Thursday, July 30, 2015

how to be lazy as a writer (and still write a decent story)

Before I get into all the things "wrong" with the short story "Long Tom Lookout" by Nicole Cullen, which was included in the 2014 Best American Short Stories collection and is therefore, presumably, a exemplar of the best of the species, the tl;dr is actually this: This is a pretty good story, in spite of how its mechanics fall back on what I will argue are modern literary fiction conventions. I want to make two points by this:

1) Literary fiction is no different from any other kind of fiction. There are expectations and a kind of standard for the field. Some writers break out from this, but you can follow the pattern--sometimes without any innovation at all--and make readers believe you have succeeded in the genre.
2) There's nothing wrong with this. All genres are capable of providing life-changing imaginative connections even when being genre-conventional. Plot, theme, and characterization can make up for the lack of innovation in style and language for a writer.

What are these conventions that I see in Cullen?

1) Listing, often in triples, the things that a character notices as a way to establish scene
2) Highly specific nouns that most people would not really know the names of as a way to establish scene.

"Sin" #1:

When I'm reading a story, particularly a story in third-person limited, I am often distracted when there is a tone of narration going on that seems at odds with the character's POV the narration is providing. A third-person limited POV should give us only what a character can see, touch, taste, think, feel, etc. It is okay for the narrator to interpret for the audience, even to do so with thoughts that the character herself could not verbalize, e.g. "Monica was, in short, getting to that point in her relationship when she would start to invent reasons why the relationship would not work out." This is fine, and doesn't interrupt my enjoyment of the story. But when the author (not just the narrator) seemingly takes over the sensory apparatus of a character and uses the character's eyes, nose, and ears to sense what the author wants to sense, I want to call foul. Examples from "Long Tom Lookout":

- The headlights flood an irrigation canal black with water, a jack fence, and the beginnings of a field.
-The last few days on the road have been an experiment in cause and effect—the boy’s inability to communicate, his self-destructive behavior, his obsession with maps.
-...she thinks back to the rare find of a buried railroad tie, the smell of wet sagebrush, her father bending to touch the pink of a bitterroot flower.
-Nine years have passed and now she’s back with sixty-four dollars in cash, a truck in her husband’s name, and a boy that isn’t hers
-She passes a Wonder Bread truck then a flatbed hauling hay bales and two barking dogs. On the hillside above town, houses begin to wake.
-...the property has gone steadily downhill: warped cedar shingles, rusted wrought-iron fence, flowerbeds usurped by star thistle.
-Her mother stands in the side yard, dressed in a mud-hemmed housecoat and muck boots, throwing feed to the chickens.

I could go on (and on and on), but since all of these examples are within the first 750 words of the story, I think that will suffice. Oh, fuck it, let's do one more:

-Through the grain of the screen Lauren sees a woman impossible to please—dirt-caked knuckles and a gray braid. Glasses hang from a gold chain around her neck.

I included that last one because it looked for a moment like there would only be two things the narrator picked from Lauren's POV to show the reader, but then...BLAMMO!! The third was just waiting in another sentence. These examples are all before Lauren and her son get out of the car to meet her mother, which is when the action really starts.

Why do I have such a critique hard-on for picking out these tripled scene-setters? (To be fair, the second one in the list is more of a catalog of things that have happened than things in the scenery.)  Well, I don't really think this is such a great sin, to be honest. Writers are told to present "details that matter," and I suppose most of these details reasonably set tone and Lauren's interior landscape.

 I guess one problem I always have in a 3d person limited PoV is the leakage between what is the PoV character's observation and what is the author interpreting those observations for the reader. This very much kills the magic of the story for me on many occasions. I realize that the narrator's voice isn't the same as the character's voice, unless we're in first person. But when the narrator continues to pick up on things in the main character's field of view in triplets, it starts to take over the attention of the reader in a way I don't think is intended. The narrator can pick and chose from what the character has available to inform the story, but the narrator can't move too far away from the voice of the character without being a character him/herself. When Cullen writes "Through the grain of the screen Lauren sees a woman impossible to please," that's Lauren's thoughts that the narrator is giving us access to. Presumably, then, all of these sensory details are things that Lauren perceives. And if she perceives everything in groups of three, we have to wonder if this character has some kind of OCD.

Three is a satisfying number. If the character sees three things, we feel like this is a more authentic description somehow. But falling back on it so much that even I noticed it is going to the well a lot.

"Sin" #2

I don't know who started the tendency to go crazy with Google and look up the exact words for things (or find things you didn't know about and put them in your story), but I see this everywhere. I don't believe Lauren would know pyrite from granite. Or what balsamwood, cheatgrass, and Canada thistle are by sight. But all these things appear in the description. To me, this is a break in the direction of third person omniscient, to a narrator who is able to break the surly bonds of the character and be a lot smarter than the character is. I honestly believe that lit fic has developed an unspoken rule that it is permissible if not outright expected that a narrator will break from the constraints of the character whenever scene is being described. Why? Well, I think it's kind of a bourgeois sentimentality. We want beautiful descriptions of scene, because when we go to our book clubs and don't really understand what the book is about, we can always pick out a few passages of description and talk about how beautiful we think they are. I mean, it's fine. I've done it. I looked up the kinds of grass that would grow in the lowlands of Illinois down by the Illinois river and put that in my story. But I really could go for an easing up of this tendency.


This is a really compelling story. Lauren is feeling all the powerful emotions of new parenthood, all that sudden being needed. She is trying to connect, but failing. Her attempts to nurture end up vomited back up like the Huckleberry milkshake she gives "the boy." She is telling herself that her reasons are altruistic, and that she is being much put upon, but the reactions of others seem to call this into question. It's clear that we at least have a mix of altruism and a desire to somehow reconnect with Keller through Jonah. She's a lookout who can't look out for herself, certainly not for Jonah, which makes her doubly isolated. This is good stuff that scratches at the meaning of parent-child bonding, how it complicates the play between romantic love and our fear of being alone. None of this is weakened because Cullen employed some modern lit-fic stock techniques. She makes up for her mechanical plainness with a good plot and a good character working toward a complicated and meaningful theme.

I get tired of always hearing about how much people value original language or language that makes you stand up and take notice. That's not really what people want. If that were true, then 70% of stories in literary journals wouldn't sound an awful lot like one another. So what I'd like is for us to just drop the charade that great technique is what we want because we're such smart, literary readers. I'd like "literary" fiction to open up to stories that don't sound so "literary," that is, that follow conventions other than the ones that lit fic uses. Because at heart, lit fic isn't really better writing or more linguistically virtuosic most of the time. It's just people doing what they've read other people do in order to tell a story that nobody else has told yet. That's what this story did.

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