Friday, February 17, 2006

Muddling Through

I'm working on my talk for the Asilomar conference, which is -- urgh -- next week. (Urgh to the fast-approaching deadline, not to the conference, which I'm really looking forward to.) My talk is titled "Aristotle, Austen, Plot, and Pleasure: What a Dead Greek Philosopher and a Classic English Novelist Can Teach Us about Writing for Children"; I'm at the point where I'm moving ideas around, looking for connections and patterns, so the right structure will emerge. My problem right now is that there are so many things I can talk about here -- Freitag's triangle, building character, morality in fiction and how that's different from messages (because morality = good, messages = bad), how I fell in love with Austen, what parts of Aristotle's concept of tragedy apply to children's fiction and what's appropriate only for Greek drama -- that I'm really having to discipline myself to keep my focus on what's useful for children's writers: points on plot structure, yes, a paean to Austen, no.

(In rereading the Poetics, I was delighted to see that Aristotle lists not two but three important elements in plot structure: Recognitions, Reversals, and Suffering. I remembered the first two but had forgot suffering, and I loved seeing it here because it so justifies my own tastes: I'm a total emotional junkie when it comes to fiction and music, and I love it when an author twists me up in knots with his/her characters. This is why I loved Order of the Phoenix so deeply, in fact, all Harry's ever-so-realistic anger and confusion -- that scene in Dumbledore's office at the end makes my heart physically hurt for him, and I adore that. People have to hurt, people have to be in pain, for there to be a happy ending -- or rather, for the happy ending to be worth anything. I'm glad Aristotle says that too.)

I'm also thinking a lot about this wonderful, wonderful lecture by Zadie Smith on ethical strategies in fiction. This sounds pretentious and frightening, but it comes down to the fact that every author puts forth a morality in his or her work in the way s/he treats her characters, from the fate they receive according to the plot down to the very mechanics of how much "screen time" (page time?) they get and the author's attitude toward them while they're there. In particular she compares Austen and E.M. Forster: Austen loves her heroines and heroes, and dismisses the other characters as Not Good Enough or Interesting Enough or Conscious Enough, I think often, not well enough aware of the effect their words and actions have in the world: deeply selfish, really, in their focus on no one but themselves and their immediate concerns. Whereas Forster has sympathy toward everyone, even those who have no imagination or sympathy for others; "Only connect" is the great motto of Howards End, and he seems to strive to do that even with the people he wouldn't like in real life. Austen likewise has a epigrammatically neat plot structure -- the Perfect Plot, according to Aristotle and Owen Jenkins -- while Forster muddles all over the place, jumping about in time, tying his books off very quickly . . . something always feeling missing. Smith sees these two authorial predilections as connected, and derives the authors' ethics from that, and a moral education from that; go read the article (and Pride and Prejudice and A Room with A View) for more.

What comes out of Smith's talk that's useful for me with my talk is two reminders: how much of art's effectiveness comes back to emotional catharsis, and that the Perfect Plot isn't the only plot. But you need a damn good reason to deviate from the Perfect Plot, because your plot still has to accomplish that emotional catharsis even if you're not following the usual means of achieving it. All this will make much more sense and be much more practical in the talk, I swear.

Smith's speech speaks also to the vague dissatisfaction I felt with two novels I read recently: Sarah Dessen's Just Listen, which I praised below, and Jennifer Crusie's book with Bob Mayer, Don't Look Down, which I finished on the plane home from Ireland -- both of which I otherwise enjoyed mightily, I should say. Both of these books are technically perfect, the Dessen especially, with motifs introduced early, unfolding throughout, playing their one perfect moment in the plot structure, then receding gracefully into the background to be incorporated into the final image. And it is lovely, but for all my Austen-lover's soul, and for everything I'm going to say about perfect plots in this talk, I felt the slightest bit disappointed by the neatness of this technique: Life is messier than this. The motifs don't resolve, the boy disappears, the Russian mobster gets his pre-Columbian porn and doesn't show up for the rendezvous with the CIA (this last would be the Crusie). Of course this is the great satisfaction of fiction, of art, that we can make all the threads tie up right for once -- and there's morality there, too, that readers have the happiness and pleasure of believing that can happen. As it does sometimes happen, maybe even often. But the complexity of real life means that usually at least one thread blows in the wind, and right now I'm in a mood to value complexity more than perfection.

Good lord, I write long posts. This is why I love giving talks at SCBWI conferences, the chance to think about all these issues theoretically as well as practically; and why I love writing this blog, because -- to quote Forster -- "I know what I think when I see what I say." I go forth to write usefully now; thanks to all of you who saw this through.


  1. I need to reread the Zadie Smith piece, but I wanted to pick up on the 'screen time' given characters as a clue to the author's moral universe. When I began Daniel Deronda I was annoyed at having to spend so much time with Gwendolen. I really didn't like her. At all. And I didn't want to be inside her head. But Daniel's huge moral sympathy with most everybody in the world shamed me, and I tried to be more charitable toward Gwendolen. And it's working. I do like her better. That darn George Eliot. Nothing like being worked over morally and enjoying it. Sheesh.

  2. I hate to put it this way, but do you ever wonder whether most of what you say goes over the head of your audience at SCBWI conferences?

  3. hmm...I wish to revise my earlier comment slightly. One of the advantages of listening to or reading how articulate, bright people analyze and explain things is that the world becomes more clear. Thoughts that were mere wisps become concrete. A good example is art: my sister, who has taken a number of history of art classes, has developed an eye and vocabulary for looking at, analyzing, and explaining art. (You have an eye too, though I don't think that it's developed in the same way as my sister's given the respective amount of time that I imagine the two of you having spent looking at paintings and the greater amount of formal training that she's had). Whereas I see a piece and think and say "I like this," she is actually able to explain why she likes it and why I like it. Therefore, I can see how your audience might appreciate your thoughts on plot, because you are basically teaching them how to "see." However, I wonder whether you are teaching them to "see" too much in that maybe they're not ready to "see" yet.

  4. I hope that you post your speech on your website. Hopefully I'll be able to figure it out, since I belong to SCBWI :)

  5. My listeners usually don't have my English-major background, you're right. But it would be a bad talk if I said anything that went over their heads, or if I was addressing my own interests and concerns (Austen, Forster, literary criticism, moral goods in novels, etc.) more than what's useful to them (how plots work, what is satisfying and unsatisfying in a plot, why we write). So my talk will be very much Aristotle & Austen 101 and how their techniques can work for my listeners, and I'll save all my personal obsessions with lit crit for my blog here -- as I just did. Usefulness, usefulness. Word of the week.

  6. As someone who will be attending the Asilomar conference and get to hear you in person can I just say I am really looking forward to your speech?

    We love speakers with meat in their talks, as this one sounds like it will be.

    Oh, and if you've never been to Asilomar, you're in for a treat. The place is beautiful.

    Looking forward to meeting you.

    Susan Taylor Brown