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The Contemporary Art of the Novella with Tao Lin and Lore Segal

March 10, 2010

Tuesday night, I went to The Center For Fiction in Manhattan to see Tao Lin and Lore Segal do a presentation on novellas. They’d each had a novella of theirs (Shoplifting From American Apparel and Lucinella, respectively) featured in Melville’s House series of contemporary novellas. Here are some of the highlights:

  • Novellas are a product of laziness, apparently: I couldn’t believe how frank Lore Segal was, but she candidly admitted that she works so long on her works (Lucinella took 6 years to write) and that the editing process is so frustrating, she can’t handle writing anything longer. Alternatively, Tao Lin takes about 6months to complete a work, yet he said he shorter novels are just better that way, so go figure.
  • They’re the perfect length to encapsulate an idea: Tao said he often preferred books with fewer than 45,000 pages, saying that around 15,000 was his ideal. Novellas are just long enough to get his message onto the page and he felt that while he could write more, longer works portrayed the same idea with more excess. On that note….
  • Novellas are a distilled work of writing: Like Hemingway always said (I’m paraphrasing here), you should always try your hardest to cut out every unnecessary word you can. A sentence should be simple, composing of a subject, verb, and direct pronoun. Both writers at the panel agreed that novellas were about finding the right words and paring down all the unnecessary bits. Reminds me of this post I read recently about how to make your prose more ‘economical’, i.e. not wasting words.
  • If a book has the word “existentialism” in it, then it will be compared to Camus: The best comment of the night came from Tao Lin in response to the moderator’s question, what do you feel about the reviews you’ve received about your book (the example of reviews that the moderator cited included a comparison to Camus’s The Stranger and Melville’s Bartleby, The Scrivener*). Essentially Tao Lin said just what I bolded: the only reason my book is compared to Camus is because the word existential appears in it.
  • Sometimes other authors can describe your work better than you can: Lore Segal continuously quoted Tao Lin’s novel, lovingly expanding on his comments. Granted it seemed that Tao Lin didn’t exactly want to explain his book all that much (I went with a friend who admired the way that Tao purposely doesn’t try to tell you what his book is “about” so that the reader can figure it out for himself), but I really liked Lore Segal’s analysis of Shoplifting From American Apparel and found that many of the things she said made me want to reconsider the book (cause I sure didn’t like it a month ago). She said, essentially, that the book is about getting from point A to point B, a journey you could accomplish by shoplifting, having a girlfriend, not having a girlfriend, shoplifting some more, but that none of these actions/methods had more significant than the other–they’re all just another way of getting by, of reaching your destination. Very poignant. And something Tao Lin definitely couldn’t have said himself.

I asked one question after the general Q&A period between the authors and the moderator (Lore Segal said it was a great question; I was very proud!):

In order to fulfill the role of a writer, you need to observe life, and yet the act of observing life removes you from life, making you less able to accurately depict it. How does a writer wrestle with that dilemma?

Lore Segal immediately grabbed a copy of Tao Lin’s book, reading this excerpt, which I just wanted to leave with you as a final thought:

“‘Do you wake up most days  and your first thoughts are of literature, you go to sleep thinking about literature?’

‘Yes,’ said Sam. ‘That is all I think about. If I’m having a shitty time with Sheila’s mom I think about writing it in my novel later. I think about that the same time it’s happening’

‘When I’m talking to someone I think ‘can I use this dialogue in my book,” said Luis. ‘If the answer is no I try talking to someone else.'”

What do you think about novellas? Do all critics compare anything with the word ‘existential’ to Camus? Do you, if you’re a writer, or if you have some other passion, relate everything in your life to that passion? Does it prevent you from actually living life?

*I LOVE this book. Just thought I’d let ya know.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. thisisnotaheart permalink
    March 10, 2010 8:34 pm

    Sometimes, I do things because I think they will be bloggable later. I do things that I wouldn’t do if I didn’t blog. I think it creates an alternate identity, one that is candid in sparse terms, one that revels in carving a niche that people will identify you with. And then there is this need to live up to this identity, getting lost in being a writer, by living writeable things. I think it really just comes down to Gonzo journalism.

  2. March 11, 2010 9:31 am

    I’m sure this is obvious, but I think people have multiple identities. And I know I’ve felt the need to satisfy my other identities, to express them and yes, like you said, to live up to the identity I may have created but which everyone now knows me for.

    Where is the line though between what you want and what your ‘identity’ wants? Do you feel that the need to do something or write something ‘bloggable’ motivates you to do things you would have never done (obviously) but are better for doing?

    Sometimes I feel myself striving to be, hmmm, diluted? purified? So that I can walk down the street and not have the mindset of a writer. But most people aren’t very observant, or perhaps they have a story to tell but no means to tell it. I think a writer is that means, and maybe we can’t escape the curse of living life in terms of our writing, but we have different identities we can put on, so that we can escape that mindset for a little while.

    I liked the idea of “living writeable things.” They say that in 20 years, 75% of people will have written a book, but how many people are qualified to write a book? Does everyone live a writeable life? Do you sometimes have to grab life by the horns to obtain a writeable life?

    I had to google Gonzo journalism, but I feel smarter now. I think the idea of conveying newsworthy things in first person has exploded with blogging, which is a good thing I think, mostly. Most things you read are biased anyway, and I think a first person narrative at least reveals the bias. Not sure if that’s related but…first thing that squished out of my brain after reading wikipedia.

  3. March 11, 2010 9:32 am

    Sorry for writing so much. I get excited and forget this is a blog, not an essay competition.


  1. Seeing Mary Gaitskill Tomorrow! «

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