Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Is Literary Fiction "Fragile?"

Anyone else read that thoughtful interview in the latest Poets & Writers with veteran editor Pat Strachan? Wow, she's the real deal. I was particularly struck by this, on how she doctors fiction:

I do think it's extremely dangerous to mess with a novel structurally, because it's close to poetry in that it's almost pure consciousness. The way it comes forth from the writer is the way it should probably be, even though maybe the beginning is unclear or not enough action happens in this part or whatever. With a literary book—I hate to say literary, but a piece of serious fiction that isn’t genre fiction—I try to stay away from structural suggestions because they can be very damaging. One big change can make the whole house of cards fall apart. So with literary fiction I really try to stick to line editing. I also think the less done the better, and I consider myself a fairly heavy editor. But I do as little as I can do, because a work of serious literature is a very fragile construction.

I've been writing fiction for 10+ years and still feel way too inexperienced to agree or disagree with this. My Kerouac-adoring, first-thought-best-thought-digging gut sees some big truth in it. My head is full of ringing bells. I've messed up a few stories along the way with various Frankenrevisions. But I'm also thinking hey, it's just story, it's malleable and rubbery, can it really be that delicate? Are we disrespecting story by calling it delicate? What do you think?

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5 Comments:

Blogger No Name Me said...

Hey Anne,

I think structure in a novel is one of the easiest things to mess the hell up. Seriously mess up. I realize novels give you more room for error on this level than short stories, but still, I mean, elements have to more or less work together and unify, don't they?

Still, I have to admire her take on things. Really wonderful sentiment, very respectful, all in all. All I can say: Maybe she just works with really good writers, already? :)

I don't know, either!
Sandy

1:36 PM  
Blogger clem said...

I think the long answer is, 'depends.'

7:50 PM  
Blogger Xujun Eberlein said...

Yes, I read the interview and think she's a wise editor. I haven't written a novel yet, but in my short story and memoir writing I feel structure is one of the most interesting and challenging elements.

7:56 PM  
Anonymous phil stein said...

You know where Plotzi's at on this one. A good plot is a skeleton. Without it, there might be lovely skin and hair and limbs lying there to admire, but that novel's not unified and it will not go anywhere.

A novel is a lot longer than a poem, and it's gotta do more and move more.

Pat Strachan sounds like a nice person, but more like a therapist than an editor. What part of the writer's psyche writing comes out of is important to the writer, but what does that have to do with someone else wanting to read the thing?

What has she edited? The commenter who asked if she was getting pretty clean stuff to start with has a great point.

[getting rantier] Getting the reader to care what happens next is not pandering! You don't have to choose between beautiful, subtle, literary writing and a compelling story -- they serve each other.

Signed,
Phil E. Stein

6:58 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

thanks for all your responses! I'm sure we'd all kill to have Strachan for an editor. And not for the therapy, Phil, but because if she buys your stuff then chances are it is pretty damn there already.

I think what she was saying was not "coddle the writer," but more, shapewise, either it's there or it's not there, and it's not going to get there in the doctoring phase. This book doctor is not going to try to cure the book at the structural level. If it's not there, she's not going to finish reading it to begin with. She's not in the business of buying fixer-uppers.

1:14 PM  

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