Tuesday, November 20, 2012

100th Blog Post: Reading is Still Better Than Sex!

This is my 100th post on the Shimmers in the Darkness blog, which I began in October of 2010. Months ago, I had an idea for the post. I had been looking at the stats and noticed that the most-viewed post was the only one I ever wrote about sex. On April 15, 2011, I referenced a little story from the Dutch Daily News. Researchers found Dutch people would rather read a book in bed than have sex, citing that 22% of those polled opted for reading and only 11% for lovemaking. Small percentages, right? Well, sleeping was voted the most favorite activity in bed, with 63% choosing rest over recreation. The study also polled about where people preferred to read, with “in bed” coming in first place.

A funny, short blog post, which I titled “Reading: Better Than Sex!” Apparently, the inclusion of the S word drew hoards of readers. In fact, this post had at least twice as many readers as the next, most-viewed entry. So my idea was to have sort of a retrospective 100th blog post, where I point out a few of my favorite posts and have a little laugh about the fact that an inconsequential little entry, however saucily named, had attracted the most interest.

But this past summer, I began to read some Southern fiction; namely: Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter (yes, I count her as Southern), and anything else with a Gothic vein because I had decided to write a Gothic novel. In July, I reread The Violent Bear It Away and wrote a post with a brief introduction to O’Connor and my impressions of the book. Right away, this post began to rack in so many readers that in a few short months, it had surpassed my Sex! post and currently has twice as many page views.

Why? I don’t know. Perhaps unwittingly, I've done a fabulous job tagging the post, so that search engines find it easily (can you tell I barely know what I’m talking about here?). Or maybe it’s my insightfulness. Or a fluke. I like to imagine hundreds of high school students and English majors googling “Flannery O’Connor” for research papers and being pointed to my tiny but well-kept corner of the Internet.

In the end, it makes me happy that an entry about reading and writing has surpassed the other. Of course, in a perfect world reading and sex exist harmoniously (not at the exact same time, but you know what I mean).

So here are my most popular posts, one of many top ten lists you’ll see all over the place during the next two months. I'm happy to report that it includes mostly literature-related posts, including two of my own fiction pieces, one author interview and one review, and the post I shared when my own novel was published. (Plug: The Qualities of Wood, perfect choice for holiday reading! Available here!)

1)                  Flannery O’Connor
2)                  Reading: Better Than Sex!
3)                  Q&A with Dawn Finch, author of Brotherhood of Shades
4)                  On Orphans in Literature
5)                  A Turtle By Any Other Name
6)                  Man ex Machina: A Halloween Story
7)                  Sluice-rush
8)                  Book News: Big Announcement
9)                  Overheard Conversation
10)              Daisychains of Silence by Catherine MacLeod

And here are a few of my favorite, perhaps overlooked posts:

Better, stronger, faster (a remembrance of my grandfather on the occasion of Neil Armstrong’s passing)
Collaboration: A Cautionary Tale (a completely fictional anecdote about editing)
Words, words, words (why translation is mostly impossible)
Hotel Thoughts (something about me)
Speed Therapy (a great idea, I still think)
On Reviewing, Part Deux (the difference between building fiction and taking it apart) 

At this time of Thanksgiving, I'd like to thank readers past, present and future, particularly those who take the time to let me know they've read something here. The blog has been a great place for me to share news, explore ideas and scratch some itches fiction can't reach. And schoolkids: keep reading Flannery O'Connor!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Anticipation: A Writer's Tool

One of my favorite books is Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. Sometimes, in conversations when I mention this, I find myself stumbling over my description of the book. “It’s about two elderly ranchers,” I’ll say, “and the small Colorado town they live in.” When the listener’s eyes start to glaze over, I’ll try to add some sensation and plot. “A pregnant girl comes to live with the ranchers,” I’ll say. But the thing about Plainsong, the thing that's almost impossible to explain, is the effect of the book, the way that it grabs and holds with spare prose and everyday wisdom, with steady momentum and quiet revelations.

I also loved the sequel, Eventide, and over the weekend, I read Haruf’s first novel, The Tie That Binds. This book also focuses on the inhabitants of a small town in the American High Plains and the style mimics the simplicity and expansiveness of the land. It is a very good novel, although clunky at times and perhaps not as perfected as his later novels. As it should be, I suppose. But the overall effect is the same. I was pulled in by the prose and held until the last page.

As a writer, I’m continually thinking about style and plot, about things like pacing and structure and the methods other writers employ. We’ve all read “page-turners,” books that fly along at breakneck speed; like a one-night stand, they rush along to the conclusion before you’ve been properly introduced to the characters. They might be fun for a while but they leave me feeling empty afterwards. And we’ve all read books that are all character and description, someone wallowing in their environment and thoughts, trying the patience of even the most patient and introspective reader.

So what’s a good balance? Like all artistic matters, it’s subjective. But in Haruf’s first novel, I noticed and appreciated something he did to strike a very good balance between style and plot, the way he used anticipation.

Chapter Three of the book starts with this:

“It wasn’t enough that their father was Roy Goodnough or that their mother died early; there had to be at least one more thing to clinch matters, to fix them forever, to make Edith and Lyman end up the way they did—two old people, a sister and a brother, living alone out here in a yellow house surrounded by weeds.”

Then, Haruf takes eighteen pages to tell the story of how they were fixed. Eighteen pages, not too many, but a plot-seeking reader might feel the desire to flip through and get to the main event. But there is something delicious about the anticipation, something so engaging about the way the story is told that it actually made me want to turn the pages more slowly to savor it.

Haruf takes this technique even further in the ninth chapter, which begins with a longish paragraph about whether six years is a good stretch of time or not:

“Now I don’t pretend to think that a mere stretch of six years is anywhere near enough time. But I suppose if that’s all you’re given and no more, then six years will have to do. In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun.”

The implication, of course, is that at the end of six years, the fun ended. After this introduction, Haruf takes thirty-six pages to draw out the story of just how, why and when the fun ended for Edith. Again, there is a primal urge to speed through, to see “what happens,” but there are also goose bumps, a desire to slow down and enjoy the anticipation, the details of it, the feeling of the waiting.

Over two millennia ago, Aristotle listed the six elements of drama and described the necessity of increasing anticipation within the plot. I can’t help but think that when a story moves too quickly, one thing racing after the other, it’s depriving readers of this basic satisfaction. In the hands of a great writer like Kent Haruf, anticipation can be more satisfying than the resolution of any plot point.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka