Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Charles Baxter, Dostoyevski, and Rush

I was reading an essay in Charles Baxter's The Art of Subtext for my creative writing class. This particular essay was called "Creating a Scene." The title's a clever play on words, as the essay's really about causing a commotion in the world of your stories. The idea is that too many writers (particularly of literary fiction) have their characters avoid conflict, a behavior common in real life. Unfortunately, people read fiction for the excitement and conflict, so good fiction requires characters to be more confrontational than many people are in real life. The essay had three effects on me:

Validation: I like sturm and drang in my stories. Everything I write that isn't set in an imaginary world tends to involve getting inside the head of somebody mentally unstable and to have a body count. I didn't need anybody to tell me to have my characters say and do outrageous things that move the action along. It was just nice to have one of those authors of snobbish literary fiction endorse something I already instinctively believe in.

New Author to Read: Baxter went on and on in this essay about the famous 19th-Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevski. Specifically, he mentioned Dostoyevski's tendency to create characters who "make scenes" and to write intense scenes that made his readers uncomfortable. This tendency caused many of his contemporaries, including Anton Chekhov, to call him "indulgent." This attitude is apparently echoed by a lot of modern creative writing professors and students. But hearing about this disconcerting intensity made me decide that I'm going to have to read me some Dostoyevski at some point. The fact that the snub of Dostoyevski is mirrored by a near universal acclaim of authors like Alice Munro only adds to this urge. We've had to read a bunch of Alice Munro stories this quarter, and I've come to the conclusion that, while I can tell she's a skilled writer, reading thirty pages of her at a time is a chore for me.

Crazy Tangent on Music: Reading about all this indulgent intensity immediately made me think of some of my favorite bands. I had the new Coheed and Cambria album The Year of the Black Rainbow playing in my car's CD player last week, so I guess I was primed to think about why I like bands like Coheed and Rush. Their styles can also be described as indulgent and over-the-top. Rush has sometimes been slammed by music critics for their "too busy" arrangements. Of course, anyone who's ever listened to "Tom Sawyer" knows that's what makes them fun to listen to. Indulgence is the point of hard rock genres. Meanwhile, Coheed and Cambria has songs like "Welcome Home," which sport indulgent, over-the-top arrangements and lyrics that can make some listeners uncomfortable. So basically, I like my literature like I like my music: with an emphasis on mythic, intense subject matter or emotional states rather than real-life monotony.

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