Monday, March 17, 2008

Fiction v. Poetry

I sent off sample chapters of not one but two novels I've finally completed. I'd sent a rare double-query to an agent, and the agency wants to have a look at both books, which are quite different from each other. All prayers, good thoughts, and karmic vibrations are welcome, of course.

For me, fiction is hard labor. There's just no two ways around it, as my mother used to say. Poetry is work, certainly, but I feel as if I have some control; even if a poem is turning out badly, I can recognize as much and quickly start again or revise or put the poem on hiatus. With fiction, I can write chapters and chapters, drafts and drafts, and still not know quite what I have. I'm much more comfortable with nonfiction prose--reviews, essays, textbooks, journalism, scholarship.

I've met quite a few writers whom I regard as "pure" fiction-writers; they really seem to know their way around fictional narrative writing. Many of them look at poetry and shake their heads; they don't even attempt it. One fiction-writer I know flatly says, "I don't know anything about poetry."

Quite a few poets are once-only novelists: Karl Shapiro published one novel, Edsel (great title); James Dickey published one (yes, that famous one on which they based a Burt Reynolds movie: "Aintree?! You can't get there from here, boy!"); and Richard Hugo published one--a mystery novel called Death and the Good Life (great title). I think Rita Dove has published only one novel.

At the moment, the most prolific double-genre writer that comes to mind is Robert Penn Warren (All the King's Men, World Enough and Time, much poetry). I think Stephen Dobyns started as a poet and became a rather prolific mystery-writer. The fiction-machine, Joyce Carol Oates, writes plays, but I don't think she writes poetry. John Updike writes relatively light poetry. I remember reading his volume, Midpoint, about 30 years ago--or more.

I've published just one novel so far--a mystery novel that was, I found out later, a "police procedural"--because its detective is a sheriff. These other two novels have taken forever and a day to finish. Two long, strange writing-and-revision roads. Maybe they'll get published; maybe not. But it was good to get a yes to a query and fun to send them off--with the SASE, in which I expect to see them again, rejected but still my pals.


Karen J. Weyant said...

Good luck with your novels -- I know that I would never have the patience to write a novel. I do dream, however, of writing a work of creative nonfiction -- memoir or nature writing of some sort.

Maybe as I get older, I will grow into a longer attention span!

Molly Tamarkin said...

Congratulations on your novels!

I agree with your assessment of the "double genre-ists." I think Philip Larkin might have drafted a lousy novel or two. Eliot had some plays. Donald Justice attempted the short story. cummings had "The Enormous Room." In addition to Updike, I think Margaret Atwood has been successful in both genres but I can't recall too many others--Louise Erdrich maybe?

Regardless, congratulations!

Hans Ostrom said...

Hello Molly: Thanks for your comment. I had overlooked Atwood and Erdrich: great examples of double-genre writers, and Atwood's done some nice editing, too. Are you a blogger?