Unmitigated fiction

Posted: November 11, 2009 in Creativity
Tags: , , ,

I used to work for a very small book publisher, and one of my responsibilities was reading manuscripts from the slush pile. Because we were  such a small publishing house, we got the slush—except for a few rare gems—from the absolute bottom of the heap. Most of the authors of this slush had no idea what kind of books we were looking for. They submitted their manuscripts to us only because everybody else had already rejected them.

I relate this anecdote as proof that I have read some really really lousy literature.

Several years have passed since then, and I no longer have to read other people’s manuscripts. In fact, I’ve ventured into the land of fiction-writing myself—and have even begun to think of attempting a novel. Casting around for assistance, I bought an atypical guidebook: How Not to Write a Novel, by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. I bought it because I hate manuals that purport to tell you how to write. They usually have some good information, but, as the creative process involves infinite possibilities, such books invariably are limiting. So I bought an anti-manual, reasoning that I would be a few steps ahead of the game if I knew which pitfalls to avoid.

I’ll give the authors credit: It’s a very funny book in places. Example: the assertion that deus ex machina is French for “Are you fucking kidding me?” Or that “the overall message of any bad novel should make the staunchest First Amendment absolutist long for the Thought Police.”

Ultimately, however, the book is hard to read. The reason: The examples of bad writing are so awful, they leave you craving escape. They also warp your view of language. After finishing one chapter near the middle of the book, I was unable to read any other printed material objectively for more than an hour—it all seemed to echo the lame lingo of the examples.

Then I chanced upon an interesting sub-chapter in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. In it, he discusses the fine points of communication in the cockpits of jumbo jets, and demonstrates how mitigated statements—the watered-down language we often use to keep from offending others, especially our “superiors”—can actually cause a catastrophic accident. Gladwell takes as an example a conversation between two officers on an Avianca airlines flight that crashed in Long Island in early 1990. When the captain asked the first officer to convey to air traffic control at JFK airport that the airline was “in an emergency,” the first officer did so less than urgently. The reason? The first officer, a Colombian, had been raised to view authority figures (in this case, the air traffic controllers) with reverence. He, therefore, did not want to offend the controllers, so he mitigated his language. But the American controllers weren’t accustomed to reading between the lines—nor did they really have the time. The captain repeated his request, and, again, the first officer mitigated his language. In the end, the plane crashed before the direness of the situation got communicated, and most of the passengers—and both pilots—died.

Bad fiction isn’t fatal, that’s true. But mitigated speech can keep fiction from succeeding. And mitigation in fiction can take various forms: trying to sound authentic, rather than saying what you mean; watering down dialogue to avoid offending someone; seeking mass approval by catering to the lowest common denominator; and so on.

If I had to name an author who rarely mitigated, it would be Hemingway. Consider the succinctness of description, the non-cloying dialogue, and the get-it-told attitude in this passage:

They were both beet workers, a Mexican and a Russian, and they were sitting drinking coffee in an all-night restaurant when some one came in the door and started shooting at the Mexican. The Russian crawled under a table and was hit, finally, by a stray shot fired at the Mexican as he lay on the floor with two bullets in his abdomen. That was what the paper said.

The Mexican told the police he had no idea who shot him. He believed it to be an accident.

“An accident that he fired eight shots at you and hit you twice, there?”

“Si, senor,” said the Mexican, who was named Cayetano Ruiz.

“An accident that he hit me at all, the cabron,” he said to the interpreter.

“What does he say?” asked the detective sergeant, looking across the bed at the interpreter.

“He says it was an accident.”

That’s from a story called “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but I could open pretty much any Hemingway book and find a scene just as economical and informative. Hemingway had something to say and he said it. A mitigator, on the other hand, pays more attention to how he is saying something than to what he is saying.

That’s why writer’s manuals don’t work—even anti-manuals. If you want to write fiction, you just need to have a story to tell. The story is the thing. Once you have it, tell it like it is. No mitigating. I don’t guarantee success—you’ll have to struggle like the rest of us—but it’s a start.

Oh, and one other thing: Read good fiction. In the process, you’ll see just about every so-called rule broken with great success.


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