Dialogue Rules

(This blog is about fiction-writing techniques and is a departure from my usual subject-matter. If this isn’t of interest, feel free to skip until next time!)

One of the things I particularly struggle with in fiction writing is dialogue. Considering how much of our lives we spend blabbing to each other, it doesn’t seem like it should be hard to create realistic dialogue on the page… but it is. Continue reading “Dialogue Rules”

Judging a Book by its Title

Yesterday I was introduced to The Book Den of Santa Barbara, which is the best bookstore I’ve ever been in. It had the perfect blend of interesting new books and beautiful used books, and if I ever have a house with a library, I would happily fill it up there.

While browsing, I began to ponder whether the phrase “judging a book by its cover” isn’t a little too narrow.

When I was no older than thirteen, I would pester my mom to take me to the book store so I could buy books you wouldn’t expect to even be on the radar of a tween: collections of Jane Austen’s lesser and unfinished novels; Tales of a Wayside Inn; Moby Dick; Camilla. (Austen references Camilla in Northanger Abbey so clearly I must read it, and I did, all 913 pages. It still tickles me that, a decade later, a literary roommate saw it on my bookshelf and was hugely impressed. “My professor always said that if we were really serious about literature we would read Camilla,” she explained.)

“Literature,” then, was always something of a hallowed concept for me. At our local Borders, amidst the sections devoted to history and biography, mystery and young adult, there was a whole section called “literature”. Naively assuming an author must meet some elevated standard to be included there with the classics, I was wildly impressed.

And then I was disappointed. At some point, after picking up countless of these novels and having reactions ranging all the way down to disgust, it dawned on me that this was the catch-all section. This was the section for books that didn’t fit into any of the accepted genres. This was the section for writers with literary aspirations – most of which they could never hope to meet.

A snobbish reaction? Yes, most likely. But I was upset by the failure to distinguish between great and bad and only so-so. Confronted with an entire bookstore, how was I supposed to know what was worth the time to read? The result was that for many years, when confronted with modern books with “literary” titles, I instinctively shrank away in horror.

But as I looked at the rows of titles yesterday I finally realized what a useless distinction that is. Many of the classic titles – Portrait of a Lady, Tender is the Night, The Age of Innocence, War and Peace, The Eternal Husband – sound much like the modern titles. The difference, at least for me, is that the classic titles are irrelevant; they have no independent meaning. I know that they are classic, so the titles are just the way of distinguishing one classic from another in my mental index.

And yes, that is definitely snobbish.

For years I have proudly declared that I always judge books by their covers (and, apparently, their titles), and that it works. That is, when I do pick up a book, I nearly always like it. But there is no way of knowing how often the reverse is true. How many of the books I don’t pick up would I like?

Confronted by an entire bookstore (and, now, internet!) of books to read, I may continue with this method. After all, there is limited time and everything has to be prioritized somehow, and there is nothing wrong with that. But I will make an effort not to assume the worst about a novel just because it is modern and has an interesting title. That is simply small-minded.

November Book Review: Passionate Minds

David Bodanis is the reason there is no toothpaste in our household – thanks to his book The Secret House (we use baking soda with just a touch of stevia instead). It may have been through that connection or by some other chance, but either way I was thrilled to discover this book: the tagline is

The great love affair of the Enlightenment, featuring the scientist Emilie du Chatelet, the poet Voltaire, sword fights, book burnings, assorted kings, seditious verse, and the birth of the modern world.

Impressively, Emilie du Chatelet, born in 1706, denied access to all formal education and scientific communities of the time, and all but forgotten now, did research that formed the foundation of the “squared” in E=mc2 and, separately, doing no research at all, theorized properties of light that wouldn’t be confirmed until 70 years later and form the basis of photography, among other things. This was a woman I needed to know more about.

The book is an easy and compelling read and good for a general overview of two remarkable and intersecting lives, but ultimately disappointing. Bodanis mentions in the preface that Voltaire and Emilie were together for ten years but that the relationship ended unsatisfactorily, leading to her early death and a certain bitterness in his later work. I would say that is a highly overdramatized way of summarizing the story as recorded in the main text, but my enjoyment of much of the book was spoiled as I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop.

More disappointingly, however, the book seems superficial. In the preface Bodanis contends that the pair, who corresponded with nearly every major thinker in Europe, were at the center of developing the up-and-coming Enlightenment. Yet in the main text their correspondences are referred to only passingly.

Even looking at it only as a story of their love, I have read biographies of entire lives (this skips most of Emilie’s growing-up years and picks up Voltaire intermittently from age 23, when he was already well-known, ending by quickly summarizing his last years) that aren’t much longer than this yet seem much more thorough. There are certainly books where this is unavoidable because the detail simply isn’t available. In this case, that isn’t true.

Du Chatelet had been an inveterate letter writer, sometimes sending four or five messages a day, and Voltaire wrote constantly too, so what I found about key events was often as dense as an email trail today. Thousands of those letters have survived, as have du Chatelet’s own half-dozen books and unprinted manuscripts (including beautiful, private autobiographical reflections). There are also letters from houseguests and neighbors and purchasing agents and scientists, as well as a vast thicket of police reports, complemented by a small layering of servants’ memories… The detail was so great that when, for example, I describe Voltaire smiling after being asked a question by a particular police spy in May 1717, his smiling is not a random guess, but appears in a report the spy wrote that very evening.

So why isn’t more of this included in the book?

There are certainly interesting passages. I had never realized that many of the things we take for granted today – like personalized signatures on letters, or the fact that we can never truly understand another person’s inner thoughts – were revolutionary at the time. Even the advent of cushioned armchairs was a result of a change in philosophical outlook. And I would never have guessed that it was Voltaire who – based on an interview with one of Newton’s relatives – first circulated the story about the apple falling from the tree.

(Of less general interest, but fascinating to me, was the fact that Voltaire and his friend Richelieu – nephew of the infamous Cardinal – were responsible for putting Jeanne Poisson into Louis XV’s bed, thus launching the career of Madame du Pompadour, who was another very smart cookie and about whom I wrote in In the Face of a Royal Pain.)

I’m glad I read the book, but mostly because it has pointed me to a couple of other biographies of Emilie that might actually give a full picture of the heroine.

Memory is All We Have (part 1)

Roughly a decade ago I stood in a shop in the little tourist village of Portmeirion, Wales, debating which book to take home as a souvenir. The choice was between two books by the same author I had never heard of, selected almost at random for their titles and covers, and took a surprising amount of time.

Considering that the one I chose, the one about the old diary rather than the one about the forest, has been one of my favorite books ever since, and is unequalled by anything I’ve ever read for its pacing and structure, I’ve often thought about that decision, and the chance that led me to this one that I love so much.

But it wasn’t until I was re-reading it yet again this week that I wondered why I’ve never hunted down the other one. I know the author is published in America; I looked into it when I realized I would eventually need to buy a replacement copy.

The answer is simple and a little strange. I’ve tended to assume, all these other years, that I could never love the other one as much as this one, and this book is so magical to me that I fear it would be spoiled by reading another in the same style.

At first I thought this was completely opposite my usual practice, considering that I have tracked down and read almost every available work by other authors I’ve particularly enjoyed – Jane Austen, Henry James, Dorothy Sayers, Alexander McCall Smith. But it’s not, really. I’ve never re-read Portrait of a Lady, my favorite of Henry James’ works, because I feared it wouldn’t speak to me the same way the second time around. The first time I saw Whale Rider it was spectacular, the second time it was special, and the third time it was merely a very good movie. After being equally blown away by Almost Famous I never took the chance of the same thing happening.

All we have is our memories. We don’t like to think that; we’re always being told to “live in the moment.” But if you don’t believe me, try having a conversation when you’re so tired, so distracted or simply so in-over-your-head that you can barely remember what was discussed five minutes before or how one subject segued into another. “The moment” becomes rather surreal when you can’t rely on memory and it is memory that gives importance to each moment.