The Hidden Machinery: Essays on Writing – Margot Livesey, 2017

I no longer remember where I heard about this book, but the title grabbed me. I enjoyed it, especially the analyses of great novels, but it didn’t quite deliver on the explanation of how the machinery works. There were some useful tips – now I want to read Forster’s Aspects of the Novel for his description of flat characters who can become three-dimensional – and I’m also going to seek out Livesey’s novel The Flight of Gemma Hardy, which is a reworking of Jane Eyre. (Tangent: the Wikipedia article on Aspects of the Novel has two great quotes, one from Maughm – “I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E.M. Forster” – and one from Woolf – “So then we are back in the old bog; nobody knows anything about the laws of fiction.”)

A few bits I took away:

  • Livesey says memorable characters need attributes that convey their attitude: “No amount of details—eyes, teeth, hair, jobs, dreams, relationship to mother, history of dog ownership, horoscope—will avail unless it conveys attitude. Indeed, long lists of detail without affect may simply make the task of imagining the character harder, for both writer and reader.” This sounds plausible but I want to chew on it a bit.
  • “Dialogue is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—often pretending to be woolly and vague, actually all teeth and meaning.”
  • She explains why re-reading can be exciting by distinguishing between two kinds of suspense: what’s going to happen, or how and why it happens.
  • I was intrigued by her suggestion that fiction can sometimes be made more believable by employing what she calls “antifiction” – techniques that make the narrative “messier, more confusing: in other words more lifelike.”

A great list of signals that indicate you’re reading fiction, specifically about the introductory paragraph of Ulysses:

1. There is no visible narrator.
2. The act of writing is concealed. We are made to believe that the words sprang up on the page without effort.
3. Characters are shown to us through action and dialogue.
4. There is no initial attempt at explanation.
5. There is considerable specificity of detail and a kind of heightened density to the style.
6. Both narrator and characters are unnaturally eloquent.

And finally, she asks an artist friend, Gerry Bergstein, why one would rewrite a famous book and he tells her:

1. To provide a contemporary update of older themes that often contradicts the original
2. Sheer love
3. To make a cultural critique
4. To demonstrate political, or other forms, of social evolution
5. To distill the earlier work
6. To develop the traditions of a beloved forebear
7. Any combination of the above
8. As a joke

But that leaves off what I’m afraid is the most frequent reason, even if it’s unconsciously motivated and not sheer crassness: To get more attention than naturally accrues to a less-famous creator.

Subsequently I searched for reviews, and found this very helpful one, which contains a list of other writing books I could add to a request list:

  • Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House
  • Nancy Kress’s Beginnings, Middles, and Ends
  • Sarah Painter’s Stop Worrying, Start Writing
  • Robert Boswell’s The Half-Known World
  • Graywolf Press’s The Art Of series
  • Tin House’s Between the Covers podcast
  • Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft
  • Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction

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