Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Charles Dickens

The intensity of the wish

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To work on an idea does not mean intellectual concentration of the usual kind. No sweating here will do. A prayerful solitude with a dash of austerity in the daily routine is necessary; then, what Tyndall, describing the production of inventions, called “brooding,” and what Newton called “thinking of it all the time.” It seems as if the earnest wish to get at the whole thing should be the chief thing, acting, of course, on our subconsciousness. The experience of most artists is that the quality of their production is in keeping with the intensity of their wish. As I said before, Sir Walter Scott reading books with no relevance whatever to his subjects, or Charles Dickens rambling through the deserted streets at night, was trying to retard rather than hasten what we call clear thought, but which ought to be called final thought. Real work, real brooding consist in peopling the mind with congenial images, sometimes called in by our desire, sometimes-conjured up from our memories gone over at random rather than methodically. When the light comes at last, as full as we can expect it ever to be, whatever we do, do not let us map out what we have discovered in the shape of a synopsis. Numbering and brackets are too unlike thought ever to revive its first appearance.

Ernest Dimnet, The Art of Thinking

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2017 at 7:30 am

“Their journey so far had been uneventful…”

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"The overnight train from Paris to Munich..."

Note: This post is the twenty-ninth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 28. You can read the previous installments here.

In evolutionary theory, there’s a concept known as exaptation, in which a trait that evolved because it met a particular need turns out to be just as useful for something else. Feathers, for instance, originally provided a means of regulating body temperature, but they ended up being crucial in the development of flight, and in other cases, a trait that played a secondary or supporting role to another adaptation becomes important enough to serve an unrelated purpose of its own. We see much the same process at work in genre fiction, which is subject to selective pressures from authors, editors, and especially readers. The genres we see today, like suspense or romance, might seem inevitable, but their conventions are really just a set of the recipes or tricks that worked. Such innovations are rarely introduced as a conscious attempt to define a new category of fiction, but as solutions to the problems that a specific narrative presents. The elements we see in Jane Eyre—the isolated house, the orphaned heroine, the employer with a mysterious past—arose from Charlotte Brontë’s confrontation with that particular story, but they worked so well that they were appropriated by a cohort of other writers, working in the now defunct genre of the gothic romance. And I suspect that Brontë would be as surprised as anyone by the uses to which her ideas have been put.

It’s rare for a genre to emerge, as gothic romance did, from a single book; more often, it’s the result of small shifts in a wide range of titles, with each book accidentally providing a useful tool that is picked up and used by others. Repeat the process for a generation or two, and you end up with a set of conventions to which later writers will repeatedly return. And as with other forms of natural selection, a secondary adaptation, introduced to enable something else, can evolve to take over the whole genre. The figure of the detective or private eye is a good example. When you look at the earliest works of mystery fiction we have, from Bleak House to The Moonstone, you often find that the detective plays a minor role: he pops up toward the middle of the story, he nudges the plot along when necessary, and he defers whenever possible to the other characters. Even in A Study in Scarlet, Holmes is only one character among many, and the book drops him entirely in favor of a long flashback about the Mormons. Ultimately, though, the detective—whose initial role was purely functional—evolved to become the central attraction, with the romantic leads who were the focus of attention in Dickens or Collins reduced to the interchangeable supporting players of an Agatha Christie novel. The detective was originally just a way of feathering the story; in the end, he was what allowed the genre to take flight.

"Their journey so far had been uneventful..."

You see something similar in suspense’s obsession with modes of transportation. One of the first great attractions of escapist spy fiction lay in the range of locations it presented: it allowed readers to vicariously travel to various exotic locales. (This hasn’t changed, either: the latest Mission: Impossible movie takes us to Belarus, Cuba, Virginia, Paris, Vienna, Casablanca, and London.) The planes, trains, and automobiles that fill such novels were meant simply to get the characters from place to place. Over time, though, they became set pieces in their own right. I’ve noted elsewhere that what we call an airport novel was literally a story set largely in airports, as characters flew from one exciting setting to another, and you could compile an entire anthology of thriller scenes set on trains or planes. At first, they were little more than connective tissue—you had to show the characters going from point A to point B, and the story couldn’t always cut straight from Lisbon to Marrakesh—but these interstitial scenes ultimately evolved into a point of interest in themselves. They also play a useful structural role. Every narrative requires a few pauses or transitions to gather itself between plot points, and staging such scenes on an interesting form of transport makes it seem as if the story is advancing, even if it’s taking a breather.

In Eternal Empire, for instance, there’s an entire chapter focusing on Ilya and his minder Bogdan as they take the Cassiopeia railway from Paris to Munich. There’s no particular reason it needs to exist at all, and although it contains some meaningful tidbits of backstory, I could have introduced this material in any number of other ways. But I wanted to write a train scene, in part as an homage to the genre, in part because it seemed unrealistic to leave Ilya’s fugitive journey undescribed, and in part because it gave me the setting I needed. There’s a hint of subterfuge, with my two travelers moving from one train station to another under false passports, and a complication in the fact that neither can bring a gun onboard, leaving them both unarmed. Really, though, it’s a scene about two men sizing each other up, and thrillers have long since learned that a train is the best place for such conversations, which is why characters always seem to be coming and going at railway stations. (In the show Hannibal, Will and Chiyo spend most of an episode on an overnight train to Florence, although they easily could have flown. It ends with Chiyo shoving Will onto the tracks, but I suspect that it’s really there to give them a chance to talk, which wouldn’t play as well on a plane.) Ilya and Bogdan have a lot to talk about. And when they get to their destination, they’ll have even more to say…

“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…

Is storytelling kid’s stuff?

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John Tenniel's illustration of the Red Queen

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. When you’re a full-time dad, you’re constantly in search of places where your child can romp happily for half an hour without continuous supervision, and our library fills that need admirably: it’s full of physical books, toys, activities, and new faces and friends, so I can grab a chair in the corner and take a richly deserved minute or two for myself while Beatrix goes exploring within my line of sight. Sometimes, when it looks like she’ll be staying put for a while, I’ll get up to browse the books on the shelves, both with an eye to my daughter’s reading and to my own. I’ll often pick up a title I remember and find myself lost in it all over again, and it’s a pleasure to discover that old favorites as different as The Way Things Work, The Eleventh Hour, and D’Aulaires’ Norse Myths have lost none of their fascination. There’s a considerable overlap between what kids and adults find interesting, and the best children’s books, like the best movies, can hold anyone’s attention.

I recently found myself thinking about this more intently, after discovering a shelf at the library that I’d somehow overlooked before. It’s a section devoted to classic literature for kids, and all of the usual suspects are here, from Anne of Green Gables to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the latter of which is still the best children’s book ever written, and possibly, as Alan Perlis observed, the best book ever written about anything. But there were also many titles that weren’t originally written for younger readers but have been retroactively absorbed into the young adult canon. There was a generous selection of Dickens, for example, not far from Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the same process has already gone to work on J.R.R. Tolkien. Novels of an earlier era that were written by grownups for other grownups start to look like children’s books: neither The Last of the Mohicans nor Huckleberry Finn nor To Kill a Mockingbird were conceived as works for young readers, but now we’re as likely to see them here as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

David Mitchell

There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, none of which are especially mysterious. Most of these books were four-quadrant novels in the first place: Dickens, like J.K. Rowling, was devoured by everyone at the time who could read. Many feature younger protagonists, so we naturally tend to classify them, rightly or wrongly, as children’s books, which also applies to stories, like the Greek myths, that contain elements of what look today like fantasy. And a lot of them are on school curricula. But there’s also a sense in which the novel, like any art form, advances in such a way to make its most innovative early examples feel a bit naive, or like more primal forms of storytelling that appeal to readers who are still working their way into the medium. Plato says that if the mythical sculptor Daedalus were to appear and start make statues again, we’d all laugh at him, and something similar seems to take place within literature. As the opening paragraph of James Wood’s recent review of the new David Mitchell novel makes clear, critics have a way of regarding storytelling as somewhat suspicious: “The embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” It feels, in short, like kid’s stuff.

But it isn’t, not really, and it’s easy to invert the argument I’ve given above: the books that last long enough to be assimilated into children’s literature are the ones that offer universal narrative pleasures that have allowed them to survive. Don Quixote can be found in the children’s section, at least in its abridged form, but it’s also, as Harold Bloom says, “the most advanced work of prose fiction we have.” A bright kid wants to read Homer or Poe because of the virtues that make them appealing to everyone—and it’s worth noting that most libraries keep two sets of each on hand, one in the children’s section, the other for adults. Every generation produces reams of stories written specifically for children, and nearly all of them have gone out of print, leaving only those books that pursued story without regard for any particular audience. The slow creep of classic literature into the children’s library is only a mirror image of the more rapid incursion, which we’ve seen in recent years, of young adult literature into the hands of grownups, and I don’t think there’s any doubt as to which is the most positive trend. But they’re both reflections of the same principle. Storytelling breaks through all the categories we impose, and the real measure of value comes when we see what children are reading, on their own, a hundred years from now.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Quote of the Day

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Prowling about the room, sitting down, getting up, stirring the fire, looking out of the window, tearing my hear, sitting down to write, writing nothing, writing something and tearing it up, going out, coming in, a Monster to my family, a dread Phaenomenon to myself.

Charles Dickens, on the writing of Little Dorrit

Written by nevalalee

February 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

July 20, 2011 at 8:04 am

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Technology and its discontents

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Tron: Legacy, which is the worst movie I’ve seen all year, is the most compelling proof I’ve found in a while that Hollywood needs to take a step back from technology. Granted, Tron has all kinds of other issues—it’s a classic example of why a director who makes great television commercials might not yet be ready for a feature film—but its fatal flaw is one of technological overload. In the old days, special effects were about solving problems; today, at least for most films, it’s a question of rendering time. And I can’t help wondering if the makers of Tron, faced with greater limitations, might have noticed that their movie lacked a coherent story, interesting characters, or even a sense of the rules of its own imaginary world.

Which isn’t to say that technology is always bad. Like many writers, I have mixed feelings about the technological resources at my disposal, but I’m generally thankful for the ease and convenience they afford. Google is an amazing tool, and while it isn’t a replacement for more traditional methods of research, it certainly allowed me to write a complicated novel in half the time that it might have taken even ten years ago. And when I look at the handwritten drafts of, say, Charles Dickens, it leaves me deeply grateful that I can type my manuscripts in Microsoft Word:

But as with most things in life, there are tradeoffs. I’ve spoken before about how the ease of typing in Word has deprived me of some of the creative moments that occasionally arise when writing by hand. John Gardner’s typo of “murder” for “mirror” obviously has much greater impact on a typewriter, when it stares you in the face until laboriously corrected, than on Word, where it can be deleted and retyped at once. And it’s even possible that Rossini would never have composed his Prayer of Moses in its current form if he had been using blotting paper instead of sand.

Walter Murch, the legendary film editor I’ve mentioned before, experienced a similar loss of providential randomness when he switched from old-fashioned editing machines to nonlinear systems like Apple’s Final Cut Pro. Charles Koppleman describes the issue eloquently in his wonderful book Behind the Seen:

The efficiency, speed, and increased choices of non-linear editing all have their benefits. But systems like Avid or Final Cut Pro obliterate some film editing tasks that contribute to the editor’s creative process. As Murch often points out, the simple act of having to rewind film on a flatbed editing machine gave him a chance to see footage in another context (high-speed, reverse) that could reveal a look, a gesture, or a completely forgotten shot. Likewise, the few moments he had to spend waiting for a reel to rewind injected a blank space into the process during which he could simply let his mind wander into subconscious areas. With random-access, computer-based editing, a mouse click instantly takes the editor right to a desired frame; there is no waiting, no downtime—and fewer happy accidents.

Murch, like most artists, has developed ways of injecting “happy accidents” into a creative process that might otherwise seem too efficient. Tomorrow, I’ll be discussing some of the methods that Murch has used, as well as a few more tricks that work for me.

Written by nevalalee

December 18, 2010 at 1:04 pm

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