Entries Tagged 'Fiction' ↓

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: screenhead.com’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.

Fiction gatekeepers officially circumvented, once anyway!

Whoa, I just earned actual money by writing and self-publishing fiction without an agent or a publisher or an editor or an acquisitions editor. Without any other gatekeeper. The point of this post isn’t the handful (or less) of euros, but another anecdote supporting the march toward what might well be a new paradigm for publishing.

I’ve received fan mail for the story; again, this is not to brag, but to point out that netizens actually read and enjoyed the piece without mediators between them and me. (Artistically, critiquers helped me, of course; and, there are Dreamhost and Flattr and other web companies/organizations, plus the overhead cost of running this website. So in a very loose sense there are, if not mediators, connectors.)

The money came because someone I’ve never met flattr‘ed — donated in favor of — my short story “Glenn of Green Gables,” which I self-published under a Creative Commons license.

The license allows readers to share (copy) and remix (adapt; e.g., translate) the story so long as they do so on a noncommercial basis, give my name and my story attribution & linkage, and license any remix/adaptation they make similarly. In other words, share the story all you want, freely, and do something cool with it, unless it involves plagiarism or making money. (If you’re Hollywood, email me.)

Yeah, download the short story, the whole thing, and toss a few coins in the tip jar on my digital street corner here where I’m being your bard.

I think magazines and publishing houses are still very necessary. They provide authors with infrastructure for, say, interviews and book tours, among other functions. (After all, most artist types aren’t the greatest biz folk at promoting themselves.) Houses help readers choose between fiction based on reputation. They connect authors with communities and with editors — though tons of editors are already freelancing outside the umbrellas of publishing houses. AND magazines and publishers still have bigger bullhorns than many websites (including mine), bigger wallets than micro-donaters, and they typically bestow more credibility (for opportunities such as speaking gigs) than self-publications. So, sure, I definitely still want to get a bunch of stories past gatekeepers. They’re not all bad or anything!

But the bottom line: in order to connect with readers and score some pocket change, I won’t have to have gatekeepers’ approval. Not anymore. Score one for the Internet.

William Gibson Austin Book Tour Stop

William Gibson came to Austin Wednesday, 15 September 2010, and it was very, very cool. The occasion was his new book, Zero History. I talk about my trip down there in my preceding blog post.

I think the chapter he read from was titled Zero History

The Reading Portion

The Gibson event was, like all Gaul, divided into three parts: a reading (pictured above), a Q&A session (pictured below), and signings (pictured way below). There were maybe 75 people there, some with phones and laptops in constant use during the event, which seemed to me fittingly Gibson-esque.

He knows the answers

The Q&A Portion

Notes from the Q&A, things Gibson said. Everything in quotation marks is pretty darn close to what he said; stuff without quotation marks is my paraphrase. Any mistakes are mine, of course.

  • “In the 20th century I seemed to be a futurist writing about the 21st century; in the 21st century I seem to be some sort of naturalist with a science fiction toolkit.”

  • “When you get to the real future, it doesn’t have any capital F; it’s just ‘today.'”

  • He has “trouble with villains.” He said, “As a grown-up, I sort of don’t believe in villainy in the same way I might have done as when I was younger and as our folk culture encourages us to. The bad guys in my books tend to have way too much money and time on their hands, and in my early, sort of further-future fiction, they tended to live way too long, which gave them even more time on their hands […] The real antagonist in all my work is the way the world is — and that’s what undoes the good guys and the bad guys in these books […] and the way people are, or the way I see the world or I see people as being.”

  • I asked Gibson about Wikileaks, and he said he doesn’t have a position on the organization; he said he needs to think about it in more detail. I encouraged him to blog on the subject. :-p (A lot of people are curious as to what he thinks on the issue.)

    Gibson did say “when [Wikileaks] announced and hinted about the link [to the Afghan War Collateral Murder video], I thought, ‘ahh, here it comes, I could have done with this not happening for a few more years.'” I take that last not as a commentary on Wikileaks content, but rather — since Gibson has mentioned the inevitability of radical transparency or at least something approximating it — a remark meaning Wikileaks and any similar organizations are going to be such game-changers that we and the world at large will have to seriously and quite stressfully adapt. Here’s my post about Wikileaks.

  • In the course of praising the movie Inception, he said: “If you’ve been doing your job right and doing it long enough, you digest all your influences. So when you’re younger there’s like lumps of gristle in your work and it’s not attractive and you realize you should have airbrushed those lumps a bit before you put [the early work] out.”

  • His debut novel Neuromancer doesn’t make it obvious, but he thought of that one as set in approximately 2035.

  • One great question someone asked was: Overall, do you consider yourself an optimist or a pessimist? Gibson replied, “Actually I think I’m quite optimistic. People said Neuromancer was oh, this grim dystopian vision of large cities with poor people dealing drugs, where could this have come from, this young man’s imagination is too much! [laughter]

    “I think today, there’s any number of people in, for instance, Africa, who would migrate to the Sprawl [the above-mentioned fictional setting in Neuromancer] in an instant, and they’d be way better off. The Sprawl looked dystopian if you were really, really better off […] When I wrote Neuromancer, any rational, well-informed individual knew the world could end at any second [due to nuclear holocaust]. [For understanding the] second half of the 20th century, the great historical secret: people my age grew up knowing the world could end at any minute. It wasn’t a conspiracy theory; it almost did [end] a few times, and nobody knew. There was a Russian radar operator / missle man who didn’t launch [missles] when he saw the American bombers coming, and they were coming accidently. Those are the real nodal points [of history]. [The bombers] got called back, and they’d gotten past the point where the guy was supposed to push the button, and the guy was on the phone with the Kremlin saying there was something wrong, ‘I don’t want to shoot.’ I hope this guy got a medal. Everybody should give that man a medal.

    “Coming from a world with that stuff going on I thought I was pretty optimistic to write about a world with people in it! In Neuromancer the big corproations decided nuclear war was bad for business anyway.”

His hand must have gotten tired

The Signing Portion

During the signing portion of the event, I got four books signed, two (Spook Country and Zero History) for me, one (Pattern Recognition) for Wifely, and one (Idoru) for a friend. I was near the back of the at-least-fifty-something-people line, so when I got to the table, I didn’t want to pester him with any additional questions. :) Instead, I blabbled a bit about Wifely and the friend for whom he was signing — I got the books autographed to our Twitter user names, by the way. If I could go back in time, I’d have just said: “I feel like I’m supposed to be saying something, but I’m really happy, so I’m just going to stand here and beam.” Yeah, it was totally worth the drive from DFW to Austin and back (each trip in the same day!). The event definitely made my week.

Traveling through the Republic of Texas toward the Future

Today I drove down the center of The Republic of Texas (from my headquarters in Fort Worth) to Austin to see William Gibson’s forthcoming appearance tonight at one big Barnes & Noble, the Arboretum one.

Newsweek poll says 52% of Republicans probably or definitely believe President Obama wishes to impose Islamic law

Welcome to the Republic of Texas, Gibson! :S

I stopped by the Czechoslovakian embassy to the Republic, got two kolaches (strawberry & blueberry) and a Reuben, then checked out the communiques:

L to R: Got Beer?; How Are You; Give Me A Kiss For Beer

Dispatches from Czech Diplomats

Now that I’m here, I’m gonna get some work done while I wait, or maybe just socialize (speaking of the billboard above). If any of y’all out there in Twitter cyberspace are also in here in meatspace, or otherwise want to participate, hashtag this event #AustinGD!

Top center of the building!

Some guy supposed to show up for a wedding?