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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, December 27, 2007

species of writers

I thought I would check in with a quick post, to let you know that all is well. Kimmie has this week off from work, and so the routine is different. Snow fell in the night sometime, so now there is a powdery cold blanket of white outside. Traffic, much less than usual, is muted. In fact, right now I can hear none. Love it!

Christmas passed very pleasantly here, and Santa was most generous. Among other things, I received a pair of waterproof Helly Hansen walking-boots made in Vietnam. Maybe I'll break them in today. I have a stack of DVDs that I must return to the library. Shall I take a walk up to Lynn Valley?

As for writing, my god, what can I tell you. Among the stocking-stuffers I received was the Holiday Issue of The New York Review of Books. I rarely read book reviews (except readers' reviews on Amazon.com when I'm considering buying a book). This is partly because my reading program is governed by my research and interests, and therefore not by what people are touting as a good book. It is partly too because I like to find my own reading experiences, and not simply consume products that have been vetted and assessed by others; I like to form my own opinions.

Then there are the specific qualities of "reviewer culture" that I don' t like. There's something depressing and undignified in the attack/counterattack of book reviews. Criticisms are rebutted by authors, then reviewers might get a chance to counter-rebut. These exchanges are often tinged with bitterness, which, while understandable, is not edifying.

I'm not very attuned to literary culture in general, although I read quite a lot and love books. Too often I find reviewers and critics gushing over works that seem very uninteresting to me. I get the feeling that the whole system is governed much more by fashion than anyone realizes or acknowledges.

On top of all that are feelings of intimidation. This issue has an essay on Joyce Carol Oates (including a lovely black-and-white photo of her from 1975: a delicate-looking creature with enormous dark eyes). Oates is a serious, high-quality writer. I've read one or two of her short stories, and thought they were very good. But what she really is, is prolific. She's published dozens of novels, short-story collections, essays, and plays. She seems to spend much of each day writing--many daytime hours and a few nighttime ones.

Egad. If a writer is someone who writes (and I think you can make a good case for that definition), then Joyce Carol Oates is a writer. The real deal. I note that she's a Gemini (born 16 June 1938), the sign of writing and thinking and talking.

It makes me wonder: why aren't I churning out books and stories and scripts by the dozen? What's wrong with me? Why does my "work" in progress consist mostly of hundreds, nay, thousands of pages of notes? I write to myself, for god's sake! What am I doing?

Clearly, I'm some different kind of animal. A slow-spawning one.

Writers' methods must differ not only because our temperaments are different, but because our aims are different. What kind of experience are you looking for from a book? I remember reading a rueful comment by John Fowles, who was always embarrassed that his most popular book was The Magus, his second novel, published in 1965. He said (as I recall) that in it he had tried to create an experience "beyond the literary"--and meant this as a criticism.

I thought I knew what he meant--sort of. I remember my excitement and enjoyment when I first read The Magus, probably about 1977 or so. It was a fast-moving, thrilleresque story, but written with a mystical aim. It seemed to be an example of the "spiritual adventure-story" that I myself became interested in writing. (Last time I tried reading The Magus, about 10 years ago, I couldn't get into it.) But was it a bad thing to want to create an experience "beyond the literary"? And what is a "literary" experience, anyway?

Maybe I'm not sure what kind of experience I'm aiming to create. But whatever it is, it's not something I can come up with quickly. I'm seeing a book like a tree, or a tooth: something with roots. The roots are its hidden connection with reality. A work of fiction is a fantasy, but its power, its effect, comes from its connection with reality. I say this knowing how slippery and unsure a word reality is. But let it stand. Reality is that which we care about. A work of art affects us to the extent that it arises from or has implications for that which we care about.

My reality-detector is a fussy, finnicky gadget. As I work through my great epic, I think, "not real enough..." and am sent off on another errand, in search of more reality, like finding potting soil with which to surround the deep, vast root-system of the oak I'm planting.

I guess it's like the sloth watching the cheetah (assuming they could find a continent to share). The cheetah is dynamic, fast-moving. The sloth, for whatever reason, conserves its energy. (The sloth was named after the sin, by the way--not the other way round.) Its habits are so sedentary that lichen grows in its fur, tinging it green as though it were a rock or a stump. But sloths have their place.

At least, I hope we do.


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