Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Scope of Fiction, a Frog, and a God

Many, many years ago, I picked up an old (even then) textbook at a garage sale: The Scope of Fiction by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. The book is tattered now, from use, and filled with my marks and notes. The spine is barely attached to the cover. It sits on my shelf in my office proudly displayed with the cover facing forward. I treasure this book and often revisit it. Why? Because every word strikes bone, makes sense, reveals, teaches.

No other book has shaped my idea of story writing, as has The Scope of Fiction. I'll tell you why, but to do so, I must give a brief background. In the seventies, when I found this bargain at twenty-five cents, I was a student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette (University of Southwestern Louisiana then) taking sophomore classes. One of them was a short story writing class with John Sherrill Fontenot. I knew I wanted to learn to construct a story, and I knew I had a certain amount of talent, but it seemed that the creature was too big a mystery for me. How the hell does anyone handle all the elements of a short story? I asked myself repeatedly. I nearly gave up, save for John's encouragement. Then I found Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren's book.

The authors wrote the book as a short story literature class aid for English teachers. In their 1943 "Letters to the Teacher" introduction, they write, "This book is based on the belief that the student can best be brought to an appreciation of the more broadly human values implicit in fiction by a course of study which aims at the close analytical and interpretative reading of concrete examples." And what wonderful concrete examples they provide: Kipling, Jackson, Bierce, Welty, Lardner, Babel, Joyce, Chekhov, McCullers, Porter, Anderson, Hemingway, and O'Connor to name just a few. I read them all, starting with Kipling and ending with O'Connor, with an eye toward the authors' assimilation of the elements of fiction Brooks & Warren mention in the book. To be honest, some of them were a struggle. Joyce's "Araby" gave me headaches for weeks, and I still don't quite grasp how he packed so much in such a small space. He had to be a magician.

Brooks and Warren write that "…the structure of a piece of fiction, in so far as that piece of fiction is successful, must involve a vital and functional relationship between the idea and the other elements in that structure—plot, style, character, and the like." This was my problem—to include all these elements in my writing, but not seeming to do so. Even today, after many years of honing my craft, I still have problems with that. However, Brooks and Warren helped me enough that my stories caught the eye of Ernest Gaines and Lewis P. Simpson, the former editor of The Southern Review. The review published five or six of my stories, which I have put together in Lighted Windows. me make something clear before I go on. I have never been interested in literary criticism. It has always seemed to me that dismembering a story was similar to dissecting a frog as I did in my college biology lab class. Yes, it was interesting finding out what made it function (heart, muscle, nerves, etc.), but I had to kill the poor thing before I could find out. It seems to me that we're doing the same thing when we analyze a story. We cut it up into its basic elements (character, plot, theme, etc.), and in doing so, we destroy some of the mystery that made it live. John Fontenot, my sophomore creative writing teacher mentioned above, once told me that I should always read a story twice. First, I should read it for pure enjoyment, and second, for guidance. That eased my conscience some.

Here's what Brooks and Warren have to say about this: "… plot, character, and theme are abstracted from the organic unity which is the story, and when we discuss them we should always be aware that they are abstractions. And when we discuss them, we do so only to understand better the nature of that unity, the story, from which they are abstracted." Nice words, but the frog still dies, but what these two exceptional authors are telling me is; here is what you should be looking for. Now, read it and pay attention," basically what Ernest Gaines told me, "Read, read, read" and then go and "Write, write, write." I tell my writing students that learning to write can be compared to learning to shoot a free throw in basketball (Yeah, I know, a sports analogy). First, you study how a good shooter does it. Pay attention to how h/she stands, how h/she holds the ball, how the ball leaves the hand, and how the ball arcs in the air. Then you stand at the foul line and shoot some baskets. At first, imitate your shooter. Then find what works for you—your own style. The key, I tell my students, is doing it so often that you don't think about it anymore—something akin to what Ayn Rand wrote in The Art of Fiction; "Before you sit down to write, your language has to be so automatic that you are not conscious of groping for words or forming them into a sentence."
For me, reading and writing are enjoyable because they allow me to live vicariously—to crawl into another person's skin and experience a different world than the one I live in. Alas, a writer must create that world and make it believable for it to work. That means that you have to make sure all the elements in fiction work in tandem, effortlessly and unnoticed. This is no easy achievement, but all the best stories have that in common. Go read "Haircut" by Ring Lardner, "The Necklace by Guy de Maupassant, "Araby" by James Joyce, "The Lament" by Anton Chekov, "A Good Man is hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor, and "A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner if you want to see for yourself how it is done. They are all included in The Scope of Fiction.

In their book, Brooks and Warren helped me learn what those elements were, see how other writers handled them, and then encouraged me to try it myself. I learned that the elements of fiction are completely interfused. Pull one out and you don't have a story. Isaac Singer once compared a writer to a god who creates life, and like life, a story is a mighty complex thing. Getting everything right is difficult but crucial. Going back to the frog, the heart is essential for life, but so are all the other major organs. They must all work together to make a living, functioning frog.

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