Everyone Should Write a Romance Novel Once

When I say “everyone” should write a romance, I mean everyone who wants to write in some genre whether it be literary or sci-fi or otherwise. I’ll start with the obvious: most novels have some sort of romance subplot in them. It’s always a good idea to do focused practice to get better at something. How many times have you cringed at the romance subplot of an otherwise good novel? Probably more than once.

But there are some less obvious reasons to do this exercise (and no, it doesn’t have to be a full novel or even good). I, and many other writers, get caught up in certain aspects of the craft. I tend to over-analyze and polish prose, as can be seen with the several dozen posts I’ve done here only looking at prose style. I’m also into plot, and I think most writers start a project because they are excited about a plot idea.

Now you might be thinking: what else is there? Exactly. That’s why you need this exercise. Romance novels almost universally ignore both prose style and plot. I know I’ll probably get in trouble for saying that, but just go look at the top few romances on Amazon. Browse the first few pages for free. The number 1 book for months and months has been Everything We Keep. The prose is almost laugh-out-loud funny, so clearly readers of the genre don’t care about that stuff.

This means you’ll be free to focus on other aspects of writing that often get ignored. The thing romance does well is create memorable, interesting characters. You’ll need to focus on characterization a lot.

Dialogue is very important as well. The dialogue should create tension and chemistry between the characters. Dialogue has to push the story forward by constantly revealing things. You can’t have a bunch of stiff “shoe leather” dialogue about the weather and small talk and greetings (unless its a historical where that type of thing might reveal status).

Lastly, setting description will be important. Romance readers want to be transported somewhere. This is a common focus of many other genres as well, but it’s one of the reasons so many romances take place in the lush countryside of Ireland or some Duke’s castle.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to write your romance. You are not to focus on plot. This has been predetermined. Pull up a random word generator. Here’s your plot. Answer the following questions using the random words. I’ll give sample answers.

How do they meet? Ans: “Dove”

Opening scene: They are both walking in a park and they stop on opposite sides of a pond to watch a dove. The dove flies off and poops on male lead. The female lead laughs. They meet eyes. He storms off.

Why can’t they be together? Ans: “Advocate” re-roll “Crop” So advocate for farming rights?

Male lead is a lobbyist for Monsanto-like corporation. Female lead is an activist against his company.

Next set of scenes: They meet at some high roller D.C. party, and she has infiltrated it with an attempt to wreck chaos as a form of protest. Right before she does it, they meet eyes across the room. He goes up and confronts her about laughing at him. Chemistry ensues. Early signs of love. Then she does her protest, and they realize they can’t be together.

They keep meeting up, falling more and more in love. They try to make it work despite their differences. There will be a sex scene or at least a kiss depending on how graphic you go. Eventually something so bad must happen that it seems they won’t be together.

You can use another random word here, or just tie it to what you have. Probably here it would be something like female lead makes male lead promise he won’t cross the line with some legislation. He promises, but gets caught in a no-win situation and crosses that line. She finds out and breaks it off. A scene or two of wallowing ensues.

Then there needs to be a proof of love scene. Here it’s easy. Male lead devises a way to kill the legislation, but it costs him his job. But that’s okay. Female lead is worth it. They live happily ever after. I know. This sounds suspiciously like The American President, but I swear those were my random words. And if you break down any romance, you’re going to find the same outline.

To recap, the form is easy. The leads meet. Only after some serious chemistry do they find a difficulty with their relationship. They make it work for a time despite this. Then something bad happens, and they seem to be permanently broken up. But then one proves their love for the other by sacrificing something important. They live happily ever after.

At any point that you can’t figure out what to do, use the random word generator. Throw some twists in with it. Do not, under any circumstances, spend a ton of time on the plot or prose. Get the characters and chemistry and dialogue and setting right. You’ll want to throw in a few side characters as well. Figure out their personalities with your word generator.

Side character 1: “Shark” So female lead has friend obsessed with sharks, maybe so much so that it offers comic relief. They sometimes protest together certain environmental causes, and this is how they met.

Side character 2: “Drunken” Male lead has alcoholic best friend. We see some of male lead’s redeeming qualities that female lead doesn’t see when he helps this friend in a scene.

I’ll end by reiterating that I do not believe this is how all romances are written. I’m not trying to make fun of them by doing this. The point is to forget about plot and prose as an exercise in generating interesting characters with chemistry and strong dialogue. So often these things get overlooked in other genres.

Also, it’s an exercise. Please do not publish this under any circumstances unless you take the time to make it good. The Amazon self-publishing scene is flooded enough with weak novels as it is.

Why Would Wolfe Choose a Torturer in New Sun?

Sorry for the extremely weird question in the title. Gene Wolfe’s most famous work is The Book of the New Sun. It is four novels long and follows Severian, a torturer. I’ve been reading the first one in the series: The Shadow of the Torturer.

This post is mostly going to be uninformed musings. I have not read the series before, so I don’t know the later events. I have not delved very deeply into the first novel either (there are people who have devoted a huge amount of scholarship to these books). I wanted to read them with as few spoilers as possible.

But I do know that the most accepted interpretation of the series has Severian as a Christ figure. In fact, I’ve heard it’s supposed to be a straight up retelling of the life of Jesus. This post lists some early ideas I have for why Wolfe would choose a torturer to play this role.

The premise of the book is that Severian feels sympathy for a woman who has been sentenced to be tortured. He gives her a knife to commit suicide so that she is spared the torture. It is portrayed as an act of compassion, but the fact remains that this is very disturbing. The Christ figure enables a woman to kill herself.

It is well-known that Wolfe is a devout Christian. He also writes with meticulous attention to detail. So we can automatically rule out the laziest idea that this is some blasphemous retelling of the Gospels. Severian is not a torturer in order to put out some anti-Christian story. The profession of torturer was chosen for a reason.

The following ideas are being recorded for my own general purpose. I’m mostly curious how my views on this aspect of the book will change as I read more of the story.

Idea 1: The first, somewhat shocking, thing I noticed was that the Guild of Torturers had the official name: Order of the Seekers for Truth and Penitence. This is quite suggestive. Not only did early Christians consider themselves seekers of truth, they sought to convert people by having them repent of their sins. Despite their actions being antithetical to Christianity, the name of the order is highly suggestive of early Christianity. The society at large hates the torturers (obviously), and this is also in line with how broader society viewed early Christian sects.

Idea 2: In Luke, Jesus appears to be aware of the torture he must undergo when going to his own crucifixion. One reason Wolfe might have chosen a torturer for the protagonist is that when Severian defies the order he is a part of, he does so fully knowing what his punishment will be. He goes through with his act of compassion despite this, which makes Severian’s act more humane.

Idea 3: I don’t want to put in spoilers, so I’ll just say that being part of the order of torturers gives Wolfe a plausible way for Severian to “perform miracles” similar to a certain miracle Jesus performs. Although, it does require a certain tool that I’m not sure I fully understand the symbolism of yet.

Idea 4: Wolfe might have wanted to create moral ambiguity and raise tough questions about the morality of torture and death. This strikes me as not the full story. I can see this being part of the reason, but I really believe he could have done this with any number of professions for Severian.

Best Books I Read in 2016

I’ve finally finished my “book a week” challenge (meaning I’ve read, rated, and reviewed 52 books for the year). I actually read quite a few more than that but didn’t mark them down (on my Shannara binge, I was getting through them every 2-3 days).

This year I went through audiobooks more than any year in the past. My guess is they still made up less than half the books I read, but it’s close. I don’t know if I have relevant commentary on what this means. I still like reading actual books a lot more than listening, but if I’m out on a two-hour run, it feels wasteful to not put one on.

I rated ten of the books five stars. I thought I would only choose from this list, but I’ve now noticed some of the ones I hoped to talk about didn’t make this cut.

BEST OVERALL:

Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

Wow. I somehow went 27 years of my life without reading Atwood. This is my third book in three years. She is consistently one of the most original writers of our time. It is almost painful to realize this, because I only notice it as I’m reading her. So much of SF consists of doing a slight variant on the Hero’s Journey. She never stoops to this trope.

Atwood is like if Pynchon wrote an SF character study. The way this story gets told is a fascinating and delicate thing. There almost isn’t a story. She creates a magnificent world, rich in detail, and deep, believable characters. The story is an emergent property of these elements. It is such a breath of fresh air to have story subordinate to these elements rather than the other way around.

I’m not sure what my favorite Atwood is, because they are all so good and different. But it might be this one. Be warned, though, this novel is quite graphic and disturbing in parts. She hits the horror of a post-apocalyptic more than any other book I know.

The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes

Somehow there seems to be this swath of British novellas that pack more story and emotion into 150 pages than Americans can do in 500. Now that I’ve decided to do “The Year of Short Fiction” next year, I kind of wish I hadn’t found this until then.

The voice in this story is so compelling, I often looked up from the page confused that I wasn’t chatting with a longtime friend recounting some stories of his life I had missed.

This is a deep meditation on some facts we often want to forget. One: Life breezes by too quickly (which makes this short form such a great choice). Two: Little things we do that we don’t think of as mattering can be all-consuming wreckage for another life.

I’ll leave it at that.

2666 – Roberto Bolano

What can one even say about this book. I wrote a whole post on it here. Even that cannot summarize the artistic masterpiece that is this book.

 

BEST NONFICTION:

Blue Nights – Joan Didion

I’ve read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking several times. I had no idea, until recently, that she covered some of the same material in this newer book.

Didion is probably the best “creative nonfiction” writer out there. She meshes sterile facts with personal anecdote with repetitious use of poetic language to bring about real emotional depth to this tragic part of her life.

Galileo’s Middle Finger – Alice Dreger

This is probably one of the most important books of the year. It does a great job documenting the details of how highly-educated, social-justice motivated scientists can spin and falsify data to serve a narrative that isn’t necessarily the Truth. It shows how activists can malign and slander researchers who do controversial research (a fact we’ve already seen many times in the now infamous Twitter hate mobs that ruin ordinary people’s lives).

This book is truly terrifying. It reminds us that we live in a dangerous time. Lay people don’t have the time or resources to hunt through complicated, technical journal articles to see if there are problems. Working researchers have their own research to conduct, so they can’t do it either. But we need people in academia devoted to the pursuit of truth to keep vetting.

One of the scariest stories in this book showed how a biased researcher could get an error-ridden article published in a peer-reviewed journal because the editor and reviewer all had factors motivating them to publish it. Then the media and general public could point to this to make their case. Someone trying to explain how it got published would come off as a science-denying conspiracy theorist. So what is one to do?

This is a real problem, and the book only scratches the surface in laying foundations for minimizing this social justice skewing of science. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. The activists have to realize that their activism is best served with truth. Faking it will only get people hurt, no matter how well-intentioned the motive.

 

BEST PUBLISHED IN 2016

A Doubter’s Almanac – Ethan Canin

I’ve been a long-time fan of Canin. Carry Me Across the Water and For Kings and Planets are both exquisite. I thought America, America had lost something in both style and substance. This novel continues on the same trajectory.

The first three-fourths had a flatness to it that his earlier novels didn’t have. His usual style is rich and complex and enhances the ordinary tragic experiences of people trying to live their lives.

The first part of the novel really gets what it is like to do high-level math in a way that no other novel has captured. At the same time, it relies on a tired trope: the mad genius with messed up social awareness. I couldn’t help but cringe when these stereotypes came forward.

Going into the last 100 pages or so, I was still on the fence about how much I liked it. I won’t give anything away, but the end is well worth getting to. He returns to his older, stylistic prose and delivers a stunning conclusion through poetic language and a brilliant shift in structure. This may not be my favorite Canin, but it is still the best novel I read published in 2016 and worth the time.

Year of Giant Novels Part 9: What I’ve Learned

I’m technically done reading giant novels for the year. I’m currently reading The Wizard Knight by Gene Wolfe, and if taken as a single novel, it qualifies, but the version I’m reading is two separate novels. It would probably make an interesting final analysis, because I’ve basically read two types of giant novels: literary and epic fantasy. The Wolfe straddles this line in some truly bizarre ways.

Here is the final list. It’s hard to believe I actually read all these.

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

Moby-Dick –  Herman Melville

The Way of Kings – Brandon Sanderson

Ulysses – James Joyce

Seveneves – Neal Stephenson

2666 – Roberto Bolaño

The Eye of the World – Robert Jordan

Back in college, when I first became interested in giant novels, I used to believe they were like normal novels—only better. I know that sounds weird, but the rough idea in my head was that novels were like relationships; the more you put in, the more connection you make and the stronger the emotional bond will be.

If you live with someone for ten years, you’ll have more of a relationship than with someone you only live with for a few months. Oh, my naive youthful ideas. This isn’t even true of relationships, so the conclusions can’t transfer because of some weak analogy.

You could live with someone ten years and basically know nothing of them. It’s about the quality of that time together that matters. The same is true of books.

Wow. This is quite the long-winded way of saying it’s the quality of the reading experience not the quantity. At this point, I know what you’re thinking: you spent a year reading giant novels and all you figured out was the most obvious thing everyone already knew? Sort of. But I also think I’ve clarified what makes quality in a giant novel to me.

I’ll use Moby-Dick and 2666  as my examples, because I think these both exemplify what I’ve learned. These were also the two most rewarding novels for me on the list.

Giant novels tend to be normal length novels plus some extra stuff. If this base novel is bad, I think the whole thing will be bad no matter what the extra stuff is. In the case that the base novel is good, the extra stuff is what makes the whole thing work or not.

This extra stuff must reinforce the overall novel. It has to serve a real purpose in the context of the novel. Take the Spouter-Inn chapter in Moby-Dick. There is an extended description of an oil painting. This isn’t mere “worldbuilding.” The painting serves many purposes: foreshadowing, establishing the tone of dread and awe, setting the scene of the inn, etc.

Take the story of beating up the taxi driver in Part 1 of 2666. This establishes a context of otherwise good people turning to random acts of violence. I spent a whole blog post talking about the importance of this context for Part 4 of the novel.

To reiterate, in both the examples I’ve given, these details could easily be removed and nothing would be lost from the plot of the novel. These examples are part of the extra stuff. But the examples reinforce tone, theme, symbols, and so on of the whole novel, so removing these details would make the novels of lower quality.

This is how I think about quality of giant novels now. If the extra stuff keeps reinforcing the whole like this, by the end, your psyche will have picked it up, and it will culminate in a more powerful reading experience. The extra stuff makes this possible. These giant novels would be much worse if these parts were cut. It wouldn’t even be the same book. The giant-ness is necessary.

If you take Seveneves, The Way of Kings, or The Eye of the World, there are many, many parts that are pure padding. The extra stuff serves only one purpose: description of the world. Obviously there is a balance. You can’t cut all of it, because then it wouldn’t be a novel. But I dare say, so much could be cut that all three of these could be normal-length novels, and they would be much higher quality for it.

Before fans of these novels jump all over me, I’m talking only about quality in the sense I described above. Plenty of people enjoy digging in to all the minutia of a constructed world and culture. I include myself in this up to a point. These novels would be less enjoyable to those people if too much of the padding is cut.

But even the most ardent fans must admit there’s quantity in these that don’t add quality. If these parts were cut, no one would notice, and the effect of the book would remain unchanged. This is pretty much the definition of a good edit, and all three of these novels could have been at least 10% shorter without losing anything of importance.

I’ve watched Brandon Sanderson lecture on this topic, and he even criticized a student’s writing for this very mistake. He pointed out that one tiny and important detail can paint a better picture in the reader’s mind than a huge, list of common details. We tend to be blind to our own mistakes, especially when praised with the amount of success he’s had.

Overall, I think I’m just not that in to giant novels anymore. I tend to find normal-length novels too excessive these days. I really love the tightness and care that goes into short fiction. Well written novellas are vastly underappreciated.

That’s why I’ve officially decided to make next year the Year of Short Fiction. I’ll do collections of short stories and novellas and blog about it for your enjoyment.

Year of Giant Novels Part 8: The Eye of the World

This is probably my last giant novel for the year. I really wanted to do something complicated and serious like Gaddis’ JR, but it was getting kind of annoying to find a reasonable copy. Anyway, I already covered the epic fantasy giant novel, so this will cover a lot of the same stuff.

I think I read at least part of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World around fifteen years ago, but I recalled none of it at the time of starting it this time. I’ll tread lightly, because I know a lot of people really love this series, and despite how this post comes across, I didn’t hate the book.

I’d probably never recommend it, but I don’t regret reading it. There were a lot of “problems,” but none were major. I’m going to tear into the details, because that’s how we discover what works in our own styles. That’s how we get better at writing. But these are mostly style things, and if I had read the book shifted by six months either direction, I might not have seen these as problems.

The structure of the novel is pretty simple. The main character’s village is attacked. This causes a group of people to be on the run from these enemies. They stop at villages on the way, and inevitably something always comes up to force them to run again. Travel – village – travel – village – etc.

On the one hand, it’s a clear Hero’s Journey narrative, but it’s also a travel narrative. These are both perfectly fine choices in general, but something was off in the execution. It took me a long time to figure it out. It lacked direction and positive motivation.

In the Hero’s Journey, the hero is called to action to go defeat the evil. There is motivation. We understand his/her progress in terms of this motivation. I didn’t see any of this in TEOTW. The hero was never called to action. In fact, it isn’t even clear who the hero is, because the bad guy can’t seem to figure out which is the chosen one.

All the heroes do is run away. This is negative motivation. They continually thwart the bad guys from achieving their goals, but they don’t seem to have independent goals of their own. This means the reader has no idea if they’re making progress.

Ah. I hear the retort already. The sense of progress in a travel narrative is if they’re getting closer to their destination. This also fails. Where are they headed? I have no idea. I don’t think I missed this, but it’s entirely possible I did.

At one point, I thought their goal was maybe Tar Valon so Egwene could start her Aes Sedai training, but then they arrived at Caemlyn and I started to think maybe their goal was to get to the false dragon there. As it turns out, neither of there end up being their destination, and it’s not clear to me the characters even knew where they were headed.

This might seem like nitpicking, but without goals or positive motivation, I found the story stagnant. I had a hard time picking the book up to keep reading. If the goal was to defeat the main villain, this could have been more clear. The main villain doesn’t even appear until the last 50 pages (out of 800+). It came out of nowhere. I sort of assumed he would remain this mysterious background force for the next 10 books in the series.

My next complaint has to do with stakes. I never felt like the characters were in any real danger. This has to do with how the book opens. The Aes Sedai easily handles the Trolloc attack on the village single handed. So later, no matter how many times she says they are in danger, it’s hard to take her seriously. I kept thinking: Eh, if it came down to it, she could use those same powers to save them again. Actions speak louder than words.

This is one of those things that’s mostly a product of its time. Fantasy has been worked out and studied a lot since 1990. Writers now know that it’s more important for the reader to understand the limitations than the power of the magic system. Also, instead of continuing to be chased by Trollocs for 75% of the book, throwing something in to raise the stakes would have added the uncertainty needed for a real threat.

There are a lot of “obligatory” scenes that would have helped out here. There’s a reason Gandalf “dies” in The Lord of the Rings. The stakes get raised when the most powerful person can’t keep bailing you out. There’s also the “hero at the mercy of the villain” scene where the reader must fully believe it’s all over. The villain could end it all with no problem. The hero narrowly escapes due to a surprising (yet believable) ingenuity.

Those are the two main flaws of the book: lack of positive motivation and the stakes didn’t continually rise to create tension. As with most giant novels I’ve read this year, I think it’s too long. Trimming this by 10% might remove both of these problems. When a book feels stagnant, increasing the pace by trimming the length can do a lot to help.

The real test is if I’ll keep reading the series. I think I’ll at least give the second book a chance, because I have no idea how it will continue from here.

Literature, Genre Fiction, Pulp, &c.

I’ve been working my way through Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I have this really bad habit of reading negative reviews on Goodreads while reading a book. If I love the book, I can make fun of the idiots who “cant even right gud.” If I hate the book, I can commiserate with the brilliant like-minds who saw through the crap. The negative reviews of this novel got me thinking about a few things related to genre.

Some people claim all the 80’s geek and pop culture references make this a trashy genre novel. Some say it even stoops to pulp fiction levels. Some call it nostalgia. I want to first show why this isn’t a good argument, but then I want to try to clarify how I define these different types of books.

We start with the excessive references. I don’t think Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow would be considered genre fiction or pulp by anyone. It is a monster of literary fiction if there ever was one, but the novel is full of pop culture references (from a specific period). The purpose there is not nostalgia or to make it “more entertaining” or whatever else the negative reviews think Cline is doing.

I’ll cover my bases here and say that I don’t think that Cline’s use of pop culture is the same in intent or effect as Pynchon, but the fact that such literature exists shows that one needs a more complete argument than the mere use of pop culture references. Is Infinite Jest genre or pulp fiction? What about The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay? This technique has been used in literary fiction for a long time with great success.

To me, the term “genre fiction” merely refers to a novel that stays strictly within the accepted genre conventions. This means the plot follows a known formula. In modern days, the characters fit into a few tropes, and the tenor of the prose is pitched at a certain level.

This means that something like “romance” genre fiction could be extremely well-written and explore serious literary issues and be worth everyone’s time to read (I’m thinking of something like Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady). Genre fiction doesn’t automatically mean pure fluff and vacuous entertainment; genre means it follows a formula, and these formulae have a lot of give to them.

I think a lot of people conflate genre fiction with pulp. Pulp fiction, as I see it, is pure fluff and entertainment. It is often poorly written, not as a matter of definition, but mostly because the authors of this style need to pop out a large number of words per month in order to make a living. Pulp is pretty much a subset of genre fiction, again, not as a matter of definition, but because it is easiest to write quickly if you follow a formula.

To recap, genre fiction can be literary, but it can also be pulp. Genre fiction doesn’t tell us much about the quality of writing or redeeming characteristics or depth or content. Someone could spend a life reading high-quality genre mysteries without encountering pulp.

And before continuing, I don’t want to place value judgment here. I’m not saying it’s “bad” to read pulp. You probably won’t contemplate your own mortality, but escapism is healthy in moderation. No one thinks working sixty hour weeks with no vacation is healthy. It’s sort of weird that people think reading only heavy literary fiction with no fun mixed in is healthy. So go relax with a fun novel every once in a while when you feel that urge to veg in front of the TV.

What I think I’m trying to say is that often times there is a ton of crossover between all of these things, and it isn’t easy to tell. The one certain takeaway is that pop culture references do not make something pulp. Pulp is pop culture but not the other way around. In fact, if there are lots of references, it is probably a metafictional device, and this pulls you clear out of pulp.

That being said, I think Ready Player One actually is pulp, because the references do seem to be purely nostalgic. The book has few themes, and all are thin, classic good/evil tropes. I’m not sure I can call it genre fiction, because I can’t pin a genre down. I guess it falls into dystopian fiction. I don’t often hear this referred to as a specific genre, but it clearly has a form: one person, in a horribly oppressive futuristic world, must fight through a series of trials to take down the oppressor.

This wasn’t meant as a book review, but I’ll end by saying Ready Player One is pure entertainment through and through, and it really works at this level. I don’t recall the last book I enjoyed this much. It is so much fun for people around my age who grew up the geek. I highly recommend it if that sounds interesting, but don’t expect anything deep to come from it or you might be leaving one of those one star reviews.

Examining Pro’s Prose Part 8

Today we’ll look at some prose from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I couldn’t put this off forever; any series about prose would be remiss to skip Fitzgerald.

Many writers these days pop out 120,000 word novels every year. The Great Gatsby clocks in at about 47,000 words and was finely tuned over three years. This careful attention to prose is exactly the type of thing we should be looking at in this series of posts.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’m pretty sure I read this book in high school, maybe 14 or 15 years ago. I may have just studied some plot summary handout, though. In the years since then, I’ve attempted to read it maybe five more times. I’ve failed every single time. Something clicked this last attempt, and I thought the book was brilliant.

This book is hard! It’s shocking that this is a standard for high school students. Structurally, it jumps around a lot. It is half the length of a standard novel yet has twice as many main characters. Nick, Daisy, Gatsby, Tom, Jordan, plus several other minor characters all have fully realized backstories, personalities, and relationships with each other.

The way Fitzgerald achieves this is with extraordinarily economic prose. Pretty much everything in the novel serves two or three functions (as we’ll get to shortly). The point of view is brilliantly chosen. The narrator is telling of events that happened in his past. This gives an intimacy from the narrator being there and knowing the characters, while at the same time serves a distancing function.

I wish this “partially involved narrator” was used more. It was quite refreshing. The narrator also served to complicate the structure, because we hear the events as Nick learned of them, rather than chronologically. The shaky timeline serves a dual purpose: it reiterates that this is all in Nick’s memory, and it heightens the sense that Gatsby is running out of time.

Let’s get to the prose. Here is an early description passage of a place between Long Island and New York City. This place has huge significance in the later parts of the novel.

This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens, where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through powdery air.

It starts with a simple declaration to give the reader a picture then em dashes to more detail. It starts a metaphor: it isn’t just a valley but a farm for ashes. This makes sense, because the town is industrial and produces the ash. We immediately get a simile that the ash grows like wheat, staying consistent with the farm metaphor.

The picture is brilliant. We can almost feel it growing and covering everything. We get a few details, but these details are enough to paint a huge picture: ridges, hills, grotesque gardens, houses, and chimneys.

The sentence closes with a description of the people. The phrase “transcendent effort” here is so unique and unexpected. It creates a sense that these people require great will just to move in this oppressive ash. How do the men move? “Dimly” and “crumbling” evoke both the mood of the town but also keeps the description consistent with ash, which is also dim and crumbling.

In one sentence, Fitzgerald gave us all the description of the town we would need for the whole book. He achieved this through consistency in his metaphor but also making the different parts of the description reinforce each other. He used adjectives that did work for both physical description as well as mood.

Lastly, the sentence itself has a type of melancholy to it through its pacing and length. By chaining together those “ands” between the commas, the cadence gets drawn out. It plods along, almost losing you as it does it. The reader drowns in the description like the people in the town are drowning in the ash.

Sentences like these don’t come on accident. It reads like almost careless, effortless writing, but on close examination like this, we can tell how much work actually went into it. Almost the whole novel is like this somehow!

Let’s do some more:

He came alive to me, delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor.

I chose this one, because I wanted to reiterate a point from the first one. “He came alive to me” is a simple declaration. The sentence could have ended there, but this would be the type of laziness that pervades less professional writing. If you’re just going to tell the reader something like this, you may as well not include it.

So the elaboration is the interesting part. He again chooses a metaphor: delivered from a womb. This is the point I wanted to emphasize. This consistency in metaphor is one the annoying things I find when critiquing new writers.

Maybe they strike upon some surprising idea like “womb of his purposeless splendor” (though I doubt it). How do you work it in? Tons of ideas might come to mind like “arrived from the womb” and so on. But of course, one has to look to the previous part of the sentence.

We have the phrase “to me.” Babies are “delivered” to people from wombs, so to stay consistent, this is almost the only choice. It is at this point that babies first cry and “come alive” (I am not making any sort of political statement here). The whole thing works as one consistent unit to both elaborate on the coming alive, reinforcing the metaphor, and having dual meanings.

Then there is the last part of the sentence: womb of his purposeless splendor. As in the first example, this is such a striking and unexpected phrase. Gatsby has been living in a womb of sorts, hiding away in his giant house without purpose, but it is certainly magnificent. Somehow those few words capture all of this. Now he is emerging from it and will have a purpose. It is, in fact, this very scene where Gatsby first reveals the purpose of everything.

We could go on like this all day. Notice we’ve only looked at two sentences. I guarantee that if you open the book to any random spot and find a single sentence, you’ll be able to keep doing this. The book is so tightly constructed that it boggles the mind.

Year of Giant Novels Part 2: Don Quixote

I’ve made it into Part 2 of Don Quixote. I’ll fully admit upfront that it has become a bit of a slog. I find it difficult to get motivated to keep reading. The book is indeed episodic, and many of those episodes involve a random character telling a story. This makes it hard to care about the story when you know the character is only there for 20 pages or so.

In any event, let’s continue to point out ways in which the book was way ahead of its time. If you’ve studied classic philosophy, you’ll probably be familiar with Descartes’ First Meditation. This was published in 1641, and it has a thought experiment so famous that people refer to it as Descartes’ evil demon.

The idea is that there might be some powerful evil demon out there that makes us believe reality is a certain way, but in fact, it is completely different. How do we know such a thing isn’t deceiving us? This lead Descartes to doubt all of reality as the starting point for his philosophy.

Now that I’m reading Don Quixote, I’m confused by why we attribute this to Descartes. Thirty years before Descartes wrote this thought experiment down, Cervantes perfectly articulated the same idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t mark the page, or I would quote it directly.

This was probably one of my favorite moments in Part 1, because it so brilliantly illustrated the whole point of the book. Some people see Don Quixote and try to convince him he is crazy; what he sees is not reality. But in a great twist Don Quixote argues back that they are the ones being enchanted by an evil sorcerer. It is he, Don Quixote, that sees reality and everyone else is being fooled. As Descartes found out, it is quite difficult to argue back against that.

Part 2 is where things get really heavy on the meta-fiction. Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote has made it into the fictional universe of Part 2. Early on, he even has a character make the same criticism I made above. There are too many digressions in which Don Quixote (the person) isn’t a character. Don Quixote and Sancho go off on new adventures and keep meeting people that know all about him because of reading Part 1.

You have to know a bit of real life history to be in on some of the more complicated jokes. Someone under the pseudonym Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda wrote a fake Part 2 to Don Quixote (sort of like fan fiction). In real life, this fake version actually got Cervantes motivated to finish the real Part 2.

But that’s not all. He actually uses the fake Part 2 for plot points in the real Part 2. This fake Part 2 has been read by the people in Cervantes’ real Part 2. Don Quixote (the character) is unaware of this fake version of himself for some time, and some great silliness happens when he finally realizes this impostor version of himself exists.

He gets upset when he encounters people who have read the fake version in which he is no longer in love with Dulcinea. To spite the fake version, he decides to change what he was planning on doing (which actually corresponded with something that happened in the fake version!). These meta-fictional episodes play right into the novel’s main concept of blurred lines between fiction and reality, because the fictional version of Don Quixote overlaps with the “real” Don Quixote in places.

These jokes get quite complicated, and really nothing like it existed for hundreds of years afterward.

Year of Giant Novels, Part 1: Don Quixote

Back in my youth, I used to love reading giant novels: Infinite Jest, Underworld, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, Les Misérables, etc. There are still quite a few left on my list that I haven’t gotten around to.

In the past few years, I’ve mostly read short novels. I even find myself getting annoyed when a 350-pager has gone on too long. The most common complaint I have these days is a lack of focus that leads to too long of novels.

I hereby declare this The Year of Giant Novels, where I will attempt to get through all the giant novels I own but haven’t read. I may even get some more if it goes well. I will, of course, blog about them as I read them. My list so far is: Don Quixote, Moby-Dick, and Ulysses. Let me know if I should do any others (Warning: I might veto War and Peace). I would like to add something from the past 50 years (maybe 2666?).

Anyway, on to Part I of Don Quixote. This novel is quite a strange beast. Say the name Don Quixote to anyone, and they will probably think they know all about it without having read it. They’ll have images of pure silliness.

They probably won’t be able to tell you why he fought the windmills, but they will know it happened. Some might even predict that the novel is episodic and monotonous going through his crazy and delusional adventures. Pretty much everything anyone knows about the book happens in the first 5%.

What most people don’t realize is that this novel was published in 1604 (according to the Penguin Classics edition). 1604! They also don’t realize how far ahead of its time it was; we’re talking about being hundreds of years ahead of its time. This thing is a tome of post-modernism 200 years before modernism happened.

First off, the narrator wants you to believe this really happened. Cervantes goes so far with this idea that in an early chapter, he has the narrator interrupt the story mid-action to say that he doesn’t have the proper citations to continue the story.

The narrator goes off on his own story. He visits a library where he accidentally comes across an Arabic text that contains the end of the story about Don Quixote he interrupted. This qualifies as Borges-level mind games (which is probably why Borges chose Don Quixote for the backdrop of his famous “Pierre Menard” story). When Barth used this technique in the 1960’s, it was considered a mind-boggling innovation. But here it is in something published in 1604.

Another example of these postmodern techniques is in Chapter 6, where a barber and a priest are trying to destroy the books that Don Quixote read that led him to his delusions (already a clever premise examining the interaction between fiction and reality, author and reader). The two come across another of Cervantes’ novels.

This nearly killed me. Cervantes’ character, Don Quixote, has been so enamored by one of Cervantes’ other novels, which somehow exists in this fictional universe, that he goes mad. That’s not all. Then the barber claims to know Cervantes in real life. This means the author wrote himself into his fictional universe! Then the barber goes on to criticize the novel. This is brilliant. A fictional character speaks a critique of the author who wrote him.

I’m starting to see why Don Quixote went crazy.

Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye Reviewed

I’ve heard such good things about Atwood for years, but never managed to get around to reading one of her novels. I mostly do my reviews on Goodreads these days, but this being one of the best novels I’ve read this year made me want to devote a blog post to it.

Cat’s Eye uses a non-traditional narrative structure which suits the novel perfectly. It does one chapter of “present” time and three or four chapters of “past” time between (I never counted to see if this was consistent). The whole thing is in present-tense though. The effect is powerful. The disproportional pacing allows Elaine’s (the main character) entire life to play out and catch up to the story.

The childhood scenes are done particularly well. Atwood focuses on the harshness and cruelty ever-present in childhood relationships. Many other people say she got girl relationships right, but I think everyone will recognize a bit of truth to the situations she portrays. It is a refreshing take on a coming of age story that often idealizes the innocence of youth beyond recognition.

The present story line is about Elaine coming to terms with a gallery doing a retrospective on her art. The interplay between the past and present is fascinating, because it highlights interpretive issues I’ve written a lot about. You get to see the scenes that her paintings are inspired by and the people she painted to appreciate how out-of-touch many people’s interpretations are. It also delves into the psychological issues that arise from other people criticizing your art (maybe Atwood drew upon experience here?).

Some of the most poignant misinterpretations have to do with her work being attached to feminism. Although the main character can probably be considered a feminist, her work was not meant to have much to say about it. She has a mature and complicated understanding of the label, and many of the people writing about her work want simple headline grabbing messages. It rings truer today than back in 1988 when it was published, because you see in these people the early form of click-bait articles that devalue their movement’s message.

It hits upon these complicated and less common themes as well as ones as old as literature itself. These include the value of friendship and solitude; what makes a meaningful life; and the anxiety of getting older. These more universal themes are uncovered with remarkable depth and subtlety, and the answers/questions the book points to might surprise you.

I would highly recommend the novel. I always thought of Atwood as a genre or sci-fi author (not that those can’t be excellent as well; my other favorite book this year so far is Hyperion). This novel is literary fiction at its finest.