This week I’ve been busy cutting, honing, and polishing a chapter of Housebreaking the Muse. The editor of a well-regarded literary and arts journal has kindly agreed to have a look, so naturally I want to put my best work forward. The process has once again reminded me of my attitudes about fiction, which are informed by my early hikes along the well-tended footpath of poetry. Only by wandering off that path did I stumble onto the erratic deer trail of fiction.
As William Gass put it (I paraphrase): “Storytelling is what old men do on front porches.” Fiction writers, to my mind, have an obligation to go beyond story.
Consequently, and often to my own frustration and dismay, I put great stock in the nature and quality of my prose. So, especially in that final, desperate revision, I pay careful attention to its music. I read it aloud. I challenge myself over whether I’ve done my best to render an image, idea, description in a truly original way. I search out passages in which I’ve lapsed into laziness, in which language and ideas become generic and serve merely to move the plot forward. I examine my prose for the necessary tempo, melody, and percussion. Does this sentence have too many latinates? Should I begin this sentence with an ablative absolute? Wouldn’t “dogwood” do more work than “tree”? Does this passage demand a staccato series of short declaratives? Or, should I build it in a crescendo of lengthening and more complex sentences, ending on one that raises itself on its own flagpole and unfurls itself in the breeze? Should I go with the word “hoax” in the sentence that ends “… the mind is capable of the most astounding transformations”? Yes, “hoax” imparts an entirely different meaning, but mightn’t it be better in this case? An wasn’t that what I was really after, anyway?
All of these considerations and more come into play as I pore over the draft. And like the poet, who works at the level of the line, I work at the level of the half-sentence. For me, this is an absolutely necessary aspect of the art of fiction writing. Fiction is more, much more, than storytelling. As William Gass put it (I paraphrase): “Storytelling is what old men do on front porches.” Fiction writers, to my mind, have an obligation to go beyond story. They should understand and deploy their raw material–language–in prose that is vibrant, original, alive with contrasts. The prose should surge and subside with the movement and interplay of tempo, rhythm, and melody. It should, dare I say it, aspire to the writer’s conception of beauty. To my mind, serious fictioneers who settle for lackluster prose do their audience a disservice and display no small measure of disrespect for the form itself. When you step onto the stage, you owe your audience an outstanding performance.