Wednesday, January 25, 2006

DL: Stirring Up Emotion by the Inherent Power of Narrative

Art produces the most important progress civilization knows. Restating old truths and adapting them to the age, applying them in ways that they were never before applied, stirring up emotion by the inherent power of narrative, visual image, or music, artists crack the door to the morally necessary future. --John Gardner (The Art of Fiction, p. 80)

Like many others, I had a schizophrenic appreciation of fiction during my college years. I was learning to read and appreciate a variety of new novelists and writers of short stories, and many of them—Proust, Camus, Barth, and Barthelme, for instance—seemed to be enjoyable primarily on an intellectual level. Their writings were puzzles one figured out (or not) through mental gymnastics, but they rarely engaged the emotions. In that period of great intellectual curiosity and energy, I enjoyed those puzzles.

And then there was that other great body of writers—Steinbeck, Twain, Dickens, and Flannery O’Connor, for instance—that engaged me at an entirely different level. I found myself engaged emotionally as much as intellectually with those writers and their stories and characters.

I remember some of the ideas I gained from the first group of writers. But the books that affected me at a heart level, that changed my life, that helped make me the person I have become—those books came from the second group, the group the engaged my emotions.
It wasn’t until the end of my graduate school period that I found an explanation for that, in the book that is still my favorite book on the writing of fiction: The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner.

That explanation is succinctly presented in the quote above. Gardner goes on to say (p. 61):
However it may be achieved, in all great fiction, primary emotion (our emotion as we read, or the characters’ emotions, or some combination of both) must sooner or later lift off from the particular and be transformed to an expression of what is universally good in human life—what promotes happiness for the individual alone and in society; in other words, some statement on value.

If character and scene are the building blocks of fiction, and if a mastery of such techniques as plotting and writing dialog are the skills that allow the novelist to create something from those building blocks, then emotion is the fuel that runs the whole enterprise. Human emotion is not just the primary subject matter of fiction (The Art of Fiction again, pp. 14-15: “The primary subject of fiction is and has always been human emotion, values, and beliefs.”); it is also the means by which the truths communicated by fiction are internalized and appropriated by the reader.

When you read life-changing works of fiction, it’s unlikely that your response is, “Yes, good point. The novelist has made a very convincing argument for his approach to life here in chapter ten.” Rather, what happens is that you enter the lives of the characters in those novels, vicariously experiencing with those characters their lives, their victories, their mistakes—their emotions. And when those characters come to the turning points of their lives, you internalize and retain the truths inherent in those stories because you feel them. And your life will not be the same.

In order to fully impact the reader’s life and beliefs, in order to have power, the truths in a work of fiction must not merely be understood—they must be felt.

We all know that some people seem to learn only through experience. And that’s precisely why fiction is such a magnificent teacher—and why Christ himself used stories to impart truth to his listeners. In fiction, we readers do experience the ups and downs and disappointments and triumphs and pains and ecstasies and hard knocks and hard work of the characters. And what they learn, we learn. Fiction is an inherently moral art form. As Gardner says above, the emotion on the page (not the theme, not the hidden lesson, not the lecture or sermon of the protagonist, but the emotion) is transformed, through the act of reading, into “some statement on value.” As Christian writers, we create stories in which that statement on value is a statement on biblical values—a message sorely needed when so many of the novelists whose works are available in any bookstore write novels filled with hopelessness, despair, anger, and self-gratification.

Adapted from the fiction curriculum offered by the Christian Writers Guild.

David Lambert is a novelist, editor, frequent conference teacher/speaker, and musician.


At 9:33 AM, Blogger James Scott Bell said...

Good stuff, Dave. When I was trying to convince juries, I knew it was never argument and logic alone that did it. At some point the desire to give the verdict to my client had to be FELT, an emotional connection made. If the client was not particularly pleasant, then the desire to uphold the rule of law had to be stirred. Jurors have to see themselves as actors in the grander story of justice, not just bit players in a single trial.

Readers crave a similar connection. We authors have an implicit contract with them when they begin our books, to carry them away for a time. This contract can be breached in many ways. Preaching an agenda is one way. Another is literature that is little more than a pretty string of "show off" sentences. Let's not commit these crimes...the jury of readers out there won't be favorably disposed!

At 11:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So well put, Dave. Liz Higgs has said that people may not always remember everything she says when she speaks, but they remember how she made them FEEL. That's what we need to do in our books.

Whatever we impart out of obedience, God brings to completion in the reader's heart because He is the author and finisher of our faith.

Rock on!


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