Tuesday, December 31, 2013

fictional sex redefined by technology

Yoni in the dunes
An earlier blog post, "love in all its dimensions" (Dec. 2009), discussed some current, new directions by movie scriptwriters, and urban subculture artists, exploring imaginary sexual relationships between sentient and insentient actors.  This usually involved a man playing his own real-life character, and a female-themed art object, like a puppet or a 2-D art piece, playing a role as his love interest. The movie discussed in the blog was "Lars and the Real Girl," and the subculture world was called Otaku. This is a Japanese slang term for "reclusive computer nerds, who often post screen shots of their (insentient lover) or go on real-life dates with (them on) their video-game console," and is discussed this month in the NYTimes 13Dec2013.

The same Times article, "Interactive Gets a New Meaning," by Alex Hawgood, besides other intrigues, discusses a new movie, "Her," just released by Hollywood.  It involves the Otaku-like relationship between the actor and the artificial-intelligence voice of a woman programmed on his smartphone operating system:


In "Her," the near-future romance film written and directed by Spike Jonze, there is an awkwardly remarkable moment in which the lead character, Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix), has an intimate encounter with Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) after returning home inebriated from a failed blind date with another woman.  Filmed with a close-up lens, it shows Theodore gently edging Samantha into arousal by telling her what he wishes to do to her body.  As things become increasingly explicit, the screen turns black, leaving the audience lingering in darkness as the characters reach their aural climax.

The relationship depicted in "Her," between Theodore and Samantha, seems eerily close to a rapport one can already notice between the driver of a vehicle, and the ethereal voice of the Siri woman emitted from his car's speaker system as she carries out his spoken commands to dial phone numbers, look up information, check the weather, etc.  Siri is uncomplainingly efficient, and pleasant too, so when you buy your next car maybe you ought to purchase the deluxe model of the voice command system and upgrade to a Samantha edition.

This concept of the interactive personal escort could be fertile ground for some amazing new fiction.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

creative nonfiction, retooled in a guise of storytelling, or maybe poetry

Who hasn't been inspired by the historic photographs of stoic, and enduring men and women, poor by birthright, and struggling to survive the additional economic calamities of the Great Depression, and the Dust Bowl.  Many Americans can recall the famous photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange, showing a migrant mother of two children in a camp for the homeless during the Great Depression.   Another famous photographer known for his work in the that era was Walker Evans, chosen as the partner of a writer, James Agee, in a reporting team sent by Fortune magazine in 1936 to document the living conditions of cotton tenant farmers in the Deep South.

A resulting article was written by Agee about the lives of the three farm families he observed during the two months in which he lived with one of the families, but his article was never published by Fortune.  No reason was given by the magazine.  It was fairly long, about 30,000 words, but tabling the article was perhaps in no small measure owing to the desperate, marginal living conditions documented by Agee for those poverty stricken families.  The sometimes overwrought language, and often scandalous opinions written by Agee on the character of the tenant farmer, or sharecropper, families, could presumably have been reworked by his editors, but perhaps the editors of a magazine extolling the noble virtues of capitalism and free market enterprise for achieving an upward mobility of workers might have seen in the article some powerful evidence to the contrary.

Agee was fresh out of Harvard when he went to work for the magazine, and so impressed his bosses with his work over the next four years that he was chosen to do the feature story on the lives of the cotton tenants, in the summer of 1936.  There seems little doubt from his original manuscript that his heart was with the plight of the tenant farmer, though his point-of-view (POV) as a writer seemed that of the omniscient narrator, imparting thoughts and motivations of individuals that were at best subjective, and often at a scandalous effect.  He must have known that if his story was published much of what he told might be seen as a sort of betrayal by those people he had lived among. 

The publisher released the original manuscript back to Agee after declining to publish it.  Agee worked the raw material for another several years and he published a novel from it in 1941, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men," (an ironic title, taken from Ecclesiasticus).  It sold only 600 copies when first published, but became a bestseller when it was reissued in 1960.  

The typescript for the article written for Fortune was found by his daughter recently while going through her father's effects in the house he left to her. The rediscovered material was published in May, 2013, as "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," with some selected photographs taken by Walker Evans during their field assignment.   Follow-ups of the story told in "Famous Men," were done by other reporters in July, and August, of 1986, fifty years after Agee and Evans did their original field work.  The book that resulted, "And Their Children After Them," by David Maharidge and Michael Williamson, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1990.  Of the surviving cotton tenant adults, and their children, some were offended by their story as told in "Famous Men," and others weren't.  In any case Agee died of alcoholism in 1955, at age 45, long before he might have had to face up to any in the tenant families who felt betrayed.  As one of the tenant families daughters told in her journal, speaking of Agee's book,

There's a whole lot in there that's true, and a whole lot that isn't true.  He was a mess.  My goodness, I could turn around and write a book on him. 

The story, the descriptions, and the photographs of "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," are mesmerizing, though some of Agee's subjective assessments and over-the-top language jar my own sense for a truer and more sympathetic telling of a then crushing way of life.  I spent some boyhood summer vacations in the late forties on cotton farms in the Deep South, and though times had changed dramatically by then--cotton farming was already disappearing as an important economic activity in the region--the plain cultural life of country folks, removed now from the penury of marginal existence imposed and maintained by the old tenancy or sharecropping system, held out many things to admire.  Some still ate biscuits and gravy with eye-watering salt pork for breakfast, with chicory coffee, and a crumbled, coarse corn bread in fresh-churned buttermilk eaten from a goblet with a spoon for an evening meal, and I came to enjoy such fare.  Except maybe the salt pork.  You can describe the tenant's diet as a greasy, fat-laden mess, destroying everyone's teeth, as Agee does, or you might choose to point out some similarities to the modern, healthy, Atkins high fat diet.  I needed a little levity here after the heavy sledding through Agee's hard-edged prose.

A good review of "Cotton Tenants: Three Families," appears in the Nov. 7, 2013 issue of NY Review of Books, written by Ian Frazier.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

revisiting POV and an observant use of distance in narration

If it embellishes the fictional dream,
see him thread the minnow on the hook
 rather than tell us what he's using as bait later.
Point of View, or POV, is often a dominant factor in creating a compelling story on paper.  The POV a writer chooses to tell his story, and a decision whether to use only one, or multiple POVs, can make all the difference in whether a writer fully exploits the opportunities presented by the choice of characters, the place setting of the story, and the drama of the plot.  After deciding POV, at first perhaps tentatively, the next aspect of writing strategy to be kept continuously in mind is maintaining the most effective psychological distance of narration.  The reader might, at some point, be kept at an objective, fly-on-the-wall distance as the scene unfolds before a POV character, and then might move deeper to describe the introspective thoughts of that character in response to the scene, and perhaps ultimately into the mind of the character expressing his thoughts in his own, silent diction.  However, equally important to a proper use of distancing, the writer should be wary of introducing disruptive distancing effects in his narration which could tend to jar a reader's sense of a continuous, fictional dream (see "The Art of Fiction," by John Gardner).

I am frequently reminded of this distancing aspect as I read for my own pleasure, and notice an author's seemingly inappropriate use of a distancing effect.  My attention was once drawn at a writers' workshop to the use by many authors of disruptive distancing, as when the author is in a third-person, objective point of view, and introduces a descriptive passage beginning "There was," or some variation of it.  The workshop recommendation was that, on the first revision of any completed draft, get rid of all such disruptive instances.  I immediately recognized how often I'd been using that sort of distancing, and how much more immediate a story seemed without it.  Just describe what the POV character is observing, without stepping back as if committing the scene to some recording document, or journal entry.

I just finished the novel, "Return to Oakpine," by Ron Carlson, and though I felt it to be a warm, sensitive story, some pages seemed to move at a dawdling pace, with lots of single line, he said and she said, volleys of idle dialog.  That effect is a sort of distancing too, and perhaps I should use a specific paragraph of 'Oakpine' containing a few of the distancing effects I've noted.  Bear in mind that the book has enjoyed some good critical review, and any successful novel might have things other writers could quibble about.  Sometimes it's simply a question of whether we might make a good book better.
The Pronghorn had been a little tavern three miles south of Gillette, a place the roughnecks could stop on the way back to town.  Over the years it had grown, first with a room on one side for four pool tables and then a large quonset in the rear with a hardwood floor for dancing. This area was lined with tables behind a low, wooden corral.  There were neon beer signs everywhere, red, and blue, and green, so the general glow added to the odd effect of having three ceilings of different heights in the gerrymandered room.  Tonight all the tables were full, two and three pitchers of beer on each, four, and the dance floor, too, was packed with a fluid, partisan crowd, groups of people churning forward, cheering their friends, under a glacial slip of cigarette smoke that drifted toward the high center.
First we might notice the use of historical exposition, which is a bit distancing from the story at hand; perhaps we could have just let a POV character see what he sees, and then move briefly into his thoughts on things he's noticed. Observe, too, that we have an instance of the journaling phrase,"There were...," and perhaps a few writers might choose to examine whether some stretched or odd adjectives like gerrymandered, fluid partisan, and glacial slip, are suitable for this rural Wyoming crowd.  If not, remember, any such 'flags' interrupting the fictional dream tend to introduce some distancing effect for the reader.

I decided to read again an old favorite, James Joyce, and see how he handled some of his elaborately descriptive scenes in his famous short story, "The Dead," without any seeming to be forced, or notably distancing.  Here's a paragraph describing the Christmas banquet of an upper class Dublin crowd:
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a neat paper frill round its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blancmange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks.  In the center of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry.  On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.
The entire paragraph has an immediateness to it.  Joyce makes it seem as if you, the reader, are right there at the table, looking down the length of the table and marveling at the numbers and luxury of food and dessert items, without any noticeable authorial presence interposing distancing effects to interrupt a marvelous fictional dream (though I might have gotten rid of one 'there' and have written 'In the center of the table stood').  Some of the more emotional scenes elsewhere, when Joyce moves deeply into the minds of his characters, are enormously effective and memorable.  Check out this classic story.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

magic realism

Magic Realism in Art and Fiction
It has been a couple of months since I last posted.  Sorry to disappoint anyone who has been following my blog, but when it came time for a monthly installment in July, I was pressed for time and considered perhaps I ought to put the blog aside as a regular commitment.  In fact, I thought maybe the six years I've been posting it had been enough, and I might put aside sharing of ideas on the writing craft and focus more on my own creative writing.  I decided to continue posting a while longer and see how things go as we move into the quieter rainy season in my coastal area.

I recently read The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker, and wondered how the publishing world might categorize this story.  Some of the magic realism of Latin American authors come to mind, as well as a few North American writers, but Wecker's story is a bit different.  Her characters are not ordinary humans who supernaturally appear out of a past time and place and animate a work of fiction set in a later time and place.

Wecker's golem and jinni are no ordinary humans, but they are not exactly the usual stuff of fantasy or science fiction novels, either.  The golem is a human-like creature, but is fashioned from clay, and imbued with an immense strength, through employing Kabbalistic formulae derived from a mystical interpretation of the Bible.  In Jewish folklore, golems have been created to protect the community at times of great external danger.  So, by authenticating our character with a religious underpinning, where supernatural forces provide a working rationale for such a strange creature, the story can have a solid, built-in basis for the "suspension of disbelief," so necessary to the reader's enjoyment of compelling fiction.  That is, we have the prior legends of golems, with the semi-religious imprimatur, and so are perhaps ready to go along with this new one.

The jinni is a little more problematic.  Here we have a human-like, male figure who has been imprisoned in a metal flask for perhaps a thousand years, and is released when a metalsmith in a Syrian immigrant neighborhood in New York City is repairing the flask.  Of course, there is some precedent for this sort of fable too, notably in the old, Arabian Nights stories, with Aladdin and the genie imprisoned in his lamp.  However the jinni myth doesn't quite have the same level of historical credentials; we just need to believe in the magic.  Wecker's jinni, unlike Aladdin's, doesn't grant wishes, but he has various powers, some of which have been diminished by a losing battle with a wizard who imprisoned him in the flask about a thousand years earlier.  Though human in form, our jinni's essential nature is fire, and even to walk in a downpour of rain can be life-threatening to him.

The golem and the jinni both arrive in NYC from foreign shores, Poland and Syria, respectively, in the year 1899.  With these sorts of bizarre natures, we are intrigued as to how Wecker will navigate such characters through the teeming immigrant communities of the city.  Throw in an evil, failed rabbi, who created the golem and has followed her to the New World in search of the secret of eternal life for himself, and we, as writers, are anxious to see whether Wecker is going to be able to tie it all together into a satisfying bundle.  From the beginning, one suspects these two unusual creatures will have to eventually meet, but many trials take place beforehand.  Moreover, what is Wecker going to do for any romantic encounter between a creature essentially composed of clay and one of fire?  Does she pull all the disparate elements together for a satisfying conclusion?  You may or may not think so, but it's a fairly good read, and a useful experience for a writer in constructing and tracking an intricate plot with plenty of mysterious elements.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

multiple perspective or point-of-view constructions

Perspectives -- Destabilizing with Lights & Darks
Point of view, or POV, the perspective from which a narrator describes a story as it unfolds, can make all the difference in capturing a reader with the shifting perspectives and accompanying dramatic tension.

"The Partial Glimpse--Perspective and Dynamic Plotting," by Catherine Brady (Writer's Chronicle, May/Summer, 2013) has some interesting facets to add to our ongoing discussions of POV:  


Multiple POV, with all the attendant unreliability and partial knowledge, prejudices of each POV character, can enhance the tensions in an unfolding plot...a device for destabilizing the reader's take on the dramatic situation."

Brady makes the point that we are often advised to choose as the perspective character the one who has the most compelling desire, and yet desire by itself is not enough to carry a story.
For any chosen perspective character you're yoked to that character's limitations, and if you have multiple perspective characters, figuring out how to get information to the reader behind the character's back means you get to play with every possible permutation of the wavering sympathetic connection between character and reader.  She continues,


A perspective character's limitations are a veritable gold mine of dramatic tension.  His uncertain reliability provides the key...Most perspective characters fall into a gray area in which they sometimes have the reader's sympathy and agreement and at other times do not.  This is the engine that drives dramatic tension.
Brady uses an Alice Munro story, "Love of a Good Woman," to discuss some of her salient points of  multiple perspective construction.  This Munro story keeps a reader guessing as to where the story is going, as her stories often do, right up to the epiphany of discovery, or has there been a discovery?  The reader has often to re-examine clues to the reliability or unreliability of the multiple perspective characters that contributed to the story.  The dramatic tension of any Munro story is most always compellingly resolved.  

The construction of our Munro story is memorable in that some perspective characters that contribute to the epiphany never actually meet or interact within the time frame of their narration.  For example, a third person  omniscient narrator tells of three boys who discover a drowned body in a creek bed at the beginning of the story; the boys and their families, after some discussion of their home life, are not heard from again.  

Next, a third person limited narrator tells of a virtuous nurse, Enid, assisting a dying woman and her husband who live in a rural countryside; this is interrupted by a third person limited narrator describing a confession to Enid, by the possibly now-deranged wife she is caring for, concerning a past infidelity with the drowned man and the husband's role in the impassioned killing and hiding of the man's body.

The story concludes with a third person limited narration of Enid's quandary of whether to bring the wife's confession to the attention of the police, or consider a prospect of staying on and maybe even marrying the otherwise decent widower and taking care of him.

Although the story has widely divergent elements, they all piece together rather well in a coherent whole.  The reader is perhaps uneasy about the quandary faced by Enid at the end, but then the dying wife's state of mind might have led to her fantasizing the confession, or perhaps, recognizing a potential attraction between her husband and Enid, she wished to poison Enid's mind against him.  

What of the role of the boys?  They set our mystery in motion, but was it also useful to describe the circumstances of their lives and their families?  As Brady points out, perhaps so.  Two of the families had difficult circumstances of life, but as country folk, they were attuned to how social conventions shield both the good and the bad, and how good people might have to make compromises in order to get by.  

The reader is sure to appreciate the dramatic tensions raised by multiple and shifting perspectives in the story.


Thursday, May 30, 2013

high concept plots -- v2

Aoife in Single Combat with Cuchulain
The graphic is just to add a little color to this month's post.  It is an acrylic painting I did for a current, local art exhibit, and depicts an Irish myth story from the Ulster Cycle.   The tree trunk is green and quite moist, plus it showered rain during the two days I worked outside on it.  I had to use a blow torch on the surface to dry the wood sufficiently for the acrylic paint, and hopefully it will adhere to the surface over time. Other artists did pen and ink drawings on the trunk, incorporating various distortions and branch nubs.

An earlier post, 06/13/2007,  discussed our theme of high concept plots,
From the outside the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women appears to be a boarding school for rich and snotty young women. The school, however, is actually a training school for future spies. Cammie is a Gallagher legacy and the daughter of the school's headmistress. By her sophomore year, she is already fluent in fourteen languages and knows how to kill a man seven different ways and is starting her first covert operations course...
Sort of an audacious premise, but then it's close to the concept of a movie made later in 2011, Hanna, starring Saoirse Ronan, as a 16 yr. old girl being trained in a remote, isolated setting by her father, an ex-spy, to be an assassin in an international operation.  So our fiction writer for the 2007 novel proved to be a seer of a compelling plot.  In another high concept plot discussed in the post:
The most powerful and elite families in New York City are hiding a secret- a secret that their children are about to discover as they are inducted into The Committee. They are Blue Bloods- an ancient race of Vampires. Schuyler's life changes dramatically when her invitation arrives to join The Committee. 
Vampires are probably not that much of a high concept entity anymore, but varying the setting or place of the novel, as done above, and proceeding in calculated steps, can give it an overall high concept score.  Vampires in the Lemon Grove, by Karen Russell, 2013, is a collection of short stories which include a few that could qualify as high concept models, including her vampire, title story.  The vampires consist of a kindly, very old man who whiles away his days sucking lemons and playing dominos in an ancient lemon grove in Italy, and his consort, a woman vampire who nightly transforms into a bat to return to a nearby cave.  The old man is an unpaid fixture at the grove, kept on to amuse the tourists.  The lazy pace and idyllic setting are dream-like, and hardly prepare the reader for the shocking ending, which helped give the story a somewhat high concept rating.

Reeling for the Empire was another story in the volume that was much more high concept.  Poor, rural girls in early, industrial age Japan are recruited from their needy families by a company agent for two-year contracts at a silk-making  mill.  The agent describes to the parents how it is their patriotic duty to help their country compete with the foreign industrial textile giants, and offers advance payment to the impoverished parents.  On the journey to the mill, the agent induces the girl to drink a ceremonial cup of tea to celebrate her good fortune.  At the mill, after meeting the other workers, the new hire soon realizes her special cup of tea was drugged, and she and the other women are at various stages of transforming into silk worms.  Each night their stomachs swell with embryonic silk threads, and the next day they draw silk threads from their hands to feed the giant spinning machine.  Their output dwarfs what could be accomplished with traditional silkworm culture.  Each day the women are fed bowls of mulberry leaves, and each day they grow more body fur and their physical features continue to slowly morph into silkworms.  The reader will be reminded of Kafka's story about the man who became a cockroach during his sleep.

Another story in the volume, The Barn at the End of Our Term, concerns nineteen past American presidents who have been reborn as horses at a ranch somewhere in the western states.  They are aware of their past identities and I don't know yet where the story is going, but one is certainly drawn to read to the end.  Other stories in the volume are gothic if not high concept.  Recommended.

Monday, April 29, 2013

point of view - multiple narrators and time slots

Deciding on the best point of view, or narrator's perspective(s), to unfold your story on the page can be an important step toward achieving success with the cast of characters and thematic material at hand.  The point of view (POV) consideration used to be loaded with rules for the writer, and any disregard of those rules was regarded as a sign of the amateur writer, or if published so, usually the sign of a well-known writer who could sit above the fray.

An article by Liz Radford in Writer's Chronicle (May, 2013) featured an interview with author Audrey Niffenegger, focused on POV.  Niffenegger has authored two best-seller novels that make highly effective, and instructive use of multiple POV structures. The Time Traveler's Wife (2003; 3 million copies internationally, and followed by a movie) has two principal narrators, and Her Fearful Symmetry (2009) has eight or ten narrators, including ghosts.

Niffenegger says, "With first person point of view, you have all the advantages of being very close to that character, and you have more or less unlimited access to them, insofar as they have access to themselves.  This certainly has its charms.  But you're experiencing every other character through the narrator's biases.  The writer has to work extra hard if the reader's understanding is going to be larger than the character's."  Those final two sentences are well worth thinking about for any writer.

To round out Niffenegger's POV philosophy, "With third person point of view you have many more options.  Sometimes you can be very close, sometimes farther away, and you don't have to stick with a permanent vantage point.  As long as you practice consistency and signal clearly about what you're doing, you can create many possible combinations of distance and closeness.  The narrator is allowed to add whatever information needs adding that the characters may not be observing, so you have more scope."

In discussing her POV concerns while writing Her Fearful Symmetry, and facing an expanding cast of characters with no one character she could follow all the time, Niffenegger recalls, "I'd been reading War and Peace in which Tolstoy skims along and changes point of view, sometimes within the paragraph.  If he wants to just look at something for a second, he'll pop into somebody's head and then pop out again.  It's quite nice.  I wanted to do that."  Similarly, in another place she says, "There's no reason why, for a sentence or two, I can't just wander into someone's head, even if they're not going to be a major part of it.  That's something I really love about Mrs. Dalloway.  Virginia Woolf just briefly strolls into peoples' minds and then wanders away.  You never see them again, and that's fine."

Radford remarks, "In Her Fearful Symmetry, there are instances during which we are privy to four characters' thoughts on a single page.  This happens seamlessly, without distracting the reader.  Any tips and tricks you can share for accomplishing fluidity like this?"

Niffenegger replies, "You want to keep voices differentiated so that you're signaling the reader when you change characters.  Also, there's no point in leaving someone's head just to get an identical viewpoint from somebody else.  Signaling is nuts and bolts.  I italicize thoughts.  I constantly tag "Robert thought," "Elspeth said."  Simple mechanicals."

The complete article has a wealth of information.  Niffenegger has a buoyant personality and some excellent advice, and Radford did a fine job of exploring the author's approach to POV and related matters.  Worth reading.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

think with the story

Holden in NY
The title is a spin on some advice that Ezra Pound was reported to have given poets: think with the poem.  It can also serve as contrarian advice to fiction writers, who have been taught they must be completely aware of every facet of their characters' likes, dislikes, past life, foibles, strengths, and, above all, what it is they want in the story, their desire, and the obstacles to achieving that desire, before the pen is ever set to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Many of us can remember well-meaning creative writing teachers who advocated sitting down with a few pages of prepared questions (or an entire notebook) to familiarize ourselves with earlier life experiences and a physiological genome of our fictional character, complete with her Briggs-Meyers psychological profile, and enough physical appearance detail that could suffice for a modeling agency photo-op spec sheet.


David Jauss, writing in the AWP magazine, The Writer's Chronicle, Mar/Apr 2013, in "Homo Sapiens vs. Homo Fictus," gives some formidable arguments against such all-encompassing prep work, preferring something for character definition more along the lines of Ezra: think with the story.  "If compiling a list of traits and attributes isn't the way to create a character, what is?" posits Jauss.  "A more effective way, I'd argue, is to let the imagination supply the details as the needs of the story arise--and during the actual composition of the story, not in advance."


Jauss suggests that developing reams of preconceived data about our character may put us at risk of wanting to use a lot of it and "in danger of proving that Voltaire was right when he said, The secret of being a bore is to tell everything."  The point being, a writer can deaden his character by weighting him down with too much revelation and detail.  Jauss uses Salinger's character, Holden Caulfield, to illustrate the point: "he consists of a handful of physical details, a couple of days of conversations and interactions with fewer than a dozen characters, and snippets of memories of three or four past events (principally, the death of his brother, Allie)."  


Jauss says Salinger gave only seven descriptive details about Holden, and all served to reveal the essence of his character.  Here are the details (Jauss's page citations for Catcher in the Rye have been omitted):



1.  he has a deep voice
2.  he's unusually tall for a 16-year-old.
3.  he's had "millions of gray hairs" on one side of his head since he was a kid
4.  he wears a crew cut even though it's out of date and girls encourage him to grow his hair longer
5.  he wears a red hunting hat backwards
6.  he has a sore on the inside of his lip
7.  he's unable to make a fist with his right hand because he broke it while knocking out all the windows in his family's garage after his brother died
It's amazing to see such a brief list when so many readers are usually able to conjure up fairly vivid memories of this irascible character.  Even after, or despite, Holden's promise that he wasn't going to give us all that David Copperfield kind of crap about himself.


The other point we started out to discuss for our fiction characters was the need for determining what it is they want in the story, e.g.  their motivation, or their desire, and the obstacles to achieving that desire. Such strictures have usually been the principal focus, often the only focus, for creative writing workshops and critiques.  They might be called the Hammurabi Code for writers, after the famous 1750 B.C.E., Middle-Eastern legal code:



If a builder build a house for some one, and does not construct it properly, and the house which he build fall in and kill its owner, then that builder shall be put to death.

Substitute author for builder, story for house, and publisher for owner, and you get an idea of the moral charge some teachers would impose on a writer for settling on a character's want, or desire, before beginning their story.


Jauss says "The desire-based theory of character implies characters actually do know what they desire, that their motivation is clear, and that each effect has a definable, understandable cause.  Interestingly, the most intriguing characters in literature don't know why they do what they do, and neither do we."  He goes on to discuss with us that most famous of indecisive characters in literature, Hamlet.  "I suspect that even those who claim we need to know our characters' motives inside and out find Hamlet a more compelling and believable character precisely because they don't understand his motivation."  


Jauss cites other authors on contemporary fiction about characters who lack a clearly defined desire to motivate their behavior, who want something he or she can't define, and includes some of my favorite short story writers, Alice Munro, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver.  He also pays homage to the mastery of Chekov, whose stories frequently comment on the inscrutability of human motivation.


It's like a breath of fresh air to hear from successful authors who can so knowledgeably cite the latitudes of creative writing actually open to a writer.


Tuesday, February 26, 2013

unreliable narrator

"I remember her as a plain-looking girl, narrow as a stick, shy, prudish, wouldn't want to show an inch of skin from chin to ankles when about," said our unreliable narrator. 
The ensuing discussion on 'unreliable narrators' includes reflections on the writing strategy found in "Gone Girl," a recent NY Times best selling novel by Gillian Flynn.  The novel has been variously described by the critics as a literary mystery novel; a frightening portrait of psychopathy in a failing marriage; a love story wrapped in a mystery--suspenseful, funny, and chilling, sometimes all at once.   As each turn in the plot begins to dawn on a reader, sluicing through remaining chapters is like downing successive boilermakers lined up on the dark, mahogany bar steadying his elbows.

Reading up to the point of revelation, the chapters alternate between the husband, Nick, who narrates in first person and gives a chronological progression of the story line from the day his wife, Amy, has disappeared, and the diary entries of Amy during the earlier time period leading up to her disappearance.  It is essentially the story of a failing marriage.  Nick has lost his job as a writer for a magazine publisher in NY, is unable to get another job, and has burned through his savings.  He decides to return to his midwestern hometown to help his twin sister care for their cancer-stricken mother, and maybe get another career start.  He borrows money from Amy, drawing down her trust fund, and partners with his sister to open a bar in town.  To keep up his credentials as a writer, he also teaches a journalism class at the local community college.

From Amy's diary entries we notice she is unrelentingly optimistic and supportive of Nick, even as he seems to decline into a narcissistic, self-centered and immature man.  Why Amy, an attractive daughter of a wealthy family, well educated, and clever, should remain so supportive of Nick seems a mystery to us.

(spoiler alert: it's a good read, so if you enjoy a good mystery, get the book and read it before returning to the writing crafts discussion).

Suddenly, Nick's narrative startles the reader: during a police investigation of his wife's disappearance, he admits to having an affair with one of his young students.  At this point, if the reader has limited patience with mundane, modern romance plots, he's hoping Nick will quickly be convicted and hopefully executed for 'disappearing' his wife.  We suspect Nick has proven himself to be an unreliable narrator about what was going on.  However we notice we're only half-through the book, so we decide to continue a bit to see if the author has any other surprises (it should be said all the author's surprises are well earned and fit her plot).

Abruptly, Amy's diary entries end, and she begins narrating what has been occurring to her since the day of her disappearance.  The diary, discovered by police investigators as she had planned, was prevaricated by Amy to point suspicion toward Nick.  She is actually in hiding now while the police investigation into the disappearance draws tighter around Nick.  Amy is revealed to the reader as a psychotically unreliable narrator, and further story events are stunning.

Even more stunning is the story denouement, as Amy checkmates Nick into continuing their marriage, and on her terms.

Nick's example of an unreliable narrator lies in his omission of key information that would have led us to form a different view of his character, up until he makes the disclosure of infidelity.  This is one of the more common signs of unreliable narrators, where the narrator hides essential truths, mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation, without ever overtly lying.  Other common types include contradicting oneself, or explicitly lying to other characters.  Holden Caulfield, in Catcher in the Rye, signals his unreliable narrator's role with various instances of evasion, obfuscation, and lying.  In his case, it all seems to work agreeably well in the story as the bravado of a sensitive, confused youth, facing entry into an adult world.  Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, occasionally falls into a role of unreliable narrator as he reports events he couldn't have known about, and obfuscates with intentional fantasy.

Another memorable story of an unreliable narrator was in I am the Cheese, by Robert Cormier.  It is a very dark and discomforting novel in which we think we're accompanying a boy, Adam, riding his bicycle from Massachusetts to Vermont to visit his father there in a hospital.  The family had been in a witness protection program as a result of his father being a whistle-blower on some sort of government corruption scheme.  A subsequent auto accident involving the family killed the mother and injured Adam and his father.  During his bicycle trip Adam meets with various spooky events and people, and a sort of deja vue atmosphere prevails along the way; he oddly recalls seeing some of the places before.  When he gets to the hospital and is being interviewed there by a doctor, we realize Adam has some sort of psychiatric condition and is actually himself a patient there, as are some of the people he has reported meeting on his trip.  In fact, the entire bicycle trip has been occurring on the hospital grounds.

However, none of these unreliable narrators come even close to the psychopathic performance of Amy as an unreliable narrator in Gone Girl.



Tuesday, January 29, 2013

writing to sustain the fictional dream

Author Intrusion
John Gardner, in his classic, "The Art of Fiction - notes on craft for young writers," Vantage Books ed., 1991, had much of use to say about the idea of sustaining 'Fiction as Dream.'  Gardner suggests as a general rule, "fiction does its work by creating a dream in the reader's mind.  We may observe, first, that if the effect of the dream is to be powerful, the dream must probably be vivid and continuous--vivid because if we are not quite clear about what it is that we're dreaming, who and where the characters are, what it is that they're doing or trying to do and why, our emotions and judgments must be confused, dissipated, or blocked; and continuous because a repeatedly interrupted flow of action must necessarily have less force than an action directly carried through from its beginning to its conclusion."

Vivid and continuous.  I often think of these criteria--and Gardner would be the first to acknowledge there are no rigid rules in fiction--and I try to stay alert to the use of language, or simile, or metaphor, that jumps out, or is jarring, and which may cause the reader to disengage for a moment from the fictional dream, trying to decipher what is going on with this phrase or sentence; would the character really say or think this?  Given enough of such distractions, the fictional dream may become harder and harder to maintain, and soon the book leaves the hands of the reader, flies through the air in a triple somersault and half-pike, to land in a corner of the room.  Well, that's perhaps extreme, but the reading experience is sure to be at least diminished.

I'm almost through reading "Finding Nouf," a debut novel by ZoĆ« Ferraris.  The American author moved to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War to live with her then husband and his extended family of Saudi-Palestinian Bedouins.  The novel has been described as a literary detective novel, and it is that, and is also a fascinating glimpse into the severe strictures of social and religious life of men and women, especially the latter, in a fundamentalist Islamic and monarchical society.   On the whole, the novel has good character development, and presents a suspenseful crime plot with many twists and turns.  A lot of exposition is used to carry the plot along, but it is a good read, anyhow.  Nonetheless, as is probably the case for any first novel, or perhaps even for any established writer's novel, a reader might find a few distractions from a vivid, continuous, fictional dream.  Skipping back through some of what I'd read in Nouf, I lifted a few examples for illustrative purposes:


p. 46:  The scent of manure lodged in his throat.
(I disengaged from the continuous dream here, pondering can the throat really perceive a scent?)
 p. 136  "Isn't your escort coming?" Nayir asked.
"She hesitated.There's no reason for it.  Not while you're with me," she said, although something about the tone of her voice implied Unless I'm mistaken about you.
(The author suggests how the reader should interpret the character's tone.  An intrusion into the reader's fictional dream.  Better perhaps to have just shown the phrase, Unless I'm mistaken about you, right after: 'she said.'  It will then be understood by the reader as what the character herself was actually thinking.  The writing technique would be called 'moving into the character's mind.')
p. 138:  For some reason--perhaps the wind gentled the air around them--her smell drifted into his nose.
(an awkward sentence that calls attention to itself, and an author's presence.)
p. 220:  He felt impossibly dumb and flashed on the idea that people this stupid shouldn't be investigators.
(to flash on an idea seems a very Western idiom, and not that of a Saudi Muslim investigator.  An author's presence jumps out).
Some of what I represent as showing an author's presence, or intrusion, into the vivid, continuous, fictional dream of the reader is subjective to some degree,  and not all readers may agree.  These are simply examples of what interrupted my personal, fictional dream as I read this novel.  Moreover, it is not to say that an author's presence, or intrusion, can not be used creatively, and in an innovative way.  David Foster Wallace sometimes used such a device, interrupting his narrative to announce something like: "Hello, author here, ..., " and then go on to deliver his message about what we are reading.  Notwithstanding David's stature as a writer, I'm not an enthusiastic supporter of an author intrusion as a conscious strategy.



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