The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
If you’re a James Joyce fan you’re in for a treat in this section. If not, you may be tempted to blow past the historical footnotes, but that would be a mistake.
Hills does spend time framing the roots of the word ‘epiphany’ and explaining how it came to be used in literary circles. But he also makes an important point about epiphany as a literary objective:
The epiphany (whether considered as a technique or an effect or a theory or a genre) is a much more useful concept for the short story than it is for the novel.
In this case the technique Hills is talking about is not directly portable to larger works. But what about flash fiction? I don’t write flash myself, but if the whole point of a literary epiphany is the realization and illumination of a single condensed moment, doesn’t that objective fits perfectly within the constraints of the flash form? (Given Joyce’s original literary goals for his epiphanies he might even be considered the father of flash fiction.)
It’s also useful to contemplate the mechanism by which focus on an epiphany might interrupt the flow of a longer work. Here’s Hills:
After each of the epiphanies in Stephen Hero, Joyce has to crank up and get the narrative moving all over again.
Consider also this famous bit of writing advice, variously attributed to William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch:
“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it – whole-heartedly – and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.”
The point being made in both quotes is that balance may be more important than flair. If you write something that calls attention to itself or interrupts or distorts the whole of your work, that’s a problem that needs to be solved — even if what you wrote is brilliant.
By the same token, recognizing that an epiphany may usurp authority from a larger work allows you to control that potential. If there is an epiphany or tempting aside that you want to relate, can you do so in a separate chapter, using the structure of the novel to help segregate and motivate its inclusion? Authors tend to write novels precisely because they allow for such meanderings. If you as a novelist can add detail or evoke thematic feelings through an epiphany, wouldn’t the only certain harm come from not trying to to make it work?
The point — again — is to look at every aspect of fiction writing as a technique that might be used to achieve intended effects. The name of a thing or the history of it or the way in which critics and academics use a term to categorize works might be of passing interest, but it won’t help you create what you want to create.
It’s the technique itself that matters.
Next up: The Inevitability of Retrospect.
— Mark Barrett
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