Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added)
is the best-kept secret among contemporary American writers.
--John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture

Sunday, July 09, 2006

"Aversion to exposition," worldview, & art

"It seems to me that an aversion to exposition in fiction may be a 20th century thing. Earlier literatures seemed more comfortable with it than 20th century literatures. If this assumption is correct, does the new aversion come from a move toward more verisimilitude in writing?

"Why do infodumps feel unrealistic to us, particularly in dialogue? Much of what we say every day is expository. But transcribed into dialogue in a story, most of our expository conversations would feel unrealistic."

--Matt Cheney, The Mumpsimus

******

WHEREIN I ANSWER QUESTIONS

DESPITE MY VERY OWN

(MY OWN, MIND YOU!)

IGNORANCE,

& EVEN VENTURE AS FAR AS

THE MYSTERIOUS GENRE OF ROMANCE...

I would say that an “aversion to exposition” comes from the same impulse as Jackson Pollock dollops (say that 20 times, fast!) and splatters: a conviction that the world is random, uncontrollable, and meaningless. Exposition, in the light of that idea, is drained of authority and purpose. In fact, one can have no confidence in assertions and perceptions as anything but one writer’s stray and momentary thoughts.

Such a stance appears “more realistic,” I suppose, if a writer or a reader subscribes to that worldview—and many writers have done so. Today it appears that most “literary” writers do so, and most writers of “fantasy." Writers of detective fiction are a different breed; no matter their personal beliefs, they must find solid ground in “right” and “wrong,” and within a universe that may appear like a labyrinth but will make sense, if a thread is properly pursued. For them, the man-bull at the heart of a Cretan maze will be discovered, revealed, brought to light. Although I know almost nothing at all about the genre of “romance,” that won’t stop me from a little wild expositon: that path takes one from “start” to “heart,” from the beginning of a labyrinth to the center where the man-bull is tamed and becomes Beauty’s beloved. Meanwhile, “westerns” can’t avoid the laws and heritage that point straight back to the code of Western morality and manliness nailed to the schoolhouse marm's door in Owen Wister’s The Virginian.

IT'S A MAD, MAD WORLD.

IT JUST IS.

The creation and dominance of a worldview that sees the universe as random is, I imagine, the reason that Modernism casts such a very long shadow. It is, I suspect, a reason that a certain amount of recent literature appears profoundly repetitive. If one’s birthright is merely “the random,” then there is a kind of fundamental simplicity to one’s vision. The past century is as far as you need look as an artist, because before that everybody was misguided. In fact, why read or look at your predecessors at all, if everything’s random? Because history and tradition and all those motheaten things don’t matter. Hence, in the latter half of the twentieth century, we often bumped into now old-hat complaints about writers who hadn’t read, artists who hadn’t learned to draw, etc.

The question for these has been how to move forward, because a great deal of what has been done is a kind of running in the hamster’s wheel. For many, the reclamation of skills and beauty is underway.

WHAT WAS THAT?

OR, EXPLOSION IN THE MUSEUM

Surely there is a sort of progress and movement--a pun is an evil thing! there were seven or eight of the relentless, cheeky things here, until I cleaned up the sentence and flushed them down the Oh, never mind--from the world of Piero Manzoni's Artist's Shit (cannily canned in the lovely month of May, 1961) to Ofili's elephant dung and obvious pleasure in color and line.

That high prices have been shelled out--the Tate paid $61,000 for its Merda d'artista--gives the original joke of the thing a pleasant level of absurdity. Of course, the interest in the thing is not "in" the cans or their original commentary but in the twists and turns of a story about each little can and how it grew until one day it, as Manzoni wished, blew up in a museum, taking a lot of highly inflated pretensions with it. The story isn't finished until the last can blows up in the last museum, and the last outraged newspaper article is written, and the museums decide what to do about their expensive, blown-up cans and the unstoppable process of decomposition.

I wonder what is in the tiny can that has been x-rayed inside some of these cans? Was Manzoni just using filler, or is there even more message to the message? You can't say the simplest thing about these cans without a pun, you know; there ought to be an article about that fundamental impossibility.

Leave me alone! I am still talking about "aversion of exposition" and the random worldview!

OOPS,

NO,

I'M NOT...

BECAUSE IN THIS

VERY PARTICULAR SPOT,

NO, OH, VERY NO, MY DEAR NANETTE

--TAPDANCING TO MUSIC BY VINCENT YOUMANS--

IT'S NOT A MAD, MAD WORLD

Others long ago rejected the Modernist revolution of the random and ordered the world. For perfectly obvious reasons, these are primarily people who have a religious worldview—a Marilynne Robinson, say, in what is called "literary fiction," or a Charles Causley in poetry, or a Gene Wolfe in what is called "genre fiction." (But this cannot be a Buddhist view, because that leads again to the welcoming and the utilizing of the random.) Despite the fact that they can’t help being of their time and place (nobody can, after all), such artists are “more comfortable” with much from earlier times—an embrace of the chain of being, beauty, truth, moral underpinnings, and other elements dismantled in the twentieth century. They don’t lack subjects of meaning or a compass or light to see by.

These writers may never write about religion per se, yet they have a solid world underfoot. They don't live in one of those shifty, random houses slipping about on sand. What's outside the windows may be astonishingly mutable, but the house stands still.

LET'S NOT BOTHER THINKING ABOUT IT, SHALL WE?

Still others have a shadowy worldview, borrowed from the culture at large, because they've never bothered to think about how they consider the world. These, neither hot nor cold, are not particularly aware of what they do, and are blown like tumbleweeds by the winds of trend and fashion.

HERE ALL PONTIFICATION

WAS INTERRUPTED,

SADLY,

BY AN EXPLODING

CAN

Help!

Who said that?

Help?

Yes!

5 comments:

  1. I like exposition, but then I like innuendo, too. Hee. It's a sleepy, sunny afternoon, and I've got watercolor crayons on the brain. I'm so glad I'm a reader and not a writer. I'm sorry you have to worry over such things. I'm glad you're a writer, though. And now to bed. ( For a wee toes up, that's all.)

    ReplyDelete
  2. Worry not! I don't normally. I just felt, for once, like answering a question. People are always asking questions on their blogs...

    And I'm not going to worry either. Maybe it's time for a night at the Opera.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wallace Stevens6:14 PM, July 08, 2006

    Laura, you are the soul mate I never found in the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Building!

    "I do not know which to prefer,
    The beauty of inflections
    Or the beauty of innuendoes,
    The blackbird whistling
    Or just after."

    I do hope your dream circled the moon in a red dress, and that your upturned toes turned a delightful spring green.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Wallace and I are very old, intimate (the beauty of innuendos) friends. How do I love him? Thirteen ways.

    ReplyDelete
  5. wallace stevens, o. i. f.11:45 PM, July 08, 2006

    A man and a woman and a blackbird
    Are one.

    ReplyDelete

Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.