Posted tagged ‘Robert Boswell’

better left unsaid

September 11, 2013

“To me the best novels are the ones that don’t explain everything, but give the reader just enough hints about the full story to keep the reader questioning and thinking about the story long after it’s finished.”

~ Peter Anderson, in a interview about his novel Wheatyard

Peter’s quote above just about perfectly sums up my attitude toward fiction writing. If the experience of fiction is collaborative, equal parts brought to bear by the writer and the reader, which I think is not only true but inevitably true, then the best writers leave plenty for the reader’s imagination to fill in.

Peter’s novel, about the summer of an unmoored business graduate and his encounter and growing fascination with an inscrutable novelist leaves plenty unsaid, which gives the reader room to expand and enrich the story with speculation and musing. It has been said that every person’s life is a complete book, and the best we can hope to know of another is a few pages. That could be the theme of Wheatyard the novel and the deliberate goal of Wheatyard the protagonist. While Peter has a keen eye for telling detail, he doesn’t flood the narrative with pointless descriptions or dumb it down by telling the reader everything that needs to be known. The reader, just like the unmoored graduate who is the narrator, is invited to speculate on the things left unsaid, to fill in the story that is untold, and in the end, to complete the tale in whatever way is most satisfying (including the tantalizing “satisfaction” of never really ever being able to know).

Both of the long-time readers of this humble blog know of my aversion to what has been called Nancy Drew Moments. Peter is certainly not guilty of this writing sin. He gives his readers plenty of berth for providing their own details, and I think this approach is exactly what the writer Robert Boswell speaks of in his non-fiction book on creative writing, The Half-Known World. (Among the questions Boswell asks in his writing guide is what your character would think of you if the two of you met in a bar. Know this and know your character better. Tellingly, Wheatyard and the narrator have several meetings in bars in the novel.) Boswell suggests that the reader be given ample space to fill in details. Peter’s narrator spends the novel trying to learn more about Wheatyard the character, for Wheatyard is almost pathologically guarded about the details of his life, and if the narrator perhaps never learns more than a few pages of Wheatyard’s life, he is left with the engaging emptiness that he can fill, or not.

It’s almost inevitable that the reader of Wheatyard assumes the same role as the narrator of the novel. Wheatyard the character is a novelist (unpublished and perhaps even unpublishable). So, too, is Peter Anderson (though, of course, published), and as a reader I was trying to peer between the lines to see what details of his own life might be slipping into his fiction. It’s a fair and often-asked question to wonder how autobiographical a novel is. And while I know that Peter has far more in common with his narrator than with Wheatyard the character, the built-in quest for more details about that writer spilled into my experience reading Peter Anderson the writer.

Which is informed by the fact that Peter and I have been long-hand correspondents for more than a year. (Anyone remember letter writing?) I also regularly read his blog, Pete Lit, and exchange witty barbs on that great social networking site that will remain unnamed. (Speculate as you will about that one!) Wheatyard is a novel I will return to, for while it doesn’t necessarily tell you everything, there is plenty in it to chew on and muse over.

Wheatyard is available from Kuboa Press.

A fragment

August 31, 2009

Going through the 40,000+ words of notes I’ve accumulated for my current novel, I came across this fragment that I chose not to use:

“When I want to lament my circumstance, I sometimes try to imagine that my master’s mania was to re-create scenes in novels. I consider this an utter impossibility, for each of us may read the same descriptive paragraph and envision it differently in our own minds. Furthermore, what is not described allows more leeway in each mind as we dress a character or decorate a room within our own imagination when the writer has not done this for us, and sometimes, I think, even when the writer has.”

Part of my narrator’s tragic flaw comes from his inflated sense of his importance, and I think his high-sounding language serves that end. It’s a pity in a way that he doesn’t get to narrate his own tale in the end (since I must convert to a third-person narrator to make the story work).

I didn’t use this fragment because it strays from the story I am telling. The point my protagonist is making is one I happen to believe about reading fiction. There is a certain school that believes that writers must give their readers plenty of specific detail about the way characters are dressed or what is in a room or such. The readers somehow need this in order to sustain interest in the story or picture what is going on. I happen to think that is baloney. Most often these descriptive passages are intrusive and add little to the drive of the storytelling. In their most extreme these instances have been termed “Nancy Drew Moments” after the frequency in which they occurred in those novels. Furthermore, I truly think that thoughtful readers will dress the characters as they imagine them to be, despite what description the writer provides.

Robert Boswell makes this very point in his non-fiction work The Half-Known World: On Fiction Writing. He asserts that, at least in literary fiction, the story emerges from a world unknown to the writer (that has certainly been my experience with this novel) and that some things about it will never be fully known by either the writer or the reader.

This is not to say that a given character’s clothing or facial features or even the decor of a room can’t be important to a story. Indeed, facial features and physique are especially important in the novel I’m working on. When the reader truly needs these details, they ought to be provided. But if they are not needed, if they don’t contribute in some way to the story telling, whether in plot or tone or setting or something, they are superfluous and unnecessary. Some readers might even find them insulting.

So you can see that I care a great deal about this kind of thing, and I was ready to use my protagonist’s musings as a soapbox for my own, but I decided I was turning the story too much to my own ends and not to the needs of the story, so out it came.