Archive for December, 2010

Gettin’ Some Action Between The Covers Of A Novel

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 14, 2010 by michaelcogdill

F. Scott Fitzgerald, scribbling in the working notes for his novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, said, “Action is character.”

I’ve long cleaved to this wisdom, as if Fitzgerald’s statement formed a guiding set of reins, setting my course as a writer trying to entertain on two levels: The action of the tale has to keep a reader longing for the next word, of course, but the words themselves ought to glimmer with a life all their own. They should form a sound that moves the reader’s soul. The words alone should have breath and a voice. It’s not an easy reach.

This little passage of She-Rain is a quick look at what I’m talking about, at least in my opinion. Let me hear yours.

The day came on so cold the air felt breakable. The coldest day even the grayest heads could recall, talking of it for weeks. A pack of us had piled onto Pap’s mule wagon, the children smothered in quilts and shivers and a show of good faith. We were party to the goodbye.

Everything outside shone silvery white, all the trees wrapped and crackling in the shimmer of frozen January rain atop a snow. Cloth wrapped about the faces kept the ride quiet under the low winter noise. It seemed every branch, twig and roadside weed crunched against the lightest wind. A feel of frailty came off it, yet I loved the blank white. The way it made that trip to town feel as new as Christmas morning the day we hauled Frank to the Marshal Depot. Pap was paying his way.

Reading should be transformative. Writers ought to take you somewhere, causing the dust of a dirt road or the cold of a place and time to settle onto you. When we succeed at this, you, as a quiet reader, live out loud the truth of the people in the tale. You have a chance to touch, to hear, and to know them. By the transport of words, readers discover deeper parts of themselves. They find a new and familiar world at once. To read well is to travel well. But more than travel, readers – in the hands of a caring writer – arrive in a story from which they don’t want to turn away.

Some writers decry description. They uphold only the leanest truth telling, figuring the reader’s imagination will do the rest. It’s not a terrible idea, though one that often underachieves what a writer is called to do. Fitzgerald’s genius still holds true – action is character. And in a world of well-chosen words, action — and readers — find a fine place to dwell.

Franzen, Fame, And The Manacles Of Freedom

Posted in Uncategorized on December 8, 2010 by michaelcogdill

Jonathan Franzen would likely have preferred having boiling oil poured down his writing pants to facing the question about giving Oprah a snub. I confess as I watched him finally share the stage with a mighty gracious Oprah this week, I detected a Craig Ferguson-worthy awkward pause all over him.  It seemed to me he locked up for a moment — lost in a quiet fit of fumbled hypocrisy — as he accounted for his recoil against having The Corrections chosen for Oprah’s book club.  Oprah was enormously kind.  Rather than gloating, she offered him welcome and sincere praise.  The lady loves his work, and rightly so.  He’s a very fine writer.  Yet on the show, he made no honest allusion to his opinion — those years ago — that his male audience would flee his work if he took a book date with Oprah.  Having heard every word of his Oprah interview, I still believe this:  He feared the intelligentsia of literary fiction would think less of him if he took Oprah’s praise and did the show with The Corrections.  So, he snubbed her those years ago, setting off a far bigger media tsunami than he thought possible.  Then, this week, he and Freedom rode the wave of there’s-no-such-thing-as-bad-publicity straight onto the stage to make up with the Queen of all media.  His appearance testifies to the kindness of her.  Lesser women would have ignored him, perhaps letting him drown in what has looked like his own hubris. 

Since my initial posting on this, some readers of my novel, She-Rain, have come to some defense of Franzen.  They see him as a genuinely self-effacing writer who despises walking in the glow of media, and I agree with them on some levels.  Unlike many of his critics, I refuse to indict Franzen as some pompous misanthrope.  I believe he’s a sincere artist with an interesting process and a noble artistic goal.  His gravity-defying praise is often deserved.  Yet I stay convinced his novel, Freedom, and its attendant fame amount to a set of chains he wears with some eagerness.  Big publishing has used it to drag him under spotlights he outwardly disdains — even while those lights tan him in shades of gold. He soaks in the money, yet remains openly conflicted about the contemporary culture sun from which it comes.    

Publishing is a shrinking herd of followers.  Too many editors and critics call a thing brilliant merely because they’ve heard of the thing’s creator, or because they deem it some new gospel in the religion of cool.  Thus we end up with books and writers tending to parallel the upward momentum of the likes of Snooki and The Situation.  We who read and write are expected to chain ourselves to these figures and go meteoric with them, shouting praise en route to the stars.  Franzen is among the industry’s stars, no matter how determined he appears not to wear its shine, and Freedom has become too much about a publishing industry anointing.  May its literary legacy rise above the noise!

Franzen, for me, would have helped his personal legacy along had he confessed to Oprah — right there on television — his deepest fears, hubris, whatever, of those years ago.  He could have said, “Look, I let myself fall into that arrogant pseudo-intellect that tends to sneer at mass audience  instead of embracing it.”  Instead, I believe he did as he was told by a publishing house in love with celebrities loathe to say, “I was wrong.”   

Now, wait, this is no veiled criticizm of Oprah.  I believe she genuinely loves the book, and her graceful way with Franzen speaks of a woman who embodies grace and leadership much too rare.  Oprah goes her own way, with courage and a fine will.  Franzen, you are extremely fortunate she chose to take you along, letting go of any hard feelings from years back.  May your future art find itself worthy of what she’s done for your present and your past.  May you come to celebrate, as I do, the new publishing model that will require writers to work as creative entrepreneurs, owners and managers of their own work who gratefully embrace the opportunity, not just the celebrity, that comes with standing in the spotlight.  Your work needs no artificial anointing from the trembling hands of publishing.  Break those chains, Mr. Franzen, and let your future art out to run.  May a kind sincerity run at its side.

And may all of us find books we truly love, shedding the manacles of what the dying publishing industry calls the next — or current — great one.  Readers, more than ever, you are the curators of great books.  Be frank, and honest, about how a book makes you feel, no matter the noise that surrounds it.