John "The Gneech" Robey (the_gneech) wrote,
John "The Gneech" Robey

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Write What, You Know?

I'm almost exactly half-way through Wake Up, Sir! and it's starting to become something of a chore. The persiflage is getting less and less airy the further the book gets into what is for lack of a better term the plot. By skimming ahead a bit I can see that there is some kind of thing about some stolen slippers, but that hasn't actually happened yet. The problem is, the airy persiflage is what I was reading the book for ... I find myself wishing I could just get all the funny quips and clever turns of phrase in a digest form, and dispense with having to bother with the story.

This is an important difference between the real Wodehouse and this ersatz one; for all the popular falderal about how nothing much actually happens in a Wodehouse story, that just isn't true. The plot is usually well underway by the end of the second paragraph! It's just that the stakes are not melodramatic. Bertie must accomplish Task A, or suffer the wrath of Relative B, by means of Jeeves' legerdemain C. Right off the bat in a Wodehouse story, you know what A and B are, and the dramatic tension comes from the revelation of C.

Contrasted to this surprisingly tight (if well-disguised) formula, Wake Up, Sir! is more of a picaresque, with the If-Woody-Allen-Was-Wooster character as Don Quixote, and Jeeves as Sancho Panza. (Which reminds me, I read something of a potential spoiler in the Amazon reviews when I first picked up this book, but I'm still looking for evidence of it in the text. It seems like a bit of a stretch to me, but then so was the solution to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, so we'll see.)

Apparently, this book is something of an indirect followup to one of Ames's earlier novels, The Extra Man, and in some ways that feels like part of the problem. Ames seems to be (although it could all be a front) a very autobiographical writer. The Third Man was a thinly-disguised character study of a person Ames used to know; Wake Up, Sir! is a thinly-disguised study of Ames's thoughts and experiences while writing The Third Man. I've heard of writing what you know, but come on.

I've always had a concern about that phrase, "write what you know," which is this: if you're going to write what you know, then it behooves you to know something worth writing about. Do you suppose this is the problem with so much literary fiction? The authors don't know much except their self-indulgence, so that's what they write about?

For myself, I don't write what I know; I write about stuff I make up. I've never met a supermodel in my life and I imagine that if any of them read The Suburban Jungle they'd wonder what planet I was from. I do know what it's like to aspire, though, and I have a certain faded insight into show business from my abortive career in theater ... so maybe I'm actually writing what I can project.

Whatever the heck that might mean!

-The Gneech
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