Book Ideas Are Always Terrible
July 24, 2013 § Leave a comment
First post in two months since I’m only now settling down from traveling. I had one thought from seeing the movie Before Midnight with German subtitles. There’s a scene in that movie where the main male character, Jesse, is running an idea for his next book by friends. The idea is that people with different cognitive “disorders” would relate the same event, so that you have a common frame of reference for exploring different modes of experience. The movie before that in the trilogy, Before Sunset, also had a scene where Jesse describes the idea for his next book, that time to a bookstore audience at a reading he’s giving. That idea was to show a father looking back over his life in the span of a three-minute pop song, a sentimental stimulus, that his daughter is listening to and singing along to.
One, why would both movies include such similar scenes? Maybe it’s to showcase imagination and fancy and open-ended thoughts, which in the end comprise the texture of almost all of the three movies in the trilogy.
Two and more importantly, both ideas sounded pretty bad to me. They sound like passing trifles, the sort of idea I’d pick up for a half a moment in my head and put down just as quickly. They’re pretty lightweight — too light to support a book.
But then, all ideas sound terrible. If somebody told me they’d written a screenplay about a man who witnesses a murder outside his apartment while wheelchair-bound, I’d say it sounds hokey. And if they listened to me, there’d be no Rear Window. At best, an idea might inspire a safely tepid response, like if you pitched me a search engine that analyzes links instead of text — Google — which I wouldn’t oppose trying since, hey, it’s your time, not mine. And in his memoir, Dave Eggers recounts his relief on hearing a colleague’s terrible-sounding idea for a book.
This is why I think, and why I’ve written before, that artistry is indescribable as we commonly communicate. At least in my life, I can think of two or three occasions total when I’ve had even the chance to describe the nitty-gritty particulars of practice (not theory) that make a book good. But book reviews, cover letters, articles, and conversations operate at the level of the idea. And ideas are as good as gruel. Instead, since the voice and pulse of a work reveals itself in the space of a sentence, I recommend you pick one or two pages out of a book (from the middle if you like, it doesn’t have to be the beginning) and read briefly with an open mind. It’s tiring, like a few push-ups, but you only have to do a little bit at a time. Just imagine how much more helpful book reviews would be if they consisted solely of three randomly chosen paragraphs from the book.