Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Art of Fiction

The survivors

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Note: This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of Very by the Pet Shop Boys. Today I’ll be publishing the last in a series of posts devoted to the legacy of my favorite album of all time.

Every subculture begins as a strategy for survival, although not everyone arrives at the same set of tactics. In the oral history The World Only Spins Forward, the author Madison Moore describes one possible approach: “Fabulousness becomes, if I may, a giant fuck you to the norms. People emerge out of that. You emerge because you’re tired of hiding. It’s so much easier to be normal, to fit in, to repress yourself.” Brian Herrera, an assistant professor of theater at Princeton, makes a similar point:

You could see the cues, the winks, ways to tell that someone was gay, and you could read that as speaking to you as a gay male person without ever having to name it. In that register, the realm of the fabulous became one of the ways that you could signal that you were in on the joke, you got the joke, you were in some ways making the joke. people like Sylvester. The Village People. Camp was a building of a vocabulary of critical connoisseurship that was celebratory, that was ours.

In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner refers to writing as a yoga, or a way of life in the world, and you could say much the same thing about the notion of camp, which was invented by men and women who had to develop superhuman capacities of mental and emotional endurance. As Prior Walter says as he hears the sound of beating wings at the end of Millennium Approaches: “My brain is fine, I can handle pressure, I am a gay man and I am used to pressure.”

But not everyone reacts to pressure in the same way. In the passage that I quoted above, Moore continues: “A lot of folks, people who embrace fabulousness, are attacked on the street and feel the need to wear men’s clothing, ‘safe’ clothing, as a way to get from A to B, and then when they get there, they bust out.” Yet there’s something equally compelling about those who hold themselves in reserve. The Pet Shop Boys were defined in the early days by reticence and irony, which was wildly misinterpreted by listeners who took “Opportunities” and “Shopping” at face value. Part of this stance stems from what Nabeel Zuberi, as I noted here yesterday, calls “a repression that is part of that residue of English nationalism’s effect on the body,” but it also reflects something in particular about Neil Tennant. In his landmark interview with Attitude, he set himself pointedly apart from the kind of world that Moore and Herrera evoke:

I’ve never wanted to be part of this separate gay world. I know a lot of people will not appreciate hearing me say that. But when people talk about the gay community in London, for instance, what do they really mean by that? There is a community of interests, particularly around the health issue, but beyond that what is there really? There’s nightclubs, drugs, shopping, PAs by Bad Boys Inc. Well…I’m sorry but that isn’t really how I define myself. I don’t want to belong to some narrow group or ghetto. And I think that if they’re really honest a lot of gay people would say that they felt like that as well.

And no matter how you feel about this, the result was a body of work—at least for its first decade—about survival in plain sight. It was about getting from A to B.

The ensuing web of strategies—the detachment, the reserve, the use of technology to conceal overwhelming emotion—is a big part of why the Pet Shop Boys have always been important to me. I’m not gay, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable in my own skin, and the world that their music creates also speaks to a certain kind of introvert. More recently, I’ve been struck by its parallels to the science fiction community, in which many of the same qualities were channeled along somewhat different lines. Science fiction appealed strongly from the beginning to readers who saw themselves as outsiders, and with a slight change of label, it offered a secret inner life with affinities to what Stephen Spinella describes in The World Only Spins Forward: “Because it is something that can be masked and hidden, there are issues of a dual nature to your presence. You’re living a double life. There is something fabulous about that. There is something outside the norm of living in that mysterious mindset.” When you walk around the World Science Fiction Convention, you see a few fans at the extreme of fabulousness, along with others, like me, who look more like they might be treating everyday life as a form of cosplay. Both cultures also have a vested interest in technology. Science fiction has often been more comfortable talking about machines than about people, and Tennant, Lowe, and their contemporaries were drawn for some of the same reasons to the synthesizer. It was private, anonymous, a reaction against the cult of the self in rock music, and it offered forms of expression for people in solitude. As Stephin Merritt puts it in the wonderful song “Foxx and I,” his admiring ode to the original frontman of Ultravox:

Anyone can change into a machine
Girl or white, black or boy
Dull or very strange, into a machine
Come with me…

I’m perfectly aware, of course, of the differences between these two cultures, as well as the forms of exclusion that can develop even within a community of those who identify themselves as outsiders. But they both offer fascinating insights for anyone who cares urgently about the forms that cultural survival can take. (There are countless others, obviously, but these are the two that happen to have been most important to my own life.) I like to think of myself as a rational person, but I’ve recently begun to realize how much of my view of the world was based on wishful thinking, and I’m starting to confront the real possibility that it will continue to get worse for the rest of my life. This only raises the huge unresolved question of how to live under such circumstances, and I’m still trying to figure it out. And while I’m not the first to take refuge in the consolations of art—my favorite books, movies, and albums nearly all emerged from conditions of existential crisis—I feel obliged to point to one possible line of defense that was designed to be overlooked. In my eyes, Tennant and Lowe’s music exemplifies a certain kind of courage that prefers to go unrecognized. Very marked the point at which those impulses were transmuted into something more liberating, and ever since, the subtext of their early songs has become text, perhaps because their audience now consists largely of the community in which Tennant was never quite sure he wanted to be a member. Some of these later albums are great, and hugely meaningful to me, but it’s the version from Please through Very that sticks with me the most, and which seems to have the most to say to us now. Wryness and understatement may not seem like weapons, but like AutoTune, they have their place, and they served their users well enough at a time not unlike our own. The sense of liberation expressed by Very strikes me now as premature, but not wrong. And I hope that I can hear it again one day.

My ten creative books #6: The Art of Fiction

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

I bought The Art of Fiction by John Gardner nearly a quarter of a century ago, at a used bookstore in Half Moon Bay, California, shortly before starting my freshman year of high school. (On that same afternoon, I picked up a copy of Critical Path by R. Buckminster Fuller, and my family also somehow acquired our first cat, which suggests that my life would be significantly different if that one day were magically erased.) Since then, I’ve read it in pieces a dozen or more times—it’s one of the few books that I’ve brought wherever I’ve moved—and I still know much of it by heart. Writing guides tend to be either loftily aspirational or fixated on the nuts and bolts of craft, and Gardner’s brilliance is that he tackles both sides in a way that enriches the whole. He has plenty to say on sentence structure, vocabulary, rhythm, and point of view, and his illustrations of process are still the most vivid that I’ve ever seen:

The good writer treats each unit individually, developing them one by one. When he’s working on the description of Uncle Fyodor’s store, he does not think about the hold-up men who in a moment will enter it, though he keeps them in the back of his mind. He describes the store, patiently, making it come alive, infusing every smell with Uncle Fyodor’s emotion and personality (his fear of hold-up men, perhaps); he works on the store as if this were simply an exercise, writing as if he had all eternity to finish it, and when the description is perfect—and not too long or short in relation to its function in the story as a whole—he moves on to his story’s next unit.

Yet Gardner is equally concerned with warning young writers away from “faults of soul,” including frigidity, sentimentality, and mannerism, and in reminding them that their work must have interest and truth. Every element of writing, he notes, should by judged by its ability to sustain the fictional dream: the illusion, to the reader, that the events and characters described are really taking place. And everything I’ve written since then has been undertaken with his high standards in mind.

By now, I’ve internalized all of his advice, even if I don’t always follow it, and as a result, when I read his book again now, it’s less as a guide than as a novel in itself, with an archetypal writer—who shouldn’t be confused with Gardner—who emerges as a character in his own right. For instance:

He begins to brood over what he’s written, reading it over and over, patiently, endlessly, letting his mind wander, sometimes to Picasso or the Great Pyramid, sometimes to the possible philosophical implications of Menelaos’ limp (a detail he introduced by impulse, because it seemed right). Reading in this strange way lines he has known by heart for weeks, he discovers odd tics his unconscious has sent up to him, perhaps curious accidental repetitions of imagery…Just as dreams have meaning, whether or not we can penetrate the meaning, the writer assumes that the accidents in his writing may have significance.

And his offhand observations about other writers have stuck in my head as well. Writing of a possible plot hole in Hamlet, for instance, Gardner offers a view of Shakespeare that I’ve never forgotten:

The truth is very likely that without bothering to think it out, Shakespeare saw by a flash of intuition that the whole question was unimportant, off the point; and so like Mozart, the white shark of music, he snapped straight to the heart of the matter, refusing to let himself be slowed for an instant by trivial questions of plot logic or psychological consistency—questions unlikely to come up in the rush of drama, though they do occur to us as we pore over the book.

Of the countless books that I’ve read on writing, this is still the best, as well as the finest manual of the life of which Gardner writes elsewhere: “Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world…For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.”

Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2018 at 9:00 am

The fanfic disposition

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Yesterday, I mentioned Roxane Gay’s insightful opinion piece on the proposed HBO series Confederate, which was headlined “I Don’t Want to Watch Slavery Fan Fiction.” I’m still sorting out my own feelings toward this show, an alternate history set in the present day in which the South won the Civil War, but I found myself agreeing with just about everything that Gay writes, particularly when she confesses to her own ambivalence:

As a writer, I never wish to put constraints upon creativity nor do I think anything is off limits to someone simply because of who they are. [Creators] Mr. Benioff and Mr. Weiss are indeed white and they have as much a right to create this reimagining of slavery as anyone. That’s what I’m supposed to say, but it is not at all how I feel.

And I was especially struck by Gay’s comparison of the show’s premise to fanfic. Her essay, which appeared in the New York Times, only uses the phrase “fan fiction” once, linking to a tweet from the critic Pilot Bacon, and while its use in reference to Confederate isn’t literally true—at least not if we define fanfic as a derivative work based on characters or ideas by another author—its connotations are clear. Fairly or not, it encapsulates the notion that David Benioff and D.B. Weiss are appropriating existing images and themes to further their own artistic interests.

Even if we table, for now, the question of whether the criticism is justified, it’s worth looking at the history of the word “fanfic” as a pejorative term. I’ve used it that way here myself, particularly in reference to works of art that amount to authorial wish fulfillment toward the characters, like the epilogue to Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (Looking back at my old posts, I see that I even once used it to describe a scene in one of my own novels.) Watching The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies recently with my wife, I commented that certain scenes, like the big fight at Dol Guldur, felt like fanfic, except that Peter Jackson was somehow able to get Cate Blanchett, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, and Christopher Lee to reprise all their old roles. And you often see such comparisons made by critics. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw devoted an entire article on The Daily Dot to the ways in which J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Cursed Child resembled a wok of “badfic,” while Ian Crouch of The New Yorker tried to parse the difference between fanfic and such works as Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea:

Fan fiction is surely not a new phenomenon, nor is it an uninteresting one, but it is different in kind and quality from a work like Rhys’s, or, to take a recent example, Cynthia Ozick’s remarkable new novel, Foreign Bodies, which reimagines the particulars of The Ambassadors, by Henry James. Not only do these books interpret texts in the public domain…but they do so with an admirable combination of respect and originality.

As a teenager, I wrote a lot of X-Files fanfic, mostly because I knew that it would give me a readily available audience for the kind of science fiction that I liked, and although I look back on that period in my life with enormous affection—I think about it almost every day—I’m also aware of the limitations that it imposed on my development as a writer. The trouble with fanfic is that it allows you to produce massive amounts of material while systematically avoiding the single hardest element of fiction: the creation of imaginary human beings capable of sustaining our interest and sympathy. It begins in an enviable position, with a cast of characters to which the reader is already emotionally attached. As a result, the writer can easily be left in a state of arrested development, with superb technical skills when it comes to writing about the inner life of existing characters, but little sense of how to do it from scratch. This even holds true when the writer is going back to characters that he or she originally created or realized onscreen. When J.K. Rowling revisits her most famous series or Peter Jackson gives us a fight scene with Elrond and the Ringwraiths, there’s an inescapable sense that all of the heavy lifting took place at an earlier stage. These artists are trading on the affection that we hold toward narrative decisions made years ago, instead of drawing us into the story in the moment. And even when the name on the title page or the director’s credit is the same, readers and viewers can sense when creators are indulging themselves, rather than following the logic of the underlying material.

This all means that fanfic, at its worst, is a code word for a kind of sentimentality, as John Gardner describes it in The Art of Fiction:

If the storyteller appears to stock response (our love of God or country, our pity for the downtrodden, the presumed warm feelings all decent people have for children and small animals)…then the effect is sentimentality, and no reader who’s experienced the power of real fiction will be pleased by it.

Replace “children and small animals” with Harry Potter and Gandalf, and you have a concise description of how fanfic works, encouraging readers to plow through tens of thousands of words because of the hard work of imaginative empathy that someone else did long ago. When Gay and Bacon compare Confederate to fan fiction, I think that this is what they mean. It isn’t drawing on existing characters, but on a collection of ideas, images, and historical events that carry an overwhelming emotional charge before Benioff and Weiss have written a line. You could argue that countless works of art have done the same thing—the canonical work of Civil War fanfic has got to be Gone With the Wind—but if slavery seems somehow different now, it’s largely because of the timing, as Gay notes: “We do not make art in a vacuum isolated from sociopolitical context. We live in a starkly divided country with a president who is shamefully ill equipped to bridge that divide.” Benioff and Weiss spent years developing their premise, and when they began, they couldn’t have anticipated the environment in which their announcement would be received. I don’t want the project to be canceled, which would have a freezing effect throughout the industry, but they should act as if they’re going to be held to a higher standard. Because they will be.

Quote of the Day

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In his essay “The Art of Fiction,” [Henry] James speaks of the “immense sensibility…that takes to itself the faintest hints of life…and converts the very pulses of the air into revelations.” He celebrates the novelist’s intuitive faculty “to guess the unseen from the seen,” but the word guess may be inadequate, for it is a power, I think, generated by the very discipline to which the writer is committed. The discipline itself is empowering, so that a sentence spun from the imagination confers on the writer a degree of perception or acuity or heightened awareness that a sentence composed with the strictest attention to fact does not.

E.L. Doctorow, Creationists

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2017 at 7:30 am

My ten great books #5: Couples

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In his discussion of the aesthetic flaw of frigidity in The Art of Fiction, John Gardner says: “When a skillful writer writes a shallow, cynical, merely amusing book about extramarital affairs, he has wandered—with far more harmful effect—into the same unsavory bog.” There’s little doubt in my mind that he’s thinking of John Updike, of whom a very different author, Lawrence Block, states in Writing the Novel: “It’s probably safe to assume that John Updike wrote Couples out of comparable cupidity, but it’s hardly vintage Updike, and the author’s own detachment from it is evident throughout.” Given the fact that this novel was based so closely on the writer’s personal life that it scandalized his circle of friends in Ipswich, it might seem hard to describe it as shallow, cynical, and detached—which doesn’t mean that it can’t be all of these things as well. Couples made Updike rich and famous, and it was clearly conceived as a mainstream novel, but this was less a question of trying to write a bestseller than of shaping it for the cultural position that he hoped it would attain. Updike had already been promised the cover of Time magazine before it came out, and, as he later recalled: “Then they read the book and discovered, I think, that, the higher up it went in the Time hierarchy, the less they liked it.” As Jonathan Franzen did with The Corrections, Updike seems to have known that his next effort was positioned to break through in a huge way, and he engineered it accordingly, casting his obsessions with sex, death, and mortality into a form that would resonate with a wider audience. The back cover of my paperback copy calls it “an intellectual Peyton Place,” and I think that the quote must have pleased him.

I’ve always been fascinated by the moment in the late sixties and early seventies that made it possible for the conventions of modernist realism—particularly its attitudes toward sex—to be appropriated by bestselling writers. The early novels of Stephen King are a key text here, but so, in its way, is Couples, which shows the line of influence running in the other direction. In his determination to write a big book, Updike drew on the structural symmetries of popular fiction, and the result was his most richly organized novel of any kind. Like Mad Men, which takes place in the same era, it draws you in with its superficial pleasures and then invites you to go deeper, although many readers or viewers seem happy to stop at the surface. Gardner fretted about this possibility at length in On Moral Fiction:

[Updike is] a master of symbolic complexity, but one can’t tell his women apart in a book like Couples; his characters’ sexual preoccupations, mostly perverse, are too generously indulged; and the disparity between the surface and sub-surface of his novels is treacherous: to the naive reader (and most readers of popular bestsellers are likely to be naive), a novel like A Month of Sundays seems like a merry, bourgeois-pornographic book…while to the subtler reader, the novel may be wearily if not ambivalently satirical, a sophisticated attack on false religion…Since the irony—the presumably satiric purpose—is nowhere available on the surface…one cannot help feeling misgivings about Updike’s intent.

It’s certainly possible to read Couples, as I often do, purely for entertainment, or as a kind of gossipy cultural reportage. (No other novel tells us more about what it must have really been like to be a member of the upper middle class at the time of the Kennedy assassination.) Yet we’re also implicated by that choice. I own a copy of the first hardcover edition, which I bought, in a symbolic act that might have struck even Updike as a little too on the nose, on the morning of my wedding day. As it turns out, my life resembles it in a lot of the small ways but none of the big ones. But maybe that’s because Updike got there first.

The frigid juicemaker

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By now, many of you have probably heard of the sad case of Juicero, the technology startup that developed the world’s most advanced juicer, which retails for hundreds of dollars, only to be rocked by a Bloomberg report that revealed that its juice packs could just as easily be squeezed by hand. At first glance, this seems like another cautionary tale of Silicon Valley design gone wrong, along the lines of the $1,500 toaster oven, but its lessons are slightly more profound. A few days ago, Ben Einstein, a general partner at the venture capital firm Bolt, conducted a teardown of the Juicero Press to figure out why it was so costly, and he came away impressed by its design and construction: his writeup is filled with such phrases as “beautifully molded,” “a complex assembly with great attention to detail,” “painstakingly textured,” and “incredibly complex and beautifully engineered.” At one point, Einstein marvels: “The number, size, complexity and accuracy of these parts is somewhat mind-blowing for a young hardware startup.” The trouble, he points out, is that the cost of such components makes the juicer far more expensive than most consumers are willing to pay, and it could have delivered comparable performance at a lower price by rethinking its design. A Juicero Press uniformly compresses the entire surface of the juice pack, requiring thousands of pounds of force, while a human hand gets much the same result simply by squeezing it unevenly. Einstein concludes:

I have to believe the engineers that built this product looked at other ways of pressing the juice, but if the primary mechanism could apply force in a more focused way it could easily save hundreds of dollars off the shelf price of the product.

As it stands, the engineers at Juicero evidently “went wild,” building a beautifully made and confoundingly expensive product in the hopes that a market for it would somehow materialize. It’s like a juicer designed by Damien Hirst. In a peculiar way, it makes for a refreshing contrast to the usual hardware startup horror story, in which a company’s plans to build the world’s greatest espresso machine run aground on the inconvenient realities of manufacturing and supply chain management. Juicero’s engineers obviously knew what they were doing, at least on a technical level, but their pursuit of great design for its own sake appears to have blinded them to more practical realities. The market for juicers isn’t the same as that for fine watches, and its buyers have different motivations. In the absence of feedback from customers, the engineers went ahead and built a juicer for themselves, loading it with features that even the most discerning of users would either never notice or wouldn’t feel like factoring into the purchase price. In real estate terms, they overimproved it. When my wife and I bought our house six years ago, our realtor warned us against overspending on renovations—you don’t want to invest so much in the property that, if you sell it, you’re forced to list it at a point that doesn’t make sense for your block. The Juicero’s lovingly machined parts and moldings are the equivalent of granite countertops and a master bathroom in a neighborhood where homeowners are more interested in paying a reasonable price for a short walk to the train.

There are two big takeaways here. One is the fact that there’s no such thing as good design or engineering in isolation—you always have to keep the intended user in mind. The other is that aesthetic considerations or technical specifications aren’t sufficient guidelines in themselves, and that they have to be shaped by other constraints to be channeled in productive directions. Elsewhere, I’ve noted that Apple’s cult of thinness seems to be driven by the search for quantifiable benchmarks that can drive innovation. Lowering the price of its products would be an even better goal, although it isn’t one that Apple seems inclined to pursue. Juicero, to its detriment, doesn’t appear to have been overly concerned by either factor. A juicer that sits on your kitchen counter doesn’t need to be particularly light, and there’s little incentive to pare down the ounces. There clearly wasn’t much of an effort to keep down the price. A third potential source of constraints, and probably the best of all, is careful attention to the consumer, which didn’t happen here, either. As Einstein notes:

Our usual advice to hardware founders is to focus on getting a product to market to test the core assumptions on actual target customers, and then iterate. Instead, Juicero spent $120 million over two years to build a complex supply chain and perfectly engineered product that is too expensive for their target demographic.

Imagine a world where Juicero raised only $10 million and built a product subject to significant constraints. Maybe the Press wouldn’t be so perfectly engineered but it might have fewer features and cost a fraction of the original $699…Suddenly Juicero is incredibly compelling as a product offering, at least to this consumer.

And you don’t need to look hard to find equivalents in other fields. A writer who endlessly revises the same manuscript without seeking comments from readers—or sending it to agents or publishers—is engaging in the same cycle of destructive behavior. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about artistic frigidity, which he defines as a moral failing that confuses side issues with what really matters. The symptoms are much the same in literature as they are in engineering: “It is sometimes frigidity that leads writers to tinker, more and more obsessively, with form.” Juicero suffered from a kind of technological frigidity, as does its obvious role model, Apple, which seems increasingly obsessed with aesthetic considerations that either have a minimal impact on the user experience or actively undermine it. (We saw this most recently with the Mac Pro, which had a striking cylindrical design that was hard to configure and suffered from heating issues. As engineering chief Craig Federighi admitted: “I think we designed ourselves into a bit of a thermal corner.” And it seems only fitting that Apple’s frigidity led to a problem with heat.) Ordinary companies, or writers, have no choice but to adjust to reality. Deadlines, length limits, and the demands of the market all work together to enforce pragmatic compromises, and if you remain frigid, you die. As the world’s largest tech company, Apple has to actively seek out constraints that will rein in its worst impulses, much as successful writers need to find ways of imposing the same restrictions that existed when they were struggling to break in. As Juicero’s example demonstrates, a company that tries to ignore such considerations from the beginning may never get a chance to prove itself at all. Whether you’re a writer or an engineer, it’s easy to convince yourself that you’re selling juicers, but you’re not. You’re selling the juice.

Written by nevalalee

April 26, 2017 at 9:29 am

“If she was going to run, it had to be now…”

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"Maddy only nodded..."

Note: This post is the fifty-sixth installment in my author’s commentary for Eternal Empire, covering Chapter 55. You can read the previous installments here.

In general, an author should try to write active protagonists in fiction, for much the same reason that it’s best to use the active voice, rather than the passive, whenever you can. It isn’t invariably the right choice, but it’s better often enough that it makes sense to use it when you’re in doubt—which, when you’re writing a story, is frankly most of the time. In The Elements of Style, Strunk and Write list the reasons why the active voice is usually superior: it’s more vigorous and direct, it renders the writing livelier and more emphatic, and it often makes the sentence shorter. It’s a form of insurance that guards against some of the vices to which writers, even experienced ones, are prone to succumbing. There are few stories that wouldn’t benefit from an infusion of force, and since our artistic calculations are always imprecise, a shrewd writer will do what he or she can to err on the side of boldness. This doesn’t mean that the passive voice doesn’t have a place, but John Gardner’s advice in The Art of Fiction, as usual, is on point:

The passive voice is virtually useless in fiction…Needless to say, the writer must judge every case individually, and the really good writer may get away with just about anything. But it must be clear that when the writer makes use of the passive he knows he’s doing it and has good reason for what he does.

And most of the same arguments apply to active characters. All else being equal, an active hero or villain is more engaging than a passive victim of circumstance, and when you’re figuring out a plot, it’s prudent to construct the events whenever possible so that they emerge from the protagonist’s actions. (Or, even better, to come up with an active, compelling central character and figure out what he or she would logically do next.) This is the secret goal behind the model of storytelling, as expounded most usefully by David Mamet in On Directing Film, that conceives of a plot as a series of objectives, each one paired with a concrete action. It’s designed to maintain narrative clarity, but it also results in characters who want things and who take active measures to attain them. When I follow the slightly mechanical approach of laying out the objectives and actions of a scene, one beat after another, it gives the story a crucial backbone, but it also usually leads to the creation of an interesting character, almost by accident. If nothing else, it forces me to think a little harder, and it ensures that the building blocks of the story itself—which are analogous, but not identical, to the sentences that compose it—are written in the narrative equivalent of the active voice. And just as the active voice is generally preferable to the passive voice, in the absence of any other information, it’s advisable to focus on the active side when you aren’t sure what kind of story you’re writing: in the majority of cases, it’s simply more effective.

"If she was going to run, it had to be now..."

Of course, there are times when passivity is an important part of the story, just as the passive voice can be occasionally necessary to convey the ideas that the writer wants to express. The world is full of active and passive personalities, and of people who don’t have control over important aspects of their lives, and there’s a sense in which plots—or genres as a whole—that are built around action leave meaningful stories untold. This is true of the movies as well, as David Thomson memorably observes:

So 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.

One of the central goals of modernist realism has been to give a voice to characters who would otherwise go unheard, precisely because of their lack of conventional agency. And it’s a problem that comes up even in suspense: a plot often hinges on a character’s lack of power, less as a matter of existential helplessness than because of a confrontation with a formidable antagonist. (A conspiracy novel is essentially about that powerlessness, and it emerged as a subgenre largely as a way to allow suspense to deal with these issues.)

So how do you tell a story, or even write a scene, in which the protagonist is powerless? A good hint comes from Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote: “I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.” This draws a useful distinction, I think, between the two functions of the active mode: as a reflection of reality and as a tool to structure the reader’s experience. You can use it in the latter sense even in stories or scenes in which helplessness is the whole point, just as you can use the active voice to increase the impact of prose that is basically static or abstract. In Chapter 55 of Eternal Empire, for example, Maddy finds herself in as vulnerable a position as can be imagined: she’s in the passenger seat of a car being driven by a woman whom she’s just realized is her mortal enemy. There isn’t much she can plausibly do to defend herself, but to keep her from becoming entirely passive, I gave her a short list of actions to perform: she checks her pockets for potential weapons, unlocks the door on her side as quietly as she can, and looks through the windshield to get a sense of their location. Most crucially, at the moment when it might be possible to run, she decides to stay where is. The effect is subtle, but real. Maddy isn’t in control of her situation, but she’s in control of herself, and I think that the reader senses this. And it’s in scenes like this, when the action is at a minimum, that the active mode really pays off…

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