From a terrific piece on the teaching of writing by Tegan Bennett Daylight, in this weekend’s Australian (May be behind a wall in a few weeks’ time. Sorry.)
Of course, not all new writers are controlled by dark forces they don’t understand. The last group, the earnest producers, can appear not to know dark forces at all. Their writing has a peculiar quality, a kind of fluency, that can be as problematic as the kind of literature-illiteracy I’ve just been describing.
Imagine a manuscript by a writer whose particular passion is a certain, isolated part of Australia. Let’s say it’s an island off the far northeast coast. His new story is set in a remote weather station on this northeast island. The story concerns a father and daughter who come to run the station, five years since their wife and mother died of cancer.
This writer is admirably in control of his more grotesque feelings and isn’t exposed on the page like some of the women-hating Melbourne-defending writers whose work I am called on to assess. Let’s say the story is told from four viewpoints: the father’s, the daughter’s, the mother’s sister’s and a young local man’s. However, this is where the problems begin: each of the voices is the same. Each has their own information to impart about feelings, attitudes, reasons for being in the far northeast, past hurts and loves; but each has the same tone, the same rhythm to their thoughts and almost, despite age and gender differences, the same concerns.
The writer’s fluency has been able to penetrate every corner of this novel, rendering it highly reasonable, like a well-conducted meeting in which everyone gets their say. And the writer has managed to write right around, skirting almost completely, the one thing he is truly passionate about: let’s say it is the landscape. The landscape is there, and in the short passages between reams of self-justifying reflection from each of the four characters, there are some transcendent descriptions of it. The author lights up when he is allowed to look at the landscape, but he keeps turning his head away. Back to the problem at hand: sorting out how these characters are going to deal with their loss. The writing forgets loss is an individual thing, felt or not felt in different ways, and not, in real life, dealt with. It forgets the writer himself, that he may have some experience of loss that he could bring, honestly, to the work. And it forgets that if the writer is so passionate about the land, then that, and not his characters’ ersatz suffering, may be the true source of his story.
This problem is the most common one emerging from the creative writing program: a kind of flatness, a sameness that results in what American poet Donald Hall called McPoems and McStories. But this problem can be tackled; even overcome. A good teacher of writing won’t congratulate this last student on his fluency, although she may reward him with decent marks for his competence with the language. A good teacher should be able to identify dishonesty and will stir this student up, alert him to the fact he may be dodging a private truth to the detriment of his writing. American author George Saunders - a great writer and teacher of writing - says: “Working with language is a means by which we can identify the bullshit within ourselves (and others).” A good teacher develops an excellent eye for bullshit. And if a student comes out being a little wiser about the bullshit they spin to themselves - what Martin Amis calls “propaganda, aimed at the self” - then education or “teaching” has occurred.
Totally by chance, a few days after reading this, I picked up an old London Review of Books and read the following in an article by James Wood on a book about Portrait of a Lady:
The Portrait of a Lady must be the most metaphor-ridden novel in English, surpassing even crazy Moby-Dick. As there is a joyful insanity to the amount of metaphor in Melville’s novel, so there is something unstable about the metaphorical surplus in James’s. In their dialogue, all the characters flow in and out of their own metaphors, and they all sound a bit like Henry James.
The older James was more inveterately metaphorical, and when he revised this novel for the New York Edition, he added an enormous amount of figurative language. But Jamesian metaphor is deliberately ‘loose’, as he’d put it in 1876, when Grace Norton had mildly scolded him for mixing a metaphor: ‘It is essentially a loose metaphor – it isn’t a simile – it doesn’t pretend to sail close to the wind.’ Using a second metaphor to explain a first one was helplessly shrewd: it announced a joyously regressive entrapment, akin to curing a hangover with another drink.
Which is just to say - sounding like the author might not always be such a bad thing. The Wood essay (all online) almost has you feeling some of the characters in James face towards and away from one another, doing similar things from time to time, in a kind of dance. It is a very fine read, leading me back to this novel once more.