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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, June 29, 2007

a tortoise on Everest

The computer is still working. (Might be more than I'll be able to say today, having woken at 2:30 and never returned to sleep--mind too hyperactive.) I was able to write four pages yesterday, which is tolerably near my daily target of five. Three pages I regard as an adequate output; two is disappointing, and one is a sign that I have struggled to make even a token advance in my work.

Yesterday I had my weekly lunch with my mother. One of the things we talked about was work: some people like to work. Kimmie is one of these: she gets positive, recreational-style pleasure from working at tasks, like painting rooms or making gourmet meals. My niece Chella seems to be another one: thinks nothing of helping paint a friend's place or digging a flower-bed. Through their willingness, ability, and a sense of responsibility, these people also tend to be exploited by employers, working extra hours without pay and generally being the willing horses that get the whip.

I don't have a taste for work for its own sake. I don't get a recreational pleasure from working, in the sense of needing to be busy. I think my father is somewhat that way: while vacationing he wouldn't be among those lounging around on blankets or sunning themselves on the deck of a sailboat; he'd be polishing brass, mending things, barbecuing. His hands craved activity. He's an inherently productive person.

I'm not the same way. I do enjoy effort--but it needs to be effort in some direction that is meaningful and interesting to me. In order for me to enjoy it, it also needs to be on my time-frame. I can't stand being rushed, pushed, or driven. The way I apply effort is slowly, steadily (or sometimes intermittently!), and thoroughly. I can work fast when I want to--but I usually don't want to.

Also, I tend to spread my effort out so that it is not focused too intently at any one time. My reading, which I do for pleasure, is actually also work--I read almost nothing that is not related to some project or other, and I rarely read without a highlighter. Most people would regard this type of studious reading as punitive--as work;, but I positively enjoy it.

One creative area where I do like to work quickly is in drawing. I was born with quite a bit of drawing talent, but the drawing I like best and am most drawn to is cartooning. Capturing the essence of a person or expression quickly, in a few strokes, is what I find most satisfying. Among more serious types of drawing, I've found that I like media that let the image develop fast--especially charcoal. In the visual world, I'm not fond of fussy, exacting techniques.

But in writing, it seems that I am. I'm the tortoise heading up Everest. I may very well make it--it's just that most people won't live long enough to see it.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

due to technical difficulties beyond our control...

No blog-post yesterday, because I was unable to go online. After trying the usual tricks of unplugging my modem and plugging it in again, and restarting the PC a couple of times, I phoned the customer-support line of my Internet-access provider, Shaw Cable. Like all quasi-monopolies, they have an overly long telephone menu to step through before you can actually get to a person. But I made it.

In the course of the next hour I was helped by two men, who took me through all the tricks in the book that they knew of. Still no dice for me. At the end of it, Kevin, the technician I was talking to, said that under the circumstances I would probably have to reinstall my operating system (Windows 98 Second Edition), "although we can't recommend that." When I asked him what other options I might have, he confessed that there probably weren't any--just reinstalling Windows, "although we can't recommend that."

I had only one option--and that one they couldn't recommend.

"You mean I'm on my own?" I said.

"Unfortunately we've done all that we can do from here," said Kevin. "Is there anything else we can do for you?" I chuckled at this, and Kevin moved on quickly to: "Thanks for calling--and thank you for choosing Shaw."

With that he was gone. But I did find it funny, because he clearly wasn't comfortable with cutting me loose, problem unsolved.

Nothing for it: I put in an old backup disk of Windows 98 SE that a neighbor had made for us five years ago, and proceeded to reinstall my operating system. It took about half an hour. And when the moment of truth arrived (well, one of the moments of truth), and my Web browser and e-mail client launched, seeking connection, I was a bit surprised that they actually did get onto the Internet--I was online again!
My desktop settings were all preserved, all my shortcuts were still there--all my data files seem to have survived. I was delighted. I figured that I had finally reached the point where I'd have to get myself a new computer, after all.

A suspicion floated up in my mind. Checking my planetary ephemeris, I discovered that Mercury is retrograde, and has been since 15 June: communication mix-ups, commuting delays, office-equipment malfunction. Prepare for more of the same till 10 July.

For the few hours that I was offline, I realized how much I have come to rely on being online, how much more powerful and useful a computer is when it is part of a worldwide network. I felt a bit isolated and lonely, no doubt as people used to feel when staying at a cabin without a telephone.

So yesterday's interruption of service really was due to technical problems. Will there be more of them? Stay tuned.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

know the rules

Yesterday afternoon I finished reading Aristotle's Poetics. I found the book to be brief, bracing, even exciting. It made me recognize again how thirsty I am for instruction on how to pursue my art--so thirsty that I don't even realize how thirsty I am until I find a drink of cool water.

I have an arrogant and wayward streak with respect to my own abilities. This might possibly, partly, be necessary in order to develop and hold conviction in one's own vision and one's own execution of it. But such a person is also difficult to teach, and generally has to learn things the hard way.

In my own defence, such teaching as I received with respect to my art, creative writing, has been almost entirely informal and outside any institutional setting. By the time I had become a teenager in the 1970s, there had developed an ethos of "do your own thing" in schools, at least as regards creative expression. True, some technique would be taught in art or in writing, and of course you can't demand too much in this respect from public-school teachers; it's not their job to train "professional" artists for their careers.

And yet there was also a wider, cultural process at work. A couple of years ago I talked with an artist who, along with her husband-to-be, had studied at what was then the Vancouver School of Art. She told me that the school had been founded in 1925 by artists who had been trained in Scotland, and who believed in passing on a thorough training in the techniques of the Old Masters--techniques which the teachers were in a position to teach.

By the time that the art school changed its name in 1978 to the Emily Carr College of Art, the outlook was much changed. She said that the school had gotten away from teaching technique, and that students were encouraged to explore their creative urges in any way they saw fit. As a result, artists were emerging who had had only a piecemeal introduction to techniques, often self-taught. I recall too my late brother-in-law Freddie, who had been professor of art at the University of Victoria for many years, telling me that oil painting and other techniques could be learned fairly quickly from a book. He believed in jumping in with what you wanted to do, and gaining technique as you went, learning it or developing it yourself. Indeed, this had seemed to work for him.

There has been a pervasive sense that telling people, even raw newbies, how to do things crimps their creativity. Robert McKee, in his book Story, takes some pains to explain why this viewpoint is wrong and detrimental, which suggests that he has faced this criticism or objection many times. Telling people how to do things is not the same as telling them what to do. In the creative arts as well as in other things, the old adage applies: Know the rules before you break them.

My adolescent self would have bristled and fought against being told how to do things. I would have rebelled, refused, probably mainly simply not done them. I would have been a pain in the butt and might not have learned much. But if I had received that kind of technical instruction from someone who knew what they were doing, I would at least have perceived that there were proven methods, even if I was rejecting them. Later, I would see that I had fouled myself up to the extent that I had not paid attention.

As things stand, I don't think I missed much in the way of creative education. If I had spent thousands in tuition on a creative-writing degree, I probably would have emerged from the program knowing not much more than when I entered it how to execute an effective creative work. I would have read a lot of stories and novels, and discussed them with my classmates. In screenwriting I would have been trained in technique, and possibly also in playwriting. But fiction? The universities were already heading into the wilderness of postmodernism and Marxism, where, as far as I know, they're still lost.

Some of my best instruction was informal and outside the system. A big influence was the late Harvey Burt, who had been a writer and teacher of writing for most of his adult life. When I was a teenager he gave me my first "how to" book on creative writing: The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, a text on how to write a stageplay, published in 1946. I was thrilled with the book, and got my first experience of drinking cool water to ease my thirst for knowledge of the craft.

I've still got the book. I just pulled it out, and flipped it open. At some point, on some rereading, probably around 1984, I highlighted a few phrases in it. Here's one that I opened it to:

What is a weak character? One who, for any reason, cannot make a decision.

Good stuff. It strikes me even now, today, as I read it again. (Does this mean Hamlet is a weak character?)

Here was a book that told you what kinds of effects you should be striving for as a dramatic writer, and how to achieve them. Fantastic! I downed it eagerly, and started making my first fumbling attempts at organizing my creative work around specific intentions, trying to give them structure.

I'm still at it. Aristotle's Poetics is another excellent "how to" text, not written as such, but maybe all the better for being the work not of an artist but of a thinker--one who identified more with the audience than with the creator. My copy is now liberally highlighted.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

art imitates life

I'm reading--indeed, am close to finishing--Aristotle's Poetics. The text runs only 46 pages, plus notes. In that brief space he says a great deal.

The text, or the portion of it that has survived, is devoted mainly to tragic drama, which Aristotle regarded as the highest form of poetry yet devised. But despite the fact that his book is about poetry performed as live musical theater--which was how it was staged in ancient Greece--Aristotle's work is still highly relevant to the storyteller of today. This is because, among all the aspects of tragedy, the one he regarded as most important, and making the largest contribution to the power of a work, was the choice and arrangement of the events depicted: in other words, plotting.

As far as Aristotle was concerned, the tragic poet's number-one concern was storytelling. And while the Poetics was not intended as a handbook for writers, but rather as an analysis of an art form to help in understanding and assessing the quality of specific works, nonetheless it is of great potential benefit to crafters of story. Indeed, Aristotle's Poetics is, I see now, the main source of ideas for Robert McKee's teachings on storytelling. McKee's work is largely a matter of explaining, expanding, illustrating, and adapting Aristotle's ideas to the modern storytelling medium of filmmaking.

The ideas are excellent, and still have that quality of freshness and immediacy that all great and original thinking has, regardless of the passage of time (Aristotle died in 322 BC).

Aristotle starts off by saying that tragic poetry, like all other poetry (and indeed all other types of art), is an imitation--that is, an imitation of things in life. Malcolm chose the word imitation to translate the Greek mimesis, rather than the usual representation, because he feels that this is closer to the sense intended by Aristotle. Whereas a representation of something may not look like the thing represented--a dot on a map might represent a city, for example--an imitation is something intended to resemble the thing imitated. The aesthetic experience is the recognition of the thing imitated in the artist's imitation of it: the better the imitation or depiction, the greater the pleasure experienced by the viewer or audience.

I sense that this distinction is important. I think of how "modern" art arose in the 19th century, leading on to nonfigurative art by the turn of the 20th, when, in painting, not only imitation but also representation went out the window. With Abstract Expressionism, the notion that a painter was trying to depict some external visual object was abandoned; the aim was to "express" something within--to project outward the contents of the painter's psyche, perhaps the collective unconscious.

I believe that in fiction-writing and drama, the turn away from story was part of this same trend toward nonfigurative art. Artists and writers wanted to free themselves from the shackles of tradition and do things that were utterly new.

The art may have been unshackled and new, but how effective was it? Through study I have learned how to appreciate and enjoy some nonfigurative art. Once you've learned some of the underlying ideas, there is a certain mind-expanding pleasure in regarding the cubist works of Picasso, for instance. But I can't say that a cubist work like Picasso's "Still Life with Carafe and Candlestick" (1909) has ever struck me with the immediate, visceral sense of power and enjoyment that the painters of the animals on the cave-walls at Lascaux and Altamira were able to generate across a gulf of 30,000 years. And I feel sure that if Picasso's work survives 30,000 years, any proper enjoyment of it will require a guidebook--so we'd better hope one of those survives along with it.

Aristotle is saying that art imitates life, and that in viewing or appreciating such art, we experience the pleasure of recognition, which is at bottom the pleasure of learning. This does not mean that art is or should be didactic, but that in recognizing our world in the forms created by an artist, we necessarily learn about it. There's no need for art to preach; it's enough for it to exist.

So then: the function of art is to imitate life, and the writer's primary tool for such imitation is the sequence of the events of life: story. The difference between a good, well-told story and a feeble, poorly told one is the difference between a successful work of art and a failed one.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

long train runnin'

The sun has gone, replaced by overcast and a cool wind stirring the greenery out the office window. I hear Kimmie's chimes jingling from the back deck. It reminds me of certain days of late summer and fall, traveling in Europe as a young man.

The writing train left the station again yesterday. I started drafting chapter 29. The train image seems apt: for it is a heavy thing, rolling slowly forward on a planned track, stopping at definite stations for varying lengths of time. At each station preparations have to be made before the train can roll out again to the next station. Sometimes--maybe all the time--the train runs late. But somewhere up ahead, there is an end of the line: the trip will be over.

Chapter 29 is starting to sound like a lot, even to me. Soon (that is, "soon"--a relative term), I will be in the 30s, and definitely in the later part of my journey. Not unlike my own life.

I'm trusting that the result will be worth the effort. I think back to when Warren and I used to get together monthly or so for beers. I remember one night talking about a book project that I was excited about (not this one). I'm still rather excited about it, or the evolving version of it in my head. It's set not in the past, but in the future. But, after talking about it for awhile, I voiced a concern that nagged at me: "But will it have social value?"

I asked Warren whether he understood what I meant, and he said yes he did. "Social value" is the term I reached for to suggest a distinction between created works, similar to the distinction between empty calories and nourishing food. I like things that are engaging, exciting, funny, and entertaining--but I don't really want to spend my life creating works that are merely those things. There must be substance as well: nourishment. Because life is short and time is precious, it's important to do what matters, so that if I have the luxury of a deathbed to lie on, I can reflect calmly that I have put my effort into the right things--or anyway, have tried my best to do so.

So this train-trip is well along. How I'll feel about it at the end, who knows. But I can say this already: it's been a hell of a trip.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

transplanted faiths

I seem to be in a time of painful, unsettled emotions. It’s probably not due to any one cause, or if it is, that cause is buried within the structure of my psyche.

In years gone by, meditation was a leveling influence in my life. When I was working on The Odyssey in the early 1990s, I was under tremendous pressure and stress for months on end. I used to cycle up to the rec center early in the morning for an aerobics class, and I practiced meditation as much as I could, which sometimes was not much. Even so, I was more irritable and beleaguered than usual for myself.

Meditation practice gradually enables one to see one's own insanity. Not real insanity, of course, but the everyday neuroses, which I once defined as "causing needless pain for oneself and others." I've been a huge beneficiary of that practice, but I haven't done it now for several years.

I got away from it, not because I wanted to stop meditating, but because I felt that my relationship with Buddhism had changed fundamentally. I realized that in order to be fully who I was, I could not accept the teachings holus-bolus, even though I had found them to be so profound, helpful, and fulfilling. Maybe it wasn't so much a decision as a recognition: I was not fully with the program.

Spiritual traditions cannot be transplanted unchanged. To move a religion is to transform it, possibly into something unrecognizable. This is a point made very well by Hans Jonas in his excellent book The Gnostic Religion. He notes that after the conquests of Alexander the Great, the worlds of East and West mixed to an unprecedented degree. People of widely different culture and belief found themselves crammed together in the new Hellenistic cities that arose in Alexander's wake. To the extent that they interacted, their ideas started to compete directly with each other.

One effect of this was that spiritual beliefs often came to be stripped of their local, cultural content. In the case of Judaism, for example, the notion of its message applying only to a tribe of people descended from Jacob would have made it of no interest or use to people from other backgrounds. Jews found themselves having to assert the universalism of their God and their religion against other traditions--Yahweh was not just a local, Jewish God, after all; He was the king of the universe! Persuading other peoples of this message meant emphasizing the aspects of Jewish belief that were "portable"--that could be accepted as valid by non-Jews.
So Judaism, like other religions, entered the marketplace of ideas. When it was taken up by certain Romans in Rome in the century before Christ, it was taken up in a selective and incomplete way, which would have been dismissed as completely invalid by pious Jews in Palestine. The Romans were drawn to the non-Israelite aspects of the system, its universal ideas.

In a similar way Buddhism has come to the West. If it is to survive here, it must undergo more or less radical change. The aspects of it which are ethnically or culturally Asian won't survive, since these elements are foreign to Westerners. The universal aspects are not foreign to Westerners, and it will be these that form the basis of Buddhism in the West.

Meanwhile, my own relationship with it is unclear to me. I have let that unclarity jam my relationship with meditation. Meditation in itself is not "Buddhist." And yet it also does not happen in a vacuum; teachings surround the practice, and they must surround it if it is to be of any real benefit.

So: still stuck.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

into Poetics

Still dealing with the wonky text-input here on Blogger. I discovered that I am not alone, but that others who use the Firefox browser on the Windows 98 platform have this problem. I guess I'm probably hooped.

Yesterday was a mini-Christmas (and quite cool outside, as it happens). I received two shipments from Amazon.com: three books by Aristotle--the Poetics, the Politics, and the Metaphysics--and one book by the 18th-century Scottish statistician William Playfair, entitled An Inquiry into the Permanent Causes of the Decline and Fall of Powerful and Wealthy Nations, Designed to Shew How the Prosperity of the British Empire May Be Prolonged.

I was delighted with them all. Even though I mainly, for reasons of economy, buy used books, I especially love to get new ones. But the one I was particularly looking forward to was Aristotle's Poetics, a slim Penguin Classic of about 140 pages, most of which consists of the introduction by the translator, Malcolm Heath. Letting the others wait for the time being, I launched my reading period with this book.

I was finally driven to buy the Poetics through my research into the field of literary genre--and especially of my own current genre, epic. Robert McKee lists the Poetics as one of the key reference works for the screenwriter (or storyteller generally). Apparently Aristotle was the first to apply an inquiring mind to the question of how stories work--what are their parts, how do they fit together, and how does the whole thing function? I've read very little Aristotle over the years, but as I have become exposed to his ideas I have increasingly come to see him as a bold, original thinker whose ideas are still striking and fresh today. What a treat to have a whole (little) book by him devoted to the art of literature.

Aristotle was known in the ancient world as an excellent prose stylist; his writing was considered exemplary. Unfortunately, none of his published work has survived (or has been found). All the surviving works of Aristotle are of the nature of notes, possibly lecture notes. They are intended for students, perhaps only senior students, not for a general audience. As a result, the writing tends to be cryptic and difficult for the new reader.

So Malcolm Heath starts off this translation with a lengthy introduction, in which he recapitulates the essence of Aristotle's argument, fleshing it out with examples and warding off potential miscontructions. Wanting to get right to the text, I was going to skip the introduction and read it afterwards, but I found that it is too good to miss, so I am reading it first after all.

Already, after just a few pages, I've encountered many striking and provocative ideas. How about this direct quote from Aristotle's Metaphysics, with which Heath launches the main part of the introduction:

All human beings by nature desire knowledge.

We all need knowledge and use it, but Aristotle means more than this: that we seek knowledge for its own sake, and find the acquisition of it pleasurable in its own right. Animals might need and use knowledge, in the sense of learning what to do in a particular situation, but humans enjoy it. I know this is true for me.

As I understand it, Aristotle goes on to show how the arts arise from this human desire for and enjoyment of knowledge. All the arts, including the art of poetry, operate by imitating objects of experience. The experience of aesthetic enjoyment happens when we recognize the imitated object in its imitated or represented form--for noticing similarities between things is exactly knowledge consists of, at bottom. He's saying that the enjoyment of a work of art is essentially an experience of learning. Fantastic!

At least, that's my effort to summarize the first page. I'll be reading every page, you may be sure.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

garbage in, garbage out

It's cool and wet outside. Our building's garbage-box on the back lane has again been violated, this time through the rusted mesh of its roof, I'm sure by raccoons. Last night Kimmie woke me to say that someone or something was on our back deck. I padded in the dark to look out, fiddling to get my glasses on. Peering down through the blinds, I saw an animal thumping indiscreetly down to the little landing near the top of the stairs up from the patio. Looking out through the partly opened window, I saw it was a raccoon. It paused in its self-licking to look brazenly up at me. Ah well, better than finding a person down on the deck, as I have a couple of times in the past (once a burglar, trying to open the window that faces the deck). I locked the window shut at a narrow setting--raccoons can zip up the side of a building in seconds--and we returned to bed.

Last week, when I learned that animals were again getting in to our garbage-box, I discovered that the roof-mesh had been torn away from the sides in a couple of spots. At one of those spots, I found a large (two-fist-sized) granite rock lying on the mesh. I feel sure that this rock had been used as a tool to break into the box. While we know that skunks used to raid the box before we had it sealed, I think it's raccoons this time--and they have the brass and brains to be actual burglars, using tools to break in.

In my capacity as (outgoing) president of our strata corporation, I have arranged for a carpenter to come and patch the box again, but of course it takes days to arrange, even with a good nearby guy who actually shows up to do the work (most trades don't, in our experience, especially plumbers). Today is garbage pickup day, so I'll see what the collectors take away, and which animal-ravaged bags they leave behind for someone--likely the strata president--to clean up.

Writing these blog-posts has become more difficult and irritating for a technical reason seemingly originating with Blogger.com. For the past week or so, the characters do not appear as soon as I type them, but after a delay of a couple of seconds. They slowly appear, one by flashing one, in a stream after each burst of typing. It's strangely annoying, not being able to see what I'm typing as I type it, but having to wait until Blogger feeds me the characters. Each typo takes extra time to fix, since I have to wait for the characters to appear, then backspace to the error. In all, it has become an irritating process. Too bad. I suppose I could compose the posts in Word and then paste them in--but it's annoying that the process has become less good, rather than improving. Maybe it's an artifact of my old Windows 98 operating system, which no one really supports anymore. A new computer would mean getting Windows Vista, reportedly a crappy, bloated, bug-ridden mess.

Will faulty technology finally drive me off the Web?

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Friday, June 15, 2007

building mental cathedrals

When I used to work at ICBC head office, I would walk home each afternoon--an uphill trek of about 12 minutes. One of the sights I passed each day was a three-story apartment building under construction: under very slow, slow construction.

I never saw more than two men working at the site at any one time, and often only one (and more often, none). My theory was that the building was being built by one guy, some eccentric who had taken it into his head to build an apartment block almost single-handedly. I wondered at how someone could afford to do such a thing; hadn't he borrowed money to buy the land and materials? Wasn't he shucking out interest payments month after month, with no rent coming in? The site had become notorious in the community, and supposedly the city government had had to push the owner to develop the site, which had sat vacant for months or perhaps years.

Some part of me appreciated the type of eccentricity and do-it-yourself resolve that would get someone to build an apartment block all on his own. I could relate. For the image came to me recently that writing a book is much like building a large structure, like an apartment block, and doing so single-handedly. But it's an invisible structure. And what if the structure were not a three-story walk-up, but a cathedral? Imagine building a cathedral, all on your own, which is invisible until it's finished. I would say that's not a bad image for this project. A mental cathedral, built by one (very) eccentric guy, the very progress of which cannot be noted by others, but only by that self-same guy.

Who would do such a thing?

As far as I know, the eccentric apartment-builder finished his project and it is occupied now. It's a finished, useful dwelling, like any other that was built much more quickly by a team. The patience and vision of that lone do-it-yourselfer paid off. So I've added him to my little group of inspirations and role models.

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Thursday, June 14, 2007

another one bites the dust

Yesterday, during my afternoon reading period, I started by reading the novel I had on the go (I always start my reading period with the novel if I'm reading one--which I'm usually not), in this case, The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott. I made in to page 124, then thought, "Nah, I think I'm done with this."

What made me decide to pack it in?

In a word: story. It's not that the story is bad--it's very good. But Scott prosecutes it much too slowly for my taste (and I can tolerate a very slow-moving story). My theory is that Scott, writing in the 1960s, was a victim of the 20th-century reaction against storytelling. With such literary masters as E. M. Forster and James Joyce inveighing against story and the "go-ahead plot", story became uncool--at best a distasteful chore for a serious novelist. Story was for lowbrow, commercial works of fiction.

Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet certainly deviated from a straightforward narrative, telling his "story" by means of a kind of collage of images and scenes, which no doubt were thought to be more aesthetic than a lead-footed, sequential reportage of events. I myself, as a beginning writer, inspired by these writers, briefly experimented with a nonsequential approach to narrative in my second "serious" short story (the title of which I can't even remember). Then, inspired by Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, I sought to push the envelope of plotting by creating a story that was complex and farcical.

Those efforts eventually died a natural death, both for me and for other 20th-century rebels against story. When it comes down to it, any movement or idea that's based mainly on reaction or rebellion is necessarily short-lived, lacking any positive underlying purpose of its own. There's something of the juvenile in it, indulging in the luxury of criticizing those who have come before, without offering anything concretely better. One seeks to be avant-garde, different from one's teachers and predecessors. In my view, it amounts to a basic and relatively immature way of coping with what Harold Bloom calls "the anxiety of influence"--the fretful desire of the new writer to get out of the shade of his teachers.

So: Paul Scott. Part One, "Miss Crane", was pretty good from a story perspective--not bad, anyway, since he is narrating the life of an English spinster missionary in India, with tremendously sympathetic insight into her inner world as well as knowledge of the exotic world of India under the British Raj; plus he narrates the exciting event of riots in Mayapore in 1942, and what happens to Miss Crane when she is swept up in this social convulsion. The account is slow (taking us to page 85) but effective.

Part Two, "The MacGregor House", is more a collage of pieces written from the first-person point of view of at least three different individuals. Forty pages in, it has not told much story (we learn that Miss Crane caught pneumonia after her ordeal in the riots, and later burned herself in despair), but rather has given a great deal of backstory about the Indian character Lady Chatterjee and exposition about the stately MacGregor House where she lives. Yesterday, when I found myself reading a passage describing every fixture in the bathroom of the MacGregor House, I thought, "All right, enough already."

The intent, no doubt, is to steep the mind of the reader in the essence of what it's like to be there--to feel and smell the place. But I couldn't help thinking about Stephen King's advice to fiction writers: set a scene by giving three telling descriptive details--three, and only three. Why are we dwelling on this bathroom? Maybe something important is going to happen here, eventually, but do we really need a full page of description of it now?

Scott's ability to describe and evoke his world is powerful. In the midst of that bathroom description on page 119 is this image:

At the opposite end of the bathroom--fifteen paces on bare feet across lukewarm mosaic that is slightly uneven and impresses the soles with the not unpleasant sensation of walking over the atrophied honeycomb of some long forgotten species of giant bee--there is an old-fashioned marble-topped washstand...

The striking, far-fetched, and rhapsodic metaphor of the honeycomb might not be out of place in, say, Gravity's Rainbow, but in my opinion would be much more powerful as the passing thought of a character, say, Daphne Manners, the girl who stays at the house and uses the bathroom. It should be a thought flickering through her mind while she is on her way to doing something--preparing to go out on a date with the District Superintendent of Police Ronald Merrick, say. But Scott takes us on a long museum-tour through the house, with no story in process, which eventually strained my patience to the breaking point.

So there it is. Paul closes up another novel unfinished--a novel he has finished before, and admired before. It's not that I no longer admire it--it's just that, now, I can't seem to finish it.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

on dilettantism

Ever since I learned the meaning of the word dilettante, I have lived in fear.

Here is the definition in my Merriam Webster's:

dilettante n [It, fr. prp. of dilettare to delight, fr. L dilectare--more at DELIGHT] (1748) 1 : an admirer or lover of the arts 2 : a person having a superficial interest in an art or a branch of knowledge : DABBLER syn see AMATEUR

And on to one of my favorite features of the Merriam Webster's, a paragraph on synonyms, in this case under its entry for amateur:

amateur n, often attrib [F, fr. L amator lover, fr. amare to love] (1784) 1 : DEVOTEE, ADMIRER 2 : one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession 3 : one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science

syn AMATEUR, DILETTANTE, DABBLER, TYRO mean a person who follows a pursuit without attaining proficiency or professional status. AMATEUR often applies to one practicing an art without mastery of its essentials (a painting obviously done by an amateur); in sports it may also suggest not so much lack of skill but avoidance of direct remuneration (remained an amateur despite lucrative offers). DILETTANTE may apply to the lover of an art rather than its skilled practitioner but usu. implies elegant trifling in the arts and an absence of serious commitment (had no patience for dilettantes). DABBLER suggests desultory habits of work and lack of persistence (had remained a dabbler who started novels but never finished them). TYRO implies inexperience often combined with audacity with resulting crudeness or blundering (shows talent but is still a mere tyro).

What makes me think I might be a dilettante? For one thing, I have a wide range of interests, and I pursue them all to some extent. Since time spent on one thing is necessarily time you're not spending on another, this inevitably means a certain scattering of focus. I remember tussling over the question of whether to enter the Arts faculty or Science at university. I mulled the question for two years while I was out of school, then, still unsure, opted for a program that kept my options open. (In the event, I dropped out of first year, nullifying the question altogether.)

Earlier, as a teenager, I was very passionate about playing chess, and wondered whether I might be potentially good enough to pursue it seriously (I wasn't). Later, in my 20s, I set up a garage band with a couple of friends, and found great enjoyment in playing with them (our sound, found through trial and error, turned out to be basically R & B--a surprise to all of us). I considered making that a vocation, but again, did not.

At around the same time I was passionate about my spiritual quest for meaning and truth. I felt that the only wholehearted way of expressing that passion would be to make it the top priority in my life, and specifically to immerse myself in a spiritual education, as at a Zen monastery in Japan. I considered it, but again did not follow through, feeling dilettantish about something in which I regarded dilettantism as particularly shameful.

Another passion at that time was astrology: a field that I had dismissed as obvious bunk, but that, in my quest for other ways of knowing, now beckoned to me. I included it in my studies, and got some tutoring from a prominent Vancouver astrologer. But it takes long time to become good enough at astrology to be paid as a consultant, and anyway, I lacked the consistent passion for it.

And there perhaps is where my true fear of dilettantism stems from: the feeling that the hallmark of the dilettante is inconstant pursuit of a field of effort or study. And of that I knew I was certainly guilty. Where was the commitment? Where was the passion? I was an intellectual and artistic philanderer, endlessly chasing skirt.

Always in the background was the vocation of writing. I knew could write--and I wanted to. But the question was: what do I write? What do I have to say? I launched on ambitious projects that mostly did not see completion. I fretted that it could take me years, decades, to find something worthwhile to say to my fellow human beings. What would I do in the meantime?

What indeed. I suppose the answer lies in my life to date. Yes, I've certainly known success: I got The Odyssey on the air, and that was no mean feat. But I've also toiled in blue-collar and office jobs, with stretches away from wage-labor to pursue my craft. Indeed, that's what I'm doing right now. At a time when some of my friends are starting to muse about retirement, I'm still tooling up for production.

For some reason, I recall an old TV ad for California wines, in which Orson Welles intoned the tag-line, "Paul Masson will serve no wine before its time." Well, this wine has been in the bottle, in the cave, a good long time. Has it merely been forgotten? Or is a wise vintner keeping his eye on it, ready to draw it from darkness and serve in its own good time?

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Battle of the Quartets: Scott vs. Durrell

I don't read much fiction these days, so I feel that when I do, as now, I should probably talk about it. This blog is devoted, after all, to a work of fiction. What are my thoughts about fiction? What am I looking for in a novel?

I've started reading, I think for the third time, The Jewel in the Crown, the first in Paul Scott's four-part Raj Quartet. Kimmie got a Granada mass-market paperback edition of the book in 1986, when the British miniseries based on the books was recent and popular. I'm glad, personally, since the mass-market paperback is still my favorite format of book, even though the contents of most mass-market paperbacks now I find completely unappealing. This copy has a kind of cameo image on the cover of Art Malik and Susan Wooldridge, the actors who played the characters Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners in the miniseries. It was first published in 1966, when the author was 46 (he died in 1978).

Paul Scott's style is grave and meticulous. He himself served in the British Army in India and Malaya between 1940 and 1946--the period of which he writes--and so knows the world of his story at first hand. Each page and each sentence is impregnated with his authority over his fictional world--one mark of excellence in a novel.

The book, 576 pages long, is divided into seven parts. Part One is called simply, "Miss Crane". Let's take a look at the first sentence:

Imagine, then, a flat landscape, dark for the moment, but even so conveying to a girl running in the still deeper shadow cast by the wall of the Bibighar Gardens an idea of immensity, of distance, such as years before Miss Crane had been conscious of, standing where a lane ended and cultivation began: a different landscape but also in the alluvial plain between the mountains of the north and the plateau of the south.

This sentence, 75 words long, is also the whole first paragraph. Its size and complexity signal that this work will make certain demands of the reader, and in fact I find the sentence somewhat involved and hard to grasp. I always have to read it two or three times to get the meaning from it, which, in my opinion, tells against Paul Scott as a stylist. There is a heaviness, a portentousness, a certain sense of the juggernaut of history trundling forward, ready to crush all in its path.

It opens with a direct address to the reader, emphasizing the literary, "told" quality of the work. I personally find the use of the word then, after Imagine, to be kind of artificial--trying to inject a sense of being in the middle of a story, rather than at the beginning. As though the narrator were retelling the story from a different viewpoint--something like that.

The sentence contains drama--"a girl running in the still deeper shadow"--but drama seen from a detached, godlike perspective. The narrator seems to be stressing not the girl running, but the "immensity" and "distance" of the landscape on which she runs, and perhaps, by extension, on which we all run.

In short, for me this sentence has problems. Nonetheless, if I were encountering it today for the first time in a bookstore, I would keep reading. It more than passes my first-sentence test. Why? I think for two reasons: 1) the content of the sentence is not trivial or frivolous, and 2) the author is addressing me as an equal, showing respect for my intelligence. That's more than enough reason for me to keep reading.

I was going to comment on a certain quality in the sentence of being overwrought, over-precious, and over-subtle, and perhaps try to blame that on Scott's seeming admiration of Lawrence Durrell and his Alexandria Quartet; but when I pulled out my copy of Justine, the first of the Alexandria Quartet novels, here is what I found as the opening paragraph:

The sea is high again today, with a thrilling flush of wind. In the midst of winter you can feel the inventions of spring. A sky of hot nude pearl until midday, crickets in sheltered places, and now the wind unpacking the great planes, ransacking the great planes....

The longest sentence here is 24 words. It is not ponderous or portentous. Scott's writing has the quality of a deep, searching report, but Durrell's narrator here is first of all a poet. His choices of word and phrase are fresh, original, and striking at every turn. I remember when I first read the phrase "A sky of hot nude pearl", knowing I was reading a writer of the top class. It's as though Durrell's narrator is searching for a way to convey how intoxicated he is with the sensuous deliciousness of the world.

Paul Scott is no poet. But for all that he is, in my opinion, a better novelist than Durrell, or anyway one more able to sustain my interest and attention. I remember being excited at how vivid and sensuous this opening of Durrell's was, only to find that my attention flagged in a welter of short scenes that did not add up to a strong story. Scott clings tenaciously to his thread, sticking with it for dozens of pages on end, which tenacity communicates a sense of confidence in the importance of his story. He's never in a hurry, because what he's talking about matters.

I became tired of Durrell. His aesthetic rhapsodizing wore thin. Now, 80 pages into The Jewel in the Crown, I'm finding depth, subtlety, and continuity. Those things will keep me reading.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

the task: concentration

After the relief of finishing chapter 28, back to square 1 with chapter 29. By "square 1" I mean the gathering-together of materials and thoughts, working toward creating the critical mass that will trigger the writing of the actual chapter.

In a simple-minded, clerical way I go through some of the reference works for which I've created Word documents, and copy and paste sections into my Notes document for the current chapter. As I have thoughts or ideas based on what I read, I type these in the free section at the bottom of the document, where I begin each day by typing the current date before pushing ahead with my notes. Then I go through the previous day's notes and highlight any "keeper" ideas.

At the beginning of this process I feel a certain helplessness, baffled at the task of finding stuff for my characters to do. There is anxiety involved: no guarantees that I'll find anything, or that it will be interesting. What will it be like for the eventual reader, who gets to flow through the story uninterruptedly, rather than the author's laborious trek through a wilderness, where I can barely remember what happened three chapters ago, written sometime in my ever-receding past?

In a certain sense, all work is concentration. By that I mean not mental concentration, but the more physical act of sorting things and bringing together the most valuable--concentrating them. Just like Kimmie preparing her lunch this morning up in the kitchen: while I poured our second cup of coffee, she stood at the counter, patiently cutting the less-desirable parts of lettuce leaves away, and dropping the still-fresh parts into the plastic box that would hold her eventual salad. She took some aging lettuce leaves and, by applying work, created a nice salad for herself.

Where is this thought-train taking me. I think about placer mining: panning for gold. That is the classic effort of physical concentration. The gold is out there, but its value cannot be realized unless it is concentrated into once place. So the miner patiently washes sand, finding the glinting flecks mixed in with the endless silica.

Also: the more valuable a commodity, the rarer it is, meaning the more dross or sand you have to go through to find the nuggets. It's possible that the great effort I'm going through of sifting through all this research material is a sign that the "nuggets" I seek have extra-special value.

Lately Kimmie and I have been watching the 1984 British miniseries The Jewel in the Crown, based on Paul Scott's Raj Quartet. Excellent. The adaptation was done by Ken Taylor, and he did a fantastic job with a more than usually difficult task, because Scott's tetralogy, inspired, I'm sure, by Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, is written in a nonlinear way that makes it hard to perceive the exact sequence of events. Taylor had to find that sequence, and then dramatize it. On the plus side, the underlying story and characters were wonderfully drawn in the original work, making the task very worthwhile.

As I watch the show, the scenes, the speech and actions of the characters, flow with a naturalness and logic that I don't naturally question as a viewer; I simply enjoy them. But as a writer I ask myself how and why the choices were made, first by Paul Scott, and then by Ken Taylor, to realize the drama before me. Why this scene? Why these characters? Scott will have wrestled with these questions, and the very quality of the final product tells me that it was hard going. Now I get to enjoy the company of these finely drawn characters, taking them for granted as I take for granted real people as naturally complex individuals, because that's what people are. But the "people" created by an artist are not naturally complex--they have to be made that way through art, by someone who knows what he's doing. And even if he knows what he's doing, it's hard.

As I think of it, the Raj Quartet is a modern epic: it features multiple heroes or protagonists embroiled in a large political problem: the struggle of India to shrug off the yoke of British rule.

Hmm. Maybe it's time to poke my nose into the Raj Quartet again. Time to read some more fiction?

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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

finishing gracelessly

Well, yesterday I finished drafting chapter 28 in a final push, while power-washers ran their gasoline compressor right outside my office window and while a fire inspector troubled me to get him into our common garage to check for fire extinguishers and exit signs (and borrow my stepladder). I wore earplugs and pushed on between the interruptions.

In a way, interruptions are helpful. Why? Because they lower my expectations of myself--not unlike when I'm sick. When circumstances are unfavorable for writing, anything I get done is gravy. The pressure (self-imposed) is off, and I can just write freely--well, sort of. There is a feeling of assertiveness and pride in working through the distractions, a feeling of achievement--"they're trying to stop me; well, I won't let them."

In that frame of mind I wrote the final 5 pages, finishing on page 38. Two or three chapters ago, when I sent a newly drafted chapter to Warren in Chicago, he commented that it terminated rather abruptly. Yes, no doubt it did; and no doubt chapter 28 does as well. It's like those Olympic long-distance races, like the marathon. A runner, having given it his all, moves across the finish line and then just collapses. He doesn't walk off the run, as you're supposed to, cooling down and letting the body adjust to having the load removed from it. No, there's nothing left. The body's "cooling down" energy was spent somewhere back there on the track. The race ends not in a graceful walk, but in a graceless, exhausted collapse.

As I'm typing the last paragraphs, the last sentences, I think, "Can I get out of here yet?" No, still need to say x and y... But at some point I think, "Yes, I can get out of here, there's nothing that must be said any further." Then it's a matter of hitting CTRL+S to save it and opening up my spreadsheet to log it as done.

I am outta here!

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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

write fast

Yesterday the great train of this mighty work lurched ahead again. Fearfully I opened up chapter 28 for the nth time and scrolled to the bottom, the end of the trail, the point in the story, the scene, where I'd left off. It was a long exchange of dialogue that has much import for my character. I couldn't figure out how to bring it to a close, what the real finishing point might be. So I executed a decision I had already made in the past couple of days: cut it off. Just end the exchange, the scene, and get out of there any which way you can and on to the next thing. Don't let this millstone drag you to the bottom!

It worked. I simply terminated the exchange and moved on to the next thing, and got four pages written that way. I'm still not at the end of the chapter, but I can sense it coming--the end is near! Sure, there are plenty more chapters still to come, like the ancient Greek tribe called the Myrmidons, or "Ant-men", who sprang out of the earth in numbers and kept coming--an enemy's worst nightmare.

I tried also to carry forward with another decision I'd made in the past few weeks: Write fast. It sounds like a joke for this ponderous glacier of a project, a thing so massive it causes the crust of the underlying Earth to sink into the mantle below. But wherever possible, if I know more or less what I'm trying to write, I want to just spit it out. Just say it. Grab words that spring to mind and use them; trust. I'm well able to do this; the biggest obstacle is the nagging feeling that it's somehow "cheating".

But it's not cheating--it's writing! The whole aim of mastering anything is to turn labor into ease. The training is laborious and effortful; the performance itself, if one is thoroughly trained, is a piece of cake. All mastery is essentially automation. When learning to do anything, the basic skills at first are laborious and deliberate. In time they become automatic, and the next-higher order of skills become the focus of the labor. On guitar one starts by learning how to make strings sound without accidentally muting them or making them buzz on frets, and learning how to finger chords. Thirty years later, for things I know how to play, I can spare attention for nuances of phrasing and such; the lower levels of skill have been automated.

Writing is not different. I get the feeling that laborious writing is the mark of one who still feels like a student. Yes, masters still train, still practice. A writer should keep reading critically, should keep looking up words and writing down the definition, should try out techniques in journals and so on. But at performance time the master should be able to switch on and draw on that training to let it flow.

It's a nice idea, anyway. Full steam ahead!

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Monday, June 04, 2007

truth and fiction

Writing is a technology. It's such an ancient one that it's easy to forget this, but of course there are not just individuals but whole societies on Earth today that are illiterate or preliterate ("oral cultures"), and of course there was a time before the first writing had been invented by anyone. The earliest writing seems to have been used, as far as is known, purely for record-keeping. The idea of writing as an art-form came much later, probably when poems came to be recorded for posterity.

In his book The Beginnings of Western Science, David Lindberg makes this fascinating observation:

We must ask how the preliterate patterns of belief that we have been examining yielded to, or were supplemented by, a new conception of knowledge and truth (represented most clearly in the principles of Aristotelian logic and the philosophical tradition it spawned). The decisive development seems to have been the invention of writing. The development of fully syllabic systems about 1500 BC (that is, systems in which all nonsyllabic signs were discarded) made it possible and, indeed, reasonably easy for people to write down everything they could say. And finally fully alphabetic writing, which has a sign for each sound, made its appearance in Greece about 800 BC and became widely disseminated in Greek culture in the sixth and fifth centuries.

Writing replaced memory as the principal repository of knowledge. This had the revolutionary effect of opening knowledge claims to the possibility of inspection, comparison, and criticism. Such comparison encourages skepticism and, in antiquity, helped to create the distinction between truth, on the one hand, and myth or legend, on the other; that distinction, in turn, called for the formulation of criteria by which truthfulness could be ascertained; and out of the effort to formulate suitable criteria emerged rules of reasoning, which offered a foundation for serious philosophical activity.

He's saying that the invention of writing was the key event that launched the system of knowledge that we now call science.

But what about writing as an art? Is it not also concerned, in some way, with "truth"? How does it relate?

Before writing as art there must have been speech as art: ritual, poetry, rhetoric. We write things down that we want to remember, or to communicate to someone else to whom we can't speak--such as to a posterity beyond our own time.

Over against Lindberg's assertion of the importance of writing as a step on the road to science--objective natural knowledge, consider this extract (compressed) from Campbell's Creative Mythology:

Bertrand Russell has summarized in one sentence his own idea of the aim of symbolization: "The essential business of language is to assert or deny facts." A more usual business of language, however, has been to motivate action. To assert or deny "fact" is about the last thing language has ever been used for. "Fiction," rather, would have been the honest term for this master of clarity to have used--for, as Nietzsche already knew, "whatever can be thought, cannot but be a fiction." And "Logic rests on presuppositions to which nothing in the actual world corresponds."

From that point of view, then, there is nothing but fiction: all of our "science" is really just a branch of fictional art.

Back in 1981, when I was struggling with the issues of my spiritual beliefs and also with my vocation as an artist, I wanted to write an essay on this topic. I sat down at the drawing-table that served as my main writing-desk and wrote the title: "Truth and Fiction". Under this I wrote a couple of sentences, but realized that I had no idea what I really knew or thought about this whole topic. I wanted to justify to myself the whole vocation of a fiction-maker, somebody who sits down and deliberately writes "false" things. I had no idea how to do so, and it caused me a lot of difficulty and pain.

I no longer feel such agitation about this topic, but I don't feel altogether comfortable with it either. I think Lindberg is right, and I also think Campbell is right.

The image that comes to mind now is one that comes to mind in many situations for me: of a documentary I saw once about the making of samurai swords. I've probably mentioned it before, but here goes again: the sword-makers would heat the steel, hammer it out, double it over, and temper it by plunging it in a water bath. Then they would heat it again, hammer it out, and anneal it by letting it air-cool slowly. Tempering makes steel hard; annealing makes it flexible. By repeating this alternating process, tempering and annealing the steel, the Japanese sword-makers created a steel composed of thousands of layers of alternately hard and flexible metal. In this way the samurai sword became that seemingly impossible combination: a weapon that was both hard and flexible.

Truth, in the sense of something that corresponds with fact, and fiction, in the sense of something that deviates from fact, somehow depend on each other. I remember watching an episode of Kung Fu starring David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine, of which I was a passionate fan at age 14, in which some brutish American says something to Caine, and tells him, "That's the truth!" Caine, with his trained Chinese calm, responds, "Those are facts--they're not the truth."

It was the first time I'd been exposed to that distinction, and it has resonated within me ever since. Fiction seems to acknowledge and affirm the fantastic, projected, constructed aspect of experience, the dreamlikeness of it. "Truth" or fact seems to affirm the hard-edged, given quality of experience--the inescapable that-ness of it. They exist only in relation to each other, and the more you emphasize either one, the closer is the moment that it will transform into its opposite, just as in the ancient teaching of yin and yang.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

the science of fiction

I've been meaning to talk about an intriguing passage I read in Toynbee's A Study of History (volume 1). Here it is:

There are three different methods of viewing and presenting the objects of our thought, and, among them, the phenomena of human life. The first is the ascertainment and recording of "facts"; the second is the elucidation, through a comparative study of the facts ascertained, of general "laws"; the third is the artistic re-creation of the facts in the form of "fiction."

I'm finding that Toynbee is full of startling assertions, but I found this one perhaps the most startling so far (I'm about 160 pages into volume 1). Toynbee is placing history, science, and fiction on a continuum--they're all, in some sense, the same thing! (Actually, Toynbee goes on to say that this categorization is originally due to Aristotle--almost more startling!) He goes on:

History, like the drama and the novel, grew out of mythology, a primitive form of apprehension and expression in which the line between fact and fiction is left undrawn. All histories resemble the Iliad to this extent, that they cannot entirely dispense with the fictional element. The mere selection, arrangement and presentation of facts is a technique belonging to the field of fiction; no historian can be "great" if he is not also a great artist. It is hardly possible to write two consecutive lines of historical narrative without introducing such fictitious personifications as "England," "France," "the Conservative Party," "the Church," "the Press," or "public opinion."

Fascinating. I seem to recall my late brother-in-law Freddie dismissing history because of its inescapable bias or "point of view"--but here Toynbee is asserting that this "bias" is of its essence, not something that negates its worth but something that makes it worthy.

Let's take another bite:

So science and fiction by no means confine themselves to what are supposed to be their own techniques. All sciences pass through a stage in which the ascertainment and recording of facts is the only activity open to them. Lastly, the drama and the novel do not present fictions, complete fictions, and nothing but fictions regarding personal relationships. If they did, the product would consist of nonsensical and intolerable fantasies. When we call a piece of literature a work of fiction we mean that the characters could not be identified with any persons who have lived in the flesh, nor the incidents with any particular events that have actually taken place. In fact, we mean that the work has a fictitious personal foreground; the background is composed of authentic social facts. The highest praise we can give to a good work of fiction is to say that it is "true to life."

Toynbee is saying that every novelist is a historian and a social scientist recording authentic observations about the world, but peopling his document with invented characters. The "inventedness" of the characters makes the document both possible and effective. I'm assuming that he is implying that the better the novelist is, the better a historian and social scientist he is. I would add to that the better a psychologist, since, although the characters are fictitious, in order for them to ring true at the level of individual motivation and behavior, they must obey the "laws" of the inner life--as opposed to the social life--of all people.

As a psychologist the novelist must be subtle and genuine, a good observer. Interestingly, real psychologists are not necessarily good observers or understanders of people. I recall when I lived with Brad and Keith in our upstairs duplex on 12th Avenue back in 1980: as young intellectuals we had lots of books. Keith in particular was omnivorous, even indiscriminate in his buying of used books on impulse. Some of these were real lemons. After a while, we came to store the worst of these on top of the toilet-tank in the bathroom, with a sign on the wall that said "emergency wipe". Here went things like poetry by Rod McKuen and philosophical tracts by Ayn Rand.

One of the books that wound up on the "emergency wipe" pile was Walden Two, a Utopian novel by B. F. Skinner, the famous behaviorist. I only ever read the first few pages, but they were pretty dire. The writing was at the level of a low-grade science-fiction novel of the 1940s or 50s, but instead of having the redeeming interest of imaginative views of future technology and alien life-forms, it was offering a portrait of an "ideal" society as conceived by a behaviorist--a pretty poor substitute. I just remember descriptions of characters in the opening pages: the confident, assertive demeanor of the university grad, and the nervous deference of the guy who had not graduated from university. The rats running in Skinner's mazes had more complex motivations than these guys. Having such caricatures walking around in something so pretentiously titled as this book earned it a spot on our "emergency wipe" pile.

Anyway, all that by way of saying that "real" psychologists (I actually don't regard behaviorists as true psychologists at all) are not as good at psychology, in a certain sense, as a decent novelist. I'm a scientist, after all!

I think back to another memory: my friend and classmate Don in grade 5 told me his way of keeping the meanings of fiction and nonfiction straight: "bull" and "non-bull". Well, I'm happy that Toynbee has shown that the distinction is not so clear-cut. The two are mixed, no matter what hat we're wearing.

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