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Cover your tracks

Hide your authorial finger prints.
Left at the scene of the crime.

I’m (still) reading How Fiction Works, by James Wood. The entire book is built around a concept he calls “free indirect style,” which essentially refers to a prose style for which Gustave Flaubert is largely responsible. One of the hallmarks of this style is that the language is most often experienced by the reader to be that of the book’s narrator or protagonist. Cases, therefore, where a description or word choice does not suit the narrator, and therefor invokes the author, are seen by James Wood as essentially a flaw. Well, at least an inferior style.

Obviously, this is a gross generalization. Woods admits that many great authors before (Balzac) and after (Nabokov) Flaubert do not always attempt to hide their “fingerprints” and use, by extension, language and ideas which can not readily be attributed to the narrator’s voice. And this is setting aside entirely authors popular with many of my own peers (e.g. Gary Lutz), whose narrators are all but overwhelmed by the author’s voice. So much so, that such a distinction becomes quite beside the point.

But in reading about Wood’s near-prescriptive account of this novelistic approach, I can’t help but be reminded how often I’ve received this exact direction and feedback over the years. Among the people who have given me this feedback on various works are my peers in workshop (Brown), my thesis advisor (Brian Evenson) and my publisher (Flatmancrooked). What stands out to me about this short list, is the fact that all these people (it is perhaps unfair to refer to my workshop peers as an undifferentiated group in this way, but trust me) self-identify as innovative or experimental or in some way non-mainstream writers/readers/enthusiasts.

Now, to beat Rachel to the punch, I’ll admit that, indeed, just because something can be done, does not always mean it’s done well. That is, it could very well be that these readers were responding to the particular texts put before them, and not to the fact of the technique itself. But it does seem to be a widely remarked/frowned-upon stylistic decision.

Have you ever been advised to change words, phrases, insights, observations, thoughts, etc., in your work, on the basis that said material was not reasonably attributable to your narrator or protagonist? If so, what did you do? Is this something you actively try to guard against as a writer? Or to which you react negatively as a reader? Obviously, this is all pretty contextual. But what about as a trend or inclination?

32 thoughts on “Cover your tracks

  1. “But it does seem to be a widely remarked/frowned-upon stylistic decision.” – No, I agree, there seems to be a bit of a backlash against language that calls attention to itself, or lyrical language. This is one of the many criticisms I stopped listening to.

    I don’t really miss workshops.

  2. Yeah, I’ve been advised in this way, and it’s usually when the narration is first person. I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, and I do try to guard against writing anything I don’t think my narrator would say or do or think, because I feel like it negatively affects the tone of the work if anything comes across as disingenuous. I guess it’s sort of like method acting, where you try to get inside the character’s head and embody their emotional state with your performance. That doesn’t mean you can’t write lyrical descriptions, though. Very often, people in everyday life have very unique ways of saying things with their own poetry.

      1. Shoot, look at us writers!

        Although, writing about writers is another frowned upon act, so I suppose that’s not a fair excuse ;).

  3. …Everybody on all sides does for some reason seem to agree voice is one of the hardest things to nail irregardless of goals and style. But it’s w.o question my favorite part of writing, everything else (ie plot & character, if you’re writing something where these things matter, and threaded metaphor and imagery like we discussed in your previous post) still intimidates.

    1. On the other hand, we also agree that irregardless is not a word. And also that it is jerky of met to point this out. What I’m saying is, this comment has a voice, but it’s not a nice one.

      What I’m further saying is that my work isn’t going well today, so I had to find an excuse to spend five minutes looking at this thread.

      In further new, irregardless apparently appeared in the early twentieth century, so in the interests of not being a linguistic proscriptivist, which is basically synonymous with “person who is making a bad argument,” I retract my earlier statement that irregardless is not a word and declare that it is a word by popular fiat. Power to the people.

      1. An editor friend of mine shrieks whenever someone uses “irregardless.” He once yelled at me for putting it an email, and I never used it again.

        Except when I email him.

  4. I often see this advice in online writing communities, and for certain types of writing, it’s a valuable technique. First person narrators, some of the close third person limited povs. It’s a common conceit that the reader should see the world through the character’s eyes more than the writers. It probably also has some relation to the pov restrictions–that is, not telling the reader too much about things the character wouldn’t know about. “If only Michael knew…”, which is something I find I agree with for the most part.

    Being that I tend to write in first person or 3rd limited, I do try to guard against too much of me getting through. If I wanted to write about me as a character, I’d jolly well do it. But I’m usually trying to write about someone else as a character, so I don’t throw in too many of my own words, so to speak. Which is not to say I’m agains “lyrical” prose.

    I think this tendency best fits in with this quote I ran into somewhere:

    “Good prose is like glass: ground smooth and utterly transparent.”

    Sometimes I find this idea very agreeable, and sometimes I don’t.

  5. Say you’re writing in (mostly) very close third person. A novel. Something big. And say you occasionally glide out of very close third into a “narrator’ voice.” Or, I should say, Narrator’s voice.

    What if the Narrator’s worldview, swagger, and voice differ substantially from that of the point-of-view character?

    Is it okay to swing from close third to Narrator to close third to Narrator, all in the same sentence? Is that “winking” at the reader? Too clever? Seeing-the-tracks?

    Is it less (or more?) okay to swing if the Narrator has a SIMILAR worldview, swagger, and voice?

    When I was in grad school this subject was hotly debated during my thesis workshop. The issue didn’t exactly get settled. But. I definitely learned to be more aware of an aspect of my work that I was not aware enough of. (Craft = trying to become aware of things?)

    Like Shya said, “just because something can be done, does not always mean it’s done well.”

    1. I’d say you need to have a more obvious transition. In the same sentence seems bit much to me. As I reader, I don’t want to have to think too hard about who ‘sspeaking. I want to be able to tell right off. Otherwise, I tend to get thrown out of the story.

        1. I’m actually attempting to make it work in Forecast. The experience of being “thrown out of the story” is used intentionally as a way to interrupt various assumptions the reader will be making based on various narrative events.

          But you know, what “works”?

        2. I agree with you. I think Lispector gets away with this (maybe not multiple times in the same sentence, but multiple times in the same paragraph).

    2. jscap,

      “Say you’re writing in (mostly) very close third person. A novel. Something big. And say you occasionally glide out of very close third into a “narrator’ voice.” Or, I should say, Narrator’s voice.

      “What if the Narrator’s worldview, swagger, and voice differ substantially from that of the point-of-view character?”

      You know who’s really good at this sort of thing? The RUSSIANS. Gogol used to always “insert” himself as the “narrator,” in his stories, adding an extra layer beyond his already-there omniscient 3rd person. It can be really weird sometimes, but also really exciting.

      I feel like Dostoyevsky plays with this in the Brothers K as well, the way the whole book is actually in 1st person, though reads for hundreds of pages at a time as if it were in 3rd.

      Oh, and have you ever read Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard? It’s the closest an American has ever got to dear old Fyodor. There’s some amazing 3rd Person POV work in that book. Definitely check that out.

      1. “I feel like Dostoyevsky plays with this in the Brothers K as well, the way the whole book is actually in 1st person, though reads for hundreds of pages at a time as if it were in 3rd.”

        This is exactly the kind of thing I’m playing with. In fact, it’s exactly what happens in Forecast. I’d forgotten all about Bros K. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. OK, this is all very interesting and granted I read Madame Bovary 15 years ago- and fucking loved it more than almost anything–but I think of Flaubert as very present in the text. He’s very condescending to his characters- in a gleefully, hilarious way- and there’s no doubt that a writer is writing. I have not read much else of his though, except for some letters.
    Now I want to go read or reread Flaubert.

  7. As I write this I wonder if Shya knows I read all of his work. I feel like he may feel as if I am catching him in the act doing something bad but it is not so.

    The attention-drawing language is a peculiar beast. I would say most (myself included) advise against it because it (a) is extremely difficult to do, (b) is rarely done well, and (c) is unpredictable. Even if executed perfectly, many-if-not-most readers will turn away from it because it is not indicative of putting narrative first and it is a generally accepted fact that most readers read for a story, the language being entirely secondary (as evidence, I ask you take a look at the NYT Best Seller List).

    Publisher’s are fearful of this language because it is our job to connect the work of an author with as many readers as possible. When there is a component to the prose that we are to sell (oh, and “sell” is such a dirty word when applied to art) that may turn-off the majority of a readily accessible audience, it is our (publishers/editors) instinct to fight against that component.

    That all said, it is the author’s job to not only write well-to-excellently but to defend with great vigor the central tenants or core values of his or her work. Recently, my partner wrote an article for the Millions talking about the Carver-Lish relationship, asking if Lish’s editorial strong-arming was not, in fact, worth the beautiful work that was the result. I would say, still, that it was. But rather than ask, “What would this work have been had Carver not had Lish?” I wonder, what would this work have been if there was genuine dialogue and struggle between the two. Carver, history shows, did not put up much of a fight until the day he simply let Lish go. They never had a proper author-editor relationship. They had a author-coauthor relationship, entirely unhealthy and doomed to lead to animosity. Had Carver stood by the tenants of his work that he felt most important, that defined him and his work, would history have painted this duo differently?

    To close, I still advise against this sort of self-aware writing. I still advise you listen to and trust your editor. But, Shya’s is a unique case. Most cannot do what he has done. I know because I am rereading ‘Forecast’ now for the third time. And, the reality is, this work is important enough that it needs to be in the public forum regardless of any initial aversion it may or may not insight. But, Shya knowingly and willingly walks a rather precarious road. At the end of the day, editors, mentors, workshop peers do not stand with you. When ‘Forecast’ is released and out for a bit, it will simply be Shya and his book, answering or not answering for the decisions he made. He does this with grace, style, and a fair touch of genius. Most do not.

    1. meh. i don’t think it’s a dirty word to sell fiction. and i think there’s plenty of published fiction that has both calling-attention-to-itself prose and readers. even the concept of prose that is ground down like glass, or transparent, or natural to its pov, or whatever iteration of this argument people wish to use is culturally and situationally dependent. what is perceived as successfully fulfilling that style is going to shift depending on who’s looking at it.

      i’m going to boil this down to adam’s point from the genre thread — literary fiction is a genre that is unmarked, and likes to pretend it is not a genre at all because it is universal.

      transparent prose is a sort of style that struggles to be unmarked, and likes to pretend that it isn’t a style at all because it is universal.

      but it’s all style, inescapably.

      1. Agree, agree.

        Why does “invisible” style sell? Why shouldn’t “attention-drawing language” be what sells? Reader’s tastes are manipulable. They can be sold things that don’t look like the things they’re used to. That’s often what good editors do.

        I have to disagree as well that “most readers read for a story.” I do agree that it’s a generally accepted fact, but I don’t think that the fiction I see today is all that story-based. Rather, most fiction I see (which is still just a small fraction of it, to be sure) reads to me more like psychologized character portraits rather than stories. Which is to say, psychology dominates over narrative. I’ll try to write more about this at some point.

        (It seems to me that both realism and experimental fiction have convened toward a kind of anti-narrative, or even a-narrative. I don’t expect others to agree with me on this point, however.)

        In any case, when I look at the books on the NYT bestseller list, I find the language in them *extremely* marked, *extremely* stylized. But I think I’ve learned how to see that style. (I learned how to see it, and to write it, in realist writing workshops at college.) And it is a style.

        So whether or not realist writing calls attention to itself has something to do with the reader’s background. Realism is only invisible until you learn to see it.

        Consider, for instance, the acting in mainstream 1930s films. Very naturalistic and invisible at the time, to most audiences. Extremely marked today. Watch 1950s films, same thing. People will say the same about the acting in our current films, someday.

        Same thing with language. Go back and read realist works from previous decades. Very stylized. Very marked.

        In the case of other genres, like fantasy, characters frequently speak in stylized ways (styles different from realism), but the readers there have grown accustomed to that kind of style, and they like it, and expect it, and want it.

        So I think readers can get used to just about anything. And I think any editor worried about that kind of thing should stand up for whatever kind of writing he or she thinks is worth putting out there.

        I’m sure someone at Little, Brown argued that no one would like Infinite Jest, because of all the footnotes. It’s too easy to just say, “Make it look like what people already know.”

        Audiences are often quite clever, in fact, quite adaptable. They often want a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar. If they didn’t, nothing new would ever become popular, and nothing would ever change.

        People speak differently now than they did ten years ago. They’ll speak differently in ten year’s time.

        Here’s an experiment: Watch “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Then watch “A Hard Day’s Night.” Then watch “Five Easy Pieces.” Then watch “Ordinary People.” Then watch “American Beauty.” Then watch “Wendy and Lucy.”

        All works of realist cinema—but different styles of realism. You’ll see how different the dialogue is, and the acting.

        You can do the same thing with writing. Put John Cheever next to Ann Beattie next to, I don’t know, Jonathan Franzen. Someone today.

        Somehow readers manage. Viva la difference!

          1. Or, simply put all the the Streetcar versions in a line and watch in one popcorn fuled all-nighter. They’re all different, masking and parading uniquely.

            Hence the term “remake.”

  8. Here we see a good, clear example of how conventional writing is (all writing). It’s only possible for language to be “not reasonably attributable” to a narrator or other character when there are conventions that establish what is attributable, and what isn’t. Not that those conventions need to be conscious, or clear.

    For example, look at dialogue in most fiction. It’s nothing at all like how people actually talk. Take a tape recorder and record the next few conversations you have, and see whether they look anything like any written dialogue you’ve ever encountered. (Anyone who has ever transcribed a taped interview knows that spoken language is filled with half-starts and stops, and with stutters, and filler words, etc.)

    Hemingway was a realist. Look at how stylized his dialogue is. Realism is a style, dictated by conventions.

    All writing involves style rooted in conventions. The author determines (consciously or unconsciously) which styles—which conventions—will dominate in the work, and where there will be exceptions, and why. (Nothing need be monolithic.) After that, editors and readers will decide what they make of it.

    Free indirect discourse is one such style, and it’s fine, but heaven help us if it became the default or anything. What a boring world that would be. (As it would be if any style took over.)

    As for me, I don’t think I’ve ever written anything predominantly in FID; I learned too early on from Donald Barthelme the seductive pleasure of the unexpected word. (Although I may have used FID here and there, as counterpoint.)

    1. I am certainly in agreement about realism being a style. But as for your first point, about attribution, I think this is referring to the rules a book teaches its reader for how to read it. Not, in other words, broad conventions external to the book, rather things outside of what the book establishes as the way a character is speaking, thinking, or behaving.

      As for free indirect style being the default: I’m afraid it’s too late to hope one way or another about that. It’s pretty much the way most published fiction is written. Close third person, written in language, more or less, attributable (again, by conventions established within the narrative itself) to the primary characters.

      1. “As for free indirect style being the default: I’m afraid it’s too late to hope one way or another about that. It’s pretty much the way most published fiction is written. Close third person, written in language, more or less, attributable (again, by conventions established within the narrative itself) to the primary characters.”

        Sounds self-defeating to me.

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