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Writing In Prose Fiction

Posted by acdtest on July 15, 2003

Writing In Prose Fiction

eblogger Michael Blowhard has some well-informed and intriguing thoughts on the importance of the writing in a work of prose fiction.

How important is the word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence writing — I always think of it as “writin'” — in a work of prose fiction?

I know all too well that the professor-and-critic-approved line is that for a work of true literature, the writin’ is everything. Sigh. Lord, am I aware of this. I dispute it, though. I don’t see — given the massive amount of evidence to the contrary — how the case can even begin to be made. There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all.

Interesting observation that last, and one thoroughly dependent on just what one means by “the writing,” or, as Michael puts it, “the writin'”. I confess I’m unable to get a secure handle on just what Michael means by his use of the term, but he seems to be saying that, in a curious way beyond my ability to comprehend, the writing can somehow be disconnected from the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction as his “There are a lot of powerful novels whose writin’ is indifferent, and tons of books whose writin’ is first-class that have no life at all” appears to suggest. In fact, both those cases are something of a contradiction in terms, and quite impossible.

There are two fundamental elements that go to make a work of prose fiction, both of which are sine qua non. First, and foremost of course, is the story. No story, no work of prose fiction. Lousy story, lousy work of prose fiction. Nothing will save a work of prose fiction that’s absent a first-rate story. Second, is human characters (whether they take actual human form or not) through whom the story is played out.

At bottom, that’s pretty much the whole deal. It would seem all the other elements that go to make a work of prose fiction — character development, narrative structure, pacing, plotting, “color” (i.e., excitation of sensations of time and place), and tone (e.g., lyrical, dramatic, epical, confessional, etc.) — are simply details of construction.

But then, as we all by now should know, in the details is where God and the Devil reside, and those details, all of them, are entirely dependent on, and inseparable from…the writing. If the writing, “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” is, say, notable for its genuine poetic expressiveness but in some way fails to serve at least adequately the story and the characters as well as all the details of construction above enumerated — which is to say, fails its sole raison d’Ítre — then, its genuine poetic expressiveness notwithstanding, it’s bad prose fiction writing.

Lolita is a great and powerful novel not because Nabokov writes beautiful-sounding, evocative, even poetic prose “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence” (which indeed he does), but because he’s got a great story to tell, great human characters through whom the story is played out, and because word-to-word, and sentence-by-sentence his writing unselfconsciously serves supremely well the story, the characters, and all the details that go to make a work of prose fiction, the resulting gestalt making this particular instance a great and powerful novel as it could hardly otherwise do.

Another example of a great and powerful novel is Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The story is undeniably great, and the characters undeniably intriguing, but the writing appears perfectly straightforward, almost ordinary if quietly elegant, and it seems there’s nothing special about it involved at all — until, that is, one reaches novel’s end and realizes with a jolt of amazement that in less than 200 pages Fitzgerald has managed through that writing to create a menagerie of characters and an entire created world that are so full and rich and real that it’s impossible to see how it all could have been limned in less than a four-inch-thick-War-and-Peace-length volume.

One helluva gestalt, that.

On the other hand, the writing in the novels of my acquaintance of John Updike, beautiful and beautifully crafted as it all is “word-to-word, sentence-by-sentence,” fails in some way (different ways in different novels, if I remember correctly) to fulfill the imperative of its raison d’Ítre, and in consequence the novels, in my not-so-humble opinion, fail as well, beautiful though the writing qua writing may be.

Truly great prose fiction writing — the sort noted above in the cases of Nabokov and Fitzgerald — is a kind of magic, and the gestalt that emerges as its consequence, though expected, ultimately a mystery. The one thing that can be stated with certainty about truly great writing in a work of prose fiction, however, is that, like a first-rate story and human characters, it’s an element sine qua non.


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