On Fiction

Arturo Vivante | November 1980

This is an excerpt from the talk on fiction presented by Mr. Vivante March 14, 1980 at the AWP Annual Meeting. Portions of this paper appear in Writing Fiction, by Arturo Vivante, Bostoh: The Writer Inc. (8 Arlington Street, Boston 02116). Copyright© 1980 by Arturo Vivante.

Many define novels, novellas and short stories as prose fictions, giving the number of words - over 40,000 for a novel, under 20,000 for a story, with a novella something in between. Such definitions, though they tell of the peculiarities of a short story, a novella, and a novel, don't really tell us anything fundamental about them. It follows that what is most peculiar about something isn't necessarily what is most basic about it. Better say, as Henry James did, that a novel is an impression of life, or that it is a personal view of it. These two definitions can also be applied to other art forms, but they have the merit of saying something fundamental about fiction.

Life is a story's great source. But life has something which art is glad to do without. Life with its constant needs, its weight, its multiplicity, has a certain rawness, a mass - rugged, rough, irreversible - which is its very power. The writer's role is to refine, to sift. In life one is presented with a clutter of details; in a story the writer, to give the quick of life to his description, Will tell us what strikes him most, and in a few vivid touches give the whole picture. He is more interested creating an impression than in trying to be complete. That impression, incidentally, will for our purposes be more complete than a long list of items, For completeness is illusory.

While a story is an impression of life, it is never a copy of life. A plaster cast of a hand looks and is dead, unartistic, uncreated, because it comes about through a purely mechanical process, as life never does. In life and in a story there are moments that stand out - revelations, epiphanies - that have something eternal even though they may pass unnoticed by the public and eventually be forgotten. It is as if all time had waited for such a moment - new and unrepeatable - to happen. Eternity fits into nothing so well as it fits into a moment.

A short story, like a flash of lightning, is a vast, all-encompassing moment. "Brief even as bright." One could generalize and say that a novel is more complex, has more characters, and spans more time and space, but this is often not true, nor is the inverse always true of a short story. Joyce's Ulysses takes place in a day, so do Virginia Woolf s Mrs. Dalloway, Saul Bellow's Seize the Day, and Alexandr Slozhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It would be hard to write about the whole life of a person in a short story. It may cover a lifetime, but it concentrates on a certain aspect of that life. I wrote a story about a parish priest whose one wish was to be buried in his own cemetery, and of how it was denied him. I did write something about his life - for the reader had to know him in order to care about him - but no more than needed to make his wish and its denial relevant, poignant. To have written more would have thrown the story out of focus. Short stories provide some information, but they can only carry so much.

One cannot stress enough that a story ought to be suggestive: what is left out is often as important as what is left in. There is nothing that the reader hates to be told as much as the obvious. He doesn't like to be led all the way as though there were something wrong With him. He likes to bridge certain gaps by himself. In a factual account (but it has the form of a short story), the Russian poet Yevtushenko tells of himself and Robert Kennedy at a party at the Kennedys' during the 1968 primaries. He asks Robert why he wants to run for president, and Robert replies that he wishes to continue in his brother's work. Yevtushenko suggests drink to Robert's victory, but cautions that in Russia for the wish to come true they must throw and break the glasses. Robert looks at the precious glasses and says he had better ask his wife. She brings two new glasses of champagne. They drink and throw the glasses away, but they don't break. They are made of plastic. A sense of doom, a presentiment of evil comes over the guest as he and Kennedy look at one another. The article rightly ends there.

Not only does a short story have a different length, it also has a different pace from a novel. A novel is the sustained flight of geese from Labrador to Florida, a short story the flight of a sparrow across a fence, from field to field.

Observation, perception play a fundamental role. Ideas spring from them, at any time - often while the writer isn't at his desk. He might be reading a book, seeing a movie, or listening to a conversation. He not only observes the situation, but he wonders what turns it might take, and often this - this flight of the imagination - forms the basis of his story. Thus, I was once in a third-class compartment of an Italian train. There were eight other passengers, including a baby in his mother's arms and an old man with a beard who reminded me of Santa Claus. Nothing much happened, but in my mind something did, and I wrote it out as a story. The old man, when a steward comes in with a trayful of candies, fruit, cookies, drinks and a thermos of coffee, buys more than he can afford and hands everyone things. The compartment becomes like a room with a party given by the old man with the beard. Then the ticket collector enters. The old man can't find his ticket, nor does he have enough money to buy a new one. He has to leave the train at the next station. The only one who does anything for him is the baby who reaches out to him with his lollipop.

The writer must have an open mind; he must be willing to be sidetracked. If he too determinedly pursues one single objective, he might miss a more fruitful one. In this he resembles a scientist - Fleming, for example, who, while conducting an experiment on something else, found that a mold that had settled on his agar plate destroyed the germs he was working on, and, impressed by this, left his experiment to pursue this new thing, penicillin.

Writing is a quest for knowledge. The very word story comes from the Greek "to know." The mere exercise of writing is valuable; it is conducive to knowledge; it leads one toward the unfolding of the tale; it anchors thoughts which might otherwise drift and be lost; it is very close to thinking, but one short step removed. Writing indeed requires very little physical action; it is the tracing of our thoughts.

If one has a good idea, then an urge to express it, to write it, comes over one, and that urge keeps the writer at his desk. Ideas are more felicitous fonts of energy than willpower and discipline. One is ever curious to know what form the idea- will take.

Both life and art are ever striving for form. Whether one is writing a poem or a story, or doing a painting, the form it will take is the challenge - and the wonder - of it. When writers talk about a story not jelling, binding, crystallizing, about its not being completely distilled, leavened, fermented, transfigured - strange how many of these terms are taken from cooking - they are saying that it lacks form. They mean that it is still an uncoordinated mass of words, a pile of information, heavy and raw, put together rather than created.

In architecture, a building has form when the enormous weight of steel and glass and concrete assumes spiritual lightness. In painting, form is achieved when inert pigment becomes active color; in dancing when the body becomes pure expression. In writing and composing, the process is less obvious, for words and notes are not as solid as steel, glass, concrete, pigment and the body, but they can be just as heavy, and just as readily can they be turned into essence.

Closely linked to form is unity. Without unity there is no form and there is no life. Anything living - and a short story or any work of art can be viewed as living - resents and resists being divided. It clings to every part of itself. Unity isn't primarily a question of place, time, action, uniformity of tone or of tense or of point of view. All of these things, as well as rhyme, refrain, artful repetition, a recurring phrase, simplicity of plot, symmetry, continuity, juxtaposition and contrast will tend to lend unity to a story, but they don't constitute unity. Unity is more subtle and more elusive. Unity is an idea taking hold and growing with and in every word, every sentence. It will astonish the author himself in the end.

Art is giving one's ideas a form that will make them more convincing. Form and idea can hardly be separated. In the process of being expressed, the germinal idea will grow, will become more convincing. The idea will illumine each page; there will be no opaque sentences.

Sometimes form is used almost as a synonym for style. But form is a more comprehensive term than style. Form, unlike style and rhythm to a certain extent, cannot be parodied. That is not to say that style does not, have an inward, profound meaning. A writer's style, it has been said, is that writer's self. And when so understood - and when it isn't just mannerism, fashion or convention - style, like form, is inextricably linked to content.

Both life and a story have a birth, and their seasons, and both must come to an end, however open. Both depend on contrast, light and shade, memory and forgetfulness, their interplay. Forgetfulness has an important role in reminiscences; it gets rid of much of the irrelevant details. A photographic memory, if such a thing exists, isn't a good thing for a writer. And as life has reality so does a story. It has to be convincing; it has to ring true. And for it to ring true it has to be well written. But it isn't enough for a story to be convincing. It also needs to be unpredictable, as unpredictable as life itself. Anything original is necessarily unpredictable. The reverse is not quite true: what is unpredictable isn't necessarily original. Originality carries with it an element of beauty.

A story should have a certain simplicity if it is to hold our attention. It is not just that we lose interest in a plot that is too hard to follow. Simplicity has a power that one is apt to underestimate. It is clarity. It is pureness. It is the full, rich, active silence that Mozart knew and wrote about in his letters. It is the stillness of a Giotto or Piero della Francesca painting. The concentration of a play of Sophocles. The spontaneity of a novel of Faulkner when its significance begins to emerge. It has a spellbinding quality. It is full of implications and very suggestive. It lends wonder to the story. Keats writes:

Oh! what a power hath white Simplicity!
What mighty power has this gentle story!
I that for ever feel athirst for glory
Could at this moment be content to lie
Meekly upon the grass:

What is awkward, gauche is also often wrong.

James D. Watson, as he says in his book The Double Helix, knew he had come upon the right structure of the molecule of DNA when he saw that it looked "pretty." He could have said elegant, but pretty is a better word - simpler. The relationship between truth and beauty of expression is one of the most intriguing, mysterious and wonderful aspects of art.

Just as in life the people we deal with are all-important to us, so characters are all-important in fiction. In a letter to a woman who complained that she couldn't see his characters, D.H. Lawrence said that his weren't "Kodak characterizations." He meant, of course, that he wasn't interested in a photographic or literal representation of people. Passport characterizations - weight, color of eyes, of hair, complexion, scars, date and place of birth - or, worse still, FBI characterizations such as are pinned on post office bulletin boards - are the antitheses of art, and the writer would do well to avoid them. Characterizations of that sort are a useful tool, but art is not a tool nor is it - to quote Lawrence again - "a tedious link in the chain of cause and effect." In Homer's Iliad, Diomedes, meeting Glaucus in the battlefield, asks him what could be termed a passport question - who he is, who his ancestors are - and Glaucus replies, "Why do you ask me about my birth? Aren't the generations of man like leaves? The wind takes them in the fall, but they burgeon again in the spring."

Indeed, a description of things that the person can do something about - clothes, hair, eyeglasses, make-up - may tell more than an account of something he can't alter, like the shape of his chin. To give an example, I might write: "One of the guests was a lanky, spectacled Frenchman in plus fours, with the energy of an electric eel." For our purposes, it is more accurate to describe the person as "lanky" than to say that he is six feet tall and weighs 130 pounds. The rest is an attempt to characterize the person as dynamic. The glasses may even seem to be flashing, though this isn't said.

Willa Cather, to characterize Paul, in the first paragraph of her short story, "Paul's Case," makes much of what he wears:

His clothes were a trifle outworn, and the tan velvet of the collar of his open overcoat was frayed and worn; but for all that there was something of the dandy about him, and he wore an opal pin in his neatly buttoned black four-in-hand, and a red carnation in his buttonhole.

Even so, the characterizations just made are relatively exterior ones. What we need are inward characterizations - characterizing people by how and by what they feel, think, say, do. In that order probably. So in "Paul's Case," Willa Cather, deepening Paul's characterization, writes that the teacher's aversion for him

lay in a sort of hysterically defiant manner of the boy's; in the contempt which they all knew he felt for them, and which he seemingly made not the least effort to conceal.

Joan Didion, in her novel Play It As It Lays, describes Maria's distraught state of mind by relating her thoughts, questions, and imaginings, and in this way effectively characterizes her as a woman in a crisis, torn by remorse:

She was consumed that year by questions. Exactly what time had it happened, precisely what had she been doing in New York at the instant her mother lost control of the car outside Tonopah. What was her mother wearing, thinking. What was she doing in Tonopah anyway. She imagined her mother having a doctor's appointment in Tonopah, and the doctor saying cancer, and her mother cracking up the car on purpose. . . Maria did not know whether any of that had actually happened but she used to think it, used to think it particularly around the time the sun set in New York, think about her mother dying in the desert light, the daughter unavailable in the eastern dark.

What someone says to oneself and what one thinks are so close they are almost the same thing, except that sometimes a person thinks in images rather than in words. Dorothy Parker's story "A Telephone Call" is written out entirely as a soliloquy - what the protagonist is saying to herself. Her features aren't described - we certainly don't get a photographic description of her - but we see her and get to know her very clearly nevertheless. Here is the beginning of the story:

Please God, let him telephone me now. Dear God, let him call me now. I won't ask anything else of You, truly I won't. It isn't very much to ask. It would be so little to You, God, such a little, little thing. Only let him telephone now. Please, God. Please, please, please.

In her short story "Everything that Rises Must Converge," Flannery O'Connor, through a few descriptive touches, dialogue and action, characterizes a proud, resentful, angry black woman whose child has been offered a penny by a white woman:

The huge woman turned and for a moment stood, her shoulders lifted and her face frozen with frustrated rage, and stared at Julian's mother. Then all at once she seemed to explode like a piece of machinery that has been given one ounce of pressure too much. Julian saw the black fist swing out with the red pocketbook. He shut his eyes and cringed as be heard the woman shout, "He don't take nobody's pennies!" When he opened his eyes, the woman was disappearing down the street with the little boy staring wide-eyed over her shoulder. Julian's mother was sitting on the sidewalk.

Stephen Dixon, in his 1977 O. Henry Award-winning story entitled "Mac in Love," uses dialogue and some action without describing the physical features of the protagonist, to characterize him as a young man in love who won't take no for an answer. As with Dorothy Parker, a few lines will suffice:

She said "You're crazy, Mac," and shut the door. I knocked. She said "Leave me be." I rang the bell. She said "Please don't make a fuss." I kicked the door bottom. She said "Mac, the neighbors. You'll get the police here and me thrown out." I said "Then let me in." She said "Maybe some other day." I said "Just for a minute to explain."

Prince Mishkin, in Dostoevsky's novel The Idiot, is introduced with a description of his physical features, but we don't really get to know him until we hear him. He is in a third-class railroad carriage returning to St. Petersburg after two years as a patient in Switzerland, and though the questions put to him by his fellow passengers are often inpertinent and inappropriate, he doesn't mind answering them all. "The money you must have wasted on those doctors," one says to him, and another adds, "Those foreigners are sure out to fleece us." And Mishkin replies gently, "Oh, but you are quite wrong in my case. My doctor paid for my fare back, even though he had very little money, and he kept me there at his expense."

I am not saying that one shouldn't write about the physical features of people - quite the contrary; but they should be described in their essence. "So cold, so fresh, so sea-clear her face was, it was like a flower that grows near the surf," writes Lawrence in Women in Love, and in another passage, "It was the curves of his brows and his chin, rich, fine, exquisite curves, the powerful beauty of life itself. She could not say what it was, but there was a sense of richness and of liberty." One may write about the color of the eyes, say that they were blue, and run the risk - as in a poor painting - of not transfiguring inert pigment into live color. To make it live, to make that a live, created, essential blue, one has to do more - to tell about the light of those eyes, their expression, the way they look, what they see, how they see it, and tell it in an original way. And the voice - what is nearer the soul? - the step, the sound of the step, countenance, gait, poise, posture, are important.

Characterization frequently depends on the use of the right words. Here is a passage from a short story of mine entitled "Adria," about a live-in maid who takes care of a prosperous old widower. in a house in which his family also lives:

The truth was Adria was better company - a woman of a richer nature - than his sallow daughter, or, for that matter, anyone else in the house, and now that he didn't go out so much it was essential for him to have a sassy, handsome woman in his reach.

I think the word "sassy," especially when contrasted with "sallow," is accurate, appropriate, and, more effectively than any other word used in the story, characterizes the live-in maid.

In J.D. Salinger's short story "For Esme - with Love and Squalor," the word "extremely" is spoken again and again by Esme, a child who wants to sound sophisticated.

Though adjectives are often essential, a fiction writer shouldn't indulge in using them to state the qualities of a character. Thus it would be less effective to say that someone is "stingy" than to have an episode in which that person won't lend money to a friend in need. But most important of all, I think, a character is well described, is a really living character, when readers are made to feel that they know him well and still want to know more about him. This may sound like a paradox, but the moment readers feel that they know him sufficiently, that they don't need or want to know anything more about him, then that character becomes uninteresting and dead - in life and fiction. The moment readers cease to wonder about something, they stop loving it. A reader should want to know the character infinitely.

Though the writer might tell all he possibly can about the characters, though he might spare nothing, keep no secrets, there should still be some mystery left in them at the end of the story, so that the reader will wonder about them, and they will love on and on in his mind, long after the book is closed. No matter how intimately you know a character, he should still have something of the stranger in him, to goad your curiosity through the pages and beyond them.

In life a person's character is disclosed throughout its duration. Similarly, in fiction the characters disclose themselves throughout the book and not just when they are introduced. Some writers claim that they start their stories and novels by thinking of certain characters and then building a plot around them; others say that they first think of a plot and then fit the characters to it. Most writers, however - and it has certainly been my experience - won't make such a neat division or distinction between character and plot. I cannot think of one without the other, nor would I be able to start a story without some inkling of both in my mind. It has been said that a person's character is his fate, and since fate and plot could be taken as synonyms, we could say that the story's characters are its plot.

I once read in The New Yorker a short story that was a character sketch with little or no plot. Though the characters seemed very true to me, I thought it was pointless and I told my editor so. "But if the characters seemed very true then that was the point," the editor said, and of course she was right.

Shakespeare, free as he was of all moralistic fetters, must have revelled as much in portraying Iago's role as Imogen's. Now, a question comes up: does a writer need to have a hard edge to write effectively about a brutal villain and his crimes? The question is intriguing. The writer loses his identity and becomes the character he is portraying; in his mind he commits those dreadful deeds, utters those fearful words, and writes them - which is more than imagining them. While he is at it there is no room for kindness in his heart.

The writer partakes of the life of his characters. Dostoevsky wrote about this in his novel The Injured and the Insulted:

If ever I've been happy, it hasn't been during the first moments of elation over my successes, but when I had neither read nor shown my work to anyone, during those long nights passed amid my dreams and enthusiastic hopes, when, working with a passion, I lived with the characters I had created, as though they were my parents and people who really existed; I loved them, I partook of their joy and of their sadness, and on occasion I have shed real tears over the lack of judgment of one of my heroes.

There are writers like Dickens, Balzac, Dostoevsky who had a genius for creating one original character after another in abundance and for giving each such an imprint that people, in talking of someone or other, see him as resembling one of their creations and say, "He is a Dostoevsky character," or, "He is a character out of Balzac," "Out of Dickens." This is quite an achievement. It means that the author succeeded in creating a little world of his own, peopled with a set of characters all his own, unstylized, instinct with his own personality, always recognizable, unmistakable. One cannot say this of many writers. In America perhaps the only one who has achieved this is Tennessee Williams. It isn't unusual for people to say "A Tennessee Williams character," "A character out of a play or story of Tennessee Williams." Such characters assume an uncanny reality; Balzac, in his deathbed, was angry with those around him because they wouldn't get him Bianchon, a doctor who only existed in his novels. "I want Dr. Bianchon," he kept saying, but Dr. Bianchon was hidden in the pages of his books.

There are some critics who classify characters into "round" and "flat," terms hardly better than the "soft" and "hard" which some use for poetry - and ought to reserve for drinks. More to the point, it seems to me, would be to divide characters into consistent and inconsistent ones. No writer, however bold, would dare mix into any of his characters traits so incompatible as God dares mix into a man. Nevertheless, a good writer, to make his characters lifelike, will infuse a certain amount of inconsistency into them, for an absolutely consistent character is unnatural, unlifelike, uncreated, mechanical and unconvincing. How inconsistent, and still how plausible, a writer's characters are may be a measure of his skill.


Arturo Vivante has published over 60 stories in The New Yorker since 1958. His novels include A Goodly Babe and Doctor Giovanni; his collections of fiction are The French Girls of Killini; English Stories, and Run to the Waterfall.

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