Thursday, March 14, 2013

authors getting away with it

An incidental remark I made during my presentation on The Hobbit at the Valparaiso Tolkien conference got more attention in audience comments afterwards than anything else I said.

I was making a point about the actual beginning of the story - By some curious chance one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous ... - and noted that this comes only after two pages worth of expository explanation introducing hobbits in general and Bilbo in particular, and I casually interjected that no author would be able to get away with that today.

What did I mean by that? What I meant is that, despite their long and honorable history, expository introductions seemed to be shunned in contemporary fiction. Stories have to begin with something happening, under some delusion that this is the only way to pull readers in. Tell that to the author who began his book, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," or even more to the author who began his book, "You don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" - directing you to read some other book first, yet! But that's what authors are told now: you have to grab the reader at the first sentence.

The problem is that authors who follow this advice grab the reader in a vacuum. Because it's all action and no exposition, you don't know who you're looking at, where they are, what's going on. You have to struggle to pick that up as you go along. And, to assist you in that struggle, and since exposition is in fact necessary, it has to be salted in, and that's another problem: usually it's salted in by characters giving little expository speeches to each other so that the reader can overhear them. Even from skilled authors, this is awkward and clumsy. (I once wrote of my irritation with Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass, the entire plot of which is driven by what Lyra happens to overhear on various occasions.)

And the third problem is that this is all written in a cinematic manner. This is vexing. Movies don't always avoid written expositions: George Lucas popularized expository paragraphs floating through space to begin his unquestionably successful movies. Defenders of movie desecrations of the books they're based on are fond of saying, "Movies are different from books," as if the particular differences in question needed no justification. Well, if movies are different from books, then why can't books be different from movies? But they aren't.

My latest attempt to read a recent fantasy novel was Hide Me Among the Graves by Tim Powers, and I single this one out because Powers is a skilled author who's given me great reading experiences before. But this one was too much.

The opening sentence of the novel is, "The felt-padded base of the ivory bishop thumped faintly on the marble chessboard." When I read that sentence, I see a screenplay. "FADE IN. CLOSE-UP: ivory chess bishop thumping faintly as it is placed on a chess square." You don't know who's playing chess or where they are or anything except the date, 1845, on the previous section-title page (title card on the movie screen). In succeeding paragraphs, the camera pulls back, and you see the players, an old man and a girl. It's a movie, not a novel: you still don't know who they are, or their relationship. The old man is described: his face "was in shadow ... and all she could see under the visor of his black cap was the gleam of his thick spectacles."

This is cinematic description again. You are looking at him from the camera POV of the girl, but not through her eyes, because, as you soon afterwards learn, the man is her father and she knows him well. Only a stranger, or a movie camera, would be concentrating on the shadowing of his features; someone who knew those features would not.

Conveniently, the two enter into a conversation about the man's past and the girl's absent mother - conveniently for the reader, who can get the necessary exposition by overhearing them. Well, all right, they might have such a conversation at some point, and that's why the author picked this particular moment to introduce them. But then the old man delivers himself of this exclamation about his wife: "Poor Frances Polidori! Working for wages in strangers' houses now! It was a bad day for her when she became Frances Rossetti, married to this half-blind wretch who earns nothing anymore."

Who would speak of his wife to their daughter in this distant and formal manner? Even the most skilled author can't disguise the fact that he says her names so that the reader can overhear him and learn what they are. By this time, you should be gathering that the protagonists are historical figures, Gabriele and Christina Rossetti, but what an unearthly clumsy way of showing it. If Tim Powers can't do better than this, I thought, I am not sufficiently interested in the remaining 506 pages.

I pointed this out at our book discussion meeting, and the response was mulish. "Oh, so we're just talking about the prologue now, are we?" said one, as if the prologue weren't as legitimate a part of the book as any other, and more important than some, as it's where the reader is introduced to the characters and lured into the story. "It's a stylistic choice," snapped another, as if that somehow excused it from criticism, as if everything in a novel isn't a stylistic choice, as if expressing our personal responses to these stylistic choices weren't the whole purpose of a book discussion meeting, as if we hadn't been expressing those personal responses for an hour of discussion already. As if stylistic choices weren't the way we judge books, and weren't the essence of literary value.

If you want to know why I get grumpy about literature, look to the books.

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