degrees of freedom: character and situation
forster, wharton, and a bad novel i just read, lol
First, some news: I had a new short story called “Other Years” published in Action, Spectacle
Also, Garth Greenwell is teaching a course on how to read poetry!
I wrote an intro for a newly published edition of Portrait of a Lady.
I wrote the intro for Wading in Waist-High Water: The Lyrics of Fleet Foxes out now! (The Intro was excerpted at The New Yorker).
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I recently read a new novel that was competently composed. I didn’t enjoy it very much. For several reasons, lol. Aesthetically, the thing that annoyed me most about the book was that it was filled with what I’ve started calling trite physicality, which are these annoyingly cinematic bits of action writing. You can think of trite physicality as being something like the following:
She walked across the room and sat at a table. She lifted the mug to her lips and took a drink. Then her sister came in, and she took her sister by the arm just above the elbow. Her sister raised an eyebrow and then sipped from the mug too. They both sat at the table. There was a green bowl. Her husband padded into the room. He put his arm around her shoulder and kissed her on the part of her hair. Then he sat too in the chair on the right. They touched hands.
Like, sure, there could be something interesting in the effect. But often, it just reads like a literal transcription of visual phenomena, totally divorced from whatever underlying subtextual or emotional structure would give the action weight and feeling. Anyway, this novel was filled with that kind of stuff, and I did not enjoy that one bit, I tell you what. But the thing I found most baffling about the novel was its totally inane use of plot as a device. I don’t mean, like, a plot device. I mean, its use of plot itself as a kind of trope or gimmick. This annoyed me because it felt cheap and tawdry. It’s the sort of move that might be cool if of Gombrowicz had done it because then it might be interesting and not a desperate move by an utterly mundane mind. Like, if such a strategy felt like an urgent or philosophical solution to some deep, unsettling existential condition. But, like, this was not that. Or at least, it didn’t feel that way to me. I will try to explain what I mean.
One of the more useful false dichotomies in discussing story or narrative is the dichotomy between plot and character. It’s a fatuous but persuasive dipole, immediately intuitive in the way of all really bad ideas about craft often can be. There is something in this opposition that is clear and striking to the beginner that becomes less persuasive the more one actually writes: stories of character and stories of plot. That is, there are stories that seem to be more interested in tracing in a descriptive way the shape of a character, and then there are stories that are more interested in pursuing a chain of events. This slots into what Fiedler describes as the silly fake hierarchy of high and low culture. But Fiedler was not the first to take note of this particular alignment.
Even E.M. Forster describes a tendency to consider the “what happens next” impulse of mere suspense fiction to be less aesthetically and morally interesting: “The primitive audience was an audience of shock-heads, gaping round the campfire, fatigued with contending against the mammoth or the woolly rhinoceros, and only kept awake by suspense. What would happen next? The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him.”
Building off this idea, he moves into formulating the idea of the story powered by “what happens next” as being ruled by the element of Time, and this he sets in opposition to what he calls value:
Daily life is also full of the time-sense. We think one event occurs after or before another, the thought is often in our minds, and much of our talk and action proceeds on the assumption. Much of our talk and action, but not all; there seems something else in life besides time, something which may conveniently be called "value," something which is measured not by minutes or hours, but by intensity, so that when we look at our past it does not stretch back evenly but piles up into a few notable pinnacles, and when we look at the future it seems sometimes a wall, sometimes a cloud, sometimes a sun, but never a chronological chart. […] So daily life, whatever it may be really, is practically composed of two lives—the life in time and the life by values—and our conduct reveals a double allegiance. "I only saw her for five minutes, but it was worth it." There you have both allegiances in a single sentence. And what the story does is to narrate the life in time. A n d what the entire novel does—if it is a good novel—is to include the life by values as well; using devices hereafter to be examined. It, also, pays a double allegiance.
That is, that mysterious element of a story that arises not from plot events but from some other, stranger plane. Of course, Forster doesn’t really say “plot.” Instead, his dichotomy is more “stories ruled by time” and “stories ruled by value,” which could incompletely and somewhat inaccurately be reduced to character. But his larger point is that even stories ruled value (or character) are also ruled in some aspect by their time:
I am only trying to explain that as I lecture now I hear that clock ticking or do not hear it ticking, I retain or lose the time sense; whereas in a novel there is always a clock. The author may dislike his clock. Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights tried to hide hers. Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, turned his upside down. Marcel Proust, still more ingenious, kept altering the hands, so that his hero was at the same period entertaining a mistress to supper and playing ball with his nurse in the park. All these devices are legitimate, but none of them contravene our thesis: the basis of a novel is a story, and a story is a narrative of events arranged in time sequence.
Anyway, I’m far afield here. My point is that we have this idea that plot cuts against the sense of a character’s agency and their ability to behave in ways that are “natural” or “organic” etc. And that plot, being derived from suspense, is mere entertainment. All of this is fake, obviously, but to the beginner, this idea has a particular poignancy. Mainly because they have not yet learned to plot. But anyway.
Edith Wharton, in her book The Writing of Fiction, further systematizes this as novels of character and novels of situation:
[….] one may distinguish the novel of situation from that of character and manners by saying that, in the first, the persons imagined by the author almost always spring out of a vision of the situation, and are inevitably conditioned by it, whatever the genius of their creator; whereas in the larger freer form, that of character and manners (or either of the two), the author’s characters are first born, and then mysteriously proceed to work out their own destinies.
In my formulation, a story where the characters have a high degree of freedom to act and speak outside of the demands of plot or situation tend to feel large, sprawling, formless even if they are very short. It’s hard to pin down what such a novel is about. It must be experienced to be understood. The story of character. And then there are stories where the character has no degree of freedom. They are strapped into the elaborate roller coaster of events and move and jerk about at the whim of the author. Yet, it is so easy to grasp the shape of such a story. This happens and this happens and this happens. But often, one arrives at the end of such a story wondering, just a little bit, about what it all means. The story of situation.
Think about every time you’ve read a book where a character has behaved in a way that seems totally counter to what logic or reason or their established character would dictate just for the plot to go on or get complicated. But then also think about every thirty-page passage you’ve read in which a character wanders around their unnamed city in an unnamed country during an unnamed year drinking beer, seeing a friend, going to sleep, and then maybe having a thought about a slightly uncomfortable sexual encounter from the previous year, and then it ends with a description of someone telling them an anecdote that goes nowhere and does not really inform what comes next or before. The story of character is like watching people walk by your window for three hours and then trying to tell your friend about it. And the story of situation is like if all those people passing your window stopped so that they could be sure of your watching them pass your window.
Every story has some ideal degree of freedom. For me, I want a story where the characters behave in ways that feel natural, like they might surprise the reader or themselves. And yet, I want there to be a shape to the story, a sense that it all means something or might mean something if one looks closely enough. I recognize this as a kind of old-fashioned idea. The idea that experience can have meaning or should have meaning. I suppose that’s why so many people are terrified by interiority. The idea that they could know what another person is thinking and to put those thoughts in words. To express with mere words, some of the whooshing, whirring inner life of consciousness. And so instead, they take out the interiority and write these trite little physical actions because surely their Freudian impulses all shrouded and gray will seem more true than boiling things down to a well-chosen phrase, resulting in these ambiguous and ambivalent novels of contemporary life that utterly formless and have no depth. I don’t want to write formless contemporary novels that stare into the void and find nothing but a void gazing back. Perhaps it is because I was raised Baptist and have a Protestant’s sense of an orderly cosmos. Still, there are some stories that require a formlessness of high degrees of freedom. The splatter-shot randomness of autofictive digressive ramblings whose incoherence is kind of the point because it is mimetic of the incoherence of our daily lives and the act of turning it into narrative is ultimately futile.
But then you have novels that are bourgeois in form—the pat, clean novel with a tidy plot that goes through all the pleasant little beats with characters behaving just as their archetypes suggest they will. The mean grandmother, the anxious white mom in capitalism, the edgy black gurl, the weary and precious biracial, the tedious marxist, the mean gay boy, the white liberal who cares about the climate, the adjunct, the curator, the scene-y underground dope fiends. Novels with their crisp inciting incidents and their mushy middles and the taut ending images. Novels with their carefully chosen kind of downbeat affectless prose. Or the gummy multi-generational saga of family life or the multi-decade novel of a family afflicted by something except the family is, shocking, a metaphor for a country, a time, a culture, a place, etc. Sad grandmother’s and their mystic carbohydrates. Reading such novels, you can almost see the multicolored note cards and the Scrivener files. Somewhere there’s a beat chart.
I think both stories of character and stories of situation have their merits. I enjoy Law and Order precisely because the nature of the characters remain static even as the situation changes. There is a pleasure in the stock characters of fairytails and adventure stories. Horror movies. Romance novels, where people behave just as we expect in situations that delight and astonish. And there is something really poignant about novels that sprawl and unspool as a character struggles within themselves to come to terms with life and who they are and what they want. Knausgaard’s My Struggle series and Johanna Lindsey’s The Heir both sit on my shelf, and I adore them both.
I have started thinking about this notion of degrees of freedom in a narrative and how it affects the reader’s sense of a story’s shape. And how sometimes what satisfies me as a reader is the feeling that shape of the story has emerged from the natural movement of characters through life or their situation, and at the center of that story is some dense dramatic core, holding it all in elegant tension. But also, at bottom, what satisfies me is a sense that the shape of the story corresponds in some crucial way with the needs of the story. And that everything feels in balance.
So back to this novel I read. There was a plot. Literally, so much plot. But it’s not even that the characters were strapped into the plot and forced to behave in false, artificial ways. It’s just the opposite. The plot remained entirely on the surface like an oily film on water. Meanwhile, the characters went about thinking their little thoughts and lifting their little cups to their lips and looking out their little windows. Occasionally, their situation or circumstance would shade their interiority, but for the most part, the thoughts and desires they had at the end of the book were virtually unchanged from the thoughts and desires they had at the start of the book. It’s not that a character needs to change for a story to feel like a story. I mean in the way of them turning into different people or changing their habits. Sometimes a subtle shift in a character’s comprehension of their situation can be as heart-stopping as a building blowing up. Sometimes, even the most minor shift in the meaning of the way light falls upon a carpet can shake me to my knees. It doesn’t have to be grand or huge or whatever. Sometimes it’s the small things. Sometimes, it’s the acceptance that things don’t change.
But this novel didn’t even really have that. The interiority of the characters more or less remained the same. Their attitudes about their situations were kind of the same. And in the end, their circumstances were also the same. Which, fine. But then you have the issue that above them, like some terrifying sky machine, the plot went on ahead crunching its many little widgets. And every so often, we’d be told in really bland, bald-faced language: HERE IS PLOT, PLOT IS HAPPENING. And, like, what is the point of that?
It’s like the novel was using the plot not toward any particular revelation or illumination in the human condition but merely as some sort of device to capture wandering attention. And in that way, the plot didn’t really function as a part of the world of the story. It belonged more to our world, in the plane of the reader. Which is what turns it into a gimmick, something that seems to stand quite apart from the narrative plane of story and which draws and sequesters the attention and investment of the reader. Usually, the gimmick disperses that investment of energy back into the story in some meaningful way that shifts our understanding of what we are reading or watching. Think the fourth-wall breaking in Fleabag or the ghosts in Macbeth or the footnotes in Infinite Jest or, as I recently learned from reading Adam Dalva’s essay on Stefan Zweig, metalepsis.
But in this novel, there was just the plot above and the character below, and the two only occasionally intersected, but never to any great consequence. Which, again, would have been fine had there been any, well, intelligence or acuity in the psychology of the characters. But there was not. The book boiled down to a series of banal observations about contemporary life—the social element of the novel could have been summed up in five good tweets. That was the extent of its capacity for actual intelligent commentary. Which, fine. Okay. Okay. Okay. I get it. But also, why write a novel if that’s all you’re going to do?
I think the novel’s core issue is that it found an unsatisfying solution to the tension between the novel of situation and the novel of character, which was to separate the two and to allow them only sometimes to discharge into one another. But as anyone who’s read a good book knows, the solution to the tension between the novel of situation and the novel of character is that the two must be in complete correspondence. One must give us the other. If the situation is separable from the character or the character from the situation, then what you have is a novel that is out of phase with itself. To come back to the idea of “degrees of freedom,” the correct degree of freedom for character agency is probably the degree that affords a sense of naturalness while maintaining the taut shape of story so that at every point along the plot, we feel that we are in suspension with all the other parts of the story. We feel their weight, their pressure. We feel that if we move here, it will correspond to some realignment further along.
You want to feel as if you are holding a weight in your hand, the way the muscles quiver and shift as you hold it upright against the downward impulse. That quivering, shifting equilibrium is what a good novel feels like. Not that things are static, but that they are in tension. Situation and character, time and value: a good story, a good novel, is all motion.
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So first of all, thank you for “gummy” as a description for books. I think of a lot of fiction — much of it the variety of thing you’re writing about, I think, the ones where the interior and the exterior are oil and water — as “damp.” I’ve never heard anyone else use a similar simile to describe it but “gummy” resonates.
The division of plot and character is such a disservice to young writers or at least it did a great disservice to me. I think a lot of this is because writers tend to be drawn to their own ideas either because the concept is of great interest to them (plot) or the psychology and actions of a person are of great interest (character). And writers, especially starting out, tend to be lopsided, tending to be drawn to one or the other. For me, character psychology was the spark that lit the wick of my stories. And I saw other “beginning” writers (and some professionals) who wrote those books you’re talking about, where the characters are dragged nonsensically through a series of events, and I knew I didn’t want to write like that, and so I got this idea that the tools those writers relied upon — stuff like notes and outlines — were bad tools, because they were creating bad fiction. But of course the tools are not the main problem — that would be like saying like a hammer is responsible for shoddy construction. (I mean, I guess it’s possible, but the hammer would have to be utterly fucked, like shattered maybe?, for that to be true. It’s hard to imagine.) Once I began using actual planning and structure (it took an embarrassingly long time), I discovered that that was how I could put together all the stuff that was fun — the character stuff — with the events. And create resonance not by forcing it through in a series of bullet points, but by looking for the ways the interior and exterior create counterpoints and rhymes. And then feeding the things that are good and resonant and growing them up.
Thank you for making me think about all this. I always look forward to seeing Sweater Weather in my inbox.
A book that I think articulates well how a novel of situation becomes a novel of character and the tension between the two is “Gaudy Night” by Dorothy Sayers. Which is a mystery novel that’s also a romance that’s also a novel of both situation and character.