his set pieces on gourmet restaurants or giant cruise ships or modern Lithuania in disarray. Such sections read like first-rate magazine pieces, but no better—they stick to the surface.

For a writer like Franzen, whose novels are ambitious attempts to fit everything he can within two covers, research is part of the game. But it’s also no surprise that the novelist who has tried the hardest to bring research back into mainstream literary fiction should also be the most agonizingly aware of its limitations.

These limitations are particularly stark when it comes to race, which, more than any other theme, demands to be lived and felt before it can be written. And if Franzen shies away from it with particular force, it’s because the set of skills that he has employed so memorably elsewhere is rendered all but useless here. It’s wise of him to acknowledge this, and he sets forth a useful test for gauging a writer’s ability to engage the subject. He writes:

In the case of Purity, I had all this material on Germany. I had spent two and a half years there. I knew the literature fairly well, and I could never write about it because I didn’t have any German friends. The portal to being able to write about it was suddenly having these friends I really loved. And then I wasn’t the hostile outsider; I was the loving insider.

Research, he implies, takes you only so far, and love—defined as the love of you, the novelist, for another human being—carries you the rest of the way. Love becomes a kind of research, since it provides you with something like the painful vividness of empathy and feeling required to will yourself into the lives of others. Without talent and hard work, love isn’t enough, and it may not be enough even with talent in abundance. But it’s necessary, if not sufficient. And while it doesn’t tell us much about who ought to be writing about race, it tells us plenty about who shouldn’t.

Written by nevalalee

August 2, 2016 at 8:37 am

I can dream, can’t I?

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Inception

For years, I’ve been daydreaming about a piece of fan fiction that I’d love to write, although I doubt I’ll ever get a chance to do it. Let’s call it The Carousel. It’s a midquel to Inception, which means that it takes place during the events of the original movie—in this case, after Cobb has assembled his team for the mind heist, but before they’ve actually gone into Fischer’s head. (There’s nothing in the film itself to rule this out: it’s unclear how much time passes after Saito approaches them with the assignment.) Cobb is concerned about Ariadne’s lack of experience, so he proposes that they practice first with a quick, straightforward job. It’s a commission from a striking, mysterious woman in her fifties who wants them to enter her aging father’s dreams to discover the secrets of his past. She is, of course, Sally Draper from Mad Men. The rest of the story follows the team as they invade Don’s mind, burrowing into his memories of his life at Sterling Cooper and the women he loved and lost, and probing ever deeper toward the dark heart of the man who was once known as Dick Whitman. We’d see Arthur and Ariadne trying to blend in at the office holiday party, or maybe Eames going undercover in Korea. And when they emerge from Don’s brain at last, with or without the answers that Sally wants, they’ve all been subtly changed, and they’re ready to go after Fischer. If nothing else, it explains why they’re still wearing those suits.

Alas, I don’t think I’ll ever write this story, mostly because I know I can’t give it the energy and attention it deserves. After I got the idea for the crossover, I decided to put it off until Mad Men finished its run, which would allow me to draw on Don’s full backstory, but the longer I waited, the more obvious it became that I couldn’t justify the investment of time it required. For one thing, I’d want to write it up as a full novel, and to do it justice, I’d have to go back and watch all seven seasons of the series, looking for places in which I could insert Cobb’s team into the background, à la Back to the Future Part II. I’d also want to revisit Inception itself to see if there were any plot holes or contradictions I could explain in the process. In short, it would be a lot of work for a story that I’m not sure anybody else would read, or particularly want to see. But I seem to have incepted myself with it, because I can’t get it out of my head. As with most fanfic, there’s an element of wish fulfillment involved: it allows me to spend a little more time with characters I probably won’t see ever again. Mad Men ended so beautifully that any continuation—like the Sally Draper spinoff series that was pitched in all seriousness at AMC—would only undermine its legacy. And Inception is one of the few recent blockbusters that deliberately makes a sequel impossible, despite the occasional rumblings that we hear along those lines. It won’t happen. But this is why fanfic exists.

Jon Hamm on Mad Men

In the meantime, I’ll sometimes try to scratch that itch by reading a novel or short story and mentally casting all the characters with faces from Mad Men. It’s a habit that I picked up years ago, when I first read Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, and I’ve done it since with Airport and a few of John D. MacDonald’s novels. (I still think that Jon Hamm would make a perfect Travis McGee.) And the show maps onto George O. Smith’s stories about the space station Venus Equilateral almost too well. I’ll often do it when reading a story that is best approached as a period piece, thanks either to the author’s intentions or to the passage of time. Picturing Don, Joan, and the rest at least allows me to keep the clothes and hairstyles straight, which is a more significant factor than it might first appear: a book like John Updike’s Couples reads altogether differently when you realize that all of the women would have been dressed like Betty Draper. In other cases, it amounts to a hybrid form of fanfic, enabling the kind of dream casting that still makes me wish, say, for a miniseries version of The Corrections starring the cast of Arrested Development—which just makes me want to read that novel again with those actors in mind, just as I recently went back to Red Dragon while picturing Hugh Dancy as Will. It’s a harmless game, and it can bring out elements of a story that I might have overlooked, just as the casting of a particular movie star in a film can clarify a character in ways that a screenwriter can’t.

And this is just a variation on what happens inside all our heads when we read a novel. Only half of the work is done by the writer on the page; the other half occurs in the reader’s brain, which populates the novel with faces, settings, and images that the author might never have envisioned. What I see when I read a story is drastically different from what appears in your mind’s eye, and we have no way of comparing them directly. (That said, an adaptation can lock certain elements into place for many readers, so that their imaginations run more or less in parallel. Ten years ago, no two fans saw the characters from A Song of Ice and Fire in quite the same way, but thanks to Game of Thrones, I suspect that a lot of readers now just picture Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, as if a wave function had collapsed into exactly one eigenstate.) The fact that fanfic bridges that gap instantaneously, so that we can immediately see all of our favorite characters, is a large part of its appeal—and the main reason why it’s a flawed school for writers who are still learning their craft. Creating believable characters from scratch is the single hardest aspect of writing, and fanfic allows you to skip that crucial step. Aspiring writers should be wary of it for the same reason that the playwright Willy Russell avoids listening to music or drinking wine while he works: “I think both those things seduce you into thinking that the feelings engendered by the wine or music are present in your work.” That’s true of fanfic, too, and it’s why I’ll probably never end up writing The Carousel. But I can dream, can’t I?

“History often had plans of its own…”

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"According to legend..."

Note: This post is the sixteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 17. You can read the previous installments here.

“A genre is hardening,” the literary critic James Wood wrote fifteen years ago, in his enormously influential New Republic essay “Hysterical Realism.” It’s the set of conventions, he observed, that we see in so many big, ambitious novels published in the last few decades: they’re crammed with plot and information, and they often take a greater interest in how social and political systems work than in the inner lives of their own characters. Dickens provides the original model, with Pynchon setting the standard, followed by the likes of Rushdie, Wallace, and DeLillo. Woods quotes Zadie Smith, who says that she’s concerned with “ideas and themes that I can tie together—problem-solving from other places and worlds,” and who goes on to state:

[It’s not the writer’s job] to tell us how somebody feels about something, it’s to tell us how the world works…These are guys who know a great deal about the world. They understand macro-microeconomics, the way the Internet works, math, philosophy, but…they’re still people who know something about the street, about family, love, sex, whatever. That is an incredibly fruitful combination. If you can get the balance right. And I don’t think any of us have quite yet, but hopefully one of us will.

Woods, as the title of his essay implies, isn’t a fan. He notes, accurately, that this kind of “realism” can serve as an evasion of reality itself: it allows writers to retreat, fashionably, from the unglamorous consideration of the genuine emotions of real men and women. And even if you’re determined to work within that genre, the challenge, as Smith says, is balance. An ambitious literary novel these days is expected to move between two or more registers: the everyday interactions of its characters and the larger social context—meticulously researched and imagined—in which the human story takes place. Shifting between these levels is a hard technical problem, and we can feel the strain even in good novels. In Smith’s White Teeth, Woods sees “an instructive squabble…between these two literary modes,” and a book like The Corrections gains much of its interest from the tension between these kinds of storytelling. Jonathan Franzen, who is as smart a writer as they come, has as much trouble as anyone with managing those transitions: all too often, we end up with passages that read, as Norman Mailer puts it, like “first-rate magazine pieces, but no better.” But in a really fine example of the form, like Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, the social concerns emerge so organically from the story that it’s hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins.

"History often had plans of its own..."

What’s funny, of course, is that genre novelists have been dealing with these issues for a long time, and literary fiction is only now taking up the challenge. Science fiction or fantasy, for instance, is invariably set in an unfamiliar world, the rules of which need to be conveyed seamlessly within the action, and one of the first problems any thoughtful writer confronts is how to establish this background in an unobtrusive way. It also affects historical fiction, or even suspense, which often takes place in a realm far removed from the reader’s experience. And the bad examples—in which the story grinds to a halt as the author explains the workings of interstellar travel or the political situation in his warring kingdoms—aren’t so different from the moments in which hysterical realism abandons its characters for a treatise on geopolitical trade. The difference is that it’s our own world that these novels are describing, as if the authors were alien journalists encountering it for the first time. That kind of fictional reportage can be valuable: at its best, it forces us to see the world around us with new eyes, or discloses patterns that have lurked there unseen. But literary fiction, which was able to stick to a narrowly focused register for so long, is still figuring out what the best genre novelists have been doing for decades.

So what does this have to do with Eternal Empire? Like many suspense novels, it devotes ample space to filling in background—on the British prison system, the security services, and the world of oligarchs and gangsters—that few readers could be expected to know firsthand. It also follows a template, established by the first two books in the series, of engaging with history and religion, which creates another level of story in which it has to dip from time to time. I devoted a lot of effort, possibly too much, to integrating those digressions in ways that seemed natural, and it wasn’t always easy. In Chapter 17, for instance, I include a page of material about the Khazars, the enigmatic tribe of Central Asian horsemen that disappeared shortly after their unprecedented conversion to Judaism. The Khazars aren’t essential to the story; they serve primarily as a kind of sustained analogy for Ilya’s inward journey, to a degree that isn’t clear until the end. I realized early on that it would be asking too much of the reader to deliver all of this material at once, so I carved it up into three or four shorter sections, each of which represented a self-contained stage, and inserted them at points in which Ilya’s own thoughts or situation provided a natural transition. (They also serve, more practically, to create a pause in the action where such a delay seemed useful.) The result sometimes resembles the “squabble” that Woods sees in more literary novels. But the problem of moving between two worlds is one that most writers, like Ilya, will have to confront sooner or later…

Written by nevalalee

April 23, 2015 at 9:56 am

The Travolta moment

with 2 comments

Jonathan Franzen

There’s a moment halfway through Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections when Enid Lambert, the matriarch of the novel’s dysfunctional Midwestern family, visits a doctor on a cruise ship. It’s an important scene—Enid leaves with a handful of antidepressants that will play a big role later in the story—and Franzen lavishes his usual amount of care on the sequence, which runs for a full nine pages. But here’s how he chooses to describe the doctor on his first appearance:

He had a large, somewhat coarse-skinned face like the face of the Italian-American actor people loved, the one who once starred as an angel and another time as a disco dancer.

I adore The Corrections, but this is an embarrassing sentence—one of the worst I’ve ever seen pass the pen of a major novelist. It’s particularly surprising coming from Franzen, who has thought as urgently and probingly as any writer alive about the problem of voice. But it’s also the kind of lapse that turns out to be unexpectedly instructive, precisely because it comes from an author who really ought to know better.

So why does this sentence grate so much? Let’s break down the reasons one at a time:

  1. Franzen clearly wants to tell us that the doctor looks like John Travolta, but he’s too shy to come out and say so, so he uses more than twenty words to convey what could have easily been expressed in two.
  2. In the process, he’s false to his character. No woman of Enid’s generation and background would have any trouble coming up with Travolta’s name, especially if she were familiar with his role in Michael, of all movies. It’s not like she’s trying to remember, say, Richard Jenkins.
  3. Worst of all, it takes us out of the story. Instead of focusing on the moment—which happens to be a crucial turning point for Enid’s character—we’re distracted by Franzen’s failure of style.

And the punchline here is that a lesser novelist would simply have said that the doctor looked like Travolta and been done with it. Franzen, an agonizingly smart writer, senses how lazy this is, so he backs away, but not nearly far enough. And the result reads like nothing a recognizable human being would feel or say.

John McPhee

I got to thinking about this after reading John McPhee’s recent New Yorker piece about frames of reference. McPhee’s pet peeve is when authors describe a person’s appearance by leaning on a perceived resemblance to a famous face, as in this example from Ian Frazier: “She looks enough like the late Bea Arthur, the star of the nineteen-seventies sitcom Maude, that it would be negligent not to say so.” Clearly, if you don’t remember how Bea Arthur looks, this description isn’t very useful. And while any such discussion tends to turn into a personal referendum on which references are obvious and which aren’t—McPhee claims he doesn’t know who Gene Wilder is, for instance—his point is a valid one:

If you say someone looks like Tom Cruise—and you let it go at that—you are asking Tom Cruise to do your writing for you. Your description will fail when your reader doesn’t know who Tom Cruise is.

And references that seem obvious now may not feel that way in twenty years. McPhee concludes, reasonably, that if you’re going to compare a character to a celebrity, you need to pay back that borrowed vividness by amplifying it with a line of description of your own, as when Joel Achenbach follows up his reference to Gene Wilder by referring to the subject’s “manic energy.”

When we evaluate Franzen’s Travolta moment in this light, it starts to look even worse. It reminds me a little of the statistician Edward Tufte, who famously declared that graphical excellence gives the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest space. In his classic The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, he introduces the concept of the data-ink ratio, which consists of the amount of data ink divided by the total ink used to print a statistical graphic. (“Data ink” is the ink in a graph or chart that can’t be erased without a real loss of information.) Ideally, as large a proportion of the ink as possible should be devoted to the presentation of the data, rather than to redundant material. As an example of the ratio at its worst, Tufte reprints a graph from a textbook that erased all the data points while retaining the grid lines, noting drily: “The resulting figure achieves a graphical absolute zero, a null data-ink ratio.” And that’s what Franzen gives us here. In twenty words, he offers no information that the reader isn’t asked to supply on his or her own. To be fair, Franzen is usually better than this. But here, it’s like giving us a female character and saying that she looks like Adele Dazeem.

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