Obsolete data storage technology delayed the transmission, but on 6 January Jim emailed me a readable copy of Scott’s novel. I’d expected to receive a screenplay, but evidently Scott later rewrote and expanded it into the manuscript that Jim sent me.
On 11 January I emailed back to Jim some observations about the first half of the novel. In that communiqué I acknowledged mixed feelings about reading with a critical eye a text written by an old friend whose life trajectory paralleled my own, in midlife peeling off from the corporate career path in order to write fictions, though I didn’t know it at the time. Did I regard Scott as forerunner, as colleague, as competitor? Scott had experienced some success as a writer, winning a fellowship and a screenwriting award. In 1997 his prizewinning screenplay was optioned by DreamWorks, though it was never made into a film. The novel Jim sent me is copyrighted 2006 — 9 years after the screenplay, a year before Scott killed himself. I anticipated excellence, the work of a tragic undiscovered genius, a solid track record embellished by romanticized caricature. I also knew that the story was largely autobiographical, about a kid who grew up in the same town, and on the same street, as I did, so I anticipated finding the book personally captivating.
Am I disappointed or pleased to find my expectations unmet in the first half of the manuscript? I don’t think it’s just a matter of personal taste; in my email to Jim I elaborated on a number of aspects in the text that in my view don’t pass muster. Writing style, character development, plot, narrative voice — all come under critique. To be sure there are aspects of the novel that I like, that I deem very good. Also, as the text moves across its midpoint I detect marked improvements — my sense is that the text has reached a turning point, segueing into the part of the story that had already been carefully honed in its prior life as a screenplay. So my expectations are on the upswing again.
Is the novel unredeemable? Not at all. A lot of things need work, but they could be fixed or chopped. In my email to Jim evaluating the first half of the novel I offered a caveat, or perhaps a wish unfulfilled:
As I write these remarks I picture myself telling them to Scott, constructive criticism and all that, mostly because my sense is that I’d rather hear something negative than to hear nothing at all, to know that the critic actually read what I’d written, taken it seriously, engaged me in dialogue about it.
Jim, a history professor at a large university in the Northeast, replied in part:
You are a well practiced and insightful reviewer, the art of the reader/reviewer rather than the writer… I much enjoyed your read of the mss. Scott would have loved your insights.
To which I responded, also in part:
One of the things I like about academic texts is that by and large the writers and the readers are the same people, part of the same intellectual ecosystem. Clearly peer review isn’t foolproof, but there’s a shared commitment to excellence, to advancing the field. Higher education builds on a foundation of reading and critiquing others’ work, so one’s set of review skills gets honed in conjunction with learning to do one’s own creative work. And no doubt it helps one’s own writing of academic texts to have read others closely and with a critical eye. It seems harder to pull that off in fiction, music, painting, etc. where there’s such a sharp structural divide between “artist” and audience, performer and reviewer, producer and consumer…