The virtues of writing that's boring

Up close: A view of Weatherford's neon-lit mural. Of the name Sartoris, Faulkner wrote: "For there is death in the sound of it,  and a glamorous fatality, like silver pennons downrushing at sunset, or a dying fall of horns along the road to Roncevaux."

Malcolm Cowley used one word to describe that sentence:


Really? Overwriting? The poetry of it stunned me (and still does); so did Cowley's dismissal of it.  But I didn't care -- didn't care what that crusty old critic thought; Malcolm, the writing in Flags in the Dust is still one of F's best no matter what you think.

It's the first time his vision of Yoknapatawpha ever fully rushed out of him.  I love that book's enthusiasm, confidence, roughness, unevenness, humanity.  It's Faulkner the flesh-and-blood writer long before he slipped into the great Southern persona of his later works.

But I remembered Cowley's judgement last week as I listened to a public talk given by abstract painter Mary Weatherford at Claremont McKenna College. She said something that makes so much sense to me, even though she was talking about a mural, not a text.  She described how some parts of the mural don't do anything special.  She kept them intentionally boring.  She said,

"It can't all be interesting. There have to be boring parts. If it's all interesting, it kills itself.  I had to make some parts boring so that other parts could flourish."

When her interviewer protested against her use of the word "boring," she revised herself. Instead, she said, she "quieted down" parts of her mural.  As I've been revising my own novel, this is essentially what I've been doing--quieting down some narrative sections in order to allow others to flourish.


SHHH: St. Nepomuk, patron saint of secrets and silence.


When I look back at my earliest draft, I see a writer who's trying so hard to make everything, every detail, every transition, into something interesting.  I've mentioned a little of that already in a previous post ("Writing and the six a.m. brain") where I replaced an overwritten sentence with a simpler alternative.

This, for me, is the essence of the revision process.  I think it's true whether you're working with a text or a canvas and gallons of paint.

So, after listening to Weatherford, I thought, "Maybe Cowley was right." Maybe Faulkner could have quieted down that closing sentence.

But he didn't.  And I'm glad.  It's a beautiful sentence.  Cowley's still wrong -- but at least I can understand better why he said it.

On writing: The cautionary example of Alan Moore

What are you looking at?: Alan Moore (credit: The Guardian). When I think of George R.R. Martin, I can't help thinking of Alan Moore, too.

Both have been wildly successful in popular genres (fantasy, graphic novels). Both are old guys. Both don't know how to trim their beards.

They're opposite sides of the same coin.

Martin writes novels accessible to wide audiences (they couldn't get any wider), he likes his fans and likes mingling with them, and in photos he usually has a friendly grin on his face.  If he ever stumbled into Dr. Jekyll's lab and mistook a potion for a good black lager, I could seem him gag and cough, drop to the floor, roll around in agony for a while, then stand up … as Alan Moore.

Moore's disdain for popularized versions of his work is legendary. His avoidance of fans and the marketplace is so un-Martin-like. In photos there's usually a scowl or a perplexed look on his face.

But here's another thing they have in common: Moore, like Martin, is inspiring to any and all writers out there.

The Guardian gave readers an update last week that Moore's million-word novel about a small postage stamp of London earth, "Jerusalem," has been finished. "Now there's just the small matter of copy editing," quipped his daughter in a Facebook announcement. When I read that line, I couldn't help thinking of another incredible understatement, from the movie "Jaws," about needing a bigger boat.

I don't envy the editor of that book, but I do  admire Moore.  In the end, you know he'll successfully publish his behemoth with a solid publisher, he'll receive many reviews, he'll get sales because we're curious — even though he doesn't care for any of it.

During his career, he's layered a cocoon around himself that's a good cautionary example for any writer, I think.

What does his example teach us? Write for yourself. Write what pleases you.

But don't misunderstood this message. It doesn't mean that you can get lazy and do anything you want. Don't indulge in bad habits. Don't settle for writing that's "good enough" when you know you can do better.

I'd add -- not to aim for a million words, either: If you haven't published a novel yet, a big book is anathema to most publishers. Especially by an untested quantity. (An earlier version of my novel, a big fat padded thing, made the rounds and received a bunch of rejections — many commenting on its length .)

Ok, but… if your narrative can't help growing to an enormous length and that growth is truly organic, truly necessary …. well, then just hope a sympathetic editor finds you and is willing to make the case for you.

Such questions have been on my mind a lot lately, my friends, as my own book finally approaches (yet again) its completion -- but in a state that satisfies and pleases me.

So in the weeks and months ahead, I think I'll mostly be dedicating Call of the Siren to aspects of my experience, and my preparation to run the gauntlet again. I hope that's ok with everyone. It's where my mind is.

Maybe I'll also let my beard start growing again. Stop trimming it, too.

What is it about the letter M? Three writers' passings

The literary world has taken a very big hit over the past few weeks. It lost three Ms -- Peter Mathiessen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and now Alistair MacLeod. Screen Shot 2014-04-25 at 2.17.36 PMIt isn't that the writing world expected more from them. Mathiessen and Marquez were both sick and well past their writing primes. MacLeod,who hailed from Canada, brewed up only a single novel and a small collection of short fiction over his 77 years on the planet.

But the reason why they'll be missed is for what they taught, by example, about the writing life.

Plenty has been said in recent weeks about the first two Ms. MacLeod's passing is far more recent, and his name is lesser known.

But when I read Margalit Fox's very nice overview of MacLeod in the New York Times, I felt such admiration for him that I wanted to pass it along in case you haven't had the pleasure to read him.

While there's far too much of T.C. Boyle or Joyce Carol Oates around (my humble opinion, you don't have to agree with me), there would never be enough of MacLeod. Hurrying into print was never his modus operandi.

"For a long time, I was described as one of North America's most promising writers," he says in quote from Fox's article. "Pretty soon, I was going to be one of North America's most promising geriatric writers...."

Some writers don't publish much because they don't have much to say; others think they have more to say than they do.

And then there's a third kind of writer, the one who understands that narrative truths need to simmer for a long time, like a good pot of stew.

That was MacLeod. To use another metaphor, MacLeod preferred to dig down, setting layer upon layer of family history and fishermen lore like a master mason in the single novel mentioned earlier, "No Great Mischief."

What he taught -- and still teaches --  can be reduced to two words. Be patient.

If any writer is suffering anxiety over finishing a manuscript, over getting things right, try to relax. Breathe. There are plenty of publishers but there's only one of you. Take the time needed to make your story properly sing. That's a lesson that MacLeod teaches us even now.

Strange & Norrell: Where did that novel go?

A republished post by fantasy novelist Jo Walton asks a poignant question, Whatever happened to Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?

"It did about as well as any book can do," Walton writes, "….but five years later, it doesn't seem to have had any impact."

Walton's piece first appeared in 2010 (hence the five years remark -- Clarke's wondrous strange novel first appeared in 2004). I just read the piece, which was republished on the Tor website to promote her latest book, a collection of writings and ruminations,  What Makes this Book so Great: Re Reading the Classics of Science fiction and fantasy. (A great idea for a book that any blogger could produce!)

'Magic Circle' - John William Waterhouse (1886)

Walton's is the kind of piece that every writer wishes to see -- it not only tells you that your book matters, but that it's worth reading a second or a third time (and that's quite a thing to say when it comes to Clarke's novel, which is Dickensian in length as well as style).

Walton's piece is thoughtful, and she entertains  several reasons why more novels haven't been clearly inspired by the Norrell/Strange epic (though, since 2010, I think her judgment is dated -- the landscape hasn't been nearly as empty as she claimed back then).

Among them:

  • Inspiration just takes a long time to have an effect on people, and Clarke's book will require time to inspire: "influence does take time to permeate through"
  • Maybe this novel is just too wonderful and unique to influence other fantasy works or to engage in a dialogue with other works of fantasy; in other words, it is sealed off on its own fictive island

I don't entirely disagree with Walton, but my immediate reaction was, hey, more of the burden's on the industry's shoulders, not Clarke's.

As I recall, Clarke's novel appeared in between two books in the Harry Potter series — it was an incredible stroke of timing for her. Magic-hungry readers snapped it up as they impatiently waited for the next Potter installment. The ten years that she spent writing her novel were amply repaid.

Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverBut afterwards, I think Walton is right: For a long time, the publishing field remained pretty clear of anything resembling Clarke's (or Rowling's) work. Some publishers did try to cash in with deliberate, pathetic clones. (Anybody out there read a silly series of YA novels about the adventures of Charlie Bone?)  But aside from these, it was mostly Harry who held the field.

That had less to do with the powers of Clarke's inspiration and more with the power of the publishers, the gatekeepers of what we see in bookstores and online.

I suspect — based on my own work, which draws some light from blessed St. Susanna, and from my other experiences in the industry — that plenty of admirers are out there, writing works that are in perfect dialogue with hers. But the buyers for various publishers are thinking of other things. They're chasing after tastes and trends -- one's hope remains, as always, to find that editor who believes in nurturing stories for a simple reason: They should be read and shared.

Walton, I think, forgot about that back in 2010.

As of today, in 2014, Clarke's book still pops up in discussions on the blogosphere. She seems less a solitary figure than a writer in company with the names Rothfuss, Gaiman, Grossman, Link, etc.

And there's a miniseries in the works, which should be terrific -- in other words, Clarke's novel is still alive and well in people's minds.


P.S. I do like Walton's idea of re-reading classic works and explaining why they're great. I've been thinking of ways to feed the Siren. That's a terrific one.

Also Worth Your Time, Worth Reading:

It’s just not fair: the case of Evangeline Walton

It’s bittersweet to read — and read about — gothic novelist Evangeline Walton.  The sweet part has to do with Tachyon Press, that scrappy little Bay Area-based publisher of all things fantasy, receiving a fantastic opportunity to introduce readers to an overlooked work of gothic fiction by Walton (accompanied by an excellent foreword by Paul Di Filippo and an excellent afterword by Douglas A. Anderson).

evangeline waltonThe bitter part has to do with Walton’s publishing circumstances. It’s great that she finally is enjoying posthumous recognition (she died in 1996), but does it have to be posthumous?

My friends, I know that writers shouldn’t be driven to write by their audiences — it’s the inner voice that’s supposed to be the motivation, right? -- but a little recognition, a little connection, is food for any writer’s soul, whether in print or here, in the WordPress universe. It makes you feel good to know that someone is listening. When you feel that way, that feeling informs your work and can make all the difference.

Walton seems to have had very little such nourishment. Di Filippo’s foreword describes her very bruising, painful publishing history, and the brief fame she enjoyed for her Mabinogion Tetralogy — a set of books that some place alongside Tolkien and T.H. White.

“She Walks in Darkness” made the publishing rounds in the 1960s and landed back in the proverbial desk drawer when no one was interested. The book’s a small miracle in prose. A tightly-controlled, first-person narrative of a terrifying experience in a remote Italian villa.

Barbara, the narrator, and her husband Richard are honeymooners. They travel to Tuscany not for a wine-and-sunshine experience like you’ll find in Frances Mayes’ bestsellers, but because Richard is an archeologist eager to study the Etruscan catacombs under the Villa Carenni. The romantic devil.

The patriarch of the Carenni family “believed that the villa had been built over the site of an ancient temple to Mania, Queen of the Underworld....It was the old Etruscan name for the Queen of the Underworld before they began using Greek script names, and identified her with Persephone. Her rites weren’t pretty. Roman records mention the substitution of poppyheads for the kind of offerings she’d received earlier...Little boys’ heads....

Walton-Walks-in-Darkness-coverWhen Richard is injured in a car accident, and lies unconscious, and Barbara believes a murder has escaped from a local prison and is hiding among the buried tombs — or is it Mania herself? -- the story takes off. She doesn’t know what to do. She can’t make a long trek to get help, she can’t leave Richard, not when she’s convinced someone is lurking around the deserted villa. Barbara’s trapped.

Just the sort of book I’d have pounced on when I was reviewing for the paper.

Walton’s compression, her economy is brilliant ... Barbara’s narrative, for instance, moves easily from the horrifying present to the innocence of the previous day in a single tense-shifting paragraph. No bells or whistles. Deftly done.

“The Da Vinci Code’s” Dan Brown also could learn something from her handling of big, historical enigmas. Theories don’t drop into her narrative like big, chunky encyclopedia entries — at one point, Barbara’s reading of a discovered notebook seamlessly gives us a theory of the true identity of the Etruscans, who originated in a place called Tyrrha:

Did not Plato say that Atlanteans once occupied the Tyrrhene coast? Whether the place that in his Greek foolishness he called Atlantis lies beneath the sea, or—as is more likely—beneath the sands of the Sahara, that land was the cradle-land, the birthplace of all the arts of man. The birthplace of the Rasenna [Etruscans].

The book reflects its time period — the 1950s — in Barbara’s view of herself, her relationship to her husband, an unexpected hunky Tuscan, and men in general ... But such dating isn’t necessarily a bad thing, is it? It reminds us that the book wasn’t written in a vacuum, that it arose out of a particular time from someone’s particular circumstances.

I’m just sorry that we had to discover it now, when it’s much too late for Walton to receive some of the praise she deserves.


Go here to learn more about Tachyon Publications, publisher of Walton's novel.

Go here for another nice review of "She Walks in Darkness" at Bibliophilic Monologues.