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Author Archive: "Darin Strauss"

V. S. Pritchett: An Honorariam

I'm going to spend my last post here doing exactly what my publisher wouldn't want me to do: hype another writer.

V. S. Pritchett was one of the most admired, fun, talked-about writers of the 20th century: he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth for his work with prose. He was born in 1900, wrote till he died in 1997, and has been tidily forgotten ever since. This is a real shame.

VSP is like some British (though his voice seems robustly American) mix of Chekhov and Lorrie Moore: a short story writer whose eye is most often on the working class, he's always at least lightly comic, often hilarious and poignant, as well . Plus, he's a great stylist: Irving Howe said, "no one working in English writes a better sentence" than Pritchett, and Lionel Trilling added: "He's the best living British writer by such a wide margin" it hardly needed pointing out.

I could take up a lot of space wondering why he's no longer read — the stodgy name, the ill health of the short story in this country — but there

...


What Books Can Do

I'm writing this (and will post it) on a plane. Virgin America now has wi-fi on flights. I can't imagine other airlines won't soon follow.

Virgin offers more entertainment options than a Republican convention whorehouse: video, music, foreign films, games, etc. It's here that one really feels the squeeze against the book in modern culture. There's so much to do! Would you rather read Freedom or play Donkey Kong?

A lot of people, it turns out, choose books over Mario and his weird task. I see seven book-readers (one electronic) among the 12 people in my eye-line.

Books offer more than other things can: more senses sensed, more analysis, more of what it means to be a walking, thinking animal. My friend David Lipsky (Absolutely American, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself) has a good point about this, about books vs. all entertainment comers. David teaches with me at NYU, as part of an amazing faculty (e.g. E. L. ...


Where Taste Is King

One of the disconcerting things about writing for publication is that you're trying to clear your little parcel of land in a field where Taste is king — and, as we all know, there's no accounting for Taste.

I did a reading last night with Adam Levin, whose forthcoming novel The Instructions is a big baggy triumph. Adam and I spent a plane ride going over the books and writers we each like. I threw up a flare: the Updike of Bech, and Rabbit Is Rich. Adam said he prefers Barry Hannah. I mentioned Bellow; Adam's never been able to get through Herzog. He shrugged at my offering of Lorrie Moore. We agreed, finally, on David Foster Wallace. Or did we? I mentioned the story "Octet." "Octet" left him cold; he liked "Mr. Squishy," which is so dense I never could swim through it.

This is not a case of one educated reader versus ...


“What Do You Do?”

I was on a plane to Los Angeles. This happened yesterday.

The man next to me (chunky-frame glasses; devil goatee) said: "What do you do?"

I told him I was a writer.

"No," he said, his voice a mix of clarifying and dickhead. "I mean for a living."

"That's my job."

He went into a kind of Dire Straits monologue about that not being working. I told him it can be hard sometimes, and is always a lot of work.

"How can it be hard?" he gave me a look that meant phooey. "You're making stuff up."

Here I should mention that he's right. It doesn't feel like an actual job: it's a blessing to be able to make a living at this, and I mean that in the most sincere way possible. And I've had menial jobs, and professional writer isn't one of them.

So why did I bristle? I don't think it was all pride. For all the things I love about it — and I don't think I'd rather be a rock star, a retiree, the President of the United States — it's okay to admit that, in David Mamet's terms, ...


Taking Writers Away from Their Work

I had a writerly conversation recently — two, actually — which seemed almost suspiciously perfect for my first blog post. The first with Bill Clegg (Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man), the second with Joshua Ferris (The Unnamed).

Both are wonderful writers and people. (Both are almost sexuality-questioningly handsome.) And both were talking about whether there are too many forces today that yank the writer from her desk.

Joshua, before a reading at NYU, was concerned that going on tour and writing reviews (and also things like the good old Powell's blog) take away from the "one responsibility of the writer," i.e., the work. And Bill, in a joint interview we did for Smith magazine, was saying that some of the best writers he represents (somehow, he's also a species of megastar agent) don't involve themselves with Twitter or Facebook. I found myself agreeing when these guys were talking — I do that; I'm a blackboard, and smart people can write their opinions all over me — but when I thought about it later I wasn't so sure.

In the different context ...


Notes on Narrative

I know what makes a good narrative, Martin Amis once said: pattern and balance, form, completion, commensurateness. I don't have Amis's aphoristic gift; what follows is a much longer meditation on fiction writing, on how best to arrive at that commensurateness.

I know what you think of rules. And I know what happens when a writer follows rules disqualifyingly, or grindingly without hesitation. I think it's helpful, however, to have things made clear in this way. And so, though this will be a VERY long post for a blog, I thought I might as well end my week here by sharing all that I know about writing — every last bit of it. I thought a craft discussion might be helpful for aspiring writers; I know I could have used such a resource when I was starting out. (The bulk of what follows comes from the teachings of Lee K. Abbott and, especially, Douglas Glover: two of the best professors I ever had. Wonderful writers, too.)

All the same, you may find much of what follows to be nothing more than common sense. But think of it as a pleasant, country-weekend drive straight into the center of a fellow writer's professional advice.

(And if rules exist in large part to be flouted — and they do — you should do so only if you can make a compelling argument about why and when it's best to ignore them. Try to think of writing in strategic terms; each decision needs to make tactical sense. You can't win an argument about why it's best to break these rules, in any specific case, without knowing the rules in the first place.)

One of the most helpful lessons I got from Glover was to dissect the writing process into four major categories: 1) Point of view, 2) the surprisingly complex ideas of Plot and Subplot, 3) Theme, and 4) Image/word repetition and play:

1) Point of view

Point of view, really just a phrase for this mental modus operandi (also Glover’s term), is usually conveyed to the reader by revealing the character's main desire, her significant history, and also by the use of a consistent, relevant linguistic surface. Most often this person is the protagonist (See The Great Gatsby, however, for an example of a first-person story-teller who does not serve as a focal point of the story). Point of view, really just a term for this mental modus operandi, is usually conveyed to the reader by revealing the character's main desire , her significant history, and also by the use of a consistent, relevant linguistic surface. Sorry for the jargon. I'll explain, in order:

a) Desire as Engine

In order for a narrative to work, the primary character should have a concrete desire: a need that drives her story — and the story's writer should make this goal known to the reader pretty early in the narrative. Characters stretching their legs in some calm haven generally don't make for interesting protagonists.

If artfully rendered, a concrete desire may — as Glover taught me — stand for all human striving and aspiration.

One key to creating an effective point of view is that you should make sure — unless you have a really good reason not to do it — that your focal character is passionately engaged with her desire and her current situation. In other words, a story and its protagonist, says Henry James, must be "planted around the stout stake of emotion." What does this mean? That the character must feel some emotional connection to the outcome of her story. So: the reader needs to know what the events of the story mean for the character. Sounds obvious. But, in a first-person narrative, where is the narrator now (when she's recounting it to the reader) in relation to the events of the story? (This point is moot in a present-tense narrative, of course.) What effect did the story have on the character? These are the necessary questions.

Keep the character passionate in her desire, and the story will likely be engaging. (This is something that Lee K. Abbott specializes in.) Also, show the reader the particulars of character's desire as soon in the story as possible.

b) Significant History

Another important aspect of point of view is what Glover calls "significant history." (Sorry to keep harping on Glover, but the man systematizes writing methodologies better than anyone I know of, and with more precision.) This is background material that meaningfully relates to the character's desire and his current situation. History that does not relate directly or meaningfully to this desire often fails to push the narrative in productive ways; the revelation of too much unimportant "backstory" can make the narrative seem overly loose. Remember that a novel's account of its character's significant history can be kept brief, and a writer may find it advantageous to repeat variations of this history throughout the narrative. (This can be done via: references to some past event; expansions and/or alterations in the way that event is revealed to the reader; the discovery of some new detail, etc.) This gives the novel a rhythm and a sense of remembrance. Once the writer puts her character's desire and significant history in place, she'll have a fairly clear idea how this character will react as new situations arise; hence, the method of operating or functioning idea — the consequences, in other words, of the Point of View — will dictate the plot.

Further, in order to reveal information to the reader, you need to determine a hierarchy of important information. Or, put another way, you must show the reader what he needs to know, in time for him to enjoy and understand your story. For example, if your narrator is a single mother who has long been fighting cancer, and those details are the key in her particular story, you need, therefore, to let the reader know about them as soon as possible. This hierarchy of important information is often the key to a story's readability.

c) Linguistic Surface

The "Linguistic Surface" involves diction, syntax, and metaphorical language: your character needs to talk and think in terms that reflect his desire and his significant history. This is important most of all in first-person narratives, but even an author of a third-person story should think about this.

Early in the novel Precious, which is about a newspaperman, the protagonist describes a small building as "hiding like an overlooked misprint between jutting office towers." At another point, the character starts to receive thoughts in the form of newspaper headlines. Conversely, it would have seemed a faux pas on the author's part had the character instead begun to think in, say, sailing metaphors. Or, to give another example, isn't it always jarring when an author has his uneducated characters use big words?


Riding Higher In the Saddle

An author on book tour becomes, like Updike's traveling salesman, a connoisseur of cities. After sitting in one's own apartment, typing and reading alone, often in one's underwear (am I revealing too much me here?), one finds oneself driving around all the different but similarly gentrifying downtowns, the abandoned or converted factories, the glossy office buildings done in the bland, tipped-over refrigerator style.

It takes a while, but writers are supposed to be professional noticers, and so — even after only a day — we like to think we pick up the place's local feeling-tone: Portland's Seattle-without-the-preciousness vibe; Chicago's this-is-more-like-a-large-scale-Minneapolis-than-a-Midwestern -version-of-New-York air. Austin's we're-a-real-cool-town-but-remain-more-Texas-than-we-like-to-let-on thing. Etc.

Still, at least for me, some cities resist the taking of their pulse; I just can't get an accurate reading. Like Denver, for one. What's Denver's feel? I know there're mountains, and people in western hats, but I never got a good sense of the city. This is my fault, I'm sure. I'd lived in Colorado as a ski bum for a year, and have great affection for the place, especially since I just made their bestseller list. (Stay ...


Saving Literary Fiction (Post-Frey), Part 2

In the last installment, I talked about the novel as the Sick Man of Entertainment.

The truth is, prognosticators have been dressed and ready to go to fiction's funeral for a long time ; in 1961, John O'Hara wrote that he "was infuriated by that piece last Sunday about fiction not selling." And don't people reach these sorts of doom verdicts every day, about all types of resilient stuff? (Remember, way back in '04, when the world decided that "reality" TV shows would bump off "scripted programming?" And then Lost, CSI, and Desperate Housewives changed the assumptions of coffee-break doomsaying.)

Still, now there are a few surprising prosecutors, making a pretty convincing case against the Novel. That creaky laureate V. S. Naipaul told the Times that fiction is of ''no account'' when measured against "the larger global political situation." And a novelist as literate and respected as Rick Moody wrote that comic books (comic books!?) are "currently better at the sociology of the intimate gesture than literary fiction is." I'm not even sure what that even means, but — ouch!

In 1989 Tom ...


Saving Literary Fiction (Post-Frey), Part 1

After yet another fake memoir scandal — this time it's Love and Consequences that consists of lies — we can only draw one conclusion. The Literary Novel is the sick man of Entertainment. And not just any particular novel: the rationale for the Literary Novel — for fiction itself — totters at the edge of the grave.

Not too long ago, David Rosenthal, publisher of Simon & Schuster — using an expletive to describe fiction's commercial prospects — told the New York Times reporter Edward Wyatt that "people only want to read the truth.'' And this came before l'affaire Frey.

To a lot of us, literature's eternal significance had seemed beyond arguing — like, say, the illegality of government-sponsored torture. Yet the facts on the ground just can't be ignored. Literary novels limped into the last quarter on wretched sales receipts. And non-fiction continues to take up a lot more review real estate than its imaginary friend does.

Now, who knows what the fallout from yet another memoir scandal will be? But whatever commercial hits "creative non-fiction" may take, this newest debacle gives ...


The Novelists’ Secret Formula

Three years ago, when thinking about what my next novel should be about, I straw-polled friends: which issues did they find important? They came back with the stuff of our current political season: race and gender. Watching this Democratic
primary contest, I felt like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News; I thought something in
the privacy of home, and then watched people struggle to talk about it on my TV
screen.

Part of the fun of novel-writing — if such a dead lift can be called fun — is stepping into other minds. I thought an African-American woman's brain would, for a Long Island Jew like me, make adventurous territory. The fretful association of Blacks and Jews — '60s civil rights partners — is one of the great arithmetic problems: how did two close communities divide so thoroughly? Besides, what ambitious novelist takes on America without having a go at America's fissure lines?

In 2000, I wrote a novel about conjoined Asian twins; ...


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