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Posts Tagged Ruth Rendell
I’m somewhat preoccupied with characters as I’m finishing NYN 2: Bring Characters To Life. I’ve recently read two novels with several main characters – one that made them real and the other that didn’t. I thought it would be interesting to compare the key differences.
The former is Ruth Rendell’s The Keys To The Street, which uses several points of view, all with their own internal identity. The shaky one is The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas. It follows eight separate people but they all sound exactly the same.
Briefly, The Keys To The Street is about a handful of characters in Regent’s Park, London, whose lives intersect over one summer. The Slap begins as an extended family gathers for a suburban barbeque. One of the children gets out of hand and one of the other parents gives it a slap. There is uproar and the novel explores the ripples.
In both, the narration is close third person, so although the ‘I’ pronoun isn’t used we’re following the thoughts and feelings of each individual.
Rendell is good at characters who sound distinct on the page. Their vocabulary, thought processes and speech rhythms make them into separate, recognisable people. Tsiolkas’s dialogue, both quoted and internal, sounds like it all comes from the same person.
Characters might sound similar because they come from the same culture and social milieu. But even so, there can be individual variation from the characters’ different natures. In the simplest terms, some would be introvert and some extravert. Some will see the glass as half-full. The emotions and urges behind their speech and thoughts would not be the same.
In The Slap they all have similar levels of aggression and introspection. In The Keys To The Street, there are several characters who are homeless or nearly homeless, but each has their own internal landscape. Some feel persecuted, some are tragically numbed.
Indeed, characters in the same milieu have many reasons not to be similar. They might have an assortment of occupations, which would make them tackle a variety of life problems and people.
In The Slap we potentially have these, but none of the differences are used. The TV scriptwriter sounds just like the civil servant and the businessman. In The Keys To The Street, the girl who works in the museum has different daily influences from the former butler who walks everyone’s dogs. These environments shine through their vocabulary and the comparisons they use. Their back stories are also vastly different, which affect how much each of them will trust other characters. Again, the girl in the museum believes good of people whereas the dog-walker suspects nasty motives in everyone.
Behaviour in extremis
Sequences of anger, sex and other kinds of extremis should tear the characters’ masks off. They should show us who they really are.
In The Slap, all the characters default to one pattern of behaviour when upset or emotional. They want to smash things or people. They brood on conversations and wish they had hit the offending person, pummelled their faces, grabbed them by the hair and shouted obscenities at them. When they curse, which they all do plenty of, they use the same words. Readers really notice when all the characters have the same curse personality. When they have sex, they all have the same preferences and urges.
In The Keys To The Street, the characters react according to their personalities, even when roused to the same emotion. When angry, the mentally unbalanced drug addict uses violence. The dog-walker resorts to blackmail or spits (or worse) in his employer’s tea. The museum curator’s former boyfriend is also violent, but immediately regretful. One emotion: three individual ways to handle it.
Other private moments
Other private moments can be very revealing. In The Slap, many of the characters are inclined to look at their reflection or a body part and think about their lives. In The Keys To The Street, the characters have their diverse ways of reflecting. Many of them don’t need to manufacture a specific thinking activity; they do something from their usual routine. This makes their reflective scenes different from each other. The dog walker collects his animals and does his job, meanwhile plotting and fulminating. The violent psychotic takes crack. The tragic down-and-out goes for his long walks, pushing the barrow that contains his possessions. What they do to get thinking time can be ways to differentiate their souls.
If you’re interested in either of these books, here’s Guardian Book Club on The Keys To The Street
And here’s a review of The Slap in The London Review of Books
Thanks for the pic r h
Have you read other novels that handle several point-of-view characters and differentiate them well? Or conversely, novels that do it badly? Let’s discuss!
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Is it the writing? Do literary novels do it better than genre novels? You’d certainly expect them to, and it’s true that some writers of genre have a tin ear. Equally, many genre writers are terrific wordsmiths – Ian Fleming, Thomas Harris. Anyway the best writing suits the job – whatever that job is.
Is it insight? You definitely can’t have literary fiction without it. Although some genre writers get close. Is John Le Carre a spy novelist or a literary writer?
Is it that literary fiction doesn’t follow rules?
With a genre novel, tropes must be respected because they are what the reader enjoys. A family saga must run a well defined gamut of black sheep, poor relations, blissful marriages and disastrous elopements because otherwise the reader feels that the writer missed the obvious opportunities. The entertainment is in how these obligations are met in a fresh way, the individual writer’s ingenuity within this formal structure.
If genre authors bust out of their boxes, they risk disappointing their readers. Ruth Rendell, who you’d think has a reliably adoring fan base, was careful to adopt a different name to explore beyond conventional crime fiction. When Iain Banks wrote sci-fi as well as lit fic, he stuck an M between his names. But then some writers jump categories and face their public with no disguise – Robert Harris with his modern thrillers and historical fiction. Perhaps it all comes down to how hard he can argue with his publisher.
If rules, or the lack of them, are the crucial difference, does that make genre benders literary? Maybe, if the blend creates a provocative and resonating tension. But sometimes fusing genres is no more than a simple exercise of this-meets-that (or adding freshly boiled zombies).
If a literary novelist writes about a murder, they certainly don’t have to meet the expectations that a crime novelist or detective writer would – think of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If genre is about the reader’s expectations, perhaps literary is an anti-genre.
Let’s take Woody Allen as an example. Yes, his medium is celluloid, but it all starts with words and pages. His body of work includes character pieces (Annie Hall, Vicky Christina Barcelona), madcap sci-fi comedies (Sleeper), cosy mystery spoofs (Manhattan Murder Mystery) bleak examinations of morality (Crimes And Misdemeanours). Sometimes, but not all the time, he breaks the bounds of reality by adding time travel (Midnight in Paris), fantasy (The Purple Rose of Cairo). Or singing, flying and ghosts in Everyone Says I Love You. In his latest, To Rome With Love, a character turns invisible.
With Allen, you never know what rules will be followed – and yet you do. They are Allen’s rules, created by his own themes, obsessions and humanity. They’re what we come back for.
So perhaps each literary writer creates a genre of their own, invents the colours they paint in. Like with genre fiction, it makes its own expectations. Perhaps the two are not so very different.
What do you think? Is ‘literary’ a genre? What makes a writer literary? What makes them not? Are there any writers you’d say were both genre and literary?
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