Category Archives: The Art of Fiction

The Truth of Fiction

You can’t get at the truth by writing history; only the novelist can do that–Gerald Brenan, British travel writer and novelist

My formal education–elementary school, high school, college and law school–spanned nearly twenty years beginning in 1955.  History, and the teaching of history–as I understood it then–was about the truth of our past.  That is no longer the case, if it ever was.  There are only “facts,” and even they are disputed, usually in the service of differing political or cultural perspectives.  And even the “history” I learned as a child wasn’t the truth because it necessarily reflected the perceptions of the people, over generations, who wrote it. Continue reading

Status Symbols

“There is no science to it, or even art.  It’s a business of hunches.”–Bill Clegg, author of Did You Ever Have A Family, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, November 20, 2015

Every so often (at least once a week) The Wall Street Journal includes a section on conspicuous consumption.  The usually expensive things–houses, jewelry, cars–carry eye-popping prices, as do more utilitarian items–boots, scarves, tennis shoes.  Someone buys these things, of course, not because they are necessary, but because they fulfill a psychological need.  It seems this impulse has reached the publishing industry. Continue reading

The Culture of Spectacle

Life will go on.  Machines will grow smarter, human beings gradually dumber.  Round the world the vast majority might possibly feel that something grand is missing, though they shan’t have a clue to what it might be–Joseph Epstein

Recently, I took issue with Mr. Epstein’s lament in The Weekly Standard over the shrinking “elite” whose self-imposed obligation it was to define “high culture” for the rest of us, and defend it from the plebes.  The diminution of any segment of the overseer class seemed like good news to me.  However, his description of the current state of Western culture, the “culture of spectacle,” is both insightful and very, very sad.

Epstein makes several references to a recent collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa, one of the few “international literary figures still at work.”  Vargas Llosa contends that in the culture of the spectacle “frivolity, superficiality, ignorance. gossip, and bad taste” dominate.  It “has no interest in ideas.”  It renders serious art and intellect “as remote and eccentric as the medieval scholastic debates over angels or the alchemists’ tracts on the philosophers’ stone seem to us.” Continue reading

High Culture: An Inquest

I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further, and why we may not even anticipate a period, of some duration, of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture–T. S. Eliot

The above sentence, written by Eliot in 1943, is the epigraph for a long piece by Joseph Epstein–my favorite essayist–that recently appeared in The Weekly Standard.  It’s title is “Whatever Happened to High Culture?” The sub-title is “An Inquest.”  It contains a series of thought-provoking notions that I’d like to address, in this and subsequent posts. Continue reading

Southern Writers II

Here’s the rest of my article from Southern Writers Magazine:

A few years ago, Arthur Krystal wrote a piece for The New Yorker that set off a minor firestorm in book circles.  Its premise was that, historically, “there was little ambiguity between literary fiction and genre fiction:  one was good for you, one simply tasted good,” and, despite protests from the genre community, that was still the case.  He leavened his opinion with a reflexive nod to the usual pantheon of genre authors (Leonard, Raymond Chandler, P.D. James), but only in a back-handed way (Don’t mix your metaphors!  Avoid exclamation marks), insisting that “[n]othing bogs down a pulpy tale faster than real-life feelings about real life.” Continue reading

The Wisdom of Jane Austen

“‘Oh! it is only a novel! . . . only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda:’ or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humor are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.”– Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Depending on how you define them, the first novels were written as long ago as the 15th century.  Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in the early 1600s, and Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and Pamela–early books in English–were published in the first half of the 18th century.  It was for Jane Austen, however, in 1818, to explain what sets the novel apart.  Continue reading

The Hero’s Debate

One of the great distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, and the one that often gives a novel its most profound resonance, is (or is supposed to be) what I call the “Hero’s Debate,” the musings, questions and answers inside the narrator’s head.  It is hidden from the other characters and revealed to the reader.  If the book is told from a single point of view, only that character can carry on the debate–if the POV’s are multiple, each one is allowed to share his or her thoughts with the reader. Continue reading

Point of View and The Nun’s Dowry

Point of view (POV) in fiction is the perspective from which the story is told.  Two of my novels–The Kingfishers and Gods and Lesser Men–have one POV, the protagonist/narrator, told in the first person, which means only that which he perceives–with the occasional injection of authorial exposition–is available to the reader.  Other characters speak and act–in the third person–but the inner dialogue so important to fiction is “voiced” only by the narrator.  It is both intimate and limiting.  Lucifer’s Promise, currently nearing first draft stage, is told the same way. Continue reading

Epigraphs and Such

“Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”–Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., 1927

“Recognize that the worth of human life varies.”–Peter Singer, 2000

A writer has several ways to enhance the reader’s experience.  The quotations above serve as epigraphs for Books One and Two of my new novel, Gods and Lesser Men.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an epigraph is “a short quotation introducing a book or chapter . . . that indicates the leading idea or sentiment” of the work.

In her New Republic review of Rosemary Ahern’s The Art of the Epigraph:  How Great Books Begin,Rachel Buurma discusses the history and purpose of the epigraph.   Most often, the quotation attempts to link a new book to the great literature of the past, but one type she mentions is “the less-than-literary epigraph . . . the most dramatic demonstration of what all epigraphs are designed to do–make us notice that the creation of literature is a shared act between author and reader.  When we read a decidedly unliterary phrase as the first words of a literary work, we are forced to notice the flickering moment when we pass from the world to the book–when words become literature.”

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