Sunday, September 5, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Time and the Novel

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.


I must say, Kim Stanley Robinson is a delight to listen to.


Here's the blurb from the AussieCon programme for Time and the Novel
"The mutual admiration of Virginia Woolf and Olaf Stapledon for each other’s novels will serve as a start for a comparison of the very different treatments of time in their books, which will then lead to a discussion of the many ways novelists can portray the passage of time, often in ways unavailable to the other arts.  The impact of these formal methods on the reader’s sense  of pace and meaning, therefore crucial questions of readerly pleasure, will be explored by way  of examples from Joyce, Proust, Golding, Garcia Marquez, and other great fantasists. 
Kim Stanley Robinson


Welcome to the Saturday morning church, the Church of Literature, and we all must be believers or we wouldn’t be here. 

I want to make the point that the pace of the narration in the novels we love can vary widely, and I’m going to discuss this with you in a kind of pages per minute mathematical formula.

There’s a method called dramatization, which is  how quickly the novel passes time to take you to the next scene, and this can be months or years, and then  the action happens on the page, and you feel as if you’re reading along with the action, that you’re keeping pace with it.  Then there’s summarization, which was popular in 19th century novels, authors like Balzac, used this effectively to get you from scene to scene.

Voltaire’s Candid is an excellent example of the kind of story that zips along, and time moves very quickly.  Edgar Rice Burroughs is another good example, like Tarzan, where he can make love to a woman, jump off the ship, swim to shore, climb up into his treehouse, and that can all happen in one ten page chapter, it’s zip-zip-zip.

This is kind of the format of popular novels, where the idea is that the more that happens, the better, and that lots of events will keep the reader engaged.  But you can take this out at either end, past the extremes, extend it out to either side, slower or faster.

The advent of modernism brought about the idea that you can make time move more slowly than it does, you can weigh your writing down with such incredible description that the book moves more slowly than time, it’s a kind of slow motion.  James Joyce is extremely well-known for his novel Ulysses, which is the chronicle of one day, July 4th, 1903, which is nonetheless 800 pages long.

Marcel Proust, arguably my favourite author and author of the best book (Remembrance of Things Past), and there’s a scene where the main character goes to look out the window, and there’s a servant preparing to chop the head off a chicken, there are the streets of Paris waking up, and it’s 40 pages long, and it really lasts about maybe 3 minutes.  This slowing down of time adds more life to a novel, it allows it to be more alive, and I think that’s a good thing.

William Golding’s great novel Pincher ?  You find out at the end that the last two hundred pages have been the last fantasy of a man who’s drowning, so that covers  maybe 30 seconds, which gives you about one 30th of a second per page, which is about as slow as you can go.

This talk is going to include a lot of readings, which is why I refer to this as a church, because readings from a sacred text is something that seems common to many religions.

This is a reading from James Joyce’s Ulysses, a segment from Leopold Bloom’s day.    

Stream of consciousness became the mark of modernism, and the idea that slow was better became very popular.  We have these truisms where people say ‘show don’t tell’, which is not a good thing to say of a literary medium, because it’s all telling, and what they were really saying was ‘slow is good, fast is bad’, to discount al this pulp stuff, so people tried to go slower than Proust, and that’s never a good idea.

That’s like making a movie entirely in slow motion.  If you speed it up, the move would go for only 5 minutes, and that’s what happened when people tried to write slower than Proust and kind of wound up in this Chinese finger trap.

Gerard Ginette – on Proust – you can find every single thing that can be done in a novel in Proust.  In comparison with James Joyce, Proust’s sentences are very carefully architecture, and his paragraphs go on for pages.  There’s  a garden party that goes for 240 pages – that’s real time. 

Something else that Proust uses is something Ginette calls the iterative and pseudo-iterative, and it’s something along the lines that we get up every day, we do the same things, and that’s iterative, talking about all the motions you went through, and pseudo-iterative was more along the lines of “When  I was a child, every morning would include…” and there might be the maid saying a chicken is hard to kill, and it’s implied not that she said the same thing every day, but that she would say something along those lines every morning, slightly different, and it was more of a way of life than a list of things that happened.

‘Show don’t tell’ comes a little bit out of Hemingway’s camera point of view, and I think that’s a little unfair for literature.  Virginia Woolfe was one of the big proponents of stream of consciousness, and yet she was always searching for something better, a way to get around the slow motion or real-time of narrative, so she’s an experimental novelist, in that each of her novels is always in a different style than the last as she searches for another way to write and never finds it.

This is a section from Virginia Woolfe’s From the Lighthouse.  What I see here is Woolfe struggling, beautifully and poetically, to make time pass, but I can feel in her a frustration to do more.  So in her next novel, The Waves, she has 6 characters, who are all singing arias, like in an opera, not to the world no one else can hear this but us.  She then went onto The Years, it goes from 1880 to 1940, and she was heavily influenced by Proust, trying to go the step further, but unable to.  At that point, she ran into science fiction, into Olaf Stapleton.

Stapleton originally sent around a pacifist petition, and Virginia Woolf signed it and wrote back to him thanking him for sending the letter, and for saying that he was fond of some of her books, and that she returned the compliment.  She was literary royalty, so this was a massive compliment, and so she sent her his new book, Star Maker,  in 1937, and she wrote back saying that she felt he had grasped some of the ideas that she herself had tried to express, but in a more clear manner.  Star Maker was written shortly after the Hubble telescope had expanded the universe far beyond what we’d ever thought, and Stapleton covers the whole history of the universe I 200 pages, which makes it about 500 million years per page, given the page of the universe, and kind of set an all-time record for time passed in a novel.

A short reading from Star Maker.

About every paragraph of Star Maker could be unpacked into an entire science fiction novel, and almost every science fiction novel to date can be traced back to Star Maker, whether they realize it or not.

Virginia Woolfe – Anon – a compressed history of English literature in a short story, and then a novel where a dramaturge is trying to explain the whole history of England in one two hour play and she was describing it, so in this way she managed to get a little bit of deep time.

The end of Between the Acts were the last words Virginia Woolfe ever wrote.  Unfortunately a confluence of her mental illness, world war 2 and a lack of fat in her diet brought back the voices she heard, and she killed herself.  So you could say that after running into science fiction, she killed herself in despair, but there’s more to it than that.

Nabokov, John Barthe, John Gardener talked about the exhaustion of literature, because if you’re trying to go slower than Proust, it’s pretty damn exhausting. (Laughter)  They began to diddle, because they couldn’t think of anything else to do.  As my nephew would say, they needed the Waaahmbulannce, so they could go ‘Waaaah!’. (Laughter)  This is a good phrase, because when you need the Waaahmbulance, you need the Waaahmbulance.  Luckily before they could get much further, a nice little novel from South America was translated into English.

100 years of solitude reading.

That entire exhaustion of literature idea was blown out of the water with beauty and joy and there was no more whining, because the second greatest novel of the 20th century was in a completely different style than Proust.

Movie are trapped in the time of the screen, you think of that calendar with the pages blowing up and ripping off, and that’s the very best they can do.  There’s a very good scene in a very stupid film called Notting Hill where Hugh Grant is walking through the market and the seasons change around him, and that works really well, but it’s the exception to the rule, and it’s generally badly done in movies.

So let’s turn to science fiction.  Science fiction is interested in deep time, it has to be, because it covers so much time, so when science fiction tries to go slower than Proust, it’s losing one of its strengths, which is the ability to summaries.  The ability of science fiction to cover large amounts of time at once is something that’s completely cut off at the knees by modernism, and many of the science fiction novels that came out around that time are interesting, like Virginia Woolfe’s The Waves, beautiful and unrepeatable but not especially strong.

So science fiction needed to do more than emulate modernism, especially the later modernism, the kind of stupid modernism, and really what they had to do was latch on to that ability to summarise long ages of history and cosmic events, to provide detailed exposition, very succinctly. 

To me, it doesn’t matter what mode you’re doing – as long as what you’re doing is interesting, surely it’s okay, and shouldn’t need to conform to rules, especially stupid rules like ‘show don’t tell’.  Science fiction needs to be detailed, because science if about explanation, so if you have a science fiction novel without any science, without much fiction, you’ve really just got a little bit of tension set in a strange pace.

There are also novels that entirely dramatization, which is like setting up a metronome in front of an orchestra, setting it to 100bpm and playing Tchaikovsky’s scherzo 6 and by the end of it, you want to kill someone.  Novels that don’t change pace – life’s too short, I throw it away.  You can have something like ‘He walked down the corridor tripping on the stupid two one risers, and he’d just wasted 10 years of his life married to a woman he didn’t even like.’ And it can jump backward and forward like that, completely changing the pace.  And that’s really what the novel is about, and you see these comments on Amazon where people complain that if there’s even one page of exposition in there, they seem to think the author is making a mistake.  Really, it’s ignorance, ignorance of what novels can do, of the full range of their abilities, and sticking only to the most exciting, the dramatized, without wanting the background, or the slower pacing that’s integral to creating the world.

Olaf Stapleton, when he was writing, knew that there was another war coming.  There wasn’t a thinking person in England who didn’t know that there was another war coming, and his literature really reflects this.

Another reading from Marquez.

Literature, folks.  Amen.

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