Thursday, March 01, 2007

While We're on the Subject of the "And Then"

Or plot, if you're still calling it that... a couple more opinions from the field.

Ed Champion's interview with Heidi Julavits on the Bat Segundo Show is worth a listen. He asks her view on “closure.” She says genre fiction operates on the “what happened” level, and when you find out what happened, “you don’t really have any more curiosity about it.” It’s “all about information.”

But she argues you can have informational closure without intellectual and emotional closure. She likes this kind of ambiguity. “I’ve run up against a lot of cultural resistance to ambiguity,” she says. She talks about book reviewers too: “They hate books with 'style.' That’s the new thing.”

And Ed Champion, he dishes out confrontational questions, as usual, like “How much ambiguity is too much?” and, “What steps do you take to justify ambiguity?”

I won’t transcribe it, but do listen. Unless you are uncomfortable listening to confrontational questions. Does ambiguity require justification in fiction? You decide.

Check out David Denby's essay, "The New Disorder," in the recent New Yorker. The subject is fractured/nonlinear storytelling in film, from "Pulp Fiction" to "Memento" to "Babel" to much older precedents in print and on the stage. I was cracking up at this, in reference to the most recent crop:

Some of the directors may be just playing with us or, perhaps, acting out their boredom with that Hollywood script-conference menace the conventional "story arc." But others may be trying to jolt us into a new understanding of art, or even a new understanding of life.

Trying to jolt, yes! I disagree on the notion of attempted novelty. Most artists have made their peace with the originality issue. But bigger question--does the jolt succeed in giving understanding, new or not? Some of Denby's conclusion rings true to me--he recognizes these approaches as legitimate play, with noble goals. But when the work becomes a "closed form," or "puzzle box," "the rich ambivalence of art somehow slips away." Modern audiences have become more tolerant of, even demanding of, this mashup/puzzle paradigm. But does it move them? Is that even the goal?

Anyhoo, I'm not too worried about linear vs. nonlinear storytelling. My issues are about singular/central conflict vs. multiple/scattered conflict. But ambiguity, yes. How do you make it good?

At a writer's conference I went to a couple years ago, an editor polled the crowd: how many preferred a fractured and confusing narrative and how many preferred a clear and linear one? The answer surprised me: it was about half and half. He said that was the response he expected.

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Anonymous mariapia said...

Dear Anne,
The plot issue that you have been raising in a couple of posts is haunting me. Even for non-fictionnal books, the question is here. In my attempt to document the rebuilding of New Orleans, i find myself torn with the "ending" thing. When do i stop writing and collecting infos, do i focus on "resolving" issues or on the ordeal ordinary citizens are going through and the emotional and cultural burden they and the city itself are facing?
Would love to discuss those questions live with you upon my return to New York, in a couple of weeks.
Your reflections on writing are always inspiring and open field for further thinking.

9:09 AM  
Blogger chris8lee said...

And to pull out an old nugget.."Catch-22" one of my favorite novels. One of the first novels I read for the sheer pleasure of it, and my first introduction to a popular work playing with structure.

8:43 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Pia: New Orleans is the perfect example. Do you make it "real" or do you make it narratively "satisfying?" These questions are particularly pertinent for reportage. Maybe you want your viewers to get emotionally involved with the "characters" of a documentary. Why not? Don't we want to care about the subject matter? But the most common way to do that is through traditional storytelling, endings and all.

Chris: I must read Catch-22. I can't believe that one never made it across my bookshelf.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Anne said...

Pia, PS, did you happen to hear "This American Life" a couple weekends ago? I think its subtitle was "In the Shadow of the City." One of the segments (or "acts"--storytelling again)is a New Orleans native talking about the commercial Katrina Tours, which have the requisite hopeful endings. Then she takes us on an audio tour of her own, which is a lot messier and less conclusive. Highly recommended! You can stream it here for free:

12:04 PM  
Anonymous MariaPia said...

Hi Anne,
thanks for the tip on This American life, missed that one.
as for the "ending", yes, how to make my story worthwhile for readers, i suppose they want some sort of closure on what's happening to my "characters" who are still for the most part in limbo. Maybe the "limbo" is the actual ending. Nothing is really happening down there, except for the endless wait.
i am back in NY by the way.

3:23 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Pia: welcome back to NY!

Yes, limbo. As an ending it's not "satisfying," but it's real. Maybe from a moral standpoint this is the only ending you can have.

My gut tells me when this is the case the key is to focus on an image that is an icon of the limbo. (The way some in NOLA have focused on the blue tarps, for example.) A lasting image can be every bit as "ending" as a story arc, IMO.

8:09 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

Pia: PS, I can get you a copy of that episode of This American Life if you can't get it to stream. Look forward to seeing you. Been awhile!

8:11 PM  

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