This evening I heard an animated radio report on a group of locals who were really getting into it, though their focus was less on fundamentals of (good) novel writing--for a realist novel, some of these would be a plausible and compelling central idea or theme, a plot or plots sustainable over a long narrative space, vivid, believable characters, a guiding metaphor or figures, consistency and subtlety in voice, skillful narration and point-of-view shifts, etc.--than on the 50,000 word target. 50,000 words, that was and is the mantra. Usually when people mention the number of words in a book, I respond with a blank look, since I seldom think of books in such terms. My form of reference is: how long is it? How many typescript or printed pages is it? What novels is it comparable to in size? Is it as big as War and Piece or Finnegans Wake or as brief as The Old Man in the Sea or S.S. Proleterka?
The emphasis on length seems so, well, American. Quantity over quality every time, and the novels resulting from this keypounding--well, with extensive revision I imagine a few of them might turn out to be passable works worth exploring. The whole situation brings to mind the cases of the extraordinarily prolific, few of whom, save Georges Simenon and Alexandre Dumas Père, are not known for their emphases on literary excellence of any demonstrable sort. Mary Faulkner (908 books)? Lauran Paine (850+ books, and she's still alive so.....)? Prentiss Ingraham, who supposedly wrote a 35,000 word novel in a night (600+ books)? Jozef Ignacy Kraszewski (600+ books)? OK, I'll stop, but you get the picture. If you reasonable completed books--not just novels, say, but any kinds of books at a quicker pace than a month, you could enter this rarefied crowd. Perhaps some of the NaNoWriMos really are already on their way.
Another way to think about it is that this month, in addition to helping sponsor young writers' programs, does get people energized about writing--not that that's really a problem, in my experience, but perhaps it is somewhere--and perhaps better yet, some of them may start READING and engaging in other non-passive activities. Since most people write on computers these days, too, all the new novels won't result in felled forests, though electric plants are going to take a beating. And then I must admit that I try to practice my own version of this, which I call Personal Novel Writing [Every] Day (PeNoWriDa?), which entails a minimum of 3-5 new sentences (and a maximum of however much I can write), every day, no matter what. (And this week's what is 18 student short stories that have to be read, marked up and appended with comments--4 for my intro class, 10 for my advanced theory and practice class, 2 for my graduate class, 2 more for graduate thesis students, and a PhD chapter for another student, as well as a review of a colleague's work.) All the prose starts to mash together, ther'es no other way to put it. Nevertheless, the daily routine does work. Even if I scrawl the sentences at 8 am or 2 am--whenever I can get them down....
Several MLB 2007 season awards have been announced, and today's was a bit of a surprise. C. C. Sabathia (at left, AP Photo/Tony Dejak), the 6-7, 250(+) lb. left hander for Cleveland, won the American League Cy Young Award for best pitcher over Josh Beckett, who led the Boston Red Sox to this year's World Series championship. Sabathia received 119 total (29 first place) votes to Beckett's (8 first place) 86, in a victory for statistics over hype. The two 27-year-old pitchers had almost identical records: Sabathia was 19-7, with a 3.21 ERA, 209 strikeouts and just 37 walks in 241 innings, 4 complete games, and 1 shutout, while Beckett was 20-7, with a 3.27 ERA, 194 strikeouts and 40 walks in 200.1 innings, with only 1 complete game and 0 shutouts. Sabathia was arguably more valuable to his team's post-season appearance, since only one other fellow teammate (very young Fausto Carmona, who also went 19-7) posted anywhere near as many wins, while the Red Sox had rookie Daisuke (Dice-K) Matsuzaka, who went 15-12 and veteran knuckleballer Tim Wakefield, who went 17-12. (The 40-year-old potential Hall of Famer and inveterate right-winger Curt Schilling posted a 9-8 record.)
If you're not a baseball fan, this news probably isn't so significant, but it's interesting to me that in the 51 years of the Cy Young Award, Sabathia is only the second Black non-Latino pitcher to win it in the American League, and only the sixth Black non-Latino pitcher ever to win it. His sole American League predecessor, Vida Blue, won it in 1971, while National Leaguer winners include Dwight Gooden in 1986, Bob Gibson, who received it in 1968 and 1970, and Ferguson Jenkins, who received in 1971. Don Newcombe received the very first first Cy Young Award, when it was given out to one pitcher from both leagues, in 1956. (It is the case that several Venezuelan, Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban players of African descent have received the AL Cy Young in the past, with Johan Santana winning it in 2006 and 2004 and Pedro Martínez winning it twice in the AL and once in the NL.) Sabathia is involved with a project to reinterest younger Black Americans in baseball, so perhaps the award and the public recognition that comes with it will inspire potential future talents.
Sabathia had a superb rookie year in 2001, and then mixed years since then, but this season he seemed to be in control of most of his games, except when the post-season rolled around. With his evident talent, and Carmona's, Cleveland may not have to wait much longer for a championship.
How things have changed. When I was a considering colleges, I never conceived of visiting with professors and sitting in classes; I'm sure this was possible, and I spent a good deal of time hanging around Washington University's campus (which was my idea and ideal of a university), trying to imagine myself a college student, though when I finally did go to (another) university, the experience was different from anything I'd envisioned and required a huge amount of adjustment. I did not dare sit in any Wash U. classes, though. I think the closest I ever got was when I went to hear a talk, by whom I don't even remember, with my class, just as we'd gone to see a play or two at Webster University (then Webster College, and it was walking distance from my home).
Even as an undergraduate I did not feel comfortable "bothering" (as I saw it) most of my professors, at least until my senior year, and my few earlier forays doing so--one unforgettable time was when I went to meet with Stephen Jay Gould and could barely get words out--struck me with such existential terror that I swore off it unless absolutely necessary. These days amid everything else I do, I periodically host prospective undergraduates and their parents in my classes (they usually ask politely if they can sit in), and meet with them when they come to visit the university. Quite a few of them know by their senior years of high school that they want not only to be writers, but in undergraduate writing programs, so I usually describe our plan of study, writers that visit, and the like.
As a bit of levity, here's an email letter (the writer's name has been removed) that I received yesterday. A reminder: the institution I teach at is in the first suburb north of Chicago....
Thank you for spending so much time with my mother and I on our visit to Brown last week. I was very impressed by the facilities. What made Brown stand out
as the top school in my college search is the English department's fusion of classical genres and other kinds of media. Additionally, the campus is gorgeous and the location accommodates my passion for city life.
I look forward to corresponding with you again about the unique opportunities that the Brown English department offers.
I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Ah, the joys of teaching!