Thinking Blue Guitars

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Month: January, 2012

On Two Types of Plot

Of all the elements of tragedy, said Aristotle, plot is the most important:

[F]or tragedy is a representation, not of people, but of action and life, of happiness and unhappiness – and happiness and unhappiness are bound up with action. The purpose of living is an end which is a kind of activity, not a quality; it is their characters, indeed, that make people what they are, but it is by reason of their actions that they are happy or the reverse.

This is a very unmodern conception, both of fiction and of ethics, but my novel-writing experience to date has convinced me of its soundness. There are, I have discovered to my detriment, two types of ‘plot’: the first – my original understanding – is that of a series of events, one leading inexorably to the other until a point of closure. I’ve started several novels and short stories with that definition of plot in mind, attempting to ‘write blind’ and hoping that the subsequent events would magically spring out of the current one. Unsurprisingly, it would now seem (with hindsight), I never finished them. That includes the novel I began earlier this month. I’d written some pretty decent individual scenes, but I had no real feel for how the pieces would come together.

Then, on Friday 13th, just before midnight, the departing evil spirits whispered the secrets of a Young Adult novel into my disconsolate ear. It was my ‘crossroads’ moment. Robert Johnson and Bob Dylan sold their souls to the devil the better to play guitar; all I had to do was sit in my office chair looking diabolical. And for that I received the art of muthos. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, the story jumped out whole. I sat down and started writing. I didn’t stop until 4.30a.m. I had 2,000 words. And within those few hours, the outline of the entire story was clear in my mind

That’s when I really knew what plot was. A plot is not a series of events, it’s a field of forces. It consists of fundamental agents counteracting one another, battling for supremacy, but – and here is the key – these forces do not coincide with the characters. As Aristotle rightly claims, you could have a tragedy without characters but never a tragedy without plot. The characters are the organic outgrowths of the clash of forces. Their entire raison d’être is not contained within themselves, but only arises in the context of the clash of forces of which they are but one element.

What does that mean in practical terms? It means that when you sit down to write, the characters burn through your mind’s eye because they have the force of a whole action behind them. They overpower you with their longings, their vices, their idiosyncrasies – all because of the drama they’re caught up in. Their words and deeds flow from the pen much more readily because the plot decrees that what they say or do will have been necessary. Everything you write, everything they say, all of it builds up inexorably to that central event that holds the entire novel together.

Plot is the Aristotelian unity of action; it is the synoptic, nightmarish gaze of the Author. It is the reason I do not sleep at night.

Kindle Single Review: Dean Koontz, The Moonlit Mind

I suspect the key to Dean Koontz’s popularity can be summed up in two words which happen to be the titles of two of his novels: Breathless and Relentless.

His sentences are generally short, staccato affairs. It’s all about pace. It doesn’t matter whether he’s describing a mut or a murder, he’s gonna charge you through that son-of-a-bitch scene if it’s the last thing he does. (As someone who’s read Proust, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: if Dean Koontz had written the salon scenes, he’d have spared us a good three months of our lives!) Yet such constant relentlessness becomes strangely wearying. When the rhythm refuses to conform to the dramatic requirements of the action, making relatively irrelevant setting descriptions just as swift as grand climaxes, the style itself becomes a sort of steam-roller, crushing all the diverse vitality of the world beneath it.

This general stylistic issue is then reflected at the level of narrative voice. Occasionally, there is at work in this narrator’s mouth what I should call the “Great American Male”. It is that voice which runs through the very marrow of the un-self-doubting male American penman, from Mark Twain (“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter”) and Herman Melville (“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely…”) all the way to Saul Bellow (“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way”) and Don DeLillo (“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful”). It is the man who holds God in one hand and Satan in the other, he who has known and experienced the whole wide world, such that his love for that world and for Life in general (with a capital ‘L’) begins to overflow like ink from a broken pen, casting an equally jovial beam on the sinner and saint alike. Not that I would want to argue that Koontz is their literary equal – if The Moonlit Mind is anything to go by, he is not. But nonetheless he clearly taps into some strange reservoir of inveterate unflinchingness.

That said, if he inherits this tradition’s general openness to life’s exotica, he most certainly does not inherit its magnanimity. There is a puritan preacher hidden behind the pages of this book, one which would be riotously mocked by the aforementioned writers. The Moonlit Mind follows the fate of Crispin and his dog, Harley. At the age of 9 Crispin witnesses the brutal murder of his brother. The chapters then alternate between a present in which Crispin is 12 years old and a past in which he is still 9. The older Crispin is a lone wanderer, trying to come to terms with what happened to his younger self. Koontz draws on many of the tried-and-tested modes of evil: child abuse, guardian figures who are secretly demonic, black mass rituals and so forth. But he adds a few more, just for good measure: laziness, sexuality, homosexuality. The principal evil figures in this book are an alcoholic mother who has a lesbian tryst with one of her rich husband’s maids, a nanny who attempts to sexually seduce the young protagonist, and several very wealthy figures whose only fault seems to be laziness. Only to a puritan mind could sex and leisure pose such profound threats.

Still, despite the barely hidden moral agenda of this book (which doesn’t shy away from offering overt lessons for the reader to take away with her), it’s not a bad yarn. If you like swift-flowing, sometimes genuinely beautiful prose, with paper-thin but undeniably arousing housemaids, plus occasional esoteric references to angels – and all of this framed within a view of the Good Life congenial to a seventeenth-century puritan colony, then knock yourself out!

Terry Eagleton on Alain de Botton’s Conservative Atheism

Terry Eagleton has written a ‘review’ of Alain de Botton’s latest book, Religion for Atheists. In typical Eagleton style, it is less a review than a polemical destruction – reminiscent at times of arguably his greatest ever LRB essay: his ‘review’ of The God Delusion. Here is a brief extract:

‎”The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn’t be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised. De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion ‘sporadically useful, interesting and consoling’, which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low. Since Christianity requires one, if need be, to lay down one’s life for a stranger, he must have a strange idea of consolation. Like many an atheist, his theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned.”

Academic versus ‘Creative’ Writing

Working on this novel has reconfirmed what I already knew: my natural disposition is obsessiveness. When I work on a particular project, I have to be able to immerse myself in it completely, chip away at it for hours on end, day after day, with minimum interruption. Even when I’m not working on it directly, it needs to remain in the back of my mind and never leave, constantly ticking over.

Unfortunately, writing a novel and a Ph.D. simultaneously (not to mention other side-projects) prevents such undivided attention. The monomaniacal mind must learn to shift between two or more projects and, more than that, must learn not to sacrifice the requisite passion for either of them in the process. The problem is that academic writing and ‘creative’ writing (actually, both are creative, just in different ways) require very different types of attention and distinct types of skills.

Academic writing has its own internal order; it consists of a series of interrelated logical propositions, the task being to move from one to the other with the least possible confusion and the most compelling line of argument. The research for such work usually involves the synthesising of large amounts of information or notations, making links between disparate material, drawing out hidden correspondences from beneath the deceptive  façade of mere appearance. The mind becomes hawk-like, scanning the terrain with a cooly calculating eye. Its attitude is fundamentally analytic.

With the novel it is not so. Writing a novel is like training a whole new set of muscles, or learning to play tennis with your left hand after years of playing with your right. The mind’s basic attitude is attentiveness, attunedness to the world, to language and to the mind itself. The soul becomes an antenna, picking up signals wherever it goes, expanding itself into the ether, attracting static from the four dimensions. There is a narrative order whose limits are felt, but it does not coincide with the burden of logical rigour. (Which is not to say that it is irrational – far from it). In writing fiction the self must give way, release its grip on the world, allowing something else to speak.

The two types of writing are not mutually exclusive. Analysis and attentiveness are not and should not be seen as opposed. In the greatest writers, they are fused. For now, though, it is like learning to live with two bodies and two souls.

John Updike Links

As well as reading my first Amazon Kindle Single ready for review next week, I’ve also been reading John Updike’s short story collection, The Maples Stories. The juxtaposition between the bestselling Kindle Single and Updike’s stylistic prowess is dramatic indeed. It’s led me to return to a few articles on Updike that I’ve enjoyed over the last few years. I thought I’d share some of them with you.

  1. Updike’s 1968 Paris Review interview – it reads like an extension of one of his more cerebral novels. A sheer joy.
  2. A short, insightful piece on Updike’s theology by Ben Myers over at Faith and Theology.
  3. James Wood’s fairly critical appraisal of Updike’s later work. (Worth it for lines such as these alone: “If Updike’s earlier work was consumed with wife-swapping, his late work is consumed by nostalgia for it.”)
  4. A lovely audio-photo montage interview with Updike from 1984 (not overly informative, but enjoyable nonetheless).

The more Updike I read, the more I start asking myself the question: Updike or Bellow? All such questions are basically meaningless (except – perhaps – that oldest of chestnuts: Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?), but I begin to sense a certain reluctance in myself to cede to the inevitable preference for Bellow. There’s a great sympathy for mediocrity in Updike that, whilst present in Bellow (or in what I’ve read of him), seems somehow more attuned to habitual failure than his more esteemed counterpart.

Thoughts on Tolkien’s “Poor Prose”

Yesterday, The Guardian reported that in 1961 the Nobel jury considered C. S. Lewis’s request for Tolkien to be awarded the prize but ultimately decided against it on the grounds of his “poor prose” which “has not in any way measured up to storytelling of the highest quality”. This is an unusual claim. What tends to happen in the history of the novel (in France it begins with Flaubert, in England around the beginning of the twentieth century with, say, Conrad) is a split which occurs between the level of style and the level of narrative. On the one hand, you get the development of the art novel, in which each sentence is individually sculpted and crafted to perfection, becoming an entity in itself (Flaubert, Virginia Woolf, Henry James). On the other hand, you get the pure storytelling drive of the adventure tale or the potboiler; here, individual sentence style is spurned in the interest of narrative intensity (take your pick from any popular genre). The ultimate modern day inheritor of this split is John Banville, a man who has literally divided his writing self in two between the “John Banville” of the art novel (e.g. The Sea) and “Benjamin Black” the crime writer. (For anyone who doubts the validity of this claim, watch this video interview).

So for the Nobel Prize jury to criticise Tolkien’s storytelling prowess on the basis of his poor prose is bizarre indeed. If anything, one would expect them to criticise his “poor prose” precisely on the basis of his excellent storytelling. But then that would be to assume that Tolkien’s prose is, in fact, poor. And here once again the problem of the criteria of literary excellence emerges from the murky deep. And since I’ve written on this recently, in the context of the Booker Prize furore, I shall simply redirect you there: “On the Booker Debacle”.

Thinking Blue Guitars Now on Facebook

Thinking Blue Guitars now has its own Facebook Page. If you don’t want the hassle of following the blog via Google Reader or RSS feed, then simply “like” the page and you’ll receive all blog updates directly to your Facebook news feed. You’ll also receive links to literary, political and theological articles which I find of interest (and which I wouldn’t bother to publish on the blog itself).

Kindle Singles Book Review Series

I’ve spent most of my adult life as a student and scholar of literature. This has its advantages, in that I’ve read a fair amount of what is deemed “high literature”. But it also has its disadvantages, such as that I’ve had less time for more popular authors like Stephen King, Dean Koontz or Suzanne Collins. To try and rectify that, and to try to teach myself what makes these authors so popular in the first place, I’ve decided to launch a new book review series on this blog. Once a week or once every two weeks (time allowing), I’ll write a review of a top ten bestselling Amazon Kindle “Single”. Kindle Singles are basically works of fiction or non-fiction that are longer than a mere article or short story but shorter than a full-blown novel or book. Unfortunately, my other commitments mean I don’t have time to read anything longer than that. The aim of these reviews will be, not only to provide the standard evaluation of literary success, but also to think through the mechanics of these works: what are the authors doing in them that people seem to love so much? In that sense, these reviews are aimed both at readers of books and at writers of them.

The Time of Writing

Writing takes time. It demands that you acquiesce to the passing of the minutes and the hours. There is a time of writing, but there is also a time in writing. The first kind of time is the time it takes to do the basic sitting down and actually getting on with the novel: plotting, character development, scene-setting, structuring, negotiating voices, practising points of view, and so on. A wise man once said “life is what happens whilst you’re making other plans”, in which case writing would be what happens when you consciously disregard those other plans and isolate yourself from the exigencies of daily life. In that sense, whilst you turn away from the time of business, you submit to the time of creation. You rest like a sunken stone and let the river of the day wash over you.

The second type of time, the time in writing, is narrative time. Without engaging in a massive detour ranging from Augustine’s Confessions to Paul Ricoeur’s Temps et récit, let it be said that at a basic level narrative time is the time it takes for a complete action to unfold. There is a certain moral quality at work in narrative time: it defies impatience. Take, for example, a scene I wrote last night, in which a man realises he is being observed, approaches the observer, at which point the observer flees. For that simple action to approach its optimum dramatic intensity it is necessary that the tempo of the scene be set at a certain pace. It must lead inevitably to the climax of the observer’s flight, but in order for this moment to constitute a climax, for the reader to experience it as a climax, the writer must have invoked the powers of time. The man must hesitate, contemplate the stranger who is watching him, prepare himself for the approach, and so on; all of these sub-actions combine to elongate time, to stretch it out until it can finally snap back into place with the climax. And these are the bits that are boring to write, these constant fillers or “satellites” that elongate the scene, that set the rhythm, when all you really want to do is have the scene over and done with.

In this sense, we might say that there is a certain temporal economy of writing which dovetails with a certain moral economy of writing. One must have the patience to sit down at the desk day after day, week after week, month after month, and one must also have the patience to offer the created world the time it requires to unfold. This is not to say that good writers are automatically good people – far from it. But it is certainly to suggest that there are particular qualities which lend themselves to the virtue of patience which are also common to virtuous fiction. This would go a long way to explaining why, as yet, I am neither a virtuous person nor a virtuous writer.

The Critic and the Writer; or, the Labour of Writing

Viriginia Woolf by Vanessa Bell, 1912. Woolf was one of the great writer-critics.

Writing a novel is a painful process. If there were ever such a thing as a Muse then she certainly isn’t whispering in my ear. Between divine afflatus and sublunary deflation il n’y a qu’un pas. And part of the reason for this general pain of writing, this labour of writing – that which makes writing work – is, for me personally, the internal split that occurs between the critic and the writer. Karl Marx once demanded “the ruthless criticism of everything that exists”, and once you’ve worked as a Marxist literary critic for a few years, you become accustomed to deconstructing things, reading texts against the grain, exposing the secret unions between the inner workings of form and the great forces of history itself. Your natural disposition is suspicious and analytic; you take things apart and reconstruct them into an intellectually more satisfying whole, transvaluing aesthetic autonomy into historical truth. But the work of the writer is very different.

It is very difficult to describe what the writer actually does. She doesn’t so much sacrifice critical rationality as adopt a different kind of rationality altogether. To use the ancient categories, we could say that the writer’s reason involves techné (geared towards poiesis) rather than dialectic, a concern with the making of an artefact rather than intellectual reasoning towards a truth. And yet the very fact I feel it necessary to return to the ancient categories is a sign of what a mess we’ve been in for quite some time now when it comes to defining “creative writing”. One of the most moving passages in Raymond Williams’ Marxism and Literature is where he shows, not only that the post-Romantic distinction between creative/ fictional/ subjective writing and non-creative/ factual/ objective writing is, on closer inspection, simply untenable, but where he suggests that it can actually be damaging. The external opposition between fact and fiction, objective and subjective becomes reflected into the writer herself, creating a rift within her own psyche. When she puts pen to paper, she is bound by these distinctions which do not cohere with her actual experience. The reality and objectivity of her inner life, which is in any case always socially mediated, is denied by the external conventions of categorising literature. She begins to think of her own inner life as indeed non-objective, and hence as one subjective atom in a sea of countless others. And this is truly damaging: for the writer, the reader and for the society at large in its self-understanding.

The point of all this was merely to suggest, firstly, that the split between the writer and the critic is not and should not be absolute, but that, secondly, it is still sufficiently dominant to produce a sort of schizophrenia within the writer-critic’s mind. It is not simply that the aims of the critic and the writer are different in nature, but that their very languages have been torn apart. My first task as a novelist, then, is to learn to negotiate the gulf between critical prose and narrative fiction. To learn to write like a writer and not like a critic, all the while recognising that that distinction is false from the outset.

Writing a First Novel

Like many self-deluding fools, my new year’s resolution for 2012 is to write my first novel. Unlike many self-deluding fools, however, I’m announcing this publicly. There’s a very simple reason for this: a public announcement means that I can be held to account for what I said I was going to do; in other words, I’m hoping I can force myself into writing a novel through sheer fear of shame. You could call this the “Catholic” approach to novel writing: confess your sins to the world and the world will ensure you tow the line. (As opposed to the “Protestant” approach which involves entire days of guilt-induced suffering and privatised soul-searching).

I’m not going to say what the novel is about (partly because I don’t even know myself) other than to make it clear that it won’t be a literary masterpiece. I imagine it will be a below-par first novel, possibly a run-of-the-mill genre piece, possibly something more unusual. But whatever it is, it has to get written in the next twelve months. The task of writing this novel is as much a moral as a literary one: can I commit myself to a future and stay true to it? That, my dear readers, remains to be seen.

I warn you now, there will be excuses: conference papers need writing, essays need proofreading, translations need doing – not to mention the small fact of actually writing my Ph.D. – but by hook or by crook this has to happen. And on this blog I shall be publishing some reflections on the writing process. I guess these will include pieces ranging from general writing problems (characterisation, point of view etc.) all the way to the politics of form (why do we automatically assume that a novel must include characters and point of view in the first place?). I won’t bore you with extracts from the work-in-progress, but I at least hope you’ll find the occasional post of interest. Think of it as a communalisation of writerly misery – a sort of socialist redistribution of autodidactic ineptitude.

But that’s enough of that casual 2011 pessimism: here’s to 2012!

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