Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Realism of sensation, prose of thought

Just to register something I was thinking about the other week--personal reflections rather than aesthetic judgments in the grand style--prompted by Joan Acocella's New Yorker piece on Alice McDermott (not available online). I've never read McDermott, know virtually nothing about her, but the paragraph Acocella quoted near the beginning of the review seemed to me both very skilled and also quite unappealing to me--on grounds that have everything to do with my own personal preferences as a reader and nothing to do with the author's abilities.

So with no disrespect to McDermott--there's clearly something good about this paragraph or it wouldn't have showed me these things so clearly, the things I want to reflect on below--here's the bit of prose that provoked my shrinking-back and self-examination (it describes a character coming out of lunchtime Mass in New York just after World War Two):

Leaving the church, she felt the wind rise, felt the pinprick of pebble and grit against her stockings and her cheeks. . . . And all before her, the lunch-hour crowd bent under the April sun and into the bitter April wind, jackets flapping and eyes squinting, or else skirts pressed to the backs of legs and jacket hems pressed to bottoms. And trailing them, outrunning them, skittering along the gutter and the sidewalk and the low gray steps of the church, banging into ankles and knees and one another, scraps of paper, newspapers, candy wrappers, what else?--office memos? shopping lists? The paper detritus that she had somewhere read, or had heard it said, trails armies, or was it (she had seen a photograph) the scraps of letters and wrawppers and snapshots that blow across battlefields after all but the dead had fled?

I'm not crazy about the rather grandiose rhetorical gesture in the last part of the passage, but that's neither here nor there. What struck me was that this is a kind of language I primarily associate with the literary short story (though obviously novels are written in this mode as well, this is a novel rather than a story), and that the problem I have with it--the thing that makes it leave me cold--is that it is so much concerned with sensation at the expense of thought or even emotion.

All the things I find interesting in life have to do with thoughts and emotions! Sensation just does not seem interesting to me, I'm not crazy about that aspect of Virginia Woolf for instance--I just think that the whole self-imposed challenge those modernists liked of pushing the things that sentences could do vis-a-vis the more physiological moment-to-moment aspects of experience was not a really fruitful line to pursue in the end--but really, I am not very interested even in my own sensations, and not really at all interested in the sensations and physical observations supposedly filtered through the consciousness of this random character.

I would rather know what she thinks about something interesting or funny or important or minor but pressing, my thoughts just do not take me in the direction of being struck by some abstract quality of this perceptiveness about scraps of paper and skirts pressed to the backs of legs (and I think the word "skittering" is also excessively and self-consciously literary). It's not sensible. (It's not funny, either, and I expect it's really the sensation-freighted-with-weighty-significance thing that alienates me rather than just the sensation in itself--Beckett after all who I love is all about the language of sensation, though of course it's full of ideas as well.) This is always the problem I have reading someone like, oh, what's a good example, Alice Munro or William Trevor. I think those two are both wonderfully good writers, if I am going to read that kind of thing I would take either one of those two over almost anyone else I can think of (oh, and I do love Trevor's branching-out into serial-killer fiction...), and yet I find in myself really no need for that kind of thing.


  1. This is a really interesting post, not because I necessarily share your preferences, but because it raises the questions of how - and how much - sensations and emotions and thoughts are intertwined; and what balance is most effective for a particular piece of writing; something I've rather stupidly never thought of in quite those terms before.

    Personally, I do think sensations can be used very evocatively, if not used as an end in themselves, perhaps. And of course they add an immediacy as well.

    As to the McDermott, I also haven't read her, but I'd need to see the context before judging whether the paragraph in question serves her purpose, though I entirely agree about that rather grandiose final gesture, though not necessarily about 'skittering'.

  2. The Chicago Critics, also called the Neo-Aristoltians, would have taken your side on this even more vehemently than I do. From Aristotle they draw the idea that the elements of a work of drama are organized into a hierarchy.
    Elder Olson in his sadly out of print *Tragedy and the Theory of Drama* organizes the elements as follows: (1) plot, (2) character, (3) representation, and (4) diction.
    Notice that diction comes in dead last.
    In his discussion of Eliot's *Murder in the Cathedral*, Olson notes that diction takes first place in Eliot's own hierarchy, turning his play into more of a poem than a dramatic work. (see Olson's book for his brilliant argumentation)
    In the same way, when modern author's blather on endlessly about sensual details that do nothing to support the representation of the plot and characters, they are effectively NOT writing fiction, but something more like poetry.
    In other words, there is no story there, and no characters. The thoughts and emotions that make life and good literature so interesting come from characters and the things they do. Twenty pages of ungrounded sensual detail are just so many wasted pages, skittering about in the wind.

  3. James, I'm afraid that once someone blathers on endlessly about rules and hierarchies of fiction, than they've lost me. And do bear in mind that drama and fiction are not identical, nor is Aristotle the only guide even to drama. To my mind the beauty of the novel is precisely its enormous flexibilty.

  4. James: I don't know that Olsen book at all, but it sounds great, I will definitely get it. Although I will stand up for diction--just not in the novel, as prime thing, more in the essay or poetry....

    Lee: Yeah, I'd better take a look at the actual novel, really that passage is just a pretext/occasion here for further reflection & it is not fair to take a reviewer's selection of a passage as representative. Sensations are sometimes used very evocatively; and yet this is part of what I so much disliked about "Black Swan Green," it was disproportionately sensation-heavy without the other stuff that makes it all work.

    It's random, but there's an observation in Stephen King's novel "Needful Things" that has always stayed with me as pretty much exemplary. Can't remember phrasing at all, but his main character (and yes, it's a genre horror novel, a very well-written one too) has very bad arthritis in her hands, and the horror of the plot hinges on getting one's heart's desire (in her case, to get rid of the pain) in a deal-with-evil type thing. She and her boyfriend have ot fight off the evil, that sort of thing. But the observation is this (much more elegant and economical in original): she calls her boyfriend on the phone, and he listens to the sound of her voice for how bad her arthritis pain is that day--because using the touch-tone buttons is extremely painful for her, it's a good test. He hears her sounding OK and relaxes, thinking she'll be able to handle whatever the problem is. But unbeknownst to him she's replaced her phone finally with one of those big-panel ones designed for arthritis sufferers, so the missing pain in her voice is not in fact due to the reason he thinks. Leading to building sense of menace and urgency--she's in severe pain, and things are about to get TERRIBLE. I don't know I've done justice to this, but this is really the sort of thing I read novels for--and though there is a sensation built in (the novel would not work without good descriptions of the pain she feels from her arthritis) it is all about perceptiveness about PEOPLE rather than about the physical world.

    All right, must run, that is more than long enough already anyway!

  5. Jenny,

    I'm finding it hard to understand why you classify Trevor as a writer of sensations. Or am I misunderstanding you?

  6. It was more just a quick invocation of Trevor as best end of literary short-story writing--often follows a single character, fairly sensation/experience-heavy. I don't have the knowledge or interest to make it as more extensive claim, I hoped it would just clarify my point about the broader style question....

    And now I really MUST go!

  7. OK, I see. Sometimes I do feel Trevor is overly descriptive, but I don't think that's necessarily the same as detailing sensation. And even in the McDermott paragraph cited, it's not really sensual details that you're objecting to, I suspect.

  8. Hello again. Sorry to drop back in late in the conversation, but I just find it an interesting topic.

    Lee, I hope I didn't offend you with my "blathering" remark. It certainly wasn't aimed at you.

    Jenny, I hope you do check out the Olson book. I've not done a great job representing him, but he's great. (As are the other Chicago critics. Wayne Booth's *Rhetoric of Fiction* was a mind-blower for me)

    Olson's discussion of the relationship between elements comes in his chapter on representation.

    Plot is the story, characters act out the story, and representation is how the playwright chooses to... well...represent the story and characters. He notes that dialogue is subordinate to both plot and representation: "The dialogue exists to give the plot its profundity and power [and]... is simply an extension of the representation, detailing what words shall be said in what order."

    Though fiction and drama are distinct, there is some carry-over here. Diction, in fiction, that does not work to flesh out the characters, forward the story, or enhance any theme, is diction for its own sake and runs a risk of being superfluous.

  9. I read this yesterday, and I've just come back to say that the distinction you're drawing here between sensation and the sensible makes a great deal of sense to me, makes a great deal clear, actually, and I think I'm going to hold onto it, if you don't mind. (I say that, admittedly, as someone who hasn't read McDermott, either, and who thinks maybe Munro isn't guilty of the particular literary sin involved.) Why should anyone be interested in mere sensation? (That's such an Adam Smith insight for you to have, by the way.) Mere sensation is, well, vulgar, when it's not disturbing. It's the person making sense of it that holds our attention, and in a way, the writer who only gives you the fluttering skirt or the squawking seagulls or the gritty sand is copping out.

  10. Hi Jenny, I got a copy of this book from Lorin, so if you want to borrow it, say the word. I read it in one gulp and enjoyed it, although I had some problems with the way the characters (or at least their stories) sometimes felt "representative" of their times rather than individual.


  11. I come to this discussion really late in the game, so it will probably never be read by anyone, but...

    My wife brought home a copy of the book "After This," and this type of thing is not normally my cup of tea, but I read the first twenty pages or so, then, when I couldn't go on anymore, I skipped halfway through and read some, then I read the last chapter.

    The first paragraph, which is what started the discussion, also bothered me quite a bit. It struck me as kind of pretentious and seemed to try to hang more freight on what was physically going on than the scene could carry. And then the battlefield paper flying around thing, and my though was, well, this is all stuff she's seen in movies, what she's describing is a movie director's idealization of what's going on when you walk out of church into a windy day.

    So I started skipping through the book and sure enough, not much happens "after this." The writing is very skillful, McDermott is very talented, but for someone of my sensibilities, it's just not very interesting.

    It's what back in the old days someone might have called a sketch, if a sketch can be of novel length, and I guess it can.

    The other thing that bothers me about it is the sort of careful subject matter, the topics that are appropriate for the ladies bridge club discussions. For example, something is made of the main character, a woman, wanting to put her hand on the hard metal of the belt buckle of a handsome man she meets in a cafe. It's mentioned a couple of times. Of course, we can all figure there's something else around there of a certain hardness that she might find interesting to put her hand on, but this is the kind of delicacy that I find only annoying. Maybe cloying is the word.

    But that's me. Hopelessly old fashioned, no doubt.

  12. I read the whole book. What you quoted is the opening.

    The rest of the book has pretty much the same level of action, thought and idea as that paragraph. I read it as a kind of self-torture test, and to find out what the hell these people thought they were doing.

    Here's the major problem I had with it (other than the fact that nothing happens in the whole novel). If you stop and think about it, the description is of a shot in a movie, not of real life. If a good director was setting it up he'd have the fans going and a couple of production assistants feeding the scraps of paper into the windstream. The wardrobe person would have made sure some extras with cute bottoms were walking away from the wind just so, holding their summer straw hats with one hand, and so on and so on. But in real life? Sorry.

    By the time I finished the book I felt like the whole thing would fit into a teacup. A lovely teacup, possibly an antique, certainly white with a pattern of roses, and held in the hand of a nicely dressed matron smelling faintly of lavender who was, at just that very moment, deeply engrossed in thinking how she could tell her friends that the new Alice McDermott book was so very well written.

    And it is.

  13. Revisiting in response to latest comment - yes! - not my cup of tea in any case...