Saturday, February 23, 2008

When Is Fiction Adequate?

Today I found myself wondering what quality or qualities in a piece of fiction that is less than brilliant make it adequate-- which is to say, worth my time and attention regardless of its flaws?

I imagine that many people would reply in terms of the piece's characterization, its narrative drive, the beauty of its prose style, or its thematic coherence (or lack thereof). But when I was thinking the other day about what for me marks beginning writers as promising (even when their grip on craft is tenuous at best), it struck me that this must first and foremost be their ability to create a patch of what I think of as "thereness" in whatever fiction they write, however deficient it might otherwise be. "Thereness" is what draws me into a story and holds my attention. Even when every sentence is grammatically perfect, the narrative arc follows the rules, and the characters are well-delineated, a story without "thereness" makes me itch to toss it aside the way I itch to block up my ears when forced to hear a tedious diatribe I'd do just about anything to escape. On the other hand, if the story has "thereness," I'm likely to stick with it, even as consciousness of its flaws steals over me.

Let me offer an example. The novels of an early 20th-century English writer, Mary Butts, are deeply flawed. But Butts' novels nevertheless engage me, no matter that I don't much care for her characters and find her plots decidedly lame. The other day I read a passage in Death of Felicity Taverner in which a pause sets in during the middle of an intense, deeply emotional conversation among four people. Most writers would simply say, "There was a pause." And maybe depict a small piece of business. And then resume. (Or else would say baldly, "After a long pause, X said...") The pause is depicted in this way: One of the characters raises a question that Butts follows with an em-dash and a paragraph break. The narrative continues:

There was silence again, while Scylla prepared the next sequence, and the room had its turn. Instead of four voices, the fires spoke, the voice of flames disintegrating salted wood into the quiet light of light ash. The crack of old panels responding to heat, and behind them the ground-scratch of mice. A door in the kitchen quarters opened and shut. Nanna's feet and the maid's mounted the stair. The heavy shutters bolted-out the interminable conversations of the trees. Behind these incidental breaks, the pulse of the long room in the delicate candle-light beat in time with the house and the wood. In time with its own time, a pace inaudible, yet sensible to each. Felix had said that a sonata could be written on the room's tempo, whose finale should be a demonstration of relativity.

Then the long room took advantage of their silence, and its shadowless walls seemed to move each in its own direction to some uncharted place. Happy lovers, asleep together, sometimes imagine their bed sails out, indifferent to walls, and visit those countries which lie east of the sun, west of the moon. In this second silence the walls left them behind, preoccupied with Felicity's passion and death; aware only that something was happening to the place where they sat, to describe which the comparisons of poets have been used to obscure reality. So that a literal description passes, even among poets, for metaphor, as when Wordsworth said: "as if to make the strong wind visible"; "as if" discounting what he had to say, who had seen the wind, and not dared say so...

This is a somewhat exaggerated style, true; and no, in case you're wondering, Butts doesn't typically spend that amount of time on pregnant pauses. This elaboration of a pause in the conversation follows several pages of straight dialogue without description. Since the reader already knows well the house in which this pause takes place, these paragraphs effectively evoke the moment's reality within the narrative's overall emotional logic.

My guess is that it's that evocation that lies at the heart of "thereness"-- certainly not description, per se. Description, after all, can often be so dull, so banal. (Maybe because it lacks "thereness"?) That evocation can be accomplished by other means (and often is), perhaps depending on the work's genre, perhaps depending on the author's technical strengths. One might suppose that for sf, world-building would be a prime source of "thereness." Still, even extremely detailed world-building often fails to yield "thereness." Maybe because the world-building itself ignores whole parts of what must necessarily be included any world to grant it "thereness"?

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