This Week’s Bit of String: A swimmer’s happiness
Once I was at the town pool when a group of adults with learning difficulties were brought for a swim. A young man stood in the shallow end, his fingers prancing over the waist-high surface of the water, and declared, ‘I am EXACTLY happy. Right now, I am exactly happy.’
His words have stayed with me for years. In literature, though, no self-respecting author would allow a character to be so straightforward. We’re supposed to give readers evidence of emotion, not outright testimony. Show, don’t tell. Leave something to the imagination. But how much?
Last week I lamented the heavy-handedness, the lack of nuance, in a couple of pieces deemed ‘Literature’ by the GCSE exam board. As I researched that post, I found articles both advocating and opposing subtlety, which I’ve continued to explore this week.
How hidden should messages and motives be in literature?
In Defence of Subtlety
Iconic writers from the post-modern to contemporary age favour rendering the author invisible in his or her own work. Ernest Hemingway described his Theory of Omission in the 1930s, insisting writers leave out as much of their own experience as possible. John McPhee summed the theory up for the New Yorker: ‘Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.’
Why? Joanna Scott, in a comprehensive piece for The Nation last summer, rounded up critics and authors to extol ‘The Virtues of Difficult Fiction.’ I particularly liked her quotes from David Mikics, who’s written a book called Slow Reading in a Hurried Age. He praised the ‘tactile and palpable
sense of a material object being worked on,’ explaining that reading challenging texts not only exercises creativity and patience, but also nurtures a love for the versatility of words and the layering of meaning.
The word subtle itself, I discovered, is rooted in the Latin term for finely textured, just as the modern word text is derived from the Latin term texere; to weave. A text is meant, then, to have various components intermingling. It’s meant to be a challenge to take apart.
My characters often don’t say precisely what they feel, because how often do we in real life? I use dialogue, and try to minimise internal commentary, so readers can inhabit the action, watching it unfold. Here’s a scene from Artefacts, between a married couple on what becomes a climactic morning:
‘Where’s the peanut butter?’
‘In the top left cupboard.’
Mike opened a door. ‘It’s just dishes in here.’
She cleared her throat. ‘That’s the, um, right one.’
‘No,’ he snapped. ‘It’s my right, but it’s the cupboards’ left.’
‘Yes…the peanut butter is in the cupboard on your left.’
So it was. Mike set it on the counter with a bang. ‘That’s the opposite of what you said a minute ago. It’s like the difference between saying “Stage left” and “to the left of the audience.” You should know that.’ He spread peanut butter onto his toast with such vigour the surface cracked.
She handed him his trousers without looking at him. ‘Hasn’t anyone ever told you to look in a left or right anything before, or has your entire life been on a stage?’
There are other things to learn from reading, however, apart from interpretive skills and quiet resilience. I wrote a couple weeks ago about books that have changed my thinking, and those haven’t always been subtle (although certainly well-written and multi-layered).
Slate editor Forrest Wickman wrote a thorough piece Against Subtlety: The Case for Heavy-Handedness in Art, pointing out that our obsession with ‘highbrow,’ subtle literature stems from elitist ideas at the start of the twentieth century. He cited DH Lawrence writing: ‘There should be again a body of esoteric doctrine, defended from the herd. The herd will destroy everything.’ Much of art that has affected change, Wickman argued, is not coy or cryptic. It’s communicating a clear message: Something has to give!
He has a point. Why let a character speak up if you don’t let them say what they think really happened?
Last week, Helen Marten won the Turner Prize for her art, ‘labyrinthine works’ which critics have compared favourably to puzzles, while also praising ‘the emotionally provocative nature’ of her pieces. Earlier this year, Bob Dylan won the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature. His lyrics are sometimes obscure, but his perhaps most memorable song, Blowing in the Wind, poses very blunt, if beautifully phrased, questions about what the hell human beings allow to happen to each other. So balance and juxtaposition are allowed, and perhaps should be encouraged.
I like giving my brain a workout on big, tricky books. Characters don’t have to be sympathetic to intrigue me. But I expect to understand them better as the story unfolds. Any story is a character’s journey from one state of mind to another, and I want to accompany them, if not in their pocket, then at least in a neighbouring vehicle or a surveillance helicopter. And often, as we travel through a story, what starts as subtle and composed may begin to fray as the stakes get higher, and emotions may bleed through more strongly. Those shouldn’t repel us; they should draw us in even more.
After all, just because that one man in the swimming pool stated his feelings clearly, I never lost interest. I still wonder about him. Did he measure all his feelings in precise percentages? Was it a coping mechanism, or part of his genetic makeup? Were there things that made him exactly angry, or exactly sad?
There are always more layers. Always more questions.