Novel-writing inspires grandiose theories (and, for your trouble, a practical tip)

As a writer embarks on a novel, however meager her credentials, I suppose it’s inevitable that she will concoct grumpy and grandiose theories about Problems with Contemporary Fiction (and that related puzzle, How Best to Fix Them). But I wouldn’t have expected it of myself.

I was inculcated in deconstruction and poststructuralism at an impressionable age and until recently have approached aesthetic matters — assessing the quality of a work of fiction, for instance — in a relativistic fashion. The reasoning has gone something like this: I may find David Foster Wallace’s fiction cold and barren at the core, but I accept that it is meaningful to people whose opinions I respect, and I assume that I simply am not the ideal reader for Wallace’s work.

Lately I have noticed my opinions about fiction moving in a more prescriptive direction. While a thick plank of relativism still underlies my approach, in the past year I’ve received enough forgettable, and often downright terrible, galleys from publishers that I find myself, as we older people do, wringing my hands over the State of Literature and returning to my favorite novels instead of reading new ones. Several months ago I read James Woods’ call for a revival of the “formal discourse of the amateur,” and of aesthetics. I was ready to shout “Hallelujah.”

In the last month and a half, I’ve been working much more diligently on my novel (only 40,000 words so far, and most of them bad, but thanks for asking). I’ve read few new books (aside from James Hynes’ excellent Kings of Infinite Space) but have returned to Poe’s short stories, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, Rupert Thomson’s The Insult, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and, predictably, The End of the Affair. Bored of most spare, “realistic” fiction — although until recently that’s precisely the sort of thing I’ve tried to write — I’m seeking out psychological novels, books that delve into a character’s thoughts and motivations and idiosyncratic take on the world.

For years I’ve struggled to write in a clear, straightforward style unencumbered by adjectives, adverbs, and especially abstractions. I’ve avoided the passive construction, opting always for active verbs: he kicked, he punted, he slept, he killed her. Feelings, I’ve thought, and emotional states, should be rendered through action, through concrete detail. The protagonist may feel sad, but the writer does not say that. She notes that the protagonist’s stomach tightens, that he frowns, that his eyes turn far too often to a portrait of his dead mother.

To use abstraction in a story, to directly explore a character’s feelings or psychology, is to violate an unspoken rule that contemporary fiction should be as much like a screenplay as possible. Storytelling increasingly is influenced by film. The physicality of characters, rather than their emotional states, is paramount. And to probe a character’s inner life in any but the most detached, ironic way, is to engage in a quaint, outmoded, Nineteenth Century custom. It’s the literary equivalent of using a shaving mug.

Undoubtedly there are reasons to disfavor abstractions. When they appear, too often they clutter the prose, popping up so often, and without reference to physical detail, that they become contentless. What’s more, psychological fiction easily shades into melodrama.

But I, for one, have grown weary of what, in honor of Orange Prize judge Katharine Viner, I’ll call tea-towel fiction. Earlier this summer, Viner offered this description of many MFA graduates’ novels that she read while judging a fiction contest:

They are books with 500 pages discussing a subtle but allegedly profound shift within a relationship. They are books where intricate descriptions of a man taking a glass out of the dishwasher, taking a tea-towel off a rail, opening out the tea-towel, then delicately drying the glass with the tea-towel, before pouring a drink into the glass, signify that he has just been through a divorce.

When I read Viner’s description, I actually thought, hey wait! I think I read that book. I dug through a pile of publishers’ galleys looking for it, but while I found six or seven similar passages I never uncovered one that fit exactly.

Consider, by contrast, the first paragraph of Donna Tartt’s debut novel:

Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that shadowy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think that mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.

And here’s the first paragraph of The End of the Affair:

A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead. I say “one chooses” with the inaccurate pride of a professional writer who — when he has been seriously noted at all — has been praised for his technical ability, but do I in fact of my own will choose that black wet January night on the Common, in 1946, the sight of Henry Miles slanting across the wide river of rain, or did these images choose me? It is convenient, it is correct according to the rules of my craft to begin just there, but if I had believed then in a God, I could also have believed in a hand, plucking at my elbow, a suggestion, “Speak to him: he hasn’t seen you yet.”

Finally, a bit of Poe, from “The Black Cat”:

From my infancy I was noted for the docility and humanity of my disposition. My tenderness of heart was even so conspicuous as to make me the jest of my companions. I was especially fond of animals, and was indulged by my parents with a great variety of pets. With these I spent most of my time, and never was so happy as when feeding and caressing them. This peculiarity of character grew with my growth, and in my manhood, I derived from it one of my principal sources of pleasure. To those who have cherished an affection for a faithful and sagacious dog, I need hardly be at the trouble of explaining the nature or the intensity of the gratification thus derivable. There is something in the unselfish and self-sacrificing love of a brute, which goes directly to the heart of him who has had frequent occasion to test the paltry friendship and gossamer fidelity of mere Man.

I freely admit that I’m neither smart nor skilled enough to write like Tartt or Greene or Poe. Yet I find that I am dissatisfied with bare, “realistic” depictions of the characters in my novel.

Near the start of my manuscript are several short stories I started as long as six years ago. I’m trying to fuse them into a single, much-too-complicated narrative, and when I read what I’ve written it seems tinny and hollow, riddled with gaps. I know some of the gaps will be filled with action, with physical description, with scene. But some will be filled, I hope, with glimpses of the characters’ inner lives.

Anyway, I was blathering on about my novel and my Grand Theories About Psychological Fiction with Terry Teachout several weeks ago. Based on the story I’m writing, he suggested revisiting several other novels, including the aptly-titled Brideshead Revisited. He also offered a practical tip on the move from short fiction to the novel form, and I’ll share it with you.

Terry advised me to look through my favorite books to find a typeface I liked. He said I should select a similar font for my novel and format the text so that it looked like an actual novel page.

I followed his advice, putting the same approximate number of words on a page, setting the margins so that the block of text on my page was roughly identical in height and width to text on a standard page of the book. Terry promised it would help me conceptualize my story as a novel, enable me to see it as something distinct from my short fiction. And I think it’s working.

Now if only I could figure out how to make it, you know, good.


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