Archive for May 2nd, 2006

A response to the screenplay-novel

I have been challenged by Finn Harvor to answer some questions about the state of things in the publishing world, and in the novel in general, a challenge I won't take up in its entirety. The main reason is that I'm not qualified to talk about the publishing industry; I have no first-hand experience of it. (I'm talking about fiction here, not EFL publishing.) I can only repeat what I've read in articles and other blogs. My main concern is the novel itself — how to write it and how to read it. As far as the latter is concerned, so many have been written, in so many languages, that I can't possibly hope to skim the surface. I have so many unread books in my own library that if I could manage to read one a week, I would need more than thirty years. I still buy books even though I know I already have more than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime. It's hard, then, for me to get too worried about the state of things.

I won't get into what a novel is for me and what I want from it, mainly because I'm not interested in persuading anyone that it is the way. But for me this is something fixed (even though it's exciting when a writer comes along and writes one in a very different way, and seems to reinvent the novel). It is a kind of ideal. And by that I mean that if the novel changes in such a way that it no longer offers me what I want, then I will have no problem with turning my back on its future. As I said, I already have enough to me keep me busy for the rest of my life, and there are many great works I haven't even bought, let alone read. So publishing for me is not an end in itself. My main concern as a writer is to write the kind of book I like, or the kind of book I'd like to read but which hasn't been written yet. For me, writing is a long process of discovery and surprise, which is why I could never write a novel that had already been tightly plotted out beforehand. I enjoy the sense of not knowing exactly where it's going. If I lost that, I would never be able to maintain my interest in writing. I'd simply give up. Even if the prospect of publication were ensured, it would be too much of a chore. My point, then, is that, although I would love to be a successful novelist, I would only want to be so on my terms. If those terms were not accepted by any publisher, I'd either give up or publish it myself. For this reason, I would also prefer to be published by a small publisher whose vision of literature I shared than with a big publisher whose main concern is to sell a blockbuster (the kind of book I don't read anyway). I had begun another post, and have left some comments on Harvor's blog, with some objections to his "manifesto", but have since thought better of it. I will only respond on a personal level and try to account for why the kind of writing he is advocating offers me no enjoyment at all.

* * * * *

A couple of months ago, I watched Apocalypse Now for the first time in years, and I was struck again by something that occurred to me when I first read Heart of Darkness. (I had seen the film first.)

For me, the most fundamental difference between the two works is how they approach Kurtz. Both the book and the film create a strong sense of anticipation; you hear a lot about him, for a long time, before you see him, and he begins to grow in your imagination. But in the film, when we finally see Kurtz, it's someone who pontificates, whereas in the book he remains relatively silent. Brando's semi-improvised speeches have an anticlimactic effect. They are, for the most part, a combination of the pretentious and pedestrian. (Anyone who has seen Hearts of Darkness, the documentary, cannot envy Coppolla having to salvage something from the two weeks he worked with Brando. Perhaps the now-classic line, "I swallowed a bug!" could have been left in the film without detracting from it much.)

Conrad, though, knew what he was doing, and had his Kurtz keep his mouth shut. No one knows — except Marlowe, who tells you that you simply had to be there — what Kurtz experienced. But we see the result, and we get this final judgement: "The horror!" Our imagination must work on the material to justify the unquestionable result: Kurtz's state at the end of the book. And the imagination cannot fail to convince itself. If it does, you try again, or say, "I can't imagine, but it must have been horrible if it had such an effect."

The film, however invites the viewer to say, "I'm not convinced that those experiences would lead to this." We can even fail to be impressed with the result. This is because film as a medium must show. The novel has access to the interior world of its characters, and film is a direct, simultaneous representation of the exterior world.

(Of course, there are exceptions to this. Ironically, Apocalypse Now fails where it tries to show the interior — if Coppolla had left more to the imagination, it would have worked — and Heart of Darkness succeeds because it avoids delving first-hand into Kurtz's inner life.)

To have access to the interior world of its characters in such a way, a film must use some kind technique like the voice-over or have the actor think aloud. When voice-over is used too often, critics often complain that the film is using the technique as a crutch, to compensate for what it has not been able to do in the language and with the methods of film. It's using methods that are not visual and therefore not best suited to the medium.

I don't want to sound rigid in my expectations. I'm not. I'm well aware that novels can deal almost entirely with appearances. Robbes-Grillet comes to mind, and then there's this curious example:

The temperature is in the nineties, and the boulevard is absolutely empty.

Lower down, the inky water of a canal reaches in a straight line. Midway between two locks is barge full of timber. On the bank, two rows of barrels.

Beyond the canal, between houses separated by workyards, a huge, cloudless, tropical sky. Under the throbbing sun, white facades, slate roofs, and granite quays hurt the eyes. An obscure distant murmur rises in the hot air. All seems drugged by the Sunday peace and the sadness of summer days.

Two men appear.

In his "Notes on an Unfinished Novel", John Fowles made this comment:

Here (the opening four paragraphs of a novel) is a flagrant bit of writing for the cinema. The man has obviously spent too much time on film scripts and can now think only of his movie sale. […] It first appeared on March 25, 1881. The writer's name is Flaubert. All I have done to his novel Bouvard et Pecuchet is to transpose its past historic into the present.

I recommend the essay to anyone interested in the question of the two media. You can find it in his Wormholes.

* * * * *

My main objection is with Harvor's notion of vividness in writing. "Less is more vivid" says the header on his blog. He has also rightly said that we get more mileage out of Jack Nicholson raising his eyebrow and sighing than we can with some dialogue. Robert De Niro once said that such a gesture was worth an entire page of script. The irony, of course, is that these examples serve to reduce the script, to do away with the cumbersome, less effective written word in the visual medium of film. Both are examples of an immediate vividness that writing cannot aspire to.

A writer, however, can try to create the vivid image. Some may write, "Jack smirked ironically", but this is hardly vivid. A vivid image is always impressed upon us. In this example, the reader needs to have a clear idea beforehand of what an ironic smirk looks like and then to consult this image quickly. This is a considerable amount of imaginative work on the part of the reader, more even than the writer was prepared to do. A careful, attentive and imaginative reader, however, is quite likely to lose patience here, to demand more from a writer. The reader who does not lose patience is the one who does not consult an image, but simply takes in the ironic smirk as a mere fact, as a bit of information, and moves on. Reader and writer are doing a small but equal amount of imaginative work.

If the writer had described the raising of an eyebrow, the crooked smile, the sideways glance, the brief puff of breath out of the nose (all the while never resorting to the word "ironic"), then a vivid image perhaps would have been created. (I can't speak for the success of an off-hand attempt.) The reader would see it clearly. They might not understand it as ironic, but that's a risk all writers must take.

Grumpy Old Bookman made some good observations in this post:

But you see, while the literati despise cliches, the truth is that, in certain contexts, they serve a useful purpose. You and I, being sophisticated folk, probably would not use a phrase such as 'avoid like the plague' in writing; and maybe not in conversation. But to many readers/listeners, such a phrase communicates an idea instantly and effectively.

Instant and effective communication is what commercial fiction is all about. And to criticise an artefact for being eminently suitable for its purpose seems to me to be unreasonable.

Ditto for 'cardboard characters'. Which might more fairly be described as broadbrush, or well defined characters. And ditto for repetitions of key facts. Modern readers, as I keep on saying, are not reading their books for two hours at a stretch in a peaceful environment. They read commercial novels, in particular, in snatched moments, on crowded trains. Giving such readers a few reminders of key facts is not a practice which is deserving of criticism. On the contrary.

The democratic, interactive sounding "We are all directors now" overlooks the fact that readers don't want to be directors. They want the writer to be the director. Some of them want the sort of chunks of ready-made information that the Grumpy Old Bookman talks about, which can be quickly processed with little effort, and others want sharper, more discrete details that can be put together and interpreted.

When Harvor writes

NEVILLE: [nervously, clearly wanting to say something more] Sure. Let's go for coffee. I'd like that.


PAUL: Oh. Okay. Thanks. [beat] Did the person say who they were?
JENNIFER: [without significance] Your dad.
PAUL: Oh. Great. [Sighs] Okay. I’ll be there in a sec.
JENNIFER: [cheerfully] Bye!


PAUL’S FATHER: [astounded] Tomorrow?! But this is important!
PAUL: Well, okay, if it’s so important, what is it?
PAUL’S FATHER: [dramatically] I can’t say.

this is not vivid. It does not invite the reader to create a vivid image. It is lazy writing. At times it is cartoonish:

ASIAN FRIEND: She not like you, Luis.
LUIS, THE HANDSOME MEXICAN GUY: [astounded by the suggestion] Not like?!

The "direction" is so superfluous even the comic-book punctuation explains it. In general, the directions are trying to do something the dialogue itself can handle. Another example:

PAUL: [to Jennifer] Where is it?
PAUL: The phone.
JENNIFER: Oh. Right here. [She indicates a phone mere inches away from her.]

When the secretary says "Right here", we don't need to be told that she points to the telephone on her desk. We understand that it's close. Otherwise she would have said, "Over there."

And sometimes, as with "without significance", they're simply perplexing.

I believe I've known Finn for a long enough time to say that if he'd seen it himself in a block of prose, in a conventional or traditional piece of fiction, he would agree.

One could say that the problem lies with the practioner. Surely there's room in the screenplay novel for more vivid description? There is, but then we are turning back to the methods already used in the novel. The reader who is willing to do the work to properly read a carefully written piece of fiction has no need to turn to the screenplay novel (unless it contains advantages I can't see). The only thing that changes is the way we write the dialogue.

Check out Finn Harvor's blog, http://screen-novel.blogspot.com, and read his novel here, and decide for yourselves.

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