Teaching: the importance of being unfashionable
Students experiencing their first Creative Writing workshops fear criticism. Of course they do. They hope they will 'get away' with all the weak spots in their writing, as much as they hope to find the reader impressed by the scenes which felt good to write.
I don't think a novelist ever stops feeling like this. In his letters to Max Perkins, F.Scott Fitzgerald worried on the eve of publication about the faults he knew the reader would find in The Great Gatsby. Writers know when something is wrong. But writing novels is so difficult, we need to be pushed into fixing things. Sometimes I think novels go to print only when the writer is exhausted. Fitzgerald simply didn't have the energy to do any more fixing.
But in the case of some students it is not the weak spots, or the praise, which surprises. They are shocked by the reflection of their self held up in the mirror of reading, and this is something much more fundamental to a novelist's art.
An MA student on our novel course recently took fright at their workshop reflection - let's call him Phil.
"Very dramatic", one student told Phil in his first workshop, "heightened" said another, as we tip-toed around the 'M' word. In tutorial I could be more direct. "Have you ever considered that your work makes use of melodrama?"
Phil's face dropped.
We tell people to stop being melodramatic. When a drama manipulates our emotions so obviously we no longer believe in its reality, we call it melodramatic. But something about Phil's work appealed to me as a reader, not despite the melodrama, but because of it.
"I don't know," Phil told me, "I just thought this was how all novels were written."
His reflection sent me to the shelves for Milan Kundera, a somewhat unfashionable novelist:
"He took her into his arms; then he started to pace vigorously up and down the room; he reflected that the crowd gathered in the Old Town Square had launched today's date into the skies, where it would shine like a star for centuries; and then that it was really a shame to be spending such a great day at home with his grandmother instead of being in the streets with the crowd. Before he had time to think this through, the door opened and his uncle came in, flushed and furious, shouting: "Do you hear them? The scum! The scum! It's a putsch!"
Jaromil looked at his uncle, whom along with his wife and their conceited son he had always hated, and he thought that his moment to defeat the man had finally come. They stood face to face: the uncle made him feel linked to a crowd of a hundred thousand people, and he now spoke to his uncle like a hundred thousand people speaking to one man: "It's not a putsch, it's a revolution," he said.
Kundera's first novel was published in 1969 but read most widely in the west in the late 70's and 1980's. The idealistic Jaromil is caught up in Czechoslovakia's communist revolution. His uncle represents the nationalist tradition set against communism.The irony of the novel is in witnessing the idealism of the revolution turn into the monster of a communist regime.
The emotion in this scene is certainly heightened, but it is also representative of the novel's technique - a technique which I think owes more to the melodrama of the theatre than it does to a particular kind of psychological realism which constitutes the technique of most contemporary novels.
Do we completely inhabit Jaromil as he paces up and down that room, or are we watching him? Kundera explicitly indicates Jaromil's thoughts with the instruction, 'he reflected'. Contemporary novelists like Cormac Mcarthy tend to do away with all that 'he thought', 'he reflected', 'he said to himself' stuff. The instruction places the reader outside of Jaromil, watching as the author whispers into our ear. And the thought Jaromil has next—an image of the day's date emblazoned across the sky—feels far removed from what is actually seen, (what is this room like? What do the crowds LOOK like?). Kundera doesn't dwell on the quotidian.
Jaromil's thought, like Kundera's technique, is interested in history writ large.
The quality of the other thoughts belonging to Jaromil are summary. One aspect of this is the abstraction of feelings: It was a 'shame'. They were people Jaromil had always 'hated'. Jaromil wanted to 'defeat' his uncle. These are not nuanced emotions.
When Jaromil's uncle arrives, he too is painted in broad brushstrokes, ('flushed and furious'), and the words he speaks feel oddly scripted. (How do we read that repetition, "The scum! The scum!", and make it feel real in our mouths?).
Character is being manipulated to represent ideas, something which is deliberate and explicit in the line bringing this scene to a head: "the uncle made him feel linked to a crowd of a hundred thousand people". And just in case we missed it, Kundera repeats his point like an echo: "and he now spoke to his uncle like a hundred thousand people speaking to one man."
Kundera is a novelist more interested in ideas than the messy consciousness of his characters. And so he employs melodrama to shape the ideas which people his novel. Or perhaps I should say, he employs melodrama to 'play' his characters like instruments, because the root of the word - (not perjorative at all) - is in the use of music in theatre (Greek - Melos / French - Drame).
That echo in Kundera's sentence, is part of the musical technique. In a time before 'melodramatic' became the adjectival slur that made Phil's face drop, film director Sidney Lumet put it well: "In a well-written drama, the story comes out of the characters. The characters in a well-written melodrama come out of the story."
A well-written melodrama. If Phil felt his work represented the very thing he thought novels should be, wouldn't a well-written melodrama, rather than poorly written psychological realism, be what Phil should be aiming for?
In 'The Art of the Novel', his collected essays on writing, Kundera does not refer to melodrama explicitly, but his tropes are often musical. He sees his novels as symphonies, and uses the mathematical equations of music to structure them. The Czech Republic itself, had a particularly refined tradition of theatrical melodrama, which blossomed in the Republic's National Revival. Czech scholar Otakar Hostinský, considered the genre of nationalist poetry, set to music for theatrical production, to be a uniquely Czech contribution to the arts; a fact which makes Kundera's melodramatic effects particularly suited to a novel about an idealistic Czech poet.
A good novel seduces us into its own aesthetic. We no longer perceive the scaffolding of its technique. The reason my student's technique was so noticeable in the context of his workshop, is that it suffered by comparison with ten other student novels, all of which aspired to the mainstream of psychological realism. Something not a million miles from this extract below:
"He sat back and listened while she talked their whole married life out of existence. At no time did he argue with her, or deny any statement she made. Finally, when there was nothing left to say, she picked up the lamp and went into the next room, and he followed her, and they undressed and they got into bed as if nothing had happened. After a while, he said in the dark, "You can take the girls, but not the boys." There was no answer from the far side of the bed.
He knew that even now he could not persuade her to change her mind. But if he did - "I have never before in my life been happy" he said, "And I will not give that up."
Because there wasn't any room for them in the buggy, they took with them only the baby's paraphernalia, and what the rest of them needed for the night, and left the battered suitcases and an old leather trunk for him to bring the next day. Nobody spoke all the way to town. When he pulled on the reins, the little girls were ready and one by one jumped from the metal step of the buggy. Hazel stood waiting for her mother to hand the baby down to her. "Be good girls", he called after them but they were too frightened by what was happening to turn and smile at him. He waited until they had all turned into the house and then gave the whip a flick. He hadn't meant for things to go this far, and neither had he thought ahead to what might happen next. Coming back to the farm, his spirits lifted for no reason. Or perhaps because a thing hanging over them for so long had at last happened, clearing the air.
When Fred Wilson's wife leaves in William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, it is one of the most dramatic events in a book which quietly explores the impact of a murder on a rural community.
Here, the narrator is not an author conducting a symphony but a fictional creation himself, piecing together the lives of the characters around him. This explains a certain distance between narrator and subject. We do not have complete access to the character's thoughts, and this is a distance of which Maxwell makes great use.
At times, the narration is rather like witness reporting: "He sat back and listened...At no time did he argue with her...", but when feelings are announced through Fred's own words, the effect of the withheld emotional information, (what is Fred thinking and feeling?), is devastating: "You can take the girls, but not the boys."
What Fred says has to feel absolutely real, but the real power of the moment is in the natural surface tension created between the artifice of what the narrator can, and can't tell us.
To make the impact of great emotional shifts feel real, Maxwell's narrator presents the evidence of two scenes - the moment a decision is made, and the moment a decision is acted upon. This feels real because it can so often take us time to understand how we really feel. But something else crucial to this technique, is the ellipsis between scenes. What is left out is as important to the reader's feelings about the reality of the writing as what is left in.
Fred doubtless spent a night filled with tortured thoughts, but those thoughts are left to our imagination, not explored in relationship to the ideological nexus of family and community in the style Kundera might have explored them. We might imagine Kundera's characters pacing out the night, exclaiming the pain of their lot, but in Maxwell's particular urge towards realism, the boldest emotions can't be articulated.
Instead, Maxwell concentrates on the nuances, the emotions which leak between and spring from the material life which crowds our existence. The fact that a suitcase is 'battered', that a trunk is 'old leather', that a step is 'metal' - realism thrives on details that are given a parity with thoughts and feelings, and often overwhelm them.
'Detail' in fiction does lots of work of different kinds. But one of the things detail can do, is to characterise by lending narrative significance to the world of a character. Sometimes details become symbolic in the mind of the reader. They also occupy narrative space which might otherwise be given over to the description of thoughts and feelings.
With this kind of technique, of whom Hemingway is often considered the apotheosis, a reader is put into the suit of a character. We slip on the skin of consciousness, and walk around the physical environment of the protagonist. For far more of the reading experience, we are left to infer and imagine thought and feeling. This is at least one trick of making things feel real.
In an interesting exchange, Phil suggested that although Kundera's characters may not spring from some of the techniques of psychological realism, they nonetheless feel very vivid in his own reading imagination. More vivid, in fact, than characters from novels of so called 'psychological realism'.
My student's comments led me to realise how strongly in our mind we can hold the characters of a more melodramatic technique. This realisation questions what we mean by making things feel 'real' in representation. Stage characters are memorable because they are larger than life and represent something very identifiable; they are charged with an emotional value that is memorable. On reflection, their actions and words may not aspire to the actions and words of our real lives, but they are remarkably solid. The characters in novels of psychological realism sometimes feel more liquid, like something we submerge ourselves into. Perhaps this is a way of saying they are as much self, as other. As much reader, as author's creation.
For me, it is Tolstoy's characters who stand most vividly in my reading history - a writer who wavered, I think, on the brink of melodrama and realism, between the novel of ideas and the novel of character. I am also fond of Anne Tyler's characters - another novelist who has been accused of employing more than a little melodrama in places. I think this is a very sweet-spot indeed. Ask me to conjure a Hemingway character, or a Carver character, and I would struggle. I think this may be because the techniques of those authors relied so heavily on the kind of trick we have just considered in Maxwell's work - making the reader feel as if they are in the narrative themselves, rather than witnessing the drama of a character who appears to us in their fully dressed otherness.
One of the reasons I teach the history of the novel in the first semester of our MA, is that there are so many different traditions, and nuances of those traditions, in the craft.So many different ways of representing the world in this incredibly adaptive and malleable form. It is what is so exciting about the novel, and what is so challenging. We must always look beyond what predominates the current climate of literature if we are to be alive to its possibilities and renew the form.This is the importance of being unfashionable.
I was slightly disappointed when Phil decided he did not want to write well-written melodrama. But as I hoped, the workshop encounter and subsequent tutorial led to a discussion about what the student's fictional project actually was, what the aims and intentions of the novel were, and what he wanted the reader to feel. He did not consider himself an especially ideas driven writer, and I think decided wisely, that melodrama without strong ideas, might be bad melodrama after all.