Monday, January 21, 2008

Novels, Movies and T-Shirts

Over the weekend I saw ATONEMENT at the movies, and immediately went out afterwards and bought Ian McEwan's novel. The film is evocative, questing, and gorgeous to look at. An added bonus, it concerns the art of writing, and how words can shape lives. Anthony Lane's movie review in THE NEW YORKER seemed to imply that this aspect of the plot is even stronger in the novel, which further heightened my interest. So far, 100 pages in, Lane was right: This is a fiction about how fictions shape reality.

It's also a very interior novel. Page after page features one character alone, musing about events and perceptions and feelings. The word count devoted to characters' solitary musings far outnumbers the word count of characters interacting. We in SF seldom do this, or at least not for longer than a scene or two. Nor does mainstream commercial fiction. In fact, this way of writing might almost be said to be a hallmark of literary fiction.

I like it. I like knowing so much about the characters' interior lives, even at the expense of pace (ATONEMENT is glacially slow) and of outer drama. I'd like to try writing this way in the story I'm working on now. But would it work in SF? Would readers respond well to it? I don't know, although I suspect not. But I'm still thinking about this.

Meanwhile, my sister sent me a T-shirt for my birthday, with another use of words, the overt literary threat. The shirt says: CAREFUL, OR I'LL PUT YOU IN MY NOVEL.

You've been warned.


Ann Wilkes said...

Interesting timing. I was just dreading having to tell someone in my critique group that her story (of her novel) really begins on page 14. How many times have we heard this? The thing is, that since it's been drilled into me for so long: start with a hook, start with action, jump into the story, that I'm not sure if it's good or not. I mean, I didn't ESPECIALLY mind the slow pace while she did a lot of characterization through inner monologue. But the style rules pounding around in my brain may have deprived me of the different sort of beauty to that kind of prose. >sigh<

I prefer action, I think, overall. However, there is something to be said for a writer that can really get us into the heads of the characters. I think you're established enough to give it a shot. Us newbies can't get away with it, but you could. Why not try?

As to it working specifically in SF? I have reviewed SF books that had much of this and the reviews were favorable. Case in point, Dan Simmons' The Terror. I like strong characterization nearly as much as I like action, but I don't know that I'm your typical SF reader.

The thing that makes it so compelling is that the masks come off and we see the character as he or she sees himself, in harsh white light, with all his or her flaws and fears intact.

I say go for it!

Steven Francis Murphy said...

The problem with too much time in the main character's headspace is whether or not it is all that interesting to read. If the character is interesting enough to the Reader, then you don't have a problem.

But a lot of internal pondering within characters tend to be pretty mundane sorts of stuff. However, if you are looking for a positive example of that sort of writing in the science fiction context, then I think Jack Skillingstead's Dead Worlds is a good one to consider. Another example is Greg Egan's Reasons to be Cheerful which is spent almost entirely inside the protag's internal ponderings.

As for the threat of being tuckerized, it has already happened to me. I think with the latest project that I am helping out with, I'm up to seven tuckerizations.

That I know about.

And that is an interesting thing to consider, Nancy. British and Australian Writers seem to take tuckerizations in stride whereas American Writers and Readers seem to be horrified by the notion that a writer might pull a Stephen King and exact some small measure of revenge against someone by means of the pen.

What are your thoughts on this?

S. F. Murphy

Nancy Kress said...

As for the "revenge novel" of Tuckerization - my favorite example is Nora Ephron's HEARTBURN, in which she skewered ex-husband Carl Berntein for walking out on her while she was pregnant. And she did it with so much nasty style!

Steven Francis Murphy said...

I'll have to look that novel up. And who can blame her for nailing a husband for walking out on a pregnant wife.

S. F. Murphy