Friday, January 22, 2016

You Can't Get There From Here

Like chaotic systems, novels are highly sensitive to initial conditions. But it's often a mistake to think that you can fix the one you've just started to write by reworking the first page, the first paragraph, the first sentence. The initial conditions of a novel, the warm little pond where it was first nurtured, precedes the first word. The tone of the novel's narrative and the sequence of its story are shaped by decisions made before you start to write. The history of the characters and their place in history, the privileges they possess and those they lack, so on, so forth, determine what might happen to them, and the decisions and actions they make in response. Sometimes, when the novel you think you were writing starts to become something else, it's because you haven't been true to to its characters and their situation, and you can retrace your steps until you find the place where you went wrong, and start over. But sometimes the novel you're writing becomes something else because that's what it was all along. And then you have two choices: either step up to the plate and own it and have fun finding out where it takes you next, or run away and try to fix the initial conditions so they'll come out the way you want. I know which I prefer.

Monday, January 18, 2016

In Short

Charles Baxter, New York Review of Books:
O’Connor’s central idea is that the short story is a more private art than that of the novel. And its dramatis personae are of a different order: more solitary, isolated, and uncommunicative. Going out on one of several limbs, O’Connor claims that we do not identify with most short-story characters. Instead, we find in stories “a submerged population group” made up of lonely outcasts, “outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed sometimes on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo….” He is thinking here of Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and its central character, Akaky Akakievich, and Akaky’s distant, echoing similarity to Christ:
What Gogol has done so boldly and brilliantly is to take the mock-heroic character, the absurd little copying clerk, and impose his image over that of the crucified Jesus, so that even while we laugh we are filled with horror at the resemblance.
Allied to romance rather than realism, the short-story form, O’Connor suggests, does not provide the kind of necessary space for a writer to build up a worthy and heroic individual as novels do. Remembering an author’s stories, we therefore recall a population group and not an individual. As a consequence, what we encounter in short stories are these exemplars of various subcultures, “remote from the community—romantic, individualistic, and intransigent,” a class of people who were largely invisible to us before our reading. Accordingly, the central feeling of short stories, O’Connor asserts, is that of the loneliness associated with that particular group.
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