Why am I intoxicated today by a 17-page alphabetized list titled “Words That Should Not Be Used in Fiction, a Selection” (and is exactly what it sounds like)?
Label, labia, labile, labored, laconic, lair, lambent, lame, language, lapel, lapels, largely, largess, lash, lashed, latter, laud…
Oh, stop nodding off. Could it be that the list is true, that it’s hard to use lapels without resorting to grabbing by and boutonnieres and other clichés (“resorting to cliché” being itself unforgiveable; forgive me), that lambent works too hard, that lashes are predictably long and dark unless you sear them off in an explosion?
These 17 pages open a book that may remain fantastically obscure—Words, by Andy Devine—and not just because the cover has about as much visual presence as a cloud.
Devine is to writer Michael Kimball what de Selby was to Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman: an invented genius, exceedingly bizarre. (My mentor, Jim Krusoe, said of The Third Policeman: “This book is so good it’ll make you want to pee in your pants,” a line I stole for a story. And he was right.) Devine, a “conceptual fictional writer” and alphabetical essayist, writes novels and stories, then implodes them into lists of words and punctuation marks. Rigorous about revision, he whittles a couple down to their titles. His life’s work is the subject of much study. (Surprised?) Accordingly, Kimball, as editor, adds to this collection a scholarly afterword, quoting from rare Devine interviews; and I am amazed to find myself joyful over the whole thing.
Here is a snatch of commentary on two lists that launch the book, the second, of course, being “Words That Should Be Used In Fiction, a Selection.”
Of course, these were not essays in a traditional sense. They were both simply lists of words, but it was clear that the lists of words collected into an argument that was an implicit critique of fiction. Devine confirms this in the Maday interview (2009): “I’m talking about these words in relation to fiction. Nonfiction is another matter.”
This feels like getting my brain rubbed right through the dura mater.
Okay, so this is really not you. You are not vastly amused by Devine’s theory that “word choice was one of the intial points of failure for so much fiction and that by avoiding certain words that failure could be avoided, or at least delayed.”
May I then recommend nine pages in the middle titled “A Grammar For Fiction Writers,” which is not a grammar at all; it is the author speaking truth to writers, with periodic rants about punctuation. It’s in list form, of course. The first line got me out of the apartment this morning to do my pages in a coffee shop, and may become one of my mantras, which is more than worth the $8 cost of the book.
Herewith, a Selection.
Fiction writers are only fiction writers when they are writing fiction.
Fiction must be rendered. Revision creates art.
Every work of fiction can be improved.
It is important for the fiction writer to have a sense of purpose even if that sense of purpose cannot save the fiction writer.
The reader should never know what the next sentence is going to be.
And just to keep you off balance:
Words with prepositions in them—downstairs, downtown, inside, outside, upstairs—are good words. Write fiction about people going inside, outside, upstairs, etc.
I don’t really get that, I don’t even agree with it, but the book made me bizarrely happy. Revision creates art—oh yes. Back to work.