JM: Tim says, "I suspect not everybody will agree with me on this last point [namely that] I always at least hope that I have nothing 'to say' in my fiction. No relevance to here and now. If I see myself starting to write something that's perceptibly a metaphor for something going on in the world today, I hope I always have the discipline to cut it out. " Well, Tim, you've come to the right place--I'm going to disagree with you, partly because I dissent from what I take to be your Poetics, partly because all of this mutual corroboration is starting to get on my nerves. Time to stir the pot, gentlemen.
JM, cont: One of the reasons I reveled in Three Days to Never--and recently shared my reaction with the readers of The Washington Post Book World--was that I thought it had a lot "to say" about the radically relativized condition in which we find ourselves in this bizarre post-Christian, post-Enlightenment, post-industrial edition of Western civilization (which is why I thought Dean Koontz did the book a major disservice by blurbing it with a gratuitous slam at some presumed "postmodern" conspiracy against the reader's right to pleasure). That remarkable theme, the simultaneously distressing and liberating notion that reality itself is now up for grabs, really stuck to my cerebral ribs.
Now, for all I know, Tim, such a philosophical project was the last thing on your mind. Were you to tell me as much--"Oh, give me a break, Morrow, I just wanted the reader to have a good time"--there's not much I could say in reply, except perhaps, "Who do you think you are, the author?"
Anyway, I myself could never imagine setting out to write a novel unless I believed it would have something substantive to say. Not in the sense of telling the reader what to think, God knows, but in the sense of convening a conversation in the reader's head that he or she has never had before--at least, not on the terms and assumptions of the tale in question.
It seems to me that a Martian reading our symposium so far might conclude that a novelist is a kind of data-gathering device with no axes to grind or agendas to nurture, merrily stitching together eccentric bits of history--quirkiness for its own sake--until the tapestry assumes a pleasing shape. Come, gentlemen, we all know there's more to the game than that.
You may recall how John Irving has T. S. Garp insisting that "The worst reason for anything being part of a novel was that it really happened." Not only do I agree with that principle, I would even--in my perversity--extend it into the realm of period fiction. "The last reason to use something in an historical novel is that it really happened," says Morrow. (The paradox has not escaped my notice. I shall deal with it in time.)
Tim's Three Days to Never has some wonderfully bizarre material about a lost Josef von Sternberg movie and Charlie Chaplin's footprint slab from Grauman's Chinese Theatre--all of it absolutely true--but the achievement of the book, I would argue, lies elsewhere.
John's The Translator marvelously evokes the ethos of the early sixties, but what lives in the mind after the last page is turned is the author's re-imagining of the Kennedy assassination as a kind of cosmic expiation for ... I won't say it: the ending is too astonishing to spoil.
As for Dracula, adduced by Tim in an earlier message: yes, I do seem to recall that one of the characters is a vampire--but I would still tend to side with the lady who suggested that it's "about" something else, even though that something else defies my powers of articulation tonight.
JF: There wasn't exactly corroboration. If you looked at the essay I linked to, you would see that I agree with you. There was a definite reason that I used the Mexican Repatriation and the ERO in my story, and it has directly to do with the times we live in. Tim countered that with his opinion. I countered his counter and there we were. Could I have pressed it further? Sure, but I like Tim and I like his books and I feel I owe him some respect. The other reason is I basically can only give so much of a shit about explaining how and why I write the novels I do. This isn't because I wouldn't like to say more about it, but the older I get the more I realize the less I really understand about what I do when I write. …
The author can only be so conscious of his/her reasons, motivations, I think, and somehow this seems connected to the discussion here.
TP: Jim, I sort of express opinions the way one writer said you should drive an old car: just use first and third gear, you don't really need second. But I'm not actually--I wouldn't admit this if I thought it would go any further--I'm not actually quite as dogmatic as I sound. In fact I was aware of some thematic things going on in, for instance, Three Days to Never (and thanks for that gorgeous review! I owe you a drink!) having to do with "free will." Like, do we really have it or not. I personally think we do have free will, but I notice that the book leaves the question open. (Einstein and Bertrand Russell said we don't have it.) And I was playing with the idea that reality itself is up for grabs, yes! Though I don't know what conclusion, if any, might be implicit in the book.
You're right; "it really happened" is the worst reason to put an event into a historical novel. As Jeff points out, the actual facts are just inertly there, and we reveal our times and our personal concerns--inadvertently, often as not--in which of them we pick out to use, and what structure we decide they'd be most effective in. We make evident what sorts of questions are absorbing us, maybe subconsciously. (I've always thought it would be interesting, and maybe disagreeable, to hire a psych major one day to read all my novels and tell me what my themes have been.)
But I never have the theme, the "something to say," in mind before I've finished the research and plotting. At that point, or during the actual writing, I'll notice, "You seem to be doing something with dysfunctional families here, or conscience versus love, or what-have-you." When I've noticed that, I'll give it some elbow room, even set up some scenes to let it play out, though--as you say--it's not to tell the reader what he should think, since I don't even know what the question is, precisely. Karen Fowler said once that a theme should be a question rather than a statement, which strikes me as pretty right. Though I'd add that it can simply be figuring out what exactly is the question.
And of course science fiction and fantasy give us a lot more questions that can be asked! Mainstream stories can't have a guy get a phone call from his own reproachful ghost, for instance, but there are some valuable effects to be got from that sort of thing. All the great conflicts in Philip K. Dick novels would be impossible in mainstream. (And thank God that Dick never managed to succeed as a mainstream novelist, and had to make do with science fiction!)
I think there are two sorts of "things to say" that we can have--our conscious convictions and doubts, and our subconscious ones. And in the screwy sorts of people writers are, these are likely to be at odds. (One book of mine was largely about the importance of children, though as far as I can tell I'm indifferent to them, at best.) So I try, often vainly I'm sure, to leave the first lot at the door, and let the story-math come up with whatever it wants to.
Jeff, you say, "the older I get the more I realize the less I really understand about what I do when I write." I agree completely. One of these days I've got to call up that psych major.
JC: Not to be corroborative or anything, but I agree, JM, tho' maybe a bit slyly. My early guru in writing (before I'd written much of anything, generally a good time to get a guru, tho' VN might have been a bad one) was Nabokov, who in the afterword to Lolita (my earliest manifesto) made great fun of books and their teachers who made statements or promoted Ideas. "What is the author's purpose?" or worse yet "What is this guy trying to say?" As though novelists were tongue-tied or Aspbergerish and unable to clearly formulate their Ideas without wrapping them in a complicated made-up story which the reader is to decode and extract the message. An odd way of proceeding, and not, of course, the way any novel that isn't spoiled by a teaching program (e.g. Socialist Realism or the worser novels of Zola or George Eliot) would actually proceed.
Even the social program in a Dickens or Tolstoy novel is always mitigated, complicated, reversed, upended, made un-actable-upon finally, by the novelist's allegiance to a) the complexity of things s/he perceives, and b) his/her own aesthetic imperatives. And yet yes: the impulse toward the world and history ("little more than a record of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind," Gibbon) is what gives tang and urgency and reason-for-being.... Still, I'm with Tim tactically: if somebody asked me what I was trying to say in a book, I'd answer 'Nothing.' I'll fight off the message-seekers more vigorously than the (possibly equally mistaken) thrill-seekers.
JM: Now that I'm in the second act of my writing career--or maybe it's the third act (I'm still negotiating with God on that one)--I find myself observing, almost on a daily basis, what a privilege it is to work within the medium of the novel. I hope I'm not becoming a McLuhanite in my old age, succumbing to a false dichotomy between contour and content, style and substance, but I seem to be taking an interest in the novel as a form per se.
It allows for so many possibilities, complexities, and glorious internal contradictions. It lets you say with utter conviction things you know to be false. It allows you to place your most cherished beliefs on stage and watch in horror as the gods descend from the rafters and pick them to pieces.
In other words, I think Tim is right: whatever we have to say, that something--themes, ideas, shards of the truth--emerges in the telling. If a novelist starts out to prove a thesis, and perversely continues to press the argument, ignoring all contrary inner voices as the pages pile up, I would say that he or she has actually betrayed the medium. Also, the result probably won't be a very good book--at best a compelling pamphlet like Sinclair's "The Jungle," at worst a messy polemic like Roszak's "The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein."
A couple of years ago, discussing the disconnect between Karl Popper's vicious temper and the celebrations of tolerance that suffuse his books, Adam Gopnik had this to say in the New Yorker: "We write what we are not. It is not merely that we fail to live up to our best ideas but that our best ideas, and the tone that goes with them, tend to be the opposite of our natural temperament. Rousseau wrote of the feelings of the heart and beauties of nature while stewing and seething in a little room."
I also think of Isaac Asimov, avatar of scientific rationalism, and his unhappy relationship with airplanes.
JF: James: Interesting quote from Gopnik. For me it is not that what I write I am not, but I most certainly do feel that the person who writes the books is a wholly other consciousness than my own. There are places where they intersect, but the one who writes, in his manipulation and extension of metaphor is doing something I don't think I could do if I intellectually considered it. There is much that is mystical to me about writing books. I'm not being facetious about that.
JC: So we can picture JM alone in his home (in the chapel) imploring the Deity for aid against the spirit entities that oppress him, and begging abjectly for absolution for all the things he has said on behalf of Reason and Common Sense. Nice!