Tag Archives: fiction

Experience, Race, and Gender in Fiction

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899), Stein’s Melanctha (1909), Anand’s Untouchable (1935), and Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) all explore the relationship of class and race. Through the 38 year span in which these novels were published, the gradual expression of race relations changes drastically.  Conrad explores the racial tensions tied to imperialism through Marlow’s close observation of Mr. Kurtz.  Stein stays close to home in her interperspective novel Melanctha, yet ties gender and class together while still depicting an ethnic alternative lifestyle.  Anand, while his novel was published much later, gives the audience a sense of what life is in India’s harsh caste system.  Untouchable explores class closely, but to an English audience, which introduced them to a world other than post-WWI American society.  Finally, Hurston thoroughly captures the relations of gender and race together in Janie Stark.  The novel focuses on her tribulations, instead of a broad sociological effects, allowing the harsh scenes of domestic abuse to expose hidden inequalities other than race.  Over time, fiction writers presented more topics that were not necessarily common knowledge, bringing them to the public eye.  While tackling cultural obstacles is nothing new in writing, the modernists relied on firsthand experience,  allowing for more raw, realistic stories that related to the audience.

Dark

“It had become so pitch dark that we listeners could hardly see one another. For a long time already he, sitting apart, had been no more to us than a voice. There was not a word from anybody. The others might have been asleep, but I was awake. I listened, I listened on the watch for the sentence, for the word, that would give me the clue to the faint uneasiness inspired by this narrative that seemed to shape itself without human lips in the heavy night-air of the river”.

 

Conrad, Joseph. Heart of Darkness. In Youth: A Narrative; and Other Tales. Rev. ed. Edited by Cedric Watts. Oxford University Press, 2002. p.130.

 

I think this shows modernity from the darkness that he seems to portray during this paragraph. It is darker and creepier which makes me feel as though it is modern.

Woolf

If we want understanding of the soul and heart where else shall we find it of comparable profundity? If we are sick of our own materialism the least considerable of their novelist has right of birth a natural reverence for the human spirit.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 15. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

Words of fiction is a confounding captivation of human lives that is an escape from our reality into another.

Woolf: Freedom in Modern Fiction

“if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest or catastrophe in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewed on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 150. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

Life is an organic thing, as is fiction. How a writer or novelist creates their work of fiction should not be as constrained as it apparently is. There are expectations that writers feel obliged to abide by in order to entertain his or her readers – expectations of comedy, tragedy, love interests, catastrophes or precise characters. If a writer were to write as they see fit, it would be a direct portrayal of what the author intended, without the elements so finely executed in other works that came before. I find a connection here with poetry – there are guidelines, there are measures, patterns, rhythms to be followed, but there is also an opportunity to freely abandon such rules, a freedom Woolf believes should be available to fiction writers – let novelists write freely, modern fiction is just as crucial to literary culture as works that are more rigorously/strictly designed.

Woolf Gets It!

“‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.”

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 154. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

I couldn’t agree more with this essay, and this summarizing quote. For me, this idea that fiction is what you make it and not what you’re told it is, is one that I struggle with. Not that I don’t stand behind it to the fullest, but, as I intend to teach creative writing classes someday, I’ve been finding it difficult to decide how I can teach a craft that comes from the heart and soul rather than a defined method or period of time. Of course there will never quite be an answer to my woes, but it’s great to know that my viewpoint is shared by so many I admire.

“The Proper Stuff of Fiction”

“‘The proper stuff of fiction’ does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss.  And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured” (Woolf 154).

Woolf personifies fiction in this quotation from “Modern Fiction”; in doing so, she expresses the concept of encouraging writers to challenge fiction and incorporate their own ideas within it.  This contrasts from other thinkers who view writing from a formulaic perspective and discourage deviation and creativity in terms of style.

Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Fiction.” In The Common Reader, 154. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1925.

Writing from Experience

It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our supposititious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it begin and end? Experience is never limited and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.

 

What James brings to the table here is quite philosophical.  If we are constantly experiencing, then there should truly be no end to what we have experienced.  Not only can we take from what we have honestly gone through in life, but we can take advantage of our endless imagination.   Fiction isn’t necessarily embellishing the truth, it can be entirely produced in one’s imagination. Writers need not rely on first hand experiences to construct a story, but may begin from nothing and create something artificial, yet seemingly real to the readers.

Henry James, “The Art of Fiction”. <public.wsu.edu/~campbelld/amlit/artfiction.html> Longman’s Magazine 4, September 1884

 

James and Metaphors

“This sense of the story being the idea, the starting-point, of the novel is the only one that I see in which it can be spoken of as something different from its organic whole; and since, in proportion as the work is successful, the idea permeates and penetrates it, informs and animates it, so that every word and every punctuation-point contribute directly to the expression, in that proportion do we lose our sense of the story being a blade which may be drawn more or less out of its sheath. The story and the novel, the idea and the form, are the needle and thread, and I never heard of a guild of tailors who recommended the use of the thread without the needle or the needle without the thread.”

(Henry James, “The Art of Fiction” in Majors stories and essays. Literary classics of the United States, New-York, 1999, p582.)

James really likes to use metaphors, even back to back.