Expert-Guided Workshop with Daniella Brodsky

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Expert-Guided Workshop with Daniella Brodsky

WHEN: 6-8pm on 4 consecutive Thursdays July 5, 12, 19, 26

WHERE:  Daniella’s Captain Cook Studio, Narrabundah ACT

For writers who’ve completed a creative writing course or workshop in the past, or have had some (yes, limited is fine) experience working independently on a novel draft (adult or young adult), this workshop is the perfect opportunity to get some scheduled butt-in-seat time working on your book, with the invaluable input of a group of budding writers in the same boat—all with six-time published novelist Daniella Brodsky on hand to critique and guide you along with craft tips and personalized feedback.  As all the best writing groups do, together we’ll build on the foundations of craft, research, inspiration, pacing, conflict, and characterization, using your own weekly writing submissions to put theory into practice and help your projects along in the most useful way—all with the aim of articulating on paper exactly what’s in our heads.

Cost: $230, via paypal to daniellajnoble@gmail.com or in exact change on the day of first course; ABN#89 323 545 253. Email dbrodsky@mail.com to save your place.

Launch: Princess of Park Avenue ebook

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Brand Spankin' New Cover

Dear readers new and old,

I am thrilled to announce the re-launch of one of my favorite backlist titles:  PRINCESS OF PARK AVENUE, on sale NOW.  For those of you who have become fans later in the game, I am calling this launch series, My ‘Dirty Literary History.’  The name is tongue in cheek and only an attempt to let you know that it’s a

bit more lighthearted and comedic than my current work.  But it’s got the same power to teach us something about ourselves that I believe all good art (if I may be so bold) does.  And I’m going to go out on a limb and toot my own horn here once again (I know! You don’t even recognize this Daniella, right?) . . . As I read through to re-edit PRINCESS (because I’m a perfectionist and love to see how much I’ve learned in the last decade, too), I laughed my ass off (figuratively; I still have an ass, so don’t worry).  The story is funny, and the observations about pop culture’s ugly side seem all too relevant today.

For those of you who’ve been with me since THE GIRL’S GUIDE TO NEW YORK NIGHTLIFE days (or even the days when I wouldn’t go anywhere without my Minnie Mouse), and maybe even attended that fabulous launch party with all the free booze in the middle of a blizzard (maybe even won a ritzy prize to take home), I’d love to hear your thoughts on how this Brooklyn v Park Avenue love story fits into your view of Daniella Brodsky’s body of work.  To me, PRINCESS is about the stunning contradictions in each of us.  But no matter which way I look at it, Lorraine Machuchi was—and still is—one of my favorite characters, and I hope you enjoy spending some time with her in this revamped edition . . . as much as I have.  Any guesses on which real life personage the Pizza Boy may have been inspired by are totally welcome (and will most likely be denied).  As for who would play Lorraine in a film version, my vote goes to Anne Hathaway—she’s from Brooklyn!  If you’d like to make a pick, or just want to say hey, visit the PRINCESS OF PARK AVENUE facebook page.  For info on my other titles, visit my website.

The great thing about the democratization of the book industry is that we all have a voice—which means we have influence over the kinds of books that make it in today’s marketplace.  If you’ve enjoyed any of my books, please tell the world via a review or a “like” at any of my amazon book pages which can be found via my author page; you wouldn’t believe how influential one opinion can be today.  However you make your voice heard, it’s an exciting time!  Keep reading!

The Year in Reading

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Is it me, or has this been a year of fantastic novels?  Right off the top of my head I can think of Night Circus, Before I Go to Sleep, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Sarah Thornhill, Room, and The Tiger’s Wife. There were so many wonderful stories, I’m sure I’ve had my best reading year in a long while.  I deplore the arbitrary nature of lists, so I won’t get into that here (though if anyone wants to stick my book on one, I’m not going to pull a Jonathan Franzen), but I’ll also say I was pointed to a ton of vintage reads, either by recommendation, happy accident, by way of research (one book leads to another leads to another and so on), or simply scouring used bookstores or op shops.

Which brings me to the question of the year:  How exactly did I buy these magnificent treasures?  Well, I’m a tried and true hard copy, traditional paper book reader, so yes, I’m one of Those. But I wonder how representative I am of a typical book buyer, splitting my purchases as I do between local indie bookshops, indies at holiday destinations, discount and large chains, international online shops like amazon and bookdepository, specialist boutiques (like those at museums), and used bookstores and op shops, too.  Lots of my nonfiction books are sourced at the good old-fashioned library, where I’ll often find a novel that catches my eye while I’m browsing.  If there’s one spot that’s really caught my attention for fantastic selection this year, it’s the university bookshops, like The Co-op, which seem to point me to spectacular reads I may not find elsewhere—with a perfect track record.

Which leads me to the next novel observation for 2011.  I chose more than a few novels (and some nonfiction) by recommendations shared on twitter.  I think us book folk have found a really useful and mutually beneficial way to employ twitter, and I’m so thankful to all the great information feeds I have come to rely on (and the minimum of detail about your child’s hockey game/carpool drama).  It’s also amazing to be able to reach out to authors directly—whether they’re experiencing launches for the first time or the hundredth.

No matter what you’ve read and which way you’ve read it, I hope you’ve enjoyed the literary side of 2011 as much as I have.  Can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store.  As for Daniella Brodsky books, I’m just finishing up my latest literary fiction and getting set to release a brand new ebook edition of Princess of Park Avenue—one of my early-romantic-comedies-with-a-serious-side (can someone please start an amazon category under this name?), which seems to have hit a personal chord with so many readers in its study of smart women who can’t seem to shake Mr. Wrong—on January 13.  More info to follow.

Happy New Year!

COVER DESIGN CONTEST!

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There’s nothing more exciting than artistic collaboration—free of the constraints of the traditional business models, and as authors get our backlist rights back, we’re free to let creativity run wild.  In that spirit, I’m looking for a new cover design for my backlist collection, and I’ve set up this contest to give emerging artists the chance for some experience and publicity.  The going rate for these covers is about $150, and that’s what I’m offering as a prize—along with image credits.

BRIEF: I’m re-releasing my backlist novels under the series name:  BACKLIST:  THE DIRTY LITERARY HISTORY OF DANIELLA BRODSKY.  The story behind this is that in the old traditional publishing world, editors constantly say the readers of “serious” fiction are not the same readers as those who read lighter or genre books, which is ridiculous.  This is how writers get branded and pigeon-holed into writing the same kind of book over and over.  Meanwhile, I have never come into contact with any reader who doesn’t read all kinds of books.  Between this dumb, frankly snooty, industry standard and the ridiculous way the media and publishing biz inflated the “uniqueness” and branding of “chick lit,” I thought it would be fun to show a novelist’s growth over a decade in this tongue-in-cheek way.  Picture brown paper bag covers like my grandmother used to wrap around her romance novels and “top secret” stamps married to a Penguin Classics look and feel.  The books are all re-edited and include bonus materials, and funny enough, as I went through to do the work, I was surprised that the darned media and publishers had me brainwashed, too:  I was actually SHOCKED that the books were such page-turners, both enjoyable and well-done—after all, they were chick lit.  The first eBook in the series, Princess of Park Avenue, will be released in September.  Subsequent titles include:  The Velvet Rope Diaries, Fear of Driving, and One Trick Pony.  Look for behind-the-scenes details about the making and publishing history along with each volume, too.

TO ENTER:  Email your design as a PDF or JPG to daniella@daniellabrodsky.com along with a brief bio.  Images should work as both eBook and print covers.

KEY DATES:  Contest opens September 1, 2011 and closes September 15, 2011

QUESTIONS:  Email daniella@daniellabrodsky.com

Together, let’s wow ‘em.

Books Aren’t Good Enough

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To me, this is perfection

I have a prediction:  the public will soon be divided into two camps.  On the one hand we’ll have these new technology enthusiasts, who not only love their ebooks, but can’t wait to see how the old skool words-on-a-page notion of books can be heightened, made more graphic, more interactive, more like a whole new category of technology—a mook or a boovie.  And on the other hand will be people like me, who love books because they are in fact merely words-on-a-page that when done properly, can create a world all their own.  People like me might be a minority, but we’ll catch momentum when the nostalgia trend peaks again, and it’s suddenly cool to be old skool.

Have you seen this New York Times article?  Books will now have soundtracks.  Am I the only person who sees a problem with this?  Great!  Now we don’t have to waste energy imagining what the music will sound like!  Using imagination is so last millennium!  Now, someone has imagined for us.  But it will be researched and grounded in history!  You’ll be able to click on the song and know who wrote it and when he died a pauper because he wasn’t appreciated while he lived!  True, and true.  But don’t we already have the Internet for that?  And aren’t we already seeing some of the downfalls of being spoon-fed our knowledge this way?   And by the way, how lazy are we?  And what are we going to do with all this extra time we’re freeing up?

Let me ask you this:  when did books stop being good enough as they were?  I just spent a long weekend camping and for the most part, I read a book.  Sure, we fed geese and hiked and watched kangaroos tote their little joeys around.  But when it was quiet time, we read books.  They had actual paper pages with black print on them.  It rained; it was sunny.  We traveled around to all different spots, and we took these books with us.  I loved mine (One Day by David Nicholls—and by the way, not the movie edition).  My husband loved his (A Clash of Kings by George RR Martin).  In fact, I’d say in large part these wonderful books set the tone for our trip because neither of us could put ours down.

Perhaps there’s something wrong with me, but I don’t see how such a complicated, messy project as an author’s book, presented so simply as a plain old book can be improved upon.  Aha.  And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it?  Beyond the distribution to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have books, beyond the students whose carbon footprints will probably be cut by ninety percent without all those bulky textbooks, and beyond the other commonsensical areas where ebooks make practical sense, the only reason these suped-up books are coming into vogue is because we live in a capitalist society.  These books mean more money because what the industry calls “non-readers” will “read” them.  Okay, fine.  I have nothing against more people reading.  But can we also give some credit where credit is due?  Books have been around for a long time, largely in the same format.  And they rock.  Even the old ones.  Maybe especially the old ones.

Civic Library Interactive Blog

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My Civic Library Installation

People are often confounded about what goes into a novel, and I’ve blogged about plenty of them—research, reading, and planning.  And in the display at Civic Library, Canberra, I’ve attempted to visually display two authentic examples of the various elements that led to my first novel, DIARY OF A WORKING GIRL (filmed as BEAUTY & THE BRIEFCASE), and to my most recent novel, VIVIAN RISING.

DIARY was my first published novel (the first non-published one is gathering dust in a box—rightfully so).  And when I look back at the inspiration and research that went into it, I realize that in some way, I’d been researching my first novel my whole life.  I’m guessing this isn’t a rarity among novelists, since it’s common to use the familiar as fodder for your first book.  It’s a good exercise in learning how real-life experience can authenticate a novel, but doesn’t in itself make a novel (surprise!  Our lives are not as compelling as we imagine!).

In the DIARY display I heaped, among other things, the kind of expensive swag that was quite an exciting element of lifestyle journalism to an unsophisticated schlub with grease monkey roots like myself.  These items presented a novel experience to me: having luxuries I could never afford, while the electric company buzzed to say they were cutting my unpaid-for power (true story).  It was this migration into this elite, but intimate (and a bit boring if you’d like to know the truth), circle of New York’s It list that for the most part removed me—in many ways—from the regular kinds of events that would have me mixing with men I might be interested in dating.  Instead, I was—dateless—attending lipstick launches and perfume parties.  It didn’t take long until my initial financial security of branching out on my own had turned, either—with my biggest client going bust.  This all culminated around Valentine’s Day 2001, which I spent with four single women (one of which was my close friend, the rest ehhh), at the most poorly-attended launch party I’d ever been to.  The quagmire of navigating out of my negative circumstances led me to imagine a fictionalized solution I wouldn’t have considered in real-life.  I decided to start writing the next morning.  When the draft was finished and sold one month later, I had a real-life solution, too.

But the seeds of DIARY had been sown much earlier than that.  I’d worked in international publishing, and before it was even heard of in American, my boss had brought back from London a copy of two novels:  Bridget Jones Diary and Does My Bum Look Big in This? These books hit such a personal chord because, since high school, I’d never read anything that seemed to speak so realistically to the life phase I was in.  I was encouraged when the genre grew.  That novel in my cupboard?  Well the rejection feedback had been strong in one major area:  You’ve tried to be too serious.  It’s your humor that’s key to your tone.  Don’t leave it out.  And then there was the influence of all the articles I’d pitched and written.  And the excitement of attending fashion week and mixing with that crowd, the friends I had at the time, the kinds of challenges and jobs they had, their strengths and weaknesses.

VIVIAN RISING had a very different trajectory.  I’d already written seven and a half novels (two and a half of which wound up on the scrap heap).  I was as surprised as anyone when there I was facing the blank screen and came up with Vivian, locked in the ensuite bathroom of her grandmother’s hospital room.  The inspiration nugget must have been the loss of my own grandmother/closest friend a couple of years earlier.  It wasn’t a conscious decision to go there, but an interesting one, I think, when you consider how the brain works.  As the characters and place began to crystallize and become strong entities of their own, the book became about so many things:  the cultural history of Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the polarizing and—love it or consider it bull-honkey—emotionally enlightening topic of astrology, grief, the unique relationships between grandparents and their grandkids.  It was during the editing of this book that I became obsessed with second-hand non-fiction books and the unique, vast ways they can enhance a story.  Reading always enhances and influences the way your story unfolds itself, and reading Lorrie Moore and Mona Simpson and Janet Fitch brought me to realize that in my mind, giving the reader the most heightened emotional experience was what made for the best books.  And since Vivian Rising many would say this is my hallmark.  When you research, one nugget leads to another and another (see my previous blog about research), and this enlightening process organically leads your story along its arc.  I don’t get stuck in what a book’s format “should” be, and neither should you.  Once you get your characters and their conflicts right, they’ll always point you in the right direction.

Now, if you saw the display case at Civic Library in Canberra (pictured), you’re probably busting to know what an ARC is at this point.  Here in Canberra we’re used to abbreviations, and so you won’t be surprised to find this is yet another, standing for Advanced Reader Copy.  This plain-cover book is normally created before the copy-edit stage (meaning there’ll be lots of dumb mistakes and without question, overwritten bits that need to be cut), so that you can send an advanced read out to the magazine and newspaper editors who work with long lead times.  So, if your book comes out in February, this ARC would ideally go out some time around November (all too often it’s much later!).  If you’d like to win a VIVIAN RISING ARC, just comment below with the word ‘ENTER’.  Don’t be afraid to add any questions or comments, either.

Best,

My Civic Library Installation

Daniella

Has Research Become Too Convenient?

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Lately, there has been a proliferation of articles considering the effects of the hyper-tailoring Google and other platforms have been tinkering with in order to give us only the kind of information we routinely search for.  The argument against this selective searching—which I wholeheartedly agree with—is that we won’t have a true picture of news, events, and information, only a pigeon-holed view; but our exposure to new interests could be stifled, too.  Which has got me thinking about what this means for research, and on top of that, how the internet in general has changed and impacted the way fiction writers do what they do.

To give you an idea of how I cultivate information to build my fiction, let me give you a recent example from my work-in-progress (WIP).  I had been listening to a radio show about gardening, which I often do—now with more interest than ever since gardens play a key role in my WIP—and learned about Scribbly Gums.  Being American, I hadn’t heard of this kind of Gum before, and perked up at the literary sound of the tree.  I made a note to look this tree up at the National Library where I often conduct research.  Only, my schedule had changed unexpectedly and I wasn’t able to make it to the library, so later that evening, I Googled “Scribbly Gums” and came up with a few interesting information pieces by CSIRO.  Off the bat, whatever I found on those pages would lead me down a different path from what I’d find in the library, because there I would be looking at books, which like Google, lead me to other sources, but nearly always, different sources than Google would lead to.  Why?  Because institutions hold items that Google doesn’t, for one, or that would possibly come up last in a Google search, for the mere fact that it hasn’t recently been featured on Oprah.

With books, as with Google, that secondary source leads to another, and another, and whatever takes my fancy and works well to build out my story and characters, then that’s the direction I take—again, the major difference being in what kind of information I would be led to and how I interact with it.  In this case, the CSIRO article linked me to two other articles on the same site, and then to two author references to Scribbly Gums, of cultural importance.  One of these happened to be May Gibbs, and when I looked at her wonderful illustrations, I realized I needed to somehow incorporate her story into my story.  I went the very next morning to my local bookshop and picked up a beautiful hardback copy of her beloved gum nut adventures.  I carried that book with me on my business trip and read it cover to cover, noting bits that would make for fantastic allusions for my characters.

But what if I only used Google for my research?  And what if that research was narrowed down only to the entries that Google thought I would be interested in, based on my search history?  I simply cannot see how this can make for the best, most fully-realized fiction because the act of research, of holding books, of searching for the books—be it in library, book shop, or op shop—leads you, via chance—down a path of interest completely unique from the path anyone else could be led down or even that you, yourself, would be led down at any other time or any other place, and that is because your search is an active one, a give-and-take between you and the books which is shaped by all types of variables—from mood to whimsy, to pretty covers and personal interaction along the way.  And this is quite different from a search engine’s results:  something you’ve been neatly handed over because you often research your horoscope when you’re procrastinating writing.

Convenience.  I’m all for it, and God am I thankful to have Google for a quick look-up or reference to a specific type of flower that is hardy through winter.  But at what point are things too convenient?  At what point are we simply sacrificing the quality of our experience for ease of use?  Remember the slow food movement?  What about the slow research movement?  In both cases, it’s all about the quality.

PS:  After writing this, I went to the public library to return a book, and when I went in for a quick browse, came upon a non-fiction book about brain function in decision making.  It was in this book I happened upon the resolutions to two of my characters’ conflicts.  Just something to think about.

Novel Writing: The Problem with a Plan

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The writing world is officially divided:  in the game of 80-100K words on paper, there are planners and there are pantsers—those of us who ‘write by the seat of our pants.’  I imagine for the planners, life is quite a bit easier, but I’d also venture to waver it isn’t nearly as exciting—and if the plan is stuck to, the end result is likely to attain a fraction of the depth it otherwise could have.

Hear me out.  In the opening weeks of my courses, students are always resistant to this idea.  It runs counter to nearly everything anyone has ever been told and so it’s no wonder.  But here’s the problem:  an outline is often a necessary evil in the business of publishing (along with book summaries), but an outline has nothing to do with your novel.  An outline—at its best—is a structural overview, which by its very nature relies on black and white, straightforward cause and effect, to create a reductionist view of what a book might be.  But if you apply some commonsense, the problem will quickly present itself:  a novel is the exact opposite.  In a novel, characters’ personalities, challenges, and conflicts create the action and it’s a reader’s attachment to them via the way these things play out that leads to suspense.   It often doesn’t have very much to do with anything black and white—in fact, if it’s black and white then you wouldn’t have much of a story, would you?—and rather than reductionist thinking, a novelist’s trained eye looks at the same things everyone else does, but with the ability to break it down into endless grey shades that make readers consider the world in a new way.  So, you see the problem.

Surely this pantsing will lead to a good amount of wasted effort, no?  Wasted?  No.  Unused, most definitely.  But this is part of the process.  You can’t improve upon something that doesn’t exist.  Your characters only exist as sentences that make up scenes in the pages of your manuscript.  Describing what these scenes might be, in the manner of an outline, has nothing to do with it.  Until they exist in those scenes, created by sentences that string together action, they do not exist.  Just jot down an idea and then attempt to write it into a novel scene; then see how much the two entities have in common…

Soon enough—somewhere around week three—my students come in exhilarated, barely able to share their thoughts on the magical occurrence they experienced this week:  the character came to life and brought the story forward.  This idea was no longer the esoteric talk of literary snobs and black turtleneck wearers!  It wasn’t kooky artist-speak either!  It was, in fact, true!  To the students, exactly what needed to happen next became obvious, because they’ve come to know that unique character so well that they know what he would do under the circumstances he’s been presented with.  Try finding that information in an outline:  if you do, your character will quickly make mincemeat of your plans; I promise.

But that isn’t the only benefit of pantsing.  The second part is equally exciting, even if it takes a bit longer to wise to.  If you leave yourself open to any possibility of plot events, you’ll wind up with a richer story.  The reason is you haven’t experienced what this character has (even if you have, you wouldn’t have experienced it in exactly the same way, and not for the purposes of fiction), so how dare you believe you’ve got the ability to know how things will go for them when they meander along their way?  So, get to know your characters as best you can—by placing them in scenes and seeing what they’ll do, by researching their lifestyles for authenticity and action ideas—and let those pants lead you where they may.

Sydney Writers’ Festival

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To my mind, the best thing about the Sydney Writers’ Festival (SWF) is the way the dialogue can get my mind careening in all different directions.  In a roundabout way—and as long as you buy it—I’ll be using this as an excuse for this blog’s tardiness.  You hear about topics you haven’t considered; if you have considered it, well, here’s a brand new way to think about it.  I hope to share some of that magic with you.  Here, the highlights of my two-day literary marathon.

Tea Obrecht
It was inspiring (through the raging envy) to hear Tea’s remarkably quick rise to literary stardom.  In case you hadn’t heard, she won the Orange Prize for The Tiger’s Wife.  I put off reading this book until after some of the others I picked up at SWF for the sole reason that I am so used to these kinds of books being overrated, I feared disappointment (and then in response to the raging envy, a period of industry hopelessness).  I couldn’t have been more deeply mistaken.  Here, finally, was a book that was not only successful and acknowledged, but wonderful, too.  The writing has a depth of wisdom it is nearly impossible to believe comes from anyone who isn’t a pensioner.  And what’s better is that Tea’s talk of mysticism and the oral storytelling tradition of the Balkans has got me interested in researching all different kinds of storytelling; if its enriched her writing to such a degree, I’m sure to gain something useful from it, too.  If I found one peccadillo in the Tiger’s Wife, it was that the ending seemed a bit of a fizzle-out from the wonderful suspense and action that had been building, but as I tell my students, if it’s written well enough, you can get away with it, and she does.

International Publishing Discussion
With representatives from Spain, France, and The Netherlands, here was a chance to find out what’s selling in the international markets.  Not only that, but the truth about how it’s done.  In my experience, your agent has a rights person, or your publisher does (if they’ve been awarded these rights), and you either get a call that one of your book’s has got the green-light to be licensed internationally, or you don’t.  This hasn’t been too successful for me, since I’ve only had international editions of two of my six novels, so I was curious about the behind-the-scenes process.  The way these international publishers explained it was they hire scouts internationally to find out not only what’s selling, but which of those they believe work for the tastes of their particular hometown market.  Additionally, the publishers themselves are always on the lookout for something interesting.  And then there are the relationships they’ve built up with rights agents through the years.  According to these guys, the best agents are the ones who don’t only present their bestsellers, but the books that fit the criteria each international publisher looks to fill.  These publishers promise this isn’t just about bestsellers, which I found refreshing.  Now, to find one of these fantastic rights people…

Howard Jacobson, Booker Prize Speech
My god, I have never seen anything like this.  A huge theatre—filled—with people wanting to hear an author talk about his writing and career.  And who is it, tell me, that says books are dead?  (Someone too lazy to figure out the right way to sell them, is my guess, but I digress.)  Jacobson is charming, hysterical, and clever.  I couldn’t wait to tear into my autographed copy of The Finkler Question. That Jacobson commands words to do exactly what he wants them to is no question (Finkler or otherwise), but I have to say this novel read like two separate books:  the first, a slower, quieter, character study; the second, a suspenseful, fast-paced story of a man in a bit of trouble that only seems headed for a messy crescendo.  Both are united by a wonderful sense of humor, a vivid rendering of scenes, and an exceptional sense of daring to say things that most would be afraid to voice.  However, if this were written by one of my students, or by myself, I would suspect the slower beginning half was only that way as a result of Jacobson finding legs for these characters—working them out and seeing what they get into, a feat which finally hits its stride in part 2.  What I would advise my students or myself, is to go back and mesh this part 1 with the part 2, which is by far, the superior portion of the book when it comes to reader enjoyment (which, let’s face it, should always be numero uno; if they don’t read it, there’s no point to anything else).  I’m surprised this wasn’t done.  But I also see there must be some sense of authority in a writer of Jacobson’s caliber saying a book is done, which begs not to be questioned.  That being said, Jacobson is a wonder; I’ve left with a bit of a crush on him, a deep wish to have had the luck to be a student of his, and a hankering to read his earlier work, Kalooki Nights.  Thank you, Mr Jacobson.  Thank you SWF.  Some event podcasts are available at the Sydney Writers Centre website.

Should a Pulitzer Prize Winner be Boring?

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Is there some esoteric symbolism here you're just not getting?

As a novelist, the reader’s experience is foremost in my mind.  I certainly admit it took a few goes to truly understand what that meant and how to go about muscling up my offerings, but now I’ve got a firm grasp, I do my best to make sure I never let go.  How do I keep Joe Reader involved?  In suspense?  Emotionally heightened?  Turning the page?  Empathizing with the characters? And so, when the other day, my father-in-law picked up a gold-medallioned novel I’d purchased for our holiday, and said, “I’m always wary of Pulitzer Prize winners,” his disappointment stuck with me.  Why should he be let down by a book granted such high honors?  If a book’s at the top of the list, shouldn’t it above all else be a good read?

With that question in mind, and the hopes that yes, this reader expectation should be satisfied, that in fact the novel format doesn’t work without this basic premise, I forced myself through a novel that covered the same ground—grief—that I am consistently compelled to explore in fiction.  By its very essence, the topic, by God even the word itself, is charged enough to evoke a reader reaction through the lens of personal experience alone.  And so, for a Pulitzer Prize winner to tackle death the result should be a book that rocks the very core of what you thought you knew or felt about the end of life.

But.

By the second page I was struggling to maintain interest, conjuring up all the accolades the book had come recommended with when my mind turned to dinner menus and mounting paperwork. I tried to reign myself back in, reminding myself how I hadn’t enjoyed Harry Potter, or Twilight, and that perhaps, there was something gravely broken about my tastes not only with commercial fiction, but with ‘literary’ (God am I starting to hate this word) fiction as well. The writing was articulate, the images crisp, I told myself…perhaps that should be satisfaction enough.  And so I trudged on.  For a slim volume, it certainly seemed to go on!  Not once did I feel any emotional attachment, or personal heartstring tugged at the recollections of a father, and then a son’s admittedly harsh existence, which seemed to blossom with the creation of a new generation of family we for some reason couldn’t care less about, and their new way of doing things, albeit, sprinkled with some of the niggling, disinterested hangings-on of the past, which seem rather ugly through these last living days of the son—now father and grandfather, brother and husband.

And so, finished and more disappointed than if I’d left the book halfway with the hopes the best part was to come, I try to work things out.  Is it the staid language that just doesn’t do it for me?  No.  No it couldn’t be.  I’m a big fan of spare language, and believe that much pain and empathy—infinitely more, in fact—can be conveyed through economically showing rather than splashily telling.  Case in point:  The Road (a 2007 winner), For Whom the Bell Tolls, and anything by Lorrie Moore. With risk of sounding crazy, I’ll admit to my overarching suspicion:  Sometimes the right balance of obscurity and symbolic use of an esoteric specialty skillfully articulated, can disguise the fact that a story doesn’t really do its job.  The narrator sounds really smart, and the author must know what he’s talking about,as he’s highly regarded, and so, we’re duped into thinking it’s this fantastic tome that it actually isn’t.  Go ahead.  Throw tomatoes at me.  Call me bitter.  But if we’re being honest, I’m just curious.  A writer deconstructs fiction as he reads, he thinks about the bones, the strategy, the language, the effectiveness of the conceit.  And so I’m doing a bit of research here.

According to the Pulitzer’s website the online criteria for the Pulitzer winner is that the juries and board determine exactly what makes a work “distinguished.”  Could this be the problem?  Distinguished can mean many things to many people, and it certainly isn’t the same thing as engrossing, is it?

Which begs the question, so who is this board interpreting the distinguished from the undistinguished?  Scanning the members of the last three years I didn’t find one novelist on the board.  What I see are academics and newspaper editors, CEOs—intellectual, accomplished, and distinguished, I’m sure, but a bizarre choice for a Pulitzer board, no?  To my mind, more representative of the kinds of people who take my fiction writing course at the ANU—they love to read, and even know how to write for the most part, but not fiction.  So what makes this type more qualified than any other reader to judge a good book?  This question smacks very much of the one I began with regarding my own qualifications for judging this tome.  And if I’m forced to provide an answer, I’d have to say that to my thinking, if anyone knows whether a book has done something outstanding, something transcendent, it is a person who spends his life in the pursuit of trying to do exactly that.

From there, I turned to the decades-long list of winners itself.  If I’m being honest and not answering a university application question, about a fifth of them are books I love, while the rest are books about important topics that I wished I’d loved but couldn’t quite bring myself to.  I’d be pressed to recall the name of a character, or even the sketch of the character herself.  The funny thing about this is that it always brings me back to the question of what must be lacking in me, what I must be missing in the text, or perhaps whether I just don’t have enough passion for the world’s really important topics.  But I’m too old too get that far along either of those paths these days.  In fact, I remember my initial suspicions when I was first informed about this book from a library program coordinator who’s programmed more first-rate fiction and authors than most people could dream to read in a lifetime.  She said, “I had to read it twice, because I missed so much the first time.”  Hmmm. I was circumspect of this comment then, and I still am.  Rather than insinuate that she enjoyed it so much she wanted to go back and drain every last morsel from the language, it smacks very much of my own tendency to doubt my dislike of an award-winning industry favorite, and turn back to see if I wouldn’t be more pleased with a second go.

Now, before I get bombarded with arguments about taste being a personal thing, and who am I to say what’s good and what isn’t, let me say I agree with you—tastes are a personal thing, and the writer needs to be aware of this at all times to mitigate the possible fallout.  But one thing I can be sure about is whether I am personally engaged by a book, and another is whether an author, from a professional storytelling standpoint, has done his job in the pageturnability arena—which no matter how many times I look at it, strikes me as the most important arena there is in storytelling, because let’s face it, if the reader doesn’t read the story, nobody’s going anywhere and your important message isn’t being delivered.  So what does this all amount to?  If a boring book wins an award, does this necessarily indicate some sort of deficiency in those of us who can’t find the enjoyment in it?  Or should some “good” books be boring, be thought of as a lesson rather than a pleasure?  Try as I might, I cannot subscribe to this idea; there are so many engrossing ways to tell a story—even an ugly or painful one, maybe especially those, that choosing one that puts off readers seems like a dumb move.  Besides, would you buy a painting you found unattractive?  Would you wear a dress you felt looked hideous on you simply because it was stylish?  Perhaps you would.  And perhaps there are readers out there so stuck in what they should be finding worthy in a novel that they forget that it was actually not there for them to find.  And perhaps these people feel it’s best to leave the selection and critique of art to those in charge, but if that’s the case, I beg you to think about why, and what the book market might look like if more people refused to go with the common opinion rather than an authentic—albeit unpopular—one.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic.