Thursday, August 21, 2008

Two minutes with Joyce and Dostoevsky

Via the New Yorker's Book Bench, I came across this article on a San Fran writer's conference by someone called BS Prakash (the initials are prophetic) who claims to be India's ambassador to Brazil - an article so cringe-inducing it makes you wonder what the good folks at the Book Bench were doing surfing Rediff, of all godforsaken corners of the Internet.

I'm not going to dwell on Mr. Prakash's excessive use of cultural stereotypes (xenophobia is the term the Book Bench uses, which is harsh, but not inaccurate), the quaintness of his 'discoveries' (they actually try to teach writing! imagine that!) or just the overall fuddy-duddiness of his point of view. Nor am I going to comment on the irony of bemoaning the 'American' obsession with publication when the last decade has seen a virtually unchecked proliferation of writers on the Indian publishing scene, the vast majority of whom could frankly do with some lessons in basic writing. And as for Mr. Prakash's chances of ever producing great literature - let's not even go there.

No, what I'm going to focus on, for the moment is the following claim:

You are told that your first chapter, first page, first sentence should be such so as to captivate the reader in two minutes. That is the test. It is another matter that Dostoevsky or James Joyce would have flunked this test and would never have got published
Would Joyce and / or Dostoevsky really have failed this test? I don't know about you, but I would certainly want to keep reading a book if it opened like this:

"Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo

His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face."

or like this:

"riverrun, past Eve and Adam's, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs."

or this, for that matter:

"I am a sick man...I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man."

and if you think about it, it's hard to imagine a book more amenable to a two-minute pitch than Ulysses:

Q: So, young man, what's your book about?

A: Well, it's an epic of the everyday: a re-imagining of the Odyssey in which I use the central themes and motifs from Homer's work to tell the story of an ordinary Dublin day from a cross-section of perspectives, using internal monologues and stream-of-consciousness techniques to explore the thoughts, perceptions and memories of ordinary people. The overall structure of the book emulates that of the Odyssey, but every chapter is an exercise in a distinctive style or form - so for instance, one chapter parodies romance novels, another uses a question-and-answer form, a third is written as a play.

See what I mean?

Or, for that matter, how's this for an engaging one-line summary:

My novel tells the story of a young man who murders an elderly moneylender and is then terrified that he won't be punished for his crime, because this would imply that there really is no God.


Anonymous said...

oops..sorry...its all way over my head..btw one personal u have a regular 9 to 5 job or u eat sleep and drink books?impressive use of authors names..thoda apun jaise logon ke baare bhi sochke tone down a bit pleaseeeee

Alok said...

what about stately plump buck mulligan with a bowl of lather... that must be boring right, or at least nothing out of ordinary? :)

Mr. Prakash probably just meant that great writers didn't have to worry about "sales pitch", branding or of consciously trying to "grip" the audience... and I really doubt if Joyce would be succeed in getting himself published now with that kind of sales pitch, at least with the corporate publishers.

Falstaff said...

alok: The first paragraph is a little staid, yes, but read the first page and I assure you 'ordinary' is not the adjective that comes to mind.

I doubt Mr. Prakash had really thought through what he was saying - I suspect he just tossed in two suitably 'literary' sounding names - after all, he seems particularly fond of dealing in stereotypes. That said, I don't know what reason we have to believe that Joyce and Dostoevsky didn't have to worry about sales. Were there publishers great patrons of the arts who were unconcerned with turning a profit? Were they so independently wealthy themselves that they didn't care how much money their books brought in? Fallacies of the golden age aside, I see no reason why Joyce and Dostoevsky were any less susceptible to economic pressure than writers today, and no cause to assume that publishers then were any more discerning than they are now. And what writer doesn't want to 'grip' his audience? Even if we ascribe a certain amount of discretion to Dostoevsky, it's hard to make the case that Joyce is not out to flaunt his (considerable) talent for all it's worth. Let's face it, the man's a show-off. He's an incredibly talented show-off, but a show-off nonetheless.

And for the record, I think you're wrong about that pitch not working. I think it would work to achieve what it's supposed to - get them interested enough to want to know more about the book, read some excerpts, maybe take a look at the manuscript. Whether they would want to publish after that is a different matter, and actually I suspect a fair number of the more interesting presses would (I'm not sure who you mean by corporate publishers). Remember, this is the same industry that adores Pynchon and Foer and Wallace.

Alok said...

Yes I thought so too. He mentioned Joyce and Dostoevsky because they both sounded "literary"...

At least about Dostoevsky, he did write under great financial difficulties and pressure and under very strict deadlines. And most of his great novels use sensationalist plots which would have made them much easier to sell. I don't know how much money he was able to make though... He also wrote a great deal of journalism (A Writer's Diary) but that also reads like as if motivated by something much profounder.

I thought it was fair to generalise that great writers were motivated by more than just sales and appreciation of their immediate audiences. Instead they wrote for "the happy few", as stendhal said, belonging to the posterity and that too hopefully. sure a few of them were popular in their lifetime and made a lot of money but that to me felt incidental. we hardly read now what was popular during joyce's time.

and by corporate publishers i meant publishers who work with a profit-motive rather than a desire to discover and nurture fresh voices and enrich literary culture, unless they have already turned an experimental and original author into a "brand" which is not to say Pynchon is not good (I haven't read him yet). publishers who treat books as commodities and subject them to same inanities of marketing, branding, labelling and crap like that. It's a lofty ideal i know, but it is again may be just a matter of degree and comparison. for example if asked i would choose something like new directions over bloomsbury...

Annamari said...

I think is hard to determine what was exactly the motivation beyond great writers. But as long as they were not rich or had another job, it is safe to assume that the financial aspect of their labor was considered –after all they had to buy paper, pens and candles and at least feed themselves. In my opinion, as long as most of them were human beings, like you and me, a certain comfort looked not as demeaning for their great spirits but as one thing to be obtained and enjoyed. Plus, as Falstaff puts it – a man that knows its worth has to show some pride about it.
However, mass literature is probably quite a new concept, since, not so long ago, the masses were not able to read but write or blog.

As for publishers –well, publishing is a business, a business is supposed to make money and not art. In my opinion a businessman that does not strive to make money is as pitiful as a bad writer that thinks he does not care to get published because he writes for “the very few”. Of course, ideally a publisher makes money promoting art, but you know there is demand and there should be an offer to match it…But that’s another story.