Cultures of Excellence in the Novel
James McAdams | May 25, 2020
We hear a lot these days of creating “cultures” in institutions and systems. By culture, in this new sense, we seem to mean something like the people in the place, how the people in the place interact, how the place (the building, the hours, the rules) affect the former two, the people and the acting. Psychologists, businesspeople, sportswriters, and institutional theorists hail the Fun For All! workspaces of Silicon Valley, bemoan the toxic culture of the Trump Cabinet, praise the “culture” of The Godfather (by which I mean cast, more on this below), and quibble over draft selection and trade decision to optimize sports teams.
We’ve seen this talked about a lot recently since The Last Dance, ESPN’s quarantine-saving documentary on the greatest basketball dynasty ever, the 1990s Chicago Bulls. Aside from having the best player of all time, what made this team so good? Well, each player did his thing, he did it well, and everybody could count on him for it. Rodman did nothing but rebound, which is important when you have Jordan, Pippen, and Kukoc taking the shots; Kerr (essentially) did nothing but stand by the 3-pt line, which was surprisingly innovative then. Playing alongside cutters like Jordan and Pippen, just standing 23 feet away is actually pretty smart. Their spacing, their trust in each other, and their trust in the “process” (as we call it in Philly) created a culture of excellence.
Another culture of excellence: The Godfather. Think about the perfect casting and writing of the four (if you count Tom) brothers. Michael (Pacino) is quiet, smart, and romantic; Fredo (Cazale) is timid, stupid (despite his protestations), and indulgent; Sonny (Caan) is ambitious, ruthless, and temperamental; and Tom (Duvall) is calculating, reserved, and shrewd. Compositionally, this “culture” allows for the unwinding and bending and changing of the characters to come about organically and dynamically.
The same is true for books. As you know if you’ve been reading this, I’m writing a novel based on a sober house facility in Delray, FL. I, James McAdams, narrate the story, writing from jail (ala Lolita) after being convicted of fraud and manslaughter for the death of a client, Sadonna Healy, whom I loved. Other characters:
- “Freaky Fred”: James’ friend and colleague at Deathray (as they call Delray)
- “Abdaliz”: James’ colleague at Deathray
- “Tara S.”: Client at Deathray; best friend of Sadonna’s
- “Owner”: the never-seen owner of Deathray
- “Warden/Librarian”: person at the prison
- “Miscellaneous”: Other clients and colleagues at Deathray, but nobody three-dimensional.
So I essentially have a baseball team here, and what I’m working on now is training these players to work better in sum than in part. If I were managing a true baseball team, I’d ensure a mix of speed and power; of pitching and hitting; of lefties and righties; of defense and offense. I’d make the tiny parts are filled out: the utility infielder, the switch-hitter who can turn the lineup, the 8th inning ace, etc. Likewise, in the writing of The Florida Shuffle I find myself covering pages with notes about Sadonna’s character, who is ambivalent, sneaky, sort of low-energy, not saying what’s on her mind. In other words, conflict-averse. A character can be conflict-averse, but a novel can’t so I’m stretching to find other characters who can fulfill the conflict requirements. Freaky Fred, for example, is becoming as tempestuous as Sonny in The Godfather, while Sadonna’s friend Tara’s becoming borderline-Borderline in order to liven up and add contrast to her scenes with Sadonna.
The point being, whatever you’re doing involving people, optimizing chemistry should be the objective. We need cultures of excellence in the novel, but also in politics, hospitals, nail salons, casinos, strip clubs, bingo parlors. Good luck!