Saturday, January 26, 2008


James Woods has written an interesting piece in the Guardian today on character in fiction (although it does, at times, feel like he's showing off how many books he's read - a few too many paragraphs simply name-checking the characters from famous, mostly Russian novels). He makes a good point in his introduction, after a witty parody of the hideous "descriptive sentences" from amateur writers:
The unpractised novelist cleaves to the static, because it is much easier to describe than the mobile: it is getting these people out of the aspic of arrest and mobilised in a scene that is hard.
So often, characterisation in novels or stories is no more than descriptive nonsense with a few omnisicent-narrator "truths" thrown in.

He also suggests:
"Again and again, in book clubs up and down the country, novels are denounced because some feeble reader "couldn't find any characters to identify with", or "didn't think that any of the characters 'grow'".
Again, I can understand this. It is something that infuriates me, this trite notion that characters must in some way develop in the progress of a story. It is a ludicrous straitjacket, part of the formalisation of the novelistic form which I think is destroying it.

There seem to be so many conventions that have to be adhered to, such as the character-development arc. I'm reading Coetzee's Disgrace at the moment, and while I can admire the writing, it strikes me as cold, unfeeling, utterly novelistic and not in the remotest way real or, for that reason, interesting. There is discussion of the perfective tense - burnt not burned - and so, of course, later on there is going to be a burning, and the main character's face is burned. There are constant references to animals, and so the main character as part of his redemptive journey, ends up caring for dying animals. And so on. The lesson plan the main character has devised on the day when the cuckolded boyfriend turns up just happens, of course, to be on Byron's Lara, which has uncomfortable resonances in the circumstances. There are many other such writerly devices, and I hate them. They seem to exist only for the purposes of showing off: the writer, in how neatly he can stitch together the elements of his novel into a coherent theme; and the reader, who can preen and congratulate him or herself for spotting them. It becomes a game, a literary puzzle, something the cognoscenti can identify and understand and talk about. But so fucking what?

Now, of course, I could be accused of reacting like the small-minded reading groups that Woods refers to in his article and, fair enough, I hold up my hands and accept the criticism. Yes indeed, this novel is a serious study of the changes wrought in South Africa after the dissolution of the apartheid regime, and for me to focus not on that grand theme but on the minutiae of the writing process probably demonstrates a skewed perspective but, I guess, as someone who wants to be a writer, I can't help reading from the point of view of the craft, not the story.

I find it odd that, after the modernist movement of the last century, after post-modernism, we are still shoehorning fiction into these narrow conventions, still rushing headlong into symbolism and manipulating our stories into these tired tropes where something happens which will inevitably turn out to be a mirror of some later, more desperate event. It's all too predictable. It makes the reader concentrate on the Writing, not the writing.

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