Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Bunnies and Daffodils

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!


  1. We have bunnies in abundance. Let me send you some. Would you like twelve dozen or twenty-four dozen. They seem to multiply at a rapid rate.


  2. Scott, this is excellent excellent excellent! Davin and I were talking yesterday, and he is very down about writing in general. I really do think this will cheer him up! This, honestly, takes a lot of weight off my shoulders - that I agree with you about there being no perfect novel, that I KNOW deep down my own novel doesn't have to be perfect and it's a beautiful thing the way it is.

    This also goes for us - none of us are perfect, so how the heck do we expect to write something perfect?

    Even Shakespeare, Faulkner, Hemingway, they all have their flaws, and that's part of what makes them great and wonderful to read, in my opinion. Reading something perfect would probably send me over the edge.

    I think we should all AIM for the best possibly novel we can write, but we should never let the impossibility of that goal make us miserable with our work for longer than 5 minutes - just long enough to keep pushing forward and get better. :)

    Oh, and bunnies and daffodils!!!

  3. Bunnies and bunnies and daffodils!

    Scott, I hope you did not take me to be a true daffodil hater yesterday as I said what I did more to be droll than anything. I do like daffodils, even wax ones in a garden in the country that melt in the sun.

    Michelle is right about me being down on writing. I complained to her for a good long while because I'm hating my writing and I'm hating most everyone else's writing at the moment. Your post doesn't particularly make me feel better, but it is a comfort to know that I'm not alone in feeling like there is no perfect novel.

    But, I have to believe that a perfect novel can exist. And, I think there are many types of perfect novels that can be formed. (Bunnies, daffodils.) I strive to write a perfect novel, hoping that each failure will result at least in a decent book.

  4. Scott, the conception of a "perfect novel" depends far too heavily on context, wouldn't you say? The archetypal perfect novel of today looks nothing like the perfect novel in Dickens' time, or Joyce's, or Nabokov's, right?

    However, I'd venture to say that you're correct: there is no perfect novel. The closest I've ever seen is in novellas: The Old Man and the Sea and Heart of Darkness. And even there, I caught things I didn't like. Seriously, Hemingway, you didn't have to say the clouds were "piled up like friendly ice cream." That was just silly. Why'd you decide to use a simile there, man?

    Novels are beautiful and monumental despite their imperfections, as are we as human beings. I might not want to read the perfect novel, after all.

  5. In all honesty, part of what I love about fiction is in the flaws. Just like the characters in a story, they must be flawed or they lose an aspect of humanism (or whatever your characters are).

    Since I look at fiction writing as a genuine reflection of the human condition, I believe you are right to say that perfection is unattainable. The fact that we can make something beautiful or insightful despite our shortcomings makes me adore the craft even more.

  6. We can strive for perfection, but I don't believe any of us really attain it in an entire novel. There may be scenes that approach perfection, but the overwhelming task of completing a perfect novel. Oi. It would stop me cold.

    There are certain novels that I have read that have put a halt to my writing, because, when I read them, I think, "Who am I to aspire to be an author? I'm not worthy. I'm not worthy." I just have to set that aside and write anyway and make my wips the best I can and see if the resonate with anyone else.

  7. Hey lotusgirl, what you said reminded me of a Vonnegut quote:

    "I think I succeeded as a writer because I did not come out of an English department. I used to write in the chemistry department. And I had wrote some good stuff. If I had been in the English department the prof would have looked at my short stories, congratulated me on my talent, then showed me how Joyce or Hemingway handled the same elements of the short story. The prof would have placed me in competition with the greatest writers of all time, and that would have ended my writing career."

  8. Waitwaitwaitwaitwait, inspiration is blooming: I all of a sudden have an idea for a novel about carnivorous bunnies taking over the world -- with daffodils! Kind of a mash up of Night of the Lepus with The Happening.


    You all can steal that, if you want.

  9. Tony, I love that Vonnegut quote. I'd like to pair it with another paraphrased quote, author forgotten, which goes something like "Nothing good is original, and nothing original can be that good." Great books include unique elements that are silly or awkward and not appealing to all, but which set them apart as something special. Writing fiction is a fine art, not just a craft. Aiming for "perfection" will just crush its soul.

    Scott, I like your line "No, I don't really know what I mean by that but I feel that the statement is correct nonetheless." I think it parallels how we know in our guts that a piece of fiction is "good" or "done enough." We can talk about specific elements, but we can't draw a mathematical proof of its overall value. All we can do is cultivate our tastes until we know what we like when we see it.

    Also, bunnies are evil little vandals. Last year, a bunny hopped over to one of my daffodils, stared at it for a few minutes as I cooed over how cute it was, and then viciously severed the flower at the base of its stem and hopped away to eat something else. What a jerkwad.

  10. I'm sorry, I only made it through the first paragraph and I was distracted by an internal viewing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

    Where, behind the rabbit?
    It is the rabbit.
    What? You got us all worked up for nothing...
    That's no ordinary rabbit! It's the most vicious, foul tempered rodent you ever set eyes on...

    Sorry about that. I'll be back after I finish the movie. And the rest of the post.

  11. Scott: Wow, thanks! You're too kind, really. I don't think our goat would like the bunnies, though.

    Michelle: I think that sometimes, the flaws in the novel are what makes it beautiful. And while I worry a great deal about perfection, I don't think it's possible. I'll disagree on this point with Davin in a moment. Though I will say that none of this is an excuse not to try to perfect our craft or our stories.

    Jamie D: !

    Davin: We learn by making mistakes, I think. I make loads of them. But even Anna Karenina is a flawed novel. You have to chill.

    Simon: I agree that standards change over time, and I also think that the idea of a perfect novel might not have existed in Dicken's day. I think that maybe the best we can say is that, for example, "Transparent Things" is perfectly Nabokov. I love Hemingway, even when he stumbles. Sometimes that's when I love him the most.

    Tony: Maybe you're right, that a too-perfect novel wouldn't have any humanity in it. I'll have to think about that.

    Lois: But that's just what I do, compare myself to my literary heroes. And then I drink.

    Loren: The Lepus Happening!

    Genie: The more I read about fiction, the less I want to read about fiction. On the one side you've got people who seem to believe in a Platonic form of the novel, and on the other you've got people who stress the idea of New and Original and Smashing Rules and both sides are crazy. And bunnies are evil.

  12. If you try to please everyone, no one will like it.

    - Murphy

    There is no such thing as the perfect novel, nor is there a perfect painting, sculpture, poem, song, or person. The subjective nature of art prevents perfection.

    Looking for the perfect novel is akin to searching for a perfect puddle. A novel is defined more by word count than by POV, characterization, storyline, or vocabulary. That word count is the water, and the other aspects of the writing are the surface on which the puddle lays. Some may prefer a rugged contour beneath a smooth surface, while others may choose a uniform pool.

    That was kind of deep. Also, some may prefer deep pools and some shallow. Must stop before I drown in metaphors.

    Also, rabbits.

  13. Perfection in novel-writing, I believe, is asymptotic. We can always approach it, but never achieve it. And as we improve, we struggle for smaller and smaller incremental gains.

    But Scott, I'm curious: What do you mean by "texture" in writing?

  14. Jabez: I might also propose that each of us has in mind a different definition of "perfect." By texture, I mean something like the density of the prose (how many meanings each passage conveys at once, as well as word choice and complexity of structure) and a sort of feel for the kinds of images being presented. Is the writing primarily psychological or internal, or is it more grounded in sensory impressions? That sort of thing. I am borrowing the term from musicology, where texture means something like how busy the music is, how interactive and/or contrapuntal the voices are, how the space is getting filled in. Sort of. No analogies between artforms are ever exact enough to be really useful.

  15. Some basic facts about bunnies I've learned the hard way:

    1. Most bunnies don't like being picked up and manhandled.

    2. Bunnies can kick an unwary cat's ass from here to next Tuesday.

    3. Mom isn't really allergic to bunnies, she just told me she was for all those years because bunnies dig and she feared for her flowerbeds.

    4. Those aren't raisins.

  16. My friend has an "it wasn't a raisin" story, so I know this to be a common problem.

  17. Scott: I have a question with this: "the novel is a flawed form."

    So you're not saying so much that there are no perfect novels as the form itself is flawed?

    In music, when I think of form, I think of the sonata-allegro form, the rondo form etc. Now, it is just as difficult to proclaim a sonata movement perfect as to say novel is perfect. But typically we would look at a composition not just from the standpoint of how closely it adheres to the form but how the music itself sounds.

    Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven all took liberties with the form (I'm suppose to modulate to Dominant for the second theme? Don't think so. Gonna stay right here in Tonic. Or maybe I'll just go to a totally unrelated key.) Many other composers adhered more strictly to the form but their music hasn't lasted as long. But we can't take away from this phenomenon that the form itself is flawed such that only if you took liberties with it, you can achieve greatness.

    Or maybe what you're saying has nothing to do with this at all.

    Davin: down on writing? Hope it doesn't last long. Or maybe you should cheer yourself up with bunnies and daffodils...or grey skies and stormy seas. The latter sometimes work better for me.

  18. My psyche was scarred at an early age by two teachers. One said, "Practice makes perfect." The other, "Perfection is impossible." I've been trying to reconcile the two ever since.

  19. Honestly, I was so intrigued and amused by your bunny-speak that it took me a few minutes to get into the main point of your post.

    However, my conclusion to your idea is this: The perfect version of a story depends on the perfect reader.

  20. PS to Davin...

    Writing, I believe, is a relationship. Relationships have ups and downs. You're in a down. But don't worry... no down comes around without an up to look forward to.

  21. Well, this really takes the pressure off, doesn't it. As Lady Glamis said, it definitely takes the the weight off one's shoulders. I think sometimes we get so bogged down in writing "right" we don't write at all.

  22. Lately, I've hated hated hated reading fiction writing advice (which of course doesn't stop me from devouring it anyway). Almost all of it can be followed by a "except when you don't" or "except when it's not." Thanks for putting this sentiment into words.


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