The State of the Art, part 3

by | Nov 28, 2006 | Approaches to Writing, Creating Characters, Literature, Writers

So what really matters in fiction?  What you say, or how you say it?

I’ve just read a hundred and eight pages of Hesse’s Narziß und Goldmund, an allegorical tale of the opposing Apollonian and the Dionysian spirits.  Each of the main characters represents a spirit, and that’s my difficulty with Hesse – that his characters are not people, but symbols.  Steppenwolf knocked my socks off as a teenager, but now when I go back to him the preachiness gets in the way, and the characters are too abstract to truly care about.  That doesn’t mean that Hesse isn’t worth reading.  He’s not a bad writer, if kind of a throwback to the Romantic period, and he’s valuable as a window onto that strange time of back-to-nature movements, the Wandervögeln, nudity, jazz, primitivism, when that other part of the German psyche flourished until the Nazis broke up the party.  They burned Hesse’s books first thing.

There’s a thing that actors do, to prepare for a role.  They create the rest of the character’s life, the part not covered in the script.  A character has a history that has led up to the time of the play, and actors who create that context are more likely to sound as if they are talking instead of just saying lines.

George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has just as weighty a message as Narziß und Goldmund, but it gets it across without preaching.  Where Hesse’s narrative technique has its feet stuck in the 19th century, lots of talk about thoughts and feelings and wishes and dreams, Orwell is thoroughly modern.  Although I last read Nineteen Eighty-Four when I was in high school, dozens of scenes come back to me in a flash.  I can’t say that about Steppenwolf.

Orwell’s book opens with Winston Smith having a bad time with a poorly-manufactured cigarette.  The elevator doesn’t work, and he has varicose veins.  He chokes down a ration of oily Victory Gin.  In a page or two, the reader is oriented to the world of the book and has begun to care about Winston.  Why?  Because he is human, not a symbol.  Orwell may write propaganda, but he approaches it as an artist; he shows, not tells.  He presents a slide show instead of a sermon.


Late in life, years after he’d done his best work, Hemingway wrote The Old Man and the Sea.  It’s a beautifully-told novella, and seems to have taken even Hemingway by surprise.  (Strange that his best characters, Jake Barnes and the other steers in The Sun Also Rises, the girl in ‘Cat in the Rain,’ the old Cuban fisherman, are hardly what we think of as ‘Hemingwayesque.’)  The critics went nuts, and would have that it was a grand allegory of the struggle of the artist.  A Cuban waiter, puzzled at what he had seen in the newspaper, asked Hemingway to explain.  Hem told him there was no allegory involved.  The fisherman was a fisherman, not an artist, the fish was a fish, and not an artwork, and the sharks were just sharks.

I take Hemingway at his word.  The artist does not need to create big allegorical worlds.  All he has to do is keep his ears open for true stories.  Not ‘true’ meaning factual, but ‘true’ meaning that they say something universal about human beings and their lives here on this world.