My review of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow and Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth by Stephen F. Knott are in Drink Tank #410. (The typos are my fault, not Chris’, and will be corrected when I post here.)
Title: How Fiction Works
Author: James Wood
Publisher: Farrar Strouss Giroux (now MacMillan)
Publisher’s Blurb: James Wood ranges widely, from Homer to Make Way for Ducklings, from the Bible to John le Carré, and his book is both a study of the techniques of fiction-making and an alternative history of the novel. Playful and profound, How Fiction Works will be enlightening to writers, readers, and anyone else interested in what happens on the page.
Being a reviewer is writing, “This female character isn’t very nice which means she’s not a very good person and that makes it hard to read.” Being a critical reviewer is writing, “this hard to like character takes everything we know about the anti-hero trope and turns it upside down, to the purpose of saving the Queen from near certain death.” Knowing how craft works is the difference.
In How Fiction Works, James Wood writes, “… reading for significance is always a negotiation between our excited discovery of the work and our comprehension of the work after the excitements of discover have faded a bit.” We could have read Goon Squad for the sheer brilliance of the story itself, and left it at that. A lot of readers have. But because we look for significance in what we read, we cogitated and poked around.
Knowing about the craft of writing allows me to ask the questions which allow me to get beneath the surface of a work. In working through Goon Squad three times, I found questions I didn’t know to ask, and ways to answer those questions. Because I am working my way away from Reader Response, and learning to be think critically about a work, I need to know about craft.
When I look for reviews about a product, I look for the ones which tell me what the craftsmanship is like. “This insta-pot is put together well. The display is easy to read, the settings are easy to set, the lid closes tightly, and the removable pot makes it easy to clean up.” As opposed to, “I love this insta-pot and would buy again.” I’m not buying an appliance based on the last review, unless I know the person making the recommendation well.
Thinking critically about a book is recognizing how the book was written, the choices an author made to tell the story, and being able to write a more informed review. As to credentials, people will trust reviewers who know about the craft of writing more than the one who only wants to recap and express fondness, or dislike, for the author and the genre.
When I review a book critically, I want to make it clear that I know something about the writer’s craft, and that I have some understanding of how craft serves the story. I want my own writing to reflect that I know something about using craft and strive for thoughtful, well-crafted reviews. Having this knowledge leads to being included in conversations which go deeply, and being taken seriously enough to be invited again.
Instead of saying to myself, “Oh I know I can do better than that,” when I read reviews, I now look for reviews which go deeper and encourage myself to strive for that level of writing. For me, it’s the difference between saying “I loved this book and if you love zombies you will too,” and, “Diana Rowland’s White Trash Zombie series gives us a look at how her protagonist gains agency and self-esteem through being turned into a zombie and finding a power structure which supports her in her growth.”
“124 was spiteful,” is one of the best opening lines of a book ever. Reader response would figure out that 124 was an address and the house at that address was haunted, and they might leave it at that. Critical review will delve deeper, “Why is the ghost at 124 spiteful? What is it doing to tell us, the reader, why it’s behaving in such a way? Why did Toni Morrison use the word spiteful instead of something like angry?” Even further a critical reviewer would be able to point to other examples of this deliberate type of disorientation in storytelling. Once we learn about the craft, we can find the patterns in other stories and discuss why disorientation is good craft. We also learn when it’s been applied well and when it doesn’t work. This also gives us credence as reviewers, and provides evidence we speak from authority when writing a critical review.
Knowing about craft elevates the discussion and makes the experience of reading, and writing, richer. How Fiction Works provided me with more tools with which to think about reading. Plus it gave me the phrase “flaneurial realism.” to cherish.
My review of Lime Street by David Jaher, about Houdini and spiritualism is in this issue of The Claims Department
My 2018 reading wrap up is featured in Drink Tank #409
My byline in The Drink Tank #408 – the John Scalzi issue. What it’s like to form an opinion and then meet the author.
So … this happened. Former co-worker Christopher J. Garcia has won Hugo awards for his fanzines. The most recent issue of The Drink Tank is devoted to my reviews. It makes me excited and humbled, because … well, when one of your friends has won Hugos and wants to work with you … There are other pieces in the works. As they say somewhere, “Watch this space.”
I’m not sure how I wound up in this place. This place of intellectual challenge and delight while reading and writing differently than before. In two short months, I have seen remarkable change in the way I approach them, the keepers of my sanity. Somehow, I’ve become richer, more sure of myself, more ready to do the hard work required to become better at reading, and writing.
A lifetime of reading voraciously, anything within reach. Some above my grade level, others extremely inappropriate for a reader of any age, all of it like a drug no one else around understood. They watched me read, they fed my habit, and considered themselves readers too. But somehow my attachment to books and the spells they wove were different for me.
I read all the time, often getting in trouble in class for not paying enough attention. I’m bad at math but I still think I got the better part of the deal. At temp jobs, “You mean you’d rather read than work?” Uh, yeah.
But some books felt like I was just skating on the surface. I could see figures beneath the ice, enticing me to join them, but I couldn’t reach them. I didn’t know how.
But I kept reading. From “should read,” “best of,” “canon,” lists. Trying to organize what felt like a very disorganized approach to reading. I made lists of my own, going through bibliographies carefully. I was looking for clues to a puzzle I didn’t understand.
The lists caused minor panic attacks. The boxes on my shelves leered at me. And still I brought them into my living space. How was I ever going to read them all? Sometimes I would admonish myself to read faster, harder, eschew everything unnecessary to daily life for the sake of reading.
I joined a social media site for readers, found a group and settled in for a couple of years. There I developed rules of engagement for my reading. Only these topics, only series I had already started, only authors whose work I had begun reading. But someone would warble a book or, in the case of egregious generosity, send the first in a series to my Kindle app. The nerve!
Then what was supposed to be a cozy little community blew up in my face over my unwillingness to move a book from a challenge which suited my needs to another one which suited someone else. It got ugly, names were called, fat shaming was invoked and I sat at my computer sobbing. All of this over a book? I made my stand, “My reading is for my pleasure, not yours.”
At the end of the calendar year I left for good. And went back to reading without the interesting challenges, and the mildly entertaining cliquish conversations. I was on my own again, still searching for people to talk books with.
It was in this cozy little community that I started to write reviews. Everyone did it. So I joined in. And because the internet and blogging had always fascinated me, I started a blog, several times. 7Stillwell is probably the sixth or seventh iteration.
All through my BA studies, I read interesting things. Any time I had the chance to study something cross-disciplinary between literature and history I took it. Women in Asia, Medieval literature, anything for which I could get credit in a history degree I took.
My way of reading was deepening, my craving for getting under the ice intensified. Some I could crack a little hole and peek through, others I could see the figures more clearly but I couldn’t find my way in.
My writing. Well that was something altogether different. I thought I wanted to write grand fiction stories, but realized I didn’t want the responsibility of trying to keep a fictional world balanced. But I kept trying.
And I’d never been satisfied with my reviews. I read others, both peer and professional. But I kept finding myself fumbling around, especially at the end of a review. I couldn’t stick the landing sometimes. But I kept at it.
I read book blogs and thought, “Oh, I know I can do better than that.” And I would continue reading, and writing about it. Then I got myself listed on a book blog for authors to find reviewers. And they came calling. Not many, but a few. Some I turned away. Some I accepted and then regretted that choice. One came through like a shining star, and I asked Alexander Watson what else he was working on and would he make sure I got copies.
The really good books are the ones that make it worthwhile. Alexander’s River Queens was the one that kept me going because it was so elegant, and he was so professional about promoting his book. He kept me going when work was turning ugly. He reminded me why I had such a deep abiding love for books, and the sanctuary they offered me.
But I was getting more restless. Because now I was reading books that were touted by groups of people I had respect for and wondering what I was missing. Kafka? Yeah, he’s fine but this one story in this collection was really clunky, how did it ever get picked? Steve Martin? Yeah … no. Ready Player One? Okay, not an 80s kid. Don’t get it.
By August 2018, I was in such a funk. Work was quickly going off the rails, I was discovering more and more I had at most two friends to talk about literature and books with. I wanted more something, everything, different.
And so there was WorldCon 76 in my backyard. The reader friend on the East Coast convinced me to cough up the money. It was a lot of money. But he was right, it would be a shame to miss it when it was less than five miles from home. And, wow. I had a great time, better than any other con I’d ever been to. I was on my own, attending panels I wanted, and just being me. What a revelation.
My very first panel of my WorldCon experience was M. Todd Gallowglas’ “LitCrit for Geeks.” Wait. What? This can’t be right. I thought LitCrit was dry and dull and required special skills and, here’s this writer I’ve never heard of making it sound like a lot of fun. Something worthwhile.
When I got home from the weekend, I reread my notes. Intertextuality, metatextuality, Marxism, feminism, new historicism? Race, gender, deconstruction, OOO? And for the next month while I fought the demons at work, and tried a new approach to reading and journaling, I thought about LitCrit. This geek wanted more but what?
I lost my job in September. Packed up my stuff and came home. Moped around for a few days and thought “now what?” The need to read, and write, remained. But I wanted to go deeper. I knew there were ways to do that but I didn’t have a clue where to start. Just reading and recapping weren’t enough anymore.
Little did I know that the guy I hadn’t heard of would turn out to be my mentor and show me the way to look at things differently. Little did I know how much I was going to change. Little did I know how much work it would be and how happy it would make me. Here, finally, was something worthwhile to do with my time.
In two months, I’ve read a lot more than usual. Feeling myself slipping into the cracks, acknowledging myself, figuring things out. More personal growth than I thought possible. Then two books which really shook things up and made me realize while I was just starting, I was doing it. I was reading deeper and writing better about what I read. I felt like my reviews were taking on meaning.
First, The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemisin. Jangled, sharp edged, arrhythmic. There were times I’d think, “She won a Hugo for this? What am I not seeing?” I’d put it down and think about the new theories I was learning, think about how they might apply. I stuttered my way through until something happened which betrayed my trust in the story. I literally had to have a bit of a lie-down because I was so angry with what I had just figured out about the main characters. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go on.
Applying the Pearl Rule still doesn’t come easily to me, and Jemisin had won back to back Hugos three years in a row for this series. That was important. What was I missing?
Off to the internet to read what other people thought, what other reviewers wrote. This is unusual for me because I want to go into a book with as few preconceptions as possible. But damn it, this was supposed to be brilliant. I had just been at WorldCon surrounded by really smart people who talked about her and this series. Besides, my mentor suggested I join him for a group read. And he was having problems too.
What I read reassured me enough to dig back in. To forgive Jemisin enough to finish the story. I was happy I did, and now the thinking. Now I had permission to think and do it deeply. “Pick five schools of theory and apply them to The Fifth Season,” he said. Oh boy.
November. “We’re going to spend the month on A Visit From the Goon Squad,” he said.
“Oh ha ha,” I thought. “A month?”
For all intents and purposes, I’ve read it three times. Back to back to back. Each time finding something different, something I hadn’t picked up on before. Three times. I don’t do that. But apparently I do now..
Jennifer Egan is brilliant. Her collection of thirteen stories are enriched by being told in non-chronological order.. Not only is her prose engaging, her characters and their stories transcend archetype to become fully formed.
This character Bennie leads to his wife Stephanie leads to his brother-in-law Jules leads to starlet Kitty Jackson leads to …. This story about Bennie in high school leads to his visit to a band he signed who no longer make the grade which leads to …. Seamlessly, and with epiphanies. “Oh, that explains why Sasha’s a kleptomaniac.”
Spend a month? I could imagine spending an entire semester on it. And all the while, with my spreadsheet and 30+ pages of notes, thinking is happening and I feel myself opening up and going deeper. “Pick five schools of thought and apply them,” he said again.
And as with The Fifth Season, I discovered not all schools can be applied to all books. New Criticism and Feminism will almost always apply. Trying to make my other choices apply meant looking at the material differently. Was race a viable filter? Culture? What does culture mean in this text?
I reminded myself I was at the beginning of this fascinating journey, I couldn’t possibly know how it would, or if it could, work together. Having to think about how there might be other ways to interpret the text made me reach, and stretch. There were days when I flailed, a lot. “I don’t know what the hell I’m doing here,” I would gripe. But I kept writing, and thinking.
It’s been two months of work. Steady, daily work. Reading Michael Moorcock’s essays still make me anxious because he’s so damned erudite and he eloquently writes about things I’m just now learning. Instead of skipping or stopping or throwing my mental hands up and saying, “This is too hard,” I kept at it.
I kept at it. That was huge. I was no longer in the realm of wanting to just move on to the next book, or deciding not to write about it. And things I’d read about process and writing from other writers whose work I enjoyed seeped in.
Here was Anne Lamott with her “shitty first draft,” from Bird by Bird. Richard Kadrey, Chuck Wendig, Kameron Hurley … “do the work, it’s okay to be scared, writing is hard work, and no one has to ever see what you write.” This last perhaps as important to me as Anne Lamott’s.
Knowing Michael was the only one seeing the work I chose to show him helped. Trusting he would tell me if I was going down the wrong road, helped. His brief encouraging comments about my mind and the great work I was doing thrilled me.
“Trust yourself,” he said. He wasn’t in the same county, so he couldn’t hear when I laughed. “Dude,” I thought.
I kept working through my personal grievances and anxieties. Days when I didn’t want to get out of bed because the PTSD was making it hard. But I did it. I got up and went to work.
Because the work is what keeps me sane right now. And learning about different ways to dig into the text and make the connections and then write about them make me really happy. Before September, I was prepared to just keep reading as I had been. Trying to find writing classes which didn’t really fit but were affordable and might offer some guidance, and trying to write to the specifications of assignments which made no sense to me. That’s what I was doing before.
Now, in November, I think differently about what I’m reading. I look for the connections, I apply filters, I think things like, “Why would she write it that way? How does [some school of theory] apply here?” I allow myself to believe I know what I’m doing, to trust I have a lifetime’s knowledge to apply, and to know I’m really doing the work.
Examining A Visit From the Goon Squad with a spreadsheet was something I had never, ever thought to do. But it seemed to be the best way to really dig in and pay attention. It’s never occurred to me even once that it’s weird to be this excited about reading better and deeper, or that my writing would become stronger. It’s not weird, it’s quite wonderful. And I look forward to doing the work every single day.