Saturday, March 1, 2014

Set aside Lightly

The imaginative and volatile writer, Dorothy Parker, once wrote a scathing review of a book in which she said, "This is not a book to be set aside  lightly.  It should be thrown across the room with great force."

The set-aside-lightly test comes into play in every book you read and, quite to the point, to the books and stories you write.  This test allows readers to walk away from a misadventure.  It also allows you to back off for perspective.

The perspective defines itself.  Continue reading or stop right here?  If you happen to be at the writing end, the perspective asks of you "Why is nothing happening here?  Why is there no engagement or related sense of connection?  

If you focus long enough, the answer will come to you with your own material.  If nothing seems to be happening in something you're reading, you can peek ahead to see if you can find a place where the story has returned.  But this has a caveat:  If you don't find something quite soon, adios.  Spanish for set aside.

Some of your favored tellers of stories are those who present characters you are not able to set aside.  As a reader, writer, editor, book reviewer, and teacher, you find yourself trying in various ways to articulate the reasons why you are so drawn to the writers you admire and, by extension of that admiration, find their characters so compelling.

You play about with words such as vulnerability, which to you means an ability to be hurt or blindsided in some way.  If a character is vulnerable, she may not only not achieve the goal that got her into the story in the first place, she may suffer disappointment, humiliation, or loss of status, one particular aspect of status being freedom or independence.  

Because of a current close involvement with Henry James's 1881 novel, Portrait of a Lady, you are able to track the vulnerability of its protagonist, Isabel Archer, on your own terms, you are also able to measure the fact of your students, all in their twenties, concerned with her welfare.  Since the context of your class is a reading-for-writers atmosphere in which the students are required to write, not about Isabel Archer but their own characters, you are curious to see why they care, then put their concerns alongside yours.

A major concern is the sense of independence real persons and characters seem to strive for, an independence to pursue personal interests however trivial they might seem to others.

You also notice your continued engrossment in narratives where protagonists have difficult choices to make, where there are risks and the consequences of failure.  One of the most difficult times for you, with the possible exception of your middle school years, was the five or so years roughly between twenty-five and thirty, where felt the oppressed and disengaged sense of being at a complete distance from any connection to the things you wished to be doing.  The only pole stars in your heavens were two novels, learning experiences, the first of which was written entirely with a desk pen from a failed construction company, written on stationery from that company.The title and more or less theme came from a popular song with wide currency during your extreme youth, "The Object of My Affection."  The other was a novel set in Mexico, from the days when you lived over a fireworks factory, and were awakened every morning by a man attempting to play the Gilbert and Sullivan song, "A Wandering Minstrel, I" on a sour coronet.

Neither of these novels were bad in terms of their story or reach, but there were moments in each where they could be set aside while explanations were trotted out and displayed.  The novel set in Mexico got you a literary agent who got a publisher to read it all the way through, asking you to consider some changes that caused you to understand how you didn't know the material as well as you thought.

There you were, in a situation you'd meet again, face to face, in the kitchen of the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, when you happened upon the novelist Thomas Sanchez, explaining in resonant self-pity to a young woman how, his fine novel, Rabbit Boss to the contrary notwithstanding, he was a failed novelist.  Your situation then was being in a place where you'd not even failed yet.  You hadn't yet grown to the point of an articulate dream you could utter.

That night in Rexroth's kitchen, you were all right.  You'd been through the failure and moved beyond it, were in fact on your way to another failure and the need to make a choice.  In a matter of weeks, you'd become the editor in chief of a publishing venture you were already finding ways to set aside.  You'd think you were getting a bit tipsy at lunch with an editor pal who ordered yet another bottle of wine before taking you in to the Century City office of his boss, introducing the two of you, then leaving you, tipsy and bewildered while his boss said you ought to consider becoming his editor in chief and moving back to New York.

Books set aside.  Projects set aside.  Choices set aside.  

There you were, some time later, in New York, getting out of a taxi on Sixth Avenue, being hailed by the man who'd offered you the job earlier.  "Can't stay out of New York, can you?"  he called.  You smiled. The joke was, you were about to interview with a man who was a publishing legend.  In the interview, you were quickly aware you did not have chemistry, did not like one another.  "Why in hell should I hire you?"  he asked.  With a blaze of speed, you saw yourself a few years hence, his editor in chief, which was not what you wished to be at all. You wished for California.  For trees with oranges and tangerines.  For brown, splotchy hills, jade-colored oceans, and for sun, as far as you could see.  You wished for ghost towns and adobe ruins and vast expanses of desert playa where once there had been ocean. "Why the fuck wouldn't you?"  was your response.

To this day, there have been times when you have set yourself aside, but there were also times when you picked yourself back up to read the editorial notes in order to begin the revision.

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