Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: There are many writing books on the market. What did you feel was missing/what was the impetus to your books?
Wells: An adequate answer to this would be almost as long as my book. One could start with reader variability and the profound effect that different reader needs and reader stances have on specific decisions as to what would make a good story, an appealing character, an appropriate pace or degree of tension, etc. Second, traditional terms are vague or even equivocal. For instance, by investigating the two meanings of “plot” separately, viz. dynamics and structure, I was able to delineate clearly three types of dynamics and discuss the substantial differences in how the three must be handled. For example, one discovery is that threat is a more fundamental concept than conflict (see chapter 4 for the proof). Also, I have never elsewhere seen the three kinds and the four levels of threat explicitly mentioned or discussed, nor the role these levels can play in structuring a novel. Also new here is the fact that relationships are a major component of the novel as important as characters and must be as thoroughly characterized. Further, many books talk about “voice,” but the discussions are models of vagueness. My treatment delineates the different aspects of voice and provides different methods of generating a voice. The concepts of “consummation scene” and “embodiment” are new (and terribly important). I could go on and on. I didn’t write the book merely to be writing yet another book on writing, but because as a novelist I needed the information myself!
Magdalena: Did you write both A Book Worth Reading and Advanced Writing together, or did one naturally follow the other?
Wells: A Book Worth Reading is essentially the product of a lifetime. It began when, as an undergraduate with majors in both English and philosophy, I read Welleck and Warren for the first time. I never planned to write a book on writing. Long ago, I arrived at the point where I had read three dozen books on fiction writing (every book I could lay my hands on) and had taken courses, workshops, critique groups, conferences, etc. and even hired published writers to critique my writing one-on-one. And I had discovered two things: one, that the writing books were beginning to repeat what I had already read in other writing books. Two, that there was still a great deal that I needed to know how to do that I did not know how to do. Other writers didn’t know the answers either. So, I had to teach myself. But how? Over time, I worked out the method of teaching oneself that I included as the last chapter of the book, and gradually began to develop answers to questions that had been puzzling me, answers that worked (in the writing I did, in the novels I read, in the films I watched). Gradually this pile of notes became unmanageable, so I put them on the computer. Organizing them revealed empty categories which I then tried to fill in. Everything had to be tested and refined or replaced, of course; but over time, this stock of information grew to the length of a book. I had long since realized that I had worked out some concepts and methods that were terribly important and that were not to be found in any other writing books. I planned to keep this information to myself: these were my trade secrets. But ultimately I realized that if I, as a reader, was going to have any novels worth reading, I’d better share this information with other writers.
Magdalena: Your book is very much focused on the reader. Do you feel that many writers write for themselves (as ideal reader) and ignore the wider reading public at their book’s peril?
Wells: No, I believe that most writers write for an imagined class of readers. The dangers are, first, that this class of readers may simply be the writer him/herself in disguise. And second, that writers might be unaware of the fact that there are many different classes of readers (defined by needs, interests and stances) and that these classes differ among themselves in ways that drastically affect the evaluative response to the novel, and that some classes are even mutually exclusive. Other fiction-writing books merely advise doing this or that, the implication being that most readers will like it. But some of these recommendations appeal to one class of readers while others appeal to another. This helps explain why readers find most novels a mixed bag (i.e. some things appeal to them, others bore or repel them).
Magdalena: Isn’t it dangerous, though, to write for an imagined reader when trends (eg chicklit, books about terrorist attacks, and non-fiction in general) come and go faster than a book can be written?
Wells: One can certainly classify readers in the ways you mention (i.e. based on current fads or current events); and if a writer wants to write for them and can get the book out fast enough, it is not for me to tell the writer for whom to write. But there are other classes of readers (those I list and attempt to characterize in the first chapter of the book), and these classes tend to be around much longer. Writers should be aware of these classes (and be aware that there may also be other classes as well). Writers who want to be read should have some idea what sort of interests, dislikes and needs their prospective readers have and should be aware that there are mutually exclusive classes of readers. They should test their work on actual readers before the book is published. (To give a personal example, my own novels were responded to and critiqued by a half-dozen different writers’ groups, all of whose individual members were different from each other; but all these groups were located around the Boston area. When I got on the web and joined groups whose members were in all regions of the country as well as Canada and Australia, I found very different responses to these same novels!)
Magdalena: Your book is designed for writers of both screenplays and fiction. Do you think that the two have real parallels? Surely the output of a screenplay are very different from those of fiction (eg one is meant to be read immediately by the reader with the visuals occurring in the imagination of the reader and the other is a script, subject to a visual performance)?
Wells: There certainly are differences; and if a novelist is going to write a screenplay, he/she should read a half-dozen or so of the books on screenwriting first. My book is not a substitute for such books. The art of adaptation screenwriting is all about the differences between novels and films. But there are many aspects in which the principles underlying the two are the same: dynamics, structure, pace, tension, character appeal, relationship appeal, embodiment, consummation scenes, etc. Novelists who are not interested in film can simply ignore the tiresome phrases “reader or viewer” and “readers or audience” and think only of readers. Screenwriters can ignore the chapters on line-level writing.
Magdalena: Do you see a parallel between say, Hollywood and the “NY Editor” that you mention?
Wells: Hollywood is a different social setup from the cozy New York publishing world in which (according to studies) all of the fifty or so fiction editors are personally acquainted with each other. There are many independent filmmakers now, even though they often release their movies through the major studios. This diversity is made possible by the fact that almost any film is likely to make a profit of nontrivial proportions. Also, California is a very different social world from New York, so attempting to reach the “audience” that counts (film agents, producers, etc.) will lead the screenwriter to write a different kind of story with different kinds of characters, etc. There is also an “art” film world, typified by the Sundance film festival, in which films are required to have many of the characteristics I list for “literary” fiction (static pace, mildly repugnant characters, etc.).
Magdalena: What exactly is this NY Editor? Is this a euphemism for the big 6 publishers eg Random House, Macmillan, HarperCollins, Penguin, etc. How do smaller publishers and self-publishing fit into this category?
Wells: I appended the “NY” for two reasons. First, in this country, every major publisher of fiction is located in Manhattan. Second, the values, attitudes, etc. of New Yorkers are generally very different from those of people in the rest of the U.S. (unless those people are ex-New Yorkers). What I was trying to emphasize was that this particular (terribly important) class of readers (viz. editors) cannot be assumed by the writer to be like the writer or to have the same tastes, attitudes and values as the writer (unless, of course, the writer is a New Yorker).
Magdalena: Throughout the book you are dismissive of the “late-twentieth-century academic literary” novel. Aside the works of Anne Tyler (which you cite) – a fairly mainstream example (she is, after all, a bestseller), can you provide a few examples of this kind of book? Is this what publishers call “literary fiction,” or are you referring to something else?
Wells: This is indeed what is now called “literary fiction” and is quite different from what was considered literary fiction a hundred years ago. As I said in the Introduction, I think that ownership of the term “literary” needs to be challenged, so that it can be debated which kinds of novels ought to be called “literary”. A novel labeled “literary” is assumed to be good and to be better than one not so labeled. We need a purely classificatory term so that the value judgment can be made–and challenged–explicitly. As to terminology, I was never happy with this rather cumbersome mouthful, but other possibilities I came up with sounded pejorative. Clear examples are most of the first novels published by Knopf, Norton and small presses like Soho or Graywolf, such as Sharlene Baker, R. T. Binstock, etc. Better known writers such as Gail Godwin, Graham Swift, T.C. Boyle, Don DeLillo, etc. are less clear-cut, but have most of the characteristics of this type of fiction. I mentioned this type of fiction in the book only to contrast it with the type of novel writing that my book is designed to teach. Writers may write whatever they like. I would, however, discourage trying to mix the two as the resulting novel will please neither group of readers. And I have tried to show how disastrously wrong it is to assume that “literary” fiction is the same as other fiction, only better. It was not my intention to evaluate of this class of fiction in this book. I do so implicitly in A Book Worth Reading. If my tone was dismissive, it was an over-reaction to the fact that, at least in this country, people automatically and without question assign high value to any novel labelled as “literary.” I want people to re-think that assumption.
Magdalena: Why late 20th century? Surely some of the most experimentally challenging “anti-novel” works (such as Claude Simon, Nathalie Sarraute, Michel Butor, Jacques Derrida, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Wolff’s The Waves, Kafka, Faulkner, Pirandello, and Beckett, just to name a few that might fit your criticisms) appeared in the early 20th century (and not much since).
Wells: There were, of course, works in the first half of the 20th century that were praised in the second half, Joyce and Wolff being clear examples in English literature. But the works that were more highly prized in the first half itself (at least in this country) were Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. It is the assumed normative criteria that I am referring to with the phrase “late 20th century academic-literary”, not the literary works themselves. As to “late 20th century”, I believe that the preponderance of opinion among academics to give priority to Joyce, Wolff, etc. was larger in the second half of the century and became a virtual consensus in the last quarter of the century.
Magdalena: What is your opinion of current experimental trends, such as alternative plot lines, hypertext fiction, multimedia effects, etc.
Wells: What I want to emphasize is that readers should not allow themselves to be brow-beaten into praising these types of fiction by magical
labels like “literary” or any other persuasive uses of language. My own opinion, like anybody else’s, is beside the point. The important thing is: Can a case be made that these (or any other) types of fiction, “literary” or not, are of value? This is the issue to which my book “A Book Worth Reading” is devoted.
Magdalena: Your final chapter looks at developing and testing a theory of writing. In the end, you are inconclusive about what this theory might look like. Have you done this for your own work?
Wells: What is presented is a method for developing a “theory” of writing, not a theory itself. The writer can use this method to develop additional principles, techniques, etc. or ones that more nearly fit the writer’s tastes. Perhaps the word “theory” is not an appropriate one for principles, techniques, criteria etc. such as the ones in this book; but I wanted to emphasize that these are hypotheses and as such are contestable and in need of being tested.
Magdalena: What is your next project?
Wells: I am currently writing some additional short stories with a view to publishing a collection.