Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Maxwell Perkins and his "test"

I realized in looking over some old posts that I've frequently referred to "the Maxwell Perkins test" on here, without fully explaining what I mean, or where the phrase came from.

When I was about 16, the cover of "The Great Gatsby" jumped out at me at Barnes and Noble. This version had the original, iconic cover, with the impressionistic carnival lights and the woman's face superimposed in the sky. It captured my imagination immediately. I simply had to read this book that had the cover with its mixed images of longing and celebration.

The version I got was a Scribner classic that drew on the original manuscript and the surviving proofs, and claims to restore a number of errors that arose from a rushed printing schedule of the first editions, and multiplied over the years through careless reprintings. My version came out in 1991 and has a foreword and a note on the text by Matthew Bruccoli of the University of South Carolina, an afterword by the publisher, Charles Scribner III, a map, several pages of explanatory notes, suggestions for further reading, and a biographical note on F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The publisher's afterword was what stuck with me the most, for it concerned the process of writing and editing the book. It was a revelation to me to learn that one of the great luminaries of American literature went through the same process of rewrites and criticism that my own short stories as a high school student were subject to. Charles Scribner quoted at length from a letter that Maxwell Perkins sent to F. Scott Fitzgerald on the book. It's fascinating to see his criticisms now that the book is a bona fide classic. The original letter took up three pages in the book, but I'll quote the part from which my "Maxwell Perkins test", my gold standard for character development, derives:

I could go on praising the book and speculating on its various elements, and meanings, but points of criticism are more important now...I have only two actual criticisms:
One is that among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital -- I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him -- Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus on him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery...and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken.

So simple, yet there's the heart of good character development, to me: would you know the character if you met him or her on the street, and would you have a clear sense of how to react to him or her? Would you hesitate to greet Walter Freeman while you weigh how interesting your talk with im would be, against how much energy you have for it today? Would you grit your teeth as Leah from the Poisonwood Bible approached, ready to hear all her opinions on politics and world economics? Would you give Adah a warm hello, knowing she probably won't answer you back, or would you steel yourself as Rachel descends on you like a hurricane, full of energy, drama and complaints, and smelling of hairspray and expensive perfume?

Of course, not every character needs that type of dimension. But I maintain it's a good thing if your leads have them. I don't know how much Fitzgerald took that particular criticism to heart. I'm inclined to think, much less than I did, for my impression of Gatsby was similar to Perkins'. The letter also goes to show that just because someone says they dislike something about your writing doesn't mean they dislike it as a whole. Perkins also went on to say:

The general brilliant quality of the book makes me ashamed to make even these criticisms. The amount of meaning you get into a sentence, the dimensions and intensity of the impression you make a paragraph carry, are most extraordinary. The manuscript is full of phrases which make a scene blaze with life. If one enjoyed a rapid railroad journey I would compare the number and vividness your living words suggest, to the living scenes disclosed in that way. It seems in reading a much shorter book than it is, but it carries the mind through a series of experiences that one would think would require a book of three times its length.

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