As a fiction writer who teaches, I often speak about what I love in fiction, what to me makes it powerful and engaging. This is a version of a talk I have been giving for years to students and other interested parties; it is a talk I’ve become — what is the right word? — uncertain about in the last five years, not because I don’t believe what I’m saying or that I care about it less but because I’m not sure that people can find it meaningful anymore.
There are a number of reasons I feel this, most of which have to do with how we take in knowledge and information and how that has changed the nature of perception. I’m not saying anything new here: think iPhones and the constant staring there at, a skull-fracturing change which plainly has consequences beyond how people understand the reading and writing of fiction.
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Which by itself — the reading and writing of fiction — is a very hard thing to talk about without falling all over yourself. First because opinions about it are highly subjective; one person will think a book is great, another person finds it boring, another will find it meaningless — these “findings” are socio-political to some extent, but they are also so personal they are almost impossible to parse. On top of that, good writing is contextual; a phrase or even an entire paragraph that is actually awful in one context may be fantastic in another. When you read a book review on Goodreads or the New York Times, what you’re usually reading is a description of the plot, what the characters are like, and what the (sometimes highly imaginative) reviewer thinks the writer is saying. This is because those elements are important, plus they are easy and fun to talk about.
But there is something even more important that almost never gets talked about, because it’s almost impossible to talk about, and that is what I think of as the inner weave, the subtle life inside the apparent story. Here, the plot or the theme functions almost like a conduit; an ineffable content which can be compared to a person’s unconscious or the guts of the body; you don’t see the unconscious but you feel it, you may misunderstand it but you feel it. We all have had the experience of speaking with someone who seems friendly, who is smiling at you and yet who is making you very uncomfortable — or the reverse: we’ve all known people who act like aggressive jerks, yet for some reason we feel warmly towards them; we are responding sympathetically to something that is happening under the social signalling and is even at odds with that signalling.
Unless you are a surgeon or are the witness to a horrible accident, you aren’t going to see the guts of the body, but if you touch the person you will feel them beating under your hand — on a hot day you might even smell them. But smell them and feel them or not, they are what is holding the body up. The unconscious and the viscera; each is a fundamental force behind the person you look at. Something comparable to that fundamental inner quality or qualities are what make a piece of writing alive or not. These inner qualities determine what the work is about as much as the plot or the theme or even the characters. Strangely, writers themselves sometimes don’t know what this inner force is in their own work because it is so entwined with our own way of seeing, we barely notice it, any more than we notice our own breath.
The paradox of this mystic inner quality is that its depth gets expressed by what we think of as a superficial quality: style. The best definition of style I know of was given to me by an eccentric older man who ran a second-handbook store where I went to school in Michigan. When I say “older” I mean that I was 22 and he was in his 40s but was so strange-looking he appeared older or really ageless; he had a shapeless body and he wore heavy coke-bottle glasses literally strapped to his bald egg-shaped head. He shared store space with a guy who sold plants and could be seen everyday perched on a stool amid a forest of fronds, reading intently.
I found him fascinating and took more from his store of knowledge — I believe he had read everything — than any of my professors. He considered style to be the “inevitable by-product” of the writer feeling their way through the shape of their creation, through word choices and small decisions as well as big ones. I didn’t like the term “by-product” because it didn’t sound central enough — style mattered to me even then — and he said that he meant it in the way the appearance of a plant or flower is the by-product of its most essential inner workings, that there is simply no other way for the flower or plant to look according to its genetic structure.
It is a definition I have never forgotten. It is a very exacting metaphor, and perhaps overly fanciful; I don’t know how often style and substance can be that closely connected. But it’s an inspiring way to look at how style, when arrived at through rigorous, sincere work, emerges from the inmost workings of a person; an extremely intimate consciousness.
An element of style that I especially care about is description of the world that the writer creates on the page. This currently undervalued technique can perform practical and useful functions, such as indirectly conveying a character’s emotions and locating the reader in a character’s world — where are they from, how much money do they have, what is their neighbourhood like? However, it can do more: it can give words to what is wordless and form to what is formless through creating pictures and images that irrationally make a connection to the deeper body of the story — the viscera or unconscious.
What do I mean by that? Fiction, even when it’s fantasy or sci-fi, is about life and life is not mostly about words. Consider how many things you’ve thought or seen that are impossible for you to say in words, even something simple, like someone’s facial expression. Life, even on a quiet day, happens so densely and quickly around us and most of it is about seeing, feeling and thinking in a not-strictly verbal way. Writing translates all of this into words but paradoxically the most powerful writing uses words in a way that transcends language to become more true to life; it mimics how we live in a world that is constantly changing and moving before our eyes.
Writing is a rational process of connected thoughts and ideas, but great writing comes from a stranger place; an interface between the intensely intimate perception of an individual and the social and natural worlds. It is related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought —poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated, like a burst of music can illuminate a scene in a movie or TV show.
To give you an example of what I mean, I’m going to read an excerpt from a novel by Vladimir Nabokov called Pale Fire which, while not as widely loved as Lolita, is as beautiful in its own demented way. It is narrated by someone who may be actually demented, a queer literature professor at a college in New England and who, according to him, is a king in exile. His name is Charles Kinbote and a lot of his narration concerns his unrequited feelings for his neighbour, the poet John Shade; that story is intercut with memories of his kingdom in fabulous Zembla where he can have any man or boy he wants. But even in Zembla, convention dictated that he had to be married so marry he did, choosing a very beautiful young wife. Because she’s so young she doesn’t understand why he won’t have sex with her and she’s miserable. She’s not in any way a major character; she gets only a handful of the book’s 315 pages. I’m going to read two of those.
First notice the tone of the sentences, almost apart from their meaning: they are subsiding, soft, undulant, attenuated in shape, and that tone is amplified by the meaning of the words: “the listless grace of ineffable grief”. “a blundering of the soul”, the rippling water, the subsiding feeling that gets less and less, then returns in a great rush. The language is infused with longing for an ungraspable ideal which bleeds up through mundane reality: “the shallow diaphanous filth” versus the fantastic colours, the blurring and blending of the real and the unreal, the dream which might be delusional or might actually be more real than the character’s acted-out life, the “sunken treasure” solidly sitting under the scummy surface.
This imagery (which is emotionally deeper than perhaps anything else in the novel) is in effect a bridge between an imaginary world and the world that exists and the tension between the two; what’s hidden is most real and we may never truly see it. This is to me the emotional core of the book, hidden like the treasure, in an intense description about a secondary character, a description which is completely unnecessary to “move the plot forward”.
The next example is very different; it’s the first paragraph of a story by Flannery O’Connor titled Good Country People. It also spends a lot of words, proportionally, on a secondary character.
This is a great example of the utilitarian function of description: we meet a local personality, we hear how people speak to each other and get a glimpse of how they live and what they eat. We are also introduced to a theme of great stubbornness, a state of being in which only two directions are possible, where questioning is met with blankness. The voice is arch and a little comical but what it describes is heavy, corporeal, a limited world of grain sacks and heavy trucks, a place of no nuance or subtlety — a miserable place for a complex mind. And, at the end of the story a stubborn person with a complex mind is going to find herself literally in such a place, trapped by her own limited corporeality, in an extreme version of the state foreshadowed by the first paragraph. Which you don’t remember by the end of the story and don’t need to. Because you’ve felt it and will subliminally recognise the refrain at the end, particularly when Mrs Freeman appears to underscore it simply by being there.
It’s true that very few people can write this way; very few people even try, in part because this caring attention to such detailed descriptions of the physical world or imagery based on that world has for a long time been undervalued or not valued at all. Back in 2000 I did a college talk with George Saunders, who I consider a collegial friend. We were “in conversation” and I was saying something like what I just said, but with more focus on the practical uses of the technique, for example: to locate yourself in a character’s body, have the character look out the window. The entire world is out the window, what does it look like to the character, the sky, the trees, the buildings — and George passionately burst out “Like anybody does that? Who looks out the window and thinks about trees? Only people in books do that.” Or something, I’m paraphrasing.
It made me realise I might sound either absurdly arty or just really old-school but — I think people still do look out the window. They might not think about trees, or beat-up buildings or cars or people or whatever else is out there — but they experience them. Or at least they used to. The year 2000 was before everybody had a phone and earbuds. That’s changed things. We are now much less likely to experience trees because… we may not see them even if we do look out the window.
More recently, in 2019, Joyce Carol Oates came to Claremont McKenna where I was teaching and did an intimate Q&A. I brought up the writer John Updike; I was teaching a novel by him which was hard for students to read partly because he was sexist and backward in his racial attitudes, but even more because he described his worlds very, very densely. He would spend pages describing what a character sees driving down a country road at night. Students had a hard time even tracking it — they could, but they had to try. (Note: at least one of them, once he got the hang of it, loved it, which was great.)
I wanted to hear what Oates had to say about it because she’s of an older generation; she and Updike were peers. What she said was (paraphrasing again): yes, John could describe anything and everything but no one wants to read that any more, because (directly quoting) “people have moved on”/ I was really surprised by this. “Moved on”? We’ve moved on from the world we live in? How is that possible?
I want to make clear that I absolutely don’t mean any disrespect to Saunders or Oates, both of whom I admire. They were, after all, just talking off the top of their heads in a moment. (It’s possible that George in particular thought I sounded pretentious — and, actually, I can see how my words could sound that way. But these things are very real to me and deserve big earnest words, monster, gesticulating words.) In any case, their comments really stayed in my mind. Both writers are serious and brilliant people with sensibilities very different from mine and… they may be right. Perhaps — let’s face it, probably — literature has moved on. We don’t look at the physical world as we once did, and so we don’t write about it as we once did. And that is just one way it is being taken for granted and abused to the point of destruction.
That may sound rhetorical, but it isn’t. It is remarkable to me, based on the sample of humans that I’ve had in writing classes, both “kids” and adults, how many people: 1) express great concern about climate change and its effects on the planet, 2) are completely uninterested in other humans’ visions of what the planet they want to save looks, feels and sounds like, and 3) are even less interested in writing or just noticing what it looks like to them. Even as a writing exercise it’s hard for them to say, for example, what someone’s face looks like in a fundamental way. Which is not to say that they can’t do it. Some of them do it very well once they try. But it doesn’t occur to them in the way I think it naturally occurred to people of my generation.
Fascinatingly, one student told me that he didn’t like to describe what people look like because he thought it was like staring at someone which was rude. Another remarked in a similar spirit that in describing people you have to assign value to their appearance in terms of conventional beauty standards. This second statement is completely untrue; conventional beauty standards can be made irrelevant when describing a face if you want to focus on how the person’s nature animates that face.
The first concern, about rudeness, makes more sense to me. But it confuses social looking with artistic looking. Artistic looking is about care and respect. It is like saying: I see this human in my mind’s eye and this particular human is worth the most precise attention I can give them. Because they won’t be here forever and they are as amazing as any animal you might see in a documentary devoted to the heart-breaking beauty of endangered animals. That is not just respect, that is reverence. It is a more intense, focused version of reverence that normal, non-writers can experience or at least used to potentially experience all the time.
I am thinking of something I saw on the subway in the early Eighties, perhaps 1982. I was sitting at the end of the last car on an express train and saw three or four boys — in my memory they are 11-13 years old, maybe younger — grouped around the back window, staring out of it with pure absorption. Curious, I stood to look over their shoulders and saw what they were so raptly taking in: the piercing combination of speed and density as the train gathered momentum and hammered through the massive concrete and metal tunnels, our view herking and jerking with the cars, snatching bits of burning light in metal casement, underground signage, the track flashing and going dark as we clangored through stations, past dozens of waiting humans, personalities firing off bodily messages that our eyes saw before our minds could read them. It was beautiful and the boys were radiant with it, this wordless amazement of things.
I think I remember this so vividly so many years later because even though it wasn’t “nature” the boys were looking at, the way they were looking showed natural reverence, something no one had to instruct them about. (Probably I also remember because I was young too, in my 20s, and was unconsciously forming what mattered to me, in life and in the art I was working on.) I’m sure they were not even aware of me but still, witnessing their shared seeing was like a spiritual recognition similar to what I might experience alone in my room, reading the world through the eyes of a great writer.
That may seem an odd comparison, but it makes sense to me because it is a real-life example of what I was talking about at the start of this piece, how the deep nature of stories can be revealed through descriptive imagery of small things irrelevant to the obvious narrative — unexpectedly poignant things we notice intensely or just out the corner of our eye, glimpsed patterns outside the spectrum of our daily lives.
It makes me sad to think that those same boys, if they existed today, wouldn’t be looking out the subway window because they would be staring at a phone. But even so, they would still have that ability to see in them, waiting to come alive.
A version of this essay first appeared on Mary’s Substack, Out Of It.