We Tell Ourselves XX in Order to XXXX

One of my favorite passages of Joan Didion‘s new memoir, Blue Nights, is a bit in which she discusses writing her 1996 novel, The Last Thing He Wanted. Here’s an excerpt of her draft:

“What we need here is a montage, music over.
How she: talked to her father and xxxx and
“xx,” he said.
“xxx,” she said.
“How she:
“How she did this and why she did that and what
the music was when they did x and x and xxx—
“How he, and also she—”

“[W]hat I was doing then was never writing at all,” Didion writes. “I was doing no more than sketching in a rhythm and letting that rhythm tell me what it was I was saying…. A single ‘x’ differed from a double ‘xx,’ ‘xxx’ from ‘xxxx.’ The number of such symbols had a meaning. The arrangement was the meaning.” This is interesting to me, because as often as fiction writers like to discuss the “musicality” of their prose—we’re always reminded of how important it is to read it aloud—it’s unusual to see a writer concerned about that to the point where it’s the first part of the drafting process. She guesses that it’s a little like how music is written, and that sounds right. I suppose the rough equivalent would be a click track, or the way some songwriters start to come up with lyrics by singing nonsense words over music; once you’ve sorted out what the words should sound like and where you put the emphasis, the words themselves can be just a kind of a polish.

I don’t know how well this succeeds in Didion’s fiction, because though I’ve read plenty of her nonfiction books I haven’t tried any of her novels. (She includes a finished version of that bit of the novel in Blue Nights; the sentences have graduated into a set of Hemingwayesque shards, more percussive than lyrical.) Obviously the process has worked for her for a while, though. In a 1977 interview she explained how her 1970 novel, Play It as It Lays, was littered with TKs even in the late stages:

I made notes and wrote pages over several years, but the actual physical writing—sitting down at the typewriter and working every day until it was finished—took me from January until November 1969. Then of course I had to run it through again—I never know quite what I’m doing when I’m writing a novel, and the actual line of it doesn’t emerge until I’m finishing. Before I ran it through again I showed it to John and then I sent it to Henry Robbins, who was my editor then at Farrar, Straus. It was quite rough, with places marked “chapter to come.” Henry was unalarmed by my working that way, and he and John and I sat down one night in New York and talked, for about an hour before dinner, about what it needed doing. We all knew what it needed. We all agreed. After that I took a couple of weeks and ran it through. It was just typing and pulling the line through.

Links: The Envelope Please

Anne Trubek, blogging again in her own space, takes on the question of criteria in book awards. Laura Miller adds some comments and fills out her argument more back at Salon.

Bookforum reports that New York Review Books will reprint Renata Adler‘s debut novel, 1976’s Speedboat, and its follow-up, 1983’s Pitch Dark. “And now the big question about the reissues: who will write the introductions?” Bookforum asks. There’s one easy guess.

John Updike‘s homophobia, on display in a review of an Alan Hollinghurst novel, and in a short story, “The Rumor.” I don’t see the suggestion that Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is a concession to critics for lacking more explicit sex. The novel is, among many other things, about the difficulty of speaking openly about homosexuality; I take Hollinghurst’s avoidance of detailed sex scenes as in keeping with the unspeakability he’s tracking through the decades.

Inside the newly published batch of Ernest Hemingway letters.

Richard Locke, whose new study Critical Children: The Use of Childhood in Ten Great Novels I look forward to diving into, on the evolution of criticism post-internet: “It’s true that over the past few decades the gap between literary creation and literary criticism has grown very wide, but there’s a tradition of informal, essayistic criticism that’s still alive …. Informal, untechnocratic writing about literature (often building on the tradition of the personal essay) is still possible and may be growing.” (The stuff trimmed within the ellipsis is interesting, and I think spot-on, as well.)

If you can find three examples, it’s a trend, so Justin Cronin, Benjamin Percy, and Colson Whitehead prove that literary fiction and genre are merging. (I get the points about commerce the article makes, and the idea that writers are more free now to mine what they read as kids for literary purposes, but I’m not sure Junot Diaz fits into this thesis; having a comic-book geek star in a novel isn’t the same thing as having the prose itself influenced by genre fiction.)

Lev Grossman: “Up through Shakespeare, it was not looked askance upon to have witches and magic and spirits in your stuff. The more time I spend reading and writing fantasy, the more perverse it seems to me that fiction has to pretend to act like the real world and obey the laws of thermodynamics.”

Lynda Barry on the two questions that constantly rattle through the mind of the novelist.

How Death and Venice found its way into Michael Cunningham‘s By Nightfall and (more problematically) Chad Harbach‘s The Art of Fielding.

Andy Borowitz explains why the Library of America collection of humor writing he edited is light on 19th century fare: “The book is very heavily tilted toward more recent writers because I wanted it to be entertaining to today’s readers. With the exception of Mark Twain, very little humor writing of the nineteenth century resonates today, in my opinion.” This makes sense, though the pedant in me wonders if some of that old-fashioned, now-unfunny humor writing wouldn’t be relevant in a collection from Library of America, which has as much of an archival mission as a populist one. I’d want a sense of what made people laugh out loud in 1880, even if it doesn’t do the same for most readers now.

Michael Oriard, an English professor and former player for the Kansas City Chiefs, considers Peter Gent‘s novel North Dallas Forty (Gent died last month) and how “Gent’s portrait of the relationship between the owners and the owned exaggerated the actual state of affairs in a clarifying way.”

Saul Bellow, in a previously unpublished talk from 1988 on being a Jewish writer, refusing to be told what role he ought to play by any self-declared stakeholder: “If the WASP aristocrats wanted to think of me as a Jewish poacher on their precious cultural estates then let them.”

The Anxiety of Self-Influence

Last Thursday the Denver alternative weekly Westword published a report from an appearance by Jonathan Franzen. The reporter, Kelsey Whipple, gathered up his “ten best quips.” I scanned the article for the most tweetable of those quips and posted it:

Franzen: “At this point in my life, I’m mostly influenced by my own past writing.” http://bit.ly/pWFeJN
October 6, 2011
There are a couple of this that struck me about that quote (besides the fact that it would fit in a tweet). It’s a provocative statement, for one—few writers publicly declare themselves the biggest influence on their own work. And though Franzen gets a lot of abuse he doesn’t deserve, I was no fan of Freedom; his comment struck me as in keeping with that novel’s self-involved tone.

Thing is, that wasn’t Franzen’s entire quote. He added: “Direct influence makes most sense only for very young writers.” This omission (the whole quote wouldn’t fit in a tweet) caught the notice of novelist, teacher, and critic Allison Lynn:

Hoo boy. There’s a Franzen quote being taken out of context (and mocked) on Twitter. In context, what he’s saying actually makes sense.
October 6, 2011
She clarified:
As a young writer, you’re much influenced by other authors/works. Later on, you’re influenced by the trajectory of your own works. #Franzen
October 6, 2011

But I recalled that Franzen was the writer who, in 1991 (finishing his second novel, arguably no longer a “very young writer”), found a balm for his “despair about the American novel” in Paula Fox‘s Desperate Characters.

@allisondlynn @matthunte …especially from somebody who made a big noise about discovering Paula Fox after he was no longer a young writer.
October 6, 2011
@mathitak @matthunte Re: Fox–I think there’s a diff btwn being inspired by a writer and influenced. Inspiration shld always be happening.
October 6, 2011

Let’s go to the tape:

“That someone besides me had suffered from this ambiguity and had seen light on its far side—that a book like Desperate Characters had been published and preserved; that I could find company and consolation and hope in a novel pulled almost at random from a bookshelf—felt akin to an instance of religious grace…. Yet even while I was feeling saved as a reader by Desperate Characters I was succumbing, as a novelist, to despair about the possibility of connecting the personal and the social.”

Which is to say that Lynn has a point—Franzen was making a distinction between what gave him a charge as a reader and worrying over what he was going to model his writing after.

Matthew Hunte pointed out that Franzen clarified some of this in a 2001 interview with Bomb:

@allisondlynn @mathitak And I don’t think Franzen considered himself a mature writer when he discovered Paula Fox : http://t.co/zzwirsQK
October 6, 2011
@mathitak @allisondlynn "I was about 13, in some ways, when I wrote the first book. Approximately 18 when I wrote the second."
October 6, 2011

Franzen is joshing in that quote, but he’s serious when he explains how his early writing was a function of older influences:

“[I]n a funny way that”s what the first book, Twenty-Seventh City,
was: a conversation with the literary figures of my parents’ generation. The great sixties and seventies Postmoderns. I wanted to feel like I belonged with them, much as I”d spent my childhood trying to be friends with my parents and their friends. A darker way of looking at it is that I was trying to impress them. The result, in any case, was that I adopted a lot of that generation of writers’ concerns–the great postwar freak-out, the Strangeloveian inconceivabilities, the sick society in need of radical critique. I was attracted to crazy scenarios.”

While with the The Corrections, he claims to be in a different place:
“Actually the forces are substantially the same, but in the new book they take the form of interior urges and anxieties, rather than outward plot elements.” 

In any event, whatever Freedom‘s flaws are, they’re not a function of his trying too hard to imitate other writers. Asked in a Rumpus book club interview last year whether he was influenced by Roberto Bolano, Franzen demurred: “Bolano’s near the top of my nightstand reading pile, but I’m currently still quite innocent of influence.”

Arrogant or not, Franzen’s in good company, as Hunte points out:

@allisondlynn @mathitak …Artistic originality has only its own self to copy – Vladimir Nabokov The Art of Fiction No. 40 2/2
October 6, 2011