October 2010

Kerri Arsenault

nonfiction

The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook edited by Daniel Alarcón

The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook is neither a handbook nor does it contain any miracles. The title of the book, as explained by Daniel Alarcón, the book’s enthusiastic editor (at a presentation in Oakland), derives from the short story of the same name by Jorge Luis Borges. Borges’s tale is about Jaromir Hladík, a Jewish playwright who is sentenced to death for his views against the Third Reich. On the eve of his execution, he prays to be given one more year to finish his play, a play he hopes will vindicate him and his writing after his death. His prayers are granted, and time virtually stops, allowing Hladík to finish the work. After one year, time resumes, without anyone being aware it had stopped. The play is complete, and Hladík’s sentence is carried out. That is the secret miracle.  

Without getting lost in a Borgesian trope, in part, Alarcón implies (by titling the book as such) that the act of writing is accomplished somewhat invisibly, in that the oft-asked question, “how does one write a novel?” is unanswerable, and attempts to do so, infinite. This missive is more a tête-à-tête between reader and book, with Alarcón as middleman to help “pull back the curtain” and reveal how novelists do what they do. 

To accumulate material for The Secret Miracle novelists were selected from all parts of the world, in various stages of their careers, writing in all forms and languages (Alaa Al Aswany, Santiago Roncagliolo, Paul Auster, Tash Aw, Chris Abani, Susan Minot, Rick Moody, to name a few). Given Alarcón’s recent inclusion (deservedly so) in the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 Fiction” compendium of gifted youngish writers, it’s refreshing he doesn’t listify his cache of writers; they are not underrated, overrated, young, old, undiscovered, or rediscovered. They are unapologetically some of his favorites, and his knowledge about them is as prodigious as their work. The novelists were given identical questionnaires, answering according to their preference. Some emailed responses, some entailed long phone conversations, Mario Bellatin responded with a prose poem. The questions ranged from the mundane: “How many books do you read in a month?” 

Michael Chabon: Three in a month; seventeen at a time.
Ann Cummins: I might start a dozen or so in a month; I might finish one.
Shelley Jackson: I probably finish ten to fifteen books a month. I’m not sure I can count how many books I read at a time. Lots…

…to the more inquisitive, “What novel’s structure do you most admire? Why?” 

Aleksandar Hemon: Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald. Because all of the aesthetic and structural choices are at the same time ethical choices. The structure therefore looks not only inevitable, but necessary. 

The answers are always inspirational or telling, at some level, even if it’s only for voyeuristic pleasure. Anne Enright answers the question, “How many books do you read in a month?” with a terrifically long answer. Her response consists of various tangents, and at one point she confesses, “I may not read [some books] so much as smell them, now and them.” How wonderful. 

The miracle of this book resides in the editing, an invisible art itself. There is specific expertise in corralling disparate writers and writing styles, coordinating an array of opinions, and crafting a cohesive narrative out of the jumble. Alarcón has done just this. He dovetails the author responses one after the other like a well-edited film, and the effect is a seamless literary conversation. It’s as if all 50-plus authors are in the same room, like some kind of fantasy dinner party; a sort of updated and un-corny Judy Chicago fête for modern literature (minus the vulvar motifs), where the conversation is absorbing, the people at the table inspirational, and the wine delicious. Moreover, Alarcón smartly mimics the novelistic arc with the arrangement of his chapters following along the same organization: beginning, middle, and end. Time decidedly stops, at least during the course of this book, and we are privy to the genius behind the complicated task of writing anything with a beginning, middle, and end, this book included. 

In answer to, “What qualities do you look for in [a trusted reader]?” the responses are as idiosyncratic as each author’s writing style. To wit:

Colm Tóibín: They all love me.
Daniel Handler: They should be writers, I think, because writers are able to give the most useful advice to writers.
Jennifer Egan: They need to be on my side -- i.e., wanting me to write a good book, rather than a bad book. They also need to be interesting thinkers, and extremely frank. It’s hard to find people who meet all these criteria, especially since I didn’t get an MFA, where ideally one meets a group of like-minded writing peers. When I find someone who is a helpful and willing reader, I really try to hold on to them…
Roddy Doyle: Don’t know the answer to this one. 

As you read on, you begin to feel part of the conversation, inserting yourself commensurately, invisibly. 

Rick Moody: The trusted readers need to avoid bullshit. Often the best reader for me is not a close friend because I find I can be rather hard on the near and dear. But I need someone who will not sugarcoat the news and who will be willing to defend their point of view vigorously…
Claire Messud: Strong critical faculties, and a sense of their own rightness.
Jonathan Lethem: I pick people who are likely to be in sympathy with the general drift of the work to begin with. There’s no point trying to win over a reader whose resistance to the kind of thing you’re trying to do is built in. Literature isn’t a campaign of political persuasion, and people mostly only ever try to read books they think they’ll like, so that’s who you’re writing for…

Alarcón shines the spotlight on various novelists outside the conventional oeuvre, and they in turn discuss their favorite writers, too. Instead of hostile Schadenfreude shenanigans, there exists an electric but warm-spirited generosity that belies what writers really talk about when they talk about writing. They talk about the good stuff: methods, books, writers, writing, and influences. This confabulation is part of the uninterrupted flow of literary replication, as each book informs the next. In fact, Borges’s story was predicated by a similarly themed story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by Ambrose Bierce, and the new film Inception was informed Borges’s “The Secret Miracle.” In other words, novels are not written in a historical or literary vacuum, one of the many points made in this book. The fallout is a labyrinthine reading list, but one to enjoy getting lost in, with biographies of the interviewees positioned in the front matter and a fat index of more writers in the back matter. (And if you're still unconvinced of such munificence, proceeds from purchases of The Secret Miracle benefit 826 National, a nonprofit organization devoted to youth literacy.) 

As this book illustrates, there is no “secret miracle” to writing a novel. Some methods are circuitous, some ideas stealthily pursued, and some emerge because of a visit to a Belgian castle. But all novels are dovetailed to the personality, habits, and goals of the writer. However, to write, novel or otherwise, there is one trait all these novelists possess: the willingness or ability to work hard. Or, as I once heard Amy Bloom quip, “Being a writer is like being a poor dirt farmer.” What writers could do if only they could make time stand still.

The Secret Miracle: The Novelist’s Handbook edited by Daniel Alarcón
Holt
ISBN: 0805087141
357 Pages