Reading will always go hand in hand with writing. Current reads are the tools we use to find what works for readers. Sometimes it’s easy to forget during the solidarity of the writing process that we write for others to read. The accepted content varies over time. For example consider a novel like Vanity Fair. In the 1800’s, extensive backstories and drab descriptions of settings were in good form. Exactly like Shakespeare. In the 1600’s, iambic pentameter or heptameter of George Chapman was popular. These days it’s concise prose without too much unjustified extra content, like backstory and description of the mundane. This will be about a few books I’ve read recently. I won’t keep you in suspense. They are The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Sharp Objects and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, and Storm Front (Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher.
One of my writer friends recommended The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, a Pulitzer Prize winner. The story is nearly an alt. history of the heyday in the comic books, the 1940’s through 1960’s. Along with Stan Lee and Sam Kirby, add Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay. Kavalier is a Jewish refugee from Nazi-controlled Europe previously the apprentice of an escape artist. Clay is a misanthropic writer interested in comic books and becoming the next great American writer. Clay penned the inking and Kavalier did the illustrations. The story followed their lives for the next two decades.
This book taught me a few valuable lessons. Literary prose works for established writers. Getting people to read literary prose from a yet unpublished writer is asking too much. Chabon used lots of words that were new to me like prestidigitation, opprobrium, and razz among others. A pre-collegiate vocabulary isn’t enough to write at a high level. Chabon frequently went on tangents, devoting page space to the stories written by Clay. Large parts of the book detail the fictional comic book heroes, The Escapist and Luna Moth. I liked these parts a lot. Chabon made me wish to actually read the comics he described. The Escapist thrilled me. Luna Moth was perfectly hot and written with style. Going on tangents can work if done expertly.
Two books by Gillian Flynn taught me a lot. I’ll start with Gone Girl, the one I read first. The story started with Nick Dunne waking up next to his wife, Amy Eliot Dunne. We follow along as Nick left their house that morning. We watch the events as he discovered his wife is missing. Nick’s experiences through the investigation is chronicled. In the meantime, we read through Amy’s journal from the night they first met onward.
Gone Girl was amazing. Flynn found a way to justify an incredible amount of backstory. In Amy’s journals, we are looking for an evidence that Nick is capable of killing his wife. Amy left a series of limericks as part of this anniversary tradition they have. This allows Nick a chance to relive even more memories as he follows Amy steps before her disappearance. Throughout Amy’s journal, she wrote a series of multiple choice questions. After all, she was a quiz writer at some magazine. The story is allegorical to the dynamic within a marriage. Strong writing brought the story through easily to the reader.
This novel taught me a few important lessons. Great writing with a great story sells. Gone Girl was on the New York Times Best Sellers List for over two years, won two awards, and was made into a movie. A well selling book is relatable. Intense literary tendencies can work if done really well or above par.
Sharp Objects is about a young reporter returning to her hometown, to follow-up on a serial murder investigation. Going home, brings back a lot of old memories. Everything is creepy in a way that adds character to a small town. The end is nearly impossible to figure out.
A few lessons saw me through to the end. There is place for complicated sentences in modern, non-literary fiction. Feel free to include introductory, dependent, independent, and concluding clauses as long as the coherence or smoothness doesn’t reduce. Details are okay if it adds something like a feeling you want to convey, hints, misleads, or does something to make the story better. It doesn’t matter who you are, traditionally publishing a first book over 200 pages is incredibly difficult, if not impossible without something else going for you. Gillian Flynn was a reporter for Entertainment Weekly and her first book is 200 pages long.
Station Eleven is a literary science fiction novel that redefined what sells. The story follows the creator of a small batch comic titled as Station Eleven. The comic was about a lone doctor on space station destined for destruction. We follow the comic author’s life through her relationship with a previously famous actor and beyond to death. The actor connected with a young girl on the set of a play. We follow this young girl after some type of apocalypse. Another character is followed through the cataclysm. Basically a literary novel without an easily defined plot but gives a feeling of actually being there.
Emily St. John Mandel is a great writer that has a lot to teach. I remember this one sentence that, simply put was amazing. I read this one sentence that perfectly summarized the work duties of an executive assistant. This sounds boring but encapsulated in a richly complex sentence made it interesting beyond belief. After reading the paragraph, it was stunning to see it was all of three sentence. I have a ton of work left to be that good, especially that smooth. Literary novels follow characters, things, and places through a series of event to shed light on existential questions. Keeping the reader oriented can be difficult, but when it works, you can do anything.
The Goldfinch follows the young Theodore Decker after his mother dies in a tragic museum explosion. He spends a years with his gambling father in Las Vegas. Then we see years an apprentice and an antique dealer. Finally married to a beautiful woman. Through it all, we feel his emptiness and longing for what he lost all those years ago.
This book is dense. For maybe the first time, a modern book required me or the reader to slow down and take in everything. I can’t imagine writing and editing a book for ten years. My motivation wouldn’t survive that long for one project. Literary novels create experiences with beautiful imagery. This can be done by making the ordinary pretty or choosing events that allow lavish imagery. Donna Tartt does this through a series of drug experiences and smoky, dark scenes with nothing happening very fast. There is literary and then there is great literary.
Infinite Jest is the longest book I’ve ever read. David Foster Wallace wrote a book that’s a traumatic experience to read. It incorporates a little of everything from drug addiction, depression, film theory, world diplomacy, tennis, and North American diplomacy among other things. The story follows a family that owns a tennis academy, a rehabilitation center just down the road, and a meeting between American counter-intelligence agent and a double agent from a Canadian terrorist group. That meeting got annoying with the frequency Wallace returned to it and its length. The use of parentheses to denote the antecedent of pronouns was frustrating. The ending left me disappointed. There was such a long build-up and the ending was outside the time frame of the prose. Wallace doesn’t hold our hand through to the end and shoves us to figure it out. The length made me really struggle to put the ending together. All that aside, Wallace gives us an almost unabashed look into the human psyche at its worst.
Wallace gave me a few irreplacable tips. Merging different styles can slow a read down but you need literary clout to keep a reader in it. Infinite Jest uses ebonics, first person, third person, monologue, footnotes, and various other styles throughout. Detours are again okay. A grasp of words beyond most, makes a book really hard to read.
Then we have Storm Front (Dresden Files #1). A wizard/private detective investigates two different cases. The plot is rote. The two cases have to collide right? Add in wizardry, a police detective, a overseeing wizarding board breathing down his neck, a few rules about what’s allowed, and dark magic to get Strom Front. The language simple and easy to digest. The wording steps out of the way and puts the story front and center.
I learned a lot that supports everything I’m getting into. Simple construction works really well. Readers like familiarity. The woman characters are femme fatales with a slight variation, usually. We have a hot reporter with a pen instead of a gun. A pretty detective with a badge and gun. A true femme fetale with information and no gun. I really liked a scene where the wizard questions the woman with information. Butcher does a really good job describing her smoky, contralto voice. I did something like that but not really well in my first book. I need to keep working on maintaining a feeling for an extended period of time. Keep the action coming and use the lulls wisely. Choose when to give exposition and what to say with care. Add something new to the genre like the present day, vampires, and sex as used by Butcher.
Reading is invaluable to a writer. It has always been a big part of my life and will continue to be. These books were read over the course of a year. Another year of reading will bring more lessons and interesting worlds. I look forward to it. Come back in two weeks for the next post. Until then, Graham Kar out.