Anti-Sensational

by jkatejohnston

16 November 2014

Dear Max,

Writing Problems. Goody!

In Chapter 17 the cat is named Bella. In Chapter 26 it’s Betty. Crap.

Toward the end, my people take a trip to San Francisco and order sandwiches at Luccas Deli in the Marina. But Luccas is in the Castro. Lucca is in the Marina. And what about the Lucca Ravioli Company on Valencia?

They walk over the Golden Gate bridge, and the kid character asks about the suicide net. Oops. It’s not there yet.

Worse yet, what are the chances that that walking over the bridge, which happens at the very end, won’t be taken as some idiot symbol? What if it is an idiot symbol? I should lose the bridge, I know, but I want to work in an Enzo quote: “I hate plunging to my doom.”

Driving around the city, my people turn right from Divisidero onto Oak. But is Oak a one-way street? Going the wrong way? If so, that’s fine, but I should mention it. And for reasons that continue to baffle, I’m the only person in the world who can’t use Google Earth Street View, so I can’t check.

It’s funny how these sorts of problems (and they are legion) are such a terrible interruption. It’s like that scene in The Graduate when they drive through Gaviota tunnel in the convertible, and in the story they’re supposed to be driving from San Francisco to LA, but of course the tunnel is only on the Northbound side, and you’re like: Go Back! Wrong Way! And you’re not in the story anymore.

And that’s the fixable stuff. What about the writing problems that are actually character problems? The kind that I’m unlikely to get over at my time of life? I wrote the chapter where the investigator solves the case (oh shit, our client is innocent) and then a fairly plausible series of events leads to her stabbing the true perp in the neck with an 11-gauge brushed titanium knitting needle. And I was just so flummoxed by the whole situation that I wrote it in the plainest of plain jane style. I approve of plain writing, but this was flat. My usual cranky/funny energy wasn’t right, so I didn’t do that, and I didn’t have another gear to go to, except low and slow. So I’m writing it again, and her knees are weak, her heart is pounding and her blood is running cold. Oh dear.

But what I’m trying to get to is: when we were little, we always wanted my mom to read The Dangerous Part: Laura Ingalls clinging to the plank while the rushing flood waters of Plum Creek almost pull her under; Aun Doorback holding up the stone archway so that the other Vikings can escape through the tunnel, and they all know that when he moves, the tunnel is coming down. So I have to rewrite the Dangerous Part, and I don’t know how to do it.

The other thing I’m trying to get to is this, from Trollope’s Autobiography, the chapter titled Novels and the Art of Writing Them:

Among English novels of the present day, and among English novelists, a great division is made. There are sensational novels and anti-sensational, sensational novelists and anti-sensational, sensational readers and anti-sensational. The novelists who are considered to be anti-sensational are generally called realistic. I am realistic. My friend Wilkie Collins is generally supposed to be sensational. The readers who prefer the one are supposed to take delight in the elucidation of character. Those who hold by the other are charmed by the continuation and gradual development of a plot. All this is, I think, a mistake,—which mistake arises from the inability of the imperfect artist to be at the same time realistic and sensational. A good novel should be both, and both in the highest degree. If a novel fail in either, there is a failure in art. Let those readers who believe that they do not like sensational scenes in novels think of some of those passages from our great novelists which have charmed them most:—of Rebecca in the castle with Ivanhoe; of Burley in the cave with Morton; of the mad lady tearing the veil of the expectant bride, in Jane Eyre; of Lady Castlewood as, in her indignation, she explains to the Duke of Hamilton Henry Esmond’s right to be present at the marriage of his Grace with Beatrix;—may I add, of Lady Mason, as she makes her confession at the feet of Sir Peregrine Orme? Will any one say that the authors of these passages have sinned in being over-sensational? No doubt, a string of horrible incidents, bound together without truth in detail, and told as affecting personages without character,—wooden blocks, who cannot make themselves known to the reader as men and women,—does not instruct or amuse, or even fill the mind with awe. Horrors heaped upon horrors, and which are horrors only in themselves, and not as touching any recognised and known person, are not tragic, and soon cease even to horrify. And such would-be tragic elements of a story may be increased without end, and without difficulty. I may tell you of a woman murdered,—murdered in the same street with you, in the next house,—that she was a wife murdered by her husband,—a bride not yet a week a wife. I may add to it for ever. I may say that the murderer roasted her alive. There is no end to it. I may declare that a former wife was treated with equal barbarity; and may assert that, as the murderer was led away to execution, he declared his only sorrow, his only regret to be, that he could not live to treat a third wife after the same fashion. There is nothing so easy as the creation and the cumulation of fearful incidents after this fashion. If such creation and cumulation be the beginning and the end of the novelist’s work,—and novels have been written which seem to be without other attractions,—nothing can be more dull or more useless. But not on that account are we averse to tragedy in prose fiction. As in poetry, so in prose, he who can deal adequately with tragic elements is a greater artist and reaches a higher aim than the writer whose efforts never carry him above the mild walks of everyday life. The Bride of Lammermoor is a tragedy throughout, in spite of its comic elements. The life of Lady Castlewood, of whom I have spoken, is a tragedy. Rochester’s wretched thraldom to his mad wife, in Jane Eyre, is a tragedy. But these stories charm us not simply because they are tragic, but because we feel that men and women with flesh and blood, creatures with whom we can sympathise, are struggling amidst their woes. It all lies in that. No novel is anything, for the purposes either of comedy or tragedy, unless the reader can sympathise with the characters whose names he finds upon the pages. Let an author so tell his tale as to touch his reader’s heart and draw his tears, and he has, so far, done his work well. Truth let there be,—truth of description, truth of character, human truth as to men and women. If there be such truth, I do not know that a novel can be too sensational.

(I do love that man.)

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