August 12, 2006

"We only like to represent material that someone might actually want to read."

That's what an agent wrote to lawprof Jed Rubenfeld when he proposed to write a book about law for laypersons, according to this big NYT piece about the novel of his that's coming out next month, supported by tons of expensive publicity. The book -- which I've got around here some place (because I'm a publicity outlet, you know) -- is called "The Interpretation of Murder." The title, I assume, is based on "The Interpretation of Dreams" -- Rubenfeld's book has a lot of Freudian material. If this big publicity campaign works out, a lawprof will get very rich -- I approve! -- and there will be a big rage for lawprofs, lawprofs, lawprofs -- I approve! And presumably, everyone will go mad for Freud -- right? -- like the way "The DaVinci Code" made Leonardo DaVinci or Renaissance art or the Gospels or -- what the hell was that book about? -- a newly reupholstered part of our mental furniture. Do you want Freud back in your head -- so soon after he was so brilliantly, successfully ousted?

Rubenfeld's idea, we read, began with "the intense hostility that Freud developed toward the United States after his visit there in 1909" and took the form of a mystery based on killing off the famous Freud patient Dora.
At first he just made up details about New York in 1909, he said. But when he showed it to a friend, an avid reader of historical novels, she balked when she learned none of the details were accurate.

Over the next six months he researched the history of New York in the early 20th century. The next draft included extensive factual details about famous buildings and historical events, as well as long passages about Freud’s theories.
Extensive... long... is the NYT trying to tell us something?

Most of the article is about the way publishers try to make a book a bestseller by putting lots of money behind it. The sheer act of putting lots of money behind it is itself a way to attract attention, even before you start spending the money to buy publicity. The Times is, no doubt, weary of this game.

I guess I should take a look at the book and provide you with some first-hand opinion. I don't read many novels, and the ones I choose for myself are almost never -- well, never -- the sorts of historical novels and mysteries that make the bestseller lists. If I want to read about history, I'd rather go with nonfiction written by a historian, and as for mysteries, I've just never been interested. What difference does it make who did it? These are just fictional characters made up for the purpose of teasing us by making it seem as if each one could have done it and withholding key pieces of information so you can't tell which one until the end. I'm sure there's more charm to it than that, but I don't know, because, as I've said, I don't read them. I think I've read about five mysteries in my life. Look, I can name them: "Gaudy Night," "The Three Coffins," "Death in a Tenured Position," and maybe something by Agatha Christie and something by Georges Simenon.

Anyway, if I do take a look at "The Interpretation of Murder," which I'm horribly unlikely to read all the way through, the main thing I would care about is how well Rubenfeld has figured out a way to depict Sigmund Freud. He'd better not just be a guy spouting Freudian observations! So Freud hated America? That's the germ of Rubenfeld's idea? The phenomenon of America-hating by self-important Europeans could have some meat to it. As to what the lamp posts looked like in New York in 1909, I don't need a lawprof to put it into words.

UPDATE: It's 6:28 pm, the same day the original post was written. Most of today I spent reading "The Stranger," prompted by another post written today, which now has an update. I also sat down for 20 minutes or so to skim "The Interpretation of Murder," and that was enough to satisfy myself that this is simply not the kind of book that I read. In particular, I intensely dislike when a present-day writer affects a style of a past era because his story is set in that era. Every sentence contains a word choice that irritates the hell out of me. This effort to create an aura of the past... what is it for? But I'm not going to savage this book. It's a genre book in a genre I don't care about. I understand that these things exist for people who aren't like me. You folks can decide if this is a good example of things like that.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Let me type out the third sentence in this book to explain what I hate about the prose style. The first two sentences, for reference, are: "There is no mystery to happiness" and "Unhappy men are all alike." Here's the sentence that exemplifies everything that bugs me:
Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn -- or, worse, indifference -- cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays.
First, how could the editor not detect and expunge the "denied"/"pride" rhyme that shockingly informs us of the author's lack of ear?

Second, "cleaves" is an idiotically archaic word. You have to ask yourself why you'd ever use it instead of "clings." But what's worse is that the subjects to that verb just aren't cleaving things. A "wound" doesn't cleave. A "spark" doesn't cleave. A "blow" doesn't cleave.

And why bother to dress up "spark" with the adjective "kindling"? It's a redundancy that was daubed onto the sentence to try to make it sound like 1909, whatever the hell 1909 sounds like.

And why drag in "a shroud"? We've already got too many images: a wound, a blow, a spark, cleaving. Now, we've got a shroud in that sentence too? Blah! I shrink with bone-chilling horror at the deathly shroud of moribund prose that dangles limply from the author's limblike arms, as he threatens ominously to envelopingly enwrap me in it ... or it in me.


Dave said...


Not that you're cynical or anything.

Douglas Hoffer said...

Your colleague Gordon Smith has a nice review of the book:

Truly said...

Send your copy to me; I'll read it and tell you whether the publishers' money was well spent. How's that sound?

Maxine Weiss said...

"If I want to read about history, I'd rather go with nonfiction written by a historian"---Ann

Non-fictional accounts will give you facts.

Historical fiction will give you feelings.

Reading is an investment.

If all you're getting from investing that time, is bland, impartial facts....that's not a very good return on your investment, nor satisfying.

I want to know how it felt, feelings, an emotional pull, an immediacy----all of which historical fiction does, when the writing's good.

A dispassionate, sobering, fact-based non-fiction telling of history---just wouldn't be evocative, or accessible enough for me to put myself into that era.

Peace, Maxine

Jeff with one 'f' said...

No mysteries?!? I heartily recommend two of the best: Wilkie Collins' the Moonstone (check out Lyn Bann's review!) and the Woman in White, (one of the heroes is a drawing master!).

" I read this book in one day, a day where no classes were attended, no phone calls were taken, and no visits made. I cooked and ate my food with it in hand, and sometimes damned my inability to read faster, I was so eager to find out what was going to happen next."

Ann Althouse said...

Maxine: You don't seem to be able to find the good history books! I don't need fictional characters and plots to prod me into having feelings about history.

Christy said...

Ah, but it is the historical fiction that first grabs my interest and drives me to history books to find out the real story.

Ann, are you a person to do puzzles or play games? I suspect mysteries appeal more to such a one. I finally decided that The Da Vinci Code was really just a fun scavenger hunt -- and I love scavenger hunts.

A comeback for Freud? Nope. Jungian New Age is too well embedded in our culture, I suspect.

Harking back to discussions on vacations for kids: My dad loved to load us in the car at midnight and drive to visit family in Ohio. Tres boring for us kids. So boring in fact that the summer I was 8, when I hadn't yet learned to travel with my own Nancy Drew, I read the Modern Library's The Complete Writings of Sigmund Freud. At the time I couldn't figure out what the big to-do was because everything he said was so obvious. After this early indoctrination I became thoroughly Jungian in my advanced age. After, of course, I read Stone's Passions of the Mind which induced me to learn more about Jung.

Seriously, almost all I've learned about history was first inspired by a novel.

Adam said...

. If this big publicity campaign works out, a lawprof will get very rich -- I approve! -- and there will be a big rage for lawprofs, lawprofs, lawprofs -- I approve!

The hype was better the first time, for Stephen Carter's $4M advance for The Emperor of Ocean Park (which did not earn out). The one worth reading, IMHO, remain Penn lawprof Kim Roosevelt's.

Ann Althouse said...

Christy: You read the works of Freud when you were 8? Where did that lead you in life, I wonder. Anyway, do I do puzzles? I do the NYT crossword every day. I'm interested in the right puzzles, not all manner of puzzle. But mystery novels bother me because I don't want to relate to characters who are created for the purpose of being a puzzle. As for games, "you should never play games" -- that's a memorable line from "The Stranger" which I just read today.

Jim H said...

Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday, I don’t know. I had a telegram from home: "mother passed away. Funeral tomorrow. Yours sincerely." That doesn’t mean anything. It may have been yesterday.

Who can forget that opening paragraph? It certainly sets the tone.

I was so impressed with The Stranger when I read it in college that I rushed out and bought The Plague. But the former left me so unhappy at the time that I the latter still sits on my shelf two decades later, yellowed and unread.

Sanjay said...

The comment on books affecting an archaic style struck me because as it happens I just finished reading _The Sot-Weed Factor, and damn, Professor Althouse, you're gypping yourself. Or so it seems to me. There's also Pynchon's _Mason and Dixon_ (I know, but I really did like it).

Robert Burnham said...

You really should read a wonderfully acid essay by Edmund Wilson titled, if I remember right, "Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?"

knox said...

I intensely dislike when a present-day writer affects a style of a past era because his story is set in that era.

yikes! that drives me insane. I hate movies/screenplays that try to do this, too.

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

I agree with Sanjay that The Sot-Weed Factor is a convincing (and very funny) rendering of a historical period in the period's own style; but the historical novels that are most fully and delightfully immersed in a past era, without any element of pastiche, are the Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian, about the British navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Amazing, captivating displays of knowledge about, and feeling for, a bygone culture.

I think Christy meant The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud (translated and edited by A. A. Brill, Modern Library 1938), not the complete writings.

Shanna said...

Seriously, almost all I've learned about history was first inspired by a novel.

I loved historical novels as a child and I always thought they should get the novel writers to write the history books. Many history books are so poorly written that they make the subject dull. But I agree there are some good non-fiction books out there.

I've just picked up "The Great Influenza" for the second time, after getting about 300 pages in and putting it down. It's definately one of the good ones.

I'm going to try the Wilkie Collins novels. I'm in a mystery mood and I'm always looking for advice.

Maxine Weiss said...

"Second, "cleaves" is an idiotically archaic word. You have to ask yourself why you'd ever use it instead of "clings."---Maxine

You don't know how to read a novel correctly.

Serious readers don't read words. They read whole stories.

If you fixate on every single word, and word choice, you are in for a tough time.

A novel must be taken as a whole.

Cleave and 'cling' are not the same at all. To cleave-onto, is more like a marriage, a unison of sorts, the bride is supposed to "cleave-onto" her husband etc..

To "cling" doesn't feel like a unison, or unity of all. It feels very negative, and oppressive.

BOTTOM LINE: When you are reading, anything, their is a type of submission on the part of the reader. The reader willingly, and gladly, submits, to the author's authority, and that includes giving up questioning of word choices......otherwise, the reading experience won't be a happy one, as you've found out.

Ann, you simply refuse to submit!

That's your whole problem.

Peace, Maxine

Kirk Parker said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kirk Parker said...

Hmmm, some words fell out of my first attempt, let me try again:

Well, Maxine, if you can read a good writer of history--say, Barbara Tuchman--and all that you come away with are facts, then surely you must not be paying attention!

Ann Althouse said...

Maxine: I'm willing to submit and agree that submission is part of reading, but I'm very judgmental at the point of deciding whether I'm faced with a writer I want to submit to.

As for words vs. stories, what I care most about is sentences. If there aren't good sentences, I'll read something else.

Bissage said...

Maxine says that Ann refuses to submit and Ann says she's willing to submit, as appropriate.

Well, I have no idea.

But this I know: Michael Nesmith refuses to die!

Er, Something like that.

West Coast Independent said...

Sometimes, under a full-moon, every detail in the alley beside my house is visible. Tonight it was not one of those nights. With the wind howling in my ears ,I wiped the wet ocean spray off the rough stubble on my face while standing outside my empty house staring at the Audi accelerating away, cleaving to the note she had left on the coffee table. “Going to Blogher and the Grand Tentons beyond – Love Anne.”

ronbo said...

Ann --

Caleb Carr's novels capture the New York of the 1890s without sounding like Sherlock Holmes on acid.

And Michael Connelly's novels - especially the Harry Bosch series - are mysteries that couldn't care less "who done it." They're actually quite existentialist in their own way....

By the way, since you read French, isn't the Vintage translation superb?

jult52 said...

Ann writes: "You don't seem to be able to find the good history books!"

I have a lot of problems finding good (that is, interesting and reasonably well-written) history books, too. I just read McCullough's "1776" -- flat-out awful. Any suggestions are welcome.

Oh, and you don't have to go back to the 19th-century for exciting mysteries. Denise Mina (Deception) blows Collins out of the water.

Balfegor said...

It's a redundancy that was daubed onto the sentence to try to make it sound like 1909, whatever the hell 1909 sounds like.

On account of Saki, I have generally thought that 1909 was snippy, snappy, and cruel, with a black sense of humour and no sympathy for human life or feeling.

Saki and his quasi-contemporary Wodehouse, (if Saki hadn't been killed in the war) are still hilarious, though. They sound a bit "old-fashioned," at times, but at others, they are extremely modern. Saki's "The Toys of Peace," for example, could just as well be set in the present day as in 1905 or whenever.

Christy said...

RLC is right, it was The Basic Writings....

Guess the reason I didn't become a novelist is that "some wish denied, some blow to pride" sounds right purty to me.

The Sot-Weed Factor, his masterpiece, is the one Barth I've never been able to read.

I probably will not try 1776 simply because McCullough's John Adams made me despise the 2nd president. I prefer to keep my vision of 1776 that comes from the musical.

One problem I do have with historical novels is the tendency to give the protagonist our 21st century values.

I submit that the James Lee Burke mysteries are but a background for the development of his David Robicheaux character.

I do admit that lately I find myself less interested in stories than I am in ideas. Maybe it is a grown-up thing.

Patry Francis said...

It will be interesting to see how well the hype works.