‘Longbourn’ and Pig Shit Realism



All the time I was reading Jo Baker’s “Longbourn” I had the sensation of not being able to decide if I liked it.  This is unusual;  feckless and tentative as I am in most realms of human activity, I am generally confident in my literary judgments.  Now come to the end, I am still not quite sure.

The story, in case anyone  missed the large splash it made upon publication in 2014, is “Pride and Prejudice” from the viewpoint of the Bennets’ servants. A brilliant, can’t-miss idea. I like to imagine Ms. Baker, tormented by insomnia and casting around for her next idea for a novel, sitting up in bed.


If My Debut Novel Is Ever Made Into a Major Motion Picture…

A big +if+ I realize, but one must live in hope.

….I want this song played over the closing credits. I’d never even heard of Leatherface until a few days ago and now I can’t stop listening to this, the way one sometimes can’t.

What is it about this combination of a schmaltzy Elvis song (“I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You”) and the brisk cadence of an early 1990s punk band? Fucking magical. And what does it have to do with “The Jane Austen Project,” which is about time travel to 1815? A reasonable question.


.I would like to beg you dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

‘Mrs. Engels’ and the Triumph of Voice

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It’s been a couple of weeks since I read “Mrs. Engels” by Gavin McCrea, but it’s stayed with me. The memory, not the actual book, which I immediately mailed it to my brother-in-law upon completing, because it’s also the sort of work one feels compelled to share. In short, it was amazing. Continue reading

Harper Lee and the Fellowship of Novelists

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.