Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Eight cups of steamed white rice in a silver chafing dish

I finished Moby Dick several days ago and didn't know what to say about it until now. Here's the background. I read the book many years ago, and I remember liking it. But! I also remember liking a scene where the captain falls into a coma or something, and I was never quite sure if that cool scene was from Moby Dick or some other book. In other words, I didn't really remember it.

So, I read it. And for the first hundred pages or so, I was fairly bored, but I told myself to push on because I was sure it would get better. Then, around 250, I was still fairly bored, but I pushed on. One day, on the bus, I was reading, and a guy named Kevin mentioned that the book was his favorite. He spoke passionately about what was so good about it. Coincidentally or not, I liked the next 100 pages or so. Finally I was getting some of my questions answered and learning a lot of new historically and technically interesting things. I thought, finally, I had gotten to the part that was good and it would be smooth sailing to the end of the book. (Incidentally, Kevin had not read anything by Tolstoy because he sensed that the writing would be too slow.)

I was happy with Moby Dick. Things were happening. I was learning--because really, much of the content could serve as a text book too. But then the book stalled again. And it was just off and on for me until the end. I didn't love the book. I admired it. I enjoyed some parts of it. I don't need to read it again. I feel like if the book was distilled down to the scenes with characters and motivations, it would be a very short book. The rest of it was details that I think some would find really interesting and others might not. This is not to say that a book should only be about characters and motivations, but for me the rest of it was stuff I wasn't interested in. Go ahead argue with me about the goings on of my heart.

But here's the concerning part. As I was navigating through this whale of a book I began to realize that I made a lot of the same choices in Cyberlama that Melville did. (At least that's how I see it; we can't fully know the author's intentions.) In my book I told myself that these sidebars, these digressions, these details were interesting and additive to the emotion of the book even though I could share the journey of beginning to end with fewer words. I began to wonder if my book would bore as much as I was bored by Moby Dick. And I began to ask myself why I had chosen that route. This of course got me on a track wondering about value and what people wanted out of a book. It's stuff that might be a waste of time, or not.

I'm revising Cyberlama now with this in mind. I'm not yet sure how it will affect the revision, but I think the awareness is a good one. When we still had Literary Lab, I feel like I would have thought a lot more about stuff like this. I had given it up because it seemed to be time wasting, but I think it's important to work through these things in parallel to the writing.

What's Peanut eating? A popcorn kernel on the elevator floor. He ate half of it on the way down, and I thought he didn't like it. But he ate the other half on the way back up after a long walk. Of course, he eats paper scraps and plastic nubs too.


  1. The phrase that just popped into my head when I think about Cyberlama is “dispassionate curiosity.” The protagonist (I forget her name, darn it) seems emotionally distant from her own life, though certainly interested in it. A sort if, maybe, scientific gathering-of-empirical-evidence way of looking at her own life. I may be exaggerating the scientific point of view because I know you’re a scientist, but I am still going to stick with “dispassionate curiosity.” I don’t know if that’s a criticism of Cyberlama, but it might be. Something I like about Moby-Dick is that Melville’s passion for his subject, his almost childlike enthusiasm for all the details, really comes through. He’s not telling us about the variety of meanings of the color white because he thinks his reader needs the information to understand the plot; he’s telling us all of this because he’s absolutely fascinated with it all himself. “Look at this!” he cries with mad enthusiasm. Three chapters about the taxonomy of whales? Of course! Why wouldn’t he? Melville loves whales and all things having to do with them. I love his love of his facts, his love of his exposition, his desperate need to tell us all he’s learned, like a child coming home from school after learning that the stars in the sky are actually suns orbited by planets, just like our own sun. It fascinates him and he must must must tell us everything about it.

    This doesn’t make Moby-Dick a good novel, especially. It doesn’t make it great fiction. It makes it a pretty cool book, though. It’s brave and lunatic and really riding along the edge, because Melville wants us to have this allegory of greed, this Biblical tale about evil, but he also wants us to have an encyclopedia of whaling. “It’s a whale. I write about whales now. Whales are cool.” You could cut all the encyclopedic stuff about whales and whaling and you’d have an action-packed short novel, but it wouldn’t be Moby-Dick, and I’m not really sure why, but I’d miss it if it was taken out. It’s a remarkable book, even if it’s not a great novel in terms of a successful work of fiction. It’s a mess, but a mess I really like and I plan to read it again. Melville’s passion, I tell you, carries the day. But yeah, there was some rough going in the middle of the book, even for me, who is a fan of it.

    I’m at a loss about what to do regarding digressions in novels. In “Mona in the Desert” I have a couple of pages about the agave plant and tequila, and some of it is stuff I made up because it was more entertaining than the actual historical facts, but I still feel like I’m padding or pulling too far from the story. I’d like to put in digressions about stuff that strikes my fancy (or the narrator’s fancy) but I just keep cutting it all out, because I’m too much of a coward, I guess. I don’t believe in my digressions enough. I don’t have any passion for them. I am rambling. I’m reading Finnegans Wake right now and I have just the faintest idea of what that book’s about, but the longer I read it (I’m about 1/3 of the way through), the more I like reading it.

  2. Then it was a good thing you read Moby Dick :)

    One of the reasons I enjoy beta reading/critiquing is because I learn things from other writers by doing it. I'll catch some of my own mistakes, or see where a slightly different phrasing or relocating the info would have worked out. But not all info dumps are a waste of reader time. Sometimes they are necessary. Of course, moderation is still key. If you find yourself having to do a lot of info dump or sidebars to explain the world/motivations/ or events, then perhaps it is time to look at the writing and discover where you can "show" it not "tell" it.

    I'll read a book I don't like sometimes for the same reason I critique. I can learn something from analyzing my own reactions.

    I too miss the discussions at the Lit Lab.


  3. Thanks, Scott! Something I wrestle with is that the protagonist, Diana is dispassionate because she has been around for so long. She has had a long time to come to terms with her feelings about things in the past and she has seen a lot. It seems believable to me, but also unenthusiastic. I don't know. I wrestle, I tell you. With my past longer stuff: Rooster, Bread, the kidnapping story, I always end up doing a pass where I cut 30%-40% of the story to clean out the stuff that doesn't feel focused. I don't think I'm helping the work necessarily, but that's what I've done.

  4. Thanks, Donna! You make a really good point, and this is why I try to read new things instead of rereading my same five favorite books over and over again. We do learn a lot from things that we don't connect to. I've mentioned before this idea of writer lineages, and it's interesting to me to hear which writers other writers are influenced by. I have Tolstoy and Faulkner and some Japanese writers prominently in my head a lot of the times I'm writing. I don't believe I have, say, Dickens or Hemingway (anymore). I love Virginia Woolf, but I rarely feel like I am influenced by her...whether or not I want to be.

  5. Davin, I don't know if the dispassionate voice is really a problem, though. Think of Ishigiro, who never seems to raise his voice, if you know what I mean. I enjoyed the calm of Cyberlama. I was maybe trying too hard to defend Melville in my comment.

    I would like to write in a more digressive manner but I can't find a way to allow myself that luxury. I tried to do that with Mona in the Desert, but ironically that's the shortest novel I've ever written. So clearly I'm doing something wrong, or working against my conscious intentions. My plan for revisions to Mona is to go back through and add in digressions, about 20,000 words worth of digressions. I'm working on a subplot about Nabokov, maybe. I don't know. The last couple of novels I've drafted have really confused me, formally. I'm not sure what I'm trying to do with structure and I feel a bit lost. Maybe I'm working on a sequel to the detective novel because I want something straightforward, something with a clear narrative arc. Like I say, I don't know.

  6. This is really interesting, Davin. It makes me want to pick up Moby Dick (finally!) and at least try it. I like what Scott says about missing all that stuff if it was taken out. I like the idea that Melville is like a little kid going on and on about his favorite things. I just hope you aren't worrying too much about what other people want out of stories, because it's your story, and I most desperately want you to write it how you want to write it and not cull it down because you're afraid it will be boring. If there's one thing I'm learning more and more as I write more books, it's that I need to take a good, long look at my finished first draft and note the the things that make the book special for me, what makes it stand out as a book only *I* could write compared to a book anyone could write. Those are things I never want to cut out no matter what.

    I am rambling, aren't I?

    Scott, Finnegan's Wake was one of the highlights of my college years. I need to read that one again.

  7. Oh, and all this discussion is what I miss about Lit Lab.

  8. Michelle,
    I think this is excellent advice. I think the challenge I'm facing now with Cyberlama, and with my past projects, is that I have been living with it for so long that more things are boring to me. Keeping track of what's good in the early drafts is a smart way of capturing that initial spark, if it can be caught at all!

  9. You could always ask someone why doesn't normally read classics *ahem* to read Cyberlama. NOT for a critique; just an overall opinion of what descriptions worked, what didn't, and why. You may find the novel not as boringly descriptive as you think.

    Sometimes an author gets tired of looking at their story. We know it so well - live it, dream about it, daydream it - its ALWAYS in our minds no matter what other activities we're doing. Like that favorite book we picked up the other day and skimmed through most of because the words are so memorized.

    Asking what someone else thinks doesn't mean you have to agree with or implement the suggestions/opinions.