Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Brevity

Oops, I was wrong. The sentence is only eleven pages long. It only seemed like twenty.

I've been telling people for several weeks about the chapter in Michael Chabon's latest novel, Telegraph Avenue, which is one run-on sentence. It all makes sense, the grammar is fine, and the reader never loses track of what's happening; but seriously. Was that necessary? Especially as it doesn't serve any purpose other than to prove that Michael Chabon can write. Which I already knew.

I've been a fan of Michael Chabon since before I ever read any of his novels. It started with the filmed version of Wonder Boys, a delightful tale of a very bad day in the life of an English professor who wrote a great American novel, and now is trying desperately to write the follow-up--except he can't make it end. It just goes on and on, thousands of pages. Seeing the movie inspired me to start writing fiction again after five years away from it. Reading the novel, and every other novel he's written, gave me a model for how I wanted to write. How ironic, then, that Telegraph Avenue feels like that run-on novel in Wonder Boys, and is everything I don't want to be when I write.

Telegraph Avenue is lots and lots of virtuosic, improvisational writing that dazzles with technique, but tells very little story. There are plenty of intriguing characters, but they're not given much to do, and the stakes are ultimately just not that high. There are some dazzling set pieces, as well, but again, not much happens. It's like a summer blockbuster with a 45-minute final action sequence: incredible special effects, but where's the story?

I had much the same feeling wading through Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections: Wow, that guy can write, and he's even picked a subject that's close to my heart. But he does go on. Do we really need a ten-age conversation between an old man and a turd? Or that interminable set piece with the boy sitting at the table until he eats his vegetables, ultimately going to sleep at the table because his parents have both forgotten he's there, that just goes on and on and on until we feel every excruciating minute of the evening wasted...

You know by now that I am a writer given to length. I go on. I want to be sure all my bases are covered, and even then, every time I publish a post, I'm certain the moment it goes up that I've left all manner of things out. It's the curse of the improviser: what didn't I say? Sometimes I jot a few notes down on my phone (who writes on paper anymore?), just to be sure I don't miss anything; then write myself off on a tangent that becomes the main body of the essay. Whatever I wind up writing about (and it often turns out to be something other than what I intended at the beginning of a piece), I write until I'm finished, until there's nothing left to do but put a cap on it.

Farhad Manjoo recently wrote a piece in Slate about how rarely people finish reading anything they find online. Every paragraph began with a taunt about how few readers must be left at this point. And true to form, I clicked away from it after about four paragraphs. I'd gotten the point.

It's an old point, really, one that newspapers have understood for generations, and the reasoning behind the "inverted pyramid" structure of straight news stories: people expect to get all the important information in the first paragraph or, better still, the first sentence. The longer the story, the more likely they are to turn the page before it's done and see what's happening in the sports section. The problem in this for essayists and op-ed writers is that we are seeking to create something that has a beginning and an end, that logically proceeds through a discussion of points to arrive at a satisfying conclusion. Check out after a few hundred words and you miss the best stuff, and have no idea how it comes out in the end.

Thinking about my own tastes in literary fiction (which may be partially revealed in the above rant about two very well-received novels), I'm realizing that I want a story to move. I want a plot to advance, characters to evolve, relationships to develop. If this can happen in the context of some spectacular writing, it's all the better. But I will tolerate serviceable writing as long as it carries a decent plot (as is the case with George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire); what I have less and less patience for is a bare skeleton of a plot being used to support a circus of writing stunts. At some point, I lose the art in the virtuosity.

Michael Chabon has written novels in which amazing things happen. My favorite is The Yiddish Policeman's Union, an alternate history noir in which all kinds of crazy things take place, all of it told with the spare prose one expects of a detective novel. It works at every level. So does Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, an exercise in some of the most frugal writing I've ever experienced that still affects me 36 years after I read it in an English class.

Just to reiterate: I do appreciate writing that is both beautiful and useful. My favorite novel of all time is Sometimes a Great Notion, which pushes and pulls and twists and breaks every literary convention I know, and manages to make me care deeply about all the characters and what will happen to every one of them. Ken Kesey knew both how to tell a story and how to blow us away with his technique. Such a masterpiece can't be churned out on an annual basis, though. Kesey really only wrote three novels in his lifetime.

I have a great American novel in me, but I'm not sure I've got the chops to pull it off. I've written and rewritten it several times now. In its present form, it's more than 500 pages long, and there are parts of it that could stand to be longer. There's also some deadwood that needs to be excised. The best parts are written with brevity; the worst parts go on for far too long, caught up in my love for the language. At some point, I may take a shot at self-publishing it on Amazon, but first, I've got to cure myself of my love for long form.

Here's the first step: this essay is now complete.

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