Friday, October 29, 2010

Degree of Difficulty, pt. 2

When given the hypothetical choice between the superpowers of flying and invisibility, I have always, without hesitation, chosen invisibility.  Although flying would be wonderful during rush hour or late at night when subway service is spotty, there's something both profoundly appealing and alluringly disturbing about knowing what people really think of you -- what they say when you're not around.  It's partly for this reason, I think, that I have always loved the writing workshop.  Although most (or at least some) participants act aware of the writer's presence and her feelings when discussing a story draft, the conceit of most workshops I've attended is that the writer is in "the booth" for the period of the discussion.  Though she can see and hear the conversation, she can't take part in it, can't spring to her work's defense or agree with a certain reader's interpretation.  The purpose is not for the writer to intrude into the reader's experience of her story, but to eavesdrop on it: to find out what exactly the piece communicated, and what it failed to get across.

Writing workshops have been an invaluable part of my development as a writer. Probably the best two years of my life were spent in grad school, where my fiction was alternately attacked and devoured by a ravenous pack of wild intellectuals; I still wear their scars with pride.  So, as part of a self-imposed campaign not to drown myself in the Central Park reservoir before I turn thirty, pockets weighed down with candy corn, craft beer caps, and zip drives containing my unpublished oeuvre, I recently decided to sign up for an extracurricular writing class conveniently located in my nabe.  I lucked out big time: it's an excellent group, and the reads on my work have been generous and thorough.  But returning to that Conference Table of Broken Dreams (because that's what a flawed story is, isn't it? a broken dream?) after three years' absence has gotten me thinking about difficulty again, and the way it's addressed in the academic environment where so much debut fiction starts.

The writing workshop is, by its nature, biased in favor of the short story.  A short story can be submitted in a lone chunk, read in one sitting, and discussed in its entirety during a single session.  Although the draft of a story may be rough and the reading experience may involve an overtly critical approach (line-editing, etc.), the experience of reading and talking about a short story in a workshop is basically pretty similar to the way students would read and talk about a short story anywhere else.  To workshop a novel or novella, on the other hand, requires a bigger leap.  Split into twenty or thirty page chunks, the story is automatically digested differently than if it were presented in whole.  A major factor in my experience of a novel, for example, is, "How fast did I feel compelled to read this?"  The speed with which I'm propelled through a book isn't necessarily proportional to my enthusiasm for it (I read Room and The Magicians each in under two days), but it is a major part of the experience for me, something I nearly always mention when describing a book.  Yet this large-scale momentum isn't something that can even be considered in the workshopping of a novel.  And neither are other "macro" factors, like themes, image patterns, arc, or -- perhaps most important for our discussion here -- formal structure.

Because that's where the question about difficulty comes in.  Like the Philistine who stands too close to a pointillist painting and then complains about seeing nothing but dots, a workshop student may find himself stymied by excerpted sections of a novel that, viewed in the context of the entire work, might serve an obvious structural purpose.  Then again, they might not.  But given simply an isolated span of pages, he has no way to know.  So novels, regardless of the extent to which they're innovative, are frequently perceived in workshop as more "difficult" -- more mysterious, unknowable, tougher to judge -- than even experimental short fiction.

This is of course a fascinating contrast to the perception of difficulty by consumers of books, who (as the publishing industry knows all too well) seem to regard short stories with the same enthusiasm they normally reserve for spam email, but who occasionally deign to set aside their magic glowing Etch-a-Sketches for tomes like Freedom. (Those who aren't reading it on the Etch-a-Sketch, that is.)  Maybe the reason for short stories' unpopularity isn't difficulty per se, but it's certainly something akin to it.  Short stories, as a form, are characterized by qualities like compression and elision.  For them to hold together, every element, sometimes even every word, has to serve a function.  Stories, in other words, present a conundrum for many modern readers, in that their "blink-and-you-miss-it" aesthetic requires intense concentration.  Although stories take much less time to read than novels do, they demand a different kind of time, ideally uninterrupted and sustained, and a reading style that hones in on detail and language over plot.  And when you add formal experimentation into the mix, many readers will panic, thinking they've picked up a book of contemporary poetry by mistake. 

Don't let this be you.

But I don't mean to make fun.  Reading a short story is an intellectual sprint, and not every jogger is good at sprinting.  (I can enjoy a nice leisurely power walk, myself.)  What I find interesting, though, is the fact that many readers, who are not writers themselves, who would never pick up a short story anthology or collection or a literary journal, or even flip to the fiction section in the New Yorker -- let alone formulate impassioned opinions about what was printed there -- manage to tackle and (in book clubs and other forums) actively discuss contemporary, formally complex novels like The Time Traveler's Wife or Middlesex.  By keeping their focus on the big picture, these non-writer readers glide over and see beyond the smaller stumbling blocks that become the exclusive and intensely debated focus of so many workshop discussions...and that sometimes derail authors midway through a manuscript.

Difficulty certainly is in the eye of the beholder -- that's an obvious enough point and one that I made in my previous post about this subject.  But difficulty is also in the means of transmission (short sections versus the complete manuscript) and the speed at which the work is consumed.  Plus, there are doubtless other factors, too.  So tell me, kind readers, what adds to your perception of difficulty in a piece of writing?  What takes away from it?  And if you could either fly or be invisible, would you still bother with reading at all?


Eric T said...

I've never been in one of these workshops before, but I'm completely sympathetic with your point about the difficulty such an environment places on novels. I don't quite get what you mean about short stories, though. I'm the first to claim that there's something telling about a culture where so many people carry around pills to Aide Concentration and Moderate the Fickle Modern Minde, but is it really true that language and detail are that much more important in short stories than in novels? And even if it were really the case (though I'm not yet convinced), why then can't novels withstand being broken up into chunks? People do just that all the time when reading longer books, so there must be something else that makes novels so much more "difficult" in workshops -- the way people read, for instance...?

The Chawmonger said...

I'd say that the difference between reading submission-length chunks of a novel for workshop and reading a novel (as most people do) in multiple sittings is twofold.

First, reading a novel in pieces for workshop creates an artificial pace of consumption. Very few people would naturally pick up a novel, read 20 pages, stop in the middle of a chapter, wait two weeks, and then go on to read the next 20. It's not just that this pace breaks up the work itself, but perhaps more importantly, it breaks up the reader's perception of the book as a continuous whole. Generally (when I read, at least), I find myself flipping back to earlier sections to find out when a character was first introduced, paging forward to see where the chapter ends, progressing faster when my curiosity is piqued and slowing down or even stopping when the story seems to drag. When the book is split into discrete sections and no reader has all of them at one time, those habits of reading all become impossible. And the book can then feel episodic, fragmented, as a result.

Second, and following from this, the tendency for workshop is to evaluate each shard of narrative as it's read by the class. If readers can't get a strong grasp on the driving engines of the story's macro-plot (based on the above perception of the narrative as fragmented or episodic), they'll often try to impose some sort of arc on the pages they've been given. Or they'll start obsessing over questions of diction, POV, etc. Neither of these best serves the novel as a whole.

I do think language and detail are more important in short stories than in novels, or at least that they matter in a different way. It took me a long time to realize this, but I've come to believe that the success or failure of a novel is at least 50% dependent on the book's *shape.* By this, I don't strictly mean the plot (which doesn't need to be prominent or even extant), but -- to speak metaphorically -- the vessel into which the language and details are poured. Obviously, short stories also have a shape. But a short story's shape can be fairly loose without the work becoming totally incomprehensible to readers. The same can't be said about novels.

Now that you've got me thinking about all this stuff, I'm probably going to have to write another post on the subject. Thanks a lot, dude >:-(

scott g.f.bailey said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scott g.f.bailey said...

I like that you draw this distinction between the language and the form (you say "shape") of the work, and I do agree that langauge is more important in short fiction and that shape is at least as important as language in long fiction. I might say it's more important, because a coherant story will forgive lapses in language, but it doesn't work the other way. That's one of my difficulties with Harding's book Tinkers; the language is beautiful, startling and new, but the shape of the narrative doesn't support all that gorgeous prose.

Alternately, the language in a short story is the form. Somehow. I haven't worked that out; it just came to me.

Invisibility. Of course.

bemyanaleptic said...

I agree that it's difficult to workshop a novel, when it's only considered in fragments. Because the reader must judge the section based on their idea of the whole, which may or may not be accurate, or they must make guesses or grant leeway. Still, I think that momentum can be developed chapter by chapter, or in excerpted parts at least, so perhaps it also involves selecting parts you have questions with to show the class. I think many novel readers who don't read short stories read for a certain level of entertainment and escape, something to return to. Stories require a certain level of promiscuity in reading, a curiosity and a desire for variety.

Perhaps the equivalent of reading Franzen or another popular novel is going to a slightly highbrow but still mainstream film that you feel compelled to have an opinion on. Like The Social Network, perhaps. I haven't read Franzen though, so I don't want to make judgements. I found The Corrections utterly readable--I was compelled to keep turning pages. But it didn't crawl under my skin or hijack my mind or shake up my understanding of the world, as I find the best literature does....

John Wiswell said...

I don't think has almost anything to do with why readers go for long fiction over short. The bulk of fiction sales are to people who want entertainment. And most of these folks want the thing they enjoy to last. Even if that short story is amazing, it ends sooner. The characters they liked, the plot that was interesting, maybe even the themes touched upon, cease. An anthology or collection of short stories don't function the same as a novel; all the little ones don't add up to a sustained long one. That the short story was harder to pull together succinctly for the writer, or that it may demand more concentration, are distant seconds.

I love the short story. Not what The New Yorker does with it, but what many have done with it. I have cravings - for a novel, for an antho, for a short story, for a science article, for a history book.

My most recent encounter with difficulty this weekend, in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. It's the dialogue gymnastics, with four or five people going on at once, no dialects and frequently not marking who is speaking, and yet you seldom need to be told who, because you get it. Rather than just being impressive on that level, she uses it to seed depth, suggestions, and build character when you aren't looking for it. That's difficult for the writer - often getting the training wheels off and still making it easy for the reader is difficult on us. I tend to respect this more than fiction that is purposefully left difficult to the reader. The difference, perhaps, between the guy who can bench five hundred pounds, and the guy who will try to force you to. I go to the other side, analyzing how they did it, projecting and empathizing on technique, feeling how hard this must have been.

I really can't recall the last fiction I found legitimately difficult. That's part of my problem. I vary up my reading, and after neuroscience and quantum physics theories, somebody's stream of consciousness just doesn't seem hard. It either seems worthwhile or badly written. If it's clunky, if the prose is rough to the point where I'm editing it in the margins, if it's trite or redundant, if there's nothing pulling me in or making this feel worthwhile - I guess those are all challenges and degrees of difficulty. I'm not willing to ascribe any positive quality to them, though. That would make Peter Benchley's Jaws the most challenging novel I read all year, because holy crap was it terrible.

One big exemption, though. Poetry is insanely challenging to me. No matter how much I read, I can't scan or read rhythms worth a damn. It is a talent I entirely lack. Let me tell you, without the implied music, most poetry reads like badly paragraphed prose. That's a challenge. One that has left me breathless when a poet actually does draw me into the flow.

Guess I've exposed my Philistine nature enough for this morning. Cheers, Chandler!

The Chawmonger said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, Scott, bemyanaleptic, and John.

@Scott: obviously I totally agree with your statement, "Langauge is more important in short fiction and that shape is at least as important as language in long fiction. I might say it's more important, because a coherent story will forgive lapses in language, but it doesn't work the other way." Well said. I'll have to read TINKERS to see if I agree about that one...

@bemyanaleptic: I think you're onto something when you say, "I think that momentum can be developed chapter by chapter, or in excerpted parts at least, so perhaps it also involves selecting parts you have questions with to show the class." Maybe the problem with workshopping novels isn't that it can't duplicate the experience of reading novels in "real life," but that we try to make it duplicate that experience -- that we want workshop readers to be surprised by character development and plot twists, for example. When workshopping an excerpt, it might make sense for the author to say clearly, "This is a chapter that comes 1/3 of the way into the book, and introduces a character who will play X role later. Does it work?" It wouldn't allow readers some of the pleasure of discovery they'd normally feel with a book, but at least it would focus the discussion.

@John: first, I love, love, love WE HAVE ALWAYS LIVED IN THE CASTLE. One of my favorite books ever. I hope you blog about it when you're done.

Second, I've already outed myself as the real Philistine several times here on this blog, because, as you know, there is fiction I find difficult. But I want to be clear that I'm not using that term perjoratively. I guess I'm using it to mean "fiction that takes work" -- fiction where I can't race through the pages and still understand what's going on. I don't mean bad writing, although I do think it's possible for something to be both difficult and bad.

Anyway, thank you all for reading, and I'll post again soon...