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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