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Home Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006) Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005) Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Rites of Passage (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Spring 2006)
Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Fall 2005)
Notebook for Effective Writing I (Fall 2005)
APPROACHING THE ART OF FICTION
EDGAR ALLEN POE
Since he practically invented the form, it's only fair we start by examining what Edgar Allen Poe had to say. This passage is excerpted from a review he wrote of Nathaniel Hawthorne's story collection, Twice Told Tales:
Were we called upon however to designate that class of composition which, next to such a [lyric] poem as we have suggested, should best fulfill the demands of high genius-should offer it the most advantageous field of exertion-we should speak of the prose tale, as Mr. Hawthorne has here exemplified. We allude to the short prose narrative, requiring from a half-hour to one or two hours in its perusal. The ordinary novel is objectionable, from its length, for reasons already stated in substance. As it cannot be read at one sitting, it deprive itself, of course, of the immense force derivable from totality. Worldly interests intervening during the pauses of perusal, modify, annul, or counteract, in a greater or less degree, the impressions of the book. But simple cessation in reading would, of itself, be sufficient to destroy the true unity. In the brief tale, however, the author is enabled to carry out the fulness of his intention, be it what it may. During the hour of perusal the soul of the reader is a the writer's control. There are no external or extrinsic influences-resulting from weariness or interruption.
A skilfull literary artist has constructed a tale. If wise, has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents-he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing the preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tend not to the outbringing of the effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed; and this is an end unattainable by the novel. Undue brevity is just as exceptionable here as in the poem; but undue length is yet more to be avoided.
Notice how Poe refers to the short story as a "prose tale" or "prose narrative"-the modern nomenclature hasn't taken hold yet, and he refers to it in the language of his day. But Poe's understanding of the art of the short story is very specific and very different from the art of the "tale." Notice how he emphasizes the time factor: a short story should only require "a half hour to one or two hours" to read. He emphasizes that only then can we get the satisfaction of "totality," or enjoying a work in its totality. When we read something of this length we're less likely to become distracted-the soul of the reader will be "under the writer's control." Then Poe stresses that a short story should communicate a "single effect." Everything in the story-every word, every sentence, every image, every suggestion-should contribute to bringing about this effect on the reader.
The way Poe insists on the primacy of "effect" is similar to the way Tim O'Brien describes the mission of fiction in his short piece "How To Tell A True War Story": "It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." For O'Brien, fiction has a visceral effect on the reader, not just a mental or emotional one.
Another way of thinking about the way modern short stories work comes from the nineteenth century Russian practitioner, Anton Chekhov, who seems to be working out the difference, here, between the kind of moral tale that readers were familiar with and the more modern form that he himself helped to shape:
You abuse me for objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideals and ideas, and so on. You would have me, when I describe horse-thieves, say: "Stealing horse thieves is an evil." But that has been known for ages without my saying so. Let the jury judge them; it's my job simply to show what sort of people they are. I write: you are dealing with horse-thieves, so let me tell you that they are not beggars but well-fed people, that they are people of a special cult, and that horse-stealing is not simply theft but a passion. Of course it would be pleasant to combine art with a sermon, but for me personally it is extremely difficult and almost impossible, owing to the conditions of technique. You see, to depict horse-thieves in seven hundred lines I must all the time speak and think in their tone and feel in their spirit, otherwise, if I introduce subjectivity, the image becomes blurred and the story will not be as compact as all short stories ought to be. When I write, I reckon entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story."
To A.S. Souvorin. Moscow. April 1, 1890.
Chekhov argues here for a kind of story that invites the reader's own interpretation. He has introduced an anti-moralistic type of fiction that fixes the responsibility of moralizing on the reader rather than the writer. Many have interpreted Chekhov's statement here as his belief that the writer's responsibility is to "show" rather than "tell." And that the "art of the story" is in the showing, not the telling. No longer are events introduced by summary; they are recreated in vivid detail so that we can participate and draw our own conclusion about them. We aren't told by the narrator what to think about what's going on-we decide for ourselves. The writer's task is to give us enough of an experience to allow us to participate as fully as possible.
Directly related to this approach is Joseph Conrad's:
Fiction-if it at all aspires to be art-appeals to temperament. And in truth it must be like painting, like music, like all art, the appeal of one temperament to all the other innumerable temperaments whose subtle and resistless power endows passing events with their true meaning, and creates the moral the emotional atmosphere of the place and time. Such an appeal, to be effective, must be an impression conveyed through the senses….All art…appeals primarily to the senses, and the artistic aim when expressing itself in written words must also make its appeal through the senses, if its high desire is to reach the secret spring of responsive emotions….My task which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel-it is , before all, to make you see. That-and no more, and it is everything. If I succeed, you shall find there, according to you deserts, encouragement, consolation, fear, charm, all you demand-and, perhaps, also that glimpse of truth for which you have forgotten to ask.
Let's jump to two well respected twentieth century writers: Ernest Hemingway and Raymond Carver. Notice how these two express ideas similar to Chekhov's and Conrad's. They are all interested in describing what they consider the "art" of the short story to be:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing….
The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shock-proof, shit detector. This is the writer's radar and all great writers have had it.
Raymond Carver owes a lot, stylistically, to Hemingway. Here he echoes Hemingway’s sense that most of the real story is just below the surface:
I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace if fine to have in a story. For one thing, it's good for the circulation. There has to be tension, a sense that something is imminent, that certain things are in relentless motion, or else, most often, there simply won't be a story. What creates tension in a piece of fiction is partly the way the concrete words are linked together to make up the visible action of the story. But it's also the things that are left out, that are implied, the landscape just under the smooth (but sometimes broken and unsettled) surface of things.
You can hear how many of these writers echo each other. There's almost complete consensus on a few key ideas about the artistry of the short story: (1) it communicates-a feeling, an idea, a moral; (2) it invites interpretation; (3) it encourages depth reading-to gain access to meaning that lies, as Carver and Hemingway suggest, beneath the surface, which is just the small visible tip of the iceberg; (4) it refrains from specific moralizing, encouraging readers to draw their own conclusions.
TONI CADE BAMBARA
Although fiction writers leave a lot for the reader to infer, they do their fair share of guiding and shaping. More than likely, a work of literature will express a particular “vision” of the world or of life or of people (or of all of these) that's unique to that author. Consider how Toni Cade Bambara describes the purpose of her fiction:
….I start with the recognition that we are at war, and that war is not simply a hot debate between the capitalist camp and the socialist camp over which economic/political/social arrangement will have hegemony in the world. It's not just the battle over turf and who has the right to utilize resources for whomsoever's benefit. The war is also being fought over the truth: what is the truth about human nature, about the human potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family and the human family is to try to tell the truth. That ain't easy. There are so few truth-speaking traditions in this society in which the myth of "Western civilization" has claimed the allegiance of so many….
I do not think that literature is the primary instrument for social transformation, but I do think it has potency. So I work to tell the truth about people's lives; I work to celebrate struggle. To applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block, who've been waiting in the wings, characters we thought we had to ignore because they weren't pimp-flashy or hustler-slick or because they didn't fit easily into previously acceptable modes or stock types. I want to lift up some usable truths….
From Black Women Writers at Work, edited by Claudia Tate
I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.
I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else's. But behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there's no truth.
The meaning of the story is the story.
The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions. It is a good deal easier for most people to state an abstract idea than to describe and thus re-create some object that they actually see. But the world of the fiction writer is full of matter, and this is what the beginning fi8ction writers are very loath to create. They are concerned primarily with unfleshed ideas and emotions. They are apt to be reformers and to want to write because they are possessed not by a story but by the bare bones of some abstract notion. They are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and of everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth….
One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these [abstract] qualities alone. This type of writer will put down one intensely emotional or keenly perceptive sentence after the other, and the result will be complete dullness. The fact is that the materials of the fiction writer are the humblest. Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.
I have to bend the whole novel—its language, its structure, its action. I have to make the reader feel, in his bones if nowhere else, that something is going on here that counts. Distortion in this case is an instrument; exaggeration has a purpose, and the whole structure of the story or novel has been made what it is because of belief. This is not the kind of distortion that destroys; it is the kind that reveals, or should reveal.
Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.
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