Bill Bowler writes about...
The reference is to Jerry Wright’s editorial “Rejections,” in issue 196.
Dear Jerry & Don,
Thanks for sharing Silverberg’s thoughts on “the universal plot skeleton.” They are extremely interesting, yet I can’t help but chafe at the idea there is “an essential narrative formula that all successful writers of... fiction use.”
The part of the formula that gives me greatest pause is the requirement that the character faced with the problem “is in some way changed.” What about a character who SHOULD change, who has every opportunity to change, whose experiences in the story have shown the change that was needed — but who does not change. It’s a bit depressing, perhaps, but why couldn’t a beautiful and powerful story be written about a pathetic character who goes through hell and yet, in the end, has learned nothing.
After all, it’s the reader who experiences catharsis, not the character.
Keep up the good work,
Copyright © 2006 by Bill Bowler
Remember what I said about Picasso? He broke all the rules created by painting schools over the centuries, but he was successful because he KNEW those rules. He painted beautifully and accurately, and did some wonderful stuff. But because he knew HOW to paint beautiful rather than photographic pictures, he was able to break rules and create surreal, impressionistic, disturbing, but meaningful paintings.
The same is true for writers. Could a talented writer write a beautiful story about someone who COULDN’T — for whatever reason — learn, although the reader did? Certainly. But in the hands of someone who never learned the rules of story-telling, the story would be an unpleasant shambles. So, I agree with you, and we, with your approval, will print your letter and our reply.
Copyright © 2006 by Jerry Wright
Thanks for your feedback, Bill. Very thought-provoking. I can think of two stories offhand that may support your argument. Sorry to trundle out such heavy artillery:
In Franz Kafka’s “Metamporphosis,” Gregor Samsa awakens one morning as an insect. He is shunned by his family; his father even throws apples at him to keep him away. When an apple lodges in Gregor’s carapace, the resulting infection and his family’s neglect eventually kill him.
Arguably “The Metmorphosis” is a story that begins at the end, with Gregor’s awakening to the realization that he is a spectator in his own life, as it were, and that his family has been treating him as the insect he has finally become. The only “change” that takes place is that his family continues to treat him as an insect literally rather than figuratively. Gregor doesn’t really change; rather the reader watches him expire miserably.
The Biblical book of Job depicts a man from whom God removes protection over all but his life. When Satan causes Job to suffer the torments of the damned, Job’s putative friends urge him to denounce God. But Job does not change.
And that’s the whole point: Job bemoans his fate but remains steadfast in his faith. The stage is thus set for the classic work with which any discussion of theodicy must begin: if God if all-knowing, all-powerful and good, then why does evil befall good people?
Silverberg may have stated his principle a bit categorically; perhaps was summarizing Aristotle for the benefit of his audience. But no matter: in the end, stories are all we have; they are the way we think. Just as a “meta-grammar” of all languages may reflect the structure of the language capacity in the human brain, a meta-esthetic may likewise tell us whether a story, like a sentence, is complete or not.
Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb