“Writing is the flip side of sex – it's good only when it's over.” —Hunter S. Thompson

Don’t Get Me Wrong: The dangers of lecturing your readers

One of the strange, heady powers that the writing of fiction awards is the arrival of multiple mouths. You’ve got one brain, but get a story going and all of a sudden you’re compelled to speak in several voices. Here’s the temptation: since you’ve got to put words in all those mouths, why not channel an opinion or two? Heck, your friends thought you were witty/interesting/insightful the other day, when you held forth on claret/basset hounds/[insert topic here]. Seems like a win-win to incorporate that into dialogue. Your brilliance gets immortalized, and your characters get to have something to say.

Whoa there.

Let me put it this way: lectures in literature are not only a misuse of intimacy, they’re a misuse that can destroy that intimacy. And when you think about it, intimacy is the engine of fiction. The empathic leap that lets us believe, for hours at a time, that we’re not physically in a chair, turning pages–that’s an act of intimacy. Which is why we often feel a personal connection with authors whose work we admire; heck, we’ve been inside their heads.

But it’s an illusion. When you open a book, there are really three worlds that come into play: your world, the milieu of the book, and the world the author was occupying when he or she wrote it. We tend to give the author some sort of citizenship in their fictional world, but the reality is they’re as much outside of it as we are. Even a blatantly autobiographical writer is still contemplating past actions at a tactical distance, simplifying, clarifying and amplifying as necessary. Wish you’d been to parties like the ones in Tales of the Jazz Age? Let me tell you: so did Fitzgerald.

The lecturer is the author crashing his own party. And it’s a jarring, unwelcome presence. Like a movie star breaking the scene and winking at the camera, it’s an inverted action: in the guise of attempting to include us, it excludes us.

What constitutes a lecture in fiction? Lengthy screeds are obviously lectures, but the mood-killing effect can also be achieved with a few lines. Here’s a famous example from Hemingway’s  The Snows of Kilimanjaro:

He remembered poor Julian and his romantic awe of them and how he had started a story once that began, ‘The very rich are different from you and me.’ And how someone had said to Julian. Yes, they have more money. But that was not humorous to Julian. He thought they were a special glamorous race and when he found they weren’t it wrecked him just as much as any other thing that wrecked him.

Gee, Papa, thanks for the industry gossip. It’s a jarringly dishy, cruel gesture–the fake coyness of masking F. Scott Fitzgerald (by calling him “Julian”), and simultaneously unmasking him with his most famous quote. But what makes it a lecture is how awkwardly it’s stitched into the story: it’s an interior monologue of a man dying of an infected wound in Africa. The character, haunted during his last moments by his own regrets and failings, somehow manages to squeeze in a juicy tidbit o’ snark.

Perhaps fittingly, Fitzgerald’s own work provides a useful glimpse of how cutting out lectures improves a work. Here’s a passage from an early draft of The Great Gatsby, in which the narrator is explaining that there’s “something gorgeous” about Gatsby:

This sensitivity had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the “creative temperament”-I have always felt the same disgust for the artist that I do for that other necessary evil, the garbage man–it was an extraordinary aliveness to life.

I’ve emphasized the lecture: I have always felt the same disgust for the artist that I do for that other necessary evil, the garbage man. Fitzgerald proceeded to strike this out, and thank goodness: it’s self-pleased and fatuous. It doesn’t make Nick Carroway an immersed, fascinated  narrator. It makes him someone straining to be clever.

That’s the key to avoiding lectures: keeping characters firmly rooted in the moment, in the business at hand. It’s when they start expostulating that things get dicey.

There’s a deeply cautionary example of this in John D. MacDonald’s One Fearful Yellow Eye, published in 1966. This is one of MacDonald’s mysteries featuring the footloose “salvage expert” Travis McGee, which sold like crazy (around fifty million copies), but are also pretty damn good (one of them, The Green Ripper, won the National Book Award in 1980). In One Fearful Yellow Eye, the hypermasculine McGee encounters a minor character, a gallery owner who’s not only gay but frankly sexual in his assessment of the hero. Surprisingly, the subject of this attention is bothered not at all:

I am always skeptical of the male who makes a big public deal out of how he hates fairies, how they turn his stomach, how he’d like to beat the hell out of them. The queens are certainly distasteful, but the average homosexual in the visual and performing arts is usually a human being a little bit brighter and more perceptive than most…And most of them are wryly aware of the ugly fact that the overly male type who thinks he hates them so thoroughly is the man who is, deep in his heart, unsure of his own masculinity. The man who knows that his preferences are solidly heterosexual has no need to go about thumping everybody who lisps.

One Fearful Yellow Eye.jpgNow, this is a remarkably enlightened attitude for mass-market America in 1966, three years before Stonewall. The American Psychiatric Association was still classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. It was illegal in New York State to serve liquor to gays, on the grounds that they were inherently “disorderly”. In 1966 TIME magazine was declaring that “Homosexuality is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life. . . . it deserves no encouragement . . . no pretense that it is anything but a pernicious sickness.”

So for John D. MacDonald to characterize “the average homosexual” as “a human being a little bit brighter and more perceptive than most” was a rare and brave act for a bestselling author. To furthermore point out that homophobia was a useless, suspect emotion was a braver act still. Unfortunately, MacDonald didn’t stop there. The passage I’ve quoted has opinions, but it’s not a lecture—Travis McGee is directly reacting (or rather, not reacting) to being sexually assessed. His cool is admirable, but ultimately not shared by his author. On the same page, MacDonald feels the need to force McGee to interrupt his calm acceptance with a quick trip to the podium.

I’ve had the opinion for a long time that the creative work of the homosexuals tends to be so glossy and clever and glib that it has a curious shallowness about it, as the inability to share the most common exerience of all makes it all surface and no guts, and when there is an impression of guts it is usually just another clever imitation.

Aw, man. And you were doing so well. It’s not just that this little nugget of aesthetic theory is stunningly wrong. It’s also an unwelcome visitation from that third reality I was mentioning: the world of the author, not the world of the reader or the world of the book. The language is disturbingly similar to that TIME magazine piece, isn’t it? Drenched with the zeitgeist of 1966.

Writers often forget that books have their own time. One Fearful Yellow Eye may have been written in 1966, but it doesn’t really take place in 1966. The period it belongs to is still recognizably contemporary: no one’s accessing the Internet or talking on cellphones, but neither are they jitterbugging or hanging out in speakeasies. If you made a movie of it, you’d lose absolutely nothing by setting it in the present day.

Except, of course, you’d have to lose the lecture. Perhaps this was an equivocation, MacDonald’s attempt to defuse the controversy of what he’d just said, but again the politics of it are beside the point. What’s wince-worthy is that he brings the story to a screeching halt just to say, essentially, don’t get me wrong. He’s jumping in to mediate between the characters and the readers. It may be a well-meaning (though insecure) intrusion, but it’s just as diminishing as Hemingway’s gossipy intrusion, or Fitzgerald’s facile one. Your characters are people, not puppets. Shut up and let them speak.

04.13.13 § 0

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