For someone who doesn’t write fiction, I spend a lot of time thinking about it. The basic problem is this: I don’t get it -that is, I don’t get how it’s done. Given all the things a novelist has to do – create a believable plot and believable characters, provide momentum so the story doesn’t sag, choose a point of view and make it consistent, determine a structure, make the language compatible with the imagined audience, choose a significant setting, create dialogue that sounds real, avoid cliches, avoid coincidences, avoid sentimentality and melodrama, be modern, be unique – the possibility of so many elements being handled with dexterity by a single person takes my breath away. It’s like watching someone juggle chain saws.
Or maybe it’s more like watching a man who is really good at three-card monty. You swear you’ll stay focused and keep your eyes on the cards as they move around, you’ll figure out which card is the Ace of Hearts, and you’ll be able to point to it when asked. But every single time, you end up befuddled, pointing at the wrong card and then thinking, “Wow – nicely done. How did he do that?” Same question for a well-written novel.
I go through phases of liking certain fictional elements more than others, which over the years has allowed me to like quite a few books where the juggling act wasn’t all that stellar. For example, I liked plot for a long time – from kindergarten through sixth grade, with a sub-category tucked in at the end. The initial Plot Phase culminated in two lists (poets + lists = cream + sugar) where I checked off everything ever written by Marguerite Henry and Carolyn Keene. Good memories, and good (enough) books.
The sub-category of Plot Phase was Melodrama, a capital offense but unavoidable, since I was, at that point, a teenager. What can you do when you become a teenager in the early 1960’s except re-read Gone with the Wind ten times? And cry when Lorna is shot and falls into the arms of John, her true love, in Lorna Doone?
Next came the Read-What-You’re-Told-to-Read Phase – junior and senior years in high school, my first couple of years in college. Some brilliant fiction came along and knocked on my door at that point, but I wasn’t exactly at home. I was busy protesting the war in Vietnam and supporting the Third World Strike, so I skimmed many classics, knowing I would come back to Moby Dick and Crime and Punishment after my friends and I had saved America from itself. We never managed to do that, but I did finally finish the Dostoevsky.
What I preferred during this fiction phase was a modern aesthetic – short sentences, clarity, an ironic tone. Nuance and luscious language weren’t high on my list then, but I craved humor, social commentary, English as it’s really spoken, straight-forward structure.
I read Vonnegut…
…and more Vonnegut.
Since then, I’ve gone through other phases – cared a lot about dialogue for awhile, found prose disruptive, so I read plays. Found humor forced and happy endings unrealistic, chose to read only depressing and confusing books, alienating all my friends in my book discussion group who just wanted me to get over it. Went through a phase of believing too much in critical responses, so read quite a few prize-winning books I thought I should like but didn’t.
When I went back to school and studied poetry, I wanted to hear poetic language in fiction, plot be damned. Continued to drive people in my book discussion group crazy by choosing plotless books with gorgeous sentences – lots to think about, but no adrenaline to make the heart race. Began to teach creative writing and found many students had so much trouble with plotting a story that all I wanted for several years were good plots, better plots and best plots. That is, traditional plots – the kind with a beginning and an end, with stuff happening in-between.
For a while I gave up on fiction and believed I couldn’t read it. Checked out a lot of non-fiction from the library. Found myself longing for a good story. Read Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life and its follow-up, A God in Ruins – got excited about fiction again. Entered a Structure Phase – wanted to take a book down to its studs, see the house plan used to construct it. If you’re a writer in addition to being a reader, you probably pay attention to this, have some curiosity about it running in the background no matter what you’re reading.
Book Structure by British Artist Sarah Mitchell
This month it was my turn again to choose the book for our discussion group. I’d been keeping a list (another list!) of books I was interested in, and gradually I settled on one titled The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G.B. Edwards. I hear the narrator has a unique, quirky voice, like an old-fashioned storyteller. Voice was what I loved most about M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume I: The Pox Party. I feel a Voice Phase coming on.
So here I am, still confused, still trying to figure out how it’s done, still trying to figure out the magic and the movement and to guess correctly which card is the Ace of Hearts. I understand my own standards for poetry (musicality, mystery) and my standards for non-fiction (interesting subject, graceful prose), but the standards by which I choose fiction and respond to fiction periodically shift. I don’t have a target with a clear bullseye, so my arrows keep straying. Actually, I should reverse the metaphor and name myself the target. The fiction I read keeps shooting its arrows, but I keep moving.