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Four Literary Questions

Posted in Moments of Clarity, The Literateria with tags , , , , , , , on 12/29/2014 by Janet Fitch
This question was posed for me by a reader on my Goodreads page. For me, the best questions are the ones that make me think more deeply about the issues involved. This was a good one:
 “What makes a great story/book? There are so many writers out there, but only a few get any acclaim, and some of the best posthumously. It is a herd mentality that snowballs into popularity?”
The questioner is actually asking four separate questions here.
1. What makes a great story?
2. What makes a great book?
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim?
4. Is it a herd mentality that snowballs a book into popularity.
I answered them in order–but Number 2 is the one that interests me most.
1. A great story is one which satisfies the question it raises in the beginning. It can be a very subtle question, about love, say, or loyalty, or an obvious one, ‘who killed Colonel Mustard and why,’ and satisfies it in a way that was continually surprising, that’s both suspenseful–even oddly so–and pays off along the way in terms of its central question, as well as at the end. Story is setup and payoff. A novel is a series of payoffs. But there is alignment, it doesn’t jump the rails.
2. A great book is far more than a great story. A great book, and I mean greatness–a great book deepens our understanding of the human condition. A great book moves us, it shapes us. On the technical level, a great book will have us torn between the urge to read on–to satisfy suspense, what we call ‘profluence’ ie. what’s going to happen?????–and the urge to stay and reread that sentence because its so bloody beautiful, moment to moment. The exquisite tension between beautiful writing and compelling story is the greatest of all pleasures. And then to be continually thinking more and more deeply about life and our own humanity, add that in, and you have Greatness.
3. Why do only a few books get acclaim? Because out of the 400,000 or so books published in English this year, or the 100 million books in existence today, there are only going to be a certain number who meet the criterion of #2–greatness. Of these, so much depends upon a sensitive connection between publisher and public. That’s why real book critics are so terribly important and the loss of stand-alone book review sections in newspapers–and the loss of newspapers–across the country so imperils the whole literary project. Acclaim–real acclaim, recognition of greatness and the ability of great readers to find those books and acclaim them–is a very dicey prospect, luck plays all too big a part in it. There are a lot of writers but not a lot of greatness in any generation. It’s locating the greatness and then allowing that to reach the readers that’s always the issue. Why posthumous books often get more recognition is that the often horrible event of a writer’s death calls attention to their work, and if greatness is involved, there’s the huge regret that there will be no more of their work, and that somehow we readers might have been more attentive, might have somehow saved that writer.
4. The question of popularity and the question of acclaim are two very very different ones–hard to accept, maybe, in this time of ‘ranking likes’ instead of ranking greatness. We all like a bag of Doritos from time to time, but we all know the difference between chemically treated snack food and a fine and nourishing meal. Popularity means that various aspects of reading matter, a story, a self-help or whatever, meet people’s needs in a satisfying way. They might not be literary needs–see #2–and often aren’t. They might be the need to escape some heavy-duty personal problems for a while. They might be the need to tag along on an adventure. They might be a way to vicariously live a dream life. If they perform their function successfully, people talk about it, and then their friends hear about it.
It’s not so much ‘herd mentality’ as it is the contagious excitement of something people have found entertaining, useful, pleasant, interesting or meaningful in some way–and it can be excitement of a literary nature too. Fine writers can be exceedingly popular–Tolstoy was very popular in his time, as was Dickens and Twain. In our time, we have John Irving, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, George Saunders, John Le Carre, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Russo, Jonathan Lethem, TC Boyle, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison. Naturally, that’s the sweet spot. To strive for greatness, to tell a great story, to have some acclaim and some popularity–what more can writer hope for?

Festival Notes–Part III: LA Times Festival Of Books

Posted in The Literateria with tags , , , on 05/23/2010 by Janet Fitch

My favorite event of the year. Two days of panels, readings, chance meetings, booths and books, more books, MORE BOOKS!!

I started attending the Festival of Books years ago, before I had ever published a book. Loving/hating the writers who had entered the golden circle. Searching for inspiration, for tips, for clues. Buying books and reveling in the moment a favorite author sat before me, pen in hand. “What’s your name?” uhhh… what was it? I swear I knew it a few moments ago…

Later, I began being invited myself. What a thrill, to be a writer with a nametag propped before me, a mike. People caring what I thought. Bizarre, but wonderful.

There were years I was involved in two or three panels. There was the year I moderated a panel three days after my father died, contacting everyone on the panel–Chris Abani, Steve Erickson, Michelle Huneven and Jim Krusoe–to clue them in. They basically interviewed themselves, but it sticks in my mind, that generosity, and the way literature has become a home for me, a refuge. It was where I wanted to be.

There have also been years I couldn’t bear to come at all. I didn’t want to see all these writers who had finished their books. So happy, so lucky, so blessed. I stayed home and moped and pretended it wasn’t happening, like a girl avoiding an ex-boyfriend’s wedding.

This year, I was feeling good. New book bubbling along… no panel of my own, no moderating duties, just a fan. A beautiful day, cool and bright, and hundreds of possibilities. Do I support friends? See writers I’d never heard of ? Sit and listen to poetry all day? Visit the booths of favorite bookstores, literary journals, MFA programs, cool small publishers? Or just slip into the green room and catch my heroes before their panels. Decisions, decisions.

Most of all, I go looking for a new idea. Something that will change my life, or at least make me want to run home and start writing.

Day One started with a bit of green-room breakfast with Stephen Elliott (The Rumpus blog, The Adderall Diaries) and his friend Keith Knight (, KChronicles) a great way to start the fest. Stephen’s always good for a new idea. I try to catch up with him when he alights for a moment–he tours like a monarch butterfly, a very cool tour where, if you get your friends together, he’ll come and do a reading in your living room, sell books to the attendees, sleep on your couch and then on to the next reading. A great low-tech innovation.

The first panel was the brilliant Michelle Huneven’s (Blame). Moderated by Patrick Brown –he’s working for Goodreads now (check out my bookpage if you’re up for it, he did events for Vroman’s Bookstore for years.

Aside from Huneven, got to see Phillipp Meyer and his eyebrows again (American Rust), Australian writer Christos Tsiolkas, (The Slap) and Joanna Smith Rakoff (A Fortunate Age).

A great panel, though Tsiolkas accidentally derailed it, asking the other panelists how much do Americans think about the war. An interesting question if you’re at a dinner party, but on a panel, it’s one of those left-field moments beyond which there is no return…

But the takeaway moment was also Tsiolkas, talking about our generation’s selfishness, and including himself in the observation. He mentioned how he’d been to San Francisco 20 years ago, where he was shocked at the homelessness. Recently he went back and asked “what happened to the homeless problem?” His friend just gestured all around him.

It hadn’t changed, his eye had just grown inured to it.

That really sank in for me. How we live like were camped out here. Why is that? Like we’re still children: “look what a mess the big people made of all this. What are we supposed to do but try to live in the ruins?” Or maybe this is just sophistication, a cynicism that’s a symptom of helplessness.

Meyer made a very interesting point about fiction that shows too much it’s political persuasions. That we shouldn’t know how the writer votes. I’m behind that to a point–if you have a character you disagree with, you shouldn’t make him stupid, you should really let him make sense before you show what the fallout of those beliefs is. But people generally can guess.


The second panel was a remarkable one on the Short Story, Mark Rosso moderating (he used to do the “First Fiction” column in the Times). Panelists: short-story writers Antonya Nelson (Nothing Right), Marisa Silver (Alone with You), and Ron Carlson, (Ron Carlson Writes a Story, he also runs the MFA program at UC Irvine.) Very exited about this panel, I’ve read all their work. Just finished Alone with You–jawdropping subtle and amazing.

So what is a short story? As someone who struggles in the shorter form, I’m super interested in this.

Someone quoted Poe as saying a short story is a work of fiction that can be read in one sitting.

“The short story should have a single effect,” Nelson said. “It’s the lyric moment, rather than narrative moment.”

They talked about the pie chart of a story. A serial killer threatening a town, that’s a novel. And the novel will be 10% the serial killer and 90% everything else. But a short story is an image of a woman looking in the window and seeing that her hair is on fire.

Someone quoted TC Boyle as saying that the short story is all improvisation. “The novel is a Walmart, you cut down all the trees and then you build this enormous building, while the short story scampers across the lawn and squeezes under the fence.”

Marisa Silver: So much of a short story is what you don’t say, what you leave unsaid.
Antonia Nelson: I’m writing in response to what I’ve read.
MS: I want to read the thing that drives me to my computer. [Me too.]
MS: When the author knows what they’re doing, there’s a flatfootedness to it, so the reader sees it all ahead of time. There’s no surprise.

A very fine question asked by Rosso: “With all this talk about attention deficit disorder and people’s lack of time, why isn’t this the era of the short story?”

“Short stories are depressing,” says Antonya Nelson, who teaches at the University of Houston. “With a novel, if the community breaks apart, it comes back together. There’s a restored order and community at the end. Where a short story accommodates the individual, and the individual does perish. It’s about the end of something.”

“It’s a dark bliss,” said Ron Carlson, pointing out Joyce’s ‘The Dead”, and “Araby.” For him, the stories that inspire are those of George Saunders and Sargent’s “The Edge.” For Marisa Silver, it’s William Trevor’s “Widows.” “It’s about learning to read like a writer and pull craft from the writing, close reading…”

Again, about how the story is shaped… (and Ron’s book is all about that). RC: You have to be a savage to write a story and not know [how things will turn out].

AN: I interrogate the first draft. Can I make it happen in 1 hour instead of 3? If it starts in the light does it end in the dark? It’s revising a dream that can be more interestingly told.
If you read Chekhov’s stories–often they just stop and you look to see the next page and that was it. Then you go back to see you were watching the wrong part of the story.

MS: A short story never resolves anything. Look at Deborah Eisenberg. The resolution isn’t want matters. It’s everything that leads up to it. Resolution is not the shape of life.


More free feeding in the green room was followed by the James Ellroy Show–for me always a highlight of the Book Festival.

Ellroy’s never on a panel with other writers. He’s like a dog that has to be walked separately or he’ll bite all the other dogs. This year, a surprisingly kinder and gentler Ellroy emerged, however. His hero Joseph Wambaugh lead the conversation.

I love people who commit poetry to memory. It’s clear Ellroy has a photographic memory, as well as the taste for it, quoting everyone from Houseman (“Shropshire Lad”–the source of the title of his new book, Blood’s A Rover), Sexton (“Her Kind”) and Dylan Thomas (“My Sullen Art”). Always fun to see this self-baptized ‘demon dog’ of Noir in person, and he’s so damned quotable.

All writing is very conscious to Ellroy–he writes 300 page outlines before he writes his books. “What is not bought to consciousness comes to consciousness as Fate,” he says, quoting Jung.

“Characters don’t speak to you. You write up to where you are and then you make conscious dramatic choices.”

Asked about the origin of the telegraphic, short-sentence, alliterative style: “To shorten White Jazz, I went back and took out all the verbs.” Necessity, in other words, continues to mother Invention.

When asked about movies made from his books: “Money is the gift no one ever gives back. Green is always flattering and large always fits.”

And about his ‘process’: “What I have that other writers don’t have is the ability to sustain concentration.”

You can say that again.

Afterwards, to the booth of the Santa Monica Review, where editor Andrew Tonkevich and writer Lisa Alvarez were sunning and visiting with writer Monona Wali… I know Andrew and Lisa from Squaw Valley Community of Writers… When people have seen you in your underwear swimming in a mountain lake, you become friends for life. Check out Andrew’s radio show, Bibliocracy on KPFK.

Day Two, Sunday, I got there early, for the coolest panel–the “outsider” panel, with Tod Goldberg (Other Resort Cities) one of the funniest guys in LA, moderating, and Tony DuShane, down from San Francisco (check out his fantastic Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk), Rob Roberge (new short story collection coming out in the fall, Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life I got a sneak preview of this, amazing.), Mark Haskell Smith (love his titles Moist ,Salty, the new one is Baked ), and Joshua Braff (Peep Show, about porn and Chasids–can’t wait!)

There was great rapport on this panel. Roberge, Goldberg, and Haskell Smith all teach at UC Riverside/Palm Desert low Residency MFA. Everyone was funny as hell.

Most of my takeaway quotes were from Roberge… I want to sign up for his classes.

To the question about short story versus novel, he said he preferred short story, for the compression and nonlinearity.

“I believe in putting characters in a situation of emotional vulnerability… I give a character two choices, neither of them good.”

“Endings are hardest but best. I don’t like writing that comes to conclusions. Fiction is not an argumentative form. It raises questions not answers. It’s done when it’s addressed all the questions that it has raised. Fiction is about raising the complexity of life instead of reducing it to a phrase.” WOW. Repeat that, man, early and often.

He quoted Donald Westlake: “A story or novel is done with the reader could write the next page.” That’s the best rule of thumb I ever heard.

Question: What’s the book you turn to when you’re stuck?

“I read new stuff all the time, but break down the books I love, break them down scene by scene, Lorrie Moore, Jesus’ Son, Early Yates, Gatsby. Notice how a writer gets in and out of a scene. I’m with Gordon Lish, I’m against ‘reducing it to meaning.’ “

“Fiction is about the beautiful and tragic gap between who we’d like to be and who we really are.”

AH. This is why I come to the book festival. Right there.


Next came a non-fiction panel. Two friends, Stephen Elliott (The Adderall Diaries–personal an sexual borderlands) and Pico Iyer (The Open Road, his Dalai Lama book.–cultural and social borderlands) were on it–can’t imagine two more different people, and yet, in a strange way, similar–can’t imagine two more sincere, thoughtful men. Their co-panelists were two journalists I didn’t know, Melissa Milgrom (Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy) and Daniel Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession) (Fiction rarely has subtitles…)

The takeaway here was Grann’s. Talking about a story he’d done on the Giant Squid: “The things I write about are things I know nothing about and want to know about. Curiosity drives me. But just when you have it, it slips away… the search for the giant squid–but much like anything else in life, any obsessive hunt… The writer is someone who passes on a gusto and enthusiasm for an inquiry.”

There’s something I can put on my computer.

And Pico Iyer is always memorable. He told a story about being with the Dalai Lama when a group of travelers from Tibet arrived. They had come over the Himalayas, eight days on foot, for an audience –about thirty of them, men, women and children, ragged, hungry, and exhausted. The Dalai Lama takes audiences every day, with heads of state, all kinds of people, but said that these particular audiences are the hardest. These people, who take such risks to see him. The burden of all those hopes. He was different with them than other visitors, because they expect something tremendous from him, their 14th reincarnated Lama. How that must feel. They don’t even look at him, but only at their feet. One man just sobbed throughout the whole thing. I can’t even imagine how exhausting it must be, the weight of that kind of expectation, the responsibility for those lives, to be a mere mortal before that longing, those demands, the faith in your divinity. The story has stayed with me ever since. Can’t wait to read this book.


The third panel was all Brilliant Women: Jane Smiley (Private Life) , Maile Meloy (Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It), Marianne Wiggins (The Shadow Catcher), Mona Simpson (a new book, My Hollywood, due out this summer), moderated by Susan Straight (a new book, Take One Candle Light a Room, out in October). Wiggins teaches at USC, Simpson at UCLA, Straight at UC Riverside.

The takeaway quotes centered around voice and plot. First, voice:
Meloy: I wanted to write a story for Playboy with a male protagonist, a story about a carpenter. (“Lovely Rita”) I tried him old, I tried him young…. Finding the voice is like getting the car in gear. A close 3rd person voice is a register and a vocabulary the first person character can’t access.

Simpson: “You can’t get it until you get the voice. Voice is the heart of the character, it’s their soul. Which words do they use and which words don’t they use, that’s them in the deepest way.”

Smiley: “I started writing [Private Life] in first person but found the character too reticent to tell the story in the first. The husband’s voice was overwhelming the story.” Style is necessity.

Wiggins made a distinction between between character voices and the voice of the novel, very interesting. With her fiction, it’s the power of the long lyrical sentence, that makes it go– the voice of the novel, beyond the voice of any particular character.

The talk turned to plot, always my weak spot, so I’m taking notes:

Simpson: “If a social novel is deep enough, it’s a political novel.” Lightbulb.

She was never was that interested in plot in her early work, she said, but “you get older, plot happens. You’ve had more experiences, you start being more interested in event.” In other words, you don’t have to spin a book out of thin air. “More is revealed when characters are in motion.”

Smiley: “The question of this novel was, could I make the life of an ordinary woman a tragedy, could it be done? Plot is the puzzle part of the novel. If the reader feels satisfied at the end of the novel, the plot has succeeded.”

“The setup is the first 10% of the book, the rest is how the characters do things they never intended to do.”

In answer to a question of working process, the writers had this to say:

Meloy: Writes and puts away. “Time is the best editor.”
Wiggins: Knows the end from the start.
Straight: “I already have the last 10 pages written. “
Likes to do hard physical labor to clear out her head.
Smiley: “You get used to shifting back and forth between 2 stories, 2 novels. I don’t take breaks between books. I need that money. I admire very productive writers, Zola and Trollope.”

The best moment, though, was when Smiley mentioned she had auctioned off a place as a character in a novel for a horse charity she’s involved in, using the recipients name and his choice of his character’s occupation, and Marianne Wiggins was dumbstruck. Smiley insisted it was not only fun but that the character became a major character in the book. “I should have charged more for a major character.”


The last panel was the experimentalists–Nina Revoyr (The Age of Dreaming), Steve Erickson (Zeroville, also the head of the writing program at Cal Arts), and Mark Danielewski (Only Revolutions), moderated by the critic, Laura Miller. I was especially interested in Danielewski’s thoughts on his journeys into the possibilities of form:

MD– As you pull into text experimentation, literally ‘going outside the margins,’ you have to ask yourself, is this worth doing? You have to be even more disciplined about breaking the form, truer to the story. You have to ask yourself if it’s “justified”. [A typesetting joke– justified text vs. flush left or centered or right.]

Two days, plus encounters with dozens of friends and colleagues, a couple of parties, fifteen new books, new authors, new ideas… I slept twelve hours and feel like a kid with my yearly stash of candy.

May all your book festivals be merry and your head resident with new ideas.