At that time, Wolfe’s critical appreciation was at its apex. On the strength of his first two novels, Look Homeward, Angel (1929) and Of Time and the River (1935), he was widely considered one of the best novelists then alive. DeVoto’s take-down put an end to that. Nowadays, if Wolfe is remembered, he is remembered as an out-of-control stylist who famously asked Maxwell Perkins (his editor) to fashion something that might resemble a “novel” out of the tens of thousands of manuscript pages that he had delivered to Perkins in a steamer trunk.
DeVoto recognized that passages within Wolfe’s novels could be brilliant, but he added that
“… there were parts that looked very dubious indeed—long, whirling discharges of words, unabsorbed in the novel, unrelated to the proper business of fiction… aimless and quite meaningless jabber…”
This material, DeVoto suggested, might have been necessary to Wolfe when conceptualizing and writing his novels.
“…it was as if the birth of the novel had been accompanied by a lot of material that had nourished its gestation.”
As the novel progresses through various stages of completion, DeVoto believed it was the job of the novelist to discard the placental “psychic material” that guided its creation.
“There comes a point where the necessities of the book are satisfied, where its organic processes have reached completion… The [purpose of the placental] material which nature and most novelists discard when its use has been served.”
Several weeks ago, my son Sebastian let on that he and his friends had been reading my blog at school. He told me that his friends thought the blog was “awesome,” and then when that compliment did not have the desired effect, he said that, “Dad, you don’t understand: my friends think you’re, like, the greatest Dad ever.”
I’m often forced to rally around whatever stray supports I can find to justify the efficacy of my life, so I truly appreciated what Sebastian said. Yet, these compliments were strangely inhibiting. Not only did I worry that I might write something that would radically alter how my son’s friends would regard me (and, by extension, him), but it also never occurred to me that what I wrote could possibly resonate with a fourth-grade audience.
Of course, it also occurred to me that Sebastian was maybe buttering me up with praise just to make me feel good, for Sebastian is like that: someone who genuinely cares how others might be feeling.
I’ve been working furiously at novel revisions lately. A couple of weeks ago, I shot my agent a revised draft. I had line-edited the manuscript again, paring down my sentences and bringing characters into sharper focus. As I was doing this, and doing away with my baggier sentences and razzle-dazzle effects, I realized I was achieving the emotional resonance that I had sought. I chucked a few scenes, and added others that I hoped added insight into characters’ motivations and inner conflicts.
Last week, my agent questioned certain aspects of my novel that she thought caused readers to disengage with the narrative. From the outset, I had rigged the novel with a series of supports that had nothing to do with the novel’s actual story. For example, although my novel is set slightly in the future, I included an 1,800-word digression about the Palmer Raids of 1919. Another chunk dealt with the etymological derivation of “pupil.”
What my agent was questioning was my placental material.
This material provided a kind of background chatter as I built up the world of my novel, yet it wasn’t until several days after my conversation that I realized NONE of it was necessary to the novel itself.
My agent tells me that a couple of editors have specifically asked to see my novel again. Others will also be seeing it soon. This brings me great hope. What had been a 399-page beast is now a relatively sleek 359-page monster. It’s a novel that I honestly believe deserves to be published.
Hessel errata: Stéphane Hessel’s Indignation will soon be re-titled and published as Time For Outrage in this country. Here’s the announcement from Publisher’s Marketplace:
French Resistance hero Stéphane Hessel's TIME FOR OUTRAGE, translated by Marion Duvert, a 29-page call-to-arms that has reportedly sold more than 4 million copies worldwide since its publication in October, rejecting the dictatorship of world financial markets and defending the social values of modern democracy, reminding us that life and liberty must still be fought for, and urging us to reclaim these essential rights we have allowed our governments to erode, and to defend them for those who can't defend for themselves, to Cary Goldstein at Twelve, for publication in September 2011, by Eileen Cope at Trident Media Group on behalf of Sylvie Crossman at Indigene (US).
This news also brings me great hope. I’ve written before on this blog about Hessel, and also mentioned his work in an interview. Hessel’s message is exactly what is needed to re-invigorate liberal activism in this country, and Twelve has a fantastic record of bringing thoughtful books to the forefront.
Tallman errata: Last week, The Rumpus published a fantastic story by Jenniey Tallman, my friend and one-time collaborator. If you have some time, check it out. But warning: it’s “an illustrated sex toy mystery,” so be careful if you’re browsing it at work!