Monday, November 12th, 2012

For Those Who Have Asked Politely About My "Novel"

As National Novel Writing Month slogs on, the next in our series about the novels that we started writing but, for whatever reason, never finished.

Do you remember the episode of "The Simpsons" where Marge scores the fake Chanel suit? She looks incredible in it, straight-up incredible, and then this rich bitch she went to high school with spots her and briefly ushers her into Springfield high society? Anyway, she has only the one fake Chanel suit, so she has to transform it into culottes and an evening gown, etc. in order to keep the illusion afloat, but ultimately she stays true to herself because of Homer and the kids.

My novel is that fake Chanel suit. Pardon me: the two chapters of my novel are that fake Chanel suit. I have been working on them since 2004, and they have never gotten any better or inspired, say, a third chapter, but I cannot quite bring myself to click-and-drag them into Trash. Moreover, like the fake Chanel suit, they represent an attempt to rise above my station in life, and, like my use of the fake Chanel suit, are full of awkward metaphors pushed to and just beyond the breaking point.

There are many, many humiliating reasons why these two chapters have become Not a Novel.

1. I have spent more time coming up with the correct epigrams (for both the two existing chapters and any future chapters I will absolutely never write) than I have on the work itself. After literally years of reflection, the chief epigram for my Not a Novel is from Ashbery's "As One Put Drunk Into the Packet-Boat": "Down there, for a moment, I thought / The great, formal affair was beginning, orchestrated, / Its colors concentrated in a glance, a ballade / That takes in the whole world, now, but lightly, / Still lightly, but with wide authority and tact." I know, I KNOW. I know. Yeah.

2. On a similar note, the title of my Not a Novel, "Canadian Champagne," is taken from a line in a Secret Policeman's Ball song: "The champagne was Canadian, / the hostess sang the songs. / I contemplated suicide / until you came along." When my mother read my Not a Novel, she emailed back one line: "Shouldn't the title be 'the champagne was Canadian' instead of 'Canadian Champagne'?" NO, MOM, JEEZ. Twist!

3. This is the first sentence: "At the dinner party where I first learned of Timothy Brighton's death, my niece Karen was overheard telling her boyfriend that the newly Rvd Cotton looked like nothing so much as a character from a pre-revolutionary Russian novel."

4. Later, a character will say that "Free will is a Romish doctrine." There's a lot of High Anglican stuff. I am now an atheist.

5. It's based on an actual unpleasant sex abuse scandal at a cathedral I used to sing at, so it would not simply be a bad novel, but an exploitative and gross one, and would also put me in an uncomfortable legal position.

6. Not only does it sound exactly and turgidly like Robertson Davies, it is set in my hometown, which Robertson Davies already fictionalized for The Salterton Trilogy many decades ago more successfully than I ever could.

7. The only really good part is a two-paragraph meditation on stoats. I have never seen a stoat, nor could I pick one out of a lineup of small-to-medium sized mammals wanted for chicken coop theft. The stoats are also a metaphor.

8. The protagonist is a middle-aged British ex-pat living in Canada, so he is constantly being placed in situations where he might get an opportunity to use Britishisms in order to demonstrate my excessive and collegiate and enduring Anglophilia. He's not eating a roll, it's a bun! This bin is for rubbish! That's not an elevator, it's a go-up box!

9. I wrote the two chapters in 2004. They got me into a creative writing workshop. I handed in the same two chapters, lightly fiddled with, for my final project. I submitted the same two chapters the next semester; they got me into a second creative writing workshop. I handed them in, completely untouched, for my final project. I read them aloud to a captive audience at a literary gathering. I submitted them for my college magazine's fiction prize issue, pretending they were a short story called "Canadian Champagne" and not two chapters of Not a Novel.

10. I received an email from the editor of said magazine. She said that the fiction board was awarding me the prize, mostly because the twenty students on the fiction board were not allowed to submit their own work for the prize issue, leaving only two or three sad submissions in the box. She said, "however, we would really like it if you made it better, first." A brief list of demands followed.

11. That fiction prize issue is mysteriously absent from the online archives. I have not lobbied for it to be uploaded.

12. Dr. Faye once said to Don Draper: "no one knows what's wrong with themselves, but everyone else can see it right away." Every time I write something, I'm paralyzed with fear by that thought. Philip Roth probably doesn't worry about what Dr. Faye thinks about him. Also, I googled, and it wasn't Dr. Faye. It was a completely different character, and I got the line a little wrong. Philip Roth wouldn't have done that either.

13. This is NaNoWriMo, which I signed up for and blogged about. Because you are explicitly forbidden from reworking two chapters of a previous work, I decided I would write something else. I have not written a word. Instead of writing a single word, I have: reorganized my spice rack, made homemade chocolate ice cream, baked bread, studied a DVD titled "The Half-Halt Demystified," taught my baby how to dance with the aid of musical greeting cards, taken several extremely old dry-clean-only articles of clothing to the dry cleaners, come extremely close to being able to complete a pull-up, watched the entire run of "Get Smart" and unsuccessfully searched for my G-spot. They say you're supposed to make a "come here" gesture at yourself with the inserted fingers, but I think it's made up.

If I sound reasonably Zen about my chapters at this point (and perhaps I do not?) it is owing to my best friend. One day, slightly despondent about my inability to write a third chapter, or a story about something else, or, really, anything other than "here is a link to a story about carrier pigeons with a great pun," I told her that I feared I would never be a serious novelist.

"Nicole," she said carefully, "perhaps you are not a serious person."

And she was right.

Previously in series: My Misbegotten Historical Romance

Nicole Cliffe is the books editor of The Hairpin and the proprietress of Lazy Self-Indulgent Book Reviews. Photo used for faux book cover by Amber Dawn Pullin.

29 Comments / Post A Comment

bluebears (#5,902)

Well I hate to be THAT person (lie: I love it. I'm sick) but Marge's suit was a real Chanel. She found it at the thrift store.

@bluebears (tiny tiny screams)

bluebears (#5,902)

@Nicole Cliffe@facebook I really hate myself for that comment. You have no idea.

hershmire (#233,671)

@bluebears Phew! Wasn't the only one who noticed that.

NoReally (#217,942)

Loehmann's, I think.


Hate to be THAT person, but she found it at an outlet mall. Rich folks can spot thrift store finds from a mile away. :)

@bluebears I especially hate to be this person, but she found it at a discount outlet store.

bluebears (#5,902)

@Nathan Shaffer@facebook Touché

Bittersweet (#765)

I really and truly and totally hate to be this person, but as an Episcopalian who spends a fair amount of time in Canada every year, I would read the crap out of Canadian Champagne. So get writin'.

melis (#1,854)

I could make Episcopalian jokes all dayyyy please finish this book.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@melis I'm dying to know what an Episcopalian joke is like.

"An Episcopalian walks into a bar. Nothing happens."?

melis (#1,854)

If you are all very, very good, you may soon see an entire essay filled with Denominational humor.

Bittersweet (#765)

@stuffisthings Needs more noodle casserole and chardonnay.

Annie Petersen (#3,521)

@melis Please please PLEASE let me write the Presby part

Tulletilsynet (#333)

@stuffisthings @melis
Are you kidding? An actual Episcopalian joke, told to me by an Episcopalian: "Where three or four are gathered, there is sure to be a fifth." (So yeah, Episcopalians drink like fish, but it doesn't make them funny.)

maghrebi (#236,579)

@Bittersweet My dad is millionth-generation Philadelphia WASP so the Episcopal/WASP jokes be a-flyin'.
Here's one:
"Why don't WASPs have group sex?"
"Too many thank you notes."
Here's another:
"How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?"
"Three. One to change the lightbulb, one to mix the drinks and one to talk about how much better the old one was."

barnhouse (#1,326)

I fail to see how writing like Robertson Davies could POSSIBLY BE A BAD THING.

If it's any consolation, my own not-a-novel– 100 pages that sat around untouched for 12 years– is now a novel represented by an agent. I had to delete virtually all of the horrendous 100 pages to restart it. But eventually, I did. Time heals all not-a-novels, one way or another.

alorsenfants (#139)

Disclosure: I have Two unfinished novels?!!!! Never mind.

Having said that — without meaning any malice, I have to say that If the first thing you're likening your book to is "The Simpsons" … well maybe some things are best left unsaid –

bluewindgirl (#217,008)

@alorsenfants I also have two unfinished novels! One made it to 250 pages before collapsing under its own weight, one stalled at 130, and a novella (less ambitious goals!) broke down around 30 pages. I did, however, finish one rather overwrought short story. But who buys short stories?

redheadedandcrazy (#207,191)

damn mislead! If this was on the hairpin I'd be all "OH NICOLE'S MOM." "I'VE MET NICOLE'S MOM." "NICOLE'S MOM IS MY FAKE CHANEL SUIT."

but now I have to make fun of myself making those comments instead.

not a clever name (#239,388)

If we don't sign up for things we won't do, nothing would ever get done…

Etruscan Duck (#9,366)

I was surprised by how quickly my own NaNoWriMo devolved into erotica…

Your writing here and elsewhere is smart and makes (at least) me feel human emotions even though I'm basically a twisted goblin creature, so . . . that's "serious", right? Although I'm not convinced that a "serious person" is a real thing. Who's serious, like, Mozart? Have you SEEN Amadeus? Mozart's NaNoWriMo would be horrific.

I can no longer hear the name Robertson Davies (or Mario Puzo, W.P. Kinsella, Margaret Atwood, Ondaatje, or Doris Lessing) without singing.

curlysue (#34,091)

I definitely feel your pain. I write for a living, but not as a novelist. Yet, my whole life I've wanted to write a novel. My stabs at NaNoWriMo have yielded about 12 pages of useless pablum. Ultimately, when one spends one's day in front of the computer, spending one's evening trying to meet a NaNoWiMo word quota is just a bit much. I have loads of admiration for those who have pulled it off.

Be But Little (#228,384)

Nicole, you're awesome, but it's an epigraph, not an epigram. An epigram is a short, often satyrical poem, usually couplet. Take it from Coleridge: "What is an Epigram? A dwarfish whole;
Its body brevity, and wit its soul."

An epigraph is short quote or phrase included at the beginning of a work. And–please, please, please–don't call it an epitaph. Your novel may be unfinished, but it's not dead! Maybe it's undead? Yeah, okay. We'll leave it at that.

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