Chabon and King

Status report: Today I finished the story I needed to send out, and sent it out. So that’s done. I received comments from my second reader on the introduction, and you know what? They’re not heavy at all. I’ll start revising the introduction tomorrow. I doubt the comments on the chapters will be heavy either. I think I can do this, get the whole thing put together by the 6th. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that.

A long time ago, a friend of mine recommended that I read Michael Chabon, and I’ve been meaning to. But I’ve been so immersed in the dissertation that I haven’t been able to read fiction. For me, reading means going deep, becoming completely immersed in a book. And since I’ve been immersed in the dissertation instead, since I’ve gone deep there, I haven’t been able to do that. It’s difficult to explain, but I haven’t had the focus, the concentration, that I usually do. Which is difficult for me, to spend a long period of time not being able to read the way I’m used to reading.

Instead, I’ve been reading Chabon’s essay collection Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands. At same time, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. The funny thing is, Chabon is clearly the better writer. I don’t particularly like King’s writing. And yet, as an essayist, King has a quality that Chabon doesn’t always have: likeability. I never thought likeability would be important, in a writer. And maybe part of me thinks it shouldn’t be? I mean, when I read Hemingway or Fitzgerald, I don’t particularly care whether or not they’re likeable. So perhaps it only matters in essays?

But I found myself, at the ends of both books, liking King very much even though when he included examples of his own writing to demonstrate his principles, I didn’t think they were particularly good. But I liked him as a person, and the final section of his book, which describes the automobile accident that seriously injured him, was wrenching. And I found myself having moments when I wanted to say to Chabon, get over yourself already. Stop falling in love with your own prose, because it’s not actually much fun for the reader. I’ll give you an example of what I mean, from an essay called “The Recipe for Life.” I’m giving you this example because in my book, there’s a green sticky marking it: that’s where I stopped reading and went on to another essay I liked better. Here’s what I stopped on:

“Since reading ‘The Idea of the Golem,’ I have come to see this fear, this sense of my own imperilment by my creations, as not only an inevitable, necessary part of writing fiction but a virtual guarantor, insofar as such as thing is possible, of the power of my work: as a sign that I am on the right track, that I am following the recipe correctly, speaking the proper spells. Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed. Telling the truth when the truth matters most is almost always a frightening prospect. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves; if she doesn’t court disapproval, reproach, and general wrath, whether of friends, family, or party apparatchiks; if the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.”

The problem is, I agree with this completely, and parts of it are terrific although they’re embedded in parts that are not.  Yet I keep thinking: Dude, just write. Is it the fear of expressing this particular sentiment that makes you write as though you were constructing a legal brief? Do all those words protect you? Is it easiest said with generalizations? And what’s with the semicolons?

Here is King saying something similar:

“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society, but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be the second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

That packs a punch the Chabon passage doesn’t have. And yet, there are places where I love the intellectual games Chabon plays, and I suspect that I would like his novels much better. I read Pet Sematary as a teenager and never read another King novel, mostly because I’m a coward. And yet. Friends have assured me that his short stories are very good.

It’s interesting to read writers side by side like this, particularly since both of them are writing about writing. If I had more time tonight, I would include some passages that struck me in King, but I’ll do that tomorrow. They’re marked with blue stickies.

Do you know what I miss? Having someone to talk to about writing technique at a high level. But until I can reconnect with writer friends again, I suppose this will have to do.

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4 Responses to Chabon and King

  1. Margaret Fisher Squires says:

    Chabon and King write of the importance of writing truth. I resonate with the idea of conveying important truth in fiction and/or poetry.

    Among my aspirations as a writer, I discover a more lowly note. Imagine a reader who happens to have contracted a 24-hour stomach bug. She really, really wants something entertaining to read, and she really, really doesn’t want it to be full of either gore or angst. If I could write a story that would provide such a soothing distraction, I believe I would be content.

    If nothing else, I would have paid my debt to P. G. Wodehouse and Georgette Heyer!

  2. While you’re waiting to connect to about technique at a high level, enjoy a few entertaining quotes about visionaries (one is mine) –

    “Not even the visionary or mystical experience ever lasts very long. It is for art to capture that experience, to offer it to, in the case of literature, its readers; to be, for a secular, materialist culture, some sort of replacement for what the love of god offers in the world of faith.” -Salman Rushdie-

    “I was a peripheral visionary. I could see the future, but only way off to the side”. -Steven Wright-

    “(•ªº“¥©∂∑´ƒå∑¨øπ“) I just discovered the alt option on the keyboard. Im a stumble upon visionary who sometimes trips into the right place.” -Ms-

  3. I have a very similar reaction to Chabon’s essays. I just finished reading Manhood for Amateurs, and although a lot of what he wrote about resonates with me as a father, a son, and a man, and it’s also nicely written, it’s also a bit too aware of itself. Like the quote you give above, there’s a lot of verbal fireworks, and while I can admire the facility with language, I also think, “Dude, just get on with it.”

    I’ve had Maps and Legends on my shelf for years, but still haven’t broken open the shrink-wrap. Chabon is coming here in October for the Singapore Writers Festival, and I may try to get it signed at that point.

    As for King’s On Writing, it’s probably one of my favorite books about writing, evar. I’ve always admired the seemingly simple way that he phrases things, and there’s lots of great advice given there. Only Delany’s About Writing comes close (and it comes very very close indeed).

  4. I need to read Delaney’s About Writing. Yet another book on my to-read list!

    Margaret, I understand exactly what you mean. There are times when all I want is an Agatha Christie, and honestly, as a writer I would like to function in that way for people. I want reading my stuff to be a pleasure, even a relief from the world.

    And I love the idea of a stumble-upon visionary . . .

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