Writer’s Desk: Get Out There

Tom Wolfe, the great conquistador of New Journalism who died last week at the age of 88, had a problem with modern fiction. For the most part, he thought it stunk. To his way of thinking, all the American novelists of the later 20th century were too stuck in their abstracted heads. That was why he blowtorched the literary establishment with the 1989 Harper’s essay “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast.

In it, he issued a call for a return to the great reported fiction of the 19th century, in the mold of Dickens and Zola:

Emerson said that every person has a great autobiography to write, if only he understands what is truly his own unique experience. But he didn’t say every person had two great autobiographies to write. Dickens, Dostoyevski, Balzac, Zola, and Sinclair Lewis assumed that the novelist had to go beyond his personal experience and head out into society as a reporter. Zola called it documentation, and his documenting expeditions to the slums, the coal mines, the races, the folies, department stores, wholesale food markets, newspaper offices, barnyards, railroad yards, and engine decks, notebook and pen in hand, became legendary…

Wolfe followed that rule for his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, using the same tools of close observation that served his nonfiction so well. Later novels like A Man in Full suffered from his preconceived notions overtaking what he saw on the ground.

But still, Wolfe’s call to get out into the tumult of life is as necessary as ever. You can only learn so much from your desk.

Writers’ Room: Elmore Leonard on Writing Well

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Elmore Leonard died last week at the age of 87. He wrote dozens of books and innumerable short stories in a variety of genres, but was best remembered for his best-selling crime novels. He was a master of clean prose and a mechanic of plot; so much so that his justly famous “10 Rules of Writing Well” should be checked out by any writer, crime or not.

Here you go:

  1. Never open a book with weather.
  2. Avoid prologues.
  3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.
  4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .
  5. Keep your exclamation points under control.
  6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”
  7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.
  8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
  9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
  10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

Always, always follow the last one. Read the original piece here for his explanations of the various rules. (“You are allowed no more than two or three [exclamation marks] per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.”)

Reader’s Corner: National Book Awards

The finalists were announced last week for the 2012 National Book Awards. The list of fiction finalists overlooked some big-name releases this year from Michael Chabon (Telegraph Avenue) and Tom Wolfe (Back to Blood), not to mention some pulpier (but nevertheless deservedly critically beloved) books like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. The list also drew attention to a couple of novels about the current wars (Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk and The Yellow Birds), which seems appropriate as this is the first year books on that subject have finally started filtering into stores. Here are the five:

  • This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
  • A Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
  • The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
  • Billy Flynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain
  • The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers

It’s a strong list, overall, but the smart money has to be on Diaz to win. Not only has the wait for a new work been excruciating (his astounding novel Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao came out five years ago) but the man just won a MacArthur “genius” grant.

Winners will be announced on November 14, 2012.