The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet

July 28, 2009 at 8:16 am (Uncategorized)

I’m in a mean mood, so rather than write an ugly post showcasing my smallest side, I thought I’d talk about a book, being The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, which you may recall I read a little while ago now. I’ve had occasion to think about this book again for two reasons. One is that it has a graphic element, and the other is that it has a story within the story. I knew it had pictures when I tracked it down, they were the main reason I bought it, because I wanted to see how that relationship between words and images resolved itself in Larsen’s novel, but I didn’t know about the sub-story until I read it.

One of the things Volunteer Reader said in the feedback on my MS – and VR was right – is that if you’re going to do this story-within-a-story thing, you have to go all the way. That’s the contract the author makes with the reader, and the reader expects the author to damn well honour it. As I mentioned a few posts ago, I left off a bit. Like, the ending. Not a good look. And trying to do a better job of holding up my end of the bargain has brought me back to Larsen’s book because really, it cheats a bit on this count too. The story-within-the-story abruptly ends, and although T.S., whom I really liked, and whose point of view I readily accepted and enjoyed, is as put-out about this as I was, I’m not sure that’s really enough to make it okay, especially not when T.S.’s own journey slips into farce soon after, and several impossible things are conveniently presented as possible in his hitherto very quirky but credible world. It was annoying, and there was an important lesson for me in how annoying it was.

You’ve probably heard about this book because it comes with one of those extraordinary stories of overnight success. It’s Reif Larsen’s debut novel, and after being accepted by the first agent who saw it, a bidding war ensued, and the publisher who finally carried the day paid the young New Yorker (they’re always precocious overachieving New Yorkers, aren’t they?!) what’s been reported as close to a cool $US1 million advance. A million bucks. I don’t know about you, but that’s the sort of tale that makes me feel a curious mix of envy, admiration, and something that could even be pity, because I can’t help feeling it’d be hard work bouncing back unscarred from a mill. What’s next?! Nice as it must assuredly be to have the poverty line recede so definitively from view, I think that amount of cash would weigh heavily on most authors, who are generally plagued with self-doubt as it is.

I’ve shown the book to a number of people, all of whom, without exception, have turned it over, flipped through it, and handed it back saying, “Looks like a textbook. Not the sort of thing I’d pick up.” Just goes to show. I love the look of it, I love the strangeness of its presentation, and I love the drawings, all of which are Larsen’s own (see? Overachieving git). I think it’s a beautiful thing physically, and I merrily went along for the ride. But at the end of the line, I had what I consider too many unanswered questions, and that was frustrating as well as finally unsatisfying, so as I pull my MS to pieces and start thinking about how to put it back together again, I’m going to keep dear little T.S. nearby, so he can readily whisper in my ear, and I’m going to try to step up and deliver, which is all I think any writer can do. Okay, I am now running late for the IVF thing, so I must go. An incoherent post, I fear, but it was written on the hop with my laptop quite literally resting on my lap en route. I’ve got a freelance job on tomorrow (mercy be) and book club tomorrow night, so if I don’t manage to post, see you Thursday.

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4 Comments

  1. Charlotte said,

    Hey Di, I so agree with you about the (reluctant) sympathy for the million-earner. Whenever I hear about such outlandish advances paid for first books (or any books!) I think of a line in a song called The King of Surfaces, by the wonderful singer Melanie Oxley, sister of the Oxley brothers of Sunnyboys fame in the 80s. Hard not to think of the Sunnyboys’ shooting star (very sad, I sooo loved them) when she writes:

    I don’t want to win
    I don’t want to come second or third
    No-one in first class ever survives

    (King of Surfaces, from album Jerusalem Bay, Melanie Oxley and Chris Abrahams – it’s a brilliant album, moody and strange and dark and poetic, and everyone should go buy it NOW.)

    I reckon what one should aim for, and what she is getting at here, is a respectable body of work, over time. Fuck the million. I don’t trust it, though I sometimes wonder what I would do if i ever were offered it (I don’t wonder for very long…high horses aren’t that hard to get off, are they?)

    But the slow burn, the long haul … that’s the gig that you can go proudly into old age with.

    Congratulations on yr rewrites. I can’t believe how deeply and swiftly you have done such scary-sounding stuff.

  2. doctordi said,

    I wonder if I can get that album on vinyl? Must investigate, thanks.

    And thanks for the wisdom and encouragement, Charlotte. I think that’s it – I don’t quite trust these mega-sums either – not forgetting that’s a million dollar advance against sales, and not a million bucks free and clear (a detail many people aren’t aware of, and one which could bury an author if sales don’t make that return on investment). Llew and I have both accepted and made peace with the fact that in all likelihood this will hardly equate to a livelihood! It doesn’t make it more honourable to starve for your art – I’d love the opportunity to prove money ain’t grubby!! – but I think there is quiet satisfaction in knowing you’re prepared to, and that taking money out of the equation doesn’t change what you’re trying to do.

    (I’m not sure I deserve congratulations, but thanks. Really, the truth is, nothing is scarier to me than not trying to turn SPILL into a good book, a worthwhile endeavour for me and anyone who commits the time to reading it, so everything else, including hacking it apart, starts looking like a ride on the ferris wheel by comparison!)

  3. litlove said,

    Not incoherent at all! The story-within-a-story thing is hard to do, I think, because one story always tends to dominate. That’s okay, if you know in advance it’s going to happen, because you can think about the way you want that secondary story to resonate and echo and trouble the first. But most authors try to be even-handed and the result is always lop-sidedness. I feel awfully sorry for Larsen starting off with that kind of success (not the word, but for want of a better one). How would a person ever write a second book after that?

  4. doctordi said,

    It is hard, Litlove, and I didn’t know in advance it was going to happen because it only became a story within the story, rather than part of the story, in the last draft. So yeah, softly, softly… it’s going to take some doing.

    Apparently Larsen is already busy writing his second book, sans illustrations because he doesn’t want to be THAT guy, the one who writes picture books… but Million Dollar Man? I think he’s down with that.

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