Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Should we try to write like Henry James?

For the last year or so, I've been doing a series on my blog called "Borrowed Fire,"* in which I read works of classic literature and try to draw out lessons for contemporary fiction writers. All the books are available on Project Gutenberg. For the past few months I've been working my way through Henry James's The Turn of the Screw.

Now seems as good a time as any to talk about James's language, and whether writers today can learn from a style that seems particularly outdated.

I probably first read Turn in high school. I have a vague memory of my English teacher, who was blessed with an ominous, quavering voice, intoning about the sexual nature of the threat. I have a stronger memory of being bored and frustrated by the story, because it was supposed to be so incredibly scary--but I could not get through the prose. If the story was supposed to keep me on the edge of my seat, why did it take the narrator *forever* to get the simplest point across? If she was terrified by her experience, how did she have the mental capacity to even construct such long, involved sentences? Yes, the story is told in retrospect, but wouldn't it have been better to make it more immediate, so that the narrator's reactions could be more visceral and (therefore) believable? The whole thing seemed pointless. You know, maybe back then people managed to get scared while wading through giant blocks of baroque language, but James just puts us to sleep.

I'm going to go ahead and assume that lots of readers have a similar response to Turn, at least the first time through. The whole literary endeavor seems to run counter to horror, at least to what we now think of as horror. Thanks especially to movies, horror is a sensory experience, not a verbal one. Lots of screaming, lots of gruesome visuals and crunching, but light on talking and reflecting. If you are writing for an audience seeking this type of experience, you'll get nowhere borrowing from James. Just go with "Oh, God...Oh...God," and lots of one-sentence paragraphs.

But I've come to believe that retrospect is a great place to tell a scary story from. For one thing, there's the problem posed by memory itself. What do I really remember? What have I forgotten due to the trauma of the experience? Maybe I've gone crazy, and none of this really happened. Or maybe it's going to happen again, even though I've been free of those awful apparitions--I think--for all these years. A story like Turn, you see, is never over. So the process of writing it, instead of being a clumsy device ("The vampire is coming through my door right now, his foul breath is upon me, but I must keep writing...must...aaaggghhh...") becomes a necessary part of the story.

The narrator of Turn is trying to make sense of her memory, to recollect the experience in as much detail as possible, while constantly questioning the accuracy of those details. What if she hasn't got them right? What if she has? Either way, the implications are terrible. Writing itself becomes a type of horror, a compulsion the writer can't resist but also can't bear to face. It's not just the shock of the experience that frightens the writer, but realizing all the aspects of what it's done to her, and what it is still doing to her. She is, to this day, bewildered.

It produced in me, this figure, in the clear twilight, I remember, two distinct gasps of emotion, which were, sharply, the shock of my first and that of my second surprise. My second was a violent perception of the mistake of my first: the man who met my eyes was not the person I had precipitately supposed. There came to me thus a bewilderment of vision of which, after these years, there is no living view that I can hope to give.

James's kind of horror isn't simple. It's a complicated experience, which is confusing even in recollection. But the confusion is rendered with precision--the kind of precision only an acute loss can bestow. The above passage is the moment that "bewilderment of vision" sets in. The narrator has lived at least long enough to write the story--but from this point on, she is lost (in the wilderness), and she knows it. That's the horror--watching herself become lost.

So should we try to write like Henry James? Or to put it another way, could anyone in our time write a story like this, in this manner? I think it would be well worth trying, even using James's style, giving shadings to shadings. Possibly the memoir format could work here, only it's a fictional memoir...and instead of redemption at the end, portray the growing recognition that there is no way out of one's own memory--real or not.

*"Stolen Fire," as in stealing fire from the gods, was--appropriately--taken. Also the idea of writers "borrowing" from others, especially from those to whom we are supposed to feel inferior, appeals to me. It puts us on a more equal footing--Fyodor, can I borrow a cup of sugar / method for creating suspense? Henry, that's a great tone on you--could I try it on sometime, and maybe wear it out to dinner?

1 comment:

Louisa Chiang said...

Thank you. Point very well-taken.