Writing

My Review of 'Insurrecto' in the NYT

I was thrilled to be asked by my old employer, the New York Times Book Review, to review the latest novel by Gina Apostol, Insurrecto. My dad’s side of the family hails from the Philippines, and many of Apostol’s preoccupations—about politics and colonialism, language and voice, truth in narrative, and split (or doubled) identities—are also my own.

For craft-minded readers: Apostol does some crazy-brilliant things with structure, voice, and point of view, all of which she touches on in this interview she gave to the Los Angeles Review of Books, which came out the day after my review was published. A snippet:

To read the novel, you have to locate the gaze — which can shift without much warning. It seems to be the soldier’s voice at first, for instance, then it’s really the gaze of the socialite photographer upon him, but actually there is that hint of everything being seen really through the eye of some script-maker, et cetera, et cetera.

My constraint was that I knew every gaze was mediated, usually by an actual piece of media. But I knew my reader would not be fully aware. It was fun to write! That was part of the novel’s structure — a kind of game with free indirect discourse (a technical matter I was working on), to which I added the destabilizing spin of moviemaking.

In the interview she also comments interestingly (and movingly) on humor and grief, the comedy in tragedy, the relationship between historical and personal trauma. In the review I’d wanted to write more on the undercurrent of grief running through Insurrecto, but I ran out of space. So I was glad to see Apostol expand on it here.

'I Hate Adverbs'

Cue the violins! In the latest issue of New York magazine, Christian Lorentzen offers a clever, thoroughly cranky rant on a matter of craft that bedevils many a writer. "I hate adverbs," he declares, and goes on to enumerate the reasons. Among them:

Anything an adverb does can almost always be done more elegantly by the adverbial deployment of the other parts of speech. Almost always more elegantly: in most cases with more elegance.

See what he's doing there? (Nudge nudge, wink wink.) Also:

An excess of adverbs in prose signals a general lack of vividness in verbs and adjectives. You might have to say someone ran swiftly or walked slowly, but you’d never have to qualify galloping or lumbering. The adverbs easiest to hate are the so-called sentence adverbs — also known as conjunctive adverbs. Writers who lean on the crutches of “moreover,” “accordingly,” “consequently,” and “likewise” are declaring a lack of confidence in the sequence of their own logic or a lack of faith in their readers’ ability to follow it. Deploying “indeed” is tantamount to saying, “I’ve just had a thought and, indeed, I’ve just had another.” Next time you come across the word “meanwhile,” ask yourself when else all this could have been happening. What is the adverbial phrase “of course” but a smug duo dropped in to congratulate writer and reader for already agreeing with each other. “Nevertheless,” “nonetheless,” and the atrocious “however” are symptoms of an anxiety over a proliferation of the word “but.” But you can never have too many helpings of “but,” and sound thinking will make hay of contradictions.

I give some version of this feedback to clients and writing students all the time. (We'll cover adverbs in the class I'm teaching in June-July, in fact.) Lorentzen rightly notes that adverbs cannot, should not, be banned from the language. Moderation is key. As is intention. In adverbs ... as in life?

In Which Something I Wrote Is Actually Read

A few years ago, I wrote a short piece on Joan Didion for Nieman Storyboard's "Why's This So Good?" series. I'm tickled to learn it made Storyboard's list of the five most-read WTSGs of all time. I'm also completely convinced this had very little to do with me, and almost everything to do with the fact that the words "Joan" and "Didion" were in the headline.