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?


~ by yearzerowriters on November 21, 2009.

27 Responses to “Peace to all (except writers)”

  1. It’s a goal of mine to write a novel in which, truly, nothing happens at all. A novel of universal heat death, in a microcosmic sense, I guess. Almost like Houellebecq did with Whatever, but further…further. There is a horrible power in that, I think. Like Lovecraft would have said, dead but dreaming.

    • Stillness is the most terrifying, powerful thing of all – it’s like I said about the Big Bang – all that nothing – and it contained EVERYTHING. And yet somehow, when there’s somethng there, that soemthing is all there is.

  2. i welcome being shouted down here since i’m going to use a film as an example of zero conflict, but totally engaging—perhaps along the lines of what Daisy Anne is aiming to do. richard linklater’s slacker is one example. when that first came out it blew our minds because it totally unraveled the hollywood conventions in which we were conditioned to engage with stories on the big screen.

    as i was reading your post i kept thinking how much it makes me squrim when there’s sometimes the most mundane conflict. take larry david as an example. i usually can’t make it through 10 minutes of curb your enthusiasm without turning it off.

    surely to a certain extent the reader brings with her baggage from which her perception of conflict is measured. a serial killer may enjoy american psycho and find the most conflict-ridden passages enjoyable. (extreme case, ok.) so conflict ought not be written so conspicuously as to beat the reader over the head. i thought about stories that guilty pleasures — lotto winners whose lives change for the better; a rich celebrity falls in love with you and takes you out of your ghetto (a la notting hill?); but these are totally cheesy and wouldn’t by any stretch be considered “great novels” but are enjoyable nonetheless and virtually conflict-free.

    by deconstructing the rules of friction, arc, and character development, i’m sure one of us brilliant thinkers can create a great novel (not necessarily a story, like slacker?) sans conflict. i just can’t think of how.


    • jenn, Slacker is the film I always have in mind – hell, it’s a film that made the word mainstream. The whole slacker-generation genre gets ignored – and it shouldn’t. It’s important. It’s about more than just people shooting the breeze. I think Lesss Than Zero and Gen X are the two bookss that come closest to that feel

  3. Oh black balloon. That’s my healing song for crises. Lovely, thought provoking article.

  4. Sorry for the fluff comment above, hadn’t finished reading yet (but oh, i love that song).

    “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?”

    I’d like to propose that a novel of stillness would be possible, with movement. Physical movement or displacement in physics is of two kinds; velocity and speed. Velocity requires change in position while speed requires time and movement alone. A stillness if you will, that takes out the grist. So a novel of stillness could still have pace and speed without the element of moving from one ‘place’. This stillness could be achieved through a boomerang-type development, or from no development at all.

    Novels where nothing happens externally have been done. Novels where nothing happens internally might be more interesting to play with, particularly if there is some external contrast that might provide the need for grist without any real velocity built up? Funfun.

    • 🙂 One of my life highlights was seeing The Kills sing Black Balloon at the Kasbah in Coventry.

      I like the concept of different kinds of movement – and of course you then get the symbolism of the outer for the inner (rather like the film Quince Tree Sun if anyone knows it, whcih is just a man painting the same tree in different seasons)

  5. One point of clarification might be made by categorizing two different kinds of peace: “dynamic peace” and “static peace”. Dan has already defined these, without using these specific terms. Dynamic peace is the unfolding he spoke of; it’s not impassive and unresponsive to the world, but fully engaged. Rather than conflict and competition, the relationship between the protagonist and the external world (or internal world) is one of cooperation. Perhaps we could generalize that dynamic peace is constructive while conflict is destructive. Static peace, on the other hand, is the passive acceptance of entropy, a sort of nihilism or fatalism in which nothing matters and no effort to love and engage meaningfully with others is made.

    I can’t resist taking a look at Richard Linklater’s Slacker in this regard, which Jenn mentioned above. Is this a zero-conflict movie? Perhaps in a conventional sense. It’s certainly not Die Hard or Star Wars. If it’s zero conflict, can we categorize it as being an example of dynamic peace or static peace? Is it both? I think Slacker at least has instances of dynamic and static peace: the cynical intellectuals smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in the bar, discussing philosophy or whatever (it’s been many years since I last saw this wonderful film) are the classic exemplars of static peace. “Whatever. Nothing matters, but let’s talk about it.” Light up a smoke, pull on beer. Etcetera ad nauseum. And then somewhere in that movie–the later scenes with the people with the video cameras documenting their evening and finally going up onto the mountain to throw the video camera in a wild arc, ending the film, come to mind here–I see characters engaged in dynamic peace. These characters have not surrendered themselves to entropy. They are enjoying life and meeting it, staring back at it and documenting it–fully engaged. It’s a messier sort of peace, necessarily, because they haven’t resigned themselves to heat death and total extinction of the soul. They’ve taken another track–realization of the soul, self-actualization.

    This is all my interpretation of a very messy and chaotic film, but maybe you can follow and see what I am getting at. Ultimately, I’d argue that Slacker is slice-of-life film-making executed with superb artistry. Nothing is concrete or dogmatic; all is chaos: you get glimpses of these people’s lives and then the film moves on to someone else. It’s a larger view of the chaotic nature of social worlds, a fuzzy and ill-defined social anarchy without borders, where personalities meet and exchange and then separate again into individuals. So interesting because it is a film that focuses on a collective experience–a fragmented one, mind you, but collective nonetheless. It’s territory that is rarely explored in films or books, which are built around conventions of individual protagonists.

    • @leftunderbooks: i remember having these same debates about the empirical universality that Slacker provoked back in college. but seeing it now in a different framework–from the perspective of the construction of a story (or non-story)–certainly posits it in a different light.

      conflict doesn’t necessitate pain, right? conflict can be written without the concept of peace. if we posit conflict and peace together, we are inherently painting these strong themes with a binary argument, right? deconstructing traditional binary oppositions is what post-modernism is about (on one dimension, at least). so with that, a post-modern piece like Slacker enables conflict on a philosophical level without incurring any pain.


    • Slacker seems to be central to this conversation. I sense some real direction emerging. Thank you. I’d love to see Slacker discussed in relation to Coupland/Ellis

  6. 1) War is actually extremely poorly served by literature. The nature of fragmentary battlefields, with lots of different tableaus of action happening up and down, has yet to be handled well. The best we get is one eye witness view, which is fine. But to convey the simultaneous mosaic of images within both time and space represented, I await with interest.

    2) You know my thoughts on character arcs… But there is I think room for a conflict of emotions within the same mind. Any event/situation has a panoply of responses from the character. Rarely is it, that a character jumps to a conclusion of there being only one course of action without moral/emotional ambiguity. The conflict is nearly always internal, wrestling with the conscience, unless you’re writing serial killers.

    3) The journey of my novel for all its sound and fury, is a search for stillness. To not be on the run anymore. To stand still and catch one’s breath. For the character to return to a serenity last possessed in early youth, or at least approach attaining it; that equation of parental/material security versus the need to expand into one’s own identity out in the big world.

    She talks about past conflicts and current contemplation of them, but where she is at during the novel is in limbo; stasis; immobility. Superficially equating to stillness.

    Pictorial art for all its representative powers, to suggest movement and light, or even stillness at its very heart, still relies on a (visual) aesthetic. We are largely spared this within literature.


    • reply to Jenn and Cahrles best left till later. Marc, yes, war is a bad word – I mean battle – because war is too big a canvas for us to connect at all. Will come back to your other points later – or over beer tonight.


    • “Pictorial art for all its representative powers, to suggest movement and light, or even stillness at its very heart, still relies on a (visual) aesthetic. We are largely spared this within literature.”

      for the time being we are spared. i think we will be seeing much more integration of visual aesthetic with literature. that’s a whole ‘nother discussion altogether, though.

  7. there is always a story written on paper before it is made into a film.

  8. A quest for stillness – if you are reconciled to the inevitable fact of your mortality, then you can probably achieve stillness. If however it gnaws away even at the margins of your subconsciousness, there is your conflict straight off the bat. I happen to believe all artists write in part, in response to their mortality. At least in the sense that we may look to interrogate the world, try and sift meaning from the inchoate logic of why we are on this earth if just to briefly flicker like a candle and then be snuffed for eternity thereafter.


    • Marc, I think you’ve got something there. Hmm, I now have Dylan Thomas raging against the darkness in my head. I think you might be spot on that mortality is the absolute base point of art, but doesn’t that lead us back to the question of transcendence, and then we’re stuck with Hegel again?

      Maybe acceptance of mortality IS possible. I wonder if a study of the diaries of thedying would (however maudlin it sounds) be an interesting exercise in this context. I get the sense in Daisy’s work – conversation, especially, that there is something of this acceptance. I think possibly you’re onto an even bigger point – this might be why stillness is SUCH a taboo – because it is only possible if one embraces death – and that’s beyond the social pale (viz. Dignitas). It’s the one thing that many of us find utterly terrifying – because THAT (to forge one more connection) is what connects absolutely to a reader’s pain, to their fear of death.

  9. I think stories in which inward battles are fought are appealing because it brings everything back to real life. We can sometimes doubt that external, physical ‘stuff’ can happen, (‘balloon boy’ for example) that we would never dream of writing.

    However, we all know the tormoil that goes on inside; the hidden battles faced each day. There is none such war as the war we fight with ourselves because it’s all silent and forever cold.

    There is never a resolution. When we grow old we have to concede to a draw. Our hair whitens, our bones creak, but yet we fight on. Even though we know there never will be – could be the mirage of peace we portray to every one else around us. Life always wants more and in diverse ways.

    We decide eventually that peace is the small paragraph amid the din of voices and characters. The bit where we pause to appreciate that the journey of the page is not the full stop, but all the commas in-between.

    Could we write peace? Yes we can. The simple answer is, we can because peace is not the absence of conflict. There always will be conflict, even if it’s just personal. We can write peace because we’ve decided that the battles we fight will be kept inside our heads in locked-away places where we’ll deal with them in our own time, in our own way, bit by bit by bit because we know them and we know we can manage to keep the fighting under control and breathe…
    Anne LG

  10. ‘… amid the din of voices and characters’ – Yes!

    There’s way in which the emphasis on conflict, as understood by many critics on authonomy, feeds into ego’s need to distract itself with constant activity, with continual, superficial gossip. The novel in which nothing much happens, or there is no overt conflict and heroic struggle – Kerouac, Alexander Trocchi? – is one where busyness of action and plot is replaced by a steady, contemplative gaze on reality. I see Daisy and Penny’s recent work in this light – in fact it’s there to some extent in most YZ writers?

  11. In real life, do the inner conflicts ever get resolved? If prompted by an actual situation, say the break up of a relationship, time may well cauterise the bleeding. But I’d wager the lovers enter similar flawed relationships in the future, drawn to similar partners as the old and end up making similar mistakes. Their needs and their neuroses, do these ever get resolved? Making your partner a co-dependent and likewise they making you theirs is not really a solution to the conflict. (More like how an HIV virus cell locks on to the immuno antigens in order to replicate itself, destroying the anitgen in doing so). If somehow they can smooth away your anxiety in a particular area, through building up an immense level of trust that they will not attack you for it, nor dismiss it, then maybe, just maybe. But conflict, or the anxiety within it is our personal default setting. It’s part of our psychological make-up. A novel might magic it away after 250 pages, or say 6 hours reading, but 6 hours soul searching ain’t going to. 60 years probably won’t be long enough either.

    I just don’t buy into this concept of ‘conflict’ as the most significant organising principle in literary art – it is the be all and end all of stage and screen plays, (apparently, but I like the works of Robert Wilson) but there, a different mechanism and interaction with audience is in place – the narrative lasts for a fixed time, in an auditorium, in public, with the lights down. Books are far more intimate, 1-to-1 reads.

    For a writer, the key seems to me to make reflectivity on inner turmoil interesting, communicable to a reader and not seem self-indulgent or pall after about 30 pages of the stuff. Game on.


    • that’s very interesting, Marc. “reflectivity” is fascinating because I haven’t quite worked out if that’s not just a semantic game and it’s still conflict at the heart, whetehr one’s reflecting or describing. If there were nothing of confluict on whcih to reflect, what would reflectivity do?

      • Reflect on one’s interactivity with the world, with ‘reality’, a quest for meaning and purpose. Of course conflict may enter this and almost certainly will re relationship to both other people and the nature of one’s own ‘reality’ but they are more foregrounded than the conflict per se.


  12. I think and feel a book can be written about stillness, if the writer embraces its essence as words flow from timeless thought space into tangible form; procuring what is. Action lives in stillness, as All encompasses forward movement, even the greatest subtlety – it is description in purity that stillness may be experienced between the written word and it’s reader.
    Cheers, Lisa

  13. Thanks, Lisa – that’s exactly what I would like to see if I can write 🙂

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