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Writing and Other Arts

'The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests; just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts.'

-Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894)

Have you ever been so moved by a piece of literature that you immediately changed your own views of the world? Have you ever re-read something just because it was so wonderful that you couldn't get enough of it?

Truthfully, great books are often re-read for just that reason -the master author has guaranteed a certain level of emotional or spiritual engagement no matter how many times readers read them. New books or writings are always a risk to some extent: can one spare the time without knowing the result? If a book takes on average two minutes per page to read, a 600-page novel is going to take about twenty hours to complete. Is it going to be worth it? Can the time be spared when the outcome might be disappointing?

Most readers really want to enjoy what you’ve given them to read.

Readers will continue to read -to stay in communication with you via your work, if you like- provided that you can keep their interest and keep them moving.

It may be useful to look other fields to get the idea of how to do this successfully.

Famous Canadian academic Northrop Frye became well known initially for his study of the prophetic poetry of William Blake which had long been poorly understood and was considered by some to be incoherent ramblings. Frye not only found in it a complex system of derived metaphors but outlined an innovative manner of studying literature that deeply influenced literary criticism generally. Frye suggested a systematic theory of criticism.

In his book Anatomy of Criticism (1957) Frye described a 'synoptic view of the scope, theory, principles, and techniques of literary criticism' and tried to establish literary criticism as a coherent study like the sciences. He suggested an analogy between the fields of literature and music and painting.

A painter can step back from his or her work and see whether or not a particular technique has worked; a musician can hear immediately what the listener will hear -writers need to be able to do the same thing. A painting is normally a picture representing something: it illustrates a ‘subject’ made up of things usually drawn from the real world. At the same time there are present certain design elements: the picture is organised into structural patterns and conventions which are found only in paintings. Words such as ‘content’ and ‘form’ which we also employ in literature are often used to describe these complementary aspects of painting.

It would be possible to construct a scale of types of painting with ‘realism’ at one end and pure stylisation, whether primitive or sophisticated, at the other. Photographic realism is about as far as the artist can go in one direction; totally subjective painting is about as far as he can go in the other direction. What actually works, of course, is a balance between ‘similarity’ (matching the reality of the observer to some degree or 'realism') and ‘difference’ (diverging from the reality of the observer, or 'subjectivism').

Traditional practice and theory in Western painting have slanted heavily towards the imitative or representational end of this spectrum, which may or may not correspond to what we have termed Epic (in the book How Stories Really Work), where things are predictable and understandable, with no particular hidden twists or turns. Most readers prefer the straightforwardness and clarity of the Epic pattern, even though it could be argued that we live in an Ironic age, just as most visitors to art galleries could still be said to prefer ‘realistic’ paintings.

The Renaissance gave great prestige to creating realistic representations in painting, with the development of perspective -the suggesting of three dimensions in a two-dimensional medium- being essentially an attempt to create an illusion apparently matching the reality of the observer. Modern viewers of art are still commonly balked by anything that isn’t an attempt to re-create what they consider to be objective reality. Weird experimental movements in painting during the last century -Dadaism, surrealism, and so on- partly arose from the energy of rebelling against the view that realism of some kind was the primary goal of painting. In other words, difference began to be exaggerated, just as experimental fiction in the twentieth century turned away from Epic patterns and moved towards the Ironic, stressing difference and alienation rather than similarity and inclusion.

When the viewer demands likeness to an object in painting, he or she really wants likeness to certain familiar pictorial conventions. What the painter actually does in any age is rebel against the conventions established in his own day, in order to rediscover a new and hopefully deeper level of communication. Similarly, with regard to literature, readers want the conventional patterns they are used to from Epics -these conventions are then reinvented in every age.

In painting, as in literature, there is a rhythm being continually played out between similarity and difference.

It is as though literature itself seeks constantly to reshape itself from its own depths and works through its individual writers for constant reinvention of the same principles. But the principles remain the same.

Music might well have gone in a similar direction when painting developed perspective, but in fact the development of representational music -that is, music which mirrors or tries to capture realistic sounds- has hardly happened at all. No one claims that a composer is wrong for failing to produce imitations of realistic sounds. Starting to understand music by seeking to copy real sounds as heard in the objective world would be considered ridiculous -instead, structural principles of music are clearly understood, and are taught to children at an early age. Music, then, stresses difference to ‘real’ sounds.

As Frye suggested, there will doubtless be objectors who will say that any categories are vague or false or artificial, that they do not capture the nuances of literature, or that they are not relevant to their own experiences in reading. However, the question of what the structural principles of literature actually are seems important nevertheless; and, as literature is to do with words, it should be at least as easy to find words to describe them as it is to find such words in other fields like painting or music.

An example:

The traditional emphasis in both practice and theory in literature, as in painting, has been on representation or ‘lifelikeness.’ For example, when we pick up a novel of Dickens, our immediate expectation, a habit fostered in us from childhood or from who knows when, is to compare it with ‘life,’ whether as lived by us or by Dickens's contemporaries. Such characters as Micawber or Magwitch, in one way, when looked at rationally, throw us off balance -we have ever known anything much ‘like’ these curiosities, and so the comparison to the real world begins to dissolve.

Has Dickens gone off the track, or is something else happening?

As readers and not critics, we are prepared to give up the criterion of 'lifelikeness' and enjoy what the author has created for its own sake. And then we recognise in each of Dickens’ characters, a ‘type’ or a rhythmic balance of similarities and differences, and everything becomes clear. We can see, then, that Micawber and Magwitch become compositions of real human characteristics and exaggerated foibles. The specific and expanded study of how certain principles apply to the construction of characters is developed in the book How Stories Really Work.

For now, we can safely infer that structural templates and models, forms and rhythms exist in literature every bit as much as they do in painting and music.

Writers often fail to maximise the effect that they can create with readers by simply not being sensitive enough as readers themselves to the above.

For much more, get the book How Stories Really Work.

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