In Canada there are two national newspapers. One, The National Post, runs a section called Afterword. On 28 March 2013 Chad Pelley, an award-winning Newfoundland author lately responsible for the novel Every Little Thing, offered readers a glimpse into his experiences as a writer, as well as rules. He doesn’t call them rules, and is careful to use that word only once (about others), but his commentary is filled with the words should and must. These are the sorts of words found in legislation, and that’s fitting, as he’s offering a bill for writers. Don’t you just think John Gardner when you hear about rules? It’s not as bad as that because Chad isn’t Gardner, but it still does make the heart sink.
Chad’s well known. While we’ve never met, we’ve talked via email. His Salty Ink blog, a niche for Newfoundland writing that also extends out to cover Atlantic Canada, is popular and useful. Based on our private correspondence he’d never come out and call another writer lousy, and he liked diversity. His first book, Away from Everywhere, was shortlisted for an award and is now being made into movie material.
When I came upon Chad’s rules in the Post I thought he’d be discussing guidelines for himself that he had assembled over the last few years and now was sharing with a larger audience. However, what I read surprised me disagreeably.
To do justice to his thought I’ll follow the article’s format. Normally, quotes would be offered, but the Post charges for what others would consider fair usage. (You can read about that subject here.) I’ll summarize, and readers are invited to open two screens. The article is available here.
Chad’s introduction tells us that readers are like children. Apparently, to make it as a writer (to make money as a writer) you have to appeal to the adult-child who wants a new toy that you almost guarantee he’ll love. (The article is not so nuanced that it speaks to either the unwelcome childishness implicit in such readers or the inclination on the part of some to enable that kind of behaviour.) For a long time writing has been a commodity as well as an art, but we’re about to learn just how much it is more a commodity than art, to Chad, as we read.
The first section is about how to open a novel, and gives advice, with the first use of should, that a reader must be hooked on the first page by the characters and the species of novel in hand. A writer is expected, and encouraged, to accost readers, and to take their copy of his book away after they’ve taken in the first page to see if any of them burn to continue reading. Chad uses the example of annoying a person on a Toronto subway. Now, I’ve not travelled that subway much, but I did use the Tube in London for almost three years, and one of the least smart things to do is aggravate another passenger. Flick knives were common, as were drunks and unruly soccer fans. The example is unworldly advice emanating from a lifetime in subway-free Newfoundland.
The main point is that a reader must want to know more after that first page. Anything less is a failure on the writer’s part. One could wonder if ADD and ADHD are present. (Who can say what a reader’s mind is like, really?) Authors who take time to build up atmosphere, systems or a world—let’s say, Marcel Proust and Henry James, William Gaddis and Joseph McElroy—are dicks for not being more exciting right away. And what did their books ever do for anyone? Exactly. No instant gratification there. In addition, Chad insists there can only be two characters, at least in the beginning. Goodbye, future Tolstoys and Stendhals!
The next section deals with making sure things occur at a lively pace. Adventure must be found on page one, line one. Marcel talking about sleep in the first pages of In Search of Lost Time—what a waste. Readers want to be fast-fed undercooked matter, and Chad is outside the pen, pitchfork at hand, wheelbarrow filled with bloody meat, ready to heave. To be hip, says Chad, though he doesn’t use that word, you have to remember that Darwin made the survival of the fittest the key to life, and he applies that to contemporary writers. We owe it to the reader to move ahead quickly, and not pause or linger. This way we can make readers like us (and thereby earn more money).
The person who wrote a work of fiction based on 99 ways to tell the same anecdote (how did that book ever make it and that author achieve renown?) invented an art object using previously known materials. Darwin named something he found, and invented his theory. That’s an important difference (important to pedants only, perhaps) that bears noting. In this section Chad invents his first straw man, the writers/readers—why don’t we just use the word people?—who don’t prefer action right off and who do not require that there be a struggle between two engaging characters on the first page, or at any time. What does that make us, in Chad’s eyes? Well, the slow-moving Other. We have not changed with the times, and we are clinging to dead notions of what makes a novel a good novel. Now, I enjoy a quick hit of action every now and then, but to insist on a steady diet of that, or anything, is ridiculous. And to say writers who don’t write like that are out of touch, or are to be mocked, is, like a riot, an ugly thing, as Mel Brooks has it in Young Frankenstein. We don’t know where this mixture of straw man, otherness and condescension is going, but this early on things don’t look promising.
The third section discusses Chad’s schooling. Not his time at university, but his experience of being the man, or maybe De Man, at all-female book club discussions of his first novel. That Away From Everywhere received such devoted attention must be pleasing, and what author doesn’t imagine, if only for a moment, a group of people passionately devoted to discussing his work? You’d have to have a heart like a turnip not to feel good for Chad. Unfortunately, he’s unaware that it turns out to be a mixed blessing, for he has allowed himself to think that an environment where his first book provokes argument (another example of should arises here) is the perfect crucible in which to forge his next book. Instead of being an active agent of his own imagination, he has let himself become putty in the grip of a coffee klatch focus group. They express consumer demand, and Chad, like any mammal, wants to outlast the dinosaur writers. His anxiety to survive is palpable. (His attention to book clubs may announce a trend, and should not be seen as a surprise. Is a kowtowing to their demands and likes not an extension of a kind of groveling at times apparent in the lengthy thanks fiction writers have taken, in recent years, to appending to the last page or two of their books? That may come from the “it takes a village to raise…” view of how books come to be, but usually only one name appears on the cover. Villages raise idiots, too.)
Chad then moves to the connection between writers and readers. First, if such a thing exists—they’re two people with very different views of the world—it would be based on the persona of the writer and the ambassador the reader sends forth to make an initial impression, to use Chris Rock’s words out of context. How solid is that exchange of idea and feelings? Second, if it did exist it would be ephemeral, and change from book to book, or as each got older.
None of that is what Chad says. He believes a writer has to (he puts in a must) offer emotions and feely things to readers. The works of Nicholas Sparks, Stephen King, Lisa Moore and Jodi Picoult are filled with attempts at emotional bonding with readers, as their large fan bases attest to, and there’s no shortage of other names one could put forth who do the same. And you know what? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it, in my opinion. There are many books that take entirely separate roads. Those that, say, view ideas as exciting, and that connect to people in a way that offers a delight that’s not so emotionally obvious, are not even visible to Chad. (Robert Musil, David Markson and Oulipians come to mind as examples.) In Conversations with Julian Barnes, the English author has this to say about emotions: “Well yes, but I think there is a lot of emotion in ideas… When we talk about a novel provoking emotions, we tend to think of the emotions that have to do with our amatory life. I think that books can be emotionally exciting in many different ways.” Since Chad uses the reference to a romantic encounter, and not a lecture, I’m inclined to think he’s more in the camp of Picoult than of Musil.
The next passage passes on what Chad learned from another Newfoundland writer named Michael Crummey. (Popular in Canada, Crummey’s been reviewed in the States and England.) Briefly, adjectives and adverbs were placed under a shadow. Chad replaces a flat line with an agglomeration of similes and metaphors. The new material isn’t good, it’s just dull in a shinier way, if you’ll allow that to stand. If people followed this advice we’d never be reading future Herman Melvilles or Thomas Pynchons.
The penultimate section deals with the sad group of people Chad knows who are unable to finish books. No explanation given for them, but Chad’s nailed down his reason: he wants to see how things are going to be set out, and without that he feels lost. He seems to find the excitement of discovery too nerve-wracking, or maybe just pesky. (Imagine if Darwin had thought like that.) What’s the point of a novel when it could be a manual? Chad prefers to tantalize readers with hints of what’s to come. I wish him well with this strict approach. For those who prefer not to know what’s going to happen, it won’t be much of a draw.
The final section deals with how each chapter in a book is automatically better if it provides mini-wows, and of course, fits into a larger structure. (Serialization of novels in the 19th century did this so it’s not a new idea.) That way each one feels like a short story to the reader. Or a sequence of appetizers that’ll fool you into thinking, when you’re done, you’ve had a full meal. Okay, Chad definitely doesn’t say that. He does, however, bring on the last straw men, dogmatic people who call themselves scholars and critics, and editors whose minds are deep in a bygone age. I’ll put words in their mouths that spring from the tenor of the article: “Too much is going on in your book. I can’t keep track! You should have a longueur or two so I, and the reader, can catch our breath.” Readers, Chad tells us, don’t mind the hectic nature of his books, or books like his, at all. They’re the people Chad has in mind, and he only wants to give them satisfaction. In exchange for their approval, and their money.
It’s a bewildering piece Chad has come out with, the work of a newly fledged writer eager to appear as someone moving from the amateur level to that of the seasoned professional. Lessons he explicitly mentions are nestled, seemingly without his knowledge, amidst less pleasant ones that are a type of dark matter filling the space of the pulpit he’s been given. Unlike on his inclusive website, in the Post Chad comes across as driving unnecessary wedges between writers. He won’t name anyone who is one of the Others because that’s not in his nature, yet putting up anonymous and weightless adversaries within the scholarly and/or critical community, who he can safely label as old-fashioned and useless at nabbing a reader’s attention, guts his article. He could have been bold as well as laying down diktats. Instead, we get the latter only.
Reading the major review outlets (shrinking and monotonous as they are, especially in Canada), as with this piece—and what provokes my writing about Chad’s rules—I get the impression that those authors, some of whom are named above, who create loveable characters, whose emphasis on plot downplays the other technical features of writing, whose ranks include the famous, the well-known and the lesser-known, whose works are omnipresent in airports, libraries and what remains of the book section in chain bookstores, whose numbers are tremendous and whose quantity of output is staggering, are regarded as endangered creatures, and that their enemy appears to be, if you accept the criticism of Dale Peck and similar-minded critics, those who prefer to emphasize formal devices, structure, language and other concerns, and who like to take their time. They have names too: Mark Danielewski, Davis Schneiderman, Ben Marcus and the Canadian writer-musician Lee Thompson. But what do the multitude have to fear from the few? And who said there had to be only a few ways to think and conceive of writing in the republic of letters?
In the end, for me, Chad’s article is an unwitting confession. If he had stuck to what he had learned for himself he’d have done fine, but his lessons amount to a prescriptive and conservative-minded approach that’s bizarre to see in someone so young. It lacks humility, and charity. While it’s natural for a young writer to slay his elders, and to be so giddy with literary success that he would make heedless statements, it’s another thing for that person to shadow box with abstract figures and criticize colleagues who approach matters in their own ways. When every writer’s pursuit of artistic expression, as well as a livelihood, is precarious, I don’t see the point in being divisive, nor do I comprehend Chad’s impulse to deny the vast diversity of tastes found in the writing, and reading, from his home province, Canada and the world.
It’s a likely bet Chad would not be too proud to be unembarrassed when called on this poor display, but as what he said can’t be backed away from with ease, it’s likely that for that reason I expect he’ll call what he wrote a simple opinion piece, and nothing more. But it is much more, and it’s negative. This he and his editor did not see or, if they did, saw and chose to ignore. His rules come with the imprimatur of a national newspaper. Yet I hope Chad is going through a temporary mood of intolerance, for the article is not at all like he portrays himself on his website.
Jeff Bursey is a literary critic and author of the picaresque novel Mirrors on which dust has fallen and the political satire Verbatim: A Novel, both of which take place in the same fictional Canadian province. His newest book, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, is a collection of literary criticism that appeared in American Book Review, Books in Canada, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The Quarterly Conversation, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He’s a Contributing Editor at The Winnipeg Review, an Associate Editor at Lee Thompson’s Galleon, and a Special Correspondent for Numéro Cinq. He makes his home on Prince Edward Island in Canada’s Far East.