Yesterday I promised that today's post will be all about bunnies and daffodils. Very likely, that was a bald-faced lie. Mighty Reader and I do have daffodils in our back yard (we planted the bulbs in the fall, using the method that amateur English gardener Beverley Nichols suggested in one of his books: putting the bulbs on a tray and then heaving them all up into the air to land where they will, and planting the bulbs where they fell) and I have been talking about buying more so that next year they will be more of a sight to behold in early spring. We do not, however, have bunnies (though my friend Jonathan Evison does) and the only things I can say about bunnies with any sort of confidence are that Anya, ex-vengeance demon, does not trust them ("What do they need such good eyesight for?") and that one of my friend Anthony's bunnies ("Oh, he's harmless") bit a hole through the leg of Mighty Reader's jeans when she picked it up. Violent little beast.
All of which frivolity gets us nowhere if we intend to talk about writing in any way. So I suppose we should talk about literature and fiction. Or, rather, I should bezel on and prolix about something obscure but I've been reading a book called "The Theory of the Novel" which is a collection of essays by authors (Henry James, Joseph Conrad and E.M. Forster among others) and literary scholars. Some of it, dear reader, is heavy going because sometimes scholars cannot help but to write like scholars and that, I likely don't need to tell you, is a good way to help your reader get to sleep quickly. Oy.
Anyway, I have a growing collection of scholarly texts about writing because my chosen art/craft fascinates me and I like to see what the smart set say about what I'm trying to do. One thing that is becoming apparent to me the more I read, especially the more I read things about writing fiction that have been written by writers of fiction, is this:
There are only a few basic components of the craft (maybe a dozen or so separate subjects that are broadly applicable to writing fiction), and not all writers (even really good writers) care equally about all of the basic components of their craft. Which is to say, most writers seem to only care about a few tools on their workbench, and don't care about the others. I find this interesting.
For example, in almost every book that claims to be a sort of study of fictional technique, there is always a section (usually pretty long) about point of view. The book I'm reading now makes certain claims about point of view being the most significant thing about a work of fiction, the most important decision a writer can make, the technique that will make or break the story. I'm as interested as the next guy in the different points of view possible while writing a story, and in the ways that narrative distance can affect the telling of the tale, but there's no way I'm going to agree that point of view is anything like the most important aspect of the craft of fiction. Gosh yes, it matters, and you have to know what you're doing and you have to use point of view as a system to control emotional distance, but I have a feeling that character development is more important in good fiction, and requires more skill and work. Or, you have people who focus primarily on dialogue but don't care about plot or story arc, or you have people who focus on texture but don't care about point of view, and so on. And even though most writers pay no attention to one or more of the basic tools of writing, they still manage to create great books despite having less than a mastery of their craft. I point to people like D.H. Lawrence, for example: his prose was clunky and wildly uneven, yet the characters and development of story in "Women In Love" are really great and in spite of his failures as a stylist, the book is unputdownable.
Which means, probably, that I am correct in one of my basic assumptions about the novel. I think that the novel is a flawed form, incomplete and open-ended and messy and that there is likely no such thing as a perfect novel; I think that every good novel ever written is good--or great--while being at the same time deeply flawed. There was a while when I nearly stopped reading fiction because no matter who I read, even re-reading books I love, all I could see were the flaws, the poorly-fitted joins in the workmanship, the clumsy attempts to experiment, the weaknesses in the structure, et cetera. Happily I have moved on from that mindset, and now I embrace the slovenly, drunken and reeling thing that is the novel. It's a bastard form anyway, a sort of cross breed mongrel descended from the romance and the epic poem and the tale and a successful novel--I think--actually challenges the basic assumptions upon which a novel is formed and so contains the seeds of its own destruction. No, I don't really know what I mean by that but I feel that the statement is correct nonetheless.
I don't know how much anyone but me really thinks about things like this, about if the perfectly-formed novel is possible or if it's a mythical beast, and a "finished" book is essentially a compromise we writers end up making with ourselves. There is of course no perfect version of any story, and we all are familiar with the idea of stopping work on revisions when we can no longer do anything to help the book, only to rearrange things in it, and there being nothing absolute with which to compare our novels so as to judge whether or not we're actually finished with it. We don't know if we're "there" yet, because there is no "there."
This is a long post, I know, and I've essentially said nothing and I apologize about that. But I would like to know if anyone feels the same way: that there are no perfect novels and that perfection (or even a real balance between technical elements within a novel) is impossible.
Also: Bunnies! Daffodils!