Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

More on Lionel Shriver

In preparing to write about The Post Birthday World, I read the Powell's interview cited in my last post and this interview by Robert Birnbaum.

I was fascinated by Shriver's thought process when it comes to writing fiction, and found this Powell's interview quote so refreshing:

"I don't necessarily pride myself on formal innovation. That's never been my interest. I'm perfectly happy with the forms that are available. I don't feel constrained by the form of the novel; I don't mind other people who are into that, but I'm just not into that. Certainly, I'd seen Sliding Doors, for example, so I had an immediate model in film. But I had a thematic reason for doing it. It wasn't to execute a gimmick, because I'm not into gimmicks. They don't interest me, and they don't get me to read other people's books."

For somebody like me, who has endured a fair amount of abuse for my disinterest in pomo forms, this is giddily permissive.

Shriver is interested in writing that upends cultural norms--the mother-son relationship, the good wife and daughter. She pushes permissible boundaries. Even writing about a mother-son relationship is risky for a person who doesn't have children. (If I had a dime for every pitying "you just don't understand," from a parent...) Yet Shriver did it successfully.

At one point in the Birnbaum interview, which appeared after the publication of We Need to Talk about Kevin, she says:

"There were certain scenes that I was writing up to that I dreaded, partly because I knew they would be technically difficult."

This was interesting to me because, for whatever cockeyed reason, I've long felt I shouldn't know what I'm writing about, or that while foreknowledge was nice, it wasn't necessary to write fiction. That is, I rarely "write up to" anything. What I thought necessary was the imeptus, accompanied by little more than a shadowy idea. I wrote my first manuscript that way (as it is unpublished, I am hesitant to call it a novel. It just seems too pretentious.) The words flowed; rarely did I struggle for ideas. It was as if, to borrow an image from Annie Dillard, smiling angels were holding an open folio before me, and all I had to do was copy. I haven't had the experience since, doubtless due to agonizing self-consciousness.

Later Shriver says:

"I have painted a couple of incidents that deliberately cast doubt on her version of events, and that's for the naive reader. I am trying to circle that in red."

Hmm. Again, this goes against some falsely delivered wisdom I had about writing, that this sort of "planning" was impure: one had to write from inspiration. Even those rare people who outlined every sigh were suspect. Where did I pick this up? Grad school?

"So I decided to head my reader off at the pass. To also facilitate putting it on the book jacket. It really is a problem marketing a book where the hook is a secret. I thought that was tactically wise."

My God! To admit you're thinking about what goes on the jacket! How many people would confess to thinking about that? Maybe the very published, or the certain-of-being-published. The rest of us are so groveling and stupidly cow-grateful if anybody will even bother looking at our stuff. Suggesting jacket copy? Please.

In this article, Shriver talks about winning the Orange Prize, admitting she wanted it badly. This is an amazing statement from a woman. Oh, I know, we're liberated and all that. But we're supposed to be modest about our talents. It's unseemly, unwomanly, to admit wanting something like a huge prize, even in our modern world. Take a conversation I had with my real estate agent. In the arduous course of buying our condo, it somehow emerged that both of us were erstwhile writers. We traded material. She was complimentary; fortunately I was able to return the sentiment in kind. She told me about her writer's group, an assemblage of widely known writers. I secretly hoped she might ask me to join. We arranged to meet over coffee to discuss "the work."

"So what's your goal?" She asked me.

"To make as much money as possible writing," I replied. This was a few years ago; I was working on that first mss. I was full of confidence. I knew it was good, was certain it would be published. I didn't expect it to make me rich, but was hopeful about the possibility of being launched on a writerly course.

My realtor was horrified. She literally leaned backward in her booth. What was I supposed to say? I am not a Natalie Goldberg writing-is-a-journey type. I never assign myself exercises to see "what will happen." I don't have that kind of time. But anybody who spends as much time writing as I do doesn't qualify for membership in the Mothers of Invention.

Suffice to say I never got invited to her writing group. One of the members went on to write a bestseller, which was dedicated to my realtor. She, meanwhile, remains a real-estate novelist. As for blogging, it's safe to say she'll never read this. I emailed her recently to inquire about the housing market (about as realistic as purchasing Sony). She inquired about my writing. I happily told her about the blog. Her reponse was cool, her implication that real writers are too busy creating litterchure to mess about on the internet.

So she's a real-estate novelist, I'm an administrative hack, and Lionel Shriver, who plans her novels, seeks commerical agents, and admits she really wanted to Orange Prize, has written a bestseller.


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