John Wilson of Books & Culture, the Christian review of books published bi-monthly 1995-2016, talks about book reviewing with FORMA.
Is it harder to control the “gush” for a book you really like or the harshness for a book you think has major problems?
Wilson: Ha! It’s not so much a matter of “controlling” gush (just say no); it’s rather a matter of finding a way to single out a really good book at a time when people are acclaiming “masterpieces” right and left, cheapening the conversation. I don’t often review books that I think are terrible, or that are entirely uncongenial to me, but a reviewer who’s never critical—sometimes sharply so—is letting the side down.
But having said that, I’m reminded of another widespread misconception: that reviews are all about “evaluation,” the reviewer—from his or her lofty perch—saying “5 stars” or “2 stars” or whatever. There’s so much more to it.
This summer, one of our favorite authors, Jared C. Wilson, has three ten-year anniversaries, and he reflects on those years at his blog. “It was an odd feeling at the time when Your Jesus is Too Safe became my first published book. I’d been trying ten years at that point trying to get published as a novelist.”
One of the many interesting sidelights to doing script translation is becoming familiar – at one or two removes – with the scriptwriting process. (And I’d like to mention at this point that I am not working on a screenplay of my own. I think I’m possibly the only person involved in the industry who isn’t. I’m pretty sure all the gaffers, grips, insurance underwriters and caterers listed at the end of the credits are all working on their own screenplays.) One project I worked on recently provided an interesting case study.
I remember wondering, as a boy, “Why aren’t movies more like the books they’re based on? Why not just take the book as it is and film it?” I’ve heard other people asking the same question.
Well, this particular recent project appeared to be an
attempt to do just that. It looked like the screenwriter (and I won’t even tell
you if it was a he or a she, and I’ll change all the details, because of my non-disclosure
obligations) was the novelist themselves, trying their hand at a screenplay for
the first time. They had simply transcribed his/her/its book straight from page
to screenplay. And it didn’t work at all.
Imagine a scene in a movie of any genre – we’ll make it a Western because you’ll know right off the script I was working on was not a western. A cowboy sits on his horse, in the rain, and the camera watches him sitting there. He’s just thinking. In the novel, we could go straight into his head and hear his thoughts. But this is a movie. If this cowboy is thinking about, oh, Miss Sally at the saloon, and whether he’s going to marry her, and what they’ll do about buying a ranch, and the social disease they now share, it would take a pretty outstanding actor to convey that particular information just through his facial expressions and body language.
No, you’ve got to take that interior monologue from the book and transform it into visual and audible information. You have several options for doing this.
Voiceover: This is closest to the original book, but it’s out of fashion. Audiences find it corny, unless employed for stylistic and ironic purposes.
Flashback: You can cut back to a scene between Ol’ Cowpoke and Miss Sally. This is a good option, but it’s a change from the book. A sub-option is to change the plot a little and add an earlier scene dramatizing this problem.
Invented dialogue: You can create a conversation which doesn’t occur in the scene in the book. You can have Ol’ Cowpoke confide in one of his buddies over coffee around the campfire. Or he could even talk to his horse, which would provide a challenge for the actor.
Offhand, those are the options I can think of for handling
this problem. And most of them involve altering
Books and movies are different media, and they work in
different ways. You can’t get away from it.
Larry would hand me endless accordion-pleated foldings of copy, printed in some knockoff of Palatino by a clacking daisy-wheel printer on a single endless roll of paper. I would take them home, mark them up in red pencil, and then, if delivering them after or before office hours, drive in my ’66 VW bug from my abuelita hovel on Alicia Street, in the Barrio, to Early Street, and leave them in the Stereophile mailbox—until one day four long articles bleeding red with my crabbed edits vanished from that mailbox, no doubt seized by an irate postperson, and I had to do them over from scratch.
When I spend substantial time with a book, and then throw it aside in frustration, half-finished, I don’t like to name the work or its author publicly. After all, I haven’t given either of them the full time they asked for. But I sometimes want to tell you about it, anyway, in case it might be of some use – especially if you’re a writer.
So it is with the book I 86’d over the Easter weekend. It shall remain nameless. It shall not go unchastened.
It was promoted as a sort of Wodehousian comedy, and I guess it was. In a way. It was generally lacking in actual funny lines, but the author did a fairly good job of building up ridiculous situations, so that I sometimes chuckled over the altitude of the gag, if I can put it that way.
But he offended me – as a Scarlet Letter puritan – by treating
it as a matter of course that a couple will fall into bed the very evening they
fall in love. It got worse when I learned that the (admittedly charming) main
female character had been married before to a man who adored her and was
faithful, but had dumped him because she wanted more excitement in her life.
That ain’t funny, in my world.
And then, about halfway through the book, the hero made a stupid, stupid decision. A decision calculated to bring him trouble and put him on the run from the law. And I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why he’d ever do the stupid thing. It was illogical and imprudent. Worse than that, it was out of character.
In other words, it looked as if the author had forced the
decision on him against his will, simply to keep the plot going. If he’d done anything
that made sense, the story would have been over. And happily.
My righteous writer’s fury blazed up against this author,
and I cast his book into the outer darkness of Kindle limbo.
Andrew Collins writes in his article, “How Art Moved Me Beyond the Cliché,” about overcoming a blasé familiarity with Scripture. “I recently read through the Psalms—one song every morning or evening. But when I got to Psalm 23, something happened. I read through it in a minute or two, and not a single substantive thought went through my head. When I reached the end, my mind was blank.
“Why? Because it’s Psalm 23! Everyone knows it. I’ve probably had it memorized since I was 7 years old. Over the years, the psalm has dissolved, for me, into a rote sequence of words. What a shame. Gratefully, I remember Jon Foreman’s song ‘House of God Forever.'”
I’ve had a similar revitalizing through Michael Card’s songs from the Psalms in his album, The Way of Wisdom. His renderings of Psalm 23 and 139 have stuck with me for twenty years.
Poet Dana Gioia from a recent interview with Image Journal
Image: Do you consciously think of yourself as part of a tradition of Catholic writers?
DG: I am a Catholic, and I am a writer. I don’t think you can separate the two identities. But I have never wanted to be “a Catholic writer” in some narrow sense. Was Evelyn Waugh a Catholic writer? Was Flannery O’Connor or Muriel Spark? Well, yes and no. They were first and foremost writers who strived for expressive intensity and imaginative power. Their Catholicism entered into their work along with their humor, violence, sexuality, and imaginative verve. The few devotional works Waugh wrote are his worst books. His merciless early comic novels, which are Catholic only in their depiction of a hopelessly fallen world, are probably his best. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange is a deeply Catholic novel about free will, but it is also a violent, dystopian science fiction novel about social collapse and political hypocrisy, all of which is written in an invented futuristic slang. There is something complicated going on here that cannot be simplified into faith-based writing.
Thought I’d do a snippet of the new novel tonight. Not sure how long it will take to publish it, but it’s essentially written. Probably going to my Publishing Gremlin tomorrow. lw
Part One: The Crying Stave
I recall it as the
night of two visions. One vision was for the land, the other for me. Together
they marked a turning place.
And neither was
for the better.
We were feasting at Augvaldsness. If God blessed our efforts, matters would now be less tangled in the land. Jarl Erik Haakonsson, with whom Erling Skjalgsson could never be at peace, had returned again to England to serve his lord, Prince Knut the Dane. This freed Erling to renew his friendship with Erik’s brother Jarl Svein, whom he rather liked. Svein sat now as lord of the north of the land, under Denmark. We were crowning their friendship by handfasting Erling’s son Aslak to Svein’s daughter Sigrid. The two were young, but such betrothals were common, and the young people liked each other well enough.
Baard Ossursson, steward of Augvaldsness, was a man who liked his boiled pork. It was his habit to take a chunk from the platter in his big hand, squeeze it so the fat ran out between his fingers, and slurp the greasy runnels off as they oozed out. He was playing at that as we sat side by side, just to Erling’s right at the high table in the hall.
“This is an important place, Augvaldsness,” Baard said to me between slurps. “The man who controls the strait here at Kormt Island can stop traffic up and down the North Way like a plug in a jar. The kings of Augvaldsness in olden times were the mightiest along the North Way. You can run outside the island, take the sea way to the west, but the weather out there’s chancy.”
“I’ve heard of King Augvald,” I said. “The one who worshipped his cow.”
Strangest new year of my life, I think. This one’s “driving me alee” (as I have a character say in my Work in Progress. I’m not even sure it’s a real nautical term).
It’s not a bad new year. Quite the opposite, so far as I can tell. I’m having a good time. But it’s going too fast.
A new year is a tug on the sleeve from Mortality, telling you, “You’re running out of time.” If my life were one of those rolls of receipt tape in a cash register, I’d be seeing the red borders they put on those things, down near the core, to warn you the roll is running out. It doesn’t mean the end is imminent. It would be wasteful to change the roll now. But it means you should check your supplies, to make sure you’ve got another roll ready, because The End Is Coming.
The other day it occurred to me – I’m living the dream. All my life I’ve wanted to write from home for a living. And that’s what I’m doing now (translating is a form of writing, and one I enjoy). I don’t dread Mondays anymore – in fact, I prefer weekdays to weekends in this new dispensation.
Which means the weeks whiz by.
Back when I was toiling my way toward an ultimately useless master’s degree, I had one consolation – the slowdown of time. Einstein is famously supposed to have explained General Relativity by saying that a minute goes a lot faster when you’ve got a blonde in your lap than when you’re sitting on a hot stove. (Nonsense, I think. It’s true, but that’s a psychological and perceptional phenomenon. It has nothing to do – so far as I understand it – with Einsteinian relativity. Much evil has sprung from this error.) Those two-and-a-half years in the salt mines of academe felt like five to me. There was some satisfaction in that, at my time of life. Now, every week feels like a day. And I haven’t got that many weeks left.
The solution, of course, is obvious. I need to suffer more.
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born on this day in 1892 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Here’s a recording of an interview from the 1960s. I think you can identify the slight slur in his speech, caused by an early tongue injury. By all accounts, it did not affect his lecturing voice, but it did make him hard to understand, sometimes, in conversation.
As you know (always a dangerous phrase in a story, but this
is real life, where you can get away with lots of nonsense), I am currently a
free-lance translator. I work from home, setting my own hours – something less
ideal than it sounds. I either work quite long hours, or sit around worrying
about not working.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that I work in a manner pleasing to myself – usually in sweat clothes on my sofa (sometimes, for exercise, in an easy chair), with the TV on. I have a current TV routine. The H & I Network runs mystery marathons in nine-hour blocks, five days a week. Thursday is Monk Day. Nonstop Tony Shalhoub as an obsessive-compulsive police consultant, whose frailty enables him to see things others miss, even as he barely functions as an adult.
This is a character I identify with.
But that’s not exactly my point either.
I’ve had multiple opportunities to view the two-part pilot episode, and the plotting impresses me a lot. I think it’s a very good example of exemplary character plotting.
We have our “hero,” Adrian Monk, who is afraid, essentially, of everything. He has a long list of phobias, but chief among them is his fear of dirt and germs. He keeps his personal space immaculate and meticulously organized, and can’t even shake hands without wiping down immediately with a towelette. He has a nurse/personal assistant who serves as his mediator with the world. Her name is Sharona (she is replaced in the third season, but that doesn’t matter here), and she’s more or less his opposite – she’s an earthy New Jersey girl with a blousy style and considerable street smarts. They annoy each other immensely, but each also provides the other with things they need. In spite of themselves, they care for one another – non-romantically.
So in the pilot episodes, the writers set up a perfectly splendid dilemma for Monk. Sharona is kidnapped by a murderer, who drags her off as a hostage – into the sewers of San Francisco.
This constitutes an existential crisis for Monk. His whole life (and his survival, in his own mind) depends on keeping clean. But now he has to climb down into a sewer, where he must encounter sewage, or possibly lose Sharona.
This is splendid character plotting. Monk’s choice is not only agonizing (in a comic way), but it’s germane to the character established in the story. He is tested at his weakest point. He’s forced to leave his comfort zone, to do what he believes he can’t do. His choice to follow into the sewer (you knew he’d do that, didn’t you?) is in actuality an act of faith.
Dramatically, it’s far superior to the more famous “Sophie’s
Choice.” Sophie’s choice achieved drama purely through its extremity, but
revealed nothing about her character and taught her (and the reader) nothing but
despair. The author who counsels despair is like the debater who ends the
argument with a punch in the face. It’s effective, but nothing is learned.
Today has been, and continues to be, a heavy work day. I have an assignment from Oslo, not for a translation, but a sort of research job. I’m scanning through a very long document, extracting relevant passages into a separate document.
Not uninteresting. And it will take a while. Which is nice, since my time for translation will be curtailed when I go on jury duty. That promises a healthier paycheck at the end of the month.
Today’s Writer’s Aggravation:
There’s an article in the current Writer’s Digest about finding time to write, and writing faster. And it’s a good article, all in all. Lots of handy tips that are likely to be useful to aspiring authors.
What annoys me is the closing line. It goes like this: “And with nine minutes a day, you can arrive at The Sound and the Fury (97,000 words) in just under four months.”
That’s inspiring, but overpromising, friend. I’ll grant that it might be possible to finish a first draft in four months, employing the methods suggested. But that first draft will not be a novel. You’ve still got another year (or six months, anyway) of revising. It’s great to finish a first draft. I’ve often said that getting that one thing done is (to my way of thinking) the most important milepost in the process of writing a book.
But books aren’t written – they’re re-written. Heaven help the agent who gets that 97,000 first draft in the email from some nine-minute-a-day writer who thinks that’s sufficient.
Surprise! I don’t have a book review today. I binge-watched Daredevil yesterday, to take my mind off… things.
One-paragraph review: Worthy of the first two seasons, superior in some ways to Season Two. I thought the climax a little contrived, but it was good. Odd to have a superhero season without the hero getting into his suit once.
I shall tell you how I live my current life. This schedule may change; in fact it’s likely to change.
My life kind of centers on free-lance assignments coming in from Meteoritt, my Norwegian employer. The business day in Oslo starts while we’re asleep in Minnesota, so one of the first things I do when I wake up (which is pretty much whenever I want to) is check my email for a notice. It’s always in the form of a request – sometimes a personal request, sometimes a general appeal to the group. Sometimes I miss out on those, though, since the local Norwegians have a time advantage. But the boss often offers me exclusives, because she likes my work. I have no complaints.
If I get an assignment, there’s generally a deadline. And I’ll already be a few hours behind. So my day is generally devoted to that work. I do take frequent breaks though (which accounts for the amount I’ve been reading lately). I can’t do translation steadily for several hours – it just wears me out and my body rebels. As the day goes on, though, I find I can usually work longer sessions, and the translation – for some reason – seems to get easier in the evening. And into the night.
If there’s no assignment for the day, I can work on my translation for the Georg Sverdrup Society. I’m translating quite a long piece for the next Journal. And, of course, I can work on The Elder King, the coming Erling book, though right now I’m pausing (which one needs to do sometimes when writing fiction anyway) to wait for feedback from my First Readers. I’m not sure if we’ll get the book out before Christmas, but we’re trying.
Last night I finished another revision of The Elder King, my latest Erling Skjalgsson novel, and sent it off to my faithful First Readers. I still have no idea when it’ll be released, but we’re that much closer.
This has been a periodic Lars Walker novel writing update. Thank you for your support.
A quiet day today. The sky was overcast, the air cool. I noticed this when I went out to get groceries. They were entirely out of Fishers’ Light Dry-Roasted Peanuts at the Cub store. Can Soviet-style food lines be far behind?
Not much happened. I did some translation, but not the kind you get paid for. Then on to the novel. I’m done with marking up the latest draft of The Elder King, and I made a little start on changing the document file.
I’m scared of this book, again. I go in and out with the fear. I actually think it’s pretty good. Maybe almost great. I think I’m afraid because I’ll have to show it to my first readers soon, and they might tell me it’s not as good as I think.
I started to write an essay on leprosy, of all things, for this blog post, but I accidentally lost it and I’m not up to repeating the effort. I’ll just mention that leprosy’s medical name, Hansen’s Disease, comes from a Norwegian doctor, Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), who first identified the bacillus, though somebody else actually linked it to the disease. He seems to have been something of a jerk, and he lost his job at a hospital for trying to infect a woman with leprosy without her consent. The fact that he was an atheist should not be taken as a having anything to do with that. Leprosy was a serious problem in Norway, especially among the poor. Hansen, to his credit, managed to reduce the incidence drastically during his tenure as Norwegian medical officer for leprosy.