Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Who Owes What to Whom?

For the last month or so, I've been reading Herman Melville's "Moby Dick." It's about a whale, you know. Two weeks ago, when I was at about the 150-page mark, I decided that I'd had enough of Mr. Melville and his constant digressions about whaling, sailing, the color white and the nature of the soul. I put the book back on the shelf and read Barry Hughart's "Bridge of Birds," a fine romp of a fantasy novel set in a mythical medieval China. When I finished that book I took down the Melville again to give it another try, and after pressing on through a chapter about god-knows-what, the book is suddenly marvelous. The chapter I read last night was amazing; I was on the edge of my seat with excitement and everything about the writing was perfect. Which got me thinking.

We had a discussion not long ago about when, in the course of reading a book, we decide we don't want to keep reading it. It doesn't grab us, or we hit a dull patch and we say "life is short and there are loads of other books" and we move on to something else. I wonder if that isn't sometimes a mistake. Certainly I am glad I returned to the Melville, and I can think of plenty other books where I felt bogged down in the middle only to press on and find myself delightfully exhilarated in the last 150 pages.

A friend of mine subscribes to an audiobooks listserve. A week or so back, there was a discussion on this list about abridging novels when recording them as audio. A couple of people suggested that it would be easy enough to "cut out all the boring parts" and so not tire the listeners or waste their time with the author's ruminations that are tangential to the story. That's a foolish idea, of course, because what's "boring" to one of us might fascinate the next person. And, you know, when you read an author, you are reading that author's prose, immersed in that author's style and mindset. A good book will reveal that the supposedly boring and meaningless tangents are actually important to the setting or character or theme of the book later on. The bits about whaling and sailing in "Moby Dick" are coming in handy during the dramatic parts, I must admit.

There is also the idea that an author has the right to inform and think aloud, as it were, as well as tell a story. An essay on the nature of cloudwatching in the middle of an adventure tale isn't necessarily a bad thing. Should we eliminate all writing that's not overtly entertaining?

Which gets me, inevitably, to me because my immense ego won't let me talk about anything else, no matter how I try to disguise it. I'm working on revisions right now, and I am sort of streamlining the narrative and either removing or pushing into the background a whole lot of stuff about religious conflict and wars of faith and class structure. While there's no doubt that this streamlining is making the dramatic story stronger and putting the focus very clearly on the characters, I worry that a lot of the ideas that made me want to write this book are getting drained out of it. I worry that, as Davin talked about in his post yesterday, I am letting myself be too strongly guided by some sort of idea about commercial acceptability.

So there's this dilemma. Do we, as writers, tell ourselves that our job is to Stick to the Point in our story telling, or do we allow ourselves some elbow room in our narratives and pause to say, "oh, and by the way, I was thinking that..." to our readers? And do we, as readers, abandon books as soon as the writer strays from the story even if the remains of the book, once we sit through something not quite interesting to us, is absolutely wonderful? Do we risk boring our readers? Do we have the patience to be occasionally bored? What do readers and writers owe each other? What do they owe themselves?


  1. I identify with this post. So often I've put a book down out of boredom, but when I pick it back up a week or month later, it springs to life. I think my mood is the culprit. Because of this, I rarely give up on a book anymore. I simply set it aside until I'm in a different frame of mind.

  2. Scott, I don't abandon books because the middle has gotten bogged down. I understand that to get to that point there was a beginning and there will be an end. And all of it is needed (hopefully) to tell the story.

    Moby Dick is a wonderful read. When I started reading your post I thought, "Oh no! He's gonna dis Moby!" I was happy when I saw that wasn't the case. WHEW! :)

    I have taken out some dull pages in my middles. But I also know that there has to be a place where it slows. It can't all be exciting.

    And Scott, don't drain your MS of the very reasons you wrote the book. Then...what's the point? :0) Very nice and thought provoking post. Of course it always is over at the Literary Lab. :)

  3. Man, what questions! Talk about being pulled in the marketing way and then in the, I guess, arty way.

    I'm one of the most patient readers I know, and I often finish books I don't like very much just to see if the thing will get better. When I was younger I felt I truly owed the author every word, and I'd read the critics' praise and acknowledgements and everything.

    I suppose of the books you love to read Stick to the Point, and you write the books you love to read, then you'd be Sticking to the Point. But, if the books you love to read have some boring parts, then it's okay to write a book like that and tell the reader something interesting to you.

    It makes me sad that the ideas that made you love this book to begin with may be draining out of it. Maybe you can forget more about the marketability? I imagine this dilemma is making revisions very hard today.

  4. Oops, I meant "if the books you love to read Stick to the Point..."

  5. Ah, yes, the boring parts. Well, I must admit there's lots of boring stuff in the good things that are worth it in this life. Someone may hate the hike up the mountain. They just want to see the top. Others enjoy the actual hike more, and all the things to see along the way.

    Like you say, one man's junk is another man's treasure. Just make sure that what YOU treasure isn't draining away, Scott. I would hate to see you unhappy with something on which you've worked so hard.

    I like Davin's post a long time ago about the serving the crab in its shell. Sometimes the best stuff is made the best because of what surrounds it. I'm trying to remember this as I make huge decisions with Monarch and my other novel, The Breakaway.

    Like all things with writing, I always feel that a good balance is the key.

  6. Jill: I also rarely give up on a book. I tend to put down nonfiction more often than fiction, but that might have more to do with my fear of real life than anything else. Certainly mood has a lot to do with my relationship with books.

    Robyn: I love Moby Dick, but there was a point when I wasn't in love with Melville's structure of the novel.

    Annie and Robyn: I don't know that I'm draining my ms of the reasons I wrote this book, but I do sometimes worry. I am a bundle of nerves over this current revision, and I second-guess myself far too often.

    Annie: I think you're dead-on about our writing being informed by our reading. But I do worry that, as Davin noted yesterday, a lot of the agents who blog all seem to point writers to a very narrow path, and writers who read those blogs might force their books into a mold that isn't right for them.

    My agent, thankfully, likes writers who write what they care about and who have strong voices; other than that, he just likes well-developed characters and stories that make sense. The only thing he's ever said to me about my digressions is "I started to skim a bit here, but then I saw how it made sense later on." He didn't ask me to cut it. Bless him.

  7. If you have not received it yet, I have recognized and bestowed upon The Literary Lab the One Lovely Blog Award. I truly enjoy the thoughtful posts the three of you write.

  8. A lot of questions, here are my answers:

    - No

    - Elbow room is OK as long as they are gentle nudges, and not vast swinging limbs that can break a nose. It all depends on the execution.

    - Some do; I don't.

    - Yes.

    - Some don't; I do.

    - Nothing directly, but the readers owe the booksellers the price of the book.

    - Something between absolute fulfillment and complete self-loathing. It depends on the work in question.

  9. Rick: You don't have patience to be occasionally bored? That says good things about this post.

    Nice interveiw with Nathan Bransford on the Query Slushpile today. No reality TV or LOTR references; you both showed remarkable restraint.

  10. I echo what's been said in the comments about not losing the ideas that made you start writing the book in the first place. But I am going to play Devil's Advocate about "boring" parts being sometimes necessary. I don't think so. The assignment, should we wish to accept it, is to find a way to make boring NOT. Could Melville have woven the info dump about whaling into more active parts of the story? I don't know, but it's worth thinking about. What a shame if people closed the covers of our books because they got bored when it didn't have to be. And I'm not talking about variations of taste here.

  11. Scott, I may digress, but this topic is just setting off a bunch of twinkling lights in my head these days. First, there are two types of writers that I admire. One is the writer that is totally focused and logical. I admire the restraint of that kind of artist, the discipline they have to keep their passion at bay. Another type of writer is one who constantly confounds me by being illogical. Meaning, they digress, they use strange structures, they include things that make no sense to me, and yet I love what they write anyway. These are the writers I come back to often because I just can't figure out what they did to make me fall in love with them. This type of thing is harder for me to study, and I love the challenge of figuring it out. Faulkner falls into this category, as does Tolstoy and Banana Yoshimoto and Yasunari Kawabata. Like I said, I admire both.

    The other thing I've been feeling lately is that we have to find our readers. The advice that is put out is probably always geared toward the mainstream readers. Those represent, theoretically, the biggest numbers and the most money. But, I think the less-represented groups can be just as big. For instance, the people who read Jhumpa Lahiri are probably not the same ones who read Twilight. Twilight is a huge hit, but Lahiri is probably feeling quite satisfied with her readership. So, maybe MOST people want that focused story (I'm not sure) but maybe YOUR readers (and I happily include myself in this bunch) will be equally if not more dazzled by brilliant digressions, ones that we love even though we don't understand why.

  12. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay is one of my absolute favorite books of all time. It took me four - count 'em - four tries to get past the Prologue and First Chapter. Fourth try was the charm. It's an amazing, absolutely amazing book.

    I think I abandon books when they keep bogging down, time and time and time again, without much happening in between. I read one book by an author - LOVED IT. I couldn't put it down. The second book - well, I put it down about four months ago and haven't picked it up. I will, at some point, but probably not any time soon. You see, it's just kinda 'there' and . . . well, it's just 'there'.

    Tolkien's 'The Fellowship of the Ring' is a hard read and bogs down at points. For whatever reason, I made it through the first reading and have read it multiple times.

    Lastly . . . there are boring parts to life, but even those parts make us who we are today . . . fabulous aspiring writers executing ideas brilliantly. So, sometimes, there's boring, mundane - dude's cleaning up the kitchen after a fabulous party - stuff in my writing. I think those parts need to be minimal and not long, drawn out narratives about the whiteness of a whale.


    p.s. I had to right a term paper on the representation of good and evil in Melville's Moby Dick for high school English. Let's just say my marks on that paper weren't stellar!

  13. Tricia, I really do appreciate you being a devil's advocate. In general, I've really liked to see comments with lines like "I have to disagree." Really, I think it's what we've been going for all this time.

    I think you make a good point, and I'm not disagreeing with you. But, I wonder if there can ever be a distinction between boring versus not-boring and variations in taste. Can we ever really know that? Maybe something I consider bad is something someone else considers great. And, by me including material that I think is bad, it will attract another reader I wouldn't have connected with before. This is different from what I said in "the crab post" but maybe it yields the same results. Maybe by including my personal good and bad, I end up getting two pools of readers instead of one. Just a though.

  14. Great post.
    I always try to push through the boring bits, because I do believe that there can be a lot of worthwhile things later in the book. It's like finding a second wind when running. Heck, not everything can be absolutely fascinating, not to everyone, at least.

    I guess I favor the Stick to the Point method in my own writing, because otherwise, I think, 'Why am I telling people this? It's not furthering the story.' But, I give other authors more leeway which such things than I do myself.

  15. Sorry, I got to the party late! (As I will most days now that it is a new school year and I am called to mold the minds of future authors.)

    Anyway, I think your question is one that each writer must answer for himself. Basically, it's got to feel right. Sometimes I write stuff that is only there because I needed a way to get to what I really needed from a scene. I set the stage for myself so that I can write it, maybe it needs to stay when I revise, maybe not.

    But if I find a section boring as the writer, I can only imagine the snores of the reader. (However, if it intrigues me, if I know it is in the book for a reason, then perhaps it will add to the reader's experience, too.)

    The answer is that I have no answer. The writer owes the reader her best. The reader owes the writer....a chance?


  16. Shelley, that's lovely:

    "The answer is that I have no answer. The writer owes the reader her best. The reader owes the writer....a chance?"

  17. I think a lot of it boils down to the writer's motive. Why are they writing? To entertain? To wow with exemplary prose? To get published?

    If you're writing to entertain and to get published you have to get into the "what do you owe the reader?" question. You owe the reader what they expect. To be entertained, to WANT to make it past the first 150 pages of the book without being bored. Many won't continue to take a chance with that book if they want to put it down after the first few chapters. And most won't want to take a chance on that author again.

    Ah, but what do you owe yourself? To be the best. For some that means a novel that pulses with excitement in every chapter. For others that means a literary masterpiece. Abandoning writing a bestseller and pleasing the public, you owe it to yourself to be proud of your work. To pour your soul into a novel and feel you've done well.

  18. Scott- I like this quote from the movie OFFICE SPACE:

    "I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything I thought it would be"

    I have a unique ability to be completely non-productive for long stretches. Being bored doesn't bother me much. This can create internal conflict because my attention span hovers between 10 and 13 seconds most of the time.

    I didn't ask Nathan about reality TV, but I did link to his Mad Men post and mention TV in general. Gollum.


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