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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, January 01, 2007

where interest comes from

James Joyce, in his A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, sets out an aesthetic system via the voice of his protagonist Stephen Dedalus. The artist/young man, now about 18 years old, is feeling more self-confident; like the eagle-chick, he stands at the edge of the eyrie, flapping his wings and thinking about freedom.

Even now, at age 47 (soon to be 48), I'm not sure I have what amounts to an aesthetic system--or indeed whether I need or want one. And yet I do have my likes and dislikes, which are mainly quite strong and definite, and surely there are reasons for these likes and dislikes--reasons that, if gathered together, would no doubt constitute the outlines of an aesthetic system. I suppose what my "system" lacks is a central axiom or theory from which all the other things flow. I have pieces, thoughts, but they are not unified--not yet.

As I've said many times, with regard to literature, fiction, I put storytelling uppermost in the hierarchy of values. E. M. Forster, in his Aspects of the Novel, based on a series of lectures he gave in 1927, put "story" near the bottom. (He distinguished "story" from "plot", which he rated higher.) His denigration of story is typical of a 20th-century practitioner of the art.

The whole point of a temporal art like fiction is to take the audience on a journey, not unlike a train ride, that is carefully structured to convey a particular experience. That experience and that structure is the story and how it is told. As I have also said many times, I believe that most fiction-writers are deficient in storytelling skill.

What makes a story good? Different stories appeal to different people, of course. I've been accused of applying inappropriate standards to genres that just don't appeal to me. That might be true sometimes, but on the whole I don't really mind what genre a story is in. I do have genre preferences, but I will enjoy a good story in, I think, pretty much any genre. And what work of any kind, in any medium, is so good that it could not be improved? Very few are in that category (and incidentally, I think that A Portrait of the Artist is one of them).

I'll start with the seemingly vague statement that a good story is interesting. And here's my theory of what interesting means: we find something interesting when it provokes tension within us. Tension, in turn, is what exists between a pair of opposites. The stronger the opposition, and the more closely they are placed together, the greater the tension, and the greater the interest.

I believe this dynamic holds throughout any work of art, from its top level of overarching idea to the bottom level of the execution of its details. At the dramatic level this opposition is called conflict. In storytelling, at the highest level of a work is its controlling idea: an assertion about a value and how it is realized in the world. The primary conflict in a story then is the counteridea: a contrary assertion. Robert McKee, in his Story, uses the example of the idea "crime doesn't pay". Many detective stories have this basic idea--the good guy winds up catching the bad guy. The counteridea is that "crime does pay"--the idea held by the antagonist, the idea he is seeking to realize in the world by getting away with his crime.

That's at the top level. But the same principle holds down all the levels. Another McKee concept, the "gap", is a further example. The gap is the space between expectation and reality, or expectation and result--what the character expects and what the audience expects. A character takes a certain action, expecting a certain result--and something else happens. A gap opens up: novelty, and the character must react. That gap, just like the gap in a spark plug, is a place of electric tension--it is the locus of story interest. The unexpected draws our attention and holds it; it interests us.

In Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie, which I recently finished reading, one of the major gaps in the story occurs when the character Hurstwood, manager of a Chicago bar, while going through the solitary routine of closing up the place for another night, discovers that the safe has, for the first time ever, accidentally been left unlocked. It has more than $10,000 in it of his employers' money. And Hurstwood, under various pressures in his life, is at that moment in great need of money--or so he thinks.

In terms of his character, this is a cosmic gap. It opens when he, expecting all to be as usual and the safe to be locked shut, discovers that it is instead open--an Aladdin's cave of illicit possibility. It takes him by surprise--and us. What makes it storytelling is that it happens at the exact moment in Hurstwood's life when this surprise will thrust him into the greatest possible tension. On any other night he would simply have locked the safe and not given it another thought. Tonight he is ready to enter the adventure of discovering who he is; and we, the readers, are ready to discover along with him. We sense that the choice he makes, whatever it is, will express and reveal who he really is, deep down inside. And we are very interested.

Dreiser does a fantastic job of writing this scene, showing himself to be a storyteller of the first order. He doesn't skip over it lightly; he works it. In McKee's terms, he indulges the gap: he tarries in this place of high interest, keeping us in tension, feeling Hurstwood's inner tension and turmoil.

As so often happens, I feel I'm just getting warmed up. I'm sure I'll return to these themes again.

It was a quiet New Year's Eve. Mainly, anyway: we have a bus-stop right outside our front door, and two groups of loud young drunks caught buses at it during the evening just as we were heading to bed (well before midnight). I was relieved when the bus arrived to carry the first lot away, only to feel irritation with the second lot that showed up shortly afterward. I looked out from the dark of Kimmie's sewing-room at a group of about 12 young adults, male and female, 20-ish, talking loudly and shrieking at each other. One heavy-set guy strode into our flower bed to urinate against our holly-tree. The coal of his cigarette glowed in the dark.

Annoyed with that, I went downstairs, even though I was wearing only sweatpants, having just emerged from the bath, and stepped out on the front porch. The urinator quickly stepped away back to the bus stop. I carried a flashlight, which I was going to turn on him. But the next bus arrived, and, after some loud haggling among the people about whether they should take it after all or wait for someone else to arrive and pick them up, they clump aboard. All except one guy who, cell-phone to his ear, set out across the road to some other destination, trying to organize something with some other party.

The bus pulled away.

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