The Dreaded Authorial Finsbury

This brings me to a related matter: writers turning into Fins-burys—lecturers droning on about some esoteric specialty—or into True Believers who see fiction primarily as a soapbox from which to promote some doctrine or belief, whether political, social, ethical, religious, ecological, or whatever.

Partly, this is related to the tradition of the omniscient author, which I discussed in the last chapter. Authorial intrusions—the story stopping dead while the author rambles on about whatever happens to interest him—used to be commonplace, a hundred and a half years ago. (Need I again mention Melville's cetology chapters?)

Now, though, they're much disliked.

Although a story is of course nothing from first to last but an author's ideas anyway, we forget that, while we're reading. We treat the story as real, the characters as people we care and are concerned about. We imagine our way into it and don't want to be reminded it's an elaborate lie, a made thing, a puppet show in which some author is yanking the strings. To the degree that we're conscious of the puppeteer, that awareness keeps us from holding on to our conviction that words on a page can be worth our tears, our laughter, or our love.

Probably, any lecturing author is showing more than a few signs of world-builders' disease, too.

Don't become a Finsbury or a True Believer.

No matter how worthy your doctrine or how important or insightful your inside knowledge of the territorial battles of Siamese fighting fish, neither is storytelling. And storytelling is the primary business of fiction. Everything else comes second. It has to.

Does that mean I'm contending you shouldn't ever try to cast your convictions or your expert knowledge in the form of fiction? Of course not. Since the very beginnings of fiction, there have been wonderful, moving stories demonstrating some evil, social or personal. Think of Dickens and his attacks on Chancery, cruel schooling, the condition of the urban poor, and the "businesslike" barbarities exemplified by such characters as Scrooge, Mr. Dombey, and the elder Mr. Nickleby. Think of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter or Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. Think of Judith Rossner's Looking for Mr. Goodbar and Shirley Jackson's classic fable, "The Lottery." It's not hard to think of a dozen stories frankly embodying their authors' views on some social or moral issue.

Likewise, specialist information, carefully subordinated and sparingly doled out with a minimum of jargon, has given conviction, believability, and a unique slant to everything from stories about art-critic/detectives to fiction set on exotic planta tions or in astronomical observatories, or featuring a protagonist who's a leper. Specialist detail comes under the heading, "If you've got it, flaunt it!" with just the recognition that flaunting doesn't involve letting it bury the story in footnotes.

If you want to include informational or polemical exposition, treat it as you would any problem element. Subordinate it, and compensate with all the narrative craft you've got.

Build it into the story, wherever the story will stand it.

Make it come alive so the reader can see it happening and mattering rather than being lectured by an author, either directly or by proxy, through some character.

Integrate it so thoroughly into the fabric of your story and your characters that it becomes part of their rightful structure and substance, bone and flesh, not just a series of labels, speeches, or footnotes.

0 0

Post a comment