Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Trust Me This Time: Reflections on Major Pettigrew's Last Stand

I have a confession: In many of my recent book review blog posts, I have been more complimentary than critical.  This was an intentional choice, informed largely by the contemporary nature of the books I've been reading.  I confess that until the last several months, I have tended to read contemporary literature rather ungenerously—that is, I read contemporary novels as if I’m workshopping them, which is to say that I am more alert to flaws than to strengths.  At Squaw Valley, I realized this habit is not unique to me: two writers in two different afternoon panel discussions used the word “ambivalent” to describe how they feel towards contemporary literature.

Such ambivalence is harmful in that it can make us miss the real achievements in front of us.  On a larger scale, if such ambivalence continues, it could have the very negative effect of creating an expectation for perfection (you can read more about this here).  In other words, if novelists begin making choices on the basis of avoiding flaws, their manuscripts will very quickly fall flat.

All of this has been in the back of my mind lately, but I’m bringing it to the fore now because I realized, in sitting down to write about Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, that indulging in too many compliments amounts to crying wolf.  That is to say, I know I’ve been complimentary lately, but this time you really must believe me: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand is, in fact, an outstanding book.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Sentence...starring You!

A view at the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop

On the last day of workshop at Squaw Valley, novelist Mark Childress gave us an interesting icebreaker: write a sentence introducing yourself as though you were a fictional character.  Of course, by that point in the week, my workshop group knew one another well, but the faculty rotates daily, and so Mark was new to us and we to him (you can read my pre-SV impressions of him here).  That was one of my favorite aspects of Squaw Valley—the opportunity to hear thoughts from writers, editors, and agents in workshop and to experience different workshop styles within the single week.

It’s a challenge to put yourself in a sentence.  Some went for straight biography; others more for the feeling of a fictional opening.  Nobody went for “Call me __NAME__.”  Still, it's great fun to hear how people you know would describe themselves.  My sentence went like this:

People liked to call her old-fashioned, but she wasn’t yet 30 and liked to check her email as much as anyone else, even when she knew there would be nothing more than a graduate listserv update that no longer applied to her.

What would yours look like?  Please feel free to post your own introduction as a fictional character in the comments below.

And while you’re cooking up your sentence, here are a few more introductory sentences—my own impressions of writers I met at Squaw Valley whose books, also listed, are now on my reading list. You might pick up a title or two for your own reading list.  And if it sounds like I left Squaw Valley a little starstruck, well...I did.

Sands Hall: Catching Heaven
Sharp in intellect and appearance, bright with an actress’s flair for pleasing, she took the stage not to read or to mimic but to play the acoustic guitar slung casually round her neck.

Ramona Ausubel: No One Is Here Except For All of Us
Her face shone with a hope and youth that the Israelites she wrote about must once have felt, themselves a young, yet chosen, nation.

Gregory Spatz: Fiddler’s Dream
He wondered what to do—write novels or make music?—but his talent answered for him: do both.  “And,” Lady Talent continued, “see to it that you add a good dose of bluegrass to each.”

Varley O’Connor: The Master’s Muse
Now dictating discussion, now disappearing from it, now speaking, now listening, she took the workshop in hand and turned with it like a dancer supply shifting her weight.  

Of all the clever things it came to her to say, for her mind worked easily and her humor was lively, she peered from beneath the shade of her ballcap as if peering back from the cool solace of publication and said simply, “Young author, take heart.”

Monday, August 6, 2012

On Community, Narrators, and Magic

Dear Neglected Readers,

My week with the Squaw Valley Community of Writers was not only one of the busiest weeks of my life but one of the best.  I came back with so many new ideas—among them, ways to revise the beginning of my first novel—that I have been fully occupied with them since returning home.  I know it sounds like an excuse for neglecting my faithful blog readers (you’ve told me you’re out there!), but I hope the upcoming series of Squaw Valley-inspired entries will more than make up for the wait.

That's me, second from the left, enjoying the community
of writers.
It’s been three years since I’ve been out of an MFA program and devoting myself to my novels, which means that it’s been three years of working in isolation.  There are certainly things to be said for isolation, but there’s every bit as much to say for community, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers is not a misnomer.  Faculty and participants alike were friendly and open to conversation, and although writers are a famously introverted bunch, the shared love of literature and the eagerness for fellowship erased the usual hardships of socializing.  But I found that one of the most valuable aspects of community turned out to be a rather self-centered one: Looking at what others are doing and hearing what they are thinking helped me sharpen my understanding of what I am doing and thinking. 

Perhaps the most important point I came away with was a sense of what I wish to develop as a strength in my writing: the third-person narrator.  This is not an especially popular or wise aspect to try to develop.  For one thing, contemporary publishing loves to emphasize “voice”—in fact, when literary agent Jeff Kleinman led my workshop group, he identified the two most important aspects of writing that gets published as 1) voice and 2) premise.  I’ve read countless interviews with editors who say they look for “voice,” and while third-person can have a strong sense of voice, the concept is more often taken advantage of in first-person.  Another disadvantage to the third-person narrator is that contemporary readers tend to balk at the idea that there might be a controlling consciousness behind what they’re reading.  They think the author should be absolutely invisible—and they’re right.  But often a strong third-person narrator is confused with authorial presence when it shouldn’t be, and that’s where the difficulty lies.  What I saw in workshopping the first chapter of my second novel was that the third-person narrator I tend to use is a strong one, and one that people are quick to fault as being outside the character’s head.  Workshops and perhaps readers generally tend to believe that if a third-person perspective pulls away from the character’s immediate point of view or voice, it must be a mistake.  I realize this is shaky territory—you’re probably thinking, “Oh, Elizabeth is just explaining away her weakness by trying to turn it into a strength,” but without a sample of my fiction in front of you, you’ll just have to trust that I am working with intention and awareness.

And indeed, my workshop instructor, Sands Hall, trusted in exactly that, and because she asked the class to accept my narrator as intentional, I got the best workshop feedback I’ve ever gotten.  For once, it wasn’t unhelpfully nitpicking how to get rid of my narrator whom I don’t want to get rid of; it was instead taking the narrator as a given and trying to help me see where the remaining weaknesses (and there are always weaknesses) are in my use of an outside narrator.

I believe in narrators because I love them in nineteenth century literature.  What would Vanity Fair be without its narrator?  What would Dickens’ works be without license to look in from above with a satirical and moral view?  Or Austen’s?  Sure, it can be clunky—I can’t defend George Eliot’s long interruption in Adam Bede where she goes off on a long tangent about the relationship between art and morality—but done right, there is nothing more satisfying than a strong narratorial presence.  I agree with Thomas Hardy’s idea that the novelist should intentionally shape his material, that fitting his impression of the world and his imagination—in short, his personal philosophy—with events and characters is what makes art, not solely striving after representation.  Call it cerebral.  Call it old-fashioned.  It’s what I want to do, and Squaw Valley helped me see how I can turn this relatively rare proclivity into a strength. 

Let me make the case for narrators another way.  After Squaw Valley, my husband flew out to meet me and we spent a week traveling California.  On our last night, we had the great privilege of passing the evening at The Magic Castle in Hollywood, a club exclusive to magicians and their guests.  (Luckily, my cousin John Macko is a magician; check out his website here.)  We got to see five magic shows over the course of the evening in venues as intimate as 10 people gathered at a bar to an auditorium of a still-modest 50 or 60 seats.  The first magician of the evening, David Sousa, came out on stage with a handful of metal rings, which he proceeded to make interlock and fall free again without ever appearing to alter their complete metal ring state.  The tricks were fascinating and drew many ooo’s and aahhh’s from the audience, but the effects would have lost something major if the magician hadn’t spent the entire show giving the audience significant looks.  He would hold up an intact ring, and his face would clearly communicate, “Look at this.  Notice this.  See how this is a plain old ring.”  Next his expression would become a little mischievous as, with quick hands, he suddenly made the intact ring join with another intact ring. 

I loved his silent facial expressions, by turns sincere, insinuating, roguish, satisfied.  I loved his communication with the audience.  Had he been obscured from view and only his hands visible as he performed the tricks, the tricks would have been the same tricks.  But the audience would have undoubtedly missed things, misinterpreted where to look, and too easily forgotten the original state of the rings. 

Many contemporary readers seem to want only the tricks.  But for my money, I’d rather see the magician, take my cues from his winks and nudges, and enjoy the full effect.