On stories and “On Stories”: or, how I updated C.S. Lewis’s argument by accident

Recent reading — my own and others’ — has inspired me to tackle a subject that’s been simmering quietly for a while: the value of writing stories that satisfy expectations.

This has been brought to mind by my social media’s reactions to Harrow the Ninth (which I haven’t read yet), leavened by the occasional post complaining about showrunners killing people or plots off to frustrate their viewers’ expectations that bobs up in the Tumblr flotsam from time to time, and topped off by a recent mention of Gérard Genette, of all people, on my dash.

Any post I was going to make about plot and story was bound to reference C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories,” in which the most memorable passage to me was about the quality of “surprisingness” in stories being what makes them worth reading more than once. So I pulled out that essay and reread it, and was rather shocked at how unwieldy the argument was. Lewis does not, for instance, have handy access to the idea of the trope. (If he could surf TV Tropes he’d know exactly what it was all about, but half his argument was circumlocution trying to get at what the word represents in our present fora.) He seemed to think that if a story had Things Happening, explosions and travels and adventures of various sorts, it would by definition not be concerned with character development or social commentary. I had to remind myself that in 1945 Lewis has not read N.K. Jemisin or even The Old Man and the Sea. Benveniste is not in his rearview, much less Genette or Joanna Russ or René Girard or Walter Benjamin.

Nor has he read Robert Alter, who, I note, did not have a chapter devoted to Plot or Story in The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age — in blogging about that book I had to get at those things sideways from his chapters on Structure and Character and Perspective. (So it’s possible Lewis was right about critics having a blind spot there.) Yet part of Lewis’s argument is still relevant, if we clear away the class snobbery he festooned it with: that danger (no matter what quality) and plot twists (even — or especially — if executed in an adversarial spirit toward readers’/viewers’ expectations) can be a weight against the attraction of the story’s central idea; that being able to project what will happen is not by definition a flaw in a story; that “surprisingness” in stories isn’t actually generated by surprises.

I find this borne out by both how I read and how I write. I’ve mentioned before that when I pick up a book, I give my full credulity — and the author has to work to lose it. This extends, very often, to not guessing the murderer in mysteries even when fellow readers have it worked out halfway through; I’m often not just struck by the surprisingness of a story but by actual surprise. But if I really, really liked a book, the first thing I do is turn to the first page and start reading it again. If I like it even more than that, it winds up on my bedside table, or sits open while I eat dinner.

(Oh, that reminds me — I need to put out my copy of A Memory Called Empire so I won’t forget to lend it to F.)

The plots I choose for the stories I write are sometimes flagrantly projectable. With some plot points, my feeling is that if you didn’t see that coming, either you’re as credulous a reader as I am, or else I did something wrong. Sometimes the excitement of a story depends not on not knowing what will happen, but not knowing how it will happen. That’s halfway to “surprisingness” right there. Even so, I’ve had someone comment to say they figured out a story’s punch line early on, like I was trying to hide it and failed. Uh, I…wasn’t? Good for you?

We’re so aware of tropes now, so sensitized to their particular pitfalls of laziness and bigotry, that we rec a book or film or show to someone on the grounds that it “does interesting things” with the tropes of its genre — sometimes by subverting them but sometimes also by giving them their full dimension. Tropes themselves can be spoilers: there’s another handy word not circulating in 1945. I like to avoid spoilers when I can…but it’s not the plot so much I worry about being spoiled for. It’s the quiddity of the clutch moment and all that ties into it, the thing I like to come to without preconceptions being formed.

And it’s hard to market a story with “This story has Fencing and Explosions and Submarines and Grief-fueled Sexual Interludes, but they don’t necessarily happen right away because the story is Not Entirely About That” — though in keeping with strict truth in advertising, that’s my shortest pitch for Ryswyck yet. Despite the common currency of tropes as story foundations, it’s not (yet; Netflix seems to be working on it) the thing to sell or rec stories using nothing but the tropes they contain. (Though honestly, if someone maintained a rec list or a database of titles searchable by their tropes, I confess I’d use it. TV Tropes is too haphazard and sometimes disappears up its own whatever from high atop the thing, or induces me to do so, which is why I stay away.)

But even without that, we’re living in a rich, if somewhat frangible, critical environment, where you can seek out stories based on whether you want surprisingness or merely to be surprised — and have a menu of options for each. You can squee with an Oxford don on Twitter about Doctor Who, or read elegies for Chadwick Boseman from a savvy working man, swap Old Guard gifsets on Tumblr with a scientist on the other side of the world, or start a critical revival of Charlotte M. Yonge on Facebook. We’re all hoi polloi now; and possibly, if Jack Lewis were here to observe it, he’d call that the most surprising plot twist of all.

Allusion: sixth (and probably last) in a series

“It is, let me stress,” says Robert Alter, “an unnatural act to compose a poem or write a story.” And now that you’re all set to quibble with him, he goes on: “No one would think of perpetrating such an act without having been exposed to poems or stories that present themselves as objects of emulation or rivalry.” He goes on to instance the sonnet as a form that no one would use to express themselves without knowing what a sonnet is and entering into its continuity.

And, he’s not exactly wrong. I mean, I remember the first sonnet I ever tried to write. Probably best that my old folder of poetry was lost in some move or other. Still, if we were exposed to no forms of literature, we would have to invent them — I’ve been watching a lot of Time Team and you wouldn’t believe the number of times Phil Harding holds up a chip of flint he’s just dug up and says in his adorable West-Country accent, “Now, this don’t look like much, but it’s actually a Neolithic worked scraper — an exciting find!” Creating or maintaining forms of literature may not be “natural” — but they’re as essential a human technology as any other tool developed from antiquity.

But the reason Alter is using this argument is that he is trying to combat the sense of allusion as, again, something accidental or incidental to a text, which is better spoken of as an agentless process of “intertextuality.” “You can ‘allude’ to something,” Alter says, “but you can’t ‘intertextual’ it.” Not to belabor the point (but I totally will because this is my blog and I want to), but this idea that the literary critic does things to books texts, and only writers and naive people let books do things to them, is one that I just can’t accept. Yes, to consider texts critically is not the same thing as to enjoy or write them; but half your critical apparatus goes out the window if you refuse to think of writers as active agents in purposeful engagement with the tradition they have chosen to enter into, or their stories or poems as anything but inert objects to be played with in your current academic environment. I loved my education but I often felt that it took away with one hand what it gave with the other. “Here is a boatload of life-changing texts, but you should feel embarrassed if you ever admit that one had an actual effect on your mental landscape.”

(This is perhaps not fair to my professors in the English department, who no doubt had their hands full developing callow twenty-year-olds into proper critics not hampered by the Dunning-Kruger effect; but even my most sensible mentor, a medievalist with a wry sense of humor, when suggesting we consider how a text might be designed to affect us, used a gingerly dryness as if to insulate himself from the spirit of the age. I took note of that along with everything else in those seminars.)

Anyway, allusion. Alter calls it “an essential modality of the language of literature,” rather than simply a device in the writer’s toolbox. That is: the act of writing a poem or story is an act of engagement with whatever other examples of the form the writer has read and been affected by, and that engagement gives rise to allusion in different forms and modes. Two of Alter’s examples are Faulkner’s novel Absalom, Absalom! and Gerard Manley Hopkins’s sonnet “Thou art indeed just, Lord.” Never once in Faulkner’s book does the biblical story of David and his son Absalom make a direct appearance. But the title, being an allusion to that whole tragedy, informs the story between the covers as a comparably tragic self-destruction of a house. Hopkins, on the other hand, starts his sonnet with a direct quote from Jeremiah, and then strikes from there at the heart of his own frustration and sterility.

These two examples of allusion are comprehensive, and there are also recurrent or fleeting allusions within a text — but to use allusion, rather than just to be colored by whatever you’ve already read when you sit down to write, is to set up and activate a resonance in your reader that enriches their experience. Do it really well and they may not even have to get the reference.

Of course, the writer can make allusions for their own private enjoyment as well. A casual reader of Ryswyck may note by the style that I’ve obviously read a lot of Lois McMaster Bujold and Dorothy L. Sayers, and if I wanted to conceal their influence I probably wouldn’t be able to. A person familiar with the Major Arcana would likely recognize the images of at least two characters, which I worked into the design. But I’d be surprised and pleased if any reader caught the several references to the Gospel of John in the text — I put those in the design for my own pleasure, and to remind myself of what I like best about that gospel, the telling of a story from beginning to end in such a way that time itself becomes layered and laminated, like an exploded diagram of a theological reality.

Nobody needs to get that in order to enjoy my tale. But it’s part of the “high fun” of writing to make full use of all the nodes and meridians of meaningful stories in your reach. To think that a story should be full and resplendent with its own sui generis meaning, free of all dependence on other texts, is — well — a bit wanky, and a modern aberration. Some Stone Age person knapped a flint scraper for Phil Harding to find; I went to the store and bought a stainless steel knife. Guess who did more heavy lifting for the human race?

Now watch me dice this onion and cry some tears of gratitude.

This has been a not-so-liveblog responsive reading of the chapters in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Brought to you by the letters Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, and by the number Q. Tune in next time for…whatever I decide to do a series on next.

Structure and pacing: part five in a series

I’m going to talk about this one today because just now I’m finding it hard. For those of you following the home team, I’ve been blogging from time to time in response to Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, a book which is 30 years old but which still offers a cogent, pithy critical approach to literature. Alter asserts that literary art is indeed art, with particular skills and functions, rather than a serendipitous mumbling of the zeitgeist produced by hapless writers pretending to say something real on purpose.

Honestly, half the fun of this little series is name-checking a respected critic, who is willing and able to make such assertions without being accused of special pleading, as a writer would be. Of course we think we are making meaningful things with words on purpose. To be sure, the meanings we intend are not the only meanings we produce, but character and perspective, style and structure — these are real tools that have real effects depending on how we use them.

In fact, I think a large factor in the problems we have responding to narrative art in public venues now is just this: we think of narrative art as special pleading run amok. To tell a story at all is to demand attention. It is to make a bid to charge your reader or viewer or hearer with the energy of your artistic force, to overcome whatever resistance there may be to the moral imperative of your story, and to do that with the “high fun” of every skill at your disposal. Writers are not disinterested people. We only pretend that disinterestedness is a desirable quality in writing when we want an upstart to shut up.

The tools and skills of a writer, however, don’t care who it is that’s using them. We may wish that such tools would leap in protest out of the hands of, say, Leni Riefenstahl — but they don’t.

Where was I? Oh, yes, structure and pacing.

A story’s structure, after its characters, is probably the most reactive element of a text. Which is odd because it’s not really the first thing you think of when you think about what goes into a good story. It’s the matrix for all the meaning that the text contains, and for that reason it is subject to a lot of expectations from both writers and readers, for good and ill.

But a storyteller can turn those expectations to account. I saw the new film version of Little Women last week, and enjoyed it immensely. But it is not at all structured in the same way as the book. The movie is intensely interleaved, cutting scenes together not by their chronology but by their contrast. For instance, in the story there are two sequences where Beth becomes ill; one has a happy outcome and one does not. The film puts side by side each stage of the sequence, and each stage comments on the other, future commenting on past and past on future. In part, Greta Gerwig’s film can get away with this because the story itself is already so familiar; and yet subverting the expectations of that familiar story, having the past and the future comment on one another — sunny, happy tones set against grey, grieving ones — magnifies the pathos of the story no matter how familiar we are with it. I thought it was utterly masterful.

As a writer, then, how does one know what structural technique will produce the strongest effect? How does one know when to subvert expectations and when to justify them? And how does one deal with the uneasy awareness that to choose one thing is to not choose another? There is no single approach to any of these questions, much as people will try to sell you a formula that works every time.

The challenges I had with writing Ryswyck are very different from the challenges I’m facing with The Lantern Tower. With Ryswyck, I started out knowing a couple of things: I wanted the style and pacing to evoke a cinematic feel; I wanted my two main characters to reflect on Ryswyck after leaving its context; I wanted Barklay’s philosophy to be put to the test in war conditions; and I wanted the climactic note to be one of supreme vulnerability for nearly all the characters. This unfocused list of beats gradually resolved itself into a three-act structure set up like a trebuchet: a slow winding up of tension; then a few ratchets more in the second act — and then chop the rope — KAPWINNNG!

But because I had chosen that structure, there were things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t interpolate any scenes with du Rau in the first two acts, for two reasons: I did not want to diffuse any tension “onstage” by reminding readers he was there; and there were no scenes I could add that had any load-bearing content in terms of his character and situation. All I could do was introduce him as a future POV character in the prologue, alert the reader to his offscreen machinations, and then pick him up again in Act Three with as much continuity as I could gesture in.

Similarly with Inslee, whose POV scenes appear only in Act Two. I so much wanted to write a scene about the decision point where Inslee and his beleaguered senior staff realize they can’t destroy the GT lines and still have time to evacuate the island. Inslee says, evenly: “Then we don’t evac.” But the structure I had chosen simply would not admit such a scene, no matter how much I wanted to do justice to Inslee’s unembroidered heroism.

Now, if Ryswyck were an actual film instead of a novel with cinematic elements, I could and would structure the action differently. A film’s prologue, instead of establishing the POV characters for future context, could center on the past events of Solham Fray — which would add dark tones to the first view of Ryswyck Academy with minimal storytelling effort. I’d probably have to cut a good deal of the community-building sequences in Act One and find some other way to highlight Ahrens as an important character for later on. And instead of trying to hold out for a big surprise at the end of Act Two, I’d probably cut in some scenes with du Rau, Fortinbras-like, approaching the gates with stealth, and I’d probably use that sequence with Inslee instead of letting it languish on the cutting-room floor.

Why didn’t I do these things for Ryswyck as a novel? Well, because it’s a novel, first of all, and beats hit differently in a literary medium than in a visual one. Because the cumulative community-building of the first two acts was three quarters of the point I wanted to make. And because, goddammit, setting up a trebuchet is fun.

There is, alas, no trebuchet to set up in The Lantern Tower. The action is equally divided between two locations, so the challenge there will be to interleave sequences in a way that makes them interdependent and mutually interpreting. The pacing of the action in one place will need to complement, not overbalance, the other. The catastrophe (and the eucatastrophe) will be visible, hidden in plain sight as it were. The fun here will be building my ship in a bottle and then raising the masts at the end with one slow pull of a cord.

Sometimes a structure needs a unifying thread. Or, as the case may be, a cheese man.

But in either case, my objective is to write a story whose plot and structure stand unaffected by spoilers. I mean, for the truly spoiler-phobic, the above would be terribly spoilery (sorry). But it’s one thing to know what happens; it’s another thing to care about how it gets there.

And that’s the significance of structure that I aim for.

Meanwhile, watch this space for a more detailed review of Little Women. After, that is, I go watch it again and reread the book.

Character and the fictional imagination: part four in a series

In the movie As Good As it Gets, a vapid receptionist asks Jack Nicholson’s novelist character gushingly, “How do you write women so well?” Nicholson replies: “I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability.” Given the earlier scene of him composing text, this is probably not how Melvin Udall actually conceives his characters; but the exchange does further confirm both Udall’s obnoxiousness in real life and what kind of books his novels are.

Regardless of the quality of literary art, it is character more than anything that attracts people to a book and compels them to keep reading it. This is my fourth blog post about Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age, but the topic of character is only the second chapter of his book, preceded only by a discussion of the distinctions of literature itself. Of all the chapters, this is the one I am most tempted to quote in large chunks, and at the same time, it’s also the chapter I would most like to update for the 21st century, thirty years on from when he published the book.

A large part of Alter’s project is to push back against post-structuralist criticism that tends to view literary art as a closed system of arbitrarily exchangeable parts, driven in service of some ideology or other. Not only does late-20th-century criticism have no good critical tools for discussing character: it is actively hostile to the concept of character as an artistic endeavor that can be “representational” of anything like “reality.” Alter points out that to attack “character” as a naive delusion is to exhibit a different kind of naivete. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in a different context: “The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”

No reader, Alter says, really thinks that a character in a book is “real” in a flesh-and-blood sense; else the world would be filled with Don Quixotes attacking puppet shows thinking they are fighting a real battle. But that is not to say that the representational art of drawing character is not a thing of great power. In our current times, I would point out, vast conflicts are being waged online and in public spaces about the nature of character in fictional media. Books and films overpeopled with women who have reason and accountability, oh my! Or, in another vein, showrunners killing off minority characters and depriving fans of viable representation in the stories they love. Critical discourse is no longer just the preserve of academics writing seminar papers; the conventions and habitual biases of people making fictional characters is daily fodder for public discussion.

For that reason I think Alter is right to wish for a really good critical apparatus for talking about character as an artistic function. The nexus between the multiple layers of our common reality and the characters we find compelling is something that we should be able to talk about, both with awareness of the ideological valences and with a practiced insight into how written representational art is produced and received.

But even academics, as Alter says, can suffer from a want of training in how to both frame and discuss the subject of character. And that’s where I think the insight of actual writers can be useful. I mean, writers talking about character is not guaranteed to be useful, especially if you have a couple of dogmatic voices dominating the conversation. You would need a fairly democratized situation where a large number of writers weigh in. And in the 21st century, we have something like that: we have communities of writers of fanfiction, who not only produce “transformative” works with existing characters, but also who are able to interact more and more freely with the original creators of those characters.

“Transformative” is the word chosen by the OTW to describe legally-defensible fanwork; in ground conditions, transformative fiction is so in large part because it is performative. Are characters from the modern drama White Collar still recognizably themselves when translated to a 1920s gangster scene? You decide! But the means by which such a fiction is produced depends on an imaginative act by the author to enter in to a character and work within what they feel to be essential to that character based on their life experience and literary skill. And in that sense, any writer of fanfiction is engaging in practical literary criticism.

The only thing about this that is truly new is the fact that it is all happening on an instantaneous basis in our age of global communication, where one can send an email on Tuesday afternoon to someone in Japan who will get it a nanosecond later where it’s already Wednesday. The Aeneid, meanwhile, uses the exact same critical and literary skillsets to address the Iliad and the Odyssey, by expanding the ‘verse of the original to accommodate new viewpoint characters in service of — a national story, to be sure, but one that has the same imaginative immediacy to its audience as the original Greek texts did to those who first heard them. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which literary continuity operates.

So it really is, as Alter says, useless to think of literary texts as closed systems made up of propagandistic symbology. The perduring (I’m grateful he introduced me to that word) elements of human nature, threaded through eons of change, make the high art of literary character worth studying as a real function rather than a delusion.

I would point out, meanwhile, that the current Discourse going on in certain circles (“In my day,” she said archly, “we were honest enough to call it Wank”) is centered on the contentious axiom that Depiction is Endorsement: some people see little to choose between, say, the pedophile Humbert Humbert and Vladimir Nabokov who conceived and wrote him. People have rightly pointed out that this is mostly motivated by a desire for censorship: “I don’t want to read a story with a character like this” becomes “Nobody should ever read or write a story with a character like this.” And this contention is being shamelessly applied to writers of fanworks as well, as a criticism with teeth of the way in which a writer performs a canon character. This would be an example of a willful delusion: that a character is indistinguishable from an author such that the author is exactly as despicable as the worst character they invent.

Worse, any attempt to push back on this argument often draws scathing references to out-of-touch academics who don’t understand anything about the predatory dangers of the Real World. Given that post-structuralists were so intent on deconstructing the existence of any such thing, it appears that modern academia has been hoist by its own petard. Sad! That’s rather unfortunate, as a voice with recognized authority could be useful in such a discussion, just as the multiplicity of writers’ voices could broaden the discussion’s horizons.

Here’s an extended example of Alter’s critical skill, springing from his example of Stendhal in his discussion of character:

There is surely nothing in the structural necessities or formal requirements of the novel that could bring the writer to this moment of subtle comic illumination….If we look beyond the formal configurations of the text to the [person] that produced them, we will find scant support for a mystique of the writer as a special repository of wisdom….Between the unpredictable pattern of illumination in the work and the touching human foibles of the life, one is compelled to conclude that when fictional invention is going well, it is an activity that ‘privileges’ the writer in some uncanny way: in the incandescence of the imagination that produces good fiction, elements of knowledge and bits of perception variously collected, many of them no doubt stored subliminally in the mind of the writer, coalesce, take on revelatory form in the speech and acts of imaginary personages. It is as if the very process of writing allowed the writer to tap unguessed levels of [their] own self, to achieve a kind of nonvolitional heightening of ordinary insight, as, analogously, the process of free association in psychoanalysis is supposed to do.
Fiction, then, involves above all an imaginative intercourse between the experience of the writer, beautifully focused as it would not be elsewhere, and the experience of the reader, which is both necessary to recognize adequately what the writer has produced and capable of being deepened by what the work of fiction offers.

Now that is a not only useful but usable insight into the representational art that is fiction, and as a writer I find it relatable as a description of process. If someone were to ask me, “Now which of your characters do you most relate to?” I’d have a hard time answering. I’m not a caretaker like Speir, or calm and decisive like Douglas. I don’t have du Rau’s elegant fighting skill or sympathize with his patriarchal worldview. Barklay, my most “problematic” character, is not a transcript of my own temptations or a way for me to fulfill some wish toward exploitation. But the nature of literary art is to enter in to a character, to create and enjoy simultaneously the quiddity of their presence in the world, to work the wool of one’s own self into the thread of them where needed; it’s like knitting a sweater around one’s self. I’m not Speir, but I inhabit her. I get the fun of that private, indeterminate process of inhabiting, and I also get the fun of sharing her with the world. A friend who read Ryswyck remarked in casual conversation, “So you’ve just had these characters running around in your head the whole time I’ve known you.” Well, yeah, and now they’re running around in his head, too.

I mean, if that’s not the essence of “high fun,” nothing is.

Perspective in fiction: part three in a series

So, some time back I started writing blog posts in response to themes in Robert Alter’s The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age. Then — you know, life — I lost momentum on it. But the other day I found myself on a website devoted to helping writers of speculative fiction, and read a couple of articles on the teasing subject of POV choice, and it reminded me of this chapter of Alter’s book, which was the chapter I found the most insightful of all of them, and which has borne a lot of influence on how I think about the question of perspective.

In fact, I recommend Alter’s book on the strength of this chapter alone, because among other things he takes the trouble to sketch the history of narratology both as practiced by writers and examined by critics. I can’t do justice to the entirety of his argument, so for this post I’ll just tackle two of his points: 1) That “the proliferation of narrative theory has brought with it a sometimes bewildering proliferation of competing views and terminologies,” which tends to garble both how we evaluate what we read and how we advise people to write, and 2) that “there is no hierarchy of narrative perspectives” and that great writing flows from an author’s choices of innovating or nuancing the “fluctuating play” of perspective, which gives “experiential depth and conceptual complexity” to the reader’s experience of the text.

Though I have lasting memories of graduate seminars in which diagrams and boxes were drawn (in chalk, because I am An Old) of narratological frameworks, the most sustained discussion of perspective and authorial choice I’ve encountered is in the arena of fanfiction. One reason for this is pretty obvious: the source text, the “canon,” of a book or TV show or film, has already got an array of established perspectives which the fanwork creator can either hew closely toward, or diverge from. Part of the pleasure, or lack of it, in reading and writing fanworks is to weigh the comparison with the source: is the author trying to match the canon? are they taking a different viewpoint of the same events? does the invention of an original character add perspective to the ‘verse?

Naturally, in an environment where lots of fiction is being written and read, there are undulating trends, and discussions of craft to go with them. For a long time, there was a prevailing trend of writing fanworks in tight third-person POV using the present tense — a trend which may parallel similar trends in modern original fiction, but in both cases was influenced by a small number of very skilled writers who used this perspective to great effect. The trend was and is so strong that in one of the articles on the site I linked above, the author actually recommended sticking to a close third-person perspective, as it was easier to master and also more desirable than “distant” third-person in terms of vivid and immediate wordcraft.

I…don’t agree with either of those assertions, and never have. Where to start? I guess I should start with what I absorbed as a young writer imitating different styles. I don’t remember reading a lot of tight-third stories, or at least not ones I wanted to emulate. What I read were stories with an omniscient narrator (Watership Down) and first-person narrators (To Kill a Mockingbird, Huckleberry Finn). Though I wasn’t attracted to tight-third perspective per se, the principle behind it certainly had its influence: namely, that really good fiction drew the reader into an encompassing reality, a world with immediacy, in which author intrusion was minimal.

Now, Richard Adams is so good that it was years before I noticed he’d written my favorite book in omni. And in part that was because he conceived the narrator of that story as a voice and perspective just as present as the rabbits whose journey he was following. But for the twentieth century it was an old-fashioned approach. The real cutting edge then was experimental perspectives that completely filled the frame and excluded the author-as-narrator to the greatest extent possible — Virginia Woolf, maybe, or James Joyce. Good writing became synonymous with that particular kind of immediacy, even bewilderment, that the reader was meant to share with the focal perspective of the text.

(Here’s a reason to read this chapter of Alter’s book if nothing else. He examines a passage of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent — a book on the Edwardian Lit seminar syllabus that I did not enjoy, unlike The Man Who Was Thursday — and teases out the nuances of the perspective in a single pivotal paragraph, something that is not simply reportage or contextual storytelling or locked-in psychological sequence, but a threading of three needles at once. Alter reveals that one paragraph as a tour de force, and nails down his point that perspective is not a spreadsheet or a schematic. Gave me a better appreciation of Conrad’s abilities, too.)

I didn’t get much success with trying to write first-person narratives — an abandoned novel project and any number of first pages that never went anywhere. When I began to write fanfiction, however, I experimented with a perspective style I called “wide-angle” third (and which the Mythcreants author termed “distant” third — ye gods, the pejorative!) — and grew increasingly confident using it. I found it especially useful writing stories with an ensemble cast, using multiple POVs. Now, you can write ensemble casts in tight third POV, and a lot of people do. But for my purposes, I found it extremely useful for writing, say, Buffy Summers without having to present her thoughts as well as her dialogue in her inimitable voice. Especially if I was writing a story that also included the POV perspective of Giles, whose voice is, well, different. Too, I was writing stories with lots of angst, and there’s nothing worse for an angsty story than too much on-the-nose emoting. A wide-angle perspective, I reasoned, could give a reader the whole picture at any given time, without actually delving into omni.

I liked this so much that I actually went back to my first-person novel project and started it over with a wide-angle third perspective. It worked enough to reveal to me the real problem with the story, which was that it required some heavy research I didn’t care enough to do. So the story is still mothballed, but I feel less bad about it.

So, having written five hundred thousand words of fic (in one fandom) using wide-angle third, and having bridled at all the fandom praise being lavished on the opposite approach — and then getting over it, as one does — I was more or less free to consider what I wanted for my original fiction, with less arbitrary inward constraint or pressure of outward trends. For Ryswyck, I felt for and found a set of filters that would accommodate five very different POVs, which allowed for a bit more unabashed narration, especially when I wasn’t opening a scene with dialogue. Almost one of my first decisions in framing early drafts was to take a cinematic approach — or, something that would correspond to a cinematic approach if the story were being filmed: jump cuts, Sorkinesque walk-and-talks, repeated motifs: Speir being served a cup of tea on an artillery platform followed in the next scene by Douglas reaching for his cup on the desk — things that don’t have to be noticed, and are less apt to be noticed in a text medium, but which keep the eyeline steady from scene to scene.

And here’s a thing I miss about the old fandom venues: fic memes like “DVD commentaries,” in which the author of a fic interpolates comments on the process of a particular scene or story, including POV choices. It’s nice to discover (or tell) just what kind of on-purpose things a writer has done to achieve their effects.

Which brings me to the principle that undergirds all that I’ve learned about writing in the last twenty years. As a teaching assistant and adjunct instructor I used to tell students, “You have to know the rules to break them successfully,” and along with that goes its corollary: You can break almost any rule so long as you do it on purpose. That is — as the result of a decision process you came to about what would work better than any other technique in a given situation. This serves Alter’s larger point about how literary art is both craft and art, which can provide a reader with challenge and enjoyment, can speak to and evoke recognizable reality. If I were teaching now, I’d want my students to know something about the wider goals of using perspective, even as I drilled them on the disciplines of different perspective choices: how a take-six feels in the fencer’s hand, on the way to knowing without discursive thought when to use it in a bout.

Once you’ve encompassed that, the piste is wherever you say it is.

Style and the virtual cocktail party: part two in a series

Last week I introduced Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by supporting his argument that literary art can in fact be distinguished from other forms of written communication. Alter wrote his book before even email became ubiquitous, and now, in the age of the tweet, there are even more forms of the written word to compete with the distinction of literature, so I think it’s worth reviewing the ground Alter covers, with my own perspectives and occasional critiques, in light of 21st-century life.

Alter did not set himself the project of covering all the functions of literary skill, just enough of them to outline what makes writing — and reading — good books a worthwhile endeavor. So I’m going to talk about style, which Alter did cover, along with genre and convention, which he didn’t.

Style, Alter says, is “the medium we swim in as we read,” and therefore is not something you can just pin down in a few descriptive phrases; but as he points out, it’s worth trying to tease out the concept so we can get a look at it. In general, writing exists because it’s a way of getting words from the person making them to another person who is not present. Now that we have phones and Skype and podcasts and television and Netflix, the fact that writing was made to cover that gulf of absence is somewhat obscured. But it’s one thing to leap that gulf with the written word; it’s another to make the most of it as a fillable gap, to turn it from mere negative space to an occasion for art that is complex, fanciful, representative, or stimulating, or all that and more.

That is where style comes in. The way in which a story is told is an intimate component of the story itself, and when a writer is skilled and in control of her instrument, that way of forming and ordering words “goes to the heart,” as Alter says, of the work. Connections are set alight, metaphors are ranked as buttresses, the fleeting experiences of the mind and soul are evoked; pace and diction shape the reader’s experience of the text in a way that draws them — or fails to draw them — into the dream of the writer’s world for the time that they are reading.

Alter also takes some pains to show how style is handled by less skilled writers: “A good deal of bestselling American prose,” he says, “is written in a mode one might call Standard Contemporary Novelistic, representing, I would guess, a homogenization and formulaic reduction of certain features of robust and muscular style introduced in the twenties and thirties by Hemingway, Dos Passos, Farrell, and others. This writing often reflects a certain workmanlike competence, but the suspicion of a cliche lurks around the corner of all too many sentences.” He goes on to say that striving to be “literary” is in fact a hallmark of mediocre writing, and skewers a passage of one of Barbara Cartland’s books in illustration of this.

I mean, on the one hand, ouch! But on the other, it’s worth getting at this sort of troubled synapse between the writer who hamfists a palette of literary styles, and the average reader who might, in fact, resent having to do even a little work to engage with a complex book. It brings to my mind two passages from books I’ve reread with enjoyment.

In my favorite of the Robert Galbraith novels written by J.K. Rowling, The Silkworm, our detectives are trying to unravel the mystery of a novelist who was killed, it seems, in the same tableau as the ending of his last manuscript. They wind up interviewing both “bad” and “good” writers, along with critics, agents, and publishers, who knew the victim, and Rowling doesn’t hesitate to draw direct parallels between the attitudes of the pathetically-derivative self-published writers and those of the celebrated masculine authors — their preening and their neuroticism, their senses of what’s decent among writers and how rarely those standards are lived up to, and so on. But the Cartland-like “bad” novelist insists on describing her work as “quite literary,” and undercuts her friend’s writing by saying “it’s not great literature or anything,” even while deploring how her friend had been treated by the murder victim. Alter’s right: an aspiration to be seen as “literary” is a sign of underdevelopment in a writer, one of those giveaways that tell you exactly what you’re likely to find in their work.

To compare with another meta-literary discussion: in Dorothy L. Sayers’s Gaudy Night, Harriet Vane attends a cocktail party with fellow writers, who are all talking about the Book of the Moment, either with admiration or bitterness, or a sort of Emperor’s-New-Clothes unwillingness to seem unsophisticated. “But what’s Mock Turtle about?” Harriet says, and is treated to a long description of an incomprehensible plot filled with grotesque characters. “But of course a lot of things came into it — it was one of those books that reflect the author’s reactions to Things in General. Altogether, significant was, he thought, the word to describe it….Harriet began to feel that there might be something to be said even for the plot of [her current manuscript]. It was, at least, significant of nothing in particular.”

I think one of the problems of the modern age (and by the modern age I mean a period that has its beginnings with the rise of the novel itself, leading to our polytextual mosaic of daily existence), is the perpetual consciousness of the literary arena in the mind of the writer. A writer doesn’t want to write from an external locus of what styles and subjects are “significant” — underdevelopment of one’s own style is one thing; failure to strike the right note among one’s peers is even worse. It’s not coincidental that these reflections on writers’ communities are from mystery novels — a genre which has been a handy scapegoat for all that is formulaic and hyper-laden with overused tropes. The writers of the mysteries actually in the reader’s hands — Rowling and Sayers — are taking their swipes at an establishment that dismisses their own literary merit out of hand even as it indulges its own artistic narcissism to a unrecognized and gross extent.

And the virtual cocktail party is always going on. Let a genre writer stick sensibly to “workmanlike” prose, and watch his book’s style be dismissed as unremarkable, his story as tropetastic. But let a genre writer conversely innovate one or more of her genre’s conventions, and she may get tagged as “pretentious” by reviewers and readers who “couldn’t get into it.” “Pretentious,” as it was pointed out in a blog I cannot now find, is a word that gets applied to people who the speaker thinks are undeserving of the thing they are “pretending” to, as a usurper pretends to a throne. To call someone “pretentious” is to tell them they ought to “know their place.” Alter says that he is unabashedly using literature and style as “honorific” terms, to counter the critical environment that has been busily deprivileging literary art as a mirage covering propaganda and deterministic structures. But Alter knows, I think, that we can’t just leave it at that.

As a writer and as a reader (and when they let me, as a critic), I think it’s part of the “high fun,” as Alter puts it, of literature to ask of a text how a thing is done, why it’s done, what effect it has, the sheer engineering of the thing; and then to apply a value judgment if appropriate. Here’s an example of a convention that irritates me as a reader, by way of example. In a lot of well-regarded modern fiction, it’s become a Thing to write dialogue without the use of quotation marks, and sometimes to dispense with the convention of starting a new paragraph with a new speaker as well. Whatever the author might intend by it, this has specific effects as the reader goes through the text. It buries the dialogue visually in the narrative as a whole, making the text appear to be a hermetically-sealed experience of the POV character if there is one, or the general situation if there isn’t. This can evoke a dream-like quality to the experience of reading which can quickly be escalated to nightmare if that’s what the writer wants.

As soon as I encounter a book like this, my reaction as a reader is something along the lines of: There damn well better be a payoff if you’re going to make me adjust to the absence of a helpful convention. And sometimes there is. But sometimes, it just comes off as a cheapskate way of making the text seem more difficult than it really is. Eventually, the Iowa Writer’s Workshop will move on to a new style Thing, and the tides will leave some books exposed as gimmicky.

As a reader, there are some difficulties I will tackle with joy — and some I will leave on the plate. I will read the Divine Comedy for the hell of it, struggle through a massively allusive Dorothy Dunnett novel, savor the patchworked personal narrative of a memoir like H is for Hawk; but Finnegans Wake? Someone else can read that. I’ve no axe to grind about what I’ve sampled of Lincoln in the Bardo, but I haven’t got round to finishing it either.

As a writer, I don’t aspire to produce deathless literary prose, in part because you can’t say “I’m going to go cut down a forest” without eventually having to tackle some tree or other. Erin Bow can write imagery with a miraculous economy and a gossamer touch, and I envy the hell out of that, but it’s a thing she no doubt developed by hard work while also being absolutely inimitable. In my youth I sought to write lots of first-person narratives because I had been reading a lot of very good ones and thought that was how you went about writing great fiction. But I’m not Harper Lee, either. While working on several fanfiction projects (and I’ll tackle the conventions of fic when I write about character and/or perspective at a later date), I learned how the surrounding style conventions worked and evolved, and chose what suited me to use; and by such degrees, and by reading more, and reading more kinds of things, I developed my instrument, which just happened to be useful for the kind of story I wanted to write. Go figure!

But as a reader who is also a writer, I crave discussion venues that aren’t just replications of the virtual cocktail party. In a response paper in a long-ago seminar of Victorian lit, I remarked on Jane Eyre that Charlotte Bronte had a quandary on her hands with the endgame of the novel, recognizable to writers and dreamers if not to anyone else — that Jane and Rochester had to get together at the end, and Rochester had to have suffered something by then, so how? What she did about the quandary makes for a much more interesting discussion, to me, than “I liked/didn’t like it” on the one hand or “Monological imperatives in Dick and Jane: a study in psychic transrelational gender modes,” from a Calvin and Hobbes strip pasted up on a fellow grad-student’s office door in an oblique commentary on our common critical enterprise. But a venue for real, actual literary discussion is surprisingly elusive — not just in the halls of academe but in listservs, blog communities, and book clubs whose purpose would seem to be nothing else!

I mean, I can’t be the only person who wants to have a thoroughgoing discussion about what’s actually in the book. Right?

The Distinction of Literature: part one of a series

A couple years ago, at my local independent bookstore, I picked up The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age by Robert Alter. I already admired Alter greatly for his contributions to the study of the Bible as literature (and have been lusting, if that’s the word I want, after his new translation of the Hebrew scriptures), so I snapped this book up thinking it might be fun.

Not surprisingly, it’s turned out to be a book I return to engage with again and again, and not only because it was written shortly before I started my undergraduate and then graduate studies in English literature. Alter’s characterization of the critical scene at that time is amusingly familiar. I’ve been out of the academy for 20 years, and this book was written 30 years ago, so there’s a sense in which I’m picking up a conversation with Alter 30 years late. But in another sense, the “ideological” age Alter is writing about is no longer just a description of the critical scene; and more than that, Alter’s treatment of the components of literary skill has worn well enough to be perenially useful.

The chapters of Alter’s book, in fact, are useful enough that I’d had it in mind to write a blog post or two talking about one or more of them in connection with my own approach both to reading and writing. But a recent reread of the book has prompted me to think I might want more of a series than that. So this is a post addressing the basic argument Alter delineates in his introduction and first chapter; other posts will tackle the functions of literary skill and merit that he identifies in other chapters.

Here’s a rough-faced summary of the argument. Alter asserts that although literary studies in academia promised to benefit from the structuralist and post-structuralist theory that challenged the ivory-tower, New-Critical style of literary criticism, by the time of Alter’s writing the study of literature has wound up in a boondoggle of doing things to texts for ideological purposes, scarcely ever reading them on any terms but polemical ones, and as far as Alter can tell, never recognizing or enjoying literary art at all.

He’s not exactly wrong. When I was an undergraduate, and even more in graduate school, I could usually be counted on to provide the least ideologically sophisticated responses to the texts on the syllabus. To say what the reading of the book has done to you, rather than demonstrate your proficiency at doing things to it, was at best precious and droll. But I couldn’t stop doing it; and that may be the true motivating factor (besides, of course, money) why I did not persist in academia after getting my MA.

So I don’t really have a quarrel with Alter’s overarching argument. But the last time I looked this book up on Amazon, its reviews had a lot of praise along the lines of the phrase “breath of fresh air” from backlashy types who were all too eager not only to criticize the ideological boondoggle but to heap scorn on what Harold Bloom liked to call “the School of Resentment” — “politically”-motivated scholars whose minority status made them delicate snowflakes in need of crushing with the shovel of reality. But scorn is not Alter’s project at all — and so this blog post is to deal with the distinctions that need to be made.

“All study of literature must emerge from and return to reading,” Alter says in his introduction, and follows it with a statement of the main theme: “Literary language is an intricate, inventively designed vehicle for setting the mind in restless pleasing motion, which in the best of cases may give us a kind of experiential knowledge relevant to our lives outside reading.” He is critical of the idea that the literary canon, loosely conceived, is nothing more than a vehicle of hegemony for congratulating itself, without taking Bloom’s tack of rejecting all criticism of the canon itself.

Alter only mentions Bloom a couple of times, and I resent (heh, see what I did there) doing so more than once in a short blog post, but it’s like shooting one big sturgeon in a barrel, really; it’s not to be helped. Bloom built his academic brand on the idea that great literature is so because its writers have engaged the tradition with serious intent and succeeded by overcoming their own idiosyncrasies to become, as Alter says, “relevant,” to broaden the scope of what might be called universally human. That most women and other minorities have failed to do this is, for Bloom but not for Alter, merely incidental. Alter has no axe to grind here; he just wants to read a damn book and talk about why it’s good.

But I don’t think Alter entirely achieves a distinction between the operation of the canon, “the impulse of self-recapitulation” that keeps the tradition going as a recognizably literary endeavor, and the ontology of the canon, the thing that makes a text worth recognizing as literary art. He warns the reader that the examples he will choose to illustrate elements of literary skill are not diverse because he wants immediately recognizable texts to hand for his discussion. The unfortunate phrase “affirmative action quotas” crept in there at one point. I can distinguish this from Bloom’s project of apotheosizing the Western Canon, but it just points up the problem that has not, as we know, gone away at all.

Let’s take as an example Ann Leckie’s groundbreaking SFF novel Ancillary Justice. It became a bestseller on its publication in 2014 and won the Arthur C. Clarke and Hugo Awards, and thereby was admitted to a canon, if not “the Western Canon” of literary art. It also drew a massive backlash that went on to affect how the Hugo Awards themselves were conducted in the future.

At contention was, among other things, Leckie’s use of a single pronoun to refer to all human persons in the novel, a pronoun that was used without distinctions and meant clearly to be universal in its comprehension of human identity. The pronoun was she. Now, there were (and are) plenty of thoroughgoing misogynists ready to state baldly that females and the feminine are representative of nothing but themselves, that to truly denote universal humanity you need a man. But this is an idea that is thoroughly sedimented in us all; and Leckie’s book required every reader to grapple with it.

Ancillary Justice‘s detractors used the argument, tellingly, that the book really had no literary merit and also no true popularity except among people with an ideological agenda. It could neither be valued nor enjoyed. Apparently, the pleasures of reading Ann Leckie’s book in an ideological age are either 100% or zero.

I’m pretty sure Alter would see the problem with this. And the question must be asked: can we appreciate the “high fun of literary art” of a text like Ancillary Justice if we have not already entertained the idea that the experiences and insights of women and other minorities can stand as relevant and representative, without asterisks or qualifications, of the human condition that art is made to speak to? I can’t help but think of how even after instituting blind auditions, women still weren’t getting into orchestras…until carpet was put down to hide the telltale clack of high heels when the auditioner came in. Then, amazingly, the acceptance rate quickly reached parity.

Without throwing Alter’s argument out the window wholesale, I would say that interrogating the canon(s) of literary art is not just a parity project but vital to the development of the very functions of skill and merit that Alter would like to see recentered in our minds when we pick up a book. And it is with those reservations that I appreciate the chapters that follow.

So stay tuned for more in this series on such topics as character, style, structure, and perspective. And ignore the acacia trees that grew overhead while I was writing this post, heh.