Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Good on Bob's Red Mill

Via The Slacktivist, Bob of Bob's Red Mill just gave his company to his employees for his 81st birthday. Way to be awesome, Bob.

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: The Grand Inquisitor

This week we arrive at a major milestone in this many-mile long book: the story-within-a-story called "The Grand Inquisitor." It's often taught in high schools and colleges as a stand-alone piece, and even people who haven't read BK have read, or somehow know, the GI.

I've read it a bunch of times now, and it still blows me away every time. Maybe it's just because I'm a lifelong secular humanist / atheist, who occasionally dabbles in Northern California Buddhism. Maybe people who've grown up with religion find the issues here old hat, or else beside the point. It is the same old stuff--the problem of evil and suffering, how we can have free will if there's a God, how Jesus's teachings get twisted by those who teach them. Of course it's also an extended fusillade at the Catholic church, which tends to present a big target in all centuries; and a warning about totalitarianism, which in this case comes cloaked in religion. The Grand Inquisitor's vision looks a lot like the Fox News Channel to me, but never mind.

Anyway, there's no point in my trying to summarize the piece here. I really think you should just go read it. It's only about twenty pages. If you read nothing else in BK, you can do this. I can wait.

[elevator music plays]

I tell you, it just knocks me out, even though it's not a story at all, but a philosophical tract the form of a monologue. One guy (GI) talking to another guy (Jesus), who doesn't even talk back. The occasional interruptions by the storyteller (Ivan) and his listener (Alyosha) are mainly points of clarification; they offer a less clunky way for Dostoevsky to make the GI's philosophy clearer to us, without having him rant on even further.

So how about that Jesus, huh? He actually wants to make things hard for his followers. He doesn't make it easy to believe in him. He refuses to perform the miracles that would convince people to follow him on the spot. They must choose him of their own free will, and deal with the fact that he probably won't show his face to them--unambiguously, anyway--in their lifetime. The GI, meanwhile, just wants to help people who are suffering from this uncertainty. By taking people's free will from them, he gives them what they really want: security and community, which comes through a confirmed belief in miracles. And yet the GI suffers, too. Unlike stock villains, he doesn't enjoy his power in the slightest. He knows he's doing evil, and he suffers--because he wants people to be happy, and not suffer as he does. It's just not easy for anybody in this world, not even the devil. And yet we're still supposed to have faith. That is faith, apparently, this suffering.

All well and fine. But what is the lesson for fiction writers here? Am I suggesting we all write a "poem" (as Ivan calls his story) like this and plunk it down in the middle of our novels or medium-to-long stories? I say yes! I am a big fan of the story-within-a-story, especially if it's self-contained, difficult, and from another time and place than the larger story, with other rules.* I love the unexpectedness of such things, the plunge down the rabbit hole, after which we climb back out and continue on our path through the larger fictional world--only slightly dizzy, and wondering exactly what just happened.

But how to you keep the s-w-a-s from being a mere "lump" that the reader trips over? Especially if it's almost pure research or philosophy, rather than an actual story? A few tips from Dostoevsky:

1) Have a character tell the story, and have that character be mysterious and maybe a little bit unhinged.

2) Make the story a different kind of story than you'd expect that character to tell (as Alyosha points out, Ivan, who has a big problem with God, has ended up praising Jesus in the GI).

3) Make the story slam the outer action to a halt. This sounds counter-intuitive; but the fact that Alyosha has just come from a round of visits to various frantic people, and is desperate to go and see his mentor on his deathbed, raises the stakes of Ivan's story. The story has to be good, and important, for Alyosha to stop and listen to it.

4) Allow interruptions by the "outer" characters. If you are presenting a big block of information (or philosophy), it helps to break it up and offer other characters' takes on the story. We do learn more about Alyosha and Ivan through their little exchanges in the midst of all this heavy stuff. Alyosha's frightened but interested; Ivan, while tormented by these ideas, laughs and is gentle with his brother.

5) Have good, fully developed characters within the story, not stock or purely allegorical figures. In this case, Jesus is still a bit of a cipher. But the suffering Grand Inquisitor towers as high as any of the Karamazov brothers, or Milton's Satan. He is one for the ages.

*Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin is a great example, which comes to mind 'cos I just finished it.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Novel milestone

I am pleased to report that the word-count + I'm-not-really-writing-now strategy works. I recently passed the 60,000 word mark, and I once read in Writers Digest that 60K is the official minimum length for a novel. I'm not done, but at least I know the thing's going to be long enough!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Where is the fault?

(For those new to the blog: Borrowed Fire is an ongoing series, in which I attempt to learn fiction writing by reading classic works of literature. All BF texts are posted on Project Gutenberg, so everyone can follow along, or at least locate the relevant sections. We're now about knee-deep in The Brothers Karamazov, God help us. Previous works include Chekhov's "Gusev," H.G. Wells's "The Door in the Wall," Melville's Moby Dick, Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, Gogol's "The Overcoat," Conrad's The Secret Agent, and Thoreau's Walden. One of my purposes is to figure out how older--and perhaps seemingly outdated--ideas and techniques might be brought to bear on contemporary fiction. This is not, by the way, to say I don't like Raymond Carver. I do. Really. But there are other models we might follow, too, or...dare I say, instead...)

So this past week I was reading along through the series of chapters called "Lacerations." And I have to say it was getting a tad monotonous. Our hero, Alyosha, has become the designated errand boy for the bunch of lunatics that comprise his family and the small town in which they live. We therefore get many, many pages of people falling upon him, pouring out their troubles, and begging him to go see so-and-so and explain to them about such-and-such, because they can't bear to do it themselves, you see... The problem is they all express themselves in pretty much the same way, at length, and at the textual equivalent of high volume (lots of exclamation points!). As we know from the latest season of Lost, constant high volume is as boring as no volume at all. We need ups and downs, what they call in music dynamics. And we need people's voices not to all sound the same.

Still, I'm pretty sure I see where Dostoevsky is going. For one thing, he's building toward "The Grand Inquisitor," possibly the greatest set-piece in all of literature, and certainly one of the most intriguing meditations on Christianity that I've ever read. Before that, the pious Alyosha has to be exposed to all manner of suffering, the bulk of it undeserved--because his faith, although he never loses it, is going to be challenged. The question of why God allows innocents to suffer (or maybe makes them suffer, for that has to be the same thing, really) preoccupies Dostoevsky. The three brothers Karamazov, representing sensuality, intellectuality, and spirituality, are instruments through which he works these questions out. The degree to which they are also very human--not allowing themselves to be completely instrumentalized, by either Dostoevsky or God--is one of the most fascinating aspects of BK. They really do rebel against their creator(s).

Which brings me to today's topic, which was going to be the topic even before I attended Richard Powers's talk yesterday. Now it's even more the topic, because I have it on good authority that this is a question writers are going to have to consider seriously as the trans-human age approaches. The question is, where do characters' faults lie? In the stars or in themselves, or in some specific combination of the two? In other words, does fate (or genes) or free will rule, and how do these forces actually function in your created world?

All right, let's make the question specific to BK. In the course of his errand-running, Alyosha happens across a group of schoolboys who are throwing stones at another boy. Taking the underdog's side, as a good Christian, Alyosha approaches the lone boy to attempt to find out why the others are attacking him. But the victim promptly grabs Alyosha's hand and chomps the hell out of his finger. As fortune--i.e. the tangled web of intrigue woven by Dmitri--would have it, Katerina sends him to the household of that very boy's father. Turns out Dmitri humiliated the boy's father, a captain, by dragging him out of a tavern into the street, by his beard, no less. The schoolboys, who witnessed the scene, call the beard a "wisp of tow," and I suppose the Freudian implications need not be elaborated upon here.

Anyway, in talking to the captain, Alyosha figures out why Ilusha bit his hand.

"I think I understand it all now," said Alyosha gently and sorrowfully, still keeping his seat. "So your boy is a good boy, he loves his father, and he attacked me as the brother of your assailant.... Now I understand it," he repeated thoughtfully.

Alyosha understands that Ilusha is not really justified in biting him. But Alyosha is a Karamazov, a fact of which people keep pointedly reminding him. He is as different from Dmitri as can be, but he bears the same name. Therefore he bears some responsibility, if not guilt, for Dmitri's actions.* There is talk throughout the novel of a "Karamazov curse." Alyosha can disavow neither his brother's actions, nor his name. In this world, there's no going elsewhere and reinventing yourself. This does not mean Alyosha is powerless, but he has to play the cards he's been dealt; and his, though unfairly, will always be marked with a "K." Thus all the errand-running.

This notion of having relatively little control over your basic identity has at least two sources here: a firm belief in an all-seeing God, and the kind of rural / small-town setting that keeps extended families close together. Everyone knows who you are; God knows who you are. And so you are that guy, forever enmeshed in that web. Contrast this with (for example) the atomized three-sibling family in The Corrections, another sprawling family novel that I love. The Corrections concerns questions of responsibility as well, especially responsibility toward one's aging parents when one's own life is going down the toilet. But the sins of Chip have nothing to do with the sins of Gary. They and their sister each struggle along in their own narrative silos; while each appears in the others' stories, the bulk of the novel is made up of separate narrative sections in which each sibling is the lead protagonist. If someone told Gary that Chip was an asshole, Gary might say, "Yeah, he is, isn't he?" and that would be a perfectly reasonable response. Gary has his own problems, besides. But Alyosha must constantly circulate from brother to father, from wronged fiancee to humiliated captain, because the fault is not *only* with oneself in BK. It is familial, national, and ultimately global. Humans are all fallen, and all are therefore responsible for each other.

In other words, deciding where the "fault" lies will shape the structure of your fiction, as well as the precise nature of your characters. An interesting experiment for your (or my) next story might be shifting the location of the fault from where we normally would place it. If you tend to think people are the masters of their own destinies, make it so they aren't. If you believe in an overarching fate or power, remove it, or change that power's nature. Just being conscious of where we place the fault, I think, will yield some very interesting results.

*See the Slacktivist for a fascinating discussion of guilt vs. responsibility, which ties right into Dostoevsky.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Against the black box

I went to a fascinating talk by Richard Powers at Stanford today. I will have more to say about this shortly, as the talk--quite fortuitously!--tied into a post I've been wrestling with about The Brothers Karamazov. (Yes, this week's post is overdue, and I know you're burning up with questions--is Alyosha still boring? Who will have an aneurysm first--Dmitri or Fyodor, or, coming up fast on the inside lane, Katerina Ivanovna? And is there a God, or what?)

Anyway, here's just a tidbit from Powers. He's now written two novels focusing on the human genome, The Gold Bug Variations and, most recently, Generosity. (He's also had his own genome mapped, courtesy of GQ Magazine, which is an experience I'll be quite happy not to have--in case anyone's asking.) Anyway, he feels genomics is critical for novelists not only to understand, but to write about. Genomics, he said, is "filled with questions of narrative." In an era when we can begin to manipulate our genetic code, we are no longer talking about playing the hand of cards we have been dealt--by the gods or God (or "the stars"), or by nature. Rather, we can get a whole new hand. It may soon become impossible to consider ourselves as "scripted actors" in any sense. Instead, we can be "co-authors of our own script" in a more profound way than ever before. We, as humans, can be rewritten.

And because novelists understand both writing and character, it's our job to investigate who is doing the rewriting, and how. That's why we need to understand genomics and related technologies, and present them in our work. We should not, Powers said, "black box" the technology. Rather, we need to try to understand what now functions as "the gods"--the forces that make us who we are, which we may soon be able to take hold of and change forever.

There was some resistance in the audience to this notion. Several people brought up the problem of the "lump of research." A novel is bopping along nicely, then suddenly comes to a screeching halt as the author displays, for many pages, his knowledge of some highly technical subject or process. The knowledge was obviously acquired at some cost, and there is a sense that whether it really serves the story or not, the author is going to shove it in there because he doesn't want that effort to go to waste. Powers's novels have been criticized for this, as has Ian McEwan's brain surgery scene in Saturday. (You could also easily point to Moby Dick as an example--though because it's old, perhaps the "lump" seems quaint or exotic instead of merely annoying.) Tobias Wolff brought up the end of Hitchcock's Psycho, wherein we get the complete Freudian explanation for Norman Bates's deeds.

Powers's response was that there's a humanistic aversion to certain types of "research" showing up in fiction. We don't object to some kinds of processes being portrayed in detail, but hard scientific stuff seems to raise hackles. He did make the point, though, that the research has to be shown in terms of a character's passion for the subject. If it's not a character's interest that motivates the inclusion, then the author has written an "essay," not a novel.

Also he pointed out that doing this kind of research is especially hard for humanists. We have a lot more to learn about science than many scientists have to learn about narrative--which is much easier to come across and digest than, say, articles in scientific journals. I'd say proof of this idea can be found in the many perfectly good science fiction novels by practicing scientists. These aren't Shakespeare, nor do they pretend to be; but they do just fine in the storytelling department, and some do much better than fine. Meanwhile humanists still turn up their noses at the hard work of understanding the technologies that are shaping humanity.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On Moon

This Rumpus piece on Moon is a great read. It's a glowing review, followed by an interview with the director, Duncan Jones. I especially like the line, "He's like a cuddly David Bowie." Being a cuddly David Bowie is an achievement in itself.

We saw Moon on DVD about a month ago, and my first reaction was, you know, it's pretty good. Better than average. Plus it has Sam Rockwell, who makes everything he's in at least better than average. I would watch him in anything; I would watch him leaf through wallpaper swatches. For hours.

But I have to say, I didn't really get the movie. There were a lot of obvious quotes of famous science fiction movies--most obviously 2001, but also Silent Running, Alien, and others. These moments seemed intended to be obvious--because the ripoffs were just so blatant, they would otherwise seem almost criminal--but they didn't do much for me at the time. They stuck out, and thus "kicked me out" of the story, as we sometimes say in writing workshop. Also the lunar vehicles were clearly miniatures. In reality they were no less artificial-looking than CG effects, but in a different way. The fact that I saw the miniatures as more obviously fake just tells me that CG is now the custom in science fiction movies, and I've trained myself to look past (somewhat) the excessive smoothness of those images. The currently accepted convention has a better chance of disappearing. This is also true, I'd say, in literature, but that is for another post. Anyway, the miniatures also kicked me out.

In short, I wasn't bowled over. Then we watched the Bonus Features, which included several interviews with Jones. He said pretty much the same things as in the Rumpus interview, the upshot being that Moon is a manifesto of sorts for returning to classic science-fiction filmmaking. Silent Running and the rest represent the kind of films Jones wants to make, which are focused on character rather than effects. The miniature aesthetic is a feature of those types of films. Miniatures and human actors (some, anyway) are both cheaper than massive CG effects. But the cheapness is ultimately a bonus of that approach, rather than its cause. In other words, Jones would rather make films about people anyway, and the cost savings just happens to be a perk. (For his next film, he'll likely get a lot more money, so we'll see if he sticks with this aesthetic. I hope so.)

After watching these interviews, I came to think of Moon as brilliant. Now that I've recognized its "manifesto" aspect, I see it as a (please bear with me) post-post-modern work of art. Like po-mo, it points out its own tropes, but unlike that exhausted style, it then reaffirms those tropes instead of blowing them up. The quotes aren't ironic, but a way for the film to include its own history as a film. You could say the movie has a backstory, just like a character. This makes the movie itself seem alive. And so the film's been lingering with me these past weeks, in the way that only a few truly special works have done.

Yet. I have often complained when authors (on Oprah, say, or in a foreword) tell readers how their books are supposed to be read. A work of art should stand on its own, I've said. Also, I've said, once you publish it, it's ours, or at least no longer yours as such. If you didn't convey what you intended, that's your problem. Let us find our own way through the work. I will leave aside the real possibility that I was not smart enough to get what Jones was doing on my own. (And that is a sad commentary, for I am a fully trained and certified post-modern critic, albeit one who has abandoned the trade for the even more lucrative field of fiction writing.) The question is--does some art need to be accompanied by critical commentary, either by authors or others--in order to function, as it were, properly?

I'd now say the answer is a qualified yes. There's a difference between explaining what you meant (because you didn't get it across) and providing a cultural or historical context for understanding a work. We weren't all born with the ability to get, say, Gravity's Rainbow, and the world would be poorer without it. There is a crucial role for critics and teachers, which is to clear space for diverse forms of art not only to appear, but thrive. So now I say to creators of difficult works*--and their interpreters--get out there and tell us how to read! Don't be shy! We'll complain, but we'll thank you for it later!

Hey, I think I just wrote a manifesto for literary and cultural studies.

*Moon is not so difficult as Gravity's Rainbow. At least I don't think so. In this case the problem was really me and my cinematic naivete. But then again, I feel it bears more consideration...another sign that this movie is great.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Borrowed Fire: The Brothers Karamazov: Multiple characterization

This week in The Brothers Karamazov, we learn an excellent method for depicting not only individual characters, but two or more characters at once, while subtly drawing out aspects of their relationships. I am sure I've talked about this with regard to some other book, but have not done it recently, so here we go again.

The basic idea is to reveal a character indirectly, via what another character thinks about her. Dostoevsky does a spectacular job of it in describing Katerina Ivanovna through Alyosha's eyes. You may recall that Katerina is the fiancee of Dmitri, Alyosha's brother. Dmitri has sent Alyosha (who really is kind of a drip for doing this) to break off the engagement, because he has fallen for Grushenka, about whom more later. Having already staggered through a series of embarrassing scenes involving various family members--all the action has thus far taken place in a single day, a day that would make an ordinary man renounce all contact with his family for all time--Alyosha arrives at Katerina's to deliver the good news.

Alyosha has met her before, and our first view of her, when he encounters her again, is a memory of his first impression:
He was struck by the imperiousness, proud ease, and self-confidence of the haughty girl. And all that was certain, Alyosha felt that he was not exaggerating it. He thought her great glowing black eyes were very fine, especially with her pale, even rather sallow, longish face. But in those eyes and in the lines of her exquisite lips there was something with which his brother might well be passionately in love, but which perhaps could not be loved for long.
Dostoevsky, not particularly known for verbal efficiency, is getting a lot done here. First off, he's setting Alyosha up for a change of heart about Katerina. Alyosha recalls that he "felt he was not exaggerating" his sense of her imperiousness, which shows he is already rethinking that impression. He now senses that, although he is not necessarily going to reverse his opinion entirely, he will develop a deeper understanding of what is behind this appearance of haughtiness. A nice aspect of this technique is that it tells us readers that Katerina is complex--there's more to her than first meets the eye, although we don't yet know what that "more" is. Which reminds us that character need not be revealed all at once; it can unfold over time. We also see here how willing Alyosha is to change his opinions. He's not perfect; he passes harsh judgments on people just like everybody else, but he doesn't like doing that and is open to more information.

I also like how Dostoevsky uses Alyosha's point of view to work in a solid physical description of Katerina--her black eyes, pale complexion, and longish face. Because Alyosha's thoughts are swirling around this description, it becomes less static than the usual laundry list of features. It also reminds us how much a character's appearance is in the eye (or under the control of) the beholder. If we were meant to see Katerina as a villain, we might get a straightforwardly harsh description of her, either via Alyosha (whose opinions we are largely supposed to trust) or the author. It would be easy to make her angular face look witchy. But here the nature of these features is in play, as Alyosha reconsiders them. He discovers, as we do, that Katerina's face is expressive, and that what it expresses is complex and changeable and somewhat mysterious. This seems to me an aspect of physical characterization that many writers don't do enough of--show the character's features in a state of flux, without actually pinning down what sentiment those features express. Again, we come away with the notion that Katerina is complex. She can't be pinned like a gassed butterfly to a board in just a few sentences. We are going to have to learn more about her over time--as is the case with real people. This is why she feels real to us.

What I originally planned to write about in this post is this line: "But in those eyes and in the lines of her exquisite lips there was something with which his brother might well be passionately in love, but which perhaps could not be loved for long." Here Dostoevsky pulls off a threefer. He's told us quite a bit about Katerina, Alyosha, and Dmitri, plus how they all relate to one another.
  • We see more of Katerina's face, particularly her "exquisite" lips, and some hint of a puzzling expression thereon.
  • We see that Alyosha finds her beautiful and is even drawn to her, but then promptly inserts Dmitri into the picture in order to push himself away. Alyosha values his chastity and is highly nervous around women. He's also loyal to his brother, even as his brother is trying to ditch this woman.
  • We are reminded (because we already know this) that Dmitri's passions are changeable. We gather that there is something particular about Katerina that might ignite his passion but will not hold it forever. What is that something? We don't exactly know as of yet.
  • We see Alyosha's understanding and forgiveness of his brother. He is able to see why Dmitri might want to leave her.
  • The ambiguity of the passive voice--"could not be loved for long"--is also intriguing. (I'm too lazy to look this up in the Russian, so let's just assume this is what Dostoevsky intended.) The passive construction puts the onus for losing Dmitri's love somewhere between Katerina and Dmitri. It's possible that no one could love Katerina for long, or it's possible that it's just Dmitri who can't. The passive suggests the former, but at the same time, it does not make Katerina fully responsible for the problem. She doesn't make people stop loving her; she just possesses some quality that cannot be loved for long. That makes her tragic, not a mere bitch.
Apparently I could go on and on about this short passage. However, the take-away for us writers is to try revealing one character through another's eyes. And when doing this, I'd suggest showing the point-of-view character being somewhat foiled in his attempt to "know" the character he's considering. As long as the POV character's opinions are in flux, the reader remains curious about both characters, and senses them as complex, changeable, and more fully human.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Again with the likability issue

Slate's Claire Dederer gives us the flip side to Monday's post on whether--and why--fictional characters should be likable. Reviewing Amy Bloom's Where the God of Love Hangs Out, Dederer delights in Bloom's ability to make readers love her characters. She goes so far as to make her review a primer on creating lovable characters, though she acknowledges she's not really doing justice to Bloom's gift.

First caveat: once again, I have not read the book being reviewed, only the review itself. I presume someone else has taken care of the blog post suggesting that those of us who read reviews instead of the actual books are foot soldiers in the army of the damned.

Second caveat: I am going to indulge an urge to speak somewhat sarcastically about this review. This sarcasm is simply not deserved. It's just that have issues about "liking" or "loving" characters, which probably speak to my own troubled psyche as much as anything. I taught an entire class on the reasons for, and advisability of, responding to literary characters as human beings. I just think it's weird. And I think we ought question the distinction, at least, and I'm interested in asking such questions through my own fiction. Yet, as a writer, I also want people to love my fiction, which, from all evidence, means making them care deeply about my characters. What does it take to do this? How much of my grumpy soul must I chop off and sell, in order to get with a program that's obvious to everyone else? These are burning questions for me. So anything that smacks of a "formula" for characterization just sets me off...even if that formula is helpful and correct, which I rather suspect Dederer's may be.

Anyway, here is my willfully nuance-free take on the formula for creating lovable characters:
1. Start with perfect human.
2. Add significant but understandable flaw (gout, mild alcoholism).
3. Refrain from judging character for this flaw, both via authorial voice and other characters. (Bonus if other characters are specifically attracted to the flaw.)

The more I think about this, the more I believe it *will* work. Consider: is this not the way most of us would strive to see the world? When we're being our best selves, don't we see (or want to see) people as basically good, with understandable flaws for which we do not pass judgment? So maybe reading Bloom gives us pleasure because she lets us be those best selves--people who give others the benefit of the doubt, who are intrigued or amused, rather than enraged, by people's faults. Books like hers give us practice in open-mindedness and forgiveness, and remind us of the pleasure such a worldview can bring. It's better to be this way. Gilead is Exhibit One for this theory.

So why do I fear the theory? Why won't I submit to its obvious truth and get on with it? I'll feel better. Writing will come easier. In fact, even as I grouse, I'm sifting through my novel for opportunities to make my characters more positive, their flaws less drastic.

Well, I'm worried about blandness, for one thing. I'm worried that all these lovable characters are all more or less alike, our reactions to them more or less the same (even if that reaction is the commendable one of loving). Moreover the fictional worlds they inhabit will have to be similar, in order to accommodate these particular kinds of creatures--the worlds are realistic, mostly comfortable, relatively safe. Again, maybe that's what reading fiction is all about. Surely some fiction can and should be about this. But all of it? Would something be lost if Fun with Problems vanished from the shelves?

I suppose one could push the boundaries of the formula to see if more interesting results ensue. Make the character ridiculously perfect, her flaw just on the border (or on the other side) of acceptable. Find some clever ways of passing judgment without forcing them upon the reader--because readers really don't like being told how they're supposed to think about characters.

Monday, February 01, 2010

More Fun with Problems

I have not read Robert Stone's new story collection, Fun with Problems, which Antonya Nelson reviewed in yesterday's NYTBR. However I am heartened and intrigued by Nelson's review, particularly the last paragraph:

Reading guides sometimes encourage us to diagnose the faults of characters who display their “unlikability,” as if diagnosis might helpfully lead to dismissal. It’s true you might resist wanting to know the people in “Fun With Problems” or, maybe more tellingly, seeing yourself in them. You might turn away from the uncomfortable truths you don’t wish to receive, from the mature, dissolute, ultimately heartbreaking rites of passage that fill these pages. But a genuine coming-of-age story demands that its subject resist the experience. No book is for everyone, but some books can be fully taken in only when the reader is ready. “Fun With Problems” is a book for grown-ups, for people prepared to absorb the news of the world that it announces, for people both grateful and a little uneasy in finding a writer brave enough to be the bearer.

Yes, I'm harping on the "likability" issue again, only this time, I have allies! (Or at least I have an ally in Nelson--I can't say at this point what Stone may be up to.) To recap: I have often wondered about, and been peeved by, the "likable characters=good writing" equation that seems to go unquestioned in book reviews and writing workshops. Critics are wont to dismiss books out of hand for having unlikable characters--regardless of whether those characters are realistic, and / or well-drawn. Witness, for instance, Michiko Kakutani on Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City, which I ranted about here. Also--unsurprisingly--she doesn't like Fun with Problems either:

Similar cynics populate Mr. Stone’s novels, of course, but in the most persuasive of those books, he not only maps the sources of his heroes’ malaise and the fallout it has on their lives but also dramatizes their flailing efforts to grab after one last chance at a big score or even a whiff of love and salvation. In the stories in this volume we are not given the full arc of his people’s lives; we get only snapshots of their drunken nihilism and puerile self-pity. It’s certainly not enough to make us care, not even enough to engage our voyeuristic curiosity; it’s simply dismal and depressing.

The view that morally bad=artistically bad also faintly implies that an author's characters reflect on his own moral character. An author who won't give us the "good" characters we seek perhaps harbors some moral failings of his own. At the very least, Kakutani suggests, authors owe characters and readers some kind of redemption--or "whiff of love and salvation" as she puts it. The failure to offer redemption is both an artistic and moral one (by the author as false messiah? How dare he promise us salvation and not deliver!). Also, Kakutani's assumption seems to be that all lives follow this redemptive arc; so not showing it results in a portrait that's either unrealistic, or else not worth the reader's engagement.

Nelson turns these assumptions inside out by suggesting that characters function as narcissistic mirrors for readers. Because we identify with fictional characters--especially, perhaps, if they are well drawn--we want them to be good, or else redeemed from their ultimately illusory badness (show us the arc!). Otherwise, it seems the author is telling us that we are bad. That we cannot be redeemed--at least, not by this author, in this story. Unredeemed characters keep us from using fiction as a mirror of Narcissus, which may be the reason a great many people read in the first place. In Nelson's view, Stone's collection is more like the Queen's mirror in Snow White, which tells us, to our shock, that we aren't the fairest of all. Grown-ups can handle that information. (The Queen was most certainly not a grown-up; come to think of it, she's like tea-partiers who can't stand hearing any, any criticism of America, especially the kind that suggests other countries maybe do one or two things better than we do. America is their fiction, their mirror of Narcissus.)

Of course, this brings up the larger question of why we read fiction at all. If we read for pleasure, then surely seeing ourselves as good is more pleasurable than what Stone seems to offer. Or, to put it another way, fictional pleasure depends on this arc of redemption. If we don't see our better angels in literary characters, we're no longer experiencing the pleasure of fiction per se, but undergoing something else--a highfalutin scolding, perhaps. I will go on record as saying I like redemption in general, and hope, and being told I'm good. I'm not sure I want to read Fun with Problems. But I'd also like to think that I'm not reading fiction for pats on the head, or that I consider the failure to bolster my ego sufficient reason to call a book bad.