How to Write a Good Book

Over my vacation on Lake Ontario last week I read Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millenium. I figured, when Mr. Calvino talks about how to write a good book, I’d better sit up and listen. And the thing is, Calvino has so much authorial credit with me that it took me a long time to realize that I disagreed with him. His literary presence is so great and his voice is so  assertive that it was difficult for me to do anything but nod and say “It is indeed so, Socrates Mr. Calvino.” But as I read I began to realize not only how outdated his expectations of literature were–not so great a crime, as the lectures which make up this book were written in 1985–but how deeply I disagreed with the points he was trying to make.

Calvino defines five virtues for millenial writing: Lightness, Quickness, Visibility, Multiplicity, and Exactitude. (There was a sixth, Consistency, hence the “six memos,” but that lecture is lost.) Now, there are some translator’s shenanigans here, so when he says “lightness” he means lightness as in the opposite of weighty, not dense, quickness, not as in speed but as in brevity, visiblity not as in publicly available but as in visually strong language. Multiplicity and Exactitude are linked, both referring to style which is, well, precisely correct for the story it tells, to break it down simply. (I do agree with those two.) He wrote these lectures, it seems, in a spasm of anxiety about what oncoming technology would do to the reading public (I suppose it’s a blessing he died in 1986) and his recommendations all have to do with writing what he feels will be the only kind of writing anyone is capable of reading in the next millenium.

And that kind of writing is pretty much Borgesian. He believes the shortness, the otherness, the stripped-down language of Borges is what will save us,  and anything else is doomed, no matter how much he might personally enjoy it. The very small units of Borges’ stories are all he thinks are left to us. He recommends novels which are simply connected short stories, and multiplicity of image (that one word should indicate a number of cultural references) not because that is good writing, but because in the next millenium, humanity will be incapable of absorbing slow or singular or weighty literature. I would not begin to argue that Borges was not a flat-out genius, that I do not love his work–but a universe of nothing but Borges seems pretty dreary to me. We cannot all play the game of detached journalist documenting strange books. But Calvino feels so threatened by the technology which makes us visual creatures, which makes informational units into “bits” instead of paragraphs, that he writes his advice in the tone of someone who believes the world is coming to an end, and it’s time to break out the robot armies.

The thing is, I don’t believe, as he does, that futurehumans are incapable of ingesting any but the smallest portions of literature. I am that futurehuman, I live in the world he feared, that terrible next millenium. We all do. And the thing that Calvino could not have foreseen is that the technology he spoke of would connect us all, would open new avenues of literature he could not imagine, through hypertext and the various brands of digital art. He could not have imagined, as I do, that this awful, alienating tech would actually create such a playground for art such that one could spend a lifetime in it and never try everything. I learned to stop worrying about the death of literature and embrace the internet a long time ago–and I never looked back.

I agree that the five virtues he mentioned are virtues, but they are not the only virtues, and not for the reasons he believes. Once you start writing in any given way because you believe humans are too dumb to understand you should you use all the tools at your disposal, you have officially lost the mission. And once “how to write a good book” becomes “how to write a book like (insert author here)”, the advice has become conservative and retrogressive. No one likes to be talked down to, and so long as Umberto Eco is an international bestseller, I think we can all rest easy with our difficult work, even in this fallen techno-dystopia we live in.

Because I am ornery, I have been considering writing a similar series of essays, taking the opposite of each of his virtues as my own, which I suppose would be darkness, (because I thought quality of light was going to be part of the discussion and am still sad that it wasn’t) slowness, invisibility, singularity, and ambiguity. I think I could do it, but my authorial mastercard doesn’t stretch as far as Calvino’s, so I’m loathe to try.

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  1. 1. Kate Elliott

    I think you absolutely should write those essays. It is a new millenium, after all.

  2. 2. S.C. Butler

    Yes, yes! I agree with Kate. It’s this millennium now.

    And I think you point out one of the great problems with academics and academia – they’re constantly trying to distill everything into one ‘grand truth’, the grand unified theory of aesthetics. But aesthetics, like readers, is a messier than that. Different readers like different things. And some readers even like more than one thing.

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Catherynne Valente

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