The last paragraphs
When I reflected in my last post about the pleasures and perils of book dedications and acknowledgements, I was being a tiny bit premature.
The truth is that I am still not entirely happy with the last few pages of the last chapter. Most of the chapter is about the Roman joke-book, the Philogelos (itself the subject of a number of blogs in the past), and I'm qute happy with that. There's lots of interesting stuff to say about the form and content and arrangement of the jokes, and what they might tell us about laughter in the Roman world. (True the book is written in Greek, but it is ideologically located in Roman imperial culture, and indeed that mixture is part of the point.) And, all in all, I am pretty content with what I've said on that score.
The trouble comes towards the end, with how to broach that which must finally be broached: namely, the very nature of a joke COLLECTION. Once you put jokes together in a book.. they are no longer simply plural jokes; they have changed their status to become "collectibles" in some way, objects of classification, reference and so on. That's what I was meaning when I said a bit ago that the Roman world was the site of the "invention" of the joke as we know it.
I know exactly how I would put this over in a seminar, orally. But I haven't quite cracked it on paper. A version exists and indeed has been sent to California, so if I was struck by suudden death, it could all be published. But the inadequacies of my text are gnawing at me.
I dont know if people in general realise quite how preoccupying, frustrating and time-consuming writing a work of non-fiction can be; and yes gnawing (you wake up in the middle of the night with the sentences going round in your head). It's probably the same for fiction, but I think people expect that more (tirtured novelist creates work of genius..). Non-fiction is a bit like the old cliché of the gymnast... the best books often read so "naturally" that it is easy to assume that there wasn't all that much artifice and struggle involved. As if it was just writing down what you know.
So what is the solution for me?
1. The radical version is a complete restructuring/rethink. My gloomy experience is that if a section or paragraph is hard to write it's because you're trying to say the wrong thing. Get the thoughts straight and it will fall into place. That means taking a big enough break from it to be able to think afresh. No time for that.
2. The primrose path is the demon drink. Now actually a glass or two of wine can be rather a good idea in these circumstances. It can remove the inhibitions just enough to get the ink flowing. The trouble is that you have to know when to stop, The second glass worked a treat last night, the third ruined it.
3. The ostrich version is to pretend that your troubles have quite other roots. I have been through the superficially attractive argument that the pages are really rather good; it's just that I am not ready to let the damn thing go. I'm trying to put off the process of finishing, because I am just too wedded to the project (and scared of the next one). But, nice psychoanalytical fantasy that it is, I fear it just isnt true. The pages do need more work.
So what? Well I confess the only recourse left is the modern author's version of "phone a friend". I have emailed the last 4000 words to a mate, and said "help".
I am now going to look at his verdict..... and hope that while America is immersed in Thanksgiving, I can get a new version done, and send it off before they have even looked at the old one.