Shumon Basar Is Alone Shumon Basar Frequently Asked Annoying Questions about Writing a Novel: No.1
Q: “What is your book about?” A: “Had I known the answer … I would never have needed to write a novel.” (Joan Didion)
You’re living the same nightmare. Every day. It stops only when you fall aslumber.
You’re at the starting blocks of a race. You’re all geared up; adrenalin’s pumping like you’veswallowed a crate of cut-price Viagra. On your marks. Get set—and the gun fires. You great-leap forward. This is your moment, the next beautiful lap. But then—WEIRD—you’re at the starting blocks. The racehasn’t started. Odd.
So you take your place. Concentrate … GO! And … it’s the same. You’re at the starting blocks. WTF.
This happens ad infinitum. Everyone else has gone home and rewritten Ulysses ten times since. You?You’re not pumping. You’re crushed.
If and when I would escape my own Groundhog Day, I’d fast discover what’s going wrong: I was tryingto run a marathon despite my whole life having been dedicated to the sprint. Writing short pieces(journalism, criticism, short stories) harnesses sprint muscles, sprint focus. A sprinter’s psychologyregarding starts and finish lines. Writing a novel is a marathon. It needs a different body. Someoneelse’s mind. Because, after years of writing only short pieces (between 300 and 2,000 words) I decidedone morning that I would write A Novel. Unlike Kafka’s self-loathing insect, however, I did not transformovernight into another being, one fit for the task at hand.
You then listen to other writers. To the privileged position they place the novel in the moral hierarchy ofwriting. To the downright nutty inventions of will and ritual they have to exact to get a novel done. Or, notdone.
Roland Barthes’ last book was The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at theCollège de France (1978–1979 and 1979–1980). Completed just weeks before his death, it intimated hisdeeply felt intention to finally write a novel—entitled Vita Nova. Over two years, he enacted a trialnovel-writing experiment that illustrated the causal steps needed to do so. Vita Nova never got written,unless one reads the elaborate preparation, its public performance, as the novel itself. Either the laundrycart that precipitated Barthes’ death is to blame, or, his life’s work was always oriented to never writingthe novel. This unrequited teleology: his rocket fuel.
In Benoît Peeters’ biography of Jacques Derrida is a parallel suggestion that Derrida, too, had alwayswanted to be a novelist, to write a novel, but couldn’t, temperamentally, and what we came to know as
his oeuvre is haunted by this unrealized, frustrated literary mission.
“If you are this way, just temperamentally, metabolically—not by choice—a novelist and not a short storywriter, you’re prepared for the long haul,” said John Barth.years before youknow how the story’s going to come out.’ And I would say to him, ‘Donald, how can you write shortstories? The idea of once every few weeks or months starting from scratch?’ So, these are thedifferences in temperament.”
Barthelme was known to have embarked on the journey of writing a novel. Then he’d get stuck. Abortthe novel. Then alchemically, or opportunistically, reconstitute the failed effort into a short story. He wroteover a 100 of these stories for the New Yorker. That’s a lot of abandoned novels.
David Foster Wallace continued Barth and Barthelme’s “metafiction” experiments from the ’60s intothe ’80s and ’90s. Wallace’s non-fiction collections—A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do, Consider theLobster, and the recently released Both Flesh and Not—enamour a wider readership than his “difficult”fiction does. What’s not to like? The religious transcendence of Roger Federer; epiphanies at a StateFair; throwing up on a cruise ship. He embodied that Mailer tradition of a novelist invited to describe theworld quasi-journalistically. Yet, he saw something existentially inferior in this pursuit: “the pleasure of “always confirms my intuition that fiction is What I’m Supposed toDo.”
We’re told that “the Bad Thing,”—Wallace’s term for his depression—was roused only when he wrotefiction. The Pale King, his third novel, haunted him, ghost story–like, until his death. It remainedprodigiously unfinished.
A novel’s scale isn’t only more gargantuan in size than nonfiction; a novel is, with respect to thewriter’s inner life, massively more invasive. It demands a stark declaration to be made about thecorrespondence between the inside of a person and the outside world they’re in. Its slowness to form isin part due to this high-frequency, incessant self-diagnosing, like a demonic body scanner.
Or, if you asked Zadie Smith what’s so special about fiction, she’d say: “There are little sparks ofsomething like actual life. And I don’t think an essay could ever create that friction, that feeling of beingalive.” The paradox is that this form that most closely evokes “the feeling of being alive” requires itsauthor to push against the temptation to self-immolate. Daily.
The marathon isn’t an issue only for the novelist. The composer Morton Feldman said that “my wholegeneration was hung up on the 20- to 25-minute piece. It was our clock. We all got to know it, how tohandle it. As soon as you leave the 20-to 25-minute piece behind, in a one-movement work, differentproblems arise. Up to one hour, you think about form; but after an hour-and-a-half, it’s scale. Form iseasy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.”
Yes. It’s another matter. A big matter to me, to those of us—you—who pursue the “loneliness” oflong-distance running despite the traps, the terrain, and the self-induced trauma. Then again, what oneloses in real life socializing is made up for with the sheer clatter of voices in one’s head. Lonely outthere, party in here. Moreover, the good thing about my nightmare, repeated so vengefully, is that Iwas never naked. It saved me spending a whole load of money I didn’t have on a psychoanalyst Icouldn’t afford. Frequently Asked Annoying Questions about Writing a Novel: No.2
Q: “Has it already come out?”A: “No.”
Shumon Basar is a writer working on his first novel, entitled World! World! World!
1. Gore Vidal, in his 1976 essay, “,” is thankful this was the case:
“Unlike Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, and Butor, Professor Barthes is much too clever actually to writenovels himself, assuming that such things exist, new or old, full of signs or not, with or without
2. John Barth in conversation with Michael Silverblatt, April 25, 2001. Lannan Foundation video.
3. There were four Barthelme novels: Snow White (1967), The Dead Father (1975), Paradise (1986)
and posthumously The King (1990).
4. According to Elif Batuman in her book The Possessed, Thomas Mann had the opposite problem:
“[he] set out to write a short story but ended up with 1200 pages of The Magic Mountain
5. From Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story
Posted December 3, 2012. Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College.
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