Wednesday, April 15, 2009

More Wells Tower and POV and envy

I'm anxious to get back to work--on the book, that is. I'm just as anxious to avoid my paying work. But I need to hold tight and give my readers a chance to give me some feedback. It's going to be a few weeks at least. urg.

I've read a couple more Wells Tower stories. Everywhere all of a sudden, isn't he? One I read last night--again I forget the title, the one about the old man in a wheelchair who goes across the road to visit his neighbor--I liked a lot. I think it's the voice of the characters in dialogue that's most interesting. The way he captures certain colorful ways of speaking. That can often be very precious--like more up-to-date versions of replacing all the g's with apostrophes--and I read an interview with him the other day where he said he guarded against that. He had in fact felt his stories were doing that and he rebuilt them to get that out of there. I think my annoyance with the first story in the book, "Brown Coast", was because I felt that precious habit in dialogue, along with the overly familiar modern-ennui-man narrator, were still in there.

And part of my annoyance is probably coming from envy. Back when I was still in the second or third draft of my book it never would have occurred to me to be jealous of a contemporary writer's success, but now that I'm getting closer to the end and imagining the improbable possibility of publication for myself, I can't help but compare, and I'm not naturally inclined to generosity. When someone near my age, with their first book out, is getting a lot of attention from reviewers, I start to look closely to see what it is in their writing that got them there. (See last month when I wrote a lot about Phillip Meyer. See next month when I'll probably be writing a lot about TBD.)

I never say to myself that I could write better--at least not with these stories by Wells Tower. It's more like I say to myself that I want to have written better. The writer in question doesn't live up to my aspirations for myself or to my yearning to see some vaguely new and fascinating thing in contemporary literature. That was my response to "Brown Coast." However, as I wrote before, I thought the title story in the collection was terrific, and I like a lot the other one mentioned above.

That brings us to the fourth story I've seen so far. (I should probably shut the hell up until I've read the whole book, shouldn't I?) "Leopard" It was in The New Yorker last November and often gets mentioned in the reviews. I've read a couple interviews with him, and the interviewer both times asked about that story and why he choose the POV he did.

The story, which is about an 11-year-old boy, uses second person, and he explains in these interviews that he wanted a POV that was more authoritative and less naive than first person could be. As I wrote way back when I started this journal, that was my main concern when I decided against first person for my novel, which also features an 11-year-old boy protagonist. I went with third-person limited omniscient, but Wells Tower says that was too distant and too critical/ironic/insincere a voice for how he wanted to characterize this kid. He felt that second person was the right middle ground.

He acknowledged this was risky because of how off-putting second person can be for the reader, and I don't blame writers for continuing to experiment with the technique to see if they can make it work. But for me, it just never has yet. It didn't work when I read Bright Lights Big City as a teenager, and it doesn't work here. It is off-putting.

And it doesn't work because it doesn't actually function to get the reader closer to the consciousness of the character. As James Wood talks about in How Fiction Works, with the free indirect style form of third-person a kind of magic happens where the language and metaphor belong at once to the narrator and to the consciousness of the character described. So even though it's logically preposterous that the narrator can know these things about the character's interiority, the reader feels like they are riding along inside the character's mind. That magic never occurs with second person. And I don't agree with the premise that third-person is too distant. You might as well say that Madam Bovary and all the developments in modernist narrative are too insincere to create meaningful characters.

Well, this argument I'm making is based on a weak memory of a hasty reading of something Wells Tower probably said offhandedly anyway, so probably I've misinterpreted him and there's no argument at all. And that envy discussed earlier probably has something to do with it--this particular story, and his rational for the POV, can be taken as a referendum on how well I create the consciousness of my character, and in this case, I really really hope I've done better.

Anyway, if you're keeping score at home, that's two stories I don't like and two that I do like a lot. Check out that title story--it really pops.

1 comment:

Angie Ledbetter said...

Followed you from your comments at Agent for a Day contest. Good thoughts there.

Best of luck with your WIP. Revising's a drudge, hunh?