On Christopher Columbus’ Illegitimate Son & the World’s Greatest Library

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books

by Edward Wilson-Lee

Scribner/Simon & Schuster, 2019

Hardcover, 401 pages, $30

A lesson given often in primary schools—perhaps, if later, at the university—is that historical realities can be interpreted for generations in different ways.

Some realities are interpreted as true to their objectivity as possible, even while it remains the case that no historical reality can be known in all its detail and complexity.

Other interpretations of reality will stand untrue to what happened, even if those who receive these interpretations may not know of their untruth, including the one who narrates them.

Certain accounts will be derived from clear, broad, empirical sources, while others will be derived or created from within the imagination of the one who writes any given account.

Caption from the book: The only existing likeness of Hernando Colón, younger and illegitimate child of Columbus, curator of his father’s legacy, and builder of the greatest library of the Renaissance.

Before us, in professor and literature expert Edward Wilson-Lee’s The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, lies a complex, multi-threaded history, integrated with an entire spectrum of key historical, visual artifacts. He writes of Christopher Columbus, “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as well as Columbus’ illegitimate son, Hernando Colón, who lost his father at eighteen and fought for paternal legitimacy “by showing himself to be his father’s son in spirit.” Wilson-Lee writes of the imperial and oceanic politics of the sixteenth century and, against their backdrop, Hernando’s single-minded pursuit to maintain his father’s legacy.

While Hernando was born in 1488, and lived until 1539, Wilson-Lee reports that his “earliest recorded memory is characteristically precise. It was an hour before sunrise on Wednesday, the twenty-fifth of September 1493,” as he and his brother Diego observed the messianic ships upon which their father traveled as conqueror of the Americas.

Exposure to this participation in Columbus’ travels, along with an eclectic combination of experiential and intellectual data, underlay the introduction of Hernando to “a bewildering variety of people and things but also to a world of complex and often contradictory ideas. He would have attended lectures by the great scholars recruited to train the aristocracy at court, probably from an early age…” Intensive cultural exposure of this kind soon manifested in Hernando’s “genius for ordering” books—and thus a race to grow the world’s largest library of written and visual artifacts, then followed by a love—even an obsessive one—for the collection and ordering of artifacts that reveal the stories of the people and places from whom they come; he would be known as a maker of lists.

The making of lists, among an array of other brilliant mental exercises, proved easy for Hernando “in part because [his] mind moved ceaselessly from event to system, from a single thing to a general framework into which it could be fitted.” In his collecting, he demonstrated respect for those who deeply appreciate the systematization of thought and data, of historical information, and thus of artifacts which serve as vehicles for storytelling and knowledge-giving. As a symbolic parallel, one acute example of a deeply-appreciated statue includes that of Moses, “who sets the history of the world and the peoples of Israel in order, telling of their genesis and exodus, compiling their genealogies and the tables of their law: Moses, the maker of lists.” What Hernando did not expect to realize in his work is that ordering requires intense formation on behalf of (i) those who create the categories by which objects are listed, as well as (ii) those who come to understand and apply these categories to their own learning and searching. In a special way, therefore, Catalogue is written for those with sheer adoration for books, libraries, bookstores—for paintings and other visual artifacts, galleries, museums—and prompts the memory of how one came to relate to any of these objects or spaces in the first place.

Caption from the book: Abridged: Thomas More’s Utopian alphabet, designed to convey the perfect language.

Imagine stepping into a library, not knowing beforehand the categories you must know to find the book most appropriate for the question that you have undertaken. Imagine, also, not realizing the way you are conditioned into choosing from the categories that have been given to you by your parents, your teachers, your librarians, and otherwise—and not knowing to think outside of those categories to expand your own research and the pursuit of a new or wider context for the data provided before you. Wilson-Lee writes that, “…once the hierarchies are written into the tools we use to navigate the world, this step [the consciousness and selection of an item from within the pre-imposed hierarchy] becomes even harder to undo. Eventually, in fact, we often forget the hierarchy was imposed in the first place and no longer see anything other than a natural, inevitable, timeless order, from Alpha to Omega.”

Over the course of the book, Wilson-Lee tracks multiple key conceptualizations and historical unfoldings that complete this story which so captured his imagination. In addition to building lists and categorizing libraries, Hernando supported the development of map-making theory, adding “lines of latitude and longitude and then dividing those squares with lines at every mile of each degree. The concept was so new…that Hernando had no name for this kind of grid.” It was later deemed important because the “numbered line implied the world portrayed was in the realm of mathematical proportion, scale, and measurement, and not subject to the blurring effects of human experience.”

Beyond map-making, Hernando supported the development of revolutionary printing models, hunting down international texts to then work “with the great printers of the age to make them available in robust editions.”

Finally, amid dozens of other revolutionary, brilliant contributions which Hernando made to his fields, Wilson-Lee includes Hernando’s fight toward the end of his life over the nature and structure of his father’s reputation—given that, on 27 August 1534, the Spanish courts “issued the Sentencia de las Duenas, stripping the Columbuses not only of their right to the title of viceroy of the Indies but also of any right to a share in the gold other goods of those lands.” For Hernando, the playing field for this debate became the artifacts collected, and it is no surprise that that the questions of Columbus’ international primacy as traveler and discoverer remains today “the focus of many modern biographies: it would not do for the great achievements of a celebrated figure’s life to seem to come from random happenstance…” With this focus and commitment, Hernando’s own contribution, in an implicit way, to theories of history and storytelling becomes manifest.

Of the purpose and structure that underlies The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books, three things can be said: First, the very historical concept here introduces readers into a previously unexplored dimension of an otherwise muchly-studied era. Most persons know Columbus; very few know his illegitimate son, and even less likely is the chance they know this son’s creative project. Second, Wilson-Lee demonstrates himself once more to be a nuanced, visual thinker, with a broad capacity for collecting and integrating layers of historical data in a beautiful narrative about the chosen topics, themes, and time. (Catalogue follows Wilson-Lee’s trade non-fiction debut, Shakespeare in Swahililand, which treats of African leaders who adopted into their lives and culture Shakespearean genius.)

Finally, I note only that, due to its complexity in terms of integration, there is some degree to which the book could have been more efficiently framed to help readers dive into and consume the story. Multiple layers coordinate here—both the historical timeline of Hernando’s life, from a to z, as well as the more broadly conceptual and thematic set of claims that Wilson-Lee argues to about the nature of knowledge, the construction of theories and categories, and the self-selection and discarding of data points. He uses Hernando as a case study to “argue into” these claims. To some extent, a clearer preference for either the historical data of Hernando’s life versus the conceptual claims about the collecting that Hernando undertook would have helped clarify for readers new to some of this form of intellectual study the structure of his integration.

Either way, however, a reader comes away from Catalogue bearing a fleshed-out introduction to an angle of this time period that is oft not included in history books. Beyond it, the intelligence and cleverness of the angle Wilson-Lee chooses to undertake—this single library, the largest of the Renaissance, its prowess now so deeply overtaken by the development of technology and ease-of-transport of written and visual artifacts—helps concretize the uniqueness of both the man and his mission. I highly encourage its reading, completion, and consideration.

I am grateful to the University Bookman for the provision of a copy of this title.

On Making Novels a Game that You Play

Why do people love to write? (Or, well, perhaps–why do people who read and write like I do like to read and write? This may be the more fair, better question, and this post an incipient intro into writing as a form of game theory, which I think applies to more writers than one might expect, even if they’ve never thought of their own writing as a game that they play.)

It is as basic as this: What is every scene in a novel, if not one part of an equation? What is every chapter in a novel, if not one part of an equation?

The genius part is: It’s the way that you write a scene, to create an experience, that makes possible the pure transcending of the mathematization of writing, and the genius of the poetry you bring into writing elevates this mathematical beauty into sheer literary art; into a sort of unbounded, open-ended spontaneity for which only few mathematical equations allow.

scene a + scene b + scene c = chapter a

Here:

+ scene a ≠ scene b ≠ scene c;

+ scene a < scene b < scene c; and

+ each < sign refers to the degree to which there is a contingency or dependency upon the content of the scene that precedes it (layers).

chapter a + chapter b + chapter c + chapter d + chapter xyz = novel

Here:

+ chapter a ≠ chapter b ≠ chapter c, etc.;

+ chapter a < chapter b < chapter c, etc.; and

+ each < sign refers to the degree to which there is a contingency or dependency upon the content of the chapter that precedes it (layers).

So: What are you doing as a writer? You are “design thinking” your way into every scene, and with every scene, into every chapter, and with every scene-scene and scene–>scene and scene–>chapter and chapter-chapter and chapter–>chapter and chapters–>full novel combination, you are growing out a matrix for the plot arc which informs the evolution and growth of content.

Think as simple as this: Your novel revolves around the story of a young boy who is traumatized sexually by his mother, who “schmoozed” at him as a young boy and turned him into a sexual caricature for herself. What is the “design think” work that can–and, I would say, needs to–go into the design of the novel that you are writing, during the preparatory, writing, and editorial phases? What is the game that you need to play with all of the military pieces that you are laying out, from piece one to two to three to one hundred, in order to elevate the compactness and tightness and–far beyond these other pieces–the intentionality of every scene?

To do the brainstorming and structural work in advance, to know the shape of the whole scene before you write and re-write, changes the entire writing and reading process.

This boy, as an example:

Scene A: moment of trauma of sexual abuse [content of actual scene; to show what is reality]; to demonstrate the reality of trauma, of family life, of the character, of his coping mechanisms [purpose of the actual scene; the explanation/telling/interpretation of what we see of reality, not actually broken on the page but clear in what is shown and how it is shown]

Scene B: moment of secondary trauma of sexual abuse–the lack of belief from teacher at school the next morning [content of actual scene]; to increase the tension of sexual abuse, given that it requires immediate healing and intervention, but this boy cannot find it, because his female teacher is the same as his mother [purpose of the actual scene]

Scene X, scenes later: moment of generational trauma, when this boy-turned-father sexually traumatizes his own child in front of a stranger, half-mindlessly [content of actual scene]; to show the generational effects of trauma, to cast the boy in a redemptive light in the unfolding of some severe intervention on behalf of a stranger on the street who stands in witness of the unfolding trauma [purpose of the actual scene]

Learn to model out your scenes. Spend some time with the distinctions–learn your purpose, and then choose the scene that attains to it in the best way, grasping that the way in which you begin, move through, and end your scene is going to have huge repercussions on the way in which your plot actually unfolds, and the way in which your pacing determines its strength, beginning to end.

Literary agent Donald Maass talks about scene internal and external turning points: those concrete ‘points of movement’ around which every scene turns, and the point for which that scene is written. Internal turning points hinge around a character’s motivations or intents, while external turning points hinge around an event that happens or some other exteriorizing in the content of the novel.

Have you thought through every single scene in your novel with this purpose and intent in mind, and stripped every scene that misses a turning point, or that provides it roughly, imperfectly, or not at all? This is the work that requires manifesting the essentiality of what and how and why you are writing the scene in the first place.

His books, The Fire in Fiction and Writing the Breakout Novel especially, are essential conduits to really genius fiction writing–that fiction that reads like a scene is breathlessly picked up out of nowhere and compiled so efficiently and brilliantly that it hurts to read it, and it is such because the author thought a lot about the individual scene before s/he wrote it. You can tell this kind of intentionality in an instance, and I would say that, in the years that I’ve represented fiction, 90% of my authors has excelled beyond belief in an intentionality that is really capturing and distinct.

My favorite examples of published giant novels, in terms of easy-to-parse beginning pages, are Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning All the Light We Cannot See, Laini Taylor’s Printz Prize-winning Strange the Dreamer, and Sara J. Henry’s Agatha Award for Best First Novel-winning Learning to Swim.

On the Obligation to Perfect One’s Craft

Imagine two spheres, of a different color, interpenetrating each other.

This is the writer. Writers are instruments of craft, and that craft comes to manifest in two distinct spheres of being.

The genius writer, when s/he writes, writes essentially from two different modes of being: one that which makes writing sheer art, and the other which makes writing sheer science; in the best fiction, there is no writer who is without both of these dimensions, actualized to their full potential, in their own, distinct way.

I wanted to introduce this distinction here, and leave writers with a bit of a challenge, moving forward, as I do when I teach classes on plot and pacing. (See resources available from those classes here.)

I begin with this radical but absolutely vital distinction between the art and the science of writing:

  • the first, on one hand, is that never-teachable spark of sheer genius (the same way that Mozart has genius before music, and da Vinci genius before the visual arts, and Michael Flatley and Jean Butler genius before tap dancing, and Benedict Cumberbatch before acting, and Steve Jobs before tech/entrepreneurship, and Stieg Laarson before thrillers);
  • the second, on the other hand, is the rigor of coming into possession of the knowledge of technique with its theory, as well as the practice that underlies learning to bridge theory (i.e., the three-act structure with notions of pacing with notions of world-building) with your writing as it manifests on the page itself.

Not all writers will bear the first spark, and there is a huge spectrum by which this kind of giftedness can manifest: giftedness in prose, in imagination, in the study of the interior (say, with a gift for empathy), and more. This is not a problem, though I would without hesitation argue that these are the writers who deserve primacy of publication, of space on the bookshelf, and of attention.

Writing deserves to be magical, and to be considered as such. Poor writing changes tastes, and it ought not to, and so we ought to build communities with a taste for magic and genius in terms of that which the best writers bring to the turf.

All writers should bear the second quality.

I will admit that many genius writers do not have, necessarily, a theoretical formation given to them, but that theoretical formation they come to organically, in reading and picking up on patterns, as well as by deep intuition. To be a storyteller by nature is to possess a particular form of a gift, which then translates into learning to structure stories. Note that we exist in a culture built, in deep, historical ways, upon stories told by spoken word.

The great gift of consuming theories about craft is that these theories, when received from another, give you language and models for thinking through the different structural elements of plot, and so therefore, they ought to, in those who are thinking deeply, intentionally about their writing, elevate the work of their own intuition. Intuition, I’d say, only goes so far, or goes so far in a particular way, unless it’s working against an objective framework for quality.

(Experimental fiction and rule-breaking fiction only goes so far before it starts to tear apart the experience of the one who reads it; where good fiction should work on the heart and affect, should give life, should spark curiosity and wonder, sometimes the rule-breaking in fiction stifles imagination, gives rise to depression, and detracts from an engagement with reality. More could be said.)

I’ve been reading queries and manuscripts, and 90% of the time, the feedback comes down to something simple: You need to learn to write. To write as putting words to paper is not the same as creating magic with purpose and intention on paper, and the writer’s job is universally the latter, the difference being the genre with its set of rules, its audience, its pre-determined focus or purpose, and otherwise.

One of my top-notch secrets (except not, given that I break this in my rejections, revise and resubmit requests, and in my conferences) is to ask clients to do rigorous homework about craft as they learn to write, and write better, with the simple project being this one: Make every novel that you write, literally, better than the one that preceded it.

The space of experience underlying these two modes is its own, separate question, and as with others, I hope to reflect on this later–but there is no genius that can be made manifest without experience and practice, and there is no maturity in craft that can be made manifest without experience and practice.

Learn to not be afraid to experience, and to take the time to measure the quality of your experience against theoretical frameworks that will help you to apply your experience to the creation of a new experience in the space of the novel. See some incipient resources on these questions through the resources link above.

On Functional Scaffolding

In my free time, which is really time not spent working on strictly agenting-related things, I love to read and do research. One of the lessons I learned a long time ago was the worthwhileness of doing research about one’s own person, and one’s own mind–how I work, how I function–in order to elevate the quality of one’s own life: how I live, can live, ought to live.

Here’s an abstract for an academic, heady article that I stumbled upon, once upon a time, doing some basic research in psychology, on “Functional scaffolding and self-scaffolding,” published in New Ideas in Psychology:

Models of the nature of representation and cognition ground and constrain models of the construction of representation in learning and development: models of what is being constructed ground and constrain models of the processes of construction. Insofar as the notion of scaffolding is intended to refer to particular kinds of supports for learning and development, it too will be variously enabled and constrained by underlying assumptions concerning representation and cognition. I will argue that action based models of representation, which have their own powerful supports, also make possible a functional notion of scaffolding that, in turn, makes sense of processes of self-scaffolding as a central field of development.

A basic translation (in its utter, kindergarten-level basics): Scaffolding is a tool for representing and understanding content learned, through theoretical models to capture and process that content.

One of the most basic examples of a self-scaffolding is a to-do list, but even more specifically, the categories that a person might use within their to-do list. A parallel concept for it is a mind model, or a theoretical framework that is developed to help a person think about the content and set of observations before them about any given question. (An acquaintance of mine once sent me this link to describe a range of ‘available mind models.’ I thought this was the coolest tool ever.)

With to-do lists, a person sort of self-engineers or self-creates a mind model to think about the necessary components of the tasks that stand before them: the content, the deadline, the structure, the framework for engaging in a range of different kinds of conversations that need to move the necessary theoretical pieces, etc.

For example, my to-do list (to be transparent, of course–except not, because I’d have to give you a whole existential spreadsheet if I were to break my to-do list in public!) looks something like this:

  • D4EO/Clients
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
    • Client Name
      • Client Project/Deadline
  • D4EO/Networking
  • D4EO/Market Research & Tracking
  • Non-Profit Support/Accounting
  • Academic Work/Research
  • Academic Work/Writing
  • Book Reviews/Reading
  • Book Reviews/Writing
  • Travel/Misc.

Certainly on the non-fiction writing end, mind models and scaffolds are terrific tools for aiding comprehension, as they are tools for scaffolding in the classroom. (Scaffolding is a classic pedagogical tool.) You can find some links to a few relevant pieces, for some guidance on what this kind of a scaffolding exploration might look like, here: one, two, three, four.

In fiction, a lot of scaffolding work can be done to tier in the release of plot or pacing-related information, such as in really solid thrillers–those clues planted, then pulled together/integrated, etc. The same thing goes for scaffolding out history of the characters and the world, as well as world-building. You want to give just enough for the reader to wrap their mind around the essentials, and keep in the rest of the information until it’s necessary. The author should always know and understand more about what’s on the page and evolving than the reader.

Beyond this, scaffolding aids your own life, and I’d encourage checking out some of these pieces, personality profiles (Myers-Briggs, Greek personality tests, enneagram tests), IQ tests, and otherwise, in order to then do the more important, practical project: figure out how you work, and figure out what best form of self-scaffolding aids your time.

Sometimes, I shock people with the amount of work that I do, editorially, agenting-wise, and writing-wise, but rather than it be a sort of shock to the system, it honestly is for me a project of systematic scaffolding and re-scaffolding, self-learning over and over again, playing with different mind models over something as simple as my inbox and categories for emails received, and otherwise. It’s a good, healthy, and totes existential project.

On Writing Memoirs: Short Reflection #1

I love a good memoir.

Memoirs run a wide gamut. They can be, on one end, very platform-based books–which means that the person who is writing them, either himself/herself or with the support of a talented ghost writer, has a significant marketing powerhouse to back them. The nature of this marketing powerhouse depends entirely on the type of figure we are discussing, but can involve the institutions to which they are affiliated and the public value of their name, developed over time, with money, public exposure, wide-scale impact made through programming or otherwise, etc.

Think Brittney Spears and Michelle Obama-esque figures.

On the entirely opposite end, memoirs can be books with a very high concept–written by an individual without a platform, but are still compelling in some kind of essential ‘hook.’ The story organically captivates the hearts of readers, especially in the realm of particular forms of experience. These experiences can be deeply personal, or professional, or somewhere in between (i.e., ‘how an addict heals from addiction,’ ‘how an orphaned girl discovers her family,’ or ‘how a businesswoman’s career takes off under impossible circumstances’).

In either case, the best memoirs operate from within something like a novel’s structure: because you are not telling about a subject but about a life, and are thus telling a story, for no life can be explained without the story of the life, there needs to be an organic arc that arises from within the memoir’s premise or concept. An organic start, middle, end; an organic tension or problem or arc-in-experience .

Non-platform-based memoirs need tight work at the structural level, to tighten and to frame the individual chapters and scenes that operate along the story’s “arc”–to not just tell a super linear/horizontal series of events, that reads more like a timeline than it does a story, but something more vertical in its nature. This might mean that you the actual manuscript for the memoir begins in the heart of the story, the heart of the experience, and in working forward, works to integrate the background and history of the start in this setting in layers.

In may seem silly, but I think it’s a requirement for writers of memoir to read literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel (and/or anything else that he’s written, especially with an eye toward the tools he gives to teach structure and craft).

It should be a relatively easy book to read and apply–where memoirs are not writing something fiction, they already have the key story elements: the main characters, and the setting. They should always work to identify what is the sort of plot-like mechanism in this (as this is what will drive the love of the memoir–readers’ investment in the writer, and the story, and the stakes, and the nature of what the writer discovers and learns and has to share), as well as build out scenes to have a stronger beginning, middle, and end around their key ‘tension points’ and ‘focal points.’

Besides this, I think it’s important to read memoirs, and to answer these questions: How is the story structured? How are the scenes structured? What does the writer do in each individual scene? Where do they start and end? What keeps your interest? When is essential historical information introduced, and how does a plot-like or tension-related movement develop from within the early parts of the story? How much is related to voice–how the writer speaks, in telling the story–and how much is related to concrete external events or triggers that shape what happens?

I am actively open to memoirs, and love them, and entrust this as round #1–over what I hope will be many rounds–of some thoughts on memoir-writing. I did not have the opportunity to represent one in my first round as an agent, and hope to discover something that I respond to and believe in this time around.