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January 28, 2010

I had a mini brainstorm a few days ago, thinking about the novel.  I’m feeling good these days – eating right, exercising, sleeping a reasonable amount but not too much, blogging regularly – so I know I’m “getting in shape” mentally, not quite enough to work on fiction yet, but I think most of “not yet” is dread rather than lack of energy.  “The Feelings Problem” is something that’s been blocking me ever since last June – the fact that to explain Caroline, I have to explain how she got here, how she feels about things.  And to do that, I need to feel these things myself – and that hurts, and “getting them on paper” doesn’t really fix that hurt.  So why do it?  Why cause myself pain when life doesn’t have to be painful?

Not to set up a straw man – okay, screw it, let’s set up a straw man – but I can hear the voice of a well-connected, well-granted, well-tenured snob speaking in the High Tone, having recently completed his addition to the seemingly endless pile of Luminous Prose by placing yet another Marriage Under The Microscope:  “If you cannot explore a character’s feelings, mine them for Great Truths about the Human Condition, then what is your prose but…airplane reading?”

Well, screw you, buddy.  I’ve got issues, okay?  And I’m not able to set myself above the story like some passive Recording Angel, not able to place the dynamite far away and write passages of anhedonic language to use as a wire long enough to keep me far from the explosion:  “Margaret goes to the mall.  She does not know what she wants.”  Oooooh!  See the pain?  But I’m The Author, I don’t really feel it myself – well, in the mandatory Tiny Epiphany at the end, I reveal that I do – that I feel too deeply.  This structure is the Bam! of modern fiction, as predictable in its course as Emeril’s catch phrase.  /End rant.

Anyway.  I think I may have found a solution: convert the story to first person.  I know, it sounds funny, right?  If you’re writing in first person, then you’re really inside the character’s head.  Yes, but:  when you write third person, you are inherently omniscient as an author, and, being omniscient, you are expected and required to diagram the character’s state of mind in exquisite detail.  When you write in the first person, you are only saying what the character wants to reveal or confront – and if the character has a hard time with feelings, then you just let him/her say that and move on.  Bam!

Mr. Luminous might call that a cop-out, but after eight dry months, I consider any practical solution to be a stroke of genius.  The only question remaining is, then, is the main character still “Caroline” or is it me?  To be honest, when I started writing this, I created a female protagonist because I had an eye on the commercial market.  I was sick and tired of writing gay books for gay people that went in the gay section of the bookstore, never to be seen by anyone else ever.  To have a gay protagonist is to instantly be condemned to that ghetto – to have your book judged by the bookstore chain’s gay book buyer, to have it shunted to the gay reviewer, where it will be condemned because it didn’t have enough sex in it, despite the promise of the Sexy Mancover over which I had no control because all gay books must have Sexy Mancovers by law.  Seriously:  the queen from Publishers Weekly wrote of my novel, Different People, that

More experienced gay fiction fans might find this book on the bland side of pleasurable, super-sexy cover art notwithstanding.

See?  See?  I was doomed to a career writing soft core porn if I stayed in the ghetto.  So when I thought of this story, I said, fuck it, no more queer protagonists.  Nobody will ever read it if the main character is gay.  I remember the intro to the greatest gay novel ever, Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, in which  one New Yorker, now in self-imposed exile, writes back to another about his plans to write about their gay lives in the city in the 70s:

However, I must caution you, love:  These things may be amusing to us, but who, after all, wants to read about sissies?  Gay life fascinates you only because it is the life you were condemned to live…And the story of a boy’s love for a boy will never capture the world’s heart as the story of a boy’s love for a girl. (Or a boy’s love for his DOG – if you could tell that story again, this country would make you rich as Croseus!)

That was written thirty years ago…nothing’s changed.

Over time, Caroline has become real to me as a person, not just a marketing ploy to keep me from being exiled to the land of Gayinterest.  And I’m thinking that using a female character allows me to remember that I’m not obligated to tell my own story exactly, that I am free to invent.  "Madame Bovary, c’est moi” and all that.  Flaubert wasn’t a housewife, though, so he could successfully transplant his feelings into her without falling down the black hole with her.

I didn’t discover Balzac until a few years ago, and after my first experience (Pere Goriot), I greedily devoured his major works in a fit.  Turns out I’m his reincarnation – or at least I’ve always been equally prone to sharp asides and little tirades that the remote practitioners of Luminism would condemn as distracting, too much of The Author in the way of The Prose. (Not in the way of the story; the story is a thing to be quickly exposed in the Book Review, so that when you read the book you are not distracted from The Language by filthy plot – seriously, check out this New York Times Book Review article from last Sunday; I don’t know if the reviewers ruin the book for this reason, or just because giving away the plot is the only way they know to fill their word quota.) 

But to me these asides and tirades, such as the one I just inserted above, were the main attraction of Balzac’s prose, this sense of an author full of incisive, witty judgments on people and places and the times which he was all too eager to share.  Balzac is the greatest character in Balzac – but you have to be Balzac to get away with it.  You get a little more creative leeway doin’ tirades if you’re working in the first person – it’s part of “character development” then.  Moreover, I’ve been polishing the first person on this blog for a year now, so right now it feels like the sharpest tool in my shed.

So am I writing with a commercial eye?  Not really, no, not any more.  My most profitable book made less than $10,000, and that over a span of years.  I’m eagerly awaiting the conclusion of the Google book settlement so I can get my $60 per out-of-print book they’ve scanned – it’s the only money I’ll ever see out of those books again.  I make more money as a technical writer/instructional designer than most novelists can expect to ever make.  So it’s a labor of love now, so I can do what I want.  I can make the lead as gay as a goose and publish online and never worry about That Queen holding her nose because there wasn’t enough fuckee-fuckee.  But retaining Caroline gives me some distance from the story – enough to write as if whatever pain she chooses to reveal is someone else’s, and that may be enough to get me going again.

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