Thursday, August 02, 2007

Three Books

It's been some years since I last read Leigh Brackett; in fact I was 21 or so when I finished The Reavers of Skaith and decided I was getting too old for fun fiction and should concentrate instead on writers I might work into my honors thesis — and, more appropriately, attempt to emulate in my own efforts at serious fiction.

My loss. Brackett was a writer who jumped with apparent ease from one pulp genre to the next, creating clean lean stories that hewed to convention but bore enough subtle distinctions to deliver a surprising and satisfying conclusion. The Sword of Rhiannon is a first-class example of Brackett’s facility: anyone with a passing knowledge of Celtic mythology — or the Martian books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or the Sword & Sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard — will recognise the stock characters and general direction of the story. Like Howard and Burroughs, Brackett is intent on delivering a muscular narrative, but while she’s not afraid of bold-strokes description, her choice of words never gets quite so florid as her male progenitors. Brackett seemed to assume that “Brawny arms” “heaving bosoms” and other generic clichés didn't just distract her, but her readers as well.

It’s been suggested — well, it’s actually been said outright — that Brackett's script contributions are what made The Empire Strikes Back the best of the Star Wars lot. After reading TSOR, which delivered a quick Martian Sword & Sorcery punch within 150 pages — I'm pretty much persuaded. When I finished the novel, I wondered why she and her pulp creations weren’t household names the way John Carter or Conan are. It could be Brackett’s gifts were best suited to tuning up or fixing what was already there. If so, that’s no small thing. Hollywood (and I) have been missing her for decades.

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt is Nick Hornby’s follow up to his previous collection of literary reviews for The Believer: The Polysyllabic Spree. Said Spree (a variously numbered cult of young men and women in charge of the magazine) may censor his lightest attempts at snarkiness, but Hornby’s good-natured observations still cut to some critical truths. Just prior to declaring, “It goes without saying that [Ian McEwan’s] Saturday is a very good novel,” Hornby writes:

[T]he world of books seems to be getting more bookish. Anita Brookner’s new novel is about a novelist. David Lodge and Colm Tóibín wrote novels about Henry James. In
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst wrote about a guy writing a thesis on Henry James. And in Ian McEwan’s Saturday, the central character’s father-in-law and daughter are both serious published poets and past winners of Oxford University’s Newdigate Prize for undergraduate poetry. And though nobody should ever tell a writer what to write about....Actually, forget that. Maybe somebody should. Sort it out, guys! You can’t all write literature about literature! One book a year, maybe, between you — but all of the above titles were published in the last six months. Taken as a group, these novels seem to raise the white flag: we give in! It’s hopeless! We don’t know what those people out there want! Pull up the drawbridge!

I loved it. I read it out loud to my wife as she made the Sunday night pizza, and she loved it, too. The book is worth whatever The Believer or Amazon is charging for it, so buy, take and read. Hornby is clearly having fun, and so will you.

When I first read this creative essay by Josip Novakovich, I was reminded (not to put too fine a point to it) of essays I’d written as a very young, creative type guy. I won’t pretend to have attained the same insight, prosaic quality or emotional punch as Novakovich, but that ability to just dump the brain’s filing cabinet onto the floor and choose seemingly random bits that wind up generating their own electromagnetic fields of significance ... God, I miss that capacity! I bought Novakovich’s Writing Fiction Step By Step hoping the exercises therein would pull me out of the deeper ruts I’d carved for myself as a writer, and possibly get me thinking (and working) more productively on my current novel.

Novakovich does not disappoint. In fact, he delivers with a vengeance. I’ve no doubt Novakovich has performed every one of these exercises. He cheerfully describes writing as “a strenuous sport and a demanding art,” adding, “You must be mentally fit to do it well.” In other words, this is an exercise program for writers willing to build up the mental muscles with the dedication of a would-be Charles Atlas.

This book works well as a companion piece to Madison Smartt Bell’s Narrative Design. For a fiction writer, both books are helpful in their own distinctive way: while Bell examines the choices made by accomplished short story writers, Novakovich’s exercises offer an entry point for the writer to discover and make those choices via experience. I began the book with the intention of doing every last exercise suggested, but quickly found that just reading the exercises and Novakovich's short meditations of their possibilities was often enough to get me up and writing — often in a very different direction than the one suggested. An excellent resource for anyone (including bloggers) experiencing creative freeze.


DarkoV said...

Thanks for this.
It's always interesting seeing what flags are flying under the the On The Floor banner you've got hangin over on the right.
It's always a hoot reading your takes on these bookish flags.

Whisky Prajer said...

Thanks, man! Lots more where that came from.

Phil said...

Oh my God, I *love* Leigh Brackett! I love her ripoff ERB stories and her self-pitying space vampire story and her best-of book with the (as you once put it) "atrociously horny Boris Vallejo cover art."

When I think of what I look for in pulp literature, she about sums it up.

I've always been a big believer in the Brackett-and-Kasdan-as-saviors-of-ESB theory. (Though I remember reading somewhere that the screenplay used is mostly Kasdan's work. Well, I imagine, for no good reason, that Brackett provided him with a strong understructure on which to build.) More generally, other people--Harrison Ford, Kasdan, Irvin Kershner, Gary Kurtz--are the reason that the original trilogy (well, the first two and a half movies) work so well.

I read recently that at one point Lucas wanted to get David Cronenberg to direct Return of the Jedi ... That makes a pretty mental picture.

Whisky Prajer said...

I have trouble giving Kasdan much credit for the shining moments in ESB when he all but blew out in the next installment. Kasdan's direction is almost always wooden and aloof (a recent re-viewing of Silverado confirmed this). Of course, this is all wild speculation on my part. But it is fun to watch some of the zap between Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, then contrast that with the volcanic heat generated between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, an earlier notch in Brackett's belt. God only knows what she actually contributed to TBS, but that was one hell of a start for that woman.