Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Pitfalls of Contemporary Fiction

I’m feeling a little schizoid these days, at least in a literary sense.

My first novel, A More Obedient Wife, was set in the late 18th century and based on the lives of some real, albeit obscure, historical figures. After it came out a few years ago I started a second novel, set in the early 19th century and, once again, based on a real person’s life.

But after I’d begun that second novel, I had an idea for a contemporary social satire about mother-daughter relationships. And THAT novel, The Mother-Daughter Show, is due to come out in December from Fuze Publishing. So at the same time that I’m trying to gear up for the launch of The Mother-Daughter Show in the near future, I’m trying to launch myself back in time to continue work on my second historical novel.

It’s a little dizzying. What all three novels have in common is that the main characters are women. Otherwise, though, they’re definitely apples and oranges, or maybe even applesauce and kiwi.

For one thing, in my historical novels my goal has been to reconstruct as much as possible, from letters and other documents, what my characters were really like. With The Mother-Daughter Show, I started with real people in a real situation—a musical revue at my daughter’s school—but to a large extent I tried to depart from that reality. I didn’t want to write about what really happened, because what really happened wouldn’t have made a good novel. Life rarely hands you a tight plot. And while certain things happened that were amusing, to make the book really funny it was necessary to exaggerate—and invent.

Nor did I want to write a roman a clef, with thinly veiled fictional characters standing in for real people. For my novel to work, I needed fully developed characters with rich and complicated lives, and I just didn’t know enough about the people involved in the real Mother-Daughter Show (aside from myself) to write about them successfully. Nor, of course, did I want to hurt anyone’s feelings, even inadvertently. Some novelists may be out to settle scores—I once saw a T-shirt that said “Be Nice to Me, or I’ll Put You in My Novel”—but that wasn’t my motivation.

But while I know that my characters are products of my imagination, I don’t have control over the reactions of readers. And that’s another difference between this book and my other projects: when you write a novel that’s set two hundred years ago, you don’t have to worry too much about readers thinking you’re actually writing about them, or people they know. So, despite my disclaimer, there may be people who think they recognize themselves or others in The Mother-Daughter Show.

And in a sense, they may be right. The fact is, I recognize myself, or parts of myself, in each of my main characters. That’s true, I think, of any author’s fictional creations, because as a novelist you need to find a strand in yourself that corresponds to each of your characters. And my hope is that readers will also find aspects of my characters—including my 18th- and 19th-century characters—with which they can identify. Beyond that, while there’s no one-to-one correspondence between the characters in The Mother-Daughter Show and real individuals, I’ve certainly lifted bits and pieces of real things I’ve heard and observed at various points in my life and put them in the novel. All writers do that—we’re like magpies.

Of course, there’s at least one other difference between this novel and the others: The Mother-Daughter Show is a satire. I hope all my characters come across as sympathetic, but they’re also flawed—and those flaws are often a source of humor, or at least I hope they are. And I hope that if readers think they recognize themselves, or parts of themselves, in my characters, they’ll be able to laugh—just as I was laughing at myself as I created them.

One final note: I’ve decided to create a second blog that will focus on matters having to do with the general themes of The Mother-Daughter Show, and keep this blog focused on writing fiction based on the lives of historical figures. Astute readers will notice that I’ve renamed this blog—instead of “Natalie Wexler’s Blog,” it’s now called “Imagining the Past.” I don’t have a name yet for the new one. Stay tuned.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What's in a Name?

Reading a piece about the opera singer Maria Callas in The New York Times a few days ago has set me thinking about the use of names of real people in fiction.

The Times piece discusses the Terence McNally play Master Class, currently on Broadway, which is based on a series of classes Callas gave for aspiring young opera singers almost 40 years ago. Regrettably, I haven't seen the current production of Master Class, but I did see another production years ago, and I remember it fairly well. Callas was imperious, dictatorial, at times almost sadistic with the students. It was fascinating to watch, and great theater.

But, Anthony Tommasini tells us in the Times, that's not exactly what happened. It turns out there's actually a book about Callas's master classes, and also a three-disc recording of them. And according to Tomassini, they reveal a Callas who was "frank and demanding," yes, but also "unfailingly patient and encouraging." Most important, she was way better at providing substantive artistic advice than the Callas of the play. And it bothers Tommasini that theater-goers will come away with the wrong impression.

It bothers me too. If you're going to write fiction that messes around with the facts of people's lives--and that clearly presents itself as fiction, the way McNally's play does--why use those people's real names? I find this particularly bothersome when the people whose names are used are still alive (see, for instance, the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network), but I also find it a problem when the subjects are dead. Maybe it's actually more of a problem, since they can't defend themselves. Would it have detracted from the drama of Master Class if the main character had been a Callas-like figure who was called something else?

I've come across a number of instances of this lately in fiction. I recently finished a novel called City of Light, set in Buffalo around the turn of the century. Among the many things that bothered me about the book was the fact that the author played fast and loose with the reputations of a bunch of real people (most of them known only to aficionados of Buffalo's local history), inventing a plot in which they casually father illegitimate children with underage girls and scheme to offer up the protagonist as a kind of sacrificial virgin to the sexually rapacious Grover Cleveland. (Okay, Cleveland really did father an illegitimate child--but I doubt he was as warped as he's made out to be in the novel.) A descendant of one of the people slandered by the author has posted an understandably outraged review of the novel on Amazon.

I also recently had a conversation with someone about the E.L. Doctorow novel Homer and Langley, based on the lives of the Collyer brothers. I haven't been able to bring myself to read the novel because I read that Doctorow changed quite a few facts, including having the Collyer brothers live on into the 1960s, when in fact they died in 1947. None of that bothered the person I was talking to, who was enthusiastic in her recommendation. She even told me that Doctorow had changed the brother who was blind, making it Homer when it had actually been Langley ("Well, he had to," she said, alluding to the blindness of the original Homer). It turns out it really was Homer Collyer who was blind. But what bothers me is that the person I was talking to wasn't bothered by the idea that Doctorow made the switch.

I'm currently reading a novel in which Senator Joseph McCarthy is a minor character. I'm not finding this as bothersome as the other examples I've given, maybe because McCarthy isn't "on stage," as it were, all that much, and maybe because the way he's portrayed seems pretty consistent with what I know about him. Still, I find myself wondering: Did McCarthy really have a childhood friend whose house he moved into when he was in disgrace? Did he really spend all his time trying to get people to take his phone calls? If he'd merely been presented as a McCarthy-like figure, I suspect I wouldn't be asking myself those distracting questions.

Of course, there's a reason writers like to use real names: it arouses people's interest. We all want to know the intimate details of other people's lives, or most of us do. But the problem is we're not usually getting the real details. Yes, we could look up most of these people on Wikipedia and get the true story, or try to, but I doubt many of us bother. Instead, we just assume that what we've read or seen is true. A number of people have told me how much they despise Mark Zuckerberg, based on the movie. But is Mark Zuckerberg really like the "Mark Zuckerberg" of The Social Network? I've read enough about the divergence between the two to make me doubt it.

I realize this may sound hypocritical coming from someone who wrote a novel based on the lives of real people, using their real names, and is currently working on another one. But I've chosen to write about people who are long-dead and pretty obscure. And I've almost never changed a verifiable fact that I've come across in the historical record. Instead, I've let my imagination play in the many gaps between the facts. Plus, I try not to just make stuff up about my characters in order to create a juicy plot, which (it seems to me) is what the author of City of Light did. I've tried to understand as much as I can about who my characters really were, from the scant evidence available to me, and then extrapolate from there. (And I have to say, I haven't gotten any complaints from descendants--quite the contrary.)

I don't mean to get on a high horse about this. Obviously, there's been some wonderful fiction and drama that has taken liberties with the lives of real people, going back, as Tommasini points out, to Shakespeare. But when an author deliberately alters the facts of someone's life, I think it's only fair to signal that departure by making up a name as well. Yes, readers might lose some of the thrill that comes with getting what they think is an inside story. (And, with the passage of time, that thrill has to dissipate. No one goes to see Hamlet to get the goods on a former Prince of Denmark.) But on the other side of the scale, novelists and dramatists would no longer be distorting the factual record and promulgating misconceptions that can seriously damage people's lives and reputations.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Fearing Success

Some months ago, when I was balking at rewriting the manuscript of my second novel for what felt like the 37th time, my agent accused me of suffering from "fear of success." To her mind, this was the only explanation for my reluctance to come up with a new plot and somehow figure out how to insert it into the existing framework of my novel.

To my mind, though, the idea that I was afraid of success was ludicrous. I'd been twisting myself into knots and jumping through hoops for months in order to ACHIEVE success. What I was afraid of was failure. In fact, I find the whole "fear of success" thing no more convincing now than I did when I first heard of it--back in 1972, when I was an undergraduate at Radcliffe, and Matina Horner, who originated the theory, was its president.

But lately I've come across the life stories of some writers that have made me think that maybe we all SHOULD fear success.

One of those is William Styron, whose first novel, published in 1952 when he was 26, was a huge critical and popular success. But, as I'm learning from a fascinating and beautifully written memoir by his daughter Alexandra Styron, Reading My Father, from that time on he was more or less tormented by his own perfectionism--and perhaps by the fear that whatever he wrote next wouldn't equal that first success. Indeed, his second novel was pretty much roundly derided. Although he went on to write two more highly acclaimed novels--The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the Pulitzer, and his masterpiece, Sophie's Choice--he spent the final 27 years of his life either trying unsuccessfully to write another novel, or in the grips of debilitating depression, or both.

Then there's Ernest Hemingway, the subject of a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times by his friend A.E. Hotchner that detailed the final, paranoid year of his life. And a piece by Jonathan Franzen that appeared in The New Yorker on April 18, 2011, about his friend David Foster Wallace, who suffered from chronic depression and, like Hemingway, ultimately committed suicide.

It's hard to say that all three of these highly successful writers suffered from mental illness BECAUSE they were successful writers. But the writing, and the pressure of sustaining their success, was clearly related to their suffering. As Alexandra Styron says in her memoir, when her father died it had been "twenty-seven years since he'd felt good about himself," because it had been twenty-seven years since he'd finished a novel. When Hotchner asked Hemingway why he wanted to kill himself, the reply was, “What do you think happens to a man going on 62 when he realizes that he can never write the books and stories he promised himself?" And Franzen suggests that Wallace's suicide was related to his struggle to finish his final novel: "When his hope for fiction died ... there was no other way out but death."

The knowledge that you have thousands and thousands of readers out there, waiting for your next novel, and that as the years pass their expectations are rising ... that's got to be paralyzing. Maybe even more paralyzing than the fear, known to many less high-profile writers, that you'll spend years pouring your blood, sweat, and tears into a work of fiction, only to find that you have NO readers. In other words, the fear of failure.

It's interesting, but perhaps not significant, that all the writers mentioned above were male writers--and, in the case of Hemingway and Styron, Male writers with a capital M. Maybe there's something about being considered the Great American Novelist (a title that has yet to be bestowed, even putatively, on a female writer, to the best of my knowledge) that makes the head that wears a crown all the more uneasy.

But I don't know that there's anything gender-specific going on here (although I feel compelled to point out that, according to Matina Horner, it's only women who are afflicted with fear of success, associating success with "depression, illness, and sometimes even death"--maybe they know something men don't?). A while ago I heard the author Stephen McCauley speak about writing. He's not quite in the Great Writer category, but he's been highly successful and has a loyal following (myself included). He revealed that he'd been suffering from writer's block, which had been broken only when he received a call from an editor he knew inviting him to write "women's commercial fiction" under a pseudonym. Released from the persona of "Stephen McCauley," he found the words flowed, and he had a blast. (He declined, alas, to reveal the pseudonym under which he had written--but he said the books were available at Costco.)

I could certainly understand that story. I wouldn't presume to place myself in the same category as McCauley, but my first novel garnered a few intensely enthusiastic fans. When these people told me how much they loved A More Obedient Wife, and how they couldn't wait for my next novel, I was of course pleased. No, make that thrilled. But at the same time, I couldn't help but wonder if I could possibly do it again--whatever it was I had done.

My second novel did flow (at least the first draft did -- I'm now about to embark on draft ten, which I hope will be the last). But maybe that's partly because it's so different from my first novel, which is told in the voices of two18th-century women. My second novel, a contemporary comic tale about mother-daughter relationships, might actually be categorized as "women's commercial fiction." I didn't use a pseudonym, but like McCauley, I felt liberated by the idea that I was doing something completely different.

Who knows -- maybe Styron, Hemingway, and Wallace could have benefited from forgetting they were Great Writers and trying their pseudonymous hands at a little lower-brow fiction. After all, just because it's not Great doesn't mean it's not good.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Do Characters Need to Be Likable?

In my last post, I mentioned that I recently appeared on a panel on historical fiction at the AIW annual writers' conference in Washington, D.C., and that I had a couple of thoughts I didn't get a chance to voice at the session. My last post focused on the wisdom of changing facts--historical or geographic or otherwise--when writing fiction.

Now for my second thought, which also relates to both historical and non-historical fiction. While discussing the challenges of writing historical fiction, I mentioned the difficulty of making characters who hold very different beliefs from our own sympathetic to a modern reader. Only I didn't say "sympathetic," I said "likable."

I then got a question from a woman in the audience. "Do you think your characters have to be likable?" she said.

This was a weird moment for me. Here's the back story: my agent and I have gone several rounds now on whether the main character in my second novel needed to be more "likable." Frankly, I thought she was likable enough as originally written. But what I saw as "edge," my agent saw as bitchiness and whininess. My agent was very emphatic about the importance of making the character likable (and making her husband and her daughter likable as well). And--given that my agent's experience in publishing is far greater than mine--I reluctantly went about softening my character's edges and eliminating some of what I thought were her best lines. But I continued to ponder the issue. In fact, about six months ago I went to a panel consisting of some of my favorite writers--Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Cathleen Schine--and raised my hand to ask them the very same question the woman in the audience had just posed to me.

Alas, I didn't get called on when I raised my hand, so I don't know what those writers would have said. I do know, though, that my two fellow panelists at the AIW conference took the view that characters (and I guess we're talking here about protagonists, really) DON'T need to be likable. One of them brought up Satan from Paradise Lost, who of course steals the show. Yeah, but--as I pointed out in passing--no one likes a "perfect" protagonist, like God. Plus, Milton gives Satan a dynamite speech.

It's possible that the rule that your protagonist has to be likable has more force in commercial than literary fiction, although sometimes the line between those two isn't that clear. My second novel, according to my agent, can be categorized as "commercial women's fiction," albeit (I hope) somewhat high-end commercial women's fiction, and maybe that's why my agent was so insistent about the likability issue. There do seem to be different rules in the realm of commercial, and certainly of "genre," fiction. Romance novels, for example, generally follow a prescribed formula. But once you're in the category of "literary," you can pretty much do what you want, as long as you do it well.

But regardless of the type of fiction at issue, I do think readers need to want to spend time with the main character. If they find the main character boring, for example, they'll probably put down the book. What if they find the main character repulsive? Well, someone might say, look at Humbert Humbert in Lolita: an unrepentant pedophile. What could be more unlikable than that? And yet we're happy to spend time with Humbert, because Nabokov managed to make him, through his wit and his peculiar vision, irresistible. That's what I meant when I said at the panel that I thought that the author has to work harder when the protagonist isn't likable, at least in the conventional sense.

What I actually had in mind when I spoke at the panel was the fact that one of the two main characters in my novel A More Obedient Wife was a slave-owner. The challenge for me was to write realistically in the voice of someone who owned another human being, and who thought that was an acceptable thing to do, without alienating 21st-century readers who (like myself) find the concept of slavery to be anathema.

At one point I have my character Hannah Iredell musing about the female slave she owns, Sarah, who--like Hannah herself--desperately misses her absent husband. I have Hannah thinking that it's difficult, sometimes, to remember that Sarah has feelings just as she does. To me, this was an accurate reflection (or what I imagined to be an accurate reflection) of a slave-owner's attitude. After all, how could you justify owning another human being if you attributed to them all the thoughts and feelings that you yourself experience? To acknowledge that Sarah did have these feelings seemed to me a mark of humanity on Hannah's part, a reflection of her underlying ambivalence about slavery. But one of my early readers recoiled when she reached that line, thinking that it made Hannah morally repugnant. Fortunately, other readers don't seem to have had that reaction.

Maybe "likable" wasn't the right word--it probably came into my head because of my recent back-and-forth with my agent. But what IS the right word to describe what we look for in a character, what keeps us reading? One of my fellow panelists suggested "compelling." That's certainly the word that you're likely to see in rejection letters--as in, "I just didn't find the characters compelling." I got a couple of rejection letters like that for my second novel, early on, and I just shrugged. My agent, on the other hand, told me, "It's simple, you just have to do this one thing--you just have to make the characters compelling." But when I asked her how I could do that, she replied that she couldn't possibly tell me. (Ultimately, it turned out to be a matter of changing the plot. Who knew?)

Compelling, likable, sympathetic. None of these words are particularly specific. And, of course, one person's "likable" (or "compelling") is another person's boring or repellent. As with so many things in writing fiction, it's pretty subjective. Bottom line: if you can find one person who thinks your character is compelling--AND who is in a position to publish your book--then maybe you don't have to worry so much about the people who don't.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Changing the Course of the Mississippi River

A few days ago I had the pleasure of appearing on a panel on historical fiction at the American Independent Writers Washington conference, held at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. My co-panelists were Barbara Esstman, author of The Other Anna and Night Ride Home (and a former instructor of mine, years ago, in a novel-writing workshop at The Writer's Center); and C.M. Mayo, author of the intriguing The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire -- based, like my novel, A More Obedient Wife, on the lives of actual historical figures. I'm grateful to the moderator, author David Taylor, for inviting me to join them.

I don't know how the audience felt (we were the last panel of a day-long event), but I would have been happy to go on talking and listening and answering questions from the audience well past our allotted fifty minutes. I had a few thoughts I didn't get a chance to give voice to. But luckily, I have a blog!

So ... here's one: how much freedom should a writer exercise in playing around with historical fact? One of my fellow panelists, Barbara Esstman, opined that novelists should feel free to make up, or alter, whatever facts they want to, and mentioned that in her novel she had changed the course of the Mississippi River by five miles. It's all in how you present it, she argued. You can make anything believable, if you handle it the right way.

True enough, but personally, I'm loath to fool around with facts, or at least the ones that are fairly well known. Once, years ago, I had the opportunity to hear William Styron speak, and I asked him basically the same question about the interplay between imagination and truth. Styron, whose Confessions of Nat Turner won the Pulitzer Prize, answered that historical novelists should give free rein to their imaginations with one important parameter: they should be careful not to contravene known historical fact.

Why? Because it can be distracting to the reader. At one point during the panel session, Barbara also cited John Gardner's famous dictum that a novelist should create for the reader "a vivid and continuous dream." It seems to me that if your narrative includes a detail many readers know to be untrue, they may suddenly be shaken out of that dream. "Huh?" they'll say. "That's not how it was. What's she (or he) talking about?" And pouf, the spell that you've carefully woven with your words will be broken.

Styron's advice made sense to me, and I tried to abide by it in A More Obedient Wife. I changed some little-known personal details -- for instance, I omitted a few siblings belonging to a couple of characters who came from dauntingly large families -- but I worked within the general framework that history had given me.

It seems to me that geographical fact should generally be treated in much the same way. I once read a novel set in an area I was familiar with, and I was constantly distracted by "mistakes" the author had made about where things were. Maybe she'd made those changes deliberately, although I can't fathom why. I wasn't focusing on what she presumably wanted me to focus on -- the characters, the story -- because I kept calculating distances and drawing mental maps and asking myself what she was talking about.

Of course, as with everything in writing, there's no hard-and-fast rule here. It's always a balancing test. If you feel a fact is sufficiently obscure that no one will really notice if you change it, maybe you'll want to go ahead. Or even if it's not that obscure a fact, you may feel the change is sufficiently important to your story that it's worth risking the distraction. Or maybe, like Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, the whole point of your story is that it's counter-factual. And, as with everything in writing, it's all subjective. Maybe some readers won't mind at all if the Mississippi River isn't where they expect it to be, and maybe some writers don't care if they shake things up a bit.

But speaking just for myself, I try to stick with the facts and let my imagination play around in the gray areas -- of which, in the stories I'm drawn to, there are plenty.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Remembering the Ladies

Just wanted to alert people to a post on another blog -- The CockleBur -- about the difficulty, and the importance, of uncovering the role that women played in the history of the American Revolution and the Early Republic.

Full disclosure: the blog post contains a favorable mention of my novel, A More Obedient Wife -- and it was written by someone I know, Palma Strand. (Fuller disclosure: I hadn't spoken to Palma in years, but she emailed me out of the blue some weeks ago to tell me her book club was reading my book -- how she came across it I'm still not sure!) But the post also discusses other female historical figures and the late sociologist Elise Boulding, who coined the phrase "the underside of history" to describe the general absence of women from the historical record. I highly recommend it -- along with Palma's other posts, especially one called "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Godliness?"

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Further Adventures in Publishing

One of the topics of this blog is "writing," and one aspect of writing -- the most vexing, often -- is getting published. So herewith, my views on the current state of the publishing industry, admittedly offered from my own rather limited vantage point:

You'd never know it from the state of most bookstores, cluttered floor to ceiling with books (this is, of course, assuming that you can still find an actual bookstore in your vicinity), but it's gotten really, really hard to get a book published. Especially a novel. And more especially a first novel, if you're not a celebrity of some sort or at least a close friend or relative of some powerful and/or famous person.

A lot of good books still get published, of course. But what may be harder to discern, from outside the industry, is that a lot of good books never get published. And a lot of not-so-good books do get published (this is something you may have actually noticed!).

When I found an agent for my first novel, about five years ago, things were tough. Now that I'm on my second agent and second novel, things are even tougher. Now, instead of routinely sending out rejections, a number of editors have apparently given up sending out anything. At the moment, four editors have had my novel for over two months; one has had it for three months; and one has had it for five months. We've had no response from any of them, despite my agent's efforts, and there's no indication we ever will. If I thought there was more than an infinitesimal chance that any of them would take it, I might be content to wait. But my agent has had the manuscript for over a year now, and frankly the prospect of being in this limbo indefinitely is beginning to get to me.

In the old days -- a few years ago, that is -- authors really had no alternative but to wait. It was mainstream publishing or pretty much nothing. That's not true anymore. As the mainstream publishing industry has contracted and fossilized, new publishing life forms have been springing up like mushrooms after a heavy rain.

Perhaps the largest, and most obvious, new form is self-publishing. Thanks to low-cost print-on-demand technology, the number of self-published books has far surpassed the number of traditionally published books (according to a New York Times article, the figures for 2009 were 764,448 self-published books to 288,355 traditionally published books, and those figures have no doubt diverged more widely since then).

Most of these books, of course, languish in obscurity -- and in many cases, that obscurity is no doubt well deserved. After all, with self-published books there's no vetting, no cultural gatekeeper letting in the sheep and keeping out the goats (or is it the other way around?). Who's to say that any of these books are worth reading? Some self-published authors -- the ones setting down memories for their grandchildren, for example -- don't really care about reaching a wider audience. But for those who do, the question is how to get your self-published book to stand out from all the others.

When I resorted to self-publishing my first book, A More Obedient Wife, I did so with a heavy heart. I was embarrassed to admit that I'd self-published, but I figured I'd just give the book to friends and family. It was only after I started hearing from a few strangers who told me they'd loved the book that I began to think bigger.

And that's how I began to discover that there actually were some mechanisms falling into place that enabled a self-published author like me to secure some objective seals of approval -- someone other than little old me saying, hey, read this book. I entered it into two contests open to self-published authors, and it won awards in both (had I been more savvy, I could have taken advantage of other similar contests). I put it up on sites like Goodreads, where members list and rate the books they're reading. I urged readers who told me they liked the book to review it on Amazon, where at one point I was up to 11 reviews, all five-star (somehow, that number has mysteriously shrunk to 10).

And I sent it in to a website called Indiereader, which I had read about in the New York Times article mentioned above. Indiereader not only gave the book a favorable review, they included it in a program that funnels selected self-published books to independent bookstores around the country. Indiereader has also started reaching out to book clubs, giving them (in the words of its founder, Amy Edelman) "a dedicated page, the opportunity to do Q&As with authors (when they're able), to share their faves with other book clubs, and the chance to discover something new." And recently a book group in Pennsylvania that found my book through the Indiereader website picked it as one of their selections--thank you, Bad Girls Book Club of Broomall, PA!

I've also noticed that some of the numerous self-publishing companies (or "indie publishing" companies, as they're now beginning to style themselves) have started programs that incorporate this vetting function. Abbott Press, a division of Writer's Digest (which sponsors a self-published book award that my first novel won), will publish any book -- but, for a fee, you can have your book considered for a "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" that indicates "high literary merit."

Of course, chances are that even a book with the "Writer's Digest Mark of Quality" isn't going to hit the New York Times bestseller list. With a few notable exceptions (mostly fantasy and romance writers), self-published authors are never going to strike it rich. In fact, despite the hype you'll hear from self-publishing companies, we're almost certain to lose money rather than make it. But for me -- and, I suspect, for many others -- it's not about making a killing, or even a living. I just want at least a few people -- okay, maybe a few hundred -- to read what I write. And these days, the mainstream publishing industry, whose denizens are so certain that they know what's deserving of publication and what isn't, can't stop me.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Ding Dong, Osama's Dead

"Osama dead!!!" my college-age daughter texted me last night at 11:18.

"So I hear," I texted back. "Didn't get details."

At 11:30 she texted me again: "waiting for Obama to speak..."

I was already in bed. Each time my cell phone dinged with an incoming text message, I had to haul myself out of bed and travel to the end of the walk-in closet where my phone was recharging. "Going to sleep," I texted back before switching my phone to silent.

This morning I found a last word from my daughter: "LAME go watch, history in the making!!"

Call me LAME, but I'm finding myself strangely unmoved by this turn of events--and surprised that everyone else in the country seems to find it earth-shaking, especially the college-age kids like my daughter who were only children at the time of 9/11. Not to mention the cognitive dissonance, for someone my age, of hordes of college students displaying fervent patriotism. I realize the contexts are vastly different, but I find it hard to imagine ANYTHING happening in the 1970s that would have prompted college students to spontaneously gather in front of the White House cheering and chanting "USA!"

Does anyone really think that Osama bin Laden's death will make a difference in the so-called War on Terror? The forces he unleashed have gone way beyond him now. Terrorists don't need his orders to prompt or organize their movements. And, as reflected in the extra security measures now being taken around the world, there's a good chance that his killing will only spark more anti-American violence.

(Astute readers will have noticed by this point that the subject of this post has nothing to do with the ostensible themes of this blog. But hey, it's my blog and I suppose it's my prerogative to violate my self-imposed parameters once in  a while.)

Aside from that, it strikes me as unseemly to rejoice at anyone's death, no matter how evil a monster he or she was. (And yes, to answer the inevitable question, that would include Hitler.) The only voice I've found in this morning's news coverage that echoes my own feelings belongs to Harry Waizer, identified in the New York Times as a World Trade Center survivor. Asked by a Times reporter for his reaction, Waizer "paused nearly a minute before he began to speak." Waizer was in an elevator at the World Trade Center when the plane struck the building and suffered third-degree burns.

"If this means there is one less death in the future, then I'm glad for that," Waizer said. "But I just can't find it in me to be glad one more person is dead, even if it is Osama bin Laden."

If Waizer is able to extend the definition of humanity to include the man who nearly killed him, I wonder why it should be so hard for the rest of us.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Pandering to the Masses, Then and Now

Journalism, it is said, is in decline. And one proof being offered is a trend towards deciding which stories to cover based not on what editors think is important, but rather on what readers want to read--which is to be determined by what they're searching for online.

The subject came up in a recent, and rather testy, interview with Arianna Huffington that appeared in the Sunday Times Magazine. The interviewer asked Huffington about an internal AOL memo, leaked shortly before AOL acquired the Huffington Post, saying that AOL wanted "95 percent of stories to be written based on what people are searching for." (Huffington protested that she shouldn't have to defend a memo that predated AOL's acquisition of her website, and said that the document was "very, very, very far away in terms of where the company is now.")

Obviously, journalism based on what people are searching for can leave much to be desired. We could end up with, say, a bunch of stories about Lindsay Lohan's latest escapades instead of a searching analysis of what's going on at Guantanamo. Or a lot of media coverage about the supposed falsity of President Obama's birth certificate instead of a serious examination of what to do about the economy. Oh, wait a minute: that IS what we've ended up with.

But say what you will about the state of American journalism (and there is indeed much to bemoan), this trend isn't exactly new. I've been spending a lot of time lately paging through a magazine that was published in 1807 (I'm researching a novel based on the life of the woman who edited it), and--what do you know?--the same issue, more or less, existed some 200 years ago.

For example: the magazine, which was called The Observer, began serializing a translation of a French novel called Adelaide; Or, a Lesson for Lovers. I'm not sure what the "lesson" was supposed to be, but by the standards of 1807 the novel was pretty racy. It's about a couple of horny teenagers who can't wait for the sanction of matrimony (or perhaps there was parental opposition to the match--I haven't read every word). They do what comes naturally, she gets pregnant ... you get the idea. Not too spicy by modern standards, perhaps, but it apparently caused a good deal of outraged comment in Baltimore in 1807.

Somewhat belatedly, the magazine's editor--Eliza Anderson--decided to stop the serialization. Once she had seen the novel in its entirety, she said, she realized it was "too glowing, too impure, to be presented by a female, to the chaste eye of female modesty." But lo and behold, the public--or at least the segment of it that wasn't outraged by the novel's publication--was outraged by its discontinuation. "Whilst some extracts we have made, from the most valuable works, are passed by," Anderson complained, "this love-tale excites the liveliest interest, and when its publication has been suspended for a week, the office door has not stood still a moment, for the constant, the continual enquiries that were made, to know when it would be continued."

It's hard to tell if Anderson herself was genuinely outraged by the "glowing" and "impure" nature of Adelaide. For one thing, later in 1807 she herself translated another French novel that may have been even racier--according to a modern scholar, it contained perhaps "the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction."

For another, she was pretty sensitive to what kinds of articles sold magazines. In fact, she started The Observer because its predecessor publication, for which she also wrote, was too dull. Anderson thought satire was the way to go--partly because she thought that was the best way to reform and mold people, and partly because she thought it made for a livelier publication.

She was right about the liveliness, but she ended up alienating quite a few people through her satire. On the other hand, as she recognized, the journalistic feuds that were fought out in the pages of The Observer and other publications actually had a salutary effect on sales. She noted at one point that subscriptions reached a sustainable level only after "some strokes of satire and criticism had given zest and interest to our pages."

But Anderson didn't just publish what she thought the public wanted to hear--not by a long shot. She never lost sight of her original goal, which was to educate and elevate the reading public of Baltimore, whether they wanted to be educated and elevated or not. So, alongside Adelaide and other fluffier offerings there were dense biographical tracts on Marmontel and Lord Mansfield and analyses of the contemporary political scene in Europe--the very "valuable works," no doubt, that avid readers of Adelaide were passing by. Not to mention a lot of digs at the follies and foibles of the Baltimore citizenry.

Perhaps the moral here, if there is one, is that successful journalism has always been some kind of balancing act between what readers want and what editors, and writers, think they should want. The Internet has obviously made it easier to identify readers' less-than-elevated interests and pander to them, but the basic issue remains the same. The trick, it seems, is to somehow present serious, thoughtful journalism in a guise that will appeal to the masses.

Maybe in another 200 years someone will figure out how to do that.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Rip Van Winkle at the Library of Congress

There's nothing like a trip to the Library of Congress to lift my spirits--and to induce me to ponder the upsides and downsides of modern technology.

For those who have never experienced its delights, let me explain that the Library of Congress--and in particular the august Main Reading Room--is a shrine to that now almost obsolete format (or should I say "platform"?), The Book. The high-domed reading room is adorned with such a profusion of ornate marble and imposing allegorical figures representing all things book-related that it can sometimes be hard to concentrate on the actual, usually rather modest-looking, book in front of you.

But the Library's collection is far from modest. It's basically everything that's ever been published in this country, and a lot that's been published outside it--plus unpublished letters, diaries, maps, drawings. You name it. All brought to you on a silver platter (metaphorically speaking) a mere 30 to 90 minutes after you fill out a call slip with one of those tiny eraserless pencils otherwise reserved for keeping score in miniature golf. And all this for free--or rather, paid for by tax dollars. For my money, it's tax revenue well spent.

But as to technology: yesterday I had an experience in the Reading Room that illustrated the ways in which old-fashioned book-related research methods can lead to serendipitous discoveries. I had requested a scholarly article on the Baltimore Almshouse, which I thought might be relevant to the novel I'm now researching (one of my characters is based on an early 19th-century Baltimore doctor who tended to the poor). As it turned out, the article dealt with the wrong time period. But in the same bound volume of the scholarly magazine I found another article--on the Baltimore yellow fever epidemic of 1800--that I eagerly realized was right up my alley. I learned that the predicament of the poor during the epidemic led to the founding of the Baltimore Dispensary, where my doctor was a key player.

What does technology have to do with this? Well, if I'd looked at the Almshouse article online--in isolation rather than in a bound volume with other articles--I never would have come across the yellow fever article.

On the other hand ... after reading the yellow fever article I made my way down the hall to the Microform Reading Room, which is something of a letdown after the Main Reading Room. The last time I was there, perhaps a year ago, it looked like a forgotten broom closet that for some reason had been stocked with recalcitrant, creaky microfilm readers. It still looks like a broom closet, but the old microfilm readers have now been banished to a back room (and the back room of a broom closet is a pretty ignominious place to be banished). In their place stood sleek little black models perched next to equally sleek computer screens.

A friendly librarian, noting my confusion, explained that the new microfilm readers were actually hooked up to the computers: you viewed the images on the monitors, where you could enlarge or darken them or rotate them with the click of a mouse. Not only that, she told me, you didn't have to copy things the old way: by pressing a button that caused the image to be temporarily sucked into the bowels of the microfilm reader, only to emerge as an often illegible hard copy at twenty-five cents a pop. Now you could simply copy the images to a flash drive, take them back home, and insert them into your own computer.

Of course, being a female version of Rip Van Winkle, I hadn't thought to bring a flash drive. But the gift shop stocks them, apparently for hapless souls like myself. I was happy to fork over the somewhat exorbitant price of fifteen bucks--not that bad, really, when you consider the flash drive is a lovely shade of blue and doubles as a souvenir, since it's emblazoned with the words "Library of Congress." After the librarian gave me a crash tutorial in using the newfangled equipment, I spent a few joyful hours stalking, and saving, my microfilmed quarry: The Observer, an obscure weekly magazine published in Baltimore during the year 1807 and edited by Eliza Anderson--the first woman to edit a magazine in the United States and one of the main characters in my novel.

How happy did this make me? I can't even begin to tell you. When I started researching Eliza, I had to transport myself to the Maryland Historical Society library in Baltimore to read the magazine in bound volume form. Oh, they had it on microfilm, but the copier function had ceased working at some undetermined time in the past, and there was no money to fix it. I couldn't even xerox the hard copy pages of the magazine because they were too fragile. Nor could I even use a pen to take notes, because only pencils were allowed in the library. So I spent many hours taking notes on the articles with an increasingly dull pencil (the library did provide an electronic sharpener, which would periodically pierce the silence), and sometimes copying them word for word. Let's just say it was a bit tedious.

Imagine my joy when I discovered that the microfilm was also available just a Metro ride away from my house in Washington DC at the Library of Congress--where they had an actual working microfilm copier, albeit a cranky one. What I really dreamed of, though, was a way of having access to every page of every issue of the magazine at home, so that I could draw on them at leisure in writing the novel. It was hard to predict which pages I would need and therefore which I should copy, but it would have cost a fortune--and taken untold hours--to copy them all. And the idea of buying the reel of microfilm and a cranky microfilm reader of my own crossed my mind, but I quickly dismissed it as unrealistic. Clearly, there was no way my dream would ever come true.

Until now, that is--just a year later. It will take a while, but I can copy every single page of The Observer onto my flash drive and install them on my computer. I'm amazed. But my amazement is nothing compared to what Eliza Anderson would experience if she were to be revived and told that all 52 issues of her magazine--the publication she sweated and slaved over for many hours each week, the source of so much joy and angst, the means by which she made her minor mark on history--could be easily contained within a bright blue object that's only two inches long.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Agony of Age

I haven't written for a while, mostly because my 87-year-old mother, who suffers from dementia and cataracts, has broken her right leg for the second time in four months and is now recovering from major surgery. All of which has led me to think about (among other things) the indignities and unpleasantnesses of hospitalization, then and now.

By "then" I mean, of course, about 200 years ago -- the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the period I researched for my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, and that I'm currently researching for my novel-in-progress. Because one of the characters in the current novel (based on a real historical figure) is a doctor, I've been reading up on the history of medicine.

As with so many things about the past, the more you know about medicine back then, the luckier you feel to be alive now. Sure, things go wrong in modern hospitals: no one tells you the doctor you've been waiting for for two hours has decided not to come after all; the nurse takes forever to answer an urgent call for help; what seems like a steady stream of people invade your room and ask you the same questions over and over again. Even my mother, who has trouble remembering what happened five minutes ago, can tell that she's been asked these same question many times before -- and to show her annoyance she often refuses to answer, which doesn't help matters any.

But at least she doesn't lose all access to food the next day, which is what might have happened to an uncooperative patient in the 18th century. According to a book on 18th-century medicine, appropriately entitled The Age of Agony, patients at London's Guy's Hospital who engaged in cursing or swearing, or were "found guilty of any Indecency, or commit any Nuisance," were to lose "their next Day's Diet."

Not that their "next Day's Diet" was liable to be all that enticing. My mother has a menu of food choices from "room service" that she finds overwhelming -- or would find overwhelming if she could see well enough to read it. Maybe the hospital kitchen wouldn't win any stars from Michelin, but at least there's more variety than was to be found at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London, where the menu was restricted to bread, boiled beef, "milk pottage," and beef broth. On the other hand, each patient also received a daily allotment of a pint of "Ale Cawdle" at night and three pints of beer. That might have made things a little more tolerable. Nevertheless, patients at Guy's and other hospitals routinely slipped out to nearby "Publick-Houses" and "Brandy Shops" and came back to the wards drunk. As a result of which they forfeited "their next Day's Diet," which was apparently an all-purpose disciplinary measure.

You can kind of understand the patients slipping away to get drunk when you consider that there wasn't much for them to do in the hospital. No TV, certainly, which is the only thing that seems to keep my mother's mind off her pain and relieve her of her general disorientation (she always finds comfort in the world of Turner Classic Movies). In some hospitals there was group Bible-reading on Sunday evenings, led by "some sober Person in each Ward" (assuming, I suppose, they could find one), but not much else in the way of entertainment. Patients at Guy's who were able-bodied were kept busy taking care of the weaker patients and helping to clean the wards and fetch coals. If they shirked those duties -- well, you can probably guess the punishment. But for a second offense they would actually be discharged from the hospital.

Not to mention that there was very little the hospital could do for you, other than warehouse and feed you. In fact, a hospital was likely to make you even sicker than you were when you came in, given that -- before the advent of germ theory -- you would be kept in close proximity to all sorts of pathogenic organisms harbored by your fellow patients. Other drawbacks included the noxious smells from the lack of sanitation and the intense discomfort due to infestations of lice. In 1765 a surgeon at Guy's remarked that in London hospitals "bugs are frequently a greater evil to the patient than the malady for which he seeks an hospital." No wonder hospitals were reserved for the poor. Wealthy invalids preferred to do their suffering at home.

I suppose all of this should make me feel much more appreciative of the modern comforts and conveniences at my mother's disposal. But it's a sad truth that no matter how much we understand, on an intellectual level, that we're really a lot better off than many others -- including those who lived in the past -- it's our present distress that looms larger in our consciousness. Should I tell my mother she should feel lucky that her hospital bed isn't full of lice -- or that she has a private toilet, even though at the moment there's no way she can get to it? It would probably only add to her general confusion.

The truth is, two hundred years ago my mother and many of the other elderly inmates of the rehabilitation facility where she is currently housed wouldn't have lived long enough to suffer the ailments of old age. Their lives would have ended before their bones grew so brittle and their eyes so dim. We can thank modern medicine for that. And sometimes, I suppose, we can also curse it.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Et in Stoppard's Arcadia Ego

I recently had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of seeing the current Broadway production of Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, and I would encourage everyone who can to go and do likewise.

There are so many different things going on in this brilliant play that everyone who sees it is likely to latch onto something different (and I would highly recommend reading the play beforehand so that you have a better chance of following all the various strands). No doubt a physicist or a mathematician would be entranced by the scientific angles in the play. But as someone who has spent a fair amount of time parsing fragmentary 200-year-old documents and trying to reconstruct from them what actually happened in the past, the aspect of the play that really grabbed me was the historiographical one: two characters who are 20th-century historians tangling over just what happened at an English country estate in the early 1800's. (I say "20th-century" simply because the play was written in 1993, but of course they could just as easily be 21st-century historians--the study of history hasn't changed significantly in the last 18 years, and perhaps it never will.)

Stoppard's conceit is that the play alternates between two time periods: 1809 and a few years later, on the one hand; and the present (more or less), when descendants of the estate's 19th-century inhabitants still live in the house and are hosting the two historians who are doing their research there. The audience is in the privileged position of seeing both what really happened in 1809, and what the historians think happened--rightly or wrongly.

It's a delicious position to be in, and one that reveals the human psychology at work behind historical endeavor. We all want answers, we want certainty--or as close to certainty as we can get. And so, presented with bits and pieces of information, we construct a story that makes sense to us--a story that often requires making certain assumptions.

One of the historians, Bernard, decides that the subject of his own expertise--Lord Byron--must have been a guest at the house in 1809. After all, he lived not far away, and he was a schoolfellow and (presumably) friend of the resident tutor there, Septimus Hodge. Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, yes--and he turns out to be correct on those points.

But Bernard goes on to deduce that while staying at the house, Byron fought a duel with another guest there--a minor poet whose work he had (presumably) savaged in print and whose wife he had (presumably) seduced. And that leads him to another deduction: in the duel Byron murdered the poet, who is not heard from thereafter, and had to flee the country. This story provides a convenient explanation for Byron's otherwise puzzling voyage to Lisbon that year, at a time when Europe was ravaged by war and travel was risky.

Makes sense, doesn't it? Well, yes--and it also makes headlines and gets Bernard on the morning TV talk shows. The only problem is--as the audience knows and as the other historian in the play maintains--Bernard gets this part of the story all wrong.

In the play, Bernard later comes across evidence that disproves the central element of his theory, the murder, much to his dismay. But in reality--as anyone who has worked extensively with primary historical sources knows--these kinds of mistakes often get perpetuated for generations in secondary sources.

To offer a minor example, in the course of researching my novel A More Obedient Wife, I read what was then (and, I think, now) the leading biography of one of the historical figures I was writing about, James Wilson, an early Supreme Court Justice. According to this biography, shortly after Wilson married his second wife he freed a slave he owned. The author also mentioned in passing, without any citation, that this second wife was a Quaker and had undoubtedly urged her new husband to free the slave, in keeping with her abolitionist views.

A good story, I thought. And it makes sense, right? But as they used to say during the Cold War, "trust, but verify." I managed to find the document granting the slave his freedom, dated shortly after the marriage, so that checked out. But nowhere, in any primary source, could I find any evidence that the second wife was a Quaker, or that she had anything to do with freeing the slave. And I'm pretty sure I found every primary source relating to the second wife, Hannah Gray Wilson, who was one of my two main characters.

What I did find, however, were repetitions of the assertion that she was a Quaker in at least two later secondary sources. Which is understandable. After all, we're conditioned to believe what reputable historians say, especially if it seems to make sense. (Although I have to admit that this particular biography, written in the mid-1950's, raised all sorts of red flags for me despite its iconic status. The author--Charles Page Smith--kept putting in details like, "As he read the letter, his glasses began to slip slowly down his nose." Oh yeah, I wanted to say? How do you know?)

Okay, so sometimes historians get it wrong. Does that mean they should just throw up their hands and give up? Consign certain things to the dustbin of history that's labeled "Unknowable"? Well, they should at least exercise caution--as the more skeptical historian in the play, Hannah, keeps urging (at least when it's her competitor who's the one jumping to conclusions). But as Hannah herself says, it's the search for answers--not its ultimate success or failure--that's important. "It's wanting to know that makes us matter," she says. "Otherwise we're going out the way we came in."

Of course, there's another way to come up with an answer, of sorts--one that accepts the unknowability of the past and just keeps going. I'm talking, of course, about historical fiction, which can provide the satisfaction of a "good story" without distorting (consciously or unconsciously) the historical record.

I decided, for example, that I really liked the idea that James Wilson freed his slave because of pressure from his new wife. It made sense, and it fit in with the story I was weaving. But the idea that she was a Quaker--even aside from the absence of proof--just didn't make any sense to me. She was from a fairly elite family in Boston, a stronghold of Congregationalism, and I even have a reference to the church her family attended. (It was called "Dr. Thatcher's Meeting," after the name of the pastor. Actually, this may have been where Smith got the idea that she was a Quaker--today we use "meeting" to refer to Quaker congregations. But in 18th-century New England, the term was used to refer to Congregationalist churches as well.) So I made her an abolitionist, but not a Quaker.

So historical fiction has its uses, and its satisfactions. But it's no substitute for straight-ahead, just-the-facts-ma'am history. When I put on my historian hat, I try to rein in my imagination and retain a healthy skepticism. As Arcadia shows us so wittily, it's not always easy--and maybe it's not always possible. Sometimes I may be more like Bernard than I'd like to admit. But the sad truth is that there are some gaps in the historical record that only fiction--clearly labeled as such--can fill.

History and Literature

Note: This blog post was originally posted under the date February 17, 2011, which is the day I started writing it. I saved it as a draft that day and didn't finish and publish it until some weeks later. I assumed it would go up as a new post on the day I published it, but I just realized that it didn't -- it was buried among older posts. So I'm putting it up as a new post in case anyone missed it the first time around!

There's a certain kind of person who gets all starry-eyed when you say the name "E.P. Thompson," or utter the title The Making of the English Working Class.

That kind of person would be me (I've met a few others). For those who have not been anointed into this cult, E.P. Thompson was a British historian, and his magnum opus was published in the sixties. When I came across it in 1977 or so, as a sophomore in college, I had never been so bowled over by a book before--at least, a nonfiction book. I suppose it's fair to say the book changed my life: I decided I wanted to BE E.P. Thompson. After I graduated from college, I got a fellowship to study in England, with the intention of stalking my idol and becoming his protege.

I was informed, however, that the university where he taught--Warwick--was in a less than appealing location, and also that he had basically retired from teaching. So I ended up at the University of Sussex, charmingly situated near the seaside resort of Brighton, studying with a disciple of his (a woman who had also made the journey to the U.K. from the U.S. to study at the feet of the master, and who had never left).

What was it about the man, and the book, that I found so captivating? I suppose it was Thompson's marriage of academics and the armchair socialism that I was then prone to: instead of writing a history of the elites, which is what so much of history is inevitably about, Thompson focused on what used to be called the lower orders of society: the mechanics, the artisans, the workers. In a deservedly much-quoted phrase, he said he wrote to rescue these people "from the enormous condescension of posterity."

The difficulty with writing about such people as individuals--as thinking, feeling beings rather than statistics--is that they didn't leave much behind in the way of a paper trail. They didn't keep diaries (or if they did, the diaries generally weren't preserved), they didn't publish memoirs, they didn't make headlines. But Thompson was able to unearth and mine what they did leave behind: broadsides, pamphlets, hymns. As I recall (and I haven't read the book in many years), he used the techniques of literary criticism to penetrate the opacity of these sources, extrapolating from their choice of words and tropes to reconstruct their lives, their hopes and dreams and frustrations. For someone who was majoring in English History and Literature, it was perhaps the perfect textbook.

I didn't end up becoming E.P. Thompson, as it happens. But I never lost my interest in trying to reconstruct the lives of ordinary people who inhabited the past. And somehow, at long last, I'm getting a chance to do it, through the medium of fiction. For the novel I'm currently working on, which is set in early 19th-century Baltimore, I'm in the process of inventing a character who is a member of the working class of that era (if it's not an anachronism to use that phrase to describe a stratum of an essentially pre-industrial society).

My task has been made much easier by the existence of a book that, if it hadn't existed, I would have been tempted to commission: Scraping By, by Seth Rockman. It's an exploration, as the subtitle tells us, of "Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore." A veritable gold mine! And, as Rockman politely implies in his introduction, his task is even harder than Thompson's. Thompson focused on the artisan class--the skilled workers--who were generally educated enough to leave at least some written records behind. But, as Rockman points out, this was really the cream of the working class. The majority of workers were unskilled and largely unschooled. And, generally speaking, too worn down by the arduous process of trying merely to survive--"scraping by" in Rockman's phrase--to even attempt the efforts at self-organization and resistance that Thompson chronicled.

So Rockman has to rely on documents like almshouse rolls and jailhouse records to reconstruct the lives he's writing about. I found the book fascinating, but inevitably, there are huge gaps in the historical record. Occasionally a few tantalizing details of an individual life pop up, but most of it remains submerged, mysterious as the underside of an iceberg. And of course, the actual voices of these long-dead ordinary people, so vital to Thompson's approach, are almost entirely lost.

That's where fiction comes in--or at least I hope it will. In my first novel, A More Obedient Wife, I tried to give voice, through the medium of my imagination, to two obscure women of the 1790's whose lives, as best I could reconstruct them, were fascinating and dramatic. But of course, in that case I had letters--to, from, and about them--to serve as my guide to who these women might have been. And in the novel I'm currently working on, one of my characters (again based on a real, if obscure, historical figure) left behind not only some letters but an entire year of a magazine she edited and largely wrote. Her voice resounds quite clearly across the centuries.

It's the other main character in this novel-in-progress who I intend to draw from the ranks of the working class. Her experiences and her personality will be influenced by what I've read in Rockman and other sources--particularly Gordon Wood's Empire of Liberty, which focuses to a large extent on the early 19th-century tension between elitism and democracy. This character, who I'm calling Margaret, will exemplify the nascent trend towards what became Jacksonian democracy: a servant who rejects that label in favor of "the help," thought to be less demeaning, and for similar reason chooses to call her employer "boss" instead of master or mistress. She'll have had some experience of the almshouse, and she'll have chosen domestic service because her other alternatives--either "slop work" (low-paying piecework in the garment trade) or prostitution--were so unappealing.

But her voice will be my own invention--and so far I'm having a great time inventing it. Margaret herself never existed, of course, but surely many people like her did. And maybe at last, after two centuries, some of them will be speaking through her-- or rather, through me. I guess I haven't exactly turned into E.P. Thompson, but I feel that I'm trying to do through the medium of fiction part of what he accomplished as a historian. And I like to think that he'd approve.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To Outline or Not to Outline

I'm at that juncture in writing a novel when I'd much rather write a blog post. (Some writers would probably point out that one is liable to meet with many such junctures in the course of writing a novel. They would be right.)

No doubt it would be better to resist this impulse and just force myself to stare at my computer for the time I'm now spending on this blog post, but I thought if I described where I'm at it might conceivably be of interest to others, writers and readers both. And it might even help me figure out what to do next with the novel.

Here's where I'm at: after several years of research and two abortive drafts of perhaps 50 pages each, I've now started another draft, and I have about 20 pages. I feel that I've finally figured out my focus in terms of voice and time span and characters, and I have a general sense of what's going to happen. The question is, do I now try to outline, in somewhat more detail, a plot?

I don't really know what most other writers do about this, but I suspect it varies. I've certainly heard writers say that they just start with a situation or a character and see where the writing takes them. I would guess that this is the more "literary" approach. But I did just browse through an article about plot in an issue of Writer's Digest that said something like, "It's a good idea to sketch out as much of the plot as possible in advance. I always like to know where I'm going. Don't you?"

Well, yes, actually. Generally speaking, I like to plan things ahead of time. In fact, this has been a point of contention for many years between my husband and myself. He's a big proponent of what he terms "spontaneity," particularly with regard to family vacations, and he thinks my insistence on having, say, hotel reservations and a general itinerary is micromanaging to the point of joylessness. Years ago I told him: fine, you can have one night of "spontaneity." This led to a situation where we arrived at a ramshackle, haunted-looking "bed and breakfast" in some godforsaken town in upstate New York, where we appeared to be the only guests, and where our kids (then about seven and ten) flatly refused to spend the night.

But that, of course, is beside the point. The point is that I do like to plan ahead in most areas of my life. Why not when I'm writing a novel?

Maybe because I'd like to think I'm too "literary" for that sort of thing--that my characters will come alive and simply take over, as writers are wont to claim their characters do. Unfortunately, my characters show that kind of initiative only rarely. Instead, what often happens is that I get to the end of a scene or a chapter and I have little or no idea what to do with them next. Eventually I think of something, but I can't help wondering if there isn't some better way to go about this.

With my first novel--which was in many ways a learning experience--after I thought I was done writing I ended up cutting about 200 pages, mostly from the beginning, on the advice of a publishing-industry professional who said the story started too slowly. With my second novel--also in many ways a learning experience--I was told by another publishing-industry professional, after I thought I was done, that I didn't have a plot. While I think that was something of an exaggeration, I did end up shoehorning another plot into the novel (no mean feat, let me tell you). Both of these changes made the novels better, but it would have been a lot easier if I'd been able to just write them that way the first time around.

The problem, of course, is that difficult as it is to write a novel without a plot outline, in some ways it's even more difficult to come up with the outline. An unfleshed-out plot can seem ridiculous and mechanical: first she does this, and then she does that, and then she realizes something else. It's enough to make you lose faith in your own endeavor. Plus, all that stuff that makes the plot (one hopes) seem less ridiculous--dialogue, nuance, perceptions--sometimes leads to an unexpected twist. Even if the characters don't exactly take over, on occasion you realize something as a result of having written a scene that causes you to rethink your plan: now that she's said or done X, she would never go on to do Y.

On the other hand, that's no reason not to try. There aren't any plot police roaming around who will force you to stick to your outline--just as, if you pass some intriguing and unanticipated roadside attraction on a family vacation, no one will actually prevent you from stopping. That doesn't mean you shouldn't make a hotel reservation for that evening. And if the roadside attraction is really intriguing, you can always change the reservation.

Actually, I've already done some planning. Earlier this week I banged out a seven- or eight-page summary of the plot. It was helpful, but at the same time discouraging. There's a lot I have to work out in terms of what happens when, and who does what to whom. And given that I'm working with some real people and real events, it can get pretty complicated.

So I just dug out an old artifact that I used to help me with my first novel, also based on the lives of historical figures: it's a huge roll of paper I bought when my kids were little, because I read in some catalogue it would be perfect for art projects calling for ... well, huge pieces of paper. My kids made a banner or two, but never used it much. Then, when I was writing A More Obedient Wife--a novel that was based on the lives of four real people and spanned a period of about eight years--I unrolled a length of it and turned it into a time line.

In that case, I ended up putting way too much information on it, but it was better than nothing. I'm hoping that this time I can be more disciplined. Now that I have a sense of what real events, and what people, are important to my story (which only covers about one year instead of eight), maybe I won't throw in everything but the kitchen sink. And I'm focusing on one historical figure rather than four.

Of course, I'll still be left with my other main character--a fictional one. What will I do about her? I'll save that for another blog post. After all, there's bound to be another point, soon, when I'd rather write a blog post than a novel.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Beauty of Xiaohe

The other day I traveled to Philadelphia to see an exhibition that the Washington Post has described as "one of the hottest tickets on the East Coast."

Hot it may be, but I have to admit that some of the artifacts I saw on display gave me the chills. The exhibit, which is at the Penn Museum, is called "Secrets of the Silk Road." And what's chilling about it is that it includes a number of extremely ancient things that really have no business being around anymore: textiles, foods like pastries and wontons, even a couple of amazingly well preserved dead bodies--all of them thousands of years old.

The main attraction is a mummy--one that was, unlike the deliberately embalmed Egyptian variety, naturally preserved by the dry climate of western China--that has been dubbed "the Beauty of Xiaohe," and that dates from between 1800 and 15oo B.C.E. Again, unlike Egyptian mummies, she isn't wrapped up in material that conceals her face and skin from view. She's wearing what was presumably the latest fashion in what we now call the Tarim Basin in about 1500 B.C. E--furry booties, a pointed felt hat, and (we're told) a "string skirt" under the blanket she's wrapped in.

She's basically just lying there, almost as though she's taking a 4000-year nap, albeit in a glass case. Her eyes are gone, but her eyelashes are still there, and quite lush. She has an adorable little pointed nose (as the Post points out, the kind of nose Michael Jackson spent his life pursuing) and prominent cheekbones (perhaps a bit more prominent now than when she was first buried), and an abundance of auburn hair that cascades around her shoulders. She is, or was, indeed a beauty, and it's hard to take your eyes off her. But to me there's something disturbing and frustrating about her as well, and about many of the other objects of daily life in the exhibit.

The Post review of the exhibit, which ran the day before I saw it, made an intriguing point about the "dichotomy between narrative history (which is obsessively interested in authority figures, emperors, kings, generals and the like) and the history of ordinary people (who strive for survival and, if they're lucky, dignity)." I'm primarily interested in the latter--that's what draws me to historical fiction, which allows you to get at lives that are otherwise opaque--and I looked forward to seeing an exhibit that focused on it. (The New York Times has also run a piece on the exhibit, which is surely the biggest thing to hit the Penn Museum in quite some time.)

But, as the Post article also pointed out, the fact is nobody really knows much about the people whose artifacts, and in a couple of cases bodies (there's also a mummified infant), are on display. In fact, it's all pretty confusing: a lot of different people apparently passed through this area, leaving traces of themselves behind, over the course of thousands of years. The signs accompanying the artifacts do the best they can with the little information available, but often they're reduced to simply describing the object you're looking at without giving you much in the way of context or background information. (Of course, sometimes the information wasn't all that obvious: apparently the tall wooden objects situated at the graves where the Beauty of Xiaohe was found were phallic symbols, for the graves of females, and vulvas, for the graves of men. To me they looked more like oars and wooden renditions of those primitive stone faces on Easter Island, but what do I know.)

As the Post writer observed, the challenge of this exhibit is to get us to care about people to whom we can attach no names and no stories--in contrast to an exhibit about, say, Thomas Jefferson, or even Cleopatra. I did want to care, but I have to admit it would have been easier had there been more of a "narrative" available--something the Post article dismisses as a "now-cliched crutch" in the context of museum exhibits.

Cliched or not, it's a crutch that seems to work, at least for me. Amazing as it is to see a 4000-year old woman, complete with eyelashes and hair, she doesn't really come alive, as it were, unless you know something of her story.

And I guess that's why the historical figures I write about--even the ones whose appearance remains a mystery to me--seem far more real to me than the Beauty of Xiaohe. I can always imagine what their eyelashes looked like, or their hair. But without some facts about their lives, and without the letters that have preserved their voices, I would never be able to imagine them.