Thursday, January 17, 2008

Doubt: A Parable by John Patrick Shanley

I recently saw a regional production of this play and came away from it convinced that the text had been incorrectly interpreted and so decided to read it for myself. Doubt is set at a Catholic school in the 60s and is about a nun who accuses a priest of molesting a child. My fellow playgoer and I both came away certain that the priest was guilty, that the acting had given us no other way to see it. But given the title of the play and the lines of the play (if separated from the people saying them), we thought the author wouldn't have wanted us to be so sure. And the text (not to mention the author's introduction) definitely supports that the audience is supposed to feel uncertain at the end.

Which leads me to consider how much the physicality of a person lends itself to judgement. One of the reasons this production made the priest seem so guilty was he was soooo smarmy and sleazy. And he had this horrible way of smiling at the boys (who were offstage in the imagination). His same lines spoken from a different face with different physical actions would have made him seem more ambiguous. (Which means I probably shouldn't be on a jury--who needs facts when there is a face to judge?) (actually I was on a jury and I was elected foreman, thank you very much). Anyway, my point is... I hadn't thought very much about how much the actors can affect the very meaning of a play, which leads me to wonder what does this mean for fiction, which is dependent entirely on words for creating the physicality that actors put across. This is a very obvious point and is probably behind all that "show don't tell" that gets spread around: in real life much of our judgement of a person comes from how they seem on the outside, but in fiction we get to let readers into the heads of the people, so a lot can be done with the difference between how the characters seem (to other characters and to the reader) and what they really think. So the "showing" gets much more interesting when it's combined with "telling," especially when they contrast some. But! But! I think what matters more in helping readers interpret both the showing and the telling is tone.

The recent issue of the literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story includes the script for Wes Anderson's short film Hotel Chevalier which when you watch it is quirky and sad and romantic and funny but when you read it is just a bit strange. So the tone, which is created by Anderson's sets, his camera angles (often characters are centered in the frame), his cuts, and of course the intonations of his actors are what give the story it's emotional feel. And tone for writers comes mostly from voice, grammar, image--in both scene and summary. So it's not just point of view or sensory detail that matters--it's the sound of the whole.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Runaway by Alice Munro

Sometimes when I'm at my public library I'll see a book on the shelf that I'm really glad to see the library has bought (poetry, small press books, foreign authors, "difficult" fiction...). And even if it's a book I don't necessarily plan to read, I'll check it out. I figure that's my one way to express my approval and to encourage the library to buy more books like that. And so I checked out this collection of Munro stories (which the library had suddenly bought in paperback) without really intending to read it since I figured I'd read most of the stories already in the New Yorker. This isn't an expression of distaste for Munro--she's my favorite living short story writer--but more of my familiarity with her. And I don't often read collections of stories anymore. I read a lot of single stories in magazines and anthologies, but I've gotten out of the habit of picking up collections. Anyway...once I started to read, I couldn't stop. I'll often have that feeling with a good novel but it's rare that I sit and read one story after another. I've talked before about what I like about Munro stories--they are so layered that they feel like implied novels. And it's much discussed that she is one of the few story writers to let years (often decades or an entire adulthood) pass during a single story. But the thing I noticed this time around is how good she is at writing scenes in which a character is alone. Pretty often I find myself encouraging my students to add a second character to a scene so that the main character has someone to talk to, to react against, to do stuff with. Because a scene in which a character is alone is often just one in which they think and think and think and don't actually do anything. But what Munro has reminded me of is when we are alone we usually are in action (well, not me, I'm usually on the couch reading or watching The Wire--I have five seasons to catch up on!). Giving a character something to do while alone can often reveal quite a lot about them--after all, we are (or is it just me?) most ourselves when nobody is with us. But one of the reasons these scenes work for Munro is she is exceptionally good at giving characters thoughts/emotions that are interesting to read--while her characters clean house, or whatever they are doing, they are thinking things that reveal their emotional state very deeply. It's a good reminder to me not to come up with generic solutions (add a character!) to writing problems.

After the Deluge by Kara Walker

I'll be in Manhattan for the AWP conference at the end of the month, and one of the things I'm excited about is hearing John Irving speak, the other is heading across town to see the Kara Walker exhibit at the Whitney. This book is subtitled "A Visual Essay" and is the artist's response to Hurricana Katrina (and more specifically to the media depiction of African Americans affected by Katrina). It collects art by Walker (who is most famous for creating Victorian silhouettes that depict grotesque Southern plantation/slavery/folk lore images), photos of post-Katrina, and other historical art works, some of which depict floods and others which depict less obvious connections. In simplest terms, the book creates a narrative of the depiction of African Americans in art, but that's a reduction--it also has to do with disaster, with nature, many things... I've always been intrigued by visual artists and if I could draw I would (well, I do, just not for public consumption) and so I'm really into the idea of a visual anthology/visual essay that I could compile without having to include my own visual art. I might include words, but sometimes as a writer you get really tired of words and the challenge of having a reader put together thought based largely on a title, a short introduction, and a bunch of visuals lined up, strikes me as really interesting. Does anyone know of other books like this? I'm not knowledgeable in the visual art field so perhaps it's a whole genre I've missed...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

True Grit by Charles Portis

Michael Ondaatje is a well-documented fan of Charles Portis (and also Walter Tevis) and as I do all things Ondaatje, I picked up this novel, best known probably as the movie that finally won John Wayne an Oscar. And it was a great surprise to me. It's a very funny western tall tale (written in the 1960s) about a thirteen year old girl avenging the death of her father with the help of a one-eyed marshal (the Wayne character, Rooster Cogburn) and a Texas Ranger. I'm always on the look out for heroic female characters and not knowing a thing about the plot other than there was a character for John Wayne to play when he was old, I was pleasantly surprised to find one here. Now if only there would be more novels in which grown women get to play the hero (I guess they do in comic books).

I also recently read the kid lit novel Holes by Louis Sachar which was good fun and like True Grit makes great use of the tall tale form. Magic realism seems to have replaced tall tales as the popular way to break from realism, but I'm all for the sense of humor that seems to so often come with characters who are ten feet larger than life.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A Reader's Manifesto: an attack on the growing pretentiousness in American literary prose by B.R. Myers

Not too long ago I read a hostile and slightly bizarre review of Denis Johnson's new novel Tree of Smoke in the Atlantic Monthly and then coincidentally a colleague asked if I had read A Reader's Manifesto, which when I looked it up turned out to be by the reviewer--so I felt curious enough to read the book, which is what its subtitle suggests.

The author B.R. Myers has a couple of complaints: 1) that readers are not judging for themselves but rather blindly following what critics say is good, 2) that what critics say is good is not actually good, 3) that critics do not pay enough attention to style in their reviews, 4) that good style is easy to understand even if the sentence is long, 5) that a book should be judged for its text only (not its historical/sociological/authorial context) and 6) that contemporary writers, especially those winning awards, are not as good as classic writers (I'm not sure anyone would much disagree on the last point--but does that mean we should stop supporting contemporary writers who might go on to write the next classic?).

Now while I admire a lot of contemporary fiction, I'm also generally open to a good manifesto, so I gave Myers a chance. But I found the book hard to read precisely because it is an attack (an attitude I know many people enjoy, but that I don't particularly) and while Myers claims that he supports having readers think for themselves, he seems instead to want to replace the current critical thought with his own. In other words, he doesn't leave room for readers to think for themselves, he implicity suggests if they do not think like him, they are wrong. The book is written in entirely declarative prose that Myers describes as light-hearted and I assume comes across as such to some, but to me seemed entirely serious and fairly obnoxious. This obnoxiousness is obviously something the publisher takes as a selling point since the review quotes on the back cover alternate between positive and pissed off.

While I agree that certain writers are emperor's new clothes over-rated and I puzzle over certain award designations, I don't really agree with Myers' criteria (as I understood them) for great fiction. He seems to believe that all fiction should create a visual picture that flows constantly and clearly (though not necessarily simply) in front of the readers' eyes as they go. But I don't read like that. When I read I experience language not pictures. So while I understand Myers' complaint that Annie Proulx lists metaphor after metaphor which don't make sense when taken literally--I don't automatically see that as a negative. Because while the word choices he cites (e.g. "strangled work habits") don't make literal sense, to me they make emotional sense. And I like that. He also seems to treat all texts as realist--though to be fair he denies that he is doing that (but I don't see evidence other than his say so)--for example, faulting a line of DeLillo dialogue in White Noise by saying "real people don't talk like that." Well, of course not, nor do real scholars of Hitler studies debate real scholars of Elvis studies in a classroom showdown. One of my frustrations with Myers' criticism is that he takes the texts on in sections that allow him to fault DeLillo's satire in one excerpt and then fault him for his lack of realism in another. It seems you can have one but not both. If you understand White Noise to be a satire (even if you think it is a poor one), you shouldn't fault its lack of realism.

But my biggest conflict with Myers has not to do with his attacks on critically acclaimed authors (his very very negative review of Johnson actually made me anxious to read the novel in order to judge for myself), but with his seemingly narrow position on what a review should do. I'm interested in the possibility of reviews addressing style more (though I don't agree with Myers' position that style should offer constant visual clarity and be entirely grammatical) but I'm not sure non-writers are quite as interested in reading a point by point take down of authors' word choices (which is what the Johnson review is). I don't read reviews merely to decide whether or not to read a book (and even that decision I do not make purely on style). I read reviews because often they are well-written essays that interest me whether or not I will ever read the book. I prefer reviews that offer up both an idea of whether or not this is a book worthy of my time and something more...a comparison to other books on the subject, information on the author, on the time period covered by the text... just something more. I agree with Myers' point that the quotes picked out in reviews as good writing often don't seem much like it, but almost always that is because any sentence taken out of context (other than the first one) isn't as good as when it is in context. And because taste in writing is, dare I say it, subjective. A point Myers seems unwilling to accept.

I would have been more interested in a book that analyzes work that Myers thinks to be exemplary--contemporary or classic (there is some of this). The positive example always offers more to me than the negative. But then that wouldn't have been an attack.