May 26, 2010

When I’m Reading, I Don’t Want To Be Reminded of the Author

If I ever had any doubts about Thom Jones writing female characters, I take it all back! Mea culpa. Last night, I read “I Want to Live!” in The Pugilist at Rest, and man oh man is it fabulous. It’s about a woman who’s dying of cancer (or, as in the story, “can … cer”) He takes his time, and it’s such a lovely story.

Isn’t it interesting? Reading story collections can be a mixed bag, especially when it’s a first collection, as this one is. You can really tell the stories where the writer has reached his stride, as well as the ones that were earlier attempts. These earlier attempts show the promise of what’s to come, but they aren’t unified (all of a piece) and coherent (parts in the right order all fitting together). And then you see the gloriousness of when it all comes together. Then it’s like the last two seconds of the game and your team sinks a three-pointer. You want to stand and cheer!

Which brings me to what I wanted to try to figure out today. In most cases, the best stories are those in which the author disappears. This isn’t a new idea (but I don’t remember whom I’ve heard say it). The best stories are often those stories where you’re swept away ~ you’re with the characters, who cares who wrote it? The more “underdeveloped stories” (as someone very graciously and delicately said to me recently) are constantly pulling you out of the story ~ either because of craft issues or because you’re wondering about the author. You’re pushed out of the “vivid and continuous dream.”

So I wanted to talk through how these early stories go wrong. What keeps pushing you out?

One reason could be that the details and instances in the story don’t seem to work together. They aren’t unified and coherent. An experienced writer can pull these types of things off by weaving unlike motifs throughout to where the reader isn’t even conscious of it. The experienced writer sets up what’s going to come later with little feints in that direction and little feints away. Things only seem to come out of the blue when the writer intended them to ~ and even then they’re usually prepared for.

Related to that, in a good story, everything ~ and I mean everything ~ works toward the effect(s) the author is trying to create. I used to tell my science and technical writing students: A good piece of writing is like a well-designed tool. Nothing is extraneous, and everything has a function and works toward the goals of that tool. Even if it’s just for aesthetic purposes, rather than functional. So, in a piece of writing, every plot point, every character, every description, every verb, every comma, every space, should work toward the effect.

That said, a writer should trust his or her subconscious and go with impulses, but after that first draft is spewed out, the writer should take a long hard look at his or her choices and assess whether each thing contributes or takes away. Because you can’t afford so much as a comma out of place or the reader is pushed out of the story just that little bit more.

Another reason I’m reminded of the author, I think, is because their range isn’t very broad (yet). They use the same elements over and over in all their stories. It’s like they haven’t yet worked through all those things, and they keep trying to figure them out. Eventually, given enough time, writers can get those same elements that seem so disparate to combine and really make a great story from them.

These elements are why I keep thinking of the writer. Because they keep popping up on all the stories and because I’m not pulled into the dream ~ instead of thinking, Wow, what an interesting metaphor or I wonder how this is going to fit into the narrative and character, I’m thinking, this happened to this writer.

It’s only later, after I’ve read the great story, that I’m consumed with admiration and become a little obsessive about the writer. I want to reread parts and I want to read their whole oeurvre and I do my best PI on the internet.

What I’m Reading Today: Thom Jones.

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