Editing Analysis: J.D. Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”

There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Browne and King advise that when using the first-person point of view, the character must be distinct enough to keep the reader’s attention, but not eccentric enough to make readers “trapped inside his or her head.” This issue can be characterized as one of tempering alienation: if the reader must deal with being alienated by every action or sentence that the first-person narrative produces, then the act of reading becomes laborious. However, as we see in Salinger’s “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”, alienating the reader can produce an unlikeable sincerity; between the lines of the main character’s cynicisms exists a nimble exploration of ego and perception.

This nimbleness exists in John Smith’s lively descriptions of his actions and dreams, especially after having sent a hugely caring letter to his star pupil, Sister Irma:

I would listen, listen, listen, with my head in my hands–till finally, unable to stand it any longer, I would each down into Mme. Yoshoto’s throat, take up her heart in my hand and warm it as I would a bird. Then, when all was put right, I would show Sister Irma’s work to the Yoshotos, and they would share my joy.

There is a solipsistic self-righteousness to Smith’s outlook on the people that surround him: he is insulted by M. Yoshoto’s proofreading assignments and by two of his pupil’s less-than-stellar bodies of work. Yet his adoration of Sister Irma becomes a vindication of his existence, and more materially his ego: through Irma’s accomplishments does this character gauge his own worth. This validation is much needed after his pessimistic interpretations of his relationship with the two Yoshotos:

I gave away a lulu of a Picasso story that had just reached me, one that I might have put aside for a rainy day. M. Yoshoto scarcely lowered his Japanese newspaper to listen to it, but Mme. Yoshoto seemed responsive, or, at least, not unresponsive.

The limitations of the first-person viewpoint enhances John Smith’s perceptions of the Yoshotos as passive indictments on his quality of person. Throughout the story, Smith seems to be surprised how much he could trick everyone around him to believe he is De Daumier-Smith, but tempers his success with the anxieties of being discovered by his hosts and student for his true nature. In his world, these characters are obstacles to realizing his wants and desires for something more.

However, events such as Irma leaving the school or the revelation that M. Yoshoto’s school was not even licensed reveals a much larger universe that exists outside of his control and intellect; the first-person viewpoint becomes a powerful tool for exploring the limitations of human experience. With enough descriptions from John Smith, these characters are filled with thought and emotions, but we are left with the sneering descriptions and clever insults from Salinger’s first-person narrative.

Without overt introspection, J.D. Salinger invites the reader into the very limited world of John Smith: limited in length (at only about fifteen pages long), limited in scope (about two or three main settings), and strongly limited in point of view, as the reader is stuck in the head of a 19-year-old protagonist, whose age may contribute to his lack of emotional intelligence and his bleak judgment on all those around him. But Salinger deliberately utilizes the first-person perspective to transform the broader world into an opaque glass that merely blinds the teenager instead of letting him peer in.

Editing Analysis: Jim Shepard’s “Minotaur”

Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Browne and King’s largest takeaway from the chapter “See How it Sounds” is that the rhythm and flow of both dialogue and narration is key to preventing the reader from being overly encumbered by the writing itself. Their idea of flow goes beyond “realistic dialogue” and instead into a type of literary conciseness that reads naturally, even if it isn’t fully grounded in reality. Jim Shepard takes this advice to heart by focusing on jilted dialogue as a centerpiece of a short story about miscommunication:

“You know Latin?” He asked.

“Do you know how long I’ve been tired of this?” she told him.

“I don’t know Latin,” Celestine volunteered.

“Tastes Like Chicken,” he translated.

“Nice,” Carly told him.

“I don’t get it,” Celestine said.

“Neither does she,” he told her.

“Oooh. Snap,” Carly said.

It is a challenge to insert four characters at once into a conversation for basic reasons of clarity, but Shepard transitions the bottom half of this conversation into small bursts of speech punctuated by “said”, allowing for both clear speaker attributions and the opportunity to extend the scene without resorting to beats or exposition.

The small bits of confusion expressed by the characters harken back to the famed West Wing screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who was able to hybridize character exposition with dialogue by developing a sense of confusion for both the audience and the subjects speaking. Celestine’s “I don’t get it” coincides with the reader’s ignorance of Kenny’s patch, and Carly’s vocalizing of the patch allowed Kenny to explain to the characters and audience its existence in Shepard’s universe. We can already tell Carly’s curiosity about her husband’s work, Celestine’s ignorance, and Kenny’s matter-of-factness in just a few lines rather than paragraphs.

Carly’s motivation to acquire information is further explored through the lens of the first-person narrative of her husband, who was also able to gain character through informal narrative exposition. Words or phrases were italicized to emphasize the narrator’s personal thoughts his circumstances:

Not being able to tell the people you’re closest to anything about what you care about most?

Within this relatable informality, we are able to understand the perspective of narrator: content with his job’s acronyms and ardent separation from his home life, he is also content with being detached from the thoughts of his wife. The image he has created for Carly is based solely on her external expression rather than any kind of emotional intelligence; when she claims she is happy about her lack of knowledge about himself or his job, he takes it for face-value.

Similarly for the audience, we are limited to Kenny, Celestine, and Carly’s dialogue — and their direct interactions with the protagonist — to develop character images; the informality and confusion of the dialogue scenes relate to the main character’s limitation of perspective. He cannot understand why Kenny would sell him out for sharing his wife’s secrets, and by the end of the story repeats his face value interpretation of Carly when she accepts his apology. In other words, while the reader can enjoy Shepard’s command of natural rhythm and flow of wording within dialogue and exposition, we are also trapped by this flow, floating within the protagonist’s limited perception of the world.

Editing Analysis: Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I Will Redeem”

Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I will Redeem” adheres heavily to Browne and King’s established tenets of dialogue mechanics as emotion-based rather than description based. Typically avoiding any adverbs ending in “-ly” or verbs attempting to replace “said”, Sherman conveys emotion through a very minimalist use of action interwoven with dialogue.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Alexie Sherman’s “What You Pawn I will Redeem” adheres heavily to Browne and King’s established tenets of dialogue mechanics as emotion-based rather than description based. Typically avoiding any adverbs ending in “-ly” or verbs attempting to replace “said”, Sherman conveys emotion through a very minimalist use of action interwoven with dialogue.

Unlike some stories that would attempt to modify the flow of conversation with a beat, “What You Pawn” typically includes blocks of dialogue ended with “said”, and finally punctuate it with an isolated action. For example:

”Well, sometimes I think of it that way. And other times I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused.”

She fed him morphine.

”Do you believe in heaven?” He asked.

”I’m talking about the Heaven where my legs are waiting for me.”

They laughed.

In Brechtian fashion, these character simply speak, then commit an action, then speak again. A more standard way of writing these actions may have been:

”Well, sometimes I think of it that way,” He said as she set up the morphine bag. “And other times I think of it the way they want me to think of it. I get confused. Do you believe in heaven?”

Similar to Saunders’ “Spiderhead” short story, we have a writing style that isolates dialogue within its space, bringing attention to a certain detachment the writer may want to convey to the reader.

But there may be some emotional reasons that may have motivated Sherman: “What You Pawn” is a generally melancholy story with bits of levity, and themes of lived alienation can be throughout. This alienation can be conveyed by also alienating the reader by slightly detaching description and action from dialogue, causing readers to read it without any deep emotions.

This leads into the second possible motivation: that Sherman’s isolation of dialogue can accentuate its content. The protagonist introduces himself with an admission that he has a tendency to keep quiet with white people, yet half of his dialogue exchanges involve those same white people. Sherman seems eager to explore this complicated relationship with dialogue rather than character action.

In one sense, Sherman’s dialogue without action and direct description could point to the author’s intent on using these characters as vessels for his own ideas about Native American identity and relationship with urban centers and white people. Like radio show hosts, these characters are more defined by what they say rather than what they do. With such deep focus on dialogue, the physical world in which they exist is not important to the ideas they portray.

With (seemingly over-) emphasis on dialogue mechanics, especially avoiding replacements for the traditional “said” and beats to break up lines of dialogue, Alexie Sherman looks to convey his tone of writing through style over “physical” substance. Jackson’s character study does not spend much time on his movements throughout the world, but instead places its efforts into the conversations he has with various Native Americans, authorities and store clerks. With small kindnesses occurring between dialogue scenes, we find a warm-hearted yet still alienating story touching on mental illness, cultural identity, and urbanization.

Editing Analysis: Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness”

Browne and King’s explanation of “proportion” warns of the issues of over-explaining scenes when they are not particularly relevant to the plot or theme. In a sense, “Unlikeness” does not overtly break this rule, with brisk but satisfying descriptions of the characters and their actions.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Rivka Galchen’s “The Region of Unlikeness” is an anti-romantic sci-fi tale that begins in the middle of three characters’ lives and ending just as abruptly. On various book blogs and story discussion boards, Galchen’s brief fiction piece commonly ends up with a shared conclusion: at times brilliant, at times playful, but the short story ultimately ends with a whimper. This disappointment seems to be deliberate: the main characters are found to be an unreliable bunch, appearing and disappearing at will throughout the story, much to the reader’s curiosity and consequently chagrin. Drama if defused by pedantry, romance challenged by frustration, and suspension of disbelief tempered by constant real-world references as if to remind the reader that they are simply reading a story written by a very self-conscious author.

Browne and King’s explanation of “proportion” warns of the issues of over-explaining scenes when they are not particularly relevant to the plot or theme. In a sense, “Unlikeness” does not overtly break this rule, with brisk but satisfying descriptions of the characters and their actions. However, the introduction of time travel as a possible factor for the disappearance of Ilan straddles the line between useful expository information and Galchen’s pet project to aestheticize her knowledge of the “grandfather paradox”.

Simply stated, the paradox is this: if travel to the past is possible—and much in physics suggests that it is—then what happens if you travel back in time and set out to murder your grandfather? If you succeed, then you will never be born, and therefore your grandfather won’t be murdered by you … The surprise is that, just as real circles can’t be squared and real moving matter doesn’t cross the barrier of the speed of light, the mathematical solutions to the billiard-ball wormhole scenario…

Time travel becomes as overwrought as Jacob’s explanation of Saint Augustine’s “unlikeness” parable, and both character and concept are interrupted by Galchen’s want of a “realist” fiction in which nothing is satisfying and everything — including time travel — is down to earth and part of some “human condition”. In other words, high concepts are brought into the light and then immediately silenced when the reader wants just a little more to achieve a more “complete” experience.

By the end of the story, Galchen writes away any need to give a strong ending by being haunted by the “predestination paradox”, where the main character’s avoidance of Jacob is simply part of her destiny. Possibly to a logician, this would be a satisfactory ending: just through theoretical concepts, one could concoct a love story or a story about friendship. However, given how undeveloped the protagonist’s relationship with Ilan and Jacob were, along with an ending paragraph that looks as if it could barely end the first act, Galchen’s detailed explanation of these paradoxes look more like cop-outs rather than profundity. Even if purposeful, other authors and artists have explored anti-romance and logic-laced stories in much more emotional and surprising ways.

Giving too much proportion to the details of the science fiction concepts referenced in “Unlikeness” and concluding without exploring these concepts mar an intricately crafted beginning to three characters that were surprisingly more compelling than the narrative they inhabit. Galchen’s short story seems to live in a sci-fi world where stories can effectively conclude with pessimistic conceptual handwaving.

Editing Analysis: Steven Millhauser’s “A Precursor of the Cinema”

One of Browne and King’s most critical pieces of advice for characteriziation and exposition is to cut narrative summary, otherwise known as the “telling” in the first chapter, and expand the “showing” of a protagonist’s psyche and attributes through actions. However, as with the previous analysis, these rules are made to modified and subverted in order to stimulate the reader’s interest.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

One of Browne and King’s most critical pieces of advice for characteriziation and exposition is to cut narrative summary, otherwise known as the “telling” in the first chapter, and expand the “showing” of a protagonist’s psyche and attributes through actions. However, as with the previous analysis, these rules are made to modified and subverted in order to stimulate the reader’s interest.

Millhauser’s short story reveals that exploring a character’s opaque personality through almost exclusively narrative summary can bring about a wholly new way to characterize. In the case of protagonist Harlan Crane, we are able to glimpse his inner turmoil through his intricately detailed works and external interpretations developed by supporting characters and fictional newspaper publications alike. In a sense, we never truly get to understand Crane personally, but we expand what he might be like through the stories of others.

Viewers reported that, as they examined the dark painting, in the twilit niche, the prisoner stirred and looked about …. One journalist, who returned to observe the painting three days in succession, reported that the “escape” took place three or four times a day ….

Here we find that Millhauser abstains from describing a painting by Crane through a direct third-person omniscient perspective, but instead through the summary of “first-hand” sources. While in base terms this would be “telling” about the painting rather than “showing”, this painting could otherwise be interpreted as an indirect description of the painter’s own psyche or circumstances during its creation, and also “showing” that this man was never transparent enough for the author himself to describe directly.

Browne and King advise that one should avoid summing up characters in order to keep them unlimited in their characterization and development. Millhauser plays with this idea by hiding Crane’s inner thoughts from the reader and instead going into the intricate details of these paintings and subsequently making conclusions through audience and critic evaluations. One could interpret this narrative approach as a statement about critics “boxing in” creative works into its technical components or reductive themes. Whereas the author has summed up the paintings, Crane himself continues to be the real mystery.

Very little dialog is used throughout the story, and typically only occurred later when W. C. Curtis took up the responsibility to expound on his interactions with Crane. But even during dialog, a “scene” was not created to isolate from the usual narrative summary. This analysis finds that limiting the dialog maintains the stylistic choice to blend “telling” and “showing” together in order to include all elements of the story at symbolic character exposition.

In conclusion, the peculiar characterization of Harlan Crane can be derived from a type of fiction that is more in love with the aesthetics of its world than the protagonist. The detail in which Millhauser goes into the paintings of Crane and the reactions of the public are more nuanced and developed than that of any singular character. Perhaps the real “psyche” that was being explored in “A Precursor of the Cinema” was the late-19th century or a time period before huge media conglomerates, where legends were born out of word of mouth and titillating rumors.

Details about Millhauser’s short story here.

Editing Analysis: George Saunders’ “Escape from Spiderhead”

Like some postmodern fiction writers, George Saunders is not only interested in “showing” and “telling” emotion through the story’s narration, dialogue and action, but also through the specific placement of words and phrases on the book’s pages. Terse sentences are isolated, creating a clinical or urgent atmosphere within the sparse settings of “Spiderhead”.

Using advice from Renni Browne and Dave King’s “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers”, I explore the usage – and subversion – of typical editing techniques designed to produce more effective writing and easier-to-read prose.

Like some postmodern fiction writers, George Saunders is not only interested in “showing” and “telling” emotion through the story’s narration, dialogue and action, but also through the specific placement of words and phrases on the book’s pages. Terse sentences are isolated, creating a clinical or urgent atmosphere within the sparse settings of “Spiderhead”. For example:

Mike gave. That is, there on his back, scalp bleeding, he gave, by shooting me a certain look, like, Dude, come on, we’re not all that serious about this, are we?

We were.

I was.

I don’t even know why I did it.

Postmodern fiction has become multidisciplinary in its writing structures as they attempt to convey emotion and meaning through metatextual mediums, in this case with word isolation and emphasis on whitespace akin to a minimalist scene in an experimental movie or the brief exercises of a poet.

Whereas Browne and King worry about excessive use of emotional descriptors for dialogue and narration, Saunders has focused on utilizing speech-like inner monologue as an “excuse” to overuse emotional descriptors. The protagonist Jeff is loose in his thinking, signified by the mix of run-on sentences and two-word utterances, and will quickly describe his emotions in an elementary fashion:

Reading that made me feel a little funny that we’d fucked and I’d loved her.

But I still didn’t want to kill her.

That is not to say that Saunders completely shirked any responsibility to the most traditional approach to “show and tell.” A great piece of advice from Browne and King is that varying writing styles between narration (in this case, Jeff’s inner monologue) and “scenes” (mostly the dialogue Jeff has with other characters), the author produces a varied set of textures every couple of pages. Bursts of dialogue and bursts of narration occur, with small transitions in between as expository scenes describing the drugs and the scientists’ actions are mixed with small utterances by various characters.

Saunders tends to be more straightforward in postmodern writing style compared to the likes of David Foster Wallace, but it still occasionally denies Browne and King’s commonly expressed guidelines for maintaining transparency between the reader and the story. As per their advice:

One of the easiest ways to look like an amateur is to use mechanics that direct attention to themselves and away from the story. You want your reader to be so wrapped up in your world that they’re not even aware that you, the writer, exist.

However, subtle and overt attributes of “Spiderhead” tend to bring attention to both the writer and the page itself. Aside from the word isolation mentioned above, the “corporately”-named drugs mentioned throughout the story are always marked with the iconic United States trademark symbol, which helps to both expand the universe of the story but also call attention to Saunders’ rhetoric regarding pharmaceutical drugs and the pervasion of corporate terminology in all aspects of life, including the metatext.

In summary, we find that George Saunders is using the ideals of “show and tell” in ways that differ from the more limited definitions of Browne and King’s guidelines. The “telling”, or narration is loose and speech-like. The “showing” oscillates between terse dialogue scenes and metatextual quirks. This further expands the options that a writer can utilize to vary the texture of their stories.

Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit to Brooklyn” Part One (Excerpted Reviews)

At the half-way mark and when fully finished, I want to make a few remarks on books I have been reading. When around fifty percent through, I want to tap into the interpretations and reviews of those before me, so I can see if my personal views are reflected within prior writings. When finished with the book I will make some brief statements on my thoughts and feelings about these books. The first book I will be working with in this series is the 1964 postmodern classic _[Last Exit to Brooklyn]_.

Last Exit to Brooklyn Book Cover
Last Exit to Brooklyn Book Cover

At the half-way mark and when fully finished, I want to make a few remarks on books I have been reading. When around fifty percent through, I want to tap into the interpretations and reviews of those before me, so I can see if my personal views are reflected within prior writings. When finished with the book I will make some brief statements on my thoughts and feelings about these books. The first book I will be working with in this series is the 1964 postmodern classic Last Exit to Brooklyn.

These days there are many collections of short stories that seek to create a hybrid of the novel and the story collection by focusing on a single character or location, or by trimming the narrative arc associated with novels through cutting up an underlying narrative into what might be called story-bits. Perhaps the earliest models of such a book would be Hamlin Garland’s Main-Traveled Roads or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, but I have to say I would now judge Last Exit to Brooklyn to be the best example of this hybrid form I have read.

Dan Green for Quarterly Conversation

Sordid surroundings, no apostrophes, the thoughts of inferior people as imagined by their superior creator, odd paragraphing, no joy, sudden spates of capital letters, low diction and ugly rhythms, an oppressive sense of claustrophobia—all present and functioning vigorously.

George P. Elliott for Commentary Magazine

The novel’s famously idiosyncratic prose – a crudely punctuated, phonetic vernacular – is cut through with a surprising intermittent lyricism, making it clear that Selby has some sympathy for his characters.

Charlotte Newman for The Guardian

They are not even physically described in much detail — they are more like ghosts and shadows. It is their sin and immorality, rather than their corporeal beings, that seem to pervade the claustrophobic atmosphere, page after page after page.

Palash Ghosh for IB Times

When people are beaten up, they are not only kicked to a foaming, puking, bloody pulp, but the only reaction in evidence is someone’s gloating satisfaction.

Robert M. Adams for New York Books Review

But surprisingly, it feels life-affirming, as though that thing that makes them try is some basic life force that cannot be killed no matter how depraved an environment it lives in — the will to survive.

Mishna Wolff for NPR

Sex – interchangeable with violence, serves for ego-gratification. A process of catharsis. A route to asserting superiority on the most basic animal level.

Andrew Darlington for Eight Miles Higher

One feels in reading Last Exit to Brooklyn that Selby has artfully fitted style to character and situation, the unpretentious language being necessary for depicting the almost primal conditions in which the characters live. Eschewing conventional paragraphing, quoted dialogue, and most forms of punctuation, Selby’s style in Last Exit at its austere best even rises to the level of a kind of derelict poetry.

Dan Green for Quarterly Conversation

Last Exit To Brooklyn Notes
Last Exit To Brooklyn Notes