Diatribe, Data, and Doctrine Disguised as Fiction
During my many years of study to become a novelist, I encountered these forms of writing that purported to be fiction and were even proclaimed fine fiction by chattering critics:
-- Ayn Rand’s rant about her self-absorbed, secular religion, inserted at tedious great lengths in between dynamic passages of drama. Rand was not a true novelist but a political philosopher; and although I basically concur with her character-spouted definitions of the truly moral individual in society, I take exception to her use of fiction for her diatribes.
-- James Michener’s vast research data and details, the matter from which he simply could not part;
-- George Orwell and his utterly hopeless vision of humanity;
-- The Muckrakers and their maleficent view of everyone and everything, save their own self-righteous carping (writing).
One must note here that Upton Sinclair, the most strident of the reformers and their pit bull journalism, was completely humorless despite having sold jokes as a college student. It must have been the socialist in him. He was as morbidly colorless as the current custodians and caretakers of the Nanny State.
I once told a colleague that I could not criticize Michener because I had not read him. I chose Hawaii as the test case, and it sorely tested me. The experience was not nearly as rough as that of this engineer who, after reading Crime and Punishment, informed me that the crime was writing the novel and the punishment was reading it!
I enjoy the study of geology enormously, but I enormously struggled with geological information that became an overly long part of the early development in Hawaii. It occurred to me that Mr. Michener, having spent so much time researching, scribbling, and typing, felt compelled to include those reams, layers, in fact, of factual information. I began to feel buried by the various geological periods. The plot screamed to be unearthed from the strata of data.
Dear Husband can always tell when I’ve had a good day writing or revising. After coming home from a tough day at the button, he encounters not one or two, but three or four piles of torn-up paper, 3-4 inches high, beside my laptop on whatever table I’ve used that day. The torn-up pages are the sign that I’ve been busy, revising my handwritten draft as I input it into the laptop.
I have thus gotten rid of unnecessary information and excess verbiage. Those words did not fit into a novel: No matter how interesting or intriguing the factual and historical anecdotes were, they were useless for my fiction. Sometimes I end up tearing up more than half of the scrawled papers and then look at them with glee!
The English novelist Thomas Hardy wrote in his introduction to Tess of the D’Urbervilles: “A novel is an impression, not an argument.”
This prolific English writer of the Victorian era wrote in Autobiography:
“. . . The unconscious critical acumen of a reader is both just and severe. When a long dialogue on extraneous matter reaches his mind, he at once feels that he is being cheated into taking something which he did not bargain to accept when he took up that novel. He does not at that moment require politics or philosophy, but he wants his story. He will not perhaps be able to say in so many words that at some certain point the dialogue has deviated from the story; but when it does so he will feel it, and the feeling will be unpleasant.”
I quite agree. The bait-and-switch of “telling a story” which is truly diatribe is rather odious. I also concur with these statements by Elizabeth Bowen, Irish novelist, short story writer, and literary critic (in a good way):
“Dialogue should not on any account be a vehicle for the ideas for their own sake. Ideas [are] only permissible where they provide a key to the character who expresses them.”
The ploy of constructing a character for the express purpose of spouting the author’s ideas might please the author, but the reader sees or, rather, “feels” the fraud from the start of the diatribe. In writing dialogue, a writer must vigorously avoid diatribe if he hopes to even attempt to create art. As Miss Bowen succinctly elucidates:
“Dialogue requires more art than does any other constituent of the novel. . . Art in the trickery, self-justifying distortion sense. Why? Because dialogue must appear realistic without being so. Actual realism – the lifting, as it were, of passages from a stenographer’s take-down of a ‘real-life’ conversation would be disruptive. Of what? Of the illusion of the novel. In ‘real life’ everything is diluted; in the novel, everything is condensed.”
I strenuously avoid diatribes in my fiction. The “morality” of the character is a completely different matter. It is crucial. The writer must foster the focusing of the morality of any “true” character—the beacon of light that illuminates the character as well as leads the way through the plot. Such focusing eliminates even the thought of a diatribe within a fiction writer.
I have written diatribes while veering off into a world of my own, and away from the world of fiction. I knew, even as typed the words, that they were diatribes. I read them aloud and then I deleted them. It was beneficial for me to “hear” them. They might have served to help me to focus better on the “world” that I was creating, but they existed completely outside of that world of fiction. Why impose your opinions on a reader who only wants to read fascinating fiction?
My very dear friend once told me that writing is my passion. “Yes,” I replied, “Sometimes it is too much of a passion.”
One must write from the heart, and a passionate one, but the revising and editing have to be achieved analytically through mental discipline that attempts to mimic, at least, the intellectual skills of a surgeon. There may even be muscle memory involved! Cut away not just the fat to reach the musculature, but at times be daring enough to cut away the musculature to get to the bone.
Disdain the facile; discard the obvious. Be concise and decisive! Toss out the irrelevant: irrelevance fogs up the windshield of vision!
It is the writer’s vision --unconscious, creative, dynamic, and forcing its way from the subconscious and onto the surface of the screen of the mind – and the depth of that vision -- which determine the greatness of the characters discovered, invented, constructed, and formed. To breathe life into a character is to breathe life into inspiration: to inspire! And the word, inspire, comes from the Latin īnspīrāre (which is a loan-translation of the Ancient Greek word for “breathe” -- Credit given where credit is due!).
Why would any writer of fiction waste his precious breath, time, and space on diatribe!?
Diatribe, data, and doctrine, no matter how cleverly disguised (and the attainment of that feat is a rarity) -- fail as fiction. Those pretenses are fundamentally lazy. Satire would be the more precious form for political discourse. Satire, however, for the modern pontificator, requires too much talent, imagination, and, fundamentally, wit; and, as the Bard told us, brevity is the soul of wit.
Opinion disguised as fiction is but a flabby body, attempting to muscle “art” into a cherished cause. The cause is truly not literary, and the result is grotesque. The point is not fiction but diatribe; and it is a dull point, not the sharp one of artistic writing. Furthermore, diatribe is not dialogue.
In Notes on Writing a Novel, under the section, “Miss Bowen Sums It Up,” the Irish writer states:
“dialogue must (1) further plot; (2) express character. It should not on any account be a vehicle for ideas for their own sake. Ideas [are] only permissible where they provide a key to the character who expresses them.”
My note in the margin, scribbled decades ago on a photocopied page of this literary criticism is: “plagues contemporary novels.”
This emphatic female writer also stated: “The functional use of dialogue for the plot must be the first thing in the novelist’s mind. Where functional usefulness cannot be established, dialogue must be left out.”
“Characters should, on the whole, be under rather than over-articulate. What they intend to say should be more evident, more striking (because of its greater inner importance to the plot) than what they arrive at saying.”
Modern diatribes arrive at saying nothing.
Miss Bowen addresses irrelevance with wit and wisdom: “Much irrelevance is introduced into novels by the writer’s vague hope that at least some of this may turn out to be relevant after all. . .”
More than 100 years ago, Anton Chekhov, the Russian writer and doctor wisely declared:
“Six principles that make for a good story: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality: flee the stereotype; 6. compassion.”
I frankly think that the modern compulsion to create a thinly veiled character to speak for the author and his cause(s) has become nearly terminal. Such authors are legends in their own minds!
If true art, i.e., free art (which includes real fiction) are to thrive, then free speech and the free market must prevail. Those two liberties must be secured to ensure the survival of genuine artistic expression. A valiant treatment of those themes (sans diatribe) in a novel might be worth reading!
Amid the plethora of phoney (politicized) novels, one longs for the classics; one pines for substance; one yearns for style. If it is true that what is old is new, then the writers of yore are reaping rewards ad infinitum. They understood and exercised the basic elements of creating not merely fiction, but literature. They comprehended the following statements:
“Vision is the art of seeing what is invisible to others.” – Jonathan Swift
“Creativity takes courage.” – Henri Matisse
“Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.” – Gilbert K. Chesterton
“Art for art’s sake is a philosophy of the well-fed.” – Frank Lloyd Wright