Saturday, January 30, 2010

Paying in Gold

In William Gaddis' towering 1955 novel THE RECOGNITIONS, there's a character named Otto. The book (probably my favorite American novel of the twentieth century) is about forgery and counterfeiting on a grand scale, and Otto is a counterfeit human being. He has designed his life from the outside in. His wristwatch is so elegant he continually glances at it, admires it, and then realizes he's forgotten to check the time.

Otto spends his time in the Bohemian enclave of Greenwich Village because he's prowling for sex, and "Bohemian" women are notoriously generous with their favors. But if in fact they are, Otto discovers, they're generous primarily to artists, so Otto becomes an artist. Like a lot of artist-poseurs, he proclaims himself to be a playwright. Writing a play (or a novel) is a slow process. It's the perfect art form for a fake. A playwright doesn't have to show new work all the time. It's enough to say that "it's coming along."

And to make notes from time to time. Otto's unwritten play is about a character named Gordon, who looks like Otto on his best days and effortlessly lays waste in all directions with his wit. Every time Otto hears someone say something clever, he jots down a little shorthand note: Gordon: Nt mke thngs excplict whch shd be implict. And then he tucks the note in his pocket, confident that he looks like he's writing.

But Otto is haunted by a terrifying piece of knowledge. All of a sudden someone asks you to pay in gold, and you can't. Yes, you can't, you haven't got it, and you can't. And this recognition gives Otto something in common with all writers, even one as brave as Gaddis. On every page, the novelist has to pay in gold.

Once a book toddles out into the world, the goods are either on the page or they're not. The writer won't have a chance to peer over the reader's shoulder, propping up the weak bits. He or she won't be on hand to answer questions when the text is confusing. After a year or more of nursing the baby along, delivering it from the void, doing major surgery on it at times and patting it on the head at others, the writer has to send it out on its own: the first day of school, except for a novel the first day of school lasts forever, to be repeated every time someone opens the book. There the baby is, in all its glory or all its wretchedness.

It's not going to be helped by a great actor or director. It's not going to be salvaged by a brilliant conductor. Page layout and a nice font aren't going to rescue it. It's out there and it's as naked as an amaryllis.

And there's nothing the writer can do about it. Can't dust, can't tidy, can't touch it up. What the writer was striving for is either on the page or it isn't. After all that work, the writer has either paid in gold or in tin. It's no wonder that we're such a neurotic lot. It's no wonder that the vast majority of novels are abandoned half-drafted by writers unable to make themselves believe that their work is anything other than iron pyrites.

What surprises me is that anyone ever actually finishes one.

Tim -- Sunday


  1. I accidentally hit publish instead of save on a piece of reflective poetry piece on my blog this week and sent it, naked and unedited into the world. Glad I haven't done that with any books!

  2. You made a book report into a wonderfully creative way to look at writing. Great job.


  3. Words are the most potent force, for good or evil, in the world. Lawyers use words to condemn or exonerate but juries aren't convinced by words alone; there is evidence and there is the tone of voice and the emphasis placed on words by lawyers and witnesses, there are visual cues in the demeanor of the speakers. The words don't stand alone, and so, neither do the lawyers. Preachers and speakers are actors of sorts, using their voices as instruments and their gestures as stage directions, pointing the audience to where they want them to go. Their words don't stand alone either.

    In writing a novel, the author only has the words. Writers must have an immense store of courage. It is that leap into the unknown when the book is finally out there, waiting to be judged by people who come to it with an infinite number of expectations, that requires the author to have faith that at least one person will understand.

    Perhaps writers finish their books because they believe in the power of the story to enlighten, amuse, teach, and expand the horizons of the readers who are hungry for the experience. Authors create their own worlds and then invite strangers to visit. How scary is that? And I think, too, that Poke Rafferty has things he wants to say and he needs you to get the message out.


  4. Hi, Roaming Writer -- No, it's bad enough to let go of a book you think is perfect. And then the ARC arrives and parts of it seem really, really lame.

    Ann Elle -- Thanks. I can't think of anything harder than doing a proper book report on THE RECOGNITIONS. At 900-some pages, with probably 75 characters (Otto is a sort of major minor character), and dense with artistic, literary, and religious allusions, it's a cognitive boulder. In fact the book's first tier of reviewers in the 1950s had no idea in the world what to make of it, and it disappeared without a ripple, to be rediscovered in the 1970s.

    Beth, you're as right as Solomon. Words are our tools, our limiting devices, and at times our enemies. They can give you a plausible surface when what you're looking for is depth. They can fool you into writing something pretty where what's needed is something beautiful, and they can let you screen your book's failures from yourself behind a web of plausibility. (This is especially true of character inconsistencies.)

    Love the idea that Poke wants to say some things, and if he does, what he wants to do is speak out on behalf of the disadvantaged.

  5. "What surprises me is that anyone ever actually finishes one."

    Me, too, Tim, but I'm eternally grateful that some of them do.

  6. Very thoughtful piece Tim...thanks for sharing this...Cara

  7. I always find starting to write a book a pretty thrilling feeling; the empty page, the plot buzzing in your head, ideas waiting to be set down, everything clicking into place. Then you start writing and it becomes a series of compromises, rewrites and minor agonies. Hope gives way to anguish.

    You hand it in, shake your head, vow that the next one will be the real killer. Cue empty page etc repeat to fade.

    Still, beats working for a living!

  8. For sure the best way to become a writer is to become independently wealthy first.

  9. I agree with everyone. Like Phil, I believe my life would be much poorer without the thousands of novels available to me. Like Dan, I find the beginning of the novel more fun than drugs ever were, even at their best, and everything after that less fun than drugs ever were, even at their worst. And like Igor Prawn (of the Sussex Prawns, perhaps?) I agree that the best way to end up as a writer with a small amount of money is to begin as a writer with a large amount of money.