Thursday, March 12, 2009

Trouble with Fiction

Here's my trouble with fiction: the labor, or rather the mechanics, required to interest most readers bores me silly. It's boring to read and twice as boring to write. Here is a character, here is a situation and setting for that character, here is that character's desire, here is another character who can gratify that desire but has contrary desires of her own. Wind up the monkeys and watch them dance. Beautiful or accurate prose is an accessory, a garnish; if the author's done his job correctly we'll hurry by all that stuff so we can get to What Happens Next.

I'm never bored when I write a poem: my interest is continually pricked onward by the endless possibilities of syntax and juxtaposition, of wordplay on the levels of sound, image, and connotation. I am often bored when I read poems, but when that doesn't happen I follow the turns of the language with delight, rarely hurrying on in search of the general gestalt—I don't have to, it accumulates slyly, rapidly, by indirection, so that the best poems gradually colonize my consciousness with something we might call worldness, or atmosphere, or mood (the German Stimmüng best approximates what I mean). It will do rapidly and effortlessly what fiction typically labors for many pages to achieve: that sensation of transport that is for me the degree zero of aesthetic experience.

I'm always trying to return to Middle Earth: not Tolkien's much-imitated and abused fantasy world (though that is the archetype) but that sensation of a world suspended between ours and that of pure imagination: a contested space, dialogic, allegorical but with no master key, in narrative but not necessarily of narrative. If I write my way into this space, I must not be bored. But I risk boring the reader in a hurry, and most readers are in a hurry. If I want to achieve what I think it's just possible to achieve, I will do so by inserting fragments of reality into the work, fragments with the energy, the gravity or the magnetism, to pull readers through the text, though not promising to deposit them in reality (or Truth) as conventional narratives do. To repeat the old saying: the journey is the destination. The trick is in making this as true for the reader as it is for the writer.

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