Tuesday, 29 January 2019

On reviewing

On 28 January this year, 10 days after getting out of hospital, where I had gone with a heart complaint, I was idly listening to the ABC’s 'Backroads' program on the Coorong region in South Australia and Heather Hewett, the host, was talking about the new 'Storm Boy' movie which, like the original (which was based on a novel), is set there. Locals, Hewett was explaining, hope the new movie will raise the profile of the district so that it can better be protected.

This kind of attitude toward art is uncontroversial. Art, it is assumed, must have a practical, utilitarian function. It must be able to "do" something in society in order to fulfill its destiny. This view seems to be the main reason why so much modern art is so mediocre. Especially with movies, they have to have a "message" that justifies the time and money spent on them. I think this fails to respect what art is in reality. The transformative things that art can achieve are not so easily classified as the policy statements of political parties. And in fact when we look back at what worked in the past, it was the style, rather than the content, that was innovative in the movies and books that have lasted the distance.

When I review a movie or a book I don't really spend much talking about messages or signification. What I am more interested in is the art itself, which is the only thing that has any lasting value. The message is of course designed to be commented upon and covered in a review but the main part of the piece will be concerned not with what is being conveyed in the work but rather with how it is being conveyed.

I’ve written before about these things on the blog. On 3 August last year I wrote a review of a new book. My review contained the following exegesis. This little story exemplifies the thinking behind my understanding of what a work of art is.
The author Vladimir Nabokov said that art should never be made to be in the service of ideology, and given his background (his family were dispossessed of their land after the October Revolution and he ended up living in Germany in a community of emigres) that is not a surprising thing to hear from him. His brilliant 1938 novel ‘The Gift’ (which was finally translated into English in 1963) has a long chapter about a Russian writer, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who was said to have been Lenin’s favourite author. Needless to say, Nobokov ripped into [Chernyshevsky] with a vengeance for his use of literature to push an ideological line. The novel when it first appeared was so controversial in the community that this chapter of it was omitted in the publication the rest of it appeared in, even though the émigré community was largely politically against the Soviets.
So it is clear that attempts to use art for utilitarian ends has a long pedigree. Even earlier, in the 19th century, after Jane Austen had made her great advances in the art of the novel, some parts of the community in the UK were dead-set keen to conscript novels for the purpose of “improving” the morals of young women. Once they found that young women wanted to read novels (and women had been, in the early days of the novel, the great novel readers par excellence), these busybodies wanted to tame the animal, to make it domesticated, and useful, so that it could perform what they saw as an essential function in society. Well, that worked didn’t it …

Every time you try to corral this particular stream between concrete banks so that it can be more efficiently used to help people with their industry, it is going to flood. You cannot tame this beast. Every time you try, some writer or painter or director will come along and rewrite the story of the art in order to inject originality and vigour back into it. Beauty is everybody’s wildlife. Studios and publishing houses that bring out formulaic rip-offs and sequels designed to capitalise on the success of an earlier production will find their expectations dashed as they fail to gain traction in the community. Then an outlier, someone separate from the pack, who has been working alone on something original, will arrive in cinemas or in bookshops and steal all the attention. Wild it is and always will be.

But the new cannot be so new that it confounds our understanding. A certain quantity of formula is always involved in art. Writers have favourite tropes that they deploy in an effort to advance the plot and keep people reading their book. To a certain degree the writer has to flatter the reader, give them things they will immediately understand in order to smuggle in the bits that are out-of-the-box strange, that they might never have seen before. With certain types of fiction, such formulaic plot devices become almost routine, as in genre fiction (spy thrillers, crime novels) where physical violence and death are ever-present elements in the narrative, lending it its unique texture and providing the author with opportunities to move the story forward in desirable ways.

I read a lot of genre fiction and I find some of it is better than others. Not all genre fiction is bad and not all literary fiction is good. Duds appear in both camps, and you have to pick out the good ‘uns and censor the bad ‘uns if you are to do your job. As a general rule however I prefer a literary novel to a genre offering because it will provide the author with more opportunities to display real insight and to use art to telling effect. And stories where very little happens are the very best of all. I love long, lazy sentences and narratives where not much happens but much is revealed about the world. In that sense, I am probably best described as a Modernist.

The thing about fiction that most engages people are the characters. Characterisation is the most basic structural element in a work of fiction, allowing the writer to bend the plot to follow a given trajectory in a way that appears to be “natural”. It is this naturalness that is so compelling for readers. If they feel that a character is acting “out of character” they might just put down the book and stop reading. So establishing a reliable cast of credible characters is the novelist’s first task, and this applies equally to movies. The same basic rules apply with both artforms, although the measures that writers and directors use to solve given problems will be specific to the medium. Both movies and novels use characters in the same way however.

A character is a useful thing for a writer. If you want your plot to go in a given direction, you can get a major character to do something that makes it seem inevitable. So the delineations of character are at the very base of the tree of meaning, in a novel or movie. If your character has a mental illness, they might one day while out walking go into a particular shop because they are afraid of someone they see on the street. Inside the shop, they might see another person who will become important to them for a completely different reason later on. So the plot advances on the back of character. The outlines of character are determinative of practically everything in a novel that has this basic quality of “naturalness”.

In what follows I am going to focus mainly on prose at the expense of cinema. The reason for this is that I want to talk about the particular ways that writers achieve the effects they use to make their stories. If I spent too much time also looking at cinema, things would become too complex. I am not going to talk about poetry at all in this piece, as in the main it uses a different kind of writing from the kind that is used in novels and short stories.

The first distinction I want to make is between literary fiction and genre fiction.

With the latter, language is mostly used in a different way than it is in the former. With genre fiction, because plot is more important than character or anything else, there is not a lot of the kinds of writing that I am going to talk about in what follows. The writer of genre fiction thinks that his or her job is to advance the plot at all times, so there is not much space given to slowing down the story in order to achieve poetic effects. This can have adverse effects, because it can lead to characters being rather thin and lacking in colour. As a result we might not put ourselves in their shoes, which can be bad for an author. But that is just a side concern at this stage. Literary fiction, on the other hand, often deviates from the plot in the narrative in order to embed different types of writing into it.

Both genre fiction and literary fiction play with time in order to construct the story. You get changes of scene and changes in focalisation in order to both hide and reveal parts of the story. (Focalisation is the use of characters to reveal the world inside the novel. A character that is used to focalise the narrative has his or her point of view revealed. You “see” the world through his or her eyes.) Changing focalisation and going forward or backward in time, or moving from one place to another, allow the writer to build suspense and to develop character, both of which are desirable for the reader. I’ve already talked a little about characters, but we also thrive as readers on the slow reveal of relevant details. It is what keeps us turning the pages. We want to “find out what happens next” (even though nothing in fact actually happens at all; it’s all artifice).

Especially in literary fiction, you also get to see the workings of the minds of the major characters. This can be done using different techniques but in general it allows you to actually “see” what the characters are thinking as they go about their business in the story. Novels have always been places where psychology has been examined and the techniques writers use to relay the thinking of their characters have changed over time. Back in the early part of the 18th century, before the revolution that led to the emergence of the modern novel, psychology was often developed through letters written by the major characters in novels. These types of novel were massively popular (again, especially with women) and what to us now seems a clunky device (how can you reveal your way of thinking in a series of letters written to a family member?) was lapped up with relish by a devoted readership.

Context can also be added by using poetic language to describe places where the action unfolds in a novel. If you think back to the great novels that came in the period immediately after the artistic revolution of the early-19th century, you find things like houses, city streets, country lanes, and other places are often used to create meaning by revealing things about the time and place in which the drama unfolds. This type of counterpoise to the main thread of the narrative can be very powerful, and in fact can encapsulate the majority of the poetry contained in a novel beyond the psychology of the major characters. Dickens and Gogol are of note in this regard.

This kind of context is important if the writer wants to create an understandable “world” in which to situate his or her narrative. Helping to orient the reader in space is a major element of the fictive process, as is the creation of an arc of time over which the drama is meant to unfold. Again, all of this is pure artifice. The only truth is the ideas that exist in the reader’s mind, which is in an eternal present. The creation of a simulacrum of space and time in a novel is merely meant to “do things to” the reader and so lead to the release of the chemicals that our brains thrive on. Everything is in the present of the reader’s mind but everything is compartmentalised along a timeline, in space, and in the various characters the write deploys in creating his or her fiction.

It’s a glorious con. The perfect lie. We empathise with characters because they mean something to us. We find our own ways of thinking reflected back to us and so we invest ourselves emotionally in the narrative. All these things are done in order to keep us turning the pages, to make us want to get to the end, in order to lure us, like some sort of outlandish trout, out of the depths and into the shallows where we can become hooked and so, confronted by the artist’s sublime power and ravished by our own helplessness, we become faithful readers. Slay me! Who needs God when you’ve got a good book?

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