Monday, September 27, 2010

A skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction

The Professor was bad enough that a chapter or two pretty much did me in for the day.  I was all too easily distracted by better books – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Great Gatsby, John Ruskin, for pity’s sake.  The most distracting of the distractions was In Hazard (1939) by Richard Hughes, a novel about a cargo ship caught in a hurricane.  Genuinely exciting, but at some point each evening, all too early, I would will myself to close it so I did not miss my day’s Bad Brontë quota.

I would like to direct interested parties to bibliographing’s review of In Hazard, as I proceed to ignore it.  Something in John Crowley’s introduction to the novel caught my eye.  He’s writing about the term “writer’s writer”:

But what writers would mean if they used the phrase (in my own experience they don’t) is a writer who, whether in plain prose or fancy, effusive or restrained, accomplishes things in fiction that writers know to be difficult to do, whether readers perceive this or not.  Writers of fiction often do care less about the characters and story in the fiction they read – they find it harder to suspend disbelief and be touched by made-up troubles and triumphs – but they notice a skilled and unexpected use of the tools of fiction.  (xi, NYRB edition)

Does this help explain what goes on at Wuthering Expectations?  It sounds right to me.  Writing about The Great Gatsby, for example, I barely acknowledged that the novel had either characters or a story.  Do I believe that the specific mechanism Fitzgerald assigns to his narrator is what’s really important about the book?  Heavens, no.  I was dismantling the engine and trying to figure out what a specific part did, a tricky one.  Maybe it was merely decorative.  Maybe it didn’t do anything, a mistake left over from an earlier prototype.  Or maybe the engine is devilishly complex.

I’ve met a very few people who seem to be able to comprehend certain complex objects as a whole.  Seem to – what I assume they are doing is breaking the pieces apart very rapidly, and then rebuilding as quickly.  I’m not so fast, and not so interested in reassembling the clock.  An intellectual flaw, I’m afraid, one I hope to overcome.  Unlike a clock, the book is intact after I have smashed its casing and shaken out the pieces.  No harm done.

An Appreciationist, I want writers to succeed, and I want to discover how they do it.  As a result, I typically root for one character, the same one every time, the writer, the imagined writer.  In fairness, I can read at both levels at once.  I do care about the characters and story, but, just as Crowley says, less; I do want David Copperfield to do well, but not as much as I want David Copperfield to do well.  I’m a writer’s reader.


  1. I'm not sure if you mentioned this, but as a writer I have to be delighted that "Gatz" in New York City is giving readers Fitzgerald's book whole.

    They're reading it aloud, with things going on onstage. If that sounds unusual, it is.

  2. I had no idea. It's stunning. Wonderful. Thanks for the pointer.