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Writing a book is a very odd thing to do, at least for me.  I say that in spite of the fact that I wrote my first one before I was eleven years old, sitting in the enormous upstairs room my father had built for me when he was expanding our house, at a metal typing table he’d had himself when he was in college, working on a manual typewriter his mother once gave me for Christmas.

I think  I was six years old when  I decided I was going to grew up to write novels, and my family all knew about it early.  So did The New Yorker, which got a steady stream of my short stories–one a week, at least–almost as soon as I hit puberty.

I say all this as a lead up to admitting that I didn’t get any work done today, or at least not any that I  can keep.  I am not an “emo” writer, as my sons would put it.  I’ve got no patience with the sort of person who doesn’t put finger to keypad for weeks at a time because “the work just isn’t flowing” or “I just can’t seem to get inspired.”

Writing is like anything else we do.  The only way to do it is to do it.  If the work is going badly, the best solution tends to be to just whack away at it until you shake yourself free of whatever inner hesitation is holding you back.  I’ve often had to whack my way through impossible plot or character tangles that wouldn’ work out because they couldn’t work out.  When  I’d made a big enough mess, I’d finally see I had to just cut about fifty pages and start again at some earlier point, and then everything would be all right.

There is one thing, though, that can make it very difficult for me to write, and especially very difficult for me to write fiction.   That’s what I read.  Of course, most of what’s available for me to read has no effect at all on the way I write, because the narrative voice isn’t particularly strong or the mechanics aren’t particularly good or bad.

And I can read almost anything and still write nonfiction.  If nonfiction goes wrong, it’s almost always because I haven’t thought out the argument well enough, or done enough research, or something else that’s procedural and can be fixed in an organized way.

With fiction, though, I almost never know when I start how I’m going to end, and the project depends on my ability to get inside my characters’ heads and let them work out their lives on their own.  In a way, it’s like being able to hear music inside my skull.  Different characters have different music.

And some writers are so tone deaf, I can’t hear anything inside my skull after I’ve read them, except maybe the pounding that means I need some aspirin.  The Da Vinci Code was like that for me, and some of the cutesy-wootsey, giggly-wiggly cozies.

Some writers have such strong narrative voices that they’re all the music that’s left when I’m done with them.  The early  Stephen  King was like that.  I’d read The Shining and then half sound like King for a week. 

Some writers, though, are sure things–I can write fiction when I’m reading them, and sometimes I  can actually write fiction better when I’ve been reading them.  Sometimes it’s not the writer but the particular book.  I can write fiction while reading George Steiner, no matter what the book is, but with Alice Hoffmann it has to be Seventh Heaven. 

Oddly enough, some of the best books for me to read while I’m working are the very “literary fiction” things that make me the most nuts when I’m not.  Ann  Beattie’s characters are a mind numbing array of upper middle class narcissists that make me want to scream most of the time, bu the prose has a good rhythm to it, and the rhythm strikes something in me that works.

Over the years, there have been particular books that have worked all the time, books that even make me want to write when I don’t have a project going.   On the top of the list of those is the novel A Taste for Death, by P.D. James.   I was reading it when I first sat down to work on the first Gregor Demarkian novel in the spring of 1987.   I had it sitting on my worktable right next to the big electronic typewriter I used then so that I could stop and read pieces of it when the writing seemed to flag.

Like most writers I know, I tend to remember clearly only my bad reviews.  I even remember the first professional review I ever saw of a book of mine, the Kirkus on Sweet, Savage Death–“an amateurish mess of a plot.”  Lasst year I got a review from some online guy I’d never heard of that, in the middle of everything, declared, “I don’t understand why anybody would read these books.” 

And, you know, being a writer, and therefore a neurotic, I had a near nervous breakdown over it, even though I’d already managed to get starred reviews for that same book in Kirkus, Publisher’s Weekly, and Library Journal. 

But I’ve been wondering today what that reviewer reads in his real life.  It’s not a question I often ask of revierwers, although  I’m careful when I see somebody on an online forum recommending this or that.  I need to know what they “like” before I can know if their recommendation would make sense for me.

The book in question–the one the reviewer didn’t know why anybody would read–was Cheating At Solitaire, and I don’t think it’s the best I’ve done in my ongoing attempts to be a detective novelist “just like P.D. James.”  But that is something I’ve been trying to do, for a long time, and it’s still something  I’d be happy to achieve.

And  P.D. James has all the elements that the online reviewer seems not to like very much.  Her books are highly introspective.  They not only concentrate on character, but they take place largely in the characters’ heads.  The focus of interest is not on her detective–Dalgleigh is all right, but not exactly charismatic, at least for me–but on the suspects, because the suspects define not only the crime but the social reality in which the crime has taken place.  

This has always seemed to me to be the most intersting thing about murder mysteries, or detective stories, or crime novels, or whatever you want to call them.  It’s even what interests me in Agatha  Christie, who is in no sense a fine writer, or even a particularly serious one. 

And it’s not that I’m interesting in becoming a clone, because there are things about  P.D. James’s world that I do not see in mine, and could not reproduce and still be honest.  James’s London, like that of many British crime writers at the higher intellectual end of the field, is a landscape of failure, real failure, not the spectacular smash of somebody like Bernard Madoff but the small, grinding, petty, pinched day by day of hopelessness and giving up.

I know a lot of people who live in reduced circumstances, as Dame Agatha would have put it, but none who life with the hunched, straining despair of old Miss Wharton and Father Barnes at the beginning of A Taste for Death.  I think there is something deeply antithetical to the  American temperament in the kind of lives those two characters lead, and many other characters across James’s work. 

Still, I have more than a little respect for the fact that James did not resolve Miss Wharton’s problem in the way almost any American author would have done.  At the beginning of A Taste for Death, on the very day they find the bodies, Miss Wharton has developed one of the few emotional attachments in her life, to a street kid who has become attached to her as well, whose own mother is a drunken waste and who needs an emotional connection of his own.

I think almost any American novel I can think of, certainly almost any American crime novel, would have tied up this relationship by finding a way for  Darren (the boy) to be taken from his sodden mother and given to Miss Wharton as a foster child.  In A Taste for Death, Darren is indeed taken from his sodden mother, but the Social Services department not only don’t give him in to Miss Wharton’s foster care, they do eveything they can until they have broken the two of them apart, leaving Miss Wharton to sink back into her unrelenting loneliness and Darren in the care of foster parents who seem more in it for the money than anything else.

It’s probably more true to real life than the alternative would have een, but it is profoundly depressing.   It interests me that it doesn’t bother me that it is profoundly depressing.  I’ve read that book a good dozen times–I’m reading it again as we speak, because I mentioned it last week and then I went looking for my copy in the office–and I find, over and over and over again in that little side plot something very satisfying to contemplate.  Maybe I need a writer who will be realistic about the “compassion” of social service departments, and also about the “compassion” of the people who work in them, who always seem to me to be more interested in their own power and authority than in the damage they do to so many of their “clients.”

But it can’t be just that, because I could say the samething about h alf a dozen novels by Ruth Rendell, and I hate them.  This is one of those distinctions I’ve talked about before.  I’m not saying that  Rendell is a bad writer.  She’s not.  She’s a spectacularly good writer.  And her characters, although unattractive, are no more unattractive than James’s are. 

But I don’t think I’ve ever been as truly, thoroughly angry at a book as I was after reading Rendell’s King Solomon’s Carpet.  The book is one of the ones she wrote as  Barbara Vine, and therefore not an entry in her long running Wexford series, but then I’ve never read any of the Wexfords.  Maybe I’d respond to them differently.

My problem with King Solomon’s Carpet is with a plot not entirely central to the murder, or maybe it was.  I find I  have a hard time remembering what else went on in that book besides the thing that upset me.   And the thing that upset me was this:  one of the main characters is a young woman who wants to be a classical musician.  She has grown up in a home where she has never been encouraged.  Her mother is a monument to spite, a nasty, brutish evil woman hose only purpose in life seems to be to keep her daughter down.  The daughter finally gets up her courage, leaves the maternal home, goes out on her own and tries to follow her dream.

And faile.   She not only fails, but she fails for just the reason her mother said she would–because she’s a bad musician, not even tolerably mediocre.   She fails.  She’s humiliated.  Her mother is allowed an {assumed) triumphant victory–

And if Rendell had been less good of a writer, I probably wouldn’t have been so angry, angry enough that I can’t write about it now, fifteen years later, without getting angry all over again.  But Rendell is very good indeed, and that mother is so real to me, so real on the page, that the only thing I can feel for that book is complete and utter revulsion.  And it’s one of those books, too.  There are some books that you love and then you lose them in the house and can never find them again.  I keep running over this one every time I pick up the dining room.

Which, granted, is not that often.  But there’s a bookcase in my dining room.

I do understand that  Rendell’s portrait of this young woman and her mother is entirely realitic, and much more realistic than the usual story of the young woman who follows her dream and proves everybody in her life completely wrong.  And some of what’s going on with this may be my own relationship to my own mother, at least as it existed before the dementia.

But I think, on reflection, that what it really is is that I sense, under James’s very nondidactic, measured prose, a fondation of objectively derived and steadfastly held moral principles, in the light of which everything that happens is judged.  With  Rendell, I sense no such thing.  Failure and misery seem to exist just because they do.  It what the world looks like when there is no reason or purpose to anything.

I have no idea if  Rendell herself, as a person, is anything like this, if she holds any of these ideas about morality or purpose or anything else.   For all I know, she may be nothing at all like her Barbara  Vine novels.   Maybe I’d see a different Rendell if I read the Wexfords instead.

I just know that what James makes me feel when  I read her novels is the urge to write some of my own.  What Rendell makes me feel is a desire to commit some kind of violence, as a kind of equal and opposite reaction.

Written by janeh

January 5th, 2009 at 1:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Emo'

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  1. I have a great many books in which good intentions and heroic effort still lead only to failure, and the brutal and unscrupulous are rewarded with long life and prosperity. These are works of history and biography. I see no more purpose in creating more of them in fiction than I would in an oil painting of a dumpster. That too would be “realistic.”

    For that matter, I have a great many books of history and biography in which virtue IS triumphant. Hard work, persistence and integrity do tend to pay off. Why is it that when they do so in fiction, this is never described as realistic?

    But in either event, if realism is the objective, is fiction the appropriate means?


    5 Jan 09 at 5:27 pm

  2. “if realism is the objective, is fiction the appropriate means?”

    Surely fiction is a most appropriate means to depict humans in a realistic way! After all, haven’t we been saying that fiction can and should portray the reality of aspects of the human condition that we as individuals haven’t or can’t experience in person?


    5 Jan 09 at 6:38 pm

  3. Realism is in the eye of the beholder? A reader’s tolerance for particular kinds of realism may vary with life circumstances and the mood of the day.

    I just finished Laura Lippman’s “What the Dead Know” and I found it interesting that *none* of the major characters were in any way likeable, yet I read the whole book with great attention. While the characters weren’t likeable, in large part they were understandable, and apparently that satisfied my need to connect to them. Their actions and desires were sourced in everyday motives of self-protection and ego-building, and were plenty realistic.

    Sometimes I read urgings by artists *not* to look at other art, the art you create, they feel, is too influenced by what you see. True creativity cannot come from looking at other people’s art. I think this is wrong…one needs both time for isolated introspection and the encouragment, or maybe even the spur of competition, of knowing other people are out there doing it. You can too. Maybe even better than they can!


    5 Jan 09 at 11:32 pm

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