Thursday, February 21, 2008
On Ugliness ed. by Umberto Eco
At first I thought I'd read this book like a collage, just looking at the (not so) pretty pictures, but actually Eco's text was pretty fascinating. The book is quite beautifully produced and full of visual ugliness, some of which is pretty astonishing and some of which is familiar, but the thing I responded to most was the idea that formal ugliness (which is differentiated from the beautiful, artistic portrayal of ugly things) tends to be defined by a lack of symmetry, of equilibrium. And in fiction writing, especially the short story, we talk a lot about balance and structure and things that don't fit the story...but sometimes too much, I think. The question is, is some ugliness necessary to prevent a story that's too smooth and ultimately bland. There are those who argue that the cracks in the whole make for beauty...that beauty doesn't exist without cracks... and perhaps the whole problem of the workshop story, something perfectly constructed which leaves you cold, is a lack of ugliness. Russell Banks, the man who changed my life by providing such a happy model of the writer-professor way back when I was a freshman, once told me I needed to take my hands off the wheel more often, and I confess this is something that I still struggle with. After all, if you take your hands off the wheel, you go off the road! Now intellectually I understand he was telling me I needed to go off the road. But I'm still not sure I've ever done it...though I don't white-knuckle my "driving" quite as much as I used to.