Oh, look, here comes Mozart, and other pitfalls of writing about the past

Hey, campers —

At long last, my site has come out of its unanticipated exile! Many thanks to those who kept checking in to see what was going on, and even greater thanks to those of you who took the time to check my blog’s other haunts, on my Facebook fan page and Publishers’ Marketplace. You might want to make a note of one or the other, in case this space inexplicably goes blank again.

And no, your eyes are not deceiving you, archive-divers: many of the images in previous posts do seem to have vanished, at least for the nonce. Busily trying to find out why. And wishing that my last series’ conceit hadn’t rested so largely upon showing you via inserted images what a properly-formatted manuscript page should look like. Not to mention rather wishing that I hadn’t spent the last week and a half plotting to write an image-stuffed roaring return to this site.

No regrets are worth a tear, however. Life is for living. We shall press on.

But before we do, here’s a post I wrote in absentia. Enjoy!

Make some room in the loges, please, those of you who habitually read my blog here — for some lamentably undefined time to come, you will be sharing the armrests with readers from my website and my blog’s primary home. For reasons that amaze and perplex some of the best minds of our time, my site — and, I shudder to report, its thousands and thousands of pages of archived posts on matters practical and whimsical — went down a week ago. Until I can manage to cajole, blandish, or outright bribe the Server Gods into allowing anything other than the cruelly ironic motto “It works!” to appear on the site bearing my name and scrutiny, I shall be confined to expressing myself here.

Not that this is a forum at which anyone should be sneezing, of course. But darn it, even I miss my archives.

As it’s safe to assume that not all readers will have known to follow me here, I find myself a trifle reluctant to launch back into our meaty discussion of manuscript formatting. I know, I know — to break off granular examination of such inherently dramatic subject matter is deeply disappointing to all of us. For kicking off my blog-in-exile, however, I thought it might be a bit more diverting to devote a post to a phenomenon with which all of us who love to read must be familiar: being disappointed by a book the friend or relative who recommended it just adored.

That’s putting it mildly, in the case of Harpo Marx’s memoir, Harpo Speaks!. My dear old white-headed godmother has been insisting ever since I was in diapers that it is, if not the best memoir ever written, then at the very least something that anyone gifted with even the vaguest hint of a soupçon of humor could not justifiably live a full, rich life without reading cover to cover, preferably in one sitting. She could not get enough of it. She wished it was longer — and at 482 pages in soft cover, that’s saying something.

Admittedly, she had discovered the book as the only English-language volume in a sparse Moroccan library at a moment in the 1960s when crossing borders between countries in a VW van occasionally entailed waiting in a café for several days for one’s travel papers to be approved and local sentiment against migrating hippies to subside. She read it cover to cover before being begrudgingly waved through a checkpoint.

I recall her having pressed it upon me when she and my godfather returned from their round-the-world trip a few years later. I believe my response took the form of “Goo.”

My mother’s recollection contradicts that, however: even at that tender age, she avers, I rolled my wee eyes and suggested the book was too long for its intended audience, as well as suffering from an insufficient level of environmental description and character development. If she insists that my first complete sentences formed a scathing critique of the startlingly lower narrative standards applied to celebrity memoir compared to, well, the other kind, I’m hardly in a position to quibble.

My godmother, however, was in just such a position, and maintained it with determination for decades. Undeterred by the book’s being so heavy that I could not hold it open long enough to read more than a few lines until I had completed the second grade, she sent me no fewer than three copies in my elementary school years. She inquired, “How did you like it?” during visits in high school. She was at a loss to explain why I had so many other things to read at Harvard, and what did I mean, Harpo Speaks! wasn’t relevant to my dissertation? Was comedy not universal?

If I’d had any sense, of course, I would have buckled down and devoted a few days of my adolescence to making her happy. I’d always known I would have to read the book eventually; there was never any chance of my merely pretending I had.

Actually, that excellent option did not occur to me until a few days ago, when I had reached page 287, when Harpo mentions in passing that he and his brothers shared an office in Beverly Hills — and then fails to say anything more about the ménage other than that actress, playwright, and screenwriter Ruth Gordon dropped by once. In a wildly literary family like mine, the call to read a book somebody else found wonderful ranks right up there with eating your vegetables, looking both ways before crossing a street, and thou shalt not kill. Nice people simply would not consider acting any other way.

So predictably, life cast me at the book’s mercy. In recent years, my godmother became so frustrated at my entirely truthful plea of being continually up to my hipbones in manuscripts both published and unpublished that she hied herself to a bookstore and bought me one more copy. Wary of the potential for evasive action, she waited until I was bedridden from a car crash to deliver it. To maximize the potential of my liking it, she placed me under orders not to begin reading until I was in a good mood.

Like a nice girl — or an animal in captivity, depending upon how one chooses to look at it — I read the book. And all I wanted to do was edit the heck out of it.

I’m not talking about a minor revision here; I longed to chop off a hundred pages or so. To pose some pertinent questions in the margins, along the line of “Um, Mr. Marx, is there any particular reason the narrative is leaving so much to the reader’s imagination?” Perhaps I could inquire whether there’s any point to a particular scene other than the fact that Dorothy Parker is lurking in the background, uncharacteristically silent. And, above all, to point out what we have so often discussed here — well, on my website: just because an anecdote has always made ‘em laugh when told aloud does not necessarily mean it will translate well to print.

I hear some of you snickering, and with some justification. Those of us who read for a living have been known to be substantially more violent about our reading tastes than your garden-variety (or café-variety) casual skimmer. Our throwing arms tend to be in better fettle for flinging tomes that irritate us across rooms, for instance. Our noses twitch at the briefest of digressions, sensing the red meat of easily slashable paragraphs, or even pages. We clutch pens in our white-knuckled fingers — the better to correct wayward commas, my dear — even when reading works by authors as long departed as Jane Austen.

Perhaps especially when reading Jane Austen, given her inexplicable fondness for placing thoughts within quotation marks, and her even less comprehensible habit of summarizing speech, rather than quoting it, within said quotation marks. When someone who spends her days pouncing upon textual anomalies — sometimes literally — happens upon a paragraph like this:

After listening to this full description of Mr. Elliot, Anne could not but express some surprise at Mrs. Smith’s having spoken of him so favourably in the beginning of their conversation. “She had seemed to recommend and praise him!”

we are prone to wake from a stress-induced trance several minutes later to find that we have filled not only all available margins with commentary (often including the phrase what were you thinking?), but also the next page, the page after that, and, should we happen to be reading in a restaurant, significant portions of tablecloth.

We can’t help ourselves, you see. Even now, after having read that paragraph dozens of times over a few dozen years, this Anne cannot but express some surprise that no editor of the period took Aunt Jane to task for that illogical construction.

So yes, my godmother was running a terrible risk in pushing her favorite memoir on me after I had spent some years in the editing trenches. Editors, agents, contest judges, and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, quickly develop gimlet eyes for problematic text, simply because we read so much of it. Many a writer waltzing into the biz expecting a gentle, forgiving reading has ended up feeling as though he had opened the door to what he thought was a spacious stateroom, only to find it stuffed with comedians stacked on top of one another.

Okay, so that’s not the most graceful of analogies, but you get my point, right? How closely professional readers look at a page often comes as a terrible surprise to writers new to publishing. We’re paid to notice everything, and our response to it isn’t always pretty. At first, rookie writers can feel hurt by the vigor and occasional ferocity of marginalia; it’s not uncommon to take objective feedback personally. That comes of not realizing what anybody who works with manuscripts for a living must necessarily come to know: the point of editorial feedback is to help make the published book the best possible version of both the story and the narrative voice.

It’s understandable, then, that when easily-resolved issues rear their not-so-attractive heads in a book that’s been out for a while — especially one as well-reviewed as Harpo Speaks! was when it came out in 1962 — a pro’s peepers might zero in on them. Yes, even a pro already quite familiar with the unfortunately long-standing tradition of celebrity memoirs being — how to put this delicately? — a bit quicker in finding their way into print than some other types of writing. As a result (or, equally often, because people can be shy about speaking the truth to the great), authors admired for their achievements in non-literary venues do not always receive the benefit of hardcore professional feedback, and sometimes, it shows.

I hear memoirists the English-speaking world over sighing happily, imaging the paradise that must be writing free of a critical readership, but honestly, it’s seldom in the story’s best interest to hear only praise. Reticence is not a virtue in an editor, particularly of memoir; being too nice to point out textual problems can hurt the eventual book.

And I’m not just talking about the species of minor harm that might bug only a hyper-vigilant professional reader, either. Had I been in a position to advise someone like Mssr. Marx — of whose performances I am exceedingly fond, by the way — I might have diplomatically expressed some concern over the overall storyline’s containing some logical inconsistencies. And not a few historical ones.

In his defense, neither is at all uncommon in anecdote-based memoirs; such is the nature of the verbal anecdote, as I once learned to my sorrow. In my dim and checkered past, I may have been called in to assist a minor political bigwig in the construction of his or her life story for an admiring public, a process that the Semi-Illustrious One had decided in advance would consist of a barrage of verbal recollections, followed by my wrangling same into a coherent and entertaining story arc.

That proved somewhat problematic, as the SIO’s triumph on one continent might, to pick an entirely hypothetical example, have apparently occurred on the same day that s/he was wallowing in deep despair on the other side of the world. Presidents in two non-consecutive administrations evidently provided crucial support for the SIO’s ongoing crusade — in the reverse order that one would expect if time were, say, linear. Quips a ghostwriter might have uttered in response to certain stories a scant few weeks before might have been recounted with a straight face later as the SIO’s great-grandmother’s most treasured maxims. That sort of thing.

Now, a celebrity collaborating what is sometimes actually and sometimes charitably called a cowriter (or, as my agent at the time kept referring to me when I mentioned the slight variations of fact, the With on the Cover, an honor I subsequently declined when certain anecdotes turned out not to be verifiable) can, and should, rely upon that writer to speak up when storylines collide. The editor should be similarly uninhibited, because you’d be surprised how many non-professional readers will catch inconsistencies in a published version.

And frankly, everyone concerned should be happy about the participation of the eagle-eyed. Let’s face it, not all memoirists are fortunate enough to attract the beneficent attention of reviewers willing to shrug off storytelling anomalies with “This is a riotous story which is reasonably mad and as accurate as a Marx brother can make it.”

Celebrity authors are not the only ones whose manuscripts sometimes escape the rigors of that quite necessary critical scrutiny, unfortunately. For the ordinary memoirist presenting the reader with a trenchant slice of life, it’s quite common for a potential agent, her Millicent, or even the acquiring editor to be the first human being who does not know the author personally — and thus has not enjoyed the benefit of hearing the anecdotes on the page told out loud — to read her life story.

Why might that prove troublesome at submission time, you ask? Well, anyone who regularly handles memoir or narrative nonfiction manuscripts is quite likely to experience the type of visceral response I mentioned above at the sight of certain ubiquitous pitfalls. I, for instance, inevitably felt my blood pressure rising at Mssr. Marx’s tendency — which his With on the Cover seemed entirely unable to curb — to regale us with too-sketchy anecdotes sufficiently devoid of character development and situational detail that someone not already familiar with the story or the people depicted might have trouble picturing the event being recounted.

“Ah,” those of you drawn to anecdotal storytelling leap to your dainty feet to point out, “but that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it, when a writer is trying to capture the spirit of the spoken word on the page? Great raconteurs, especially funny ones, often limit specifics, in the interest of speed. Nobody expects the life of the party to explain what every cobblestone on the street looked like, if the story’s about somebody tripping on top of them. Thus, if a first-person narrative is holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, the very sketchiness of a telling would make it sound like authentic speech, right?”

It might, yes, but a realistically chatty tone is not the only desiratum for a first-person narrative, is it? Ideally, it should also be entertaining to read, easy to follow, and — here I’m going to be nit-picky again — clearly written. Clarity, lest we forget, lies in the eye of the reader, not the narrator — and certainly not in the eyeballs of the most frequent first readers for any not-yet-agented writer of any stripe, the writer’s kith and kin.

Who, more often than not, have already heard the anecdotes in question, and thus are not the best judges of whether the story works on the page. All too often, memoirists famous, infamous, and as yet to be discovered alike fall into the narrative habit of forgetting that their target reader will, if the book is successful, be someone they’ve never met. So it really doesn’t make abundant sense to operate on the narrative assumption that whoever picks up the book will be either able or willing to fill in the details of a bare-bones account.

Remember, in the case of a non-celebrity memoir, the reader is almost certainly going to be someone who could not pick the author out of a police line-up. And the more successful the book is, the more total strangers will be reading it, right? So shouldn’t their perception of what’s going on in a particular scene be of greater authorial interest than, say, the guy who always begs you at parties, “Oh, Harry, please tell the one about the orangutan!” every time you see him? Or the lady who helped you to win the arm-wrestling match with that orangutan?

I guess you had to be there.

Admittedly, a celebrity memoirist frequently can get away with expecting readers to imagine specifics that do not appear on the page — by definition, celebrities are those for whom the public, or at least some large segment of it, have already formed mental images of personalities. That’s certainly the case for ol’ Harpo and his accounts of the Algonquin Round Table: since pretty much anybody interested enough in reading about either would presumably already know something about the players, it might not actually have been necessary for his memoir to explain what each of the movies he mentions was about, who was in it (the roster of Marx brothers varied more than biology might lead one to expect), what the creative process of making them was like, or how the Round Table’s members interacted on an interpersonal basis.

I can’t help but feel, however, as both a reader and an editor, that any or all of those matters would have been darned interesting to see the gentleman discuss. The storyline might have been clearer, and even the most star-struck of readers might have appreciated more information about the folks Harpo name-checks. Call me zany, but unless one happened to be very familiar indeed with the New York-based literati of the 1920s (which I am, as it happens), how easy would it be for one to differentiate amongst a group of poker players introduced thus?

I met a plump Mr. Benson with a toothbrush mustache and a surprised look; a huge shaggy one who looked like he was wearing last week’s dirty laundry; a tall one with a booming voice and a handsome ruddy face; a tall, sad-faced one who kept twisting an arm around his head and massaging an ear the hard way; a bald Mr. Benson with glasses, and a Benson with uncombed hair who looked like a cowhand who’d lost his horse.

I’m perfectly willing to concede that it’s funny Harpo thinks of all strangers who happen to be men as Mr. Benson, but honestly, how much did you retain of that description? Were these men really so similar that two of them could only be described as tall?

An unusually optimistic reader might gloss over this list, clinging to the hope that some character development might occur in the course of a subsequent amusing account of the poker game, but no such luck. Here’s the totality of the book’s description of the rest of the night’s social interactions:

?I stayed and played poker. My luck was lousy, but it was otherwise a surprisingly pleasant evening.

I defy anyone who wasn’t actually holding cards at that particular table on that particular night to be able to glean from this what happened, based upon this description alone. We aren’t given much insight into what our hero was doing, seeing, feeling, or thinking, much less anyone else. Why Harpo hadn’t expected the evening to be pleasant, or how it was, is anyone’s guess.

You wouldn’t believe how often memoir-handling professional readers stumble upon this type of description in submissions. “What am I supposed to be picturing here?” Millicent mutters, because she has too much sense to place words she merely thought within quotation marks. “If this scene isn’t important enough to the story to be shown in some detail, why is it included in the book at all?”

An excellent set of questions, Millie, and ones that richly deserve answering in Part III.

I believe I can answer Millicent’s second question now, however. So may my clever readers, after taking a gander at the only other information Harpo’s reader is given on the subject, also conveniently conveyed as a list, rather than description.

Weeks later, when I finally got them all straight, I realized I had been introduced to, respectively, the writers Robert Benchley and Heywood Broun, Herbert Bayard Swope, the editor of the New York World {sic}, the playwrights George F. Kaufman and Marc Connelly, and Harold Ross, the editor of Judge who was then cooking up an idea for a new magazine to be called The New Yorker.

See what I mean? I would have liked to learn something about these quite interesting fellows other than the fact that they were in the room — a preference shared, I suspect, by pretty much everyone to whom these names might conceivably ring a bell. To anyone else, they would just be names. And good luck matching the moniker with the physical description, should you care enough to do it, because apparently, that’s the reader’s responsibility, not the author’s.

Can you blame me, then, for itching to scrawl in the margin, “Harpo, what makes you think that just mentioning that someone famous was in the room during an incident will necessarily enable the reader to picture his contribution to the scene?”

Again, I believe I can answer that question: as a verbal anecdote told by a famous member of the Round Table to an admiring literature-lover just aching to hear about it, this story probably, as they say, killed. That does not mean, however, that even the most gifted anecdotalist — or the With on the Cover jotting down his reminiscences — could make a narrative spring to life on the page by simply reproducing those spoken musings in print.

Why, then, do memoirists indulge in this storytelling tactic so much? Well, it’s worked socially, right? All too often, though, the social success of an anecdote, like a joke, lies as much in the delivery as in the content. Memoirists often forget that, presuming that the reader — any reader, including one who has never met the author, even in passing — will already have such a clear idea of the narrator’s voice embedded in her brainpan that stories whose hilarity has reliably been in a verbal telling entirely dependent upon tone and cadence will strike her as similarly amusing committed verbatim to the printed page.

Anyone see a problem with employing such a storytelling tactic in a book by a celebrity known for pantomime artistry? Am I alone as a reader in associating this particular author with only the noises of a honking horn and a lilting harp?

At the risk of sounding like an editor, has anybody out there ever actually heard Harpo Marx’s voice?

And while I’m quibbling, is it wacky of me to be express surprise that an editorial staff sufficiently aware of its author’s invariably silent on-screen presence would entitle the work in question Harpo Speaks!, yet not say to him constantly throughout the publication process, “You know, big guy, that story about the poker game doesn’t really come across on the page the way it does when you told it out loud, when you grabbed your ear as a demonstration. Mind if we tweak it so it’s funny, by, say, giving it a plot or not presuming that the reader will be so familiar with your friends that he’ll recognize each and every one of them from vague physical descriptions?”

In the unlikely event that I have not already scared you to death about how intensively pros read, allow me to remind you that this was my reaction to a book that I liked. I found it quite amusing, once I made the additional mental effort of picturing Harpo Marx doing the things the book said he did — and telling the story with gestures.

He was a past master at gesturing, after all. As a reader, I would have preferred Mssr. Marx or his With on the Cover to have made a bit more of that effort for me, but hey, you can’t have everything.

And, to be absolutely fair, I probably would have liked the book even more had I not spent significant hunks of my life hearing it lauded as the single greatest achievement in historical writing since Julius Caesar saw fit to inform an admiring world that all Gaul was divided into three parts. That’s the problem with book recommendations: reading taste is, contrary to amazingly popular opinion amongst writers, largely subjective.

So I’m not blown over by how much more my godmother enjoyed this book than I did. A book recommendation, particularly a wildly enthusiastic one, reveals as much about the recommender as the book. I was aware going in that her personal sense of anecdote leans, as we just saw Mr. Marx’s does, toward what those of us who travel in less rarified circles might call name-dropping. It’s not at all an astonishing habit amongst those fortunate enough to have names to drop.

Heck, I’m not immune to the thrill myself. I can still vividly recall the visceral shock of realizing why I had recognized the comely fellow my godmother had seated next to me at dinner on my second night of graduate school: he’d played Apollo on a long-ago episode of the original Star Trek, and I was not all that far removed at the time from my science fiction-soaked adolescence.

Taste in star-gazing, like literature, is deeply subjective.

What we have been discussing as narrative flaws, however, what any good professional reader would perceive as narrative faults, are objectively observable. If a story isn’t clear on the page, if its point is lost through a too-sparse telling, or if the characters start to blur together due to lack of development, an editor worth her salt — especially as passed by Apollo — is going to notice it. And you’re going to want her to notice it, aren’t you, so your future readers, those fine souls who currently don’t know you from Adam (or Eve, as the case may be) will be able to visualize your story as vividly as you are picturing it yourself?

Permit me to answer that question, too: yes, you do. It might not feel that way when you first receive the feedback, but ultimately, you — and your readers — will be glad of its effects.

Here’s hoping my blog can return to its accustomed home soon; it’s so tiring for me to moderate my opinions like this. Keep up the good work!