Lessons in Failure and Writing a Novel
By Michael Nye
This week, I decided to (finally) start spring cleaning my house. I’m a fairly neat person, so my idea of “messy” is very different from your idea of messy. But there were a couple of spots in my house that definitely needed to be cleaned up. There is one room in particular in my house that could have been called an office, could have been called a spare bedroom, but instead has become The Room I Don’t Go Into That Has All These Extra Boxes of Who Knows What.
This particular room had all the trappings of unnecessary accumulation: cardboard boxes still taped from three or four moves ago; scattered piles of boxes that had never been read; stacks of papers with Post-It notes that read “To Keep”; Christmas wrapping paper; a spare mattress; still wrapped mementos from my grandfather’s house. There was a layer of dust over all of it, and the majority of these things ended up curbside for trash pickup.
In this room are several bookshelves (of course!) and on one of these shelves are the literary journals that my fiction has appeared in. These go back a few years now, way back to Sou’wester and Timber Creek Review. Along with my two contributor copies, I found something else. My graduate program gave us the option of having our thesis to not only be stored in its library archives, but also to have it bound so we could keep a copy of our work. It sorta looks likes a school textbooks from the 1950s. So among all these literary journals was my graduate thesis: “Oscillations: A Novel.”
Let’s set aside the fact that “Oscillations” is a terrible title for any novel. Here was the idea. The novel is about two men, a father and a son, and about their relationship over the course of, oh, fifteen years or so. The novel goes linearly backwards, beginning with the father’s death and ending with the son as a young boy. Writing this paragraph, I think “Oh, that doesn’t sound so horrible.”
But, from rereading it – or, at least, rereading as much as I could stand, and then starting to flip through the chapters (I made it through chapter 3) – I assure you, it is a really terrible novel. Maybe that’s harsh. Rereading my old work usually fills me with a sort of wry detachment, recognizing the guy who wrote these words, and thinking about how far removed (I hope) my writing now is from him.
In eleven years, I’ve written four books: three novels and one story collection. Only the story collection has ever seen the light of day; the first two novels, including my thesis, were never published and the third novel is making the rounds with agents right now. I’d like to believe I’ve learned a few things about how fiction works over this time, but perhaps it is more accurate to write that I have learned how my fiction does – or in many cases, does not – work. Here are four things I keep in my mind with my novel writing:
–Time Is The Enemy. All of my novels have struggled with the question of spatial and temporal distance. Or, in non-vocabulary words, time. Novel #1 was a terrible rip off of Charles Baxter’s novel “First, Light” and was a hard lesson that novels need forward momentum (even if it is nonlinear) in order to be compelling. My second novel focused on one summer. My third novel is told in two parts, with a fifteen year gap. All of these decisions about time were very conscious in order to eliminate questions I don’t want readers to think about and highlight elements I do want readers to think about. Whether or not it works that way, who knows?
–Skip the Boring Stuff. Seems obvious, right? But one of the things that I thought, incorrectly, that novels do was allow the writer to digress. Perhaps it is more accurate to say “expand” rather than digress, but even expansions are still written in benefit to the main narrative of a novel. And what might be interesting to me as a writer could be unnecessary or even dull to a reader. There are many writers who can digress or expand in a way that is compelling, but thus far, I’m not able to do that. I like there to be a little less conversation and a little more action.
Which leads rather directly to …
–Let’s Plot! Flannery O’Connor has an essay about writing short stories called, you guessed it, “Writing Short Stories.” Most of the advice on writing that she had read or heard was absurdly bad, and O’Connor cites an example of a friend of hers who was taking a correspondence course in writing, and the course had chapter headings such as “The Story Formula for Writers,” “How to Create Characters,” and my personal favorite, “Let’s Plot!” Many famous or influential (and so forth) contemporary writers who are classified as “literary” are dismissive of plot as being too restrictive of their work, arguing that plot gets in the way of what is really compelling to their writing. Graduate programs, with their focus on the short story, tend to shorten the writer’s attention span, and in fifteen to twenty pages, often a story does not need a plot, per se.
For me, though, that’s wrong. That leads to some really boring novels and stories, even one’s that are highly praised and win awards. Reading fifty to seventy five pages where nothing really happens leads me to chucking the book across the room (as you know, I’m serious about my book throwing). At the most basic level, we read or watch narratives to answer one question: What happens next? Oh, you can make it more complicated if you want to, and a good writer probably should, but I’ve written enough pages to know that you need something to happen, events that force decisions, characters in trouble, something to balance out all that interiority. And I argue this as a person who my friends and writers and students know has a bit of an elitist streak when it comes to fiction: yup, I need some good ol’ plot development. Hooray for good writing and style and all that, but I need to make sure Things Happen to keep my interest in my own work.
–On To The Next One. I can probably tinker with a story or novel until the end of days. However, there comes a point when the novel feels as complete or as finished as I’m going to make it. I certainly didn’t recognize the weaknesses in each novel when it was completed, but I see them now, and I see that I moved onto the next project at the right time. Or, at least, I’m pretty sure I did. It’s very difficult to go back to old stories or old novels and salvage the bones: the person who wrote those pieces is long gone, and the work feels haunted by him. There is a point where I just have to let go. Recognizing the difference between “move on” and “try again” is not an easy distinction, but I think I’m much better at clearly seeing my work than I used to be.
Besides, the worst that can happen? I’m just going to write the next thing. And, really, what’s so terrible about that?
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
What the "Serial" Podcast Teaches Us About Writing Novels
By Michael Nye
“Do you listen to Serial?” is a question I’ve been posing to people almost daily for the last two weeks. I was late to the party—I often am—but now I’m fully caught up and all aboard on this new podcast, a spinoff from This American Life. If you’re unfamiliar, Serial is a new weekly podcast about an old Baltimore murder case. In 1999, a teenage girl, Hae Min Lee was murdered, strangled to death, and her body dumped in Leakin Park. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of her murder, primarily on the testimony of his friend Jay. The podcast is reported by Sarah Koenig, who takes the listeners, week by week, through the investigation of the crime, the main characters, the evidence, and her own doubts about her work in an attempt to answer this question: was Adnan Syed really the person who murdered Hae Min Lee?
The show is captivating, and online, it’s been discussed the way shows like the Walking Dead or Mad Men are: broken down each week, dissected, questioned, and theories abound regarding what happened and what angle each character is playing. Sometimes, it seems like people forget this is real, rather than a fictive world.
In the 21st century, we don’t just sit back and enjoy: we engage. Sports fans seems as interested in how a team is built (trades, drafts, free agency, etc.) as they are interested in whether or not the team wins. Same is true of our narrative art. Fan fiction, spinoffs, and endless “think pieces” galore. A super fast zip through the we has all sorts of questions about Sarah Koenig, the two biggest wondering if she believes Syed is actually innocent and, either way, what exactly is her relationship with him. The second of this questions is addressed by Lincoln Michel by reminding us that the ethics of journalism into murder cases has been written about, wonderfully, years ago. Given that these are real events, should you be enjoying this podcast as much as you are? Or, have you thought about what it means when “a white journalist stomps around in a cold case involving people from two distinctly separate immigrant communities?”
These are just a few of the many pieces about Serial; there are others, perhaps better ones, but hey, how many links can I throw up here in just one paragraph? I have my own to write!
Whatever concerns or worries one has with Serial, it has been a tremendously successful and captivating podcast. A captivating narrative. It hooks you in, gets you eager to listen to the next episode, and keeps you thinking about what you’ve just heard long after the episode is over. Isn’t this exactly what we try to do with novels?
Since my novel (attempt number four!) is working its way through agents’ Inboxes as I write this, the question of what makes a narrative effective is on my mind. And, since my novel is in first person and involves a murder, Serial has naturally got me thinking about how it compares to novels. Perhaps incomplete, but here are a few Serial-novel comparisons that I’ve been thinking about.
Who is the narrator? The answer in Serial is pretty clear: Sarah Koenig. What is less clear is what she is about, what she is interested in, her thoughts on guilty or innocence that sometimes spring to the surface. She’s familiar to any listener of This American Life, and has the educated, pleasantly skeptical, warm personae of public radio.
Novels do the same thing: a voice pulls you in, whether it is in first person or third person. Trust is established. But it can also be undermined. Any writer will tell you that every first person narrator is unreliable, by definition. You can’t always trust third person, can you, Atonement?
Novels have two storylines. Serial has two clear ones: who is the narrator, and did Adnan kill Hay? These are the two most obvious ones, but there are others that would certainly enter your mind as a Serial listener: why would Jay lie, what did the police screw up (if they did), how did the jury convict so fast (two hours), and numerous others … all of which get back to those first two storylines.
In novels, it might not be nearly as neat. But there always seems to be two storylines at work in great novels. In first person, who is the narrator? will always be one (me thinkth), but a great novel might also just run with two narratives on the page, the action, the plot, that keeps the reader going. One should be enough, you might think … but it really isn’t. Any good novel has two strong threads – at a minimum – running through it.
Be a pageturner. The structure of Serial is genius: thirteen podcasts, the first one an hour, the rest a little over thirty minutes. Even if the show doesn’t hang on a complete cliffhanger, there is always a tease to what is coming next, or might be coming next, in just seven days.
Even though your brain loves chapters, it isn’t enough to just slap a new chapter into a novel. There is a logic and reason to it. Serial has structural and temporal constraints, but it’s still excellent at 1. Wrapping up what it said this week’s episode is about and 2. Emotionally leading you into the next episode.
It’s out of your hands. What’s the difference between Hunger Games and all the other YA novels? What’s the difference between Jodi Picoult and other books in the very broad category of “chick lit”? Why was Emma Donoghue’s big hit her seventh book?
I’m sure you could come up with a few reasons, and I’d like nod along and think “Sure, yeah, that might explain it.” But for the most part, there is a shrug and palms turned upwards. Who knows? William Goldman once said “No one knows anything” and he knows quite a bit about writing. Good work flops, bad work hits. Why? Dunno.
There is plenty of criticism of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch,” which was very popular around this office, for a wide-range of flaws: tortured metaphors, endlessly long, a pedantic ending, and so forth. All of which I thought, yes, that’s true. But I still loved the book. If art was a series of easy formulas and algorithms, anyone can do it. Sometimes the mess is what makes it great.
There Will Be Criticism. A bit of a compendium to the above, but no book or podcast or whatnot is going to be above criticism. Someone will hate it. Someone hates To Kill a Mockingbird. Someone hates Zadie Smith. Someone hates Jimmy Stewart, Kermit the Frog, ice cream, and sunsets (hopefully not the same person: that would be one miserable dude to be around). Nothing is perfect.
There is always valid criticism that might bring a writer back to square one (or, I dunno, draft four). Understanding the difference between genuine, useful responses and vitriol develops over time. We all learn to say “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that” or “That’s just, like, your opinion, man …” when it comes to our writing.
All good artists love other art. At a simple writing level, good novelists read poetry, and vice versa. But writers also love film, music, sculpture, all forms of creativity and thought and questioning. And as a writer, I gravitate toward the journalism and storytelling that gets wrapped together in radio and podcasts. Whatever flaws there might be in the form, I’ll keep listening, and keep borrowing what I learn into my writing. That’s just what we do.
Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye
1-2-3-4, I Declare a Form War
I had a conversation with a writer friend a couple weeks ago about the discrepancies between the mediums of literature and film—and, more specifically, adaptations bridging the two forms. The conversation developed from my mention of a mental_floss article about well-known authors who hated their work’s well-known film adaptations. My friend quickly jumped to the defense of those authors, elaborating further on her own inspired favor of the original literature over the film. Remaining loyal to the novel or short story is overwhelmingly the publically virtuoso stance: the most immediate debate, without fail, when film adaptations are announced is how the film can possibly match the original, and then, after release, how the movie industry ruined yet another good book. Maybe it’s the insipid exposure to product films (movies clearly made for similar motivations as one would make a Nerf gun) we gather as a mainstream society, but a distinct collective psyche exists in which the norm is to, without remorse, denounce film adaptations as rarely anything more than cheap attempts to capitalize on a proven commodity.
While the cynicism withstands, to greater effect, in regards to a Hollywood culture currently preoccupied with remakes and reboots, I cannot begin to sympathize with the criticism of adaptations. The aforementioned complaints, when further prodded, stem from the idea that a novel can do so many things film can’t, or at least to a more thorough extent. Character development and direct insight, cast, narrative arc, and the power and experience of the actual words on the page are commonly cited as fundamental gaps between the meduims’ capacities. The adventure of the prose and the direct insight, for example, were the two inspired drawbacks my friend offered. Wherever detractors come from, the creative form of literature being superior to that of film is the if unintentional suggestion. Unfortunately for literature enthusiasts, this assertion is simply not true.
I understand where the author’s discussed in the mental_floss article come from: a fiction writer myself, it would be an incredibly difficult process to hand over, as most adapted authors do, the creative responsibility of something so personal to a relative stranger. However, their complaints are irrelevant. The best you’re going to get out of a writer, concerning an adaptation of their work, is an I’m happy with the choices [the director] made. Translation: they didn’t butcher my child. What else could we expect? Nothing. While I find stories of P.L. Travers sobbing because the Disney machine of the sixties whitewashed Mary Poppins impulsive-big-lip-inducing, there is little credence in the displeasure of creative alpha dogs such as Stephen King and Ken Kessey (though the later eventually came around). All of these anecdotes vindicate fans of the original and of books in general, little more. Kubrick’s The Shining is a horror masterpiece, using ingenious scale and symmetry to weave thick atmosphere and dread. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was the second ever film to sweep the five major categories at the Oscars. (Both of these, of course, feature tour de force turns from Jack Nicholson.)
To favor a version is immune to criticism. That’s the freedom of art. To presume one medium’s superiority based on those biases is not. A film can’t characterize its cast as well as a novel? So, then, Nicholson’s Randle is an outright lesser character than Kessey’s?—Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood doesn’t surpass (let alone meet) any character in Upton Sinclair’s original Oil!?—Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lector? The list could easily continue. A film may not have as readied access to direct perception or insight as literature, but I don’t think an argument can be made saying the nuance and depth of an actual human being stepping into the flesh and mind of another is incapable of capturing the same—or greater—profoundness of its prose counterpart.
Which leads to the other glaring form difference: language. Why did an otherwise beautiful and adequate film in the adaptation of The Road pale in comparison to McCarthy’s Pulitzer winner? Because the gorgeous and redemptive prose, more than any other element of the novel, communicated the transcendence of the narrative. However, to suggest that literature is the inherently better form, one would have to be able to make the case that a film could be expounded and improved upon in a novel adaptation. This, frankly, has never happened. Film-to-literature novels exist solely for fans of the film who also want the experience in literary form. An adaptation field without respect, quality writers rarely venture there, and little new ground is ever explored. If literature was in fact superior, even without efforts from the most talented writers, film-to-literature novels would still be more encouraging than what we have.
Now, what I have to say next may seem blasphemous, but it is true: film can depict with its imagery, mise en scèn, and editing visuals that do not translate to literature (literature we’d actually want to read, that is). Some quick recent examples: There Will Be Blood, Inception, Pan’s Labyrinth, City of God, Brokeback Mountain—each film possesses a visual quality either not found in their literary predecessor or irreproducible in appealing literature. A film can capture in a single moment scope and vastness or minute detail that in a novel would require unpleasant length, or the reduction of what exactly is described—but then, the product is no longer the same and therefore incomparable in any way so as to give one form advantage over the other. Or, in terms of spectacle, anything can be written into being. Not anything is supposed to be able to reside onscreen—what’s there, at some point in time, is supposed to have been tangibly real. Breaking that rule of real is film’s magic. By no means does the visual language of film trump the written language of literature. The only claim I make is that both are equally transfixed in their own medium. The visual is film’s prose.
Distinction for distinction’s sake is a time waster, so let’s put a point to all this rhetoric. The distinctions boil down to literature holding a greater level of intimacy with its audience. No matter a novel’s girth or density, the majority of its resonance is dependent upon the reader’s imagination. The novel may guide, but the reader is the one who executes the novel’s imagery, details, and characters—the fundamental reason people fall in love with reading, the classic “escape.” In film, on the other hand, everything is in front of you. A film can be ambiguous: we don’t know if Deckard in Blade Runner (based on Phillip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) is human or android by film’s end, but we sure as hell know that he chased down in the rain an intellectually captivating robot and had some sort of moment as the machine died.
Here’s a brief list:
- United 93
- Brokeback Mountain
- The Road (novel)
- A Separation
- Schindler’s List
The long-winded point: Read the book, it’s always better is so inaccurate it offends me as an equal parts writing and film enthusiast. I’ve been writing fiction for five years now, plan on applying to MFA programs in the fall, and this coming semester will, for the first time, attempt screenwriting. I have aspirations to, one day, be writing consistently for both fields, understanding fully the odds of finding success in one, let alone both.
I have a deep and unique affection for each medium, and such an affection is why I find the cliché adaptation bashing by literature loyalists problematic. The mediums are completely different in process, but aim for similar ground in experience. We should anticipate changes (after all, it is an “adaptation”) from one medium to the next, not begrudge them. Repudiating adaptations based on the merit of the adapted form is invalid. Not only that, it is self-defeating. Remember when the novel emerged as a commercially viable literary form? (You do? Wow, that’s a damn good memory, some three hundred years strong.) It was tarnished as trash. The intellect rested in poetry (Eh eh, poets?). Even the short story initially shunned long-form prose. So, keep your noses high, loyalists, you are not the first to label an enterprising genre as bloated and cheap. The publishing world has long felt the economic presence of film and, now, various other digital forms. Why wage medium war? If so determined to thumb your nose at film, I ask you, how do you think that will end? In fact, better yet. Ask poets.
*If either you’re cruel or wish to test your staunch emotional heartstrings too, feel free to ask about them, though they aren’t the most eclectic choices.
True Film posted in November last year a slideshow of their 50 favorite film adaptations. The rankings are a bit odd, but it’s an overall solid collection. The Gaurdian, to a much less interactive extent, did the same in 2006.
On the flipside, the A.V. Club listed their worst film adaptations. If it hadn’t been written almost five years ago, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close would have to rank near the top.
Some notable films I find, again off the top of my head, outright better than their notable source material:
- Kubrick’s The Shining, and A Clockwork Orange (and I’d imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey, though I haven’t read the loose source story “The Sentinel”)
- Brokeback Mountain
- Let the Right One In (the American Let Me In is in equally favorable standing for me)
- There Will Be Blood (also a loose source, but Oil! is so commonly associated with the movie that it counts)
- The Prestige
- Shutter Island
- Schindler’s List
- American Psycho
- Stand By Me
- Silence of the Lambs
Follow Kyle on Twitter: @KyleBurton9106
A Little Unfinished Business
Browsing through the pages of The Rumpus last week, I came across a link to Steve Wilson’s website called My Unfinished Novels. You can check it out here. It’s a pretty simple site: novelists write in, stating the name of their novel, how many pages or words were written, a synopsis of the novel, and an explanation of why the novel was abandoned. On the site, Wilson describes himself as a “six-time failed novelist” and he is also the author of a nonfiction book called The Boys From Little Mexico: A Season Chasing The American Dream.
My Unfinished Novels shows that there is not one specific reason that comes up repeatedly as The Reason that novels are left incomplete on a hard drive or in a desk drawer. Some writers just found that they ran out of steam and couldn’t think of anything else to write. Some had life get in the way – a new job, a new relationship, a child. Others found structural flaws, or tried to get it published and couldn’t, or couldn’t stop tinkering and never quite got it done. One writer found her closest writer-friend actually killed her interest in writing. Another had the only copy of her novel eaten by her computer and couldn’t sustain the energy to write it again. How far did these various writers get? It varied from ten pages to one hundred thirty thousand words.
Two things initially intrigued me about the site. First, that people shared all the reasons that their work failed, which is a fairly open thing to do, given how secretive many writers can be about sharing unfinished or in-progress work. Second thing: unfinished novels are called “failures.”
Thinking about it, I feel like I’ve written three novels, but only two actually spring to mind: the one that is currently out wandering the publishing world and looking for a home, and the one that I wrote in graduate school. My grad school novel had an ugly title – Oscillations – and was three hundred forty(-ish) pages long. I turned it in for my thesis and my advisers read the whole thing and discussed it with me for two hours. The shortest summation of the book is that it was the story of two men, a father and his son, told over a period of twelve years, exploring how they ended up at the fractured point the reader meets them in: the first chapter is the chronological end, so the novel goes backwards in time.
I read Charles Baxter’s novel “First, Light” and really admired the mosaic quality of the story of two siblings. I wanted to do that, but in my own way. I wanted to write the book in a linear fashion, however, and going backwards in time was a way of making it unique (to me, at least). So the book was based on An Idea and, unfortunately, the idea wasn’t all that interesting and, perhaps more importantly, I couldn’t actually make it work, a fact that my thesis committee pointed out in the kindest terms they possibly could, advice that I resented at the time that I now am very grateful to have been told. I spent about fourteen months writing the novel, then another three after my thesis meeting, before putting it down and writing a completely different novel.
My grad school novel cannot be saved. It does not work. A few years ago, out of curiosity more than anything, I flipped through that grad school novel, and found that I had no interest in trying to make it work. The story struck me as having flaws and problems that are so inherent to what I created that there is no fixing it. Even if I wanted to fix them. Which I didn’t. Maybe that was the biggest thing in the end: not just paying lip service to my committee and acknowledging the book didn’t work, but being able to truly see why the book didn’t work on my own.
That’s a good thing, and why I wouldn’t necessarily call my unfinished novel a failure. In writing, there aren’t really failures. I don’t think so, at least. There are books and stories that get finished, and there are ones that don’t. This could just be a bit of sunny-side up optimism, but the foundation for the novel that I have now can be found in the grad school novel that I never completed to my satisfaction. My grad school novel does have a complete story, a good ol’ beginning and middle and end. I did finish the book. Yeah, second draft finished, but still, finished nonetheless.
Failure in writing is pretty simple to me: you stop writing. If a novel or poem or essay stops you from continuing work on it or preventing you from throwing it aside and working on the next new thing, well, that’s failure. But discovering that something you’ve worked on, no matter how long you’ve been at it, doesn’t work isn’t failure. That’s learning. That’s apprenticeship. That’s writing.
I’m nitpicking a bit: after all, the My Unfinished Novels website is supposed to be (I think) fun, and leaping all over the word “failure” is a bit over the top. Still, I worry that when it comes to our writing life, we are too quick to self-flagellation when maybe all we need to say is that the process of writing is years of work that is frustrating only if you choose to see it as frustrating. Unfinished isn’t bad. Especially if you’re always willing to sit down and right the next one.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of the Missouri Review.
Hang On Tightly, Let Go Lightly
In honor of National Novel Writing Month, we are actually reading novels! Okay, snarkiness aside, novels are on the brain right now. I recently finished reading Jonathan Franzen’s new novel – maybe you heard of it somewhere – and started reading an older book called The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. Hartley’s novel is okay; it’s one of those reissued doohickeys from the New York Review of Books Classics and I want to like it more than I do because it is touching on some thematic elements that I’m working on with my own writing. But for whatever reason, I haven’t really been able to stay with the book, and I’ve been “reading” it for five weeks.
Which isn’t really true: I don’t think I’ve cracked the pages open in close to ten days. When I pick it up, I’m pretty clear on where I am and what’s going on and all that, but whatever momentum I feel for the book is lost. Is the book failing, or am I failing as a reader?
Two thoughts jump starting this one. Here goes. The first is from Alexander Chee, paraphrased by TMR pal Karen Gentry:
If you read in a fragmented way–3 or 4 books at any one time–then you’ll likely write that way too–fragmented. He wasn’t knocking fragmented writing, just pointing it out. That got me thinking.
It got me thinking too and I’ve been trying ever since to read less fragmented. As Karen pointed out, fragmented reading isn’t good or bad inherently. But if I even stick with one novel at home, what about all the reading I do throughout the day?
Thought number two is courtesy of Philip Roth. You might have heard of him. He’s kind of a big deal. From his video interview with The Daily Beast:
To read a novel requires a certain amount of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading. If you read a novel in more than two weeks you don’t read the novel really. So I think that kind of concentration and focus and attentiveness is hard to come by — it’s hard to find huge numbers of people, large numbers of people, significant numbers of people, who have those qualities.
Roth’s point on concentrating is an interesting one. The best readers I know (whatever that means) read prolifically and attentively, and I’ve always thought that was difficult to do: how can a person rush thorough a book like that? But I wonder if it isn’t being rushed so much as it’s being completely immersed. That’s happened to me recently: while Franzen’s book was one I picked up and put down over the course of a month, I recently read Inman Major’s novel “The Millionaires” in about four days. Couldn’t put it down, as the kids say.
Is this the responsibility of the author? Or of me as the reader?
As with most things, of course, it isn’t as clean cut, as black and white, good or bad, as the either/or choice makes it seem. Some books pull me in and others don’t.
This weekend, I posted up at Coffee Zone, a spot in downtown CoMo that has a Turkish café vibe, with the sad exception of the massive flat screen TV in the back. I took a table underneath the screen so I couldn’t look up and be bombarded with Headline News, and started reading The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, a Swedish writer that I had truthfully never heard of. The book had been on my shelf for a long time – I’m actually not quite sure where I got the book from; I have no memory of buying it – and for whatever reason, I was in the mood for something dystopian. In the novel, women over the age of 50 and men over the age of 60—single, childless, and not working in progressive industries—are transferred to so-called reserve bank units where they live in complete physical comfort, while giving up their bodies and minds to drug experimentation and organ donation, until they are no long needed. They are “disposable.” It’s a chilling novel, and the prose has this subtle elegance of controlled terror all throughout the narrative, a constant sense of unease with the world Dorrit, our narrator, perceives.
I read about 100 pages on Saturday. I didn’t blow through it. I didn’t rush. I had my bottomless cup of coffee, and time, and when I looked up, I could see out the windows of the café and watch the world darken from a bright gray afternoon to night. This wasn’t effortless. Ignoring the television, the café noise (strangely, it’s often harder for me to concentrate in the quiet of home), not bringing a computer or listening to music, shutting down my brain’s efforts to think about all the other things that take up my mental energy: this is taxing, something that has gotten harder and harder to do, as previously noted here and here.
Reading can be a pleasure; getting into reading is, actually, quite hard, and seems to get harder every year. Despite the ease with which we can follow a link and bounce in and out of a webpage, I actually find it very difficult to give up on a book, even ones I don’t like. I can do it; there are books I’ve been so disgusted with that I’ve literally thrown them across the room (you should do this at least once: it’s actually quite fun!) but for the most part, I plod through a book I’m lukewarm on, refusing to quite, sympathizing with the author, that poor soul, and knuckle down to figure out what I’m missing from the book, what’s going on here that I should absolute pay more attention to, should understand.
I accept that there is a heavy responsibility on my part to be an attentive reader. On the flipside, as a writer, I know that there is also a responsibility to engage that reader, whoever he or she is, and hold their attention. This is might be more important than ever. A common complaint about contemporary literature is that the first chapter, sometimes the first 100 pages, are so incredibly good, but the rest of the book is remarkably mediocre, if not outright bad. And the reasons why are probably pretty easy to tag: workshops that address twenty pages at a time; mailing the first pages to agents; viewing the book as part of a platform for a brand; and probably others that I’m not particularly interested in exhausting here.
What I am interested in is the books that do hold me, and why that is the case. Here are some of the books that engaged me this year: The Privileges by Jonathan Dee, The Millionaires by Inman Majors, The Report by Jessica Kane, Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett, A Separate Peace by John Knowles (as I discussed here), and, of course, The Unit. Is there something these books have in common?
The best that I can come up with – and this isn’t going to be very good – is that in their first chapters, good novels posit a question, or a series of questions, and then spend the rest of the book trying to figure that question out. This isn’t anything about plot or character or prose; then again, who’s to say this isn’t entirely about an interesting character or an intricate plot? Whatever it is, the author is generally interested in exploring something, whatever that something is, and, weirdly, isn’t really interested in answering the question so much as exploring the question. What is evil? What is memory? Why, and how, is our culture bankrupt? Why, despite all the reasons we have not to, do we love and trust others?
Just maybe that last question is closer to the answer than I realize: a relationship that is based on choice. One might argue we don’t choose who we love; I disagree. I’ll go ahead and just leap over all the implications of that last sentence, skipping the tangents, and make a quick comparison between a book’s author and the book’s reader. Why does it work? I have absolutely no idea. If you really think about it, it’s absurd, isn’t it? A writer hunches over a keyboard and works for five years, and lo and behold, there you are, months or years later, holding it in your hands, slumped on your couch, reading this person’s novel and, somehow, it works.
I mean, really stop and think about it for a moment. Isn’t that sort of amazing?
If you read fast, fragmented, deep, slow, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that what you are experiencing is engaging and memorable. We don’t read the same books, don’t like the same books, and never will. I will not ever read every single “important” book. That’s okay. What’s not okay is spending my time on the books that don’t work for me. And when that happens, there’s nothing wrong with letting go.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.
Can MFA Programs Teach Novel Writing?
This weekend, writer Kyle Minor started an interesting thread on his Facebook page with this observation: MFA programs are producing better short story writers, both in terms of quality and quantity, than novelists. He suggested that the novel requires a “deeper skill set/toolbox” than the story. In Kyle’s thread, the conversation focuses primarily, however, on the writer’s education: MFA programs. Go check it out: writers like Matt Bell, Cathy Day, and Sherrie Flick have all posted their thoughts. One commenter pointed out, as per usual in these threads, that many writers, such as Jonathan Franzen and Toni Morrison, did not go to MFA programs. Does this mean MFA programs are inferior and incapable of teaching novel writing?
I’ll toe the line here: MFA programs are more than capable of teaching novel writing, but most currently fail to do so because the standard workshop model is unsuitable for novel writing.
Let’s start with the second part first. Why can’t workshops teach novels? After all, many of us have probably been in a workshop where someone brings in Chapter 1 or Chapter 2. The discussion often becomes pretty general: I think this is good, this is interesting, etc., because we do not see the end, we do not see whether the chapter’s promises were brought to fruition and in workshops, we are used to seeing the end—the denouement, the last stanza—so we can can declare if the piece “works.” If there is any real guidance or discussion of what a first chapter of a book could or should do, it’s often spacious and of little immediate relevance to the chapter at end. For the next workshop, the novel writer brings in Chapter 2, the bulk of time is wasted trying to remember what Chapter 1 was about and/or rehashing the same discussions/arguments of likes and dislikes of chapter 1 from earlier in the semester, and nothing much is achieved.
Other workshops in the novel will only look at the first fifty pages or so, and the rest is up to the writer to do alone. Why? Well, I mean, my goodness, who has time to read all those first novels? Imagine you are in a class with eight other novelists. Do you have time to read 300 pages and teach your two classes and do your own writing? What happens if, as with many workshopped short stories, the novel is clearly dead in the water by page five? In the short story, if a particular aspect of the story doesn’t work, hey, you can read those twenty pages, get a sense of what an author is after, and provide a response based on your critical and analytical faculties to show how the author can get to what he/she is after with her short story. After all, in a graduate workshop, the other writers have almost certainly been in writing workshops before, have written bad and good stories, have written many stories. There is some comfort (or pleasing discomfort) with the form of the discussion. We have plenty of experience discussing short story writing, but not much experience discussing novel writing.
I took the third year of my MFA program to write a novel, which was my second attempt at writing one. In one year, I completed a competent draft, probably a second or third revision of it in the end, and turned it into my committee. Yes, I turned in the whole thing and I spent two hours discussing with my committee what I wrote. (yes, I was That Guy in my program, the one who often argues passionately for no reason with the teacher and does things like giving his thesis committee not the first 100 pages, but all 342 pages of his 104,000 word thesis and expects them to read it in two weeks. No one likes me much.)
For me, the novel’s challenge was a structural one: to go chronologically backwards over a period of twelve years and explore a family dynamic. Think Charles Baxter’s novel “First Light”, only my novel wasn’t any good. My committee was incredibly generous with their time and thoughts and ideas, but towards the end, one of the committee members told me this: even if you can make this novel work, and I don’t think you can, you can’t sell it, so you should just write a new one.
Later, out on the quad, another committee member pulled me aside. He couldn’t believe what was said to me. But he also didn’t think it was necessarily wrong. I don’t think any writer likes telling another writer “can’t” in any discussion, but I sensed that he too was feeling the same thing. I did what any newly minted post-MFA writer does: I sat on the novel for three months, feeling indignant, writing new short stories; then one night, I broke out the novel and started rereading, decided they were right, and put the whole thing away.
Novel attempt #3 took me three years. There is no guarantee that this third novel, which I think is pretty good (I’m biased: I know the author) sees the light of day. But it’s done now and I’ve started writing another one. So, then: Can MFA programs teach novel writing? And, if so, why does it seem they can’t? Was I “taught” how to write a novel or am I just stubborn?
For all the noise that is out there about MFA programs and whether they are good and bad, whether this noise comes from Ted Genoways or Anis Shivani or Na-Nu-Na-Nu (wait, what’s the acronym thing again?), what it comes down to is writing. This is completely and totally up to the individual writer to do. A program can’t make you write anything. Lots of people want to be writers but lots of people don’t want to write. Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing, but I love having written.”
I don’t really agree with the first part of that statement, but I know the feeling. Some days, you sit down, and you get nothing. You stare at the page (or play Spider Solitaire) and come up with zilch. What do you do? Mope for the day, and then tomorrow morning, get back in front of the page and write again. That’s it. Workshop is really nothing more than a due date.
Listen. Teaching a competent writing workshop isn’t hard. It really isn’t. You know stuff that the student-writers around you don’t. You know how to analyze and respond to a story better than they do because you have more experience. Now, to teach a great writing workshop, to be an excellent teacher, that requires something else, which, for now, I’ll leave aside. Here’s the thing to remember: workshop teachers are, in the end, writers first and teachers second. The teachers I know that are great writers are extremely protective of that writing time, and don’t let teaching infringe on it in any fashion.
Consequently, for those time-protective writers, short stories are much easier to teach. If I was guessing—and this is just that, a guess—I’d say a working model for teaching the novel might be this: a final-year, two semester novel-reading/independent project, where one professor teaches several novels each semester that are instructive to the particular goals of the program’s novelists (MFA programs do have their own aesthetics, so, it would be fair to pick novels that are after what those writers are trying to do) with two deadlines to turn in manuscript pages (winter break and May/June) with the goal of completion by spring. One could study first novels only, or study novels that are more middlebrow and commercially successful, or by studying really ambitious and complex novels (or some other combination of goals). The idea isn’t perfect, of course, but it could be done.
Then why isn’t? Well, the incentive isn’t there for anybody to redo the workshop model and try again. As noted in Kyle’s thread, low-residency programs and Goddard College and, perhaps, others, are making bold attempts. Sherrie Flick pointed out that a Mentorship class she is working on has been pretty successful. Mentorship probably is the best thing for a writer, but hey, we can’t all be Papa and head off to the Left Bank and, lo and behold, there’s Gertrude and Ezra and Scott and the like. I mean, I suppose we could, but, in reality, nothing yet has worked out within the framework of MFA programs.
(That’s a writer’s existential question. I hope this isn’t the case, but I fear it is, that for many, writing and publishing a novel is to get a tenure-track job and/or tenure. I’m not a husband or a father, so there is part of me that only knows the answer to this question on an intellectual level, but as a writer: Sorry, kids, that is a lousy reason to write a novel).
Writing a novel is lonely. Or, more accurate, novel writing is done alone. Those of us in writing programs like to resist this loneliness. Frankly, we seem to resist this in all of our art now, if we can call commercial art “art.” We like to vote on who wins, who is best. We like to win awards and get prizes. We like our writing community, whether it’s message boards or email threads or writing workshops. We get to show our writing, regardless of its artistic merit, to other people who understand what we are going through and this makes us feel sane and understood. The self-esteem beast raises its head. And the writing programs and their deadlines feed the beasts (these people are us) by making sure we give everyone twenty pages in neat, weekly rotations.
But the novel resists. The novel takes months; the novel takes years. The novel takes a certain amount of artistic isolation. This is a scary, lonely, and dangerous place to be. Let’s face it: what if you spend five years on a novel and, in the end, it simply does not work? Especially when the language we use—“it doesn’t work” or it’s a “failure” or whatnot—is so utterly destructive, ruthless, and self-loathing? How do we, as writers, face that fear? How do we accept that risk?
Might we approach that fear by not approaching it but by writing short stories instead.
(Another writer’s existential hand grenade! I know. Can’t help it.)
We may not be consciously saying it, but the change in writing over the last three decades – partly from writing workshops and MFA programs, partly from the Internet and the ease of connectivity, partly from our culture – is to give us the idea that we are all one community that we are in this together. That somehow writing our books can be a team effort. And, I’m sorry, but I disagree. When it comes to writing the novel, you’re on your own. To come back to Kyle’s question: we have the toolbox with all the tools we need to write a novel, but it’s up to us to use them correctly.
Writing programs tend to be a collective, which isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. If there is any valid criticism of MFA programs (oh, bollocks, I’m sure there are tons of valid criticisms; c’mon, hang around for just another paragraph), I think Kyle has found it: they don’t churn out great novels. They teach a type of writing that may be too narrow and institutionalized for the type of novels that, to borrow from Lee Abbott, are as honest as a fistfight, the kind of writing that make the tyrants weep. And, ultimately, that might be a good thing. Maybe we don’t need more mediocre novels in the world. Maybe those mediocre novels are all I’ll ever write. What I learned from graduate school is not how to write a novel, but how to figure out how to write a novel. The actual writing of the novel? I have to do that on my own.
Michael Nye is the managing editor of The Missouri Review.
Twilight: Love and the Aging Author
In the film adaptation of Brian Morton’s novel Starting Out in the Evening,retired professor Leonard Schiller’s (Frank Langella) monastic life is interrupted when Heather Wolfe (Lauren Ambrose), an ambitious graduate student from Brown, wants to write her senior thesis about him and his out-of-print novels. He’s flattered but politely declines. He’s recently survived a heart attack. Time is precious and the writing is coming slowly. His fifth novel refuses to take shape. The characters, he says, don’t seem to want to do anything interesting.
I was so intrigued by this movie and its depiction of a mid-list writer in the twilight of his career that I showed it to my creative writing students, thinking that they might identify with, or at least admire, Heather’s boldness and tenaciousness as she efficiently bates and nets her prey. Not only does Leonard let her into his home, he also submits to her fierce personal questioning, an affront to his high decorum and his belief in New Formalism.
After an hour, I released the students who had “real” finals to study for and dorm rooms to pack, but I kept the movie playing for the four who stayed.
As Leonard and Heather’s relationship develops into a quirky, fragile May-December romance, one young woman I know to be squeamish about sex started fidgeting in her seat.
She erupted into a loud, barbaric “yuck” when Heather dips her fingers into a jar of honey and touches them to Leonard’s lips.
An argument about the appropriateness of the relationship was ignited. Two of the students were all for it. “It’s mostly just brain sex,” one said.
But all of them felt that Leonard was being manipulated. Though Heather has only published a brief essay on Stanley Elkin in a small literary journal, youth has conferred her with power. The old, too-long-ignored writer is putty in her hands. When he gives her a key to his apartment, my students groaned “oh no,” as if he’d signed his own death warrant.
Heather’s youthful arrogance angered me, too. Over tea, she accuses Leonard of using age as an excuse for not getting on with his work. She also wants to know whether sacrificing his personal life for his art has been worth it; after all, who is reading his books?
I’ve heard that during World War I when military men were given a few days furlough, they found the business-as-usual bustle of the Parisian streets befuddling. To them the city seemed untouched by war and they found few who could relate to their experiences on the battlefield. Writers feel a similar lack of empathy for what goes in their own private artistic trenches.
Writers are hard on each other. Even worse, they are hard on themselves and seldom feel the pride they deserve for confronting the blank page.
Few people worry themselves with the struggles of the imagination. I was reminded of this when I read Roddy Doyle’s story “The Bullfighter” recently published in The New Yorker. The protagonist is perfectly content with his life of nine-to-five work, wife and children, and weekly drinking buddies. Or perhaps this is simply a writer’s idealized depiction of the easy joy of a life more spectacularly ordinary than his own.