Monday, August 30, 2010

La agonía del cuento

El cuento está muerto. El cuento ha pedido la extremaunción. El cuento agoniza. Un espectro persigue a la industria editorial: el espectro del cuento. El cuento no vende. Con los libros de cuentos, se pierden el tiempo del autor y los recursos de la editorial. Publicar cuentos es una mala idea.

Etcétera.

Argumentos como estos resuenan todos los días. Una de las colecciones más ambiciosas de cuentos en español publicadas recientemente, los cuatro volúmenes de Pequeñas resistencias, recoge muchos testimonios de esta situación crítica. Por ejemplo, en el primer volumen, el escritor Felipe Navarro dice que “sólo somos los cuentistas quienes nos leemos unos a otros” (p. 412). Casi todos los editores de los distintos volúmenes repitieron ideas semejantes: a los cuentistas les dan la espalda en las editoriales, es difícil que un cuentista profesional se mantenga. De hecho, Pequeñas resistencias empezó como un proyecto en defensa del cuento, con todo y manifiesto.

Puede que las visiones pesimistas tengan razón. La pregunta que debemos hacernos entonces es por qué el cuento no vende, por qué sufre una fría recepción en las editoriales, por qué tanta gente lo evita a la hora de comprar un libro. Los dedos casi siempre apuntan hacia los editores insensibles o el público insensato. Pero, al ver la gran mayoría de los cuentos que se publican hoy día, los principales culpables son los autores mismos.

Los buenos cuentos venden. Los buenos cuentos atrapan a los lectores. ¿Por qué Cortázar sigue vendiendo y los seguidores de sus cuentos parecen exceder en número a los de Rayuela? Porque los de Cortázar son cuentos bien construidos, bien pensados, bien narrados.

Claro, la situación no es tan fácil como la he hecho parecer: ¿qué es un buen cuento? ¿Qué es un cuento atractivo para editores y lectores? No me atrevería a ofrecer respuestas concretas. Pero, como dice Noah Lukeman, hay trampas en las que usualmente caen los escritos débiles, y debemos evitar esas fallas como si fueran una plaga de mangostas.

Quizás lo primero es la trama. La longevidad de ciertos textos, y la popularidad de otros, tienden a demostrar que los lectores buscan historias fuertes, historias que los desvelen y que los obliguen a contárselas a otros. También está el lenguaje. Las oraciones fallan por tantas razones, y solemos encontrar ejemplos abundantes de estas falencias cuando nos paseamos por una antología de cuentos. Corregir con ímpetu esos dos aspectos por lo menos rescata a los cuentos de los errores más flagrantes que los apartan de lectores y editores.

No ayuda la ausencia de una industria del cuento robusta en español que obligue a los autores a depurar y depurar sus cuentos con el propósito de llegar primero a una revista literaria y, mucho después, a una antología. Muchos de los cuentos publicados que leemos en español tienden a nacer primero dentro de una antología personal del autor. Eso nos priva como lectores de la sana competencia que fomentan las revistas. Esa competencia tiende a producir las adaptaciones que son vitales para alcanzar a públicos más amplios y también más exigentes.

Ahí está la idea que propongo, entonces: en el mercado para los cuentos en español abundan textos que necesitan reposar más, que necesitan más revisiones, que necesitan entenderse mejor con los lectores. Es por eso que el cuento no se abre más campo en las editoriales. En las próximas dos semanas, haré comentarios de seis antologías (incluidas las cuatro de Pequeñas resistencias). Espero que, al terminar, se justifique la osadía que tuve al culpar a los cuentistas por la anemia que experimentan los cuentos en el mundo editorial. Ya me he referido en el blog a otros libros de cuentos, que sirven como sustento adicional para estas ideas.

Aquí habrá hipervínculos a todas las antologías a las que me referiré, que son estas: Pequeñas resistencias (uno, dos, tres, cuatro), Los centroamericanos y Se habla español.

La revista HermanoCerdo publicó la serie entera en siete entregas, que culminaron con un ebook, sobre el cual hablaré en una entrada posterior. Las entregas de HC están aquí: uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Left Behind

In this allegedly secular age of ours, where the fantasy genre begets bestselling novels on vampires, zombies, wizards, and their ilk, how likely would it be to produce a massive bestseller on a strictly Christian subject? Say you’re a literary agent and someone sends a query letter about a book on the end of days: Christians around the world vanish, and nonbelievers are left to rummage through the chaos. Well, if you turned it down back in the early nineties, your gums would be numb now from biting your elbows. Because that’s the novel Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins wrote as Left Behind (Wheaton, Illinois, 1995; 468 pp.), and the series that novel spawned had sold 40,000,000 copies by 2001. No, that’s not a typo (it’s up to 63 million now). I’ve said that this year I’ll write about bestselling novels, so here’s another one.

The story follows Rayford Steele, an airplane pilot, and Cameron (“Buck”) Williams, a prestigious journalist, as each of them deals with the consequences of the Rapture. Steele knows what really happened: his wife and child disappeared, and his wife had been preaching about the Rapture for years, while he remained deaf to her words and inimical to her invitations to church. Steele drifts to the church his wife attended, and embraces the spirituality and teachings he finds there. In fact, the pastor had recorded a video with instructions for those who would be left behind. (Very few members of the congregation were left behind, but a couple of them were, and they run the church.) In contrast, Buck Williams has no clue as to what happened and is caught up in political intrigues and a media flurry around the rising figure of one Nicolae Carpathia (we presume he’ll be the Antichrist).

Especially at the beginning, the plot is wrapped around the central message of the novel like cellophane: you can see the preaching distinctly through the storyline and the descriptions. This may deter some people. If you don’t have at the very least an agnostic stance on Christianity, you may find the whole work unpalatable. You may find yourself intoning the words the skeptical Chloe, Rayford Steele’s daughter, says when her father asks about the pastor’s video on the Rapture: “It made a lot of sense if you buy into all that. I mean, you have to start with that as a foundation. Then it all works neatly. But if you’re not sure about God and the Bible and sin and heaven and hell, then you’re still wondering what happened and why” (229-230).

In fact, the novel constantly plays with its own believability: people find the events of the Rapture so incredible that they remark that were they not caught up in them they would look upon these events with disbelief. That’s a hint to us, by the way. Sometimes the hint becomes more acutely self-reflexive: “If somebody tried to sell a screenplay about millions of people disappearing, leaving everything but their bodies behind, it would be laughed off” (110). (The series of novels eventually became a series of movies.) Later, a character notes that it “already seemed as if he were living in a science fiction thriller” (395).

Believable or not, the story does take a while to lift off. It is caught in too many digressions. For at least the first hundred pages, the narrative present serves as a coat hanger on which flashback after flashback is draped. I kept whispering to the story to get on with it, since we could pick up the necessary information along the way. The story does gather momentum, but the fondness for flashbacks continues to the end.

The language of the novel is often careless, in many different ways. Let me show some of them. Repetitions, for one, sometimes at close quarters, sometimes with more distance between them. Notice this shoddy repetition of head: “he was protected by security systems as complex as those that protected heads of state. As heady as Israel became with newfound glory […]” (9). Or this phrase that comes up twice, even if a few pages apart, to describe the same situation: “he had no emotional attraction whatever to Hattie just now” (49); “There was no affection in his embrace of Hattie Durham just now” (53). Something similar occurs with this simile, which is used 60 pages apart but it applies to the same character: “His head felt like lead” (400); “Buck’s body felt like lead” (460). All of these are word territory violations, clearly.

Sometimes it’s a matter of sound. Take note of these alliterations gone wild and cacophonic: “Buck was struck that Carpathia carried no notebook” (241). It’s so packed that it looks like I made it up, but I didn’t. At times, the authors dig deep into the trove of clichés. The lead comparison I quoted earlier is not particularly fresh, and notice this sentence: “Rayford Steele was nearly beside himself with worry, compounded by his grief” (154). This says little that our senses could connect with, and opts to compound abstractions.

This love for abstractions is typical of the narrative. The authors love to preface a scene or a line of dialogue with the emotions that we are about to witness, or even with the thing itself. As Chloe is about to tell Buck something, this comes before the actual dialogue: “And she told him her story” (402); then we hear the story. The narrator announces that a character is frustrated, or angry, or upset, before the character broaches those feelings on the page, through actions or words.

Aside from the questionable narrative effect of that, it is also a matter of excess, of debris not properly swept away. In fiction, every word counts. Or it should. Note how this sentence could be easily trimmed: “When Buck got off the phone, he saw the young woman at the counter flagging him down” (94). If she flagged him down, it’s because it worked, so he saw her. And flagging could become the more compact flagged. Therefore: “When Buck got off the phone, the young woman at the counter flagged him down.” The rest is clutter. Bloated sentences like this one abound in the novel, in fact.

After that rant on craft, to be fair, the authors do handle well one type of craft problem. When writing fiction, it’s often tricky to build the right bridges from one scene to another, or to strike the right balance between narrative summary and scenes. In Left Behind, the authors dash from one scene to the other without losing our attention or focus. Notice how offhandedly it is done in this example. Chloe is speaking: “‘it sounds like things are going to get worse.’ / Late in the afternoon, they dropped in on Bruce, who confirmed Chloe’s view” (418). One paragraph break is all it takes to get us from one dialogue to another, skipping ahead several hours and diving into a different setting.

So you’d think that, with all its flaws, I’d be a declared enemy of the novel. Well, not really. In fact, the story developed some speed toward the end, and the final scene was gripping. As I’ve said about other bestsellers, the plot is paramount, even if we literary types love to pick at the style. And the plot here is good enough. In fact, I’ve already ordered the second installment in the series: Tribulation Force. It’s a corny title, but, again, what truly matters here is a solid story. And can you think of something more apocalyptic and dire than the apocalypse? Endnote: Some people have criticized the excessive violence of the series. It’s not that salient in the first volume, but I can see how we are being groomed into a gory anticipation of the greatest, bloodiest war of all. And that’s probably not a very healthy thing. We’ll see how the series progresses.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb, Your First Novel

Your First Novel (Cincinnati, 2006; 298 pp.) is actually two books in one. The first is written by Laura Whitcomb, a novelist, and it covers the whole range from inspiration to craft and revisions. It does go through everything that’s important, even if briefly. But, in contrast to other books on craft (most notably, Gardner’s), the first half of Your First Novel is written with even the most inexperienced of authors in mind. This means that Whitcomb reaches down, with a Sistine strain, to people who are completely new to writing.

This is great if that describes you. You’ll get the kind of buffet you need to survey the field. (Even then, something like Writing Fiction will serve as a day-to-day guide you’ll want to keep handy.) Plus, in Whitcomb’s section, you’ll find some positive advice on inspiration, and several reading suggestions. However, if you’re more familiar with writing, and particularly with literature on craft, you may find little more than scattered bits to knead into what you’ve already picked up elsewhere. Just don’t expect groundbreaking discussions. That’s not what the first half of this book is about.

Don’t lose heart, though, because then comes book two, Ann Rittenberg’s half, which offers an insider’s view of the book industry. Rittenberg is a seasoned agent, who starts by describing an agent’s job (networking, matchmaking, etc.) and moves all the way through how to plan for a writing career after publication. An agent’s role and the agent-writer relationship are paramount in this part of Your First Novel.

Betsy Lerner’s book comes to mind, but Rittenberg explores even more niches of the book world and lays bare some of the crucial choices authors must make. For instance, we’re told how a book auction works (250-253), what a one-day laydown is (281), and how many books you must expect to sell in order to earn royalties beyond your advance (259). You’ll get details on catalogs and press releases, and, yes, tons on the importance of self-promotion and narrowcasting (spreading the news of yourself locally).

If you’ve read Lerner’s book, and liked it, you’ll surely enjoy Rittenberg’s chapters. If you’re considering a career as a writer, read this and judge whether it leaves you despondent, out of breath, or enthusiastic. When you’ve started to hunt down an agent, it won’t hurt to keep Rittenberg’s advice on agent etiquette at hand, so that you won’t carelessly alienate someone who’s interested. Flip to the query letter no-nos (192-193) before sending out a dozen that may bring nothing but frustration. And heed Rittenberg’s suggestions not to jump the gun with a novel that’s not ready for submission. So, it’s a useful book to have around as you nudge your novel up through several drafts and then up the stairs of the book industry.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

Say you’re reading John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and you find that he says that our taste in literature is conditioned by “the nature of our mortality” (55). Weird. You check the cover, and there it is indeed: the art of fiction. The comment seems out of place. Now say you’re reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (New York, 1995; 238 pp.), also a book on writing, and you come across this sentence: “My deepest belief is that to live as if we’re dying can set us free” (125). Reaction: oh, okay, nice insight. The difference is context. And the subtitle of Lamott’s book: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.

Those last two words you must bear in mind when you read the book. Bird by Bird is one of most unusual volumes on writing, and also one of the most enjoyable. On the first half, Lamott goes through some of the most salient features of craft: character, dialogue (“One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t” [47]), plot (“Any plot you impose on your characters will be onomatopoetic: PLOT” [54]). She does this briskly and with a great sense of humor. Let me emphasize the part about humor: you’ll chortle on the couch at some points.

But what makes Bird by Bird distinctive as a book on writing craft is that it blends writing with life. It is not a writer’s memoir, like, say, Haruki Murakami’s, nor is it a series of arguments on literature spiced with anecdotes, like Margaret Atwood’s. As serious as Lamott is about writing—and she is, very—the book focuses on life as much as it does on writing. That should be even more precise: life, understood through the prism of spirituality, is Lamott’s priority.

Two things to clear up. First, this book is not about writing as spirituality or religion (a theme I’ve mentioned often on the blog, and to which Lamott alludes when she says a friend of hers “converted at eighteen from Christianity to poetry” [232]). Instead, Bird by Bird is about a kind of spirituality in which writing plays a part. Lamott is very religious, and is not diffident to show it. You’ll find God mentioned at least every two pages, and spiritual experiences and references throughout. But that leads me to the second thing to clear up: we should not confuse religious with reactionary. Lamott is puritanical only insofar as she advocates discipline in a writer, and is conservative only insofar as—no, she’s clearly liberal and ecumenical. We learn a lot about her as we read Bird by Bird because, as I said, anecdotes abound.

What kinds of things does she share about life that should interest writers? The perils of jealousy, for instance: “Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading” (124). The problem with writer’s block, which is not cured by milking yourself more strenuously, she says, but by acceptance: accept that you’re not in a creative mood, and turn to some of the other things life offers until you’re ready to write again (178).

There’s also publication, which is not, Lamott emphasizes, a panacea: “if what you have in mind is fame and fortune, publication is going to drive you crazy” (214). Heightened public exposure will probably translate into heightened anxieties. With more money, come commitments that are more expensive. And so on. Publication, she says, is not heralded by joyous trumpets, and it does not put an end to the real drudgery of writing: you’ll have to face the blank page again for the next project.

The real pleasure, she says, should come from the very process of writing. From the possibility to grasp truth, those secrets that are unexposed until a writer dares to expose them. From the joy of assembling things, starting with a “shitty first draft” (21) and up to a finished piece, through countless revisions involving dismal periods of self-doubt. And, as much as that should be the priority, and much more important that publication, it is good to keep things in perspective. What about the joy of writing? Lamott says, “good hours at the desk are as wonderful as any I can imagine. But joy for me is Sam [Lamott’s son] and my church and my buddies and family and more often it is felt outdoors than at my desk” (215).

It is difficult to find a book on craft that is as different from, say, The Writer’s Little Helper or other volumes that are career-oriented and almost stolidly methodical in their approach to writing. So, if you’re dismayed by how much marketing and business are colonizing the experience of writing, Bird by Bird will come as a very amusing antidote.

Friday, August 6, 2010

2010 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market

If you recognize the cover of this book, don’t read on. I’ve posted comments on other books on craft, so you might turn to those instead (here). Why? Because I don’t mean to preach to the choir. If you’re familiar with the book, these short comments will be unnecessary, even ingénue.

I’m posting them for another kind of person, one who has been inebriated with writing for a while, but has not realized how important it is to master the business aspect of writing. You may think it’s all about the words, about crafting that perfect story and later that perfect novel. These will automatically unfurl a red carpet on which you can promenade or which you can studiously avoid in order to become a Pynchonesque figure somewhere, racking up royalties. That may be true for a handful of people. But while you craft the perfect piece of writing, keep in mind that you also have to reach publishers through a perfect cover or query letter, put together a perfect pitch for an agent, lure readers that have millions of perfectly good titles to choose from. Something as simple as an overclever line on a query letter, or as meager as staples on your manuscript, can mean banishment from the publishing world. (For a salubriously countervailing perspective on all this, look at my next post, on Bird by Bird.)

After that long prologue, here’s a book precisely tailored for the more businessy sides of writing. I mean the 2010 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (NSSWM). With this book, you get about 125 pages of essays, both general and gender-specific. Most of them are very short and, like so many newspaper articles, quotation-friendly. Several are interviews. Some discuss aspects of craft (for instance, the debate on whether you should write “he said” or take on other speech tags—p. 25). Some are very up-to-date, like an article on writers’ blogs (14-16): why you should have one, and what to keep in mind while posting on it. These essays are often victims of shoddy proofreading, but don’t suffer a stroke over that: they’re handy, current, and relevant.

There’s an interesting piece on “personal relationship” fiction, and how it pullulates in fiction magazines these days (31-36). This relates to my complaints about predictable, quotidian, storyless MFA fiction. In the NSSWM article, the editor of The Long Story says, “it is exactly the (merely) personal that we dislike,” and blames merely personal fiction on “the narrow emphasis of the writing programs” (33). The editor of the Potomac Review says that she looks for “stories that are more interesting, more complex than the usual suburban family or marriage problems” (33).

Rejection is discussed repeatedly in the essays. Steve Almond says writers should prepare for a story to get rejected “Anywhere from zero to 60 times” before it’s accepted (60). Another writer, Tod Goldberg, says one of his stories was rejected 65 times—and then won a Special Mention for the Pushcart Prize the year it was published (60). Many writers, even very accomplished ones, say they still face binder-filling flurries of rejection slips when they try to publish short stories.

There are some other bits worth mentioning. About the discipline to write, Chelsea Cain says, “You can’t be a writer until you learn to write when you don’t want to” (88). About how quickly editors reject manuscripts, the editor of Hard Case Crime says he gets two or three submissions per day, and he “only get[s] past the first chapter in about one out of 10. In most, the quality of the language is not at the professional level” (91). And the importance of using the right kind of language comes up in a Susan Wiggs interview, where she says, “Language is our only tool for telling a story, and too many emerging writers don’t take the time to hone their craft in this area. It’s inexcusable” (97). (What’s needed? Why, revision, of course.)

That’s all and well. But, useful as they are, most people won’t buy the NSSWM because of the essays. The listings matter most. You get lists of literary agents, literary magazines, small circulation magazines, online markets, consumer magazines, book publishers, contests and awards, and conferences.

If you’re planning to submit a story, there are a handful of tips on what to do next (2-4), and some guidance on things such as proper format for manuscripts, cover letters, and mailing tips (77-82). Then you get the listing themselves, which contain plenty of information, such as the names of editors (mention them in the cover letter), whether the magazine publishes new writers, what kind of fiction they’re looking for, when they accept submissions, and tips.

Names and deadlines change during the year, so watch out. For instance, Gargoyle was supposed to accept submissions through August (so says the listing on the 2010 NSSWM), but they closed last month, and won’t open until June 2011.

Not everything is listed. NSSWM explain that they sometimes ostracize magazines when they discover cases of “unprofessional conduct” (82). Sometimes magazines themselves ask not to be listed because, say, they lack the staff to handle the volume of submissions that would ensue. For example, Hobart is not there. One Story is not in NSSWM, but you can find it listed online, through the one-year subscription you get when you buy the book. But the book keeps growing, so we can expect to see both of those in future editions.

Speaking of, I know, I know, the 2011 edition is out. My point here is simply that this book is very useful. More than you would think when traipsing out of a writing course or even after a lifetime of avid reading and writing. So my humble suggestion is to get your hands on either edition. There’s still roughly half a year left, and some of the contest and magazine entries on the 2010 edition still work.