27 May 2016

Update: Raymond Queneau

As I've mentioned a few times before, I often start a writing session with a little bit of reading—most frequently from a writing guide of some kind, to ease me into thinking about craft. In a column earlier this year, near the start of the semester, I talked briefly about Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which I had begun delving into a page or two a day. Here's what I wrote then:
Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

That page or two every day or so has continued intermittently over the semester—as has my writing, I'm sad to say (too intermittently)—and there's still a good chunk of Exercises in Style left to go. But I've finally decided to put the book away without reading it in full.

As even a quick glimpse at the book's cover reveals, Exercises in Style has its champions. Italo Calvino said that the book "gives rise to a whole range of wildly diverse literary texts," for example, and Umberto Eco compared it to "inventing the wheel."And while that back cover quotes the original Washington Post review, the Post review of this new edition declares the book simply a "revolution."

I'll agree. There's something exciting about the variety of approaches Queneau employs in telling the story, the range of storytelling techniques and tones, the way that all of it opens up a little wider the world or writing, our understanding of that world. "Apotrophe" begins "O platinum-nibbed stylograph, let thy smooth and rapid course trace on this single-side calendered paper those alphabetic glyphs which shall transmit to men of sparkling spectacles the narcissistic tale of a double encounter of omnibusilistic cause." A few pages later, "Telegraphic" offers something drastically different: "BUS CROWDED STOP YNGMAN LONGNECK PLAITENCIRCLED HAT APOSTROPHISES UNKNOWN PASSENGER UNAPPARENT REASON STOP...." In between are brief exercises in the senses, among them "Olfactory" ("In that meridian S, apart from the habitual smell, there was a smell of beastly seedy ego, of effrontery, of jeering, of H-bombs, of a high jakes, of cakes and ale, of emanations, of opium, of...."), "Gustatory" ("This particular bus had a certain taste. Curious, but undeniable."),  and "Auditory" ("Quacking and letting off, the S came rasping to a halt alongside the silent pavement").

All these are terrific and provocative. But then I hit several sections of "Permutations" including "Permutations by groups of 2, 3, 4 and 5 letters," which begins "Ed on to ay rd wa id sm yo da he nt ar re at pl rm fo an...." And I'll admit I'm not sure what to do with it—or more to the point, how reading such passages might help boost my own writing, though I'm sure even these specific passages might well have sparked other writers' imaginations.

After hitting that section, I found myself browsing ahead rather than reading straight through. And now I've found myself putting the book aside.

A couple of questions for others here:
  • What craft books (I use that term very loosely) have successfully sparked your writing?
  • And how often do you put aside books—any books, not just writing books—without reading them in full? 
I'm curious particularly on that latter question—since readers tend to have very strong opinions about whether a book once started absolutely needs to be finished.


IN OTHER NEWS: I was very pleased that my fellow SleuthSayer Rob Lopresti chose my story "Restoration" from Crime Syndicate Magazine's debut issue as the "best mystery story I read this week" over at his blog Little Big Crimes. "Restoration" was a real departure in many ways for me—a quick foray into more speculative fiction—and it struggled for a while to find a home, both in more traditional crime fiction publications (too much science fiction) and in the few science fiction magazines I submitted to (not enough for them). Given all that, I was thrilled when it found a home at the edgy and excellent Crime Syndicate and especially pleased now that it's gotten such a kind reception at Little Big Crimes. Thanks so much, Rob!

And finally, a quick plug for an upcoming event between now and my next column here—a very special one for my wife and me. On Monday, June 6, at 6 p.m., my wife—Tara Laskowski—and I will be giving a joint reading at the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library in Easton, Maryland. Tara will be reading from her new story collection Bystanders and I'll be reading from On the Road with Del & Louise. While it's not entirely uncommon for Tara and I to appear on the same program, what makes this event special is that June 6 is our seventh wedding anniversary! At least we'll be together for the evening, right? Anyone who's in the area, please do come out to help us celebrate. :-)


  1. Art, if I started a book – a fiction book – I used to feel “obligated” to finish it. Or if not obligated at least I’d tell myself it might get better or I want to see how it turns out. But these days, time being at a premium, if it doesn’t hook me by page 100 I’ll often, though not always quit.

    Re: non-fiction books, including writing craft books, I rarely read them head to tail. I’ll skip around, reading sections that are of interest at a particular time. And as to which craft books were particularly inspirational, if that’s the right word, there’s so many – to many to name.

    And congratulations to you and Tara on all your terrific things!

  2. Happy anniversary and have a great time at the reading!

  3. Thanks, Paul and Janice!

    And Paul, I agree with you. I often browse those kinds of books or read in small bursts here and there. With fiction, I've become like you--though it's page 50 for me. :-)

  4. As I get older I stop reading more books than I finish. This is partly because my wife works in a bookstore and brings home any ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies) that look interesting. But it's mostly because I am old and cranky.

    On the other hand, Art, I finished your story, and enjoyed it a lot.

  5. And thanks again, Rob! And actually I read more stories than novels anyway.... and almost always finish them. :-)

  6. Happy anniversary!

    I don't often actually stop reading books, but in the past few years I've finished a few & then asked myself why I bothered.

  7. Congratulations to you for Rob's excellent review. Rob's kind of a beefeater-- If he likes it, I probably will too.

    And congratulations to both you and Tara for your 7th anniversary!

  8. Years ago when I struggled to learn the craft, I visited libraries and bookstores and was dismayed to find so many words but so few useful tips. I might get one, possibly two tips per book.

    Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, which I didn’t discover until much later, was the exception. Ironically, a publisher managed to pad that single page out to 40 or 50, add illustrations, a leather cover and a sip cover, then price it in the $70 range. Talk about padding!

    Recently, I bought a book on characterization. It was so awful, I quit after a couple of chapters. I couldn’t take seriously a writer who called his audience ‘dude’. I didn’t set it aside, I wanted to throw it aside.

    On the other hand, I recall a slim mystery novel by an author I hadn’t heard of but claimed to have written a hundred novels. The protagonist had an advanced degree in nuclear physics (never demonstrated or used), owned a "fabulous Fifth Avenue dress boutique", and opened a seaside house in New England with an address convenient for bad guys to find. My brothers and I (with ages in single digits) made up better stories in the middle of the night camping in the back yard. The book was so awful, I couldn’t stop reading.

  9. Hi, Elizabeth and Leigh--
    Thanks for the good wishes and good comments!

    And yes, Leigh, I really like Leonard's Rules, and I've seen that fancy edition--but haven't broken down and gotten it myself! Maybe one day....


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