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Success at Reading and Writing Fiction

My "mighty" success at reading a novel started when I was rereading Boswell's "Life of Johnson" for the umpteenth time. Why do I keep rereading this book? Is it because it is a rare example of a book that brings philosophy down from the clouds? It also makes philosophy brief enough for human conversation.

At any rate Boswell mentioned that Samuel Johnson loved Henry Fielding's "Amelia." This is surprising since Johnson stubbornly held to a low opinion of Fielding's work. Nothing quite disposes us to accept advice from somebody else like seeing them make an exception to a general position of theirs.

And so I read and enjoyed "Amelia."  It resembled "Tom Jones" actually: the surprises were a bit outlandish, and it had too much lovey-dovey. So then, why did I enjoy it?

The book is quite a sermon about not blaming "Fortune" for the consequences of our rash behaviour, especially when we are young. It seems odd to use the word 'preach', considering how bawdy and libertine the novel sometimes is. But it does preach indirectly. Perhaps that is the only kind that does anyone any good.

On virtually every page of "Amelia" the author slides in his little zingers of moral philosophy. You could argue that the author makes a mistake in doing so; and that, instead, he should let the readers draw conclusions by themselves. But here I think it worked because his "lessons" are so brief. The reader doesn't have time to get resentful of the author's preaching because the action of the story resumes so quickly.

There are probably other examples of "negative" behavior by an author that actually become positive if brief enough. The same probably applies to what Valium-Capsule-America calls "negative" emotions: suspicions, caution, sarcasm, and others. But there is a huge difference between 1) noting "negatives" enough to take them into a decision, and 2) fixating on them, perhaps with no action or decision in mind, but merely as a bad habit.

Think of the huge advantages that a novelist has over a philosopher or even an essayist. When the essayist hammers away on his point, the readers start to dig in their heels. They think, "I'm so sick of this blowhard and know-it-all."

But the novelist needn't succumb to that weakness. All he must do is get his readers to "suspend disbelief," and consider the characters and situations "real." When that happens, the story appears to do the preaching. The reader has forgotten about the author and his ego. The reader must actively try to educe general lessons from concrete situations, rather than settle for the passive soporific of spoonfed moral lessons.

Recall some advice from Strunk and White's "Style" chapter:

Write in a way that draws the reader's attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than the mood and temper of the author.

...that is, place yourself in the background.
This is why it is wrong for an author to make a promiscuous use of bold and italic letters, exclamation marks (!!!), weird punctuation... lessee, what else... oh yeah, slang, chattiness, vulgarisms, parenthetical remarks, neologisms, foreign phrases, and big words.

Consider what is lost when otherwise excellent authors fail to heed this advice. The Coen brothers are highly regarded as film writers and directors. Count me among their millions of fans. But they could be better. Their characters say things that no person would ever say. Plot twists are too contrived. Weird faces and accents are sometimes fun to see on film, but at other times, they are exxagerated or inaccurate.

Once the audience suspects the scriptwriter is putting Himself before the story, the "suspension of disbelief" is undermined. The audience starts thinking that characters, dialog, and situations are "fake," so nothing really matters anymore. It is so easy to take the audience 'out of the story.' Something as trivial as an "extra" looking at the camera can cause a re-shoot, and rightly so.

Another example of not receding into the background is the novelist, Leo Tolstoy. Despite his enormous reputation he made a lot of mistakes. Some of his characters are transparently autobiographical (but perhaps not so at the time.) Tolstoy obtrudes too many opinions in the story and detracts from the reader's enjoyment. Once again, this disadvantage could be turned into an advantage if the obtrusions were brisk and brief enough.

But I wonder if modern novelists have lost sight of their advantages over philosophers. Perhaps the zeitgeist has decided that injecting moral lessons about living life is too old-fashioned to be intellectually respectable. They want to be "value neutral."  They emphasize quirky, perverted, or mentally-unstable characters, as if madness makes a character more interesting. They probably think it makes their writing look more like the "forefront of research."


Joy said…
True. Personally, while conceding that Boswell was a great writer, and Johnson a very smart cookie, I prefer Tolstoy. It's likely my heirs will have to pry War and Peace, on Kindle, from my cold dead hands. I forget who said of Shakespeare's work, "There's all of life in it." Ditto Tolstoy and all great imaginative writers.
John V said…
Writers need to sell books. Writing at the level of an eighth grader and having plots and characters that are "provocative" and simplistic sells with the mass morons that make up this country. If just 10% of the country read some of the "My Blog List" you have on the right side of this page, then the country might have a future.
With a more efficient distribution model for books, called ebooks, we should be able to escape the high costs and cultural prejudices of a New York City publishing industry monopoly, and find interesting books written for specialized markets.
Thanks Joy. In fact your quote might come from Johnson's classic "Preface to Shakespeare" in his edition of Shakespeare's works.

I agree with Tolstoy himself about War and Peace: too many words and too many soirees where handsome princes in dashing military uniforms tried to meet beautiful princesses.

I prefer "The Death of Ivan Ilyich". English professors dislike this little book because there is too much "Tolstoy the prophet and social reformer' in it.