Friday, July 20, 2018

Short novels or long novels?

Anyone and everyone taking a writing class knows that the secret of good writing is to cut it back, pare it down, winnow, chop, hack, prune and trim, remove every superfluous word,  compress, compress, compress.
Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree

Nick Hornby
Having liberally paraphrased the advice given by writing instructors everywhere, Nick Hornby goes on to rip it apart. He does this in his May 2004 column for Believer. That month the only book he writes about is David Copperfield by Charles Dickens because that is the only book he had time to read that month. Dickens could write short, as he did with A Christmas Carol, but mostly he wrote long, usually very long. Most of his novels were written under contract with periodicals that demanded so many words per issue for so many months. Thus the author, like others of his day, had to invent numerous characters and plotlines to keep his story going for the required length. Did he worry about chopping, hacking, pruning and compressing? Hardly. Was he a successful writer? You bet. People like Hornby are still reading him with pleasure.

I happen to be in the midst of a different Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, nearly 800 pages long with enough characters to populate a village. I'm loving it. Several years ago I listened to an abridgment of Great Expectations and felt something missing. It was the same story I remembered, but it didn't seem like Dickens. The characters were there, at least most of them, but they seemed stripped of their personalities. We can be glad Dickens never had a writing coach.

I also happen to be reading Susan Hill's Black Sheep, just 135 pages long. The story covers a period of several years, much longer than Our Mutual Friend. Certainly much is left out of Hill's narrative that other writers would have put in, yet her book works, just as those by Dickens do.

Hornby observes that short novels are usually humorless because jokes are the easiest things to cut out. Certainly Dickens mixes a great deal of humor into his novels, humor that can be neatly excised in abridgments, but I doubt that Hill ever cut any jokes out of Black Sheep. It just isn't the kind of novel to have had any to begin with.

The proper length of a novel, it seems to me, depends on three factors:

The author

Some writers, such as Thomas Wolfe, are just long-winded. An editor once complained of Marcel Proust, "I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." Other writers have a gift for saying much with few words. You might put Susan Hill in that camp.

The story

Lonesome Dove and Gone with the Wind were stories that took many pages to tell. The Old Man and the Sea not nearly as many. We can often sense when a novel seems padded because the publisher or author wanted more pages than the story demanded.

The reader

There may be two kinds of readers. One takes pride in the number of books read and so values shorter books, or at least longer books that can be read quickly. The other is more concerned with thrift. Why take two thin books to the beach when one fat book will do the job? Long books usually give a reader more pages for the buck. Hornby writes, "Go on, young writers -- treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won't mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluidity."

That is, we readers like superfluidity when the writer is good and when the story is good.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Reading literary criticism for amusement

The best reason to buy Believer magazine has long been Nick Hornby's column. Each month he lists the books he has bought and the books he has read  (a good exercise for all of us who tend to buy more books than we can possibly read) and then writes about those read.

To most people literary criticism is not a comic art form, but it is to this British novelist, who dissects books of all kinds briefly with both wit and insight. The first fourteen columns he wrote for Believer, dating from September 2003 to November 2004, were collected in the slim book The Polysyllabic Spree, printed by the magazine.

The challenge for those of us who write about books is to write about them in such a way that people who might never have an interest in a book will nevertheless read and enjoy a review of that book. That has always been my goal in this blog. Hornby actually accomplishes it, at least most of the time. An example is the column in which he writes about On and Off the Field, a book about cricket by Ed Smith. Hornby acknowledges that most readers of his column are Americans who care nothing about cricket, but since he loves the game and the book, he writes about it first one month saying, "you have to wade through the cricket to get to the Chekhov and the Roddy Doyle." You still may not have an urge to either read Smith's book or sit through a cricket match, but you will love what Hornby has to say about both.

Hornby has diverse reading tastes, as his inclusion of both a book about cricket and Anton Chekhov's A Life in Letters might suggest. He reads older books by the likes of Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Wilkie Collins and John Buchan, as well as contemporary ones. Sometimes he goes on a binge, such as a month devoted to J.D. Salinger or another to Dennis Lehane. Mostly he seems to just pick up books at random, some recent purchases and some he has had on his shelves for awhile.

What confuses me is that as a writer of a popular book review column, publishers must send him loads of books they would like for him to comment on, yet there is little mention of this. Each month he just lists those books he has purchased. sometimes even explaining where and how he purchased them. So what happens to all those unsolicited books that come in the mail?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Forward and back on the Camino

Two Steps Forward may be the title of a recently published novel by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist, but the novel itself completes the phrase, "Two steps forward, one step back."

Simsion and Buist's two main characters and co-narrators, Martin and Zoe, are both middle-aged and newly single, he because of a nasty divorce and she because of the death of her husband. They meet while walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient route taken by pilgrims that stretches from France across northern Spain. The way does not go smoothly, and we are not talking about the Camino. Like confused magnets, they repel, then attract, repel, then attract. They all but become lovers, then one or the other takes off alone down trail without explanation. Soon enough they meet again, only to repeat the process.

These sorts of things happen in romantic novels, but still it quickly gets old here. Fortunately the authors provide welcome diversions in the form of subplots. Martin, an engineer from Great Britain, devises a cart to carry his gear and uses his pilgrimage as a marketing tool, hoping to sell his idea to a manufacturer. He also has a teenage daughter back home entangled in an affair with a married man. The American Zoe, meanwhile, learns her husband's fatal accident may have actually been a suicide. Plus there's news she will soon become a grandmother. An international cast of supporting characters also helps keep things somewhat interesting.

Then Simsion and Buist give us an ending that helps us all but forget the on-again-off-again romantic silliness of the previous 300 pages.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Close but not involved

Having devoted my career to journalism, I perked up whenever E.L. Doctorow, or his narrator McIlvaine, reflected on newspapers, reporters or writing in general in the novel The Waterworks. Here are some of those reflections, as well as some of my own.

Professionally you try to get as close to things as possible, but never to the point of involvement.

Close but not involved. That’s a fine line for a journalist, but an important one. Obviously that reporter who made news herself recently by sleeping with her sources crossed that line.

We did not feel it necessary to assume an objective tone in our reporting then. We were more honest and straightforward and did not make such a sanctimonious thing if objectivity, which is finally a way of constructing an opinion for the reader without letting him know that you are.

The narrator is writing about newspapers of the 1870s from the perspective of old age, sometime in the 20th century. In the 19th century objectivity was not the journalistic ideal it later became. It seems to me that, especially in the Trump era, newspapers have been returning to the avoidance of objectivity that McIlvaine idealizes. No longer are editorial opinions confined to editorial pages. Front-page headlines often suggest positive or negative inferences to be made from the news, and there seems to be more partisan selectivity in which stories are told and which are ignored. At my newspaper, especially during the 1970s and 1980s when I was the editorial page editor, we even tried to keep the editorial page somewhat objective by endorsing a mix of both Republicans and Democrats and maintaining a balance of liberal and conservative syndicated columnists.

He was appreciative! God forgive me — I could only think this spells ruin for him as a writer.

Elsewhere McIlvaine writes that a journalist never apologizes for a story. It’s the same idea, and close to the idea above of remaining uninvolved while staying close. A reporter doesn’t want to owe anything to a news source, and both appreciation and apologies imply debt. And debts must be repaid.

Did that mean I found myself prepared to put the interests of the story ahead of the lives of the people involved in it?

Doctorow’s story ultimately challenges the narrator’s fine journalism principles. To print his story will adversely affect the lives of people he has come to care about. I have been in that situation as a journalist, if not quite as dramatically. Most reporters have. One’s ideals as a journalist can sometimes conflict with one’s ideals as a human being.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Paradise in captivity

“Who knew that being kidnapped was so much like attending university?” Gen said.
Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

In Ann Patchett’s magical 2001 novel Bel Canto, a prolonged hostage situation in an unnamed Latin America country turns into an educational opportunity for both hostages and terrorists. A tiny ragtag liberation army composed mostly of teenagers, including two girls, crashes a birthday party for a prominent Japanese businessman, Katsumi Hosokawa, held at the vice president’s home. The featured guest is the celebrated American opera singer Roxane Coss, because Hosokawa loves opera. The terrorists had planned to kidnap the country’s president and trade him for the release of political prisoners, but the president has stayed home to watch his favorite soap opera. So Roxane becomes the big prize, along with all of the male party guests, who come from a variety of countries and speak a variety of languages.

The negotiations drag on for months, during which time the situation becomes not just the normal but the ideal. Roxane falls in love with Hosokawa, even though they cannot speak the same language. Gen, the translator and thus the most valuable person in the house, falls in love with Carmen, a pretty soldier whom he teaches to read and write. Another young soldier learns to play chess, while another, with Roxane’s instruction, learns to sing opera. The vice president, who has never done manual labor in his life, develops skills at both housekeeping and gardening. And so on.

As one of the generals says near the end of the novel, “It makes you wonder. All the brilliant things we might have done with our lives if only we suspected we knew how.”

Yet as prevalent as this education theme may be in the novel, it is not the dominant one. That has to do with service, grace, second chances and the power of music. The vice president becomes a humble servant after his servants are released. Gen, the translator everyone depends on, becomes everyone’s servant, as well. Beatriz, the other female soldier, confesses to a priest for the first time in her life, discovering the freedom in forgiveness.

Then there is Roxane. Again and again we find lines like these when she sings, something that becomes the highlight of everyone’s day: “God’s own voice poured from her,” “such a voice must come from God” and “she sang as if she was saving the life of every person in the room.”

If captivity can become a paradise, then rescue paradoxically becomes paradise lost. Patchett’s ending brings the harsh real world back and disappoints for that reason. Readers, like both the captors and the captives, much prefer the captivity of the book’s first nine chapters.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Understated horror

The best historical novels read as if they were written in the time they are being written about. It can’t be easy to create that illusion, while at the same time producing a story contemporary readers can appreciate, understand and identify with. E.L. Doctorow does all this nicely in his 1994 novel The Waterworks.

Doctorow’s narrator is McIlvaine, a now aged newspaperman remembering his best story, one he couldn’t dare tell in his newspaper back in the 1870s when it all occurred. Now, after so many years, it doesn’t matter whether anyone believes it or not.

Martin Pemberton, a freelance or what we would today call a freelancer, mentions one day that he has seen his father. No big deal, except for the fact that his father, Augustus Pemberton (a wealthy, disreputable businessman) is dead and buried. McIlvaine assumes his reporter is just mistaken, until Martin disappears and the newsman learns that when the old man’s grave is opened the body of a boy is found inside. To help find Martin, McIlvaine enlists the services of one of the few honest cops in New York City during the Boss Tweed era,  Capt. Edmund Donne. When they find Martin he is being held captive in, of all places, an orphanage.

The shocking story Martin later tells involves a mad doctor of the Doctor Moreau school of medicine who convinces dying old men of great wealth to, in exchange for passing that wealth on to him, gain, if not immortality, at least extra years of blissful existence as guinea pigs in a great scientific experiment. How the doctor makes use of the orphans is another part of the horror.

Other writers might have taken Doctorow’s plot, doubled the length of the novel (Doctorow’s goes barely 250 pages), added more deaths and sex and shocks, and gotten a bestseller in the horror genre. Doctorow earned his bestseller with an understated literary novel in which most of the horror comes secondhand. For someone like me who doesn’t go for horror anyway, secondhand is more than good enough.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Almost like a novel

To that list of creative historian/biographers that includes Erik Larson, Candice Millard and, way back when, Truman Capote, you can add the name Brad Ricca, whose recent Mrs. Sherlock Holmes proves that the earlier Super Boys was no fluke.

By the use of the word creative I mean to suggest that these writers write history and biography in the manner of novelists. In the second chapter of Ricca's newer book, for example, we read "Twenty-year-old Christina wiped away the steam and scraped at the spidery frost on the window." Well, 100 years later, how do we know Christina wiped away steam and scraped frost from the window. Perhaps because we know it was a frigid February day in New York City and that is what one would do in order to look out a window, and looking out a window is what one might do if one's sister is very late coming home.

Ricca gives pages and pages of notes and references to justify such sentences as this. A reader feels confident that if this isn't exactly what happened, it must be close to what happened.

The real problem with Ricca's book about a female lawyer who a century ago won brief fame for her detective skills is that while he may tell the story as if it were a novel, the story itself doesn't quite cooperate. Most people's lives don't have plots, as I mentioned in a blog post a few weeks ago ("Story vs. plot," June 8, 2018). Grace Humiston makes quite a splash, then fades into relative obscurity. The book ends with more whimper than bang, but the first couple hundred pages make excellent reading.

The case that occupies most of the book involves a young woman, Christina's sister Ruth Cruger, who never returns home from ice skating. Her father insists his daughter is a good girl who would never run away from home. The police think otherwise, but they do search a motorcycle shop owned by Alfredo Cocchi where Ruth is believed to have stopped. No evidence is found, yet later Cocchi himself disappears and turns up in Italy, leaving his wife behind in New York.

Henry Cruger, the girl's father, hires Grace Humiston to investigate. She becomes convinced that Ruth is dead and that Cocchi is involved. The body must be in the basement of his workshop, which Mrs. Cocchi guards zealously. Eventually Humiston’s team of investigators do find the body exactly where she knew it would be.

Cocchi makes two confessions, one that he killed Ruth to stop her screaming when he sexually assaulted her and a second that his wife killed her. Yet he is never returned to New York to stand trial. Various police officers are held accountable, however, both for failing to find the body when they searched the shop and for showing Cocchi favoritism because he often worked on their motorcycles and was a friend of theirs. This turned the police against Humiston.

Other reversals follow, and her reputation suffers. She remains a champion of missing girls, but with diminishing success. Ricca tells the story well, much like a novel, but because it is true, it cannot end like one.