Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Trying to understand literature - What is a story?

It is my most pressing concern of late, esp. as I haul these books in the cavern of my arms, to understand what a story is and what can be, in all fairness, called literature, without fearing a future recall of that appellation that one might bequeath a written work of art. I think the fear is more often to call something non-art, fearing glaring elitist eyes stomping our nebulous standing as a connoisseur of art. But I fear less than I wonder, and as in most battles that ravage my discerning insides, I think my quest to understand, know and realise wins over fright. Let me assure the erudite reader that I take no regard of genre/pulp writing and I am definitely not allowing the case for chick-lit and Anurag Mathur to creep in here. I am going to postpone the discussion of other art forms to future predilections. I have, as the reader might summon to memory, written about the visual art form of painting and a bit about poetry. I shall focus more on prose, in this post.
The reason for urgency stems from my own doing. I read a lot of stories published by some renowned magazines. Let me give you a sample of one of them:

Please do read the "story" before you proceed.
Assuming that you have been kind enough to heed my words, allow me to ask you, What is the story in what you read? This is essentially the question that ruined many days and reading excursions of mine. I read stories from The New Yorker, from VQR, from Paris Review (oh! they are bad!) and so many other - chiefly American - literary journals. What I failed to realise was what made these works worthy of inclusion (considering that these journals were a good measure of worth)? I read Chekhov and Cheever and Oates and Carver but didn't quite grasp that one chromosome of good writing. As a reader and as a writer this knowledge is vital in order to deal in fine works. Undoubtedly, the final say should rest with the reader who is the only one to decide whether s/he likes or not a particular piece. Whether the voiced opinion is influenced by popular views or not is something we'll never quite know but in her/his heart s/he shall know. But I feel that being aware of what measures to employ in recognising good literature (as one might classify good wine or a good ballet) would serve to promise me days of lesser anguish.

Do you notice that nearly everything on earth seems to have fair metrics and benchmarks, except for works of art? That might be something to think about. It might be silly to want to measure arts, but I believe that one should not in the name of leaving things unclassifiable, resort to opening doors to shallow works forced into the ramparts by the sheer strength of voice and numbers. Art, unlike what was practiced in the earlier days, has become a glamourous affair, with everyone assuming that it can be easily produced. Personally, I disagree with the vox populi that anyone can create and, while people continue to believe that writers aren't born, I shall prefer to understand clearly what goes into being a piece of good literature. Although, I am prepared to drop my measuring tape when confronting the nebulous, I refuse to do so earlier than required.

In this post (which forms a part of the "Trying to understand literature" series), I would like to delve deeper into what is a story. In the next section of this series, I would like to present email exchanges that I have had with a couple of professors who teach creative writing (esp. fiction). It is an honour that one of the professors wished to use the mail exchange in his classes. In the final section to this series, I would like to present what motivates me to write and what I consider good writing.

Instruments of divine creationPlease take a minute to recall at least one story which you liked. It would be wonderful if you could share that with me. Do you recognise what is it that makes it memorable? The characters? Plot? Twist in the tale? Description? Suspense? Emotions?
I think what differentiates a short story from a novel is the concentration of a unified effect that it has on the reader. Where a novel can show and elaborate, a short story must show by directing. A novel allows for portions with a milder pace and engagement. A short story cannot afford that. A novel has the luxury of creating more detailed images and building a variety of emotional attachment in the reader. A short story must do that by providing the quickest summary of its characters and stoking the fires of the humaneness in the readers with torches and not twigs. Yes, a short story does, indeed, place importance on the acceleration and crux of the experience to share with the reader. A novel, on the other hand, has the space to create a richer tapestry which can absorb the reader entirely into its colours and threads. Poe thought that the short story was the finest form of story-telling. Hemingway epitomised compactness with his 6 word story: "For Sale. Baby shoes. Never used."

But what is essential to both is an interesting tale. A short story or a novel without a tale to tell, is mere fluff. All the rich embellishments cannot replace the tale. Why else would one come to read a story? Isn't the primary motive behind the reading exercise, selfish at its very core? Isn't the reader desiring something new, something titillating, something to take him/her far away from his nondescriptive life into a world which charms, which enchants, which moistens your eyes or leaves you speechless for a long time? As Nabokov once said, in response to Edmund Wilson, "The longer I live the more I become convinced that the only thing that matters in literature is the (more or less irrational) shamanstvo of a book, i.e., that the good writer is first of all an enchanter." Unfortunately, I have never met him, but I am certain that he didn't use the word "irrational" with a condescending connotation, but to ward off futile attempts at strapping a story to the leather couch and psychoanalysing it.

So, with an intention to provide a summary, it should be clear that a story needs a tale as much as the thinking mammal needs a skeleton. In school we were taught that a story should have a beginning, middle and end. Nothing is quite rigid in arts, but absence of anything firm enough would result in a collapse of what is being upheld. Sometimes, a story might not have a clear beginning, but a middle and end are fairly essential, else a written work of art would simply be a description or a report. Let me take the example of John Updike's work (which I often cite as an example) called "The crow in the woods". It is a beautifully written piece, devoid of beginning-middle-end but at the close of the piece, one is left wondering "Ok. So?" It is a piece in the collection called "The Married Life" and yes, it does paint a scene in a marriage but what on earth was the story? If you do not have faith in my taste (which you needn't) then you might hike my rating after reading this review from the Time (search for the word "crow"). Please read till the point where the reviewer says: "It is beautifully said. But what it says is just not enough."

Often, I have written pieces on this blog which lead nowhere. I would never call them a story. They were simply something I felt, a thought that flitted by and winked me in the eye. Pieces can be beautifully written, remarkably clever and make one's jaw drop in awe, but the story is not an advertisement on MTV. It is meant to connect to the human element in the reader and water the irrational plants of thought and feeling. If a story boils down to being like a clever joke or a cunningly plotted jailbreak then we aren't where a story should be.

When on one hand pure literary elements, description and play of words don't produce a story, mere plot and tale cannot do so either. Consider the great Chekhov's (or Tchekhov as some might know him) tale called, "Oh! The Public". To me, this story is pure plot told with an intention to make that final statement which Podtyagin wished to make (on behalf of Chekhov). Frankly, the portions in between come across as empty salads, stuffed to justify the dessert. Another story I can point the reader to is Joyce Carol Oates' "Ugly" which depicts the life of a girl considered ugly and how she builds an armour around herself (and this point I missed in my reading). This is how it starts: "I knew there was something suspicious about the way I got the waitressing job at the Sandy Hook Inn." Very nice. Creates the right amount of suspense to pull a reader in. It is fairly important to entice a reader at the outset, else the reader would simply skip to the next story (unless she is your wife or your story is part of a university textbook. Actually, I am not sure of the former case). So Ms. Oates does a decent job in presenting something that makes the reader go "Hmmm, and do her suspicions get proven? What was the reason for hiring her?" With the reader's interest piqued, Ms. Oates turns unfair by not addressing that at all in the story and lets it fizzle away leading the story into the protagonist's ugliness and her encounter with a teacher from her school. The story seems to be more about the way the mind of an ugly person works/thinks (with lines like "Another advantage of ugly: you don't waste time trying to look your best, you will never look your best."). Again no story and a literary trick (a literary element which is unfairly injected becomes a literary trick) of a promising start (something, in story-writers' circles, known as "starting with a bang").

While on the point about enticing a reader, please don't start off telling me that "I write for myself" and "I don't care if no one reads this". If you desire to publish (in print or online) then it is for presenting the reader with your work. Might as well respect their time and place. If you only care about yourself, then why bother to publish (and worse still ask money for it) or why care about what is literature?

Hence, a well written story is both an interesting tale as well as fleshed out with a beautifully employed language and thoughts/ideas which are delectable. This is not a case for grandiose and flowery language. Since I have given you examples of works lacking, it would only be fair to give you a piece of Jhumpa Lahiri that I read recently as an example of a fairly well done story. There is nothing spectacular, as one would find in Nabokov or Updike, nor is there something shattering as one would find in Kafka. The story is honest, simple and clearly revealed as one reads on. This should serve as an example for writing a good story with lean meat cloaking the bones of a good tale. Her stories in "The Interpreter of Maladies" would be example of more bone than anything else. She has told them well, but there is hardly a life in each of them that slides under the pages as you shut the book and walks with you repeating lines and expression from the story.

A tale can be presented in a myriad ways between the extremes of a motion picture and an enumerated gist. A writer must be honest to his self and present the story in the form that is closest to the vision he holds in his soul's eye. I shant go into what a writer must inculcate as that isn't appropriate to this post. Whatever a writer does, a story (novel or short story) is valued for its tale, inherent beauty, construction and the honesty with which it is told. None of the stories I have mentioned above will ever be classics for what they (except Ms. Lahiri's work) lack in fulfilling. Tagore's Ghare Bhaire is and will always be a classic as it has a wonderful tale, has an inherent beauty (in the way it reveals the human soul which is so alike in its diversity), is constructed very well (for its time) and is thoroughly honest. A reader desires a memorable experience in what they read, while they soar into personal memories springing out from a scene they just read and an insight which makes them go "So true! That is so true!"

I would like to hear what you feel about the shamanstvo of a story.

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