Guest Post, William J Cobb: Tolstoy v. John Gardner on Describing Emotions in Fiction

Bio photo of Bill CobbAnna Karenina Is a Junkie, and She’s Weeping.

Years ago John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction (1984) was a mainstay in creative writing classrooms, and was one of the first “writer’s craft” books I read. I remember arguing (via that little voice in my head) with much of it, but nonetheless inculcating many of his principles into my own rolodex of techniques, including the idea of fiction as a continuous dream, the need (and expectation) that literary writers follow a tradition, and most problematically, Gardner’s stance that emotions should not be described directly—a somewhat-more-rigid (and specific) take on the old adage of “show, don’t tell.” Even talking (or thinking) about this book makes me feel as if my very memories, undulating in wavy lines, are being superimposed upon Gardner’s (simple, elegant) book jacket.

Ah, the Eighties. When Raymond Carver was all the rage, and Stephen King was trapping us in a car besieged by a rabid Saint Bernard. We lived in ratty apartments where the toilet would never stop running, and were headed for divorce, rehab, and bankruptcy, or all of the above. Carver was the dean of what now seems the musty school of Minimalism or Dirty Realism, both terms that he rejected. It’s hard not to mention Carver when dragging Gardner’s skeleton out of the closet, since Carver was famously a student of Gardner’s, which Carver wrote about with great admiration in his essay “Fires.”

I’ll confess to being in thrall with Carver’s (and King’s) stories, and of starting my writing career by imitating both shamelessly—though only, in my defense, for a brief time. I was too young and innocent (then, at least) for Carver’s fictional demographics, and really just loved the rhythm of his prose, the bleakness, that whole American downer scene. Working-class writers of the world, unite! He made drinking problems cool, and was a bit like a cleaned-up version of Charles Bukowski—whose Ham on Rye (1982) is a masterpiece of gritty lit. (Even Stephen King’s greatest hero, Jack Torrance, suffers an Achilles’ heel of alcoholism in The Shining.) Carver not only learned from and admired John Gardner, he exemplifies Gardner’s emotion-describing reserve. There are many feelings seething in Carver’s wrenching moments, such as in “Are These Actual Miles?” (from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? published in 1976), when a first-person narrator describes teetering on bankruptcy, letting his wife go out to sell a used car, an errand from which she returns with hints that she bedded the used car dealer dude to get a good price, or in “So Much Water So Close to Home,” when weekend fishermen discover a drowned girl in the water, and just go on fishing and drinking. But Carver doesn’t directly announce those emotions; he doesn’t tell us.

Tolstoy, on the other hand, not only tells us the emotions his characters are feeling, he goes to great lengths to do so, and describes them with play-by-play fervency, as if trying to be the Pat Summerall of calling the National Emotion League: “What are you thinking? What do you think of me? Don’t despise me. I’m not worthy of being despised. I’m just unhappy. If anyone is unhappy, I am,’ she said and, turning away, she wept.” (On another things-change-and-stay-the-same note, in Anna Karenina Tolstoy also complains about how the nobility drinks too much: “We go around saying that the people drink; I don’t know who drinks more, the people or our own class.”)

As for describing emotions directly or suggesting them, who is right and who is wrong? Hard to say. As far as wrong is concerned, neither is the easy answer, but they definitely produce different effects. For instance, Carver is famous for his understated alcoholic stories, such as “Where I’m Calling From,” in which a booze-hound’s girlfriend liberates him from rehab, and they end the story drinking champagne and eating fried chicken, with all the guilt, remorse, and shame implied, not specified. Tolstoy also wrote of addiction: In Anna Karenina (1878), after Anna leaves her chilly husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, for the dashing Vronsky, she becomes isolated and outcast, shunned by high-society, castigated by strangers at an opera, and takes morphine to ease the pain. (She’s also a writer, by the way: In a late chapter Tolstoy reveals that Anna is writing a children’s book, which sounds like a YA title, and an editor is exhorting her to finish it.) While discussing the possibility of divorce with her sister-in-law, Dolly, Anna says, “There isn’t a day or an hour that I don’t think of it and don’t reproach myself for that thinking … because the thought of it could drive me mad. Drive me mad,’ she repeated. ‘When I think of it, I can’t fall asleep without morphine.” Not long after that scene, Tolstoy describes Anna getting high to calm herself: “Anna meanwhile, on returning to her boudoir, took a glass and into it put a few drops of medicine, of which morphine made up a significant part, and after drinking it and sitting motionless for a time, grown quiet, she went to the bedroom in calm and cheerful spirits.”

The complex array of her feelings is delineated in great detail, and Tolstoy rightly gets credit for being one of the earliest practitioners of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique, when he describes her thoughts, feelings, and vision of the world shown through her inner dialogue, most famously in the passage leading up to her suicide, and in earlier moments, such as when she meets Vronsky on the snowy train station. Carver generally avoids descriptions of what the characters are thinking or feeling, and instead relies on situations from which the reader must parse out the feelings—a technique akin to T.S. Eliot’s famous “objective correlative.”

Carver was writing exactly one century after Tolstoy, though the trend toward closed-mouth portrayal of emotion began much earlier. Blame Ernest Hemingway, if you must, master of understatement and sangfroid. At times it’s portrayed as a male American-writer trait, but Flannery O’Connor rarely describes her characters’ emotions directly, and there are many other examples of female American writers as well. One of the finest practitioners of emotional don’t-tell is the great Cormac McCarthy, who effects a tremendous emotional tug in his novel Suttree when the alcoholic Suttree visits his ex-wife to attend the funeral of his son, and she physically attacks him for showing up. Tolstoy’s direct descriptions of emotions make sense in light of his seminal essay “What Is Art?” There he offers one definition of art as being simply “a communication of emotion.” But in that long (and long-winded) essay, he essentially expands or adapts the “show, don’t tell” cliché to the more expansive “show and tell,” emphasizing it’s the artists (especially those writing narrative fiction) task to recreate the experience provoking the emotion, and not simply to tell the reader that the character experienced it.

At this point you might ask: Why should writers care about this in the 21st century? Rereading Anna Karenina recently, I was struck at how easy-going and straightforward much of the story is. Tolstoy is, if anything, un-coy. His fiction seems more expansive than Carver’s. As much as I admire Raymond Carver, I rarely return to reading his work for fun—I know, a loaded term. Tolstoy produces a greater literary joy, perhaps in part due to his expansive, multifaceted approach. I suspect he would consider a reluctance to describe a character’s happiness, remorse, or anguish as being too reserved, a literary stylistic trait similar to the emotional frigidity of Anna Karenina’s husband Alexei. It’s never completely clear in the novel, but one suspects Anna had been taking those drops of morphine well before she met Vronsky, and her husband’s coldness plus her addiction may be the reason she ended up in another’s man’s arms. That might work for readers as well: If you’re too reluctant (or dogmatic) to describe your characters’ emotions directly, you might find your readers being seduced by a more laid-back, dashing approach, such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (2012), which is not the most literary novel in the last few years, yet is certainly grisly fun. But the book I’m most looking forward to reading is Cormac McCarthy’s The Passenger (now rumored to appear in December 2017 or 2018), and he combines the best of Hemingway’s emotional understatement with Tolstoy’s expansive view of the world.—William J. Cobb

Excerpt From: Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. Anna Karenina, p. 1264, 1266, 1381.

Guest Post, George Michelsen Foy: Wording the image, imaging the word: Why illustrations don’t work with fiction (except when they do)

blog(Always I have w)anted to write, and always I have thought it would be natural to include images with text. As a child, in common with most kids, I was brought up on picture books, especially (being half-French) the adventures of Tintin and Astérix and the serial comics in their respective magazines. Children don’t have the bulkheads and prejudices of adults—instinctively they consider all avenues of expression to be equal and available to mingle: mud pies, finger-paints, drawings, words, rhyme, paper, leaves, glue, all borrow from each other and can be co-opted into the final whole. Adults making books for the juvenile readers’ market therefore put words and text together, and children happily go along with this syncretism, years after they know how to read, and no longer need a picture of a locomotive to learn the word for “train”.

What’s surprising is not that I naturally read books with images as a boy, but that as an adult, and especially as the writer I became, I am still interested in reading novels with images, and in writing works of literary fiction or “creative non-fiction” that use images in interesting and useful ways.

I will fine down the focus, since I’m not discussing graphic novels, which put as much narrative load on the images as they do on text; and while I have great respect for this genre, and enjoy Lloyd and Moore’s V for Vendetta, Enki Bilal’s work, and the collaborative mysteries of Léo Malet and Tardy, they are not what I do, they’re not what I’m interested in making. What I love, what I try to craft, are real, meaty novels (and non-fiction stories sometimes) that build complex worlds with words in the inimitable way that traditional novels do, co-opting a reader’s stored associations and memories, both conscious and non-, and employing them to build images in the mind: word-based images that, precisely because they do not provide specific illustration, draw on the symbols and pictures of the reader’s own life, and are therefore far more powerful and emotionally charged than any drawings an author could come up with.

This process must to some extent involve different areas of the brain from those which assimilate the fully formed images of others. What fascinates me, and perhaps this is a hangover from childhood, is the idea that words can and sometimes should include images to enhance the reading experience. (The argument is valid also for sounds, textures, smells and taste, though these are logistically harder to include in a book, so I won’t deal with them here.)

blog 2I’ve tried to insert images in a novel on several occasions, making elaborate pen-and-ink drawings of scenes, which ended up clashing with the narrative, either because they weren’t quite right for my idea of the character, or because they distracted from the thrust of text. The one novel where the process worked, sort of, was about a desperate magazine writer, and Conrad aficionado, who travels to south Asia to write an article about maritime piracy and, like Conrad’s Almayer or Lord Jim, becomes embroiled in and finally defeated by the world in which he at first found refuge. I used quick line drawings of ships and local watercraft I’d made while working on a similar article, and these seemed to mesh well with the story. Despite this small victory, South of Nowhere was never published. And most of the time my efforts at mixing text with images failed miserably.

I turned to books I knew where images successfully enhanced the text, to understand where I might have gone wrong, and why that one unpublished novel seemed to work. I focused on six books—five novels and one slim volume which, to its credit, occupies an indefinable zone between poetry and non-fiction memoir. They were Time and Again by Jack Finney, The Collected Works of TS Spivet by Reif Larsen, Mickelsson’s Ghosts by John Gardner, City of Glass by Paul Auster, The Rings of Saturn by WG Sebald, and Bough Down by Karen Green.

Time and Again as its name implies is a time-travel novel, set in Manhattan, which includes actual photographs of period settings. The protagonist manages, by entering a stage-set full of artifacts from almost 100 years earlier, to go back to the 19th Century;  he knows he has succeeded when he realizes the scene he saw of Central Park West (reproduced in the book) could not have included the perspective it did, had he not actually entered that era. The Rings of Saturn features an unnamed narrator walking around southeast England who, cued by features of the landscape, ruminates on time, death, the individual, and much else besides. (It is insulting and superficial to summarize a complex novel in this way, but if it inspires someone to check out Sebald, it’s worth doing.) The photographs—including images of a caged quail, a window with netting thrown over it, and bodies lined up under trees (at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, apparently)—are blurry and vague and sadly, could be pictures of almost anywhere. In their bleakness and lack of sun, not to mention their dearth of specific referents, they reflect the narrator’s melancholia as he wanders among the relics of European history.

Paul Auster’s City of Glass is a metafictional detective novel, set in Manhattan, that includes a map and a sketch drawn by the protagonist which trace the movements of someone he is following; the illustrations reveal a message defined by those very movements.

The Collected Works of TS Spivet tells the story of a boy who skillfully sketches, diagrams and maps every detail of his life, from the flight of bats around his father’s ranch to his sister’s corn-shucking habits to the incidence of fast-food restaurants in Montana. Most of these charts and sketches are reproduced in the margins. Mickelsson’s Ghosts, John Gardner’s last novel, is the story of a college prof’s descent into madness, epiphany, or both, in rural Pennsylvania; scattered throughout are black-and-white photographs of windows and doorways, farm buildings in snow, offbeat compositions of ground cover.

Karen Green’s Bough Down consists of short, beautifully written, often dreamlike descriptions of the author’s state of mind following her husband’s suicide. The brief textual entries are accompanied by mixed-media images: washes of paint, pen-and-ink sketches, old postage stamps, scraps of typewritten text. The overall weft of found objects, of something cobbled together into balance, and of partial veiling (images and words are often blurred by pigment), meshes organically with the lost-and-found narrative that the reader traces through the book.

As I thought about these very different works, I realized they fell into two broad categories: mood, and clue. Time and Again and City of Glass both use images representing New York’s streets to help the reader understand a key development in the plot. The images in Mickelsson’s Ghosts, Bough Down and Rings of Saturn, on the other hand, have little or no evidentiary link to the story being told. The symbols etched upon the page are general, even abstract: windows, rain-washed blurry hills, vignettes of color and erasure, they could illustrate a completely different narrative. The images in Bough Down are particularly effective in conveying the longing for structure, and the structures of loss, implied in the collages and discernible words (“Why did you … the poor dogs. … Erase? OK.”)

TS Spivet falls between the two categories: some of the maps, diagrams and sketches provide evidence to help the reader accept the unlikely dénouement; at the same time, the skill, originality and obsession implied in his draughtmanship reflect a key component of the boy’s character.

Such categories are artificial; many novels with images, like Larsen’s, blur these distinctions, each in a unique way. But as guidelines for thought they must work well enough, for they allow me to understand that my earlier attempts at illustration failed because they were neither useful as clues, nor abstract enough to enhance mood without sabotaging the reader’s internal image-crafting process. Whereas South of Nowhere worked because the ships were almost abstractly rendered, freighters without crew or homeport, boats run by ghosts. Finally, the categories helped me avoid a mistake I was thinking of making, in a novel about a printmaker, by including examples of his art. I understand now I will have to restrict myself to vignettes: corners of an etching, or a sketch of his hand at work, similar to the one at the beginning of this post.

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