Monday, August 12, 2013

Some Fiction Natterings

To those Gentle Readers who stop by only for the political tirades: Sorry, folks. I just can't bring myself to write about that crap today. If you like, you might blame it on my having busted my lawn tractor yesterday.

I recall, from a few years back, an exasperatingly supercilious article that condemned the thriller genre so many contemporary readers love as "a pornography of the nerves." The author and the various "literary authorities" he cited were utterly dismissive of story, and laid 100% of the emphasis on style. I also remember snorting in dismissal and thinking, "I'll bet he wishes his sales figures would ever get that high."

The thriller genre owes much of its popularity to its readers' desire to escape from the mundane. To satisfy that desire, it must provide the reader with a compelling reason to detach his attention from his daily routines and the pedestrian environment in which they're embedded. That demands a certain density of high-voltage crises and events: life-and-death stakes pursued by characters appreciably larger than life. Such crises and events are unlikely to resemble the sorts of problems ordinary people face in their normal affairs. More, they wouldn't benefit from the sort of self-glorifying, "Look Ma, I'm a literary writer" lucubrations the Style Uber Alles types deem superior to plot.

A story in which the crises and events are the central point must be told in a straightforward fashion.

That doesn't mean a thriller should be acted out by stick figures, nor that the author needn't concern himself with the fundamentals of good storytelling. It does command the thriller writer to eschew baroque involutions of wording, unnecessary devices and irrelevant descriptions, and lengthy musings that don't contribute to the elucidation or effectuation of the Marquee characters' motivations.

Ultimately, it's about the point of all fiction, whatever its genre: to provide the reader with a unique and satisfying emotional experience.

Two and three centuries ago, when the first English-language novels were being written and published, pastors in the English-speaking world condemned the reading and writing of fiction more often than not.

Surprised to learn that? I was. But it's consistent with the time and the milieu. Ordinary people didn't have the wealth of free time we enjoy today. Their lives were shorter and far more arduous. They often perched on the ragged edge of starvation. So their clerics wanted them to use what little leisure they had in religious pursuits and devotions. You were supposed to devote your reading time to the Bible.

The fictioneers of that time were just learning how to capture an emotional journey and convey it in an affecting manner. Many of the stories from then seem stilted, awkward, even clumsy by the standards of today. But just as writers of our time strive to do, those writers sought to engage the reader's emotions and take them for a ride. Because they wrote about contemporary events and people, they were able to deflect attention and affection from the dry, exhortative stories told in Scripture.

As is usually the case, those early fictioneers improved with practice, and left valuable lessons for their successors. Over time, clerics stopped trying to discourage the reading of fiction, realizing it was hopeless, and bent their efforts toward the promotion of storytellers who emphasized Christian virtues and piety. Even so, the need to capture the reader's attention with emotional evocation remained paramount; no virtue of any category can be effectively illuminated and efficiently encouraged by dispassionate exhortation.

About twenty years ago, a fellow libertarian storyteller and I were bemoaning the difficulty of promoting the importance and understanding of freedom in an emotionally adequate story. "How do you write a story whose central theme is the importance of the gold standard?" he lamented. I could only sympathize. (I had no solution for him. However, I rather suspect that he hadn't intended to write such a tale in the first place. Even so, it makes for an interesting challenge.)

It can take a while to get certain of the high principles of storytelling firmly seated in one's head. Neither my friend nor I had fully grasped one of the critical ones. I recall feeling a great light dawn when I first ran across it in its most compact form:

John Brunner's First Law Of Fiction:
The Raw Material Of Fiction Is People!

To write about freedom, you must write about protagonists who are passionate about freedom, not about the political imperative of freedom to all men everywhere.

One of the reasons -- probably the most important one -- that Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is so popular on the Right is that Rand succeeded in personalizing the struggle for freedom. That is, she gave the reader attractive, passionate protagonists who were caught up in terrible crises that arose from infringements on freedom, and so dramatized the importance of freedom in an exciting, challenge-filled tale. The theme is freedom, but the story is intensely personal. Had Rand not managed to create such magnetic characters and embed them in a plot of such difficulty, she would have produced a mere polemic.

The same holds true for any imaginable theme. The theme of a story must be integral to the protagonists' passions and the challenges they must face. The events of the story must emphasize, albeit subtly and often indirectly, the importance of the theme to the solution of the protagonists' problems and their route toward the climax. It's about people, always people.

Brunner's First Law isn't a panacea, of course. The storyteller has plenty of work to do beyond what that recognition addresses. (Brunner's Second Law -- "The essence of story is change" -- helps a lot with the rest of it.) But until the fledgling storyteller has properly internalized the First Law, his stuff will leave the reader shrugging and muttering "So what?"

In just about every instance, when I write about fiction and its infrastructure, I'm mainly talking to myself. That's certainly true here, though I allow myself to hope that any other storytellers and aspirants reading this will get some value out of it as well.

In dark and troubled times, the storyteller's work waxes in importance. A good story well told has persuasive and instructive power beyond any amount of exposition or exhortation. It can propose approaches to problems the reader might never have considered. It can illuminate laws of human conduct that altogether too many of us haven't recognized, or are prone to forgetting. Best of all, it can refresh the reader's spirit and renew his hope.

The times in which we live are both dark and troubled. That's why, despite the difficulties and the frustrations involved, I write fiction, and not just these endless essays. I've come to think it's the most important work I do -- that if I have any prospect of influencing America's future course, it's far less likely to arise from the op-ed pieces here than from the stories I tell.


John said...

Fran, you may be familiar with the excellent essay, written by B.R. Myers, first in the Atlantic Monthly, then extended to a book length essay, called A Reader's Manifesto. He made wonderful mincemeat of the current vogue of literary critic's (especially of the NYT variety) obsession with literary style over character, plot, etc... and made the shocking (at least to the normal readership of the Atlantic) claim that Stephen King was a far better writer than Don Delillo (who I must admit I have tried to read on multiple occasions but always put his books down because by page 50 I am bored to tears). If you're not familiar with it, here is the original Atlantic piece.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Thank you, John. As it happens, when I first read the Myers manifesto, it so impressed me that I bought it in paperback. He and I see the world of fiction very much alike.

YIH said...

I just came across some fiction that might pique your interest.
It a summary of the book A world made by hand by James Howard Kunstler.
As a sample, here's the first paragraph:

The fictional future economy I described was, in its broad outlines, similar to the future sketched by Chris Martenson and his stable of writers — a re-set to a far more local, much less complex, and downscaled economy, with a lot of formerly modern comforts and conveniences missing from the picture. In my fictional world of Union Grove in far upstate New York, the electricity was no longer running, the Internet was dead, giant corporations and government had withered away, motoring was history, paper money worthless, and a lot of common institutions (courts, schools, supermarkets) no longer functioned. This was an economic order very different from what we’re familiar with now, and I had to construct a plausible social order to go with it.

I've read the whole summary (and plan to get the book) and yes, I could picture such a scenario. I came from upstate NY and there's a good chunk of the county I'm from where if this were to happen 'normal life' would actually not change much! Namely a significant Amish population and what they say about them is true; they haven't changed much in 200 years. You can go for miles and your cell phone will say 'no signal' (why put a cell tower there?).
Travel/shipping over long distance would be by barge or rail (good ol' steam technology would likely be resurrected) communication over long distance would be by 'snail' mail (and of course it would be slower). Some form of currency would evolve even if US$ become toilet paper. Major cities would become lawless wastelands (like Detroit but even worse).
Like they say, read the whole thing...