Grasping the Wind: Describing the Nature and Features of Voice

We all know the feeling. We sit on our couches and our eyes move left to right and down the page, following the words this master has created. How do we know he’s a master? Well, just look! The way the writer uses the words, runs them together in strings of perfection that create the uninterrupted fictive dream. The writer uses his knowledge of his craft to a T. And what’s more? He sounds like no other writer. He sounds, in a word, like himself. It’s just impossible to think that he sounds like anyone else out there writing or having written. This magic, this seeming like one’s self is in my opinion the pinnacle of what a writer should aspire to. This pinnacle has a name and it’s bandied about in all circles of publishing, writing, and critiquing. It’s referred to as voice.

Okay, so we know what voice looks like when we see it. We know all the agents and editors and publishers and even our selves are looking for it. So why the hell can’t we find it? Why is it so damn unattainable? And worse, why is it we can’t see it in ourselves? When I was younger I spent way more time than was necessary or even helpful in trying to decide if I had found my voice yet. The answer, as you might have guessed, was no–I hadn’t found my voice yet. Like most, I didn’t even know what it would look like when I did it because it was my work I was trying to assess as having voice or not. What few people will tell you is the necessary tenets or qualities of voice and how it is attained. Now, this won’t be an end-all be all treatise on “5 FAIL-SAFE WAYS TO MAKE SURE YOU FIND YOUR VOICE!” Hardly. Though it would be wonderful to have something like that laid out in front of us so that all we would have to do would be to follow the recipe. Or would we? The point is that writing is far too mystical, alchemical, and artful for it to be as simple as all that. However, I will try to give some sort of bearing on how to go about finding your voice.

First, the definition. Last year, I attended the Tin House Writers Workshop and one of the first talks given was given by the Tin House editors. It was called the “Tin House View” and had to do with voice and why it was so important and, more importantly, just what the fuck it was. During the conversation, it was the Editor in Chief of Tin House Magazine, Rob Spillman who said, when asked to elaborate on the concept of voice, that voice was “having a sense of authority that tells the reader that the writer who wrote this knows what he is doing and is telling this story for a reason.” Definition one, right there. I hope a lightbulb is going off in your head as you read this, because it did to me when I sat and listened to this talk. Rob’s words pulled some sort of veil from my eyes and there it was: an actual almost touchable definition of voice.

The second definition of voice comes from a completely difference source. This summer I spent lots of time smoking various substances and lounging around the backyard with my favorite fellow writers. One day we got into a discussion about Quentin Tarantino (who I hate and who my friends seem to have some sort of affection for). I contended that it seemed like he was a one-trick pony who used violence as both a means and an ends and pretty much nothing else. My friends argued and I was finally persuaded to try and watch Kill Bill. The dialogue ended there, but then my friend Aaron said something that caught my attention.  He said, essentially, that the thing that made him admire Tarantino so much was that everything he did in his films seemed to have been on purpose, for a specific reason. Nothing was random or an accident. It just fit. Now, that didn’t necessarily convince me that Tarantino was great–but it did spark an idea in me that that was exactly what voice was. Filmmakers–Kubrick, Cohens, Fincher, Bergman–just like writers, end up developing a style (see: voice) that is recognizable almost at all times. Though this definition is very much like the previous one, I’d like to point out how it is not. The first definition concerned itself with authority, meaning staking a claim for respect and attention. Declaring oneself to be serious and worthy of consideration. This second definition focuses much more on intent of the artist and the perception of his work. In a word, this definition is concerned with control. The ability to control one’s work to the point that everything he does seems on purpose. This is the definition I will mostly be focusing on, though as I focus on the second definition, glimpses of the former one will continually rear up. Because the first definition is the one we have the least control over, seeing as how it relies on the perception of the reader to recognize the writer’s authority. But on the other hand, the second definition contains something in it that we can do something about, because it refers to action, to control, to agency. The first definition is the final product that should be arrived at after mastering the second one.

Okay, so now I’m going to ask you to forget about voice. Why? Because it’s for all intents and purposes, useless. Then what the fuck was all that going on about for (checks the word counter at the bottom left here…)950 words (that’s before the parenthetical)? I’ll tell you. If you want, go open a document right now and start writing like yourself. Write a story sounding like yourself. How far did you get? I know how it went, at least I know how it went for me when I used to try that: nowhere. The reason for that is because I was basically trying to reach the thing in an equation that lies on the other side of the equal sign separate from everything else. I was trying to reach the sum without investigating and mastering each of the parts. That’s called cheating (or so my high school Algebra teacher not so kindly informed me years ago).  Voice in fiction is what happens when all of the other parts of the alchemical process that is writing has been mastered (which are never really mastered, by the way). If you really want to reach your voice, look at your own writing that’s already there. It’s there. Just like the David was already there in the marble–all Michelangelo had to do was trim the excess. That’s your job as well.

Your writing is you. Your voice is you translated into your writing. Now all that’s left is to decide what reflects you. What do you concern yourself with when you write? These are the basis of everything in your writing. Character, point of view, setting, dialogue, description, and style (word usage, sentence length, cadence, etc.): these are the ingredients to your writing and to your voice. They are also the ingredients to the craft, the art that we dedicate ourselves to for some reason. The characters you write about, the places that shape your characters and say something about your stories, the ways in which people speak or don’t speak, the details you decide to turn your spotlight on, the images that strike you and seem to be yours you understanding them so well, the way in which you decide to construct your sentences and the words you choose to use–these are all the things that go into creating the marble block. Every piece has a meaning. It’s for you to decide what the meaning is. And here is where I leave you. From here on out, my advice, in fact, anyone else’s advice as you write that first draft and build up your marble block will cease to help. This is where writing is undeniably an art. No one can do it for you and you will never be able to do it unless you put yourself and only yourself into it. This is where all the agency in the world is in your hands. Nowhere else will you have as much control and responsibility as you do right here. I hope this inspires you, because god damn it, it inspires me. The idea that I’m the only one responsible for what becomes of this block of marble in front of me? People would most definitely kill to feel like they have this much control over something in their lives. We are the gifted ones who choose to do this as a profession, maybe if we can’t do it full time, even as a hobby. Some days it may feel like a curse, some days we have to open a vein and bleed to write. Some days it comes so easily we look back and think: who the hell wrote that? It’s a mysterious process we’re involved in and all the while we’re building up to the point where we have to trim the excess of the draft, the marble block we’ve created. This last part is where we surely shape the block into the David, into our voice. This part is called revision. And it’s all about coolness under pressure, of level-headedness–not the white-hot burn of inspiration.

So here we are. The last step of the process, which is kind of a never-ending one if you think about it. Whereas the writer in the heat of writing the first draft simply stops when he reaches the end, the process of revising is the last painful part for most writers. Having to go back and point out all the pockmarks and acne scars in this one, big enormous darling of his, the writer most likely (as I do) balks at the task, naively hoping that maybe there won’t be anything wrong with the work, that it will be an unstoppable Kerouac-ian bull of a book. You will be wrong. And I’m not so sure that Kerouac wasn’t just a bit of a liar, claiming that he didn’t edit anything of On the Road–it’s a nice thought, but probably a lie. And so the writer goes back and highlights, underlines, draws arrows, puts question marks on his beautiful darling. Then, as if this wasn’t enough, after applying the requisite flourishes and corrections, he then asks his friends, his most trusted advisors and respected colleagues to get in on the action, marking their own doubts in the form of question marks and underlines and what not. Though this seems indecent, this will actually be the most helpful part of the entire process, so pay attention. The time will soon come when your writer buddies will gather together and talk about your work. Take notes. They say what was good, what they thought was working, what  connections they saw between character, setting, description, dialogue, theme, etc. Then they will say what problems they had with it. Take notes. They will ask if you intended certain things, they will suggest improvements to draw the theme tighter or to flesh out characters, or any other number of things. Takes notes. Get a damn tape recorder. Anything to remember all these things flying around the air that could be useful. Just remember this: no matter who these people are–friends, colleagues, lovers, brothers or sisters, brothers or sisters in law, your word is law when it comes to your own work. You can take all their advice or none. The most important thing is that you learn what problems readers other than yourself are finding and that you find ways to fix those problems. Simple. I hope.

So there you are. After you have written something and edited it, revised it within an inch of its life, hopefully you will have something that reflects your voice. After the product is finished, maybe give it to the same people who revised it and maybe even give it to someone who hasn’t, someone who doesn’t read much or hasn’t read your stuff. My brother hardly reads at all, but he’s one of my best friends. We have late-night conversations that run until the sun rises. He gives great advise and he’s incredibly smart. So I give him a story of mine when I think it’s ready to go out. His word normally tells me when something is ready to go out. I ask him to let me know if it seems like whoever wrote this knows what he’s doing, like everything is doing what it’s doing because it’s supposed to be that way. This is where the first criterion of voice comes into play. By the end of your revision process, your story should claim an authority, claim that it deserves to be listened to and that you know what you’re doing. And maybe even more importantly, it should seem by the end of your story that it is being told for a reason. If your reader finishes with your story and says to himself, “Why the hell did I read this?” Or “What’s the point?” somewhere along the way the story lost the reader. This is not to say that every reader will respond the same way to your story. But if your most trusted readers are still missing the point, it’s back to the drawing board.

At this point I feel like I should say something really inspirational about voice and all writing in general. I guess all I have to say is that I hope that every day at some point while you’re writing your story, poem, or essay that you look up and stop and think how lucky you are to be doing this–to be crafting something that is drudged up from within and shines as an example of who you are, of what and how and when and where and, maybe most importantly, why you are. If, in the end of your story, after all that work, you feel like you have achieved this, then you will be luckier than most who attempt it–and, most likely, you will have found your voice.

The Beginning of the End

I have been writing my book since some time in November, when I was trapped in a hellish job where I slang corn dogs and sliced up chubs of meat for assholes who worked for Microsoft and Amazon. I know, what the fuck took me so long?! Honestly, I’m not really sure–though this is also the first book I’ve written where it wasn’t a rip-off of something else I have read, so it’s to be expected I suppose. But now, in the middle of summer I find myself so close to the end of my book that I can taste it. I say about two weeks more of writing 2,000 words a day should do it. With that, I mean I will be done with all the prinicipal word-writing. All the words to my book will be written two weeks from now. Two weeks. It’s so crazy to hear and to think that sometimes I feel like I don’t even want to finish my book. I don’t know if this is normal because I’ve never been at this point in the process where I’m so close to finishing something that’s such a part of me, but one part of me thinks that if I can just keep writing this thing forever, I’ll never have to tear it down.

I think one of the reasons for this fear of finishing is that the book is such a part of me that I balk at seeing what will happen when I show it to others. Not necessarily my friends who are amazing critics and who help me to refine my work as far as possible, but the people who I will send my work to for the final word on whether or not it will find representation or publication or not. I hate the idea that I am afraid of finishing my book because of what will happen to it when it is done but if I’m honest with myself, that’s pretty much it. Sending my book out into the cold cruel world is a frightening thing–especially to know that once I send it out, I’ll have to get to work on another project, whatever it may be. Maybe I’ll feel better about it after I’m finished. These may be the fears of someone who is on the brink of something awesome or wonderful and just doesn’t know it yet. This also tends to happen with people who are about to “level-up” in their writing, slumping into a kind of funk or plateau in their thinking or in their work right before a giant breakthrough pushes them forward.

Another reason I think finishing the book is becoming difficult is because somewhere in the back of my writer-brain, as I read the phrases and experience them coming forth, I know that on a sentence-by-sentence level as well as a conception-based level, I am far better a writer than I was when I began my project. On the face, this seems completely heartening and no cause for anything but celebration. But thinking back, that means 8 months of improvement will have to be reconciled once the book is done. Not only does this seem like hard work, it also seems like I should have my whole book immediately at the skill-level I am at right now, rather than having to be fixed in post. Petty and useless whining on my part, of course, seeing as how the finished product will hopefully be up to snuff. It’s just that fear one faces when looking at work done a while back and suddenly they are horrified to find that they could ever be that bad of a writer. It’s at then that the writer must stay in his seat, strap on his seatbelt, and roll up his sleeves because he has a lot of work ahead of him, just different from the kind that he has done up to this point. However, this kind of writing seems to be something different that I might enjoy. What’s more, I would probably be able to do this writing at one point and then switch over and work on something new, since one is being written with the editor brain and the other with the artist brain. Hopefully this will dispel some of the unpleasantness of seeing my older work that isn’t as good as I’d like it to be.

Something for all you writers to remember and keep in your ears: if you’re reading something of yours that you wrote a while ago and it seems terrible, this is a GOOD THING. It means that your faculties haven’t failed you and that you still have a good sense of quality work, and what’s more, you have probably improved in your writing and recognition of what is good, which means that the next time you write something, it will be better than what you have in your hand. And what’s even more, you’ll probably be able to edit the piece you’re reading right now to a point where it is better. Or, you’ll be able to re-write the story, this time in a way that’s even more aligned with what you envisioned for it in the first place.

By now, I’ve rambled sufficiently about my worries, fears, and then my silver-lining I’ve found in my worries and fears about finishing my book. Hopefully this was entertaining or instructive or both. Neither would be unfortunate, but at times I’m not sure if I’m writing these posts more for myself or for others. Either way, I learn as I write and I hope something of consequence is gleaned after I’m done.

Cheers!

Dictionary Daily: Ken

This should have never been called “dictionary daily”–since my initial post about a word, I’m pretty sure I never did another. Anyway, I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory and Sheldon tells Penny that she is “meddling with forces beyond her ken.” This line triggered something in my mind and brought to mind Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In that poem, the word “ken” is used here: “And through the drifts the snowy clifts/Did send a dismal sheen:/Nor shapes of men nor beasts we ken -/ The ice was all between.” I love that section of the poem because Coleridge uses words that then might have been in use, but now are almost completely archaic. I see that a pattern having to do with my fascination involving archaic words. For those of you who do not know, the word “ken” is an archaic form of the word “knowledge” or “to know.” The use of this word is pretty versatile, as it functions as both a verb and noun.

Though I’ve already done one of these on another archaic word, I still find myself inspired to do another one, so it seems as if I’m drawn to this idea of the archaic word for more reasons than I can fathom. I can’t really hardly dredge up even one reason, so I put it to the analytical side of my brain. The idea that there are words that have now become archaic indicates that there were words more preferable to the ones that became outmoded and in this way we learned to picked and choose which words suited our ears best. Unless I’m missing some historical/anthropological link between this word and its origins that might explain its archaic nature, I’m just going to have to go with that. And since there seem to be words that were discarded by English-speaking peoples, I am forced to wonder if there are words we can bring back (cue the racism scene from Clerks 2)–could we somehow finds ways to resurrect words that have been trashed, is there a necessity to this, an inherent logic in making sure that no piece of our language get left behind? Maybe the idea that even a single piece of our language can become dead (or an entire language for that matter) is what really scares me the most and brings me to seek out these lonely words and reintroduce them to our lexicon. Cormac McCarthy does just that in Blood Meridian, using tons of archaic words and does amazing work with them, showing that even though words have been discarded, they will never lack their use if we have the desire to put them to it.

Fear and Loathing at the Writing Desk

Sometimes even I, after writing 2500 words in a night, come back to the words I wrote and wonder whether or not they are worth anything. At night, when in the throes of a writing streak, if I’m not careful, if I don’t separate one part of myself from the other, they begin to speak to one another, and the result is not pretty. It’s like allowing two of your ex-girlfriends to somehow meet with you in the room. Suddenly all your idiosyncrasies and tics and annoying habits and picadillos all come out and you find yourself in a severe state of self-loathing coupled with a bemused wonder at how you ever allowed those two parts of you to ever converge. This same thing happens when my pre-frontal cortex (or, as I like to call him, the fucking nag) somehow is allowed to interact with my right cerebral cortex–suddenly I suck at everything, this sentence is too long, that phrase is almost stock it’s so cliched. Why use that word? It’s totally redundant if you use a different word right in front of it, makes it way more concise. Why the hell would your character say that and on and on.

Doing the writing has always been for me a precarious balancing act and I’m sure it has for most people. However, I guess I find that the longer I do this thing, the easier it’s become for me to run along the gangplank which I happen to be on and not fall off into the abyss of self-doubt and hyper-editing (or worse, manuscript-burning). But, all the same, I can’t help wishing that I had a mentor. Not like the university teachers who helped us as much as they could (and some helped more than others). I keep going back to the things I read about DFW and Don DeLillo and I keep trying to find anything that they had written to each other. Wallace was in a real writerly existential crisis and he called out for help from one author who was already extremely well-established and who Wallace admired above many others. And that message in the bottle came back with more support than Wallace could have ever hoped for. I’m sure this encouragement and communication with someone who had been where Wallace had been and beyond helped Wallace summon the strength to finish Infinite Jest. I wish I had that. The feeling is even more acute today, where the Tin House Workshop is in its first full day (since it’s past midnight) which means that this year I am missing the thing that gave me such a kick in the ass, even kicking me right up out of a month-long depression that I had settled into since the very day I graduated. I feel lucky that my core group of support seems to be coming back together, if not slowly. I hope that by this time next year I will have a finely edited novel to shop around and to have work shopped. Some days it feels a long way off and other days it feels right around the corner. I just passed the climax of my novel and now it’s all over but the crying.

But after the crying comes the cutting–months and months of tearing down my work. And I’m sure everyone knows by now that that’s my least favorite part of the beast. Having said all that, I’m sure I would be freaking out far more if I didn’t know that I had at least three great readers who will give the best commentary possible once my book is finished. And they’ve done a great job not asking too much in the way of details from me since I’ve gotten on this kick of not giving away the fire too quickly and letting it stew. I think above all the thing that I fear is that the book will be a failure–something completely devoid of empathy and sincerity and that I will have poured all this into something that can not and never did hold water at all. I think the mentor thing would be of most use here, where you can only ask advice of someone who has already been in the throes of what you’re experiencing, has transcended it, and will be able to confidently tell you it’s going to be okay and that it will pass. As I say this, I see a link between myself and a drug addict in need of a sponsor–someone who’s been through it, who knows what it’s like, and to tell you it will pass and it gets better. “Hello, my name is Ry and I am a writer.” This seems like it could become quite a one-sided relationship, this sponsor or mentor, something along the lines of the Wallace story, “The Depressed Person” where someone calls a friend just to pour out all her insecurities and apologies and not good enoughs, which only serve to make her more alienated from her friends than if she just kept her shit to herself. Hopefully if I ever do get the balls to send that message out in the bottle, there will be someone on the other shore kind enough to talk me down, slap me in the face, and hand me a glass of whiskey and, having done all that, tell me to get back to work. And maybe to tell me that he (or she) believes in me. Or maybe more importantly, to tell me to believe in myself.

As I think about this idea of belief in oneself, I begin to realize that our insecurities are some of our greatest strengths. What do we talk about in our writing? I don’t talk about how fucking smart I am, or how much I’ve read and I’m sure you don’t either. We talk about how we hate the shapes of our noses, how we don’t want to fail–we express that in our writing–or at least I hope we do. Because that’s honest. That’s real. Speaking about our strengths, in an odd way, serves to alienate us from our readers, but when discussing or addressing our weaknesses, everyone is on board with it. I have to remember that and I hope you do, too. If something seems to be getting too close to you, don’t hold it at arm’s length–bring it closer, even close enough that you transcend the line of indecency. You can always go back to it later and make it less so. But I think we never know how far it is necessary to go until we go farther than we feel comfortable, then turn to look back.

For my closest writer friends, I hope this has been entertaining and maybe a little bit of an ah-ha! trigger. If not, hopefully it at least didn’t bore you to tears. For all the other folks who sometimes drop by my blog, I hope you enjoyed it too.

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.”
-Goethe

The Two Faces of Post-Modernism

Defining Post-Modernism is a bit of a shaky subject these days, seeing as how its inception was way back around 1950 (dates of this sort are shaky as well) and some even argue that writers are still toiling in that pigeon-hole today. My opinions on that tend to differ from the popular view of schools of literature, but I’ll save that for another post. The issue that concerns us today is one of the validity/worth of the entire school of Post-Modernism. Now, one would be foolish to try and deem an entire literary movement as completely useless and then move on to more important matters like coming up with a name for the new school of up and coming authors. I am no fan of the Post-Modernists in general, but my view of the Post-Modernists (in general) comes down to a very simple duality. On one hand, one school of the Post-Modernists uses black humor and the knowledge and recognition of the story as a man-made construct to identify more closely with the reader and get the reader to feel something unfelt before. The second school of Post-Modernists are a bunch of smug, intelligent, and purposefully confusing and/or obscure writers who enjoy leading their readers from pillar to post in a hunt that effectively ends nowhere except with the reader either confused or (rightfully) incredibly angry with the author. This second school of writers uses the knowledge of the story as a man made construct and flaunts it in the reader’s face in an attempt to seemingly take the reader from the story or to exemplify how empty the whole concept of the story and words themselves are. It is this second school of Post-Modernism which I aim to take issue with and argue against in the interest of fostering a better aim of the coming work that my generation will be producing–a sort of ars poetica, if I can use the term without just coming off looking like a regular arse. Not that I intend this essay to be a touchstone for authors the way that the essays of T.S. Eliot were for those of his generation. I would simply like to point a way through the thicket in which we find ourselves.

The most prominent author of what I consider to be the “soulful” Post-Modernists is none other than my favorite Post-Modernist, Kurt Vonnegut. His books are filled with Black Humor and even self-referential devices that add rather than detract from the book itself. An example of this self-reference comes in Slaughterhouse-Five where at the beginning of the book he tells the reader of how much difficulty he had writing the story about his experiences in World War II and the resistance he was met with (the wife of one of his war buddies). Rather than taking us out of the story, we instead empathize with a man whose side will eventually commit one of the worst firebombings in the history of man. And at the same time he sets up the character of Billy Pilgrim to be almost a time-traveling doppelganger for himself and rather than object to it, we allow it to go on because we are so invested with this character. Also, the knowledge of how difficult the composition of the novel was actually makes the reader more in a position to listen because of how much effort the author put forth and how important it was to the author to get it right. Self-reference in Vonnegut’s seminal work is the key to identification. The next place self-reference comes into Vonnegut’s work is in the book Breakfast of Champions–we have not gotten any mention of the author except in the preface until one of the very last scenes where Vonnegut suddenly puts himself inside the story. Before this, a reader of the main character Kilgore Trout’s books is given a book by Trout that claims that the reader is the only person in the world with individuality and free will–at this point, the reader goes home and beats his wife, son, and nine others before being taken into custody. This seems like a very important point, because after this happens, Vonnegut inserts himself into the story and gives his character Kilgore Trout the permission to be free and under his own will. What is this supposed to mean to us as observers of this bizarre turn of events? I believe that seeing the reader (Duane) react the way he did when learning of his free will should make us hope that Kilgore Trout will avoid the same pratfall that his own reader fell prey to–and that in turn we will be rooting for ourselves as readers to remember that we are free and individual beings and to remember that everyone else has free will. I believe this was what Vonnegut intended, because in addition to his being a Humanist, he as a character talks to himself in the book, saying, “This is a very bad book you’re writing,” I said to myself. “I know,” I said. “You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,” I told myself. “I know,” I said.” I believe that Vonnegut is attempting to rectify the damage done by Duane in Vonnegut’s writing a terrible book–and as penance, Vonnegut actually reveals something painful about himself in the very book that he seemed to think he had failed to write. Vonnegut’s mother actually had killed herself, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that Vonnegut used this deus ex machina as a way to create a meta-narrative that captures the true Humanistic empathy that he had tried (and allegedly failed) to achieve in the first place. This is admirable both because Vonnegut bares himself to us and also has the courage to admit that he has failed. This incredible ballsy action alone has my vote for the best Post-Modernist work out there. This idea of empathy is very important both in my explanation of Vonnegut’s effectiveness as well as my ultimate “division” between good and bad Post-Modernism.

Another author who has passed his prime, but who has used self-reference to very great effect is Philip Roth. Throughout most of his books Roth has used the persona of Nathan Zuckerman to speak in a fictional mode for the author himself. This method works on two fronts: first of all, the reader is given to engage with a narrator whose experiences are fictionalized, but very much a part of every day experiences of every day people. This sounds like a terribly boring way to engage with a story, but the way Roth does it is that he places his characters in situations that are able to be identified with by almost anyone. As an author, Roth does something that is not common in Post-Modernism by placing his characters in positions that are almost cliche in their familiarity, rather than the trend formed by some Post-Modernists in which characters and situations displayed are some of the most esoteric. It’s this engagement with the familiar and borderline cliche that makes Roth so different from the other members of his generation.

The second face of Post-Modernism is the writers who delight in planting red herrings and playing around with their characters to the point of frustration and desertion. The first of these authors is Thomas Pynchon, whose book The Crying of Lot 49 will be the focus of this paragraph. However, his book, V. is another one I consider to be firmly in this vein. In the former, Pynchon’s character, Oedipa tries to get to the bottom of the mystery of the Trystero, a mysterious trumpet-shaped mark appearing on envelopes that have been sent without using a stamp. She suspects some sort of conspiracy and spends the entirety of the book looking for the answer to her questions, along the way discussing entropy, Maxwell’s Hammer, and many other mathematical and scientific subjects of interest. However, by the end of the book, absolutely nothing is resolved and the reader is left to wonder why he took the time to read these 15o pages he’s holding in his hand. And if he was in a particularly bad mood to begin with before reading the end of the story, said reader might just throw the book across the room. The reason I place Pynchon in this realm of Post-Modernists who are nihilistic and desert their readers is because, though Oedipa has a clear cause to pursue and lines of questioning to follow, we are left at the end of the book with her having not an answer at all, as if saying that the quest for answers is futile, even to the point that it is futile for readers to expect answers or even coherent plot endings from the authors whose works they happen to be reading. And those authors have the option of having us draw that conclusion–but if that is so, then readers have the option of calling their plots nihilistic and devoid of real heart. These books suffer from the symptom of having too much brains and not enough heart to satisfy the reader who reads to find something out about people.

If Pynchon has a penchant for frustrating readers, he is merely a peon in that arena when it comes to the real master of these types of books, Vladimir Nabokov. I’m not sure if Nabokov ever wrote a novel that didn’t fuck around with his readers and for this reason I will never acknowledge his anointed spot at the upper echelon of American writers. Nabokov’s novels that I will focus on in my argument are: Lolita and Pale Fire. First of all, the book Lolita, though having the possibility of being a touching novel (as touching as a novel written by a pedophile can be), ends up falling short because of Nabokov’s love of verbal pyrotechnics, drawing comparisons between him and the later David Foster Wallace. However, where Wallace succeeds in tearing down walls between himself, his characters, and his reader, that is where Nabokov completely fails. Throughout the story, Nabokov uses Humbert Humbert not as a man telling his own story of how he loved a girl and ended up loving a woman as his own mouthpiece with which to spout lots of verbal effluvium and alliterative rationalizations. Though the beginning of the story begins nicely, with Humbert Humbert setting his eyes on Lolita, the plot takes a turn for the worse as soon as Lolita’s mother dies and Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip. Soon enough, seesawing begins with the narrator–suddenly we can tell his is playing with us and there is no reason for Humbert not to have skipped straight to the climax of Lolita and him sleeping together and then moving the story along. Instead we are given pages upon pages of details about the road trip and by this time the reader begins to feel Nabokov behind Humbert Humbert, sitting there stringing the reader along to see what happens next. But nothing happens–even in the climactic scene, if you don’t pay attention, you miss everything! By the end of the book, you don’t care that Humbert kills someone who slept with Lolita, though they are the same person and you don’t care that Lolita is pregnant and Humbert finds that he is still in love with her. I can think of no greater failing for an author to have missed creating a feeling in a reader when there is so much potentially there for the reader to feel.

Second, the book Pale Fire is as far as I can tell, a book about the effects of the editor on posthumous works. The book  Pale Fire is actually a book of poetry, cantos written by the poet John Shade. The editor of the book is the one who has finally procured publication for Shade’s work. The editor, in addition, has an introductory note and appendix and afterword, thus overshadowing Shade’s contribution to his own work. Though Shade’s death is suspicious and our interest is aroused by the editor at the beginning, we begin to tire because we see that there will be no actual revelation about Shade’s murder, just more talking on the editor’s part in order to be heard under the guise of “giving informative background” about Shade and the editor’s relationship to Shade. Though we begin to suspect the editor himself, we are left by the end of the book, wondering whether the book was actually a poem or a book about a poem. Either way, the book becomes so up its own ass about the idea of critical theory taking over literature that it misses the fact that a book intending to critique this phenomena only served to become the prime example of it, thus rendering the point pointless. Again, all this would be forgiven if Nabokov had ever given us a character for whom we could root and for whom we could feel. We are given neither in either of these books.

I would write more on this subject, but I’m bored of it now, because I’m sick of analyzing lack of sincerity and I’ve had this saved on my wordpress queue for ever. So, I will leave you with this: sincerity is not something to be sneered at–it’s something that the very best of authors cultivate and strive their hardest toward. Honesty and sincerity dovetail, one can rarely be found without the other. And these authors who I have give compliments to have done just that. I encourage you to avoid the influence of the others who are basically terrible and in my mind strive toward neither sincerity nor honesty.