28 November 2010

Talk About the Passion

The agent rejections I've gotten for my unpublished novel EULOGY (the submissions that made it past the junior-assistant slush pile readers and received non-form responses from agents who actually bothered to comment) all seem to have some form of this statement: "I'm just not passionate enough about it." What does that even mean?

I can think of three ways to speak about passion. We can speak about the Passion of the Christ, something Mel Gibson and the German villagers at Oberammergau have famously attempted to do, a notion that entails passive suffering and willing death. We can speak of passions as including such things as bodice-ripping sex and breast-heaving emotion and even fandom of various stripes, among others, a notion that encompasses strong, transitory feelings. Or we can speak of, say, one's life work or interests or enthusiasms—such as 'she has a passion for science' or 'accounting is his passion' or 'his passion for model railroading kept him active late into his dotage.'

My feeling is that these literary gatekeepers mean something closer to the second of these three senses. A recent post by BlckDgRd points to Michiko Kakutani's top 10 reads of 2011 which, in a way, confirms this intuition. Ms. Kakutani's blurbage for the books she has chosen contains the following tells: "Mr. Richards has magically translated the fierce emotion of his guitar playing to the page;" "Saul Bellow was a gifted and emotionally voluble letter writer...a seeker and searcher, vacillating between the emotional poles of exuberance and depression;" "This super-sad, super-funny novel...write movingly about love and heartbreak;" "The author’s most deeply felt novel yet;" "tough guy known for his tender love songs...who turned his own heartache over Ava Gardner into classic torch songs;" "Mr. Roubini’s pessimistic forecasts once earned him the sobriquet Dr. Doom;" "an illuminating book that is as provocative as it is impassioned." The writers, she senses, are passionate beings, and their writing bodies forth their emotions. Somehow.

I've written previously about Kakutani's disdain for modernism and her affection for Romanticism with respect to Tom McCarthy's C and shown her affinity in this regard with the average sort of reviewer on Amazon.com. These readers want to feel something when they read novels, and they want to know that the writers they read have the sort of passion that will allow them to feel sympathy. Writers can signal this by the type of prose (flowery, purple, figurative, poetic) they use and the extent to which they document the 'inner lives' of their characters.

Regular readers will understand my allergy to affective language—as a tool for political and/or emotional manipulation of crowds. If not, click the term "Enthymemes" in the Labels column on the right.

One of my ongoing series here, Fear of Metaphor, is an ongoing attempt to take a look at, inter alia, philosophical aspects of rhetoric as a form of emotive or affective language perhaps as a way of training myself to understand the tastes, nay the demands, of the readers on that broad continuum that includes Kakutani, the literary agents my manuscript keeps bumping into, and Amazon.com reviewers.


Randal Graves said...

I dig "Romanticism" and "emotion" but the problem always comes, when discussing literary works, is that such terms (especially the latter, obviously) shouldn't automatically imply a particular reading such as the one you outlined here and in other posts.

A work can be emotional and gripping without the characters being maudlin or heroic or sympathetic (in the current and older usages of the term).

Write two manuscripts, one they'll dig and the real one, and once you sign the contract, give 'em the latter. Heh.

Jim H. said...

"A work can be emotional and gripping without the characters being maudlin or heroic or sympathetic..." Yes. Without question. I thought the 'Quartet for the End of Time' video a few posts back conveyed a remarkably gripping emotion. But, when an agent or Kakutani or amazon.com reads a few pages of a novel and determines they aren't passionate about it, it signals a cheaper form of feeling. Something more immediate and, my point, transitory.

Now, the 2 mss. proposal: hmm. Nobody so busy will be bothered to read it. You think? hmmm. hmmmm. hmmmm. Diabolical.

Randal Graves said...

Re: transitory. Absolutely. Everything these days is marketed as surface, glitter, and it seems that that's seeping into other areas. To use a (poor) musical analogy, catchy hooks in lieu of complex prog.

We've got a mini-Cleveland Public Library branch here at the college library I work at, and they ship us magazines and the newest novels. *Everything* is 99.9% dialogue, 5-page chapters, easily digestible bits and plots.