The Blunt Instrument is a monthly advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

This month, she responds to two questions about the aesthetic/philosophical purpose of fiction.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

Please elaborate on what perfunctory “novelness” is.

@postitbreakup

 

Hi Postit,

I’m sure you’ve heard the idea that “literary fiction” is just another genre, like science fiction or romance, as opposed to, as some would have it, “better fiction.” Let’s just say for the sake of argument that it is—what features distinguish literary fiction from other genres? Often people say that literary fiction foregrounds language over plot, but that’s not always the case. (For example, I don’t think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s writing as particularly “languagey.”) To my mind, one of the main reasons we call something “literary” is because you can talk about what it’s “about” without recounting the plot.

What I meant by the above tweets was that first novels often have an overabundance of “aboutness.” In other words, they are straining too much towards the “literary”; the theme is more salient than any other element of the novel. You know when people say of a book, “The setting is almost another character”? I dislike this formulation, but the point is clear: The setting looms large. In these extra-novel-y novels I’m talking about, the theme looms large. Too large.

Teju Cole once said, “A good novel shouldn’t have a point.” His own novel Open City illustrates this beautifully—I can’t boil it down to one or two abstractions; it’s about too many things. In the past couple of years I’ve read a few novels (or started and abandoned, as the case may be) that felt very top-down in their construction, as though the author decided what the point of the book was first, and then wrote it. I don’t care if authors do this, but as a reader, I want to feel like I’m discovering what the book is about as I read it; I don’t want to know from page one (or worse, sooner—sometimes all the blurbs and epigraphs make it clear what a book is about before you even start it).

In his review of Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff, James Wood wrote, “I’m unafraid to host a big spoiler party—a novel that can be truly ‘spoiled’ by the summary of its plot is a novel that was already spoiled by that plot.” I don’t love knowing the plot of a novel ahead of time, but in terms of “spoiler alerts,” I’d rather know the plot than all the themes. And if every blurber and reviewer is able to pinpoint the same one or two themes and package it up for you, the novel probably isn’t as interesting or complex as it should be.

 

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Dear Blunt Instrument,

I was down in New Orleans recently talking with a writer friend. She writes short stories. When I asked her what a story should do, she told me: a story should entertain, either that, or give your reader a punch in a soft little place. Do you think it’s more important to entertain your reader or to punch them?

Thanks.

Best,
Jacob

 

Hi Jacob,

You’re asking a pretty big question here: Essentially, what is fiction for? And while we’re at it, what is art for?

In a nutshell, I think the purpose of art is to make meaning. That leaves room for lots of different kinds of fiction to make different kinds of meaning. If you ask me (you did), the best art makes more than one kind of meaning. So there is no need to limit a story’s purpose to either “entertainment” or “punching.”

But let’s unpack those terms a little bit. We tend to equate entertainment with amusement: just a little light-hearted fun. But “entertain” also means to hold or maintain (as in the phrase “entertain the idea”)—and if a story holds your attention, it’s entertaining you, even if it’s not TV-fun. Entertainment can be highly intellectual or emotionally harrowing.

Your friend’s remark about “punching the reader in a soft little place” (this phrasing, incidentally, makes me squeamish; “soft little place” is hitting me the way “moist” hits others) seems to speak to something else. They’re suggesting that a story should hurt in some way, perhaps making you sad or shocking you out of complacency. This reminds me of the idea that art should “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” This quote has never felt quite right to me, in part because it assumes a neat binary between who is disturbed and who is comfortable, in part because it oversimplifies the complex experience of art. (Interestingly, the quote was originally about newspapers, not art.)

I am often entertained by art without being comforted. Art can be both funny and disturbing. In short, neither writers nor readers have to choose. Stories can do anything they want, and should try to do as much as they can.

—The Blunt Instrument

10 Responses

  1. jane

    The first letter and answer reminds me of what a writing professor once taught me (Jane Bernstein, if I remember correctly): don’t think about theme when writing a story. If you write a good story, it will have a theme.

    Reply
    • Elisa

      I like that because it treats theme more as something that emerges from story, versus the other way around.

      Reply
  2. A. Joachim Glage

    Hi Elisa–I wonder if a little resistance to what you wrote might be productive. I hope so. To that end, I’d offer the following points:

    1. The notion that good literature shouldn’t have too much of a “point” or be too easily reducible to its “themes,” while probably good counsel (especially for young writers), is also one of the most often-repeated principles in the whole history of writing about literature. It goes back at least as far as the boredom that people began to feel for the morality plays of the 16th century; but it’s also found in Geothe, and Coleridge and the romantics, and Kant and Hegel and Schelling, all of whom ruthlessly criticized allegory as a deficient mode of art (since it makes art subordinate to ideas), and who exalted instead the “symbol” (i.e., the *concrete* universal) as the proper mode of true, genuine art. It’s also in various avant-gardes, in Artaud and the surrealists and various other movements, who insisted that art was precisely a way of getting *away* from a too-conceptual view of reality. It’s also to be found in critics like Susan Sontag, who insisted that literary theories which seek to mine art for its buried “content” are always already getting it wrong, are not focusing on the really important and *artistic* aspects of art, which are never reducible to the themes of “content” but are rather to be found in artistic *form* (“an erotics of form” is what we need, as she famously proposed). And of course in our own day, in countless MFA programs all over the country, young writers are told to “show, don’t tell,” are instructed to “write about people, not ideas,” etc. etc. etc. etc. In a way, there are few gestures more familiar–or more stale–than this tired old insistence that writers should not have a “point,” should not have too specific an idea to express, but instead should just tell a story, and let the story speak for itself. Of course, the long history behind such counsels doesn’t prove they’re bad–just that maybe they’re a little old hat by now.

    2. In a way, if the above is true, maybe the truly gutsy, revolutionary move today is precisely to write thematically, to have a point, to approach fiction as precisely a form for philosophical and moral ideas. Maybe it’s not really brave or interesting to keep saying the same things over and over again about how literature shouldn’t be readily thematizable. Maybe the punk rock move is precisely to be OVERTLY thematic, to turn fiction into a laboratory–perhaps a mad scientist’s one at that–for philosophical and moral ideas, etc.

    3. Think also of the great examples of writers who do precisely what you counsel against. Swift’s allegories come to mind; also what Benjamin wrote about the baroque *Trauerspiele*. But also Borges, who quite clearly would begin with a philosophical idea, and then proceed to write a fiction in which he could express or explore that idea. Also of course Brecht, who did amazing things with the idea that art ought to be something of a testing ground for moral and political thought.

    4. One could opine that ALL writers have points to make. But the writers who *pretend* that they don’t — who pretend that they’re just innocently telling a story, make of it what you will — are actually infantilizing their readers. I mean, clearly most authors have an idea of how you *ought* to read their works. Every single detail the author chooses to represent, after all, and all the infinite details s/he chooses NOT to represent, arguably serve that same purpose: to get the reader to go down the road the author *hopes* the reader will go down. This is like the parent who feeds the infant strained peas by pretending the spoon is a plane. Perhaps we ought to prefer an author who comes right out and tells us: “Here is the moral, feel free to reject it root and branch if you like.” Perhaps only an author like the latter is treating the reader like an *adult*.

    I could go on, but four points are probably enough to get a conversation started. I for one love art and literature which clearly does have points to make, themes to express, but *also* qualities which remain absolutely irreducible to such themes. Instead of one or the other, why not just do both? Why the stricture?

    AJG

    Reply
    • Elisa

      Hi,

      Thanks for your comment, of course I welcome resistance. To respond in brief:

      1) Noted.

      2) I’m not sure trying to be “gutsy” and “revolutionary” is going to produce good books any more than trying to have a Big Theme will.

      3) I certainly wasn’t arguing against political art — if you read Wallace Shawn’s plays they are extremely political and Brechtian and yet, very difficult to reduce to a single theme or explain succinctly. They are incredibly complex. Ditto the Teju Cole novel I mentioned.

      4) Once again, I wasn’t arguing AGAINST points or themes, I just don’t think they should be singular and bludgeoningly obvious.

      Reply
  3. Ben

    This is interesting. Someone, can’t remember who (probably seen in one of the writing quotes Matt Bell frequently posts?): “Stories aren’t about things, stories ARE things.” Which I don’t think holds true the whole way down the line, but is really helpful to tell undergrad/ beginning writers who might have a tendency to start writing with theme in mind or to “explain” theme to the reader.

    Reply
  4. josh spilker

    1st letter– i read this as being ‘against’ outlines (which is fine w/ me…i don’t outline!). but maybe it’s more about ‘hiding’ the intentions and slowly revealing them, which is definitely a skill.

    Reply
    • Elisa

      Yeah, I think authors can work however they work (I’ve written poems where I knew what the last line was going to be before I started)…it’s more a matter of whether it *feels* overly engineered to the reader as an end product.

      Reply

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