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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, August 03, 2007

on showing off

To think that when I started this blog I was worried that I would not have enough ideas for posts! I used to keep a Word file of possible post ideas, in case I dried up. Now I positively enjoy coming to my post with a blank mind, even if I do have to sit here staring at the screen for a few minutes before finally starting to type.

My approach is just to open up my Word document (I no longer compose my posts in Blogger, since there is a problem with the way typed text shows up slowly there), clear out the previous day's post, and let my mind wander to my book. Even if I haven't really been working on it, what are my thoughts?

In truth, though, I am working on it, even if it is just in the form of research. In this area I feel I do follow Goethe's personal motto, "without haste, and without rest". There's no getting around the fact that if you're writing about a remote time and place, you've got a lot of learning to do first. Otherwise your work will be amateurish and unconvincing.

The historical novelist must necessarily face the problem of the tour de force--a literary phenomenon that I'm generally skeptical and disapproving of.

What do I mean?

Webster's defines tour de force thus:

tour de force : a feat of strength, skill, or ingenuity

My idea of a literary tour de force is a story that involves persons and places remote from the writer's experience. This would be those stories in which a man narrates a story in the voice of a woman, or vice versa, or a European sets his story in an African village. It's not that I have anything intrinsically against it--and I deplore the concept of, what's it called, can't think of the name...the criticism that for a white writer to write a black character is paternalistic...cultural appropriation? Seems I've successfully dismissed that concept from my mind.

I have nothing against that in principle, but my question is: why would you want to do it? Why does a Dane need to write about a Nigerian village? I can't help but feel that at least part of the answer is: showing off.

Showing off is a bad motivation for a writer, in my opinion. I've had a lot of that motivation in my writing life, and maybe I still do. It's not something I'm happy about.

And yet I do think that both self-esteem and ambition are necessary for a good writer. John Milton, before writing Paradise Lost, said that he wanted to create a work that people would not willingly let die. No doubt Dante and Tolstoy and Melville must have had fevers of ambition in writing their masterpieces. But I don't think this is the same as showing off. What's the difference?

Showing off has as its primary motivation the desire to impress and draw admiration and praise. The ego needs of the writer are placed ahead of the meaning of the work itself; the work is subservient to the writer's ego. Just like the showoff child, who aims to grab attention by any which means, you're making demands on people's attention without fully earning it. Instead of moving people and seeking to enrich their souls, you're tying to get them to say, "wow".

So if you're a proud, ambitious writer, the proper way to exercise your abilities is in tackling a project of suitable size and importance (Dante, Tolstoy, Melville). If you pull it off, people will indeed be impressed, but they will be impressed by the depth and scope and power of your message--not by your tricks. The Divine Comedy is 100 cantos of a verse form known as terza rima, structured in three equal parts, each devoted to one of the zones of the nonterrestrial cosmos: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. It is a poetically conceived map of the universe, structured as an epic journey by a visionary poet conscious of his unique cosmic mission. There is no lack of ambition or self-esteem in Dante's work, but the work itself demands these from its creator, and its message is worth it.

But if I, a man born and raised in Vancouver, sat down to write a story from the point of view of, say, a little girl growing up in Texas, what the hell would I be doing? Even if I could pull it off, why am I pulling it off?

To show off.

The historical novelist is taking on a burden that is not dissimilar in some ways. One excuse we have is that there are no living writers who are in a better position than oneself to write about a bygone age. There are women in Texas who are better placed than I am to write about their childhood there, but there is no one who is better placed to write about the ancient world.

But in my opinion the "research overhead" of a historical novel means that it should have something important to say. The writer who's writing a trivial story set in Elizabethan times is, I think, guilty of the tour de force syndrome: he or she is showing off. Yes, maybe you love the Elizabethan period and happen to know a lot about it, but, I don't know...there should be a reason for setting a story in a certain time and place. It shouldn't just be about local color, trying to elevate your pedestrian story with an exotic setting.

Readers of this blog know that I have plenty of anxiety about the scope and nature of my project. I don't doubt its importance, so it's not mere showing off. As for whether I can actually execute the idea, well, time will tell. I'm guessing it wasn't easy for Dante, Tolstoy, or Melville either.

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  • Hi, I haven't read your blog for a long time but check in tonight and found your entries very interesting. What period are you writing about? I'm just slogging away (daily at the moment) trying to finish my never-ending Homeric saga about the fall of Alexander's dynasty. An adventure, to say the least, and often a big mind-boggling. And I guess if I'd known the scope and depth of it and how long it would take me to get this far (with some breaks in between to write travel articles, rework and have a play produced etc) I might not have tackled the task. But it's been a wonderful experience and I'll be sooooo glad to finally get it done! (PS I'm also in Vancouver).

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at August 09, 2007 12:16 AM  

  • Thanks for stopping by and reading, Wynn. I'm in 47 BC at the moment--so you're setting up my world.

    Yes, writing a large novel might like embarking on the Vajrayana Buddhist path, of which Chogyam Trungpa said, "Best not to begin. Having begun, best to finish."

    I appreciate your taking the time to comment on my blog--thanks.

    By Blogger paulv, at August 09, 2007 11:25 AM  

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