I disavow any essential connection between my life and whatever I write. I think it’s a morbid and inappropriate area of concern, though natural enough—a lot of morbid concerns are natural. But the work, the words on the paper, must stand apart from our living presences; we sit down at the desk and become nothing but the excuse for these husks we cast off.
Genre might certainly increase some of your narrative freedoms, but it also diminishes others. That’s the nature of genre.
Novels exist in the reader’s mind. It is a shared act of creation, and each novel is at least a little different according to the reader. How much of the novel belongs to the writer and how much to the reader? This varies depending on the individuals involved. Some of us are high custody authors who insist on specific interpretations of our narratives, and some are low custody authors who prefer to leave much of the creative work up to the reader. Chekhov was a very low custody writer and Tolstoy (especially in the late stories) was a high custody writer. James Salter is a low custody novelist who demands that readers engage and interpret the actions of his characters. Richard Yates in Revolutionary Road displays the virtues of a high custody writer, revealing characters’ desires and motivations down to the smallest detail. Salter and Yates are both great writers, but Salter wishes for the reader to fully share in the creative act, while Yates is working to keep the reader from slipping away from his vision, to force the reader into the self-indictment he feels is necessary. The danger the low custody author faces is reader bewilderment (recall the first time you ever read Chekhov), while the high custody author risks over-controlling a narrative to the point that the reader feels excluded or even redundant.
All of the clichés that are heaped upon Midwesterners—that we’re simple, quiet, unassuming, honest, generally good-natured, and so on—help create tension when a writer engages them in fiction, because a lot of readers (and many editors) on the coasts don’t expect those of us in ‘the flyover’ to have rich inner lives.
I think writers can use that mindset to our advantage as we unleash increasingly complex books that get after all manner of truth, not just about the Midwest, but about America, the world, the nature of humankind. Some of the most brutal books of the past few years have come from the Midwest. I’m thinking of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s American Salvage, Donald Ray Pollock’s Knockemstiff, and Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, for starters. But some of the funniest books take place here, too. We can laugh at ourselves more effectively than people from either coast.
Verso & Recto
"Running heads" appear at the top of book pages that aren’t in the front matter or back matter. Usually the author’s name on the left side (verso), and the book’s title on the right (recto). Obviously, there are some middle pages, too, that shouldn’t have a running head, such as the first page of a chapter. But the majority of pages should have them.
Or so I thought.
I’m doing layout work now for the first Lacewing Books title, so I pulled a bunch of YA novels from the shelf to study their guts, as one does. And what I learned surprised me—about half of the YA books I sampled did not use running heads at all.
Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak? No running heads. Ditto for Sara Zarr’s How to Save a Life, Matthew Quick’s Sorta Like a Rock Star, and Barbara Shoup’s Everything You Want.
John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars does have running heads, as does Jesse Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl—the coolest running heads ever, perhaps. (Sorry for the fuzzy photo.)
At first, I wondered why. I hoped it wasn’t just laziness, or less care spent in the publication of books meant for younger audiences. I suppose running heads are, in some way, redundant. After all, the author’s name and and the book’s title already appear on the cover, the title page, and so on. But to me, books without running heads look partially finished. Incomplete. Less than professional.
It’s hard to imagine that publishers would give authors the option to not have them, although I suppose it’s certainly possible in YA books that take an interest in the visual presentation of text. (Personally, I want to chuck any novel that uses a sans serif font for its main text—and, worse, when different fonts are used to indicate who is speaking. You don’t see this kind of font-foolery in most novels for adults.)
But I wanted to be sure, so I sampled some books for adults. I’d say about 25% of the adult books I examined either didn’t have running heads, or else did something a little wacky with them. In one Mavis Gallant collection, her name never appears in the running head, but the title of each story does—which seems useful. Some older story collections use the book’s title on the left and the story’s title on the right.
Novels published through Lacewing Books will have running heads. No question. But I’m intrigued by how varied this seemingly concrete design rule really is.