Some Attempts at (Re)Definition: Tone

I have been thinking for a while about how our attempts to define craft terms influence our students’ (and our own) aesthetics, and I have wanted to try other definitions. This is a continuation of the first post here.

an orientation toward the world

I stole the phrasing from the dreaded Aristotle, who describes emotion as an “orientation to the world.” What Aristotle wants to say is that, for example, when we feel anger that is a register of our perception of the world: we are angry because we feel that we live in an unjust world. That anger will disappear if the feeling of injustice disappears—with a sincere apology, or a believed misunderstanding, for example. The orientation—the emotion—comes before you know where it comes from, because—and this is where we split off from Aristotle—it comes from being in a certain world.

Of course what we feel is just is culturally perceived, so our orientation to the world is within the framework of the world’s orientation to cultural values. Emotion and tone are both states, but only one can be the state of a book. (This is why it’s so hard to find “happy” novels–happiness is rarely a tone, but often an ending.)

Tone stretches across the length of a story—in a darkly comic story the protagonist might feel angry, happy, sad, distraught, etc., sometimes all at once. The tone of the story is not necessarily (not often even) the protagonist’s orientation toward the world, even in first-person.

To get at why we have to go beyond Aristotle and the project of the individual, because the project of the individual is a certain kind of being, one in which Western fiction is far too invested, we have to focus on the world.

It has been said by theorist Lisa Lowe and others that the Western novel has long been about reincorporation of an outsider into society. This is your typical bildungsroman, an outcast who learns how to become a productive member of the world.

In this model the tone may be many different things, but ultimately the world in which the protagonist acts must be “good-enough.” Like Winnicott’s good-enough parent, the world must frustrate the protagonist but not so much that she separates from the world completely. (I’m stealing this idea from Jonathan Lear, via j. Kastely.)

To joke: if you live in a good-enough world, you become a therapist. If you live in a not-good-enough world, you become a writer.

In a bildungsroman, the protagonist either finds a way to fit into the world, finds that he has always actually fit in fine (often confused for loving himself), or changes the world to make it one in which he feels he fits in (there’s a reason the protagonist is so often a he in this model), the world realizes good-enough status whether the character discovers it is so or makes it so or deus ex machina. At that point the character can be reincorporated, hooray.

The tone of this kind of novel is arc-length. (It may be one reason we are so conditioned to accept changes of tone at the end of novels and stories.) The protagonist’s emotions change throughout, but the tone is resolved or fulfilled in its ending.

Lear calls the not-good-enough world one “which encourage[s] individuation but in which a developed individual would realize, at a late stage of individuation, that he could not endorse or validate his values.” The not-good-enough world is the world of fiction: a world which encourages individuation but does not endorse or validate the outsider’s values. If the world does not become good-enough by the end of a story, the story’s tone might not be resolved or fulfilled, but frustrated or extended into the reading experience—some names we call this kind of fiction are “atmospheric” or “ambivalent” or “poetic.”

In a piece of fiction, the author implies a certain orientation toward a not-good-enough world. Even if the world remains permanently not-good-enough, the question of tone is: how does the book orient to that world? Through humor, through melodrama? In that question lies one attempt to redefine—and to revise toward—tone.

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