Years ago the catchphrase “What Would Jesus Do?” became popular, abbreviated to WWJD, and I have to confess I was always a bit leery of this mantra as a guide for life, considering that Jesus, albeit an admirable fellow, came to the kind of untimely demise that we would all rather avoid. I think my attitude to the WWJD phenomenon was also colored by how the Christian conservatives in my neck of the woods (a Colorado mountain town) seem inordinately fond of firearms. There’s a Christian resort above my home on Hermit Mountain, and more often than not what you hear from that direction—instead of the lovely sound of choirs singing angelic hymns—is gunfire. A target range is one of their most popular “activities.” That’s caused me to wonder “What Would Jesus Shoot?”—a question that may be logical, but also sounds a bit blasphemous. I know the answer as to Who: no one.
But as I’ve been writing a novel for about three years (and which is almost complete, thank you very much), and as I spend most of my time writing novels now, I’m often lost in a reverie of “What would he/she do?” You come up with a situation that seems interesting—an autistic boy being held hostage by a substitute teacher, though he’s not really being held and he’s not really a hostage you have to read the book—set the plot in motion, then imagine what would really happen. That really is the kicker. What would really happen implies an epistemological attempt at Realism, about which I don’t give a fig. But then again, I don’t want to be phony, or to write phony fiction. This is one thing when you’re describing what a substitute teacher would offer her student to drink if he rode his bicycle over to her house (Dr. Pepper? lemonade? vodka?). It’s another thing when you mix in the substitute teacher’s disgruntled ex-husband, who still pines for her, but who is so misguided that he expresses this lost love by watching her windows from a perch in the trees behind her backyard.
With this guy, I sense the looming shadows of a violent climax and conclusion, and I resist it. Although I know that violence occurs all the time in the world, I don’t want to insert it just for drama’s sake. Recently the news has been dominated by the terrorist killings in Paris, and closer to home, a mass-shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs—a city I often visit, not far from here. These acts of violence may be “senseless” in a general way, but if you knew the tangled, misguided emotions (anger, resentment, fervent beliefs) of the perpetrators, I imagine you would be able to understand the mayhem. That’s part of what novelists do: tell a good story, hopefully an important one, and imply some understanding. While contemporary writers tend to be big on implication, some of the greats weren’t shy about that role of understanding: I’ve been rereading Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1869) lately, and when describing the importance of the Battle of Austerlitz, he just comes out and tells you. So there.
Still I admire those who can tell a complex story without making the meaning explicit. Cormac McCarthy excels at depictions of gruesome violence, mayhem that usually occurs in a world with a moral center, even as it questions this morality. There’s a famous quote about McCarthy’s vision of the West in Blood Meridian (1985) as being one of regeneration through violence. For my money, McCarthy gives us a vision of the horrible reality of the frontier West, with civilizations locked in battle, and you figure out what it means (perhaps not unlike our own times.)
That brings me back to the novel I’ve been writing, and whether to “go rogue” or not. Much as I admire McCarthy, I don’t want to paste a McCarthyesque ending onto my novel just because I like what he does. Part of originality is offering your own (hopefully captivating and interesting) vision of the world, and for my money, a Coen Brothers goofball is more pertinent to my imagination than McCarthy’s Judge Holden—or, the flip side of that coin, Jesus. As most movie buffs know, The Big Lebowski (1998) is a great tragicomic film, leaning heavily toward the comic. Yes, Steve Buscemi’s “Donny” does die of a heart attack while he and his bowling buddies are being attacked by nihilists in a parking lot, a scene that includes John Goodman’s “Walter” biting off one of their ears and spitting the bloody hunk into the air, but most of the film conforms to expectations of classic comedy: It presents a (somewhat manufactured) plot problem—Bunny Lebowski is sham-kidnapped—that is resolved happily (the frisky sex kitten Bunny returns to her mansion home, and exits off-stage naked in a swimming pool, her sports car wrecked in the fountain). The thing is, for all its fantastic moments—Sam Elliot as the Stranger appearing magically in the bowling alley bar, beside Jeff Bridges as the Dude—The Big Lebowski never seems phony. Many contemporary novels (on the best-selling list, often) depict violence that just seems fake. Maybe I have a lingering touch of Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in me, in that of all things, I can’t stand a phony.
So in those fictional moments of when push comes to shove, I don’t wonder what Jesus would do (merciful, compassionate, all-suffering) and no, I don’t think what Jeff Lebowski would do (weed-addled, harmless, stoner-charming) but what my character would do, really do, given the particular jamb into which he/she has fallen. But all that said, I’ll admit that the Dude is certainly more up my alley than the Big J, or any of McCarthy’s great characters, either. The trick is to imagine compelling personalities, and have them do something memorable, even if it’s groveling, as in the Coen Brothers Miller’s Crossing (1990), when John Turturro is on his hands and knees, begging his would-be executioner (Gabriel Byrne) to spare his life: “Look into your heart.” Which is, now that I mention it, always a good idea.
One of the greatest teachers of literature I ever had was a mathematician named Michael Comenetz. A spare-bodied man with a close white beard and a brown, bald head, Mr. Comenetz (who still teaches at my college, St. John’s in Annapolis) sort of resembles Don Quijote in looks, though in spirit he has more in common with Cervantes–patient and thoughtful, gentlemanly, with those subtly glittering eyes you see in people who are both very wise and very funny. Mr. Comenetz once interrupted a discussion, I think it was on Homeric heroism, by whistling the theme from High Noon, until all of us fell silent, one by one. At my college, seniors must read a good chunk of Marx in the late spring; if you have Mr. Comenetz for this, he will insist that your whole class sing a rousing rendition of The Internationale. There is a fragment of Heraclitus’s which puns on the Greek word bios, a word which can mean both “life” and “bow” (Guy Davenport translates it, “A bow is alive only when it kills.”); after reading this fragment, Mr. Comenetz asked that we at least try, to create, in English, a similar pun out of the many homonyms attached to the spelling “bow.” We were wildly unsuccessful, but of course success didn’t matter to Mr. Comenetz’s method. He was challenging us to engage with high culture at the most playful level possible. He is, himself, a supreme technician of letters (he writes an excellent blog; you can read it here), but one who understands that literature, even great literature, is nothing but a chest of toys. He co-authored a translation of Paul Valery’s The Graveyard by the Sea, and was the first person I ever heard tell that joke about Vassar girls, the one where they’re laid end to end, and no one is surprised.
Well, so one day, Mr. Comenetz gave an informal talk on the subject “Maps and Similes.” A map, after all, is a simile of the world, or a small part of it. (See, e.g., the Eschaton episode from Infinite Jest, where catastrophe breaks loose because one player ruthlessly lobs a ball at another, misunderstanding that the player’s body is not the coalition of countries she represents, but rather that coalition’s presence on the map, a simile for it.)
I asked Mr. Comenetz, “Why similes? Why not metaphors?” His answer was something like this:
“Well, I don’t really trust metaphors. They are necessarily untrue, aren’t they? Saying this is this? Of course it isn’t. This is like this, sure. But the servant’s brow is not a moody frontier. King Edward hasn’t actually sped up the seasons, and made summer out of winter. There’s a kind of preposterousness, you see, at work in every metaphor . . .”
All apprentice writers struggle with finding their “voice.” By voice, I think we mean the peculiar stamp that separates my writing from yours, and yours from hers, and hers from his; in other words, it’s one of those Potter Stewart-type things: hard to define, but you know it when you see it.
Contrarily, one of the quickest ways to tell that a writer isn’t ready yet–that he or she still needs work–is when the writing can’t be separated out from the writing of others. I see on the Twitter the complaints of people (slushpile trusties, for the most part) who are seeing page after page of transparent imitation: lots of Cormac McCarthy wannabes, I hear; even a few Tao Lin apers, for reasons passing understanding.
To these writers, I could not be more sympathetic. My earliest serious attempts at fiction-writing were themselves parrotings of Cormac McCarthy that would curl your toes. Here, let me show you:
The young man’s steady, rhythmic cries were the dominant sound in the room, as if he held the floor in a parliament of grief. Steadily those of his wife seeped in, filling the spaces between his with her coarse, dynamic sobs. The man’s cries like grunts and the woman’s like moans, the silence of the elders surrounding and supporting them like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet.
Ye gods: “like as the cold bleak of space”? “a chaotic and liferidden planet”?
In my defense, however, this is how it gets done. Remember in Finding Forrester, how Sean Connery jumpstarts the young guy’s writing by having him re-type one of his (Sean’s) old essays? We’re all doing that, in the beginning. We imitate writers in order to learn. Hunter Thompson used to copy out lines from Gatsby on his typewriter. He wanted to feel the rhythm of those words, as they came out, letter by letter; he wanted to know how it felt to have prose like that jump into being, underneath his own fingers.
This is natural, this is what John Cheever called “the parturition of a writer.” Each apprentice takes bits and pieces of the masters and builds up a kind of jury-rigged scaffolding, like one of those wobbly towers made of pianos and bird cages you see in old cartoons. You can reach a nice altitude on something like that, but it’s treacherous. To create good and original prose, one needs sturdier footing.
Mr. Comenetz’s preference for simile over metaphor is idiosyncratic, reasoned, hard to argue with, and slightly, just slightly, insane. If one is abandoning metaphor because all metaphors are preposterous lies, then one must abandon all fiction, if one means to be consistent. Clearly, Mr. Comenetz didn’t mean for his point to go that far.
This preference of his, however, is a perfect example of the little stylistic choices a writer must make, the scruples of taste she must develop, in order to gain a voice. In short, I think a writer’s voice is simply what happens when he or she applies private rules–a kind of second grammar.
It will be easier to elaborate if I give an example from my own private rules. Me, I adhere as strictly as I can to the common notions of spelling and punctuation. This wasn’t always the case with me. Back when I was drunk on McCarthy, I slammed words together and ditched quotation marks all day long. This was not a stylistic choice, however; this was not the application of my own private rules. I had not worked through any process like the one by which McCarthy decided to use enjambment-coinages like “scabbedover” and “rubymeated,” and neither did I have any good reason to leave off punctuation marks. I was imitating, superficially. I wasn’t getting past the appearances to find the solid form beneath, and that was fine: I hadn’t earned that yet. I hadn’t done enough reading or enough writing to earn that. By the time I had, though, I’d learned an important truth about myself: I need as much structure as I can get. I need the safety of it. I’m not a tightrope walker: I take hiiigh steps anytime I get off an escalator.
And it hardly needs to be said, but my way is not your way, nor should it be. Faulkner, for instance, was a tightrope walker. Lord only knows what that man thought this thing “;–” meant, but he used it all the time. If that’s your way, too, then you’re in good company. I do think these choices should be deliberately made, though, and the reasoning behind them should be both sound and personal. It’s not enough to abandon traditional punctuation merely out of homage–the choice must be original, and guy-lined by the writer’s personal vision. Faulkner, I think, did it because he sensed a great fracture in the world, a brokenness, an incommensurability between truth and regulated description. It won’t cut the mustard to do the same thing just because it strikes you as cool (which, if I’m being honest, is why I did it).
The more one reads, the more one sees these little rules, these underlying knowledges, at work in all the great writers. Charles Portis, like Jerry Seinfeld, works clean: you’ll find very few curse words in his books. Portis also seems to think that any time two characters are talking, they might as well be fighting. This is not a bad rule to test out, in your own work. Alice Munro nearly always tells you what her characters look like, but not always the first time you meet them. There is a great insight into the manipulability of the short story in this; it displays a powerful understanding of how the mind and heart meet imaginary people, and of how an invented person comes to be cared for by readers. Stephen King hardly ever lets his narrative voice depart from that of The Friendly Co-worker, the kind of guy who’s quick with an easy joke or a breezy bit of small talk; this is powerfully American of him, and when future generations want to know how the post-World War II middle-class talked to itself, they will miss the mark wildly if they don’t consider King.
Here’s a question: What’s the point of writing fiction if another medium could serve your material just as well, if not better? It’s a critical concern for all of us, and I think the answer to that question is one of the rules that guided David Foster Wallace in his writing. I don’t think he ever wanted to do something that a filmmaker, showrunner, painter, or musician could do, too.
E.g., when Wallace employs long block paragraphs of narration, with a rotating perspective, he’s doing something it’s impossible to do except in fiction: he is creating a slow-motion, extreme close-up, Altmanesque crowd scene. Re-read the final locker room segment from Infinite Jest (20 Nov. Y.D.A.U.). Ironically, when all those characters are tossed into long paragraphs together, jumbled up in that big wall of text, we can see more vividly each of the little things they’re all doing. Wallace starts with a packed room and moves closer; he takes small character movements–each one a part of a sequence, each sequence a little story all of its own–and makes each of those movements central and enormous for the length of a phrase or a sentence; he goes from one character to another, to another, to another, then moves back. The effect is a rigorous re-mapping of life into narrative, and it just can’t be done any other way. You’d have to paint some huge Boschian canvas and then animate each character as it acted out its own peculiar torment, or whatever. Even then, the artist would have no control over sequencing; and with a canvas large enough to present sufficient detail, a debilitating physical distance would arise between the viewer and large parts of the painting: one might see the lower third fine, but the middle third poorly–and the top third hardly at all. Even Altman couldn’t do something that Altmanesque, because time in a movie, at least in a scene like that, has to move at normal speed–you miss things when you can’t slow down, re-read, when your eyes have to dart all over the screen to keep up with what’s happening. Fiction has limitations cinema doesn’t–as McCarthy noted in conversation with the Coen brothers (published in Time, but only available to subscribers), you sort of have to believe what you see on a screen, because you see it; that’s not at all true of what you read on a page, so problems of belief-suspension are trickier for fiction writers than for filmmakers. Of course this cuts both ways, and a movie could never cooperate with a mind as intimately as a page of prose can–the stops, the re-do’s, the run-backs, the skips-forward: all these little tools a reader can wield when breaking down a text are exclusive to the form. (And thank God, because writing needs all the help it can get.)
A breakthrough has to come before imitation gives way to real influence. There have been plenty of young writers–God bless them–who’ve gotten drunk on DFW, the way I got drunk on McCarthy. Y’all on slush detail know who they are, from the footnotes and the ambitious vocabulary, to the funky little tri-particle transitionals, (“and then so” “but so then” “so now but”), that Wallace was so fond of and used so well. And like I said, that’s fine, that’s normal–it’s like kissing poorly the first few times you do it.
Perhaps that’s the correct metaphor for an apprentice writer copying a master: a person who’s never kissed before making out with an accomplished osculator; there will be learning done, but it will be of limited general utility. Everyone else is going to be different, because kissing means different things to different people. Until a person understands what kissing means to them, they won’t be able to share that meaning with anyone else; nor will they be able to find out if what kissing means to another person matches what it means to them.
This is a small model for how the writer learns the craft, because it’s a question of learning why the craft matters. You copy the work of others, trying to see what it meant to them, until you’ve learned what it might could mean to you. And even then, you aren’t complete. You need what Franzen calls material, what Updike called his assignment. And that is a discussion for another day.
Still, it’s possible that learning what rules one wishes to apply to one’s material–the process, I’ve argued, of finding one’s voice–is a journey that goes hand in hand with learning why you want to write in the first place. Both these things are part of the larger project that all human beings are engaged in, of seeking to know ourselves. In Barry Hannah’s great conversation with Wells Tower (published by The Believer; you can read it here), Hannah says a thing you don’t often hear said about writers: that they are, for the most part, good people. Sure, some of us are jackasses, but Tower has to agree with Hannah, remembering that there’s a humility which gets beaten into your head, when you’re working at becoming a writer. From humility, goodness tends to follow.
The crushing humiliation of straining your soul, over and over again, only to produce hundreds of dog-gagging sentences (“like as the cold bleak of space to a chaotic and liferidden planet”) is the gauntlet you must run before you can become a better writer. It is possible, let us hope it is possible, that this and everything else you go through might also, in the end, make you a better person.
Narrative Magazine, one of the nation’s most prominent literary venues, is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of its founding. The magazine’s founders note that the years have been but a breath and a heartbeat but also a long sustained burning of midnight oil. So the editors and staff are really looking forward to the anniversary celebrations, to take place in San Francisco in April and in NYC in the autumn. Many good and dedicated people helped create and build Narrative, and the celebrations promise to bring together the magazine’s friends, old and new, to raise a glass to writers and great writing.
When Carol Edgarian and Tom Jenks started the magazine in 2003, there were no online or digital platforms for first-rank literary work—The New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper’s, the Paris Review, none of them, nor any other quality publisher of literature, had an online presence. And, according to studies done by the NEA, readers were falling away from literature by the millions, and certainly the rise of technological media was a big part of the shift away from reading. A general sense of depression and indirection was overtaking the literary community, and Edgarian and Jenks wanted to show what quality literature could look like online. They started with six authors and about a thousand readers. (The contents of the first issue are available here.) And the founders recall that when they started the magazine, no one—friends and authors—seemed to understand what an online magazine would be, though observers were all cheerful enough about it, as if to humor Edgarian and Jenks by saying, Sure, why not?
Today, of course, everyone grasps the challenge and opportunity that technology presents for literature, but until Amazon launched Kindle in 2007, the handwriting on the wall wasn’t read by many publishers and litterateurs, who should have been reading it much sooner. Change, especially the kind of radical change that has taken place in publishing, is always met with resistance, and existing book and magazine content was less immediately available to be digitized than were film and music files. Old-line publishers, clinging to print rights, sunk costs, and traditional bona fides (a digital publication was not considered a “real” publication), harbored reluctance and denial, though the shift from bricks-and-mortar to digital was inevitable once the technological revolution started and the Internet caught the collective imagination. In the early stages of this shift, Douglas Coupland observed that the Internet had begun to look like a cross between a shopping mall and a bordello, and today online commercialism remains a big challenge to literary values. Amazon’s “the readers decide” is a great consumer-oriented retail credo, but as a literary value it’s akin to a popularity contest. Narrative began and continues as an example of excellence, combining old-school values with new media technology. Narrative was one of the first two periodicals to release an iPhone/iPad Application (it’s free) and was one of the first periodicals available on Kindle. The magazine has 150,000 readers and publishes several hundred writers and artists each year. Narrative has been much watched and imitated by other periodicals with vastly greater resources, and now in an environment in which technology and business investment seek scalability and ROI above all, Narrative continues to look for ways to co-opt the means of production for the sake of literature. “We can’t take its existence for granted,” Jenks notes, “or think that the free market values it as we do.”
He also notes that the constant readership for good writing forms a small subculture within mass-culture. Sometimes a book or author crosses over from the small world to the large, most often in the case of a film adaptation. Cormac McCarthy’s first five books sold about three thousand copies each. Then came the film version of All the Pretty Horses. There are other examples, but the point is that all who care deeply about literature and its generative effect on society recognize that anything and everything that can be done to encourage good writing and reading needs to be done. Narrative has sought to reach as many readers as possible, to put forth the best work by the best writers, to engender an intelligent and respectful level of discourse, and to further the best of traditional literary values into the new age.
With Narrative the editors offer as transparent a medium as possible to connect readers and writers. The magazine aims to advance no editorial stamp or personality such that anyone might say that a particular work is a “Narrative Magazine” sort of piece; rather, the editors’ interest is in good writing and narratives that are entertaining, unpredictable, and charged with the shock of recognition that occurs when the human significance of the work is made manifest. The editors look for pieces in which the effects of language, situation, and insight are intense and total. Many of the authors featured in Narrative are well-known, but the magazine is also dedicated to presenting new and emerging writers and features many first-time authors.
Asked about the magazine’s name, Edgarian reported, “In 2003, a friend of ours, the essayist Susan L. Feldman, knowing we were preparing to launch a new magazine called Narrative, sent us a one-line quote from a Paul Baumann review of a Thomas Keneally novel. Baumann, the editor of Commonweal, wrote, ‘Only myth, only narrative . . . can capture the mystery of human goodness and evil.’ A few years later, at a Narrative Night event, Robert Stone noted, “Stories are as necessary to us as bread. There is no sense or order to experience outside of narrative. Whether in prose or poetry, writers continually revivify the myths that illuminate our lives as we move from the known into the unknown.”
Looking ahead to what the next 10 years may bring for Narrative, Jenks said, “Ha! Where’s my crystal ball? As a kid growing up in the 1950s and ’60s and hearing about the Soviet Union, the five-year plan always struck me as a good model, provided you didn’t have to adhere to it rigidly. That is, you can chart the future, knowing that as you reach each milestone the landscape looks somewhat different than imagined, and the chart must be adjusted again and again as you go forward. But Narrative’s primary goals remain the same as when we started: Expand the readership for good writing; support writers by paying them as well as possible and by providing keen editorial encouragement; train young publishing professionals in the best traditional values and new practices; help shape the future of literature within the new media.”
The longtime editor also had some advice for writers looking to publish. “About 70 percent of unsolicited manuscripts begin with someone waking up, or with someone taking a drink, or with a phone call. Sometimes all three of these motifs are combined, as in, ‘I woke with a dreadful hangover to the incessant ringing of the phone.’ The clichéd waking beginning tends to be an unconscious metaphor for the dawning consciousness of the writer. I’m not saying not to use a waking beginning, but it’s well to be aware of the odds against it and, if using it, then to do something original and essential with it. The opening of Anna Karenina offers an inspiring example.”
For writers thinking about submitting work to Narrative, Jenks said, “You should submit to Narrative only if you have taken the time to read the magazine and to know its cast. If the magazine appeals to you, and if you have assayed your work in relation to the work you see in the magazine, then a submission may be in order. An unfortunate perennial circumstance is that many more people tend to send their work to any magazine than actually trouble to read the magazine with any accurate attention. We give Narrative away for free to encourage reading first.”