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September 02, 2008

Naomi Novik Is The Best Writer Working Today

Hyperbole? Absolutely. And I really mean: one of the best writers. And I know very few of you will agree with me. And I don't care.

I grabbed Victory of Eagles when it first came out and finished it in one day. I am humbled, truly. And  I don't say that easily.

I am not overtaxed with humility, despite the purity of my lack of literary accomplishment ... as anyone who reads this blog with regularity knows. I don't claim--or feel--humility when I read most of the "literary" works most heralded as "genius" by the snob-squawkers. I applaud artistic ambition, the more so when it is at least somewhat achieved. But too many of the most praised novels aren't truly ambitious: achieving their ambitions is little more than a matter of maintaining a less-than-natural style without seams, producing a consistent melancholic mood, completing an emotional arc that produces catharsis without sullying itself with an apparent plotline, and proving the ultimate spiritual beauty and likability of their autobiographic protagonists.

What's lacking among these writers is:

  1. energy: it seems as if lit fic writers are mostly children of older mothers, born from aging ova that lack vitality ... which would also make sense given the fact that they have so much free time on their hands to write worthless stuff: their mothers postponed conception until they had lots of income (yes, I'm joking, bitterly).
  2. the possession of a real pushy story that insists on being told: you'd be shocked--SHOCKED--at the number of idiots in creative writing programs who complain in public among other writers that they "don't know how to finish a story"or "have trouble knowing what happens next" or "can't see very far into the story" when they begin and trust to their ... whatever (muse? talent? god forbid: imagination?) to supply material as they go along. I can think of no more direct way to say "I have no real story to tell." This also explains why their "stories" are all about people exactly like them in situations exactly like theirs: it's not their imaginations supplying them with material, it's their lives.
  3. balance: the ability to make every element of the story serve the story, each in its proper measure, rather than placing undue emphasis on one element (say, "poetic" language) to the detriment of other elements (say, imagination, plot, velocity).

Naomi Novik has all of these in spades. On top of that, she's a great writer because she does the following:

  • Fits her writing tactics and style to the purpose of her writing project
  • Balances the different modes of writing--action, description, exposition, dialogue, internal monologue, image and metaphor--relying on none to the exclusion of any others, and making all vivid, fresh, and fully integrated. This is to say that nothing she does draws attention to itself as writing; it's all there in the service of the story, and you can only see what good writing it is if you pull yourself out of suspension. (Yes, I already mentioned this above, I'm restating it slightly differently here. Get over it.)

  • Employs conciseness, which is neither economy, density, nor understatement, but rather precision (if precision was about providing meat as well as being exact.) Look at this one-paragraph battle scene:

"Signal the attack," Laurence said, and Temeraire roaring plummeted with the rest; the Chevaliers panicked and flung themselves aloft, instinctively. One leapt only to meet Maximus's full weight upon her back, and bellowing dreadfully was driven down, straight down, into the ground again, and with a snapping crack went silent. Maximus staggered off and shook himself, dazed by the impact; she did not move, and her captain crying her name flung himself heedless across the field toward her.

Novik's a bit profligate with the semicolons and stingy with the commas (and somesnob versed in "should-be's" would call her out for excessive adverbiage), but this is a perfect scene otherwise. In one sentence (that should have been punctuated as two) we see the movement of the attackers down, and the defenders up. We see a vivid kill, and you don't need to know that Maximus is a heavyweight to get how the deed is done. You hear the bellowing of the dragon and know that it was her spine that was snapped. You see the whole story of her relationship with her captain in the clause that has him crying her name, and flinging himself after her, heedless (ly?).

I can scarcely think of another writer that wouldn't be betrayed by grandstanding impulse--or sheer, unacknowledged awkwardness--into stopping the action and giving us a brief glimpse inside the head of the bereft enemy captain, or at least having Laurence internally monologuing about what the captain must be feeling. Novik only gives us two more images of him in later pages, one of him being led away from the dragon, weeping, and the other of his hands bound to a stake in the ground. That's all we need for a minor character whose main purpose is to give texture to the corps' exploits in this part of the novel, and create emotional complexity around their very ethically compromised mission.

  • Permits the necessities of plot to drive the action, and the necessities of action to drive the plot. In other words, she doesn't force nifty scenes onto the book, or measure out her structure carefully. What happens is organic, and yet the shape of the whole is harmonious, part flowing into part.
  • Over the course of the series she allows the situation of her characters to become increasingly ethically compromised ... and allows them, increasingly, to see it. This is true to life and false to most fiction: our conscience troubles increase the older we get, though so does our ability to ignore or manage our guilt. Temeraire and Laurence are heroes because they don't merely manage their guilt; they act upon their consciences. In fact, we get a long sequence in Victory of Eagles in which Laurence does simply manage his guilt, and it becomes clear that it is Temeraire's presence in his life that forces him to deal with his conscience and behave heroically. Sure, this is satisfying--heroism is always satisfying--but the way Novik deals with it is above all interesting, and she's willing to risk some of Laurence's stature to make him a more interesting hero.
  • Continues to be a master of characterization. All of the above weave in together, of course, and all contribute strongly to the characterization, which is perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this series. The characters are consistent, but consistent in the way that people are consistent: moods take them, the vagaries of life begin to weigh on them. They behave in ways recognizable to their characters, but over time, the accumulated burden of their experience begins to warp their characters into new shapes, and much of their struggle--as is our own--is to find their way back to the best parts of themselves. Victory of Eagles is, more than anything, about this struggle in the adult Laurence. It is also about the struggle in the adolescent Temeraire to achieve adulthood and take on the mantle of leadership. He is both helped and hindered by Laurence's terrible, and often selfish, conflict in this book.

I believe I've written and talked before about the power that speculative fiction can bring to representations of reality. It's the power of diagonality: not a mirror reflection but a distorted reflection; an image created moving diagonally out of mimetic reality into a world that reflects ours by changing important things. The paradox is that this diagonal reality is only effective if its creator commits to it completely, commits to making the illusion of its separate reality complete.

There is no real relationship in our reality like the captain/dragon relationship in the Temeraire series. It is a marriage, a best-friendship, a lover configuration, a parent/child relationship, a dog/master, ship/captain, actor/manager, warrior/quartermaster relationship. It is this relationship, and not the existence of dragons, that is the biggest difference between Temeraire's world and ours. And yet, the existence of this complex and unique relationship illuminates all of our relationships. It's the sort of friendship we all desperately hope for ... and have no chance of acquiring; there are no people as loyal and strong as dragons, no beings whose friendship can make us more loyal and strong than we humans naturally are.

This potential for the perfect relationship is thrown into a world only slightly better, and more honorable, than our own. (The secondary characters tend to have too much consistency, too little complexity, but that's as it must be.) The perfect relationship is thrown into war and left to make its way through the impossible ethical binds that war, and the world in general, creates. And it is only a perfect relationship that can show us so clearly the way these slings and arrows strain and distort love, loyalty, and responsibility.

Okay, enough writing. Loves it. That's all.

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Comments

I think you and I make similar demands of the books we read. In particular, I agree with what you say about ethics. As a reader I want to be challenged. I want to be forced to like someone I know is bad and forced to dislike someone I know is good. I want to see characters make hard, moral decisions and get it wrong sometimes. And I don't want my pre-conceived values merely soothed, which is what I find in far too much fiction.

But be warned though, when you publish your first novel, if you do indeed present challenging ethics (which I suspect you will), you will be pilloried, as I am now. On several fronts.

what? where are you being pilloried? seriously, email me some urls and when i've finished the book i'll go do battle.

seriously.

What a great post. Your writing about writing is so helpful to me I feel like I should be paying you something to read it.

I also agree that ethical tensions make for great storytelling. A friend of mine designs rpgs, and he taught me one technique that is very useful. Give each character three main beliefs. Then make their beliefs cross with each others, and then themselves. So the conflicts become internal and external ethical dilemmas. I am explaining it poorly, but I hope you get the idea.

Hey there. Sorry for the delay in responding. Don't worry, I'm over the initial shock. But if you're truly interested, check out Rose Fox's "review" http://rosefox.livejournal.com/1379489.html as a good example.

I've also garnered the "worst book ever" tag on Amazon. I think it was Publishers Weekly that called it "grotesque, gratuitous, and disturbing." Oh, and Barnes and Noble won't shelve it because it's too controversial. Although I've just discovered that individual Barnes and Noble stores have broken with the main buyer and are starting to put it on their shelves.

There have been more good reviews than bad, however. It's just that the bad ones seem to have little to do with literary failures than with values issues. Ironically, the most blistering attacks are not coming from the Right but the Left.

i saw the "worst book ever" one on amazon, but didn't even bother replying because the review was so patently clueless. i'm gonna review it myself on amazon, once i get over my aversion to doing so ;)

i commented at the link you provided.

the problem with writing into a lefty issues bank is that suddenly everyone wants you to see it exactly THEIR way ... and if you do, they're jealous that you got it out there first.

this is one thing i envy the right: their unconditional support of like-minded people, even if the minds aren't EXACTLY alike. come to think of it, that's supposed to be a liberal value.

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