Posts Tagged Jane Austen
There’s a tendency among many writers of literary fiction to opt for emotional coolness and ironic detachment, as though fearing that any hint of excitement in their storytelling would undermine the serious intent of the work.
That’s Husband Dave last week, reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant on his blog and discussing why it failed to grab him .
An anonymous commenter took him to task, asserting: To have a “sudden fight scene” would be cheesy and make the book more like YA or genre fiction (i.e. cheaply gratifying).
Oh dear. Furrowed brows chez Morris. Setting aside the disrespect that shows of our skilful YA or genre writers, how did we come to this?
When did enthralling the reader become ‘cheap’? Tell that to Hemingway, DH Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Charles Dickens, Steinbeck and the Brontes, who wrote perceptively and deeply of the human condition – through page-turning stories. Tell it also to Ann Patchett, Donna Tartt, Iain Banks, Jose Saramago, William Boyd.
Dave wasn’t alone in his uneasiness with The Buried Giant:
Adam Mars-Jones … in his LRB review of The Buried Giant, particularly takes Ishiguro to task for throwing away what ought to be a Fairbanks-style set-piece in a burning tower by allowing “nothing as vulgar as direct narration to give it the vitality of something that might be happening in front of our eyes”.
Of course, there’s more than one way to find drama in events, and Dave also considers why the sotto voce, indirect approach might have been deliberate.
But even allowing for this, he also found: there are other bits of the story that do not work at all, and make me think that Ishiguro either scorns, or is not craftsman enough to manage, the control of the reader’s expectations that is needed for a novelist to hold and enthral.
And: The taste for anticlimax that Mars-Jones notes, and the unfolding of telegraphed events that bored me, are common traits among writers of literary fiction who perhaps feel that manipulating the reader is a tad ill-mannered.
The conflagration spread to Twitter
And I’m still bristling about the forum where, years ago, I saw literary fiction described as ‘dusty navel-gazing where a character stands in the middle of a room for 500 pages while bog-all happens.’
It’s time this madness stopped. Are we looking at a requirement of literary fiction – or at a failing in certain literary writers?
It’s true that literary and genre fiction use plot events to different purpose. But engaging the reader, provoking curiosity, empathy, anxiety and other strong feelings are not ‘cheap tricks’. They are for everyone.
Dave’s blogpost commenter is typical of a certain strain of thinking about literary fiction, and I’m trying to puzzle out what the real objection is. Did they simply disapprove of a Booker winner being discussed in such terms? Are they afraid to use their critical faculties?
This is something, as writers, we must avoid.
I have a theory. I’ve noticed that, in some quarters, to query a novel by a hallowed author is considered beyond temerity. These folks start from the position that the book must be flawless, and so they search for the way in which it works.
Now of course we must read with open minds; strive to meet the author on their own terms; engage with their intentions. But honestly, chaps, you and I know that authors are not infallible.
We, as writers (and editors), know we have blind spots. Otherwise we wouldn’t need editors and critique partners to rescue us. Indeed – and this is probably one for the literary writers – how much are we consciously aware of what we’re doing? How much of our book’s effect is revealed to us when readers give us feedback? This writing lark is as much a matter of accident as design, isn’t it?
Going further, sometimes our books aren’t as perfect as we’d like. Evelyn Waugh published Brideshead Revisited in 1945, then reissued it with light revisions in 1959 plus a preface about all the other things he’d change if he could.
Writing is self-taught, and this critical scrutiny is one of our most powerful learning tools. Whenever we read, we should ask ‘does this work’.
Now it’s a tricky business to comment on what a writer should have done. Also we’re reflecting our personal values. Yes, caveats everywhere. But certain breeds of commenter regard a work by an author of reputation as automatically perfect.
So is this where we get these curious notions that page-turning stories don’t belong in literary fiction? Because nobody dares to say the emperor is wearing no clothes?
Again, I’ll let Dave speak:
In Ishiguro’s case, I don’t think it was deliberate. I felt that he was flailing about with that sequence, trying to figure out a way to add the tension he knew was lacking. But he might say, no, I wanted it to be predictable and tedious, that’s the whole point.
Shakespeare didn’t think it was infra dig to throw in an audience shocker: ‘Macduff was from his mother’s womb untimely ripped.’
So, er, what?
I usually aim to be useful on this blog. Is this a useful post? To be honest, I’m not sure. Just occasionally it’s nice get something off your chest.
Now I’m wondering what question I should end with. I could ask us to discuss literary writers of great reputation who seem to duck away from excitement and emotion. But one person’s tepid is another’s scorching. And I don’t think it get us far to explore everyone’s pet examples of overrated writers. But I’d certainly like to put an end to this idea that story techniques, or any technique intended to stir the emotions are cheap tricks that dumb a book down.
So I guess I’ll end with this. If you like a novel that grips your heart as well as your intellect, say aye.
Anyway, the floor is yours.
In Hitchcock’s film Torn Curtain, there’s a scene where the protagonist kills a taxi driver. Normally you’d expect scenes like this to be presented in close up. We’d see the struggle, the driver’s desperate fight and the hero’s anguish in taking someone’s life. We might wonder what the outcome will be.
But that’s not what Hitchcock does. The scene is shot from a distance, as though it is happening to someone across a road. Almost as if it’s not even happening to the protagonist.
There are no questions about whether the MC will succeed. The driver is killed, and that is that. The MC doesn’t even pay a price by getting hurt. He doesn’t flinch from what he has to do. The distance of the camera plays with our empathy, representing how the characters distanced themselves from the deed. And so we see a normal, married man forced to kill an innocent stranger in cold blood. We see the resources he has in his soul that will ensure he survives. What does it do to the viewer? It makes us complicit in an uncomfortable world. As if we have made that choice too.
In Persuasion, Jane Austen shows the final reunion between the lovers as though she’s filming it at a distance. It’s surprising, but allows the characters privacy in their moment – which is all the more touching.
Of course, you need to use distance carefully. I often see scenes where writers duck out of showing a key event, possibly because they didn’t feel up to writing it. There is a strong likelihood that if you pull the prose camera away, the reader will feel cheated. You have to make a careful judgement call. If there are any questions lingering, the reader needs to see what happened. But if the reader can fill all the blanks and be just as satisfied, it might be powerful indeed.
Every event we share in a story has an effect beyond just showing what happened. And distance can sometimes lend more power than a close-up. Like Hitchcock, you could create an interesting complicit effect, show characters turning a corner. Result? The audience is disturbed in a way that is far more complex and chilling. Jane Austen had spent so long keeping her lovers apart that we wanted them to be together. When they finally were she went one better – she allowed them to be totally alone. Result? Reader satisfied.
That’s just two examples. Give me yours and tell me why you think they work!
Oh, and (spoon tapping glass). My Memories of a Future Life is getting great reviews. Episode 2: Rachmaninov and Ruin, is limbering up for release on Amazon at midnight as 4th September turns into 5th. You can find episode 1 here and you can try the first four chapters on a free audio here
I love a good party. Anyone might collide and anything might start. Or finish. A party is fate’s way of throwing a die.
Which makes them perfect for a story.
For some reason, a dinner party scene doesn’t do it for me. Of course it can throw folks together, as randomly as you please. But a dinner party is more difficult to choreograph, as most of the action takes place around one table, and juggling a sixsome or eightsome is tricky on the page. Most of the time I find excuses to split them up, sending them out to the kitchen to flatten the soufflé, or outside to have a smoke.
A party, though, comes alive on the page more naturally. Its loose informality means you can drift through a succession of intimate groups or pull back for a long shot. You can use montage to clip a conversation of everything but the most startling line. Or show that somebody is a crashing bore without boring the reader. You can shuffle strangers around with very little contrivance.
What parties can do in a story
Parties might be a focal point for society, as in Jane Austen’s novels, when they are often the only times that characters might meet.
Jilly Cooper has rounded off a good number of novels with a rousing gathering, letting the characters bash out their differences under the special conditions a party allows.
A party can also kick off a novel rather well. Iain Banks used a party early in The Crow Road to give a sense of reunion among his characters – and ended the sequence on a poignant note as the MC saw the girl he loved with another guy. Writing as his M alter ego, he used a party early on in one of his Culture books to set up his world.
You might start with a celebration and have it end in tragedy or outrage – as in Sleeping Beauty. The contrast will make the tragedy all the stronger.
Most of the plot of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim comes from a party the MC is forced to attend at his new boss’s house. The scrapes he gets into set the rest of the book in motion.
A party can have an internalising function too. I used a party scene in My Memories of a Future Life to show the character trying to keep up with her old world after a personal disaster, pretending everything was all right. We can see it isn’t. Later in the book, she goes to another party, held by the friends of a character she hopes to find out more about. The surreal atmosphere reflects her internal state as her life takes another swerve. (Two parties may seem heavy going for one book but I atoned in Life Form 3 where there were no parties at all.)
My rules for a good party
So we’ve established that parties can give you hours of story fun. But like the real thing, they take a bit of organisation. Here are my rules for making your party go with a swing:
1 A party sequence needs a point of view. It could be one POV character or an omniscient camera, but keep it consistent. Don’t start as one and end as another.
2 When lingering on groups of people, keep to small numbers. It’s extremely hard for the reader to keep track of more than three people foregrounded at a time, and some writers never have more than two. Although you may like that ensemble scene at the start of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, where all the characters are nattering in a café, it does not translate well to the page.
3 Keep letting the camera look up to take in what others are doing and to demonstrate that there are more people there besides the ones you’re looking at.
4 If you have a tense exchange, don’t hurry away from it too fast because you need to get round to the other people too. Lock the characters in the bathroom together if necessary so that they can take their time.
Thank you, Oddsock, for the picture. And in other news, My Memories of a Future Life will be available on Kindle soon, so that will be an excuse for a party too…
How have you used parties in your fiction? What purpose did they serve in the story? Which writers give the best parties? Share your examples in the comments!
Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum, but as a complex ensemble. So choose their friends and enemies carefully
There’s a game going round on Facebook – write down as fast as possible 15 fictional characters who have influenced you and will always stick with you.
This is the list I rustled up:
1 Cordelia (surname probably Lear)
2 Catherine Earnshaw (Wuthering Heights)
3 Jill Crewe (from Ruby Ferguson’s Jill pony books)
4 Doctor Who (Jon Pertwee incarnation)
5 Charles Ryder (Brideshead Revisited)
6 James Bond
7 Lucy Snowe (Villette)
8 Bathsheba Everdene (Far From The Madding Crowd)
9 Eva Khatchadourian (We Need to Talk About Kevin)
10 The narrator of Tanith Lee’s Don’t Bite The Sun
11 Alexa (from Andrea Newman’s eponymous novel)
12 The gay vampire in Fearless Vampire Killers
13 Ray (hitman in In Bruges)
14 Robert Downey Junior’s Sherlock Holmes
15 Purdey (The New Avengers)
I thought of the list in a hurry, as per the rules, and as you can see some of them have nothing to tell a serious student of storytelling. But my choices aren’t the point of this post. The point is, I found the exercise surprisingly difficult.
Only one character?
In each case, I didn’t feel it was fair to single out one character – because their memorable, influencing journeys relied on other characters too.
A character makes a lasting impression because of the other characters they spark off.
To look at my list, who is Cordelia without peevish Lear, scheming Goneril and viperous Regan? Who is Eva Khatchadourian without the terrifying Kevin, sweet Celia and straightforward Franklin? Who is Charles Ryder without his dreary father the divine Flytes?
Characters in a story are like a choir. It takes the whole ensemble to bring out what is in the MC and they deserve the credit too.
What about Lizzie Bennett?
Some characters are so iconic that you could argue they deserve the spotlight to themselves. Lizzie Bennett, for instance – where was my head when I left out her? She’s good value wherever she goes. But we see that only because her sparring partners are so well chosen. Indeed in that respect, Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh are even more delightful than the essential Mr Darcy.
No character operates alone
No character goes through a story alone. Part of the writer’s fun is putting characters with others who will bring out the best, worst, be their opposites, nemesis, thwart them, push them to the edge and put their arms around them.
Who makes your main character most interesting? Who makes them do things? Who gets under their skin? Who completes them – or might destroy them?
So let’s play this game my way. You’ve seen who some of my favourite character combinations would be, and why – tell me some of yours.