Ask the Secret Agent: installment #1

Questions for the Secret Agent are already pouring in, so I guess we should get this show on the road.

As I explained yesterday, the Secret Agent is an agent with a small, but well-regarded, literary agency in Manhattan. In this short interview, the Secret Agent will answer my own questions, but after this week all responses will be to selections from your inquiries about New York City publishing.

No question is off-limits (particularly if the Secret Agent is drunk).

 
I’m sure bad cover letters and manuscripts come in all forms, but can you describe one or two particularly terrible ones?

I’m always fascinated by people who feel they can antagonize me into representing them. Asking me if I have the guts to take on their legal suspense novel, describing me as a “miserable person” who needs a 15-page Mt. Rushmore conspiracy theory (created by a glacier 1,000 years ago, fifth face sandblasted off by the government) coffee table book to make my career (not a joke), threatening hellfire and/or brimstone should I not participate in getting the screed to the masses. These make me long for the simplicity of a wretchedly misspelled, grammatically abominable, yet touchingly polite Crayola-written query.

 
What are some of the most common problems with the manuscripts you receive?

In fiction, the majority of the manuscripts we receive — or at least half, I would say — are first novels. First novels often have the same problems: stiff dialogue, too much desribing the action when it should be shown, weak openings or endings. There are others, but I’d say these are the three big ones. In nonfiction, it’s all about the audience and the competition. Are there really enough people out there willing to spend $24.95 on your book? Are there already 100 other books out there trying to reach them? One thing I will say is that if you can put together a really good marketing plan, then you’re halfway there.

 
You’ve been at this for a while now. How have your expectations changed in the years since you started?

When I first started working at an agency, editors had a lot more say over what they could buy. Now, even the most senior editors can be overruled by marketing, even if they desperately want something and only have to pay $20,000. So, unfortunately, I’m almost never 100% sure anymore that something will sell, and that’s the biggest change.

 
Katharine Viner, a judge for Britain’s Orange prize, complained in June about reading, for the contest:

a run of books about nothing. These were usually by authors from the US, who have attended prestigious creative writing courses. . . . They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.

What’s your reaction to her complaint?

Heh. You sure you didn’t say that, Maud? [Ed. note: Nah, Viner said it, but I'll admit I like the sound of it. I'm always trotting out the tea-towel thing at the end of the night, in bars, when everyone wants to go home. No doubt that's why it sounds familiar to you.] I agree, but fiction is so subjective. I grow impatient easily with fiction, and I have never liked the type of person who talks OR writes for the sake of hearing or seeing their own voice. Self-indulgence is tedious to me. But I also do want subtlety. So for me, if you can illustrate a profound shift with a paragraph rather than a chapter, then please do. Any good writer should be able to do this, in my opinion.

 
How many pages does an author have to grab your attention?

I would say it depends on the concept. If it’s another mystery or thriller, probably less than 10 pages. If it’s a really unique conceit, though, I want to give it a chance to come together. To be honest, you better be strong from page one, and if you’re going to get weaker, do it in the middle, once I’m hooked. Then I’m more likely to plow through it than if the manuscript’s already not working after page three.

 
Is it true that it’s much harder to sell novels than it used to be?

Absolutely. The public reads less fiction than ever, yet there are more people trying to write it than ever, and the big publishers tend to concentrate the majority of their money on their already established writers. It’s simple and sad.

 
Small advance and placement on a major publisher’s midlist or equal advance but top of the list at a smaller house: which is better?

This also depends. Who will be able to distribute the book better? Who will put more time and/or money into promoting it? Who gets better review attention? How big would the first printing be at each? How do you get on with your editor? Really it comes down to determining the publisher’s commitment to you, and it can go either way at a big or a small house.

 
How much do a writer’s age and headshot matter to a publisher?

I don’t think the headshot usually matters all that much. I mean, if an author is exceptionally attractive, then it’s a positive, but if they’re fugly, I don’t think it’s necessarily a negative. It does depend on what kind of book we’re talking about. Medieval fantasy? Go on and get fugly then. Book on dressing for success? You should probably fit the bill.



Pamuk about town

Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk will discuss his latest novel, Snow, on the Leonard Lopate Show today at noon EST.

Margaret Atwood recently called the book “essential reading for our times,” saying:

Although it’s set in the 1990’s and was begun before Sept. 11, “Snow” is eerily prescient, both in its analyses of fundamentalist attitudes and in the nature of the repression and rage and conspiracies and violence it depicts.

Pamuk is slated to make several other appearances hereabouts in the next few days. On Saturday morning, at 10 a.m., he speaks as part of the New Yorker Festival, with Cynthia Ozick, Edwidge Danticat, and Dave Eggers on “Literature and Politics: Do world events have a place in fiction?” Also on Saturday, he will sign books at 4 p.m., at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square.



Madonna’s latest book to become “staple of Hanukkah gift-giving”?

Ayelet Waldman considers whether Madonna’s children’s books fall within the tradition of “the dreary misery that is the Jewish storybook.” Two of the pop diva’s books, she concludes, won’t become standards. But she wouldn’t be surprised if Yakov and the Seven Thieves became

a staple of Hanukkah gift-giving. It’s a muddled and simplistic story (“when we turn away from our naughty behavior and embrace good deeds, as the thieves did with their prayers, we are turning the key and unlocking the gates of heaven”) but the illustrations are lovely and the title sounds like those of all the other boring Jewish storybooks.

Leaving aside the fishnets and bustiers, has anyone pointed out the absurdity of someone who goes by the name Madonna embracing Jewish mysticism? Yes, I understand that Kabbalah isn’t real Judaism, that it “tak[es] some of [the] sacred books and reduc[es] it to mumbo jumbo, all kinds of hocus-pocus,” but still.

Update: Stephen Power writes, “Jon Stewart had a great bit on Madonna in the holy land, during which he also commented on the irony of someone named Madonna embracing Judaism. You can see it here (after the obligatory Wanda Sykes ad).”



Remainders

  • In a Newsday article about Philip Roth and his new novel, The Plot Against America, several younger male writers fondly recall Portnoy’s Complaint:
    Jonathan Safran Foer remembers that “the book passed around ‘my crew of pseudo-intellectuals’ like pornography.”

    Nathan Englander “discovered it ‘stuck behind a row of books in my religious home.'”

    Gary Shteyngart “describes reading it when he was a teenager as a ‘cathartic’ experience.”

  • I mentioned recently that Kirkus plans to allow self-published authors to pay $350 for Kirkus to review their books. The reactions in the book world have been, to say the least, a bit skeptical. “‘Who’s going to take The Kirkus Bribe List seriously?’ asks Donna Seaman, associate editor at Booklist.” (Via Bookninja.)
  • William Burroughs demonstrates the “cut-up” method of inventing new words. Says Rake’s Progress: “Kinda hypnotic, French New Wave, if yer into that kinda thing. Goes great with a huge bag of smack (I’d guess).”
  • Email alleging that liberals want to ban private possession of the Bible inspires John Holbo to consider apocalyptic evangelical fiction like the Left Behind series. See also, for a different perspective, Chris Lehmann’s excellent article for The Revealer on books like Left Behind.
  • From an interview with William T. Vollman, journalist and writer of mammoth novels: “I think it’s very important in journalism, as in literary fiction, to treat all characters as round characters, to see all points of view and respect them.”
  • Dave Eggers was asked by Independent readers which authors he’d like to commission for McSweeney’s. He named Saul Bellow, Kurt Vonnegut, Lorrie Moore, and (if he weren’t dead) Donald Barthelme.
  • PETA launches an anti-Kentucky Fried Chicken poetry contest inspired by Alice Walker. (Via Galleycat.)
  • James Patrick Kelly’s latest column for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine is about ebooks. Originally “one of those saurians who disliked reading for pleasure from a computer screen,” Kelly was converted after reading on his PDA. (Via Boing Boing.)
  • The proprietor of Languor Management tries to read in the park, but ends up witnessing a urination conflict. I can relate.


Poe on binge-drinking

 
Except from Edgar Allan Poe’s letter to an admirer, written in 1848:
. . . . but I am constitutionally sensitive — nervous in a very unusual degree. I became insane, with long intervals of horrible sanity. During these fits of absolute unconsciousness, I drank — God only knows how often or how much. As a matter of course, my enemies referred the insanity to the drink rather than the drink to the insanity.

(From the introduction to The Fall of the House of Usher and Other Writings.)

Max took the photograph. It’s of the cellar at Poe’s house in Philly. The guide suggested that the cellar inspired the one described in “The Black Cat.”



Afternoon remainders

  • In the current Atlantic, Lorrie Moore acknowledges that great books typically don’t make great movies. But she identifies five novels she believes to be “improved (in some specific way) by their screen versions.”
  • James Wood reviews Muriel Spark’s The Finishing School, which “satirically assails, among other things, the culture of spectacle that has grown up around novel-writing, and in particular around novel-writing by attractive young people.”
  • Director, screenwriter and playwright Neil LaBute publishes his first short story collection, Seconds of Pleasure, next month.
  • Isabel Allende backs Greenpeace’s drive to convince British publishers “to use paper from sustainable sources.”
  • A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise still hasn’t appeared in the U.S., but our neighbors to the north can buy it.
  • Carrie Frye of Tingle Alley reflects on the summer Norman Mailer carried a torch for her mom.
  • Debut novelist Terry Brown-Davidson writes about her difficult experiences with agents and publishing.
  • The story of Oedipus, in 8 minutes, performed by fresh vegetables, in the tradition of Ben Hur. (Via Chicha.)


Wolcott: blogs have print media types running scared

James Wolcott, the Vanity Fair writer and critic best known in the literary world for his critical body-slam of Kathryn Harrison’s controversial incest memoir, is one of the very few print media writers to say positive things about blogs, particularly the left-leaning political sites. This summer he wrote a relatively respectful article for Vanity Fair about Daily Kos, Atrios, et al.

Wolcott recently launched his own blog, and he has just published a new book critical of the media and its conservative bias. Yesterday he told Salon‘s Kerry Lauerman that the mainstream print media gurus are running scared:

If people only knew . . . how nervous and anxious people in the magazine world are these days. They’ve been nervous and anxious for three years now. . . . [a]bout the ad recession, about where magazines are going, about how formulaic magazines are, that even if you get a good job at a lot of magazines you’re just doing junk. The days of triumphalism, when there were big magazine parties with lots of money being thrown around, those days are gone. . . .

What I think is so fantastic [about blogs] is that there is so much more talent and braininess out in the country than you would know from just reading magazines. Frankly, if you go to a newsstand and read most magazines you’re reading the same damn people that you’ve read for 20 years. . . .

Asked who was the inspiration for his blog, Wolcott said:

There is a model I had in mind, but I can’t follow it, because it would be libelous. One of my favorite writers in the whole world is Auberon Waugh; he did a diary in Private Eye, which was a mixture of things that really happened, and utterly scandalous, malicious remarks he made about people. For example, he would call Prince Charles “Prince Batty” and say things like, “I loathe him getting his clammy fangs into this delicious Princess Diana.”



Joy in another’s misfortune, part 5,279, and other publishing news from the gutter

  • In the 90’s, Ellen Fein, author of The Rules, singlehandedly revived sexist dating strategies that went out with the beehive hairdo “time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right.” She forgot one important thing, though: the rules don’t work if you have ugly teeth. Whaddaya wanna bet Rules co-author Sherrie Schneider is sitting in silent judgment somewhere in a garish suburban McMansion? Schneider, baby, I’d wipe that smirk off your face and start reassessing the mating techniques that worked for you in 1995. Long hair, coyness and coquetry don’t look so nice on a middle-aged woman. (Sun-Times story via Michael at Bookslut.)


Excuses; also, coming soon: the Secret Agent

It’s always nice, when you’re already late dragging your ass out of bed for work, to discover that service on your subway line is “suspended until further notice due to flooding.” The G train is running again at last, but (after being deadened by the rantings of a crazy preacher lady on the platform) my synapses still aren’t firing properly. Please check back later.

The Secret AgentAnd please stay tuned for the introduction of MaudNewton.com’s anonymous secret agent later this week.

The Secret Agent is an agent with a small, but well-regarded, literary agency in Manhattan. Initially, the Secret Agent will answer my own (boring) questions, but after this week all responses will be to selections from your inquiries about New York City publishing.

No question is off-limits (particularly if the Secret Agent is drunk).



Remainders (of the mostly stale variety)

  • Stephen Elliott, organizer of the Operation Ohio readings featuring Dave Eggers, Jonathan Ames and other writers, plans to blog about the event. In a state up for grabs by either presidential candidate, Operation Ohio is designed to drum up support for John Kerry among college students. The first reading will be held tonight at Ohio State University. (Elliott’s Looking Forward to It, a nonfiction book about the current presidential campaign, started shipping from Amazon last week.)
  • Garrison Keillor will host this year’s National Book Awards ceremony.
  • A.J. Jacobs read the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica and wrote a memoir about it. Unfortunately, all of his royalties may go to pay off his wife. She’s “started fining him $1 for every irrelevant fact he crowbar[s] into conversation.”
  • In a critique of “the cult of Ernesto Che Guevara,” Paul Berman touches on the repression of liberal dissidents in Cuba and the shutdown of Cuban libraries. (Thanks to Mr. Maud for the link.)
  • A group of U.S. publishers has launched a First Amendment challenge to Treasury Department regulations against editing manuscripts from Cuba, Iran and other countries.
  • The Brautigan Library is a somewhat unorthodox institution. All manuscripts housed there are unpublished and organized in categories such as “Love,” “the Future,” “Adventure,” and “All the Rest.” (Via Galleycat.)
  • Depressing, and largely true: “The world of publishing is becoming so competitively commercial that there’s no room for the serious writer. And the reason journals and small literary presses are beginning to survive is that there are more and more writers.”
  • H. Aram Veeser, one of my favorite City College professors, is writing a biography of Edward Said. In an article for Politics and Culture, Veeser remembers his first meeting with his former professor:

Continue reading…



Moore and more

Lorrie Moore edited this year’s volume of The Best American Short Stories (so-called, at least).

Although it’s not scheduled to appear until October 14, a reader named Tao reports that the volume is available now at St. Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village. Tao says Moore’s introduction “is long and good, written at times in her prose fiction style. She even uses the word ventriloquist.” Naturally, I called to reserve a copy.

I’ve said it before, but Lorrie Moore’s recent work — if Birds of America, published in 1998, can still be called “recent” — hasn’t resonated for me as much as her early collections. Still, thanks to an old friend‘s casual recommendation back in the 80’s, Moore was one of my early short story heroes. I’m all hyped up about her “paired reading” with ZZ Packer, to be held this Friday night as part of the New Yorker Festival.



Greene’s impassioned and tortured relationship with faith at core of his novels

Mark and others mentioned it yesterday, but it wasn’t until last night that I had an opportunity to savor Ruth Franklin’s fine review of Norman Sherry’s third and final volume of Graham Greene’s life. Franklin correctly identifies Greene’s most important novels (The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter, and The End of the Affair) and notes that Greene’s “impassioned and tortured relationship” to Catholicism “is the backbone of his best work, particularly [those] three novels.”



Writers among genius grant recipients

Pulitzer prize-winning novelist Edward P. Jones, writer Aleksandar Hemon, and poet C. D. Wright are among this year’s recipients of $500,000 MacArthur foundation “genius” grants. Prior winners include David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and poet Joseph Brodsky.

Hemon’s recent Slate book review entitled “When books just want to be movies” is an incisive comment on the state of contemporary fiction.



Mailer to appear on Gilmore Girls as obsessive tea-drinker

nullHere’s a sentence I wouldn’t have expected to write. Novelist and former bruiser Norman Mailer will appear on an upcoming episode of — wait for it — the Gilmore Girls, alongside his son, Stephen.

(The photo at right, taken from an August 9 New York magazine article on the Republican National Convention, is of the writer and another son, John Buffalo Mailer, editor of stoner mag High Times.)

According to the Hollywood Reporter:

In the Oct. 26 episode, “Norman Mailer, I’m Pregnant!” the younger Mailer plays a reporter who’s conducting lengthy interviews with the celebrated writer in the inn’s restaurant for a series of articles on Mailer’s life. (The elder Mailer hams it up a bit with a running gag about him irritating Lorelai’s partner in the inn by hanging around so much because all he ever orders is iced tea.)

“We just put the camera on the two of them, and they’d just sort of vamp,” Sherman-Palladino says. “Stephen would ask him these deep questions, and Norman would go on and on about his philosophy of writing, his favorite writers, the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Nobody even thought to yell cut. We were waiting for what he’d say next.”

A longtime alcoholic, Mailer is infamous for his combative ways and bad temper. He reportedly stabbed one of his six wives through the chest with scissors, narrowly missing her heart.

He appears to have mellowed somewhat with age. But the Gilmore Girls? (Thanks to Willa for the link.)



The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s Weekly Events

9.27: Gifted poets Marie Ponsot and Shanna Compton read their work at Pete’s Big Salmon. 7:30pm, FREE. Forget trashing hotel rooms; apparently, all one needs to attain rock star status as a poet these days is a blurb from John Ashbery. If that’s your measure of excellence, your golden god awaits at KGB, where Christian Hawkey reads on Monday evening. 7:00pm, FREE.

9.28: Are You There, God? It’s Me, [Your Name Here]. Relive the exquisite torture of the wonder years at Fez, when Judy Blume herself guest stars at the second tribute to her work, joined by an all new line-up of talented people who will share their embarassing adolescent episodes with you for laughs. Better them than you, right? Grab a seat up front for what will likely seem like the fall talent show at Schadenfreude High. 7:30, $10. Noted, there’s more than one youthquake scheduled for Tuesday evening, as downtown squipster Ned Vizzini attempts to Feed The Young white boys Writers at P.S. 122. Says Ned, “we could all use the $80 hardcore.” 8:00pm, $10.

9.29: Brooklyn native, porch enthusiast and “modern traditionalist,” Robert A.M. Stern, also Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, “explores the specifically American themes” in his work in a discussion with Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, at the New York Historical Society. 6:30pm, $10. Reservations suggested. Gish Jen reads from her new novel, The Love Wife, which was only partially eviscerated by New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani. How refreshing. 6:00pm, FREE.

9.30: Tara Bray Smith reads from her new memoir of growing up in Hawaii with her hippie mom amongst some seriously bad vibes, West of Then: A Mother, A Daughter, and a Journey Past Paradise, with L.I.E. author David Hollander, at Freebird. 7:00pm, FREE. Jean Railla, creator of Get Crafty, the stellar site that offers bikini knitting patterns and such articles as “Ten Reasons to Thrift,” has written a handbook for precisely that type of gal (or guy). Join other self-proclaimed “craftistas” to celebrate the book’s release at Bluestockings. 7:00pm, FREE.

10.1: Ladies, it’s time to break out your Marcel wave and a good alias: Jordan? Harlowe? Drew? Queenie? Gents, channel some combination of Bugsy and F. Scott and you’re halfway there, as The Dorothy Parker Society of New York kicks off its sixth annual Parkerfest in high style with a party that she probably would have loathed (although, honestly, isn’t that the point?): The Dorothy Parker Bathtub Gin Ball & Speakeasy Cruise, held aboard a 1930s-era yacht. There is also an Algonquin Round Table Walking Tour on Friday afternoon, and activities continue all weekend. Times and costs vary, so check the Society’s website for details and to purchase advance tickets, which are recommended.

10.2: Tokion magazine kicks off its second annual Creativity Now conference, starting on Saturday and continuing Sunday. I went last year, and can recommend it if your personal taste for the topics justifies the expense, which is not insignificant. Panel discussions include “Skateboarding’s Influence on Popular Culture,” “The Future of Film,” and “Persona vs. Policy: Marketing a Political Message,” featuring Joe Trippi, Gideon Yago, Laura Dawn, and John Podesta, and much more. Times and prices vary ($40-80 for day or weekend passes).

10.3: Nobody’s Lunch is an assuredly provocative new play from Obie-winning theater company The Civilians at P.S. 122, that is described as follows: “Delving into the politics of information, the company conducted extensive interviews to look at the problematic subject of how we gain knowledge and form beliefs in the current climate.” Well, “Bing, Bang, Bong,” as my friend Richard used to say when someone said something he considerered to be unconscionably introspective. Stick around after the show as media critic Bryan Keefer (disclaimer: “my boyfriend”) participates in a post-performance discussion of politics, media and society with media critic Eric Alterman and Melanie Joseph from the Foundry Theatre, who will speak on the (very cool) world social forum movement. 5:00pm performance, ticket prices vary.

The Smart Set is a weekly column, edited by Lauren Cerand, that appears Mondays and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please submit details to lauren@maudnewton.com by the Thursday before publication for consideration.



Remainders

  • Unless you’re Fran Lebowitz, endless extensions for tardy manuscripts are a thing of the past.
  • Martin Amis, that horndog, provides text to accompany the comparatively modest porn star photos in Pornoland:
    De Luigi’s photos are more demure than the text, almost avoiding the full frontal stuff, the meat and potatoes of adult films.

    The contrast between Amis’ face-first reproach and the obscure angles and gleeful kinkiness of the pictures summarize many intellectuals’ ambivalence about watching paid actors fornicating: We need to see a lot more of it to pass judgment.

    (Last item.)

  • In his regular short story column, Ken Foster argues that “U.S. publishers sometimes seem more eager to reprint U.K. successes than to take a chance launching writers of their own.”
  • From William Faulkner to Donna Tartt, several noteworthy writers have called Oxford, Mississippi home. A Kansas City Star writer surveys the city and contends that “while the courthouse may be Oxford’s geographical center, its gravitational one is Square Books.”
  • A story and a handwritten letter ascribed to Ernest Hemingway but previously unknown have surfaced eighty years after they were written and are at the center of a literary and legal dispute.
  • In other news involving legal disputes over dead writers’ papers, relatives of novelist Patrick O’Brian are launching a legal effort “to prevent his diaries – which they fear contain embarrassing details of his colourful private life – ever being published.”
  • Alain Robbe-Grillet, father of the nouveau roman, influenced Maguerite Duras and Claude Simon, among others. He spoke last week as an honouree of the 20th Alexandria Film Festival.
  • I’ve yet to read this review in the current New York Review of Books. It doubles as a consideration of the “campus novel” and mentions Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim.
  • V.S. Pritchett’s admirers have included Graham Greene, John Updike, A.S. Byatt and Martin Amis, but few contemporary readers know his work. Andrew Biswell calls Jeremy Treglown’s new biography of the writer “a pioneering and convincing attempt to rescue Pritchett from dusty obscurity.”


Novel-writing inspires grandiose theories (and, for your trouble, a practical tip)

As a writer embarks on a novel, however meager her credentials, I suppose it’s inevitable that she will concoct grumpy and grandiose theories about Problems with Contemporary Fiction (and that related puzzle, How Best to Fix Them). But I wouldn’t have expected it of myself.

I was inculcated in deconstruction and poststructuralism at an impressionable age and until recently have approached aesthetic matters — assessing the quality of a work of fiction, for instance — in a relativistic fashion. The reasoning has gone something like this: I may find David Foster Wallace’s fiction cold and barren at the core, but I accept that it is meaningful to people whose opinions I respect, and I assume that I simply am not the ideal reader for Wallace’s work.

Lately I have noticed my opinions about fiction moving in a more prescriptive direction. While a thick plank of relativism still underlies my approach, in the past year I’ve received enough forgettable, and often downright terrible, galleys from publishers that I find myself, as we older people do, wringing my hands over the State of Literature and returning to my favorite novels instead of reading new ones. Several months ago I read James Woods’ call for a revival of the “formal discourse of the amateur,” and of aesthetics. I was ready to shout “Hallelujah.”

In the last month and a half, I’ve been working much more diligently on my novel (only 40,000 words so far, and most of them bad, but thanks for asking). I’ve read few new books (aside from James Hynes’ excellent Kings of Infinite Space) but have returned to Poe’s short stories, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Rupert Thomson’s The Insult, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and, predictably, The End of the Affair. Bored of most spare, “realistic” fiction — although until recently that’s precisely the sort of thing I’ve tried to write — I’m seeking out psychological novels, books that delve into a character’s thoughts and motivations and idiosyncratic take on the world.

For years I’ve struggled to write in a clear, straightforward style unencumbered by adjectives, adverbs, and especially abstractions. I’ve avoided the passive construction, opting always for active verbs: he kicked, he punted, he slept, he killed her. Feelings, I’ve thought, and emotional states, should be rendered through action, through concrete detail. The protagonist may feel sad, but the writer does not say that. She notes that the protagonist’s stomach tightens, that he frowns, that his eyes turn far too often to a portrait of his dead mother.

To use abstraction in a story, to directly explore a character’s feelings or psychology, is to violate an unspoken rule that contemporary fiction should be as much like a screenplay as possible. Storytelling increasingly is influenced by film. The physicality of characters, rather than their emotional states, is paramount. And to probe a character’s inner life in any but the most detached, ironic way, is to engage in a quaint, outmoded, Nineteenth Century custom. It’s the literary equivalent of using a shaving mug.

Undoubtedly there are reasons to disfavor abstractions. When they appear, too often they clutter the prose, popping up so often, and without reference to physical detail, that they become contentless. What’s more, psychological fiction easily shades into melodrama.

But I, for one, have grown weary of what, in honor of Orange Prize judge Katharine Viner, I’ll call tea-towel fiction. Earlier this summer, Viner offered this description of many MFA graduates’ novels that she read while judging a fiction contest:

They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.

When I read Viner’s description, I actually thought, hey wait! I think I read that book. I dug through a pile of publishers’ galleys looking for it, but while I found six or seven similar passages I never uncovered one that fit exactly.

Consider, by contrast, the first paragraph of Donna Tartt’s debut novel:

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that shadowy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

And here’s the first paragraph of The End of the Affair:

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say “one chooses” with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who — when he has been seriously noted at all — has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, “Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.”

Finally, a bit of Poe, from “The Black Cat”:

From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.

I freely admit that I’m neither smart nor skilled enough to write like Tartt or Greene or Poe. Yet I find that I am dissatisfied with bare, “realistic” depictions of the characters in my novel.

Near the start of my manuscript are several short stories I started as long as six years ago. I’m trying to fuse them into a single, much-too-complicated narrative, and when I read what I’ve written it seems tinny and hollow, riddled with gaps. I know some of the gaps will be filled with action, with physical description, with scene. But some will be filled, I hope, with glimpses of the characters’ inner lives.

Anyway, I was blathering on about my novel and my Grand Theories About Psychological Fiction with Terry Teachout several weeks ago. Based on the story I’m writing, he suggested revisiting several other novels, including the aptly-titled Brideshead Revisited. He also offered a practical tip on the move from short fiction to the novel form, and I’ll share it with you.

Terry advised me to look through my favorite books to find a typeface I liked. He said I should select a similar font for my novel and format the text so that it looked like an actual novel page.

I followed his advice, putting the same approximate number of words on a page, setting the margins so that the block of text on my page was roughly identical in height and width to text on a standard page of the book. Terry promised it would help me conceptualize my story as a novel, enable me to see it as something distinct from my short fiction. And I think it’s working.

Now if only I could figure out how to make it, you know, good.



Robert Olen Butler’s internet presence

Yesterday Maud linked to this article about authors and their sites, in which writer Robert Olen Butler declared he would never keep a blog. Now Duncan Murrell writes:

I know the article points out that Butler “once composed a short story online,” but that really does not do justice to the unintentionally hilarious, self-reverent web site he created to broadcast himself (via webcasts) writing in real time, titled “Inside Creative Writing: Watch a Pulitzer Prize Winner Create an Original Story”. It’s all been archived, with both a text and a video introduction by the man himself. I assume he has no time for blogs because he’s taken on-line exhibitionism to a new level. P.S. I’m no Butler hater — A Good Scent From a Strange Mountain is a favorite of mine.



Winterbottom to do Tristram Shandy

British director Michael Winterbottom, is going to make an adaptation of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

He has long wanted to adapt Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel Tristram Shandy for film, with Steve Coogan (who starred in 24 Hour Party People) in the title role. It’s a comic masterpiece that plays with narrative forms, and Winterbottom is seeking a filmic equivalent, part scripted, part improvised. But persuading financiers has been hard.

“It’s strange,” he says. “Wonderland, In This World, 24 Hour, Nine Songs, all had a lot of improvisation. Two of them had no scripts at all. We go to financiers who tell us they love all those films. We say we want to improvise the next one and they’re not happy with that. They hate it if we say: ‘Give us the money now and we’ll come back with a film in a year. We’re not sure what it’ll be like, but we think it’ll be interesting.'”