Peace to all (except writers)
This article started out as a discussion on one of twitter’s #writechat sessions about character flaws. On Armistice Day I opened up a discussion on my blog that provided a huge amount of thought-provoking material. I’d like to thank everyone who contributed there, and hope that this article is more balanced as a result.
A fortnight ago, Marc Nash wrote a wonderful article, Pain, in which he posed the question whether it’s possible for writers to write a reader’s pain. It has, by dint of accident, the fascinating subject matter, and the quality of Marc’s thought, become somewhat programmatic for our recent works, and indeed will provide the introduction to the forthcoming anthology Thirteen Shadows Waiting for Sunrise. There has been some incredible discussion, some breathtaking writing, and some very deep soul-searching. But the question I want to consider now is, for writers, far more sinister and disturbing than writing pain. I want to know if it’s possible to write peace.
Specifically: can there be a great novel without conflict?
One thing that’s quite clear is, as several commenters, pointed out, that conflict means many things, and the answer will depend on which definition we take. So I want to take us, Dante-esque (I am asking here whether I might IN THE FUTURE write an unconventional piece – for the article itself convention will serve nicely), on a journey into the deeper circles of writers’ hell. First, I will look at conflict in the external sense – of good old fisticuffage of some kind. Then I will look at conflict in the novelistic sense of a pivotal dilemma that spurs a character to action (and I promise that THIS, here, is the only time I will mention the name Dwight V Swain to you – I hope, as Lecter says to Starling at the end of Silence of the Lambs, you will extend me the same courtesy). I will arrive in the hell of progress. Not in a modernist, Hegelian sense. OK, YES in a Hegelian sense, but understood as character development, arriving at the question: can we write a novel of absolute impassivity. Which will lead to a final question: is this a question that cuts across the whole of art, or one to which different arts provide different answers?
War. Hurrhh! What is it good for? Well, it’s very good for setting novels to, Mr Brown. No one will deny that. Be it slaying dragons, gunfire, family feuds, natural disaster: external happenings of a dramatic and negative kind make a wonderful mise en scene. On the other hand, a simple truism about novels will swiftly despatch the idea that they’re necessary. Dramatic settings pnly make great novels if they surround fascinating characters. So it is not the setting that matters, but the character.
We know this, of course. Whilst an external conflict moulds a story, and provides its trigger, it’s the internal journey we care about. The agonies characters undergo in response to crisis. And there are many stories in which there is no external crisis, simply a world carrying on whilst the character undergoes turmoil. We know this from life. It does not take external circumstance to cause existential angst and its – for better or worse – resolution. Sometimes all it takes is a song on the radio (Radiohead’s Lucky & The Kills’ Black Balloon do for me), a change in the season as light leeches from the sky, or something as inevitable as turning 13. What changes is not the world, but our perception of it. A Road to Damascus moment. Coming of Age stories are often like this – Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood, for example (it was a song in that novel that started it all, of course). So are other works of (and this is the only time I’ll use THIS cliché) literary fiction (the cliché being that in literary fiction the conflict is internal; in genre fiction it’s external) – Babette’s Feast, for example.
These are stories rich in conflict, still. A character suddenly perceives the world differently – sees joy where there was dullness, understanding where there was isolation, confusion where there seemed simplicity – and spends the novel trying to come to terms with that changed perception. The arc of the story is pretty similar to that of the external conflict – indeed it is so easy to use the same language of external conflict as a metaphor for internal that we usually do just that.
But I don’t think even that level of conflict is necessary. Even in existing novels. Not as their mechanism. People talked a lot about character development in the blog comments. And there are novels where the arc derives from development rather than conflict.
What do I mean by development? Well, Kierkegaard says in The Aesthetic Validity of Marriage that the aesthetic is the result of one’s grist against time. I like that as a definition of development – our grist against time. It’s change, but not random change. It’s change with a direction – and in artistic terms that direction is towards unity – it is the opposite of the natural change, that towards entropy. Grist against time. How Neoplatonist. But how true. That is plenty for a novel – Love in the Time of Cholera, Heimat, Silk, Mal de Mer. What really happens? A character ages, and with age comes no conflict but an unfolding, a double movement in the story, towards disintegration at one level. Towards wisdom, unity, “salvation” at another.
But can we go further? What would further be? Would it be to write a novel that is JUST the description of entropy? Slow change, but with no grist of resistance to it. That’s not so remarkable. For all the appearance of stasis, that’s what much slacker literature does. Less Than Zero, for example. The slow disintegration of a character and his belief in anything in the face of the slowly crumbling world around him, a world utterly indifferent to its fate. And, of course, the greatest story of entropy of all: The Fall of The House of Usher.
Or would further be stillness. The absence of movement at all. Could one write a novel of stillness? Or would the very act of sequencing words on a page, and sequentially reading them nullify the intent?
Which brings us to art. One commenter suggested that movement was essential in all art. Otherwise it’s just, well, stuff. Kierkegaard thought it, certainly. But what about Duchamp? Didn’t he show that stuff WAS art? And what of a landscape – where’s the movement in a landscape? Isn’t its aesthetic rather from its proportion? And isn’t proportion about fixedness? Couldn’t one write that?
Doesn’t that happen already, in fact, with the haiku? And if it happens with the haiku, haven’t we accepted that we can write stillness? And once we’ve accepted it, isn’t the only question one of demarcation? Is the demarcation that between poetry and prose? Or is it a quantitative one? In which case where does it fall?
If, in other words, there is a boundary, isn’t it our job as artists to find it and push it till it breaks?
See, I too have written a piece that embodies entropy. Falling from confident assertion into question and fragmentation. Can we reintroduce that Neoplatonist note and begin to find some answers? And can we answer the ultimate question put by one commentator: if one could write such a piece, wouldn’t it just be incredibly dull? I want to say no. I want to say stillness is a wonderful thing, full of content not absence. Stillness is what there was before the Big Bang, and look at all THAT contained.
What do you reckon?