Done and Done

March 31, 2015

Titian, Sisyphus

Titian, Sisyphus; Prado

How many times have I finished “The Jane Austen Project”?

There was the time in 2011 when I had to get it ready to share with my manuscript workshop classmates, the time in early 2013 before I started writing query letters to agents, the time in mid-2014 when I was getting ready to share it with my writing group and a writing coach. The time in late 2014 when I again started writing query letters. Now it’s almost the second quarter of 2015, and I am about ready to send it my acquiring editor. Which is to say, I have not seen the end of this.

If there is one thing I have learned that might possibly help other aspiring writers, it’s that “done” is a relative term. People give up too soon, from what I have seen. They have an interesting idea, are fueled by passion and work hard at it. Then they either get discouraged or press on through the discouragement and finish. And if the latter, start trying to get an agent and get published. The likely failure of this effort might prompt despair or the decision to self-publish, but neither might be the right reaction. It might be better to put it away for a while. Start something else. Take a writing class. Reread “Middlemarch.” Then come back to it and see if it did what you set out for it to do.

Each time I believed I was done, I was not wrong, exactly. But the meaning changes over time, like everything else on this earth.


With the much-heralded release of the film version of the much-heralded book, it’s hard to avoid thinking about Fifty Shades of Grey, the work that has given fresh hope to a million unknown optimists writing self-published fanfiction, that made pornography respectable and brought bondage into the mainstream, and has become a touchstone for terrible prose. But this weekend I found myself instead thinking of something else; I found myself thinking of Clarissa. A book I read almost seven years ago and find myself unable to get past.

You want a story of dominance and submission? You want a rich, creepy, brilliant and controlling male lead? Robert Lovelace leaves Christian Grey eating his dust. And Clarissa Harlowe, handsome, clever and rich, but unfortunately born in the wrong century and created by the wrong author, makes Anastasia Steele look even more loser-ly and pathetic than she already is. There is drama, heartbreak, betrayal, drug use, Stockholm syndrome, cliffhangers and gender battles. As God is my witness, there’s everything.

This book is amazing. Why is it not better known? Read the rest of this entry »

Harper Lee and Happenstance

February 4, 2015

mockingbirdI can’t be the only person to find this business with Harper Lee a little fishy. Just like that, a manuscript turns up? After 50-odd years? As Atticus Finch might ask, cui bono? Certainly not Harper Lee herself, who has shown no hunger for fame or money thus far.

And, really, can one actually misplace a manuscript? I think Hemingway once lost a suitcase containing one — but he was on the move a lot. I’d be thrilled to hear of a lost manuscript by Bruno Schulz found stuffed between floorboards in Drohobycz — but he was shot dead on the street by the Gestapo, a tragic example of someone who left his literary affairs in disarray. Sure it is possible to lose track of a manuscript, but perhaps harder when you live as quiet a life as Harper Lee has.

When we look closer, the story grows more complicated. It wasn’t so much “lost” as set aside and (perhaps) forgotten. The tale of an older Scout and an older Atticus set in the 1950s, it seems to have been an ur-Mockingbird, a thing Harper Lee’s editor told her wasn’t quite working. “Why don’t you write about her as a girl instead? That’d probably be more interesting.” Which turned out to be true. If there had been more to the novel, something Harper Lee wanted to return to and improve, it’s hard to understand why she did not do so sometime between then and now. Hard to avoid thinking she took the best parts for use in “Mockingbird.”

The book is sure to sell, yet I suspect most people who loved “Mockingbird” will be disappointed. To me, its greatest interest will be literary-forensic: How does her writing look unedited? What were the elements of “Mockingbird” that were there from the start, and what came later? What was the story she thought she was trying to tell, until persuaded the real story lay elsewhere?

Literature is full of such false starts, but we rarely get to read them. The speculation among Jane Austen scholars, for instance, is that “Sense and Sensibility,” “Pride and Prejudice,” or maybe both, were originally told in letters. Jane Austen’s own mention in a letter that she was chopping “Pride and Prejudice” to prepare it for publication, some 15 years after she first wrote an earlier version. How the mind reels at this! What did she take out?

The Empire of Light, Rene Magritte

The Empire of Light, Rene Magritte

To call the last few weeks surreal seems both a gross understatement and an injustice to that 20th-century art movement, yet no other word can capture the uncanny way everything is sort of the same, yet a bit off; like reality, but not. In the first week of January a literary agent, the inimitable Sam Stoloff, enlisted his aid in selling “The Jane Austen Project.” In the fourth week of January G.P. Putnam’s Sons agreed to buy it.

Just like that. Yeah, sure. If you overlook everything that happened before, the years of reading and drafting, the writing workshops, the self-doubt and the sheer insanity. My life is the same, except now it makes sense; it has acquired a narrative heft and even seems to have been moving toward this moment all along. Except that is not true, a real-life example of confirmation bias.

If I had never found an agent or a publisher, would my life still make sense? I like to think it would; it’s depressing to contemplate a meaningful existence being reliant on something so completely outside of one’s control. Is the writing itself not its own reward? I feel even more now that it is, and that it has to be. To expect fame, money or even admiration and respect to follow is the height of folly, like standing on a golf course on a humid August day in North Carolina and waiting to be struck by lightning: not impossible, but not likely either. And the sad piles of review copies I always find lying around my office, unheralded and forgotten, are my cautionary lesson, my own little Ozymandias.

And so the adventure begins; or, no, continues.

Seventy-five percent in, and I feel how I have misjudged it in what I wrote, for at some point since then I  tipped over into the point at which fiction resembles magic. I no longer see Tolstoy’s little tricks, how he’s pulling the reader’s strings, but am simply being pulled by them. I’m utterly beguiled;anna I’ve forgotten I’m reading in translation. All I feel is how it’s all becoming deeper and somehow stranger and at the same time solid and real. Read the rest of this entry »

On Rereading Anna Karenina

December 16, 2014

What keyhole have we slipped through, what door has shut?
The shadows of the grasses inched round like the hands of a clock,
And from our opposite continents we wave and call.
Everything has happened.

All right, maybe not everything. But lots of stuff since March, when I wrote of my then newfound admiration for Anthony Trollope.

I fulfilled my goal of finishing my revision of The Jane Austen Project — a crucial reason for my silence here. That was back in September, or maybe October, depending on how one defines “finish” and “revision,” but now it is, it is, it is. No longer mine entirely, I am in the process of letting go of it. No one explains about that part in the books that tell you how to write a novel, what a problem it really is.

And can’t help wondering, as I reread Anna Karenina once again, did Tolstoy have this problem? Read the rest of this entry »

A mortifying admission, but I had never read anything by Anthony Trollope until last week.  My youthful hatred of Dickens cast a shadow over the entire Victorian era. Nor did it help that Trollope had written so many books, none universally acknowledged as drastically better than the others, so one could feel confident starting with that. It’s the Joyce Carol Oates problem, made worse (it must be acknowledged) by his being a 19th-century male. I expected — what? Sermons, sentimentality, one-dimensional female characters. What can I say? I was a fool.

“The Way We Live Now,” satirizes, among other things, financial fraud, the English aristocracy, marriage, and Americans. The narrator is wry and knowing, always making asides like “The reader hardly needs to be told that…” which might be annoying, except he’s so funny. There are lot of subplots and and lot of characters: some unabashedly worthless, some striving to do the right thing, and others an entertaining mixture of the above. Trollope is compassionate toward all of them, but never at the expense of being less than clear-sighted about their failings. I could quote many delightful passages, but this one — in which Lady Carbury, a scheming would-be literary lioness, tries to get an editor she knows to publicize her just-completed work — made me start laughing out loud in the subway:

“I suppose you never wrote a novel, Mr. Alf?”

“I? Oh dear no; I never write anything.”

“I have sometimes wondered whether I have hated or loved it the most. One becomes so absorbed in one’s plot and one’s characters! One loves the loveable so intensely, and hates with such fixed aversion those who are intended to be hated. When the mind is attuned to it, one is tempted to think that it is all so good. One cries at one’s own pathos, laughs at one’s own humour, and is lost in admiration at one’s own sagacity and knowledge.”

“How very nice!”

“But then there comes the reversed picture, the other side of the coin. On a sudden everything becomes flat, tedious, and unnatural. The heroine who was yesterday alive with the celestial spark is found to-day to be a lump of motionless clay. The dialogue that was so cheery on the first perusal is utterly uninteresting at a second reading. Yesterday I was sure that there was my monument,” and she put her hand upon the manuscript; “to-day I feel it to be only too heavy for a gravestone!”

“One’s judgment about one’s-self always does vacillate,” said Mr. Alf in a tone as phlegmatic as were the words.

To which I can only add, yes, yes, yes.

According to this literary analysis tool, which I came across by accident 3.5 years after originally writing about it, I now write like Arthur Clarke.

I don’t know. Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?

It goes without saying that having software analyze your prose is probably a bad idea. Particularly when we consider the Hemingway app. Or when we consider, as my earlier post noted, Margaret Atwood was found to write like Stephen King. But something has changed in the intervening 3.5 years; I would like to think for the better; for it is a bias of human nature (or at least my nature) to think we are always making progress toward something, as opposed to falling away from an original state of grace.

Cecilia, or Memoirs of an Heiress

I’ve just finished this. It hurt like a toothache the whole time I was reading, yet I feel strangely lost now that I am done.

People who complain that “Pride & Prejudice” lacks passion, a large group that includes not only Charlotte Bronte but apparently also the authors of “Pride & Promiscuity,” “Pride and Prejudice: The Wanton Edition” and “Mr. Darcy Takes a Wife,” should really try reading “Cecilia.” Compared to it, “Pride & Prejudice,” which gives us Darcy’s “fine, tall person, handsome features and noble mien” as well as Elizabeth’s “light and pleasing” figure and “fine eyes,” is like “Lady Chatterly’s Lover.”

Indeed, anyone who likes “Pride & Prejudice,” an even larger group, should consider reading this work.  There are weird echoes of “Cecilia” all over “P&P,” not least the very title, an allusion to a comment late in “Cecilia” that everything that went wrong between Cecilia and Mortimer could be attributed to the twin woes of PRIDE and PREJUDICE. (As is well known, its original title, “First Impressions,” had already been used by the time Jane Austen got around to finding a publisher in 1813.) “P&P,” like “Cecilia,” owes a debt to Samuel Johnson in its magnificent sentence structures. It explores how misunderstandings and status differences can thwart mutual attraction. It  also gives us a range of “types”: the pompous parson, the self-important country squire, the flirt, the pedant, the dashing soldier…Why, though, do Austen’s characters seem so much more plausible, less like the personifications of ideas? Why does Elizabeth Bennett never seem a victim of circumstances the way Cecilia, though richer, more virtuous  and arguably smarter, often does?

To say that Jane Austen was a genius, while Fanny Burney was a clever woman who wrote amusing novels, gets us only part of the way there. Another mystery is why I enjoyed this book so much at the same time as I was finding it utterly ridiculous. Do I  weigh old books on a different balance than contemporary fiction? I am afraid I probably do, but that’s also a problem for another day.


Fanny Burney’s second novel, published 1782, focuses on the lovely title character. Unusually for a woman of the 18th century, she is wealthy in her own right, with (as we learn early on) £10,000 free and clear  from her parents and an estate from an uncle that assures her an additional yearly income of £3,000. She is also beautiful, kind and intelligent. And  an orphan! Random fact that will turn out to be important is an odd condition  of her uncle’s will:  any man she marries must take her name and drop his own. Otherwise she will forfeit the yearly £3,000.

“Cecilia” begins with a painful slowness. (What I am saying? Despite being crowded with incident, it also continues with a painful slowness. For more than 1,000 pages!) It  starts with Cecilia a little short of her majority, losing her uncle and leaving Suffolk, where she had grown up, for London. Her uncle has left her in the care of three guardians: the husband of her best friend from childhood (for affection); a shrewd businessman in the city (who is supposed to safeguard her fortune) and a well-connected aristocrat (who is supposed to look after her in a social sense). All prove disastrous. Read the rest of this entry »

Time’s Arrow

January 1, 2014

I’ve said this before but I mean it: time to get to work. It’s time to set some goals and meet them. This s— isn’t writing itself, and I am not magically growing younger like Benjamin Button, or even staying in one place like the Tuck family.

This year I want to finally finish The Jane Austen Project, once and for all, send it on its way, and start thinking about something else.

And I want to write some shorter works. How many? Three, that seems like a reasonable number. One every four months? It doesn’t seem too arduous, surely?

One will be the idea that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now: “George and Georgette.” Orwell and Heyer. Meeting by chance in a bomb shelter. I know they were both in London during the Blitz at least part of the time; that’s all I want to know. Well, I want to know a little more about bomb shelters. But I don’t want to know too much about Heyer; this is not a fictionalized biographical fragment. What is it then? What is any writing about except what it means to be human?

I’ve been reading a lot lately, with little enthusiasm. How many novels there are in the world, and how lukewarm are the feelings one entertains for most of them! Even well-written books often fail to move me. Because writing well is just the start (though no small feat in itself), just as having a good idea is just the start. What else? One has to feel the writing is in the service of something, but what do I mean by that? That the story is both about itself and something else. The finger pointing at the moon, but also the moon itself. Does that make any sense? I could feel “The Goldfinch,” for instance, straining for this, but for me it never got there. I realize I am quite alone in that. Though not quite.


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