Friday, September 29, 2006

Woody Allen

I can no longer hold my peace...What unbelievably bad crap Woody Allen is publishing in the New Yorker. Why is this happening? Does the New Yorker owe him something? Did he die and they discovered a cache of his unpublished juvenalia? It is the same exact shtick he was doing 40 years ago, dentistry and police procedurals, only the old stuff seemed to be funny. Or maybe it was funny to me twenty years ago and isn't now. It really must be true that he's artistically spent. I'm not sure I've seen this happen with any other contemporary artist, over such a long period of time. Most people, when they're spent, shut up. It's terrifying to see that it's actually possible to run out of talent.

From The Man Without Qualities

About the Man Without Qualities' father:

"As with many men who have achieved something of note...[his fundamental feelings about life] sprang from a deep love of what might be called the generally and suprapersonally useful, in other words, from a sincere veneration for what advances one's own interests--and this not for the sake of advancing them, but in harmony with that advancement and simultaneously with it, and also on general grounds. This is of great importance: even a pedigree dog seeks its place under the dining-table, undisturbed by kicks, and not out of doggish abjection, but from affection and fidelity. And indeed the most coldly calculating people do not have half the success in life that comes to those rightly blended personalities who are capable of feeling a really deep attachment to such persons and conditions as will advance their own interests." (p. 11, tr. Wilkins and Kaiser)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

How old would you be...

How old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?
--Satchel Paige, as quoted in Zen to Go.

The book also quotes OJ Simpson, saying something like "Thinking's what gets you caught from behind." Now that makes you think.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Empathy and fiction

Suzanne Keen writes in the journal Narrative: "readers' perception of a text's fictionality plays a role in subsequent emphathetic response, by releasing readers from the obligations of self-protection through skepticism and suspicion."

In other words, perhaps we can empathize more with fictional characters than with real people--a striking idea to consider--because the former type of empathy costs us less. I haven't read enough about this yet, but presume the empathy itself is real even as the characters are not. I wonder exactly what the nature of this empathy is: do we feel a fictional character's pain more sharply? Intuitively that seems impossible, but maybe what we think of as empathy is our own fear--what if that happened to me? Or--I feel bad that this happened to X (but I don't necessarily feel bad for X, I feel bad for myself because X's life affects me). But empathy is not necessarily altruistic, so maybe substituting yourself for another is legitimate within empathy's definition. And if that's the case, it would seem easier to superimpose yourself upon a fictional character, whose mind you can usually read.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Theory of Mind

I'm doing some research for my new class this spring, which is about character. (What is a character? What makes a character seem real?) I've come across lots of great stuff on narratology. I always wondered what that was, but I'd say it's the closest thing to the analysis of creative writing processes that exists on the scholarly side of things. But also there's some really interesting work going on in cognitive psychology and literature. I'm thinking of a recent article by Lisa Zunshine that talks about Theory of Mind and the ways in which we understand intention. For instance, someone trembles (she's using an example from Mrs. Dalloway) and we "know" that's because of his excited emotions--not because he has Parkinson's, for instance. But how do we know? Or why does Woolf assume that we know? What recent studies of autism tell us is that not all people automatically make this inner/outer connection. Autistics can't read internal states from external signals, raising the question: why does everyone else? And can we make this assumption when reading or writing literature? Is a character's smile enough to tell us what we need to know?

This could be the end of Show Don't Tell as we know it.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Shotgun house

In my fiction I've been working on slowing down and observing all details in every scene, in every piece of the scene. I've thought of a metaphor that helps me do this. It's the shotgun house, the signature architectural style of New Orleans. Its key feature is that there's no hallway. The rooms are all in line, one after the other; so in order to get from the front of the house to the back, you have to go through every room. There's zero privacy but it's a great community builder, or so they say. Anyway that's what fiction writing is like. You can't just trot through the hallway to get where you want to go. You have to go through every room. That means you build every room, and see everything in every room, before you can move on to the next one. There could be such a thing as overdoing the details if you actually wrote out all this description in your final draft--but you do have to write it out at some point, and take out the extraneous stuff later.