Tuesday, February 28, 2012

On sexism and sympathy

I read Jonathan Franzen's now notorious piece on Edith Wharton a few weeks ago, and I admit to not being immediately enraged. Mostly I was focused on his ideas about how authors create sympathy for characters, since this is a preoccupation of mine (and I taught a class on this topic a few years ago). Franzen suggests that characters who evoke our sympathy have some kind of strike against them, some recognizable handicap that they must overcome. He then pivots to the meta-suggestion that Edith Wharton's own handicap was her looks, I believe in order to engender our sympathy for her--a successful, talented, and privileged person of the sort we (Americans? women? who?) might otherwise tend to resent. The handicap notion is not new, but certainly worth considering as a way of understanding why readers root for certain characters. Maybe in reading fiction (and nonfiction, for that matter), we seek reassurance that we can overcome our own flaws as we make our way through our real lives. But that would be a "therapeutic" reading, of which more in a moment.

All that said, Victoria Patterson and others who've seized on this piece as yet another example of Franzen's sexism aren't wrong. I mentioned this very issue when describing my ambivalent but generally positive response to the treatment of Patty in Freedom. In Patty's autobiography particularly, I sensed Franzen struggling with his own handicap as a writer, which is his contempt for women. I think he realizes that this holds him back, and in a strategy that works on an interesting level, he represents his own contempt as Patty's self-loathing--thus creating sympathy for her, if only as the author's helpless tool. This is not to say Franzen only feels contempt for women; I think he wants not to feel it, and Freedom and the Wharton piece are both efforts to struggle with an aspect of himself that he doesn't like.

My, I am making assumptions about the author's personal life based on his writing, though. How about that? As it happens, this gets at the main point I wanted to make about this latest Franzen face-plant. For Franzen--and a very large number of other critics--fiction written by women is always read as "really" autobiographical. Not just women, but all non-straight-white-male authors, are subject to this treatment: critics read their novels sociologically, to find out what it is, or was, like to be them. This is fair and right in the case of memoir, but not in fiction. Why is it that Edith Wharton's novels are really about her own resentment of pretty women, whereas Franzen's novels--also about women and their families--are about The Human Condition? Why don't we read Freedom to understand Franzen's feelings about, I dunno, his divorce, his mom, his own looks? To be fair, in interviews he has alluded to events in his own life, suggesting they shape his fiction. The point is, that's true for every writer. To pretend that our biographies play no role in creating our art is ludicrous. However, I don't write fiction to tell people my personal problems. I think it's safe to say that we choose to write fiction in part to convert our experiences into something different, something that's no longer ours as such, but might pertain to a wide range of people, all of whom will interpret the story differently and make it their own. And if Franzen's fiction is about The Human Condition, then mine is, too.

I suspect (continuing my psychological analysis of Franzen, which, I should point out, I have no real business doing) that Franzen's real concern is that his own novels will be read as "personal" and not "universal." That they'll be seen as therapeutic documents and not as Art. Really, the more I think about Patty's autobiography--written explicitly as part of her psychotherapy--the more it seems like Franzen's own struggle with the whole concept of women as writers. Are they capable of creating Art that transcends their own neuroses, Art for Art's sake? Or will their writing always be tied to--and tied down by--their own unmanageable bodies and emotions? By encasing Patty's autobiography in his own larger Work of Art, Freedom, Franzen seems to suggest the latter.

This idea resonates with Franzen's famous spat with Oprah Winfrey years ago, which seemed to center on his not wanting female readers. Oprah does use books for therapy, and her audience is overwhelmingly female. But by choosing Franzen's The Corrections for her book club, she made the horrifying suggestion that his book could be used that way as well. Of course, they've since made up, and Oprah's book club read Freedom.

So let's just lay out the diagnosis. Franzen's condescension toward women writers represents his own fear of being a second-class artist. I have that same fear, although I would settle for second-class status at this point in my career...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: More on character in mystery stories

I suppose I've been hitting this topic pretty hard lately, but I continue to be amazed at the importance of characterization in Hound.  This is my first time reading a Sherlock Holmes story, and I expected it to be formulaic, at least when it came to the rendering of people. Yet, as I discovered in the opening pages, the relationship between Watson and Holmes is complex, and not only contributes to, but in some ways drives the process of detection.

This issue is proving especially important to me at the moment, as I'm trying to write a literary mystery novel. I want plot and character to be equally important, and indeed to be bound together inexorably. Reading Conan Doyle has helped me discover that this is not only possible, but perhaps even necessary for delving into the true nature of mystery. Before attempting my novel, it seemed to me that mystery writing was primarily about plot, and by plot I mean a series of circumstances. A is in line to inherit B's money, but B has fallen in love with C and altered his will, making A the prime suspect when C is found floating in her nightgown in the lake. None of these characters is interesting, beyond their singular motives, which correlate to their functions in the plot: A is greedy (or desperate), B is blinded by love, C...well, C is a victim. D, the detective, comes in and puts the pieces together, because D, whatever her personal quirks, does her job expertly.

Now, Holmes is that quirky expert in Hound, but thus far, it's Watson whom we see doing most of the investigating. And here, he makes a mistake. Not only because the plot requires him to do so, although it does, but because of who he is.

After the conversation which I have quoted about Barrymore, Sir Henry put on his hat and prepared to go out. As a matter of course I did the same.

"What, are you coming, Watson?" he asked, looking at me in a curious way.

"That depends on whether you are going on the moor," said I.

"Yes, I am."

"Well, you know what my instructions are. I am sorry to intrude, but you heard how earnestly Holmes insisted that I should not leave you, and especially that you should not go alone upon the moor."

Sir Henry put his hand upon my shoulder with a pleasant smile.

"My dear fellow," said he, "Holmes, with all his wisdom, did not foresee some things which have happened since I have been on the moor. You understand me? I am sure that you are the last man in the world who would wish to be a spoil-sport. I must go out alone."

It put me in a most awkward position. I was at a loss what to say or what to do, and before I had made up my mind he picked up his cane and was gone.

But when I came to think the matter over my conscience reproached me bitterly for having on any pretext allowed him to go out of my sight. I imagined what my feelings would be if I had to return to you and to confess that some misfortune had occurred through my disregard for your instructions. I assure you my cheeks flushed at the very thought. It might not even now be too late to overtake him, so I set off at once in the direction of Merripit House.

I hurried along the road at the top of my speed without seeing anything of Sir Henry, until I came to the point where the moor path branches off. There, fearing that perhaps I had come in the wrong direction after all, I mounted a hill from which I could command a view—the same hill which is cut into the dark quarry. Thence I saw him at once....

Watson's mistake--disobeying Holmes's instructions to accompany Sir Henry everywhere--is plausible, because it fits his character: from the beginning, we've seen that he's polite, a bit meek (especially in the presence of Holmes), and even a little insecure (a hazard of working with Holmes). Thus he's easily put off by Sir Henry's entreaty not to be a "spoil-sport." But just as quickly, he feels terrible about letting Sir Henry get away, and imagines having to confess his error to Holmes--reactions that are also consistent with Watson's character. To fix his mistake, he runs off after Sir Henry, gets lost, and finds himself in a position to witness a telling interaction between Sir Henry, Miss Stapleton, and her angrily gesticulating brother.

So here's my point: a lesser writer, or at least one less concerned with character, could still have arranged for Watson to stumble upon this meeting. Watson could just decide to mosey off to a nearby hilltop of a morning, thinking Sir Henry asleep, and unexpectedly come upon the rendezvous. But this plot point is brought about, instead, by Watson's distinctive and very human nature. He falters, and then, alarmed at his failure, rushes to amend it. Yes, overall, Watson's discovery still reflects the operations of chance, which, in the case of a novel, means the author's hand. Yet we don't feel the author's hand here so strongly, because he lets Watson, or Watson's humanity, lead to the discovery.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On the thin ice of a new day (on Twitter)

Yes, I caved. My first day on Twitter was largely spent blocking a passel of unusually friendly young women who for some reason wish to follow me. It will take me awhile to get comfortable with the form, which seems to me less like birdsong, and more an endless series of hiccups and burps. But that is a human song, is it not? Besides, there are many great writers, like Colson Whitehead, who have mastered the form. So I will study, and learn.

Because it has come to my attention that the profession of "writer" means something quite different than it did just a few years ago. Competence in a wider variety of forms has become necessary. Saying I didn't use Twitter almost began to seem like saying I didn't use commas. I suppose I'll be using fewer of those now...

And so the leaky ship that is my online privacy springs another hole. The leaky vessel that holds my time, ditto. My first tweet was the title of an obscure Jethro Tull song that seems to have inspired exactly no one. Ian Anderson, are you out there?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Point of view

I will get to this week's discussion of Hound via Transsiberian. I mean Transsiberian the film, of course! Like most people I had never heard of this 2008 film, and that's because it opened the same day as Dark Knight. We watched it last night; in accordance with the consensus on IMDB, I thought it was a little better than average. However, there was a certain moment about 1/3 of the way in that put me in mind of how very difficult it is to narrate a thriller/mystery.

Roy, played by Woody Harrelson as a less sophisticated version of his Woody-the-bartender character on Cheers,* is taking the Transsiberian railway back from China with his wife, Jessie (Emily Mortimer). They share a compartment with a young couple, Carlos the Suspicious Spaniard and his girlfriend, Abby. Now, there are a few reasons Carlos is suspicious. He knows a lot about crossing borders while evading scrutiny by customs. He lugs around a cache of matryoshka dolls, which he shows to Jessie but not to Roy, or, it turns out, to Abby. Carlos is showing a tad too much interest in Jessie. Abby is unhappy.

But then the movie gives us a false reason to suspect him. While the train is stopped at a station, Roy, a train buff, heads off to see some old trains in the yard, and Carlos goes with him. While Roy is enthusing over some gizmo, we see Carlos, behind him, pulling a metal railing loose. He bangs it on the ground as Roy trots ahead, and...end of scene. In the next scene everyone is back on the train except Roy. Carlos insists that Roy wandered off and probably lost track of time; he and the train personnel are certain he'll be on the next train (arriving tomorrow), so the three other main characters get off at the next stop to wait for him at a hotel. But Jessie can't send him a message or receive one from him ("Thees ees Rah-shah," the hotel manager keeps saying, while shrugging). Meanwhile Carlos, as we later learn, has taken the opportunity to stash his matryoshkas in Jessie's luggage, and they're not dolls so much as they are compressed and painted gobs of heroin. Before we discover that, though, Carlos convinces Jessie to take a long walk in the woods with him, where they come upon an interesting old church, where Carlos and Jessie start kissing, only Jessie changes her mind and Carlos tries to force himself on her and Jessie beats him to death. OK, so: Carlos killed Roy, right?

No, Roy is on the next train. I suppose you could imagine that Carlos meant to kill Roy but didn't have the opportunity. But he had the perfect opportunity in the train yard, and Roy's absence from the train seems to accomplish what he set out to do, which was to separate him from Jessie. Also, Roy, as oblivious as he is, might have noticed someone trying to whack him with a length of metal pipe. Carlos's grabbing the pipe, followed by Roy's absence from the train, is a trick on the audience, and nothing more. The real action is yet to come, with Jessie trying to hide the fact that she killed Carlos, and get rid of the dolls, while the ominous Ben Kingsley, supposedly some kind of cop, is on her trail.

We see these tricks all the time, especially in movies. They're meant to make us jump or to feel foreboding, like thunder or lights flickering or unintelligible whispers in a hallway. But they also feel unfair, because we know the storyteller knows they lead nowhere. The storyteller is blatantly manipulating us, which is sometimes OK if it's done especially elegantly, but it usually isn't. And one reason we feel manipulated is that the film medium tends to suggest direct access to what's actually happening. We aren't seeing the events through a single character's point of view; we're seeing the events themselves. If those events turn out not to be true, we sense the storyteller/filmmaker is dishonest.

Conan Doyle, in the Sherlock Holmes tales, gets around this problem by having Watson be his narrator. Watson works especially well in this role because he's a participant-observer. He does a lot of the sleuthing himself, as in Hound, when Holmes sends him off to Baskerville Hall to learn as much as he can while Holmes is doing other stuff back in London. Watson collects his observations meticulously, knowing Holmes will question him about everything, and he also ventures some interpretations. Many of these interpretations will necessarily turn out to be wrong, but when they do, we won't feel tricked--because the point-of-view character was only speculating. We trust Watson; we know he's doing his best, so his mistakes are honest ones. He's not deliberately misleading us, even though the author can use Watson, up to a point, for that very purpose.

The bad news is that if we contemporary writers try to adopt too obvious a Watson figure to tell our own mystery stories, everyone will probably realize we've stolen him or her from Conan Doyle--unless we make it clear we know we've stolen him, in which case, fine. But for mystery writing, some kind of competent, honest, but necessarily unreliable narrator seems like a good bet. I don't know how you would accomplish the same thing on film. There really is a sense that the movie camera is omniscient, which make any false threats, or cuts at the crucial moment, feel cheap.

*By the way, when is Woody Harrelson going to age? Is he just an excellent advertisement for veganism, or is something more sinister afoot?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Stories without consequences

So like just about everyone else I've been watching Downton Abbey. I've now watched every episode, always a day or more late, since we don't have TV, only the Internet.* I can't say I have Downton-mania, exactly. I don't love it or hate it. Most of the characters leave me cold, and I've conceived an outright loathing for Mr. Bates that I can't explain. Even Maggie Smith's well-delivered witticisms seem forced. When the camera turns to her, I sit up with a chuckle at the ready, and am always a little disappointed with the zinger.

Yet I keep watching, because, I think, of the storytelling itself. More precisely: because of what seems to be very flawed storytelling. I have never seen a show in which huge plot points so often turn out--thus far, anyway--to have such minimal consequences. I guess the rest of what I have to say involves spoilers, so stop reading if you really don't want to know what's been happening. But, just of late: Only one minor character dies in the war, and his widow never loved him anyway. A major character is paralyzed for life, feels a tingle, and is dancing by the next episode. Same character's betrothed dies from the Spanish flu so that he is free to marry the woman he really loves. Headstrong daughter runs off with chauffeur, causing Lord Grantham to withhold his blessing and his money until...he doesn't anymore and everyone hugs. Lord G embarks on an affair with a maid, who then decides she ought to resign for the good of everyone, and leaves. Lady G gets deathly ill and then better within ten minutes.

So: no real freakin consequences. Or, not yet. If everything comes around again in some ingenious interweaving of these previously pallid storylines, I suppose I will have to print out this blog post, spread it with Earth Balance, and eat it. I will be especially delighted if (SPOILER) Mr. Bates really did kill his wife and has to do real jail time for it--even though he would be blameless because his wife was so purely, inexplicably evil. The bottom line is, these episodes feel like first drafts.

I've had the same problems in the first draft of my second novel. Now that I'm revising, I can see how often I wanted to leave my options open as I felt my way along. I could see plot lines heading a particular way, but realized that if they went too far, that character would no longer be around for the rest of the story--and I might still need him or her. So there's this repeated phenomenon of minor consequences for what seem to be major events or threats or screw-ups. The characters, Wile-E-Coyote-like, bounce up after being crushed by anvils, and then wait around to see what else I've got for them to do. At least when writing a novel you can, theoretically, revise once you get to the end, and do so more than once. Perhaps you don't have time for such with series television. You have to get it right the first time, which would be a pretty scary assignment. No wonder Lost went off the cliff.

*Which does not make us more virtuous than those who have TV, at least not anymore. I waste far more time in the Internet than I ever did watching TV.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

The Hound of the Baskervilles: Learning to look at faces

This week's reading of Hound is really just a commentary on one phrase. But this little description of Stapleton's physical appearance came pretty close to astounding me. Describing his new acquaintance in a letter to Holmes, Watson writes:

There is a dry glitter in his eyes, and a firm set of his thin lips, which goes with a positive and possibly a harsh nature.

First, the bad news. In searching for the phrase "dry glitter" in the Gutenberg e-text, I discovered that Watson has used it once before, to describe Holmes himself. So points must be deducted for repetition, and for applying what I think is a quite distinctive description to two different characters. Also, the "firm set of his thin lips" doesn't really break new ground imagery-wise. The interpretation of how Stapleton's features might relate to his personality should probably not be attempted except in special circumstances such as these. It's classic showing and then telling, which would normally indicate authorial distrust of the reader--but this is what Watson and Holmes do, of course: observe and then interpret. So Watson gets a pass, although he's probably relying on outdated notions of physiognomy here.

Still--that dry glitter! I like this image immensely, perhaps because it reminds me of a snowy field on a sunny January day. It's also (at least to me) quite unexpected. When eyes glitter, it's usually because they are moist with tears, or sparkling with merriment, or gleaming with malice. The dryness is the surprise, and it intrigues Watson enough to set him speculating. If we want to be really generous--and because I haven't finished the story, I can't be sure this isn't true--we could say that Watson, on some level, recognizes the "dry glitter" in Stapleton's eyes as the same one he's seen in Holmes's, and suspects a similarity in character as well. But right now it feels like a mistake. In any case, Watson--and Conan Doyle--clearly see the image as striking, and worthy of close attention.

Back in 2003, Charles Baxter wrote an article for The Believer about the lack of facial description in contemporary fiction, as opposed to fiction from previous centuries. Reading all these "old" stories for my Borrowed Fire series, I've really come to see how true that is. And it's made me frustrated with what seems like my own limited repertoire for describing characters physically: stocky, short, thin, tall, blue eyes, brown hair, glasses... Dull! Without making the kinds of claims Watson makes about the direct relationship of appearance to inner character, surely we all can do better.

Why not spend an afternoon in a cafe surreptitiously glancing at the people nearby and describing their features in our notebooks? Not just their faces, but bodies, gestures, voices. Pay more attention when walking down the street or across campus or through the airport. I'm already thinking of someone I passed on the way to the bank this morning: slightly pigeon-toed, wearing glasses too wide for her face so that her eyes, rather than the lenses, seemed connected by the glasses' bridge... One could even keep a list of these characteristics, to mix and match later.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

How Sherlock Holmes enchants the world

I'm a little behind on my Hound reading, but fortunately I have a great link to keep that Sherlockian tingle going till next time. Via Andrew Sullivan, Michael Saler says that the deep appeal of the Holmes stories is a kind of enchantment--and not the usual kind, either. Holmes goes against the grain by making enchantment an effect of reason:

Unlike many contemporary scientists and logicians who disdained the imagination, Holmes brought reason and the imagination, logic and intuition, together in a new synthesis that he called “the scientific use of the imagination.” He made critical thinking into a romantic adventure. Through his discerning eye, every detail of modern life, from newspaper advertisements to the footsteps of a giant hound, became charged with meaning, possibility, and wonder.

If this is true, and I think it is, then the Holmes stories should be taught in every school in the land. Intellect and reason are the path to enchantment, not its enemies! Understanding, not ignorance, is the source of transcendent delight! Never mind that Conan Doyle himself got pretty woo-woo in his later life, when he fell for some "photos" of fairies that make the guy in the Bigfoot film look like Bigfoot. Perhaps Holmes is the unique product of a mind that craved magic, but couldn't (or wouldn't) yet accept its actual existence. So, like our best realist fiction writers, Holmes makes magic from the everyday.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

Books, ebooks, and how everything's always changing

So Jonathan Franzen has gone and said another odd thing in public, this time about ebooks and their apparent threat to civilization. Not surprisingly, I'm ambivalent about these remarks. I do wonder about the relative impermanence and mutability of ebooks (though the corollary is that ebooks won't go out of print, at least not in such a definitive manner). Personally, I have yet to read an ebook, though not for any ideological reason. It's just that I do so much reading on screens, and this reading is mostly of a scattered, nerve-jangling quality. (When I'm online, I picture my brain cells as little bubbles in a pan of simmering water.) I turn to physical books for relief from that kind of reading--for immersive reading experiences. But I doubt I'll be doing this forever. There's too much to like about the convenience of ebooks.

See? Ambivalence.

However, last night I watched this NOVA documentary about attempts to authenticate a drawing thought to be by Leonardo. As Walter Benjamin told us long ago, our definition of "artist" relies on the physical presence of a single work of art--even as technology makes those works more and more reproducible. What will it mean to authenticate written works, once they all go digital? Probably most authors these days compose on a computer, with a minimum of handwritten notes. In theory, we still have Stephen King's Wang to give us some sense of origin (although not in practice, as it turned out). But as books become less and less physical, all sloshing around together in the "cloud"--itself a metaphor for an even less physical entity--will our sense of the term "author" change, too? Will we start to seem less like physical beings who made something, and more like wisps in the cloud ourselves?

And if so, is that all bad?