Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Can I marry a stockbroker?

"It is true that if you want to write well and live well at the same time, you'd better arrange to marry a stockbroker or a rich woman who can operate a typewriter."
-Flannery O'Connor
When one first begins writing, one hears lots of advice:

"Never end sentences this way: example."

"Never ever do this in this situation: example."

"And above all, show, don't tell."

As a young writer, I didn't realize that much of this advice drew from public opinion of the moment. True, lots of it is good advice when one looks at it from the viewpoint of having one's manuscript accepted by a big-time editor and put on the New York Time's Bestsellers list. I've read many books but I will admit that, till recent years, the majority of what I had read was written pre-1950. That meant that my literary examples were of the old style. My literary education was performed at an old school. While popular tastes demanded the modern cosmopolitan flair of Manhattan Prep from White Collar, I spent my school years at something with more of the flavor of Eton, to use a great school in a loose analogy. Naturally, I came to the class reunion talking slang from years back and finding "yo dawg" was not exactly what people these days go around saying. And yes, I felt as cheesy as that sounded. How is a girl to write the way she has been taught without sounding like an ancient tome? Because I have picked up books by authors who obviously had a similar literary education to my own and have thought, "Yeah, I wouldn't choose to publish this either." In many ways, the advice I was given was exactly what I needed to hear.

It is true that the modern reading public has a shorter attention span than in the days of Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo. I consider myself a fairly patient reader and even I had to have three go's at the unabridged Les Miserables before I could finish, and even then it was a terrible struggle to push through his ponderous lectures to get to the heart of the story.
It is true that modern readers expect a certain hook at the front of the book and look for page-turning plots. The books I put down are inevitably the books that bore me to tears. If you can't capture my attention within the first chapter or two, how am I to trust you with my valuable reading-time not to continue to bore me throughout?
It is true that it's always nice to show instead of tell. We all like details. Details! Juicy, fat, details.

 I'm here to say that though much of what the modern writer is taught is good advice, pleasure remember that it is just advice after all. It is someone else's idea of how to you ought to write. Perhaps this other person is more qualified than you to say what sells, what readers like, and what will attract the attention of a worthwhile publisher. But when it comes down to whether modern taste is Holy Writ, I'm here to say it is not. To illustrate my point: at a coffee shop the other day I chose an old, weathered book off the community shelf. I picked this book because the illustrations looked similar to those in a P.G. Wodehouse novel. My Ten Years in a Quandary by Robert Benchley. Between rounds of mancala I read the first two chapters. Nothing much happened in those two chapters. Gasp. Rob Bell would have a fit. But the book entertained me well enough to the point that I left a note inside at the place I left off for the next reader. How? Nothing happened! The plot did not advance in the slightest and I can hardly see how each sentence mattered to the whole of the book's events. Here's the secret power of this book and the best of the those in the old style: they didn't arrest a reader by virtue of action, but activity. Benchley's voice in the first two chapters of his book is anything but passive. It romps about with as much energy as The Hunger Games could possibly give, though in the latter you're thrown right into the midst of a world gone mad.
I also know from experience that I don't mind character-driven fiction. Sure I like things to happen and plot is terribly important. Glaring at you, The Notebook. But if the characters are well-drawn, the voice lively enough, and the story-world interesting, I am one-hundred percent okay with a sauntering pace. Just like I don't run marathons because I prefer walking and enjoying my surroundings (and let's be honest: I'd feel like I was dying), I almost prefer a story that, while well-constructed, leaves me time to savor the summer pace of its pages. I think of some of my favorite films (CinderellaThe Devil Wears Prada, The Help, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Hundred-Foot Journey, Miss Potter, Master & Commander...) and realize that though plot is present and well-formed, the real reason I am invested is the strength and color of the characters.
I'd been throwing these thoughts around in my head and waiting for them to gel before writing a blog post when the final driftwood was thrown onto my seaside fire: Flannery O'Conner (yes, that paragon of all things Southern) gave me a lift in denouncing the prophetic law that the Modern Reader has tried to make of "Show, Don't Tell":
"All the sentences in Madame Bovary could be examined with wonder, but there is one in particular that always stops me in admiration. Flaubert has just shown us Emma at the piano with Charles watching her. He says, 'She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff's clerk, passing along the highroad, bareheaded and in list slippers, stopped to listen with his sheet of paper in his hand.' The more you look at a sentence like that the more you can learn from it."
Yes, dear Flannery O'Connor. We can learn that the editor at Harper & Row would fling the papers into Flaubert's satchel and say, "Try again some other time when you've learned the market." Yet one of the most well-respected writers of Southern fiction goes on past the quote I shared and continues to praise a very obvious lapse of POV and showing vs. telling. Now I don't mind so much. I'm accustomed to that kind of description and that kind of description is, in fact, what I tried for when I first began writing. But such a thing would admittedly not stand up in today's court again a jury of modern readers. I suppose the point of all this is to show you that there is both wisdom and error in the advice given to the modern writer. Wisdom, in that the current marketplace wants a certain thing and if you want to engage in commerce, you must learn to cater to their whims. Error, in that the modern way is the only way to write well. Flannery O'Connor reminded me that in each era there is, speaking of literary technique, a temporary right and wrong. Each era's faux pas were different. Our era's are one thing...fifty years from now it will be another.

For now....just try not to write like Flaubert.


Suzannah said...

I so agree, Rachel. Half the writing advice I read is clearly just a matter of current fashion (helpful though it may be) and I wish more people would read more old books so as to be able to identify what really are the rules versus what are just fashions or good ideas.

Hayden said...

I've been thinking and pondering this very thing. There is so much writing advice out there these days, often contradicting each other, and sometimes my head begins to spin with it all!

For instance, I've heard a lot lately about how "prologues are dead" and the quickest way to bore your reader. Well, of course badly written and unnecessary prologues will do just that! But I personally love reading a well-written, well-placed one and have most definitely used them in my own writing a time or two.

I usually just think of what *I* like in a book and follow that, rather than the whatever is fashionable in the literary world at the moment. Still, it can be vexing to decide what advice to keep and what to throw away.

Colleen Elizabeth said...

Interesting thoughts Rachel! As someone who loves “the classics,” I used to wish that people today wrote more well-rounded characters & intricate plots... that was until I started reading more contemporary authors and discovered that they do in their own way. The truth is that “the classics” also encompass a wide span of time and styles. What makes a book worth reading? I think it isn't the style you write in that will make your book worth reading 50 years from now, it’s the characters and way the book moves its readers. Perhaps the key is balance; not being too trendy and not being too entrenched in the past (authors need to eat after all!). Well written words transcend all eras.

Hannah Joy said...

I love all these thoughts! Thank you for posting. You are such a thoughtful writer, no matter what you're writing, which is why I love your blog!

Hey, any updates on Cottleston Pie? That is one that I sometimes think about in the middle of the day and just WISH it were PUBLISHED and on my shelf right now. :-)

Hanna said...

Excellent post, Rachel. I recently started reading The Brothers Karamazov and every time I pick it up, I can't help thinking that poor Dostoevsky would starve if he tried to sell a book like that today. What really bugs me is when people recommend classics like that (in which there's lots of telling and barely any showing) while still taking modern-day writing advice as THE ONLY way to write. I wish people would acknowledge that the old and the new styles are both perfectly valid, but that doesn't seem likely to happen. Maybe I'll have to marry a stockbroker too. :-)

Rachel Heffington said...

Hayden: You're right: it does help to think of what I like in a book and follow suit. At least for the first draft.
Colleen: I'm glad I'm not the only one who has had her comeuppance after thinking all modern writers were weaklings. There are some wonderful modern words in print.
Hannah Joy: I'm sorry to say I have no updates on it (beyond some revisions I have been thinking through), but I am so glad you plan to love it when it is published someday. :)
Hanna: My grandmother struggled through the Brothers K. in college and said that it was positively dentistry until 3/4 of the way through and then she could not stop reading it. Perhaps it'll pick up? Best of luck with it!

Janie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janie said...

So maybe what we should all be asking ourselves is what will best serve our particular stories. Because a well-told story will never lose its appeal, regardless of whether or not it follows the literary trends of its time. Write, and write well. Write with humility. Write with tenacity. Write with your gaze set firmly on the ultimate Creator, because His opinion is the one that matters most.

Wilber said...

I'm curious. What exactly do you mean by "show, don't tell?" Do you mean "describe, don't simply hand them the facts?"

I agree that there is too much pressure on writers to conform to a certain pattern -- and that kills creativity. But at the same time, we do have an obligation to consider our readers.