Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Aspects of the Novel

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

Shakespeare and the art of revision

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The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on April 22, 2016.

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t tend to see him as an author who meticulously revised his work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out raw poetry onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how Shakespeare seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the last stanza of “The Phoenix and the Turtle.” I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through offhand references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is inherently revealing. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, while revising the first draft, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story that you know what it’s really about. And the little that we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm that he followed this approach.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but it may not have even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings through the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we think?”

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2017 at 8:03 am

Shakespeare and the art of revision

with 4 comments

The Sanders portrait of William Shakespeare

When we think of William Shakespeare, we don’t often see him as a writer who meticulously revised his own work. His reputation as a prodigy of nature, pouring out poetry unaltered onto the page, owes a lot to Ben Jonson’s short reminiscence of his friend, which is still the most valuable portrait we have of how he seemed to those who knew him best:

I remember the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line. My answer hath been, “Would he had blotted a thousand,” which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this but for their ignorance, who chose that circumstance to commend their friend by wherein he most faulted; and to justify mine own candor, for I loved the man, and do honor his memory on this side idolatry as much as any. He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature; had an excellent fancy, brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that facility that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped…His wit was in his own power; would the rule of it had been so too…But he redeemed his vices with his virtues. There was ever more in him to be praised than to be pardoned.

And even Shakespeare’s admirers have to admit that his sheer imaginative fertility—the greatest of any writer who ever lived—led him to produce bad lines as well as good, often side by side. (My favorite example is the ending of “The Phoenix and the Turtle”: I don’t think it’s possible to read “For these dead birds sigh a prayer” as anything other than one of the worst lines of poetry ever written.)

But he did revise, both on the overarching levels of character and theme and on the level of the individual line. Harold Bloom, among others, has advanced the ingenious theory that the lost Ur-Hamlet, which we know only through passing references by contemporaries, was nothing less than an early draft by the young Shakespeare himself. We know that it wasn’t particularly good: the author Thomas Lodge refers to the king’s ghost crying “Hamlet, revenge!” in a way that implies that it became a running joke among theatergoers. But the idea that Shakespeare went back and revised it so many years later is revealing in itself. We know that the story was personally meaningful to him—he named his own son after Hamlet—and that the lost version would have been one of the first plays he ever wrote. And Hamlet itself, when we read it in this light, looks a lot like a play that found its final form through repeated acts of revision. F. Scott Fitzgerald once called himself a “taker-outer,” while his friend Thomas Wolfe was a “putter-inner,” which prompted Wolfe to reply:

You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoevsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.

And Hamlet stands as the one instance in which Shakespeare, in revision, put in everything he wanted, even if the result was close to unplayable on stage.

Timon of Athens

There’s an even more compelling glimpse of Shakespeare the reviser, and it comes in the unlikely form of Timon of Athens, which, by all measure, was the weirdest play he ever wrote. Scholars have attributed its stranger qualities—the loose ends, the characters who are introduced only to disappear for no reason—to a collaboration between Shakespeare and Thomas Middleton, and textual analysis seems to bear this out. But it also looks like a rough draft that Shakespeare never had a chance to revise, and if we take it as a kind of snapshot of his creative process, it’s a document of unbelievable importance. In the speech by the servant that I’ve reproduced above, you can see that it starts out as prose, then shifts halfway through to verse, a peculiar transition that occurs repeatedly in Timon but has few parallels in the other plays. This suggests that Shakespeare began by roughing out large sections of the play in prose form, and then went back to convert it into poetry. Timon just happens to be the one play in which the process of revision was interrupted, leaving the work in an unfinished state. It implies that Shakespeare’s approach wasn’t so different from the one that I’ve advocated here in the past: you write an entire first draft before going back to polish it, just as a painter might do a sketch or cartoon of the whole canvas before drilling down to the fine details. It isn’t until you’ve written a story in its entirety that you know what it’s really about. And the little we know about Shakespeare’s methods seems to confirm this.

But his revisions didn’t end there, either. These plays were meant for performance, and like all theatrical works, they evolved in response to rehearsals, the needs of the actors, and the reactions of the audience. (The natural fluidity of the text on the stage goes a long way toward explaining why certain plays, like King Lear, exist in radically different versions in folio or quarto form. Some scholars seem bewildered by the fact that Shakespeare could be so indifferent to his own work that he didn’t bother to finalize a definitive version of Lear, but I’m not sure if it even struck him as a problem. The plays took different shapes in response to the needs of the moment, and Shakespeare, the ultimate pragmatist, knew that there was always more where that came from.) And the idea of ongoing revision is inseparable from his conception of the world. Bloom famously talks about Shakespearean characters “overhearing” themselves, which lies at the center of his imaginative achievement: figures like Richard II and Hamlet seem to listen to themselves speaking, and they evolve and deepen before our eyes in response to what they hear in their own words. But what Bloom calls “the depiction of self-change on the basis of self-overhearing” is a lesson that could only have come out of the revision process, in which the writer figures out his own feelings in the act of rewriting. As E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel: “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” Shakespeare knew this, too. And thanks to his work—and his revisions—we can echo it in our own lives: “How can we know who we are until we hear what we say?”

Written by nevalalee

April 22, 2016 at 9:00 am

The nine sorts of weather

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E.M. Forster

The most amazing work on the novel that I have met for many years…was a literary manual entitled Materials and Methods of Fiction. The writer’s name shall be concealed. He was a pseudo-scholar and a good one. He classified novels by their dates, their length, their locality, their sex, their point of view, till no more seemed possible. But he still had the weather up his sleeve, and when he brought it out, it had nine heads.

He gave an example under each head, for he was anything but slovenly, and we will run through his list. In the first place, weather can be “decorative,” as in Pierre Loti; then “utilitarian,” as in The Mill on the Floss (no Floss, no Mill; no Mill, no Tullivers); “illustrative” as in The Egoist; “planned in pre-established harmony,” as by Fiona MacLeod; “in emotional contrast,” as in The Master of Ballantrae; “determinative of action,” as in a certain Kipling story, where a man proposes to the wrong girl on account of a mud storm; a “controlling influence,” Richard Feverel; “itself a hero,” like Vesuvius in The Last Days of Pompeii; and ninthly, it can be “non-existent,” as in a nursery tale. I liked him flinging in nonexistence. It made everything so scientific and trim.

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Written by nevalalee

October 11, 2015 at 7:25 am

“Her face was that of a woman with secrets…”

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"She had never considered herself particularly Indian..."

Note: This post is the thirteenth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 14. You can read the previous installments here.

Of all the misconceptions that frustrate aspiring writers, one of the most insidious involves the distinction between flat and round characters. As formulated by E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel, a flat character is one that expresses a single, unchanging idea or quality, while a round character has the ability to change or surprise us. One certainly sounds better than the other, and as a result, you’ll often find writers fretting over the fact that one character or another in their stories is flat, or wondering how to construct a suitably round character from scratch, as if it were a matter of submitting the proper design specifications. What all this misses is the fact that Forster’s original categories were descriptive, not prescriptive, and a round character isn’t inherently more desirable than a flat one: as with everything else in writing, it depends on execution and the role a particular character plays in the narrative as a whole. It’s true that Forster concludes by saying: “We must admit that flat people are not in themselves as big achievements as round ones.” But he also prefaces this with three full pages of reasons why flat characters can be useful—or essential—in even the greatest of novels.

So why should we ever prefer a flat character over a round? Forster notes that flat characters often linger in the memory more vividly after the novel is over; they can be brought onstage in full force, rather than being slowly developed; and they’re easily recognizable, which can serve as an organizing principle in a complicated story. (He even says that Russian novels could use more of them.) In the work of writers like Dickens, who gives us pretty much nothing but flat characters, or Proust, who uses almost as many, their interest arises from their interactions with one another and the events of the plot: “He is the idea, and such life as he possesses radiates from its edges and from the scintillations it strikes when other elements in the novel impinge.” If Forster had lived a little later, he might have also mentioned Thomas Pynchon, whose works are populated by caricatures and cartoons whose flatness becomes a kind of strategy for managing the novel’s complexity. Flat characters have their limitations; they’re more appealing when comic than tragic, and they work best when they set off a round character at the center. But most good novels, as Forster observes, contain a mixture of the two: “A novel that is at all complex often requires flat people as well as round, and the outcome of their collisions parallels life more accurately.”

"Her face was that of a woman with secrets..."

And a memorable flat character requires as much work and imagination as one seen in the round. A bad, unconvincing character is sometimes described as “flat,” but the problem isn’t flatness in itself—it’s the lack of energy or ingenuity devoted to rendering that one vivid quality, or the author’s failure to recognize when one or another category of character is required. A bad flat character can be unbearable, but a bad round character tends to dissolve into a big pile of nothing, an empty collection of notions without anything to hold it together, as we see in so much literary fiction. The great ideal is a round, compelling character, but in order to surprise the reader, he or she has to surprise the writer first. And in practice, what this usually means is that a character who was introduced to fill a particular role gradually begins to take on other qualities, not through some kind of magic, but simply as the part is extended through multiple incidents and situations. Sherlock Holmes is fairly flat as first introduced in A Study in Scarlet: he’s extraordinarily memorable, but also the expression of a single idea. It’s only when the element of time is introduced, in the form of a series of stories, that he acquires an inner life. Not every flat character evolves into roundness, but when one does, the result is often more interesting than if it were conceived that way from the ground up.

My own novels contain plenty of flat characters, mostly to fill a necessary function or story point, but the one who turned into something more is Maya Asthana. She began, as most flat characters do, purely as a matter of convenience. Wolfe needed to talk to somebody, so I gave her a friend, and most of her qualities were chosen to make her marginally more vivid in what I thought would be her limited time onstage: I made her South Asian, which was an idea left over from an early conception of Wolfe herself, and I decided that she’d be planning her wedding, since this would provide her with a few easy bits of business that could be introduced without much trouble. But as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Asthana got caught up in a radical shift in the logic of the novel itself: I needed a mole and a traitor within the agency, and after my original plan turned out to be unworkable, I cast around for someone else to fill that role. Asthana happened to be handy. And by turning her into a villain without changing a word of her initial presentation in City of Exiles, I got something far more intriguing than if I’d had this in mind from the beginning. Chapter 14 of Eternal Empire represents our first extended look at Asthana from the inside, and I like how the characteristics she acquired before I knew her true nature—her vanity, her intelligence, her perfect life with her fiancé—vibrate against what she became. Not every character turns out this way; these novels are filled with minor players content to occupy their roles. But Asthana, lucky for me and unlucky for everyone else, wanted to be more…

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

March 12, 2012 at 7:50 am

Quote of the Day

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Neanderthal man listened to stories, if we may judge by the shape of his skull. The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gasping around the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or woolly-rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel

Written by nevalalee

April 25, 2011 at 8:05 am

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