Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Don't mind me and this 100-pound anvil

Some authors have a funny way of defending their approaches to books. Something psychological can occur to cause the author of a magnum opus to feel extraordinarily attached to it, even if it has obvious flaws that cause near-universal concern. Take, for example, the scholar who knows that he has written about two ideas that don't really mesh together naturally, except in his own mind. He has now written a longish manuscript (450 pages) about both, dealing in the first half with the earlier phenomenon, and then through a linking chapter, turning to the second phenomenon. Several editors have suggested he turn it into two books. One would think, given the pressure to publish academically, that notion would appeal to him. Two for the work of one, what's not to love? But instead I often find him in my office, defending his doorstop and asking me to give him the magic words to help editors see that the book must be this way.

Another author has a book with a universally acknowledged boring first chapter, but (says he) it has to be there as an introduction to what comes next. Hmmmm. I suggest that if it remains there then it renders the rest of the book unnecessary, because no living begin will read that far.

But many authors defend their literary anvils, often furiously. Sometimes the authors become quite annoyed with me, before I've had a chance to say a word. I'll just sit there while the author explains the enormous, obvious problem of the book, and then proceeds to argue for it item by item, becoming increasingly annoyed with me for what s/he perceives must be my unspoken thoughts on the matter. (Either that or my eyes speak volumes, and I'm unaware of it.)

I'm not saying that authors should cut, rearrange, re-write or otherwise muck about with their books just to please colleagues, editors and agents. That kind of insecure pandering is dangerous, and it can lead to a bland, groupthink manuscript that speaks to no one. But I do believe that collective wisdom can occasionally be wise, especially when every reader has the same issue in the same place.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The attachment authors have for their 'anvils,' could be a situation similar to what a wonderful former teacher and poet Lynn Emmanuel described to me as the concept of "scaffolding."
It's something like Micheangelo looking at the block of marble and seeing his sculpture inside. Noone else could see it, of course, but it was clear to him.
The author may not even be aware of the fact he or she is looking for a finer form, possibly waiting for the 'aha' to occur that will kick out the bad first chapter (and maybe more) and unify or finally split the 2-volume tome.
Lynn cautioned that I was NOT to loose that original form/scaffolding until I was finished. There could be lots of rearrangements--words may need to come back--so you need to keep the model while you play with the form.

Something like this just happened to me as I wrote this response. I started with a reference to David D. Hall's Ways of Writing: The Practice and Politics of Text-Making in Seventeenth-Century New England, to offer his ideas about the value and problems of 'collaborative writing' (what these authors appear to be stridently resisiteing). As I finished summing him up--I remembered Lynn and suddenly I saw her idea of scaffolding better fit this situation. (Or, at least, as I see it.) It's been over 20 years since I worked with Lynn--I'm not sure what clicked the deep memory librarian to bring this up, but I never would have captured the connection between it and this post without having the first response hold the space.