Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Further to the point

I fear this topic may be getting tedious, not to say pompous, so let's round it off as quickly as we can.

Yesterday I asked a rhetorical question. If it is true, I said, that art -- and for 'art' read 'books' on this occasion -- is valued mainly insofar as it gives pleasure, then what are the implications for the working writer?

The implications are surely obvious, at any rate if you're a writer who wants to get read. You have to write a book which people will enjoy reading. And how do you do that, precisely?

Well, it isn't a secret, at least in principle. Edgar Allan Poe put his finger on it over 150 years ago. In 1842, Poe used his review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales to set out his views on the most effective way to write a short story. And what Poe had to say about the short story applies equally well to novels and, for that matter, to paintings and any other art form. Here is an extract from Poe's argument:
A skilful literary artist has constructed a tale. If he is wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be wrought out, he then invents such incidents -- he then combines such events as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tends not to the outbringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the one pre-established design. As by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art a sense of the fullest satisfaction.
In this one paragraph Poe has condensed almost every important truth about the writer’s task and the role of emotion in art generally.

Poe says that, if the literary artist (writer) is wise, he will not ‘fashion his thoughts to accommodate his incidents’. What this means is that you should not simply write a story based on whatever ‘incidents’ happen to come into your head. What you should do is decide upon ‘a certain unique or single effect’ -- in other words, you must decide what precise emotion it is that you wish to generate in the reader. You then invent such events, or incidents, as will best bring about ‘this preconceived effect.’

To paraphrase Poe in more modern English: The writer’s job is to decide what emotion to create in the reader, and then to invent a series of events -- otherwise known as a plot -- which will generate that emotion.

This is, of course, much easier said than done. But if you understand what you are trying to do -- or what you should be trying to do, if you have any sense -- then at least you have a fighting chance of achieving it. If you are dumb enough to believe in the inspiration theory of literature, and if you are naive enough to believe that everything you write must be marvellous, simply because it flows from the tip of your pen, then you deserve all the trouble you get. And believe me, you will have trouble in abundance.

Even if you have a correct understanding of the purpose of fiction, it is likely to take you ten years and a million or so words before you acquire much fluency and facility. And even then you still have to find a publisher who can actually recognise a book that works when it's still a pile of manuscript. Which is not too difficult. There must be at least one in every hundred.