by Darin Strauss, October 8, 2010 11:28 AM
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 can be be no set answer to a question like that. What is clear is that this man, who was ubiquitous in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, who had a 7.5-decade-long run of success, isn't read anymore. But buy his collected stories. Pick up "When My Girl Comes Home" or "The Camberwell Beauty." Better yet, pick up "The Diver" and read it alongside Isaac Babel's My First Fee. See how Pritchett takes a story idea from Babel (himself one of our century's short-story geniuses) and improves it; keeps the humor and the high-quality prose, but makes it both more realistic and sadder. He's probably in the top-ten English language writers of the 20th century. Read
by Darin Strauss, October 7, 2010 12:53 PM
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. Doctorow, Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
David says that anyone who tries to teach you that writing is about "showing not telling" is gunning for you to fail. The world, as David formulates it, is showing constantly. It's a movie unreeling before your eyes. The thing that books can do, and that movies can't (or life, or video games), is to explain this show — to let you join with a powerful mind who's making sense of it. A good book can make you feel smarter. A TV show — and this is my favorite part of David's lesson — a good TV show can only leave you wanting to watch more TV.
People were upset over all the Franzen attention. But I think it's good for books, in toto. I mean, if everyone's reading a literary novel, and it's actually good, people who haven't read books in a while will say, "Oh, yeah — I like this; I can have fun and get something out of it." That why Franzen is the right guy for that slot. His books aren't difficult or boring, but they're not lightweight, either. It's the kind of thing that turns people to reading. How can that be
by Darin Strauss, October 6, 2010 9:48 AM
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 one un-. This is not a case of one amateur writer versus one professional. This was two novelists, people who respect and like each other's work, unable to find — regarding the one passion they share — a simple answer to what's good.
I know that this is what makes horse races, but it's frightening. You can work really hard and well on something, and someone you respect might hate it; worse, they're not empirically wrong for doing so. This is scary, especially for people who haven't been published. The flip side, however, is not just obvious but nice: just as the hater might not be wrong, he also may not be right. The starkest rejection letter might be followed by a million-dollar advance. Don't let rejection start to look the same as failure.
I guess a corollary is not to write for anyone but yourself. Write what you think is good, is the whole of the
by Darin Strauss, October 5, 2010 9:46 AM
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, it's a tough racket. Constant rejection. No security. Career paths being dictated by freelance reviewers. And of course, the terror of the writing desk, of the blank page. Why is it so hard for our non-writer friends to understand this — that it's a job? My parents and sister want me to come up to visit on weekdays. I say I'm working. "Oh, come on," they say.
I blame movies. In the otherwise wonderful (Stoppard-doctored) Shakespeare in Love, the Bard writes all of Romeo and Juliet, in iambic, rhyming couplets, in one go — because inspiration struck him. But that's not how it works. And here's a lesson for young writers starting out. (And I've decided these blog posts are going to be advice for young writers.)
Norman Mailer wrote that the professional writer can't afford to wait for inspiration to strike. You've got to work at it every day. You've got to be a jobber. I think I wrote in the last one: As my friend David Lipsky (Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself) says: you're trying for something extraordinary. You have to put in an extraordinary effort. (That doesn't mean that you can't be optimistic. The wonderful Amy Spencer, in Meeting Your Half-Orange, talks about the importance of optimism. [Visit Amy Spencer's blog here.])
"What do you do?" I asked the airplane guy. He said, "I work for a brewery. I've always thought I want to write a book about
by Darin Strauss, October 4, 2010 12:00 PM
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 of the mid-20th century, E. M. Forster declared that writers should "only connect." For all the annoyances of Facebook ("I'm working on a novel about dogs; can anyone send me some info on their spaniel?") or Twitter ("Taking a dump right now: Here's a jpeg"), they do bring writers closer to their readers than ever.
Half a Life is my fourth book and first memoir: it's about something terrible that happened when I was in high school. And via Facebook and email, I've gotten literally hundreds of emails from people who were going through similar adversities, or who were just dealing with grief and guilt of some kind. (The book is largely about how to push through guilt you may not deserve and grief you can't express.) And that's been rewarding, helpful for me and the readers, I think. (I didn't set out to write a self-help book ? or so many parentheses ? but I think, if I did my job right, the book is self-helpful.)
by Darin Strauss, July 11, 2008 11:18 AM
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
by Darin Strauss, July 10, 2008 9:34 AM
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 classy, Mile High City!)
Maybe it's because I didn't have friends who live there; friends make all the difference. when I was in Seattle, my buddy Soren took me to great Sushi and coffee places; in Portland, Pauls Toutonghi asked me to sign his girlfriend's assets over to him. (Long story.) In Minneapolis, I learned that there are more theaters-per-square-mile than in any U.S. city but New York, and we also had great Midwestern beef in our salads, in a plaza overlooking the national headquarters of Target, Inc. (My Minneapolis friend told me that the people who choose all of Target's buying decisions ? like the head of Bath Mats, or erasers ? are 24-year-olds...)
Anyway, of course it's silly to think a city will reveal itself to you in two days; even when you have a friend showing you around, a place has time only to pull clothes off some parts of itself, while holding kerchiefs and veils over others, with fluttering eyelashes.
But it's good training for a novelist, to try to discern the truth about a place after only a few glimpses of it. Often it's the people who know a place least well who write about it best, because they see it fresh. I'm thinking of Martin Amis's Money, maybe the best book about 1980s New York, which was written by a Londoner. It's like Tolstoy said: to b a writer you have to look at the world as a space alien would (I'm paraphrasing here), seeing everything as if for the first time. The way I see it: that unfamiliarity buys you a little more emotional padding; there's a sense of riding higher in the saddle, seeing more
by Darin Strauss, July 9, 2008 9:11 AM
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 Wolfe prescribed his remedy for what he thought afflicted fiction ("... At this weak, pale, tabescent moment in the history of American literature, we need a battalion, a brigade, of [reporter-novelists] to head out into this wild, bizarre, unpredictable, Hog-stomping, etc., etc..."). We don't need more reporter novelists. (One Wolfe in the fold is quite enough, thanks.) But his point isn't entirely unpersuasive. Like Dreiser ? like Dickens, Dostoyevsky, and Balzac ? Wolfe wanted to get all of society between his finger and thumb. But while the Dreiserish concerns of drama and comprehensiveness may be the more potent half of the equation commercially, they're still just half of it.
A good writer knows that, if her style and perceptions are really cooking, she can bring anything off. It's okay, of course, for novelists to depict bland, average families living bland, average lives, in bland, average towns. But it isn't okay when those novelists don't outshine their bland average subjects. When a writer's style and perceptions don't add up to more than her workaday material ? if she doesn't wade out from the shallow end of her gifts ? what's the point? What is the point of becoming one's boring subject?
This is really important. For fiction to do what it can do better than non-fiction books ? better than reality TV, video games, and comic books, for that matter ? it can't give up its attention to psychological detail and subtlety ? the pervading receptivity that Wolfe would call navel-gazing. Big stories that excite up the American subject, and writers who bring in the satisfactions of drama through style, that sensitivity to the aesthetic faculties that Flaubert called "an absolute manner of seeing things" ? that's what's needed. Narratives, as James said, "on which nothing is lost." Call it full-dress fiction.
In this, Shakespeare is a model. The comedies follow their set conventions, but the tragedies? Hamlet is the most introspective hero in history ? perhaps the best example of a thinking mind in the literature ? and yet this bloody play teems with action, with swordfights, suicide, a pirate ship, a graveyard fight, a ghost, and murder. Really, did you ever notice how much on-screen murder goes down in Macbeth, Julius Caesar, Othello, and King Lear? Because what can get readers into the consciousness of a character ? or spotlight the essentials of a society's concerns ? like real trouble can? What helps make the experience of life appear more real than seeing it at the sharpest of edges?
Recently, people have been running to non-fiction to get that which readers once ran to literature for: the news and emotional weather. Maybe the Million Little Pieces of the world are so popular because no one ever writes memoirs about PTA chairwomen; what memoirists do, and often get in trouble for, is bring interesting lives to light. That's how you win an audience. The increasingly common, trivial novel (the sort taught in the expanding universe of grad programs) does a disservice to fiction. The non-reader, the semi-occasional reader who tries fiction once, will happen upon a book that offers none of the pleasures that attend today's non-fiction, and she won't come back.
But full-dress fiction can offer more straightforward joys than, say, Blink can, or ? more to the point ? even non-fiction narrative reportage like The Perfect Storm can. Though such books may be written with expertise, invention, or even beauty, they struggle to arrive at what Martin Amis calls moral imagination, or moral artistry. A writer of non-fiction can't set up the true facts of "real-life" in a way that achieves Amis's "moral point." Likewise, there are facts that a reporter can never know about her subjects ? their thoughts at crucial moments, say; their deepest motivations ? facts that expand narratives out into art. Only a novel can add this. Only fiction can tease out the key minutiae that, in non-fiction, remain hidden.
And, when memoir contrives to do this ? when a non-fiction writer compresses narrative time, say, or even fudges his facts ? then it's just fiction sneaked in under a costume that, as we've learned recently, is bound to fray under scrutiny. Updike's graceful Dreiser/James variation aside, the most successful stories have tried to wed these disparate strains. Look at Nielsen Bookscan's list of perennial best-sellers. It's crammed with full-dress fiction:
by Darin Strauss, July 8, 2008 9:20 AM
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 novelists a crucial lesson. If the memoirist is borrowing narrative techniques from fiction, shouldn't the novelist borrow a few tricks from successful non-fiction?
If the novel is ailing, let's bring a specialist to the infirmary and ask his diagnosis. In Bech: A Book, John Updike wrote that Herman Melville was an immortal because he'd united strengths in American writing that, unfortunately, later went "the separate ways of Dreiser and James."
This is relevant. Dreiser ? who understood the advantages of thrill-ride storylines ? was also the first post–Civil War writer really to show poverty and the everyday defeat of American morals. He was a social novelist. And he wanted to get at the full spectacle of our native life with blood-and-thunder plots. (His greatest hit is a page-turner: An American Tragedy. And in that novel Dreiser laid out the materials of American tragedies to come: wealth and poverty, murder and court cases, the things we want or fear.)
Henry James, on the other hand, didn't write much about what his contemporaries feared, but what they actually lived through ? conversations, drawing rooms, and the difficulty of navigating social mores. And this forerunner of modernism did so as an aesthete, an elegant stylist, a world-class noticer. True, in his long career even James couldn't avoid murders or ghosts. But the great trailblazer of psychological and artistic intricacy dipped even into ghost stories unperturbedly, lyrically, and without relying on complex plot machinations or gauche devices.
So what does this have to do with contemporary fiction, with Freygate and its aftermath? And does fiction's trouble have to do with the inputs and outputs, or with the conduit?
Not long ago, I read a fairly high-profile novel that began with this: "On line at the deli near my children's school. This other mother ? a mother holding a piece of empty Tupperware and wearing a parka made for hiking ? asks me to be treasurer of the PTA. To keep track of money. Make sure there's coffee, sugar and saccharine at meetings. Coordinate cookie-bakers at holiday time. She wants me to organize the annual rummage sale." It goes on this way for hundreds of pages. Why do so many novels these days open like that? At issue isn't the slackness or even the confounding jerky syntax. The problem is the tedium and smallness.
With so many other entertainment options out there, do I want to dribble away a week curled up listening to a tuneless voice sharing PTA stories? Do you?
Even the best novels have their share of stinker lines. But that excerpt is the first scene, the most worked-over part of any book. (As Norman Mailer says, openings are "the index" to a writer's taste.) More important: it's not even that this book isn't good, in its way. This morning, after I re-read its first chapters, I realized I'd given it short shrift. It's reasonably lively, more-or-less competent work. (Though its very first metaphor describes a floor "dotted" with the quite undottable substance of cat hair). But with the very survival of Literary Fiction at risk, the thousands of novels like this do reading a disservice.
If the whole game is to convince many people to spend many pages caring about what your story has to say, shouldn't your narrative carry readers into a unique world from its first step? "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way"; "Call me Ishmael"; "This is the saddest story I have ever heard." Even Zadie Smith's calculatedly bland, "One may as well begin with Jerome's emails to his father" hints right away that something comprehensive and thorny is about to happen, and it also harkens artfully back to Forster. You can tell these stories will deliver.
It's not a question of a writer's skill; it's a question of intent, of pinched ambition. Too much contemporary fiction seems purposefully to address small things in small ways. And yet why not try for the all-inclusive, the gripping, for the audacious? For the masterly, high-wrought, and the beautiful? How better to tempt readers than with the thick steak of Dreiser or the rich cream of James? Or, best yet, with both?
Check back tomorrow for my full
by Darin Strauss, July 7, 2008 9:21 AM
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
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; next, one about a nineteenth-century boxer, and nothing ? not even the twins ? was as nerve-wracking as was dreaming up a modern Black woman. There's not a big Siamese twin constituency out there to be offended.
Casting the African-American characters, I'd keep seeing the story from Black reviewers' eyes. This was an added, detrimental step; putting on the mask, then quickly taking it off to see what it looked like. And I constantly ran the sociological numbers: if 28.5 percent of black men have been in prison, is it reasonable to make one black character an ex-con?
I realized I'd need to restrain my P.C. reflexes. The protagonist is Darlene Stokes, a Black pediatrician who works to pry a baby from his white family. The challenge was to make this woman like me in temperament, without being me in blackface.
I remember something Jonathan Franzen once wrote; he took a stand against male authors writing female protagonists . "Something about" it made Franzen "uneasy": "Is the heroine doing double duty as the novelist's fantasy sex object?" he wondered. "Is the writer trying to colonize fictional territory that rightfully belongs to women?"
But if you're going to write honestly about your time and country, you can't think like that. You'll find yourself ambling up behind your story with your leash tinkling.
I hope that, using the novelists' secret formula ? one part research, three parts empathy ? I made Darlene a credible veteran of the Black experience.
But you never know. Women, Blacks, Jews ? the people I wrote about are interest groups. Their grievances are not only real, but ongoing. And they scuffle in discomfiting ways. Such a project should make you uneasy. That's one of the pleasures of fiction, and why Franzen was wrong. Everyone has a story. That's why this political year ? and I hope my book ? is interesting: sometimes those stories drive out of the garage, pull out onto the highway, and crash. And sometimes we get to