Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for September 13th, 2018

The flat earth society

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In his indispensable book Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster draws a famous distinction between flat and round characters in fiction. This classification has been beaten to death in countless high school literature classes, so it can be bracing to revisit his original language:

In their purest form, [flat characters] are constructed round a single idea or quality: when there is more than one factor in them, we get the beginning of the curve towards the round…One great advantage of flat characters is that they are easily recognized whenever they come in—recognized by the reader’s emotional eye, not by the visual eye, which merely notes the recurrence of a proper name. In Russian novels, where they so seldom occur, they would be a decided help. It is a convenience for an author when he can strike with his full force at once, and flat characters are very useful to him, since they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere—little luminous disks of a pre-arranged size, pushed hither and thither like counters across the void or between the stars; most satisfactory.

This kind of insight from a professional novelist is cold, hard cash, and it reminds us that a round character isn’t necessarily better than a flat one. “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round,” Forster says, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say that I frequently get more enjoyment from stories populated by vivid flat characters than by the indistinguishable round ones of so much modernist realism.

Yet there’s an even deeper point to be made here, which is that flatness may actually be closer to how we think about the people around us, or even about ourselves. We can start with Forster’s observation that flat characters are often more memorable than round ones: “They remain in [the reader’s] mind as unalterable for the reason that they were not changed by circumstances; they moved through circumstances, which gives them in retrospect a comforting quality, and preserves them when the book that produced them may decay.” And I’d argue that we also remember flat characters more clearly because they partake of the ways in which we see the supporting players in our own lives. When we think of neighbors, coworkers, and other casual acquaintances, we’re likely to associate them with one or two obvious qualities, if we even manage to have a distinct impression of them at all. It’s only the ones we know best—our families, lovers and closest friends—that we can grasp with the nuance with which we view the roundest characters in fiction. And this can even extend to our own motivations. It’s hard for us to integrate all aspects of our past and personality at once, except when it takes the form of instinct. Most of our actions are intuitive or habitual, and when we need to consciously pay attention, it’s easier to emphasize one part of our identity at a time. We can switch between roles multiple times each day, or we can play a single part for years. It’s an adaptive strategy that makes it easier for us to act and make decisions. We’re only one thing at a time because that’s all we can keep in our heads at once, and the other sides of ourselves have a way of falling into line.

I started thinking about this after reading an article by Perry Bacon, Jr. on FiveThirtyEight on how Americans seem to be shifting other aspects of their identity—like religion or ethnicity—to fit their political affiliations. This conclusion is based on a paper by the political scientist Patrick Egan, who analyzed a series of surveys that were given to the same group of respondents over time. He found that what we tend to see as relatively fixed demographic information can actually be quite fluid, and that these changes are strongly correlated with the political labels that we embrace. As Bacon sums up the results:

Liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to start identifying as Latino or saying that their ancestry was African, Asian or Hispanic.

Conservative Republicans were much more likely than liberal Democrats to become born-again Christians and to stop identifying as non-religious; liberal Democrats were much more likely than conservative Republicans to leave religion and stop describing themselves as born-again.

Conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to stop describing themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual; liberal-leaning Democrats were more likely to start identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual.

Bacon concludes: “Increasingly, the political party you belong to represents a big part of your identity and is not just a reflection of your political views. It may even be your most important identity.” And this strikes me as only a specific case of the way in which we flatten ourselves out to make our inner lives more manageable. We pick and choose what else we emphasize to better fit with the overall story that we’re telling. It’s just more obvious these days.

And while this might seem like a stretch, I can’t resist drawing a comparison between our two most recent presidents. Whatever else you might think of Obama, he was undeniably complicated, with a personality shaped by a vast network of pressures and expectations. From a literary standpoint, he was a round character. Trump, by contrast, can seem ridiculously flat. Nearly everything that he does can be adequately explained by his vanity, or his desire to project weakness as strength, and he emerges as a far more sinister version of a flat character like Mr. Pickwick. As Forster writes: “It is a conjuring trick; at any moment we may look at Mr. Pickwick edgeways and find him no thicker than a gramophone record. But we never get the sideway view. Mr. Pickwick is far too adroit and well trained. He always has the air of weighing something.” And there’s a real mismatch between Trump’s flatness, which is traditionally a comic quality, and the tragic consequences of his actions. Here’s Forster again:

[Flat people] are best when they are comic. A serious or tragic flat character is apt to be a bore. Each time he enters crying “Revenge!” or “My heart bleeds for humanity!” or whatever his formula is, our hearts sink…It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humor and appropriateness.

Cultures have a way of taking psychological cues from their heads of state. As Forster says of one critical objection to flat characters: “Queen Victoria, they argue, cannot be summed up in a single sentence, so what excuse remains for Mrs. Micawber?” When the president himself is flat—which is another way of saying that he can no longer surprise us on the downside—it has implications both for our literature and for our private lives. The process is already happening. And it shouldn’t astonish us if we all wake up one day to discover that the world is flat.

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 8:39 am

Quote of the Day

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Working-class audiences like laughs; middle-class audiences in the theatre tend to think laughter makes the play less serious. On comedy working-class audiences are rather more sophisticated. Many working-class people spend a lot of their lives making jokes about themselves and their bosses and their world as it changes. So the jokes that a working-class audience likes have to be good ones, not old ones; they require a higher level of comic skill.

John McGrath, A Good Night Out

Written by nevalalee

September 13, 2018 at 7:30 am

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