Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The reader's imagination

As writers we should foremost acknowledge, bow down even, before the fact that the reader's imagination is far more powerful than anything that we can put down on the page.

There is a spectrum: on one end is the blank page, where anything is possible, where every potential exists, a place of zero entropy. But on the blank page every thought spins out into nothingness. The reader approaches and has nothing to hold onto. In a perfect world the writer would be able to forever place a blank page before the reader as a sort of koan of literature and the reader would gasp at the sheer weight of the brilliance and literature would end as it started.

One day maybe.

So as we write, we constrain the possibilities. Entropy begins to increase. We form the reader's imagination into first order facts like sense, motion and event then second order facts like character and place then third order facts like plot then higher order facts, emotions, ideas, and so on. Possibilities begin to decrease but something begins to happen.

At a certain point a story can constrain the reader's imagination to the point that the possibilities decrease radically. There are no degrees of freedom left to the reader, entropy decreases often times approaching zero. I see this decrease to zero typified by so much contemporary short fiction. Near the end there is nothing left to chance, there is nothing left to the reader's imagination. The writer wields their influence like a crazed god, setting everything into place, building a perfect world, but in the process utterly binding their subjects.

There is room between readers to discuss form and structure but little else. It is beautiful perhaps but suffocating. At the other end of the spectrum (just to the right of the blank page) exist strains of surrealist fiction, some minimalist fiction, absurdism and a handful of other styles. There is so little to hold onto, it can be frustrating. It takes a top notch imagination to pull much out of this kind of work, which is fine, but at this point the reader is doing so much of the work the writer may or may not every be necessary.

The greatest work is that which sort of builds a window, which directs the reader's imagination, focuses it. It builds a room and a window and allow's the reader's imagination to reverberate and amplify within then concentrates it like a laser until it bursts forth from this aperture.

We as fiction writers should see ourselves as shapers of the imagination, sculptors in a way. With too heavy a hand we stand to break the medium, we risk whittling it down to nothing. With only light glancing strokes we are left with a formless block. But with a combination of the two our own art makes art. We stand to take human consciousness and direct it to places it has never been, we stand to send it off to places it did not realize it could go.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

On the role of the writer and our place in fiction

There is this sort of myopia. Fiction is considered by some to have arisen and found its most eminent form within the United States withing the past forty years. Story telling is considered to be at its most important (or to only be important) when it regards the lives of certain people doing certain things, mostly domestic things among the wealthy or gritty sad things among the dispossessed. These stories in many ways mimic television: they are concerned primarily with an emotional undercurrent, one that is generally stark and palatable. They tend to avoid challenging the reader, avoid any tactics or tricks that might cause difficulty for some readers. But perhaps most importantly they tend to shy away from ideas.

But shouldn't there should be a more humble approach when writing fiction? What hubris to speak endlessly about the writers of the last forty years as if they stand out in any significant way. We can only stand to benefit from the understanding that we are all, as writers, coming into a tradition that is at least sixty thousand years old, which has arisen naturally in every human society in a multitude of forms and will continue on long after we have died. That we have in a sense a duty to perform. We should see ourselves in the stream of history and consider deeply and learn from our place in it. We should understand that while there are various styles of writing, there are likely to be styles that have not even been created yet, that the greatest novels to be written have not been written yet, that we are all mere blips in this process. We are in a certain sense obligated to the future and indebted to the past.

Maybe this is just a difference in taste, but I think these choices also have an impact on longevity as well as on importance. There is a quote about Borges, something like the man being 'The Heresiarch of the information age.' The story 'The Library of Babel' alone essentially presaged the rise of information theory and while it may not have directly caused or influenced the material progress it is astounding to think that this idea existed first in the mind of a short story writer. Kafka too, presaging in many ways the bureaucratic and political insanity of the twentieth century. There are so many examples of this kind of work, to varying degrees. There are writers of ideas, people who observed the world and worked in silence and allowed their minds to work in those dark places and created fiction that did not just tell a story or cause a rise of emotions but acted to augur or even shape the course of humanity.

Where do you stand in relation to these writers when you put out one more story about the plight of a middle class American family? What is the value of your work when compared to this?

This should be the role of the writer, not just to entertain, nor just to play games with form or trope or emotion. It is the writers role to stand at the forefront of the wave of the collective understanding and to turn around and call out what is seen. It is to be a scout ahead of the flock, to witness the path of the world and to act like an oracle. Surely most of these predictions will fail, but what about those that do not?

Sunday, November 5, 2017

On watching Tarkovsky's Stalker for the second time

Trylon cinema is having this Tarkovsky festival right now so we decided to go see Stalker today.

I think I saw it for the first time five or six years ago, just at home. Since then I have considered it one of my favorite movies.

Memories from the first viewing were mainly that it was very slow and it involved three men mostly just walking through fields. And there was the guy throwing the nuts before they walked.

This time I noticed a lot more and got a lot more out of it.

I was surprised at how much more dialogue there was.

The strongest part of the movie was the scenery and the shots. The ruins and the tanks and how everything is taken over by nature is spectacular.

After that (and as cheesy and embarassing as it is) I found that I identified with the 'writer' a lot, his reasons for writing, et c.

I found that the ideas of the movie stuck out to me more and everything in the movie, the meager plot, the scenery, everything seems to be a scaffold for the ideas that the movie presents.

I like how the movie doesn't have so much of an agenda or attempts to direct any answers, rather it just ask a lot of questions: how do we approach our desires, are our desires and goals genuine or illusory, what do we sacrifice for our desires, when we come to what we have desired what do we really find?

Then there are more pointed questions about the role of science and art in society: is it society's job to enable the artistic or scientific pursuits of those who want to explore them even if those pursuits do not directly benefit society.

And whether it is intentional or not there is a sort of elegance in the long shots: they are really sort of meditative. These questions sort of arise and then Tarkovsky leaves you staring at these guys sitting in this room and you just sort of have to mull things over, at the conscious level or otherwise.

It's a great film, challenging and imperfect but with a weight and a resilience that is mighty to behold. Its got a bit of the iceberg to it, you watch it and can only take in a bit of what if provides, but over time it opens up and continues to open up.

Repurcussions of a decision made in desperation

The sense of literary isolation was getting to me, so I signed up for a short fiction class at this writing center near my house. It seemed like a good idea at the time but as it came closer I got this sort of anxious feeling. I had participated in writing groups before, and liked them somewhat, but there was often this sort of disconnect between myself and the other writers. Once time there was this weird thing where one of the administrators came to our writing group and had a talk with us about 'what measures we need to take to avoid offending people' which apparently the talk was instigated by something I said, though no one would tell me exactly what it was I said.

So last night was the first meeting. Twelve people, a reasonable range of demographics, older, young, seemed equally split between men and women. A variety of skill levels. Fine. The instructor seemed like cool guy, sort of dominated the conversation but he made it clear that this was his class so, again, fine.

We had to read Jhumpa Lahiri's short story 'A Temporary Matter' before hand, which I was excited about because I had never read Lahiri before, but I found it a tedious chore. I read it twice but it seemed like staid domestic fiction: unchallenging, risk averse and proceeding from point to point without any real soul.

We all go around and introduce ourselves and mention a story that we like. Nothing terribly unusual, some Denis Johnson, Fitzgerald, okay good. There is some author fellating which is a little tacky but again, fine, understandable.

So the instructor hands out a four page copy of the intro to this Rust Hills book about short fiction. He gives a quick into about Hills, about how he was the fiction editor at esquire and defined the contemporary short story which I find sort of strange and then we all read. And it is Hills talking about what makes a 'successful short story' the sort of stuff that is broad enough and vague enough that it is sort of meaningless but also prescriptive in the way that it seems limiting.

So he opens it up to comments and there are some tepid responses, some sort of questions with definite answers, so I speak up, I say some thing along the lines of 'I hope I'm not the only person in the room that reads this and gets a visceral feeling of revulsion at the idea that there are some rules that can be or should be followed with writing a short story' and admittedly rant, for a short while about how much of the best fiction in the world is that which flaunts or breaks rules et c. Because I genuine believe this and I feel that adhering to the other side (i.e. that if you check all the boxes you will be granted a piece of 'successful fiction') And I try to be cognizant of dominting the conversation but the instructor sort of nods along and tells me to keep going. And then there are these comments sort of like 'Well so-and-so told me that you need to know the rules before you break them.' and '(Insert semi-famous writer here who I have never heard of) told me that you can break the rules when you are famous.' there comments coming from the other students.

So we talk about it for a little bit longer but then the instructor moves to his two rules for fiction: 'The bar test' (can you tell it in a bar) which seems strange to mean but he explains that this means that there needs to be some substance to it, which is fine, and the 'Long term memory test' which is 'will the events of this story stick with the characters for a long time. So there is some talking about these rules and I suggest that the Lahiri story fails both of these, (because who would tell a story about an aborted baby and a break up in a bar, which I guess some people) but there the instructor sort of gets accusatory and starts calling me 'Bro' at the end of every sentence which I don't understand and which I point out to him so he calls me 'Dude' which again I find strange. And he asks me to lay out the structure of the story so I do (couple finds that their electricity is going to be cut off, they make dinner, tell each other things they have never told each other before...they break up) and this women says something like 'So you don't think that this is a great story?' and I say 'No, not really.' And I ask what risks these people think she is taking in the story, because she seems to take none which in my opinion makes it a safe/boring/pointless story and this one women suggests, feebly, that she is writing about feelings or sorrow which is taking a risk, to which, in my mind, 90% of contemporary fiction is about couples breaking up, so this has got to be the least risky thing the write about.

Then everyone gets it in their heads that I am some sort of avant-garde enfent terrible and start trash talking experimentation for the sake of experimentation (which I pretty much agree with them on) and the instructor starts talking about how DFW didn't start writing his experimental stuff which he must have meant as a pointed barb to my tastes, but which I found sort of oblique to the subject.

Then this one women says something like 'I don't know if I feel safe bringing my writing in here since I write traditional fiction.' to which I just have to sort of sigh out of pity.

The class went on for a short while longer, again just comments about how amazing the story was and so on.