Fiction Filmable … so what?

My good friend Cynthia Shearer said something in a long-ago (long-ago in net years) blog post, a review of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road, that has puzzled me for a while. Before I get all critical of a single phrase in her post, lemme say some positive stuff to block any negative feelings.

  • Her blog post’s awesome.
  • Cynthia’s awesome and her blog’s awesome.
  • Revolutionary Road and Richard Yates are awesome.
  • Thanks to Cynthia’s review, Wifely and I both read the novel, and we found it so worthwhile, the book has since become something of a touchstone in some of our conversations.

Now with the kindnesses out of the way, here’s my quarrel, or really, quibble jumping-off point. In the course of otherwise spot-on praise for Yates’ novel, Cynthia gives the following as a thought on the book:

The novel is flawlessly structured, three acts, and eminently filmable.

Confirming what I thought, my OS X dictionary gives the following definition for “eminently”:

used to emphasize the presence of a positive quality

Maybe Cynthia wasn’t using the word so specifically, but regardless of authorial intent…and setting aside commerce, writers upping their audience — i.e., considering aesthetics alone — why is it a positive (or a negative) quality for a book to be filmable? We don’t say: “That’s a great sculpture; after all, it’d make a fantastic piece of photography” or “That’s a great painting; after all, it’d make an excellent symphonic work.”

Connections between artistic content remixed into another art form can be worth pursuing and elaborating and evaluating, but I don’t see any basis for using as a criterion of aesthetic appraisal the ease with which an artistic piece can be remixed to another art form.

By the way, one of my favorite remixes of artistic subjects is Rachmaninoff’s symphonic poem Isle of the Dead Op. 29, composed in the early 20th century and then recorded with Rachmaninoff himself conducting. And yes, it’s “beginner’s classical,” shut up. Arnold Böcklin’s painting Isle of the Dead inspired Rachmaninoff’s piece — apparently the black-and-white version:

Here’s the color version:

And the music, low-fi and split into two parts due to copyright and YouTube limitations:

And here’s an online encyclopedia of Isle of the Dead remixes.

Anyway, the (wrongheaded!) idea of using as a criterion of qualitative judgment an artwork’s capability to be transformed from one art form to another got me to thinking: what can a novel do that no other art form can do? The closest (non-textual) art forms are probably plays (in performance) and movies (“movies,” not “films”; I don’t screen films, I watch movies). What can novels do that those art forms can’t do? I’ll not consider plays, as I haven’t thought much about them. So: movies.

In my tentative answers I’m going to put aside style, too, since sentence-level quality, I think, is a) not obligatory for a novel to be good, and b) not inherently novelistic. So, my first tentative answer: maybe novels can represent time, the workings of memory, changing perspectives, and the inner experience of emotions and thoughts better than any other form. As an example of what I mean (UPDATE:’s list of the hardest novels to film), Theodore Sturgeon’s excellent short story The Man Who Lost the Sea (legal full text at link) — warning, spoiler in the third quoted paragraph:

Say you’re a kid, and one dark night you’re running along the cold sand with this helicopter in your hand, saying very fast witchy-witchy-witchy. You pass the sick man and he wants you to shove off with that thing. Maybe he thinks you’re too old to play with toys. So you squat next to him in the sand and tell him it isn’t a toy, it’s a model. You tell him look here, here’s something most people don’t know about helicopters. You take a blade of the rotor in your fingers and show him how it can move in the hub, up and down a little, back and forth a little, and twist a little, to change pitch. You start to tell him how this flexibility does away with the gyroscopic effect, but he won’t listen. He doesn’t want to think about flying, about helicopters, or about you, and he most especially does not want explanations about anything by anybody. Not now. Now, he wants to think about the sea. So you go away. […]

His head isn’t working right. But he knows clearly that it isn’t working right, which is a strange thing that happens to people in shock sometimes. Say you were that kid, you could say how it was, because once you woke up lying in the gym office in high school and asked what had happened. They explained how you tried something on the parallel bars and fell on your head. You understood exactly, though you couldn’t remember falling. Then a minute later you asked again what had happened and they told you. You understood it. And a minute later . . . forty-one times they told you, and you understood. It was just that no matter how many times they pushed it into your head, it wouldn’t stick there; but all the while you knew that your head would start working again in time. And in time it did. . . . Of course, if you were that kid, always explaining things to people and to yourself, you wouldn’t want to bother the sick man with it now. […]

Say you were that kid: say, instead, at last, that you are the sick man, for they are the same; surely then you can understand why of all things, even while shattered, shocked, sick with radiation calculated (leaving) radiation computed (arriving) and radiation past all bearing (lying in the wreckage of Delta) you would want to think of the sea. For no farmer who fingers the soil with love and knowledge, no poet who sings of it, artist, contractor, engineer, even child bursting into tears at the inexpressible beauty of a field of daffodils—none of these is as intimate with Earth as those who live on, live with, breathe and drift in its seas. So of these things you must think; with these you must dwell until you are less sick and more ready to face the truth.

(Oddly for a science fiction story originally published in a straight-up “genre” magazine — The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction — “The Man Who Lost the Sea” was selected for the 1960 edition of The Best American Short Stories.)

I’m not sure a play or a movie could represent the Sturgeon story, its workings of time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience as well and as concisely — or even at all. But that’s a huge disjunction: are plays and movies able to represent the Sturgeon story — just not concisely or well — or is there something inherent to the story that cannot be translated to another art form? I think that depends on how inherent an aspect of an artwork has to be for it to be considered inherent. ;-) And, how good does the movie have to be? The movie could voice-over or crawl tons of text to get closer to the original fiction format, but that (probably) would become annoying. You never know, however; artists are always figuring out new techniques. All the same, because representing time, memory, changing perspectives, and inner experience is at least a huge strength of fiction (and especially the novel), more and more I try to emphasize those qualities in my own writing.

I said first tentative answer, so how about this second one, which I can describe best in a metaphorical way? Novels are like multicharacter, revised, organized daydreams — or, imagine being a kid and playing with dolls or figurines, making up stories. That’s basically what novels are, I think, but not so much created daydreams worlds as the daydream-y experience of personal identity as a network of multiple narratives, comprised of images, emotions, etc., and stuck into the context of particular settings and social histories/influences and so forth. Sorta sounds like Bakhtin’s account of polyphony in Dostoevsky. But I haven’t read enough Bakhtin yet to say much; besides, his name sounds like Bactine.

Please don’t DMCA-takedown me, Bayer

This way of looking at what’s unique to novelistic form doesn’t seem to strongly entail the memory rumination or time aspects or changing perspectives I mentioned earlier, but yeah, I think fiction — especially when it avoids too much exposition and abstraction — stages a vehicle for experiencing a daydream related to identity and traveling in a specific historical or social context. Yet in “When Narrative Fails,” an article in May 2004’s Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, J. Melvin Woody makes an interesting case that other forms of art can do this, too:

“Why […] should we limit our understanding of the constitution of the self to the narrative? Indeed, why limit ourselves to language? Do not music and dance often articulate our passions more eloquently than any literary form?”

Nevertheless I think my second answer is pretty strong, and pertinent to why reading fiction is not just another hobby or preference, but something people who have the ability and resources and time to read it really should do so.

With Wikileaks, will there be Forgiveness?

If you aren’t up to speed on Wikileaks news, try here and here and here, and watch this:

Now that you’re up to speed:

There is this goofy card game one of my brothers likes to play; to my knowledge, he invented it. The dealer (typically my brother!) passes out one face-down card to himself and one to each other player. At his signal, all players raise their cards to their foreheads facing out such that no one can see his or her own card, but everyone can see everybody else’s. The players then place bets as to how valuable they think their own cards are in comparison — a total guess, of course, but by this time everyone’s laughing from holding poker cards against their skin. After betting, the players reveal their cards, and the random results release laughter …

Here’s my version of the game, which so far exists only in my imagination. People find themselves seated at a dinner table, clutching their one card tightly to their chests, looking down at their stated worth — “7” or “3” or “10” — a value that is calculated according to all the good and the bad they have caused in life, according to all the secrets they know, according to all the things they wish they hadn’t said or they wish they knew how to say.

“If you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you” — Herbert McCabe

At this imaginary table of mine the players are making small talk, some of it happy, some of it sad; all are nervous about their value, and what the other players would think if their card were seen. After all, this player Sue’s card reveals that she said to this player Bob that this other, wealthy player Jorge’s a jerk, and now that Bob and Jorge are pretty good friends, does Jorge know what Sue once said about him, and if so, how does that affect who’s gonna pick up the check?

The dealer — a voice from the sky? — suggests the players lay their cards down on the table, face-up, on condition that they all, unanimously, forgive one another and love one another regardless of the cards’ value. The players agree, make their promises, and lay the cards down face-up. Angry yelling (“Jorge has the hots for both Bob and Sue?”) soon turns to laughter (“Jorge has the hots for both Bob and Sue!”) as people discover everyone’s a mess inside …

Except what if the players at the table included polarizing figures such as (take your pick) Dick Cheney, Barack Obama, Julian Assange, or heck, even that driver yesterday who cut you off when you really needed to get over a lane? Would we the powers-that-aint agree to forgive they the powers-that-be permanently if they’d lay down their cards and their guns?

I would. I would, to get the cards on the table so everyone could be safe.

There are of course several things my card-game scenario doesn’t address. For instance, it seems radical transparency and privacy can come into conflict, and privacy is I presume often preferable: if you’re surveilled to death, your creativity is chilled (partly because honest creativity requires engaging in thoughtcrime) and also under surveillance you can’t experience as fully the fun premium privacy can add to events (e.g., sweet nothings can be more meaningful when expressed without others around). Further, logically there are possible worlds where security is unjustly threatened by radical transparency, and I am uncertain as to how such situations, when they do arise in this actual world, should be handled, although I am tempted to say, well, let the chips cards fall where they may, because 4000 years of trading our rights away to leaders whose trustworthiness is unproven in return for promises of security hasn’t worked out so well.

Minor edits made 18 August 2010.

Creating Character Emotions is Awesome

Most how-to fiction-writing books I’ve read — and I’ve read a bunch — are bad, worse, or useless. A few have helped me tremendously, however, and they don’t fall in either the pathetic HOW TO WRITE A BESTSELLING NOVEL category (an actual title!) or in the John Gardner “Does anyone actually read this?” category. The three I’m thinking of lie in the Woah, this is useful! category that makes it worthwhile to occasionally visit that slightly embarrassing WRITING REFERENCE section of the bookstore.

Novelist and short story writer Ann Hood (Wikipedia entry; Blog), who teaches at The New School and whose latest novel is The Red Thread, wrote one of the three how-to books I prize. It’s titled Creating Character Emotions.

Creating Character Emotions cover

A Rectangular Read

After opening with an essay on writing about emotion, the book gives 36 short chapters, each focusing on a separate emotion — Anger; Anxiety; Apathy; Confusion; etc. — in a specific pattern: a short essay discussing the particular feeling, bad examples of its description in fiction (with discussion), good examples (with discussion), and exercises. (Myself, I always ignore exercises; I have enough writing projects of my own! So I can’t speak for or against her exercises.)


  • Excerpt of the first part, the mini-essay:

    Anxiety comes from matters large and small. Anxiety is worrying to an extreme.

  • Excerpt of the second part, the bad examples:

    “Would that doctor ever come out? Jon wondered. He bit his nails and tapped his foot nervously.” […] Nail biting, foot tapping, fingers drumming, sweaty palms, butterflies in the stomach, a trickle of sweat, and pacing are all tired ways to show anxiety.

  • Third excerpt, one of the good examples (from Thom Jones‘s short story “I Want to Live!”:

    “But those people in the hospital rooms, gray and dying, that was her. Could such a thing be possible? To die? Really? Yes, at some point she guessed you did die. But her? Now? So soon? With so little time to get used to the idea?”

  • Fourth, one of the exercises:

    Choose a seemingly minor reason to produce anxiety, such as an invitation to a party, running out of hot water, a rainy day, and write a one-page scene in which a character obsesses on that concern. Be sure the character’s anxiety level rises as the scene progresses. Objective: To tap into the heart of anxiety. Even a small thing can cause great panic.

Too often I see in fiction the “He bit his nails”-type shortcut to expressing emotion — in fact, I don’t think these shortcuts express emotion at all, except for inexperienced readers or for characters with really important nails (what about biting the kind of nails you put into walls?). I think those shortcuts — “He bit his nails” — are, unless the writer’s really trying to speed a paragraph along or some such, simply announcements to readers’ left brains (so to speak) that amount to “Oh, the story is informing me that this character is anxious.” The shortcuts become mere info to process, sort of like a bus route chart: no emotion there.

Whereas a description of anxiety that startles or wounds or points uniquely will force readers out of complacency and keep them engaged in reading which is an active process of creating an experience in the mind. The Thom Jones example above makes readers (me at least) worry about suddenly learning of their own impending deaths. The bad example is just data, better suited to a computer than a person. CAVEAT SCRIPTOR: Don’t ditch all physiological ways of showing emotion, of course, unless you want your characters to represent disembodiment.

By the way, some writers/critiquers subsume the above advice under the precept “Don’t tell readers what to think.” That precept, I think, is imprecise. If a writer says “He wandered the hours away by the bank of a brook, watching the sun on the face of the chuckling water. A bird came to circle him, flew unafraid through the aura of gladness about him. The delicate tip of a wing brushed his wrist with the touch of the first secret kiss from the hands of Bianca” he should first win an award, but anyway, he is, in fact, telling readers what to think — at least to some degree — he’s commanding THINK OF A BIRD; and THINK OF A TIP OF A WING, etc. So drop the precept, people!

And buy Ann Hood’s book!

Clarion West Donation Drive 2010: Sponsor Me!

Clarion West, the six-week writer’s workshop I attended in 2008 on a space station in geosynchronous orbit above Seattle, hosts an online donation drive called the Write-a-thon each summer concurrent with the in-person workshop (June 20 – July 30). This year I’m participating in the drive along with many other former students and instructors. Here’s the deal: participating writers pledge to complete a certain amount of work individually; their friends, family, and fans donate whatever amount they choose to Clarion West as a show of support for both the writers and the organization. My goal: “Each of the six weeks I’ll either write a complete, good first draft of a new short story, or finish revising an older, in-progress one.”

I describe my feelings for Clarion West and my background in terms of the Write-a-thon further on my personal Write-a-thon profile page.

The donation drive works on an honor system — but, if you want proof I actually meet my Write-a-thon goals, I’m happy to accommodate you privately pretty much however you see fit. And, no promises, but if you do donate and want a character named after you in one of the stories, let me know that, too, as long as your name isn’t Forrest Gump or Darth Vader; if your name is euphonious I’ll ask the Muse to see if It can work anything out.

Clarion West is a nonprofit organization, and in the United States donations there are tax-deductible, as described on the main Write-a-thon webpage. Remember the organization has to fly the space station, pay the instructors, and so on — a lot goes into making this wonderful workshop happen. Rest assured that it is totally, totally, totally acceptable to donate a mere $5 if you want; $5 times a lot of donors times a lot of writers equals a whole lot of money.

To donate, you can either 1) click the PayPal “Donate” button on my personal Write-a-thon profile page, or 2) send with a note mentioning my name a snail-mail check to:

Clarion West
P.O. Box 31264
Seattle, WA 98103-1264

Thanks everyone, and I really appreciate even a single $5 donation to Clarion West. Let me know if you donate: it’ll make me work harder! Feel free to badger me about my progress towards my Write-a-thon goals, too!