I have come to this conclusion:
I cannot read straight narrative anymore. When I hit phrases that explain, that justify, that preface, that highlight, that draw lines for me from A to B, I just can’t go on.
Don’t worry, you have done all the right things. I know, I know, that is how some short stories work & I am sure they do work for a lot of readers, they just aren’t right for me anymore. Please don’t cry. Please.
Look: it’s not you, it’s me. You are a fantastic you, I just need something else. I need more poetics in my prose. I need more descriptive prowess. I need more writing that plummets & swirls & dives & takes me to unexpected places. I need something damaged & hurt & broken open & spilling. I need something with antlers with teeth with butterfly wings & birds nested in beards.
I am sorry to do this to you, the new year looming & all, but really, I swear, it’s time. You will find a new reader. I know you will. You will find a reader who wants the regular world handed back in easy words with care-taking instructions. You will find more audience than I can imagine, & I will applaud you silently from my corner.
Enjoy the ride. See you sometime down the line.
13 thoughts on “Look, It’s Not You, It’s Me”
This reminds me of this discussion between MoGa’s and David Peak’s blogs a few months ago surrounding the idea of narrative and its growing tiresome.
I like that thread (and the one on htmlgiant too) but sometimes when I say narrative I mean something other than beginning, middle, end – I mean straight narrative – something like exposition, like the wasted words in a sentence – of course a story must have a direction but it need not waste words… I was going to give examples in the post, but found it impossible…hence the break-up note,
Lutz gets at this, I think, here:
Yes yes yes. Lutz rules in that one.
Hi J.A., all,
Not to be the resident crank (which I still might be), but what is straight narrative? I don’t know if I’ve ever read a piece that is straight narrative (nothing comes to mind at the moment). Maybe some children’s books? …No, but not even those: they tend to be very poetic.
I’m not saying that you’re talking about realist fiction here, but many people consider that “straightforward.” Meaning that the text isn’t “opaque”—it’s all about directly presenting some story. But I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Realist fiction tends to be heavily invested in lyricism, and draws heavily on many “poetic” techniques:
(Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting that this makes it “good.” Or “bad.” I’m simply trying to describe what it is.)
I’ve been wanting for a while now to write about how, in my observation, a lot of realist fiction has become non-narrative. (I suppose I should write a post about this.) What I mean by this, briefly, is that contemporary realist fiction is often so psychologically invested that it tends to present more character portraits than actual narratives. There’s no actual story that develops and gets resolved—not a story like in, say, a murder mystery. In fact, I think a lot of realist writers would recoil from writing something that’s heavily plotted. (Indeed, they seem mostly invested in “character,” and “character arcs.”) (I’ll try to say more about this later.)
So what is straight narrative? Maybe it’s simple story with no lyricism, no psychological investment? (Although maybe it includes the latter.)
One possible example comes to mind: The film SPY KIDS 3D: GAME OVER. I found that one very frustrating because the plot is extremely linear. For example, the kids will need to get through a door, but the door is locked, but then someone shows up with the key—by which I mean right away. Every time the kids encounter an obstacle, they immediately encounter its solution, meaning there’s no obstacle. The plot just unfolds before them. I found that annoying.
But that was a film, not a prose story. And even with that film, Rodriquez obviously put a lot of work into creating the world of the film—the backgrounds and environments and costumes and such. Which might be pleasant enough for some people (I found them unmemorable). Not to mention all the 3D nonsense.
Which relates to another point: the reader (or viewer) is always free to take whatever pleasure he or she will from the work, regardless of what the author intends. For instance, I adore the two MATRIX sequels. (I know, I know.) But what I like about them is the production design of the Matrix worlds in those two films. Anytime the action switches to the “real world,” I completely tune out. And I can’t begin to tell you anything about the plot of those two films (for real). But whenever the action switches back to the Matrix world, I’m completely absorbed—staring at the leather coats, the marble stairwells. I have both films on DVD, and occasionally I put them in and just watch the Matrix sequences.
Anyway. So. Can anyone suggest some examples of straight narrative?
funny you use a film example – that same thing just hit me re-watching THE HAPPENING (why was I watching that dreadful movie again? I don’t know). in any case, zooey d’s character says to the little girl ‘come on, you don’t want to be late for the first day schools are back open’ – I mean, come on, that tells me everything, EVERYTHING – it makes me cringe.
maybe a lit example (for me only):
‘The silk merchant slid open the side panel on his palanquin. Has it come yet?’
(from a story by John Givens at Necessary Fiction)
so from this first line we know his occupation, his location, and his first obstacle / objective – he is waiting for something that has not arrived.
I don’t want to know all of that from the first sentence. I don’t want to be spoon-fed. and to be honest, when I encounter lines like this, I mostly stop reading. I want to dig when I read, to feel the text little by little divulging something (in the long term) and in the short term I don’t want everything skewered and handed to me.
I respect necessary fiction a great deal and I don’t know anything about john givens, this is just one line of thousands that make me stop reading straight-narrative short stories.
I agree that clumsy exposition is cringe-inducing. But I don’t know if that’s what I’d call straight narrative, or even narrative. (Please bear with me as I continue to crank out.)
I mean, exposition can certainly be part of narrative—but it can also not be. I could write a story with tons of exposition but no actual narrative—I’d just tell you all about the characters, and where they are, and what they’re jobs are, yadda yadda yadda, but nothing would actually happen. No event would cause anything else to happen. No time would pass—the whole story could exist in a single second! And none of the exposition could reveal anything of any relevance! It could all be random…
Regarding exposition, I tend to fall back on what my undergrad teachers taught me (realists one and all): Provide it only when it’s necessary, and only when it matters. So I don’t really have an immediate problem with the first sentence of that Necessary Fiction story, provided it’s important that I know from the first line that the character is a silk merchant. Otherwise, I’d wonder why the writer invested the first line—valuable real estate—in telling me that.
Although of course there are always exceptions. The opening of Jane Bowles’s TWO SERIOUS LADIES comes to mind:
“Christina Goering’s father was an American industrialist of German parentage and her mother was a New York lady of a very distinguished family. Christina spent the first half of her life in a very beautiful house (not more than an hour from the city) which she had inherited from her mother. It was in this house that she had been brought up as a child with her sister Sophie.”
…Ms. Goering, however, soon sells that house, and her family isn’t all that important. Her parents and her sister aren’t really characters in the novel. Furthermore, about thirty pages later, the action switches to Mrs. Copperfield, and we follow her adventures in Panama for a long time before returning to Ms. Goering.
The novel could have opened with the second paragraph, which is much more relevant:
“As a child Christina had been very much disliked by other children. She had never suffered particularly because of this, having led, even at a very early age, an active inner life that curtailed her observation of whatever went on around her, to such a degree that she never picked up the mannerisms then in vogue, and at the age of ten she was called old-fashioned by other little girls. Even then she wore the look of certain fanatics who think of themselves as leaders without once having gained the respect of a single human being.”
…This is much more indicative of Goering’s character, and the role she will play in the novel. (That said, the first paragraph does play its part: if nothing else, it creates the expectation that TWO SERIOUS LADIES will be a somewhat conventional novel. Which it is not! And it establishes that Goering is independently wealthy. And that the novel is concerned with family—traditional family and especially non-traditional family.)
In any case, TSL is hardly straight narrative. It’s wacko experimental fiction land! (And, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.)
But surely we give stories more than one line! I like to follow the “ten percent solution” myself: I read ten percent of the piece before I decide whether to continue reading, or ditch.
How about this one?
“The dog was growling to be let in. The woman never wanted to be inside. She didn’t like seeing the pictures on the walls and all of the Salvation Army art work. The woman stayed outside smoking.”
This first line gives me some exposition about the woman, and what she wants (or doesn’t want). I know where she is and what she’s doing. All of this may turn out to be relevant—or it may not.
…What about when the story or novel begins with some exposition, but only as a hook, so that the writer can then digress into something else? I’m thinking, for example, of John Hawkes’s TRAVESTY:
Another 20TH c. novel I really love, TRAVESTY. And it wouldn’t work at all without that first page. We learn right away where we are and what’s going on, but I don’t think anyone can call anything in that book spoon-fed. Rather, it’s important that Hawkes set up the initial situation in the car so that he can get away with the next 127 pages.
I haven’t seen THE HAPPENING yet, but I’m eager to. I really love that poster for it:
What audacity! I really adore this kind of fantasy. Here we have a city with no suburbs, no industrial plants, no none of the things that actually surround cities—because Shyamalan wants a modern version of a city on a hill! I find this charmingly inventive beyond words.
I’m a big fan of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, his later films in particular. My view is, the more deranged he becomes, the better!
(who as always is only trying to better understand what others mean, because he is genuinely curious—and cranky)
Fascinating conversation. I’d like to weigh in regarding Givens’ story – not because I feel like you’re demanding a defense or anything, but just because I think it’s a point worth making about this story and in general.
I chose this story deliberately to be our last of the year, because of its elegiac qualities. There are tensions between old and new in both content and style, and in the very possibility of writing historical fiction at all, which feel very ‘Year’s End/New Year’ to me. The opening line, which gives the reader a simultaneously focused but encompassing view of events, establishes a relationship both to the immediate story but ALSO to history as a subject. That’s important, I think, because it reminds us that this is a constructed version of history, whereas a more immediate, more limited perspective (one aimed at psychological realism, say) would have a very different, perhaps disingenuous effect. I’m wary of historical fiction that grafts contemporary psychology onto its characters too seamlessly, so the way this story keeps me aware of an authorial perspective and arrangement – through the lines of included poetry, too – is crucial to avoiding that.
Having said all that, we have a story coming up at Necessary Fiction that takes the exact opposite approach to history as it ‘invents’ the story of Herman Melville. So maybe I’m just making this stuff up as I go along. :)
ouch – attempting to use my own journal against me…
– however –
…in that particular excerpt I think quite a bit is left to the imagination (or to the rest of the text) – the dog and woman are only connected by space on the page and not incident (yet), we know that the woman doesn’t want to be inside but we don’t know who she is, what she is avoiding, or any of the other context. instead, what we get is descriptive and rhythmic: the bark of the dog, the plumes of smoke, being outside, and a pretended glimpse at an inside that (other than salvation army art work) doesn’t yet exist for the reader.
I contend that in the wyer piece, there is actually very little that is straight (or) exposition.
on the other hand, I whole-heartedly agree that exposition and narrative do not mean the same thing, we should use only so much as if absolutely necessary, and 10% is a great reader rule (surely I read at least that much of every piece, though I would LIKE to stop at just one line).
nice chatting with you crabs (kidding) – you are not a crank. inquisitive and aggressive in your arguments – I like that…
( / @ @ \ )
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(\ `-/ \-‘ /)
‘ .=’ `=.
…Yes, that’s me, inquisitive and aggressive. (And we’ll see whether that image comes through.) But I hope it’s all in good fun, and in good faith. It’s for the sake of the art! I really am just curious in developing the conversation. And in being a goof. And in stealing cute ASCII art.
I think that you’re right about the respective opening sentences, in terms of how straightforward they are, but I would also say that Givens could do the same things as Wyer, even given (ha ha) his opening sentence. There is infinite room in a piece to reinforce or contradict what has been established. Well, it takes more than a line to know that.
I mean, that same story does (later on) contain lines like: “She was a scrawny little pleasure provider prone to moments of melancholy and so not sought after by the spendthrifts and gallants and easy-way boys whose lurid exploits set the pace in the New Nightless City of Yoshiwara.” Which is surely not the simplest way to convey that information. It’s hard to write without oneself being a pleasure provider, scrawny or perverse or otherwise.
Meanwhile, I think that the opening sentences in the Wyer piece are all relatively straightforward, exposition-wise (I mean, it’s all true information—right? Wyer isn’t lying about any of that?), but the difference is that that none of it really matters on a narrative level. That is, it never becomes a plot point that “She didn’t like seeing the pictures on the walls and all of the Salvation Army art work.” (Although I do wonder if, when she makes him the picture of Saint Anthony at the end, he hangs it up—and then what does she make of it?) But the text is what we’d call open. It luxuriates in its negative space. The dog is there more for poetic purposes than to, say, motivate action.
“The dog was growling to be let in. The woman never wanted to be inside. But the dog was growling. It had a hot spot behind its right ear and got mean if anyone looked at it. She looked at it. It got mean. It growled. ‘Oh dear,’ the woman thought. ‘I’d best go inside. Even though I don’t want to, don’t ever want to.’ She went inside. ‘Shit,’ she thought.”
> (surely I read at least that much of every piece,
> though I would LIKE to stop at just one line).
I was being disingenuous before. Me, I often stop at titles. Or covers.
Oh, wow, that crab didn’t make it through the transporter, did he. Poor crab!
I thought it a decrepit owl.