Discover more from Stories All the Way Down by G. M. Baker
Form and Fiction (Classic vs. Modern Fiction, part 6)
A conversation with Joseph Harris
My last essay in this conversation left three questions to be addressed:
The McLuhanesque question of whether you can regard form and content as separate concerns
The meaning of “show vs. tell” in fiction (as opposed to in movies)
The question of whether my characterization of modern fiction as “cinematic” is adequate or definitive (it’s not)
Or, to resurrect the metaphor from my first foray on this topic, can you put old wine in new wineskins? Can you put literature of the authenticity and variety of classic fiction into the literary forms tolerated by today’s editors and publishers?
Before I launch into my main argument, which is that you can’t, I want to make the counterargument that, with sufficient genius, you can. Literature has always thrived on adversity and restrictions. When poetry was confined by the requirements of rhythm and rhyme, and by strict forms such as the sonnet, it produced its greatest triumphs. Shakespeare worked knowing that royal agents would be attending every performance, ears pricked for any hint of sedition. Many classic works emerged from the crucible of censorship. Restrictions are not necessarily inimical to art. Sufficient genius can say whatever it pleases under whatever restrictions are imposed upon it, and smuggle it under the dull noses of the censors with impunity. Or, at least, there is a romantic part of me that very much wants that to be true.
The more practical part of me, though, argues that you can only steal so many pencils, brushes, and tubes of paint before you leave an artist with too impoverished a palette to fully express their vision or reveal the full extent of their talent. Because, in fact, artists do need their tools, and the history of both art and music is filled with examples of new flowerings of artistic expression made possible by advances in either theory or physical tools. Thus, for example, the development of well temperament gave us the Well-Tempered Clavier. In literature, it is hard to imagine the development of the novel — a literature susceptible to being enjoyed privately rather than in performance — before the invention and refinement of the printing press.
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I am now going to invoke Marshall McLuhan and his famous phrase, “The medium is the message.” Fear not. I am no McLuhan scholar and I am going to crib the little bit I have to say on the subject from Wikipedia. It has been well said that if you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics. The same may be true of McLuhan, but if you do think you understand McLuhan, and that I don’t, the comments are the medium for delivering that message.
Per Wikipedia, McLuhan’s famous phrase means that, “The content of the medium is a message that can be easily grasped and the character of the medium is another message which can be easily overlooked.” In other words, if one takes a novel and makes it into a movie, the events of the story (the content of the medium) may remain the same, but the total experience of receiving the story is very different because the character of the medium (what movies are and how they work) is different, and this difference makes all the difference in the world. If it were the content alone that mattered, it would not matter if we read the book or saw the movie, the experience would be the same. But the experience is not the same, which is what we are saying when we routinely affirm that the book is better than the movie. If the experience is so different despite the message being the same, then the medium is, in fact, the message, or a large and indispensable part of it. Medium and message together constitute the whole of the aesthetic experience.
Or, to return to our previous metaphor, you can’t separate the wine from the wineskin, because the wineskin is the message as much as the wine. Which actually means that the metaphor of old wine in new wineskins is not a great way to express the problem, since one does not actually drink the wineskin. Whether the wine comes in a bottle or a barrel or a Tetra Pak or a wineskin, it is still just the wine we drink, and while the packaging might have some influence on the development of the flavor of the wine, its influence is far less than the influence that the visual medium has when viewing Pride and Prejudice as a miniseries rather than reading it as a book.
The 1995 miniseries does its best to work in the immortal first line of the book, as in the scene below, which has been transposed out of the drawing room to give it more movement (this being a movie). The content is here — the plot and the dialogue — but the experience is quite different. Both experiences are eminently worth having, and neither should exhaust the appetite for the other. But they are distinctly different.
In short, then, it is not just about the story you tell, it is about how you tell the story. Indeed, if (as I maintain) it is the job of a story to create an experience, each form of telling constitutes a new and different experience and therefore a new and different story.
When I parted company with my was-to-have-been publisher of The Wistful and the Good, it was because the editor wanted to make changes that I felt were not a refinement of the story I had written, but would have made it a different story that I would not have recognized as mine. They wanted to do this for all of the reasons that drive editors today. It was as if I had delivered a 10-year-old blond-haired child named Mary to school in the morning, expecting to receive back the same 10-year-old blond-haired child named Mary at the end of the day, slightly better educated, but had instead received back an entirely different 10-year-old blond-haired child named Mary who I had never met before, with the assurance that this Mary got much better grades in math and deportment than the one I had sent to school. Maybe they were right that the new story would sell better, just as the new child would get better report cards, but that was beside the point for me since the new one was not mine, not the one I had sent them.
Now, you might respond that if I had studied and followed the new rules from the start then the book I had created would not have needed changing and it would have felt like mine because it would have come from my pen. But this is a little like telling me that if I had started with different DNA I would have conceived a more compliant and mathematically gifted 10-year-old blond-haired child named Mary and the school would not have needed to switch mine out for another. (For the record, I do not have, and never have had, a 10-year-old blond-haired child named Mary. The poor girl is just a metaphor.)
Still, I illustrated my McLuanesque argument above by contrasting the movie version of Pride and Prejudice with the excellent 1995 miniseries. How does it apply to different conventions for prose? Let me attempt to illustrate by focusing on just one of them: point of view.
There is much more to the conventions of contemporary fiction than just point of view, and I have a great deal I want to say just on point of view than I intend to say here. I am using point of view simply as an example of why content and form cannot be treated separately from each other. I seek here only to establish a beachhead for that argument, not to conquer every city, plain, and highland.
After genre, point of view has become one the most prominent ways of classifying literature today, and countless writing teachers, editors, and writers will advise you that the most important choice you will make in the telling of your story is choosing the point of view from which to tell it. Point of view has two meanings. The first is a general outlook on life or a set of values. In this sense, someone might say, “From my point of view, global warming is good, because I hate cold weather.” The second is a literal point from which you can view things, as in “From the top of the hill you can see the Taj Mahal.” Fiction has always been concerned with the point of view of its characters in the first sense, with how the events of the story affect them and how they see the world. A concern with point of view in the second sense, however, is relatively new, and its domination of thought about literature is quite recent.
In this second sense of point of view, a story is supposed to be told from the point of view, that is, through the eyes, of a particular character. Usually, this is a single character, though switching from one character's point of view to another is also tolerated, though only at major break points in the story, like chapter endings. What about stories that are not told as seen through the eyes of one character, but as simply told by the narrator? These are assigned to the category “omniscient point of view” (a term I detest). This completes the categorization schema, but omniscient point of view is frowned upon. Editors and publishers want books to be told in either “close third” point of view, meaning a third person narrative as seen through the eyes of one character, or first person, meaning narrated by the character through whose eyes we are seeing the story. The great sins of the close point of view doctrine are “head hopping” (giving the thoughts of more than one character at a time), and relating anything that could not be known to the character at the time of the event being related.
Now, I’m not saying that this is a bad way to tell stories. I’m not a fan personally, but lots of people like it, and more power to them if that is what they enjoy. What I am saying is that this method of telling stories is not neutral in regard to the stories you are telling. It is a good way to tell certain stories and a bad way to tell others.
I’ve said many times that a story creates an experience, and so it does. But what kind of experience, exactly? Neurological studies indicate that the same areas of the brain are involved in reading a story as are involved in having an experience in real life. Does it not make sense, then, that a story should be told as the immediate experience of a single character exactly as they observed it? In other words, in close first or third person. Well, no, because that is not how stories have worked for as long as we have records of people telling stories. Because from the beginning of our existence as a storytelling species, we have told stories about other people using the voice of the storyteller, not the voice of the character.
We now have this idea that if you want to write a book for teenage girls, the protagonist must be a teenage girl and the story must be told as the immediate experience of that teenage girl so that the reader can “relate” to the character, which seems to mean stepping into her and living her experience as if it were their own. The protagonist becomes an avatar for the reader, and the reader’s interest in the story seems to depend on how good a fit that avatar is for them.
But here’s what is wonderful about human beings. We don’t need any of that to experience the stories of other people’s lives. We don’t need to be exclusively immersed in their point of view in order to see the world as they see it, to feel as they feel, to know what they know. What is marvelous about us, and what enables us to form sophisticated societies and to act with sophisticated charity towards each other, is that we are capable of entering fully into sympathy with another while remaining ourselves. This ability of ours to be simultaneously in sympathy with the experience of the other and to remain wholly ourselves, to be both immersed in action and stilled in contemplation at the same time, is so strikingly and uniquely human that it is astonishing to me that anyone should deny that this ability can be brought to bear in reading a story. Not only is it possible to read a story this way, it is the natural way to do so.
The young and angry often proclaim that no one can possibly understand what their life experience has been unless they are exactly like them and have lived exactly the life they have lived. This is part a howl of frustration because the world is not arranging itself for their convenience, and partly a form of blackmail, a way of insisting that all of their demands must be met without modification since no one but themselves can possibly know how they feel and therefore how their needs are to be met.
But this is to gravely undervalue the human capacity for sympathy. The ability to understand the experience of others who are not exactly like us and have not lived exactly the life we have lived is actually a defining trait of humanity. It is, for one thing, what allows us to understand where the demands of the young and angry are coming from even when we know that those demands are both unreasonable and counter-productive. As my father used to tell us when we were teenagers, your problem is not that your parents don’t understand you, it is that your parents understand you only too well. When you are on the make, being thoroughly understood is the last thing you want.
It is this capacity for sympathy, which is not merely an emotional inclination for the other’s good, but actual felt knowledge of their experience, is why we love stories. Understanding each other in this way, being in sympathy with one another, allows us to live together and cooperate effectively with one another in sophisticated ways. Having this ability is a huge advantage to us and we have a natural desire to enhance that knowledge and sympathy. Stories are an excellent way to do this.
Consider, too, that the other way we develop that sympathy is by living with people, interacting with them, and observing how they live their lives. When we do this, we don’t confine ourselves to people who are exactly like us, but observe and interact with all kinds of people of different ages, sexes, creeds, colors, professions, and habits. After all, we already understand ourselves. It is the understanding of others that is of the greatest benefit to us.
True, we are not completely catholic in how we do this. There are people whose lives are too different and whose habits are too strange, and even dangerous, for us to want to get to know them personally. But here is where stories again come into the picture, allowing us the same kind of observation and interaction with people too different or too strange for us to comfortably interact with them personally, and also people too far removed from us in space or in time for us to have the opportunity to meet them in the flesh. Stories expand our range of sympathies beyond what we can develop by ordinary experience.
But for none of this do we have to assume a position behind their eyeballs. We encounter people in life as other, not as self. We encounter people in stories as other, not as self. When I was growing up, it was axiomatic that this was what stories were for. They were for the encounter with the other. The notion that you were looking for yourself in the books you read would have seemed ridiculous. The whole point was to encounter the other. It was, admittedly, harder to encounter the other in real life in those days. There was no internet. There were only two TV channels. Velociraptors nested in the vegetable garden. Stories were the door to other people and other ways of life. (Paradoxically while the web has made it easier to encounter the other today, it has also made it easier to make sure you never talk to anyone unlike yourself.)
But there is more to it than this. Not all stories are about one person. Today we talk about the protagonist and the antagonist as if every story were a single combat. But our capacity for sympathy has never been restricted to individuals, and neither have our stories. I remember a fellow student in a fiction master class asking whether Larry McMurtry violated the point of view and no head-hopping rules we were being taught in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Lonesome Dove. And the answer is that he did. Because Lonesome Dove is not a single-protagonist story. It is a story of a group of cowboys on a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, and in many scenes, we are told how each of them felt about a certain event in the story. This is, of course, head-hopping. How else could the story possibly be told? The prohibition on head-hopping is, in effect, a demand that there only be one protagonist.
Taken together, these rules are a recipe for a literature of individualistic narcissism. It is a form that says, when you look into a book all you want to see is your own face reflected back at you. And from that reflected face, you must never look away. This is the message that the medium is sending when we follow modern point-of-view conventions.
You may think I exaggerate, but remember that in McLuhan’s formulation, there are two messages, the message in the message, which is in the foreground and easy to recognize, and the message conveyed by the medium, which is in the background and less easily recognized. But being less easily recognized does not mean it is not powerfully received. A story is an experience, and the medium is part of the experience. We may not intellectually recognize and acknowledge its message, but it has still profoundly shaped our experience. Even if the message of the message is not individualistic and narcissistic, the message of the medium is.
Of course, if you like highly individualistic and narcissistic literature, you will be keen on books where individualism and narcissism are delivered not only in the message but in the medium as well. But if you want to read or write literature that is pluralistic and outward-looking, then you are likely to find more satisfaction in works where both the message and the medium are communicating pluralism and looking outward toward the other.
That deals with the first of my three questions, and having got this far, I realize that I probably shouldn’t have committed to addressing all three of them in one essay. But let me treat the show vs. tell question briefly, with the promise to return to it ad nauseam in later essays.
The way that the “show” mantra is interpreted in contemporary fiction theory is very much related to the issue of point of view. Everything is supposed to be presented as through the eyes and immediate experience of the character. To pull out of this perspective, to address the audience as storyteller, in any way or for any purpose, is to violate the essential narcissism of the form. Showing means to stay behind the eyeballs of the protagonist. Telling means to stand apart as storyteller. Thus you will often see writers advised to take the infodump that they have written in the voice of the storyteller and to put the exact same infodump into a conversation between the protagonist and another character, as if this transforms it from telling to showing. It is, of course, still an infodump, but casting it as a conversation somehow sanctifies it through the maintenance of point of view.
Better mantras would be, “dramatize, don’t explain,” or “create experiences, not propositions.” But more on that another day.
Which brings me to the third question, the question of whether my earlier characterization of modern fiction as cinematic is adequate or definitive. Briefly: it’s not. Being cinematic, which is to say, taking storytelling queues from movies and television, is certainly one of the aspects of contemporary literature. But on the other hand, the close point-of-view that is so characteristic of contemporary fiction is the very opposite of how cinematic storytelling works.
A reader of The Wistful and the Good recently told me that she wanted to experience the book, “as if Elswyth was telling me the story instead of me feeling like an onlooker." To which I responded, “I was setting out to make you an onlooker, precisely so that I could show you Elswyth in the round, so to speak, from every angle.” What my reader was wanting, of course, is the standard contemporary close point-of-view narrative. But in this respect, contemporary fiction is doing something that cinematic storytelling can’t do. Cinematic storytelling can’t tell you a story through the eyes of the protagonist. It just doesn’t work. The only time you ever see through the eyes of the protagonist in a movie is when they look through binoculars and we are given the two overlapping circles mask on the scene. Other than that, we are always the onlooker. We probably spend most of the movie looking at the protagonist, but we are looking at them, not through them.
This is perhaps one of the reasons why close third-person point-of-view has become so popular in fiction. It gives the reader who craves that kind of through-the-eyes storytelling something that the movies just can’t give them. It is, perhaps, a case of the previous king of the culture retreating into the hills and swamps where the new invader cannot follow.
Now, I am not saying that there is anything wrong with preferring to read a story told through the eyes of the protagonist. Two of my favorite novels of all time, Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby, both have first-person narrators. And I am not saying that people who prefer those kinds of novels are all narcissists who only want to read about themselves. It is the publishing industry that is making that association and they are doing so for marketing reasons. Marketing is all about identifying a target audience for a product and what could be easier than saying that the market for a book about a teenage girl is teenage girls? The reality of literary taste and personal interests is far more complex than this, but marketers don’t want complex. Complex is expensive. They want to keep the cost per sale as low as they can, and that means, for example, selling books about teenage girls to teenage girls. Obviously, the industry does not mind if other people read those books too. But they are going to recruit and classify books whose protagonists match their targeted readers. The narcissism is in the system, not the readers. As I commented in my previous entry in this conversation, the current style is a creation of editors, not writers.
What I am saying is this: the medium is the message. The conventions of modern fiction, as prescribed by contemporary editors, writing teachers, and publishers, create a powerful message in the medium, one that is individualistic and narcissistic. If the book you want to write has a different message, then following these conventions is going to result in a book whose message is at odds with its medium. Literary forms are not neutral or coincidental. They are shaped to the message. You can’t just decide to write a classic story in a contemporary form. Message and medium will be at odds with each other, unless you are genius enough to subvert the medium even as you conform to it. For the rest of us, if we want to deliver a classic message, we need to adopt a classic form, or at least, a form whose message is not at odds with our message.
This is not to suggest that we should adopt classic forms wholesale or uncritically. Simply turning back the clock is never the point. Neither the message nor the medium should be preserved in aspic. But as we reframe the classic message for the current time, we must also reframe the classic forms for the reframed message. Because the medium is the message.
As I write this, Joseph Harris has already published his response to my last post, which answered only half of his previous post, and he has stated that he does not foresee having anything further to say in this conversation at the present time. And since I find little to argue with in his last post, I don’t see a reason to reply to it at this time either. This does not mean the conversation is over, but it will be on hiatus for a while, or perhaps forever. I’ve found the conversation useful and I am grateful to Harris for suggesting it and for his contributions to it. For now, though, I believe we will both be turning our attention to other things. Unless, of course, something in this essay inspires a reposte from him.