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.
Storytelling as a discipline seems to have a permanence about it. Most people, particularly most authors, would probably agree that stories are inherent in the life experience of human beings. We embrace fiction so completely and effortlessly that suspension of disbelief may someday be defined as a brain state akin to hypnosis or meditation.
This sense of permanence affects how we innately relate to fiction, but it is also possible to advance one’s knowledge as a practitioner. Folk tales spun by people in all cultures around the globe can be shaped, improved and expanded by craft, whether the intended objective is entertainment, education or propaganda. And it’s possible to go even farther.
Painting, music, food, movement, storytelling — all of these things have practical applications, but can also be turned to purely creative ends. If aspiring to art is a bit more vague than aiming for income, or at least harder to quantify, I think most people still understand the impetus. Whatever form means, whatever composition means, whatever context and content mean, all of them (and more) can be treated as ends in themselves, and subsequently explored on that basis alone. Art for art’s sake.
It is the eternal and intrinsic potential for making art that compels Hills (and me, and others) to insist that there are no rules in fiction writing. To many would-be storytellers this seems utterly preposterous: if there are no rules then what can be known? But knowledge is not what rules define. Rules work because they impose order through constraints and controls. When you drive across town you knowingly subject yourself (or not, as the case may be) to dozens if not hundreds of traffic and motor-vehicle laws and customs. But if those rules didn’t exist, or you simply decided to ignore all of them, you wouldn’t suddenly be oblivious to where you were or wanted to go.
What Hills says, what artists say, is that if your goal (art) puts you at odds with a rule or convention, then you ignore the rule and stay true to your artistic pursuit. There are no rules so inviolate that you cannot break them for sufficient cause. And yet we also know that certain methods in fiction (and other mediums) achieve certain effects: that relationships hold despite our aversion to calling them rules.
All authors wrestle with questions of art and craft even if they purport to care for neither. But to do so today is quite different than it was fifty years ago, let alone a hundred, because permission to breaks rules is now implicit in authorship. That was not always the case.
To see what I mean, consider the evolution of painting techniques and movements. Step back far enough in time and it’s possible to trace an arc in visual arts from crude representation to stylized representation to photorealism at the peak, then continue through deconstructive movements such as the lens effect of Impressionism, the emotive force of Expressionism, and, finally, the complete freedom of pure abstraction.
At the end of this full arc permission is unequivocal: you can do whatever you want with paint and brush. Yet at any point in time along what now, in retrospect, seems an almost inevitable progression, there were hardened rules and deeply-rooted politics that needed to be overthrown by the pure anarchy of artistic pursuit. And so it has been with storytelling, particularly in the last hundred years — a period that maps, in significant ways, to Hills’ professional life and education. Like painters, storytellers today have permission to do whatever they want, but that wasn’t always the case. Many of the freedoms that are now assumed were fought for by people like Hills, and by the authors he championed.
But where the medium of paint concerns itself with what can be seen by and expressed to the eye, the object and objective of storytelling as a medium is more obscure. Whether you paint a photorealistic flower or a panel of gradated abstractions, and regardless of the point of view you represent or adopt in doing so, the common reference point is the eye as a sense. Because stories inhabit only the mind the question of what they represent is an open one. What does it mean to be representative in fiction? To be abstract? To depict or express?
Representation and Involvement
While experimentation is always possible, the medium of fiction generally explores a broad spectrum defined by emotion at one end and intellect at the other. Whether depicting purely animal acts, emotionless logic, or anything in between, fiction at its best and worst seems to invariably be concerned with the complexities of head and heart. (Emphasizing reason and intellect is a natural extension of the conscious decision to pursue art for arts sake, just as emphasizing emotion and passion is a natural extension of trying to make a buck.) Understanding that deconstruction was inherent in the literary world at the time Hills wrote Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, consider the following quote from this section:
How, anyway, is a reader bounced into accepting what the author says? How is this involvement of the reader achieved? A lot of modern writers don’t even want this effect, and a short story will always provide a good deal less of it than will a novel.
But if a writer does want the reader “in,” wants him to enter the world of his fiction, there are certainly ways of getting him there.
While Hills doesn’t make the connection explicit, invoking the word “involvement” clearly suggests an emotional connection as opposed to a purely rational appraisal. My own opinion is that emotional involvement is accessible only through suspension of disbelief. Asking how emotional involvement is achieved, however, is a craft question: how do I tap into this willingness in an audience, and how do I sustain that effect?
For the record, I don’t think Hills is against emotion even though he is clearly for the cause of art. As long as a story works I think Hills is for it, and I’ll expand on that contention in a future post by relating an embarrassing anecdote. For the time being I think the most useful thing that can be said about writing for involvement, as against writing for art, is that the two are not mutually exclusive. (If I wanted to add another five thousands words to this post I might suggest that the best literary works — the ones that hold up over time — exhibit integration of the head and heart at multiple levels.)
After introducing the question of involvement Hills talks about various methods by which it can be achieved, as well as the requirement of protecting the reader’s experience. He uses the word enclosure here, rather than bounce, in describing the authorial goal of protecting suspension of disbelief. While I don’t think he’s wrong in his description of the process of suspending disbelief, and I agree wholeheartedly that it is a fragile state, I think there’s a distinction to be made between willingness in the reader to go for a ride and the degree to which that ride can be disrupted by authorial malpractice.
If readers read your work in an environment that won’t allow them to drop into the world you’ve created, that’s on them. You can’t do anything about such circumstances, and shouldn’t try. By the same token, however, if your work contains typos, garbled sentences, bungled dialogue, inconsequential characters, or any other craft mistake that interrupts suspension of disbelief, that’s on you. You’re the author and it’s your job to make sure you know your craft.
Involvement and Method
And that brings us back to point of view:
Thus the real question is: what methods can the author best use to create illusion, or enclosure, or bounce, or reader involvement, or whatever one calls it? One of the most effective methods of bringing alive, and together, and to the point, is to get the point of view right.
Point of view doesn’t simply anchor a story as a work of art, it also generates heat and light. Point of view is an engine as well as an architecture, and that’s true regardless of the point of view you adopt. As Hills notes, if you’re going to tell a broad story about a number of characters you’re going to have to switch points of view. There’s simply no way to generate heat and light without doing so.
Which brings me again to my own premise in writing this series of posts. The aim of art and the aim of entertainment are both aided by good craft and undermined by bad craft. Yes, there’s more to it than that: there are authorial gifts that can’t be replaced by craft, but by the same token those gifts are no substitute for failed craft. What you choose to write in service of, who your intended audience is, what you want to say, and how you want to say it, is all up to you. As a matter of craft, choosing the best point of view for each work is essential to meeting all of these goals, as well as any desire you may have to involve your readers emotionally.
Next up: The “Moved” Character and Point of View.
— Mark Barrett
kerry scott says
Oh, man! When you talk about POV, you’ve bitten off a hunk to chew on.
Percy Lubbock has written that the whole intriciate question of the craft of fiction is governed by the relation in which the narrator stands to the story. In an essay in The Theory of the Novel by P. Stevick, Norman Friedman says “…the whole question (of POV, method, technique) can be rephrased in terms of means and ends: has the [writer] utilized the available techniques in such a way as to produce the effect intended? or has he allowed opportunities to pass and obstacles to arise between the reader and the desired illusion? It seems to come down to the matter of the effect sought, the emotion created in the reader.
I think that’s where art comes in. The closer you come to saying something fundamental in a fresh and new way about the human condition the closer you edge toward art. After all, every story has already been told. What the writer brings to the story is himself, his gifts. Hopefully he has something to say and can say it in a way that has not been said before.
Your last line is pretty much what Hills says about fiction: originality of utterance and perception. I think you’re also right about art/expression, though I tend to shy away from pursuing art as a conscious goal:
The whole point of choosing a point of view for any given work is about the downstream effects of that choice. What Hills is trying to get at, and what I agree with, is that almost nobody treats this as an issue of craft. Point of view is so intrinsic to story that it’s hard to see it as a craft decision, but ultimately it is — and one that has far-reaching consequences that many writers may not be aware of.