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