Editor’s Note: Style as Story

We received news from our production partners at the University of Nebraska Press that NDQ 87.3/4 has gone to typesetting! With any luck the issue should appear by late-November and in time for holidays reading.

The issue kicks off with an editor’s note from our fiction editor Gilad Elbom,  which we share below. Gilad has been the fiction editor since before my time as editor of the journal and our conversations have helped shape the direction of the journal and its distinctive slate of short stories. He’s offered his perspective on fiction before on the blog and contributed a short story. For issue 87.3/4 he offers his views on style.  

As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. If you can, consider buying a book from a small presssubscribing to a literary journal (like our UNP stablemate, Hotel Amerika), or otherwise supporting the arts.

We are currently reading poetry and essay and are always reading fiction. You can submit something to us here. If you already subscribe, you should get receive your latest copy of NDQ in November. If you’d like to subscribe, please go here

Style as Story

Gilad Elbom

I often write a story, give it to people to read, they complain that certain things might not be clear, I revise and clarify, then read it again and realize how insipid it is: like a good newspaper story or an A-range composition paper, perfectly coherent and well argued. All the mystery is gone, and what I’m left with is an accurate report. All the opportunities that the narrative presents are explored and developed, and the story is a professionally compiled and neatly organized inventory of characters and characteristics, causes and effects, symbols and meanings, emotions and actions, antecedents and realizations, prefigurations and manifestations, precursors and actualizations. Needless to say, such writing, the kind that avoids ambiguity, can effectively prevent other common complaints. For example: “I had to read it twice.” Or: “It was hard to wrap my head around.” Or: “I’m not sure how I’m supposed to feel about these characters.” Not that such complaints are illegitimate. Ultimately, we’re talking about personal preferences.

And if this is the case, it would be pointless to defend individual tastes. I knew what I liked, as a reader and writer, long before I could articulate it, long before I began to study literature or creative writing, long before I became aware of the fact—or the possibility—that my natural inclinations might be products of an interplay of traditions: historical, cultural, philosophical, linguistic. For example, there is a big discrepancy between written Hebrew and spoken Hebrew, which is my native language, and an even bigger discrepancy between written Arabic and spoken Arabic, which is my second language. When I came to America, my fiction professors said: “Write the way you talk.” But I come from a tradition where you never write the way you talk. The first book that you learn to read, when you go to the synagogue at the age of four or five, is written in the kind of Hebrew that no native speaker speaks: the Bible. Similarly, written Arabic is nobody’s mother tongue. The beauty of literature is that it gives us a chance to use a highly unnatural language. Is this why native speakers of English often interpret stylistic features—especially asides, digressions, or metafictional moments—as foreign devices that compromise the immediacy of emotion or the authenticity of the narrative, while native speakers of Hebrew or Arabic tend to view the American preference for realistic, no-nonsense, so-called organic fiction as pedestrian, predictable, superficial?

From a historical perspective, the trauma of World War I is for European literature a foreshadowing of the trauma that informs modern Hebrew literature: the Holocaust. One cannot make sense of these events, and in a post-Auschwitz world, any attempt to write a coherent narrative would be ridiculous. The complete collapse of order—socially, politically, morally, theologically—means that writers cannot follow the traditional formulas of literature anymore: unity of voice, major and minor characters, things happening for a reason, introduction, exposition, climax, resolution, denouement. All these components, which the Greeks have formulated and advocated as good literature, and which medieval literature continued to espouse—and which Hollywood, most MFA programs, most literary magazines, and most publishing houses still champion—are unusable. To write logical fiction—fiction where characters are carefully named, properly introduced, and responsibly described; fiction where settings and situations are vivid, tangible, or familiar—is very naïve.

Usually, this kind of fiction is proud of the fact that it can be easily translated into visual terms. Many readers, for fear they might find the text impenetrable, must get the proverbial movie camera going in their heads. They feel a need to see the setting, to see the characters, to see what the characters see, to see what the characters cannot see. What they seem to be saying is that fiction is valuable only insofar as it can be transformed into something that transcends the textual. To satisfy this need, or to increase the potential profitability of their work, fiction writers write stories that are conceived and consumed as transcripts of imaginary television shows: stories that could, with the right producer, be made into films.

For most devout Jews and Muslims, thinking about words in iconic terms is strictly prohibited. We are told, again and again, that we are not allowed to imagine God. Characters in the sacred texts of these civilizations are rarely described, and observant readers rarely hold illustrated books in their hands, rarely see pictorial representations of the narratives they hold so dearly. Such readers reject the idea of paintings, sculptures, or morality plays as graphic supplements, and often feel no need to look at anything other than the printed page.

This might suggest some crucial questions about the nature of fiction. Is it possible to write a purely textual text? Is there such a thing as literature that’s entirely literary? I’m aware of the fact that my preference for the textual qualities of fiction goes against the common belief that the style should not interfere with the story. If you ask me, the style is the story. In other words, the style is the only reason I read a story. The paradox of art is that an uncompromising emphasis on style—form, structure, tone, syntax, the textures of the written page, the idea that literary elements are interdependent and do not represent things outside the text—allows us to see certain truths, experience intense emotions, and come to some hitherto unimaginable understanding of reality. Fiction reaches its full effect precisely when the opportunities embedded in the text are left untapped, oblique, unspoken. Fiction becomes truthful precisely at the moment its artificiality is acknowledged. What I admire about fiction is its ability to challenge the trite dichotomies of the creative writing workshop: tight/slack, polished/sloppy, emotional/cerebral, action/introspection. What I admire about fiction is the attempt to make literary art that, while exposing its fabricated nature, might move readers to tears.

It’s a lot to ask from art, I know. Which is why I think that writing believable dialogue or describing something accurately is very easy. Fiction is not the textual equivalent of a sensitive tape recorder or a really good camera. When the author says, “Let me tell you a good story,” I’m not interested. When the author says, “This might be the most banal story in the world, but I’d like to try and make it into art,” I’m curious.

~

Gilad Elbom is a graduate of the University of North Dakota. He is currently employed by Oregon State University, where he teaches American literature, Middle Eastern literature, the Bible as literature, science fiction, detective fiction, and other kinds of fiction. His first novel, Scream Queens of the Dead Sea, was published in 2004 and has been translated into German, Russian, and Hebrew.

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