Monday, May 8, 2017

Burn the house and start from scratch

I have printed out the manuscript for a novel called Antosha!, in order to prepare it for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. "Prepare it" here means revise once again, polish up the prose, fuss with the narrative, and in at least one case, completely rewrite the ending of a section. None of this is new to me, having been down this road with other manuscripts many times already. I've been putting this off not because I don't enjoy the work (because I do enjoy the work of revising; it's where the real writing takes place, where the real creative work happens), but because it leads inevitably to the cover letter I must send along with the manuscript when shilling it to agents and publishers. What am I going to say about this book? That's always a vexing question.

I don't think of my novels as particularly experimental or unorthodox, though I suppose in my heart of hearts I am aware that I am not after all working along the same general lines as most of those writers whose novels are getting published. What are my books? They're collections of ideas more than they are self-contained stories about particular characters. I do not believe in characters, or setting, or plot, though all of my novels include stuff that looks like those things. What I mean is that I no longer believe that long-form fiction is really what we're all taught to believe it is. I don't believe that we are watching a play in our imaginations, or whatever, or that we are to believe in the structural integrity of the imaginary characters and the internal consistency of their imaginary worlds. No, I don't buy that, because what a writer of fiction does is manipulate and twist all of the imaginary elements of the imaginary events into arbitrary shapes to fit around his worldview, which is what's actually being put on display. In most current American fiction, the worldview is one where an Individual becomes valuable, overcoming adversity, or something like that. You are a special snowflake, imaginary protagonist, and so are you, imaginary reader. Fly your freak flag etc. Share your own story, we celebrate you.

My novels sort of tend to be fairy tales or myths about other novels, or at least they acknowledge that there is a great deal of other literature out there, and attempt to horn in on their imaginary real estate and invoke those other novels within my own imaginary lands. But mostly, my novels express my particular worldview that selfishness is a failing business and should be abandoned. Or, as Chekhov said to Gorky, "Tell my friends that they are living badly, and they should stop it." This worldview is not generally considered to be marketable. That's one reason my books stay unpublished, I believe. There are other reasons, such as my clanging reader-unfriendly prose and my refusal to hew closely to a certain novelistic metapredictability. I make myself out here to be some sort of militant avant gardist, but really I just write the books as they occur to me, and I try to make the process of writing them as interesting as I can, and I am attracted to certain things like stream of consciousness and sudden swaths of elevated language and metaphysics and looping chronology and the development of theme versus the development of plot. Also, probably, I moralize far too much, I am propelled by philosophical forces as much as I am by artistic forces. Which is just like I am in real, non-novel-writing life, I say touchily in my defense. My imaginary people often think about love and art and faith, instead of sex and money and success and what other people think about them. This makes the novels "not relatable," as Ira Glass said of "King Lear" in his Philistine "Shakespeare sucks" tweets a year or two ago. Fuck you, Ira Glass.

I am drifting far, far off topic here, amn't I? This is why I try not to blog about my own writing, because too often it turns into a litany of complaints. Who am I to complain? What standing have I upon which to base my complaints? So where was I?

Oh, yes, the cover letter. I am never sure what to say about my novels. Perhaps they are not really novels. Perhaps they're more like imaginary symposia superimposed over reports of fictional journeys. That last sentence will not go into my cover letters. It would be fun, though. But no.

Antosha! is the fictional biography of Antosha Chekhonte, who was a pseudonym of Anton Chekhov. Antosha! presents a skewed reflection of the life of Chekhov, in the form of stories, letters, and a stage play, and the novel projects past the death of Antosha Chekhonte to hint at the influence of Chekhov that has carried forward into the present day (though of course my book by itself already demonstrates that). There are also mashups of Shakespeare and Kafka with Chekhov, and a burlesque of Leo Tolstoy. Anyway, none of what I've just written is likely to make the novel look marketable (or relatable, Mr Glass), no matter how well the book is written. Nevertheless, I am preparing Antosha! for submission to a variety of literary agents and small presses. It's what I do, for now anyway.

8 comments:

  1. It seems like your posting ought to be your cover letter! Onward!

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  2. Provocative sales copy, especially the Ira Glass part.

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  3. I think I've done this right:

    "In Russia in 1878, Antosha Chekhonte is a quiet but bright seventeen-year-old on an 800-mile journey from his home town on the Sea of Azov to Moscow, where he will attend medical school on a scholarship. Along the way he meets a famous landscape painter and his beautiful model, and Antosha finds himself captivated by the power of art, which sparks within him passionate desires to write and to be in love with a beautiful woman. Following graduation from medical school Antosha’s duties as a physician gradually give way to the life of a successful writer, though Antosha is increasingly aware that his time for anything—even love—will be brief, as he is already dying of tuberculosis. Antosha travels to Venice, Paris, Prague, and the Far East, where he has lively and volatile encounters with such writers as Leo Tolstoy and Franz Kafka.

    But the call of his family—whom he supports—brings Antosha back to Moscow, as does the desire for a wife and family of his own. When his love affair with a young actress grows serious, Antosha pressures his talented and ambitious sister Maria to remain unmarried so that there will be someone to care for their parents. Antosha—the literary champion of compassion—has an enormous blind spot for his own family, and cannot measure his own happiness against the pain he causes Maria.

    A deeply evocative story of the search for personal and artistic truth, Antosha! captures a remarkable period of time—Russia in the late 19th century—and the extraordinary life and loves of an unforgettable artist."

    That's the back cover copy of a couple of other fictional biographies, rewritten a bit. It fails to capture the essential whateverness of the novel. But suddenly it looks marketable. Huh.

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    1. That does sound legitimately blurbish.

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    2. I may actually use it in my query letters, with a little bit of editing. I live a life of irony. The hard part will be deciding if I'll mention that the book is in the form of stories, letters, and a stage play and is based loosely on the life of Chekhov. I probably should include that. But I am amused that I'm basically stealing the sales pitch from some Random House best-seller. I wonder who they stole it from.

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  4. It's not a bad idea to read flap or back copy to write your own description, avoiding the more egregious pablum. I've been guilty of doing that. Same for writing back-jacket blurbs for other people's books--I sometimes read a bunch to get a feel for what is the less meretricious sort of blurb.

    And I doubt you have to mention Chekhov. (It's pretty obvious, isn't it?) Well, maybe you do, these days.

    Try not to scare them. I'd brush in the bit about forms with a light, light hand. Mixed forms and anything smacking of the "anatomy" form appear to be frightening to many literary agents.

    You're doing the right thing. In the end, it is always best to keep your soul and to write out of it as you see fit. The other way has a whole different set of problems. And they are impossible to master.

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    1. Very encouraging, thanks! I think my list of possible agents excludes the ones who don't have an inkling who Chekhov is, so probably I can leave that out. I really feel like I'm thrashing about in a vacuum in the submission process. There's so little feedback of any sort.

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    2. Yes, submission to agents is another one of those things that needs complete overhaul. Alas. I've had two. Can't say it helped much, though both meant well. Publishing also needs an overhaul, less of the winner-takes-all lead book mentality. Maybe current changes will help. Or not.

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