Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thoughts on Substance and Style -- c.anne.gardner

The reality of any work of art is its form, and to separate style from substance is to "remove the novel from the realm of art". Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a pretty way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world out there, a novel is self-sufficient and "expresses nothing but itself". Its "necessity" has nothing to do with its "utility". Whenever an author envisages a future book, "it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind," which leads Robbe-Grillet to state – provocatively – that "the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking". Creative writing classes should always start and end on that note.

I ran across this interesting interview over on the Guardian, and since I am all about writing as art, I thought it would be nice to talk about the implications of the closing statement, specifically the separation of style from substance and the writer having nothing to say. For the former, I agree that if all writers follow a bunch of set rules, or rather, write to the same conventions, thus eliminating any sense of individual style, then we strip away the art, and the novel becomes just another mass-produced product, message or no. The art is in "how" the writer expresses his/her thesis, that being the substance. Writing, like all art, is not "paint by number." Every artist, every writer, sees the world differently, and their stylistic approach is directly affected by that viewpoint.

Now when it comes to the "genuine writer" remark, I caution that we probably shouldn't take that statement too literarily. Of course the writer has "something" to say; otherwise the story wouldn't mean anything to him/her, so why bother writing it in the first place. And what they have to say has everything to do with a viewpoint, their own or many different ones. After all, we read literature to experience viewpoints other than our own, sometimes we want it liken to our own and sometimes we want it diametrically opposed to our own. That is what literary fiction is all about: arguing a thesis from one or multiple points of view. Art makes us see the world differently, and each artist has their own unique way of verbalizing their viewpoint. So in essence, how the writer writes -- how they construct and articulate the story -- is what matters, but beyond that it's just fashion. The writer can let the story say what needs to be said. Sure. Even de Sade in his essay on The Novel said much the same thing: the author should never make a statement, they should let the characters and the story make it for them. However, there is some wonderful groundbreaking literature out there were that "rule" is violated to great effect.

As for me, I let the story say what needs to be said. I always have something to say, mind you, because I am arrogant that way, but I let my narrators act as translators. Despite my own tactical approach, I would never take issue if an author decided to act as the translator and chose to address the thesis and the reader directly within the context of the story.

So authors, what's your take on this? How do you interpret Robbe-Grillet's comment? Would you write a story if you had nothing to say? And do you mind if the author interjects their viewpoint into the work directly. If you don't mind, what's your favourite book in which that approach was taken. For me, I loved The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera.

The Art this week is one of my all-time top ten favourite narrative painters: H. Bosch, Detail from The Temptation of Saint Anthony. circa 1501

Cheryl Anne Gardner


Brent Robison said...

One way to interpret Robbe-Grillet's statement is with the same meaning as "there are no new stories under the sun, only different ways of telling them." It's true from a reductionist angle, but perhaps not so helpful to a writer at work. I also like to think he means that a real writer is not riding a pedantic agenda, not aiming to teach or preach, but rather is driven by an irresistible inner urge to express her own uniqueness. Just being true to self. And doing so within the formal construct of a literary work that stands as its own world, without a "message." Message makes it not art, but propaganda. Or as Joseph Campbell would say, pornography. It's a purist's view, but I like it.

Anonymous said...

I'd write a story if I had nothing to say. I imagine by the time I was done, the something would be there.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

I suppose since I deliberately write allegories, the something to say or the message comes organically for me. I never sit down with the intent to write propaganda as in "damn I am pissed off about this and damn I am gonna say something about it." It's only during revision do I take a step back and analyze what I wrote. I find that the revision process goes smoother if I understand what the story really means. I don't always know going into the draft, or rather, it's not always clear from the start.

However, I don't agree that "message" makes it not art. Art is the figurative expression of an individual viewpoint or an opinion about something. It is a statement. And everyone preaches through their art to some extent or another. It's just that some artists are more subtle than others. Bosch was not subtle. Most of the writers I adore, were not subtle. deSade in particular. I once had a writer friend say to me: "It's just a story. I wrote it but it doesn't mean anything." And I thought, wow, really? That's like walking around waving a pointy stick and telling someone: I didn't know it was sharp, sorry bout the eyeball. I don't think it benefits an artist to be that unaware.

Brent Robison said...

Yes, maybe revision is the best time to consider message. I got a very valuable tool in the Writers Studio when I learned ways to drop personal agenda and focus on craft... realizing that one's truth enters anyway (how could it not?), all the more pure for having "come in the back door" without conscious manipulation. Like genjipress says, the "nothing" becomes something through the writing. And that may be a philosophy that the author is exploring, which gets embodied in the work. I like that much better than simple story. But if I sense an artist's aim is to convince me to think or act certain ways, I tend to reject him. I do agree that self-awareness (not the same as self-consciousness) can only enhance an artist's work.