Sunday, January 14, 2018

The Power of Richard Powers: Act I

This prize-drenched novelist isn’t for everyone, because, by his own admission in an interview with Alec Michod, he finds no distinction between novels focused on “thinking” versus those geared toward “feeling”:
We’re all driven by hosts of urges, some chaotic and Dionysian, some formal and Apollonian. The need for knowledge is as passionate as any other human obsession. And the wildest of obsessions has its hidden structure.
Most novels neither reveal hidden structure nor synthesize philosophy with plot. And often, readers associate the Apollonian world of music and hard science with nonfiction, and the Dionysian one with levity, drama, and passion. For this reason, the average reader generally gravitates toward literary novels or the more plot-driven, accessible alternatives. 

Obviously, we all get to read whatever we want, and many readers, and thus many writers, lack the patience for forays into abstractions like neuroscience, genetics, or music theory. If you’re up for that, though, the rewards of any novel by Richard Powers are enormous. What might you discover as reader, writer, and human being?

Powers, a former programmer, now composer, author, and teacher with boundless curiosity and humanity, says that
The brain is the ultimate storytelling machine, and consciousness is the ultimate story.
Let’s examine that. According to Lisa Cron in Wired for Story:The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence:
Story, as it turns out, was crucial to our evolution—more so than opposable thumbs. Opposable thumbs let us hang on; story told us what to hang on to.
Both Cron and Powers suggest that if if we’re going to label ourselves at all, we’re not rational creatures who convince with facts but folks inspired, driven, and completed by drama. In other words, the stories we tell make us who we are. 

And who is that? How constricted or broad? Powers continues with 
shared stories are the only way anyone has for escaping the straightjacket of self…We read to escape ourselves and become someone else, at least for a little while. Fiction is one long, sensuous derangement of familiarity through altered point of view…Fiction plays on that overlap between self-composure and total, alien bewilderment, and it navigates by estrangement. (Alec Michod interview)
Whether or not you ever read a novel by Powers (and the next blog will encouarage you to try), consider your opportunities and responsibilities as a storyteller.  You might want to view fiction a little differently.

~ Fiction performs its work by making the familiar strange and the strange familiar.

~ Fiction provides an opportunity to be less and more than oneself.

~ Fiction integrates the wildness of Dionysus with the reserve of Apollo.

~ Fiction convinces by synthesizing character and morality, action and idea.

~ Fiction introduces the grand possibility of uniting rather than dividing science and art.


Tip: Why limit the parameters of fiction? They can be as broad as you want to make them.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

More Real than Reality

Story depends on suspension of disbelief, which depends on creating a world that ironically boasts greater credibility and vitality than the everyday one. What’s the source of this term? A conversation between William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge about reaching an audience. 

Wordsworth focused on the intensity part, suggesting that the writer’s task is  
to give the charm of novelty to things of every day . . . the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.
Altering reader perception remains as important now as then. Coleridge, though. emphasized the capacity
to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith. . .
Without believability + electricity, readers won’t linger long. The novelist needs to heighten reality, producing one so acute that readers forget they encounter an imaginary one.

Is getting readers to accept this fictional reality difficult?
The reader picks up a book primed to believe the unbelievable. A reader knows a piece of fiction is fiction. He wants to be entertained by what-ifs and imagine-thats. The writer’s sole task, then, is to keep up his end of the contract, to keep the reader immersed in the reality of unreality. To do nothing to slap the reader into an awareness that what he’s reading is indeed impossible, improbable, and not worth imagining.  — Beth Hill,  “Convincing Readers Your Fiction is Real”
Tip: Unlike literal reality, fiction requires suspension of disbelief. 

Here’s why. Perhaps an author says there’s an animal resembling a miniature version of another animal. This creature is pale, not very big, and unusual in shape and features. The male gets pregnant and experiences violent contractions to deliver about two thousand offspring through a special stomach pouch. Does this seem a bit unreal? Provide a photograph and there’s no room for doubt.


But a fabricated creature is another story—especially when it appears in one. First, the creation of your own mind must be accessible to everyone else. You must convince your audience that the environmental factors of your novel’s world fostered this evolutionary outcome. Finally, this invented creature mustn’t prove too convenient, i.e. coincidentally materializing to produce threat or salvation. 

Fiction must prove itself, accomplishing this by changing the angle, nailing the details, designing the characters, and sharpening the causality. That’s why “but it happened that way” is no more strategic than why can’t they picture how “x” looks. Imagery is the writer’s job—not the reader’s.

Rely too much on reality itself (whom you know or what you remember) and you’ll have a harder time convincing readers to accept the reality you create. Instead, put yourself in your reader’s shoes. Is it vivid? Was it set up? What, given these circumstances, could really happen?


Readers want to accept fiction as a variant of truth. Don’t let them down.