Why the Fugue?

I clicked over to Margot Singer’s recent post at the Paris Review in a bit of a panic. Singer asks whether a novel can be a fugue, or can be structured akin to a fugue, and she offers up her own début, Underground Fugue, as an example of a novel built upon a fugal framework. Since I’m in the midst of writing a novel that also takes its cues from the fugue, I worried that Singer had beaten me to it and undercut me before I could even finish. Not that either one of us imagines that we might be the first writer to take this particular path (Joyce, Burgess, et al) but still, nobody wants to exhaust themselves labouring over a book that ends up reading mostly like an echo of someone else’s. Continue reading

Minimisation

Today I hit the magic number on the word count for Winter Fugue. The number is 80,000. That’s how many words I’ve got. They’re clean and serviceable, so I’m pleased to have them on the page, although they’re not yet in their best possible shape. They’ll need further revision, further tightening, especially with an eye towards their holistic function, their service to the work as a whole. Nevertheless, in their current state, they do what they need to do. They convey, without any lack, the events, the emotions, the rhythm, the tone, and the senses Winter Fugue wants to convey. More than that, by reaching the magic number, they give the novel its optimum length. Pretty much any how-to guide for aspiring novelists will tell you that 80,000 is the target to aim for. According to the conventions of the mainstream publishing industry, that’s roughly how long a proper novel is.

Except Winter Fugue isn’t quite halfway complete. Lately, as I pace out each new chapter relative to the ones before it, I’ve been figuring that the manuscript will finish up somewhere in the vicinity of 180,000 words. Way too long, but there it is. Not much I can do about it. That’s the way this book wants to be. For that reason, on top of just bringing the book into existence — on top of summoning the intellectual, emotional, and physical stamina necessary to sustain the pace of my output until the book tells me it’s done — one of the fresh challenges I’m starting to face up to is the task of condensing it all into a summary form. Winter Fugue is at a point in its development where I have a clearer sense of its trajectory and its overall shape than I did when I began. This means it’s at a point where I’m thinking more carefully about where it might go when it’s no longer in my hands, about how to place it in the hands of initial readers, potential publishers, and so on. How can a piece of prose so much longer than the ideal novel be shortened, compressed into a synopsis, in a way that doesn’t imperil what its length achieves? Continue reading

On Ethical Immediacy

I confess I was nervous, even pre-emptively embarrassed, when I wrote in January about what I call the murmur and how it stands as the source of the imperative to write. It seemed too abstract, too wishy-washy, too plainly preposterous to be taken seriously, and all the more so when I came around to using the loaded language of morality and ethical immediacy to describe my response to the imperative to write. Then, via @Twitchelmore, there came to my attention a video of a captivating conversation between Gabriel Josipovici and Lars Iyer, and an early exchange particularly piqued my interest: Continue reading

Dissatisfaction is the Source

Julienne van Loon, writing in the Sydney Review of Books, wonders, as I’ve been wondering, where writing comes from:

Fiction is concerned with itchiness. Or, to put it differently, storytelling is concerned with some kind of friction. But let’s extend it further: I would argue that the urge to write something substantial at all, in a way that requires imaginative effort, to shift ideas from fleeting feelings or impressions towards more fully realised and substantial creative works, requires a certain dis-ease, often a rather deep-seated sense of dissatisfaction: anger, confusion, disbelief, disapproval, or just an inkling, a subtle desire, for things to be, in whatever way, other than this.

Which isn’t too far removed from the way I tried to word it.

Rigorous and Iterative

Last weekend’s Guardian Review featured a long essay by George Saunders on the process of writing a novel. What Saunders wants to offer, as he announces at the beginning, is a description of “the actual process” of writing a novel and a refutation of the way the process exists in the cultural imagination. A work of art, Saunders complains, is “often discuss[ed]” as the product of an artist who “had something he ‘wanted to express,’ and then he just, you know… expressed it,” as if “art is about having a clear-cut intention and then confidently executing same.” In fact, Saunders confesses upon the publication of his début novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, he feels as lost at sea as Marilynne Robinson when he attempts “to talk about [my] process as if I were in control of it.”

I read the first two sections of Saunders’ essay with a chime of recognition ringing through my thoughts. As with most of Saunders’ work from the last decade or so, the essay quickly swerves into the maudlin territory of “the empathetic function in fiction” and the writer’s duty to set about “generously imagining” his or her readers. Before that point, though, it could equally stand as a description of my own process, even though the process itself is too intuitive and impressionistic to be worthy of that name: Continue reading

The Heft of a Novel

Marilynne Robinson, "The Givenness of Things"So, yes, Winter Fugue is underway. How has it taken its first few steps into being? I don’t mean “being” as a concept; I mean “being” as a synonym for pixels and ink. Beyond the emergence of the work of fiction as a flickering response to the raw and burning imperative to write, how does it — how has it — come to assume a definite form on the page?

For me, the first words of a fiction never issue from an idea or an image, or a narrative dilemma, but always — strange to say — from a feeling in the body, a mood that circulates through blood and breath, an incarnate sensation in no way tethered to events in the outside world. They come on top of the murmur that drives the act of writing and they take shape in response to, or in mimicry of, an inner disturbance that feels physically like the growth of some alien thing, some subcutaneous burr, lodged in the fibres of muscle and flesh. Marilynne Robinson gives voice to an experience of much the same sensation in her most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things: Continue reading

Listening to the Murmur

Among the gifts I received for Christmas was a book voucher to the value of £100. I used it to pick up a dozen new paperbacks that ended up making me nauseous. To be fair, I had anticipated the feeling. It’s a familiar one in the process of writing a novel. I can barely write a word without first looking around at the superabundance of novels already in existence and asking myself if the world is really in need of a new one like Winter Fugue. More than that, I can barely write a word without first looking over the handful of novels that I consider flawless, the novels that I’d say have changed my life, and wondering why a new novel should be written when whatever faint power it possesses will almost certainly fall short of theirs.

It’s a truism of writing workshops that it’s impossible to become a writer if you’re not first and foremost a reader. I don’t disagree with that, but I also recognise the double-bind it involves. For me, being the reader I am, it’s impossible to write the novel I’m writing without bearing in mind the force of the competition it faces. I’m constantly aware of the inadequacies it harbours, relative to the best of its kind, and I’m aware, too, of the obscurity that likely awaits it if it makes its way into print. To write it at all, in fact, is to labour away in conscious defiance of this dual awareness, with a wilful dismissal of everything that the reader in me is trying to warn the writer about. Continue reading