The bad-lyrical style is a fungus that lies mouldering at the back of literature’s refrigerator

I just procrastinated for two hours, then spent forty-five minutes writing, and (this seems impossible, but it’s true) wrote 2,400 words. I’m on what feels like the fifth major rewrite of my novel. At least in this one I’m not rewriting the entire thing from scratch, but in the end probably around 70% of the worlds will end up being new. As with the best rewrites, this new version is much simpler and much easier to describe. Instead of being about a bunch of complicated stuff, the book now focuses on an extremely simple conflict: will my main character give up her rent-controlled one-bedroom in order to live with her new best friend?

That’s it. There’s very little plot other than that. They get together, they become friends, they concoct this plot to live together, even as my main character gets increasingly nervous about giving up something very valuable—her apartment is thousands of dollars below market—to invest in a friendship that might evaporate at any moment (her friend has some flaky tendencies and, early in the friendship, blows her off several times, leading to an interregnum of several months before they reconnect).

Obviously the meat of the story is in the details. My main character is a trans woman, she’s spent so long idealizing female friendship, and now she feels like this thing is finally within reach, and yet at the same time, she’s suspicious of both it and of herself. Something within her says that these desires of hers aren’t quite right, aren’t quite normal. It’s a very small-scale, delicate book.

I am very in love with the plot, the characters, the set-up, and the language. I have a strong belief that this revision will be, if not the last, then certainly amongst the last revisions that this book will undergo. And I am making excellent progress on it. I think the book will end up being about 65,000 words in length, and I’m more than halfway through this revision.

It’s not such a mean feat to rewrite a single book four times in one year! I mean that’s a lot of work! And during this same time I’ve written eight or nine short stories and done substantial work on my second YA novel. So I’ve been working! But sometimes it does occur to me that if I can do 2,400 words in 45 minutes, then I could probably go ahead and knock out another ten thousand words before the day is over.

I don’t know. The other day a friend and I spent a solid two or three hours texting back and forth, making fun of what we called “the bad-lyrical” style of novel. (In case you’re wondering, there are three main types of mediocre literary novel: the bad-lyrical; the bland-realist; and the try-hard postmodernist), but the most offensive of these, to me, is the bad lyrical. This is a novel where the prose is simply trying WAY too hard to be lyrical. At worst, you get misuse of words, meaningless metaphors, and pointless and random mid-sentence elevation in diction. At best, the writing is fine on the surface, but it’s so thoroughly enslaved to a sing-song rhythm that it tends to numb the mind.

The bad lyrical is in ascendance right now. I have no idea why. Usually when I read a bad lyrical novel I can’t even finish the first page.

What’s interesting is that bad-lyrical novelists tend to talk a lot about the purity of the line and about how much time they spend slaving away at each of their sentences. They generate a mythos around the text itself. A bad lyrical novelist would NEVER admit to writing 2,400 words in 45 minutes. A bad lyrical novelist spends eight hours slaving away at a paragraph, and perhaps writes each sentence down twenty or thirty times, often by hand or maybe composing them on index cards like Nabokov (a good lyrical novelist), before moving on to the next one.

I don’t understand it. To me, the work of the bad lyrical novelist is profoundly imitative. They aren’t actually in thrall to the logic of their own sentences; they’re merely reaching, more or less at random, into a bag of tricks and going “A-ha!” It’s really not very difficult to do. Anyone can do it without much effort. To demonstrate the truth of this assertion, I spent two hours yesterday composing the first scene of a bad lyrical novel about Silicon Valley (example below).

I thought once these software developers with their three-day beards and hollow eyes were heroes, the stuff of legends. They were the children who sat up late at night building models and airplanes, rewiring the electricity within their toys, taking all apart and putting together. I had almost been one of them, but my adventures with technology were solely abortive and failed. I took a screwdriver and took apart my playstation, assembled the ribbons and cards next to each other all across a table, but when the time came to add the mod-chip that would overclock my device and set me along the road to true hackerdom, I miserably failed, snapped the ribbon, was lost behind the thicket of my own tears, until I was found in my basement three hours later, fingers bleeding from attempted surgery, and was solidly beaten for my trouble. Only when it came to words were my failures tolerated, and only then because I kept them secret for long years, until they’d rotted and been plowed back into the fertile soil of my soul, only to grow anew, twisted and misshapen, but strong in their mutant glory, and oh-so-solidly mine and mine alone.

That’s what I spent two hours doing yesterday (I have about 1500 words of this novel)! I had this whole plan to write out an entire bad lyrical novel and try to sell it! And after it received critical acclaim, I’d tear my own novel to bits and be like THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES!!!

Writing in the bad lyrical style was very freeing. It required no effort. Because I was composing without any regard to my own interests, I could just go on and on and on and on. I probably could’ve sat at the keyboard for another seven days and finished the entire forty thousand word novel (I had an entire plot mapped out and everything, it was going to be about a beautiful ingenue who tires of trying to make it as a poet and becoms a computer programmer, then has an affair with a senior designer at her company—an older man who flatters her intellect—before being ripped off and defrauded by him. In the final lines, she would of course return to her true passion: the written word.)

I don’t pretend to be a lyrical writer. Feel free to criticize my sentences as much as you want, but at least I’m not a BAD lyrical writer, and at this point in history that makes me a better writer than most. Anyway, to make the long story short, it does make me feel better about the whole 2400 words in 45 minutes thing. I mean if it takes hours to compose terrible sentences, then maybe it should take only minutes to compose decent ones.

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