‘Books constantly disappoint me.’ That’s what Donna Tartt said recently and I was relieved to hear someone I so admire say it. She obviously has high expectations in contemporary literary fiction and so do I. What so often happens is that I am thirty pages in, or forty or seventy if I’m lucky, and staggered with the sheer excellence of what I am reading, and then this feeling starts to shuffle towards a ledge, which begins to crumble and soon the novel is plummeting.
This doesn’t happen of course if I am reading a Donna Tartt book and perhaps, since she takes ten years to write one, this is why she is able to avoid these ledges. Sometimes I wonder if these black holes in prose exist because the authors are so well established that their editor hesitates to say, ‘this middle section’s a bit shit’. (Because the middle is the one mostly and rightly castigated. It has a difficult spot as middle children, my sister tells me, do.
The beginning of the novel is the exuberant, untethered baby. The end is the eldest: mature and ready for resolution.) But no, I don’t believe this fault lies with a reticence in the editor, because the same thing often happens in debut novels, and I think we all know how much clout the editor has here: all of it. Middle kids are tricky. And maybe we just have to make the novel as good as we can within a reasonable time frame. The ten years Donna Tartt spends is only reasonable for her because her sales support a decade’s essential life revenue. For the rest of us, we have a year or eighteen months. So there’s that.
Personally, I write very quickly; a torrent which gushes forth to be later tamed in revision. I am totally immersed in the world of my characters. Love them deeply, worry for them, tut at them, comfort them, cry and laugh out loud with them. I wouldn’t want to be doing that for ten years, so I just make my books as good as I can within a six month period, then ship out to my book editor and reclaim my real family who wait patiently for my return. So there’s that too.
Recently I’ve been reading Nabokov, Franken, Hustvedt because I need to avoid the feelings described above. They never disappoint. Soon it will be Vonnegut, Sterne and Larkin. But right now I am not reading at all. Nor listening to music. I am depriving myself of two loves. Because I am unhappy. I know, it’s masochism. I don’t know why I would choose to lose more than I’m losing. Maybe I believe total excoriation will bring me up to the surface quicker.
On occasion, it’s the whole book which does it for me: Accordian Crimes, The English Passengers and once my life was utterly changed reading A Noise from the Woodshed. But mostly it’s: the style, even just one sentence, or the genius of a particular chapter, hilarious dialogue, a passage of utter truth, a concept of shining new. It’s the writing, in bits, chunks or till The End. The butterflies in the stomach when meaning romps home.