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Theoretically unmoored

December 1, 2011

The difference between mainstream fiction and literature is what writers do with words; the former places its emphasis on the story rather than the language used to tell that story; in literature, the language is the story; that is, the story is primarily a vehicle for a linguistic display of the writer’s rhetorical abilities.

(Steven Moore, The Novel: An Alternative History, p. 11)

What makes Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet great is not so much the story or the characters, which he filched from elsewhere (as he did for most of his plays), but his matchless rhetorical powers.

(Ibid., p. 13)

You’re not off to a good start here, Moore. You want to make this sharp distinction between “story and characters,” on the one hand, and “language,” on the other. But what about dialogue? What about first-person narration? Yes, when a character uses words, it is “really” the author using them — but then again, it’s also the character using them. And the way a character uses language can’t be cleanly separated from who the character is. (Unless you really want me to believe that the way someone speaks and writes has nothing to do with who they are. But surely you wouldn’t believe something like that — after all, you’re a literary man, a man who claims to care so much about the distinction between writers who “love language” and those who don’t . . . )

Isn’t it clear that when Shakespeare wrote the story of Romeo and Juliet in his own style, he changed the story? When he changed the way the characters talked, he changed the characters, period. Moore, are you really telling me that if you took a fictional character I love and stripped away that character’s own personal verbal style, they would be essentially the same character? That’s so far from being true that I don’t even know how to begin trying to reconcile your point of view with mine.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 5:11 am

    He simply must be thinking of “character” and “story” in some kind of archetypical sense. There is simply no other standard according to which he could deny the particularity of Shakespeare’s plays. I double your argument for the inseparability of language from character with an argument for the inseparability of plot (the particular patternings of back-stories and revelations, of main-plots and sub-plots, etc) from story. Romeo and Juliet is a love story, fine. Hamlet, a revenge tragedy. Lear, the apocalypse. But the arrangement of these stories is as important an element as their mythical source material.

    • nostalgebraist permalink*
      December 9, 2011 6:24 pm

      He simply must be thinking of “character” and “story” in some kind of archetypical sense.

      That would make more sense, but unfortunately for Moore, it does not seem be what he is thinking. When he talks about Romeo and Juliet, he quotes a Shakespeare scholar on the development of the story in earlier tellings (mentioning the versions that introduced the tragic miscommunication, the death of Tybalt, etc.), then says:

      And that’s where Shakespeare got the story; he made some further modifications to the plot, but the reason we read his version today and not his predecessors’ is the language.

      Moore really seems to believe that plot and character are completely unimportant in literature, that they are no more than arbitrary frames on which to hang rhetorical clothing. Here’s another relevant quote:

      Some publishers of literary classics are now affixing a spoiler alert at the head of the introduction, like this one from Penguin’s 2004 edition of Gogol’s Dead Souls: “New readers are advised that this introduction makes the details of the plot explicit.” I think customers who requested such alerts (there must have been complaints) are mistaking literary novels for Hollywood movies.

      This is an attitude I’ve heard before, and it’s still incomprehensible to me. It denies the controlled disbursal of information a place among the tools of the literary artist, despite the fact that so many literary artists have used that very tool with such apparent care. (To support his claims, Moore quotes the beginning of Laughter in the Dark, where Nabokov gives away the bare bones of the plot; what he doesn’t mention is that Nabokov often manipulates the reader’s access to plot information to his own ends, and thus is far from the poster child for spoiler-indifference that Moore wants him to be.)

      Since we’ve talked about Paul Fussell before, maybe I should mention that so far this book reminds me a lot of The Great War and Modern Memory: a compendium of really interesting information, unified under a highly dubious conceptual frame, and related by an entertaining/irritating, emotionally invested guide with enough quirks and flaws that I’m inclined to view him as a literary character unto himself.

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