Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Christian Friedrich Hebbel

“The hood came down over her head…”

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"A sort of code..."

Note: This post is the twenty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 25. You can read the previous installments here.

A section break in a novel, like the end of a chapter, is like the frame around a painting: it’s an artifact of the physical constraints of the medium, but it also becomes an expressive tool in its own right. When books like the Iliad or Odyssey were stored in scroll form, there were inherent limits to how large any one piece could be, and writers—or at least their scribes—began to structure those works accordingly. These days, there’s no particular reason why a novel needs to be cut up into sections or chapters at all, but we retain the convention because it turned out to be useful as a literary strategy. A chapter break gives the reader a bit of breathing space; it can be used as a punchline or statement in itself, like an abrupt cut to black in a movie; and it allows the patterns of the story to emerge more clearly, with the white space between scenes serving as a version of William Blake’s bounding line. This is particularly true of novels made up of many short chapters, which allow a rhythm to be established that creates an urgency of its own. We associate the technique with popular fiction, but even a literary novel like James Salter’s Solo Faces, which I’m reading now, benefits from that kind of momentum. (To be fair, more than one reader has criticized the chapters in my own novels as being too short.)

Elsewhere, I’ve defined a chapter as a unit of narrative that gives the reader something to anticipate. Ideally, every element should inform our expectations about what happens next, and as soon as that anticipation assumes a concrete form, the chapter ends. This is really more a guideline for writers than an empirical observation: in practice, chapters open and close in all kinds of places. But it’s a useful rule to keep in mind, along with the general principle that scenes should start as late and end as early as possible. And it’s often something that can only be achieved in the rewrite. When you’re writing a first draft, a chapter may simply be the maximum amount of narrative that you’re capable of keeping in your head all at once. The lengths of the chapters in my novels are organically connected to how much I can write in one day, which I suspect is also true of many other writers: “It isn’t at all surprising to write a chapter in a day,” John le Carré says to The Paris Review, “which for me is about twenty-two pages.” (I love the precision of that number, by the way—that’s the mark of a real novelist.) Later, you go back to see how the rhythms enforced by the writing process can be converted into the ones that the act of reading demands, and if you’re lucky, you’ll find that the two coincide. As Christian Friedrich Hebbel says:

Whoever absorbs a work of art into himself goes through the same process as the artist who produced it—only he reverses the order of the process and increases its speed.

"The hood came down over her head..."

What’s true of a chapter is also true of a larger section, except on a correspondingly grander scale. I’ve said before that when I start working on a novel, I usually know all of the major act breaks in advance, but that’s only half correct: more accurately, I have a handful of big moments in mind, and I know enough about craft to want to structure the act breaks around them. A major turning point that occurs without propelling one section into another feels like a waste of energy. (Any good novel will have more than three or four turning points, of course, but you intuitively sense which ones deserve the most prominent positions, and build the rest of the story around them.) There are times, too, when I know that a section break ought to occur at a certain position, so the scene that leads into it has to be correspondingly built up. A moment of peril, a cliffhanger, a sudden surprise or revelation: these are the kinds of scenes that we’ve been taught to expect just before a section ends. Sometimes they can seem artificial, or like an outright cheat—as many viewers felt about the end of a recent episode of True Detective. But if you learn to honor those conventions, which evolved that way for a reason, while still meeting the demands of the story, you often end up with something better than you would have had otherwise. Which is really the only reason to think in terms of genre at all.

When it came to the end of Part I of Eternal Empire, I knew more or less what had to happen before I began writing a single word. The novel opens with the mystery of why a painting was defaced at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this seemed like a good time to resolve it. Until now, my two leads, Maddy and Ilya, had been moving along separate paths, and I had to set things up for them to intersect—which meant placing Maddy in real physical danger for the first time. Either of these story beats could have served as a decent ending for a section, and common sense dictated that I put them both together. Hence the footstep that Maddy hears behind her, and the hood that comes down over her head, a few seconds after she’s figured out the true meaning of the painting. Neither moment is necessarily related, except by the logic of the structure itself. (There’s also a sense in which I made the circumstances of Maddy’s abduction more dramatic because of where it fell in the book: it could have just been a tap on the shoulder, but it was better if it was shocking enough to carry the reader through the next stretch of pages.) Story and structure end up influencing each other in both directions, and if I’m lucky, they should seem inseparable. That’s true of every line of a novel, but it’s particularly clear at these hinge points, which are like the places where a building has to be reinforced to sustain the stresses of the overall design. And those stresses are about to get a lot more intense…

Capturing The Goldfinch

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Donna Tartt

Last week, I finally finished Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, something like six months after I first picked it up. This protracted reading period wasn’t entirely the book’s fault: I’ve been so preoccupied by work and family, and plain exhausted at night, that I’ve rarely had a chance to sit down and read more than a few pages at a time. And there’s no question that a page or two of The Goldfinch goes down as smooth and easy as a vanilla milkshake. After a hundred more, though, you find yourself in much the same place as you started, and as painless as it is, you start to wonder if it’s all really worth it. Its narrator, Theo Decker, may be the most passive protagonist I’ve ever encountered in a mainstream novel, and for grindingly long stretches, the novel traps you in the same kind of stasis. Over the course of more than seven hundred pages, Theo undertakes maybe three meaningful actions, and he spends the rest of the book in a riot of noticing, unspooling dense paragraphs of details and quirks and brand names. And it’s all true to his character. After surviving a bombing in New York that claimed his mother’s life, Theo spends the next decade in a state of paranoid numbness, a condition that would result in exactly the book we have here.

That doesn’t sound like a potential bestseller, but The Goldfinch has been a true phenomenon, moving over a million copies in hardcover on its way to a Pulitzer Prize. Part of its success has to do with how it keeps the pages turning, even through huge chunks of nonaction, and this is all to Tartt’s credit—to a point. Yet there’s no avoiding a sense that twenty or even fifty pages at a time could be lifted out of the book’s middle sections without anyone noticing. If it were a deliberate attempt to replicate Theo’s shellshocked brain, it would be a considerable literary achievement, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the causal arrow ran in the opposite direction. If Theo comes off as passive, it’s because the book around him fails to find a convincing shape for itself, not the other way around. Tartt is a writer of huge merits: when she’s on fire, as during the lengthy section in Las Vegas, she can deliver set pieces that rank with the best that contemporary fiction has to offer. And her book doesn’t lack for eventfulness. But the incidents don’t build so much as accumulate, like Tartt’s fat descriptive paragraphs, and I have a feeling that a lot of readers emerge in agreement with what Samuel Johnson said about Milton: “Paradise Lost is one of the books which the reader admires and puts down, and forgets to take it up again. None ever wished it longer than it is.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Which is the real reason it took me six months to read, when I might have polished off a more focused—or shorter—version of the same story over a long weekend. But I don’t mean to echo those critics, like James Wood of The New Yorker or Francine Prose of The New York Review of Books, who see the success of The Goldfinch as a symptom of a wider decline in literary standards. They seem to regret that Tartt didn’t write a different novel entirely, but as today’s quote from Christian Friedrich Hebbel reminds us, that’s a pernicious form of criticism. A novel, like a poem, deserves to be judged on the author’s intentions. (Wood is accurate, though, when he points out that Tartt’s American characters “move through a world of cozy Britishisms, like ‘they tucked into their food,’ ‘you look knackered,’ ‘crikey,’ ‘skive off,’ and ‘gobsmacked.'” It reminds me of what Lost in Space actor Jonathan Harris was reported to say when asked if he was British: “Oh no, my dear, just affected.”) But I’m not sure Tartt succeeds at the kind of novel she evidently wanted to write. I take a lot of interest in the intersection between literary and mainstream fiction: it’s where I see myself, even if my published novels skew more to the genre side. And I’d love to see Tartt pull it off, as she did, more or less, with The Secret History. But as eventful as The Goldfinch is, Tartt never convinces me that she knows how to construct a plot that would justify the investment of time it demands. And that’s a shame.

There’s a great deal of craft, obviously, involved in writing a huge, mostly readable novel through the eyes of a character who abdicates all responsibility for his fate, and who plays a minimal part in his own story’s resolution. Tartt refined the manuscript for eleven years, and she apparently wrote and discarded entire sections that required months of work. This may be part of the reason why The Goldfinch sometimes reads like a novel with its focus on all the wrong places: not just on Theo, who is the least compelling character in sight, but on the parts of his life it chooses to dramatize. (There’s a gutsy jump in time, effective in itself, that unfortunately skips over the single most interesting thing Theo ever does: he decides to become a con artist, which must have required considerable skill and ingenuity, but everything he attempts in that line is kept offstage, and instead, we’re treated to one chapter after another of Theo as a useless sad sack.) Tartt’s effort and accomplishment show on every page, but I can’t shake a nagging sense that this is the kind of book that Stephen King, one of the novel’s fans, could have cranked out in a year or so with less fuss. The result looks a lot like the kind of novel that many readers dream of finding, a great read of real literary heft, and it poses convincingly as one from sentence to sentence. But we can do better, and so can Tartt. A Pulitzer and a million copies sold aren’t likely to convince her of this—but I hope she takes another crack at it, and sooner than ten years from now.

Quote of the Day

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Christian Friedrich Hebbel

One kind of criticism alone is worthy of respect. It says to the poet: This is what you willed to create, for this you were fated to will. It then proceeds to investigate the relation of the product to the producing will. All other criticism is of evil.

Christian Friedrich Hebbel

Written by nevalalee

June 16, 2015 at 7:30 am

Parks and Rec and the comedy of affection

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Adam Scott and Amy Poehler in Parks and Recreation

“In a good play,” Christian Friedrich Hebbel says, “everyone is in the right.” This is also often true of books, movies, and television shows. I love a good villain as much as anyone, and I’ve created a lot of them in my own novels, but when we’re presented with a work of art that creates real drama and interest without resorting to neatly drawn lines of good and evil, it’s a reminder of how artful such stories need to be. It’s easy to slide in a generic bad guy for the protagonists to react against, and much harder to tell stories that arise organically from the conflicts between fundamentally sympathetic people, but if it works, the result is often worth it. This is especially true of comedy and children’s entertainment. It’s the reason, for instance, why the best recent family movies—the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, most of Miyazaki—have only incidental villains or none at all, preferring to create conflict through the interactions between the primary characters and their adventures in the larger world. (I’m willing to give a pass to Toy Story 3, but only because Lotso is arguably the most nuanced and interesting movie villain of the decade.)

It’s also why Parks and Recreation is the best comedy on network television. Community may rise to greater heights—although I’ve become increasingly skeptical that we’ll ever see those heights again—but on a weekly basis, Parks and Rec is a marvel of magical, inventive, organized storytelling. And a big part of its appeal is that we like everyone involved. The show doesn’t mine laughs out of manufactured conflicts, but out of the fact that the characters are funny, richly developed types who can’t help colliding with their coworkers, however good their intentions may be. It’s a truism that television, which relies on our willingness to invite the same people into our homes every week, depends on creating characters we like, but few other shows have ever delivered on this promise so beautifully. Last night’s wedding episode, which made my wife tear up, is a reminder of how emotionally rewarding this kind of storytelling can be, especially when sustained for season after season. We love these characters, and it’s largely because they love one another.

Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman in Parks and Recreation

And it didn’t have to be that way. The first season of Parks and Rec was notoriously rocky, with characters who were little more than stereotypes and a tone that failed to distinguish itself adequately from that of The Office. Yet the show righted itself soon thereafter, largely because of the affection I mentioned above—in particular, the affection of the writers for their own creations. Their first great realization was that Leslie Knope wasn’t a clueless bureaucrat, but a hero who loved her job, was smarter than most of the people around her, but was endlessly carried away by her own enthusiasm. The second was even more crucial: Leslie’s boss Ron, despite his philosophical dislike of all forms of government, liked and respected Leslie as well. As a result, a premise that could have generated a string of tired conflicts became, instead, a show about the wary dance between two friends. (For this, we can probably thank 30 Rock, which quickly came to a similar conclusion about Liz and Jack.) The rest of the cast began to flower right away, and with the addition of Ben Wyatt and Chris Traeger, the picture was finally complete.

It’s hard to overstate how satisfying this show’s evolution has been. In some ways, its uncertain start is what made its ultimate blossoming possible: this wasn’t a show that was perfectly conceived from the beginning, but one that gradually discovered the potential of its characters, setting, and cast, and it’s a miracle that it was allowed so much time to find its true form. Best of all, after an initial run of seasons in which our affection for the characters allowed us to enjoy episodes that were only mildly amusing, the show has become consistently hilarious. True, in the last season, the show has introduced its first real villain, in the form of Councilman Jamm, and the results haven’t always been great—his storylines are usually the weakest part of any episode. To the show’s credit, however, Jamm always gets a swift comeuppance, to the point where we suspect the writers just want to get back to the real business at hand. What began as a satire of local government has evolved into a show in which, weirdly, wrongdoing is punished and idealism thrives. It’s something that no one could have expected when this series began. And I hope it has the chance to grow and surprise us for years to come.

Written by nevalalee

February 22, 2013 at 9:21 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

January 22, 2013 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 7, 2012 at 7:30 am

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