Thursday, June 03, 2010

Borrowed Fire: Dracula and the novel form

Today we begin a new book in the Borrowed Fire series, Bram Stoker's Dracula. As we make our way through the novel, discovering writing lessons we can borrow for our own work, let us have modest expectations. Let us not assume that these little writing seminars will qualify us to write the next Twilight series and become billionaires. Let us instead plan to write something like The Passage, because we are all literary novelists who would never be seduced by the lure of unimaginable wealth and movie deals. We would only write about vampires if they served our artistic purposes. We'll see if we can make them do that.

I have already written about the ethnography at the beginning of Dracula, which definitely seems like a cool way to set up a book about "otherness." So for my official first post in this series, I'll talk about the novel's form. It is composed of diary entries, letters, and even a "phonograph diary" by various characters (although not, sadly, the Count himself). What do these particular forms of writing allow an author to do? Well, clearly you can switch point of view easily, without having to create a more complex artistic apparatus for doing so: just label each new section Jonathan Harker's Journal, Lucy Westenra's Diary, etc. These formats also contain dates and locations as a matter of course, so that (again) you don't need to worry about more subtle ways to show the passage of time or movements from place to place.

Perhaps more interesting, though, is the sense that these forms of writing are more private than other types of fictional narration. They are supposedly intended for a specific and relatively small audience--possibly even no audience, other than oneself. In the case of a novel posing as a bunch of journal entries, that conceit is of course more complicated. And perhaps those of us who keep journals expect them eventually to be published among our "papers." (Those of us who blog aren't waiting for that day.) In other words, the author of Dracula is winking at the notion of private communications at the same time as he's presenting them to us, a mass, faceless audience.

Still, the promise of privacy, the sense of a particular as opposed to a general audience, creates intimacy. One could imagine that Mina, for instance, writes her diary with her beloved Jonathan in mind--even if he isn't going to read it one day, she wants to tell him these things, and so she records her observations with a mental image of him as the listener or reader. Writing teachers often give students the exercise of writing a story in the form of a letter to a specific person, and inevitably the writing becomes more detailed and emotionally charged. The idea is to learn to write that way always. This intimacy would seem especially powerful in a story about a creature who gets a little too intimate. By writing, these characters might be trying to preserve the boundaries of their own selves as the Count seeps through the cracks.

But we have also seen the downside of the diary / letter form for stories involving almost any form of action. In Pamela, the 18th century epistolary novel foisted on so many innocent students of English, the letters occasionally go something like, Here comes my rapacious employer yet again! It is really hard to write with him climbing all over me... (OK, it's been awhile since I read it, but this is the kind of thing I remember.) More recently, watching The Blair Witch Project, some audience members may have laughed as the plucky, dwindling film crew managed to grab up all their recording equipment and turn it on before running like hell from the Evil. (I didn't laugh. Not at the time. That movie scared me.) We will come across the problem of "writing in haste" with this novel as well.

A reflective novel, such as Gilead, is far easier to write in diary or letter form. But let's see how Stoker handles the opportunities and pitfalls.

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