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Bennett Cerf & Eliding Ellipsis, dancing mistress of Time

I’ve been reading a novel of the life of Emily Dickinson by Patricia Sierra, who’s a lively member of The Indie Spot forum, always good for a giggle. I was reading with the Cerf Hypothesis in the back of my mind, to see if you can project an observed personality, and the social presumptions consequent on it, onto an unread book-length narrative, spot a good writer before you read her.

Sierra puts you in Emily’s world tres immédiatement (it sounds faster in stage French!). There’s no buggering around, no establishment, no setup. Emily is just there, fully realized, and you, the god’s eye viewer, full perving privileges, are inside her family with her, gliding effortlessly between the child and the adult, not even realizing until I was already writing this that the whole thing is a deathbed flashback. That’s a special skill not to lose track of time, in this Sierra/Dickinson case decades of it on the turn of a few sentences. It is not for nothing that John Braine, the only better advisor a young writer can have than me (unfortunately, he’s dead), advised aspirants not to attempt a time span longer than one year in their early novels. The hell with being rude about a lady’s age: Sierra either was a child genius of literature or she wasn’t hatched yesterday. Sierra gives a masterclass in grabbing the reader and waltzing him back and forth across the divides of time: I have this image of a gliding dancing-mistress of time called Eliding Ellipsis. Look it up. With a Merce Cunningham headkerchief to hold her hair from flying into her eyes. Freeze the image there.

I’ve known pimps on the dock at Alexandria who took a less firm grip on the sailor.

A writer as smoothly insidious as Sierra doesn’t gather dust on the shelf, something I suspected already from reading her on the forum; Sierra stands out among the indies. So I looked up Sierra. And right enough, there she is at the House that Bennett found, Random. How apt! Bennett Cerf, for those too young to remember, was the publisher and owner of a school for writers who was embarrassed when the pinkocommiefellowtraveller Unity Mitford betrayed his confidence that “We all know who can be a writer,” in one of the most notorious backstabbing articles in modern cultural history.

You only have to watch Sierra in action on a semi-social board, and you know who can be a writer. Maybe Cerf was right after all.

I’m no Dickinson expert but I have no difficulty believing that Sierra’s facts of the poet’s life are beyond reproach; Sierra was a research assistant to Richard Sewall when he was writing his definitive biography of Emily Dickinson. Sierra’s novel of Emily Dickinson’s life is a fine by-product of that collaboration.

Emily Dickinson: Beyond the Myth, a Novel by Patricia Sierra is a must-have book if you’re fascinated by Dickinson’s fine poems.

A quotation I can stand by

“Good novels are not written, they are rewritten. Great novels are diamonds mined from layered rewrites.” — André Jute/Writing a Thriller

This is the most quoted remark for writers on the net. It is so well known that

  • it has motivated a best-selling novel of authorial wish-fulfillment
  • it is now being attributed to everyone’s favorite writer — see Who else has stolen from me?
  • it has been ripped by Launchpoint for at least ten cashinquick books (they’re all mostly the same inside) for writers, which is quite a bit more than fair use.

I suppose I should be flattered. The words are  from my WRITING A THRILLER. They encapsulate the writer’s need to persevere to success, and a professional attitude and outlook, and the concept of writing not as a splurge of self-gratification but as a process aimed at communication with a defined audience.

One has to ask how Launchpoint defines its audience if the same material (including the quotation from me) serves for freelance journalists, autobiographers, novelists, those in search of their writing voice, non-fictionalists, short story writers, those planning a novel, and business writers.

I’ve heard of packaged books, and of one-size-fits-all clothes, but this is ridiculous!

Clearly, for some, the words no longer relate to the writer burning the midnight oil, sweating over every adjective and subsidiary clause. Instead the quotation has for them become a meaningless mantra.

It’s definitely a quotation I can stand by, but can Launchpoint and those authors who have appropriated my words, or permitted their fans to appropriate my words on their behalf, say the same?