Month: October 2012

Roth’s “The Human Stain”

A novel about a college professor’s identity set in a small Berkshires community in 1998, the year of Monica Lewinsky and the advent of Viagra. That’s how Amy Hungerford opens her discussion of the book in her Yale lecture series on YouTube.  Then the details are enumerated, and she proceeds to make her academic case based on the data, which is the novel itself. It’s her enthusiasm and insight that led me to this book, and to re-visit others she has lectured about (Franny and Zooey, Lolita, Blood Meridian).

This is the first Roth I’ve read in years, and the first one I’ve read that has narrator/author Nathan Zuckerman. I liked Nate right off. I knew I was getting an honest narrator when he admitted to something as private as his own prostate problems and urinary leakage, which manifests in the scene where he dances with Coleman Silk.  His accounts are reliable and without hysteria. My concern was that Nate’s “I” voice vanished early and was gone for almost two hundred pages. There were long, dense sections in third person describing Silk’s college days and romances. Eventually this is made clear near the end: all of the back stories were reported to Nate by a third party. And Zuckerman confirms that this indeed is “the book” Silk asked him to write. Still, and it’s a testament to how well Nate is drawn, I missed him during all those pages.

This is a heavyweight champion writer of the world novel. It’s literature of the highest order. While the topics are contemporary, the storytelling is old-style. We are told and we are give rationales and nuances and then told again. Not once did I yearn for the modern template of action and dialog and limited exposition. In fact, it made the writers workshop commandment “show don’t tell” look sort of superficial and anemic.

The wise character Ernestine makes a brief appearance and bemoans modern people’s lack of patience and resolve, a situation in which quality and substance are lost in the name of expedience. Sounds like prose writing too, in a way.  She says this much better than me and in shorter space. We know that sort of syndrome from what we’ve been “shown” in the story. But there’s nothing wrong – in fact it’s fortifying – when she “tells” us.

In addition to being about desire and identity, the story is filled with choices. The last chapter demonstrates that. There is a choice to be made about confrontation. As Nathan faces Lester we expect either to see a murder or detente.

Another choice, locally. Whether to read other novels in the Zuckerman series, like American Pastoral.  That is the only gray area Roth leaves me with at the end. The rest is black and white.

Books on Writing (2) – Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King

The subtitle “How to Edit Yourself into Print” provides a warning: today’s book publishing agents look for copy that has been skillfully pre-edited before it gets to them. The old days when house editors lended a hand are gone. More than ever, they say, one is wise to learn to DIY. Or maybe it’s SEY (Self-Edit Yourself).

Handsomely produced and over-abundant in verbiage, the content provides maxims and guidelines. It’s familiar ground.  Nothing about it strikes me as the Go-to book on the SEY process. Instead, most of the topics point back to the initial creative writing process. This more or less says to me, you need to make all these edits because you didn’t write well in the first place, and…so now, let us now discuss how to write.

The thrust of this book lacks clear distinction between fixing a draft (which I had hoped it would, like a field manual I can refer to when I redline) and writing a draft. Come on, guys. Even if we didn’t know what the main POVs are, or how to write dialog, are these really self-editing topics?

What if  all the bugaboos the authors talk about were absent and things were written well in our drafts? What other editing advice do the authors provide? There’s got to be more to editing than fixing show vs. tell passages (pretty shopworn advice, that one is, and you beat it to death. We’re not all screenplay writers out here). And I think most of us know how to break up dialog and we can usually spot a dangling participle. Seems we could get some more pointed writing tricks of the trade. Enlightening us more about technique rather than mechanics.Maybe even something more subjective, like how do we prepare our mindset to view things fresh so we can fix them? How do we make a chapter become impressive reading rather than simply something correct by your rules? In this respect, the teacher-narrators of this book are no match for the guys who both teach and impart wisdom, like Jerome Stern or Sol Stein.

It does have some useful information. The chapter on adding “Sophistication” offers valuable ways to check your prose for amateur mistakes. This section is presented cleanly without as many rambling paragraphs as we suffer in the rest of the chapters, where “do’s and don’ts” are not so easily gleaned. But what’s perfect? Nothing. So maybe their general layout needed the edits of another set of eyes. Self-editing can be blind, after all.

Overall, it misses the mark. It lacks thrust.  It tries to regulate the very nature of free exposition. It begs for an intimate connection. It does not meet the writer as a friend but as a subscriber. It has sort of a chiding schoolmarm tone, like “Why would you want [to do that]?”  Oh, we’re just dumb students, that’s why.  To make us feel even more like geniuses they include writing exercises – with answers!  They’re not exercises, as in normal writing books, they’re little exam questions with no set answers. Well, okay. Maybe this was a workshop course they turned into a book. I suspect its content and delivery has roots in the pedantesque Writers Digest Factory of Experts.

Some of the bold statements the authors make that are misleading or incorrect or queasy:

  • “sketching out your characters for your readers is just plain obtrusive.”
  • “You don’t want to give your readers information.”
  • “engage readers’ emotions, not their intellect” (paraphrasing)
  • “the writer’s voice in a novel generally belongs to a character.”
  • “we see that sort of thing all the time and it’s wrong” (the Royal Condescending We).

NOTE: This post needs to be self-edited. :>0

Comment: The Clear and the Murky

If polar opposites co-exist and are part of the order of things, then there is no surprise to find the extremes of clarity vs. ambiguity in a person’s writing.

A story can have an ambiguous ending, one that effectively leaves the reader uncertain of a dramatic outcome. But that’s not what I mean.

I mean in the sense of language and composition.  Strings of words, whether prose or poetry, can make perfect sense and at the same time evoke ambiguity. On the other hand, word strings written either intentionally vague or accidentally vague as a result of poor word choice or sloppy syntax, evoke confusion. Or they represent a surrender to clarity in the name of artful understatement, modern communicative hipness, laziness, or indifference.

I include myself in the list of occasional perpetrators. Sometimes I am not sure if my background as a technical writer – one who carried the war banner of “Be Clear and Concise” – is (speaking of extremes) a blessing or a curse.