Advice to College Writers: Aim for the Throat
April 16, 1976
Outside of a bimonthly find, I can’t read books. Three hundred pages in two weeks usually means pick up book, page 30 stop, pick up next book, page 40 stop, next book, etc. for 10 books, dropping off into People magazine and lethargically thumbing back issues of National Lampoon. This anorexia nervosa around the printed page has been a life-long affliction. I don’t know how to prove this statistically, but empirically I’ve discovered that what I go through around books is a common dyspepsia among my generation (b. circa 1950) — which is to say, not many of us pleasure-read anymore. And friends, what’s coming up after us is worse. I’ve taught, lectured, and read at roughly two-dozen colleges, and the amount of ignorance of, and indifference to, both fiction and nonfiction is devastating except for an occasional cult book, the leaders of tomorrow couldn’t read their way out of a Glad Bag. What’s more, they wouldn’t want to.
Consider: Every American born since 1947 cut his teeth on the tube seven days a week, with Saturday afternoons off to go to the movies. TV and cine are faster than Wonder Books, My Weekly Reader, Landmark Books, The Red Pony, and whatever’s on the cover of the NYTBR next week. TV is easier. It’s multisensory. Movies, (on top of) being easier and multisensory, are also bigger and on top of bigger they happen to be group experiences. Relatively, books are hard work, static, one-dimensional. Reading is an isolated activity. We’re lazy — we seek the easiest information source, the most entertainment for the least effort. One picture is worth a thousand words.
Whenever I do a talk or a reading at a college, I always ask how many people have seen the film Dracula or one of its offspring, usually 90 to 100 per cent. Solid. Now how many here have heard of Bram Stoker? On a good day, five to 10 per cent. And for the preschoolers it’s Count Chocula, a Chocolate Marshmallow breakfast atrocity… Do you know who Bram Stoker was? And so it goes. In other words, I would guess that most eight-year-old kids faced with a choice of watching an animated version of Treasure Island on Home Box or reading Robert Louis Stevenson will go for the Box. And once you start out that way, it’s all over. TV and movies are like Wonder Bread in reverse for the book-loving part of the brain.
Now, all this upsets the shit out of me. I’m a novelist. I’m a good novelist and I’ll get better. I’ve found my calling and if I have my way I’ll be turning out books for the next half-century, books that will blow people away. But right now all I want is to be read and not just by critics and grad students. I’ve got things to say to everybody. I won’t reduce my books to “Popcorn Lit” (whatever one critic called an addicting page-turner with no nutritional value) to get my audience, but I am gunning for that kid who hates to read but can memorize every cereal jingle in a four-hour sitdown with the tube. Because I’m on his case. I’ve been there, mainlining TV ever since I could say “Clarabell.” I’ve been bored by as many books as he and when I started writing I automatically screened out whatever bored me in others’ books. What you can’t read, you can’t write. My writing is a product of being a tube child and is geared towards other tube children, at least stylistically. In other words, even though that jingle-drenched kid might not care a rat’s ass about books right now, I’ll hook the little booger before I’m through. Ex-junkies can make good drug counselors.
Storytellers who will be writing for this generation and for generations to follow and who care about being read by more than a select few thousand will have to acknowledge that they are walking around in a world where people’s brains are being wired for holograms and sensurround and the competition is not whatever was reviewed in the Sunday Times but what’s playing down the block and whatever’s on CBS (or WNET) tonight.
This doesn’t mean writers should take a workshop with Peter Lemongello, or that they should start churning out Popcorn and go “commercial” (who me? whata you, serious?). What it does mean, in storytelling fiction at least, is that there has to be a great streamlining, a stripping, a clean-to-the-bone eloquence projected. The writer has to go for the throat from page one, word one.
To nail this generation coming up, there will be a need to be direct as a heart attack; there will be a need for passion and integrity, an immediacy and urgency as if the writer were sitting naked on a hot stove and couldn’t jump off until the story was finished.
Spit has got to fly.
Books must be written that are alive with people who breathe. Literary characters must cease and be replaced by human beings. Novels must become three-dimensional. The print on the paper has got to crackle with life. There has got to be a direct line between the heart and the hand. An absolute guilelessness, a terrifying honesty.
To me, writing is acting on paper. I try to visualize everything, limit my narration to the surface of things — what a reader can see in any moment. Exposition is spare, simple, and direct. I don’t try to transcend my people but rather, to become them. If I can trance myself into becoming my character, I can load every gesture and interaction with enough information for a book in itself. It’s a simple matter of show and tell. There is a way to “show” every “tell.” There is a physical action, a mannerism, a tone of voice, a phrase that will nail down every conceivable experience, and when the writer matches up the perfect gesture for that human moment, the results are sublime.
Both my novels took two years. The first was spent talking to my characters, the second, writing. Creating characters with any substance is an evolutionary process, and I had to live with them dawn to dusk. The first year, I was a stone lunatic. I had all these people setting up shop in my brain. But by the time I was ready to write I could take a battery of MMPI and Wonderlic personality tests for each of my people and answer hundreds of questions with as much intimate knowledge as if they were taking the test.
Plot always comes automatically once I know who my people are. The inevitability of their personalities makes the “story” a natural projection of what drives them from day to day. In a given scene I may know nothing more than how it’s supposed to end, most of the time not even that. Scenes are improvised. A character does or says something, and with as much spontaneity and schizophrenia as I can muster, another character responds. In this way, everything I write is spontaneous chain reaction and I’m running around playing leap frog in my brain trying to “be” all people.
If art does imitate life, the most “authentic” fiction has to progress moment to moment in the mind of the writer. When I write, my only notes are a tentative shopping list of prospective interactions vaguely formulated in my head. They can range all over the book and be based on anything from an anecdote out of my past to a contrived plot device. With this mosaic pattern of writing, I can address myself to the scene on the list which is most in tune with the mood I’m in at that moment. If I am writing a jealous rage, odds are I’m in a jealous rage at the time. In this way my writing is always “hot.”
A crucial part of that essential sparseness I strive for is keeping morals and messages out of my consciousness as fastidiously as possible. For the sake of immediacy, for the sake of creating a world without station breaks, the only thing that exists are my people. When I create a character, I grant that character enough respect and elbow room to dig his own grave or build his own monument. When I read, any intrusion — any editorial by the author — breaks my concentration, takes me out, makes me put down the book and pick up People.
As much as I dislike the majority of novels that come into my hands, there have been some that made me delirious with pleasure and hip to the fact that no matter how fantastic other art forms might seem, there is an ineffability, a sublime punch/counterpunch in the written word that can be duplicated in no other medium. And for the little that I value much of what’s in print I’d hate for a whole generation to miss out on even that small amount. And if I didn’t mean that I’d be at the damn movies right now.
At 26, Richard Price is the author of The Wanderers, a highly-praised novel about a teenage gang in the Bronx. His new novel, Bloodbrothers, concerns a family of hardhats in Co-op City.
Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.