Starting in January, 2011 "First Page" will be a regular column feature in The Writer Magazine. Look for it!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Woman of Valor

Nature abhors a vacuum and so does good writing. When writers fail to specify, when they leave the devil—in the form of details—to readers, they have only themselves to blame when those readers fill in the blanks with less-than-authentic material. In fiction what rushes in to fill the vacuum is cliché.

And cliché is the Number 1 enemy of good fiction. As Martin Amis has said, clichés don't just take the form of familiar phrases or figures of speech. There are also "clichés of the mind and clichés of the heart." Like a cancer, cliché, according to Amis, "spreads inwards" from a book's language to its soul.

But clichés don't thrive exclusively on pedestrian language; in fact they're known to flourish in the absence of words. I'm not (heaven forfend) talking about language for its own sake. I mean language that specifies, that lends authenticity through judiciously chosen details.

Hannah Tinti's Home Sweet Home" tells the story of Pat and Clyde who "were murdered on pot roast night." What raises Tinti's story high above the typical murder mystery is her emphasis on character, on providing each character in her tale with a set of ironclad specifics that render a generic reading impossible.

Take Pat, for instance, the adulterous housewife who falls victim to her lover's vengeful wife. On the eve of her murder she is
thinking of James Dean. Pat had loved him desperately as a teenager, seen his movies dozens of times, written his name across her notebooks, carefully taped pictures of him to the inside of her locker so that she could have the pleasure of seeing his tortured, sullen face from East of Eden as she exchanged her French and English textbooks for science and math.
Another writer might have written "as a teenager she had loved James Dean" and left it at that. But Tinti goes further—and further still ("When she graduated from high school, she took down the photos and pasted them to the inside cover of her yearbook")—to substantiate this particular specimen of a star-struck teenager. Similarly, in The Corrections, when Jonathan Franzen takes us on a tour of the flotsam in an aging couple's attic, he presents us not merely with a box of old recipes, but "recipes on brown paper calling for wilted lettuce." The level of specificity matters. Among other things it makes the difference between a good writer and a great one.

Over this nominally well-written first page the generic rules. Except for the temperature (which, though much is made of it, "hardly register[s]" with the protagonist) little is specified. A woman wanders through a generic library, scanning its generic stacks in search of a generic "list of book titles." She's looking for books about getting pregnant, but the author fails to share with us either the titles on Rebekkah's list or those she encounters on the shelves.

It's too bad, since it drains the scene of tone and texture, but also because it sacrifices humor, since those titles would surely occasion a chuckle. Even when Rebekkah pulls the first book on her list from a shelf, beyond its having been "recently published" we're left to imagine everything about it, from its cover illustration to its title. Another opportunity lost. A perfunctory scan of fertility book titles demonstrates that truth—if not stranger than fiction—is certainly as funny. Imagine Rebekkah's inner take on some of these:

The Rough Guide to Pregnancy and Birth
The Mother of all Pregnancy Books
Taking Charge of Your Fertility
The 5 Best Ways to Get Pregnant

Because the scene is rendered generically, there are no titles for Rebekkah to respond to, and so the chance to display her wit is likewise squandered.

Nothing wrong with engaging readers' imaginations and letting them do some of the lifting. But if readers are to do a good job—not the hatchet job of cliché —we have to provide them with some tools. A few telling details go a long way, blossoming in the reader's mind into lush renderings. Think of specific details as the ropes, nuts, cams, and hexes mountain climbers use, with the summit of vivid description their devoutly wished-for goal.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Peter! Ironically, one of my short stories involves James Dean. But that aside, I appreciate your comments, but I guess it's all subjective. I am working with a nationally-published author on my novel and she made none of those comments! But they were helpful to me and I appreciate your time! Karoline - author of Woman of Valor.