Arturo Vivante: On Fiction

Lisa Zeidner | May 1980

In his remarks on writing fiction, Arturo Vivante spoke about the similarities between fiction and life. Fiction, he said, is never an imitation of life - "an imitation is literal and mechanical" - but rather an impression of life. "Just as a life is ever in danger of failing, so is a story: both have a vulnerable quality, and the more alive a story, the more mortal it is. One discordant note can ruin the magic of the story. Life has a terrible rawness in the multiplicity of details, whereas fiction, in making an impression of life, must shift and select - a photographic memory isn't useful for a writer."

Vivante called form the highest challenge of art. Without form, fiction is just a mass of inert matter, he said; "form is matter transcended. This is best seen in architecture, where the tremendous weight of steel is transformed into a spiritual lightness."

The two most common reasons for a story's failure, Vivante said, are lack of unity and what editors call slightness. Unity is not, Vivante believes, a question of mechanical elements (symmetry, continuity), but rather a "truth and beauty in expression that may surprise even the author.'' A slight story is one that "does not have a theme with the three great forces in life: love, freedom and death. Without these themes, life becomes fairly meaningless, and so too does fiction. One may have to look for the link, but there should be a link."

Vivante claimed that plot requires a certain simplicity to hold our attention. Simplicity's power is easy to underestimate - it can have, Vivante said, a "spellbinding suggestivity." Vivante discussed effective characterization at length. Literal characterizations, as found on passports or FBI wanted lists, are to Vivante "the antithesis of art." Inward characterizations are much more important: a character's thoughts, feelings, speeches and acts (and probably in that order, "because fiction is so perfect a medium for thoughts and feelings"). A character should "always have something of the stranger about him - you must feel that you know him well enough to want to know him more intimately."

Vivante stated that all novels have a hint of autobiography. "Even a novel about people lost in outer space would be autobiographical to some extent." A writer needs a hard edge to portray a villain; Vivante mused that "some people may be too kind to write fiction. Writing is not 'imagining' - writing is half-way to pulling the trigger.

-Lisa Zeidner
Rutgers University


More reports from the meeting will appear in the July issue

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