Rants on the Writing of Novels

Letters at 3AM



illustration by A.J. Garces

Rant #1. Don't do it if you can possibly avoid it. It takes much longer than lovemaking or dancing, and requires much more concentration than doing your taxes. Divide fees earned by hours worked, and the pay is usually less than minimum wage. Whether your novel sells (or is even published) depends on factors so beyond your control, and so impermeable to logic, that success and failure are equally baffling. Success may not mean you're good, failure may not mean you're bad, but they might. Who can know?

Your novel is rarely as great as you hope, nor as poor as you fear. It renders such judgments useless. This may be good, forcing you to follow your nature instead of your intentions, but it can make you too silly and fragile for constructive concourse with your fellow creatures.

Writing a novel is not accomplished without spending more time alone than is good for anyone. Nor without the inner emotional equivalent of strip-mining -- which leaves the heart frail and the psyche staggered. Thus no activity is more certain to rend a relationship with a lover. (I've averaged the destruction of one serious relationship per book.) Novelists seek love between novels, but while working they're too preoccupied with themselves to take others seriously. This is fatal for the longevity of romance -- romance on equal terms, that is, which novelists claim to want but rarely have the patience or time to tolerate.

If your effort is published, it will be critiqued mostly by idiots whose sole qualifications are an affluent upbringing and a college degree; who resent you for knowing what they don't, living as they haven't the nerve to live, and writing what they cannot; and who, except in the most rare cases, will only praise your work if it favors the salty, stale stew of prejudices, apprehensions, and hopes that they vend as informed opinion.

Aside from these drawbacks, writing a novel is an extraordinary adventure in which your secret inner selves take on flesh with as much vividness as your style can bestow. Then your creations may enter the lives of others, strangers who claim them as their own. This is the alchemy of literature, and the prize we all seek. But why should anyone desire such a prize, and why should strangers (readers) be accomplices in this adventure? My own theory is simply that the imagination is a lonely place, and that the imaginations of both writers and readers do not like to imagine alone. They seek to be shaped by each other. Like bodies, they seek the caresses of their kind. The rest is footnoting and posturing.

Be that as it may, novel-writing is the province of the solitary, the selfish, and the obsessed. Read the biography of any novelist and ask if you're prepared to spend years locked in a room with one.

If you take up novel-writing, you'll have to.

But if you're really a novelist nothing can dissuade you. That's how you know you're a novelist. Talent may or may not develop (as bestsellers prove, it's only rarely needed); erudition may or may not be necessary; visions are rare. But pigheadedness cannot be underestimated. It's the basic ingredient. It is the one quality you may be certain that James Joyce and Danielle Steele have in common, for without it novels don't get written.

Rant #2. No one can teach you how to write your novel. You can be taught how others did it, and how your professor prefers you do it. You can be taught rules, formulas, and tricks -- but whether they bear upon the tales that you and only you can tell is a roll of the dice. You can learn to please your teacher, impress your classmates, and parrot whatever theories are in vogue, but that is not the same as learning to tell your stories.

A test for your professors. Quote them F. Scott Fitzgerald's line, "If you're strong enough, there are no precedents." Or Lawrence Durrell's, "Art is not art unless it threatens your very existence." If the profs poo-poo Fitzgerald and Durrell; or if they doubt your strength aloud; or wonder whether you exist enough for your existence to be threatened -- leave immediately. Or forfeit the tales that are only yours to tell.

Is there a way to learn how you write a novel?

Let your tale possess you, and let it teach you how it wants to be told.

This is a slow, excruciating, marvelous experience that will drive you very nearly mad -- but it's the only way.

Face it: If your tale doesn't possess you, you're wasting your time.

Art is possession. In the ancient, demonic sense. Art is possession -- it is giving yourself over to the spirits within you no matter what the cost. Everything else is finger-painting, inflated with gaseous theories to fortify the mediocre. You cannot get a college degree in possession.

Rant #3. Any novelist who's for real respects good honest hack-work -- Danielle Steele and Stephen King, for instance, are to be respected. What hacks of their caliber do is not easy. They are first-rate entertainers and they know their craft. But there's another, insidious hacking that's praised by most reviewers as "art," and no one of integrity can forgive it. Such books are often well-formed, but their real purpose is reassurance packaged as affirmation. (The two are not the same.) You may mark the work of art by its one universal, inescapable quality: A work of art will, at some point, make you face yourself -- whether you like it or not. And whether you admit it or not.

Everything else is to literature what surfing the Net is to knowledge.

(That squirmy feeling you get when your complacency is really being jarred, and that's not what you picked up the damn book to feel -- well, that's a moment of facing yourself that you're not yet ready to admit.)

Rant #4. People who'd rather we not read keep telling us that "people don't read." Well, many don't and never have; but some do, and always will. William Faulkner's Light in August and Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood barely made back their printing costs, if that. But they're still here, while the hacks of their day are not. (This does not console me at all when the rent comes due, but nevertheless it's true.)

Rant #5. If Charles Dickens' David Copperfield is a novel and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch is a novel, then: What's a novel?

That's the Zen koan that drives novelists nuts.

Your answer will be your novel.

Anything else is just a theory, and, semiotics be damned, theories are not literature.

The answer to the koan, by the way -- well, it isn't really an answer. The answer, for you, will always be your novel, but you will come to that answer by realizing that if Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace and Anaïs Nin's House of Incest are novels, then: A novel's rules are determined only by your gifts and your courage.

The wonder and challenge of the form is that it can contain anything, and it's infinitely flexible. It's not limited by the size of its canvas like painting, nor by the mass of its materials like sculpture -- for a short novel like Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage can contain the Civil War, and an immense novel like James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake can describe a single day. It is not limited by technology and budget, like film; nor by time, like films, plays, short stories, and music. You can bring on all the extras you want in a single page; or write a tale that takes days to read, like Feodor Dostoevski's The Brothers Karamazov. You can go back in history like Toni Morrison's Beloved, or into the future like Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? All that's needed is your gift and your courage. And your pigheadedness.

All of which is to say that the novel, as a form, is about freedom. Historically, it's a form that grew while the dream of freedom grew, and is declining as the dream of freedom declines. Our era is every day more baffled and exhausted by the sense of possibility that the novel, in its very form, champions. Since a novel can go anywhere on any page, the form itself is permeated by the essential question that a novelist must ask every waking day: Just how free am I? Just what can I imagine, and can I make it work? Just how far will I tempt destiny on this particular date?

A nation obsessed with health benefits and safety in the streets is weary of such questions. But that's not really so new. As an all but forgotten American novelist, William Dean Howells, once put it: "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending." Or at least: an orderly ending. But that's not what you'll find in Henry James' A Beast in the Jungle or D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love. Instead, you'll find that, as James put it, every life is "a special problem" with "a terrible algebra" of its own. That is the only conclusion, if you want to call it that, that the concept of freedom ultimately supplies.

Those obsessed novelists, solitary and difficult though they be, stake their lives upon the freedom and scope of their imaginations. No matter what their novels overtly say, their demand is that readers do the same. The form itself begs you, when you close the book, to live a life that is as much your own as that poor, pigheaded, passion-soaked writer's. In this sense, every novel that truly honors the form is a dare and a question. Even if it stays on the shelf unread, even if it's never published and rots in a drawer, every novel says that your imagination (the most tangible fruit of your soul) is the most alive and free part of you, and asks: What are you going to do about that?

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