Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Literary Technicalities; Hostile Reviews; Elmore Leonard

   As someone who analyzes literature in university classrooms at least eight months of every year, the aesthetic and emotional appreciation I may have for a novel can only get me so far. For class discussions, the structural and technical aspects of fiction - epigraph, epilogue, symbol, motif, description, characterization, and so forth - become crucial. 
   That approach to lit may account for my fondness for epigraphs, titled sections, and prologues. Footnotes too, but they can get precious in no time. Who knows, maybe I just like 'em in the way I like pineapple, strawberries, and anything by Margaret Atwood.
   For some, though, this supposedly high-brow literary stuff is elitist and alienating, an obstacle that gets in the way of telling/enjoying an engrossing story. Elmore Leonard is the best known opponent of literariness, and in his New York Times essay of about a decade ago - “Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle” - one of his ten rules for writing was simple: "Avoid prologues." (The very first reviewer of my first novel - which features two epilogues - wrote for an obscure magazine published in Alberta and apparently belonged to the Elmore Leonard School. He hated virtually everything about The Age of Cities, and did not suggest or imply that I was a pompous English professor. He said it explicitly, to the extent that in his review he imagined how awful it would be to be stuck in one of my pompous, self-absorbed lectures, in which I would never let anyone forgot who in the room was the brilliant mind possessing the PhD. The guy seemed certain that he hated me; I had to wonder if we'd met in real life and quarreled over something important.) Incidentally, Leonard also named his "most important rule": “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Producing writing that does not sound like writing (despite being writing) seems both paradoxical and good advice.
   Anyway, This Location of Unknown Possibilities contains epigraphs, a prologue, an epilogue and titled sections (with epigraphs). Oh oh.
   Here's epigraph #1: 

It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment. —Yevgeny Zamyatin (trans. Mirra Ginsburg)

And here's the titled first section: Prologue: Studio City (2009)

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