Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Good literary things

at New York Magazine.

I like the holiday weekend thing because it lets me get a ton of work done in peace and quiet--I am on track for Friday's novel submission deadline, in fact I cut almost a hundred pages in this final revision, very exciting! Almost thirty thousand words gone from the last version--if I could just cut about 1600 more I'd get the book under a hundred thousand, but I am not sure if I quite have the fortitude, all the obvious stuff is now out. But the one thing I really don't like about holiday weekends is that there's never any good literary news online to blog about! It's true, I partly was just immersed in work, I've got a couple more readerly posts in my head that I can't spare the energy to write till after I've sent the manuscript in; but also pickings were slim...

I was slightly sorry not to see my own opinion in Lori Fradkin's "Future Canon" piece (what books do you think people will be reading in fifty years?), I had a good phone conversation with her when she was working on it--but not very sorry, as someone else chose the same book as I did and has given a much more eloquent explanation of why it's canon-essential. The chooser's Diana Fuss, and the book of course is Andre Aciman's Call Me By Your Name. Her words: "The most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century. Few novels since Proust’s In Search of Lost Time are this adept at capturing the nuances of human emotion." If you have not read it already, you must do so at your earliest convenience!

Other picks there I'd especially endorse: Coetzee; Lethem; Sebald; and, yes, Gary Lutz, I read that guy for the first time this fall and his sentences just blow me away, in fact that's another post sitting in the back of my head, must dig out the book and write something up....

(There's also a good best novels you've never read list: several of my favorites show up there, including Helen DeWitt--you must read her if you haven't!--, plus some I've been meaning to get to, like Jincy Willett.)

The cutting/revising thing is fascinating, by the way. Because my editor is a genius I have learned a great deal in this round of revisions--at its best, revision is always teaching you something about your own writing as well as helping you improve that particular manuscript. I'll write a more thoughtful post on this once I've got more time, but one of the funnier things was seeing how many passages I could cut in which I was just telling the reader about my main character's thoughts rather than trusting the story to show these things.

Some examples (I like these paragraphs, but you will quite see why they should all go!):

Oh, it was impossible, unanswerable, to be talked to as though your deepest convictions about human life and morality and society were merely a function of your body chemistry at that particular moment! Sophie had a depressing feeling that adolescence was going to include more and more of this, people looking at you as though you couldn’t be a rational person just because you sounded upset about something and telling you that you must be in the grip of disgusting things like hormones.

Sophie had to be braver, just because behaving badly made you feel sick to the stomach didn’t mean it wouldn’t be good for your character to really scandalize everybody once in a while).

Praise! Sophie clung to it even as she despised herself for caring; really you should aspire to be perfectly self-sufficient, like Robinson Crusoe, and live in the wilderness with only cats and dogs and parrots to keep you company.

She knew it was stupid, but she had a sudden conviction that she would never enjoy anything in life ever again. What was there to look forward to? (Anhedonia, that was the word for this feeling. She had seen it once in a novel. Somehow knowing the word made her feel a bit better.)

Sophie was one of those people who couldn’t stand not being on time. Being even five minutes late for tea with a friend in town, for instance, made her heart begin racing and she would break out in a cold sweat. On the rare occasion of her being held up to the extent of fifteen or twenty minutes, she felt a knot in her stomach so bad that once she had actually had to go and be sick in the disgusting public lavatory in Princes Street Gardens.

Reading wasn’t necessarily more enjoyable than spending time with a friend, it was just less tiring, somehow, Sophie thought to herself, then was pierced by self-recrimination at her own ingratitude.

You get the idea!

Also cut: long historical digressions; research-heavy descriptions of things and places (I use that research as a crutch, I think, when I'm writing my first draft--it's not so much an academic habit as a deep temperamental thing that explains why I'm an academic, I just like having that armature of stuff to work with); excessively long stretches of rather dry classroom conversation (but I still have a long tract of conversation--my students will appreciate this!--about Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, I feel Dynamite No. 1 will almost certainly be the only young-adult novel to feature extended conversation about Burke!)

(NB I have also got rid of that "you" form address--it feels very natural for me, in this third-person limited voice that's so close to Sophie's point of view, but it's anachronistic for alternate-universe 1930s, and if it's bothering readers then it has to go.)

All right, got to go, already running late for the day; but once I'm done with this manuscript, expect a lot of catch-up blogging, including some thoughts on bicycles as well as on a new favorite writer I've discovered....


  1. Though it's always good to know what others think is worth reading, I find the most apt sentence in the piece is Stimpson's: 'But if anybody thinks they know how canons are going to be formed, they are guilty of hubris bordering on stupidity.'

  2. Yay on the deadline progress!

  3. I'm doing this same kind of revision right now--almost done with this round--and I find myself cutting out the same kinds of things. There were so many bits of research that had to go, no matter how much I loved them!

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