6.28.2004

Character, Clinton, Critics, Change

Jed Hartman asks about subtlety in regards to character in story. I personally hate spelling anything out explicitly since I don't think it necessary.

Take Bill Clinton. You can learn a lot about the man just reading his blog--things he may never state out loud. It's wonderful. Apart from human moments that I could identify with, I'd never fully understood the man as a president, yet now with this blog all the weird quirks fall into place. (Canada's "As It Happens" should come read this blog. They've had similar issues.)

As in real-life understanding of character, the best fiction provides enough clues to what's going on, so that you get a feel for the character and his actions make sense, but this means you have to be open to looking for the clues within the text.

***

Bill Clinton has a few questions about criticism that I think I can answer:

"Are these newspaper critics trying to hurt me or is it really a lousy book? I worked three years on my book and all they do is open a bottle of wine, dip their pen in acid and write a review twenty minutes before their deadline. I know them. I know these snotty nosed East Coast liberals. They've always looked down on me. I'm Bubba, the dumb Southerner, who likes Elvis. For some reason he became a liberal, but still, it takes generation for a farm boy to get his farm mentality out of his thinking. However high you rise, they will never accept you, because you weren’t born in the right place. They'll just use you when you're useful....

"They never gave my book a chance. They didn't read 957 pages. They skimmed through it. Their opinion of my book is unjustified. If they would just read it. But no, they got their opinion about this randy fat boy ready, right?"

That may well be part of it. But other issues are involved as well--some subjective, some not so subjective. Jerry Schwartz at CNN, from his first paragraph, wanted to draw attention to the fact that you were not Liberal enough (on this particular issue, at least), but Schwartz seems to offer another kind of criticism as well.

You, former President, are an aficionado of letters, and the community of letters loves you for it. However, the community has evolved a system of judging those letters, and writers use their entire lifetimes trying to master all aspects at once. There is the little matter of 957 pages, all of which are fine if they can be accounted for. Granted, Marcel Proust wrote far more, but he also spent his life doing it, which probably accounts for his building thematic power--albeit I'm not sure if he knew what was pertinent, either.

On the other hand, with a title like My Life or Remembrance of Things Past, everything seems pertinent, no? In the letters industry, what matters is how you deliver those letters. When you've used spoken letters all your life with enough efficacy to gain the White House, it may come as a shock that a group has created a set of rules surrounding letters of the written kind outside your familiar purview of politics. Writing is an art form, like photography. If you published the entirety of your family photo albums, I'm sure photographer critics would also complain although many would still flock to purchase copies.

Can a life be shaped thematically? Doesn't every little event impact who we are in some secret way? Isn't art artifice? Absolutely. Any attempt at capturing life is false. The artistic response to this is probably that we can write and rewrite our lives in a hundred different ways depending on what we want to highlight. But none of that matters a toad's fart to the general public who care only to find out anything, not to piece together and find the artistic form. But then, as Schwartz may be arguing, how do you decide what goes in and what stays out? This is the dilemma of the artist of letters, so if you don't consider yourself an artist, feel free to ignore critics. Consider it Steinbeck's first draft or a bootlegged copy of Chopin plinking out the first early notes, throwing every variation in before culling back.

***

Here are a few, related cases concerning literary matters where ambiguity--the kind that confuses--does not serve us well (all of which circles round to Clinton and character):

The first comes from "Jane Austen's Heroic Consciousness" in James Wood's essay collection, The Broken Estate, which I bought when Daniel Green railed against him. I thought Wood might have a view unique to literature, which may still be the case, so I'll keep reading, but this one stumped me:

"Austen's heroines do not change in the modern sense, because they do not really discover things about themselves."

What is this "modern sense"? At first, it troubled me, afraid someone will read this quote and think, "By Jove, fiction is not about change, after all!" when it damn well is and happily or sadly, depending on your perspective, always will be. If you disagree, take a course in human development. But Wood writes on:

"They discover cognitive novelties; they probe for rectitude. As the novel moves forward, certain veils are pierced and obstacles removed, so that the heroine can see the world more clearly."

Wait. Isn't that exactly what change is? It may be we're parsing words to pretend we've struck upon something new. Or maybe the only change Wood considers "change" is the transmogrifications found in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In a post of a tangential topic, Emma at Maud Newton's blog--an excellent site for picking up literary news--drops a few, rare, tantalizing, perhaps throw-away words of criticism: "these days of perpetual and nauseating self-revelation."

There are three possible interpretations of "nauseating self-revelation," all of which I find problematic. If the words were throw-away or meant in a fourth and unforeseen manner, I hope Emma can forgive my using the ambiguity to discuss issues that others may actually have. The first interpretation is that any "revelation" is considered improper. But this is rather an unusual perspective coming from a literary blog. What is a story but revelation? Is it that we prefer to keep our revelations fictionalized so that we can hide behind symbols of text?

The second places emphasis on "self," in which case she must be a science fiction reader troubled by the gradual shift away from societal revelations (Wells, Orwell, Huxley, etc.) toward personal revelations. Both perspectives are necessary because both reveal our way of living. This is the least problematic of the three possible interpretations of her statement, yet still problematic when we view humans (or any animal) in an evolutionary pattern: animals' "selfish" acts all contribute to the larger patterns necessary for a successful species: the male's physical desires for certain female attributes (hips, breasts) are distinctly for ideal reproductive purposes, as are the females' desires for strength or bread-winning or whatever. All individual acts and desires feed the higher purpose of a society (yes, reproduction is the only purpose to life--all the money you save, all the technology you gather, all the revelations you make serve one purpose: a more efficacious society); therefore, any self-revelation is in fact a societal revelation, and vice versa.

The third places emphasis on "nauseating," which at first I was willing to grant as perhaps another, stronger way to name sentimentality, but then I ran across this in Bill Clinton's blog:

"I haven't slept all night. I ate 7 tacos. I eat when I'm unhappy, eventhough I'm on the South Beach Diet. I have to lose some weight. At my age I can't carry it around anymore. My back hurts."

Probably those seven tacos are nauseating to some. Life is rather nauseating. I'm prone to the same problem--if not, at times, worse--and I was pleased to see I shared similar troubles with the former President. I suppose if you don't happen to have this particular problem, it is disgusting, and you don't want to hear about it. But unless we're perfect, we are all disgusting. It's about time the world came to this nauseating self-revelation.

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