Friday, April 09, 2004

And Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep

A sage author (Elmore Leonard) when asked how he kept his books so interesting replied, "I leave out the parts that people skip." In the olden days of typewriters and paper, there was a self-limitation on writing those parts that people skip - it took paper and time and on the rewrites and editing, I bet those parts could be easily found by astute writers and editors. In these digital days, it might be a different story (story, heh heh heh...). Bloviated doorstops of books have become commonplace and I don't think I am being too Luddite in pointing out that the computer is making those phone books a little bit too easy to produce.

Hand in hand with this trend is the lack of real editing compared to days of yore. I remember reading of the magic that editors like Maxwell Perkins performed on Thomas Wolfe and I wonder if that same attention could ever be paid in today's bottom line culture. One gets the impression that the only thing that is edited in today's fiction is that the spellcheck button is pushed (sometimes). And what we are left with are books that have plot dead ends, superfluous description, characters that come out of nowhere, distract us and then go away again, and interminable interludes that drag on while we wait for the real show to go on. I've read some books recently where it seemed that 100 pages of the 400 page book could have been edited out and made the book infinitely better.

And so I get to the point of today's blog. I am reading Richard Ford's Independence Day, a novelization of the hit movie of a few years ago -- NOT! Actually, it is a Pulitzer Prize winning sequel to his previous book The Sportswriter. I read The Sportswriter a few years ago and so I thought I would like the sequel. Well, after 150 pages of a 450 page book it is turning into a slog. The protagonist has shown a house to Vermont couple, tried to get some rent from houses he owns and reminisces a lot about his life. But what is missing is the narrative drive - I really, really don't know why I should finish the present chapter and move on to the next. I am not expecting a mystery thriller by any means - but one should want to know what happens next if the author is doing their job.

And then Ford (the author) threw in a curveball in the passage I tried to read last night just before I went to bed. The protagonist had just arrived to his bedroom in his girlfriend's beach house and found de Tocquevilles' "Democracy in America" on the bedside table. He is dead tired and thinks, "I wonder if that book will put me to sleep like a charm like it always has in the past." "Ohhhh-kayyyy" I say to myself, "Is Ford going to do what I think he is?" And sure enough, he does. For the next two pages, he excerpts passages out of the book that sends the protagonist (and myself) to sleep. Now, really, was that necessary? I'm no fiction guru, but what could be more boring than reading about a character reading a book that puts him to sleep FOR TWO WHOLE PAGES...

Oh, I know, reading a blog about a novel reader writing about a character reading a book that puts him to sleep.....

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