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Coming to you from Paris. Happy New Year. The below is a craft talk I’ve been working on called “The Miserly Eye” and it’s about so-called “cinematic fiction.” I gave the talk on Saturday here at NYU in Paris, which has been a lovely residency so far. I sort of envision this being part one, where I introduce the ideas and terms. Part two might come next week or so and there I’ll apply some of these ideas to some texts from contemporary literature and maybe do some compare/contrast between adaptations and their source texts. Anyway, see you later.
When I began researching this talk, I was not, let’s say, a fan of “cinematic” as a descriptor for fiction. I recoiled every time someone in a workshop described a piece of fiction as “cinematic,” or said “I could picture it, so visual” as though that were something to which a person should aspire in their prose. I wanted it to stop. Immediately. Not my recoiling, but people describing things that way. Particularly because I found the passages described as “cinematic” to be among the weaker aspects of the pieces under discussion. It often involved inane physical action or rote phrases like “padding across the room” or “took a sip” or “sat in the chair” or long paragraphs in which nothing happens except someone going upstairs or pulling a door open. Or it involved end-on-end incident—action without insight or commentary. Just relentless event after event after event, often making use of some formal gimmick like fragments or present-tense to conceal a troubling lack of exposition. In the face of the rich discursive possibilities of the prose novel, I considered visual, pictorial writing and relentless action as being the outputs of an inadequate and miserly eye. Obsessed with blocking and stage direction and writing like a picture.
But over the course of my research, as is often the case for me, I discovered that not only was I as guilty as the next person, but that in trying to go away from what I considered bad writing habits—bloating interiority and dull psychology and fake profundity—and toward what I considered good habits—the gestural, the difficult to express, the subtextual—I had arrived precisely at the heart of what I would later understand to be the cinematic mode. I found this very troubling. I had to learn to love the cinematic, to understand its make-up and its purpose, and hopefully to make better and more intentional use of its techniques.
In that sense this talk is a record of changing my mind.
Cinematic fiction like all falsely crisp descriptors is a fugitive term—meaning simultaneously either all that is attractive or negative about what one considers fiction today. But there are times when I wonder if cinematic fiction isn’t so much an emerging genre of literature as an emerging analytic paradigm or a recontextualization of tropes and techniques that predate the existence of cameras and cinema. I sometimes wonder if the move to describe fiction as “cinematic” comes not because the writing itself is changing or not just because of that. But because the way we process and understand and relate to what we read has shifted. The set of references from which we work has broadened or at least shifted its center of mass. Certainly, writing has changed as our idioms have changed, but an often-neglected side of this whole discourse is that the way we read has changed, too, often in response to contact with the very same substances and texts (ie. Televisual media) that we consider as having changed the writing itself.
Anecdotally, in creative writing classrooms where I have been as a teacher, student, or participant, the dominant referential model is toward cinema and television rather than toward literature. Not that this is good or bad, except, perhaps, as writers of literature, maybe we feel a little nervous. Still, a writer can’t do anything about the larger system of references that dominate at the time of their birth. Them’s the breaks. That being said, I hope you’ll excuse me for leaving aside the matter of how we read except where it intersects most deeply with the topic at hand.
I never quite know what we mean when we call a piece of prose fiction cinematic. I suppose the obvious thing to say is that cinematic fiction seeks to recreate certain effects of cinema in prose. But that doesn’t tell us very much—like, which effects and why those particular effects, and in what order must these effects be arranged to achieve a sense of the cinematic in prose? This is unsatisfying because it has the appearance of a tautology—we arrive at our tail only to find our head and so on.
Then, what do we mean when we say “this is so cinematic!” There is of course the implication of the visual rendered in prose, but there is also, anecdotally, sometimes a level at which cinematic fiction also implies something about pacing or narrative rhythm or narrative composition—things that for my convenience I’ll group and condense into the term narrative depth. To be clear, I do not mean depth in the modern sense of a value judgement. I mean it in the sense of the distance between what is occurring in the narrative foreground and what is occurring in the narrative background, giving a sense of relief or contrast. In cinema, this contrast seems diminished. That is, in cinema, things are happening and there is less ostensible commentary upon the events or the psychology of the narrative. This is due to the nature of film as a medium. In prose fiction, there is a greater potential for contrast between event or incident and commentary, and one might say that cinematic fiction is fiction that emulates this lessened narrative contrast: the flattened narrative relief of cinema. To quote the critic and scholar Marco Bellardi from his 2018 paper “The cinematic mode in fiction”:
whereas in novels and short stories the narrative foreground (signalled by foreground tenses) designates relevant events standing out from a background of narrative summaries, digressions and comments, in film, on the other hand, most events gain relevance due to the monstrative quality of the medium, and the entire narrative ultimately ends up being pushed towards the narrative foreground. This is the illusionistic and immersive power of cinema. Whether essential or irrelevant to the plot, narrative events seem to be shown substantially on the same level: the narrative relief, which describes the range between the background and foreground, is never truly eliminated; rather, it tends to be flattened, as it were.
He bases this analysis on scholarly work done in linguistics with respect to “foreground” and “background” tenses, a lot of which is rather difficult to follow, but which I have since reformulated as the following: foreground—the realm of events, the so-called present action of the story, the main plot; background—digression and discursive flights, interpolated texts, sweeping psychological and sociological interrogation. Another way still to frame it is that scene might be thought of as foreground and exposition might be thought of as background.
So we might say from the outset that cinematic fiction seeks to emulate cinema at these two narrative levels—the first at the literal level of the visual, and the second at a more attitudinal level (re: narrative relief)—that together constitute a vibe of the cinematic.
Then, thinking broadly through what might constitute a cinematic fiction, let’s think through a couple familiar names.
Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of the Dove have both been adapted into films—not very successfully, but they have been adapted. As have his novels The Bostonians, The Europeans, The American, and his novella The Aspern Papers. I have seen all of these movies with the exception of The American, and they are all uniformly…not very good. And in each case—with the exception of The Aspern Papers—the novels are very much 19th and early 20th century novels in that they sprawl and spill and whorl. Let’s look at the opening paragraph of The Portrait of a Lady:
Under certain circumstances there are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea. There are circumstances in which, whether you partake of the tea or not—some people of course never do,—the situation is in itself delightful. Those that I have in mind in beginning to unfold this simple history offered an admirable setting to an innocent pastime. The implements of the little feast had been disposed upon the lawn of an old English country-house, in what I should call the perfect middle of a splendid summer afternoon.
James’s great project—the description of an inner life amid a society of souls—makes him an unlikely cinematic target because the description of the inner life of the individual and the inner life and machinations of a society figure almost more prominently than the central incidents of the novels. That is, in James, we find that incident is the flame by which the soul is illuminated, and that the description of this illuminated soul is precisely the action of the novel.
In James’s oeuvre however, there is an aberration. His novella “The Turn of the Screw” is one of the most adapted pieces of fiction there is. Part of this is owed to an increased emphasis on the narrative foreground—that is, incident and event. Things happen. The interiority swirls in response to the events of the story, and it all builds to a delightful, frightening conclusion.
Yet, despite this, I do not think that many people in this room would, after reading “The Turn of the Screw,” say to a friend or in workshop, “this is so cinematic!” There is yet something missing from this formula. Here we have a story that has been adapted into film and television to rave reviews, and yet do we feel that it is cinematic?
Maybe it’s a Jamesian thing. Let us consider more successful adaptations. Like James, Edith Wharton is interested in the plight of the individual amid a society of souls. One might say that in Wharton’s novels, society is less a passive background exerting casual pressure and more a ruthless gallery of rogues and murderers. Society in Wharton is lethal and brutal, and even those who play by its rules often find themselves wrung out and beaten down. Her masterpiece, The Age of Innocence (adapted brilliantly by Martin Scorsese into a wonderful film), is very much an interior novel with beautiful, long passages of meditation on the mores and foibles of society. But it is also a novel of incident. It begins with Ellen Olenska coming back to New York, thus setting into motion a series of strange social contractions:
On a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.
Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances "above the Forties," of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the "new people" whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.
In Wharton, incident does serve to illuminate the soul of the characters, but it also has the habit of begetting other incidents. That is, Wharton’s novels are made up of chains of incident that tell us something not just about the individual, but about society as a whole. The same can be said for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Both of whom have been adapted many, many times to varying degrees of success. Yet, again, I’d argue that their novels of incident do not immediately read as being cinematic. Adaptable into cinema by virtue of containing incidents and interesting characters whose personalities do not require substantial and fine rendering as often is the case in James or Trollope or Thackery or George Eliot. But decidedly not cinematic.
When one thinks of cinematic fiction, it is not likely that they think of the rich psychological portraiture through which Henry James brings off Isabel Archer’s glowing adoration of the woman who will eventually seal her fate, or the discursive turns through Edith Wharton renders the vibes of late 19th century European hotels. We do not think of the thunderous cacophony of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or the archipelago of recollection and sensation that give us Ann Petry’s The Street as being particularly cinematic, no. Neither Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Mrs. Dalloway, where so much of the meaning and sense of the novel come not out of what is seen exactly as from the careful arrangement and patterning of vignette and memory. Short stories don’t necessarily fare better re: being cinematic. Think about Mavis Gallant’s brilliant “The Remission” or “Speck’s Idea,” or even think of Alice Munro’s brutal strange “Dimension” or “Face,” both of which hinge on a single incident more or less, but which sprawl and shift and take their strength from seemingly thwarting forward progress with backward glances. Or even something like “The School” by Donald Barthelme or Kafka’s strange, morose fictions, whose curious power is very much in their written-ness.
Instead, cinematic is more likely to make one think of Hemingway, Raymond Chandler, Cormac McCarthy, Ian Fleming, Julia Quinn, Graham Green, Patricia Highsmith and likely an enormous gaggle of genre writers. Like the novels of Austen and Dickens, the stories and novels of Chandler and Green and Highsmith are filled with incident that tell us things—often subtextually—about the inner lives of the characters. But what we find out about the motivations of a character and the shadowy recesses of their soul often comes subordinated to the incidents that comprise the plot. It’s not that cinematic writers eschew character. It’s more that character comes by way of observation of action. We come to feel for the protagonists of cinematic stories only through watching them do and act. The cinematic story does not often spare much space for digression or discursive passages. It has two aims—a literal visual aspect, and the flat cinematic narrative relief. How it achieves these two aims is a mix of certain cinema-inflected techniques. Bellardi describes some of the non-essential stereotypes of cinematic fiction as:
[…] present-tense narration, the montage in general, a ‘certain’ visual quality of the texts, the camera-eye narratorial situation, a ‘dry’ dialogue, and the use of specific cinematic techniques such as travelling, pans, and zooms.
He goes on to say that these techniques and features themselves are not totally sufficient to confer an “aura” of the cinematic to a text, but that they do feature heavily in such an outcome. Where the “aura” of the cinematic is missing, there is instead a merely pictorial or visual quality.
You probably could do a pretty good impression of a cinematic story if given a few minutes time. It’s probably something in present tense with lots of momentum, and a few spare details tucked into just the right place. Lots of crisp dialogue and economical exposition except in the case of “epic fantasy” and certain breeds of historical romance, which I would argue live in a related but different mode. However, I do think that one generalization we would be justified in making is that in the cinematic, incident predominates. That is, the narrative emphasis is on articulating what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen next as a consequence. The narrative instance in so-called “cinematic” prose fiction is like in cinema an illusory running edge, at once past, present, and future—this is what Bellardi refers to as “para-cinematic temporality.” That is “filmic narration is expressed through a narrator not only by speaking cinema…but by speaking in the present and in the past at the same time.”
So all of that to say that one key component of the cinematic vibe in prose fiction comes from the privileging of the narrative foreground over the background, incident over commentary, scene over summary, and the particular, strange temporality that is the cinematic “present.” Herein lies the attitudinal aspect of cinematic fiction.
Next, we turn our attention to the visual. Or more precisely, to the distinction between cinematic and visual or pictorial. In cinematic fiction, there is often a cold, clinical voice that glides around the surfaces of objects and people. Often, this distant descriptive voice is meant to mimic a detached camera eye and reconstitute the experience of cinema whereby we watch and observe and make meaning indirectly. There is a tendency among fiction writers to say “camera” and “picture” in the capacity of an objective recording of visual data in a field of view. What I mean is that sometimes, when we say “visual” as fiction writers, the word carries an implied objectivity so that one might guess that when we say cinematic in a fiction-writing workshop, what we mean is “objectively visual.” In this way, then, we might say that what we mean by “cinematic writing” is writing that recreates the objective literalness of a camera’s recording by using a written text. But that falls apart rather quickly when we realize that in cinema, there is very seldom such a thing as an objective lens.
Indeed, it is very often only through divorcing a given shot or sequence of shots in cinema from their larger narrative context that we arrive at the mistaken conclusion that what we see on the screen before us is not created and arranged by a subjectivity or consciousness. This is in part due to the nature of the medium itself, meaning the present-ness of film, the undeniability of the objects placed before us on the screen and the aura of the ongoing that affixes to them. This is an illusion of film’s temporality however, and should not be mistaken for objectivity. For each shot and sequence of shots in a film, one can ask: what is being seen, how is it being seen, who is seeing it, and why are they seeing it? These questions imply a kind of subjectivity, no? The camera’s eye is almost never objective in cinema, so why do we have this concept of an objective camera in fiction and why do we imagine that this somehow makes fiction cinematic?
I would argue that it doesn’t make fiction cinematic on its own without the flattened narrative relief, and what one gets instead is visual or pictorial writing, which lack the full feeling of the cinematic. In a previous craft talk, I described something I called “trite physicality” in which the narration bloats with inane, dull actions that amount to a literal description of physical phenomena. Writing that is often described, in workshops and petty conversations, as “written like a screenplay” or “blocking.” By this I mean, a passage like the following (A):
He put his hand on the handle and pulled it down to open the door. Then he walked into the room. Some people sat on chairs at a table against the far wall. Some other people were pouring coffee into cups and sipping. He walked the rest of the way across the room until he reached the other side and sat on a chair at a table. He took his bag off of his shoulder.
There is quite a lot of visual information here. In fact, almost all of the information in this paragraph is visual. We’re close-ish to the “he” in the sentence relatively speaking, but we have no insight into the content of his thoughts. The above passage is a more or less literal accounting of actions taken in the scene, but it does not really capture the experience, does it? This is merely the transcript of the moving image, not an evocation of the moving image itself. It fails as an evocation because it is simply pictorial. There is no, what I call, selective pressure. That is a perspective. What narratologists call a focalization.
Consider what happens when there is a selective pressure applied to the above passage(B):
He found it crowded in there—people pouring coffee while others pretended to listen as they were served. They all watched him cross the room to a table. He was alone.
In this instance, the selective pressure comes from narrowing the perceptual field to what the character sees and feels. The narrating instance is located (or focalized) within a character. The narration is focalized to this unnamed male character with the first line “he found it crowded in there” particularly by the word “found” as it attributes the following “crowded” to his perspective. The following observation “people pouring coffee while others pretended to listen” can therefore also be attributed to this character’s perspective. This effect simulates the shot/counter shot of a film in which we a see a shot of a character followed by a situating shot of the room or vice versa, which creates a linkage that we might call perspective. But then, as the character crosses a room, we leave his perspective. “They all watched him” is not necessarily located within his focalization. It might be located in an external focalization capable of seeing the whole room including the unnamed male character. “He was alone” then is not necessarily narrated from within this unnamed character but from some external point of view.
Another permutation might look like (C):
He found it crowded in there—people pouring coffee while others pretended to listen as they were served. Their eyes cut in his direction as he crossed the room to a table. He felt so alone.
Here we find not the distancing “they all watched him cross the room” but an observed “their eyes cut in his direction” and “as he crossed the room.” These observations can only be attributed to the focalized character. The concluding “he felt so alone” is also obviously focalized within his perspective.
Comparing these passages, one might say that (A) is the most visual because it contains the most visual data. It is perhaps closer to an “objective” image though it is of course not at all objective. It has been selected, curated, set down by me. Yet, there is not, within the passage, a clear, focalized narrating entity. It also doesn’t feel cinematic. However, comparing (B) and (C), one might reasonably say that (B) has a superior cinematic vibe. One might say that this superior cinematic vibe corresponds to an interpretation that “he was alone” has a flatter narrative relief than “he felt so alone” and that “they all watched him” is more visual than “their eyes cut in his direction,” which implies a greater subjectivity.
In first person, it might look something like:
I walked into the courtyard. I could see a rope hanging from the second floor window. I could hear at a distance something like someone beating rugs. I could smell the dust on the air. I brushed my fingers on the rope’s end as I passed.
A rope hung from the second-floor window. Far off, someone was beating rugs—the dust was in the air. The rope’s frayed end was cold when I brushed by it to leave the courtyard.
There was a rope in the courtyard when I arrived. Far off, the intermittent beating of rugs, the stinging dust. Passing out of the courtyard, I brushed the rope’s cold, frayed end.
(A) contains the most visual data, but the narrated instance still feels at odds with itself because even though we are in first person, there is a sense of the narration being mediated. As we move from (A) to (B), we have made the narrated instance more focalized. Rather than a narration of a narrator experiencing something, we simply have the description of that experience. “I walked into the courtyard” is extraneous because for the first-person narrator to be observing in a first-person narration, they must be present in the scene physically to narrate it. “I could see” and “I could hear” and “I could smell” are again replaced merely by the description of the observed objects within the narration of the scene. And the transition from (B) to (C) is a further focalization and concentration of the narration, so that the narration becomes almost pure sensation with the narrator going almost entirely unobserved.
As with the third-person example, (B) has, to my mind, a greater cinematic vibe than (C), though admittedly it’s a subtle distinction, because you can almost see the panning shots moving in and around the courtyard, whereas (C) intrudes with sense and sensation. (C) is more an accounting of experience than the depiction of someone moving through space.
Let’s consider some moments when such an approach feels appropriate and illuminating and dazzling and genuinely alive. Take for example the opening of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.
Visual data, yes, but tied to a particular perspective, a particular character. Note the use of “zoom” and “pan” but how each thing is tethered, anchored to a perspective. A character who we see, but not really because we’re nestled in quite close to him. Hemingway does not describe his face in this passage because Robert Jordan (the ‘he’) cannot see his own face. The narration is close, but not interior. We see what he sees, but we do not have his thoughts. The description is also an action, a seeing, so that looking becomes the active incident of the passage, and without comment, there is only incident, only foreground, hence a flattened narrative relief. Hemi
Another example, from Graham Greene’s “The Basement Room”
When the front door had shut them out and the butler Baines had turned back into the dark heavy hall, Philip began to live. He stood in front of the nursery door, listening until he heard the engine of the taxi die out along the street. His parents were gone for a fortnight's holiday; he was "between nurses," one dismissed and the other not arrived; he was alone in the great Belgravia house with Baines and Mrs. Baines.
Here we have a bit more narrative background. There is more than visual description and incident to go off of. We have a bit of humor “between nurses” is quite funny, and that line “Philip began to live.” Mingled among the literal visual description, we have intensely focalized perspective. And yet, it’s kept quite tight. The background never quite overwhelms the foreground. We have the sense of stepping into a situation, some charged and waiting set of narrative collisions.
Here is an example from Philip K. Dick’s famous story “The Minority Report”
The first thought that Anderton had when he saw the young man was: I’m getting bald. Bald and fat and old. But he didn’t say it aloud. Instead, he pushed back his chair, got to his feet, and came resolutely around the side of his desk, his right hand rigidly extended. Smiling with forced amiability, he shook hands with the young man.
Here we have a literal transcription of a character’s thought in the first line followed quickly by an outward transition into visual description. Again, the interiority is kept carefully modulated and tight. No broad, sweeping excursions. Here, again, incident dominates.
A final example from Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley:
Tom glanced behind him and saw the man coming out of the Green Cage, heading his way. Tom walked faster. There was no doubt that the man was after him. Tom had noticed him five minutes ago, eyeing him carefully from a table, as if he weren't quite sure, but almost. He had looked sure enough for Tom to down his drink in a hurry, pay and get out.
Note how we focus on the action of seeing. Not portraying exactly what Tom sees in any experiential way. But just narrating the action of his seeing. And then that little pop of interiority with “there was no doubt that the man was after him.” But here the interiority is quite close to the incident, the action of the scene. The interiority doesn’t break the narrative plane, so to speak, and so flows along it smoothly, carrying the reader along in the present of the story.
There are a great many reasons why one might want to write in a cinematic style or mode. I admit that until I undertook the research to write this talk, I would never have considered myself a writer of cinematic fiction. I thought, “oh, no, I don’t do that. I write sad melancholy very literary stories and don’t have any truck with that screenplay stuff.” But imagine my surprise when in reading up on descriptions of flattened narrative relief and visual writing, I started to recognize the contours of what for a long time I called “gestural writing.”
When I was in the process of writing my earliest stories, some of which would end up in my collection Filthy Animals, I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability to accurately create an interesting inner life or internal monologue for my characters. I relied on what I called gesture, trying to capture their movements and their actions and their words. I tried to write tight and clean descriptions of people going into places and out of places, with enough tone and mood and atmosphere to convey in a subtextual way what I hoped to get across. That earlier mode of my writing was very much an attempt to get around what I considered my weaknesses. But as I grew more confident as a writer, familiar with the techniques and instruments of character psychology, flashback, backstory, exposition, and other things, my writing attained, I think, a greater narrative relief. By which I mean…quantity not superior in quality.
Still, even my more recent writing, when I look at it, retains some of this cinematic quality of flattened narrative relief and visual description, though I believe that the thrust of the novel’s action and heat lies in the tension between the exterior and the interior. I say all of this to say that the cinematic, which I admit to feeling rather biased against, has been revealed to me to be just another mode of fiction. One that we can use to great effect. But like all things, when done unintentionally or without control, it can sap writing of vitality and force. It can render our most fraught scenes flat and uninteresting, or it can impede understanding or identification on the part of the reader.
I believe that the inappropriate utilization of the tropes and structures of cinematic fiction has caused much of contemporary literature to lose its discursive effects. With the over privileging of incident in prose literature and the atomization of comment, narration, or exposition, we’ve lost fiction’s great synthetic capacity to both portray and through portrayal comment upon the moments, structures, events, places, and things that make up life. In trying to refit the novel to the narrative tropes and conventions of film, we lose what made the novel into what D.H. Lawrence describes as, “the highest example of subtle inter-relatedness that man has discovered.”
But at its finest, cinematic fiction does what great cinema does—inviting the viewer, the reader, the audience, to witness and to make meaning from the shifting images before us. Great cinema has that same shimmer and force that great poetry does, that thing that lives in the gaps and the silences. It is this more than anything that cinematic fiction achieves. The power of negative capability. That multiplicity of things achieved through compression and condensation of image and heat and light and sensation. Cinematic fiction is simply selective pressure taken to extremity. The right image in the place in a sequence of images. A series of moving tableaux that accrue meaning not through comment or exposition but through the linkage of many such images.
Like all subtractive forms, it is easy to imitate the tropes of cinematic fiction, but without a true understanding of its principles and motivations, all one has is the pale, inverted image projected into the back of the miserly eye.
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An interesting thing about your A/B/C examples is I do find the A examples are very strongly evocative but because the distancing is so strong, what they're most evocative of is a dream/nightmare sequence, dissociation, or (in a sffh context) mind control.
It captures an experience but only if the experience is the experience of total alienation. The lack of interiority is so complete it only feels like it makes sense if it's making a point about its absence.
My god, this is so good.