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On How Fiction Works - Part I
My father, Robert August Simmons, dropped out of school to work full-time just before he entered eighth grade. He never went back to complete his education, even by early 20th Century standards of “completion,” and his grammar, syntax, and book knowledge suffered from that for the rest of his life. But my father was an intelligent man and after settling his career (which included racing cars in the 1930’s) on fixing and working with automobiles and then training others on how to do that, he provided a decent middle-class life for his family and ended his life as regional manager for the now lost and lamented (by me, at least) Sun Electric Corporation – the world’s best maker of advanced automotive diagnostic testing equipment. (I grew up playing with oscilloscopes.)
So it was when I was in third grade during our one fun year living in Des Moines, Iowa, (Dad had gone there to be branch manager for Sun Electric but was transferred again after a year), my parents did what so many parents did in the 1950’s and spent money they really didn’t have to buy a set of encyclopedias for their kids – in this case, the two younger kids still at home, my younger brother Wayne and me. The lucky door-to-door salesman who sold the set to my folks wasn’t from Encyclopedia Britannica but was peddling the less expensive, less expansive (but much more engaging to an 8-yr-old boy) set of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedias.
I can’t speak for my kid brother, but I loved those damned encyclopediae. I devoured them – pouring especially lavish attention on the illustrated flags section, the maps of the world, and, my favorite, the transparent-overlay pages of the human body, from the muscles down to the bones, guts, and squishy stuff.
I remember a Sunday in Des Moines when I begged my dad to teach me something about those squishy parts. We dragged that volume of the encyclopedia to the dining room table and sat there – very unusual for us, since when my father and I were together we were always doing something, like fishing – and he agreed to talk to me about those transparent pages of muscles, bones, organs, and viscera. But he really didn’t care about that topic and obviously didn’t see me as future physician material. He wanted to teach me about the ignition system of an automobile. So we compromised: he could teach me 30 minutes of automotive ignition system, sketching diagrams on Sun Electric stationery there at that dinner table in Des Moines, and then I got 30 minutes of anatomy transparencies and the inner workings of stomach, spleen, kidneys, and colon.
It was a great afternoon and I remember it fondly.
I had somewhat the same reaction in November when my agent, Richard Curtis, sent me a copy of the small James Wood book How Fiction Works as a gift for me to read during a visit I was making to the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale. I didn’t take the book with me to Scottsdale; I devoured it at home that first evening I received it, feeling the same excitement about Wood’s comments that I had about that strange fusion of auto ignition system and the inner workings of the human body back in 1956.
So I made my first (and probably last) reading assignment to those of you following this Writing Well series, and when the inevitable reprinted (from The Nation) criticism – dismissal, really – of James Wood popped up on the On Writing Well Forum, I shut the forum down for a while. I’m not interested right now in literary critics taking short knives to one anothers’ backs. What I’m interested in is the usefulness of James Wood’s analysis in How Fiction Works. As a novelist with 27 published books to my credit, I know something about how fiction works, and Wood’s connection of actual writerly craft to certain aspects of great literature not only resonated well with what I have learned through decades of hard reading and hard work at writing, but helped illuminate and clarify much of what I’ve been attempting to share with you during the previous nine Writing Well installments.
So in this first part of two essays based on James Wood’s How Fiction Works (and borrowing a bit from two other books of literary criticism by Wood, his The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief and The Irresponsible Self: On Laughter and the Novel, as well as from other sources), I’d like to look at three elements of writing well: consciousness in narrative, character, and craft.
In the second part of my look at How Fiction Works, presumably Writing Well Installment Eleven, I hope to look at the larger question of realism as analyzed by Wood, but especially from my viewpoint of how requirements for realism enter into writing in SF, fantasy, thrillers, horror, mystery, and other genres.
As a reader whose choice of reading material has tended to grow more “serious” (i.e. difficult, at least) in recent years, I found Wood’s How Fiction Works enlightening . . . at least in the sense that his commentary connected several strands of thought and analysis that I’ve been struggling with myself for some time. As a writer, as I mentioned, I found his comments -- on narrative strategies, reliable and unreliable narration, getting narration wrong, “time signatures,” detail, “thisness,” the role of consciousness and perception in narration, grounded skepticism, flat, round, solid and unsolid characters, and most of the rest -- not only convincing but resonant to the hard-earned insights I think I’ve gained through three decades of working as a published but never-satisfied novelist.
My focus on this essay, as also mentioned above, is on consciousness in narrative, character, and writing craft. Those writers (and real readers) among you will notice immediately that those three categories are inextricably intertwined and connected, perhaps to the point of being inseparable, in any real writer’s work. All of the other How Fiction Works elements we’ll look at in these essays, perhaps dozens of them, are inextricably intertwined and connected as well. Fail at one and all come tumbling down. That’s why writing is so damned hard. That’s why so few do it well.
Characterization versus story: unask the question:
James Wood states the basic and underlying premise for How Fiction Works right up front in his preface:
If the book has a larger argument, it is that fiction is both
artifice and verisimilitude, and that there is nothing difficult
in holding together these two possibilities.
These seems so obvious to readers, much less writers at any stage of their development, that it hardly seems worth mentioning: to work, a novel has to use various literary tricks and techniques to give the illusion of realism. Yet the tools of artifice in a novelist’s kit are so many and so varied that it becomes almost paralyzing at times to choose among them; and many of those tools, when used inexpertly or at the wrong time or in the wrong way, lead not to the verisimilitude that gives the reader a convincing sense of the realism necessary to enjoy any tale (including SF or fantasy) but to serious failure. If anything, Wood’s statement that “there is nothing difficult in holding together these two possiblities” is either wildly optimistic or ironic. Not difficult for the great writers, maybe, but damned hard – frequently impossible – for the rest of us.
Wood showed us how Flaubert and the next generation of great writers gave us perhaps the strongest tool for combining artifice and verisimilitude – that loose third-person limited omniscient viewpoint which Wood calls “free indirect style.” But as soon as that style is used correctly – that is, to its full potential -- the perceptions and sensibilities of the narrator or “observing character” become as or more important to the tale (and to the writer and reader) than the “story” itself.
And it is here, when I speak to young or beginning writers of any age, that I get the interruptions and contradictions and speeches. I am immediately told that “story is everything” and that “plot is the most important thing.” And then the students cite the names of their favorite story-is-everything authors: King, Grisham, Westlake, Koontz, Clancy, John D. MacDonald, Robert B. Parker, Michael Connally, Tony Hillerman etc. That’s who they (the students) want to write like!
Well, I’ve read and enjoyed all of those authors, but truth be told, plot is or was NOT everything to most of those old pros. It’s true that their novels tend to be plot-heavy (sometimes ponderously so), but in truth we read Stephen King for his narrative voice, Grisham for his insights into the legal system and its effects on us, Hillerman for the humanity and revelations of his Navajo detectives and for the sense of place, John D. MacDonald and Robert B. Parker for the characters of Travis Magee and Spenser (the plots blend together and are emminently forgettable, aren’t they?)
Bestsellers – books to read on the plane and on the beach – are plot- and story-dominated to the nth degree, and this is precisely where and how they fail. (Do you have an overwhelming urge each summer to go back and lovingly reread The Da Vinci Code? Or was once through that silly funhouse enough?)
Wood explains this problem with the “story is everything” type of writing in a footnote related to Thomas Pynchon (whose huge novels are amazingly old-fashioned in terms of their plot dominance) on page 150 when he says – “The massive turbines of the incessant story-making produce so much noise that no one can be heard.”
In this sense, most popular (and deservedly short-lived) bestsellers are like the top movies playing at the local cineplex: the turbines of their story-über-alles machinations are so deafening that we leave the theater (or close the book) half-stunned and almost deafened.
Remember the engine room in the movie Das Boot with the U-boat’s two long-rows of giant diesel engines banging and roaring and tapping and shaking and vibrating, that engine room where normal dialogue was impossible and crewmen had to shout directly into the other crewmen’s ears to be heard at all, and where the chief engineer had a glazed, grinning, drooling, slightly mad expression even early in the voyage? Well, that’s the massive-turbines, high-decibel, story-is everything, Da Vinci Code environment that we’re talking about.
All that’s lost in such an environment, if it’s constant (and to be successful, either as a movie for the already dulled and deafened teenagers or a bestselling novel for the masses, it must be constant) is subtlety, beauty, characterization, the pleasures of metaphor and simile, and the satisfaction (on both ends of the process) of good writing.
So in truth there is no battle between plot and character, between “the story” and beautiful writing. The plot to Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady happens to be sharp, compelling, subtle, and perfectly honed, with infinitely fewer seams and gaps and missing gears than in, say, any Tom Clancy thriller, but the latter has nothing but plot, while the former pleases us with language and character and perception throughout, allowing the plot to unfold and surprise us as if it had crept up on us on little cat feet.
Those writers who think that “story is everything” and throw characterization itself on the fire hurt only themselves and their novels and, in the hurting, cheat their readers. Those writers who think literary style alone – a sort of smug and frenzied tap dancing – can stand in lieu of solid story at the heart of their tale do equally fatal damage to their books.
So we return, inevitably, to characters and to the importance of those characters’ perception in the novel and the role of consciousness – of the writer, of the character, and of the final perception created by the collision of the two in that small, deadly space that is our novel.
Throw a Few More People On the Fire:
The great writer Virginia Woolf, in her snippy way, once commented on Charles Dickens’s fiction –
“Dickens makes his books blaze up not by tightening the
plot or sharpening the wit, but by throwing another handful
of people on the fire.”
I find this funny and true, but not too damning an indictment since Dickens’s greatest gift to us was his profligacy with characters. As James Wood points out, Dickens’s characters were set creatures, incapable of much real change, rather like Dante’s sinners each trapped in the borgia of shit and flame in hell as dictated by that person’s unchanging character on earth. Nothing changes in Dante’s Hell and nothing much changes in Dickens’s characters – Uriah Heep will always remain the serpent-villain he begins as – with the one exception (as we Dickens fans note) that Dickens’s own sentimentality caused him to make most of his less-than-villainous but sharper-edged characters nicer and nicer as the long novels went along. Charles Dickens liked to be liked and he loved his characters. Like a benevolent God, he tended to sandpaper off their rougher edges and find a soft caramel center before he was done with them.
But Woolf is correct in the sense that Dickens was so capable of creating a panoply of new characters without breaking a sweat that he overused the ability, weakening the depth and verisimilitude of his tales. This confirms my long-held suspicion that each writer’s greatest strength ends up being his greatest weakness. (But more about that later.)
Shakespeare shared the true Creator’s ability to generate a seeming infinitude of fascinating characters, but the Bard – unlike the sentimental Dickens – was ruthless. Theatergoers at the time couldn’t get enough of one of his (and all of literature’s) greatest creations, Sir John Falstaff, and flocked to the theater to see the hilarity of cynical, lazy Falstaff following the new king to war in France in Henry V, but Shakespeare always knew when one character took up too much breathing space on the stage and (with the exception of Hamlet, to whom he gave full rein), would cut them down in their prime if they threatened to breathe his other characters’ oxygen. Poor Falstaff was not only killed off so as not to upstage Prince Hal in his new and serious role as Henry V, but the fat knight was killed off offstage and we have only Mistress Quickly’s description of his final, touching moments.
The newly serious King Harry of Monmouth – no longer the Hal of Eastcheap Tavern – sobered by his station and responsibilities, toyed in Henry IV with hanging his fat friend and most important teacher, but Shakespeare decided that Falstaff had to die offstage -- fumbling with his sheets and playing with invisible flowers, according to Mistress Quickly (in what must be the most beautiful cockney eulogy ever given), who went in to bid the Fat Knight goodnight and found his feet cold, his lower legs cold, “Then I felt to his knees, and so up’ard and up’ard, and all was as cold as any stone.” The pun on “stones” there is “testicles,” and when testicles are stone cold, much less the libidonous Falstaff’s, the patient is stone dead for a certainty.
So King Harry hangs his old friend and Falstaff’s fellow-traveler Bardolph, instead, for stealing from a church – hangs him from a stout limb in France that Shakespeare had once reserved for Falstaff himself. The King’s last comment to and about his old companion Bardolph: “We would have all such offenders cut off.”
Which shows the amazing arc of character in Prince Hal/King Harry, but an arc that, while turning a philosopher-wastrel into a great war leader, also turns Hal into Hotspur . . . a humorless and predictable monster who hears only the sound of his own voice.
But I digress.
Dickens and Shakespeare could create scores of powerful, living characters, dozens of them (or perhaps scores of them in Shakespeare’s case), memorable to the extreme. But the average full-time novelist, over a course of a career, will be amazingly lucky if he or she creates one character who lives on in the minds of contemporary readers, much less in the memory of posterity.
Think about that a disturbing moment, fellow writer. For each Huckleberry Finn or David Copperfield or Holden Caulfield or Sir John Falstaff, there are thousands upon thousands of characters – denizens of popular (many bestselling!) novels – who disappear forever almost as soon as the covers are closed.
It takes a tremendous amount of Keats’s negative capability to create a literary character who will live in other people’s memories, and James Wood points out that for each Tolstoy or Balzac or Dickens or Shakespeare who can pull off that trick, there are legions of top rate novelists – he mentions Henry James, Flaubert (in his work outside Madame Bovary), Lawrence, probably Woolf, Musil, Bellow, and Philip Roth -- who, for all of their vivid power of prose and philosophical interest in the individual character they are creating, offer us few characters who remain alive in our memory in the way real and compelling humans do. (With writers like James, Flaubert, Lawrence, Bellow, and Roth, the absence of deep characters is not fatal to their work; their style, power, themes, control of metaphors, and narrative energy make their best novels a success even if the characters do not step off the page at the end.)
Then there is the good but ultimately second-rate author, Wood mentions Iris Murdoch, who knows that deep and memorable characterization is the ultimate test and goal of an author – she has written books on the subject – but who still can not create one of her own. That must be a form of Hell.
For the rest of us non-Shakespeares, non-Dickenses, we’ll spend our working lives trying to create one or two living characters – not enough to throw on the fire when things flag, perhaps, but enough to rub together to get a fire – and be satisfied if we achieve that difficult, difficult goal.
But it will help us if we understand why characters succeed or fail.
Why characters fail:
I’ve loved John Updike since the early 1960’s. When my one and only writing instructor, Professor Bert Stern, asked (in the one and only fiction-writing course I’ve ever taken), “Who’s your favorite author?”, I listened to the other college students list Cervantes, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Kerouac, Balzac, James, and others, but when it came my turn, I chirped up, “John Updike.”
Professor Stern frowned mightily and tugged at his beard – I would soon learn what he thought of mere “commercial” authors, much less bestselling ones (and Updike was red hot with Couples about then) -- but finally Bert allowed, “Well, Updike did have the first blowjob in mass market commercial fiction.” (I thank all the gods to this day that young Danny – it was a more innocent day, my friends – didn’t follow his instinct to ask his professor what that bj word meant.)
At any rate, I’ve been a huge Updike fan for decades, so when I heard that the venerable author had written The Terrorist which dealt with post-9/11 realities, I was eager to read it.
And when I did, I was deeply disappointed. (Many of Updike’s novels in recent years have disappointed me – readers and favorite writers go different ways over decades – but this book, I felt, actually failed as a novel. It failed, I thought, in its ending and in its mild effort at plot, but most seriously and fatally, it failed in Updike’s attempts to get into the mind and motivations of a young American Muslim high school kid who was preparing to become a terrorist. Failed totally.)
So when James Wood zeroed in on the elements of that failure on pages 27 and 28 of How Fiction Works, I agreed with his analysis (which is rarely mean-spirited in the way of so many literary critics.) Wood, like me and so many readers, wants authors to succeed and is saddened when they don’t.
But it is clear in that passage cited wherein Updike uses free indirect style to move into 18-year-old Ahmad’s view of America, the Quran, and himself, that this effort was a negative capability bridge too far for John Updike. The elderly, white, Protestant American author, for all his gifts, simply could not get into the mind of a young Muslim tempted to turn terrorist and the rest of the novel flies to flinders around this central failure.
It’s interesting that Wood had not begun with examples of failure, but showed us how such negative capability in using the free indirect style to move closer then further away, then closer again into the consciousness of a character succeeds so well in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew where the pompous, formal old bachelor author (who gravitated toward young men for his ardors, if not his actions, and who would not know what to do with most children) put himself and the reader so wonderfully into the mind of a 5-year-old girl. If you read that excerpt on p. 12 of the hardcover of How Fiction Works you will instantly see – whether you agree or not – how that single adverb “embarrassingly” becomes a hinge upon which the author’s gifted impressions swing suddenly to the young child’s infinitely more limited and partial view of the world and its relationships.
So some characters fail because the author – whatever his or her other gifts – simply cannot summon the amount of negative capability (the gift of projecting oneself fully into other minds and hearts without drawing conclusions about those people) to breathe that particular character into life.
But some characters fail – and drag the quality of the novel down with them – because the genre one writes in sometime gives us permission to be lazy and sets us up for failure.
It was decades ago now that I read a passage from John Gardner ( probably, but not necessarily, from his seminal On Becoming a Novelist) in which he described how low genre standards and clichés (which become invisible to those readers and writers who rarely stray from the genre, the way bad smells become lost to those who live in them constantly) lower the quality of writing.
One of Gardner’s examples was from the mystery or hardboiled novel where our hero-protagonist observes (so much more frequently in first-person than in any other genre) that the bad guy has entered the room with two bodyguards, one of them wearing a sharkskin suit. Within a sentence or two, the guy in the sharkskin suit has become Sharkskin. Soon our first-person hero will have to blow away Sharkskin and that sad, author-imposed nickname is all that we’ll ever learn of this so-called “character.”
Before you dismiss Gardner’s observation as “serious fiction” finickiness, please understand that such genre-approved laziness really is infectious. We novelists are lazy SOBs by nature (if we weren’t, we’d have real jobs) and once we’re shown a lazy shortcut, we’ll take it frequently unless rapped on the nose. And who’s to rap us here? The genre thrives on such clichés – if you write in it, as I have, just try to avoid them! – and each genre has its own list of such lazy, anti-realism, sub-quality-writing “shortcuts.”
Perhaps the hard part is realizing that even if the genre reader accepts such slovenliness (even delights in it), a real writer shouldn’t.
Elmore Leonard, who points out that his most popular books aren’t mystery or thrillers or hardboiled or any recognizable genre other than “Elmore Leonard books about crime,” has deftly avoided the Sharkskin Trap. His minor characters are almost Shakespearean in their insistence on coming alive and having their own say – and name – in the tale. It’s a rare Leonard tale where a seemingly minor character, a sure candidate for Sharkskin’s fate, doesn’t come alive, insist on telling us his or her back story, and then affects the plot in some significant way out of sheer perversity (like the stupid parolee who’s smitten with his female parole officer and tries to gain stature in her eyes by bragging about a big heist he’s going to take part in.)
The recently deceased Donald Westlake, writing under a small army of pseudonyms, while working within clear enough genres, also breathed life into what (in other hands) would have been the flimsiest of characters. I once showed a group of beginning writers the hidden structure in most of Westlake’s “Parker the thief” novels (written under the Richard Stark name) and while looking at that structure, we all noticed how – in the majority of the later and better-written Parker novels – it was always the most minor of characters who threw everyone’s (Parker’s and his enemies’) plans into disarray and who often gained a viewpoint section for himself or herself. That incidental minor supporting character, always a clear candidate for Sharkskinness, simply got greedy, wanted to deal himself or herself into the action, and crashed into the plot like a runaway truck. It’s part of what made the Westlake Parker-the-thief novels rise from the genre of “hardboiled noir” to their own category of brilliance.
In a separate cricitcal essay by James Wood titled Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling, Wood makes the critical point that for a character in theater or a novel to convince us, the viewer or reader, that he is real, that character has to believe that he is real.
Wood wrote – “Indeed, Shakespeare’s characters manage to hold the paradox that they feel real to themselves but do not necessarily know themselves, which is the very paradox of consciousness, since I have no way of knowing that I do not actually know myself.”
The poet John Berryman (and later Harold Bloom) noticed a passage in act 4 of Shakespeare’s early (and not yet that interesting) Two Gentlemen of Verona in which the clown Launce suddenly starts telling the audience about his dog, Crab. In the long, rambling, discursive (and infinitely detached from the plot and play’s momentum) soliloquy, this minor character speaks to the audience as if he were speaking to his not-present dog, pointing out that he, Launce, had lied and been whipped when he said the he had pissed in the hallway, just to keep his stupid dog, Crab, from being so whipped. And there’s more, all explaining to the audience in the most whining tones imaginable how Launce, out of love for his useless cur, has taken an infinitude of punishments for him, turning the master into the dog’s servant:
Nay, I’ll be sworn I have sat in the stocks for puddings he hath
stol’n, otherwise he had been executed. I have stood on the pillory
for geese he hath kill’d, otherwise he had suffer’d for’t. Thou
thinkst not of this now. Nay, I remember the trick you serv’d me
when I took my leave of Madam Silvia. Did not I bid thee still mark
me and do as I do? When didst thou see me heave up my leg and make
water against a gentlewoman’s farthingale? Didst thou ever see me
do such a trick?
Poor Launce. Poor Crab. Lucky us.
This was Early Will testing his legs in the pure, essential irrelevancy of genius. Launce had no right usurping this stage time to gripe about how he suffered for his (absent) dog, but Launce didn’t know that he was a minor character; the fool thought that he was alive and that his little life (and his dog’s) had importance. So dream we all.
But Launce’s Digression became the precursor for the great and powerful soliloquys in future plays such as Hamlet. The Shakespearean universe (how did I get us back to Shakespeare?) has such weight because every character in it – ala Elmore Leonard on ultimate steroids – has the threat and full potential of bursting into full, three-dimensional, humanly irrelevant life at any second. It’s frightening.
James Wood also points out how in Shakespeare’s world, dialogues between characters frequently become – as they do in real life – mere monologues by a character full of himself and his memories who goes after those memories and associations at the expense of “functional” dialogue. Think of Hotspur (Henry Percy) in Henry IV, Part I. In a wonderful scene I was reading and laughing at late last night, one after the other of Hotspur’s noble allies and aides just give up and walk out during what should have been an important meeting on strategy because Hotspur will not listen to them and will not shut up. I’m not sure if this turned out to be Hotspur’s fatal flaw and the cause of his downfall, but it was certainly part of his charm.
(There is much of Hotspur in a George Armstrong Custer character I am writing about now and I will have Custer and his wife Libbie see Part One of Henry IV in New York – they were so poor that they saw Julius Caesar 41 times during their three-month New York stay, simply because the actor playing the lead was a friend of theirs and left them complimentary tickets, and they didn’t even like Julius Caesar the first time they saw it – and they will immediately see the link between Hotspur and Custer himself: the recklessness, the passion, the ego, and the wild and loving relationship he had with his wife.)
A character (my Gen. Armstrong, for instance) thus recognizing the character arc of his own character, perhaps even to the point of his own fate, doesn’t hurt a tale. What made the “Prince Hal” of Shakespeare’s Henry IV so different from all the other princes in all the other history plays done about Henry IV was that this Hal seems to have read his own biography at a young age . . . he knew, even while he was palling around with Falstaff, Bardolph, and the others . . . what his (the future Henry V’s) true fate and character would turn out to be.
This reminds me a little of Book Two of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in which the Knight of the Woeful Countenance and Sancho Panza have – somehow, impossibly, wonderfully – read (or at least learned the details of) Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Book One, so they have not only their own continuing confusions and adventures to deal with, but also the literary expectations arising from the first book of their adventures.
Postmodernist games aren’t so new and original after all.
Do I digress? Very well then, I digress. I am large. I contain multitudes.
Consciousness in narrative:
James Wood is brilliant in showing us how the literary tricks of a novelist end up (if they work) as one or another form of verisimilitude – some mimesis of real life – but also how once a character is established, what counts for the reader is that character’s ability to observe and to remember.
And to complicate matters, memory and real-time observation can rarely be separated. In “real life,” it doesn’t take a madeleine to start us on some totally unique-to-us daisy chain of cascading memories and associations. Much of the memory stimulus happens below our plane of consciousness as subtle visual clues or sounds or scents trigger these memories and associations.
The better writers – say a Saul Bellow or Flaubert or Philip Roth or John Updike (on a good day) – have their characters (and thus us) in a constant state of low-level déja vu as sensory stimuli from their fictional environment stimulate memory associations, which, in turn, stimulate emotions or more associations or even actions.
This is one of the great dividers between the finest (“serious”) fiction and the bestseller pablum or even the best of the genre writing we enjoy: characters in genre tend to be under strict orders to stick to the plot and ignore irrelevant surrounding sights and sounds, much less their own memories (except, of course, for the essential “rubber ducky” flashback – ask me later – in which they share the fact that their entire family was slaughtered by the character they’re seeking out.)
In real life – and in the best novels – we (and the fictional characters) are a mass and morass of multilayered, confused, conflicting, and distracting memories and associations. Applying these to your character without stopping the novel dead in its tracks is your duty and your mission. Wood points out –
“This tutoring is dialectical. Literature makes us better noticers
of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us
better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better
readers of life. And so on and on.”
Well . . . maybe.
But in the meantime, we can savor dialogue that breaks down as dialogue instantly upon launching and becomes, instead, a mere stream of consciousness blathered aloud – one memory triggering another. For those of you who don’t care for Molly’s Soliloquy in Ulysses – which Nabokov criticized harshly for being “too much about words” – there are a thousand other good examples in quality fiction.
In Henry IV, Part 2, the same Mistress Quickly who will someday deliver her beautiful death scene eulogy for Falstaff, now demands that the living Fat Jack pay the debt he owes her. Falstaff pretends not to remember that he ever borrowed any money from her. Mistress Quickly begins what should be a memory-prompt for Falstaff – even though she knows that he’s lying about not remembering – but soon turns into a pure memory explosion on her part:
“Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt table, sitting in my
Dolphin chamber, at the round table, by a seacoal fire, upon
Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the Prince broke thy head
for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor, thou didst
swear to me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and
make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not goodwife
Keech, the butler’s wife, come in then and call me gossip Quickly?
Coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar, tell us she had a good dish
of prawns, whereby thou didst desire to eat some, whereby I told
thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she
was gone downstairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such
poor people, saying that ere long they should call me madam? And
didst thou not kiss me and bid me fetch thee thirty shillings? I put
thee now to thy book oath. Deny it now if thou canst.”
Falstaff listens to all this and then, of course, denies borrowing a single shilling from her.
What’s important in Mistress Quickly’s delightful memory-rant here, as James Wood points out in his Shakespeare and the Pathos of Rambling essay, is not the precision or truthfulness of the lady’s memory – it’s almost certainly as untrustworthy and conflated as most of ours are – but rather the fact that Mistress Quickly becomes her own mini-novelist here, using detail to construct a narrative while seeking to create verisimilitude.
But details and memory alone can’t create verisimilitude. Once again, the talent and expectations of the author, reader, and even the genre can enter in.
On pages 230-232 of the hardcover How Fiction Works, Wood quotes a descriptive passage from John le Carré’s Smiley’s People (which I liked a lot) and suggests to us that, in the end, it’s second-rate writing. “The selection of detail is merely the quorum necessary to convince the reader that this is ‘real,’ that it ‘really happened.’ It may be ‘real’ but it is not real, because none of the details is very alive.”
I loved le Carré’s novels decades ago but gave up on them in recent years after realizing that the author was pounding his readers over the head with political arguments and distortions a little more with each novel. Dedication to great political truths, it turns out, can be its own version of Das Boot’s pounding, roaring, vibrating turbines that drown out all nuance, subtlety, and honesty.
But that’s not what Wood is criticizing here. Le Carré’s passage from Smiley’s People was – once even a fan (or former fan) studies it carefully as a writer should – simply second-rate description. But again, I would argue that there’s a genre-convention reason for this second-ratedness.
Elsewhere in How Fiction Works, on page 196 of the hardcover edition to be precise, Wood suggests – “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers.”
“Yes!” I said aloud when I read that sentence. This deadening effect of the absence of varying registers is something that I took years to learn for myself (and to work on in my fiction) and something which I’ve found all but impossible to teach to younger or less-experienced (or, to be honest, less ambitious) writers.
Moving away from le Carré, whom I abandoned books ago for the political reasons I mentioned, I look at the work of Alan Furst who writes, invariably, espionage tales about the dark days and nights in Europe right before or during the early years of World War Two. Furst’s writing is smooth and economical, his descriptive abilities far surpass those of the more-famous le Carré, and his ability to show just how the tension of espionage activities affects the bowels and brains of real human beings is wonderful. But after half a dozen Furst novels, a sense of flatness is the primary memory tag. The books have good writing, interesting characters, economical dialogue, a great sense of place . . . what’s lacking?
Precisely this absence of different registers that James Wood defines.
Furst’s novels – and almost all thrillers handled in much lesser hands – have a sameness of affect and effect so pronounced that they resemble the dark, sepia, nightime-in-Vienna covers that Furst’s publisher puts on all his trade paperbacks. Effective, but tiresome. Reading these thrillers and spy stories with their tense but otherwise unvarying registers becomes like listening to a Bach concerto played on coconut halves. It becomes quickly tiresome to the point of nightmare – as if we’ve wandered into a barbershop quartet contest and have to listen to hour after hour of the same close male harmony.
James Wood expresses this a little more gently – “An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune, proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle. By contrast, rich and daring prose avails itself of harmony and dissonance by being able to move in and out of place. In writing, a ‘register’ is nothing more than a name for a kind of diction, which is nothing more than a name for a certain, distinctive way of saying something – so we talk about ‘high’ and ‘low’ registers (e.g. the highish ‘Father’ and the lower ‘Pop’), grand and vernacular diction, mock-heroic diction, clichéd registers, and so on.”
Wood goes on to explain that – freed from the restraints of one-register genre expectation – the best fiction can soar in the manipulation of surprising shifts in register, from harmony to dissonance, the mock-heroic to the truly grand, shifting quickly across the emotional and literary spectrum the way a great pianist’s hands would move across the keyboard. (Too much genre fiction asks us to listen to piano pieces composed for and played with only two fingers on the keyboard.)
I won’t assault you with examples (some of which I’m sure you know), but once again all roads on this subject lead back to Shakespeare. His use of dissonance, shocking lacunae, and sheer defiance of expectation (Falstaff dies fucking offstage?? – I want my money back!!) grew more frequent and more wonderful as his talent began to be graphed only in an asymptotic curve, until such dissonance, sudden hyphens of emptiness, and in-your-face defiance of expectation (genres live to satisfy reader expecations) allowed Shakespeare to leave earth’s literary gravity field.
How do we find, buy, borrow, steal, or fake such talent?
Flaubert once told Maupassant that “talent is slow patience” and that “there is a part of everything which is unexplored, because we are accustomed to using our eyes only in association with the memory of what people before us have thought of the thing which we are looking at. Even the smallest thing has something in it which is unknown. We must find it.”
I think of this great difficulty in breaking out of the expectation-to-be-fulfilled in perception and memory phenomenon as the Niagara Falls/Eiffel Tower Syndrome. What’s the first thing we do when we get to either – take a *&%$#@! photograph. (I used to love watching the hopeful, doomed flashes going off from both the Canadian and U.S. sides at night when I lived near Niagara Falls.) Why do we take another picture of the things? We’ve seen a million photos and images of the Falls and the Tower. We shoot the photo to confirm that our expectations have been fulfilled.
Every aspect of being a good novelist demands the opposite reaction.
Writers use metaphors as their primary instrument to shift tone, add dissonance, and to shock the reader into the type of Zen enlightenment I discussed in my last Writing Well megillah. Metaphors are the shock weapons of literature. You know when you’ve been struck by a really good metaphor. As Wood explains it –“The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability.”
And when that change of register hits the reader, when that surprising metaphor stops the reader (and often the writer upon creating it) in his or her tracks, when that insight gained through crashing disharmonies (which is what a metaphor is) is set for posterity, the reaction is described by Wood – “ . . . until this moment one did not have these words to fit this feeling. Until this moment, one was comparatively inarticulate; until this moment, one had been blatantly inhabiting a deprived eloquence.”
Listen to me, my friends. Listen. This is what writing well is all about.
The ability to create the feeling – the minor epiphany – in the reader as described by James Wood in those two sentences above, the sudden sense that until this moment of having read this one has been inhabiting a deprived eloquence – that is what literature, poetry, and good writing is about.
The craft giveth and the craft taketh away.
Spend twenty years working and practicing and publishing to become a great hardboiled-noir or thriller or espionage novelist, and you suddenly realize that your best work is filled with Sharkskins and shitty, second-rate descriptive passages all humming along in a single boring register.
Hardly seems worth the effort.
Well, then, don’t. Write in the genres if you wish, but avoid the proffered shortcuts and lazy-ass bad habits. (Easier said than done says the writer who’s fallen into too many such pits that he’s dug for himself.)
In the end, alas, it does come down to the terrible fact that, as writers, we are what we read. But we – you -- can learn. The best of you can, at least.
I have much more to say about the craft as revealed by How Fiction Works and by our own thoughts and discussions flowing from that deceptively small book – craft, after all, is what these Writing Well installments are all about – but to give my example of near ultimate craft in this area of character and consciousness which we’re currently exploring, I’d like to quote a passage from Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove.
(You three in the back of the classroom! I see you rolling your eyes up in your head and doing that little, exhausted, disgusted, limp-wristed thing you do every time James’s name comes up in class. Shape up and listen here or get out. The rest of us don’t have time for your limitations today, children. As my friend Harlan likes to say in public talks when he gets worked up and someone wants to interrupt to ask a question or make a comment – “Siddown! I’m on a roll. You don’t wanna get in my way now, Sonny Mack. You really don’t.”)
The Wings of The Dove is written in Henry James’s “late style.” Reading Urdu mixed with Sanskrit is an easier task. In his last and most brilliant years, James abandoned any worry about alienating his readers (they were already alienated – by the demands of his prose and by the proximity of countless “easier” authors) so he also abandoned most recognized structure, grammar, and syntax in his story-telling. James’s late-style, to put it plainly, is a bitch to learn to enjoy and to appreciate. (Even Henry’s older brother William begged him to abandon it and to return to understandable English. Henry ignored him.)
Actually, James’s latest (and best!) style violates almost every “rule” we’ve encountered up to this installment of Writing Well.
Stephen King produced an entire book on how to write in which his lessons could be boiled down to – “the adverb is not your friend.” Well, the late Henry James, abandoning sentence structure as all English-speaking humans have known it, creates clouds of adverbs (and adjectives) – veritable spiral nebulae of adverbs (and adjectives) – great swooping swarms of adverbs (and adjectives), all launched in the wild (and, amazing as it seems, frequently realized) hope of pinning down the most effervescent and short-lived of fleeting memory associations, subtle consciousness shifts, or human dissonances in emotion and perception.
To read the late Henry James is to take part in a particle-physics experiment. Only YOU are the bubble chamber.
I won’t summarize the plot of The Wings of The Dove, but I’ll explain this character’s place in the story and her place in Henry James’s life and memory.
Milly Theale is a secondary but essential character in the novel. Her character (as had been earlier female characters in James’s novels) was based on Henry James’s cousin Minnie (or Minny, depending upon which biography or letter one reads) Temple. Minnie Temple was a smart, intelligent, life-loving woman who died young from a wasting disease so common in Victorian days and her death hit all of the James’ brothers hard, especially Henry and William, since both young men had been in love with her, in his own way, at one time or another.
“Milly Theale” in the scene below has learned from her doctor that she has a fatal illness. Milly is rich – where her wealth goes after she does will be part of the subtle plot of the novel – but she hasn’t had much of a life yet. Her doctor, while informing her that she is dying, oddly and simultaneously advises her “to live.”
Here is Milly alone – a woman alone and unprotected in a park in a strange city, London – absorbing, as one James biographer puts it, “her common humanity:”
“The beauty of the bloom had gone from the small old sense of safety – that was distinct: she had left it behind there forever. But the beauty of the idea of a great adventure, a big dim experiment or struggle in which she might, more responsibly than ever before, take a hand, had been offered her instead. It was as if she had had to pluck off her breast, to throw away, some friendly ornament, a familiar flower, a little old jewel, that was part of her daily dress; and to take up and shoulder as a substitute some queer defensive weapon, a musket, a spear, a battle-axe – conducive possibly in a higher degree to a striking appearance, but demanding all the effort of the military posture.
“Here [in Regent’s Park] were benches and smutty sheep; here were idle lads at games of ball, with their cries mild in the thick air; here were wanderers anxious and tired like herself; here doubtless were hundreds of others just in the same box. Their box, their great common anxiety, what was it, in this grim breathing-space, but the practical question of life? They could live as they would; that is, like herself, they had been told so; she saw them all about her, on seats, digesting the information.”
I’ll let one of Henry James’s most recent biographers, Sheldon M. Novick, discuss this passage:
“This is a flurry of mixed metaphors and colloquialisms, seemingly artless, the vocabulary of a young American woman. Yet each word is carefully chosen, each detail is precise: the white sheep dirtied by London’s pervasive coal smuts, the air thick with summer heat. There is a profusion of adjectives; an odd simile expands under their pressure into a complex image. The feeling of safety is like a homely ornament; the ornament is friendly, familiar, little, old, part of her daily dress. We feel ourselves discarding it, imagine shouldering a battle-axe instead, and feel the change in posture and consciousness.
“The shift to a broad view of the park, like a change in focus, is effortless, and the image of scattered solitary figures seated on their benches is as powerful in its way as that of ‘Dover Beach.’
“Yet, while these effects are achieved with remarkable economy, there is no striking phrase or metaphor that one can extract; the cumulative effect is not exactly visual, it is the picture of the living mind feeling its way into simplest and greatest truths, which the reader is lead to discover or recall for herself. A book of essays, a personal religion, lives in these few pages.
. . . .
“Through lifelong study, like the painters who delved into the mechanism of seeing, the representation of perspective and the anatomy of color, James had found a perhaps fundamental mechanism of representational art, even of civilized community. The scattered adverbs and adjectives compose themselves into a solid figure by touching the keys of response in the reader, the general forms and qualities into which our nervous system analyzes perceptions, and reflexively imagines itself into the moment. His words are like the line drawings in perspective that we see as rounded, three-dimensional objects. His medium was the solitary imagination, but his subject was his passionate understanding, ‘love’s knowledge’ in Martha Nussbaum’s precise phrase, of the strong forces that draw people together, despite all jealousies and violence. James prompts us to use a sense that combines intelligence and emotion, that allows us to imagine each other’s experience and to enact in imagination the bare descriptions that we read, as if they were stage directions; he is the artist of empathy.”
The “artist of empathy.” I’ve heard those words, or words very much like them, before in these ten installments of Writing Well. At the very least, it seems to mean ‘No producers of ‘Sharkskins’ need apply.’
In the next installment of Writing Well, I’ll continue a discussion of James Wood’s more useful (for a serious writer, at least) insights from How Fiction Works, but will also apply some of those insights to the serious and practical question of how this need for verisimilitude, this essential hunger for realism, and this constant demand for excellence in the writing can be (and must be) brought to our writing for SF, for horror, for mystery, for thrillers, and to and for our other favorite genres.
In the meantime, serious comments from readers and writers on How Fiction Works and its themes further explored here are welcomed on the re-opened On Writing Well forum. The dialogue there will determine the direction much of the next Writing Well installment will take, even while the dialectic should provide us with the sand we need to find some real traction as we tackle the steep and icy, slippery slope of our ongoing discussion of consciousness, character, narrative, artifice, verisimilitude, and how all those things relate to the craft we love.
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