Finding the common language

“At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business. We’d just come to the end of a period of silence and ill will—a year I’d spent in love with and in the same apartment as an odd, fragile girl whom he had loathed, on sight, with a frankness and a fury that were not at all like him. But Claire had moved out the month before. Neither my father nor I knew what to do with our new freedom.”

That’s the opening paragraph of Michael Chabon’s The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Contrast it with the opening paragraphs of Steven Millhauser’s Portrait of a Romantic:

“Mother of myself, myself I sing: lord of loners, duke of dreams, king of the clowns. Youth and death I sing, sunbeams and moonbeams, laws and breakers of laws. I Arthur Grumm, lover and killer.

“And you, dark angels of my adolescence: you too I sing, O restless ones. Setting forth this day in my twenty-ninth year, on the voyage of my dreaming youth. I, Arthur Grumm . . .”

And the second paragraph of Stephen King’s The Body:

“I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in 1960, a long time ago . . . although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me. Especially on the nights I wake up from dreams where the hail falls into his open eyes.”

Finally, J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye:

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.  In the first place, that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them.  They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father.  They’re nice and all — I’m not saying that — but they’re also touchy as hell.  Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goddam autobiography or anything.  I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out here and take it easy.  I mean that’s all I told D.B. about, and he’s my brother and all.  He’s in Hollywood.  That isn’t too far from this crumby place, and he comes over and visits me practically every week end.  He’s going to drive me home when I go home next month maybe.  He just got a Jaguar.  One of those little English jobs that can do around two hundred miles an hour.  It cost him damn near four thousand bucks.  He’s got a lot of dough, now.  He didn’t use to.  He used to be just a regular writer, when he was home.  He wrote this terrific book of short stories, “The Secret Goldfish.”  It was about this little kid that wouldn’t let anybody look at his goldfish because he’d bought it with his own money.  It killed me.  Now he’s out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute.  If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.  Don’t even mention them to me.”

Each author is making a candid and fairly transparent offer of a coming of age story to the prospective reader. Which (if any) offer do you accept, and why? I say “you” because the process is quite personal and individual.

Perhaps the initial question is whether you want to read a first-person coming of age story. Are you interested at the moment in how some big event changed the life view of an adolescent male? If so, which one?

King is simple and direct. Chabon is complex and direct. Millhauser is complex and indirect. Salinger is simple and indirect. I suppose lesson one is that the combination of complexity and indirectness is unlikely to lead to wide readership. Amongst the other three possibilities, simplicity appears to rule.

To be continued . . .

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My hope from a novel

I want a glimpse of the author’s soul. That’s all. For me, structure and other aspects of writing technique are mere tools for discovering, between author and reader, a common language. I believe the concept of genre is merely a deeply flawed system devised by publishers to aid booksellers in deciding where to shelve fiction, as well as aiding editors in guiding authors into convenient and effective marketing pigeonholes (and embraced by academics eager to explain and disdain popular fiction). The notion makes sense for non-fiction. There’s a fairly clear distinction between cookbooks and biography (though hardly absolute). Fiction is far more problematic. Is Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian a “Western?” Is it “Southern Literature?” Is Conrad’s Heart of Darkness an “Adventure?” Are any of Jodi Picoult’s many novels “Literary Fiction” (Barnes & Noble shelves them thusly)? Will James Patterson be showing up on the same shelf (shelves, really) sometime soon? Will the “P” shelves collapse under the burden?

James Wood, in his non-fiction book on literary criticism, How Fiction Works, makes the argument (though I don’t believe he ever says it exactly thus) that “Literature” teaches the reader new language. Stephen King, in his “Second Foreword” to his non-fiction work on writing craft, On Writing, makes the admission, “[f]iction writers, present company included, don’t understand very much about what they do—not why it works when it’s good, not why it doesn’t when it’s bad.” I agree with him to the extent that I believe, most of the time, the creation of “Literature” is a happy accident. Glimpses of the author’s soul are provided inadvertently (and I believe, more often, are hidden deliberately). And an author who sits down determined to write “Literature” is much more likely to create an unreadable abomination than a masterpiece. Thinking about metaphor rarely produces a compelling story.

I applaud authors who share something worthwhile that’s heartfelt. The fourth chapter of James Lee Burke’s Burning Angel begins: “After you’re a police officer for a while, you encounter certain temptations. They come to you as all seductions do, in increments, a teaspoon at a time, until you discover you made an irrevocable hard left turn down the road someplace and you wake up one morning in a moral wasteland with no idea who you are.” I’m sure it’s sentences like these that caused him to be called “the Faulkner of crime fiction,” not unlike Elmore Leonard being called “the Dickens of Detroit.” Hyperbole unfair to everyone, particularly if they start to believe it, but clearly illustrative of the marked tension between creating and marketing. Marketing wins, most of the time.

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Ernest Hemingway forever

I’m re-reading “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” this morning. The story has so much to offer in so many ways. Hemingway’s familiar emotional battles are prominent with a full catalog of the enemies, all of which restrain his writing: 1) the finiteness of life (God as editor, so to speak)(and the paradox that this finiteness provides dramatic interest to this and most of his stories); 

 “So now it was all over, he thought. So now he would never have a chance to finish it. So this was the way it ended in a bickering over a drink. Since the gangrene started in his right leg he had no pain and with the pain the horror had gone and all he felt now was a great tiredness and anger that this was the end of it. For this, that now was coming, he had very little curiosity. For years it had obsessed him; but now it meant nothing in itself. It was strange how easy being tired enough made it.

“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well. Well, he would not have to fail at trying to write them either. Maybe you could never write them, and that was why you put them off and delayed the starting. Well he would never know, now.”


 “There wasn’t time, of course, although it seemed as though it telescoped so that you might put it all into one paragraph if you could get it right”

 2) the need to satisfy editors, critics, and readers;

 “Can’t you let a man die as comfortably as he can without calling him names? What’s the use of slanging me?”


 “It was not her fault that when he went to her he was already over. How could a woman know that you meant nothing that you said; that you spoke only from habit and to be comfortable? After he no longer meant what he said, his lies were more successful with women than when he had told them the truth.

 “It was not so much that he lied as that there was no truth to tell. He had had his life and it was over and then he went on living it again with different people and more money, with the best of the same places, and some new ones.”

 and 3) the temptations of leisure and lethargy (comfort);

 “You kept from thinking and it was all marvellous. You were equipped with good insides so that you did not go to pieces that way, the way most of them had, and you made an attitude that  you cared nothing for the work you used to do, now that you could no longer do it. But, in yourself, you said that you would write about these people; about the very rich; that you were really not of them but a spy in their country; that you would leave it and write of it and for once it would be written by some one who knew what he was writing of [thumb in your eye, Scott Fitzgerald]. But he would never do it, because each day of not writing, of comfort, of being that which he despised, dulled his ability and softened his will to work so that, finally, he did no work at all.”

 The technique he uses is noteworthy, starting the clock with the first sentences:

 “The marvellous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

 Here is “Larry,” terminal with full awareness of his coming death. Close third-person, punctuated by flashbacks. Dialogue versus inner monologue. Too raw for memoir. Then for the final five paragraphs, the viewpoint shifts to that of Larry’s lover, because Larry is gone…

A master at work.

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An Elmore Leonard sampler

For my tastes, Elmore Leonard was at his very best in his sixties, from about 1988 through 1996. Published at the core of the period were Get Shorty and Rum Punch. They formed the basis for two fine films, Get Shorty and Jackie Brown. They are both clever entertaining novels, and more. Each features a hero on the fringe of the criminal world (Chili Palmer, a collector for a loan shark, in Get Shorty, and Max Cherry, a bail bondsman, in Rum Punch), and a pair of murderous thugs (Ronnie Wingate and Bo Catlett in Get Shorty, and Ordell Robbie and Louis Gara in Rum Punch). But what distinguishes these two novels (which both read like a dream and sparkle with Leonardesque dialogue) are their portrayals of two women (Karen Flores, actress and Hollywood ex-wife in Get Shorty, and Jackie Burke, flight attendant and smuggler, in Rum Punch) caught in the whirlpools created by all those greedy, competitive men. Elmore Leonard’s female characters perpetually deserve better than what life has handed them (and sometimes they get it). So if you enjoy clever, fast-paced crime fiction and haven’t read these two, what are you waiting for?

But my real point concerns a Leonard short story, part of the collection first published as When the Women Come Out to Dance, and more recently titled Fire in the Hole (the title of the story that was the inspiration for the series “Justified”). It is “The Tonto Woman”, and at sixteen pages it is a perfect introduction to all of Leonard’s authorial qualities. And his use of women in his fiction. And it reminds us that once upon a time Leonard wrote some terrific Westerns. It opens:

“A time would come, within a few years, when Ruben Vega would go to the church in Benson, kneel in the confessional, and say to the priest, ‘Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been thirty-seven years since my last confession …. Since then I have fornicated with many women, maybe eight hundred. No, not that many, considering my work. Maybe six hundred only.’ And the priest would say, ‘Do you mean bad women or good women?’ And Ruben Vega would say, ‘They are all good, Father.’ He would tell the priest he had stolen, in that time, about twenty thousand head of cattle but only maybe fifteen horses. The priest would ask him if he had committed murder. Ruben Vega would say no. ‘All that stealing you’ve done,’ the priest would say, ‘you’ve never killed anyone?’ And Ruben Vega would say, ‘Yes, of course, but it was not to commit murder. You understand the distinction? Not to kill someone to take a life, but only to save my own.’

“Even in this time to come, concerned with dying in a state of sin, he would be confident. Ruben Vega knew himself, when he was right, when he was wrong.”

Elmore Leonard did as well.

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Faux reviews: No help reviews, part two

Here are the first four paragraphs of the novel Last Autumn by Jeff Conine (not the baseball player):

“Jake jerked up from his deep, dreamless stupor with an urgent sadism. Wide-eyed, his sweat-matted head eased a slow retreat onto the pillow. He hoped the morning’s chill would clear the haze. Minutes later the fog lifted: she was coming today.


“This registered, he leapt from bed and scrambled for his alarm clock. In his adrenaline-etched haste, he slipped, cracking his knee against the bedside table–an old crate bumpy with candle wax, overlaid with a cigarette-scarred cloth–sending a near empty jug of wine ass over tit into some beer empties. As the Dago Red fluid anointed the aluminum, he stared, his mind encumbered in vague memory of the night before–and all those before, leading a domino-lined blackness backwards, out of memory to some half-lit past where it must have been different.


“He found the clock peering up at him from a heap of poetry chapbooks scattered on his steamer trunk next to his desk. Nervously he checked the time. Ten-thirty. Christ, he cursed as he surveyed his cabin, crib’s a mess–no way to clean this bastard up in time.


“He sighed. No surprise: the cabin hadn’t had many thorough cleanings in the many moons he had come to call it home. In its present state, though never a garden club showplace, it looked worse than usual. He nodded knowingly at this recent development as he looked back at the clock.”

Included on its Amazon listing are the following editorial reviews:

A well constructed tale with lifelike characters…another well told tale by Jeff Conine. — Anne K. Edwards Book Reviews Weekly

An impressive and auspicious novel by a writer enjoying his craft. — Irish novelist Niall Quinn, author of Welcome to Gomorrah and Cafe Cong.

strong, no-holds barred portrait of a writer on the skids, seeking his own kind of truth…the writer’s dilemma, — Mitch Waldman Scibe’s World Reviews

well written…excellent command of language…stark, devoid of sentiment…isolated coast a major character. I stayed until the end. — Judy Fleagle, Senior Editor, Oregon Coast Magazine

I was unable to independently verify any of the above. The novel also has four five star reader reviews on Amazon, and a single four star one.

Amazon, of course, experienced a scandal when it was revealed that there was a cottage industry of persons selling authors favorable “reader reviews.” They purged a bunch of reviews, but apparently not nearly enough. Buyer beware.

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Book Reviews that are no help

“I hated it. … His stories are brutal, man. They make me want to kill myself.”

This easily represents the typical one-star review on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere. I borrowed it from the terrific screenplay adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel, Wonder Boys, by Steve Klovis. Here is a real one from Amazon, of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, by a reader identifying herself as Talia:

“i was forced to read this book in school and i absolutely hated it. the movie wasn’t that bad but the book was terrible. if i had a machine to erase every memory i had of this book, i would use it.”

Now for five stars:

I loved this novel! I instantly realized why it is a classic and why it will remain so.

This from Elisa Alberto, also evaluating To Kill a Mockingbird.

For a review to be helpful to readers, it needs to include more than whether the reviewer loved (or hated) the book. The fact that Talia hated it and Elisa loved it (knowing neither of them) gives me no notion of whether it will be a satisfying reading experience for me. Readers need to know the reviewer’s criteria. Reviewers, please tell us what and why.

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Writing quality

In my previous post, I presented a couple of examples of efficient writing, books that I would rate a 9 or 10 in that regard. Today I’m going to provide examples of writing quality, a couple that would rate 9 or 10, and one that would be a 2 or 3.

The first 9 or 10 is Norman Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost:

“On a late-winter evening in 1983, while driving through fog along the Maine coast, recollections of old campfires began to drift into the March mist, and I thought of the Abnaki Indians of the Algonquin tribe who dwelt near Bangor a thousand years ago.”

The second is Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again:

“It was the hour of twilight on a soft spring day toward the end of April in the year of Our Lord 1929, and George Webber leaned his elbows on the sill of his back window and looked out at what he could see of New York. His eye took in the towering mass of the new hospital at the end of the block, its upper floors set back in terraces, the soaring walls salmon colored in the evening light. This side of the hospital, and directly opposite, was the lower structure of the annex, where the nurses and the waitresses lived. In the rest of the block half a dozen old brick houses, squeezed together in a solid row, leaned wearily against each other and showed their backsides to him.”

In these opening paragraphs, the authors are “setting the table, introducing their viewpoint characters, and establishing the tone for the novel. With just a few words they create vivid scenes.

The 2 or 3 is from Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons:

“High atop the steps of the Great Pyramid of Giza a young woman laughed and called down to him. “Robert, hurry up! I knew I should have married a younger man!” Her smile was magic.

“He struggled to keep up, but his legs felt like stone. “Wait,” he begged. “Please …”

“As he climbed, his vision began to blur. There was a thundering in his ears. I must reach her! But when he looked up again, the woman had disappeared. In her place stood an old man with rotting teeth. The man stared down, curling his lips into a lonely grimace. Then he let out a scream of anguish that resounded across the desert.

“Robert Langdon awoke with a start from his nightmare. The phone beside his bed was ringing. Dazed, he picked up the receiver.


“I’m looking for Robert Langdon,” a man’s voice said.

“Langdon sat up in his empty bed and tried to clear his mind. “This … is Robert Langdon.” He squinted at his digital clock. It was 5:18 A. M.”

“I must see you immediately.”

“Who is this?”

“My name is Maximilian Kohler. I’m a discrete particle physicist.”

Here the author appears to be pounding the reader with clichés (her smile was magic, his legs felt like stone), exaggerations (a scream of anguish that resounded across the desert, a thundering in his ears), and exclamation points (three in the first 69 words).

The distinctions are in the tone, mood, and elegance. These words did not magically flow from Wolfe and Mailer’s pens either. They worked to achieve it. I think it’s worth searching out. I think it is worthwhile to appreciate the difference.

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