Can someone really be taught how to write well?
As an elementary public-school teacher of 18 years, as well as in my former role of gifted-talented educator, national language arts consultant, sometime college lecturer, and occasional writer-in-residence for advanced programs for adults who want to become writers, I can answer that question with an emphatic yes if the question means - Can people of all ages be taught to improve their writing skills by quantum leaps?
I know it can be done. I've done the teaching and watched students do the learning and produce the quality work. Working with average 11-yr.-old sixth graders, I saw these kids achieve a proficiency at least equal to - and in most cases superior to - seniors in high school who lacked such instruction. As a teacher of selected gifted youngsters on the sixth-grade level, I watched them learn how to produce prose fiction superior to the vast majority of college-level writing majors. As an instructor in writing workshops for adults, I've helped would-be professional writers make that final quantum jump - and it is rarely a small one - up to the minimum threshold of quality that allows work to be published.
But the second question implicit in the first - Can most people really be taught to write well enough to become published writers? - is one that I can't answer.
Being a writer requires many subsets of skills - including the ability to observe closely and objectively, having a keen ear for language, understanding the structures and protocols of fiction, being a powerfully analytical reader, having the ability to bring fictional structure out of the near-infinite chaos that is reality, being intelligent and well-read, having the courage to be honest about things most of us would prefer to avoid discussing, and, for most writers, receiving a broad formal education even before you begin educating yourself to your own style as a writer. It may be a fact that very few men and women have the full range of gifts necessary to become a writer -- or at least a writer who can produce work of such quality that it deserves to be read by thousands or millions of other people.
This sounds elitist, even arrogant, but consider the simple fact that, according to various studies, in the United States, which has a population of almost 300 million people, (a surprisingly large percentage of whom who think they can write fiction), only about 400 to 500 adults in this entire country manage to make their living solely through the writing of fiction. About twice that number publish occasional fiction while holding down a "day job" at universities or as teachers in writing programs. (There are hundreds of screenwriters serving the voracious maw of TV and Hollywood, of course, but even there the number of those who can make a full time living at it amounts to only a few score out of 280,000,000 Americans who might want to give it a try.)
Once, during a wonderful evening spent with Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch (author of Psycho), and the famous satirical comedy writer and radio comedian Stan Freberg, I asked Freberg if it was true that there were only 54 people in America who could write comedy. He thought about it for a long time. Then he said, "About half that number, I think."
Some of that shocking disparity of wannabes to can-do's (there are many more professional major league baseball players than professional writers, for heavens sake!) is explained by the reduced requirements of the modern publishing marketplace and by the distressing fact that only about 6% of Americans read almost all of the books. (Only about 2% read fiction to any serious extent.) But the real reason for the difficulty in writing professionally is that it is hard.
We tend to forget that because most of us can read and we write letters, memos, e-mails, and personal memoirs and other things for our friends and family. Is it such a leap then to professional writing?
Not to belabor the point, but writing for publication is hard. Damned hard. The first thing a would-be professional writer has to learn is how huge - how depressingly near-infinitely colossally horrifyingly hugely huge - the gap is between good amateur writing and real professional writing. Again, not to belabor a metaphor, but it's roughly the distance between very good Little League baseball and playing for the Yankees. It looks like the same game being played, but in a real way it's not.
And it doesn't help that most of education for the last century or so has emphasized that to write, all one has to do is reach down and untap the "creative potential" within yourself. From first grade through too many post-graduate writing programs, much of the emphasis remains on untapping that theoretical creative potential. Let that writer-within-you out, is the theory, and the rest is gravy. Just find your slide and grease it.
One of Hemingway's most important pieces of advice on becoming a writer was - "What every writer needs is an absolutely earthquake-proof shit-detector. Every real writer has one."
This is a case where you need one.
Your teachers and professors have lied to you, my friends. While latent talent and reservoirs of creativity may be absolutely essential ingredients in becoming a real writer, these things can do almost nothing by themselves. They are, by themselves, not worth the proverbial bucket of warm spit.
We all know there are youthful prodigies in mathematics. Indeed, by the age of 30, most true mathematicians are over the hill. If they haven't made their bones by then, they almost certainly never will.
There are near-infant prodigies in music. (At the age of two, so the story goes, little Mozart would toddle downstairs in the middle of the night and play an unresolved chord on the harpsichord, knowing that his father would have to get out of bed and come downstairs to resolve it.)
There are artistic prodigies such as Picasso. It's reported that Andrew Wyeth was so proficient in drawing with charcoal when he was about seven that his instructor, his father N.C., banned him from drawing with it for at least a year so he wouldn't fall behind in learning his skills with other media.
There are no novelist prodigies. None. Nada. Zero. Zip. Zilch.
It's true that some young people have a better ear for language and innate sense of storytelling than perhaps 99% of the rest of the population, but becoming a writer demands years and decades of experience as a human being - who wants to read anything by even the most gifted callow 18-yr.-old? - and then more years and decades of apprenticeship to the Word.
Recall Chaucer's opening line to The Parliament of Fowls - "The lif so short, the craft so long to lerne."
Discipline. Reading to absorb the skills of writing. Study. Effort. Sweat. Learning. Maturing. More discipline. More study. More reading. More apprenticing. More maturing. More discipline. And then you can start.
As part of that discipline, all writers must read widely and deeply to learn how writers write. It's that simple. Good instruction can take years off your apprenticeship by helping you ferret out the subtleties of style in other, better writers' work, help you see the sometimes invisible but always present forms of structure, teach you to perceive the difficulties and triumphs of careful word choice, train you to thread the labyrinths of plotting - and so on and so forth ad infinitum (and ad nauseum).
One way to begin that apprenticeship is to listen to great writers talk about how they do their work.
Now this suggests "rules for writing" and I can hear the multitudes shouting that there ARE NO RULES for writing. That doesn't turn out to be the case. Just as learning to draw is a requirement before becoming a real artist or learning one's scales is required before becoming a musician, there are many rules of writing to be absorbed and mastered. It's only after learning such basics that the artist, the musician, or the writer can afford to "break the rules" - although in truth, experiments in style and breakthroughs in technique in prose fiction, however modern or postmodern, never really break the rules of the basics, any more than moving on to abstraction in oil painting vitiates the need to master basic drawing, perspective, and color theory.
There are no wormhole or hyperdrive shortcuts in learning how to write well.
So with that in mind, in these early instalments of "Writing Well" I'm going to introduce you to a few such rules from writers. Rather than make up rules myself, I'll borrow some from writers who are far my superiors. FAR my superiors. Light years and parsecs and ... but you get the idea.
Ernest Hemingway once said, "American literature began with Huckleberry Finn." This can be debated - and has been for decades - but what Hemingway meant can't be ignored. What he was saying was that America truly found its voice in literature - one which dealt with our nation's deepest obsessions and secrets - when Mark Twain perfected a new naturalism in dialogue and description, something almost unprecedented in world literature before that time -- a new level of realism that has defined most of American writing since The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
So we'll begin with "Mark Twain's Rules of Writing."
I need to warn you, however, that Twain more or less made these rules up on the spot, just as a handy means to bash another writer; I garnered and paraphrased most of these "rules" from his vitriolic essay on "The Literary Offenses of James Fenimore Cooper." Twain actively hated Cooper's popular books. He thought that Cooper's prose was flowery, ornate, overworked, pompous, and silly. He thought that Cooper's characters would speak like a "Negro minstrel" one minute and like an "Anglican vicar" the next. He thought that Cooper's plots were stupid and contrived and that the action was filled with dumb miracles. (When Natty Bumpo, the Deerstalker, needs to find the trail of a wily Indian who'd tried to hide his path by walking in a stream, Natty simply dams up the stream and finds the footprints in the bottom of the streambed. "Try it!" roars Twain. "Just try doing that!!")
One can just imagine Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn out in the woods with Tom trying to emulate his literary hero by pulling such a trick, then kicking stones and cursing a blue streak when he finds out it won't work. Mud is mud.
Another time, a Cooper group lost in a thick fog near a fort and being pursued by Indians seeking their scalps hears the fort firing cannons to lead them in. A cannonball comes rolling out of the fog and their Leatherstocking hero, using his woodcraft skills, follows the path of the cannonball through the forest back to the fort and safety. "Try doing that!!!" we can hear Twain bellowing.
Frequently, when I started the year in language arts by introducing Mark Twain's Rules of Writing to my sixth-graders, and then read them Twain's full essay on "James Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," - trying not to wet my pants laughing at the part where the idiot "Cooper Indians" fail in their attempt to jump onto the deck of a flatboat that's spending six minutes passing under the tree limb they're hiding on, the flatboat, according to Cooper's own sloppy descriptions, being so wide its sides are only inches from each bank of the meandering creek -- the first result would be that some of the kids, perverse little buggers that they are, would run to the library and read some of Cooper's books.
At any rate, here is the heart and core of our first installment of Writing Well -
Dan Simmons's commentary on Mark Twain's Rules:
These seem self-evident, don't they?
Obvious. Almost too obvious. If you're a would-be writer, you already know and do all these things, I'm sure.
Do you? Do I? Do most professional writers, much less amateurs?
It's my guess that if an amateur writer's prose merely satisfied these "obvious" Mark Twain Rules, he or she would be 85% of the way to publication.
This sounds harsh, but when professional writers spend workshop time with amateur would-be writers - even (or especially) with adults who wish to become writers and often think they are that close to publication - it's too often similar to an adult coming across a field where six-year-olds are playing "baseball" without knowing the rules: kids run the bases in random order, don't know how many strikes and balls there are before the batter should go sit down or trot to first, aren't sure of where the batter stands or how to hold a bat, have no idea of innings, don't know which hand to throw with or which hand to put the glove on, can't throw, can't hit, don't know where they should be playing their positions, don't have a clue as to when an inning would be over . . . .
In other words, it's chaos. It can be delightful to watch an---d it's certainly creative . . . but it's not baseball.
(A personal note: as a huge fan of Bill Watterson's Calvin & Hobbes I find it completely true to little Calvin's essentially anarchist character that when he and his stuffed-tiger-imaginary-living-tiger-friend Hobbes play their version of "baseball," it involves wrestling, tackling, climbing trees, shouting certain phrases, and - probably - hiding in the woods. We'll never know what Calvin would have become when he grew up, but we know for a certainty what he would not have turned into - a baseball player or a member of any other team sport.)
If one has to use a team sport analogy to describe the long-haul of writing, it has to be baseball since the games in that sport aren't just played on Friday nights or Sundays, interspersed with days and weeks in which to rest up and heal, but slog on day and night, through heat and chill, from the earliest post-snow days of spring into the short days of late autumn. Luck is really not a factor in baseball. Time, fatigue, injuries, and constant daily play reduce the impact of lucky streaks to almost nothing. Like a gambling casino that will always win in the long run, time and frequency of effort in baseball beats the luck and accident out of the game until it is the pure skill and endurance of the players that come through - or not. Football teams can have a "perfect season" but even the best teams in baseball will lose about 65 games a year. As Earl Weaver of the Baltimore Orioles once said (speaking for professional writers everywhere), "This ain't a football game. We do this every day."
Writing is definitely not a team sport - it's been described as "that shameful thing you do alone, behind closed doors" - but, like any sport (or like art, music, mathematics, or any trade), it has a complex set of rules one has to master. As a would-be professional you can afford to ignore them only after you've mastered them.
Twain's first rule - that a story shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere - seems almost insulting in its obviousness, but the vast majority of amateur attempts at fiction go nowhere at all. In a different context, Mark Twain once said that reading a story or novel is rather like taking a train somewhere - that is, you've paid for your ticket and there's a certain sense of dissatisfaction if you just sit in the unmoving train in a station for a bit while various things go on outside the windows and then you're forced to get off the train right where you started.
You'd be amazed at how few amateur stories leave the station.
"The parts of a story shall be necessary parts ..." again almost insults our intelligence as would-be writers. Until, that is, one learns to read one's own fiction with a gimlet eye, learning the ruthlessness necessary to sacrifice your most darling sentences and chapters if they don't move the tale along in more ways than one. My own rule here is that no scene in a novel should be in the finished book unless it moves the tale or the telling of the tale (such as delineating character) along in at least three ways; no page in a novella or novelette unless it serves the same triune function; no sentence in a short story.
Creating realistic, important, necessary, and interesting dialogue is one of the hardest parts of learning to write well, but Twain's admonition to the characters (and their author) to just shut up when they run out of things to say is more profound than you might guess. Knowing when to start and stop - not just in dialogue, but in the story or scene or chapter or entire novel - is one of the hardest things to learn in becoming a writer and the false-starts and non-endings are sure signs of amateurish writing.
Even Twain's "litte rules" could be studied for months and not be fully explored.
"Use the right word, not its second cousin" seems simple enough ... but if it's so simple, why do so few published writers today, much less the legions of amateurs, succeed in doing it? Twain once said - "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug."
Visual artists have oil paints, acrylics, tempera, watercolors, pastel crayons, regular crayons, conte crayons, felt tip, graphite pencils, pen and ink, airbrush, scratchboard, digital rendering, woodcutting, lithograph .... scores of other tools to choose from for their medium.
Writers have words. Only words.
From Aeschylus through Shakespeare to Dickens to Thomas Pynchon and beyond, that's all writers have in their tool box. That's all they ever will have.
The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Next time, we'll ask Ernest Hemingway to step in and give us some advice on what to do with those words.
(Note: Between installments of WRITING WELL, visitors to this web site interested in discussing writing issues can talk to each other and to me on the new ON WRITING WELL strand in the Dan Simmons Forum. While I will answer questions there from time to time, my hope is that these Writing Well installments might serve - at least partially - as a template for discussion so that we can move more slowly toward the usual huge questions of "How do I write a masterpiece and where can I get it published?")
How can one get started writing and then sustain the effort over a long enough period to build up a body of work . . . especially something as huge as a novel?
Every published writer has had the following experience:
You're at a party. You're introduced to someone and the person learns, usually not through you volunteering the shameful fact, that you're a writer by trade. Usually within the first five minutes you hear the following two things - 1) The other person plans to write something someday, probably a book, but can't do it now because they have a real job and 2) They do have this astounding idea, almost certainly a bestseller idea, and wouldn't mind sharing it with you for . . . oh . . . 50% of the advance and royalties. "I'll give you the idea and you fill in the words and so forth," is the usual proffered deal.
How do you break it to someone that ideas are a dime a dozen? That every writer has more ideas than he or she will be able to write about in a long lifetime? And, finally, that their idea (almost certainly) has not only been explored in fiction about 10,000 times, but, by itself, couldn't fuel a vignette, a word-sketch exercise, much less a short story or novel.
Except for "gimmick"
SF stories back during the reign of magazine editor John W. Campbell decades
ago, or the occasional "high-concept" gimmick novel such as The Da Vinci Code (which actually consists of scores of
"ideas" purloined from other books, loosely stitched together like
Frankenstein's monster), short stories and novels really aren't driven by "ideas."
But decent novels and short stories really don't work that way. What's the "idea" behind, say, Ernest Hemingway's brilliant short story "Hills Like White Elephants?" We're in the viewpoint of someone - an invisible someone - sitting in a café at a railway station listening to a young couple listlessly talk about something that seems sad, something that is breaking them up despite their words, but something never directly mentioned. Eventually we realize that the young man, while professing his love, is really trying to talk the girl into getting an abortion. And it's also apparent that he's doing so out of his own selfishness, not out of concern for her.
Is this an "idea story?" Not at all. It's a tiny bit of overheard conversation that takes on staggering weight in the proper fictional context.
But how to find that fictional context, how to create it, and how to know when to write about it?
I'm one of the few writers I know or have heard of who suggests that one sign of the unready amateur writer is in starting too soon. That is, not only on their attempts to get published - I suggest that a long apprenticeship is usually needed - but on trying to convert an "idea" into a story or novel. Once again, I wish I had a dollar for every time, at a party or elsewhere, I've heard some would-be but still-unpublished "writer" say that he's starting work on his novel, often a fantasy with a title such as "The Singing Sword of Sha-na-nah," which he says will be Book One of the Sha-Na-Nah Chronicles, probably six books, maybe ten.
Mother of God! What hubris. What staggering arrogance. Here's a pup who's never published a short story and he's already sending his minions out to fell entire forests to feed his fantasy (in more ways than one) infinology.
Usually their thinking about these "six books, maybe ten" - their gathering of plot, characters, ideas, themes, and style, other than a vague plan of imitating George R. R. Martin or Robert Jordan or somesuch -- wouldn't provide enough fuel to power a short, short story.
Real writers usually mulch over ideas for quite a while, knowing that mere glimpses of ideas, plots, or characters, do not a story or book make. They allow things to gestate. Even while knowing that the tale will grow organically with its telling, they have enough wisdom and experience not to go off half-cocked. (Early muskets and pistols, as you may know, had two settings for the cocking lever - half-cocked and fully cocked. Accidentally pull the trigger at half-cock and the powder is not ignited, the ball not fired. Very embarrassing if your enemy is bearing down on you. Going off half-cocked with a story or novel is equally embarrassing, but would-be writers often don't even notice that they've misfired.)
Harlan Ellison once described to me his idea for the gestation period for a story - or any piece of writing: Harlan suggests that it's like having this little motor, flashing-light thingee that you've created, but rather than putting it on show, you just pitch it into the swamp of the unconscious that every real writer depends upon. Down there under the algae scum in that swamp, the little idea-machine - useless by itself - begins to connect to other things already already lying in the dark. Writers are the ultimate scavengers. As Henry James (a friend of Harlan's from the old days, I think) once said - "A writer is a man on whom nothing is lost." Walking along the boggy shore, the writer finds new things to toss in - a human skeleton, a 1948 Buick V-8 engine, a worn Stetson, a 3-gallon vat of carbolic acid, part of the wooden case for a 1932 Philco floor console radio, some used junkie hypodermics, a chewed-red deer's leg separated from the carcass, iPod earbuds - and all the time your original flashing, blinking thingee-idea is down there melding, joining, connecting, growing. Finally, often when you least expect it, this . . . THING . . . pulls itself up out of the swamp scum and comes lurching and dragging its parts and killing blades through the primordial ooze and onto dry land.
That's when you can start writing about it.
The beginning writer, on the other hand, not even knowing he's going off half-cocked, throws himself into writing about his little dime-store flashing, blinking thingee-idea and then wonders why no one wants to read about it.
One of the probl 636y2418g ems of today's crop of would-be writers is that the great majority of them want to go straight to writing novels (or long sequences of novels, the dreaded Chronicles of Sha-na-nah) without ever mastering, or perhaps even writing, a short story. While it's certainly true that some writers are novelists at heart rather than short-story writers (I found out that this was true of me), just skipping the short-story form is too much like a young would-be filmmaker announcing that he or she is ready to be paid to do a big-budget major motion picture even though he or she has never picked up a movie camera.
Ernest Hemingway's "simple style" is illusory, as we'll see in a later of installment of Writing Well. He honed that apparent simplicity - actually a complex use of language, notable for what he leaves out even more than for what he puts in -- for years before writing the short stories that made him famous. Beyond making him famous, the style in those short stories changed the direction of most of the literature in the 20th Century.
Have you read Hemingway's short fiction? Have you analyzed the subtle prose-poem beauties of such pieces as "Cross Country Snow" or "A Clean, Well-lighted Place" (a good definition of Hemingway's style there) or "The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber" or "The Big Two-Hearted River"? Even if you don't choose to write in such a simple style - and it would be foolish to do so, since imitation of Hemingway, even by the older Hemingway, is a sad and obvious thing - a close reading and careful study of such deliberate technique is the kind of apprenticeship beginning writers need. In some ways, Hemingway's short stories became the 20th Century apotheosis of quality short fiction. His first widely read novel - The Sun Also Rises - was, like Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a Rubicon in American literature: that is, once crossed, once published and read, there was no going back. A new voice and style in it inspired generations of future American writers.
So what does Hemingway say about ways to get started writing, to keep writing, and to write well?
Dan Simmons's commentary on Ernest Hemingway's Basic Principles of Writing:
Before starting my commentary here, I should note that I am not an unalloyed fan of Hemingway. But my involvement with him has been intense at times. Over a decade ago, I wrote a novel - The Crook Factory - in which Hemingway was the primary character. The book was based on a little-known, biographically speaking, era in EH's life from 1942-44 when he started and ran a counterespionage group on the island of Cuba (the eponymous "Crook Factory" as he called it) while at the same time outfitted his 38-foot fishing boat, the Pilar, as a sort of Q-boat in which he hoped to flush a German U-boat to the surface and capture it intact.
For almost four years, I was deep in Hemingway research - reading almost every letter he ever wrote, devouring biographies and other books about him, pouring over nautical charts and diaries and manuscripts of his that were never published, even going so far as to unearth FBI files and dossiers on the man that had been classified until 1990, almost 30 years after his suicide. There were aspects of Hemingway that I detested - his bullying, his need always to be the center of attention, his later self-indulgences with his fiction and his life, his betrayal of friends and lovers - and there were other habits of his that were merely annoying (for instance, his inability to learn the simple rule of dropping "e" before adding "ing" as in "haveing," a mild annoyance if one reads three of his personal letters or manuscripts, but enough to drive one crazy when reading hundreds of such original documents.) But overall, my respect for Hemingway as a writer grew exponentially. He was as deliberate in his writing as he was determined to live his life to the full. No other writer in the 20th Century, I believe, succeeded so well in both arenas.
So what about this Principle # 1 of "Studying the best literary models?"
Hemingway did. He was self-taught in the sense that he did not study writing in college - his "school" consisted of driving ambulances in WWI - but Hemingway was, at heart, a bookish and even scholarly man. He read the best writers in the history of literature and absorbed what he could from them, all the while planning and preparing to develop a distinctive style of his own.
Were Hemingway a young man today, he wouldn't be studying Dan Simmons or Stephen King or George R.R. Martin as his literary models; just as he did early in the last century, he'd be reading Tolstoy and Turgenev and Twain and Jane Austen and Shakespeare and the Bible and Dostoevsky and Conrad and Joyce and others. For decades, in his private correspondence, Hemingway would use boxing metaphors to describe which of his private greats he was sparring with in whatever novel or story he was working on. ("I went six rounds with Tolstoy today," he'd brag to Scott Fitzgerald or others.) This is precisely the agon of which Harold Bloom and other literary critics write - "the anxiety of influence" in the sense of seeking out one's literary antecedents and trying to compete with them, usurp them - and the endless need to sort one's work out in terms of equal to, greater than, or less than.
We may not really be what we eat, as the saying goes, but - as writers - we are, always, inescapably, what we read. Read mediocre work and make it your literary model, and someday your writing may rise to the dubious level of mediocrity. Study the best literary models and - while you may never equal them and even if you can just stay in the ring for one or two rounds with them -- your own writing will benefit immeasurably from it.
"Master your subject through experience and reading." Note here that the author most famous for changing the image of authors - from long-haired, ivory towered, tweed-jacket-with-pipe types to the Hemingway image of safari hunting, deep-sea-fishing, bullfight afficianado hairy-chested brawler - puts "reading" on an equal basis with experience.
"Work in disciplined isolation." Recently I was having lunch in a brew pub and my dining partner brought to my attention a young man at a nearby table - he was there when we arrived - working earnestly on a laptop computer. My first thought was that he was using a wi-fi connection to catch up on e-mail, but a closer look showed his screen full of dialogue and thick paragraphs of description. And he kept scrolling back and forth, rewriting the dialogue.
Is sitting in a public restaurant an example of "disciplined isolation?" It could be. Most writers have the ability to write almost anywhere. And all of us like a clean, well-lighted place in which to work. But why choose such a public place? It runs the risk of shouting "Hey! Look at me! I'm a writer!" Coffeehouse poets, scrawling endlessly in their spiral-bound notebooks - always about themselves, I've discovered - tend to be a dime a dozen.
Did Hemingway practice
what he preaches about disciplined isolation? When he was a young man in
In 1947, his new wife, Mary, surprised Hemingway - who had been away on an extended trip - by having a "writing tower" built for him next to the old Finca (farmhouse). There, she explained, Hem could write in all the disciplined isolation he wanted.
It was too much for the aging writer. He felt isolated up there in his tower, even though it commanded a wonderful view. Within a couple of weeks, Hemingway was back working in his office off the living room, able to talk out the open window with the gardeners when he wanted to, close to his booze (kept on a table near his favorite easy chair in the next room), and ready to leap out of his "disciplined isolation" as soon as someone showed up to play.
A few years later, on his 50th birthday, Hemingway sent out the following in his letters. To a would-be biographer - "I fucked three times today, shot ten straight at pigeons (very fast ones) at the club, drank with five friends a case of Piper Heidsick Brut and looked at the ocean for big fish all afternoon. There was nothing although the current was very dark." To his publisher-editor at Scribner's, who had just published James Jones's bestselling war novel From Here to Eternity -"I hope he kills himself as soon as it does not damage his or your sales. If you give him a literary tea you might ask him to drain a bucket of snot and then suck the puss out of a dead nigger's ear." (When I wanted my character of Ernest Hemingway to insult my fictional character, undercover FBI killer Joe Lucas, in The Crook Factory, I chose to transplant this last vicious obscenity.) And to Cardinal Spellman "In every picture I see of you there is more mealy mouthed arrogance, fatness and overconfidence . . . You will never be Pope as long as I am alive." And to Senator Joseph McCarthy - "You can come down here and fight for free, without any publicity, with an old character like me who is fifty years old and weighs 209 and thinks you are a shit, Senator, and would knock you on your ass the best day your have ever lived."
We hear the bottle
speaking in much of this. It's bully stuff, a prematurely old man's bragging,
bigoted and impotent denial of his own failing powers. But at about the same
time that Hemingway was sending off these diatribes, he was writing in Green
"And I thought about Tolstoy and about what a great advantage an experience of war was to a writer. It was one of the major subjects and certainly one of the hardest to write truly and those writers who had not seen it were always very jealous and tried to make it seem unimportant or abnormal, or a disease as a subject, while really, it was just something quite irreplaceable that they had missed."
Here is the older but still-observant writer commenting on experience versus reading, but it is also - as comes through in his jealous rant against WWII veteran James Jones - the plaint of the aging would-be warrior who has just seen another war as a correspondent while younger men fought it and felt it directly and were now writing about it.
"Begin early in the morning . . ." Many writers are early morning people, but some of us prefer to begin later in the morning and to work deep into the night. I don't personally prefer the night for writing, but in an age of too many telephone calls, faxes, and especially e-mails from agents, editors, and others from both coasts - often business one has to deal with - the late night is quiet. The key to Hemingway's advice here is "for several hours each day."
"Begin by reading
everything you have written . . ." What Hemingway is advising us on here is a
phenomenon that is almost universal among writers but which I rarely hear them
speak of. That is, getting in the groove. Almost all writers have some
pre-writing ritual that will help put them in the kind of waking trance -
deeper even than the similar catatonic trance one enters for serious reading -
which they must attain before beginning work. (The town where I live in
Reading everything you've written up through the previous day's or week's efforts is a good way to get in that zone. Every story or novel, even every chapter, tends to have its own idioscynrasies in style, tone of dialogue, distinctive energy or whatever, and re-reading the last chapter before typing a single new word is the best way to regain the cadence and mindset. In my case, I write deep into the night, go over the pages on the screen in the morning - making changes - print those out, make more revisions on hard copy by hand, type those in the previous day's work on the screen, and only then begin the new section.
"Write slowly and deliberately."
You'll do this at some point, even if only during multiple revisions. Some writers - Hemingway was one (I hope I'm another) - do it on the first pass, writing and rewriting a sentence, passage or page until it feels right before going on, and not just to guard against the sloppiness of fevered composition. Hemingway, for much of his career, was a novelist rather than short-story writer and novelists - all of them - are marathon runners as opposed to the 100-meter sprinters of short fiction. All learn to pace themselves . . . in their writing and their careers.
Besides, as Flaubert warns us -
"We must be on our guard against that feverish state called inspiration, which is often a matter of nerves rather than muscle. Everything should be done coldly, with poise."
I don't know if Hemingway ever read this particular passage - he certainly was very familiar with Flaubert's work - but it resonates well in Hemingway's famous (and perhaps definitive) definition of courage - "Grace under pressure."
Hemingway's 7th Rule or piece of advice - "Stop writing when things are going well . . ." sounds odd but is gold, as writing advice goes. It's terribly hard to make yourself stop in the middle of . . . say . . . a scene where your major character is being chased across the ice by some huge beast in the night that may or may not be a polar bear, but . . . stop. Sometimes you have to keep writing, put in the extra hour or two to complete the scene, but the best advice, for most of the time, is . . . stop. Your subconscious, as Hemingway explains below, will continue writing the scene for you and will, in its careful way compared to your feverish haste, find details to put in (or possibly to exclude) that you will miss while writing in your "feverish state called inspiration." Besides, your own eagerness to see - to read - what happens next, will get you started the next morning. That getting-started-each-day becomes a more serious issue as the years of writing pass. Sustaining momentum is the key to completing anything so absurd in its length and difficulty as a novel.
"Do not discuss the material while writing about it."
Once again, Hemingway is giving you advice that separates the sheep from the goats, the would-be never-will-be writers from the pros. Very few professional writers talk about what they're working on - certainly not in any great detail. This is just a fact. Too many amateurs do yack about their day's work. In a real sense, they're pissing away the energy that the subconscious requires to continue the writing while your body and mind are technically off writing duty.
Our friend Flaubert discussed this tendency to overplan and then talk about your writing in a letter he wrote to Louis Bouilhet. The terms are quite deliberately sexual -
"It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly dissect your children who are still to be born, you don't get horny enough actually to father them."
Hemingway echoes his own advice and Flaubert's in his 9th Basic Principle - "Do not think about writing when you are finished for the day but allow your subconscious mind to ponder it."
Think in terms of Harlan Ellison's swamp of the subconscious with that '48 Buick engine down there waiting for something to connect to. You can't will into being most of the finer connections your subconscious provides for a novel-in-progress, but you can train your subconscious to be hungry for such serendipitous leaps and then find ways to optimize the odds for it to make those surprising connections . Once again, the quality of your education - in facts, in experience, in details gleaned through careful observation, in sensitivity to the nuances of language, in subtleties learned through the quality and breadth of your reading - becomes the paramount factor in enabling the subconscious.
"Work continuously on a project once you start it."
This is absolutely necessary for me. Once I've begun a novel, I have to stick with it - burrowing like a mole until I see sunlight again, perhaps months or even years later - and I don't do other writing projects, other than proofreading, while writing the book. If I must do something else, such as produce a short story I've contracted for, I set the book aside for that period so that I'm working on just one thing and giving it my full attention. But the project set aside almost always suffers.
Novelist John Gardner (The Sunlight Dialogues Gardner, not the suspense writer who did some James Bond books) defined a novel as "A vivid and sustained dream." That's true for the reader and it must be true for the author. To be vivid, the dream that is your story or novel almost always has to be sustained.
"Keep a record of your daily progress."
Hemingway was big on
keeping records. Visit his Finca Vigia,
moldering and rotting away down in
With writing and word count, the record keeping had multiple purposes, but one purpose makes wonderful sense: Hemingway would set a word count for each day, say 1,000 words, and when he reached that quota he was out the door and having fun - fishing in the Gulf on his beloved Pilar or shooting skeet at the club with his pals or off to jai-alai games or perhaps trying to capture German spies and U-boats. Start early enough in the morning, write well, and much of the day can be yours to play in without feeling guilty.
"Make a list of your titles after you have completed the work."
This isn't a hard and
fast rule, of course; many writers have the title of their book or story
clearly in mind before beginning work on it. (Indeed, some odd titles - say
In the next installment of Writing Well, we'll look at Hemingway again - or at least begin with him - in our effort to answer one of the most difficult questions about writing: What is style and how the hell do I get some of my own?
Think of literary style as pornography. That is, when you can't decide what style is or how to define it or how to find one of your own, remember what one U.S. Supreme Court Justice said of pornography - "Maybe I can't define it, but I know it when I see it."
Every successful writer has a specific style, however reticent or inarticulate that particular writer may be in being able to describe his or her own style. It can be argued that style is what makes good writing. In an our egalitarian age where too many writers and readers insist that it is story that is king and that all other elements of literature must subordinate themselves to the tyranny of the tale, it is the style of the great writers from the past - from Plato to Pynchon, from Austen through Woolf, from Dante and Shakespeare through Hemingway and Nabokov - that makes their otherwise often time-bound stories worth reading generation after generation.
But what is style?
In the final
section of the indispensable Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, in the chapter
titled "An Approach to Style (With a List of Reminders)," the authors come as
close to anyone in defining the elusive creature -
"Style is an increment in writing. When we speak of Fitzgerald's style, we don't mean his command of the relative pronoun, we mean the sound his words make on paper. Every writer, by the way he uses the language, reveals something of his spirit, his habits, his capacities, his bias. This is inevitable as well as enjoyable. All writing is communication; creative writing is communication through revelation - it is the Self escaping into the open. No writer long remains incognito."
Perhaps this release of the Monster of the Id, the "Self escaping into the open," is what prompted Vladimir Nabokov to say - "You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style." (For what is murder other than the ultimate exercise in self-expression?) This would certainly explain why so many beginning writers - and more than a few professional ones - seem to find it necessary to murder the English language in their attempts at style.
More to the point, perhaps this inescapable revelation of self through style is what made Henry James, whom we will meet again below, to say that the author is present in "every page of every book from which he sought so assiduously to eliminate himself."
In other words, there's no doubt that one can get away with committing murder. But no writer ever escapes the consequences of committing style.
Style is diction; style is cadence; style is syntax; style is word choice and the spectrum of a writer's vocabulary; style is length of sentences and the careful placement of different length sentences into a paragraph in the way a master stonemason would set stones into an unmortared wall meant to last for centuries; style is repetition and knowing when not to repeat; style is omission; style is misdirection and subliminal suggestion; style is specificity set into deliberate vagueness; style is crafty vagueness set amidst a forest of specificity; style is the motion of the mind at work; style is the pulse and heartbeat of the narrative sensibility; style is balance; style is the projective will of the writer creating a portal of access to the receptive will of the discerning reader; style is the sound our words make on paper.
Style is goddamned hard.
Let's quit talking about style and look at a famous example. (You might want to take notes. There's going to be a quiz later.)
All right, here's the quiz I promised -
Who wrote this passage?
2) What was the novel it appeared in?
3) How many sentences are there in the opening paragraph?
4) How many words are in the opening paragraph?
5) How many of those words have three syllables?
6) How many of the words have two syllables?
7) How many words have one syllable?
8) What is the most frequently repeated word in the paragraph?
9) What is the second most frequently used word?
10) How many commas are there? (And how many "should there be" if the author had obeyed "House Style" now dictated by most publishers?)
11) What elements of syntax, diction, word choice, and punctuation serve the liturgical cadence of the paragraph and how?
The good news is that you don't have to take this quiz (although good for you if you did), but the bad news is that if you couldn't answer questions #1 and 2, you haven't read widely enough or well enough to consider becoming a writer. If you felt it was beneath you to count the number of sentences, repeated words, numbers of syllables, commas, and so forth - if your interests invariably focus on loftier and more philosophical and thematic aspects of becoming a writer - it's very doubtful you have what it takes to become one. Sorry to be the bearer of such bad tidings. Tis true, 'tis pity; 'tis pity 'tis true.
For a better analysis of that famous opening paragraph than I could ever give, I'm going to invite Joan Didion to speak for a minute. The following appeared in her essay "Last Words" in The New Yorker in 1998 -
"So goes the famous first paragraph of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, which I was moved to reread by the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway's last novel would be published posthumously next year. That paragraph, which was published in 1929, bears examination: four deceptively simple sentences, one hundred and twenty-six words, the arrangement of which remains as mysterious and thrilling to me now as it did when I first read them, at twelve or thirteen, and imagined that if I studied them closely enough and practiced hard enough I might one day arrange one hundred and twenty-six words myself. Only one of the words has three syllables. Twenty-two have two. The other hundred and three have one. Twenty-four of the words are "the," fifteen are "and." There are four commas. The liturgical cadence of the paragraph derives in part from the placement of the commas (their presence in the second and fourth sentences, their absence in the first and third), but also from that repetition of "the" and of "and," creating a rhythm so pronounced that the omission of "the" before the word "leaves" in the fourth sentence ("and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling") casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season. The power of the paragraph, offering as it does the illusion but not the fact of specificity, derives precisely from this kind of deliberate omission, from the tension of withheld information. In the late summer of what year? What river, what mountains, what troops?"
Didion's 1998 essay is important to would-be writers trying to understand the mysteries of style partially because of the reason Didion was compelled to write the piece - "the recent announcement that what was said to be Hemingway's last novel would be published posthumously next year" . It was published, of course, over the dead writer's express wishes that his rough material never be published, and it turned out not to be the last "posthumous Hemingway" to be published. The family has authorized more edited releases of his rough drafts and notes in novel or book form.
of dead author's wishes - the publication of their rough work before they
themselves had a chance to finish it, shape it, and polish it - sounds like a
digression from our discussion of style, but it's central to it. Didion recalls being galvanized, years earlier, to confront
a bloviating professor of English at a
One hopes that Joan Didion indulged in the writerly pleasure of literally kneeing the academic horse's patoot in the bajoobies, but all she admits to in print is that she finally objected strongly, pointing out to the professorial idiot that The Last Tycoon was "an unfinished book, one we had no way of judging because we had no way of knowing how Fitzgerald might have finished it."
The other academics, intellectuals, and dinner guests there that night joined in a chorus of refutation of Didion's argument. Nonsense, came their rejoinders, the editors had Fitzgerald's "notes," they had his "outline," the thing had been "entirely laid out."
"Only one of us at the table that evening," continues Joan Didion, speaking with the absolute confidence of a writer, "in other words, saw a substantive difference between writing a book and making notes for it, or "outlining it," or "laying it out."
That "substantive difference" - as all writers would know - is style. It is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
The Hemingway family, beginning with the writer's widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, read into Ernest Hemingway's repeated verbal and written directions that his unfinished work never be published a secret directive to go ahead and publish it all. The man who had spent his literary lifetime obsessed with style, apprenticed to the Word, and always trying to sharpen and improve the distinctive style that he had embarked upon as a young writer, now had others making all stylistic decisions - the literary equivalent of publisher's current "House Style" that, if allowed to prevail, homogenizes fiction to a tasteless pulp.
" . . . smooth the printer's fur, cajole him some way," wrote William Faulkner to his publisher, Boni & Liverright, in 1927. "He's been punctuating my stuff to death; giving me gratis quotation marks and premiums of commas that I dont (sic) need."
Mary Hemingway wrote in the introduction to True at First Light - the 1999 posthumous Hemingway book carved out of the hundreds upon hundreds of pages of rough draft, notes, outlines, and maunderings the writer had never got around to fashioning into any final form - "Except for punctuation and the obviously overlooked 'ands' and 'buts' we would present his prose and poetry to readers as he wrote it, letting the gaps lie where they were."
Except for punctuation!!!!!???
Except for the obviously overlooked "ands" and "buts"!!!!????
Don't these greedy spouses and sons and daughters of dead spouses read their own family members' masterpieces??? Don't they understand that the placement - or omission - of punctuation, much less those necessary, beloved, absolutely essential "ands" and "buts" mean everything to the writer?
Didion understood this - "Well, there you are. You care about the punctuation or you don't, and Hemingway did. You care about the 'ands' and 'buts' or you don't, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don't, and Hemingway didn't."
masterpiece of a story that Hemingway had written years earlier, "The Snows of
Kilimanjaro," he has his main character - a writer dying of gangrene in a
hunting camp in
Instead, a dead writer's wife turns her sons and other inferior editors to failing at trying to write them, while showing an absolute lack of understanding of the dead writer's style. Or of the importance of style itself.
Ford Madox Ford, a writer and editor who helped Hemingway get published - and whom Hemingway, characteristically, rewarded by betraying and ridiculing - wrote of Hemingway's prose style in the introduction to A Farewell to Arms - "Hemingway's words strike you, each one, as if they were pebbles fetched fresh from a brook. They live and shine, each in its place. So one of his pages has the effect of a brook-bottom into which you look down through the floating water."
This is an interesting metaphor and it has been used by more than a few instructors of writing in explaining Hemingway's "transparent style" - a form of writing so pared down and clean that the prose-style never gets in the way of the events and characters in a story or novel - but it ignores an obvious (if Zen-like) fact: Hemingway's style is not only the clear stream, it is also the pebbles one glimpses at the bottom of the stream. In a real sense, his style is everything. It is what makes Hemingway Hemingway and what makes those who attempt to imitate him - even the later Hemingway - mere parodists.
Most of you reading this have heard of Hemingway's famous "iceberg rule" for writing - that seven-eighths of the story should be underwater, invisible, only hinted at by the one-eighth tip of prose shown to the reader - but the truth is that all good writers have followed this rule, before and after Hemingway, no matter how complex and convoluted and anti-Hemingwayesque their style may be.
Style is illusion - it is the summoning of much through the revelation of little. It is the professional magician's primary tool of misdirection - look here and . . .oops! Look what happened there! It is inference and insinuation via the illusion of specificity while actual specificity - What river? What mountains? What troops? - is often being assiduously avoided.
It is, in other words, the active and continous engagement of the intelligent reader's participation.
Here is another example of powerful style. Be prepared for another quiz:
The bad news here is that there is a quiz on this passage - one demanding three hours of writing and upon which all advancement depends, but the good news is that the quiz isn't yours, but was mine 36 years ago.
wasn't a quiz but part of an exhausting Senior Comprehensive Examinations
gauntlet at my undergraduate school of
My method of study was to wait until a week before Comps and to kidnap the smartest person I've ever known, then or since - a classics major, roommate of mine, and Falstaffian figure named Keith Nightenhelser - and lock him into our suite for three days with me, feeding him only Cheese Poopies, pizza, and Cokes and not releasing him until he'd grilled me on hundreds of possible Comps question and suggested thousands of possible answers. (Nightenhelser was only a lowly sophomore at the time, but he already knew everything. To this day, he's the only scholar on earth who knows the hidden structure of the Melian Dialogue.)
On the first day of Comprehensive Exams - we seniors did more than six hours of writing to essay questions that day, sitting at a giant round table in a sacred, echoing, round room in Lilly Library that had been off-limits to us for four years - I looked at the first question and found the passage listed above.
Holy Shit, Batman. Was this the end of Little Rico?
I knew it was Henry James, of course - I was an English major, after all - but
I'd spent the better part of four years avoiding Henry James: skimming over his
novels and stories when I had to deal with him, reading him grudgingly and with
surliness when I couldn't completely escape him. I really didn't like Henry James. I didn't have the patience for Henry James.
As Clover Adams, wife of 19th Century historian Henry Adams and a friend of James himself once said - "Henry tends to chew more than he bites off."
Anyway, at some point in the previous four years I had grudgingly slouched my way through Portrait of a Lady, the novel from which the passage above was taken, and on that first day of Comps I threw myself into my first two- or three-hour essay with a fanatic's absolute determination to shovel as much academic bullshit as I had to in order to get through the desert of James and onto the oasis of the next question. (Which, thank God, was about some small detail in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, something I knew more than a little bit about.) My motto while shoveling wildly was - There has to be a pony in here somewhere!
I must have shoveled frenetically enough, or at least the English professors grading the essays took pity on my Jamesophobia, since I was the only English major at Wabash that year to receive a "1" on Senior Comprehensive Exams (and a Phi Betta Kappa Prize to boot), but I can't remember a word of what I wrote in my adrenaline-assisted analysis of the style, content, and importance of the famous paragraph above. So, once again, let me invite in a guest speaker who actually knows what he's talking about: in this case Sven Birkerts.
Birkerts's The Gutenberg
Elegies (published by Ballantine Books in
1994, released later as a Fawcett paperback) should be required reading not
only for all prospective writers, but for anyone who loves reading. In the Elegies, Birkerts
- a lifelong addicted reader and author of wonderful essays on reading and
books, some gathered in his 1999 book Readings
(Graywolf Press) - makes perhaps the most eloquent
argument I've ever heard on the absolute importance of serious reading as
"vertical engagement" in an age of all-encroaching electronic media as a source
for our facts, perspective, and entertainment. TV, movies, radio, CD's, DVD's,
and especially the Internet all are, Birkerts argues,
primarily the media of images (even radio!) and create an
information-involvement net that is very, very wide and very, very shallow. (Or
as early explorers described the
Many of our books in the past 50 years have followed this trend toward wider, shallower, simpler, easier. Editors and publishers fear "alienating readers" by asking that they know anything or - God forbid - by demanding that they themselves work to appreciate the nuances of style in a novel or to see subtleties hidden in the giant lollipop that is story and plot.
is vertical - one has to go deeper, to engage
more deeply, in almost any book than any electronic or visual medium allows -
but serious reading, reading someone like Henry James, is very vertical. It's the
In his essay "Reading and Depth of Field," which first appeared in Philosophy and Literature, Vol. 2, #1, in April of 1996, Sven Birkerts has the following to say about the paragraph from Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady. -
"How do we begin fashioning an interior world from this? (For I would argue that we do begin from the very first words.) Of what is this passage informing us apart from what it purports to be informing us?
"The passage - and the novel - opens on a note of leisurely indirection, not only naming the ceremony proper to a particular class, but doing so by means of a rolling period that, by holding its true subject - 'afternoon tea' - for the last, implants in readers their first sense of pace, scale, and the larger consequentiality of ritual. The diction, of course, is that of the educated upper classes, and the delayed gratification enforced by the syntax signals not only authorial playfulness but also the implicit conviction that the readers, themselves unharried, will allow the authorial sensibility to announce itself as it chooses to. That the passage itself is in part about delay - about pleasure being greater in anticipation - imparts a retroactive rightness to this first sentence, making it a kind of structural signal not just for the opening but, it could be asserted, for the whole work. That does not concern us here, however.
"The reader will then notice how the syntax and diction, in interplay with the sense of the first two sentences, enact a logic of discrimination. We begin with the first delimitation - 'Under certain circumstances . . .' that will be, of course, the circumstances soon unfolded before us - and then, with the following sentence, receive a further refinement: 'There are circumstances . . . .' The effect is of moving from the general - and for a certain societal echelon 'universal' - to the somewhat more specific, for now there are people implicated - takers and refusers of tea - and the circumstance has become a 'situation,' which is to say it is very nearly concrete. The third sentence narrows the aperture further - there are people that the narrator has 'in mind'; and the fourth, citing 'the implements of the little feast' and the specific setting of 'the lawn implements of the little feast" and the specific setting of "the lawn of an old English country-house," nearly lands us in the event. It is the most tarrying of paces, yet there is strong purpose behind it. The impression of slow, easeful motion at once informs us of a 'universal' societal order and uses that as the backdrop for the introduction of the various specific elements that will figure so vividly in the telling. A subliminal sense of balance is established., a part-to-whole harmony, in which what follows is in accord with the larger system of assumptions already laid out.
"The second part of the passage - now moving from generalization to the more concrete business of setting, of place and time and weather - fulfills a similar discriminatory process. We are placed in 'the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon' and then led, by careful stages, to bring our attention to rest on a brightly illumined part of the stage - the brightness the more precious for the sense we have, literal and figurative, of encroaching shadows. The general societal distinctions made in the opening sentences are reinforced - subliminally amplified - by the concrete correlatives of light, shadows lengthening across the lawn, and highlighted radiance. Thus, and by his discreet authorial self-insertions - 'Those that I have in mind' and 'what I should call the perfect middle' - James makes coextensive the narrative sensibility and the world it sets forth. The narrative voice - its manners, civilized paraphrases, strategic delays - maps exactly the rhythms and behavior patterns of the subject society. Our confidance in the concord between how and what allows us to postulate the terms, the order, of that world before we have even passed through the first gateway. James has told us next to nothing, but he has informed us of a great deal."
I rarely choose to quote any passage at such length, but Birkerts' insights are important - not just for pondering the vertical engagement of reading Henry James amidst the easy-access, horizontal information flow of the 21st Century - but for any reader who is thinking of becoming a writer and interested in discovering his own style.
Did you notice a repetition of many of the same terms and techniques here that Joan Didion used in explaining Ernest Hemingway's style to us? Diction and syntax - moving from generalization to the more concrete - the use of light and shadows as objective correlatives to coming mood - dealing with one season while suggesting the encroaching shadows of a grimmer time or situation to come - style as a sense of balance - the withholding of information to the reader and the importance of part-to-whole harmony?
Both the Hemingway and James passages cited above might be thought of as fragments of a shattered hologram, or as skin cells containing a human being's DNA: the whole is always present in the part.
Few author's styles could seem as dissimilar as Henry James's and Ernest Hemingway's, but all good writers have the same small set of tools and seek the same effect - cadence and diction and syntax and the use of style to create a subliminal sense of balance that will permeate (and reflect) the themes, plot, interactions, characters, and even dialogue throughout the novel or story. Hemingway and James, who seem to have so little in common, are veritable twins in terms of being masters of the same art.
Terrifyingly, when trying to come to some separate peace with Henry James, we learn that The Portrait of a Lady reflects his earlier, simpler style. While his later novels such as The Ambassadors far transcend The Portrait of a Lady in stylistic eloquence and structural complexity, the verticality of the reading engagement in the later novel becomes . . . scary. As readers, we're like climbers used to practice rocks who are suddenly confronted with a 3,000-foot sheer face to climb or descend. The cry goes out for pitons, carabiners, jumars, and rope . . . lots and lots of rope. Oh, yes, and please send us a good climbing partner - someone who can show us the route.
In his later stories, James's "suspension of meaning" within a sentence - the "delayed gratification enforced by syntax" Birkerts writes about above - becomes almost dizzying as James sustains the suspension and deferral of gratification by ever-increasing parenthesis. It's like a game he's playing - not so much with us, the readers, as with the entire limits of the short story, the novel, and the English language itself. In his late-James style story "The Birthplace" we encounter this opening -
"It seemed to them at first, the offer, too good to be true, and their friend's letter, addressed to them to feel, as he said, the ground, to sound them as to inclinations and possiblities, had almost the effect of a brave new joke at their expense."
Imagine today's high school seniors who are often too lazy and bored to be bothered to wrestle with a straightforward sentence from, say, Mark Twain or James Conrad - kids who've beeen encouraged their entire academic career to "find their own comfort level" (in other words, find your slide and grease it, kid, since we're afraid to ask anything difficult of you) -- having to engage with this (relatively simple) opening to an increasingly difficult Henry James story.
and I have no excuse for this procrastination since I've long since made my
peace with Henry James (and hope to have him as a major character in a new
novel of mine) - I read his incredible story "The Beast in the Jungle." This
story is very "late-James" indeed - one might say it must be near the apogee of
the outward parabola of his ever-increasing skill and sensibilities - and no
magazine published it during his lifetime or after. Even in an age, very early
20th Century, where readers were expected to deal with steep vertical
engagement in most of their reading, "The Beast in the Jungle" was too much for
editors and their theoretical readership. It was the
Deep in the story we encounter this passage -
"He did this, from time to time, with such effect that he seemed to wander through the old years with his hand in the arm of a companion who was, in the most extraordinary manner, his other, his younger self; and to wander, which was more extraordinary yet, round and round a third presence - not wandering she, but stationary, still, whose eyes, turning with his revolution, never ceased to follow him . . ."
It is not giving away some gimmick ending to tell you that this scene takes place in a cemetery, but if you haven't read the story yet, you'll have to take my word that these few sentences, imbued with what one writer called "that curious passionate and masculine delicacy of phrase," are more terrifying, horrifying, despairing, truthful, final, beautiful, (and sad) than any scenes ever written by Edgar Alan Poe or Stephen King or Peter Straub or - most certainly - by Dan Simmons.
The goal in this and future installments of our Writing Well discussion is not to turn you into a literary critic - nor even to try to educate you in the art of what was called "close reading" in the long-gone day of my literary education in the now-obsolete New Criticism - but to say to you, as a potential (or at least interested) future writer, that style is - and always will be - ineffable, but that the mastering of it is absolutely essential if you wish to write well.
Some would-be science fiction writers have asked me - "Should I do my 'world-building' before I start writing my novel?" They mean do the SF jiggery-pokery of deciding the gravity of a planet, the flora and fauna, what kind of sun the place has and how far from it the world is, the color of the sky, etc., etc.
My answer is yes, but not the kind of "world building" - often dealing with math-based computer programs - that they're talking about.
Worlds are built through a writer's style more than by the content of any mere descriptions of places or people found in the tale. Much as a magician's magic comes through his dexterity and misdirection, so does a writer's magic arise from his or her ability to defer, to involve, and to infer. Read again the two long passages set off above - one by Ernest Hemingway, one by Henry James - and you'll see that in a few mere paragraphs in which specifics are avoided in favor of moods foreshadowed, in which far more is suggested than revealed, in which an author's careful, careful choice of diction and syntax prepares to resonate with and shape a much larger work - entire worlds have already sprung into being.
We trust authors who give us so much so quickly - and so generously -- and we trust them to take us to important places. It makes us, the readers, willing to work hard to join them in those enchanted places, even if those worlds - like James's lost world of Edwardian upperclass privilege or Hemingway's Europe of WWI - are far, far more alien to us than Mr. Spock's planet Vulcan.
William H. Gass once said - "Words may be the ultimate things - they are completely minded things."
So is any good writer's style - "the sound your words make on paper." Every writer, including you, (should you put in the terrible time and effort and study and apprenticeship and frustation and labor and self-doubt it takes to join the ranks of real writers,) will be present on every page of every book from which you seek so assiduously to eliminate yourself.
In the next installment of Writing Well, we will look at ways you can analyze your own style - active or incipient, deliberate or accidental, well-honed or newborn, derivative or original - and compare it with other authors' work, even while using some surprising tools such as T-unit analysis which can allow your writing to tell you things about itself that even you, the author of those sentences, might not know are there.
More Comments and Queries About Style
I am looking at a page of the manuscript of Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
The handwriting is small and precise but slants up and to the right so that each succeeding paragraph seems to take on a steeper list to port. The left margin is very wide. The upper half of the written page consists of two paragraphs in which he has drawn heavy lines through more than half of the words and sentences. The last two long sentences in the first long paragraph have been completely lined out and he has written a substitute sentence in the left margin but then blotted out many of the words in it and rewritten it as well. The bottom third of the page has been totally lined-through and x'ed out but then Flaubert has gone through again and struck the entire second half of the page.
He then wrote a substitute paragraph in the broad left margin, put lines through some of the words and phrases there, then scratched all of it out as well. In the middle of the left margin, above the first rewrite attempt, he then scribbled yet another substitute paragraph, which he showed by lines and arrows where it should be inserted into the original text.
"Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page," he wrote to a friend. "I myself hesitate. I falter. I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph."
Even in personal letters, Flaubert would be offended by some of his less-than-perfect word choices, but rather than change them there he would disassociate himself from them by underlining the offending words like a schoolmaster pointing out errors to the schoolboy that was himself.
"The more I study style," Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, "the more ignorant I perceive myself to be."
All the more interesting then-and perhaps all the more inevitable-that his Madame Bovary has been chosen by many authors and academics around the world as perhaps the most perfect novel ever written.and for Flaubert to be chosen by many readers and writers as perhaps the ultimate stylist.
What can we learn from it and from him?
Should We Even Try?
I'll insert here my awareness that on this web site's forum and in classes I've taught to adults wishing to be writers, there always arises the question-Why should we be comparing ourselves to the most famous writers in history? I don't pretend I will ever be able to write as well as Mark Twain, Henry James, Jane Austen, or the other writers discussed here.nor would I want to write like them. Why can't we, or shouldn't we, just set our sights lower and hope to write as well as [ and here insert the name of some favorite SF, horror, mystery, current literary, or bestseller author] ?"
The answer to this is simple-suit yourself. But what I'm sharing in these Writing Well installments are certain secrets of professional writers-the great ones and the lesser known ones-and one of those absolute secrets is that all of the great successful writers aimed very high, choosing, as Hemingway suggested we all should, "only the best literary models."
Perhaps the best analogy here is the public schools. If "minimum competency" is your goal and benchmark, then never expect anything better than minimum competency. (And be prepared to receive much below that minimum.)
The rest of us will look to excellence to see what tips and insights we might glean.
Why Should Writers Study Flaubert and Madame Bovary ?
For the best answer to that question, we might read The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and "Madame Bovary" (1986) by Mario Vargas Llosa, but for a shorter answer we can turn to Sven Birkerts in his 1987 Boston Review essay "The Leaning Umbrella: A Reflection on Flaubert."
"Madame Bovary is more than just a supremely crafted novel or a harrowing narrative of a fate unfolding. It is, if I may adopt the fashionable phraseology, fiction in its purest state of fictionality. Unlike certain contemporary texts, however, which remind the reader of their status through the various kinds of authorial subversion (I'm thinking of self-consuming artifacts like Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler and John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman ), Flaubert achieves this effect through the sheer perfection of design. Every scene, every sentence, every word has been set into place with tweezer precision; there is not a superfluous syllable in the book. The author's ideal was the creation of a self-sustaining fictional world, one that would be functional down to the smallest cogwheel. To achieve this, he absented himself entirely: at no point can we say, 'This is Flaubert speaking.' ('The artist,' he wrote in a famous letter, 'must be seen in his work like God.everywhere felt, but never seen.') Madame Bovary manifests a complete relational integrity. Its elaborate invented world exerts on the reader the full pressure of necessity; the least of its actions is at once a cause and an effect. Naturalistic illusionism-and fictionality-can be taken no further. After Flaubert, the novel as form could only decline, or change.
These are powerful claims and tough words. Many of us writers-regretfully, jealously-tend to agree with them.
The message here (and in the stunning triumph that is Madame Bovary ) for students and seekers of style are manifold:
That style is not merely "the sound words make on paper" as was earlier suggested in this series, but is also a direct function of content.
That style derives from the tone of narration and from the choice of point-of-view.
That style arises from the care of plotting and intricacy of overall design.
That the most visible and powerful effects of style may come from the author's invisibility in the text.
That real style is damned hard to create.
As Flaubert wrote to the ever-listening Louise Colet-
"What a beastly thing prose is! It's never finished; there is always something to do over. A good prose sentence must be like a good line of verse, unchangeable, as rhythmic, as sonorous. That at least is my ambition (there is one thing I'm certain of: there's no one who has ever had in mind a more perfect type of prose than I have; but as for the execution, what weaknesses, good Lord, what weaknesses!)"
Flaubert's ambition was nothing less than absolute elimination of the separation between form and content, between words and the world itself. He not only believed that this almost quantum connection existed between words and the world, but that any and every thought or sensation had its precise linguistic equivalent. If this theory was correct, Flaubert gambled, then Madame Bovary's triumph of style would also be a holistic triumph of content, design, narrative, characters, and plotting.
We can argue whether Flaubert fully succeeded in his hubristic goal, but there has to be something unique about a single novel from the 1850's that separated the history of novels into two categories-Before Madame Bovary and After Madame Bovary-in much the same way that the birth of Christ was said to have split time asunder.
A Different Sort of Workshopping:
Years before he attempted Madame Bovary , in September of 1849, 28-year-old Gustave Flaubert invited two of his closest friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet-both young literary men themselves-to his home at Croisset and proceeded to read his first full adult work, La Tentation de Saint Antoine to them.
The reading took four days at the rate of eight hours per day, from to four each day and then from eight to . Flaubert did not allow interruptions or comments on the book during the days and nights he was reading it to them.
When Flaubert was finished, the two friends conferred. They then advised Gustave to throw the manuscript in the fire.
Flaubert was shaken.
"You proceed by expansion," Du Camp told the suddenly and uncharacteristically silent Flaubert. "One subject sweeps toward another, and you end up forgetting your point of departure. A droplet becomes a torrent, the torrent a river, the river a lake, the lake an ocean, the ocean a tidal wave. You drown, you drown your characters, you drown the event, you drown the reader, and your work is drowned."
Bouilhet, a very shy man and a loyal friend except in regards to things literary, diagnosed the entire botch of a book as a case of "misplaced industry" and just repeated that it should be burned.
Du Camp elaborated on why the cosmic scale of La Tentation de Saint Antoine, filled as it was with epic characters, saints, gods, and goddesses, as well as constant authorial commentary on religion and society, was wrong for the expansive, opinionated, didactic, romantic, larger-than-life voice that was Flaubert's-
"You must choose a subject in which lyricism would be so unseemly as to compel you to abstain from it," Du Camp later said he told Flaubert. He urged the young writer to follow the smaller, tighter realism of Balzac rather than the gigantic scope of Hugo. "Choose a down-to-earth subject, one of those incidents in which bourgeois life abounds, something like La Cousine Bette or La Cousin Pons, and force yourself to treat it.without those divagrations that, albeit beautiful in themselves, hinder the development of your scheme."
Flaubert did not burn the manuscript. (As is true of most writers, he'd rather plead guilty to being a hoarder than an arsonist.) Nor did he fall into a deep depression, as was his wont, since he and Du Camp were shortly to embark on a two-year trip through the Levant-Egypt, North Africa, the Holy Land, Turkey, etc.-that would satisfy both Flaubert's hunger for the exotic and his need for real sexual debauchery. His literary ambitions could wait.
When he did settle on
the subject matter of Madame Bovary years later-the absurd (and fatal)
romantic ambitions and affairs of a freckle-faced (but large-breasted)
bourgeois doctor's wife in the very provincial
We can easily name 20th Century authors whose authorial intrusion into their own narrative is part of the energetic charm and attraction of their style-Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Harlan Ellison are only a few examples from a long list-but Flaubert harnessed that nuclear fire of authorial energy in a different way: by being, like God, everywhere present but nowhere visible (or audible) in his book.
(We should note that Flaubert's next huge novel after Madame Bovary, titled Salammbô - a sort of all-stops-out Conan the Destroyer Attacks Carthage historical romance, little read today but prized even above La Bovary by many while Flaubert was alive-did return to the "more is more" philosophy of authorial aggression.)
Writing Madame Bovary-essentially by taming his vaunting instincts and by living in a bourgeois world he had struggled to avoid his entire life-was not easy for Flaubert. At one point he wrote-"Writing this book I am like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles. "
His occasional mistress but full-time interlocutor during this period, Louise Colet (who received 160 letters chronicling Flaubert's progress or lack of progress on the novel), received this note in March of 1852-
"I have sketched, botched, slogged, groped. Perhaps I'm on the right track now. Oh, what a rascally thing is style. I don't believe you have any idea what kind of book this one is. I'm trying to be as buttoned-up in it as I was unbuttoned in the others and to follow a geometrically straight line. No lyricism, no reflections, the personality of the author absent. It won't be fun to read."
He didn't believe that. Flaubert's goal of making the world materially present through language would make his book about the boring bourgeoisie-he knew in his heart-as exciting as anything ever penned. In January, Louise Colet received this note from him-
"What strikes me as beautiful, what I would like to create is a book about nothing, a book without external attachments held aloft by the internal voice of its own style, as the earth stays aloft on its own, a book that would have almost no subject or at least in which the subject would, if possible, evaporate. The most beautiful works are those that have the least matter; the closer expression hugs thought, the more words cleave to it and disappear, the more beautiful it is. Therein lies the future of Art. As it grows, it grows more ethereal, from the Egyptian pylons to Gothic lancet windows, from Hindu poems twenty thousand lines long to Byron's ejaculations. "
Flaubert held it as axiomatic that beauty and ugliness resided not in the subjects-not in the things themselves-but only in style. Style was, unto itself, "an absolute way of seeing things."
Emma Bovary's great curse, of course, was that she could never see things-or want things-as they were. Trapped in the banality of provincial daily life and a marriage with a plodding rural doctor of limited means (and more limited imagination and passion) she dreamt of and lived for dramatic epiphanies. Eventually those epiphanies took the form of love affairs with bounders and cads, but even the banality of these liaisons took on a filtered Romantic glow through Emma's self-distorting lenses. Flaubert's genius was his realization that we all live life through the filter of such lenses-some like Emma Bovary's, others even more self-destructive and illusory, a few less distorting but also less exciting-and that our fates are always tied to our self-imposed illusions.
An Example of Style:
It's time to look at an actual example of Flaubert's writing.
The following passage
was written late on the night of
Here is part of the La Basaide scene where Emma Bovary, having finally consummated her romantic longings with the handsome cad Rodolphe and perhaps having realized a true orgasm for the first time, views the forest glen and world around her with new eyes-
(An irrelevant note
here-If some of you, like me, always wonder if and how some fine novelistic
passage can be converted into its cinematic equivalent, you don't have to
wonder about this one: director David Lean shot this scene for his 1970 epic
"Ryan's Daughter." Robert Bolt, the screenwriter who'd worked with Lean a few
years earlier on "Lawrence of Arabia," had wanted to adapt Madame Bovary and
submitted a screenplay to Lean, but the director preferred something set in
At any rate, before we begin leaping at this excerpt with our own microscopes and analytical scalpels, let's read what Flaubert himself thought about the passage. It was after when he finished writing that day, but that did not prevent him from dashing off a letter to Louise Colet-
"I've reached the Big Fuck, I'm right in the middle of it. We are in a sweat and our heart is nearly in our mouth. This has been one of the rare days of my life which I have spent in a state of complete Enchantment, from beginning to end. Just now, around six o'clock, at the moment when I wrote the phrase 'nervous attack' [note from Dan-he later removed that passage], I was so carried away, I was making such a racket, and feeling so intensely what my little woman was feeling that I began to fear I was about to have one myself. I stood up from my writing table and I opened the window to calm myself down. My head was spinning [. . .]. I am like man who has just come too much (if you will forgive me the expression) I mean a sort of lassitude which is full of exhilaration [. . .] as a man and as a woman, as lover and mistress both, I have been out riding in a forest on an autumn afternoon, and it was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words that they spoke to each other and the red sunlight that made them half-close their eyes, eyes that were brimming with love."
This is not the only time that Flaubert had written so eloquently about being carried away by and within the emotions of his characters-of having both their orgasms, so to speak-and it gives the lie to his admonitions to write coldly, with poise, and to never surrender to the passions of the scene or moment.
It may well be the truest post-orgasm paragraph in literature, (at least as written by a male), with the possible exception of three words in Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls when Robert Jordan asked Maria what the previous night had been like for her and she replied-"The earth moved."
Emma's excised "nervous attack" lines, by the by, which were set before the consummation on the glen, read-"It was not the walk or the weight of her coat that made her pant, but strange anxiety, an anguish of her whole being, as if she were about to have a nervous attack. " Perhaps Flaubert-an epileptic since early adulthood-simply did not want the connection between sex and his frequent "episodes" to be assigned to Emma here, but he had written to a friend not long before that there might be a 'physiology of style'-"Just as the pearl is the oyster's affliction, so style is perhaps the discharge from a deeper wound."
Uncharacteristically, Flaubert never explored this idea. Perhaps he realized that some metaphors were better left alone.
When analyzing elementary, middle-school, high-school, or college-bound students' "writing samples," one tool of comparison I've used (and taught) is the so-called T-unit analysis.
This is just choosing what appears to be a typical paragraph of the student's writing and counting the number of words in each sentence, then finding an average. The "T-unit" stands for "thought-unit," and more than just educational doubletalk to sound professional, it's used because many kids of all ages may not know how to mark their sentences with periods at the end, capital letters at the beginning, but the evaluator can still see the complete "thought unit" (de facto sentence) and find the length of them.
Here in the WRITING WELL installments and in later forum discussions, we've all commented on how longer sentences are not necessarily better ones, and also on how the most skilled writers tend to vary their sentence lengths for effect, often inserting two- or three-word sentences amidst longer ones for the punch such shorter statements make. But the fact remains that research shows that people of all ages with more advanced psycholinguistic abilities tend to use longer sentences on average.
We'll do a T-unit analysis of Flaubert's paragraph of description above not to see if his psycholinguistic abilities are advanced-we'll assume they are-but to get a sense of the length and cadence of his formalized thoughts in such an important scene. (And before you protest-please know that I know that this little experiment is useless here because I am looking at an English translation of Flaubert's French novel.but my friend and translator Jean-Daniel is on vacation right now in Nancy, so I can't call him in to provide and corroborate precisely the same text in the original language. Also, beyond simple menus, I don't read French.)
Anyway, here is my T-unit analysis (read "word count")-
Sentence #1-16 words
Sentence #2-28 words
Sentence #3-30 words
Sentence #4-40 words
Sentence #5-18 words
My count was hasty and may have been off, but we're fairly close to the mark here.
What does this prove? (Besides the fact that it proves nothing but the translator's preference for sentence length?)
We see that Flaubert began this very important paragraph with the shortest sentence and ended it with one only two words longer, allowing the more lyrical and lingering sentences-those with the semicolons, subordinate clauses set off by commas, and other elements of cadence-to fill the center.
Some simple arithmetic shows us that Flaubert's average sentence length in this important paragraph in his Big Fuck scene-132 words divided by 5 sentences-is 26.4 words long. (Don't try T-unit analysis with Proust, by the way, or you'll break something.)
Length of sentences is ameliorated and moderated by punctuation, and in this translation, the first sentence had three commas; the second sentence had five commas; the third sentence had two semicolons and two commas; the fourth sentence had six commas; the fifth and final sentence had two commas.
We could count the number of words in each subordinate clause, whether set off by commas or semicolons, but suffice it to say that in his longest, most lyrical sentences here, Flaubert tended to revert to short phrases of five to eight words (such as "and she listened to it in silence").
There is a reason for this.
We remember the amusing, almost absurd image of Flaubert reading aloud his first novel to his friends, sitting in a little pavilion outside his large home at Croissett, with them listening eight hours a day for four days-actually, the full reading took almost 36 hours, so one of those days involved overtime for his listeners. But Flaubert, in all of his novels, hitched his style to the proper cadence of a tale that was being read aloud and listened to.
In a real sense, the length and cadence components of Flaubert's brilliant style resulted from what could be read gracefully without running out of wind in the lungs or having to gasp for air. (Proust must never have read his sentences aloud. He would not have survived.)
Friends and critics of his confirmed this guess. Jules de Goncourt wrote-
"We chat about the difficulty of writing a sentence and giving it rhythm. We take great care with rhythm, a quality we value [in prose]; but in Flaubert's case, it borders on idolatry. For him a book is to be judged by reading it aloud: 'It has no rhythm!' If its pauses don't accord with the natural play of human lungs, it's worthless."
Those of us who love novels, both modern and older, become aware that the rhythm (thus "style") of many of our favorite books from the 19th and 18th Centuries seems less in tune with the rhythm of breath in the lungs, and more dependent upon how many words could be written by a pen (or quill) before the nib had to be dipped in ink again. A scene in the novel and movie The English Patient has a wonderful moment where the dying patient lectures the Indian sapper who is reading aloud to him from Kim on the dip-pause-and-write, dip-pause-and-write cadence of such old books. This real-world determiner of style has disappeared with the advent of the typewriter and now the computer (as have many other wonderful elements of writing.)
I confess to not following Flaubert's (and other writers whom I respect) wonderful advice of reading each page and sentence aloud, multiple times, before deciding it is good enough to remain in one's novel. My mental reading voice does pour over each sentence, sounding it out, reading it and listening to it simultaneously to see if has the rhythm I want, but a mental voice rarely runs out of wind. The result is that often I do not find small infelicities until I am on book tour, reading a favorite passage to audiences. Invariably I then make small changes in my published text for myself-a comma here, a word change there-so that the readings go more smoothly, the rhythm works better.
Too late! Too late!
Another problem with creating and maintaining one's style today is the publisher. More specifically-it's the editor, proofreader, copyeditor, and the publisher's "House Style" that will stamp their mark on your own attempts at punctuation-controlled cadence and rhythm. (And once cadence and rhythm are destroyed in a sentence or paragraph or on a page, the entire novel takes a stutter-step and threatens to collapse. And since cadence depends upon length-of words, of the sentence, of the paragraph, of the page, of the novel itself-it rarely helps that the editor's primary goal in life is to shorten everything.)
Preserving rhythm and cadence in my own prose has been the primary fight during my professional career. Every casual change by a low-level "proofreader" to bring something into compliance with House Style or to "streamline" a sentence or paragraph or to "eliminate repetition" throws off the rhythm I work so hard to create and spavines the cadence I prefer-or at least creates a style that is not my own. Seventy-five years after Flaubert fought these battles, William Faulkner was writing to his publisher, Boni & Liveright, in 1927-".smooth the printer's fur, cajole him, some way. He's been punctuating my stuff to death; giving me gratis quotation marks and premiums of commas that I dont (sic) need."
Madame Bovary was published, in serial form, in La Revue de Paris, edited by old friend Du Camp and Laurent-Pinchant, and Du Camp's opening editorial remarks were enough to send a chill down any author's spine-"A warm recommendation was the only comment I made when I gave Laurent your book. We independently reached for the same saw to shorten it.My deep-seated conviction is that if you don't do as I say, you will compromise yourself seriously and launch your literary career with a tangled work whose style will not suffice to retain interest. Be brave, close your eyes during the operation, and trust us, not necessarily for our talent but for the experience we have acquired in such matters and our affection for you. You buried your novel beneath a heap of things, all handsome but all superfluous."
Since Flaubert was the son of a famous surgeon and the brother of a famous surgeon, and since one of the most wrenching and terrible scenes in all of literature is from Madame Bovary in which Emma's doctor-husband Charles, goaded on by Emma (in the hope of fame), performs a stupid and botched operation on an otherwise happy clubfooted fellow in the village-not only crippling him for life and eventually killing him, but emasculating him in the process-it's doubtful if Flaubert was reassured by this advice for him to shut his eyes while they reached for the saw.
Here is one scene they found it necessary to cut. Emma and Charles are waking up not long after their marriage, and we get an understanding not only of the varying colors one can perceive in the mercurial Emma's eyes, but also of Charles's deep love for her-
"Mornings, lying face-to-face, he'd watch the sunlight play over the golden down on her cheeks, partly covered by the scallops of her nightcap. Seen from so close, her eyes loomed large, especially when she fluttered her lids upon awakening. Black in the shade and dark blue in broad daylight, it's as if their color were layered in depth, more opaque toward the back but brightening as it approached the enameled surface. His own eye got lost in these depths, where he saw himself from the shoulders up, a miniature bust with a silk scarf wrapped around his head and his nightshirt open."
Why cut such a scene? Was the mere mention of the couple in bed too intimate?
After first trying to accommodate his editors-who love cutting simply because they can-Flaubert soon learned to dig in and fight. By Dec. 7 of that year, he was writing-"In my opinion I have already given up a lot and the Revue would have me concede even more. Now understand, I will do nothing. I will make no corrections, I will delete nothing, not even a comma, nothing, nothing! . . If the Revue de Paris feels that I am compromising it, if it's afraid, simply stop Madame Bovary . I couldn't care less. "
When fighting for content or style, for a difficult ending or controversial scene, for the soul of the novel itself, every writer worth his or her salt has to discover what Flaubert quickly did-i.e. to save your book from being emasculated and edited into arhythmic mulch, you have to be prepared to abandon it completely-to refuse to have it published. Sometimes you really do have to burn down the village in order to save it.
Emma Bovary's Eyes:
In Julian Barnes's wonderful novel Flaubert's Parrot-in which a nameless older narrator has suffered an equally non-specific loss of his wife and become obsessed with Flaubert (and his stuffed parrot encountered in a museum)-there arises the "problem" of Madame Bovary's eyes.
From Chapter 6 of Flaubert's Parrot-
"Let me tell you why I hate critics. Not for the normal reasons; that they're failed creators (they usually aren't; they may be failed critics, but that's another matter); or that they're by nature carping, jealous and vain (they usually aren't; if anything, they might better be accused of over-generosity, of upgrading the second-rate so that their own fine discriminations thereby appear the rarer). No, the reason I hate critics-well, some of the time-is that they write sentences like this:
Flaubert does not build up his characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description: in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that on one occasion he gives Emma brown eyes (14); on another deep black eyes (15); and on another blue eyes (16).
"This precise and
disheartening indictment was drawn up by the late Dr. Enid Starkie,
Reader Emeritus in French Literature at the
Now, although I'm too lazy to go look it up (even via Google, which is the ultimate Lazy Man's Reference Book), I have to assume that Dr. Enid Starkie is a figment of Julian Barnes's imagination. Or, rather, she is a truthful and accurate composite of all those jealous and sullen academics and biographers, those midgets whose lives and careers are spent feasting on the carcasses of literary giants, who really think they can bring the giant down by hamstringing him with such pissant objections.
But the narrator in Flaubert's Parrot , a man who has read Madame Bovary many, many times, is sobered by the fact that he hasn't noticed something so obvious as Emma's rainbow eyes. Has his reading been that careless? Has his hero-that debauched mass of appetites once named Gustave Flaubert-really been that careless?
The answer, of course, is no. Rereading just for this one purpose, the narrator finds six specific references to Emma's eye color (the second one taken from the originally excised passage above) and they are all wonderfully consistent in saying that Emma's eyes are, in neutral light, a dark brown, but in some extremes of candlelight or full daylight (as listed above), appear to the besotted viewer as either black or even blue. They "seemed to contain layer upon layer of colours, which were thicker in hue deep down, and became lighter towards the enamel-like surface."
The narrator has gone
to a lecture by Dr. Enid Starkie, Reader Emeritus in
French Literature at
"I was too far away to observe what colour Enid Starkie's eyes were; all I remember of her is that she dressed like a matelot, walked like a scrum-half, and had an atrocious French accent."
After rereading Madame Bovary to confirm that Flaubert's care with Emma's eye-color had been as careful as his care with language itself, the narrator concludes-
"How did the critic put it? 'Flaubert did not build up characters, as did Balzac, by objective, external description; in fact, so careless is he of their outward appearance that.' It would be interesting to compare the time spent by Flaubert making sure that his heroine had the rare and difficult eyes of a tragic adulteress with the time spent by Dr. Starkie in carelessly selling him short."
Actually, as Barnes's narrator and other scholars have discovered, there is another confirmation of Emma's fascinating eye color(s).
Flaubert's friend Maxime Du Camp in his Souvenirs literraires (1882-83) describes in great detail the woman
on whom Emma Bovary was based. She was, Du Camp tells
us, the second wife of a medical officer from Bon-Lecours,
"This second wife was
not beautiful; she was small, had dull yellow hair, and a face covered with
freckles. She was full of pretension, and despised by her husband, whom she
considered a fool. Round and fair in person, her small bones were well-covered,
and in her carriage and her general bearing there were flexible, undulating
movements, like those of an eel. Her voice, vulgarised
"Now do you understand," writes the sad narrator of Flaubert's Parrot, "why I hate critics? I could try and describe to you the expression in my eyes at this moment; but they are far too discoloured with rage."
Another Definition of Style:
I once promised a writing workshop of adults that I would show them their style during the next session. There was some anticipation. That next day I brought in a full-length mirror and we took turns standing in front of it. After we inspected our faded jeans, grubby sneakers, t-shirts, Dockers chinos, polo shirts, denim skirts, polyester pants, and J.C. Penney blouses, we decided that we really didn't have much style.
Of course, in the Random House College Dictionary this sort of "style" fits the 4 th definition-"a mode of fashion, as in dress" but that's next to the 5 th meaning-"the mode of expressing thought in writing."
What the hell.we decided we dressed for comfort. But the uncomfortable corollary to that discovery was our decision that all to often we wrote for comfort as well-or at least stayed within our "comfort zone." Our attempts at style tended to be the literary equivalent of the jeans and sneakers and t-shirts we wore. Rather than attempt difficult piano pieces with lead weights attached to our knuckles, we were banging out "Chopsticks" and feeling comfortable about it. (Note: some of the prospective writers protested to the contrary, talking constantly of the "thirty-five rewrites" they'd done for every final page produced. Unfortunately, and far too often, even a cursory glance by a writer at these much-labored-over texts showed the reason for all the pain and discomfort and endless successive approximations-the would-be author had no talent. It turns out, alas, that perspiration is no guarantee of excellence: the only thing it absolutely assures is sweat stains.)
Then conversation turned to the fact that many of the writers whom we'd been discussing-especially the males-did have visible or unusual sartorial style:
Emily Dickinson in her white dress, a ghost at the window even before she died.
Mark Twain in his summer white suit, worn year round in an era of dark suits.
Tom Wolfe in his white suit, looking like some time traveler from the Edwardian era, even more uncomfortable-looking in his high-collar bespoke shirts. And he says that he writes his novels dressed like this.
Ernest Hemingway in his safari shirts and shorts and long-billed fishing caps. His third wife, Martha Gellhorn, more or less summed up his sartorial style-"You stink, Ernest. You stink of sweat and fish guts."
William Faulkner dressing like a World War I flying ace after he came home to Mississippi from Canada (he never saw action in that war, but he pretended he had) and then, in his later years, in the riding trousers and ride-to-the-hounds red coat of the Virginia gentleman that he certainly was not.
Ezra Pound in artist's cape and high collars with his flowing mane of hair, looking like a Parisian painter generations after that style went out of style.
The list goes on.
What can we surmise from this, other than many writers who are great stylists also tend to remain little boys (or girls) who like to play dress-up?
Gustave Flaubert always dressed flamboyantly. During his and Du Camp's 1849-1850 voyage to the "Orient," Flaubert went more native than the natives. He shaved his head except for one lock of hair-which the local Muslims left for the convenience of the angel of resurrection to pull them out of their graves-sported a red tarboosh, wore a djellaba in the desert, wrapped his shaven head in turbans and kaffiyahs, rode camels everywhere, screwed anything that wore rouge or a veil, dined with pashas, and slept outside in the moonshadows of the great pillars of the half-sand-buried Temples of Karnac.
His mating with the
desert did not end upon his return to
When critics later tried to savage him, he explained, "Books aren't made in the way that babies are: they are made like pyramids. There's some long-pondered plan, and then great blocks of stone are placed one on top of the other, and it's back-breaking, sweaty, time consuming work. And all to no purpose! It just stands there in the desert! But it towers over it prodigiously. Jackals piss at the base of it, and bourgeois clamber to the top of it, etc. Continue this comparison."
Beyond the Oriental images, spikes and thorns and prickly things were favorite metaphors. He compared himself as a writer to a hedgehog, to a porcupine turned inside out, and wrote in 1852-"I love my work with a frantic and perverted love, as an ascetic loves the hair-shirt which scratches his belly. "
When Louise Colet whined too much in their copious correspondence, asking for love returned for all the vows of love she had sent him, or perhaps just some flowers now and then, Flaubert whipped back (shortly before he abandoned her forever)-"You ask for love, you complain that I don't send you flowers? Flowers, indeed! If that's what you want, find yourself some wet-eared boy stuffed with fine manners and all the right ideas. I'm like the tiger, which has bristles of hair at the end of its cock, with which it lacerates the female."
Perhaps his decision to say goodbye to Louise Colet was due to more than fatigue at her constant attempts at emotional blackmail. To a male friend he later confessed-"I am like a cigar: you have to suck on the end to get me going. "
Twenty years after Madame Bovary , a few years after he published another masterpiece-L'Education sentimentale-he downplayed his life's vocation and deepest passion-"I still carry on turning out my sentences, like a bourgeois turning out napkin rings on a lathe in his attic. It gives me something to do, and it affords me some private pleasure."
Gustave Flaubert died in 1880, but by 1872 he could describe the world, his life, and his literary struggle in these terms-"Never have things of the spirit counted for so little. Never has hatred for everything great been so manifest-disdain for Beauty, execration of literature. I have always been tried to live in an ivory tower, but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it."
Flaubert died as most great writers die or want to die-in harness, writing through pain and infirmity and the loss of friends that "have turned my heart into a necropolis," and trying to finish his next book, trying to beat both his self-imposed deadline and death itself. Shortly before his death he wrote -"When will the book be finished? That's the question. If it is to appear next winter, I haven't a minute to lose between now and then. But there are moments when I'm so tired that I feel I'm liquefying like an old Camembert."
Reader, hopeful Writer, does all this help you in your quest for style? Do these aphorisms and crude quotes and stylistic excerpts from a dead French writer aid you in any way?
Who's to know? If you want to know your style, look in a mirror. Then read the last page of fiction you wrote. Read it aloud. Then read any page of any manuscript that a writer like Gustave Flaubert wrote. You don't want to be him; you don't want to write like him; but you'd damn well better be aware of what he did to and for the form of the novel, what he did to literature. He may not be your literary model, but he's your competition. Great writers' flesh may liquefy like old Camembert, but their oh-so-solid works remain.
One biography of Flaubert (Flaubert: A Life by Geoffrey Wall, 2001) ends thusly-
"At Flaubert's request there were no speeches at the graveside. Charles Lapierre, a friend and editor of a local newspaper, said a few words. Flaubert's coffin, too big to fit into the grave, had to be left stuck at an angle, headfirst, and only half way into the earth."
Not long ago, as I write this, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld seemed to have blundered into the realm of ontology. Or perhaps it was epistemology. Or it could have been phytology for all I know.
Anyway, what he said
was (in a rambling discussion of either why we stay in
Way to go, Rummy! This reminds me of my philo-theo-psycho-historilogical discussions with the other guys at 3 a.m. as a Wabash College undergraduate lo those many decades ago, fueled by fervor and a half dozen beers. The unknown-unknown indeed. So much of life and experience fell into that category in those days.
Well, what unknown-unknowns are there standing (invisibly) between us and becoming a really good writer?
We know what we know about what it takes to be a decent writer. (We can call that "the known.") To write well it takes more than a modicum of intelligence, a command of the English language (in our case, at least, on this continent), an understanding of basic prose protocols, an ability to tell a story, and a story to tell.
Then there are the unknowns that we may not have dived into yet, but which we know are out there and which we know will test us. (We can call these the known-unknowns.)
First there is the known unknown of whether we have the rather unusual ability to spend days, weeks, months, and literal years in the unusual state of disciplined isolation that being a professional novelist demands. It seemed easy enough during the brief, inspired wind sprints of our writing to date, but what about the long haul? Do we have what it takes for the marathon that is any professional writing career? (And "having what it takes" here may not be all that flattering, since it must include the inclination as well as the ability to subordinate many human relationships and experiences to the dubious priority of just planting your butt in a chair and working alone.)
Then there is the known unknown of whether we can maintain that disciplined isolation and writing regimen for years under the absolutely guaranteed pressures - financial, social, financial, domestic, financial, psychological, and financial.
Then there is the
known unknown of how we may react under quite different kinds of pressure. . .
pressure not unique to a writer's life but at the very least rare in a
non-writer's life and work: the pressure of bad reviews, of so many
opportunities to embarrass yourself at public readings and media interviews, of
annual book tours that break your health and ruin your schedules, and of always
having to be "creative" less you starve.
Finally, there's the huge known unknown of whether you'd enjoy being a full-time writer. The only way to answer that is to be good enough to get published and then to stick with it for a few years.
But now we enter the realm of the unknown-unknowns.
In this case, I'm going to discuss elements of writing itself that tend to separate the great writers from the mediocre, those authors we find on the "Literature" shelves at Borders, separated by quality - or at least longevity -- from the rest of us lurking in genre aisles. More importantly, I'd like to look at the rarely discussed aspects of what is unique about the work of writers who really have changed lives and deepened our understanding of ourselves, even while entertaining us. These factors are the unknown-unknowns in the craft of writing and they separate the sheep from the goats.
As the Cowardly Lion said - "What have they got that I ain't got?"
This is a term and concept I first encountered in Harold Bloom's critical writings. "Strangeness", he suggests, is the single common element to be found in all literary works that should be herded into that most dreaded, cursed, and secretly coveted corral - the Canon of Western Literature.
Strangeness in this context does not mean weirdness or experimental style or deliberate Catch-22 wackiness (although there is a wonderful strangeness about Heller's Catch-22 that alerts us to something new and dangerous.) Strangeness can be clad in a spinster's life-drabness and lack of direct experience - witness the almost frightening strangeness from the Brontes and a Dickinson named Emily - or it can crow its aggressive life story from the rooftops, adding its barbaric yawp to our endless literary dialogue in the form of leaves of grass hurled like glass daggers. Strangeness can arise from the staccato bursts of cutting-edge minimalist Carveresque prose or be found deep within labrynthine Proustian sentences that never seem to end.
Shakespeare's work is the epitomy of strangeness. Hitting on all cylinders - from the bawdy popular to the linguistically brilliant to its surgical ability of probing so dangerously near the heart of being human - Shakespeare's writing, while sometimes hasty and sloppy and derived, held a consistent strangeness that guaranteed its immortality.
Good readers - in every generation -- sense strangeness the way a shark is said to smell blood from miles away. It is, in a real sense, our sustenance as readers. It is the first indication that we, as readers, are about to put ourselves in the hands of a new guiding intelligence that will reveal things about us to ourselves.
I have no idea how great writers attain strangeness or how we might try. I know it's not something that you can acquire in courses for writers or in workshops. It's not even something a writer acquires simply through reading other writers gifted with strangeness. In that sense, strangeness may be like that other elusive aspect of a human being which we admire, encourage, and wish to emulate but can rarely summon at will . . . character.
In visiting workshops for writers in recent years, I've become aware of a great and growing confusion about what constitutes narrative energy and power.
Instructors at these workshops - and even some editors and agents who should know better - talk about things such as "elevator pitches" and "the power of the pitch," while barely published writers just at the beginning of their writing careers, (and who knows if they'll even have a career,) sagely counsel beginners just one step below them that to be published one must have a killer narrative hook and dynamite non-stop-action for the first few pages. The idea is to hook the reader or agent in immediately by slam-bang action, they explain, or your book will go unread.
Well, I understand how some weary - or putridly lazy - agents or slushpile readers might counsel such nonsense to beginners. What they're really saying is "put everything you have on the first page, preferably in the first two paragraphs, to show you're commercially viable because I'm too jaded and lazy to read your whole book." That's hardly a description of narrative power.
Think of all the great and rewarding books from A Portrait of a Lady to In Search of Lost Time to The Grapes of Wrath to Light in August to Joyce's Ulysses that would go unread and unpurchased if this idiot definition of "everything up front and fast" were the real definition of narrative power.
Nor is the Da Vinci Code narrative style of breathless rushing to and fro without allowing time for one's characters to sleep, eat, or go to the bathroom what I mean by narrative power. If there's a phrase for that, it might be "bestselleroid attention deficit disordered hyperactivity."
Here, in an essay titled "To a Young Friend Charged with Possession of the Classics," writer William H. Gass talks about sentences and narrative and harmony and good books:
"No, the good books don't sing harmony," he writes. "They cannot be good because of that.
"But in them, comprising them - as the atom the molecule, the molecule the compound - there are more sentences than people alive in this world, sentences that exhibit a range of savors surpassing your spice rack. Anyone who looks with care into the good books shall find in them sentences of every length, on every imaginable subject, expressing the entire range of thoughts and feelings possible, in styles both as unified and various as the colors of the spectrum; and sentences that take such notice of the world that the world seems visible in their pages, palpable, too, so a reader might fear to touch those paragraphs concerned with conflagrations or disease or chicanery lest they be victimized, infected, or burned; yet such sentences as make the taste of sweet earth and fresh air - things that seem ordinarily without an odor or at all attractive to the tongue - as desirable as wine to sip or lip to kiss or bloom to smell; for instance this observation from a poem of Elizabeth Bishop's: 'Greenish-white dogwood infiltrated the wood, each petal burned, apparently, by a cigarette butt' - well, she's right; go look - or this simile for style, composed by Marianne Moore: 'It is as though the equidistant three tiny arcs of seeds in a banana had been conjoined by Palestrina' - peel the fruit, make the cut, scan the score, hear the harpsichord transform these seeds into music (you can eat the banana later); yet also, as you read these innumerable compositions, to find there lines that take such flight from the world that the sight of it is totally lost, and, as Plato and Plotinus urge, that reach a height where only the features of the spirit of the mind and its dreams, the pure formations of an algebraic absolute, can be made out; for the o's in the phrase 'good books' are like owl's eyes, watchful and piercing and wise."
Who says that one has to write in "short, punchy sentences?"
Remember our T-unit analysis from an earlier discussion? T-unit as in "thought unit," which with most literate adult's writing amounts to the number of words in a sentence? Do a T-unit analysis of Gass's second sentence, the one beginning "Anyone who looks . . ." and then study the punctuation he uses to make such a sentence work. Challenge his excerpts of poetry, or the verity of the images, or even his selection of poets for you to consider - Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore (rather than, say, Adrienne Rich) - and see if his commitment to excellence is held to there.
This sounds bogus . . . even domineering or chauvinist . . . the idea of a "commanding intelligence" being one of the unknown unknowns that great writers have and writers aspiring to be great must seek. But think about it for a minute.
I don't know whether it was in Norman Rush's novel Mating or in a Michael Ondaatje novel that I encountered the question - "Is it really possible to fall in love with someone who is not smarter than you are . . . or at least with someone you don't think is smarter than you?" It's an intriguing question in terms of romantic relationships, but it also begs the question of the role of intelligence in the very intimate relationship between a reader and writer.
I would suggest that with the best books, we - as readers - fall in love with someone smarter, or at least surrender to the illusion that the writer is smarter than we are, within the confines of the world that is the author's novel or play.
This is one reason that typos, continuity errrors, and mistakes in simple facts - geographical, technical, research-oriented, whatever - damage that illusion of competence, of a commanding intelligence we can trust implicitly. There is a strange element of submission when we surrender ourselves to the illusionary world of a novel and it's actively irritating when our guide to that world turns out to be a mere mortal.
It's obvious that one doesn't have to be a genius or to be smarter than all possible readers of one's book in order to write a book, but it should be equally obvious that smart people don't want to spend hours, days, or weeks immersing themselves in a world created and maintained by someone demonstrably less intelligent and worldly and informed than they are.
At this point you may be saying - "I do that all the time" - to which I would reply that you're an especially brilliant person, or a hard case, or that you read too much junk. Or perhaps all three.
Stupid people write and publish books, even novels, all the time. Each of us could provide a long list of names and titles (we might even agree to start with the enormously successful Left Behind series). But that fact is irrelevant to our efforts at writing well. From our own reader-experiences with the finest books we've read, culling out the shallow entertainments and bestseller buzzes, we know - we remember - that feel of commanding intelligence in a text, of trust through submission to the tale-teller being rewarded. How to achieve it in our own work may be an answer still residing in the realm of the unknown unknown, a quantum-mechanics probability wave just waiting to be observed before collapsing into one shell of reality or the other, but better the unknown unknown we think we know is waiting than the known unknown we don't think we know we know.
I'll get back to you later about that last sentence.
The Courage to Speak Just for Yourself:
Who else besides yourself could you possibly speak for, you might be asking yourself (or me).
The truth is that in the shallows of the wading pool part of the lagoon bordering this broad sea that will be the 21st Century, few people dare speak for themselves, even in fiction. It is the age of "communities." At a time when fewer and fewer people even know their actual neighbors, much less speak to them regularly or socialize with them, the more theoretical and tendentious communities are popping up like bumps on a naked chicken.
In the old days, a community tended to be defined as a bunch of mostly disparate people who found themselves sharing the same geography, location, weather, economy, work, threats, dangers, and problems. Now communities seem to be dictated by DNA and vicissitudes, real or imagined.
There have always been writers of fiction who claim to speak for a larger group than the mass of shifting cells and atoms and opinions that make up him or her, but now "speaking for my people" is endemic . . . especially if "my people" can claim to be victimized. And which group on Earth can't fairly make that claim at one time or another?
So writers of fiction now find it necessary to speak for the African-American community, or the Christian community, or the gay community, or the evangelical community, or the substance-abusing addicted community, or the physically challenged community, or the sexually abused community, or . . . . You know the chorus. Last night as I write this, I watched Billie Jean King giving a speech upon receiving the honor of having the Flushing Meadow tennis complex named after her - an honor she earned and well deserves - and in her rambling talk she announced that such a naming was a victory for the GLTB Community. How many out-of-it older folks, I wonder, who cheered Billie Jean on in the 1970's, didn't know that she was talking about the Gay-Lesbian-Bisexual-Transgendered community?
It doesn't matter. Public figures and writers of gritty, pathetic memoirs, no matter how fictionalized, can claim to belong to and can claim to speak for whatever communities they wish.
But writers of fiction, to be great, have to subordinate their memberships to a higher loyalty.
Tolstoy's Anna Karenina is full of atitudes and opinions, ranging from his white-hot thoughts about Christianity to his almost equally passionate interest in the problems of serfdom and modern farming practices - not to mention some opinions he may have had about the inverse relationship between adultery and happiness - but at no point in the novel does Tolstoy subordinate his author's obligation to honesty in favor of the siren song of polemic. At no point does he forget that the purpose of fiction is to illuminate the eternal struggle of the human heart in conflict with itself . . . not merely to join in the political and social debates of his day. The problem of what to do with the Russian serfs has long since been resolved; the problem of Anna's questing heart touches each of us anew in each succeeding generation.
Having said this, it should be noted that while anointing oneself as a spokesperson for an oppressed, victimized, or marginalized community is the death of honesty for a true novelist (and also one of the surest ways to win major awards and to get on "Oprah"), it is not the same as working within a tradition.
There are many traditions and many of them seem DNA-based, arising from culture, ethnicity, national origin, or what we call race in these days. When a young African-American writer such as Tananarive Due writes a classic ghost story from a uniquely southern black perspective, using the tropes and protocols of such oral ghost stories told for centuries, she is working within a proud tradition.
Similarly, many of our finest American writers of the 20th Century - including Saul Bellow and Philip Roth - work brilliantly within the Jewish tradition. (Although Bellow, a Nobel Prize Winner, always stressed that he was no spokesmen for Jews in general - he was, rather, an American Jew who wrote novels.)
Last week when I couldn't sleep and had nothing to read, I wandered into the basement bookshelves and picked up a good book I hadn't quite completed reading. It was Meyer Levin's The Fanatic, published in 1963. I'd last opened the pages of that paperback in 1966. I don't know what kept me from finishing it - perhaps it was the dislocation of going off to college - but last week I opened to the page where I'd left off 40 years ago and continued with no trouble at all remembering the first half of the novel.
In fact, some years ago I wrote a novel of my own called A Winter Haunting in which the narrator is the personality - not the ghost - of a boy who had died 40 years before the events of the novel begin. The boy, "Duane" from Summer of Night, had "survived" by being a "cyst of memory" in the mind of another character, his 11-year-old friend Dale Stewart in 1960, a middle-aged Dale Stewart in the novel. I knew when I wrote that novel that I'd borrowed the idea of a living narrator from the dead surviving in the mind of another character from Meyer Levin's The Fanatic.
In The Fanatic,
the narrator is an older man, a writer, residing in the mind and memory of his
beloved, his fiancé from a decade earlier. He - the narrator - had been gassed
The Fanatic is a powerful tale about Jews, about the Jewish experience before, during, and after the Holocaust, an event that was perhaps the clearest example of innocent victims suffering from evil in our recorded human history, but the book does not pretend to speak for Jews. Nor does Meyer Levin. Indeed, much of the conflict within the book is between Jews - intellectuals, survivors, writers and others with different perceptions of the message from the Holocaust, or different needs. And at the center of the novel, as it must be, is a chronicle of the human heart in conflict with itself.
Chaim Potok, author of The Chosen, is another example of a writer working within a proud, deep, and powerful tradition, but speaking for no one. In The Chosen we see the Hassidic culture and tradition that Potok knows so well, but we see it from the narrative point-of-view of a Jewish boy outside of that tradition, someone trying to understand it from the outside, and his problematic friend - the son of an Hassidic rabbi - eventually makes the choice to leave the faith, to leave the tightly bound culture, and to become a doctor and a secular man. Once again, it is the heart in conflict with itself that drives the novel to its substantial depths, not an attempt by an author "to speak for a community."
Cynthia Ozick discusses this in her essay "Tradition and the Jewish Writer" -
"It is self-evident that any writer's subject matter will emerge from that writer's preoccupations; all writers are saturated, to one degree or another, in origins, in history. And for everyone alive in the century we have left behind, the cataclysm of murder and atrocity that we call the Holocaust is inescapable and indelible, and inevitably marks - stains - our moral nature; it is an event that excludes no one.
"And yet no writer should be expected to be a moral champion or a representative of 'identity.' That way lies tract and sermon and polemic, or, worse yet, syrup. When a thesis or framework - any kind of prescriptiveness or tendentiousness - is imposed on the writing of fiction, imagination flies out the door, and with it the freedom and volatility and irresponsibility that imagination both confers and commands. Writers as essayists, or polemicists, or pundits, may take on the concerns of a collectivity when they are moved to; but writers of fiction ought to be unwilling to stand for anything other than Story, however deeply they may be attached to a tradition. Tradition, to be sure, suggests a collectivity and a history, and invokes a kind of principled awareness; it carries with it a shade of teacherliness, of obligation.
"But tradition is useful to the writer only insofar as the writer is unconscious of its use; only insofar as it is invisible and inaudible; only insofar as the writer breathes it in with the air; only insofar as principled awareness and teacherliness are absent; only insofar as the writer is deaf to the pressure of the collectivity. What could be more treacherous to the genuine nature of the literary impulse than to mistake the writer for a communal leader, or for the sober avatar of a glorious heritage? No writer is trustworthy or steady enough for that. The aims of imaginative writers are the aims of fiction. Not of community service or community expectation.
"Writers are responsible only to the comely shape of a sentence, and to the unfettered imagination, which sometimes leads to wild places via wild routes. At the same time one must reserve one's respect for writers who do not remain ignorant of history (a condition equal to autolobotomy), who do not choose to run after trivia, who recognize that ideas are emotions, and that emotions are ideas; and that this is what we mean when we speak of the insights of art."
(from "Tradition and the Jewish Writer" collected in THE DIN IN THE HEAD, © 2006 by Cynthia Ozick)
I apologize to Ms. Ozick and to you for the long quotation there, but - what the hell - the lady said it better than I could.
This is a strange unknown unknown - and a strange trait to argue as a necessity for greatness as a writer or anything else - but if Ozick hadn't mentioned it, I would have.
There is, by definition, an element of childishness, a certain deliberate and wilful shunning of all of our proper responsibility to grow up and become a true adult - to put away the things of childhood -- in choosing to sit home alone and to tell made-up stories for most of your life.
A writer never escapes - indeed, must will himself not to escape - from the fantasy-energy of a child's play (no matter how "adult" or "serious" the subject matter of the work itself.) A writer must be irresponsible in the sense that he must answer only to himself and to his craft. This must not to be confused with a lack of discipline. Perhaps the highest praise I ever read of one writer giving to another was Henry James's comment, after reading Kidnapped or Treasure Island (I forget which), of Robert Louis Stevenson - "He writes of childhood as a child would . . . if a child could."
But a child cannot. For all our praise of children's "creative energy," a child cannot write about his or her own childhood. To write honestly and truthfully about anything takes a perspective from outside that experience. In a word, it takes maturity. (Not necessarily maturity born of age, but a profound maturity of sensibilities and skills nonetheless.)
But it is a maturity yoked most oddly with the volatility of unsurrendered youth and the pure energy of play.
The most powerful unknown unknown of great writers, their only true secret from the non-writing world, is that all through their lives they continue to tap into the primal, forceful energy of imaginative and joyous expression that was so much a part of their childhood.
All writing is play.
Those who know this, know. Those who do not, never will.
John Keats said -"That which is creative must create itself."
That includes, I think, the creation of an artist or writer or poet out of the confused and all-too-mortal dross that is himself or herself. Those who create themselves - and who produce good writing - will do so, as Emerson said, through the grace of God. But also through the grace of play.
"Think of a pencil," wrote John Updike in "Why Write?" "What a quiet, nimble, slender and then stubby wonder-worker he is! At his touch, worlds leap into being; a tiger with no danger, a steam-roller with no weight, a palace at no cost. All children are alive to the spell of a pencil and crayons, of making something, as it were, from nothing; a few children never move out from under this spell and try to become artists."
The following is a transcript of moderator Dan Simmons asking questions of writers Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald regarding the craft and profession of writing. All quotes by Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Fitzgerald are verbatim.
DS:I'd like to thank both Mr. Hemingway and Mr. Fitzgerald for joining us here today. As you gentleman know, this site's WRITING WELL series and its ON WRITING WELL forum are designed for those interested in good writing and for those readers and writers interested in writing as both craft and as a possible profession. I guess my first question is . . . how would you gentleman define good writing?
EH: Good writing is true writing. If a man is making a story up it will be true in the proportion to the amount of knowledge of life that he has and how conscientious he is; so that when he makes something up it is as it truly would be.
DS:Then what about imagination?
EH:It is the one thing beside honesty that a good writer must have. The more he learns from experience the more truly he can imagine. If he gets so he can imagine truly enough people will think that the things he relates all really happened and he is merely reporting.
DS:If that's the definition of good writing, what is the best training for a writer?
EH:An unhappy childhood.
DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, do you agree that all good biographies of truly great writers will show an unhappy childhood?
FSF: There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn't be. He is too many people, if he's any good.
DS:But would you agree with Mr. Hemingway that an author's childhood is formative for his or her sensibilities through an entire career?
FSF:A writer can spin on about his adventures after thirty, after forty, after fifty, but the criteria by which these adventures are weighed and valued are irrevocably settled at the age of twenty-five.
DS:What prompted each of you to become a writer? Did you always know you were a writer? Was there something in childhood - other than the unhappy childhood itself that Mr. Hemingway alludes to - that made you decide I am a writer?
EH:No, I always wanted to be a writer.
FSF:There is another reason why I became an author.
FSF:Well, I used to play
football in a school and there was a coach who didn't like me for a damn. Well,
our school was going to play a game up on the
simply can't depend on you."
The point is it inspired me to write a poem for the school paper which made me as big a hit with my father as if I had become a football hero. So when I went home that Christmas vacation it was in my mind that if you weren't able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it because you felt the same intensity - it was a back door way out of facing reality.
DS:So in a sense, Mr. Fitzgerald, part of your earliest reason for writing was to please your father. As you both got older - as your careers progressed - whom did you end up writing for?
FSF:There comes a time when a writer writes only for certain people and where the opinion of the others is of little less than no importance at all . . . .
EH:I believe that basically you write for two people: yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.
DS:In our age, in the 21st Century, there's a lot of moaning about the process of writing. Writers say that they're glad to have written but often say they hate the act of writing itself. Do you think your writing is worth doing - as an end in itself?
DS:You are sure?
DS:That must be very pleasant.
EH:It is. It is the one altogether pleasant thing about it.
DS:Do you both agree that emotion plays a large part in both the act of writing and choice of content for a writer?
FSF:Whether it's something that happened twenty years ago or only yesterday, I must start out with an emotion - one that's been close to me and that I can understand.
EH: After a book I am emotionally exhausted. If you are not you have not transferred the emotion completely to the reader. Anyway that is the way it works with me.
DS:And what is the best way for a writer to transfer emotion "completely to the reader?" How is that possible?
FSF:Joseph Conrad defined it more clearly, more vividly than any man of our time:
"My task is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel - it is, before all, to make you see."
DS:But words are so limited in their scope and . . .
EH:All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time . . .
FSF:Genius is the ability to put into effect what is in your mind. There's no other definition of it.
EH:First, there must be
talent, much talent. Talent such as Kipling had. Then there must be discipline.
The discipline of Flaubert. Then there must be the conception of what it can be
and an absolute conscience as unchanging as the standard meter in
DS:So talent, discipline, conscience, intelligence, and disinterestedness - presumably in the sense that John Keats and Shakespeare used that word - are all prerequisites to truly good writing. But how does one define intelligence in this context?
FSF:. . . the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.
DS:Which corresponds almost exactly to what John Keats called "negative capability." How important is Keats . . . how important is poetry in general to a novelist or writer of prose? Should novelists read poetry?
FSF:It isn't something easy
to get started on by yourself. You need, at the beginning, some enthusiast who
also knows his way around - John Peale Bishop performed that office for me at
Poetry is either something that lives like fire inside you - like music to the musician or Marxism to the Communist - or else it is nothing, an empty, formalized bore around which pedants can endlessly drone their notes and explanations. "The Grecian Urn" is unbearably beautiful with every syllable as inevitable as the notes in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony or it's just something you don't understand. It is what it is because an extraordinary genius paused at that point in history and touched it. I suppose I've read it a hundred times. About the tenth time I began to know what it was about, and caught the chime in it and the exquisite inner mechanics. Likewise with "The Nightingale" which I can never read through without tears in my eyes; likewise the "Pot of Basil" with its great stanzas about the two brothers,"Why were they proud,etc."; and "The Eve of St. Agnes," which has the richest, most sensuous imagery in English, not excepting Shakespeare. And finally his three or four great sonnets, "Bright Star" and the others.
Knowing those things very young and granted an ear, one could scarcely ever afterwards be unable to distinguish between gold and dross in what one read. In themselves those eight poems are a scale of workmanship for anybody who wants to know truly about words, their most utter value for evocation, persuasion or charm. For awhile after you quit Keats all other poetry seems to be only whistling or humming.
Scott, you always took LITERATURE so solemnly. You never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.
Someday I'm going to write about the series of calamities that led up the awful state I was in at Christmas. A writer not writing is practically a maniac within himself.
EH:[Still leaning toward
Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt use it - don't cheat with it. Be as faithful to it as a scientist - but don't think anything is of any importance because it happens to you or anyone belonging to you.
FSF:Last summer I was hauled to the hospital with a high fever and a tentative diagnosis of typhoid. My affairs were in no better shape than yours are . . . . There was a story I should have written to pay my current debts, and I was haunted by the fact that I hadn't made a will . . . . I continued to rail against my luck that just at this crucial moment I should have to waste two weeks in bed, answering the baby talk of nurses and getting nothing done at all. But three days after I was discharged I had finished a story about a hospital.
The material was soaking in and I didn't know it. I was profoundly moved by fear, apprehension, worry, impatience; every sense was acute, and that is the best way of accumulating material for a story.
When you first start writing stories in the first person if the stories are made so real that people believe them the people reading them nearly always think the stories really happened to you. That is natural because while you are making them up you had to make them happen to the person who was telling them. If you do this successfully enough you make the person who is reading them believe that the things heppened to him too. If you can do this you are beginning to get what you are trying for which is to make the story so real beyond any reality that it will become a part of the reader's experience and a part of his memory. There must be things that he did not notice when he read the story or the novel which without his knowing it, enter into his memory and experience so that they are a part of his life. This is not easy to do.
DS:To return to the importance of poetry for a moment, you have both recommended to beginning writers the need to read good poets. Is there a secret in learning to write quality prose fiction through learning to read - and hear - good poetry?
EH:Nobody really knows and understands and nobody has ever said the secret. The secret is that it is poetry written into prose and it is the hardest of all things to do . . . .
DS:So if the . . . .
EH:Then there is the other secret. There isn't any symbolism. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The sharks are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.
DS:So you're suggesting that almost all of what most of us have learned in college, even about both your gentlemen's work, is . . . .
EH:The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have it.
FSF: You don't write because you want to say something; you write because you've got something to say.
EH:My temptation is always to write too much. I keep it under control so as not to have to cut out crap and re-write. Guys who think they are geniuses because they have never learned how to say no to a typewriter are a common phenomenon. All you have to do is get a phony style and you can write any amount of words.
FSF: . . . I'm afraid I haven't quite reached the ruthless artistry which would let me cut out an exquisite bit that had no place in the context. I can cut out the almost exquisite, the adequate, even the brilliant - but a true accuracy is, as you say, still in the offing.
EH: If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in the writing.
FSF: This is a sort of postscript to my letter [to editor Max Perkins] of yesterday:
"I do think that you were doing specious reasoning in part of your letter. That that Ernest has let himself repeat here and there a phrase would be no possible justification for my doing the same. Each of us has his virtues and one of mine happens to be a great exactitude about my work. He might be able to afford a lapse in that line where I wouldn't be and after all I have got to be the final judge of what is appropriate in these cases. Max, to repeat, for the third time, this is no way a question of laziness. It is a question absolutely of self-preservation."
As I said, the hardest thing, because time is short, is for the writer to survive and get his work done.
[In TO HAVE AND TO HAVE NOT] I . . . threw away about 100,000 words which was better than most of what I left in. It is the most cut book in the world. That may be part of what offends people. It does not have that handy family package size character you get in Mr. Dickens.
FSF:What I cut out of [The Great Gatsby] both physically and emotionally would make another novel!
EH:It wasn't by accident that the Gettsyburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics.
DS:So are you both saying that writing good prose fiction is similar to a sculptor chipping away the stone that doesn't belong in the finished statue? Just eliminating everything but the good parts?
EH:The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life - and one is as good as the other.
FSF:Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meager.
EH:There's no rule on how it is to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly. Sometimes it is like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.
I love to write. But it has never gotten any easier to do and you can't expect it to if you keep trying for something better than you can do.
DS:Our visitors tend to be interested in the nuts and bolts of writing. Not just the mechanics of the prose, but actual working habits. Do you have any specific advice? For instance, how much do you read over every day before you start to write?
EH:The best way is to read it all every day from the start, correcting as you go along, then go on from where you stopped the day before. When it gets so long that you can't do this every day read back two or three chapters each day; then each week read it all from the start. That's how you make it all of one piece. And remember to stop when you are still going good. That keeps it moving instead of having it die whenever you go and write yourself out. When you do that you find that the next day your are pooped and can't go on.
DS:What happens when you simply can't go on?
EH:You just have to go on when it is worst and most helpless - there is only one thing to do with a novel and that is go straight on through to the end of the damn thing.
Do you have pretty much the same philosophy about snags?
FSF:. . . sometimes you can lick an especially hard problem by facing it always the very first thing in the morning with the very freshest part of your mind. This has so often worked with me that I have an uncanny faith in it.
DS:You're a master of the short story. Is there any special formula you have for approaching the short story form?
FSF:Stories are best written in either one jump or three, according to the length. The three-jump story should be done on three successive days, then a day or so for revise and off she goes. This of course is the ideal - in many stories one strikes a snag that must be hacked at but, on the whole, stories that drag along or are terribly difficult (I mean a difficulty that comes from a poor conception and consequent faulty construction) never flow quite as well in the reading.
DS:What are the signs that a story or novel is on the wrong track?
FSF:Good stories write themselves - bad ones have to be written.
DS: Is there any special preparation you have for writing short fiction?
FSF:You must begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years . . . When you think of something, when you recall something, put it where it belongs. . . . Put it down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second time.
DS: Would you apply the same approach to writing a full novel?
FSF:Invent a system Zolaesque . . . best buy a file. On the first page of the file put down the outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don't worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself as a schedule.
DS:Do you use notes or charts to keep track of your characters and their backgrounds? Or do you just keep such things in your head?
FSF:My room is covered with charts like it used to be for Tender is the Night, telling the different movements of the characters and their histories.
Did you have any special ritual or plan when you were writing your early short stories in
EH:The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, were all you needed. For luck you carried a horse chestnut and a rabbit's foot in your right pocket. The fur had been worn off the rabbit foot long ago and the bones and the sinews were polished by wear. The claws scratched in the lining of your pocket and you knew your luck was still there.
DS:How important do you think luck was to
your writing in those early days in
EH:It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again the next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything, I hoped; learning, I hoped; and I would read so that I would not think about my work and make myself impotent to do it. Going down the stairs when I had worked well, and that needed luck as well as discipline, was a wonderful feeling and I was free then to walk anywhere in Paris.
Do you have any similar place-specific memories of your early writing days?
FSF:I am alone in the privacy of my faded blue room with sick cat, the bare February branches waving at the window, an ironic paper weight that says Business is Good . . . and my greatest problem:
"Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?"
. . . Or:
"This is just bullheadedness. Better throw it away and start over."
The latter is one of the most difficult decisions that an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging half a dozen good scenes with him.
It is there that these confessions tie up with a general problem as well as with those peculiar to a writer. The decision as to when to quit, as to when one is merely floundering around and causing other people trouble, has to be made frequently in a lifetime.
DS:So even now, as a professional as experienced as yourself . . . even after producing a novel such as The Great Gatsby . . . you sometimes have serious doubts about your writing?
FSF:. . . I get a thing I call sentence-fever that must be like buck-fever - it's a sort of intense literary self-consciousness that comes when I try to force myself. But the really awful days aren't when I think I can't write. They're when I wonder whether any writing is worth while at all . . .
EH:You know that fiction, prose rather, is possibly the roughest trade of all in writing. You do not have the reference, the old important reference. You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true. You have to take what is not palpable and make it completely palpable and also have it seem normal and so that it can become a part of the experience of the person who reads it.
DS:How can a writer train himself to do that?
EH:Watch what happens today. If we get into a fish see exactly what it is that everyone does. If you get a kick out of it while he is jumping remember back until you see exactly what the action was that gave you the emotion. Whether it was the rising of the line from the water and the way it tightened like a fiddle string until drops started from it, or the way he smashed and threw water when he jumped. Remember what gave you the emotion: what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had. That's a five finger exercise.
EH:Then get in somebody else's head for a change. If I bawl you out try to figure what I'm thinking about as well as how you feel about it. If Carlos curses Juan think what both their sides of it are. Don't just think who is right. As a man things are as they should or shouldn't be. As a man you know who is right and who is wrong. You have to make decisions and enforce them. As a writer you should not judge. You should understand.
EH:Listen now. When people talk listen completely. Don't be thinking what you're going to say. Most people never listen. Nor do they observe. You should be able to go into a room and when you come out know everything that you saw there and not only that. If that room gave you any feeling you should know exactly what it was that gave you that feeling. Try that for practice. When you're in town stand outside the theater and see how the people differ in the way they get out of taxis or motor cars. There are a thousand ways to practice. And always think of other people.
DS:I'm curious . . . do you ever help each other with your writing when things get difficult?
. . . the only effect I ever had on Ernest was to get him in a receptive mood and say let's cut everything that goes before this. Then the pieces got mislaid and he could never find the part that I said to cut out. And so he published it without that and later we agreed that it was a very wise cut. This is not literally true and I don't want it established as part of the Hemingway legend, but it's just about as far as one writer can go in helping another.
EH:You helped me with the ending of one of my novels, Scott.
Years later when Ernest was writing Farewell to Arms he was in doubt about the ending and marketed around to half a dozen people for their advice. I worked like hell on the idea and only succeeded in evolving a philosophy in his mind utterly contrary to everything that he thought an ending should be, and it later convinced me that he was right and made me end Tender is the Night on a fade-away instead of a staccato.
DS:Do other writers, living and dead, help you through their books? I've been criticized a bit in this Writing Well series because I keep arguing that to learn to write well all beginning writers need not only to read the great authors but to study their styles. Am I off base with this suggestion?
FSF:Have you ever . . . read Pere Goriot or Crime and Punishment or even A Doll's House or St. Matthew or Sons and Lovers? A good style simply doesn't form unless you absorb half a dozen top-flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but, instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.
DS:Which authors would you two suggest that all prospective writers . . . absorb?
EH:Hope this doesn't sound over-confident. Am a man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world. I wouldn't fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off. The Dr. had terrific wind and could go on forever and then some. But I would take him on for six and he would never hit me and would knock the shit out of him and maybe knock him out. He is easy to hit. But boy how he can hit. If I can live to 60 I can beat him. (MAYBE)
For your information I started out trying to beat dead writers that I knew how good they were. (Excuse the vernacular) I tried for Mr. Turgenieff first and it wasn't too hard. Tried for Mr. Maupassant (won't concede him the de) and it took four of the best stories to beat him. He's beaten and if he was around he would know it. Then I tried for another guy (am getting embarrassed or embare-assed now from bragging; or stating) and I think I fought a draw with him. This other dead character.
Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls and ask the referee to stop it.
There are some guys nobody could ever beat like Mr. Shakespeare (the Champion) and Mr. Anonymous. But would be glad any time, if in training, to go twenty with Mr. Cervantes in his own home town (Clecala de Henares) and beat the shit out of him. Although Mr. C. very smart and would be learning all the time and would probably beat you in a return match. The third fight people would pay to see . . .
In the big book I hope to take Mr. Melville and Mr. Dostoevsky, they are coupled as a stable entry, and throw lots of mud in their faces because the track isn't fast. But you can only run so many of those kind of races. They take it out of you.
Know this sounds like bragging but Jeezoo Chrise you have to have confidence to be a champion and that is the only thing I ever wished to be.
FSF:I'd rather have written Conrad's Nostromo than any other novel. First, because I think it is the greatest novel since Vanity Fair (possibly excluding Madame Bovary), but chiefly because Nostromo, the man, intrigues me so much . . . I would rather have dragged his soul from behind his astounding and inarticulate presence than written any other novel in the world.
EH:It is fashionable among my friends to disparage him [Joseph Conrad]. It is even necessary. Living in a world of literary politics where one wrong opinion often proves fatal, one writes carefully . . .
It is agreed by most of the people I know that Conrad is a bad writer, just as it is agreed that T.S. Eliot is a good writer. If I knew that by grinding Mr. Eliot into a find dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad's grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return, and commence writing I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.
FSF:So many writers, Conrad for instance, have been aided by being brought up in a métier utterly unrelated to literature. It gives an abundance of material and, more important, an attitude from which to view the world. So much writing nowadays suffers both from lack of an attitude and from sheer lack of any material, save what is accumulated in a purely social life. The world, as a rule, does not live on beaches and in country clubs.
DS:In our age, movies are mostly written by 30-something children who've apparently had no life other than watching other movies and writing is taught mostly by college professors who have published little or nothing.
EH:I don't know about that. I never went to college. If any sonofabitch could write he wouldn't have to teach writing in college.
DS:But we were talking about books to read to learn style and writers, dead and alive, whom any would-be writer should know and study . . .
FSF: . . . a real grasp of Blake, Keats, etc., will bring you something you haven't dreamed of. And it should come now.
DS:Who else would you recommend to read to learn . . . in order to "absorb," which I guess means "synthesize," . . . a sense of style? And how far should a writer go in borrowing other writers' styles?
FSF: By style I mean color . . . I want to be able to do anything with words handle slashing, flaming descriptions like Wells, and use the paradox with the clarity of Samuel Butler, the breadth of Bernard Shaw and the wit of Oscar Wilde, I want do the wide sultry heavens of Conrad, the rolled-gold sundowns and crazy-quilt skies of Hichens and Kipling as well as the pastel dawns and twilights of Chesterton. All that is by way of example. As a matter of fact I am a professional literary thief, hot after the best methods of every writer in my generation.
EH:[nods and grunts]
Remember to get weather in your god damned book - weather is very important.
DS:And do you agree that absorbing style from other writers is important?
EH:I think you should learn about writing from everybody who has ever written that has anything to teach you.
DS: So what books do you think a writer has to read?
EH:He should read everything so he knows what he has to beat.
DS:He can't have read everything.
EH:I don't say what he can. I say what he should. Of course he can't.
DS:Well what books are necessary?
EH:He should have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina by Tolstoi, Midshipman Easy Frank Mildmay and Peter Simple by Captain Marryat, Madame Bovary and L'education Sentimentale by Flaubert, Buddenbooks by Thomas Mann, Joyce's Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist and Ulysses Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews by Fielding, Le Rouge et Le Noir and La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendahl, The Brothers Karamazov and any two other Dostoevskis, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, The Open Boat and The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane, Hail and Farewell by George Moore, Yeats's Autobiographies, all the good De Maupassant, all the good Kipling, all of Turgenev, Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson, Henry James's short stories, especially Madame de Mauves and The Turn of the Screw The Portrait of a Lady, The American
DS:I can't write them down that fast. How many more are there?
EH:I'll give you the rest another day. There are about three times that many.
DS:Should a writer have read all of those?
EH:All of those and plenty more. Otherwise he doesn't know what he has to beat.
DS:What do you mean "has to beat?"
EH:Listen. There is no use writing anything that has been written before unless you can beat it. What a writer in our time has to do is write what hasn't been written before or beat dead men at what they have done. The only way he can tell how he is going to compete with dead men . . . .
DS:But reading all the good writers might discourage you.
EH:Then you ought to be discouraged . . . .
DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, does reading great writing ever discourage you? Are there any of your contemporaries who have had a real impact on you?
FSF:I read Ernest's In Our Time with the most breathless unwilling interest I have experienced since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes upon the sea.
DS:What about other good American writers?EH:The good writers are Henry James, Stephen Crane, and Mark Twain. That's not the order they're good in. There is no order for good writers.
All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we've had. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.
FSF:Huckleberry Finn took the first journey back. He was the first to look back at the republic from the perspective of the west. His eyes were the first eyes that ever looked at us objectively that were not eyes from overseas. There were mountains at the frontier but he wanted more than mountains to look at with his restless eyes - he wanted to find out about men and how they lived together. And because he turned back we have him forever.
DS:What about characters? How does one create them? How can we make them not just seem real but be real to the reader?
FSF: Character is action.
I liked and I didn't like Tender is the Night. It started off with that marvelous description of Sara and Gerald . . . Then you started fooling with them, making them come from things they didn't come from, changing them into other people and you can't do that, Scott. If you take real people and write about them you cannot give them other parents than what they have (they are made by their parents and what happens to them) you cannot make them do anything they would not do. You can take you or me or Zelda or Pauline or Hadley or Sara or Gerald but you have to keep them the same and you can only make them do what they would do. You can't make one be another. Invention is the finest thing but you cannot invent anything that would not actually happen.
That is what we are supposed to do when we are at our best - make it all up - but make it up so truly that later it will happen that way.
Goddamn it you took liberties with peoples' pasts and futures that produced not people but damned marvelously faked case histories. You, who can write better than anybody can, who are so lousy with talent that you have to - the hell with it. Scott for gods sake write and write truly no matter who or what it hurts but do not make these silly compromises. You could write a fine book about Gerald and Sara for instance if you knew enough about them and they would not have any feeling, except passing, if it were true.
[ Silence for a long moment]
In my theory, utterly opposite to Ernest's, about fiction i.e., that it takes half a dozen people to make a synthesis strong enough to create a fiction character - in that theory, or rather in despite of it, I used [Sara and Gerald] again and again in Tender is the Night
Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful"
He had been heavy, belly-frightened with love of her for years"
-- in those and in a hundred other places I tried to evoke not Sara but the effect she produces on other men - the echoes and reverberations . . .
EH:. . . you ought to write, invent, out of what you know and keep the people's antecedants straight.
DS:I'm a little confused. Mr. Hemingway, you're very adamant about keeping characters in novels and stories true to their . . . real-life templates . . . but certainly there's a role for synthesis and imagination in the creation of literary characters.
EH:When writing a novel a writer should create people; people not characters. A character is a caricature. If a writer can make people live there may be no great characters in his book, but it is possible that his book will remain as a whole; as an entity; as a novel. If the people the writer is making talk of old masters; of music; of modern painting; of letters; or of science then they should talk of those subjects in the model. If they do not talk of those subjects and the writer makes them talk of them he is a faker, and if he talks about them himself to show how much he knows then he is showing off. No matter how good a phrase or a simile he may have if he puts it in where it is not absolutely necessary and irreplaceable he is spoiling his work for egotism. Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, and the Baroque is over. For a writer to put his own intellectual musings, which he might sell for a low price as essays, into the mouths of artificially constructed characters which are more remunerative when issued as people in a novel is good economics, perhaps, but does not make literature. People in a novel, not skillfully constructed characters, must be projected from the writer's assimilated experience, from his knowledge, from his head, from his heart and from all there is of him. If he ever has luck as well as seriousness and gets them out entire they will have more than one dimension and they will last a long time.
DS:You're saying that a novelist shouldn't have his or her characters - or I should say the people in his or her novels - be mere mouthpieces. That characters talking about things that the author doesn't naturally know about is fakery - a form of showing off. But doesn't that ignore the role of research in writing? Shouldn't some of an author's characters know more than the author? Shouldn't the author be required to learn new things and know what his characters should know?
EH:A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man's life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave. Every novel which is truly written contributes to the total knowledge which is there at the disposal of the next writer who comes, but the next writer must pay, always, a certain nominal percentage in experience to be able to understand and assimilate what is available as his birthright and what he must, in turn, take his departure from.
Do you agree?
FSF:If I knew anything I'd be the best writer in
DS:Yet you've admitted in some of your non-fiction writings about your past that you knew you were intelligent, knew you had an unusually powerful command of facts and the ability to express them in words, and often were disliked because of it.
FSF:Nobody naturally likes a mind quicker than their own and one more capable of getting its operation into words. It is practically something to conceal. The history of men's minds has been the concealing of them, until men cry out for intelligence, and the thing has to be brought into use . . . .
The mouth tight, and the teeth and lips together are a hard thing, perhaps one of the hardest stunts in the world, but not a waste of time, because most of the great things you learn in life are in periods of enforced silence.
In Jay Gatsby you've created one of the most enigmatic and enduring characters in our literature. Did you have a clear picture of Gatsby when you started the novel?
FSF:I myself didn't know what Gatsby looked like or was engaged in and you felt it. If If I'd known and kept it from you you'd have been too impressed with my knowledge to protest. This is a complicated idea but I'm sure you'll understand . . . .
Start out with an individual and you find that you have created a type - start out with a type and you find that you have created nothing.
DS:Speaking of types . . . in our age, in our time, more and more writers attain a sort of unassailable high ground by speaking for - or claiming they speak for - various groups. What we call "communities." The African-American community, the gay and lesbian community, the addicted community, the abused children community . . . the list goes on and on. There also seems to be a deeper, or at least wider, political dimension to being a novelist these days. Some would suggest that to be considered a serious novelist, one must be progressive . . . that is, left-wing in one's politics.
Both of your gentlemen's books are frequently taught in universities these days largely in terms of their political content: The Great Gatsby as a critique of capitalism, for instance, or To Have and To Have Not as an indictment of the class system that capitalism inevitably brings about. Mr. Hemingway, you were active, both in person and in your fiction, in some of the great political dialogues of your day . . . the Spanish Civil War, for instance . . . and you contributed scathing articles to such left-wing magazines such as The New Masses. It certainly caught the attention of J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.
Do you think that a writer has an obligation to speak out for social justice?
EH:As for your hoping the Leftward Swing etc has a very definite significance for me that is so much horseshit. I do not follow the fashions in politics, letters, religion etc. If the boys swing to the left in literature you may make a small bet the next swing will be to the right and some of the same yellow bastards will swing both ways. There is no left and right in writing. There is only good and bad writing . . .
Now they want you to swallow communism as though it were an elder Boys Y.M.C.A. conference or as though we were all patriots together.
I'm no goddamned patriot nor will I swing to left or right.
Would as soon machine gun left, right, or center any political bastards who do not work for a living - anybody who makes a living by politics or not working.
DS:But in your writing you often stood up for the little man, the dispossessed, the persons marginalized in a capitalist socie . . .
EH:. . . don't let them suck you in to start writing about the proletariat, if you don't come from the proletariat, just to please the recently politically enlightened critics. In a little while these critics will be something else. I've seen them be a lot of things and none of them was pretty. Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all where they can place it . . . . Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study up about. If you write them truly they will have all the economic implications a book can hold.
meantime, since it is Christmas, if you want to read a book by a man who knows
exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read Appointment in
Then when you have more time read another book called War and Peace by Tolstoi and see how you will have to skip the big Political Thought passages, that he undoubtedly thought were the best things in the book when he wrote it, because they are no longer either true or important, if they ever were more than topical, and see how true and lasting and important the people and the action are. Do not let them deceive you about what a book should be because of what is in fashion now.
DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, do you think novelists should be especially sensitive to the social issues and political consensuses of their day?
FSF:Novels are not written, or at least begun, with the idea of making an ultimate philosophical system - you tried to atone for your lack of confidence by a lack of humility before the form.
DS:So you don't see a novel as a mechanism for bringing about social change?
FSF:The theory . . . I got from Conrad's preface to The Nigger of the Narcissus, that the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader's mind as differing from, say, the purpose of oratory or philosophy which respectively leave people in a fighting or thoughtful mood.
EH:Now a writer can make himself a nice career while he is alive by espousing a political cause, working for it, making a profession of believing in it, and if it wins he will be very well placed. All politics is a matter of working hard without reward, or with a living wage for a time, in the hope of booty later . . . .
But none of this will help the writer as a writer unless he finds something new to add to human knowledge while he is writing. Otherwise he will stink like any other writer when they bury him; except, since he has had political affiliations, they will send more flowers at the time and later he will stink a little more.
DS:In current studies of 20th Century literature, many critics and academics tend to group you two - Hemingway and Fitzgerald - with Thomas Wolfe in terms of your contribution to Modernism.
FSF:What family resemblance there is between we three as writers is the attempt that crops up in our fiction from time to time to recapture the exact feel of a moment in time and space, exemplified by people rather than by things - that is, an attempt at what Wordsworth was trying to do rather than what Keats did with such magnificent ease, an attempt at a mature memory of a deep experience.
EH:I think Tom was only truly good about his home town and there he was wonderful and unsurpassable. The other stuff is usually over-inflated journalese.
DS:Tell me first what are the things, the actual, concrete things that harm a writer?
EH:Politics, women, drink, money, ambition. And the lack of politics, women, drink, money and ambition . . . I said profoundly.
FSF:The history of my life is the history of the struggle between an overwhelming urge to write and a combination of circumstances bent on keeping me from it. . . .
It has become increasingly plain to me that the very excellent organization of a long book or the finest perceptions and judgment in time of revision do not go well with liquor. A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head and ruthlessly sacrifice the sideshows as Ernest did in A Farewell to Arms. If a mind is slowed up ever so little it lives in the individual part of a book rather than in a book as a whole; memory is dulled. I would give anything if I hadn't had to write Part III of Tender is the Night entirely on stimulant. If I had one more crack at it cold sober I believe it might have made a great difference. Even Ernest commented on sections that were needlessly included and as an artist he is as near as I know for a final reference.
DS: Gentlemen, we should probably draw this to a close soon. You've been very generous with your time. Is there any topic for the readers of the Writing Well forum that we haven't touched on?
FSF:Adjectives and verbs..
DS:Adjectives and verbs?
FSF:About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats' 'Eve of Saint Agnes." A line like "The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass," is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement - the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.
EH:You know, Scott's talent was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly's wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did and he did not know when it was brushed or marred. Later he became conscious of his damaged wings and of their construction and he learned to think and could not fly any more because the love of flight was gone and he could remember when it had been effortless.
DS:Mr. Fitzgerald, would you like to reply to that?
FSF:Did you ever know a writer to calmly take a just criticism and shut up?
After all . . . I am a plodder. One time I had a talk with Ernest Hemingway and I told him, against all the logic that was then current, that I was the tortoise and he was the hare, and that's the truth of the matter, that everything that I have ever attained has been through long and persistent struggle while it is Ernest who has a touch of genius which enables him to bring off extraordinary things with facility. I have no facility. I have a facility for being cheap., if I wanted to indulge that . . . but when I decided to be a serious man, I tried to struggle over every point until I have made myself into a slow-moving behemoth . . ., and so there I am for the rest of my life.
DS: Speaking of being serious men . . . my last question. Do you think more about critics in your time or about future generations of readers and how posterity will treat your work?
EH:About posterity: I only think about writing truly. Posterity can take care of herself . . .
FSF:An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters ever afterward.
EH:You must be prepared to work always without applause. When you are excited about something is when the first draft is done. But no one can see it until you have gone over it again and again until you have communicated the emotion, the sights and the sounds to the reader, and by the time you have completed this the words, sometimes, will not make sense to you as you read them, so many times have you re-read them. By the time the book comes out you will have started something else and it is all behind you and you do not want to hear about it. But you do, you read it in covers and you see all the places that now you can do nothing about. All the critics who could not make their reputations by discovering you are hoping to make them by predicting hopefully your approaching impotence, failure and general drying up of natural juices. Not a one will wish you luck or hope that you will keep on writing unless you have political affiliations in which case these will rally around and speak of you and Homer, Balzac, Zola and Link Steffens. You are just as well off without these reviews. Finally, in some other place, some other time, when you can't work and feel like hell you will pick up the book and look at it and start to read and go on and in a little while say to your wife, "Why this stuff is bloody marvelous."
will say, "Darling, I always told you it was." Or maybe she doesn't hear you
and says,"What did you say?" and you do not repeat
But if the book is good, is about something that you know, and is truly written and reading it over you see that this is so you can let the boys yip and the noise will have that pleasant sound coyotes make on a very cold night when they are out in the snow and you are in your own cabin that you have built or paid for with your work.
Acknowledgment to Ernest Hemingway on
Writing and F. Scott
Fitzgerald on Writing both edited by Larry W. Phillips (who in turn
acknowledges the help of Michael Pietsch, formerly of
Charles Scribner's Sons, now of Little, Brown, with whom I had a very enjoyable
lunch last week). Sources for Mr. Hemingway's comments include By Line: Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon;
Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters; Green Hills of
Now that we've completed six installments of our Writing Well discussion and you know every essential element of becoming a published author, we'll turn to the single most important issue in your future professional writing career . . . the author photo.
Go ahead, laugh. Get it out of your system. But answer me this - don't you, as a reader, if you're profligate enough to buy a hardcover novel (and now some paperbacks), flip back to the dustjacket photo of the author and assess him or her in some way? Of course you do. And please remember that those author photos have a life, on the Internet, in reference books and elsewhere, much longer than the average author's.
So let's talk about this unheralded but essential part of your writing career for a few moments.
For your first book, you'll probably be taken by surprise when your publisher asks for a dustjacket and publicity photo of you. (For years I mailed such things to the publisher's publicity department, but now, of course, they will ask you to e-mail a high-resolution quality photo of yourself.) If you're like most of us writers, you'll panic, paw through all available snapshots in the drawer or on the computer, find all of them pathetic (and certainly not worthy of your new incarnation as an author), consider a studio portrait - then realize that you have neither time nor money for such a thing, plus that you're not that pathetically vain (yet) - and you'll end up asking your Significant Other to take a good photo of you.
Well, good luck.
When my first publisher gave me twenty-four hours to send them a photo for the back of my first novel, Song of Kali, my wife Karen took the ancient manual Ricoh SLR I'd given her as a gift years before, said "Don't sweat it," had me step out onto the tiny front stoop of our tiny little house at the time, and snapped off several photos that she had developed that very day. I happened to be wearing an L. L. Bean cotton safari-type-shirt that particular day and the shrubs and trees next to the front stoop looked like a cane break or impenetrable jungle background - even the light falling through foliage throwing dappled shadows across me looked very jungle-bookish - so the photo worked fine for a novel about India and Calcutta.
For years, Karen took my cover photos for different books. It's fun to read the credits for other authors you know and those you don't know but whose careers might be following a similar arc. They usually have half a dozen books with their author photos credited to wives or husbands, then - if the career takes off - professional photographers' names begin to sneak in.
Stephen King and I once compared notes about wives and author photos. In each of our cases, we'd been the photographer in the family. And we'd each given our wives decent SLRs as presents and later urged them to go to photographers' workshops - both to the Maine Photographic Workshop, as it turned out. (Tabby and Karen were there just a year or so apart.) And in both cases, our spouses became the serious photographers in the family and we gave up our own fancy cameras, settling for pocket digital cameras to grab only the occasional snapshot.
"It's a pain taking Steve's picture for his books," Tabitha once told me. "He's got all these little author-photo tricks - you all do - and I'll be damned if I'll let him get away with them. I'll shout 'Get that goddamned eyebrow down! I see it creeping up.' We never have fun in the author-photo sessions."
Well, I could identify with that.
But what if you're not like King and me and so many other writers I know, galloping to a spouse for your first dustjacket photos? What if you actually think about this sort of thing ahead of time? What are your goals and what might you end up with?
In the old days - say the 1920's through 1950's - if one was a male author, dustjacket photos posed little problem. Put on a nubbly tweed or worsted sportcoat, preferably with leather elbow patches, light your pipe, and pose in three-quarter profile in dramatic lighting while hovering pensively over a book (not your book, of course, that would be bad taste), or - even better - with an entire wall of books behind you. Some photographers still want that shot for male authors.
We all hear stories that may or may not be urban legend.
William Faulkner, in the right light (and a
photographer's job is to find or create the right light) was a strikingly
handsome man. He was also a vain man and one desperate for recognition as both
a gentleman and an intellectual. (Born and raised in poverty-stricken
Hemingway, on the
other hand, appeared indifferent to publicity and author photos, yet somehow
the ones he released to his publishers always served his purpose perfectly.
That purpose was to appear as the hairy-chested
hunter, brawler, and fisherman who just incidentally happened to be one
All of Hemingway's photographs over the decades showed a masculine but thoughtful man, but the famous portrait by Yousuf Karsh - the older, bearded Hemingway in a thick, fisherman's knit wool-and-leather turtleneck sweater - is extraordinary. Only the sad eyes, the sun-ravaged skin, and the presence of a comb-over (an affectation that the younger Hemingway used to ridicule on others with some savagery) warn us that this is the literary lion on the slope of decline.
Truman Capote always thought as much about the image of himself that he presented to the world as he did about the content of his prose. This helped shaped his career (it even helped shape his lovelife and choice of future partners.)
In 1948 when his first collection of short fiction, Other Voices, Other Rooms, came out, the large dustjacket photo by Harold Halma showed young Truman in a shirt and checked vest, his hand draped casually over his groin, lounging on a curved-back couch with his head turned toward the viewer and giving him or her what can only be called a "come-hither" look. Young Truman Capote was a beautiful lad and this may well be the most seductive and controversial author photo ever to grace a dustjacket. The photo caused as much controversy and comment as the high-quality stories inside the book. Capote always claimed in later years that the camera had caught him off guard, but the truth was that he'd planned it carefully and posed himself for it and was personally responsible for both the picture and the ensuing publicity. (And also responsible, one would assume, for all the gay men in 1948 America - not to mention the many unsavvy women -- who fell in love with the photo and the author because of that photograph.)
Truman Capote continued to cultivate friendships with great photographers and the quality of his various publicity and dustjacket photos was astounding. In one black and white photo taken by Cecil Beaton in Tangier in the summer of 1949, the young, thin Truman is leaping into the air, arms and legs akimbo, his thin frame set against a mostly white Moroccan background and accompanied only by his own shadow. His shirt is tied rakishly at the waist like a knotted sash. Friends pointed out that this how they remembered Capote at that time - ebullient, uninhibited, and irrepressible.
Beaton in 1948 had taken a shot of a more pensive and sweatered Truman leaning against a backdrop of roses, cigarette in one langurous hand and his glasses in the other, prompting another gay author - Tennessee Williams - to observe sarcastically that Capote's little face had a "look of prenatal sorrow, as if he were still in the womb and already suspected how cold the world is beyond the vaginal portals."
In 1946, Henri Cartier-Bresson had captured an even more subdued (but highly seductive) Truman in his garden - sitting sideways, in a white t-shirt, on a white bench behind which four-foot-long leaves filled the image - and the way Capote's body is twisted, his right arm behind him, his left hand lifted with fist almost clenched, the overhead sun throwing his large eyes mostly into shadow, added both tension and sexual power to the photo. Another photo taken about the same time by Karl Bissinger showed Capote wearing a striped polo shirt while sitting alone at a plain white table, head in his hands (a cigarette burning in his left hand), a trailing vine dropping down toward that youthful head of hair, in a photograph that brought out an entirely different aspect of the author. (In this photo, Truman looks a bit like the young George Peppard, who would be so miscast as the lead in the film version of Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's. But then, Truman argued with the producers that Marilyn Monroe, not Audrey Hepburn, should play Holly Golightly. And there's no doubt whatsoever that if they'd allowed Capote veto power on the cast that Mickey Rooney - complete with fake buck teeth and squinty eyes - would never have been cast as Mr. Yunioshi)
You get the idea here. Truman Capote was a
writer who always considered his public image and who worked hard to craft the
way that image was presented to both readers and the world at large. In 1967,
LIFE Magazine put him on its cover standing between actors Scott Wilson and
Robert Blake (yes, the Robert Blake who recently beat the rap of murdering his
wife - his alibi being perfect L.A., saying he'd gone back to the restaurant
when she was shot because he'd forgotten his gun.) The three are
standing on a backroad in
Capote was the most photographed writer of the century, but the last years documented him becoming fat, decadent, and abandoned by his friends, until a 1979 photo presented a newly thin and again-beautiful Truman after a diet and facelift. The resurrection was shortlived. The final photo was taken of him on August 23, 1984 - a Polaroid snapshot taken at Joanne Carson's home in Los Angeles (Johnny Carson's wife was one of the only friends who had stood by Capote after his fall from grace due to his tell-all stories in the fragments of his never-finished Answered Prayers) - and it shows a heavy and totally defeated man again. He was a month away from turning sixty, but already he looked like an old man. He died in her guest room two nights later.
What does this have to do with your future dustjacket and publicity author photos, you ask? Probably not a damned thing. But I like Truman Capote's writing and I think that his life can be a cautionary tale to most of us who write.
Capote hasn't been the only author who chose good photographers to put powerful, sensitive, or outright seductive photos on their dustjackets over the years, of course. My friend Harlan Ellison attracted more than a few lady admirers through his bachelor years in the 1970's with provocative photos. In a real way, Harlan was the 70's and early 80's in these photos. Always those brooding, searching, deepset eyes, always that confrontational stare (even when he was looking to the side), and usually those gigantic sort-of aviator 70's style glasses with the cool rims.
Yet in the first hardcover short-story collection I bought of Harlan's (after I met him), his author photo was a pure snapshot - him in some sort of sheepskin jacket about 40 yards away from the photographer, waving his arms in the air near a gigantic plastic brontosaurus - and his "author's bio" under the snapshot was succinct: Harlan Ellison lives in California and likes it a lot.
Harlan accidentally and incidentally taught me something about dealing with photographers and news people, including those who come to shoot video. The lesson was simple: don't let them push you around. I happened to be at his home when a local network TV reporter - referred to affectionately as "Bill Lugatuna" - arrived with a producer and complete video and sound crew to interview Harlan about the Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson "Batman" movie that had just premiered. Harlan thought the film was brilliant and had written that it would change the look and feel of action-genre movies forever and probably start a new era where comic books would be adapted to big-budget movies.
Actually, it was Harlan's wife Susan who taught me that first lesson about not being pushed around. When the female producer with the news crew ordered her people to rearrange all the furniture and some of the artwork in Harlan's rich and art-crowded living room to improve the shot, Susan said quietly but absolutely firmly, "No, let's not." And then Harlan came in, ripped Lugatuna and everyone else on the video crew new polarized sockets, and explained - "We like it like this. We fucking live here. If this is our choice for how our living room should look, who the fuck are you people to be moving our stuff around and rearranging the art on our walls? You want the fucking interview, leave everything - and I mean absolutely everything, including Simmons standing over there like a wooden Indian - right where it is. Capiche?"
The reason this struck me at the time is that a few weeks earlier, in my modest little home in Colorado (where the front stoop stood in so perfectly for the jungle outside of Calcutta), a Channel 9 news crew had come out from Denver to do my first-ever little news feature about me as a writer (their angle for the story - "Popular Colorado Author Lives in Crappy Little House") and they'd ordered me about like a marionette with too many handlers, telling me where to sit, what to be doing, ordering me to type on my newfangled computer and then to look pensive, moving furniture and lamps, rearranging my work desk, even going so far as to take down the drapes and shutters on the little window in my "study" so they could get a zoom shot from outside . . .
You get the idea. What noise does a weenie make if it falls in the forest when no one is around?
Which leads us to this whole idea of just saying no.
Some years ago, the novelist Nicholas Evans (The
Horse Whisperer) and I had a long, long dinner in
Most of the professional photographers I've met are smart enough and good enough at what they do, but they tend to lack creativity. Either that or they have way too much.
I'm no Harlan Ellison. I like to cooperate and I like to be polite to people. But too much affable acquiescence, anyone in a public and competitive profession such as writing soon learns, can lead to products that you won't be pleased with. Thus I quickly learned the Bartleby's Secret Weapon. (Most of you recall that "Bartleby the Scrivener" was Herman Melville's brilliant story about the quiet clerk who, one day, without warning, simply began to say "I would prefer not to" to anything and everything he did not wish to do. Bartleby ends up dying in prison - simply turning his face to the stone wall and dying of starvation when his "I prefer not to" finally included eating - but not before his quiet refusals to do other people's bidding led him to overturn a large part of the System As We Know It.)
Nick Evans, a quiet and humorous man, had used the same Bartleby approach.
In my case, as a sometime writer of horror and SF novels, local newspaper photographers often wanted to get a clever gimmick shot. (Here - as with so many aspects of becoming a professional writer - one can learn from experience, but it helps to think things out ahead of time so one can know how to react in advance.) In my case, I don't think I'm stuffy (who does?), but I do take my work seriously and don't choose to come across as a clown in most photos. So when I'm on book tour in Australia or New Zealand for my UK publisher and the photographer for a local daily newspaper puts me in his car, drives me to a local cemetery, and tells me to lie down in the rectangle of a cement-framed grave plot with a headstone behind me and - oh, yes - hold this little bouquet of flowers on my chest, I smile gently (as Bartleby did) and say softly (as Bartleby did), "I would prefer not to."
"Why not for Chrissakes? You're a horror writer, aren't you?"
"Sometimes," I say
softly, "but the book I'm promoting here isn't just a horror novel. Mostly it's
about the orphanages in
"Alright, alright. So get behind the tombstone, wouldja mate? . . . and lean out like you're going to kill somebody, sort of lurching like a zombie and brandishing this . . .here, I brought a meat cleaver."
"I would prefer not to."
The next morning, on either Good Morning, Australia or the Australian Today Show (I forget which; I did both and some of the same guests were in the green room with me for each show), the interview went fine - the problems of those Romanian HIV orphans were discussed seriously - and then the avuncular host of the show said, "Well, Dan, to make you feel right at home here in Australia, we've prepared a little surprise for you . . ."
Camera # 1 panned around. Two of the other studio video camera operators were now sporting black silk capes and plastic vampire fangs. The pianist at the Steinway was now wearing a cape and fangs. The floor producer, earphones and mic still in place, smiled to show her fangs. Camera # 1 panned back around to the set and the avuncular host and his female second banana were now both sporting plastic vampire fangs.
It was great. I had to grin.
But I would have preferred not to.
Nicholas Evans, two
years younger than I, was finishing touring for The Horse Whisperer at
the time we met in
And everywhere he went, the local photographers and video news crews wanted him posed on a horse.
The problem was, Nicholas Evens did not prefer to be on a horse. He was not a rider. He did not live on a ranch. He did not especially like horses. He was a former British journalist and TV writer who had seen a small article about a "horse whisperer" therapist for horses in the States and who had turned the idea into a novel. He decided even before his tour began that he was not going to climb up on a horse - or even onto a saddle without a horse - to please monomaniacal photographers or news video people.
photographed more by serious professional photographers in
But not Nick. They all wanted him on, next to, whispering to, or kissing a horse, or at least with some horsey tack in the shot.
Evans, ever so much more the real gentleman than I, still responded with his quiet but firm Bartleby's "I would prefer not to." One Parisian photographer who had hauled an entire Western saddle, bridle, reins, chaps, 10-gallon hat, and red kerchief up to Nick's hotel room, actually burst into tears at the writer's refusal, complaining - in a torrent of French and broken English - of just how much he had spent to rent all that crap. And wouldn't Monsieur Evans, please, just this once . . . .
Nick preferred not to.
And so it went for him
The photographer had
driven him miles out of
What the hell, thought Nick,
studying these tiny, gentle, HO-scale versions of horses. Just this once.
He didn't even have to climb to mount the cute little things, just swing one
leg over them where they stood. He could just crouch and pretend to sit
on the little pony if he wanted to. The photographer set up his camera and
gear. The assistants fiddled with the separate flashes and screens and umbrella
lights. The Icelandic pony placidly chewed some hay as if to say, I have
world-famous writers on me all the time. The photographer (whose English,
Nick said, was better than that of most of the chaps he went to
And the Icelandic pony reacted as if someone had jabbed an electric prod between her buttocks. Before Nick could step back off, the pony had crashed through the lighting equipment, scattered the assistants, leapt the stone corral wall with a single bound, and had taken off across a boulderfield toward a nearby cliff's edge that dropped 300 vertical feet to the sea. Nick hung on to hair and mane, his legs straight out, trying to decide exactly when he was going to throw himself off the galloping pony onto the sharp rocks and boulders blurring by beneath his trousers and polished wingtips. Just as he was about to release his grip and roll off, the pony stopped as quickly as she had taken off - twelve feet this side of the cliff's edge - and resumed munching on the straw that she had brought with her.
I haven't mentioned any women writers and their dustjacket- and publicity-photo problems, but I do tend to peruse such photos at the backs of books.
I remember an episode
At any rate, women writers probably have more serious choices to make about their publicity and book photos than do men.
I was pleased some years ago to help the
beginning writer Poppy Z. Brite find an agent. What I
didn't know was that Poppy, although just becoming published, was already an
expert at promotion. (Following her on book tour in
I wrote her back that it seemed okey-dokey to me, but wasn't this book coming out from Scholastic Press and being sold through Our Weekly Reader?
(As it turned out, Poppy's press-release photos that went with that first book were even more interesting than the one she'd sent me.)
Not long ago I went out and bought a big book, a bestseller, that I had been avoiding. I'd been avoiding it because I'd written a novel on the same topic and with the same Romanian setting a few years earlier and - based solely on flipping through the pages of this book in Border's - had decided that my book was much better written. But I would soon be working with the editor of this bestseller, so I wanted to take time to peruse it and to judge the editing. After bringing the book home, I flipped it open to the back inside dustjacket and author's bio (and the book had endpapers, which I love) and there was the author's photo.
She was dressed
alluringly in what looked to be a velvet bathrobe and she herself appeared to
have been draped on her stomach across what seemed to be an artist's couch with
blankets piled high on it. Her face was in the act of turning toward the viewer
in a pose that would make one's neck ache terribly if you held it more than ten
seconds and one eyebrow was caught in the act of arching. She was wearing one
pearl earring. Her come-hither bedroom smile was not quite as seductively
effective as the young Truman Capote's, but it tried. The bio under this photo
read in its entirety - " ------- -------- graduated from Yale and holds an MFA
Naturally one looks at this sexy, seductive, provocative photo and thinks, They give out goddamned prizes for novels-in-progress?
Some years ago I was invited out to
I confess that until
that weekend my image of lady romance writers ran along the lines of Kathleen
Turner as "Joan Wilder" in the movie "Romancing the Stone." Many of these
romance writers gathering in
Romance novels make up
a little more than 50% of all books sold in the
But since so much of romance writing starts as a sort of factory system created by publishers - they actually hold "how to be a romance writer" seminars at airport hotels in major cities, sharing some of the strict formula for writing in the genre and then testing the women at it, and the best of the best of the millions of wannabe writers often then get a crack at cranking out romances under publishing house false names - romance writers also tend to stick together (some say like packs of feral dogs, but this is unfair.)
My agent Richard Curtis knows a lot about romance writers since he represents many (and since the bulk of his income through commissions comes from them rather than from us low-earning SF and fantasy and horror weenies), but he may have made a tactical error when he took his wife Leslie on their honeymoon to California only to suggest to her that they stop by a nearby convention of romance writers -- "Just for an hour or so, darling, honest." (If you've ever seen a conference-full of female romance writers in search of representation mobbing a known and successful male agent, you know what Leslie had to sit back and watch for eight hours or so on her honeymoon. Somehow - for reasons known to neither God nor man - Leslie is still married to him.)
My favorite experience with a romance writer was with Fabio. You may know the name. Fabio was the male-model with the pecs and long hair who posed shirtless for so many romance-novel covers over the years. They finally gave him his own Fabio Series of romance novels to write. (Now since Fabio speaks no known human language and can barely scrawl something that may or may not be his five-letter name, we have to assume that the publisher again hires unknowns to write the "Fabio" books. But one never knows.)
In the 1990's, I was
invited to travel to
Now some say that
Fabio sounds like Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, but this is libel. One can understand
some of what
I'm obviously speaking from jealousy here. There I was, sitting behind my little folding table with stacks and copies of my books in front and perhaps one publisher's laminated cover of my most recent novel propped up somewhere nearby. At any given time, I probably had two people in my line, and one of them was there to ask me directions to some other, more popular writer in the crated maze that was this warehouse. Fabio's table, of course, had giant posters of his oiled body on the wall and crates behind him, stacks of glossy photos on either side of him, and a line of women - most of them with blue hair - that stretched down our long aisle between the crates, out into the main warehouse for the length of a blimp hangar, and then out into the parking lot. All of the women (and there were thousands) who came to get his autograph and/or to get one of "his" books signed asked to have their photograph taken with him.
So eventually I gave up my own little lemonade stand and simply spent my hours taking the proferred cameras and snapping their pictures with Fabio. The women invariably giggled, often two at a time under his huge biceped arms, and while I can't swear that some actually came to orgasm, there was a whole lot of writhing going on. Fabio wasn't quite shirtless, but the silk shirt he wore was unbuttoned and open down to his belt line. His pecs were quite apparent and many of the ladies had to set their hands on those bulging masses of muscle. One or two of the senior citizens - their blue hair was always at his armpit height, Fabio's long hair often draped over them - wanted their photos taken while pretending to grope him or while clutching at his inner thighs.
Many of the women didn't bring books or photos of Fabio for him to sign, but wanted him to sign them. I have to say that he did so with graciousness and flair. I was reminded while watching Fabio sign various portions of various ladies' anatomies of the true story of Truman Capote in a rough bar in New York in the early 1970's when a woman at the bar squealed, "Oh, I saw him on Johnny Carson last night! He's a famous writer" and came over to the table where Truman was sitting with friends. The inebriated woman pulled up her t-shirt (she was wearing nothing underneath), offered Capote a marking pen, and said, "Would you sign my breast?"
"Of course, my dear," lisped Capote. (Writers like to please their fans.) And he did so.
A minute later the woman's equally drunken boyfriend staggered over to Capote's table, handed the writer the same marker, said, "You wanna sign something. Sign this" and proceeded to unzip his jeans and present himself.
The others at Capote's table recoiled, but Truman took the pen, considered the offered writing surface a minute, and then said softly in that unique Capote accent, "Well, this obviously won't serve for an entire signature. But perhaps I could manage my initials."
Meanwhile, the afternoon with Fabio in Citizen Kane's warehouse dragged on. I think that I signed about 30 of my own books. I think that I took about 5,000 photos of women - and not a few men - under Fabio's armpits.
So what's to be
jealous about? It was an afternoon well spent. (I'm only sorry that I drove
there to that
So where were we?
Oh, yes - the most important part of your writing career: your dustjacket author photo and publicity photos.
No, we know they're not that important. But they do last forever and, for most readers, they're the only image they have of writers that they may really like. So they do require some thought ahead of time.
My friend David Morrell, a former professor at
In David's study at
his lovely home in
Nor will I speculate on the number of times that local or foreign photographers have asked David to pose with knives or nooses or guns or in trenchcoats while wearing snap-brim hats. Nor will I guess how many times David has had to use the Secret Weapon of Bartleby on such requests.
But I will post this author photo of my friend, grabbed from Google. It looks like his home behind him there. And other than the fact that Tabby King would shout "I see that eyebrow creeping up! Get it down!" if she were taking the photo, I think it's a pretty fair likeness of my friend. Devoid of posturing and silliness.
So perhaps the moral of this installment of Writing Well is - honesty pays. It may pay almost as much in your author photos as it does in your prose. This, of course, is only if one becomes successful enough to need an author's dustjacket or publicity photo.
Which reminds me - many interviewers and reviewers have commented on the fact that I have written in almost every genre that exists save one: the romance novel.
I think I'm ready.
I'm going to write as a man, of course (there are more and more male romance writers these days) and I've been working on the pseudonym I'll be using. (Hey, I said I'd write romance novels, not that I'd put my name behind them.) I think that something along the lines of Buck LaTour would be good. Or Chauncey DeGritte. Or Coop Gravell. You know, something masculine but sensitive at the same time. Something with a little foreign threat to its sound, but also a bit dashing and sexy.
Whatever name I finally write under, I have my dustjacket photo all ready. It's just a candid snapshot, actually - (I can't remember if I was either stepping into the shower or out of the shower at the time, or who exactly it was who took the photo) - but with the help of a little Photoshop (I'm told that romance readers don't like beards on their authors), I think my romance-author photo is ready for prime time.
Just remember, author - honesty pays.
Acknowledgment to Ernest Hemingway on Writing and F. Scott Fitzgerald
on Writing both edited by Larry W. Phillips (who in turn acknowledges the
help of Michael Pietsch, formerly of Charles
Scribner's Sons, now of Little, Brown, with whom I had a very enjoyable lunch
last week). Sources for Mr. Hemingway's comments include By Line: Ernest
Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon; Ernest Hemingway: Selected Letters; Green