Friday, July 30, 2010

Historical fiction's double identity


As my Van Gogh novel developed over the past four years, so did my attention to historical fiction. And what strikes me as one of the great curiosities about form is that it both can and can't be assigned the "genre" label. With the possible exception of science fiction, I'm not sure there's a fictional genre out there that leads such a double creative life, that has such a schizophrenic reception among readers and writers. On one hand, for decades historical fiction has been the locus for writers--many of them, let me say, perfectly hard working people--who aren't really intent on or concerned about creating books that can be lauded as "literary" so much as books they contribute to already existing and familiar genres. Many historical novels, for instance, were and still are little more than gussied up mass market romances or adventure books. There is too an abiding and popular genre of historical mysteries. And, of course, plenty of authors have written historical novels for children and young adults (some of them fine, and occasionally classic, books). While authors who write such books often do carry out quite extensive and valuable period research--research that does find its way into their novels--the end products are the type that cause historical fiction to get tossed into that long list of typically sneered at genre fictions. You know the list. You've seen it in every discussion of the literary marketplace, and in every journal's description of what it does or (more likely) doesn't want: romance, western, horror, suspense, children's, fantasy, sci-fi, sports, mystery, crime, etc. Now it goes beyond the purposes of this post to debate whether we ought to sneer at such genres at all--I know a lot of awfully smart people who say we shouldn't--but it's safe to say that the genres do earn sneers, even in this era of the ubiquitous, bestselling vampire novel that delights and consumes (no pun intended) so many people, even when so many stylish young writers (I see them in my classes) are absorbed by and committed to writing fantasy.

But here's the thing about historical fiction. Even while it lives out a full, happy, abiding life among the genres, at the same time it is embraced--increasingly so--by many "literary" writers. (I don't like the term, but for convenience sake I have to use it.) Don't get me wrong. There have always been acclaimed historical novels. But I feel an especially keen interest in the form now, even among younger authors, which certainly would not have been true in the past. Every year at conferences like AWP sections, sometimes multiple sections, on historical fiction are featured and are well attended--and not by anyone wishing to write a romance book. Some literary writers--Ron Hansen comes to mind--have more or less made their careers writing historical novels; others--e.g., Madison Smartt Bell--have completely re-made their careers, earning considerably more prestige for their historical novels than any others. Hansen and Bell have no interest in hack work and don't for a second think of themselves as doing such work. Because they aren't. (Read their books if you doubt my word.)

When you think about it, there's no reason why character-driven, realistic fiction need only be situated in contemporary times. You place the exact same character-driven, realistic story a hundred or five hundred years in the past and suddenly it's given the label of historical fiction, even though for the author he's not fundamentally doing anything different from his last novel, set in L.A. in 2007. Oh, for sure, there are some additional concerns. A great deal more research becomes necessary. (But nearly every piece of fiction requires some research.) And if the author is working with an actual figure out of history the author must struggle with the parameters of what "really happened" to this person versus what the author wants to have happen in the novel. These are not unimportant matters, but still at the end of the day the writing process for a literary historical novel is not that much different from writing any literary novel.

Historical fiction is quite the two (or three or six) headed monster, and it appears to be at an interesting crossroads. Tell one reader you're writing a historical novel and you earn a tolerant, even condescending, smile; tell another reader the same thing and you earn awe. Meanwhile, more and more authors give the form a try, discovering its pleasures and considerable challenges. "Form," I just said. Should I have written "genre"? I'm trying not to.

In a coming post: The intriguing case of Caleb Carr. Can an author explore both form and genre in the same novel?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Van Gogh the Lefty?


For several decades now, the fact that the different hemispheres of the brain control different functions and influence different abilities has been popularized in western media. Especially commented upon is the fact that human "handedness" is influenced by which brain hemisphere is dominant in an individual, and with an inverse relationship, i.e., left-handed people are right brain dominant and right-handed people are left-brain dominant. The left brain, we are told, controls functions such as language--both spoken and written--computational ability, and reasoning. The 4 Rs, if you will. (Schools, it is often noted, are designed to teach and promote left brain activities.) The right side of the brain controls one's intuitions and emotions, one's musical ability, one's visual and spatial abilities, and one's creative and inventive potential. Ever since these ideas were popularized, there has been book after book celebrating the unique qualities of the presumably right brain dominant left-handers among us. And since I'm one of them, I've been given several such books over the years: from my parents, from my friends, and from my wife. The latest, called A Left-Handed History of the World, might be the most ambitious in its argument. After a short introductory chapter in which it lays out general tendencies of left-handed people, Left-Handed History goes on to profile 25 different and very prominent individuals, all left-handed, implicitly and explicitly arguing that it's left handers who have repeatedly made and remade the world. (Some of those profiled: Ramses the Great, Alexander, Julius Caesar, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Beethoven, Napolean, Isaac Newton, Queen Victoria, Ghandi, Marie Curie, and Paul McCartney.) Given that only 7-10 percent of the population is left-handed, the profound influence of left-handers on history, the book asserts, is all the more startling. (Btw, if one counts Ronald Reagan, who naturally wrote with his left-hand but was made to switch to his right at any early age--typical of that time--4 of the last 5 presidents have been lefties.)

Brain scientists will tell you that it's not merely a matter of Lefty=This and Righty=That. We all use both brain hemispheres. It's a matter of when and how much. We can get into those sticky issues on another post or another blog. On this blog, and for this post, I want to talk about Van Gogh. Early in my composing of Yellow, I decided to show him as a left-hander. Partly the choice was intuitive, partly projection, and partly because I had in some remote corner of my brain a faux-memory of seeing him listed among history's famous left-handers. Don't get me wrong. It's not like this is a major theme in the novel or anything that I'm pushing in every scene. But I do point out in a few scenes that Van Gogh is drawing or painting or writing with his left-hand. In one scene I even reference the "left-handed scratch" that is his handwriting. The latter reference is admittedly a matter of me identifying with my protagonist--or vice-versa--because unless I am terribly careful my handwriting instantly descends into "left-handed scratch." (This is especially true, and especially problematic, during the white-hot rush of a first draft, which I still insist on doing by pen in a notebook.)

But my choice of making Van Gogh a left-hander wasn't and isn't simply a matter of trying to insert myself into my novel. It also made real sense to me, based on what I knew about him, and about the theories of handedness. It also wasn't a choice that I deliberated about ahead of time. The idea just occurred to me one day as I was composing a scene and so I went with it. It seemed to work. And if it allowed me to better identify and empathize with my protagonist, to see him from the inside, that's all to the good. Besides, whether Van Gogh was or wasn't left-handed, he certainly showed--and shows in my novel--a number of the characteristic traits. Visual acuity, first of all, demonstrated not only in his numerous paintings and drawings but his copious letters, filled with exacting descriptions of pictures and landscapes. His stubborness and his well-chronicled tendency to emotional spasms, whether that meant anger or romantic infatuation, also fits. Also related is the fact that Van Gogh never put his best foot forward verbally as he did through other means. By most accounts, he was a clumsy and naturally awkward speaker. He had a great deal of fire as a human being and as an artist--he made and kept (and lost) some close friends, along with his brilliant paintings--but smooth and orderly did not by any means characterize his speaking style. Left-Handed History goes out of its way to point out that left-handers are fundamentally distrustful of the world's organization and its institutions--perhaps because it was not designed by them or for them--and they can react in two different ways: They become agitators, openly working to overthrow the status quo, or they retreat deep inside themselves, intellectually and philosophically removing themselves from what they regard as a deeply flawed structure. It's safe to say that Van Gogh did both. Perhaps more than any other neo-impressionist, he was determined to evolve modern art, not just sell paintings. He worked doggedly to that end. But he also was a strikingly interior person, tending to withdraw for long stretches from the society around him, in order to go his own way, to follow his own drummer. I'll repeat: He made friends, even close friends, everywhere he lived. Like everyone, he needed human contact, human conversation. But funadmentally the man was a loner.

Last but not least is what Left-Handed History calls Lateral Thinking, the "ability to make unorthodox connections." Apparently, this explains why some left-handers become ingenious and original military strategists (e.g. Alexander), and why others became brilliant, quirky political maneuverers (e.g., Bill Clinton). A talent for strategy-making certainly defined Van Gogh's life. This, more than anything, struck me as I read about him and wrote about him. He almost always had a plan, sometimes quickly evolving and radically changing plans, for how to accomplish his desired ends. This was true when he wanted to become a lay preacher, and it was certainly true when he decided to become an artist. He knew where he wanted to go and was always confident that he knew exactly how to get there. Demonstrating the daring to act on a strategy was never a problem for him. Convincing others that he was right, however, always was.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

What sells?


I have a friend who's written a brilliant book that, through the lense of fiction, examines the strange, complex, and disturbing social compound that is the current Middle East. The book began as a collection of short stories, one that featured a variety of protagonists, some that are native to the region, many that are not. The point was to show, in some cases expose, the various and confounding strata of human lives and human interactions in this unique and terribly important part of the world. At the advice of an agent, my friend--who for several years lived and worked in Abu Dhabi--turned his collection of stories into a novel. But, staying true to the diverse nature of the stories, the novel very much features an ensemble cast. It is difficult to claim one of its protagonists as the Central Character. Don't get me wrong. My friend put in years of work metamorphosing his story collection into a unified fiction, making sure that the plot lines and characters interweaved and overlapped sufficiently, making sure the structure was tight enough and the final effect singular enough to deserve the designation of novel. It just happens to be a novel with several important characters and several substantial viewpoints.

My friend's book has received serious looks from a number of leading publishing houses. But it has not yet been picked up, despite glowing reviews. Apparently, one reservation is this lack of a single main protagonist. That's just not how most novels go. Well, maybe not most novels, but I'm sure you, reader, can think of a very good novel, one you enjoyed and maybe even treasure, one that might even be regarded as a classic, that involves an ensemble cast. I know other authors whose novels have been written off by editors because they start too slow. As if there aren't dozens of classic novels that refuse to jump out at you with a murder or bomb explosion or car crash on page one, that begin far more humbly than that. As my friend said to me the other day over coffee, "Look at War and Peace. Nothing happens for the first hundred pages!" And what bothers these authors most of all is when the It starts too slowly comment is delivered by someone who has not read the entire book--who, in fact, read only the first ten or twenty pages--and thus has no clue as to whether or not the novel's opening makes sense for the book as a whole. Indeed, maybe that opening is integral to how the book plays out; but the reader never read far enough to judge. I think most novelists, at least the ones I respect, see themselves as writing whole books not writing openings with some extra stuff added on to reach a page goal. Ironically, I have also read articles in which editors complain about manuscripts in which the first 50 or so pages are jam-packed, as if the author felt that he or she had to introduce every major character, each essential plot point, and some sub-plots too, right off the bat. Non-stop action, the editors complain, no room to breathe, everything a jumble; they give me a headache. Well, I think, can you blame the writers for this, when they are constantly preached at that their books must begin fast? I'm sure those authors thought that they were giving you exactly what you wanted.

My point is that there are clearly an understood set of musts in publishing, musts that get stricter every passing year as budgets become more and more tight and publishers become more and more afraid. And, even understanding (I really do) that the bottom line is the bottom line, I can only regard these musts as regrettable. Because every year books that no one could have predicted to do well capture the imagination--and the dollars--of the reading public. Other books that seem to fit all the required musts fall flat on their faces. Every year I read at least a few contemporary novels that simply blow me away, that astound me, that leave me in awe and with terrific hope for the state of literature. (In fact, I've written about a few of these on this blog.) And every year I read novels that leave me cold, leave me bored, leave me dry, books that make me wonder how in the world they got published because they are significantly inferior to some unpublished books I've read. And then I realize: Oh, it's because they fit all the musts.

What sells? Can anyone offer a definitive answer to that question? I doubt it. I can't, except to say that it seems to me that books that finally sell very well do so because they are striking in some unique, idiosyncratic way. Because they are not like everything else out there. And I have to think that the best way to get to such books is to encourage authors to tell their stories in the manner that their stories demand. Even if that means an ensemble cast.