Transubstantiation and other long words I no en francais

One of my brainiest friends was confused by the last post on this blog. She’s got a fearless intellect and is a fantastic writer too, so that was a bit of a worry really.

I’ve decided I need to row back a bit, begin at my beginning, in hopes of bringing her and everyone else who was surely confused if she was, with me, even if my boat is small and I can’t see over the waves.

If you ask me what I wanted to write when I first started to write, then I’ll be forced to admit it was a screenplay about a failed love affair of mine.

Of all the cliches in all the world, I had to choose that one.

I wanted to share (dread word) with other people the feelings that I had about that time in my life. I can see now that thought I could say things in a way that people would recognise and that this would be a kind of connection, a validation perhaps. At the time I wasn’t thinking, I was running on instinct (and hurt feelings). It wasn’t a great screenplay but it wasn’t awful either. (I won a £5,000 scholarship for the first 10 pages and then promptly dropped out of the course it was intended to fund.)

But maybe that’s not the beginning. Before the screenplay was reading. What I loved about reading was losing myself in exciting stories created by writers like Enid Blyton, Jane Austen, Dick Francis, Colette, Georges Simenon. At school, lessons would come and go as I read my latest addiction under the desk. I couldn’t hit a ball with a bat or a foot. Sport seemed solely a source of humiliation. I felt left out and useless. Reading was a balm for all  inadequacies.

As a learner writer, I thought I should try and offer the same fix to putative readers, play it forward, so to say.

So the urge to write was, for me, an impulse to show the world to people through my eyes. I wanted to say something about the way things are. It’s egotism, I know. But that’s the writing condition, in the main.

There were some books I didn’t like, books where the author seemed at pains to remind me that I was reading, rather than experiencing, her or his world. I couldn’t understand why they wanted to spoil my fun, to take me out of the fictional world and drag me back to consciousness of my two left feet and inability to get organised. Novels where the author was a character in the story, novels where the narrator talked about the problems of writing the story, novels where the typed words gradually merged into blackness. I don’t – with some exceptions – enjoy those novels.

Now I’m learning about Literature, I thought I ought to try and understand what these killjoys mean by this kind of writing. There’s a lot of them about and critics seem excited. So I turned to James Wood and his 2009 How Fiction Works (Vintage). He did not disappoint.

Some writers, he explains, believe the conventional realist novel is dead. Wood himself characterises the best genre writers, for example Le Carre, as producing ‘a clever coffin of dead conventions’.

But, he argues, that’s not the same as saying that written down stories cannot say anything true about the world; that ‘what happens’ in prose fiction is language alone. (Here, he is arguing against Roland Barthes, the French literary critic, among others.)

What on earth did Barthes mean by arguing that literature is nothing but language? That, if I’m following correctly, storytelling is ‘literally nothing’?

There are the usual problems with truth, obviously. The truth about the world depends on your relationship to the world. Celebrities experience the world differently from people with no money and no fame. Class makes a difference as does race, gender and ableness. We know all this, surely,  and few authors ever claim to speak for anyone but themselves and their point of view.

In a footnote to his text, Wood explains that the French, as ever, are a little different.

The real reason for the French obsession with the fraudulence of realism – and with fictional narrative in general – has to with the existence in French of the preterite, a past tense reserved exclusively for writing about the past, and not used in speech. French fiction, in other words, has itsown, dedicated language of artifice, and thus must seem, to certain minds, unbearably literary and artificial.

Wood does not see convention, the existence of conventions, in realism as fatal to it. All forms have conventions even surrealism, absurdism and self-conscious postmodernism. Nor does he believe that artifice and convention make writing unable to refer to reality, to how things are.

Considering writers from Aristotle to Beckett via Eliot (George) he says:

… we are likely to think of the desire to be truthful about life – the desire to produce art that accurately sees ‘the way things are’ – as a universal literary motive and project …

(That cheered me up, me and my tragic love affair. You see, it’s not just me. Lots of people start writing for exactly the same reason. So it must be alright.)

Just because conventions die or become cliched, Wood says, doesn’t mean that the form is dead.

For me, the best analogy is the strange arguments between Christians over what takes place during communion. As I understand it, the Roman Catholics believe that when you eat the biscuit and drink the wine, at some point during the ceremony, the food and drink becomes (through transubstantiation) the actual body and blood of Christ. Protestants don’t believe this. The row has been murderous and long.

As a devout atheist, I just think they’ve both missed the central point of the religion which, if you read the 10 commandments, is meant to be about being kind to each other. What’s more, even though many people, believers and the godless, think that both Catholics and Protestants have got it a bit wrong here, there are still many millions of Christians who get great strength from their faith.

Somewhat in the same way, Wood qu0tes Brigid Lowe, a Cambridge University academic, who says the literary prophets of realism’s doom are worrying about the wrong issue. He cites her:

… fiction does not ask us to believe things (in a philosophical sense) but to imagine them (in an artistic sense): ‘Imagining the heat of the sun on your back is about as different an activity as can be from believing that tomorrow it will be sunny. One experience is all but sensual, the other wholly abstract.

This is where she argues for the restoration of the term hypotyposis, which means to put something before our eyes, to bring it alive for us, as a replacement for realism.

The point, the point I am labouring to make, is that all these arguments about realism, its death or rebirth, are based on a wrong definition of realism. Realist writers are not trying to create a world on a page, rather they are trying to connect with readers’ imaginations, to allow the readers to see through their eyes.

I like the idea of writing which ‘gets me there’,’there’ being wherever the writer is, right alongside the author’s mind. That’s what I think this is all about.

So let’s carry on trying to tell the truth about the world as we see it. But let’s keep it fresh and fun.

Any clearer?

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4 comments on “Transubstantiation and other long words I no en francais
  1. Love love love this this Post, Cathy . . . and will once again have to not even force myself to share it widely . . . the same arguments about (insert what) ______ is dead! Realism, the novel form, POV is once again rearing its head in the Art world as well . . . in the sixties Painting Is Dead took on a shadowy presence, as painters now are linking into a similar dreadful feeling in their work, a nihilism. In the 60s, my dad did a whole series of canvases where only the words Painting Is Dead, in his distinct cursive, black paint across white background, tight words, were the only images . . . Most of these painting didn’t survive, destroyed, reused, changed and painting moved into something new or rediscovered from the past. Literature goes in cycles in the same manner, and I imagine all creative energy does the same. Great!

  2. Cathy, this is a great post. Wonderfully written, of course, and gives much food for thought. If a writer can connect with the senses, and therefore fire the imagination, of his or her reader they have succeeded. If this same writer throws in a strong narrative and characters you can see and hear in your mind, as if they were sitting beside you, then he or she has the potential to write great and memorable books. It’s these books we all hanker to read.
    Amanda x

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