Notes on Culture and Craft, part 2


This is a continuation of the first part of this series, found here.

If you’re interested in contributing a guest post, you can reach me at m [dot] salesses [at gmail etc.].

11. These are not only craft considerations. They are not only aesthetic. To wonder about what forces have shaped what we think of as a literary realist plot is to wonder about what forces have shaped what we think of as reality, and to wonder about what forces have shaped what we think of as pleasurable, as entertaining, as enlightening. As a model of being-in-the-world.

12. As an example: There is a wonderful essay by Charles Baxter somewhere about the pathetic fallacy. Baxter argues that too often in literary realist fiction the world falsely reflects the psychological interiority of the main character, that when the protagonist is sad, it rains, that when the protagonist has lost a child (as in the famous Gardner prompt), the side of the barn looks different, but that in reality it doesn’t rain when we are sad and objects do not change their appearances to fit our moods. This isn’t exactly what the Gardner prompt is about—it’s more about what a person in a certain mood would notice—but it’s actually a common move on screen, perhaps even more so than on paper. And perhaps that means it’s a common move for students, as I’ve been noticing more and more screen influence on the page. Our perception of what a story is then becomes something that shapes reality to reflect a single individual. It could be said that Baxter is arguing for more resistance.

13. On the other hand, I have been reading novels by Haruki Murakami, Yoko Ogawa, and Banana Yoshimoto, which seem to offer worlds that are very shaped by the interiority of their protagonists. In a Yoshimoto novel, characters often seem to fulfill the requirements not of their own individuality but of the individuality of the protagonist. Foils and mirrors and models of behavior and sexual fantasies and supernatural guides. With Murakami it’s a fair critique to say that the women seem to be who they are because the male protagonists want them to be so. There is pleasure to be drawn from this pathetic fallacy on a grand scale. It’s not the pleasure of reality but of what we sometimes feel reality to be.

14. Baxter’s protagonist’s, however, seem to find less resistance in the world than Yoshimoto’s, say, even when in the latter everything seems fit the character. A typical Yoshimoto narrator is a woman who has had a lot of death in her family, who is surrounded by people who have more physical (sometimes supernatural) ability to make change than she has. Isn’t this about power? I am watching a kdrama right now about a goblin and his human bride, in which the goblin’s emotions do literally control the weather, but the bride’s do not. The world responds more to some than to others.

15. I am interested in what the world of fiction looks like when a character has so little control that she can only live freely through imagination, how that is called fantasy when it surely reflects some people’s reality. This is the extension of Kundera’s argument about Kafka: that the history of literary psychological realism tricks us into thinking story is only fit for those who have the most agency.

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