Thursday, April 28, 2011

Truth Versus Verisimilitude, Part Three

So I have been building my way towards a sort of polemic about what's truth and what is a lie, in regard to escapist fiction versus interpretive fiction. And today I find myself backing off from the claims I was going to make because I think I have managed to reframe the question for myself.

Originally, I had this strong idea (or strong flash of what might be an idea) that most genre fiction (and art created primarily for entertainment) operates by telling lies to the audience: lies about the audience itself, lies about the world in which we live, lies about how the audience's value system is reflected in the greater world, etc. I was going to counter that with the claim that literary fiction (what I would really prefer to call "interpretive fiction") recognizes and acts upon an obligation to approach life with a no-holds-barred attitude of discussing what people and life are really like, with the "truth" being almost always revealed to be at odds with the audience's preconcieved ideas of reality.

That was where I was going. Genre fiction, I would have said, creates verisimilitude by aping the common-but-untrue beliefs about life and the world, seeming to be "telling the truth." Literary fiction seems often less verisimilar precisely because it exposes actual states of being that most people don't recognize as being true.

My big gun, of course, was going to be pointing out that the transformative journey of the hero (the trope upon which almost all adventure tales are built) is a Big Damned Lie and that we all know it's a Big Damned Lie. That would've been fun to write about, but really, what would've been the point? Merely to establish myself as a big fucking blowhard? We already know that about me.

I said yesterday that I don't enjoy much escapist fiction (or television or films). To me, most of the time this stuff feels empty and most of it's the same thing over and over with different hats. But I also admitted that sometimes, rarely and when the mood is upon me, I'll watch "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" or "Escape From New York" or even "Jaws" (which is nothing but the Campbellian Hero's Journey and is--I will admit--my all-time favorite movie and if you ask Mighty Reader she'll tell you that I can pretty much act out the whole thing, word-for-word). So I don't want to be a Big Damned Hypocrite, either.

There is something in these escapist fictions that people are drawn to. I still say that what draws people in is a lie, a shiny and false image of who we are as people and an idea of how life can be. "The outsider with unrecognized traits that will eventually be discovered and proved to be valuable to the general society" is one of the Big Damned Lies that propels a huge amount of YA fiction. The idea that everyone has a unique contribution to make is another Big Damned Lie. And so on.

At root, I think, these are the same optimistic claims made by the world religions. Not what we are, but what we could be. A nobility to strive for, maybe. Perhaps that's all a good thing then, and who am I to say that it's not. Genre fiction says "humanity is a good thing" and literary fiction says "maybe humanity isn't a good thing." Sometimes that's the dichotomy, anyway. Not always. Some literary fiction upholds the idea that man is a noble creature. Shakespeare, I think, recognized that people are capable of horrific acts and the lowliest of motivations, but at the same time I think he believed Hamlet's words when he said:

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason,
how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable; in action how like an angel,
in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the
world, the paragon of animals!


Who am I to argue with Mr Shakespeare? Anyway, one way of looking at fiction is through this either/or lens of mine, where the tropes of genre fiction and of myth and world religion are true or they are not. I'm more willing to side with Samuel Beckett and Albert Camus right now, with their claims that existence is utterly without meaning and that human activity is pointless and that life is brutal and difficult and leads nowhere. Sounds very cheerless, doesn't it? Maybe it's better to pretend that life's not that bleak. But of course at the end of Camus' The Stranger, he claims that once you stop looking for the false "More To Life Than This," life becomes a lot easier and more sane.

So really I have nothing to say on this subject, because it seems to all come down to moralizing even when you simply want to write about what you see as truth. In a recent interview, Harold Bloom says that there is no objective truth regarding art, only subjectivity of different depths. One hopes to have a lot of depth behind one's subjective claims. I worry that I have far less depth than hubris, so I end this little triptych without saying what I was originally going to say but hoping that, you know, someone can tell me something that I haven't thought of about all this.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Truth Versus Verisimilitude, Part Two

Last night Mighty Reader and I watched the first hour of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." (Yeah, that's right. Just shut up about it. Sometimes you just want to make a plate of vegetarian burritos and watch mindless action on the telly. It doesn't make us bad people.) As happens whenever I am exposed to wildly-popular entertainments, I found myself wondering just what attracts people to it and how it is different from the sort of entertainments I usually seek.

One of the basic facts of my life is that I don't much enjoy the entertainments of the masses. I admit that I can have a good enough time sitting through the "Harry Potter" movies if I'm in the right mood, and I have a deep affection for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly" (though Joss Whedon's other works leave me less than cold) and certain periods of "Dr Who." But a steady diet of that (and exposure to almost anything on network TV) gives me a headache and leaves me not only hungry for something different, but also irritated for the mass entertainments being so utterly not really what I wanted all along. What a vague fucking paragraph. I shall try again.

Mass entertainments (in which group I include most genre fiction) tend to be very much alike in terms of structure, story, characters, moral outlook and theme. In other ways as well, I'm sure. An audience comes to these entertainments expecting certain conventions and the creators--if they want to be successful--do their best to meet those audience expectations. In general, if the creators of these entertainments want to violate audience expectations, they do it via plot or special effects. They do not--and this is very important--challenge any of the audience's prejudices or challenge the audience's presumed opinion of itself. Mass entertainments reinforce the audience's prejudices and its opinion of itself.

None of this is new. Barthes talked about this in S/Z and The Pleasure of the Text. Texts written primarily to provide nothing but easy entertainment are, in Barthes, "texts of pleasure." They are created for essentially passive readers. Other types of texts (texts of "bliss," or jouissance as Barthes labeled them) require a more active reader, and do not exist to reinforce the reader's systems of belief. These texts often challenge the reader at more than one level (the moral, the emotional, the linguistic). So, to generalize dangerously, popular works and genre fiction tend to fall into the category of "texts of pleasure" and literary works tend to fall into the category of "texts of bliss."

Of course there are no hard and fast rules for dividing up the books into these two categories, and there are going to be different ways of reading the same book depending on the reader, and such a dichotomy is likely too simple to have a great deal of practical use anyway, but still. It's a starting point and I have to stand somewhere while I try to get to today's argument about truth versus verisimilitude. So let's just say that we can view novels in these two ways. It might not be the best way to talk about books all the time, but let's talk about them that way for the moment.

Where was I? Truth, that's right. I am going to propose that most texts of pleasure (entertainment/genre fiction) tell stories that are almost entirely based on lies. I am going to further propose that most texts of bliss (literary fiction) tell stories that are based on truth. Most people never read any literary fiction. You do the math. Very few readers, I am saying, expose themselves to truth while reading.

Tomorrow, possibly if I have the time, I'll define what sort of truth I am talking about.

Friday, April 22, 2011

At Last: a Murder!

I know, work-in-progress updates are very cliche and dull, yet here's one anyway. I'm now 12,588 words into The Last Guest, my "everything but a detective novel, packed into a detective novel," and I have at long last produced a corpse. I should produce an excerpt for you, but now is not the time. Anyway, I'm happy enough with the the novel so far.

Structurally, for those of you who care about these things, we've moved beyond the introduction and are about to embark on the phase of the story known as The False Detective. What larks are in store! Statues and meat lockers and threats and lessons in detection from a curious foreign woman!

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Historical Research: the Happiness of the German People

"I am incensed over the atrocity reports which have been circulated during the Christmas season concerning Germany and National Socialism, and I categorically declare that no executions or political arrests have taken place in Germany. There have also been no party purges. At the time of the alleged executions the party was engaged in bestowing Christmas gifts on millions of German children as part of its Winter relief work. The German people are observing the Christmas season in complete happiness, highly gratified by the magnificent solidarity reflected in the new community of the people." --State Secretary Frank, Propaganda Ministry, Third Reich, Berlin, December 1934 as reported by the New York Times, 1/1/1935

Monday, April 18, 2011

David Lawrence, Thoughts on Voice and Me

I have only read two works by D.H. Lawrence: the short story Rockinghorse Winner and the novel Women In Love. The short story, while memorable and well-written, never really made itself felt on my own writing. But Women In Love, which gave me a bit of trouble when I read it, has apparently influenced my prose.

If you had told me while I was reading that book that a year later I'd be seeing Lawrence's fingerprints on my writing, I'd have been surprised and maybe a little huffy. There's a clumsy matter-of-factness to a lot of Lawrence's writing that makes me uncomfortable. Still, these days I often find myself wanting to read more of Lawrence's novels because even though his prose doesn't flow the way I want mine to flow, the guy was The Real Deal and with the passage of time I begin to not only see his influence on all sorts of writers (A.S. Byatt, certainly, and likely everyone else writing literature in English since the 1940s), I also begin to think that maybe, you know, old Dave was a bit of a genius. I plan to read Sons and Lovers in the upcoming months, and we'll see after that.

I'm not a genius, but when I look at passages like this, from my work-in-progress, I think I see a bit of Lawrence's lamplight brightening the way:

Mrs Pullman came bustling through the French doors into the garden. She paused just outside, dazed by the bright sun. Mr Pullman appeared behind her a moment later. He put a hand on his wife’s arm. She batted it away and took a step into the garden. Her cheeks and forehead were bright red.

"Just shut up," she said. "You’re talking nonsense."

George said something but none of the guests in the garden could make out what it was. He disappeared into the dining room. Mrs Pullman turned and shrieked at him, something shrill and violent and her heavy frame quaked with emotion. She shook a fist.


I have, of course, no idea what this passage will look like once I've revised the novel a few times. It might not even make it into the final MS. But I'm sure that if I looked at other pages at random, I'd see more of Lawrence's influence.

One subtext of this post is the idea that "finding one's own voice" is not only highly over-rated, but also pointless in my opinion. Voice is part of narrative, not a fixed property of the writer. Voice is part of the telling, not of the teller.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Despite the Protagonist Being a Detective

For about a month now--maybe longer--I've been writing a new novel. This one has the working title The Last Guest and is an exploration of long-term coupling in the form of a detective story. Yeah, that's right. So far I'm about 7,000 words into the book. According to the one-page outline I whacked out a few weeks ago, I'm still in Chapter One. Huh. Actually, I've been considering the idea of not having any chapter breaks at all, just moving on from scene to scene for the length of the narrative. Readers might hate that, but it worked for Beckett, right?

I also note that so far, 7,000+ words into the novel, there is no "story question" yet. There's no "will X do Y and stop Z?" or whatever. I think the narrative bubbles along nicely anyway, and though I will eventually have to produce a dead body (it is a murder mystery after all), I don't necessarily feel a lot of pressure to do that right away. Again, readers might hate that, but I'm not writing this for the mystery-reading crowd. This is a book in the form of a detective story, but it's not really a detective story. Despite the protagonist being a detective and all.

There is the urge to make a lot of Jasper Ffordian puns, like having the pistol in the first act be manufactured by the Chekhov Arms Company and to have the same pistol studiously not fired by the third act and such other larky things, but I am manfully resisting. For now, anyway.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Writing About Writing

I am not sure, frankly, what to do with this blog. I have a place to write about writing over here already, and if I was to be honest about it, I find that I have less to say about writing the longer I'm at it. Not that I think I know less about writing as time goes on, but I think there actually becomes less to say about it as one progresses as a fictionaut. One internalizes and personalizes and eventually one is just writing the way one writes. You only have questions and answers that pertain to your own current work. Or I do, anyway.

I find myself talking about other people's books, making pronouncements and judgments, and then realizing half an hour later that none of us really knows what we're talking about in regard to that other person's book. We really only talk about our own writing in respect to that other person's book. How is this other person's book unlike my work? How do I want my work to be more like theirs, or how does their work fall short of the ideal I have for my own work? How is any of this talk interesting to anyone with any self-awareness? How is any of this talk remotely useful?

How many blogs are there about writing? I can't count that high, I'm sure. All these people who want to be published writers, scribbling away about this and that and all saying, approximately, the same things over and over to each other. It's a closed system of babble and it gives me a headache. I don't actually read the blogs of any writers these days because I don't find anything at all interesting being said. There is a great deal to be said about literature still, but writers aren't really the ones saying it. Jonathan Franzen wrote recently (in the New Yorker, I believe) a long essay about going to a remote island and reading Robinson Crusoe and thinking about the novel. Or, rather, the Novel. And it was a lot of insufferable tripe about Jonathan Franzen. Who cares what he has to say about the novel? Who cares what any writer has to say about the novel? They can only give you a narrow, blinkered idea of what fiction can be because all writers are partially blinded by their own work. We lack peripheral vision, we do.

What I read these days, in terms of blogs (and that isn't much or often), are readers writing about the experience of reading fiction. Writers could learn a lot from those folks, I think. The smartest and most vibrant discussions of literature going on now are happening among readers, not writers. Francine Prose has a good book for writers called Reading Like A Writer, but what I want to do now is read like a reader. We'll see how that goes.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

I closed my office door

II

The woman who came to my office at nine o'clock was a total stranger to me. She paused on the threshold, halfway through my half-open door and looked into all the corners of my office. Assured that we would be alone, she slid the rest of the way in and quietly but quickly shut the door behind her. She was a small woman, in a tight shapeless dress of charcoal gray under a tight black sweater. She wore scuffed black knee boots and charcoal hose. There was nothing remarkable about her face or hair and possibly I'd seen her hundreds or thousands of times in the halls of the Department and failed to noticed as we passed each other by. She sat in the wooden chair opposite mine, my gray steel desk between us. Her posture was stiff and she kept her hands in her lap. Her eyes were green, I think.

"You got my note?"

I didn't like her voice.

"How do I know you?" I picked up a pencil and dug the sharpened end into the gray blotter on my desk, five or six times. It was best to get right to the point.

"You don't know me," the woman said. "I work in a different section. Which one doesn't matter. What matters is that we both have the same duty. Yesterday someone in the Department interfered with that duty."

The pencil pricks on the edge of my blotter looked like bullet holes. I put the pencil down and laid my hands on my desk, palms flat against the cold metal.

"It was a mixup in the schedule," I said.

"Over the entire city?" The woman shook her head and then glanced toward the door. "The Stage Two officers know the law as well as we do. Every one of them went to their assignments early yesterday. You know what happened then."

I nodded.

"It was like that all across the city, all across the district," the woman said. Her voice was really beginning to bother me. "Stage One gets to the hospital, signs off on the files and then discovers that the ward has already been sanitized by Stage Two."

"So file a complaint," I said. "Talk to your superior."

"I have spoken to the Director himself."

I wondered if she truly had. It would be very bold of one of us to speak to the Director, especially about the actions of Stage Two. Criticism of plague control measures was not encouraged.

"And?"

She looked away and sat blinking rapidly for a moment.

"You are aware how it is here," she said. "No discussion of policy. My position was threatened. Not directly of course, but--"

"You should get out of my office."

"What?"

"Go. Right now." I stood up and walked around my gray steel desk. I walked behind the woman and opened the door. "I will not be part of your insubordinate actions. Get out."

"You don't see what's happening," she hissed. "Yesterday was not an accident. It will happen again and again until it becomes the normal procedure."

"What if it does? We do the Department's duty."

"Don't you see? Soon Stage One will be unnecessary."

I took the woman by the upper arm and pulled her from my guest chair. This was foolish talk, rumor. I'd hear no more of it. I pushed her toward the door.

"You will hear from me again," she whispered.

"What is your name?"

"Do you want to meet me after work?"

"No, I want to report you. What is your name and section?"

She gave me a hard look, her lower lip jutting out as if she was some sort of small, nocturnal forest creature I'd come upon accidentally. She raised a hand, maybe to strike me; I'm not sure. And then she spun away and down the corridor, disappearing into the mass of Department workers moving along in dutiful streams.

I closed my office door and walked over to the window. It was a small window, set at chest height in the wall and not made to be opened. Still, it looked out over the bay and there were a few freighters on the water, their orange and black hulls bright against the gray water. The reports said that international trade was picking up again, that we might have fresh fruit by the fall. It had been years since I'd tasted an apricot.

On my desk were reports to complete and sign, a large stack of them. There were also informational memos to read and letters to answer and analyses to summarize for my superiors. I had a full day's work but I hesitated to return to my desk. My head was beginning to ache. I'd been having headaches more often lately and reading would only make it worse, but I had deadlines and so I turned from the window and went back to my desk. I rubbed my temples and wished that it was lunch time.

Monday, April 4, 2011

"You don't see what's happening," she hissed.

II

The woman who came to my office at nine o'clock was a total stranger to me. She paused on the threshold, halfway through my half-open door and looked into all the corners of my office. Assured that we would be alone, she slid the rest of the way in and quietly but quickly shut the door behind her. She was a small woman, in a tight shapeless dress of charcoal gray under a tight black sweater. She wore scuffed black knee boots and charcoal hose. There was nothing remarkable about her face or hair and possibly I'd seen her hundreds or thousands of times in the halls of the Department and failed to noticed as we passed each other by. She sat in the wooden chair opposite mine, my gray steel desk between us. Her posture was stiff and she kept her hands in her lap. Her eyes were green, I think.

"You got my note?"

I didn't like her voice.

"How do I know you?" I picked up a pencil and dug the sharpened end into the gray blotter on my desk, five or six times. It was best to get right to the point.

"You don't know me," the woman said. "I work in a different section. Which one doesn't matter. What matters is that we both have the same duty. Yesterday someone in the Department interfered with that duty."

The pencil pricks on the edge of my blotter looked like bullet holes. I put the pencil down and laid my hands on my desk, palms flat against the cold metal.

"It was a mixup in the schedule," I said.

"Over the entire city?" The woman shook her head and then glanced toward the door. "The Stage Two officers know the law as well as we do. Every one of them went to their assignments early yesterday. You know what happened then."

I nodded.

"It was like that all across the city, all across the district," the woman said. Her voice was really beginning to bother me. "Stage One gets to the hospital, signs off on the files and then discovers that the ward has already been sanitized by Stage Two."

"So file a complaint," I said. "Talk to your superior."

"I have spoken to the Director himself."

I wondered if she truly had. It would be very bold of one of us to speak to the Director, especially about the actions of Stage Two. Criticism of plague control measures was not encouraged.

"And?"

She looked away and sat blinking rapidly for a moment.

"You are aware how it is here," she said. "No discussion of policy. My position was threatened. Not directly of course, but--"

"You should get out of my office."

"What?"

"Go. Right now." I stood up and walked around my gray steel desk. I walked behind the woman and opened the door. "I will not be part of your insubordinate actions. Get out."

"You don't see what's happening," she hissed. "Yesterday was not an accident. It will happen again and again until it becomes the normal procedure."

"What if it does? We do the Department's duty."

"Don't you see? Soon Stage One will be unnecessary."

I took the woman by the upper arm and pulled her from my guest chair. This was foolish talk, rumor. I'd hear no more of it. I pushed her toward the door.

"You will hear from me again," she whispered.

"What is your name?"

"Do you want to meet me after work?"

"No, I want to report you. What is your name and section?"

She gave me a hard look, her lower lip jutting out as if she was some sort of small, nocturnal forest creature I'd come upon accidentally. She raised a hand, maybe to strike me; I'm not sure. And then she spun away and down the corridor, disappearing into the mass of Department workers moving along in dutiful streams.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

"I have spoken to the Director himself."

II

The woman who came to my office at nine o'clock was a total stranger to me. She paused on the threshold, halfway through my half-open door and looked into all the corners of my office. Assured that we would be alone, she slid the rest of the way in and quietly but quickly shut the door behind her. She was a small woman, in a tight shapeless dress of charcoal gray under a tight black sweater. She wore scuffed black knee boots and charcoal hose. There was nothing remarkable about her face or hair and possibly I'd seen her hundreds or thousands of times in the halls of the Department and failed to noticed as we passed each other by. She sat in the wooden chair opposite mine, my gray steel desk between us. Her posture was stiff and she kept her hands in her lap. Her eyes were green, I think.

"You got my note?"

I didn't like her voice.

"How do I know you?" I picked up a pencil and dug the sharpened end into the gray blotter on my desk, five or six times. It was best to get right to the point.

"You don't know me," the woman said. "I work in a different section. Which one doesn't matter. What matters is that we both have the same duty. Yesterday someone in the Department interfered with that duty."

The pencil pricks on the edge of my blotter looked like bullet holes. I put the pencil down and laid my hands on my desk, palms flat against the cold metal.

"It was a mixup in the schedule," I said.

"Over the entire city?" The woman shook her head and then glanced toward the door. "The Stage Two officers know the law as well as we do. Every one of them went to their assignments early yesterday. You know what happened then."

I nodded.

"It was like that all across the city, all across the district," the woman said. Her voice was really beginning to bother me. "Stage One gets to the hospital, signs off on the files and then discovers that the ward has already been sanitized by Stage Two."

"So file a complaint," I said. "Talk to your superior."

"I have spoken to the Director himself."

I wondered if she truly had. It would be very bold of one of us to speak to the Director, especially about the actions of Stage Two. Criticism of plague control measures was not encouraged.

"And?"

She looked away and sat blinking rapidly for a moment.

"You are aware how it is here," she said. "No discussion of policy. My position was threatened. Not directly of course, but--"

"You should get out of my office."

"What?"

"Go. Right now." I stood up and walked around my gray steel desk. I walked behind the woman and opened the door. "I will not be part of your insubordinate actions. Get out."

Saturday, April 2, 2011

"How do I know you?"

II

The woman who came to my office at nine o'clock was a total stranger to me. She paused on the threshold, halfway through my half-open door and looked into all the corners of my office. Assured that we would be alone, she slid the rest of the way in and quietly but quickly shut the door behind her. She was a small woman, in a tight shapeless dress of charcoal gray under a tight black sweater. She was wearing scuffed black knee boots and charcoal hose. There was nothing remarkable about her face or hair and possibly I'd seen her hundreds or thousands of times in the halls of the Department and failed to noticed as we passed each other by. She sat in the wooden chair opposite mine, my gray steel desk between us. Her posture was stiff and she kept her hands in her lap. Her eyes were green, I think.

"You got my note?"

I didn't like her voice.

"How do I know you?" I picked up a pencil and dug the sharpened end into the gray blotter on my desk, five or six times. It was best to get right to the point.

"You don't know me," the woman said. "I work in a different section. Which one doesn't matter. What matters is that we both have the same duty. Yesterday someone in the Department interfered with that duty."

The pencil pricks on the edge of my blotter looked like bullet holes. I put the pencil down and laid my hands on my desk, palms flat against the cold metal.

"It was a mixup in the schedule," I said.

"Over the entire city?" The woman shook her head and then glanced toward the door. "The Stage Two officers know the law as well as we do. Every one of them went to their assignments early yesterday. You know what happened then."

I nodded.

"It was like that all across the city, all across the district," the woman said. Her voice was really beginning to bother me. "Stage One gets to the hospital, signs off on the files and then discovers that the ward has already been sanitized by Stage Two."

"So file a complaint," I said. "Talk to your superior."

Friday, April 1, 2011

The woman who came to my office

II

The woman who came to my office at nine o'clock was a total stranger to me. She paused on the threshold, halfway through my half-open door and looked into all the corners of my office. Assured that we would be alone, she slid the rest of the way in and quietly but quickly shut the door behind her. She was a small woman, in a tight shapeless dress of charcoal gray under a tight black sweater. She was wearing scuffed black knee boots and charcoal hose. There was nothing remarkable about her face or hair and possibly I'd seen her hundreds or thousands of times in the halls of the Department and failed to noticed as we passed each other by. She sat in the wooden chair opposite mine, my gray steel desk between us. Her posture was stiff and she kept her hands in her lap. Her eyes were green, I think.

"You got my note?"

I didn't like her voice.