I recently hit on a bunch of things written or said by other people, which speak to my notion that fiction has to be engaged with the world. Being too lazy to write my own defence of that notion, I’m just going to quote those things and pretend I’ve published a manifesto.
First, from Benjamin Woodard’s review of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting at Raintaxi:
Not once does “Miracle Mile” drag. Instead, it unfolds with such skill and proficiency that one forgets on occasion that the story is a work of fiction, and that MacLeod didn’t conduct interviews with a series of men and women and transcribe their lives onto paper.
This sense of engagement is a thread that keeps Light Lifting consistently admirable.
Next, Thomas McGuane speaking at an event in Lansing, Michigan, touches on this notion of transcribing lives:
Frank O’Connor was asked about the relationship between journalism and literature and he said that much of fiction is really journalism, but in the case of a great writer, like Chekhov, it’s 99 percent journalism. And that’s kind of a challenging remark, but there’s something to that. I mean, if you look at the best of Updike, it’s perilously close to some kind of photo-realistic journalism.
Jim Harrison, responding to McGuane:
It’s fun to read Dostoevsky’s notebooks because you see how much of his fiction was sort of veiled journalism. He would get obsessed about a news item. He thought he’d found a new theme in European literature (this was 1868) because a girl in St. Petersburg had committed suicide and left a note saying she committed suicide because she was bored.
Richard Ford expands on the theme:
When I don’t like something, or I read a piece of fiction and I think to myself there’s really something defective about this, what I always say about it is, “This is just made-up stuff.”
It’s not thingy. That’s what I say: it’s not thingy. Nothing, no details are observed, there’s no observation of the attenuations of the kind of emotions people could have.
Now that one is fascinating, going from a standard writing-class insistence on concrete detail to that insistence not only on accurately observed human behaviour — the kind of emotions people could have — but on the attenuations of our emotions. It is not how people might feel, but how those feelings fade and lose force, or perhaps how they are muted in the transmission. “Hills Like White Elephants,” perhaps, is the kind of thing Harrison is driving at, Hemingway’s genius in showing us an iceberg by its tip. And Hemingway, notably, was writing fiction as one might write a newspaper story.
On the subject of concrete detail, of thinginess, I have previously quoted McGuane on this blog, talking about the necessity for a writer to be engaged with the world that his fiction reports on:
I have a primary interest in the world and feel if the ratio of world to word is high, that rightness and concision are honoured, I may safely avoid the often suet-filled oeuvre that characterizes the writer who has no other interests … Any writer can disappear up his own ass in a New York minute. You’ve got to have a life. Otherwise every noun in the book looks like it came off Google.
Which I tied back to John Metcalf, who among many other things is my editor:
The real poetry — the names of materials and tools in the trades. Visit hardware stores.
Speaking to a creative writing class, I defended my digressions into photographic technicalities in Combat Camera on those grounds. It is not necessary for the reader to know what a Tessar is, or what is meant by “fourteen elements in eleven groups.” It is necessary, however, for a story to work from carefully observed detail. If the reader does not understand all those details, that’s fine; we encounter things we don’t understand every single day. Gobbledygook is good.
Consider this wonderful passage of gobbledygook, a ranch hand speaking in McGuane’s Something to be Desired:
This time I’m thinking about, I was trying to prove up on a lease I had over at Kid Royal. And we was getting ready to load out at Deadrock. I had the heeler up front with me, the radio on, when I threw a recap right on the scale. I was with Boyd, and he cusses and dumps a set of dead batteries from his hot shot, throws it in the jockeybox and said he’s got a come-along to get our outfit to dry ground with. This was supposed to be the last of a big run of yearlings. And it turns out we got a five-hole spare for a six-hole rim. I knew right then and there my luck was shot.
This puts me in mind of Blazing Saddles:
Now who can argue with that? I think we’re all in debt to Gabby Johnson for stating what needed to be said. I am particularly glad that these lovely children are here today to hear that speech. Not only was it authentic frontier gibberish, it expressed a courage little seen in this day and age.
Which actually has nothing whatsoever to do with my point. But who can resist Blazing Saddles?
I’m listening to Nigel Beale’s interview with Alexander MacLeod, and I’m particularly taken by this:
People who train to run the 1500 in 3:36, they never wonder what life’s about. They have no quest for meaning. They know what’s meaningful, In their world, they know. The day you stop being a 3:38 guy and you become a 3:35 guy, that is a significant day. You need a picture of that day. Phone calls will arrive on that day. Because it means something.
He’s talking about how small things become tremendously significant to specialists. When you care, when you know the difference between 3:38 and 3:35, that tiny difference becomes enormous. Running, I suppose, is good for that. The clock gives you a number by which you can measure success.
Elsewhere, success is perhaps a bit harder to measure. But I think it is probably impossible to become successful at anything without developing that level of care and discovering the smallest of significant differences. It is true, I think, of writing.
I don’t know what it is with Windsor. All my photos this fall look nice and smooth and creamy, but as soon as I get to Windsor they turn dark and gritty, with grain the size of baseballs. Is it the Alexander MacLeod effect? Do the gritty stories actually take over the entire atmosphere of the town?
It might be that those pictures were shot on Delta 3200 at EI 12,500. And the tech data sheet for Delta 3200 does say, “when using meter settings of EI 12500/42 and above, it is important to make test exposures first to ensure the results will be suitable for the intended purpose,” which anyone knows is actually tech data sheet lingo for, “What? Are you frigging stupid? Yer gonna get grain the size of baseballs.”
But I was able to hand-hold an 85 mm lens in the dark, so what the heck. And then you get really bold, and try hand-holding the 180….
I’m getting hits, not surprisingly, from people looking for reviews of Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting. Well, I finally had time to read it, flying back and forth to Winterpeg, and….
Alexander MacLeod’s debut collection of short fiction, drawn from 15 years of writing for literary magazines in Canada, tempts you to indulge in the kind of superlatives that might be counterproductive in the age of hype; just how brilliant can it really be? Well, pretty damn brilliant, actually. Among the seven longish stories that make up this collection, there is not a single misstep. This book is that good.
These stories lead in one direction, dart down a side alley, and then return to themselves, without any bad welds or weak seams to give away their construction. “Number Three” erects the Chrysler minivan as a mythic object, while exploring the consequences of a devastating accident; “Adult Beginner I” finds teenaged lifeguards diving into the Detroit River from the roof of the Holiday Inn, as a swimmer goes out of her depth; and “Wonder About Parents” encapsulates, in staccato prose, the strange intimacies of parenthood. “Good Boys,” an apparently simple story about four brothers and the kid across the street, manages to be both funny and moving while avoiding any form of predictability.
Read it. Oh, yes. Read it.
(Disclaimer: I have a certain, obvious bias. But still … read it.)
I’m just back from a very successful reading here in London for Combat Camera, and for Alexander MacLeod’s Light Lifting. Melissa from The New Quarterly deserves endless kudos for her tireless last-minute work to promote the reading.
Now I’m off to Winterpeg for Thin Air 2010, where I’m looking forward to reading on the main stage tomorrow with David Bergen et al. Alexander MacLeod is off to Toronto for his launch at TINARS, also tomorrow.
So, if you live in Toronto, I strongly advise you to buy a plane ticket and fly out to Winnipeg to see me. Or, if that’s too expensive, go see Alex’s TINARS launch. You won’t be disappointed—I have been blown away by his readings at Eden Mills and here in London, and think his Giller longlist nod is well deserved. If you’re in Winnipeg, I’m sorry to say, you’ll have to put up with me.