The Fiction of Living

imgres.jpgJohn Hawkes is one of my favorite authors. He is famously quoted as saying:

I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme, and having once abandoned these familiar ways of thinking about fiction, totality of vision or structure was really all that remained.

In my mind this is what differentiates a more experimental and possibly vital form of fiction from the traditional form of fiction which might be considered as much for its entertainment value as it is for its artistic value.

Some writers refuse to be called “experimental” even when they obviously are twisting, extending, and experimenting with fiction: a good, if not as active, description then is “unconventional.”

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Tropisms

images-3.jpgNathalie Sarraute describes tropisms as the “interior movements that precede and prepare our words and actions, at the limits of our consciousness.” They happen in an instant, and apprehending them in the rush of human interactions demands painstaking attention. Tropisms are the key to all of Sarraute’s work.

Since Sarraute is also a central writer in the nouveau roman, it is interesting to compare her “tropisms” to Robbe-Grillet’s Snapshots. In both works it is commonly asserted that they show the sources of the theory and technique of these writers (although one critic referred to R-G’s work as “aesthetic squiggles”).

The comparison is apt but I will suggest that Robbe-Grillet is more a noun while Sarraute is more a verb.

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Captain Fiction

“I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.” — John Hawkes

LishI agree with Hawkes. Literature, especially as taught in Junior High English classes, is too important to insist on those archaic unities. Plots went out with I Love Lucy where Desiderio Arnaz clearly demonstrated that there were only three plots known to man, the rest being variations masking as variety. Character is hard to avoid but the classic importance of character development is easy to forget (no, you do not need to identify or fall in love with one of the characters). Setting is only important when the writer needs to bolster his narrative with a setting which evokes themes he (or she) is incapable of evoking himself. Do we need themes? Not really. I suspect the development of thematic fiction was good but it risked falling easily into didactic fiction and that is bad.

I might say that everything is thematic: the boy and girl theme, the levels of fiction theme, the remembrance of things past theme, the talking dog at the end of the world theme. The problem with themes is that they, like plots, get repeated a lot and no amount of variation hides a tired old theme.

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Plotto and John Hawkes

I received an email today that included an advertisement for a book called Plotto:  The Master Book of All Plots by William Wallace Cook. Cook is known as “the man who deforested Canada” because of all the fiction he published in books, periodicals, etc. Cook reduces fiction to these three stages:

  • The Master Plot
  • The Conflict Situation
  • Character Combinations.

The method he employs is generative:  take one plot, add conflict, toss in a couple of characters and voilá, publishable fiction! And to think he did this long before computers. Now I believe there are computer programs that take essentially the same method, apply it to even more examples of plots, characters and conflict, and do an excellent job of convincing many a poor slob that they are only one or two steps away from becoming a successful, internationally known author whose writing will survive the ages. I have never tried out one of these programs but I have checked into several programs that help to organize my writing, keep track of notes, develop bibliographies, etc. I can see the value of some programs: they’re just sophisticated replacements for the good-old 3×5 card file (one program will even collect information on digital facsimiles of 3×5 cards and then you can tack them up on a digital facsimile of a cork board).

If you think about it, not too long ago we didn’t have the computer, with its ability to store long documents, edit with aplomb, correct errors and oversights without pain. Computers can certainly save a lot of time. I remember all-nighters retyping a college paper because I noticed an error in a paragraph that no amount of White-Out was going to cover. Today, the same error is corrected in seconds and the printer takes care of the rest.

But despite all the time-savings the computer brings and the assistance those software programs offer, I still write things out in longhand using a fountain pen. I find that my brain is more connected to the flow of ink and the slow but deliberate rhythm of cursive script (even if hard to read sometimes). I often scribble on snatches of paper and later transcribe my thoughts into a journal. If you walk around my little house next to each reading chair you will find a notebook and pen with a couple of books, half-read or waiting to be read. I don’t keep track of my thoughts on the computer until I see something coming together in a more regular form and especially if I need to print it out or share it on the internet.

One last thought on those Master Plots:  I don’t like plots and believe it’s schemes such as presented in Plotto that are destroying fiction as an art. One of my favorite quotations is from John Hawkes:

“I began to write fiction on the assumption that the true enemies of the novel were plot, character, setting and theme.”

In an interview, Hawkes went on about writing:

It seems to me that fiction should achieve revenge for all the indignities of our childhood; it should be an act of rebellion against all the constraints of the conventional pedestrian mentality around us. Surely it should destroy conventional morality. I suppose all this is to say that to me the act of writing is criminal. If the act of the revolutionary is one of supreme idealism, it’s also criminal. Obviously I think that the so-called criminal act is essential to our survival.