In Praise of Crooked Houses
Icould sit down with you right now and go through each of my books, page by page, and tell you everything that’s wrong with them. This would make for an incredibly boring afternoon for both of us, but I could do it. I could show you everything that I elected not to fix, change, improve, or fuss over. I could show you every shortcut I took when I couldn’t figure out how to more elegantly solve a complicated narrative puzzle. I could show you characters I killed off because I didn’t know what else to do with them. I could show you gaps in logic and holes in research. I could show you all kinds of sticky tape and shoelaces holding those projects together.
To save time, though, let me offer just one representative example. In my most recent novel, The Signature of All Things, there is an unfortunately underdeveloped character. She is rather egregiously improbable (I believe, anyhow), and her presence is little more than a convenience to the plot. I knew in my heart—even as I was writing her—that I did not get this character quite right, but I couldn’t figure out how to bring her to life better, as I should have. I was hoping to get away with it. Sometimes you do get away with things. I was hoping nobody would notice. But then I gave the book to some of my early readers while the book was still in manuscript, and they all pointed out the problem with this character.
I considered trying to fix it. But what it would have taken for me to go back and remedy that one character was too much effort for not enough reward. For one thing, fixing this character would’ve required adding an additional fifty or seventy pages to a manuscript that was already over seven hundred pages long—and at some point, you really have to show mercy to your readers and cut the thing off. I also felt it was too risky. To solve the problem of this character, I would’ve had to dismantle the entire novel back down to the early chapters and start over—and in rebuilding the story so radically, I feared, I might end up destroying a book that was already done, and was already good enough. It would be like a carpenter tearing down a finished house and completely starting over because he’d noticed—at the very end of the construction project—that the foundation was off by a few inches. Sure, by the end of the second construction, the foundation might be straighter, but the charm of the original structure might have been destroyed, while months of time had been wasted.
I decided not to do it.
In short, I’d worked on that novel tirelessly for four years, had given it a tremendous amount of effort, love, and faith, and basically I liked it the way it was. Yes, there was some crookedness, but the walls were essentially strong, the roof held, and the windows functioned, and anyhow, I don’t entirely mind living in a crooked house. (I grew up in a crooked house; they aren’t such bad places.) I felt that my novel was an interesting finished product—maybe even more interesting for its slightly wonky angles—so I let it go.
And do you know what happened when I released my admittedly imperfect book into the world?
The earth stayed on its axis. Rivers did not run backward. Birds didn’t drop dead out of the air. I got some good reviews, some bad reviews, some indifferent reviews. Some people loved The Signature of All Things, some people didn’t. A plumber who came over one day to repair my kitchen sink noticed the book sitting on the table and said, “I can tell you right now, lady, that book ain’t gonna sell—not with that title.” Some people wished the novel had been shorter; others wished it were longer. Some readers wished the story had more dogs in it and less masturbation. A few critics made note of that one underdeveloped character, but nobody seemed overly bothered by her.
In conclusion: A whole bunch of people had some opinions about my novel for a short while, and then everyone moved on, because people are busy and they have their own lives to think about. But I’d had a thrilling intellectual and emotional experience writing The Signature of All Things—and the merits of that creative adventure were mine to keep forever. Those four years of my life had been wonderfully well spent. When I finished that novel, it was not a perfect thing, but I still felt it was the best work I’d ever done, and I believed I was a far better writer than I’d been before I began it. I would not trade a minute of that encounter for anything.
But now that work was finished, and it was time for me to shift my attention to something new—something that would also, someday, be released as good enough. This is how I’ve always done it, and this is how I will keep doing it, so long as I am able.
Because that is the anthem of my people.
That is the Song of the Disciplined Half-Ass.