Words on a Page

by Nicholas Guild

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Posted by nmguild44
Back in the days when I was giving college classes in fiction writing a member of my department once began a lecture with the sentence, “There are no characters in fiction, only words.” This is of course literally true, but the real question, which he naturally had forgotten all about, is what has fiction to do with the literal truth?

The written word is only a medium. The story must first live in the imagination of the writer and thereafter, hopefully, in the memory of the reader. Thus the important questions are about psychology not objective reality. What we have to ask ourselves is what is happening in the minds of the partners to this exchange? When we are writing or reading fiction what is actually going on?

Providing at least part of the answer is the neurological evidence which suggests that people process fiction in much the same way they process their experience of the real world. In other words, although we all know that fiction is simply words on a page, something within us reacts to the events of a novel or short story as if they were true. Reading fiction is, to some degree, an act of sympathy.

I know from my own experience, both as a reader and as a writer, that this is the case. Over the years I’ve read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice dozens of times, and I still cringe inwardly when Mrs. Bennett comes to Netherfield to see how Jane is recovering from her illness and then proceeds to make a fool of herself in front of Mr. Darcy and the Bingleys (Volume 1, Chapter 9), and I always feel a surge of relief when Darcy and Elizabeth finally come to a right understanding (Volume 3, Chapter 16). In my case these reactions obviously have nothing to do with suspense, at least not the kind of suspense that depends on not knowing what will happen. They are more like the feelings someone might have remembering an episode from their own past. They are the products of an emotional involvement with the story and the characters.

It’s much the same with my own fiction. I frequently dream about the characters and the story, and off and on they pay me little visits when I am awake, whether or not I’m actually at my laptop writing. These experiences are not what could be rigorously described as thinking and they don’t always take the form of words. It’s daydreaming I suppose, except that most of our daydreams are about wish fulfillment. This is different. This is rather like participating, at one or two removes, in someone else’s life.

I don’t think there is anything atypical about my experience, either as a reader or a writer. I’ve heard many writers and readers describe much the same states of mind.

The point is that people who like to read fiction, and that obviously includes people who also write it, don’t react to it simply as a rhetorical performance. We aren’t just connoisseurs of linguistic virtuosity; it isn’t just words. We experience the events of the story emotionally, as if it opens a window onto a different level of reality.

Okay, granting all of this, how does it impinge on the writer’s task? It seems to me that it puts the writer under an obligation not to destroy the illusion. We must avoid anything that reminds the reader that the story is, after all, merely words on the page.

As an example of what I mean, let me read you something from a book I published nearly 40 years ago, when I was still trying to turn myself into the kind of writer that academicians admire. The scene is set in a Baskin-Robbins of all places and describes the protagonist’s reaction to a couple of college students, a young man and woman, he sees there.

The two of them had so much future ahead that it probably never occurred to either of them to think about it. They would never be old or afraid or intimate with pain and death; everything to come would be part of an unbroken series of triumphs. And tonight they would lie in each other’s arms, after making wonderful, prelapsarian love, and dream no dreams. So it had been destined from the first start swirls.

Well, as doubtless you noticed, I blew it in the last two sentences. It has been at least 3 decades since I first recognized the passage for what it is—pretentious, overwritten crap.

As incredible as it sounds, you must believe me that when I wrote this nonsense I thought it was beautiful. It’s always a great mistake to fall in love with your own verbiage.

Actually I’ve made three errors of technique. The first is I’ve let the passage go on too long—I really don’t need those last two sentences. The second is that those two sentences don’t sound like my protagonist but like a youthful novelist showing off. The third is my choice of vocabulary. Prelapsarian? While it is perfectly reasonable to expect a certain level of literacy in your readers, it’s a bad idea to use words which will send them scurrying off to their dictionaries. The pleasure of reading fiction should be, as near as possible, effortless.

But what else, you might reasonably ask, am I trying to demonstrate by resurrecting for you this particular misstep?

Consider the readers’ almost certain reaction. Since the passage is stylistically well over the top and thus I’ve just given them a forceful reminder that the story is just something that somebody wrote, they will experience that little catch which pulls them out of the world where the characters live and back to a page covered with words. To put it another way, I’ve lost them. I’ve destroyed the illusion.

What we are left with is that the novelist should always remember Quintilian’s famous maxim: “the perfection of art is to conceal art.” He was writing about the speeches one might make in a law court, but it applies with perhaps greater force to fiction and describes a crucial aspect of the game the fiction writer is playing.

Fiction is not poetry. Poetry is constantly reminding us of its artificiality: it rhymes, at least some of it does, it’s metrical, and it uses all kinds of rhetorical devices and levels of diction that would sound very strange as part of ordinary conversation. Readers expect poetry to be artificial and all these techniques contribute to the pleasure of reading it.

Fiction, on the other hand, attempts to recreate reality—or, at least, to convince us that the events and characters of the story are in some sense as real as the things we experience in everyday life.

So the lesson is don’t overwrite. With some obvious exceptions—there are always exceptions—prose in fiction can and should be both elegant and graceful, but it should be both without calling attention to these qualities. The “Wow! Oh my God!” reaction is not what you want. Lots of people can write an artistic sentence, but “artistic” as in “self-consciously artificial” is precisely what the fiction writer should avoid.

“The perfection of art is to conceal art.”

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