Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

What would Rex Harrison do?

with 4 comments

Earlier this month, in his rather unenthusiastic review of the new musical Nice Work if You Can Get It, Hilton Als wrote of star Matthew Broderick, who, for all his other talents, is manifestly not a dancer: “His dancing should be a physical equivalent of Rex Harrison’s speaking his songs in [My Fair Lady]: self-assured and brilliant in its use of the performer’s limitations.” It’s a nice comparison, and indeed, Rex Harrison is one of the most triumphant examples in the history of entertainment of a performer turning his limitations into something uniquely his own. (If I could go back in time to see only one musical, it would be the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Harrison and the young Julie Andrews.) And while most of us rightly strive to overcome our limitations, it can also be useful to find ways of turning them into advantages, or at least to find roles for which we’re naturally suited, shortcomings and all.

Years of writing have taught me that I have at least two major limitations as a novelist (although my readers can probably think of more). The first is that my style of writing is essentially serious. I don’t think it’s solemn, necessarily, and I’d like to think that my fiction shows some wit in its construction and execution. But I’m not a naturally funny writer, and I’m in awe of authors like P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, or even Joss Whedon, whose sense of humor is inseparable from their way of regarding the world. The Icon Thief contains maybe three jokes, and I’m inordinately proud of all of them, just because they don’t come naturally. This isn’t to say that I’m a humorless or dour person, but that being funny in print is really hard, and it’s a skill set that I don’t seem to have, at least not in fiction. And while I’d like to develop this quality, if only to increase my range of available subjects and moods, I expect that it’s always going to be pretty limited.

My other big limitation is that I only seem capable of writing stories in which something is always happening. The Icon Thief and its sequels are stuffed with plot and incident, largely because I’m not sure what I’d do if the action slowed down. In this, I’m probably influenced by the movies I love. In his essay on Yasujiro Ozu, David Thomson writes:

[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, whenever I write a page in which nothing happens, I get nervous. This isn’t the worst problem for a mainstream novelist to have, but like my essential seriousness, it limits my ability to tell certain kinds of stories. (This may be why I’m so impressed by the work of, say, Nicholson Baker, who writes brilliantly funny novels in which almost nothing takes place.)

So what do I do? I do what Rex Harrison did: I look for material where my limitations can be mistaken for strengths. In short, I write suspense fiction, which tends to be forgiving of essential seriousness—it’s hard to find a funny line in any of Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth, for example—and for restless, compulsive action, all executed within a fairly narrow range of tone. When I write in other genres, like science fiction, I basically approach the story if I were still writing suspense, which, luckily, happens to be a fairly adaptable mode. And while I’ll always continue to push myself as a writer, and hope to eventually expand my tonal and emotional range, I’m glad that I’ve found at least one place where my limitations feel at home, and where they can occasionally flower forth into full song. For everything else, I’m content just to speak to the music.

4 Responses

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  1. Thanks for this post. I’m often amazed by people who say a work ‘fails’ when it has no plot. I rarely say anything in return, since events/plot is often the last thing I notice. I need a ‘pause’ button for life, maybe?


    May 30, 2012 at 11:21 am

  2. Good, plotless fiction is the hardest thing in the world to write, although if you look closely enough, you’ll often find a plot in disguise. I’ve always liked what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on the subject.


    May 30, 2012 at 1:11 pm

  3. My favourite writer is Marilynne Robinson and you’d have to say her writing style is “essentially serious”. And yet Gilead, for example, is laced with the most wonderful humour. I’ll never forget the scene where the horse sank through the road into a tunnel dug by the hapless townfolk. I still marvel at the way Robinson can make me laugh out loud while retaining her tone of high seriousness. Just enough. A rare gift.

    Catherine McCallum

    May 31, 2012 at 12:03 am

  4. It’s incredibly hard. I feel the same way about T.H. White.


    May 31, 2012 at 11:05 am

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