Monday, September 30, 2013

Poetics check

"Poetics" in my title serves the same purpose as "reality" does in the expression "reality check." The hoopla around David Gilmour's opinions, as well as some reading I've been doing (because I've been too sick to teach) and a wonderful workshop last weekend with Sandra Birdsell, have prompted me to ask a whole series of questions around storytelling in the twenty-first century. 

Last weekend, eight other fiction writers gathered around a table in the SWG offices for a fiction workshop the Guild had arranged with Sandra Birdsell.  We were a varied lot--some of us writing for the first time, some of us published; some of us writing romance, others memoir or realist fiction.  But I've always found variety a good quality in a workshop.  What you find there are writers--but also readers.  And with a leader as skilled as Sandra, you learn from her commentary on everyone's work, as well as from the reactions of your classmates.  It was a rich afternoon, well worth being inside on a sunny, albeit ridiculously windy day.  What I heard about the opening chapter of Soul Weather was that I really needed to get to the story earlier--to that moment of tension that Bob Kroetsch used to say lets the reader know why the story begins here.

This piece of advice arouses in me all kinds of conflicts.  Does any of you know a general rule for how many pages into a novel the tension needs to begin?  Mine is about halfway through the first chapter.  But this is because I've got lots to do in those early pages.  I need to explore the character's relationship with her world--the one she's not quite at home in.  I also want to give the reader some sense of her MFA ceramics project.  I want them to inhabit her body as she throws a tea pot, to understand the pleasure of craftsmanship, which is particularly physical for a potter.  It's the need to do these things that brings the internal conflict in.  When I write novels, I'm a story-teller, not a poet writing in a different form.

I get that, though I sometimes strain against it.  But what has happened to the novel of ideas?  If I look at the novels that I have loved--from all of Austen's work, to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to George Eliot's Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, to everything Woolf wrote, to writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Carol Shields and Jane Urquhart--I do not have the sense of the story exploding out of the gate with a crack and hundreds of pounds of horse flesh behind it.  In fact, sometimes--with Woolf, for example--you don't understand why the story is being written until about 3/4 of the way through when everything that has gone before suddenly coheres to create a hologram of the world you've been immersed in.  Rather, what captures the reader is the narrator's voice and the character's or characters' complexity that makes you curious.  In these novels you feel as if your hunger to understand the human condition is going to be assuaged.  Or to put it another way, you're willing to be led; you don't need to be pushed.

So here's the first question in my reality check.  I've described the poetics of the nineteenth-century and the modernist novel.  Post-postmodernism, are the poetics suddenly transformed into conflict, violence, and trauma, the sooner and more relentless the better?  While I was sick, I read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which certainly contains quite a bit of violence and trauma.  Yet the difference between that an the unsatisfying, unnamed novel I read earlier this fall was craftsmanship and vision.  There isn't a single gratuitous scene in Gaiman's brief novel; his style is spare or descriptive as the moment requires.  But what he's given us is a powerful teleological myth about how and why evil and discord come into the world running underneath the coming of age story at its centre.  In the earlier novel, a wife had put her husband through misery with a separation of at least a year, only to shrug her shoulders and say she hadn't really been in love with the man who had replaced her husband.  And he accepts that.  End of story.  No reflection, no accountability.  Just lots of violence and award nominations because violence, apparently, announces the seriousness of a piece of fiction.  Poetics check:  I sound like an old fart.

My second meditation on the poetics of fiction came, of course, courtesy of David Gilmour's problematic comments about what he teaches and why.  After I finish batting him about the head with a helium-filled balloon, I'd like to remind him that art is not a mirror, that in fact one of the qualities that many of us value about a painting or a story or a piece of music is that the artist has found a way of introducing us to and immersing us in the viewpoint of someone quite unlike ourselves, and has enlarged our humanity--not simply confirmed something we already knew.  Gilmour's sexism doesn't disturb me as deeply as does his wholesale blindness to difference.  It's unimaginative, to say the least.  Even the Greek philosopher Terence once said that the work of art allows you to say to yourself  "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."

Unable to commit myself to a novel at this point in the term, I picked up the beautifully-crafted stories of Richard Ford in A Multitude of Sins, a book I began in Massachusetts on holiday.  I wrote here about their craftsmanship, but also whined, in old fart mode, that I had become tired of people behaving badly.  Last night, however, I read one of the later stories, "Charity," about a husband and wife who have become estranged and who are taking a short holiday to spend time together once again.  Unbeknownst to Nancy, Tom, a former police detective specializing in robberies,  is also thinking about making a fresh start to his life after he was shot on the job in an incident that killed his partner.  Except we don't have Tom's point of view:  we only hear Nancy's thoughts and the dialogue between the two of them, dialogue in which Tom's intentions become clear, as she attempts to understand the motives for his infidelity and the purpose of this trip.  I got to the end of the story and said, aloud, "Wow!" 

Because what we have at the end of the story is Nancy helping a little girl and a man in a wheel chair fly a kite, and here she finds some strength and triumph and joy of her own.  We have no idea whether she will accompany Tom as he attempts to find a new approach to life that isn't so complicated by his partner's death (which we don't find out about until at least halfway through the story, even though this is clearly where the story actually begins if you are simply looking at the chronology).  We're left, instead, with a powerful and visceral image of Nancy's strength and resilience and joy:  "The spacious blue bay spread away from her down the hill, and off of it arose a freshened breeze.  It was far from clear that she could hold the kite.  It could take her up, pull her away, far and out of sight.... And then, she thought, coming to the two of them, smiling out of flattery, that she would take the kite -- the rod, the string -- yes, of course, and fly it, take the chance, be strong, unassailable, do everything she could to hold on" (214).  What we have is a passionately reflective character making a choice that could go anywhere; her strength could take her back to Tom to help see him through his crisis, or it could take her into her own life as a public defender in a way she couldn't, at this moment, imagine.

 Earlier in the day, I'd been reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries for work on my poems, and he'd pointed out that in literature there are two kinds of lines:  the converging paths of Oedipus that give the sense that no matter what the character does, he or she will end up where the fates have decided, and the diverging paths of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" that provide choices.  While Kingwell was applying this to the narratives each of us makes in the city as we move through it, I'd like to apply it to stories.  What happens to the story where characters have choices?  What happens when they don't?  This chapter of Tom's and Nancy's story is certainly begun by a random event, but these two characters are trying to figure out what choices to make in response to that event, choices that will make their lives better or at least return them to some equilibrium.

I'd been thinking about things like mistakes and choices because I have also been reading Charles Baxter's remarkable set of essays, Burning Down the House.  In "Dysfunctional Narratives, or: 'Mistakes Were Made,'" Baxter talks about the kind of dysfunctional narrative in which characters are simply passive victims.  He suggests, cannily, that when writers free our characters to make mistakes "we release them from the grip of our own authorial narcissism" into "what Aristotle thought was the core of stories, flaws of character that produce intelligent misjudgments for which the someone must take responsibility" (15, 14).  He sees these misjudgments coming at moments of high tension when decisions must be made quickly.  It's not comfortable for the characters or the writer, but "for some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning."  Readers love this:  "They love to see characters getting themselves into interesting trouble and defining themselves" 14).

Maybe what I'm responding so critically to is not simply the violence of a text, but to the way that violence is treated in the fictional world.  It seems to just "happen" to the narrator of the untitled book; it goes on around him, but there's little he can do or does do to change the outcome.  He's a passive observer.  I've tried to think about why I'm seeing so much of this.  Are TV and the movies turning us into voyeurs rather than into readers;  have we become the passive observer in someone else's life that we value more than our own?  Is it staring at the tabloids as we wait to check out at the grocery store?  Has 9/11 become such an enormous historical and cultural touchstone that our own lives look puny and indifferent beside it?  Are we waiting to become the victims of the next terrorist plot? 

While all these things happen--the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi--we will lose our own lives to our own indifference if we don't expect our writers to reflect--and reflect on--the things that happen every day:  joys, mistakes, false steps, choices that lead us somewhere we couldn't possibly have expected.


  1. Very thoughtful Kathleen. Just a small comment on the quality of fiction, which I don't write but love to read. And the comment isn't so much on the quality as on the styles. There is the start-with-a-bang and get us immediately involved or, the slow accumulation of information that, like you say, gives us an inkling of what the novel is about perhaps 3/4 of the way through. I wonder if the second method is loosing its appeal because of the huge hurry the world is in. Magazines, news casts, TV shows - all are brief and to the point. So in writing the novel, I wonder if there is the idea that you must satisfy the public's urge to have something happen sooner. There is most definitely a readership that appreciates the slower development, but perhaps the action-now style sells books.

  2. I'm afraid you're right, Carla, and I'm going to have to decide whether I want to sell books or to write the novel that I've envisioned. I can hope that a good editor will help me accomplish both of those things.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.