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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
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Joseph Kugelmass
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Sunday, July 06, 2008

Characterisation, Swiftly

Posted by Adam Roberts on 07/06/08 at 03:13 PM

This is by way of self-promotion, I suppose; but also by way of thinking about questions of characterisation more generally: not so much in my novels as in fiction as a whole.  The self-promotion concerns my new novel, Swiftly; set in a world in which Gulliver’s Travels was fact not fiction; more specifically in a mid-19th-century Britain where Liliputians and Brobdingnagians have been enslaved, and a war is underway between the United Kingdom and the French.  You could buy a copy, if you liked.  I wouldn’t mind.

Niall Harrison, over at the Vector editorial blog Torque Control, has hosted a four-way discussion of the novel: himself, Dan Hartland, Victoria Hoyle (of the excellent bookblog Eve’s Alexandria) and Brit SF stalwart Paul Kincaid.  It’s a discussion that covers a lot of ground, and is definitely worth your time and attention; to summarise, Niall H. likes the book, Dan H. likes the book too, but with some reservations, Victoria H likes the first two sections of the book, and dislikes the longer latter portion, and doesn’t think the novel works overall, and Paul K hates pretty much everything about it.

There’s a convention that authors should not respond to reviews, and it’s probably a good one.  This discussion isn’t exactly a review (although Dan Hartland and Paul Kincaid have both reviewed the novel), but I don’t want to get into the business of trying to justify my own novel in the face of readerly reservation and dislike.  There are several reasons for this, but one of the best is that I’m not, as author, in as good a place to judge whether the book works as these four readers are: I’m too close to it, and besides the author is dead.  Nevertheless I found the discussion so stimulating to read (I hope not just because it was all about meee) that it seems to me a shame not to air some of the points raised, and one in particular: the question of characterisation in fiction.

So, one of the reasons Victorian H and Paul K disliked the book was that they found debilitating incoherence in the way it parses its plot and its characters.  This is how Victoria H puts it:

Characters fell through holes in time, and then reappeared utterly and inexplicably transformed.

And this is Paul’s more specific critique of one of the novel’s three main characters, Eleanor:

The characterisation is so inconsistent that I spent a large part of the book thinking that through some oversight he had simply given exactly the same name to two totally different women. As we leave Eleanor the first time she is living with her mother, she has just witnessed the gruesome murder of her hated husband, she is living in a big house in fashionable London, she is negotiating for a mortgage to pay the fine of a treasure seeker, she is so ignorant of sex that she is frigid. The very next time we see her she is walking north alone. There is no indication of how she got there, there is not a single reference to her mother, her house, her husband, the treasure-seeker. And she has gone inexplicably from being frigid to being sexually manipulative. What on earth has gone wrong here? Does no-one else think this is at the least careless and at the worst witless?

I take from these two statements a number of aesthetic principles as far as characterisation is concerned.  From Paul I infer a belief that characterisation should above all be consistent: that the character in Chapter the Last should be recognisably the character in Chapter the First.  This doesn’t seem to me entirely compatible with the logic of bildungsroman, but (I don’t, obviously, want to put words into Paul’s mouth) I daresay he’s perfectly happy with bildungsroman, provided only the evolution of character is consistently developed.  (There’s only one point of fact I’d challenge in Paul’s assessment: I don’t think it’s right to describe Eleanor as ignorant of sex at the end of Part II, although she certainly has a very conflicted relationship with her libido.  But this is to nitpick).  Moreover, if Franco Moretti is right (and I tend to think he is) bildungsroman is really quite a recent invention—a late eighteenth-century concoction that took a while to catch on more generally: most of the great characters of literature are perfectly self-consistent, to the point that Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Pamela Andrews and Oliver Twist are exactly the same people at the end of their novels as they are in the earlier sections.  Maybe the key to great characterisation is thoroughgoing consistency, and I am, as writer, either carelessly witless, or witlessly careless.

So, maybe a fairer inference from Paul’s comment would be that whilst (of course) a character’s circumstances may change in the course of a story, an author has a duty to sketch those changes out, or at least leave enough of a crumb-trail for the reader to be able to reconstruct what has happened.  Paul K is perfectly right that Swiftly doesn’t explain exactly how Eleanor comes to lose her house or her mother, and doesn’t dot-to-dot the events that take her from London to the north road.  He may be right that the fact that the novel doesn’t do this is a blot.

From Victoria I infer a similar notion: that where characters may change (as in bildungsroman) those changes should be neither utter, not inexplicable.  That, in other words, whilst a degree of inconsistency in characterisation may be permissible (Elizabeth Bennet hates Darcy! No, wait, she loves him!) it must be compensated for by a greater degree of consistency: that the character must be recognisably the same person in most respects, and the transition from one state to the other should be delineated explicably in the course of the novel.

Now, irrespective of whether these two critics are right to deprecate the novel (and they may well be right), this question of characterisation interests me a great deal.  My own perspective on this question is shaped by a clutch of aesthetic positions that not everybody shares ... attitudes about the particular beauty to be found in flatness of affect, a preference for the marginal, an interest in rhizomatic excess, a fascination with the structuring and thematic possibilities of metaphor and so on.  I’ve also been deeply marked by my immersion in Victorian aesthetics: especially that Ruskinian thing about the aim for perfection always being a misunderstanding of the aims of art.  As a restatement of this latter idea, I remember reading something Graham Coxon said, about how the rest of Blur would come up with these pop tunes and structures, and how his job as lead guitarist was to muck them about, to try creatively to fuck them up a little.  That’s right, I think: better to be Hendrix than Bert Weedon.  Or perhaps, since Hendrix is I suppose an archetype of the artist as technical virtuoso, then maybe what I mean is: better to be Joey Ramone than Brian May (better to be ‘I Am the Walrus’ than ‘I Am A Lineman For The County’; better to be Picasso than Jack Vettriano; better to be Beckett than Alan Ayckbourn: you see the point I’m making).

I tend to like art that includes strange and jarring juxtapositions; or, more to the point, I tend to find art that doesn’t include them bland and forgettable.  But de gustibus, after all: nowhere is it written that other people have to find those things beautiful, or even tolerable.  The most I could say is that it surprises me a little how few SF-genre writers are interested in experimenting with form, style, voice, character and so on ... and how hostile some readers get when faced with texts that don’t accede in the conventionalised 19th-century attitudes to character and Clutean ‘Story’ (a category that does seem to me to get overplayed in critical assessment of SF these days).  But as far as experimentalism in art goes, Victoria H certainly hits the nail on the head when she points out that experiment is not an aesthetic virtue in and of itself; that some experiments fail.  Maybe my novel does.

But to stick with characterisation for a moment.  The positions Victoria and Paul articulate (if I’m not misrepresenting them) seem eminently reasonable, and also, I’d say, underpin the characterisation in most fiction.  Perhaps it’s just perverse of me not to play along with that.  Now, one of the things the novel is supposed to be about picks up on Swift’s radical disconnections of scale.  It is jolting to pass from the land of the very little to the land of the very big.  This inconsistency of scale is the boss metaphor the novel parses.  So, there are three characters in the novel, and various supporting figures: one is Bates, a manic-depressive.  Another, a bishop, is addicted to cocaine, and manifests the highs and lows (the bigs and littles) his habit wreaks upon his moods.  The third, Eleanor, is more complex, but is also I’d say determined by the varieties of alienation in her subjectivity.

I wrote these characters these ways not only to make articulate larger thematic concerns like this (although that was part of it), but because they seemed to me that sometimes this is how people are.  I’d agree that characterisation needs a relationship to the way we perceive actual subjectivity in the real world, or it would become airless.  At the same time, my sense of human subjectivity is that however much we prize ‘consistency’ and ‘coherence’ as constitutive of who we are, our identity is actually much gappier than we like to think, much more constellated (fictivised) out of a series of disconnections and incoherencies.  I don’t suppose anybody who has experienced what depression involves, manic-depression especially—the way it flips one’s subjectivity joltingly between insignificance and grandiosity, in ways that have little to do with events in the larger world—would argue with that.  But it’s also my sense as I get older: not that there is no connection at all between myself now and the person I was at 20, because of course there is some; but that 20 feels more and more like a stranger to me, that the balance between points of connection and points of disconnection is more and more given over to the former.  You know: sometimes we meet people we haven’t seen for ages, and we say ‘hey, you haven’t changed at all!’ But sometimes we meet people we haven’t seen for ages and they’re completely different, in a hundred different ways.

I daresay it’s a matter of psychological self-survival that we tend to rope off those bits of our experience of subjectivity that don’t fit whichever overarching fiction we’re using to describe ourselves to ourselves, and that we simultaneously put unwarranted emphasis on those portions that chime with that fiction.  But there is presumably some place for a fiction that refuses to be beguiled by the appeal of subjectivity’s fictive-coherence.  Or more to the point there’s presumably some place for it in SF.  SF doesn’t fit; that’s part of its appeal. I could go on about this at interminable length, but one point among many: alternate history, of which Swiftly is an example, is in part about challenging the assumption that history runs in coherent, inevitable grooves.  It’s a mode that concentrates as much upon the differences (the inconsistencies) between text and world as it does upon the similarities—that Hitler wins WWII gets more textual play than that people are still driving Fords and BMWs.

I take the force of the argument that says that, since SF deals in a higher quotient of bizzareness than mainstream lit, it needs to ground its strangeness in more easily recognised character and narrative strategy: that strange things happening to strange people is one strangeness too many; and that in order to highlight the weirdness of the aliens the writer needs them to encounter perfectly ordinary humans, to throw them into relief.  Imagine if E.T. had come not to Elliot’s house, but to Michael Jackson’s Neverland ranch.  But the opposite seems to me too often my genre’s problem.  So (this example is in my head because Prince Caspian is just now in the cinemas, of course) at the end of The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe four children who have lived several decades of life, into adulthood and all its complexities, step back through their wardrobe and find themselves children again.  This is where Lewis’s novel ends.  But of course this isn’t where the story ends; this is where it begins … imagine what it would be for you, or me, to step through a door and find ourselves six again, with all our adult memories intact.  It would be radically destabilising; jolting and jarring.  That readers are so un-outraged by the way Lewis simply ropes off this whole experience and has his kids go on as kids flat puzzles me: not that it’s inept, but that it misses by far the most interesting aspect of the whole thing.  (Don’t you think that would be a more interesting way of writing that novel?) The left-overs, then; the excess, the supplement, the margins, the discards, the waste (the shit): this is surely what’s most interesting.  Not yet another iteration of the steamrollering heroic narrative, but the bits and pieces that are generated by that narrative as it goes but which don’t quite fit it.  We love SF precisely because it’s a marginalised cultural mode.

It seemed to me, writing Eleanor, that there was enough consistency between her in the first half of the novel and her in the second not to turn her into two separate figures (Paul and Victorian, clearly, don’t agree); although at the same time of course I chopped her mode of representation about, framed her Degas-style rather than full-face, left a lacuna in her backstory.  She appears first of all on the road walking north away from London.  We’re not told what happened to her house or mother, although we know that London was a warzone and then an occupied territory.  Is it possible to infer a linking narrative between the later Eleanor and the earlier from this?  Can we guess, or imagine, what has happened to her mother, house and her?  Or must the writer spell all this out?  (We might say: why should the reader have to infer this?  Doesn’t the reader have a right to expect a-b-c-d-e; not a-b-e, or a-b-q?).  On the other hand, perhaps her characterisation is psychological implausible, which would indeed be a major flaw if true: and which, since I essayed this narrative skew-framing precisely as one of the ways of getting at psychological portraiture, would go right to the heart of the matter.  If I believe that human character is very often the operation of contradictory and diremptive impulses, a dynamic of conflicting and often incompatible inner psychological subroutines (not all characters, or subjectivities, are this I know: but the artistically interesting ones are)—and if another person doesn’t believe that this is how character is, then maybe we have just reached a differend.

All this has to do with the part of me that thinks it would indeed be cool to cut the middle third out of Pride and Prejudice and see what the resulting novel looks like.  This is the part of me that thinks that Beckett’s Molloy is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century characterisation.  The part that loves the way that, when Baron Charlus reappears in Le Temps retrouvé he is completely different in so many ways (attitude, circumstances) to the way he is earlier in the novel, and the part that loves the way Proust doesn’t sketch in a whole string of events that move the Baron from Le Côté de Guermantes and Sodome et Gomorrhe consistently, smoothly and explicably to the state of affairs in the last volume.  It would be so much worse if he’d done that!  Or, from the same novel, the way “Un Amour de Swann” ends with Swann detesting Odette, and À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs begins with him married to her, with a daughter, and living perfectly placidly.  That is such a wonderful narrative transition, so expert a jump-cut; and Proust would have wrecked it if he’d filled in the whole sequence of events from before to after.  But then again (then again) perhaps this is a poor model for the characterisation of characters in twenty-first century fiction (or twenty-first century science fiction).  Perhaps this isn’t how people are in the world—perhaps most people in the world are precisely coherent, integrated and explicable—and these sorts of fictional devices simply misfit reality.  Perhaps they’re too old-fashioned now, or likely to be alienating, or perhaps (and this is the option I’m least happy to think about, although it could be true) maybe I just didn’t handle this strategy of characterisation very well.

A Victorian who has marked me more deeply than Ruskin is Browning.  My PhD was on Browning, and I’ve internalised a good deal of his art and aesthetic, to the point where it’s become rather like a habitual to me.  Here’s Browning writing to Ruskin in 1855, responding to the other’s polite bafflement at Men and Women:

For your bewilderment more especially noted — how shall I help that? We don’t read poetry the same way, by the same law; it is too clear. I cannot begin writing poetry till my imaginary reader has conceded licences to me which you demur at altogether. I know that I don’t make out my conception by my language, all poetry being a putting in infinite within the finite. You would have me paint it all plain out, which can’t be; but by various artifices I try to make shift with touches and bits of outlines … in asking for ultimates you must accept less mediates, nor expect that a Druid stone circle will be traced for you with as few breaks to the eye as the north Crescent and South Crescent that go together so cleverly in many a suburb.

That’s right, I think.


Comments

As the one and only known writer of poetry about one of your books I suppose I should chip in. 

I thought about going to the Swiftly discussion when I read about it on one of your multitudinous blogs, but I haven’t read Swiftly yet.  Actually, it’s difficult to get your more recent books in the U.S.  There seems to be a several-year delay while they diffuse across the Atlantic, or something.

But I could see people having wildly differing reactions to your books.  In part it’s the direction you come from as an English professor writing SF, I think.  SF is “the literature of ideas”.  English professors accumulate ideas about what literature is supposed to do.  The combination of these means that sometimes it seems like there’s a whole set of overlapping ideas that you have for one of your books that—well, I’ll explain by looking at your self-description above. 

The main metaphor for the book is the alternation between big and little, and you want the characters to participate in this, so one’s a manic-depressive, one’s a coke addict, and one has a big gap cut out of the middle of her life story.  (Not just for that reason, presumably, but in part for that reason, or you wouldn’t have mentioned it.) I think it’s safe to say that most readers probably don’t pick up on this.  They just see unstable characters and a major character with a big gap in her life story, and react to those elements not knowing why you thought they should be there. 

And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but the key to a good reading is whether the particular reader can re-jumble the material, I think.  On is my favorite of your novels that I’ve read, but I like it for its sense of psychological unsafeness and instability, not for any of the physical journeying about that the hero does or the attempts to worldbuild.  Gradisil was interesting to me not because I’m interested in vaguely libertarian Heinleinian fantasies, but because of the way that Gradisil’s line was so insistently (and self-damagingly, you’d think) procreative.  There’s a lot there, but I don’t think that the typical or even extraordinary reader is likely to take it in the direction that you seem to intend.  So, again, I’d expect reactions to your books to vary more widely than usual.

At any rate, as you know (Bob), we’ve been doing Adam Bede at the Valve.  I find really studying that book somewhat mind-boggling, because it’s just far away enough to not know the rules.  (And the author skilled enough, etc.) Such odd, odd things—as of Chapter 17, Eliot lurches from omniscient narration into straightforward address to the reader, and for a moment I think all right, fine, and then she flat-out starts talking to her character to bring in his voice to support her social points to the reader, as if he’s a real person rather than a sock puppet who will say whatever she likes.  Perhaps one way in which Victorian lit has reinforced your liking for gaps is that, being at the beginning of modern lit as it was, it had this freedom to wander without jumping up and down and being self-consciously experimental in form.

By on 07/06/08 at 07:49 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Eleanor’s chance between the first part and the second didn’t bother me that much, you don’t need to spell out what exactly drove her out of London, but what bothered me was that she almost disappeared from the story. She becomes an object for Bates to obsess over, first agonising about having to clean her, then about getting her to recognise him, etc. Her actions make sense in the story, but she herself is gone.

By Martin Wisse on 07/07/08 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you construct a deliberately gappy characterization, how do you convey the fact that you’re doing it on purpose? Most instances of inconsistent characterization in fiction are the result of incompetence, not design; conveying that the inconsistency is deliberate and is an expression of a particular view of human consciousness is hard to do without, so to speak, pulling the reader’s elbow and saying “No, really, it’s meant to be like that. Just go with it, okay?” I imagine the stylistic conservatism of SF doesn’t help. People will not look for intentional experiments where they are not used to finding them.

I do have great sympathy for the view of the self you’re proposing here, and I sometimes think the smooth, consistent selves we encounter in fiction are damaging: they encourage us to paper over the cracks in the stories we tell about ourselves. I find a salve for this in, oddly enough, American superhero comics: because these are typically written by many different writers over decades, the characterization is all over the map. It’s not deliberate, of course, and in some ways that makes it more interesting, because it models the sheer contradictory complexity of a human being more accurately than a work by a single author could.

Joe “Jog” McCulloch‘s review of Batman RIP is interesting in this respect. Jog says:
“...Morrison is trying to treat all of Batman’s adventures as ‘true,’ having happened to one man in the space of a few years… The irony of Morrison’s concept for Batman is that Bat-history is so fucking hopeless in its jarring tonal shifts and contradictory nature that—being all true thanks to narrative fiat—it can’t help but drive a sane man to the edge. The Joker, meanwhile—insane as always—finds it simple to update his personality, casting off his prior personas like a snake shedding old skin. I mean, who the hell does that?”

My immediate reaction was “Is that really so crazy? Are we human beings really so self-consistent in our everyday lives?” I don’t think so. I don’t find attempts at “rationalising” the contradictions in characters’ histories very compelling. I like the contradictions.

By Katherine Farmar on 07/07/08 at 04:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

All this has to do with the part of me that thinks it would indeed be cool to cut the middle third out of Pride and Prejudice and see what the resulting novel looks like.

Ok, but now you’re really freaking me out…

More seriously though, thank you for writing such an interesting response to our discussion. I can see more clearly now the reasoning behind Eleanor’s characterisation and am consequently sorely disappointed that it didn’t work for me. I emphasise ‘for me’.

I absolutely agree with you that: ‘human character is very often the operation of contradictory and diremptive impulses, a dynamic of conflicting and often incompatible inner psychological subroutines.’ Nevertheless, I still consider that complete disaffection between a past self and a present self *is* psychologically implausible (except as a symptom of a medical condition). Events may be missing from a characters’ ‘story’ - I have no problem with broken chronologies or the narrative equivalent of hop-scotch - but the memories of those events, the emotional repercussions of those events, must, in some way, be present in what follows. In other words, there must be the thread of a self following through.

And, though they may never be described, the reader must be able to infer the character of things past from what is now present. So that, yes, I am almost entirely different at 25 to the person I was at 18. I have changed in thousands of ways, great and small, and perhaps people wouldn’t ‘recognise me’, but that 18 year old is still with me. She didn’t wash away with the years; I didn’t cut her off so sharply and so deeply that she doesn’t still resonate in me. People don’t loose time, unless they also loose their minds.

This is the basis of my problem with Eleanor as a character, as a person. When we meet her on the road she is tabula rasa; my best and most dominant feeling about her was that, yes, she had literally lost her mind. There is an absence of happening to her. Like a sufferer of child abuse, she has either a) repressed the intervening period so completely that she no longer remembers it, or b) become a psychopath. I fear I can’t come to terms with that as a reasonable character progression, given the evidence of the first part of the novel. It doesn’t ‘play’ for me. The *idea* is fascinating but I can’t process it as *character*.

(Incidentally, I am willing to recognise that I may feel particularly sore on Eleanor’s behalf because she is a woman, and I am a woman, and I feel as though her essence was lost after such a brilliant beginning. The cuts to Bates’ character didn’t strike me half so hard and, while I don’t feel they are as severe anyway, that makes me doubt my objectivity.  But that is a whole other kettle of fish, which I take responsibility for entirely.)

By Victoria Hoyle on 07/08/08 at 08:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

These are all really interesting responses.  I’m mulling.

One thing (and I promise I didn’t intend this to be a discussion of my book, so much as a discussion of characterisation in general, but ...) Victoria: I’m intrigued as to why you think Eleanor doesn’t remember what has happened to her.  I’d say she does remember; that everything she does in the second half of the novel is informed by the stuff that happened to her in the first.  But I’m asking genuinely, because I genuinely think you have a better perspective on the novel than I do.

I suppose I’m asking: what are the sorts of things, novelistic things I mean, that would persuade you that she does remember?  Things like her saying, from time to time, ‘ah, I remember the terrible things that happened to me in London, and mother’s pitiful death ...’ (But wouldn’t that be crass, fictively speaking?) Or things like the narrator saying that?  (Wouldn’t that be crasser?)

I’m not trying to pretend that actually the character did work for you and you just didn’t realise it (how fatuous would that be?) But I am interested in what you say.

By Adam Roberts on 07/08/08 at 12:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

In terms of characterization in general—which is better for me, since I haven’t read Swiftly—I think that most readers tend to become attached to characters, not ideas.  Look at Bloomsday, for instance.  No matter how experimental Joyce’s writing is, what people coalesce around is character-plus-place.  A major gap in a character’s life story is then a puzzle piece, waiting to be put in place, or a source of anxiety—what happened to the character that the author got me to like?  Did they disappear?  Whatever the function of character-history gaps in terms of the aesthetics of the book, to a reader they must almost always represent death at some level.  There’s an aesthetic theory, for instance, that says that the Holocaust must always be written about with gaps—that unbroken narrative simply doesn’t go with the event.

Of course, seamless focus on character can also become a sort of cosseting of the reader.  You don’t want to over-indulge them if you have literary goals—but, on the other hand, they do have to like your books, after all.  Here’s a case from highly popular, less literary SF: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series.  The thing is built around the character of one Miles Vorkosigan, a noble-born kid whose ambitions for military glory are always being thwarted by his physical fragility, which fragility he then overcomes.  It’s a classic masochistic fantasy; Vorkosigan emerges from each book a bit more medically broken, but with one more triumph added to his list.

Bujold has some genuinely good things going for her writing—a shrewd focus on procreation and its varients, for instance—and she describes her method as something like “finding the worst thing that can happen” to her characters.  But of course it isn’t really the worst thing.  The worst thing that could happen to Miles Vorkosigan is for the author to write: “Thirty years later, Miles looked back on a successful life.” There’s a sense both for the reader and for the character himself, if a character can be imagined to have preferences, in which he thrives on adversity and would be bored without it.  Bujold has the series succeed through careful avoidance of gaps, not in the literal sense—the action picks up, between books, a year later or so—but in the sense that the character is what the readers are there for, and that when anything major happens to him, we’re going to see it.  And through the pulp convention, so important to SF (and comics), that really, why change something that’s working.

I don’t think that should be adopted wholesale, of course.  But genre is genre, and it’s highly dangerous for an SF author to create a character that draws the reader in and then drop them.

By on 07/08/08 at 01:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I tend to agree, Rich.

I suppose what I’m overlooking is the process by which readers fill-in empty portions in textual character-constructions with their own projections ... the necessary process by which they do this, I mean: this, I guess, is how ‘characterisation’ works.  Imagine a reader reading forty pages about a character: she takes on board the hard facts about that character, and where there aren’t hard facts she extrapolates, using similar mental processes that we all use everyday: depending on the fictional character this extrapolation may be to inject lots of oneself into (say) Elizabeth Bennet, or to inject one’s preconceptions about men into (say) Darcy.  I wonder if what we’re talking about here is a process whereby, having done that, the reader is then presented with behaviour or material that doesn’t fit the model she’s been constructing in her head.  Therefore she calls foul.

On the other hand, I’d say that the way we imagine people as being a certain way (the way we think so-and-so is nice, or like us, or sound) is very often wrongfooted, in life.  As Eminem says, he’s not Mr N-Synch, he’s not what your friends think: he feels obliged to say that because so many people assumed he was.  With Eleanor my worry was that what I was doing was rather too obvious, not (as readerly response implies) too oblique: that writing a female character who is very intelligent, and thoroughly put-upon, encourages us to identify with, or at least root for, her: but she is actually not Ms N-Synch; she’s a fairly chilly individual.  She has enough experience of genteel poverty to loathe it, and she reacts badly to her marriage to ugly older wealth, for comprehensible reasons; but after her first husband’s death it is not exactly calculating in her to balance probabilities and decide that, with more experience under her belt, and with no other viable options, she will take the second option rather than the first.  It’s about control, for her; and controlling characters aren’t necessarily very appealing.

By Adam Roberts on 07/09/08 at 02:23 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Adam, I haven’t read Swiftly, but I’ve read a number of your other novels. Your stuff is very distinctive, and always worth reading, even when parts of them give me pause. What worries me about this discussion, and, frankly, about your attention to reviews of your work, is that you may be too concerned with what readers think. Isn’t there a danger here? That this concern could inhibit risk taking? We have plenty of novels with straight forward arcs of characterization; if you want to experiment with characterization, more power to you. If it turns off some readers, that’s probably inevitable, but as you know, really good writers often create their own readers—if not now, perhaps in the future.

It must be strange to be both a critic and an author. ...

By on 07/09/08 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent: there is a great deal in what you say.  My problem is: do I want to be the sort of person who, hearing somebody responding to what I’ve done thoughtfully and in good faith, says ‘yeah? well fuck you, what do you know, idiot?’ To become, in other words, Harlan Ellison?

By Adam Roberts on 07/09/08 at 04:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There are different options available for different authors in this area of responding to criticism.  Someone with 4 to 5 blogs doesn’t really have the option of completely ignoring it.  I mean, they do, but it doesn’t seem like a good match.

Clearly you can’t agree with all criticism, because a lot of it contradicts other criticism.  But the idea of the writer as delicate genius who must be shielded from the opinions of others lest they contaminate the work is rather a Romantic one, isn’t it?

And I don’t think that Ellison or nothing really exhausts the possibilities.  A simple “Thanks, but I don’t agree” seems sufficient.

By on 07/09/08 at 05:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hi Adam,

I haven’t read your work, so wouldn’t think of having the audacity to comment on it (though it hasn’t stopped others, I notice).
However, I have read the posts on this blog and have to say you are without doubt the most tolerant, equable and ‘down right good guy’ (as I have heard the Colonies refer to ‘gentlemen’!*) that I have come across for some time.
Have you heard the old one about ‘those who can, do, those who can’t, teach, and those who can’t teach, criticise’? As a critic and teacher at a university, I have to hold my hand up to the latter two but when people ask me why I don’t write, as if it’s only a matter of applying myself, I always reply that only one thing stopped me becoming a great writer: talent! This you must have or your books wouldn’t be published or sell.
Your humility is admirable but I’d be tempted to use the odd expletive to those who ‘slag you off’ (sometimes only slang cuts it) without even having the courtesy to bother to read your all your novels. Still, look what’s being said about Eliot on the Adam Bede blog ... just keep your fingers crossed you’re not in for a ‘parody’ though you have been immortalised in verse, we are told!

* This is a Ricky Gervais wind-up, for those in need of a ‘humour transplant’!

By on 07/09/08 at 07:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sue, I don’t think you’re being fair. First, I think the comments in this thread have been civilized. Second, Adam invited discussion about characterization in general, and not specifically limited to Swiftly.

By on 07/09/08 at 10:48 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Trent, I was just having a laugh, honestly, and Adam had been so, well, ‘kind and patient’, I just wanted to show some support; no offence was meant, I assure you, and I have taken my fair share of ‘ribbing’ elsewhere on the blog ... ah, well, never mind, I tried.

By on 07/09/08 at 11:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

p.s. Actually, Trent, ironically, it was your post that I felt I was supporting i.e. in your comments on the difficulties of being both ‘critic and author’. We clearly have our wires crossed but again, my apologies if you thought my comments unfair - humour clearly doesn’t travel well!

By on 07/10/08 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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