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« Fact of the Day | Main | Fact of the Day »

May 16, 2005


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Thanks to Dave Lull, who emailed me a link to this Charles Isherwood essay theater essay for the New York Times. One passage in Isherwood's piece especially fascinated and irked me. He's constrasting two current plays, John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt" and Martin McDonagh's "Pillowman":

Although they share a dark view of human behavior that reflects our anxious age, the plays represent radically different outlooks on the purposes and priorities of theatrical writing. To put it casually, Mr. McDonagh wants merely to tell a story, while Mr. Shanley is interested in saying something.

From which I conclude that, in Isherwood's value system, "saying something" automatically trumps "telling a story." Hey, a small hint to anyone who wants to impress the critics? Make sure your play or novel isn't just telling a story. Make sure it appears to be "saying something."

I've grown amazed over the years by how condescending many high-toned people are towards storytelling -- storytelling as in narrative, plot, etc. Can they really think that the creation of a galvanizing-or-amusing narrative is a minor achievement? Can they really take the existence of a story that holds your attention and delivers a few satisfying surprises for granted? I notice, for instance, that while Charles Isherwood feels free to scold Martin McDonagh for having nothing to say, he neglects to ask how well John Patrick Shanley tells his story.

Though I now marvel at this attitude, I confess that I once shared it. During college, grad school, and for a few years after -- when else? -- I thought of storytelling as a kind of unfortunate necessity that, perversely, fiction required. In this view, story is the clothesline you hang your artistry on; further, the "art" in a given work is to be found in deploying the artistry, not in creating the clothesline.

I didn't come to my senses until I tried writing some narrative fiction of my own. When I did, I quickly discovered two things.

  • Coming up with and telling a convincing and enjoyable story is hard work. And
  • The ins and outs of narrative fiction fascinate me far more than the ins and outs of the nonnarrative game do.

I'm tempted to assert as a once-and-for-all, objective truth the statement that the narrative-fiction package -- its history, how it works, etc -- is more fascinating than the nonnarrative-fiction package is. But, given that I'm really talking taste here, I'll back off from attempting anything so grand. Still, any look at world literature makes it clear that the taste for story is infinitely more widespread, deeply-rooted, and longstanding than is the taste for "artistry." (God bless artistry, of course.) In fact, the general preference for storytelling in fiction seems to be as fundamental as the general preference for figuration in the visual arts, for tonality in music, for decoration in dress, for rhythm and rhyme in poetry, and for traditional forms in architecture and urbanism.

How then to explain the dismissive attitude of the intellectual set towards storytelling? A book-reviewer friend who shares my amazement has a hunch I find plausible. He asks: "What do academics and critics know about story? What's teachable about story? What is there in narrative fiction for intellectuals to get fascinated by? They look at fiction in terms of the essays they might write about it. And they think in terms of impressing their peers. How impressive an essay could a prof write about a book that just tells a good story?"

My friend asks, in other words: What might intellectuals and critics (exceptions gratefully allowed for, as always) conceivably have to say about such riveting and suspenseful examples of straight-ahead storytelling as "The Maltese Falcon," "What Makes Sammy Run?" and "Mildred Pierce"? Sad to say, but the answer is clear: next to nothing. To my mind, these three books are great achievements -- as good as any fiction written by any American in the 20th century. To the academic-critic mind, they're ... I dunno. Mere stories, perhaps.

Small timeout: I take a couple of things about fiction for granted, and it occurs to me that others may find my assumptions peculiar. To lay 'em on the line ...

The first is that there's a list of elements a given fiction-work might be selling. "Foregrounding" is of course a more respectable term than "selling" -- but do you want fiction to be respectable in that way? Generally speaking, I don't. My real life's respectable enough; I like my fiction a little rough and lowdown. Anyway, this list, which I've never taken the time to write out before, includes:

  • Fancy writing: the exactness of the descriptions; the prose poetry in the "music" of the language ...
  • Character: the book's cast, so to speak; the insightfulness of the characterizations; the depth of them; the plausibility of them ...
  • Humor
  • Suspense
  • Subject matter
  • Narrative drive
  • Hook -- what is the book's angle on its material?
  • Sensibility
  • Picture-painting -- how evocative of place and time is the book?
  • Structure -- on how many levels does the book engage you? How do these levels interact with each other?
  • Symbolism
  • Narrative voice
  • Sociology -- how observant is the book of the life around us?

As well as many other elements that aren't occurring to my arthritic brain right now. It's a long list. And I'm grateful to anyone who cares to pitch in here.

I also take if for granted that no work of fiction is strong in every sense. How could it be? No individual is strong on every count. "Ulysses," for example, may rank high in the prose-poetry category as well in as the "intricate use of symbolism" category. But it seems fair to say that "Ulysses" is nowheresville in the "narrative drive" category.

We might agree, on the other hand, that Elmore Leonard's "Be Cool" is hard to beat in terms of its cast of characters, its dialog, and its brutal-yet-droll tone. But we might also agree that "Be Cool" scores a zero so far as "fancy use of symbolism" goes. Incidentally, here's an amusing and touching NYTimes visit with Elmore Leonard, who, though he's turning 80, is as funny and down-to-earth as ever. Asked about how he does it, Elmore answers:

"The first part moves along O.K., and then I have to think about the second part, because the second part keeps it going," he said. "And then you've got to get to some new things, say around page 250. There is always those surprises near the end."

Elmore Leonard is a fiction-writing shaman.

Where I differ from the intellectual class is in the way I rank these elements. For one thing, I don't rank them at all, where the fancier people are convinced that what really matters in judging fiction are the more taste-centric and "intellectual" elements: fancy sentences, gamesmanship of various kinds.

BTW, is anyone else as tired as I am of the way so many people go on about how good or bad something called "the writing" is in a given book? Too often, it's E-Z snobbery: a quick way of arriving at judgment without taking the time to examine or experience the work more thoroughly. Why the fixation on judging the work anyway? Isn't experiencing it much more interesting and rewarding? I'm reasonably responsive to the flow and music of words, and I'm happy to admit that -- while some writers have a cloddish touch where the sequencing of words and images goes -- others can display fluency. Still: why make a big deal out of this? The writin' is of prime importance only when the writin' is one of the main things a given work is selling.

An analogy: did the Jamaican guitarist-and-singer Joseph Spence have a glitteringly fluent singing voice? Not by a long shot. He had a range of about a half an octave; his voice barely qualified as a croak -- yet, as far as I'm concerned, he was a master singer. What kind of sense does it make to judge Joseph Spence as though he were a conservatory-trained vocalist essaying a new interpretation of Vivaldi? James McMurtry and Jimmie Dale Gilmore have voices that barely get by, yet both men are wonderful alt-C&W musicians -- wonderful singers, in fact. Why get hung up on abstract vocal prowess unless abstract vocal prowess is what you're being asked to react to?

Back to fiction: why linger over the writin' unless the writin' is what the book is about? A bigger question: why are so many of today's lit-fiction books so preoccupied with the damn writin'?

Anyway, my view is that a given book or story may be selling any combo of attributes, qualities, and elements; that it's up to us to figure out what they are; and that it behooves us to make the effort to react to the book on its own terms. We might also be moved to question the terms the book proposes. But, in either case, recognizing what the book is selling -- understanding what the terms of our transaction with the book are -- and reacting appropriately is key.

But my typing fingers are slowing. I realize that I'm lying, if just a little bit. Because, where my list of fiction-elements is concerned, I do in fact do a little bit of ranking. I just don't put any element at the top of the list. I rank from the bottom up, not the top down. And the bottom-up ranking that occurs to me as I look at my list of fiction elements is: story, character, subject matter, and hook are basic.

As a practical matter these are the elements that everything else depends on. Not necessarily in an individual work, by the way. I like this Sheila Kohler collection of stories, for instance, despite its lack of narrative drive; the book is probably best taken as a linked sequence of sinister, highly-colored prose poems. Yet I love Kohler's tone as well as her ability to evoke atmosphere -- and I found that package enough to get me through the book in a pleasant state.

But, having said that, it also seems clear that the interest most people have in most fiction depends on story, hook, subject matter, and character. Without the chance to relate to and enjoy these elements, 90% of people would lose their interest in fiction. They'd turn elsewhere for story-and-character satisfactions: to history, to journalism, to gossip, even to reality television. (Hey, a lot of people have already turned away from respectable fiction to these other media for their story pleasures. You don't think there's a connection, do you?) But we aren't going to live life without enjoying stories and characters, that's for sure.

Another way of putting it: while the occasional individual work of fiction may fare well enough without much in the way of story, the well-being of fiction generally depends on a shared interest (on the part of readers and writers) in characters, stories, hooks, and subject matter.

But isn't the fancy stuff -- the voice, the gamesmanship, the writin' -- the really hard part of fiction-writing? And therefore doubly to be valued? I'm not sure that's the case. Not that I'm any good at anything having to do with fiction writing, god knows. But I've done a little fiction writing of the nonnarrative kind as well as some narrative fiction-writing. And if I can't generalize from minuscule personal experience, then what is blogging for?

For what little it's worth: I've come to think that, despite its working-class status, storytelling is in fact a much tougher job to execute than the upper-middle-class fancypants challenges. For one thing, storytelling is the heavy-labor, man-at-work part of fiction-writing. It's the carpentry, the engineering, and the plumbing all at once. Making sure your story "turns" when and how it needs to can take a tremendous amount of energy. While I'm able to sit and type out pretty (or, in my case, halfway pretty) sentences for weeks on end, inventing and crafting a plausible story-turn KO's me in a matter of hours.

But the main reason why I conclude that storytelling is harder than the fancy stuff is more basic yet: it's that storytelling is accessible to everyone.

An example. Say you're putting together a work of contempo lit-fiction. What you're selling might include a sophisticated metaphor for America's decline; your finely-honed post-modern sense of deconstructed irony; and your oh-so-casual but flip media-referential voice. If this is the book you're writing, then it's safe to say that you're playing to a small and special audience -- a coterie audience, in fact. Confronted by your work, non-coterie readers will look at what you've done and think, Heck, I don't really know what's going on here. They won't judge; they'll just check out.

But if what you're selling is instead fiction that's primarily narrative in its appeal, then you're handing your fate over to everyone who cares to pay attention. You aren't implicitly saying: Only initiates dare judge me. You're offering your work to the masses. You aren't engaging in abstruse gamesmanship; you're making choices about characters and story. You're saying: X character did this; and Y character reacted in that way; and in turn situation Z came about; to which character A reacted in this way; which in turn led to ...

Everyone-but-everyone who's reading (or watching) this kind of work feels qualified to judge it, because what you're trading in isn't grad-school shenanigans but personal pleasure and common human experience. No one's going to feel shut out from your work except those whose noses go up in the air. Everyone's going to feel entitled to react along these lines: "Well, I don't think that what that character's doing right now makes any sense at all, given what I know about her, what you've told me about the situation, and what I know about life. I'm feeling displeased. In fact, Mr. Author? You just lost me. You've written a bad book." When you choose to sell storytelling and character, you're speaking -- and submitting to -- a common language and a shared culture.

As a writer of fiction-that's-primarily-narrative, you're always asking yourself, "Does this development make sense yet provide adequate surprise and delight? Am I violating my characters or my setup? Am I twisting my story and deepening it in ways readers will find rewarding? And will my audience really accept what I've just come up with?" The writer of lit-fiction who is snubbed by readers can always think, "I'm spinning my own brilliant wheels. My writing is for the connoisseurs, and the hell with anyone who doesn't get it. Besides, failing to get my achievement only shows how idiotic the scoffers are." If you're a writer of narrative fiction? Well, there's no escaping the audience's reaction. You know that when the audience turns away, you've failed.

Where to find out about story? Most creative-writing classes don't teach storytelling; they generally teach a bag of writing-school tricks. If you're interested in creating fiction that few people but other writing-seminar students will ever appreciate or enjoy, then sign up for a creative-writing class now.

Are there how-to or critical books that are helpful? Denis Dutton is as crisp, vigorous and sensible as ever in his review of Christopher Booker's massive new survey of fiction plots. Booker claims that there are only seven main plots. Perhaps he's right, perhaps he's wrong -- Dutton thinks that Booker's case is at least worth wrestling with. I rather enjoy these kinds of taxonomies. My favorite taxonomy of story-types comes from Lee Smith, for my money the greatest living American lit-fiction writer. Lee Smith once said that all fiction boils down to only two stories.

  • Someone comes for a visit.
  • Someone goes on a trip.

[CORRECTION: Whiskyprajer lets me know that the originator of this witty two-kinds-of-story distinction was the novelist John Gardner. Lee Smith was no doubt quoting Gardner.]

As far as I've been able to tell, the people who really know something about storytelling are the people who are practical about it, which these days means TV writers and movie writers. So -- in my opinion -- if you want to learn about storytelling, the thing to do is skip the creative-writing classes and take screenwriting and playwriting classes instead. Screenwriting classes will teach you how to get a story up on its feet; playwriting classes will teach you how to create living characters and juicy situations.

As for books, I've been through dozens of how-to-write-real-stories books, and many of them were good. The two I'd suggest as starters are very different from each other. Linda Seger's "Making a Good Script Great" is the easiest way I know for beginners to get a first grip on storytelling. Seger doesn't go terribly far with the subject, but she does an amazingly effective job of swinging the door open and walking you through it.

The other practical book about storytelling that I revere is Robert McKee's "Story." I think "Story" is genius. A few preemptive warnings, though. McKee -- who has made zillions conducting "story seminars," and who was teased by the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman in his script for "Adapation" -- has many fans but is also widely reviled. He has a grandstanding persona, for one thing. He relishes the role of the lone-truth-teller, as well as the taunter of avant-garde, arty idiots. He loves being the man you love to hate, and he plays the role with scary conviction. Modest and ingratiating he ain't.

Others blame McKee for how formulaic many Hollywood scripts are. According to these people, movie art is all about the freedom, man. Thinking about movies (and writing scripts) in terms of story types and genre expectations is anti-creative.

I certainly understand where these critics are coming from. It isn't hard to imagine some meatball taking McKee's tips as an iron-bound set of laws and creating a lot of dullsville, by-the-numbers crapola. On the other hand, what else is a meatball going to create? He's a meatball! A non-meatball -- you, me -- might have a wrestle with McKee and come away from it able to project ideas and fantasies in ways we only dreamed about before. What's wrong with that? I've taken a number of McKee's seminars and have spent many hours with his book, and I haven't regretted a bit of the time I've spent on his thoughts and advice. BTW: where Seger's book can be read through in a couple of hours, McKee's book is for browsing, preferably years of browsing.

I'm feelin' the heat! Stop me before I extend my observations and hunches too far! Story/character/subjectmatter/hook ... Accepting those as basic ... It's kinda like ... Well, it's kinda like accepting tonality in music as basic ... Or accepting traditional pleasures and patterns in building-and-urbanism as basic ...

I subscribe to a New Urbanist view of fiction, in other words: take what people have demonstrated a longtime preference for, accept those terms, and then work with them. BTW, it has certainly occcurred to me that McKee's "Story" is the equivalent where fiction is concerned of Christopher Alexander's great "A Pattern Language." I wonder if such books exist in all culturefields: cooking, music, the visual arts ... Any nominees?

Before the conversation rockets off in one predictable direction: I'm fond of a lot of fancy nonnarrative (and semi-narrative) fiction, theater, and movies. I was throughly marinated in modernism, I have a grad degree in this point of view, and I have many years' experience behind me as an appreciator of this kind of work. So puh-leeze: no lectures on my closed mind, or on my ignorance, or on how awful it is that I'm trying to be a dictator. Writers can (and will) do as they please. Of course, readers can (and will) read to please themselves too.

At the same time, I am asserting two things:

  • The ability to invent, construct, and tell a galvanizing, moving, suspenseful, or amusing story is much undervalued by the litchat class. And

  • It's idiotic to think that most people's interest in fiction will ever extend too far beyond storytelling, subject matter, hook, and character. An art form that divorces itself from its roots is taking a foolhardy chance.

The trimmings artists pile on top of the main fictional course might fascinate and delight. But these are still, for most people and in the long run, trimmings.



UPDATE: The Wife tells me that I neglected a major question in my ramblings: the importance of character. She's right, of course. Creating living, recognizable characters and putting them up before us -- what could be a more important fictional goal? Sam Spade, Mildred Pierce, Sammy Glick ... Talk about fabulous artistic creations! Leopold Bloom too, of course. Though I'm less convinced that that tiresome Stephen Dedalus is much of a creation.

One of the main functions story can serve is to give a good character a chance to enact her nature. Does the way the narrative "turns" both express her character and reveal more of it? The back-and-forth between story and character -- between the way story elaborates (and frames) character, and the way character propels (and informs) story -- is a big part of the never-ending fascination of the narrative approach.

It occurs to me that we also shouldn't forget to tip our hats to the memorable characters who have emerged from the comic-narrative tradition: Bertie and Jeeves, for instance. Tom Jones. Candy. They aren't deep, god knows. But when a comic writer nails a character good while also bringing her hyper-alive -- sexual overtones fully intended -- it can make for its own kind of resonant art bliss.

UPDATE 2: The Reading Experience takes issue.

posted by Michael at May 16, 2005


Excellent essay.

I've attempted to write fiction before; the ins and outs of an entertaining story are an incredible challenge. "Saying something" isn't a worthy feat (hell, look at the blogosphere), but I imagine saying something while telling an entertaining story is that much harder to do; narrative direction and expositing a belief can work towards opposite ends. I guess I'm trying to say that "saying something" within a good story might be even harder than a simply good story, so there's a potential for it being a higher art than "mere" storytelling.

Still, I find myself agreeing more with you. I've read Raymond Chandler's novels many times, and it's never "what he's saying" that grabs me--it's the textural, cynical and insightful storytelling. Academic takes on the work, though, seem to universally point to Chandler as a social conscience, Chandler as an exposer of the "seedy underside" of California life, as though he were pulp fiction's Upton Sinclair. In the two instances Chandler has come up in univerity classes, it seemed to me the professors were looking for what Chandler had to say--and not in addition to, but in spite of the stories.

Posted by: Scott Cunning on May 16, 2005 8:10 PM

Quit dissing Jimmy; pick on somebody else next time. Anyway, a lot of people think the Odyssey was a pretty decent yarn, and Jimmy was just retelling those old tall tales like the Cohn bros in that movie.

As someone who read Ulysses multiple times, what have on top of my head is a movie:Stephen walks along the beach, thinks of Berkeley, kicks a rock, thinks about Kant, sees a dog, thinks about Aquinas, sees the mast on a sailing ship, thinks about death. It was a triumph of symbolism and a triumph of naturalism simultaneously, and all the arty stuff, believe it or not, serves to propel a narrative. It is unusual in that the narrative and events are often internal to the characters and psychological and unusual means are necessary to illustrate those naturalistic psychological stories. But Ulysses is close to Hemingway in its shortage(non-existence?) of authorial intrusive descriptive prose;every word serves to describe an event, some thing happening. It is 100% narrative.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on May 16, 2005 9:09 PM

Really interesting stuff, Michael.

I have zero -- no, make that negative -- ability as a fiction writer, but I'm fascinated by the nuts 'n' bolts of the craft (er, art). What you say sounds sensible, especially when you align fiction-writing with architecture, city planning, music, etc. And it seems to hold with representational painting, where a sense of story or situation along with the viewer's recognition of fellow humans and their condition seems to (me to) bind viewer and art more closely than the less-tangible (though more highly regarded by critics) abstract expressionist art.

And a really good artist or writer can slip in a dab of MEANING without totally messing up the work. A case is point is Tolstoy's War and Peace, which incorporates his (flawed, to my mind) philisophy of history that pooh-poohs the influence of Great Men such as Napoleon.

(Actually, I had to read W&P for a college class and found it a real chore so I'll defer to others regarding judgment as to its quality. My dim recollection was that the philosphy-of-history bits distracted from the flow of the book.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 16, 2005 9:43 PM

I read War and Peace in college, but not for a class. At the time I thought it was the coolest story I ever read. But that's probably because I didn't have to discuss any philosophy that might be contained in it, or worry about what was going to be on the exam.

Posted by: Lynn on May 16, 2005 10:52 PM

You are approximately one zillion percent correct. Telling a story is the job. All of it. Just look what happened to Arthur Miller when the balance tipped from story telling to saying something. He became instantly unreadable and unplayable. If you want to say something, write an essay. If you want to commit literature tell me a story. It reminds me of the thread on Dostoyevsky you had going awhile back. He was in his bones a story teller, but jammed himself up with significance from time to time. Mr. Pittenger's point, I think, is that narrative can carry any amount of weight in terms of meaning, but philosophy is inert in terms of catharsis.

Posted by: Mike Hill on May 17, 2005 1:18 AM

Isn't the entire point of pursuing a writing career so that you'll become an intellectual paragon to adoring college girls the world over?
You can't do that by just telling a story, anyone can do that. You've got to have ideas, so you can have a club with secret knowledge, like A^2 + B^2 = C^2. And the writin' is the shibboleth to get in.

Posted by: . on May 17, 2005 6:23 AM

The essay I most enjoyed in Martin Amis's collection, The War Against Cliche (and I enjoyed them all) contrasted Thomas Harris's The Silence of the Lambs with Hannibal. Amis did an excellent job of revealing why the former was a masterpiece, the latter a piece of crap, which leads me to wonder if "higher education" couldn't impart a similar ability to appreciate and discern.

And re: Christopher Booker - John Gardner had him beat by five, God love 'im. JG asserted there were really only two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on May 17, 2005 8:35 AM

Interesting that Mike Hill brings up Arthur Miller in his comment. I was thinking of him as I read this essay.

Supposedly the most important line in Death Of A Salesman, the line that says something is, "Attention must be paid." But in fact the play has gripped and will continue to grip audiences because of the agonizing, ultimately unresolveable story of the tormented relationship between Willy and Biff, father and prodigal son, the mutual thwarted love between them. This is the great story that Miller wrote despite himself, despite the portentous lesson he wanted to stamp on us.

Posted by: ricpic on May 17, 2005 9:40 AM

These days, I resolutely reject any book that's trying to say something mostly because, it seems to me, contemporary writers have very little to say. I've given up on reading things that are supposed to be good for me and want pure enjoyment. But as for the writing, I can be turned off within a page or two if the writing is clunky, mannered or overly descriptive.

Posted by: Rachel on May 17, 2005 10:38 AM

Scott -- Funny to hear about what your profs have tried to make of Chandler. I suppose it'd be beneath them to say something like, "Hey, wasn't that one moment just incredibly suspenseful? And did you see that bit of deviousness from that one character coming? Yet it made sense anyway, right? And that Philip Marlowe -- talk about an iconic character! How'd Chandler make all that happen?"

Bob -- I guess my tone was off: I didn't mean to be dissing "Ulysses," which is obviously some kind of great book. It's a hard one for most people to understand in traditional story terms, that's all I really meant to say. "The Odyssey" is easily comprehended as a kind of action-adventure movie; Joyce took that and made it so hyper-internal that many readers don't see much there in the way of "action" at all. People making their way through "Ulysses" don't often go to bed thinking, "Lordy, I wonder where that story's going next!" in the way that readers, say, of Agatha Christie do. Fun reading your thoughts and observations about Joyce, by the way.

Donald -- Those bits in a book when an author breaks away and just starts telling us things are a great topic to think about. When do we find that fun? When do we find it a pain? I wonder if there are any general rules of thumb to be made about the questions -- beats me. You're making me think about Tom Stoppard, though. Stoppard loves ideas, but is quick to point out that he isn't a thinker or an essayist -- he's a playwright. So what he does is that he puts the ideas that are intriguing him into the mouths of his characters, and then takes care to make sure the dramatic interactions between his characters have some interest and movement. It's a nice solution. It's also fun and recognizable. I think something hard-nosed fiction sometimes underdoes is the extent to which we're thinking creatures. We think about the TV show last night, about the diffs between men and women, about what makes a good baseball team, etc -- our minds are always buzzing with something or other. And it's fun to see that side of life depicted too.

Lynn -- I'm no Tolstoy scholar (by a long shot!), but the Tolstoy buffs who I know tell me that one of the big things you have to get about Tolstoy is the split in him between the fiction-creator on the one hand and the prophet/philosopher on the other. Keeping that in mind certainly helped me get through some of the longer-winded passages in a few of his novels...

Mike -- Very interested to hear more of your thoughts about story and action! I think acting experience can really help people understand these questions, don't you? My dinky, untalented time in acting class was still a great help to me in shaking off a lot of English-lit nonsense. It's very practical. Actors know when a character is working. And they also know that characters always need to be pursuing something (even if they aren't being super-physically active about it). What would you say you've learned about what fiction is and how it works from your own (considerable) acting experience?

"." -- Impressing the chicks is a much-underdiscussed motivation for being an artist, that's for sure. And impressing the critics and profs can help with the impressing-the-chicks crusade.

Whiskyprajer -- Thanks for the tip about the Amis essay. It's funny: in the case of Amis, I have no interest in his fiction (the few times I tried him he seemed to be exhausting himself trying to impress), but I often find his essays and reviews first-class. He did some tennis journalism for a period that was great. And he seems very down-to-earth about the craft of fiction. Funny: the first time I think I heard that "two kinds of story" thing was from Lee Smith. I guess she was quoting John Gardner, and I didn't remember that. Thanks for straightening that out.

Ricpic -- And I always found "Salesman" heavy-handed and tedious, and over-explicit about what it wanted to say! Miller: what a blowhard. But you're right: at that point, Miller certainly knew how to grip an audience, and that's a skill and talent to be respected. Does he really get more heavy-handed and message-centric in later plays? I've dodged most of his other work.

Rachel -- One of the things that soured me on the whole "a fiction writer's gotta be telling us about ourselves" thing was getting to know (or at least meeting) a lot of lit-fiction writers, many of whom turned out to be ditzes, or paranoids, or unworldly, or just not very bright (however talented). Scales fell from my eyes! I came away thinking, Well, maybe they know how to invent characters or engage me in narratives, and that's to be valued. But they certainly aren't people to be paid much attention to otherwise. I wonder where the whole tendency to think of fiction-writers as geniuses telling us things we wouldn't otherwise think on our own comes from. I shouldn't be too unfair: in noticing things and dramatizing them and embodying them in characters and stories, fiction writers can sometimes be very perceptive, and can open our eyes. But in terms of formulating observations, thoughts and explanations? They're often as silly as actors are. I have a small theory that a lot of this resutls from professors: lit profs, being proud of how smart they are, can't stand it that the people whose work they study (ie., fiction authors) often aren't really very smart. Why should we smart people be servants to these not-smart people? So the profs turn the authors into supersmart people, and then discuss their works as though they're the consequences of people being intellectually brilliant, instead of what they are: the creations of talented craftspeople. Yet again: the tyranny of "smart." Sometimes I wish people would relax about being "smart" or "not smart." What's the big deal about "smart"? I wonder if school traumatizes people about "smart."

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 17, 2005 11:28 AM

I notice that the Teaching Company has a lecture series on "Ulysses," and another on "The Odyssey." Both are on sale right now.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 17, 2005 11:37 AM

I deny the dichotomy between story and writin'. Here, take a look at this whopper:

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of countryside, when I at length found myself, as shades of evening drew on, within view of the melancholy house of Usher.

Clocking in at 59 words, it's got tone (dull, dark, soundless, oppressively low, alone, singularly dreary, melancholy), symbolic foreshadowing (autumn of the year, shades of evening), alliteration (dull, dark, and soundless day), rhythm (the MELancholy HOUSE of USHer), intricate structure, and all that other writin' jazz. You might say "fine and dandy, but the reason it's good is because it gets the story moving and it's hella spooky". To which I would respond that it wouldn't be hella spooky without all the tone, symbolism, alliteration yada yada that I just described. People may not be interested in it, but they sure as hell feel it. Replace Edgar Allan Poe with Joe Allan Blow and the whole effect would be deflated - and the story lessened.

So I think it's folly to look at story apart from style, as you do Michael, or style apart from story, as the poindexters do. The two really ought to work together hand in glove to create the intended effect. I find that my favorite authors (Mr. Poe above, Melville, Tome Wolfe, that old guy Bill Shakespeare, et. al.) manage both.

I wonder if such books exist in all culturefields: cooking, music, the visual arts ... Any nomineees?

In film there's a book called The Hollywood Eye by Jon Boorstin, a producer. He says film works via three modes - visceral, vicarious, and voyeuristic. Visceral is anything which either a) stiffens the sinews or b) summons up the blood; vicarious is the identification with a character; and voyeuristic is about seeing something new, or else something familiar in a new way. He says a great film will include all three, and I think he's right. It's certainly an interesting way of looking at it, much more fruitful than all the post-this and neo-that academic stuff.

Posted by: Brian on May 17, 2005 12:17 PM

Maybe authors, like actors in their way, are idiots savants, able to tune in to portray human feelings, thoughts and emotions and tell stories in a way we ordinary people are not. Theodore Dalrymple wrote a piece in the New Criterion a couple of months ago on Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, his first effort at fiction after quitting the biz for 20 years to become a moral philosopher. As a moral philosopher, Dalrymple says, Tolstoy was a "monomaniacal puritanical prig, though one with the genius of a great writer." FWIW, I blogged about it and the writer Arundhati Roy here:

Also, re PG Wodehouse, one of my all-time favorites who has given me more pleasure than any person living or dead, he was no slouch in the plot department either. I think I read somewhere that he drew out elaborate maps of his plots in order to keep track of them. And he had a way with a phrase too: Someone (forget who) "looked like a sheep with a secret sorrow." Madeline Basset believed that "the stars were God's daisy chain." Jeeves to Bertie: "You would not like the philosopher Nietzche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound."

I could go on, but I won't.

Posted by: Rachel on May 17, 2005 12:33 PM

Hat tip to GNXP for the link:

An essay by Paul Graham on Essays:

I'm not quite sure about how reliable Paul Graham is, but this line of thinking certainly seems to be where I see you going, Michael, with respect to professors idolizing authors, etc.

Posted by: . on May 17, 2005 12:33 PM

But isn't telling a story saying something?

Posted by: Ralph on May 17, 2005 1:39 PM

Interesting---John Patrick Shanley wrote one of the most interesting screenplays of the last twenty years, at least in terms of character, hook, interesting story, funny moments, happy endings---"Moonstruck." (When he accepted his Oscar, he said he wanted to thank "everyone who ever punched or kissed me in my life."). To me, "Moonstruck" is "writin'". The same way Jane Austen, and her intricate plot twists out of seemingly ordinary characters, her humor, her hooks, ARE "writin'". And I would certainly say that both "Moonstruck" and "Sense and Sensibility" had "something to say." Certainly as much as, uh, "Under Milkwood"! Maybe Isherwood just can't hear what's being said to him.

Posted by: annette on May 17, 2005 1:46 PM

Brian -- You do a great job of describing the ideal, thanks. It's great when it comes along. But I find that 99% of the time I'm reading something that's much less than ideal -- even if I'm enjoying it, maybe the writin' is weak, or the characters could be more pungent, or something. But I'm an old coot: I guess I've chosen to let go of the ideal and be grateful for what's there.

Rachel -- Wodehouse was a genius of the highest order. I seem to remember he was always eager to credit his early experience as a writer of books-for-musicals: great training. Or is it other people who've written that his novels can be taken as musical comedies? My poor brain is losing its grasp. Eager to catch up with your posting.

"." -- I like that Paul Graham essay-about-essays a lot, thanks. It's a mind-blower, isn't it? Ran across it some months back and even linked to it a few times. Another one all freshman should read, if only for self-defence purposes.

Ralph -- Totally. Now if only Charles Isherwood knew that ....

Annette -- Shanley's screenplay for "Moonstruck" was golden, no? Talk about a piece of writing where it all worked together. And the comparison to Austen is a funny and provocative one -- "Moonstruck" is like Austen, but among working-class borough people. I've seen a couple of Shanley's plays, and (while he's very talented) the shock is what a slob of a writer he usually is. His plays tend to be all over the place. He seems to have no sense of story at all, although he often writes wonderful moments and passages. It made me wonder if Norman Jewison, the director of "Moonstruck," doesn't deserve a lot of credit for getting Shanley to make some narrative sense.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 17, 2005 2:06 PM

Maybe it's that some writers have something profound or interesting to say, and others don't and are, as someone else put it, idiot savants with regard to feeling and emotion? They may be having an insight, but they are at pains to know what it *really* means.

Gwendolyn Harleth (Daniel Deronda) is a character who is teaching me something, allright. George Eliot did have some insight, didn't she?

The whole 'empire of fear' and the 'ghost army' behind her husband is one of the best descriptions I have ever read about how it feels to be in a particular kind of abusive relationship.

Maybe, if you are a keenly observant person, the things you observe are profound not just in the small detail, but in the larger scope of human feeling or thought, so that in telling a story you give the reader a glimpse of the truth. But you must be observant, you can't simply make it 'be so', fiction or not. Hmmm, this is muddled.

So, Virginia Wolf on G. Eliot (paraphrasing): characters think as well as feel. Some writers are good at the feel part, some can do both the think and feel. Is this any less muddled, internet friends?

Posted by: MD on May 17, 2005 2:21 PM

Here is the passage I was talking about.

Posted by: MD on May 17, 2005 2:30 PM

Oh, drat. Having problems, let's do it this way.


Posted by: MD on May 17, 2005 2:32 PM

Michael Dirda: "'Plum' -- as Wodehouse is affectionately known (after the slurring of his first name Pelham) -- once called his books musical comedies without the music . . . ."

Posted by: Dave Lull on May 17, 2005 2:37 PM

Plum did write musical comedies. Last year when I was in London I saw Anything Goes, for which he wrote the book. And it was so obviously Wodehouse, but then I think most musical comedies are Wodehouse inspired: the whole boy-meets-girl-cute thing that he did better than anyone.

Posted by: Rachel on May 17, 2005 2:50 PM

Thanks for that excellent post, MB. I've been waiting for you to write about your disdain for fancy, grad-school lit and here it is, which I will tuck away for when I feel idiotic for not "getting" what's so great about the hot new book of the moment.

Posted by: Vanessa Del Blowhard on May 17, 2005 4:17 PM

I actually think that "writing" is crucially important to fiction. OTOH, when I say "writing", I mean something nearly the opposite of what you seem to mean when you say "writin'". The best writing should be hard to notice. Rather, the subject of the writing should be delivered seamlessly by the author direct to the reader's eyes and brain. (This and what follows obviously constitue a value judgement, YMMV.)

When you say "writin'", I take that to mean writing for writing's sake not for the advancement of the story. As clever as it can be, it is a distraction from, rather than an addition to, writerly writing.

This is not to say that craft (and rewriting until your fingers bleed) isn't needed in the sort of transparent writing I mention above; I suspect that its harder than in-your-face cleverness (I certainly find it so). Presenting mood without drawing attention to the words, or exposition without causing indigestion, is at the very center of the art and craft of good writing.

Excellent essay.

Michael: "I wonder where the whole tendency to think of fiction-writers as geniuses telling us things we wouldn't otherwise think on our own comes from."

To a large extent I think this comes from the way we experience fiction. Specifically, the writer will spend hours thinking up just the right turn of phrase for a character or the perfect action for a character in a difficult situation. We will then read this in a matter of seconds or minutes. At the end of this process, we (or perhaps I should just say "I"?) will recognize the character's actions as a sort of idealized version of the painfully stilted interactions that we have with real people. We can never seem to come up with just the right answer at the time, realizing only later what we should have said or done.

Of course the author isn't under the sort of time constraint, nor does the author have to deal with others not under his direct control, but in well written prose we are left with a feeling of immediacy -- with the idea that the actions were taken in real time, and were thus brilliant. At this point it is easy to conflate the brilliance (glibness, hyper-competence) of the character with the same charactistics in the author.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on May 17, 2005 4:44 PM

I agree entirely about the literary folks being a little too unconcerned with plot. My idea of plot is that you take your characters from one set of circumstances and beliefs to another set of circumstances and beliefs. The plot is the vehicle that gets the characters to change or reveal more of themselves.

The problem from a literary standpoint is that most readers will judge you by how interesting your plot is, and not by your style or your characterization which can be stiff and wooden if the story's exciting enough. Stephen King and Tom Clancy are classic examples, as is the recent bestseller The Da Vinci Code. But of course if it all boils down to plot then there's nothing to write about or critique than the sequence of events, which is unsatisfying for the book reviewer and the literary crowd.

As for Wodehouse, he indeed obsessed over his plots, which actually seems odd to me because his stories were very formulaic. Bertie has something new (mustache, spats, oriental vase, painting), of which Jeeves disapproves. Somewhere there are two sundered hearts which Bertie tries to re-unite, but manages to make a hash of it. Further, he gets blackmailed into stealing something (at which effort he inevitably gets caught red-handed). However, Jeeves always is working his own magic in the background and somehow miraculously everything comes out right, and Bertie, duly chastened, gets rid of the object that had offended Jeeves.

Ironically, that's one of the charms of his writing because you know what's coming and yet he still makes it fresh and interesting every time. I find it interesting that he enjoyed the works of another successful author who was similarly sneered at for her lack of literary qualities: Agatha Christie.

It's the snobbery of the writer who says he could do that stuff in his sleep, but he doesn't want to debase himself and his "craft".

I do think that the very best writers can combine plot and characterization with a message--think Hardy in The Mayor of Casterbridge or Shelley with Frankenstein, or (obviously on a more pop level) Ed McBain with Hail to the Chief. More commonly it ends up heavy-handed, preachy and shrill, although a good example is not coming to mind with regard to books. The movies "The Contender" and "Traffic" are what I have in mind, where the message is hammered home with ridiculously apropos speeches delivered in didactic fashion.

Interesting post; came over here from Rachel's blog.

Posted by: Brainster on May 17, 2005 10:50 PM

A late two cents. Reading the comments made me think of two different books: David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. I really enjoyed Mitchell's number9dream -- he paints a surrealist landscape that his characters are forced to navigate, and I found the story very compelling. His writing is superb.

In Cloud Atlas (which was shortlisted for the Booker last year), though, he seems to become more enamored of his language -- and in the complex structure of the novel -- than the story or the characters. I found it dull, and when the language became too avant-garde (postmodern?), I stopped reading it.

Infinite Jest, on the other hand, had simply magnificent language and structure. The novel was crafted so well -- footnotes and all -- that I read every last page. The difference was that the story and characters were compelling for me (well, about 98% of the time), and Wallace's obsession with his diction, syntax, punctuation, and structure rarely distracted me from the story in a way I felt harmful. It also had some sayin' in it, too. ;)

(I'm also reminded of House of Leaves, in the David Mitchell/Cloud Atlas vein -- that book was just irritating by halfway through; I gave up.)

Posted by: Michael on May 18, 2005 1:03 AM

If we go back to the the days when the novel was a despised genre managing quite well without the help of theories about it - I'm thinking of the famous quartet of eighteenth century English novelists - , then you find you have two authors, Sterne and Richardson, who write more or less plotless "experimental" novels (I've never read Clarissa but Dr Johnson remarked that if you read it for the plot you'd hang yourself) and two very plot-driven, character-driven story-tellers (Fielding and Smollett). I can't help feeling that things become very unhealthy if the latter don't form the mainstream. There's certainly a place for experimental high-jinks (especially if, like Sterne, you give us character, humour and fantasy as well) but the trouble is if you have a literature which is all Tristram Shandys and Clarissas with no Tom Joneses and Roderick Randoms, very soon the mainstream will be in danger of turning into a Sargasso Sea. Besides, all parody is parasitic and you can't have "meta-fiction" if there's no common-or-garden fiction there in the first place. Your friend is spot on. For many academics "good literature" means literature that fits in with their pet theories/syllabus. This kind of thinking is easy to understand if you've ever sat up late beating your brains out trying to write an essay on a classic author who just refuses to respond to the shiny, new critical tools at your disposal. Plot, like melody, can't be analysed and for many academics if it can't be analysed, it doesn't exist. Which is nonsense, of course. For instance, I'm pretty sure plot critically influences the way we experience the sense of time in a novel, although I'd be hard pressed to explain this in a doctoral thesis.

Here are two comments on the whole subject from Jorge Luis Borges (apologies for his being about the only critic I ever quote from, but I can't help agreeing with him and nobody can claim these are the opinions of an illiterate philistine who just doesn't get the finer things literature has to offer):

* "We all feel that the novel is somehow breaking down. Think of the chief novels of our time - say, Joyce's Ulysses. We are told thousands of things about the two characters, yet we do not know them. We have a better knowledge of characters in Dante or Shakespeare, who come to us - who live and die - in a few sentences. We do not know thousands of circumstances about them, but we know them intimately. That, of course, is far more important. I think the novel is breaking down. I think that all those very daring and interesting experiments with the novel - for example, the idea of shifting time, the idea of the story being told by different characters - all those are leading to the moment when we shall feel that the novel is no longer with us. But there's something about a tale, a story, that will be always going on. I do not believe men will ever tire of telling or hearing stories."

** "What might we say as an apologia for the detective genre? One thing is quite obvious and certain: our literature tends towards the chaotic. It tends towards free verse because free verse appears easier than regular verse though the truth is free verse is very difficult. It tends to eliminate character, plot; everything is very vague. In this chaotic era of ours, one thing has humbly maintained the classic virtues: the detective story. For a detective story cannot be understood without a beginning, middle, and end. Some have been written by inferior writers, while a few were written by excellent writers: Dickens, Stevens and, above all, Wilkie Collins. I would say in defence of the detective novel that it needs no defence; though now read with a certain disdain, it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. This is a feat for which we should be grateful."

Posted by: J.Cassian on May 18, 2005 9:00 AM

Wonderful essay, Michael.

I think it's obvious that there's a part of all humans that responds deeply to a well-told story. I always get great pleasure from anecdotes told in conversation, for example. A good story must always be TOLD well, too; style MUST match substance, otherwise neither is any good. It is when a writer falls in love with a style he took from an author and invents the barest bones of a 'plot', or rather a few characters who are connected, that you get these awful writing-workshop novels where the entire book is a sequence of events with the loosest connection; where the most exciting thing that happens is a man washing dishes, while we get his thoughts as the writer sees them, unfiltered; the kind of novels that are self-referential and, as you said, have the whole media-referential hipster voice. The style can be seperated from the substance, which is always a sign of a mediocre or downright awful book.

On the other hand, you have things like the Da Vinci Code, which are admirable in getting people to turn the page, but ultimately meaningless, told in an awful prose laden with cliches, the kind of books that make you feel hollow after reading them; well, says, the reader, what of it?

The measure of artistic goodness is not to be the appeal of a work to "most people". The Dan Brown book appealed to "most people", but I doubt many would agree that it makes good literature. To measure the value of a work by the extent to which it makes the reader turn the pages is, I think, a mistake. Great literature is built on great stories: look at the Iliad; look at Macbeth, or King Lear; look at Anna Karenina. We read a thriller, and ask: well, what of it? Sure, we turned the pages, but what has the book taught us about human nature? Why should we read the book again? Is there any delight in it aside from the twists and turns of the narrative? Great stories are enthralling EVEN IF you know what's going to happen next; that is because, and that is why, they are so masterful. And ultimately, I think that if you take no pleasure in the way the story is told, a book will not last. When I read The Tempest, I take a hell of a lot of pleasure in the beauty of the language, but NOT at the expense of the story. That is why I think 'style' and 'substance' are not to be seperated.

I think a lot of modernist novels are merely museum-pieces, to be honest. It's all very well to revolt against the 'false idols' of nineteenth century literature, but what are we offered in return? In connection with Joyce, however - have you read a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or any of the stories from Dubliners? You'd wonder if the same person wrote something like 'Finnegans Wake'.

I find that Joyce always raises a lot of strong feelings in people. The fact that most people are left completely cold by Ulysses does show that it is, in one sense at least, a failure. If only 'most people' would bother to try and read, say, 'Love in the Time of Cholera' or 'Anna Karenina', they would enjoy them greatly; but if they were to be made to read Ulysses, they would largely be left cold. That shows, to me at least, that Ulysses will not appeal to the 'general reader', the layman; to those who CAN make it through, however, it is a brilliant book. Here, for example, is an excerpt from an article on Rushdie, himself not the most appealing author for the layman:

'Who it was who called his attention to Ulysses (published in Paris in 1922) Rushdie does not remember, but he knows that it was in the first year of his study of history.. "Everyone said that it was such a sealed book, hard to penetrate, but I did not think so at all. You never hear people say that there is so much humor in the book, that the characters are so lively or that the theme - Stephen Daedalus in search of his lost father and Bloom looking for his lost child - is so moving. People talk about the cleverness of Ulysses and about the literary innovation. To me it was moving, in the first place."

Stephen and Bloom, those were the characters which touched him immediately. He quotes from memory: "Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls". Those were the first lines of the second chapter. "I am myself disgusted by that kind of organs", he grinned. "There are still so many little things I always have to smile about when I think of them. That commercial, for example: "What is home/without Plumtree's Potted Meat?/ Incomplete". That is still funny. Joyce used many stylistic means which were novel in his time, newspaper headlines for instance. Is it not moving that he makes Ulysses happen on the day that he met his wife! He kept that newspaper, carried it always with him and used all of its details, including the names of the horses in the races. In short, he built a universe out of a grain of sand. That was a revelation to me: so that is the way one could also write! To somebody who wanted to be a writer, like me, it was so perfect, so inspiring, that it made one need to recover. I have thought for some time: I quit writing, I become a lawyer. Later I thought that there may be some little things still worth doing."'

Yeah. I myself read Ulysses in a week. I was rather moved the first time I read it, though I suspect that was partly because I was glad to have made it through the thing; but I found that I had grown attached to Molly Bloom, to Leopold, and even to Stephen Dedalus, whose chapters are those which tend to give readers the most problems. Some of the scenes in the book are intensely moving, like one of those in the 'Wandering Rocks' chapter - made up of fragments, incidents from the lives of Dubliners at the same point in time; it is where Stephen sees Dilly, his sister, at a bookstall. She sees him, goes red, and quickly hides the book she has just picked up. After some coaxing, she shows it to him, explaining hastily she was just looking at it. It is a teach-yourself-French book. She mumbles something about perhaps wanting to learn French, but not having enough money for it, and then Stephen lends her a crown. It's quite moving in the context of the book - their poverty, their drunken father and dead mother, etc. etc. It reveals that beyond the intellectual esotericism, Stephen, too, is a human being. My own crummy synopsis probably left most readers feeling bewildered, but...oh well.

One final point I'd like to query you on is your dislike for 'litchat' types, or 'English profs', or 'intellectuals'. I hope you don't mean all English professors, or all people who enjoy talking about literature; for every professor in thrall to his esoteric theories, there's one who truly savours words and their effect on the soul.

Posted by: N.Q. on May 18, 2005 4:18 PM

Sorry about the length of the previous post. I won't tax your patience even more, but I just found something spookily relevant in Ian McEwan's fantastic novel 'Atonement', which I'm reading. I don't know if you're read any McEwan, Michael, but you damn well should if you haven't.

In this bit of the novel, the protagonist, Briony, is reading a reply from Cyril Connolly, the editor of Horizon magazine, regarding a story/novella that she sent them. The bit I quote is from the letter itself:

'"Your most sophisticated readers might well be up on the latest Bergsonian theories of consciousness, but I'm sure they retain a childlike desire to be told a story, to be held in suspense, to know what happens... simply put, you need the backbone of a story."'

At the time of writing her novella, Briony was reading Virginia Woolf's 'The Waves'. Hmm.

Posted by: N.Q. on May 18, 2005 4:32 PM

Something I've noticed reading Amazon reader reviews of novels is that people tend to rate novels on how much they'd like to be friends with the main character.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on May 18, 2005 6:26 PM

Sorry I am late for the party.

Posted by: Robert nagle on May 18, 2005 7:14 PM

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