A few months ago, my delightful client Saundra Mitchell sent me an email explaining that she and three of my other clients were snowed in at a writers’ retreat, and they needed my advice: if they remained trapped, and one of them needed to be killed and eaten, who should it be?
A more diplomatic agent would have said that they were all indispensable and no one could pick between them. I, however, chose to take this question at face value and rationalized an answer. Happily, the client I dispensed to be eaten has a sense of humor.
In any case, it’s sometimes tough to come up with things to blog about, so I decided to employ Saundra’s help coming up with some topics. What follows are the first two questions she sent me along with my responses.
Saundra asks: “If you could put two modern classics (to hell with Dickens and Tolstoy) into a cage match, and only one would emerge, which two and why the victor?”
To make things difficult for myself, I’ll go with two of my favorite books of all time—Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon versus Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.
Let’s start with character names. In one corner we have Milkman Dead and his sisters First Corinthians and “Magdalene called Lena”. In the other corner, we have Olympia Binewski with her siblings Arturo, Electra, Iphegenia, and Fortunato, called Chick. Neither Morrison nor Dunn is afraid to get really explicit with their references, so they’re pretty balanced here. For sheer memorabilty, this category goes to Morrison.
Let’s stay on the surface of those characters and go with crazy physical traits: Arty has flippers instead of arms and legs. Iphy and Elly are conjoined twins. Olympia is an albino hunchback dwarf. What do you have, Ms. Morrison? A washerwoman born without a belly button? Point: Dunn.
How about opening lines? Dunn: “’When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,’ Papa would say, ‘she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with yearning.’” Morrison: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” I’m gonna call this one a draw. In looking at them, Dunn’s is the more immediately captivating. There’s so much information tucked in that sentence about where we are, who we might be dealing with, and what kind of tone this strange, wonderful book will take. Morrison’s first line is, I would say, less immediately rewarding, but in the long run, it feels just perfect, tying so neatly into the book as a whole and forecasting what’s to come so subtly that you don’t know until you re-read the book just how tightly constructed it was from the get go.
Geek Love would be a scrappy fighter. It would play dirty; its moves would be unexpected; it would get in many a surprise blow. Song of Solomon would be a graceful fighter, standing solid but moving deftly and loosely when necessary. It would fight clean, and…while I do love Geek Love, it would deliver a knockout punch just as Dunn’s book began to tire itself out.
No one can outwrite Toni Morrison line by line. Some of her books aren’t perfect (though I’d argue heartily in support of the under-appreciated Love), but for my money, she’s probably the best living American novelist. But if you want to know what it feels like to have your soul stabbed, go read the one star reviews of her work on Amazon where people say she’s only famous because Oprah picked her. Killmenowplease.
“Do you know how to play Cliff, Marry, Shag? You get three options, and you have to pick which one you would throw off a cliff, which one you would marry, and which one you’d have a dirty nasty affair with. Sooooooooo… Cliff, Marry, Shag : Genre Edition: Paranormal, Dystopian, Historical? (I also think Cliff, Marry, Shag: Classic Novels and Cliff, Marry, Shag: New York Times Bestsellers editions would be hilarious.”
Let’s take the genres first. Also, does anyone else know this game under a different, less polite name? I’m used to “marry,” but the others are…different. So I’m going to have to marry paranormal. Yes, it’s a trend, and yes, it’s overpublished, and no, it can’t last forever in the same way it exists now. But by the same token, this is not a category that’s ever going away, and if I’m staying with one of these three forever, this is an incredibly easy choice for me as it’s where I’ve had my biggest success and it’s just a ton of fun. I’ll shag dystopian. Talk about trends! Listen, The Handmaid’s Tale is one of my favorite books of all time. And there are so many brilliant tales set after the apocalypse. I may be the ONLY person who watched the few episodes of a sitcom called Whoops! back in the day—it was a comedy about the post-apocalypse, and it was my jam. But on a whole, way too many people are writing books that are too similar and too familiar right now. This is a category that I think needs to be left to the masters (and they’re out there in spades) and too many folks are jumping on board and failing to understand the worldbuilding aspect. So, dear history, you’re going over a cliff. Historicals are, by and large, not my thing. There are periods in the past that I love to read about, and I love plenty of books in this category, but if one of these had to stop existing, I’d let nonfiction cover my need to know about the past and keep around the categories that show me alternatives to the present and possibilities for the future.
As for bestsellers, I’ll grab the highest three trade paperback novels that I’ve read: Room, A Visit from the Goon Squad, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Again, it’s almost too easy. Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers, and she pulls off a piece of her book narrated in Powerpoint, for God’s sake. This is the kind of gimmick that drives me insane, but not only is it incredibly well done, it feels necessary. Amazing. I’d shag Room. Which sounds so, so wrong, all things considered. I adored this book so I couldn’t throw it off a cliff, but neither would I want it for a life partner. Too many tears over too, too long. And that means that Salander’s going cliff-diving. I liked the book quite a bit, actually, but I found it formally clunky and more curiously interesting than actually fascinating. Sorry, my ass-kicking, tattooed badass.