Saturday, February 10, 2007

Creating Writing

The other day, Dan Green wrote a post in response to Patrick at's misunderstanding of what Richard Powers was up to in his latest novel, The Echo Maker. Patrick basically accuses Powers of condescension toward his characters, an "inability to sympathetically portray characters whose mindsets are very different from his own". He then gives some examples that he claims are evidence of smug authorial intrusion, when frankly, as Dan observes, it should be clear that the opinions expressed are not those of an "omniscient narrator" but of the characters themselves. It would seem that the fact that the novel is told in the third person is confusing.

I bring this up because the rest of Dan's post is interesting. He talks about what he thinks might be common misconceptions about such third-person narratives. First, that the narrators are always "omniscient". Or, second, that the consciousness of characters depicted in such narratives are all, to some degree, "project[ions] of the consciousness of the writer". He's probably right that Patrick is assuming the latter with Powers. Dan then writes:
In either case, the aesthetic rationale for the development of modernist-era "psychological realism"--to extend realism to the reality of consciousness, to explore the way perception of reality shapes our understanding of it--essentially drops out. The merging of narration with consciousness has become invisible, now just the default approach of any narrative not related in the first-person, just the currently established strategy allowing the author/narrator to "say something." In my opinion, Richard Powers in The Echo Maker is attempting to retain something of the experimentation of modernist psychological realism--or at least its goal--but as I indicated in my post on the novel, its lackluster execution in this book is for me another signal that the technique has become increasingly shopworn.

Among other things, the reflexive use of the central consciousness narrator has made it more difficult to cultivate and identify style in the writing of fiction. Powers is still a sufficiently distinctive stylist that he is able to overcome to some extent the limitations of the strategy, but even in The Echo Maker the signature Powers style with its alliterations and startling figures and achieved rhythms is more restrained than usual. And in most ordinary literary fiction the strategy has become simply mind-numbing.
In the past, Powers' critics (and here I use the term in its "fault-finding" sense) have complained that his characters were not fleshed out, that his dialogue was unbelievable, that his prose was wooden. The latter complaint always struck me as way off-base, but the first two, and ones like it, just confused me. I mean, it never occurred to me to level these sorts of complaints, because it seemed clear to me that they were irrelevant. I felt similar confusion when friends told me that they didn't like, for example, Don Delillo's White Noise, because they didn't care about the characters--what happened to them, what they did, whatever. My initial reaction to such complaints was bewilderment. Was I supposed to care what happened to the characters in the novels I read? I thought there was so much else going on in Delillo, and in Powers, that the believability of their characters, and my need to care about them, seemed quite beside the point.

It wasn't until I started trying to find information about books online, and later reading blogs, that I realized that what I was objecting to, but having a difficult time articulating, was not only old-fashioned in some sense, but perhaps the dominant literary attitude, that in favor of "psychological realism", or the notion that the most important aspect of literature is "character". My tendency has always been to trust the writer and to take what he or she gives me. This does not mean that I simply like everything, but that if a novel doesn't have a certain feature--realistic characters, say--that I shouldn't assume that it's supposed to have it. The writing is the first thing.

James Wood, of course, is a major proponent of "character" in fiction. The first review of his I ever read was of John Updike's Licks of Love, which appeared in April 2001, in the London Review of Books (though I originally read it at the now-defunct FEED online magazine). After taking a couple of easy jabs at Updike's famous "abundance" of published words (the man is prolific, isn't he?), Wood then gets into the recurrence of certain themes and language in Updike's fiction over the years; the oral sex, adultery, wife-swapping, general misogyny. Wood writes:
In Updike's defence it is often maintained that these are the thoughts of his characters, not necessarily of their creator. But obsessions of this kind have recurred and overlapped thickly enough in his work to constitute, now, the equivalent of an artist's palette: this is how Updike chooses to paint the world.
The sentences have an essayistic saunter; the language lifts itself up on pretty hydraulics, and hovers slightly above its subjects, generally a little too accomplished and a little too abstract. In 'The Women Who Got Away', for instance, the narrator tells us of his old lover, and how 'her voice and its quick inspirations of caustic perception painted the world, which seemed to me rimmed with a vague terror, in bright fearless colours.' But is this perfect sentence, with its delicate deferral so characteristic of Updike ('painted the world . . . which seemed . . . in bright fearless colours'), the expression of a man who really felt the world to be rimmed with a vague terror? Or does the terror not seem a little too vague, as if the narrator were paraphrasing a novel for a New Yorker review? In the same story, when we are told, 'yet we did divorce, in painful piecemeal, as did Maureen and Rodney,' we attend to that fine phrase 'in painful piecemeal', but are distanced by it from its piecemeal pain: if it was so painful, why does it disport itself in such dainty clothes?

One of the dangers for the stylist such as Updike - and one of the ways in which prose is unlike poetry - is that prose always forces the question: who is thinking in these particular words, and why? Point of view, a boring topic to most readers, is the densest riddle for the novelist, since words are either directly ascribed to characters (first-person narration) or indirectly ascribed to them (third-person narration). By contrast, the poet's words are generally assumed to flow from the poet, who wishes, as it were, to draw attention to himself. But the novelist may not, and should not, always want to. There is no doubt that the pleasantly alliterative phrase 'in painful piecemeal' is rather fine; but is fineness what is needed here, or does it slide a filter between the reader and the supposedly pained narrator?

I admit that when I read this review I was mightily impressed, and at the same time felt inadequate. I hadn't studied literature, I just read it, as best I could, and I saw this as a closer reading than I feared myself capable of. These kinds of questions just didn't occur to me. Subsequent Wood criticism I've read has fallen into two camps, those that are interesting but seem to miss the point (such as his critiques of the so-called "hysterical realist" writers, such as David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon or Don Dellilo, found in The Broken Estate), and those that are good and appropriate to the material at hand (in reviews of the new Edith Grossman translation of Don Quixote, and of Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello). When he's reviewing a book in which character does seem of paramount importance, I've found him compelling. Looking back on the Licks of Love review, it seemed to me that his method made sense. And, I read his review of Updike's latest novel, Terrorist (in which Updike imagines a Muslim schoolboy in New Jersey who is "tempted to become a suicide bomber"), approvingly. Wood says Updike "proves himself relatively inept at the essential task of free indirect style, of trying to find an authorial voice for his Muslim schoolboy". I wasn't terribly interested in the book anyway, and given my general views of both Wood and Updike, I guessed that Wood's assessment was essentially accurate.

But, to return to Dan Green's post. Dan has written a lot about this critical predilection for psychological realism; he has also written a number of posts taking issue with James Wood's criticism (see here, here, here). I read these posts, and the ensuing comment threads (some of which Wood himself has contributed to), with great interest. But I have often wished that Dan elaborated a little more--not on just the question of whether "psychological realism", or character, ought to be the primary purpose of fiction (which idea I think he criticizes quite effectively), but also on what might be going on in some of those narratives that are criticized as failing on specifically those grounds. In light of this, I find it quite helpful that he closes this recent post with the following about Updike:

Most of [Updike's] novels are conventionally related in the third-person, but his language typically exceeds that which his characters are capable of summoning, as in this passage from Villages (2004):

After Owen had left it behind, his original village seemed an innocent, precious place, but it did not strike him as that while he lived there. It was the world, with a fathomless past and boundaries that were over the horizon. There were snakes in the grass and in piles of rocks warmed by the sun. Sex and religion had distinct, ancient odors, familes perched like shaky nests on tangled twigs of previous history; and death could pounce in the middle of the night. . . .

Regular readers of Updike's work would no doubt find this recognizably Updikean. It draws on Owen's mental storehouse of memories and images, but does not dwell in his immediate awareness. It creates writing out of that storehouse. It moves in and out of Owen's awareness, weaving a style out of the character's thought processes plus a something else the writer brings in addition to plumbing those processes.

I perked up when I read this. That a novelist's language might "typically exceed that which his characters are capable of summoning" is certainly something Wood and readers like him appear to have a problem with. And I think it's also something that might lead readers to accuse a writer of intruding on his "story". But I see no reason why it should be wrong for a narrator to "draw on [a character's] mental storehouse of memories and images", but yet not be attempting to convey that character's moment-to-moment consciousness.

Updike "creates writing" out of his character's "mental storehouse". It seems to me that these other writers are not necessarily interested in the traditional creation and exploration of character at all, but are trying to "create writing" out of other things they have imagined (though with David Foster Wallace this at times takes the form of a rather extreme exploration of a character's consciousness; the character people don't seem to like that either). And I agree with Dan that Powers has gotten away from what was most interesting about his fiction: he created writing--rich, vibrant writing--out of his imaginative use of science and ideas and multiple narrative schemes. His novels certainly had characters, but they weren't really investigations of these characters. I loved The Time of Our Singing, but I have to admit that the writing in it was often less interesting, less chewy (to borrow an adjective from William H. Gass), than it had been in previous novels. And with that novel and the new one it appears that he has, unfortunately, taken his critics to heart, and tried to invest his characters with a psychological realism that his novels didn't depend on before. Powers is certainly entitled to do what he wants as a writer, and there is still much to enjoy in The Echo Maker (which, of course, won the National Book Award, so what do I know?), but I hope that his muse takes him elsewhere in future novels.

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