Friday, February 13, 2009

How to tell a story (2) - avoiding a heap of words

Melvin J. Friedman, writing in 1977, contrasted quotes from two writers born in the same year of 1925. Firstly, John Hawkes:

I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.

In this, he is merely mimicking the French new wave, led by Robbe-Grillet, which was to hold such sway in American writing through the late fifties and into the sixties. There always feels something unconvincing about Americans spouting this sort of postmodernism, like they learned it in their lecture halls and have it memorised, ready to impress. Secondly, Friedman quotes William Styron pleading for narrative flow:

It’s when there is no narrative flow that I think fiction is copping out. I don’t mean to say it has to be a ‘cracking good yarn,’ but there has to be a story.

Friedman refers to their respective first novels, The Cannibal and Lie down in darkness, to pursue his discussion on the nature of American fiction in the fifties. I am currently half way through The Cannibal, but I have been for some weeks now and I keep finding reasons not to return to it. The writing is fine – quite gripping at times – but what the hell is it about? I read Lie down in darkness a while back and, while it was an intriguing story, it felt desperately long to me, and the attempts to weave symbolic, even allegorical meaning into it felt heavy-going. Friedman calls Styron an ‘old-fashioned rhetorician’, which seems about right, while of Hawkes he suggests that he has ‘forced his violence to retreat into the surreal and hallucinatory’, which again seems to sum up the (in)action very well.

It seems to me, though, that Friedman sets up a false dichotomy. My reaction to these two examples – which, I fancy, would be fairly representative of most modern readers – suggests that each goes too far in search of the literary and stylistic perfection its author was seeking. Hawkes’s lack of a comprehensible plot becomes challenging to the point that the reader stops reading; Styron’s insistence on building plot and character and narrative becomes, in the end, plodding.

Friedman expands his argument to suggest there were three strands of writing in American in the fifties – the academic novel, the Jewish novel and the Southern novel. (He reluctantly suggests a possible fourth, the Beat novel, but suggests it was not long-lived: I’m not sure subsequent literary history bears that out.) Of these, the southern novel is singled out by him as being one that has largely ‘avoided experimental temptations’ and Southern writers have had a tendency to restrict themselves to more traditional forms of narrative. He goes on:

Faulkner’s inheritors are almost all rather sober storytellers who consider plot, character, setting and theme (those four declared enemies of the novel, according to John Hawkes) before anything else.

He makes the observation that there is a numbing sameness about the thematic preoccupations of many of the southern writers, and a presumption as to the reader’s ‘patience for elaborately turned plots and other contrivances’.

This, it seems to me, gets closer to the original question of what is important for the novel. To talk in terms of experimentation or tradition is to miss the point. It’s what the experimentalist or traditionalist does with the material that matters. A conventionally written narrative that confounds the reader by making him or her consider a theme in a different way will have power, where yet another Flannery O’Connor story about redemption through violence and grace through submission is, however finely written, just another Flannery O’Connor story.

Similarly, an experimental novel which leaves its reader unmoved because it has forgotten, say, to develop any character with remotely sympathetic, or even human sensibilities, will not linger long in the memory. Much of the workaday output of Donald Barthelme could be considered to be of this type. But, occasionally, some spark of humanity erupts from those bizarre constructions of his and leaves the reader perplexed but moved. The Indian Uprising, for one, is as strange a story as you could imagine – almost meaningless on first reading. But it says more to me about human nature than Flannery O’Connor ever managed to weave into her claustrophobic and obsessively controlled novels or stories.

What I’m saying, I think, is that it’s not about process or technique. It’s about heart. Is the writer trying to say something that’s worth listening to, something that moves you, something that makes you think, even reconsider? If so, it will probably transcend its form. If not, it’s just a heap of words.


Alex Keegan said...

Tom, I agree with you when you say it's about heart

and I agree with you when you say it isn't down to any particular process

but it IS down to craft and it does not follow that someone with a heart ready to explode with passion and things to say WILL master the craft to express that passion

What annoys me far more is when the process becomes the thing. I would cheerfully kill the beginner who talks about HOW he is going to write this opus (not like anyone ever before of course)

It's not about being quirky, or clever, or breaking new ground in delivery

it's about revealing humanity

I would be happy to be considered a mundane prose-smith if that mundane prose revealed great truths which remained with the reader

it's the latter that counts

Tom Conoboy said...

Yes, craft is important. It's one of the curiosities of writers (as opposed to aspiring musicians, artists etc) that they EXPECT to be able to rattle off a work of genius without any practice whatsoever. I've never really understood it.

And yes, the concentration on process before outcome is also bizarre. That's where postmodernism disappeared up its arse. It forgot that there has to be a point to it all. And that point is always humanity.