Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Titles That Stick and Titles That Suck

In the fall, when Knopf Canada sent me two possible cover designs for my book, I began asking friends which factor was more likely to make them pick up a novel by a writer they'd never heard of: the title or the cover.
More than three months have passed since these conversations, so I can’t remember a thing anyone said, but the question came to me again today as I looked through the list of books I've read this year.
Books I Read Simply Because of Their Titles:
·         This Cake Is for the Party by Sarah Selecky
·         Londonstani by Gautam Malkani
·         How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely (brilliantly funny, highly recommended)
Books I Read Despite Their Titles: 
·         Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See
·         Downtown Owl by Chuck Klosterman
·         The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Books That Fit into Both Categories:
·         The Life and Opinions of Maf the Dog and his Friend Marilyn Monroe by Andrew O’Hagan
Of course the title is extremely important, but it seems to be one of the hardest things to get to. Apparently (i.e. according to Wikipedia), it took F. Scott Fitzgerald some time to settle on The Great Gatsby. Earlier titles included Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires (just awful), Trimalchio in West Egg (even worse), and The High-Bouncing Lover (!?).  And although he was finally persuaded to accept The Great Gatsby, he wasn’t crazy about it.
My first title for Beyond the Sky and the Earth was Bhutan Mist, which is also the name of a “Scotch” produced in Bhutan (by the Army Welfare Project, which tells you why “Scotch” is in quotation marks).  My editor dismissed my working title on the grounds of "it doesn't work" and "sounds like a perfume."
“Your title is probably in the book," she said, so I went back to the manuscript to look for it. I then proposed the literal translation of the Dzongkha phrase for “thank you very much”: No Sky, No Earth, Thank You. That, too, was rejected with breathtaking alacrity, but it did lead to the title that stuck.
The original title for my novel was Who You Are to Us. Very Alice Munro-ish, I thought, but my agent gave me a look that said, “You are not Alice Munro.” For several months, as I struggled with revisions, I referred to it as That Motherf***ing Motherhood Novel.
And then my friend Dan suggested I turn to music for inspiration. He gave me a stack of CDs that matched the era I was writing about and specifically suggested Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Good-bye.” Hurray! I had a title!
Luckily, titles cannot be copyrighted. Even more luckily, the agency representing the Cole Porter Trust gave me permission to quote the lyrics in the book.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Hieroglyph of Fear

In her Dec. 14 column in Salon, "Why We Love Bad Writing," book critic Laura Miller quotes C.S. Lewis's "An Experiment in Criticism" to explain why so many readers might actually prefer the cliches that run through the work of genre writers like Steig Larsson and Dan Brown. "'My blood ran cold' is a hieroglyph of fear," Lewis explained, a kind of hieroglyph that does not require the reader to pay words the "kind and degree of attention" that a more literary turn of phrase would.

I stayed up half the night to finish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but I had to work to NOT pay attention to Larsson`s language, which caused much eye-rolling in the opening chapters (at things like the list of computer specs, which in a few years time, will be the equivalent of reading that Lisbeth plugged in her Commodore 64 and turned on her dot-matrix printer). I have no interest in reading the rest of the trilogy: in the end, the flaws in Larsson`s style detracted too much from my enjoyment of his excellent ability to unspool a plot -- in much the same way that the millefeuille-style of a beautifully poetic writer like Anne Michaels detracts from my abiliy to enjoy her storyline.

The problem, as Miller shows, is when critics try to turn these personal preferences into literary laws and then sneer at the hapless law-breakers enjoying their Larsson or their Michaels.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Humankind cannot bear very much reality

Writing: The Fantasy

The house is not just clean, but digitially altered (rooms are elongated, windows enlarged, piles of paper replaced by vases of gardenias). There's a pot of hot coffee, two cheese straws on a white linen napkin, a Mason jar of sharp pencils. My hair is straight and I am wearing lip gloss. I sit at the table and turn on my laptop and I write all day. When I look up, it is dark. Time for a glass of wine and some Ella Fitzgerald.

Writing: The Reality

The sink is full of dishes and my Ontario Health Card just expired. The mesh in my French press is warped so my coffee is murky. My hair is uncombed and I can't find my Chapstick. I sit on the sofa surrounded by piles of unmarked exams. I can't find my character's voice. I know that 95% of what I have written today will be deleted, but I polish it anyway. When I look up, it is dark, but this is no great accomplishment because it was dark when I sat down. Time for a glass of wine and some Ella Fitzgerald.

Tomorrow is another day.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Top Ten of Twenty Ten

Books I loved this year:

  1. Room by Emma Donoghue
  2. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
  3. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
  4. Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist by Stephen Batchelor
  5. Cherry Electra by Matt Duggan
  6. Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens
  7. The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
  8. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  9. Supersad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
  10. By Nightfall by Michael Cunningham

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Love for Shteyngart's Sad Super Scary (Because It's True) Story

I'm too old to return to the dystopian novels I devoured in my adolescence (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451) but I loved Gary Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story, even though it literally gave me nightmares.

Like George Saunders, Shteyngart sets his dystopia primarily in language, specifically in the unholy matrimony of language and commerce, in which language promises to serve and obey commerce and only commerce, and commerce promises to sell us eternal youth and coolness until death does upon us all creep like a prime-time serial killer or fall like a cloud of hot orange toxic ash from the burning sky.

The most frightening thing about America in SSTLS is -- well, where to begin? It's all frightening. The United States is a failed, bankrupt, one-party state; the American Restoration Authority announces that in reading its sign, you have denied the existence of the tank you just passed and have "implied consent"; the National Guard belongs to a sinister corporation; and no one reads books ("printed, bound media artifacts") anymore. The United Nations is a mall.

The most frightening thing is the utterly frantic futility of the lives being lived, as people scramble to increase their credit and fuckability ratings and save enough money for dechronification treatments. They are terrified of death because their lives have had no meaning.

Here is our main character, Lenny, watching his girlfriend Eunice shop for a dress: "Here was the anxiety of choice, the pain of living without history, the pain of some higher need. I felt humbled by this world, awed by its religiosity, the attempt to extract meaning from an artifact that contained mostly thread. If only beauty could explain the world away. If only a nippleless bra could make it all work" (Shteyngart 209).

Super Sad True Love Story is darkly funny and deeply disturbing and beautifully written. It goes on the "Read This Before It's Too Late (it's already too late)" shelf with Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and McCarthy's The Road.

Shteyngart, Gary. Super Sad True Love Story. Random House: New York, 2010.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This Is What Happens When You Look Up

Huh. I put down my pen (OK, my red pen. I'm marking, not writing) and pick up my laptop for five minutes and an hour later, I am still online, having read articles or parts of articles on the following:
  • the death throes of traditional publishing
  • the rules of blogging for writers
  • the rules of social media for writers
  • should you tweet (if you're a writer)
  • Jonathan Safran Foer's newest project, a book that is a story that is also a paper sculpture with holes cut in the pages (hard to explain, please Google "Tree of Codes" for description that makes sense)
  • copyright and what it's good for
  • the best writer's websites
When does a person find time to write a novel if they have to be blogging and tweeting and social networking, for the purposes of both self-promotion (but only in the kindest, gentlest, most self-aware way) and wry, unstudied self-expression, while worrying about the collapse of the industry, the defection of readers, the erosion of copyright, and what the market wants?

I get this same sinking feeling sometimes when I look up in a bookstore and see piles and piles and tables and tables and shelves and shelves of books, and I wonder why I want to add to them. The question fades the minute I look back down at the book I am holding. Asking why I want to write is like asking why I want to read is like asking why I am standing on the ground beneath my feet. (Is there somewhere else to stand?)

Note to self: don't look up.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

He Might Have a Point

If there is a word connected to the act of writing that is uglier than "blog," I don't know what it is. "Blog" smacks of something both shapeless and wooden. Possibly also swampy.

I tell my son I'm going to start one. A blog. "Ugh," he protests. He says blogs and tweets are examples of people insisting on saying things in spite of the fact they have nothing to say, or more likely, insisting because they have nothing to say. Either way, he finds the emptiness clamorous.

"And they're always updating them," he says. "That is the worst!"

It's true there is a lot of noise out there. It can be hard to hear yourself think. And yet, I don't know of a better way to figure out what I'm thinking than to sit still and try to write it out. So maybe a blog can be a quiet place too.

It's also a good place to hide from much harder writing work, like the chapter I'm supposed to be working on. Speaking of which.