Adversarial dialogue is action. When characters speak, we see them as they talk, which means that dialogue is always in immediate scene. Stage plays are in immediate scene. So are films, and now, for the most part, novels.
I find characters who are at cross-purposes with society, or opposed to society in some way, interesting because they are by definition the underdogs. They have to be clever, cunning, imaginative, dogged, and wily--whereas society merely has to lean its weight a little.
In a bookstore I walked past the first table, and a book caught my eye. I walked another 20 steps, stopped and went back. The title that caught my eye was Cleopatra's Secret Diaries. The thought of learning the most intimate secrets of one of the world's most famous lovers definitely intrigued me.
I was famous too young. I pushed too hard too soon. I wish somebody would write what it's really like to be a celebrity. People come up and ask me for autographs in airports, and I give them because otherwise I think they'll hit me over the head.
Thinking you can make a living just by writing books is like thinking you'll get rich by growing corn in West Virginia. For the great majority of published authors, writing is a vocation supported by a primary occupation--the dreaded day job. During the day, writers are cops, reporters, lawyers, physicians, office clerks, bureaucrats, sales associates, receptionists, nurses and real estate agents. The lucky ones, although they seem to complain the most, are the college professors teaching in English (Richard Russo calls them "Anguish") departments. The poet and novelist Delmore Schwartz gleefully declared himself "self-employed" after quitting his professorship at Harvard. A few years later, however, economic reality drove him back into teaching at Kenyon, then later at Princeton. Still, the Stephen Kings and J. K. Rowlings of the writing world keep the dream of literary wealth and fame alive.
There are books on my shelves that have made me feel that I am part of a community of writers. I have collections of interviews with writers, a source least used in the academy. The serious student of writing and the teachers of writing should know the existence of the extensive testimony of writers, material that has been ignored by composition researchers. What writers know about their craft has been dismissed as the "lure of the practitioner."
As far as I'm concerned, in the abstract there's only one plot, and it goes like this: A person or group or entity wants something. Another person or group or entity throws up every barrier imaginable to stop that goal from being achieved.
Most people have little interest in how plumbers fix sinks or how electricians wire houses. Moreover, in terms of how these skills are learned and applied, there isn't much diversity. But when it comes to how a person produces a novel, short story, or a work of creative nonfiction, there is plenty of interest and diversity. Published writers are always being asked when they write, how many hours a day they write, how many words they get down on paper daily, exactly where they write, what they write with, and so forth. In the world of writing, matters such as these, referred to as work habits, are fascinating and important. Such queries often extend into the creative process itself.
Young writers write two or three books that are not only brilliant, and mature, and then they are done for. But that is not what enriches the literature of a country. For that you must have writers who can produce not just two or three books, but a great body of work. Of course it will be uneven, because so many fortunate circumstances must go together to produce a masterpiece, but a masterpiece is more likely to come as the culminating point of a laborious career then as the lucky fluke of untaught genius.
If novelists keep writing fiction much past sixty, they usually become their own recycling unit, reworking, with less verve, veins already well explored. Self-repetition, if not self-parody, are the traps that await elderly novelists--yet few novelists voluntarily flip off the switch, either because they can't afford to financially or because they simply don't know what else to do with themselves. They grow old, they grow weak, they wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled, but they keep writing.
On the first day in my intermediate writing class, I ask the students to write down their ten favorite books of fiction and their authors. A lot of them can't name ten. A lot of them fill in with genre writers, thrillers and whatnot.
Workshop-influenced fiction displays the hallmarks of committee effort: emotional restraint and the lack of linguistic idiosyncrasy, no vision, just voice; no fictional world of substance and variety, just a smooth surface of diaristic, autobiographical, and confessional speech.
I think I was born with the impression that what happened in books was much more reasonable, and interesting, and real, in some ways, than what happened in life. I hated childhood, and spent much of it sitting behind a book waiting for adulthood to arrive. When I ran out of books I made my own up.
The thing about writing is no to talk, but to do it; no matter how bad or even mediocre it is, the process and production is the thing, not the sitting and theorizing about how one should write ideally, or how well one should write if one really wanted to or had the time. As Alfred Kazin told me: "You don't write to support yourself; you work to support your writing."
P.h.d. students famously despair that the academic dissertation, as a literary genre, is inherently boring to the point of unreadable, while joking that the difficulty of writing one is enough to drive a person insane.
We've always had a tradition in America of hounding our artists to death. Look at the list of great artists, you see a continual history of defeat, frustration, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction. The best poets of my generation are al suicides.
No one is waiting for you to write your first novel. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that's what creates the panic.
Many people hear voices when no one is there. Some of them are called mad and are shut up in rooms where they stare at the walls all day. Others are called writers and they do pretty much the same thing.
Why I write, sheer egoism. It is humbug to pretend that this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen--in short, with the whole top crust of humanity.
Unsurprisingly, a psychological survey of the Iowa Workshop showed that 80 percent of writers in the program reported evidence of manic depression, alcoholism, or other lonely additions in themselves or their immediate families. We're writers. Who ever claimed we were a tightly wrapped bunch?
The writer's life is inherently an insecure one. Each project is a new start and may be a failure. The fact that a previous book has been successful is no guard against failure this time. It's no wonder writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony.
A character in B. Traven's story "The Night Visitor," who has written several books he has chosen not to publish, contemplates literary fame: "What is fame, after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps fifty people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame."
B. Traven, the pen name of the mysterious author of dozens of novels--notably, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--believed that all books should be published anonymously. He based this belief on the notion that readers, by knowing in advance who the author is, will expect and demand a certain kind of book. (If Agatha Christie, for example, had come out with a hard-boiled crime novel instead of one of her cozy mysteries, her fans would have gone nuts.)
Rejection is part of any creative art. To overcome, I immediately get back to the keyboard and work harder. Then I think of Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London, all of whom were rejected hundreds of time.
Asking what it's like to be a writer is a lot like asking what it's like to be a dentist or an attorney. The answer depends on where you live, what you write, how successful you are, how old you are, if you're married, and how you think of yourself as a writer. But there is one thing that most writers do say about the writing life: it's lonely and frustrating. Writers seem to feel misunderstood by people who don't write and under-appreciated or ignored by the reading public. Feeling isolated and forced to compete with other writers, many authors complain that their books are not adequately promoted by their publishers. Otherwise, they're a contended group of workers.
I made the decision very early on in my career to put everyone out of my mind when I write. Relatives, editors, Hollywood, critics. I have no reader in mind. I think it's death to a writer to consider how anyone will view their work. One writes for oneself in much the same way one daydreams for oneself.
Many of the traditional themes of fiction--the corrupting powers of ambition, the nature of one's responsibility to self and to others, the tragedy of loneliness, the paradoxes and ambiguities of compromise--all seem congenial to the city's qualities--its crowded loneliness, its veneration for the new, its bustling immorality, its commercialism, its sense of busy pointlessness. The city is available as a symbol of opportunity and freedom and success, and of the empty underside of these qualities.
Setting is as important as character. Go to the bookstore, open up a bunch of books and read the first line. You'll find that the majority of opening sentences have something to do with setting and evoking an emotion with the reader.
The idea that readers could know an author's intentions better than she does herself is, of course, deeply destabilizing to our usual ways of thinking about literature. If a text can mean anything the reader wants it to mean, then why read it in the first place? Isn't literature supposed to help us achieve contact with other minds, rather than trapping us in a hall of mirrors, in which we can see only our own distorted reflections? Surely there must be limits to a text's interpretability.
The literature of war is by its very nature political. If a writer's sentences are personal--what else, really can they be?--and a writer has trained his lens on a bloody battleground, in reading him we will come to know where he stands, where his passions lie. When it comes to fiction, this passion can often result in rhetoric-spouting characters whose sole purpose is to serve the author's ideas.
I understand that there are unlikable people, and I have no interest in making them likable, because I want to make them entertaining, and I think in order for characters to be entertaining they have to be unhappy.
I just despise Hollywood. It isn't even a city. It's nothing. It's like a jumble of huts in a jungle somewhere. I don't understand how you can live there. It's really, completely dead. Walk along the street, there's nothing moving.
The over-thirty characters in my undergrad students' stores are pompous, insensitive, vulgar, unimaginative, grossly materialistic, hypocritical, self-deluding, stupid, and often totally wrongheaded about everything.
I have never claimed to create anything out of nothing; I have always needed an incident or a character as a starting point, but I have exercised imagination, invention, and a sense of the dramatic to make it something of my own.
On the whole, professional writers are a lot of whining bastards who wouldn't last a day in a real job. The true mortification of being a writer is having to meet other writers from time to time, and listen to their mundane egotistical rantings.
There is an art to book reviewing. Or a craft, I should say--because if the reviewer tries to be artistic, if he once abandons the secondary zone of creation, he's sunk. The point of the review, after all, is not him: It's the book. The book that somebody else wrote. So good reviewing demands a certain transparency of language, and an absence of prancing and posturing.
Book reviews are written to be read: They are work done for others' enjoyment and edification; unlike some art, they are meant to inform an audience, not perform for one, and they usually follow a predictable pattern: name of book, summary of what book is about, followed by a competent, well-argued opinion as to whether the book's author achieved his or her aims.
A remarkable thing about the novel is that it can incorporate almost anything--essays, short stories, mock memoirs, screenplays, emails--and remain a novel. The elasticity is also a sign that unlike, say, the epic or the ode, the novel is a living, evolving form. But if its outer limits are virtually nonexistent, the minimum requirement is generally that there be a narrative telling us something. In this way, any manner of book can find a way to justify calling itself a novel. But the label should not be worn lightly, since it invites scrutiny of the highest and most exacting kind.
A writer should not respond to his or her critics. A writer should rise above, in radiant aloofness. Sometimes that's not possible, of course. I was drinking with a friend in London when he spotted, on the other side of the bar, a man who days before had reviewed him cruelly in a national newspaper. My friend grew agitated. "I'll punch in in the face!" he said. "No, wait. I'll buy him a drink!" He paused. "What shall I do?" He had no idea and neither did I. Aggression, under the circumstances, seemed quite as promising/futile as magnanimity. I don't even remember what he did in the end. The point is: you can't win.
Writers who reply to reviews are invariably angry. (The flattered, happy ones keep their satisfaction to themselves.) An angry writer's tirade gives the lie to the surface placidity of literary life and reveals the passionate enmities that roil beneath. Think of Martin Amis's response to Tibor Fischer's attack on his novel Yellow Dog: "Tibor Fischer is a creep and a wretch. Oh yeah: and a fat-arse."
F. Scott Fitzgerald was both a perfect and terrible fit for Hollywood. His youthful fame gave him a shrewd perspective on that shallow, tinselly world. Yet while working there in the last three years of his life, he was a sad case: a debt-ridden genius, alcoholic, selling himself to collaborate on second-rate screenplays.
The line between fiction and nonfiction is more blurry than many people like to admit. Sometimes, political writing that claims to be nonfiction is actually fiction. The political power of such fiction-as-nonfiction is undeniable…
Most novels aren't directly credited with starting wars, Yet fiction still instigates change. Fiction can say publicly what might otherwise appear unsayable, combating the coerced silence that is a favored weapon of those who have power.
Writers most often drop into passive voice when they are unsure of themselves, when they don't want anything to happen to one of their characters, when they don't want their characters to do anything bad.
Regardless of the issues a writer struggles with--creative block, procrastination, fear of failure, etc.--the very act of writing tends to stoke the energy, continue the flow, direct the current of further writing. Writing begets writing.
Anthony Burgess recounted how, diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor, he rapidly dashed off four novels in succession to support his family. Upon learning he'd been misdiagnosed, he claimed he was "vaguely disappointed. All that hard work for nothing." John Cheever on drinking while writing: "I can detect a sip of sherry in a paragraph." Vidal Gore on Truman Capote's death: "A brilliant career move."
First-person narratives often appeal to beginners because writing one feels like being an actor and slipping into disguise. Actually, a novel could be made up of more than one character addressing the reader in the first person, but to attempt such things you require a good ear for voices because each of them must be instantly recognizable.
I've been annoyed less by sneers at my alleged overproduction than by the imputation that to write much means to write badly. I've always written with great care and even some slowness. I've put in rather more hours a day at the task than some writers seem able to.
In general, never choose your critic from your immediate family circle: they have usually no knowledge of the process of writing, however literary they may be as consumers; and in their best-natured act of criticism one may hear the unconscious grinding of axes sounding like a medieval tournament.
The Devil comes to the writer and says, "I will make you the best writer of your generation. Never mind generation--of the century. No--this millennium! Not only the best, but the most famous, and also the richest; in addition to that, you will be very influential and your glory will endure for ever. All you have to do is sell me your grandmother, your mother, your wife, your kids, your dog and your soul." "Sure," says the writer, "absolutely--give me the pen, where do I sign?" Then he hesitates. "Just a minute," he says. "What's the catch?"
I simply don't want to do any more work for Hollywood. There is nothing in it but grief and exhaustion and discontent. In no real sense is it writing at all. It carries with it none of the satisfactions of writing. None of the sense of power over your medium. None of the freedom, even to fail.
There are several reasons why so many American writers have only one book in them. One is that it is very hard to be a writer of serious fiction in this country, not merely because we have so little respect for such work but because we throw up so many distractions in the way of it. All the hullabaloo attendant to writing a book to which other people respond intensely can be hugely flattering and can make it difficult to get on with one's work.