Don’t Drive Your Readers to the Dictionary

by James Scott Bell


Thomas Wolfe

I have a good friend who’s a college English prof. He’s an expert in American Lit, with a specialization in Thomas Wolfe. I made some attempts to read Wolfe back in college, but quickly got over it in favor of his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, and one of his heirs, Jack Kerouac.

But I’ve long had it in my mind to give Wolfe another try. What stopped me was the steep decline in his literary reputation over the past fifty years or so. No less a literary light than Harold Bloom considers Wolfe a “mediocre” talent who has no (as in zero, zilch) “literary merit.”

Now there is a major motion picture out about Wolfe and his editor, the legendary Maxwell Perkins. The movie (which I have not seen yet) is called Genius, based on A. Scott Berg’s award-winning book about Perkins.

So it seemed like a good time to break out my old copy of Look Homeward, Angel and try again. Almost immediately I got frustrated. There is a lot of prose (Wolfe once admitted that his great fault was “too-muchness.”) that is mostly narrative summary. I knew this was supposed to be a novel about a boy named Eugene Gant. But I was not picking up any reason to care about Eugene, the Gants, or the town of Altamont where everything takes place.

After about 150 pages I sent an email to my friend, asking him what I was missing. He sent me a paper he’d done for a conference on how we should approach Wolfe. Wolfe was not interested in writing a traditional novel with an identifiable plotline, my friend explained. Wolfe was, rather, writing to immerse us in a world. He wants us to live there, experience moments and settings. He wants us to feel life deeply even through mundane details.

Okay, that helped. I’m fine with experimental fiction. But in the nitty-gritty of Wolfe’s words I often stumble and grab the dictionary for support. Here, for example, is a clip from a section where Eugene Gant wakes up in the morning and gets dressed:

With sharp whetted hunger he thought of breakfast. He threw the sheet back cleanly, swung in an orbit to a sitting position and put his white somewhat phthisic feet on the floor. Standing up tenderly, he walked over to his leather rocker and put on a pair of clean white-footed socks. Then he pulled his nightgown over his head, looking for a moment in the dresser mirror at his great boned structure, the long stringy muscles of his arms, and his flat-meated hairy chest. His stomach sagged paunchily. He thrust his white flaccid calves quickly through the shrunken legs of a union suit, stretched it out elasticly with a comfortable widening of his shoulders and buttoned it. Then he stepped into his roomy sculpturally heavy trousers and drew on his soft-leathered laceless shoes….

I found myself talking to Wolfe. “C’mon, Tom, really? Phthisic feet? WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?”

I looked up phthisic. It means a “wasting disease” like tuberculosis.
“Tom! Are you telling me Eugene’s feet had a lung disease? Can feet even look tubercular? Why are you making me stop to think about all this?”

A few pages later Wolfe writes about nacreous pearl light. Back to the dictionary! And guess what? Nacreous means pearly. So it’s not just a ten-dollar word, but I think Wolfe used it redundantly.

And then there are times when Wolfe pops in with author intrusion. To be fair, that’s part of his experiment. But we have things like this: The seed of our destruction will blossom in the desert, the alexin of our cure grows by a mountain rock, and our lives are haunted by a Georgia slattern because a London cut-purse went unhung.

Back to the dictionary! Alexin? (n., a defensive substance capable of destroying bacteria.)

Slattern? (n., an untidy, slovenly woman; a slut.)

But then … what does that passage even mean?

One more: Eugene got back his heart. He got it back fiercely and carelessly, with an eldritch wildness. 

Good thing I had the dictionary right next to me! Eldritch, adj., weird; eerie.

Come on, Tom! Why do you do this? Why do you slatternly drive the alexin of phthisic prose eldritchly before my white-footed socks?

Yet in deference to my friend, I’m going to darn well finish Look Homeward, Angel. But I have to say it ain’t easy.

Does that mean I only prefer books with stripped-down style?

Far from it. I do want some style, some voice. But I want it the way John D. MacDonald described it: unobtrusive poetry.

It’s sort of like actors. I’ll confess: I’ve never been a big fan of Laurence Olivier. I always feel like I’m watching an actor working a bit too hard. I admire the craft, but I see the craft. I never feel that way about, say, Robert Mitchum. Mitchum’s performances always look easy. Which is why he is often underrated as an actor.Mitchum digital cover

Mitchum actually had a terrific range. He could be cool (Out of the Past), vulnerable (Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), menacing (The Night of the Hunter), scary (Cape Fear), funny (What a Way to Go). He could be a man of the West (El Dorado), a man of the cloth (5 Card Stud), or a man after a girl’s heart (Holiday Affair). [Also, I find that Mitchum movies have a great deal to say about true manliness, lessons we need to recover. So much do I believe this that I wrote a little book, Manliness: The Robert Mitchum Way.]

How does all this translate to your writing?

  1. Don’t use a word that a majority of readers will have to look up. Get the story to your audience without needless obstacles, like phthisic feet.
  1. Major in the voice “formula” of character + author + craft. See my post on that subject here.
  1. A heightened style is fine if we don’t stop to stop and try to figure out what you mean. I like high style and even lyricism – when it works. For instance, in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. It’s Wolfeian in heft and experimental in style, yet it doesn’t require a dictionary. And it has a plot!
  1. It’s okay to overwrite when you draft. That’s often how you get the right touch of emotion and deepen a character. Write like you’re in love.
  1. But cut mercilessly to make the final product accessible to the reader. This is where you buckle your tool belt and get down to the real work. Edit like you’re in charge.

Now, I don’t want to leave poor Thomas Wolfe hanging out there with Harold Bloom sauce all over him. The guy was in love with writing. It was his life. I can’t deny his passion. So I’ll give him a fair hearing. But when I’m done with Look Homeward, Angel I have a feeling I’ll want to crack open a Travis McGee.

So are there books out there you’ve tried to like, but can’t? You don’t have to name names **COUGH**Middlemarch**COUGH**, but tell us why the book didn’t work for you.

Call Me Ishmael. Or Call Me Easy.

I was browsing through Paste Magazine, one of my favorite websites, when I happened across this article about a website named “Call Me Ishmael.” I couldn’t get the Ishmael website to work, but the idea behind it is intriguing. There is a telephone number that you can call and leave a voice mail about a book that particularly affected you, and how and why it did so. The person running the website transcribes at least one message per week and posts it to the website. That is the idea, anyway. Again, I couldn’t access the website; hopefully that is simply due to increased traffic due to the Paste article. I love the concept, however. It’s kind of a “Post Secret” or “Whisper” on a somewhat smaller scale for readers.

Everyone had great fun a couple of weeks ago discussing Kindle Unlimited, and while we aren’t done with that yet I thought maybe we’d dial things down a notch as we head into summer’s warmest month and present our own, modest, one-day-only version of Call Me Ismael without resorting to voice mail, since a lot of people don’t use it any more, anyway. What book(s) changed your life? How? And why?

I have two: LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL by Thomas Wolfe and ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac. I read LOOK HOMEWARD, ANGEL and was immediately swept up into the magic of words. I decided moments after reading the first chapter that I wanted to spend my life writing, in one form or another, and to a greater or lesser degree I have done that. ON THE ROAD gave me wanderlust. There are few things better in God’s world than getting into an automobile and driving for several hundred miles at a stretch to a destination that you love or have you yet to love. In what I fear is the initial manifestation of the onset of dementia, I have recently been haunted with the thought of jumping on board a Spyder RT (yes, the irony is not lost on me) and tooling down to New Orleans, then across I-10 to Houston and beyond. So far I have talked myself out of it. So far. If I succumb, please blame Kerouac and my lifelong friend William D. Plant III, the gent who shoved both books into my hand and who also happens to be one of this and last century’s best unpublished authors.

Enough about me and what I may or may not do and why.  To yank things back on track: what book changed your life? How? And why?

Books on the Installment Plan

Books published by installment are not new. Charles Dickens is generally credited with beginning, or at least popularizing the practice. Genre novels appeared in serial form in magazines such as Colliersand in science fiction and mystery magazines regularly in the 1940s, sometimes in abridged form, sometimes completely.  More recently, THE BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe was published in twenty-odd installments — in Rolling Stone, of all places — before it appeared in book form. Michael Connelly and Colin Harrison,  among others, have published short novels in Sunday newspaper magazines. The attraction for the reader is easy to see: be the first on your block to read the forthcoming novel, by your favorite author, before it’s actually published in book form, even if it is in installments.
So it was that a couple of mornings ago I flicked on my Kindle and learned from My Precious that Amazon has revived the serial novel for the electronic age. We are now in the era of serial e-books. Make a selection from list of e-books published under one of Amazon’s imprints, lay down (or should that be transmit?) a couple of bucks and you immediately receive the first installment which consists of about forty pages. That price also includes the rest of the book, released in six monthly installments. Late to the party? Not to worry. Plunk down your two dollars at any point along the way and you get all of the installments published to date and the future ones as they are released.
I tried to talk myself out of it. I failed. First argument:  Why bother? I would forget what happened from month to month.  I quit reading comic books twelve years ago, after a half-century of four-color fandom, because I could no longer remember from month to month what had happened in the previous month’s issue.  X-Men, to name but one example, had with all of its alternative time-lines and such had become incomprehensible. Rebuttal: that isn’t a problem with the Amazon serials. The next installment will be solidly fused with the presently published ones on Your Precious and if I can’t remember who did what to who, as the limerick goes, I can just do a search on the character’s name and bring my poor addled memory right up to snuff. Second argument:  I already have a couple of hundred books on my Kindle that I will probably never read. Why throw another one (or two. Or three.) on there?  Rebuttal: righto. But, I told myself, I can read forty pages or so while in the drive-through line at Sonic. I might be intimated from starting a six-hundred page book, but forty pages? No problem. Third argument…well, I didn’t have a third argument. I saw that Andrew Peterson, an extremely talented author, all-around good guy, and member of the F.O.S.J. (Friends of Sweet Joseph) has a novel titled OPTION TO KILL among the serial e-books. I bought that one. There is also a brand-new traditional western,  THE CIRCUIT RIDER, by Dani Amore, which looked so good that I could not resist.  Actually each and all of the books which comprise this inaugural launch seem to have something to recommend them. And, of course, Amazon’s sample feature is in place, in case you’re unfamiliar with the author or otherwise on the fence about purchasing a particular book.

Is this a gimmick that is going to fail? Or does it have a place in the market? I feel that anything different — if not necessarily new — which gets people buying and reading books, and gets money in the author’s pocket, is worth a shot.  How do you readers think about it? And while we’re on the topic, think about this: what if Amazon opened this up to other publishers and offered an either/or deal for the reader? Let’s say that one of your favorite authors has a novel dropping next Tuesday. Suppose you had the choice between buying and receiving the entire e-book at its full price, or paying a fraction of that full price (fifty percent or less) and receiving the book on the installment plan, at several dozen pages a month over the course of six months? Would you go for it, delaying gratification to save a few bucks? And authors…what do you have to say about any of this? DO you have a problem with your novel being divided up? Or does it sound good to you as well, as a way of drumming up interest?