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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, June 22, 2006

fear of soap opera

The headcold, despite my best efforts, became fullblown. Tuesday and Wednesday I had the full set of symptoms, culminating in slight fever and painful coughing last night, as well as what I referred to as "tap-nose" when describing it to Kimmie.

She is off work today and tomorrow, assembling the cake for her great-niece Lynn's wedding on Saturday. Today she had to overcome her fear of starting the delicate next phase: setting all the icing flowers she has made (hydrangeas and calla lilies, along with unnamed little starlike white flowers--all impressively lifelike) into an arrangement to lie on the multi-tiered cake. She didn't know how she was going to do it. But she came down here about three-quarters of an hour ago to show me her initial effort: a spray of flowers arranged on a twiglike wire, complete with green gumpaste leaves. It was almost uncannily lifelike, the little blossoms trembling in her hand as they would on a real plant in a faint breeze.

"It's sculpture," I said. "You're an artist."

Kimmie was delighted with the praise. She did a kind of joyous pirouette on her way back to my office door.

"Don't drop it," I said.

"Oh no," said Kimmie, as though that possibility had not occurred to her. She crept away to continue work.

As for me, my past two morning writing sessions I have spent in my journal, digging into my thoughts in response to reading Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. As I tried to explain to Kimmie over our breakfast today at the Corner Cafe, I want to get to the bottom of my reactions to what I'm reading. These are now the thoughts that are keeping me up at night (only one or two hours at a time).

Here's a short extract from yesterday's entry:

I have confused, mixed feelings, since I'm not setting out to write a blockbuster, and since I don't even like the books that Zuckerman holds up as examples (Gone with the Wind, The Godfather, and Ken Follett's The Man from St. Petersburg, even though I haven’t read that). Nonetheless the specific points he makes are good ones. They are aimed at heightening the reader's involvement in the story; and they are story elements--the aspect of fiction-writing I regard as paramount.

In other words, I suspect that my problems with the blockbusting storytellers lie more with their lack of proper execution rather than with the approach.

My concern is that the kinds of intense character relationships and interactions that Zuckerman advocates often don't rise above the level of soap opera. But what do I mean by that? What is soap opera? Later in yesterday's entry I discovered this interesting thought:

Soap opera is a generalized form of pornography. In pornography, character situations form perfunctory pretexts for sexual emotions and acts; in soap opera, character situations form perfunctory pretexts for other strong interpersonal emotions and acts. They are structurally the same and have the same meaning: they portray human life as a series of reflexes to gratify strong emotions. They show human behavior at its most animal level.

In this sense, pornography and soap opera are cynical: they assume the worst about human motives. They show human beings with large parts of their humanity switched off. They kind of answer the question, "What would it be like if our id were given free reign?" or "if our animal instincts were given free reign?" Like HAL in 2001, our higher centers are shut down, and we run on a more basic set of brain functions.

I kept searching for what really bothers me about soap opera, and came up with this:

It's endless tit for tat, Punch-and-Judy reciprocations. There's no learning. That was the slogan of Seinfeld: "No hugging, no learning." It made for a successful sitcom, but it can't stand as a slogan for all artistic creation, never mind life.

Probably the most outstanding characteristic of soap opera is the lack of character growth. They're famous for being essentially unchanged after months or years--a viewer can tune in years later and find the same situations. The specifics are different, but there has been no character growth; no one has learned anything, and no one ever will.

A good-quality story must involve learning: a character grows by having insights into the nature of the world and into his own nature. The reader shares in these insights, and this provides the truest and deepest pleasure of reading.

That's no more than a sketch of where my mind has been traveling the past few days. A look through the keyhole into the agitation of the artist's mind.

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