Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Messiness in Fiction

As I've written here before, I'm working on a series of short stories in which I'm trying something new. It's partly my response to, or maybe expression of, the situation we find ourselves in culturally and psychologically post 9/11, and partly perhaps my own rebellion against what I've done before - which you have to keep doing if you're not to go stale as an artist, right?

As I've said here, I've become increasingly impatient with concepts of fixed character, and with plot which leans towards singular meaning, and indeed with the whole conventional notion of story - I guess I always have, really, but I've been tipped over the edge recently. I keep asking myself: How like life is that, after all: the single interpretation, the one (authorial) viewpoint, the satisfying conclusion?

And yet... How to make stories which convey the messiness of life, the fact that sometimes there is no conclusion and we don't know the meaning - which increasingly it seems to me it's important to do - while yet satisfying the entirely understandable desire of readers for pattern and meaning?

It's hard. My story 'Possibility', which will appear in the first edition of the new online lit mag Horizon Review is one attempt. This kind of writing is exhilarating, challenging, but not easy. But an article by Anthony Neilson in today's Guardian has given me courage. He says that works of art which 'attempt to bring order to the unruliness of existence' are reductive, and that this is simply not the business of artists.


Tania Hershman said...

I'm looking forward to reading the first of your new "messy" stories. I find it hard to fight the urge to tie things up neatly in my stories, but I don't like it when I do. I also learned last year from a fabulous teacher at a short story workshop that I don't need to provide a character's motivations for his/her actions, because to think that there is one cause for every effect is naive and simplistic, we human beings are far more complex than that. I felt freed and liberated by this - my character could just do what he does, and it's not up to me to say why.
Long live messiness!

Elizabeth Baines said...

Yes, that's a good insight about motivation. Readers, I find when I discuss books with people, do often read reductively - there seems tobe an impulse to 'master' a piece of fiction by pinning characters down to a single motivation - and I think it's success if you can get readers to accept and even relish complexity or indeed uncertainty.