Let's All Have Some Epiphanies !

I'm currently reading Burning Down the House, a collection of essays about writing by Charles Baxter. I haven't read a book about writing since grad school, say back in 2005, because most of them are rather crappy and clutter your mind and just make it harder to write, not easier. But these Baxter essays are pleasantly philosophic, filled with an old fashioned devil's advocate kind of writing theory that draws in American sociology as the prime mover in American writing, i.e. we are consumers and write for a consumer audience and that inevitably affects the kind of easily packaged story we tell. And this is so fundamentally true: if, in the year 2010, you cannot sum up your novel or screenplay in a few sentences, chances are you'll never be able to sell it for production to a major company.

My favorite essay so far is "Against Epiphanies":

Insight is one of the last stands of belief in a secular age...The mass-marketing of literary epiphanies and climatic insights produces in editors and readers an expectation that stories must end with an insight. The insight-ending, as a result, has become something of a weird norm in contemporary writing.
The reason I find these developments baffling is that discursive insights are so rare, in my experience, that they seem freakish. Another reason I am baffled is that, in retrospect, I can say with certainty that most of my own large-scale insights have turned out to be completely false.

Ah ha! We here at Blogagaard "suddenly realized" why readers are not always so overjoyed by the endings of our novels. They have been taught to expect everything in a good story to wrap up nicely, like a present from Macy's, and if, God help you, that doesn't happen, they don't "feel satisfied" by the ending. And why, one wonders, does anyone fucking expect to find satisfaction all the time? Maybe because this pathetic, childish need has been planted into our brains by a million marketing campaigns telling us we deserve everything? Shit. No wonder the French view Americans as "grand enfants", or big babies: we constantly want our fucking bottle!

No.If you want to think and mull things over and view the world through a new lens, read a book. If you want satisfaction, go do the fucking dishes! Sweep your living room!

Some more from Baxter's essay:

What if, as Raymond Carver argued, insights don't help and only make things worse? We can still see people acting meaningfully or stewing in their own juices or acting out of the depths of their bewilderment, and we can make of that what we will. A story, as Borges has shown, can be a series of clues but not a solution, an enfolding of mystery instead of a revelation. It can contain the images without the attached discursive morality.

I'm not saying let's go all out and start writing reams of experimental fiction, where the laws of a narrative arc and all that are thrown to the wind. I'm simply suggesting there is more than one way to skin a story.


n said...

I guess I'm just presenting a layman perspective here: even though there is more than one way to skin a story - the readers have a problem when there is a rhythm to the way a story is going and then, the author just singing another tune. for example, if in the earlier chapters it is being explained not only why a character does something, but also why does he not do other things - and then in the last chapter, the author comes up with one random ending, without much rhyme or reason - it is deeply unsatisfying. It feels like someone else came and completed the book.

David Oppegaard said...

Yep, I can see that.

Anonymous said...

:D yeah right whatever, mr. big time writer!!

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