Harper Lee and the Fellowship of Novelists

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I’ve been more intrigued than I ever imagined being about the fuss surrounding the release of “Go Set a Watchman.” I had expected it to be merely a failed “Mockingbird,” cynically dusted off and sold; the reality turns out to be vastly more interesting.

Old-media to care about such things, but Michiko Kakutani’s review made 1A of the New York Times! Above the fold! And what does it take to get a book review to 1A, aside from being a long-lost (or at least, long-ignored) work by the reclusive author of one of America’s best-loved novels of the 20th century? Continue reading

Plot vs. Character

Everything I’ve read lately (including “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” of which more anon) seems to point me back to this perplexing problem. How do these two elements of fiction work together?

Plot reveals character, just as people, in real life, define themselves by action. That’s certainly true, and no one would dare argue with it.

But. Is it more accurate to say that character drives plot? That the kind of person one is determines what one wants, what one does, what one comes into conflict with — in other words, the essence of plot?

When fiction is done really well, it’s almost impossible to untangle these two things – they seem organically fused, events unfolding naturally, characters driven to action both by their inner nature and by what happens to them. Think of anything by Jane Austen, for instance. Or Tolstoy. Or “Middlemarch.”

Less successful fiction is more instructive in this regard, as it so often is. Continue reading

‘Station Eleven’ and ‘Dietland’: Is There an Ideal Age to Read a Book?

Giorgione, The Three Ages of Man, Palazzo Pitti
Giorgione, The Three Ages of Man, Palazzo Pitti

Now that I am reading novels again besides my own, I’ve found myself wondering this.

Certainly, there are things you read not being old enough to understand them; anyone who grew up bookish and nerdy knows about this. I read “A Tale of Two Cities” with a dogged sense of purpose and complete incomprehension when bedridden with some childhood ailment, maybe age 9 or 10. I tried to read “Lolita” at 14 and gave up, freaked out by its creepy narrator and innocent of the notion of literary irony.

Then there are the children’s books read and loved only as an adult. They might not have been written when one is the right age to read them — in my case Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy — or were inexplicably missed; I think especially of “Tuck Everlasting” and “I Capture the Castle.” I read all these in my 30s, and thought two things: These are amazing! And, I should have read them 15 or 20 years earlier.

The revelation I’ve had lately is that this process might continue. Continue reading

Done and Done

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.

Forget ’50 Shades of Grey.’ Go Read ‘Clarissa.’

clarissa

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? Continue reading

Harper Lee and Happenstance

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?

Plot Twist: In Which ‘The Jane Austen Project’ Is Acquired

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.