Sunday, August 10, 2014
What We Can Learn From Big Clunky Novels
Kings Row was a huge bestseller in 1940, turned into a hit movie in 1942. The movie starred Robert Cummings and, in his finest role, Ronald Reagan. The supporting cast is equally impressive: Claude Raines, Ann Sheridan, Charles Coburn and the unforgettable Maria Ouspenskaya.
After watching the movie recently I decided to read the book. It has an interesting pedigree. It was the author's first novel and he was 58 when it came out. Henry Bellamann was a musician, a composer and an educator. He wrote Kings Row (which takes place around 1900) based in part on his own home town. Indeed, there was quite a bit of controversy about it, as the citizens still alive from those days took offense at much of the content.
And what content! This sweeping saga concerns a boy, Parris Mitchell, who grows up in Kings Row and goes on to become one of the first practicing psychiatrists in America. His childhood friend is Drake McHugh. Parris is the sober-minded student. Drake is the wild ladies man. The narrative follows their growing up, their loves, their disasters.
Two very dark and sinister secrets dominate the proceedings. I won't spoil them for you here. I recommend you watch the movie...and then know that one of the secrets is even darker in the novel. The studio ran up against the censors and thus had to soften it to some degree. I can see why much of the reading public was "shocked" by the novel.
Now, here's the interesting thing. The book is not exactly what we'd call well-written. The prose is clunky, the dialogue sodden. Yet I couldn't stop reading and by the time I was finished, I felt that sense of resonance that only a deeply affecting reading experience can bring.
My question to myself, then, was why, in spite of the deficiencies, did I feel this way?
Before I answer, let me mention another book that had much the same effect on me.
In the early years of the twentieth century, most critics would have named Theodore Dreiser as the great Americannovelist. He ushered in a new school of urban realism. Here was not a Mark Twain, writing light-hearted fare. Nor a Jack London, with his fast-moving action.
No, Dreiser was our "important," world-class novelist. But you hardly ever hear his name mentioned anymore. He's not taught, except on rare occasions, in college lit classes. This is sad, because Dreiser has much to teach us.
His greatest work is An American Tragedy (1925). You can also watch the movie version. A Place in the Sun (1951) is a terrific film starring Montgomery Clift and, at her most gorgeous, Elizabeth Taylor.
This novel is also clunky in its prose. In fact, the New York Times famously dubbed it "the worst written great book ever." Yet when I finished it, I found myself deeply moved.
Which brings up the same question I had about Kings Row. Why do I count each of these novels as among my most memorable reading experiences, even though stylistically they fall short?
Here's my attempt at some answers.
1. Great themes
Both these books take up the great themes of human existence. Love, evil, sin, fate. These books were not meant to be commercial throwaways. The authors worked years on them. Indeed it was ten years between Dreiser's The Genius and his magnum opus.
The main characters are thrust into situations that force them to confront all forms of death—physical, professional, psychological. Clyde Griffiths in An American Tragedy is obsessed with ambition and success, and then the lovely Sondra. Only problem: he's impregnated another woman who threatens to spill the beans unless he marries her.
Therein lies the tale.
Parris Mitchell of Kings Row is obsessed with human behavior, why people act the way they do, and how he can help them. But his explorations of the mind lead him to dark corners he never could have conceived of growing up. It's a loss of innocence and a confrontation with harsh reality.
Nothing seems "small" in these novels. The authors reach for the thematic skies.
I don't see why any novelist cannot treat a large theme in a book. Even in commercial fare, like a category romance. If you're writing about love, write it for all its worth!
2. Interior life of the characters
Both Dreiser and Bellamann spend a huge portion of their narratives explaining exactly what is going in inside the main characters. We cannot help but identify with the emotional stakes and inner conflicts.
Dreiser is especially explicit when, in omniscient fashion, he describes how Clyde is thinking and feeling at key points. What it came down to was not the style, but Dreiser's uncanny ability to show us human behavior and thought in a way that truly makes us understand not just the character, but ourselves.
These days, the amount of interior time you spend depends on your genre and your own particular style. But take note you "plot driven" writers: when you get readers inside a character they tend to bond with them more. And that makes for a greater reading experience.
3. Huge action
Yet the emotional is balanced with the external. The action is not of the thriller variety, but is nevertheless is huge. We're talking about murder, suicide, incest, lust, vengefulness. And of course the vagaries of romantic love.
Here is a lesson for you "literary" or "character driven" writers. You love rendering the inner life of the characters, but if you don't watch it the action can be less than compelling. The best literary writers give us outer action that matters, too.
Here's my theory about clunky fiction that has all of the above. By the time you've traveled with the characters through the narrative, you become, by a wonderful alchemy, totally invested in their fate. Whether the story ends on an upbeat note (as in Kings Row) or a tragic one (as in An American Tragedy), you are going to be affected in that fashion all us writers wish to achieve: the book is going to stay with you long after you finish it.
I do enjoy what Sol Stein calls "transient fiction." I read many books that entertain me wildly, but when they're over, they're over and I'm not tempted to read them again.
Yet I often think about An American Tragedy. And likewise Kings Row.
What about you? What novel has stayed with you like this? What did it teach you about storytelling?
[NOTE: I'm in travel and teaching mode, so may not be able to comment much. Talk this up amongst yourselves. Help a blogger out!]