Fundamentals in fiction and the question of obligations

The context is David Leavitt’s The Indian Clerk and the great mathematician G. H. Hardy’s hatred for the “tripos,” a now-defunct series of math tests at Cambridge that served as a sort of hazing ritual something like modern-day dissertations (Hardy despises them for “The tedium. The sense of energy diverted, imagination stifled”). To pass, many candidates received encouragement and expert tutoring. In this exchange a character named Gaye speaks first, after learning that Hardy, despite his feelings about the Tripos as an institution, will tutor someone about to undergo them:

“Coaching an undergraduate for the tripos. The tripos, of all things! And after all the screeds I’ve heard you deliver against the damned—”
“He won’t make it otherwise,” [Hardy said.]
“Is it your job to save him?”
“Someone saved me.”
“But Love didn’t coach you. He just sent you back to Webb. [. . .] Yours is a more specialized erotic thrill, that of rescuing the fair damsel from the jaws of the dragon.”

There is a perpetual tension discussed here: how much, if any, obligation do we have to others and do they have to us? The question can never be satisfactorily resolved, only explored, and for that reason it is likely to be of interest to novelists (or anyone creating narrative art). Gaye and Hardy are both in their own ways right. Two or more people or viewpoints who both have reasonable claims to rightness is a fertile place for intelligent drama.

One joy of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder is the conflict between Marina and Dr. Swenson: when one speaks I agree with her; when the other speaks I agree with her. It’s not easy to sustain this level of conflict without giving one character the upper-hand, the right answer. Novels that do so often descend to the level of propaganda rather than art.

To return to Hardy and Gaye: Relatively few of us go through life completely, callously indifferent to the suffering and travails of others but equally so very few of us devote everything we can to “saving” others (for one thing, they often don’t want to be saved, and can’t be saved from themselves). Somewhere between those poles of total indifference and utter devotion we wander erratically, with no consistent reason, helping some—even making it our “job”—and ignoring others.

Often, however, in helping others we are also helping ourselves in some sense. Hence Gaye’s reference to the erotic thrill: it’s easier to innocently “help” someone attractive, or who is likely to be in a position to pay back a favor, but very easy to deny mixed motivations—until someone else, or some other character, points them out.

We all become close readers in romance

That evening, as he was returning home, Charles took up again one by one the words she had used, trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her. But he could never see her, in his mind, differently from the way he had seen her the first time, or the way had just left her.

We all become close readers in romance, where words matter so much and yet are never sufficient. Charles is speaking early in Madame Bovary, which feels shockingly modern (especially read in conjunction with How Fiction Works); most capital-C Classics don’t. Lydia Davis’s introduction is helpful.

Novels in which I root for everyone and no one at the same time are rare, and rarer still in a novel in which most characters express commonplace sentiments like Charles’s. Those ideas work in the context of Madame Bovary. I wonder how and maybe always will.

All of us have had the moments of trying to take “up again one by one the words she had used,” although the gender pronoun will change based on orientation, and all of us have had those words feel inadequate as we try to “complete their meaning”—an infinite amount of commentary can’t complete meaning. In romance and art this is especially painful until it is accepted.

Reading How Fiction Works

I finished re-reading How Fiction Works a couple days ago—it is always a good time to re-read How Fiction Works—and realized that, every time I read it, I recognize a few more of the author-characters it mentions. This time, Effi Briest caught my eye: what was once another blank reference, noted and moved past, had now become freighted with meanings and impressions. The experience reminded me of how I used to feel going into bookstores or libraries. The real question for the younger me was, “How can anyone possibly make decisions among ten of thousands of choices?” There were so many books with authors I’d never heard of. How do you find the one you want to read among all of them? By reading thousands of dust jackets?

Now, I scan the shelves of bookstores and see more than names and cover art: this writer I’ve already read and didn’t like; this one I’ve already read and liked, but I’ve read all her work; this one I heard about through a blog post; this other one appeared on Bookworm and made his book sound boring. The challenge has changed from merely knowing something about what’s on the shelves to finding something I could actually want to read among many books I know I don’t want to read.

When I first read How Fiction Works in 2008, I didn’t stop at every reference to an author I didn’t know because I never would’ve gotten through the damn thing. Plus, as much as I love Wood’s criticism, I’ve also realized how different our tastes are; Wood quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I find that deeply wrong: a novel without plot is veering close to badly done philosophy. So many, though by no means all, of the novels he loves aren’t likely to have much in the way of plot. When I read amateur writing, I often notice the lack of any plot and often suggest the writer think about things like what the main character is reacting to, what the main character wants and why he can’t get it, what subsidiary characters want, and so on. A writer doesn’t, of course, need to be able to answer every one of those questions, but I get the impression a lot of beginning writers don’t ask them.

Wood actually comes very close to suggesting something similar when he writes

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. When I encounter a prolonged ekphrasis like the parody above, I worry, suspecting that the novelist is clinging to a handrail and is afraid to push out.

But Wood’s definition of “push out” is probably different from mine, even if the ailment he diagnoses is the same. And it’s amazing to realize just how many of the things I inchoately knew before I read How Fiction Works are discussed, described, dissected, elaborated in the book. And now, as I said, when I come back to it, I find my gaps in knowledge filled in. Here’s another example of that, this time dealing with a critic:

Gabriel Josipovici discusses Beckett in [. . .] On Trust (2000). He points out that Foucault liked to quote from The Unnameable, as evidence of the death of the author: ‘No matter who is speaking, someone says, no matter who is speaking,’ wrote Beckett. Josipovici comments that Foucault forgets that ‘it is not Beckett saying this but one of his characters, and that the point about that character is that he is desperately seeking to discover who speaks, to recover himself as more than a string of words, to wrest an “I” from “someone says”.’

Gabriel Josipovici: he wrote Whatever Happened to Modernism?, a book I half-liked and wrote about at the link. Maybe one day I’ll read the book, recognize every reference, and wonder whatever happened to that person who first read it in a relative fog.

More books I don't want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s work, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

More books I don’t want to read: Theodor Fontane and Teju Cole

The New Yorker has been running a lot of reviews that describe novels I don’t want to read. The latest: Theodor Fontane’s, which Daniel Mendelsohn describes this way:

The topography of his plots is admittedly as flat and monotonous as the notoriously bland landscape of his Prussian homeland, Brandenburg (about which he lovingly wrote in a multivolume work). Most of “Cécile” is devoted to the excursions and the chitchat of those hapless tourists; there’s some gossiping, a halfhearted flirtation, and then everyone goes home to Berlin.

“Flat and monotonous” plots? The “excursions and the chitchat of [. . .] hapless tourists?” Give me the latest thriller about mindless warfare and assassination. Or about fast-talking urbanites and their tedious sexual lives. Or anything. Elsewhere, Mendelsohn says, “Even Fontane’s characters are plagued by a certain anxiety about having nothing very exciting to talk about.” That’s enough of a problem in real life, thanks: give me escapism!

Or there’s Teju Cole’s novel Open City, as described by James Wood:

So the novel does move in the shadow of W. G. Sebald’s work. While “Open City” has nominally separate chapters, it has the form and atmosphere of a text written in a single, unbroken paragraph: though people speak and occasionally converse, this speech is not marked by quotation marks, dashes, or paragraph breaks and is formally indistinguishable from the narrator’s own language. As in Sebald, what moves the prose forward is not event or contrivance but a steady, accidental inquiry, a firm pressurelessness (which is to say, what moves the prose forward is the prose—the desire to write, to defeat solitude by writing).

“A single, unbroken paragraph,” limited conversation (which means we’re stuck in someone’s mind), the lack, again of, “event or contrivance,” as if those are bad things, the mark of a second-rate artist who wants to see how people interact with more than themselves and how they respond to adverse events, like the kinds that sometimes happen in life.

I realize Wood doesn’t like plot: in How Fiction Works, he quotes from Adam Smith writing in the eighteenth century regarding how writers use suspense to keep interest and then says, “But the novel soon showed itself willing to surrender the essential juvenility of plot […]” I don’t think that’s good or that plot is essentially juvenile and tend to like novels in which the proverbial “something happens” and tend to dislike the ones that feel more like philosophy plus characters.

Noticing the detail in James Wood's How Fiction Works

 

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it. 

You only have to read How Fiction Works to realize you haven’t been as a good a noticer in life or in literature as you once thought you were. This is why I’ve reread it once a year or so since it came out in 2007, and each time I notice different things about it—like in this passage, where the adverb “serenely” is so appropriate despite the many admonishes to avoid adverbs whenever possible. We know precisely what the twenty-year-old is like, mostly like because we’ve met him and her, perhaps been him or her.

I also notice Wood’s phrase “relative virgins,” which is funny because virginity is supposed to be a binary thing: you are one or you aren’t. But in a post-Bill-Clinton age when nominal “abstinence pledges” make the parsing of the relation of act to word important to a surprisingly large number of people, virginity feels a lot more relative than it used to. Maybe I wouldn’t be as aware of this if I hadn’t read Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which in turn cues me into the kinds of things I hear from undergrads at the University of Arizona—which may in turn feed my own fiction, in the kind of virtuous cycle Wood describes here. And since I have taught literature, I know precisely what he means about “poor noticers,” except that he should probably add that relatively few people become the kinds of dramatically good noticers who really love literary fiction as they get older: hence some of the popularity of the Dan Browns of the world.

Finally, because How Fiction Works is so delightful, one more quote: “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.”

Noticing the detail in James Wood’s How Fiction Works

 

Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practise on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realise that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty-year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it. 

You only have to read How Fiction Works to realize you haven’t been as a good a noticer in life or in literature as you once thought you were. This is why I’ve reread it once a year or so since it came out in 2007, and each time I notice different things about it—like in this passage, where the adverb “serenely” is so appropriate despite the many admonishes to avoid adverbs whenever possible. We know precisely what the twenty-year-old is like, mostly like because we’ve met him and her, perhaps been him or her.

I also notice Wood’s phrase “relative virgins,” which is funny because virginity is supposed to be a binary thing: you are one or you aren’t. But in a post-Bill-Clinton age when nominal “abstinence pledges” make the parsing of the relation of act to word important to a surprisingly large number of people, virginity feels a lot more relative than it used to. Maybe I wouldn’t be as aware of this if I hadn’t read Tom Perrotta’s The Abstinence Teacher, which in turn cues me into the kinds of things I hear from undergrads at the University of Arizona—which may in turn feed my own fiction, in the kind of virtuous cycle Wood describes here. And since I have taught literature, I know precisely what he means about “poor noticers,” except that he should probably add that relatively few people become the kinds of dramatically good noticers who really love literary fiction as they get older: hence some of the popularity of the Dan Browns of the world.

Finally, because How Fiction Works is so delightful, one more quote: “The novel is the great virtuoso of exceptionalism: it always wriggles out of the rules thrown around it.”

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