Eli's Review of The Tom Drake Experience


I read your review in the WFG. First of all, you are a wonderful writer and if all the reviews sounded as intelligent and as thoughtful as yours I would gladly read them up.

What I want to say about your review is this. There is a dearth of "literary fiction" on the web. By literary, I mean fiction that takes an interest in language, in character, and as you mentioned, in concept.

About the painful execution of the work, I disagree. You will find my comments on nearly every page of it saying how "natural and flowing" the writing is. You may perceive a degree of arduousness in the prose because it is a self-conscious literary novel. However, let me say this: Tolstoy is arguably the greatest author who ever lived and same with Beethoven, the greatest composer.

I wonder if I can write a chapter of Lethe in Spain straight through and make only a couple corrections, like I have with my poems. In your review, you write, "This is when prose is no longer hot lightning from head to hand, but something decidedly more difficult and less inspired: ie, the careful task of forming whole words, perfect words, in the absence of creative heat."

I can relate to this, the creative heat part. I think of writers like D.H. Lawrence of whom it has been said never made a single revision. These writers embody the creative fire. And I compare my own experience of not thinking, just writing.


I can't speak for Eli, but I found his review of the "Tom Drake Experience" to be extremely fair and in-depth. While the author should be applauded for taking a concept and working it out on the page (which takes an enormous amount of effort, planning and creativity) that doesn't necessarily elevate it to 5 star fiction. Eli's point, it seemed to me, is that sometimes great style and planning and concept don't always add up to a great story. It attempts greatness, but doesn't necessarily arrive there.

For that matter, opinions are subjective, and everyone's is different. That's the beauty of WFG, that members and editors alike can share opinions and learn from each other.

My opinion, for instance, would be on the fence between Eli and Chris here: I think Seth's TDE has a creative concept that he follows consistently and intelligently in each chapter. That is exemplary, and rare, and to be respected. You can analyze it, pick it apart, and discuss it. Not all fiction is meant to be analyzed so thoroughly, some of it is meant to be fun for readers and writers alike, and not an exercise in literary exegesis.

Not everyone likes Tolstoy. A lot of people prefer Stephen King. There are those who admire the structure and thought Tolkien put into the Lord of the Rings, but I've always preferred the Hobbit (as much as I love LOTR) because the story is cleaner and faster paced. Story, and literary merit, are often two different things. The story structure of the Hobbit is simpler and thus more entertaining (for me), while the structure of LOTR is more complex, something to think deeply on. Both are satisfying in different ways, like a cheeseburger versus a fine steak.

The "Tom Drake Experience" is Seth's Lord of the Rings, sort of -- because it's a concept that's been well planned. But I think there are better and more entertaining stories, and even better concepts. I think Eli is saying that the concept and the story might not be meeting well enough to be a five star story, while TDE is still well worth checking out. But again, I don't speak for Eli. I do, however, largely agree with his review.

I was actually wondering how you'd react to my review, Chris. I've always respected your opinion, so you can imagine the amount of time I spent wondering if I'd missed something out when I kept seeing your comments on TDE's pages.

I am, however, going to stand by what I say in this review. It's been my experience that literary fiction has to have either good style or good story to drive home a point (or idea, or concept), and I don't think TDE has either.

The issue I have with the writing is that I think Seth tries too hard to impress. And he comes off sounding like a pretentious hack, at particular points in the story. It's just that ... writing beautifully takes practice. You can't just squeeze words out and expect them to blend with each other. Seth doesn't yet have this ability; he has yet to figure out how to play the cadence of word-sounds to best effect. And there's the issue of consistency. I've to admit to personal experience here: I've fallen into the same trap of trying to sound good (and failing), and it'll certainly take a bit more time before he gets there.

/Digression/: Speaking of wordplay, Gavin's comparison of cheeseburger and fine steak just about gave me an orgasm. =D /End of digression/

I do not believe that an idea in itself renders the project exemplary. There are many ideas that can be taken apart and dissected and analyzed. Indeed, in the scope of literature, I'd say that what Seth is doing is highly simplistic, and not even very well at that. We don't have to look far for what good literature can be - some of the best allegories have innumerable layers to them (off the top of my head, Lord of the Flies is about the evil in men, and yet there are certain passages where Golding invokes sexual language to describe non-sexual acts. There is a huge amount of layered themes, and the language and symbology to go along with it is ... amazing).

Your argument with Tolstoy is an interesting one, but I don't think it has much relevance to what I'm trying to say in my review. Your argument is about editing (being painful - but then again when is editing ever fun?), my argument is that when you set the story on the page it is best if you enjoy doing it. And by and large the impression I get from TDE is 'I. Must. Impress. I. Must. Impress.' Compare that to Animal Farm, where it seems as if Orwell had the time of his life making fun of Stalin.

In the end, however, TDE is just 27 chapters long. Everything I say here and in my review might be very, very wrong, if Seth decides to rewrite or if he completes the blook in consummate fashion. Whichever route he takes, I pray he does a good job of it.

@Gavin: Thanks. =) On a side note, you're a lit major, I'd like to know what you think of TDE's writing. And also what Steinbeck-statements are really called, because I've been searching for a long time, and I can't find the name.

Chris/Lethe: Though I don't have a lot to add on the main subject of this discussion, I thought I'd just add that at least for me, the length of a poem makes it a lot easier to keep the thing in my head. By contrast, a work of fiction makes it a lot harder.

When I've written poems, I can often write it pretty much without later revision. When I'm writing stories (even short stories), I can't. There's just too much stuff to keep track of.

Maybe it would be different if I wrote flash fiction (which is more similar in length to my poetry). I know that when I've written long poems, it's been a lot more like writing a novel (as in multiple revisions, can't keep it all in my head).

Thanks for the reply. I'm thinking of those Japanese brush stroke paintings that are an exercise in Zen. To be sure, a poem fits this metaphor better than a short story or novel. But at its core, writing is an idea. When the writer has an idea in mind, the words come fast and fluid. What if we approached our fiction that way, like the Japanese brush stroke painting, writing a entire chapter in one stroke. Sure there will be some changes, but as long as the essence gets across, that's what's important.

I've tried this before, but essentially I'm afraid to jump in. And, I easily become bored. I need to be really motivated to write a long piece of work in one sitting. In contrast, I can tinker on a chapter for hours. Tinkering is so easy to absorb oneself in and as a perfectionist that's what I tend to do--rather than just write fresh drafts.

Anyways, on another topic, well, on the original topic of TDE; I wrote a review in response to the recent criticism. Replying to Eli's reply didn't make any sense to me, so I just wrote a review.

I've replied to you via email already, Chris. As I said:

I'm actually quite pleased with the effect on the listings page. There are now so many different opinions as to what TDE is about. This should mean that the overall rating would be fair. Perhaps - and this is a big perhaps - the true measure of a good piece of literature is the amount of thinking it can cause. In this aspect, at least, Seth may well have produced something great.

@Eli -- I like your phrase "Steinbeck Statements" but I don't think there's an official name for it, at least not at my school. ;)

I haven't read all 27 chapters of TDE -- so I wouldn't be able to comment on it as well as you have here. However, my (short) perspective: I applaud the fact that Seth has a concept, and is trying to apply it consistently to something so that it becomes a work of art. Only in the final analysis will we be able to judge if he succeeds. There aren't enough "literary concept" web-novels. Most of them are fantasy and sci-fi, and a lot of them probably grew out of fan-fic.

However, the concept (at its heart, the futility of narcissism and capitalism) isn't something I find personally interesting. The ostentatious nature of the writing could either be Seth trying to impress, or (and I honestly find this more likely) the narrator's intrinsic need to be impressive coming out on the page. I don't think it's a mistake, I think it's intentional and part of the style. That kind of dedication to an idea is admirable. Is it entertaining? Is it a great story? A great concept? Not to me. But if I'm right about his intentions, it's great that he's so consistent with his concept.