Tuesday, December 9, 2014

All Fiction is a Farce

So, remember that required, requisitioned radical revision I did on the Girl Scout story for my workshop class? I'm still kind of eh about what I did with it, but something came out in class that's worth analysis. Here's the beginning:
Now this is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down.

Yes, that's really the way I'm starting this. Because it's hilarious how much my life is a replica of the premise of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
One of the students who read my revision in class last week pinged the second sentence up there. He said that sentence implies that the narrator is conscious of an audience, although nothing in the rest of the story mentions or clarifies that awareness. Tallulah (the narrating character) appears to be telling this story to someone, per that sentence, but the story doesn't say who that someone is. Who is it? he asked me.

What do you think? I said.

I don't know! he said. Who is it?

Sharp guy, this student. He's asked questions like this before - questions that imply I have a concrete answer about some aspect of a story I wrote, an answer that he wants. He's quite right about the sentence, but the answer isn't simple, and I doubt it's the one he wants.

The answer is, I wanted the reader to read that sentence and think about the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration. All fiction is a farce, see. There is no Tallulah. I made her up for the purposes of writing the Girl Scout story. Tallulah is narrating to an audience because there is a reader sitting there with the story I wrote in her voice, and for no other reason. The Fresh Prince theme song is really the way I'm starting my story, and it's really the way Tallulah's starting hers. I meant to pull back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz: whether you like it or not, reader, all there is is me at my desk. No smoke, no flame, no Tallulah.

I'll grant you that I went about this exposure pretty clumsily/lazily in this story, and that there are only two moments in the 2,500 words that even bother with it. The rest of the story is straightforward and not really all that good. I think the reason I wrote that second sentence into the story at all is that I was harried about having to write it, and I fall back to my Big Writing Concerns when I have to write and I don't know what to write about. (Or when I can't think of a better way to transition from the Fresh Prince theme song into the meat of the story.) BWCs for me are the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration, along with truth and the other stuff I wrote about in this post.

There are authors who dance with these issues gracefully. I am not one of them as yet. John Barth does it in "Lost in the Funhouse" (the story), Wallace does it in "Good Old Neon", and a Canadian writer named Lee Henderson does it in "Attempts at a Great Relationship", which was probably my first exposure to this kind of metafiction.

Although this was likely my real first exposure.
There's a reason I loved Harold. 

I copied some aspects of Henderson's story when I wrote "How [Not] to Bake Bread" this spring, a story which I do not claim is any good at all but which felt like my first major foray into the kind of writing I deeply want to do. I haven't managed to write anything like it since, and I don't really know how to go about doing so, but I find that my desire to make readers think about the nature of reading stories, of authorship, and of narration keeps leaking into even the most mundane fiction over the last few months. Especially when I don't have a clear idea of what I'm writing about.

So I get meta when I get stressed. I find myself jabbering about Barthes and Prospero and how bizarre reading actually is - the various levels of delusion that we elevator downward and through when we open the cover of a book. When I sit down to write something I don't know how to write, I dig into the lotto bowl, and I come up with, say, something in pop culture. I use that thing as an entry point, and then I seem to just pass the burden of what I'm doing on to the reader with "Wow, you guys, reading is fucked up, amirite?"

Later on in that revision of the Girl Scout story, this appears:
Hearing [my life history] laid out for Naomee like that changed things, though. The way it came out of me wasn't complex, or lasting - it didn't resonate in my bones, didn't lie on top of my skin like a film of cheap soap. It did sound like a TV movie plot. Was my life so easy to summarize?
I'm trying to poke the reader into realizing the sham in which she and I are complicit. Yes of course Tallulah's life is easy to summarize. I MADE IT UP. I made it up and you have read it and that is some crazy shit.

I wish I was better at that poke. Sometimes I feel it's the only thing I want to write about - that stories and characters are far less crucially the thing that motivates me to put words on the page and that the meta stuff, the stuff that comes out when I'm stressed (like, oh, now) is all that matters to me. Writers can't expose those issues in fiction without coming up with stories and characters, of course, and doing so unconvincingly leads to terrible fiction. Just ask the people who read my revision of the Girl Scout story.


tanaudel said...

What do you think prompted his question? It seems a little odd to me, but perhaps that is because of the tradition of stories with a character who is consciously narrating. "Reader, I married him", etc.

Speaking about reading, and meta layers and voices that are you at your desk reminds me of a book I just finished, Twice Upon A Time. You might find it of interest - it touches on these issues from a very different angle.

It is basically about how we think of fairytales as tapping into an oral tradition, and of literary fairytales as an artificial aberration. But it argues that in fact most if not all fairytales are originally out of a literary tradition, and we are caught up in the fictional naive orality of Grimm etc.

The salon tales of the conteuses, on the other hand, are more true to the actual tradition, with their knowing allusions to a literate audience, and nested tales and voices, and constant critiques of happy endings and the act of storytelling.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Interesting! I hadn't thought of fairytales as ripe for metafictional pondering, I think because they're so...embedded, I guess, so much the texts that come before all other texts (rather than the texts that play with the early ones), but of course they *are* right for that kind of examination. I'll look into that book when I'm no longer losing my mind, i.e. January.

I don't know why he asked. Most of his questions throughout the semester have been like that - insightful, interesting, and unexpected. He picks at loose threads that no one else notices.

Shetachai Chatchoomsai said...

Maybe because I thought it was so good that I didn't think about you challenging the reader with your metafictional angle. I like this idea of poking fun of writing fiction as you write along with it—after all it is made up, but to make it beautiful is another story...

Katharine Coldiron said...

That's really sweet, Shetachai, but I think it's because I didn't write the metafictional angle especially well in this case. I talked it over with Matt, and we agreed that if you're going to go meta, you've really got to weave it into the fabric of the story, or only a small percentage of readers are going to notice.

Shetachai Chatchoomsai said...

hee her you're so smart that I don't get fully your intention, I think. I still have a lot to learn. I've been reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Feminist Theory side-by-side, trying to improve my story "Sati(ate)," which was greatly improved by your criticism. I've yet started on Beloved. Maybe later this project. I hope you're doing well on your novel.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks for the compliments! Good luck with it all.