Author Archives: James Warner

David Foster Wallace and “Clicks”

In an interview, David Foster Wallace told Larry McCaffery this — “For most of my college career I was a hard-core syntax wienie, a philosophy major with a specialization in math and logic. I was, to put it modestly, quite good at the stuff, mostly because I spent all my free time doing it. Wienieish […]

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Interesting Versus Believable

“The trite and the extravagant are the Scylla and Charybdis of writers who deal in fiction,” Coleridge wrote in 1794, in a review of Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho. Thomas Hardy once made a similar point —“The whole secret of fiction and the drama –in the constructional part — lies in the adjustment of […]

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Software Algorithms That Predict What Books You’ll Like

Future-of-publishing experts believe these will come to be useful for purposes of selling books. So far I’m skeptical. The books Amazon predicts I’ll like seem completely random, although that may be because such books as I’ve bought from Amazon are either very obscure and hard to find, or else gifts for overseas relatives. The last […]

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The Ending of "The Singers"

Turgenev’s “The Singers” is discussed here by Daniyal Mueenuddin. Mueenuddin comments “when writing short stories, the hardest part is the ending,” and raises the question of why “The Singers” ends the way it does. Charles May suggests an answer here, adding, “I think just about any educated person can read a literary novel if he […]

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Aliveness in Writing

Margaret Atwood, Negotiating with the Dead — “One of my university professors, who was also a poet, used to say that there was only one real question to be asked about any work, and that was – is it alive, or is it dead? I happen to agree, but in what does this aliveness or […]

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Narrative as a Maze

My daughter loves the hay maze at Arata Pumpkin Farm near Half Moon Bay. We stumbled on it accidentally, driving back from Santa Cruz, and have since revisited it several times. The farm has been there since the 1930s. They build a new hay maze every year.A good maze is one you should still be […]

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Operating Instructions

Olga Zilberbourg, a frequent commenter on this blog, has a post up about some things Jim Shepard said in workshops.My favorite of her quotes from Shepard — “Stories always provide their own operating instructions.”The phrase “secret key of the story” is maybe unfortunate, as it could feed into the misconception that literary fiction is full […]

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The Case Against Travel

Michelle Gagnon raises the question of whether it’s really necessary to visit places before setting fiction there. After all, to travel as much as Graham Greene did requires rather a lot of money and emotional detachment.An example Gagnon gives is that Martin Cruz Smith only spent about a week in the Soviet Union prior to […]

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The Case Against Reading

Some paragraphs in Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You imagine what the conventional wisdom about reading might be, had computer games been invented first:“Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the longstanding tradition of gameplaying – which engages the child in a vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical soundscapes, navigated […]

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Location Location Location

The artist and ultra-allusive High Modernist Welsh poet David Jones wrote that “of all artists ever, James Joyce was the most dependent on the particular, on place, site, locality.” I’m quoting from an essay in the December 1950 “Dublin Review,” that was reprinted in Jones’s 1959 essay collection Epoch and Artist:“For the Joycean achievement, his […]

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Inverse Platitudes

A quote from Bazarov, the Nihilist character in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons — “… should you say that education is useful, you will be uttering a platitude: but should you say that education is harmful, you will be uttering an inverse platitude. The one is identical with the other, except that they differ a little […]

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Flashbacks, J.K. Rowling, and Kemble Scott

I once heard a literary agent refer to “flashbacks” as “the F word.” Why do they get such bad press? Could it be that writers spend more time thinking about the past than normal people do, with the result that flashbacks seem more naturalistic to the average writer than to the average reader? For whatever […]

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Thinking is Like a River

Start reading a journal you wrote a decade or two ago, and within a few pages, you’ll find ideas you could have sworn you only came up with in the last few days or weeks, albeit slightly differently formulated.You dig yourself into a rut. It becomes your world, a riverbed that your thoughts rarely overflow.Didn’t […]

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John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt”

For an acting class, a friend of mine has been studying the role of Sister Aloysius in “Doubt.” While helping her learn her lines, I had to read over and over Father Flynn’s part in the penultimate scene, the play’s final confrontation between Flynn and Aloysius. For me, Flynn’s behavior in this scene conclusively establishes […]

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Fiction and Risk Avoidance

Evolutionary psychology is quite good at explaining why someone who’s just watched “Jaws” is disinclined to take a dip. In the Stone Age, a recent image in your mind of someone being eaten by a shark would have justified your avoiding the water for a while. Presumably our conscious mind knows a swimming pool has […]

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