Recently I pulled Leon Rooke’s The Last Shot off my shelf, and noticed little red page flags sticking out of it. Most curious. How did those get there? I must have stuck them there, for some reason. So I promptly investigated them to see if I could figure out why.
This was pretty easy. They marked stories that I liked. All except one, which just marked a page. But scanning quickly down the page, I found why the flag was there. The reason looked like this:
In Prissy’s estimation Ganger was a boy of weirdly morbid and demented disposition. He was gravely barbecued in the belfry.
That sentence. Ganger is barbecued in the belfry — and not lightly grilled, mind you, but gravely barbecued. That’s a sentence I wish I’d written.
I was thinking about that sentence and it struck me that this wonderful sentence manages, using only seven words, to break three rules much touted by that industry which purports to teach people how to write. That is, it tells, rather than shows; it uses one of those dreaded adverbs; and it is based on a hackneyed phrase, a worn-out metaphor, a cliché. And this should tell you that something is deeply wrong with the “how to write” manuals and the writing workshops, rather than the sentence in question.
So the lesson of the day, I suppose, is that you can follow all the standard writing advice, and write the same way everyone else does, or you can rewrite the rulebook to your own ends.
I recently hit on a bunch of things written or said by other people, which speak to my notion that fiction has to be engaged with the world. Being too lazy to write my own defence of that notion, I’m just going to quote those things and pretend I’ve published a manifesto.
First, from Benjamin Woodard’s review of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting at Raintaxi:
Not once does “Miracle Mile” drag. Instead, it unfolds with such skill and proficiency that one forgets on occasion that the story is a work of fiction, and that MacLeod didn’t conduct interviews with a series of men and women and transcribe their lives onto paper.
This sense of engagement is a thread that keeps Light Lifting consistently admirable.
Next, Thomas McGuane speaking at an event in Lansing, Michigan, touches on this notion of transcribing lives:
Frank O’Connor was asked about the relationship between journalism and literature and he said that much of fiction is really journalism, but in the case of a great writer, like Chekhov, it’s 99 percent journalism. And that’s kind of a challenging remark, but there’s something to that. I mean, if you look at the best of Updike, it’s perilously close to some kind of photo-realistic journalism.
Jim Harrison, responding to McGuane:
It’s fun to read Dostoevsky’s notebooks because you see how much of his fiction was sort of veiled journalism. He would get obsessed about a news item. He thought he’d found a new theme in European literature (this was 1868) because a girl in St. Petersburg had committed suicide and left a note saying she committed suicide because she was bored.
Richard Ford expands on the theme:
When I don’t like something, or I read a piece of fiction and I think to myself there’s really something defective about this, what I always say about it is, “This is just made-up stuff.”
It’s not thingy. That’s what I say: it’s not thingy. Nothing, no details are observed, there’s no observation of the attenuations of the kind of emotions people could have.
Now that one is fascinating, going from a standard writing-class insistence on concrete detail to that insistence not only on accurately observed human behaviour — the kind of emotions people could have — but on the attenuations of our emotions. It is not how people might feel, but how those feelings fade and lose force, or perhaps how they are muted in the transmission. “Hills Like White Elephants,” perhaps, is the kind of thing Harrison is driving at, Hemingway’s genius in showing us an iceberg by its tip. And Hemingway, notably, was writing fiction as one might write a newspaper story.
On the subject of concrete detail, of thinginess, I have previously quoted McGuane on this blog, talking about the necessity for a writer to be engaged with the world that his fiction reports on:
I have a primary interest in the world and feel if the ratio of world to word is high, that rightness and concision are honoured, I may safely avoid the often suet-filled oeuvre that characterizes the writer who has no other interests … Any writer can disappear up his own ass in a New York minute. You’ve got to have a life. Otherwise every noun in the book looks like it came off Google.
Which I tied back to John Metcalf, who among many other things is my editor:
The real poetry — the names of materials and tools in the trades. Visit hardware stores.
Speaking to a creative writing class, I defended my digressions into photographic technicalities in Combat Camera on those grounds. It is not necessary for the reader to know what a Tessar is, or what is meant by “fourteen elements in eleven groups.” It is necessary, however, for a story to work from carefully observed detail. If the reader does not understand all those details, that’s fine; we encounter things we don’t understand every single day. Gobbledygook is good.
Consider this wonderful passage of gobbledygook, a ranch hand speaking in McGuane’s Something to be Desired:
This time I’m thinking about, I was trying to prove up on a lease I had over at Kid Royal. And we was getting ready to load out at Deadrock. I had the heeler up front with me, the radio on, when I threw a recap right on the scale. I was with Boyd, and he cusses and dumps a set of dead batteries from his hot shot, throws it in the jockeybox and said he’s got a come-along to get our outfit to dry ground with. This was supposed to be the last of a big run of yearlings. And it turns out we got a five-hole spare for a six-hole rim. I knew right then and there my luck was shot.
This puts me in mind of Blazing Saddles:
Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all in debt to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. I am particularly glad that these lovely children are here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
Which actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my point. But who can resist Blazing Saddles?
I am in Cincinnati tonight, having spent the week in Colorado Springs, very much on the road again. All next week I’ll be here in Cincinnati, which means I’ll finally learn to spell it, then home for a week, then Toronto for a week, then Halifax and Edmonton to round out the month. The first week in June, I’ll spend in Calgary, and then back to Edmonton for five days. This is my job.
It’s not, in my mind, a particularly hard job, although I know that it would shred some people, just as some other jobs would swiftly shred me. On the upside, my periodic bouts of heavy travel give me time to write. I have no kids and no obligations this week, just a soundproof suite, a bottle of George Dickel’s Tennessee Whisky,* a six-pack of Heineken, and a whole multi-coloured universe of … well, not really.
But I am getting some writing done, and some reading. I re-read Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter on the way down to the Springs, carried Rock Springs in my carryon bag but didn’t get to it (next week I will), and am now reading Huey Guagliardo’s Perspectives on Richard Ford. That last is the kind of thing I have to take in small doses, as I am unable to read more than a paragraph or two without getting up and pacing around and responding to it. In any case, I am on something of a Richard Ford kick.
And for that reason, I appreciated Richard Ford’s Guardian thing on “The Writing Life,” which I read this evening. Ford has always taken a hard-nosed approach to the bullshit fooferal that surrounds writing. Asked how one switches gears mentally between writing short stories and writing a novel (he worked simultaneously on The Sportswriter and Rock Springs), he said (I paraphrase), “It’s a job. You do one thing, and then you do another.”
And here is Ford, true to form, simultaneously eschewing talk of art and vocation, and acknowledging that writing isn’t a particularly hard job, as jobs go. He has, I think, a healthy attitude, although writers less successful than Ford might well resent it. Writing is, ultimately, a job, even for those who, like me, have the luxury of writing what we want thanks to another source of income. And it is not a particularly hard job; for all our talk of taking risks, writing is nowhere near as hard or risky as commercial fishing, logging, or patrolling the country around Khandahar. It is, all in all, a pretty cushy gig.
And this is one of the things you find in Ford’s fiction: people are often defined by their work, and Ford respects hard work. Frank Bascombe’s job selling real estate in Independence Day and The Lay of the Land is cushy, and this forms part of his alienation, his disconnect from the hard and concrete. It is interesting that in the Guardian piece, Ford singles out taking tolls on the Jersey turnpike as a hard job, for this is Wade Arcenault’s job in The Sportswriter — and Bascombe sees Wade, sentimentally, as salt of the earth. Rock Springs, similarly, is full of people with hard jobs.
Somebody really ought to write an essay on that one of these days. But it will take somebody less lazy than me.
* I am aware that American whiskey is conventionally spelled with an “e”; in fact, I had this discussion with a certain copy editor of Combat Camera, and gave up because it wasn’t really clear that on some pages, Zane referred to Scotch, and on others, bourbon. Regardless, Dickel’s label is spelled in the manner of Scotch, and it is unavailable in Canada.
One of the things I most detest is that tendency of writers to pretend that their work involves special difficulties. Oh, the difficulty of writing. One sweats blood, opens veins, and generally has a tough time of it. And one takes risks, risks beside which such occupations as, say, logging or commercial fishing or clearing unmarked minefields look safe.
The truth is that if you write the kind of novel that people call “daring” or “bold,” as I recently discovered I had, you still risk little more than a few paper cuts and (he admits ruefully) a bruised ego. My God, the risks we take!
This brings me to The Afterword, where Rebecca Eckler informs us that the life of a writer is “painful, emotionally exhausting, frustrating, and, well, basically hard work.” Furthermore, she says, “when your book is finally published, you feel like you’ve carried triplets for nine months.”
Certain biological realities, the least of which are the difficulty of actually conceiving triplets and the rarity of a full-term multiple pregancy, dictate that I’ll never know first-hand what it’s like to carry triplets for nine months. But I’ve watched a woman carry twins for eight months, and I’ve written a novel, and from this experience I conclude that one task is far more difficult and painful than the other. And it ain’t the novel writing.
The reality is that if your novel takes seven years to write, then by the time you finish it, you’ll feel like you sat down at your desk and worked for seven years at a job no more painful, emotionally exhausting, or frustrating than investigating software defects or studying the reproductive strategies of Cichlasoma nigrofasciatum. I think I can safely wager that seven years of dealing with the problems of real people in social work is twenty times more painful, frustrating and emotionally exhausting than seven years of imagining the problems of imaginary people and writing them down.
There is no magic to this. You sit down and you write, day after day, until the thing is done. That’s all.
Under no circumstances is it acceptable to use the word “sheepishly.”
I should not need to explain why. This word will turn the finest sentence from music to something more like the sound of two steel-toed boots dropping on the boot mat: clunk, clunk. Using this word is like announcing that you lack ears.
When I first saw Sam Abell’s book, The Photographic Life, I remarked to my long-suffering spouse that I felt somewhat defeated. Actually, I believe my precise words were, “Fuck it. I’m throwing all my cameras and lenses in the trash.” At which, of course, she merely shook her head: here he goes again, round 1,397 of endless self-flagellation. Yes dear, and while you’re at it, can you do the grocery shopping?
Well, I didn’t. Throw my cameras out, I mean. I may well have done the grocery shopping. I don’t know. It was a long time ago. Instead — instead of the camera-trashing, I mean, not the damn grocery shopping; this post is not concerned with groceries; these divagations that take on lives of their own will be the death of me — instead, I went out and tried to take better pictures.
What I am working around to, if you can just kindly pay attention here and ignore that whole thing about groceries, is a suspicion of those people who declare, “Oh, I love so-and-so. She’s the writer who made me feel that I could be a writer, too.” That, it seems to me, is setting your sights pretty low.
The only writers who interest me are those who make me feel I’d best burn the manuscript and go fishing. My long-suffering spouse, it need hardly be said, is often heard to say such things as “Yes, dear, and while you’re at it, can you light the barbecue?”
Somehow, I never do. Burn the manuscript, that is.
Perhaps I’m alone in this. No, not in lighting the barbecue. Everybody does that. Can you stop with these distractions? I mean, perhaps I’m alone in this desire to be defeated, or in this vulnerability to defeat. But I hope not.
A shortage of time prevents me from saying much these days, but a few quick points need to be pointed:
- Sunday morning will find me up at an ungodly hour so that I can get a bout of dog training in before heading up to Eden Mills for the rest of the day, where I plan to catch Alexander Macleod, Leon Rooke, and whoever else.
- The discovery, via Nigel Beale, that the Governor General doesn’t keep a collection of the books that win the Governor General’s Award is just plain depressing. I guess that’s how much Canada prizes its literary culture.
- Here’s some bitching about author photos from someone who evidently knows jack-shit about portrait photography. Three of the cliches that post supposes are unique to writers are, of course, staples of portrait photography in general. And if you were going to make an environmental portrait of a writer, what environment to choose other than that where the writing gets done? But don’t mind me; if photographic cliches irritate you, by all means blame the writer.
- I like this Globe piece on “the death of do-it-yourself” because, while I have no interest in fixing cars, it applies to all kinds of other things. We shall soon become a nation of people who have no idea how things work. I like stuff I can figure out how to fix. Every year, there’s less of that stuff around.
- Ashley Gilbertson’s photos of military rations from around the world brings back memories both pleasant and less so. Thankfully, the Canadian Forces have discontinued the most unpopular menu selection, Ham Omelette, affectionately known as “lung in a bag.”
- Oh, look. Seems PTSD is going to be the flavour of the day for a while.
- As evidence of just how far behind I am, I will now comment on Samantha Haywood’s 16-day-old piece on preparing the perfect manuscript. Well, what to do? The economics of publishing resemble an inverted pyramid, where the point is demand, the whole thing wobbling precariously under the pressure of a zillion people convinced their story must be told. Nothing we can do about that. So apparently, Peter Cheney in the Globe is wrong, and do-it-yourself isn’t dead at all. Except that we still can’t do it our fucking selves, can we?
And that’s all I have to say about that, as Forrest Gump liked to say. Or at least, that’s all I’m willing to say about that at this time.
Hey, don’t blame me for that title—she’s the one that said it. In an interview with The Tyee, on the topic of how she writes men so well: “I thought of a woman, and added a penis.” I’m just repeating it, as one of my usual desperate attempts to attract inappropriate traffic.
She’s riffing on one of my favorite movie lines, as Melvin Udall, the misanthropic romance author of As Good as It Gets (played by Jack Nicholson) responds to a fan’s gushing question as to how he writes women so well: “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”
(Because we are a society of half-wits, this line is usually attributed to Nicholson, instead of to Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks, who wrote the frigging screenplay. Because who’s ever heard of them?)
The facetious part of her answer attracts all the attention, but I’d rather look at what else she said: “I don’t know. I don’t think intellect is gendered in any way. I don’t think with my vagina, I have a brain.”
This recalls a remark by Jim Harrison on the question of male writers writing women:
I don’t see gender as the most significant fact of human existence. It’s that old idea that when you suddenly wake up at 3 a.m., what sex are you? I don’t get that. It’s sort of the flip side of male chauvinism. It’s a female chauvinism or refusal to think that anyone can have any solid form of empathy of any sort.
Both writers hit what I think is the essential point: the secret of writing the other sex is to discard the idea that it is really so alien. It’s in that idea that we find the dessicated, wooden cliches of gender: men are from Mars, women do not reason, etc. These will not lead you to a rounded, human character.
Harrison’s further remarks aren’t entirely accurate, I think; it’s not “female chauvinism” that insists men can’t understand women, but a widespread assumption embedded in our culture. Men have been, until recently, encouraged not to understand women. You’re supposed to stand around in the garage, wiping your hands on an oily rag while you tweak the valvy thing connected to what you hope is the carburetor of your 1966 Mustang convertible, and say, “Women. I’ll never understand them.”
Whereupon your buddy is supposed to say, “Ain’t that the fuckin’ truth.” Then you both swig your Labatt Blue, from the bottle, and the subject turns to hockey.
This attitude is, for obvious reasons, something of a roadblock for the male writer: you can’t write people who you insist you’ll never understand.
We make the opposite assumption about men: men are supposed to say what they mean, and to have internal lives no more complicated than, say, empty inkwells. So we encourage women to think they understand men all too perfectly, which to the female writer is an obstacle of its own: you can’t make a compelling character out of something that permits complete understanding.
I like to compare this gender question with racial research of the Philippe Rushton kind: in our rush to define differences, we ignore variations. Not all men, or all women, think the same way. We are more alike than we are different; as Lyon has it, intellect is not gendered.
More on this topic anon.
Today I ran into this piece at n + 1 on the state of American fiction, which is four years old (thus demonstrating how badly I keep up), but worth a read. It begins with a thought-provoking premise:
…the American short story is a dead form, unnaturally perpetuated, as Lukács once wrote of the chivalric romance, “by purely formal means, after the transcendental conditions for its existence have already been condemned by the historico-philosophical dialectic.” Having exhausted the conditions for its existence, the short story continues to be propagated in America by a purely formal apparatus….
Let us not delve too deeply into the historico-philosophical dialectic; the natural general principle that will subsume this case may remedy and, at the same time, eliminate the system of base rules exclusive of the lexicon.* Let’s just accept that the conditions that created the golden age of the short story, the golden age of the magazine in which we had no television, no longer exist, and inquire as to what does sustain the short story as a form.
That would be creative writing programs, and the little magazines that are inseparable from them. The large number of story collections published here in Canada surely reflect not so much the excellence of the Canadian short story as the large number of MFA grads with pockets full of published stories, looking to get a book out before they write their novels.
In short, the short story is stumbling around like a zombie, its dead flesh reanimated by MFA tuition payments. Which reminds me of something the movies never quite explain: after they eat us all, what will the zombies do next?
It’s a fascinating question—I mean whether the short story today is an unnatural creature, not my little aside about the living dead—that one could argue either way. Unfortunately, the n + 1 piece quickly goes off the rails, crashes through a stand of red pine, and tumbles down a steep embankment until it comes to rest in a small, rocky creek, into which it spills its entire load of carbon tetrachloride, thus wiping out an entire generation of salmon and unwittingly demonstrating the importance of variability in the life histories of migratory fish. It transpires that the author simply doesn’t like short things; 19th century Russian novels are the only way to go.
Consider the rather disingenuous complaint about opening sentences:
“The morning after her granddaughter’s frantic phone call, Lorraine skipped her usual coffee session at the Limestone Diner and drove out to the accident scene instead”; “Graves had been sick for three days when, on the long, straight highway between Mazar and Kunduz, a dark blue truck coming toward them shed its rear wheel in a spray of orange-yellow sparks.” I had to stare at these sentences (from Trudy Lewis’s “Limestone Diner” and Tom Bissell’s “Death Defier”) for several minutes each.
Really? Several minutes? That sounds like a literacy problem to me.
That the contemporary short story begins in medias res is a trivial complaint. What about big problems? Jim Harrison, who never misses a chance to bash MFA programs, complains of the “teeny” poems and “little” stories that result. Harrison’s instinct is expansive; he continually risks sentimentality, insisting that the work has to matter, has to deal with the stuff of human desire.
This sprang to mind recently as I read Patricia Young’s story collection, Airstream, and Annabel Lyon’s first book, Oxygen. Every story in Oxygen is brilliantly written, but brilliant writing can’t rescue the weaker stories in the collection from their essential lack of substance. “Sexy Rex,” for example, is an empty exercise: a couple has a dog, dog gets lost, dog comes home. The writing is precise and rich with detail, but none of the characters ever takes on any genuine humanity.
In Airstream, on the other hand, every story surrounds, without needing to resolve, some human crisis. Every story touches on something vital, without ever tipping over into sentimentality or backing off into the kind of ironic posturing we adopt when we fear tipping our hand. This is what short stories should be.
It’s not enough that stories make pleasing word patterns. They should ask us, also, to give a shit. When I consider what I too often read in our little magazines—formal innovation for its own sake, big conceits overlying empty characters, etc.—I don’t.
* If you thought that phrase meant something, you were in error; it is computer-generated bafflegab courtesy of the Chomskybot.
One of the things I’ve always liked about Richard Ford’s writing is his use of setting. In fact, I like to think that I learned a lot about setting by reading Richard Ford, although someone, somewhere, no doubt feels that I didn’t.
I have always been annoyed at those people who insist on complaining that, for example, the details of some setting are wrong—that there is no pizzeria on such-and-such a street, for example, or that the gas station on the corner of This and That is not open 24 hours. Who cares? As soon as one steps into the fictional universe, the setting (and, indeed, history) belongs to that fictional universe.
So I enjoyed this, from Richard Ford, answering a question on the BBC World Book Club podcast:
Years ago, I was working on a story set in Great Falls, Montana, and I was publishing the story in The New Yorker. And I had said that the YWCA, the Young Women’s Christian Association, where there was a swimming pool, was on 2nd Avenue South. And the fact checker from The New Yorker called me at home and said, “Mr. Ford,” he said, “ah, the YWCA is actually on 8th Street North-West. Would you just mind if we just corrected that?”
And I said, “No,” I said, “it has too many syllables.”
For me, I want the freedom that is possible in all ways to make the landscape of my fictional town be amenable to my needs.
I’ve always thought fact-checking fiction is something of a contradiction in terms. But that’s me.