The Children’s Book Revisited

March 9, 2011 Comments Off on The Children’s Book Revisited

I am chagrined to have to admit that The Children’s Book made a big impression on me. I keep referencing it, and its shortcomings continually rouse me to real anger, even weeks after having consigned it to an inaccessible top shelf. While writing my review of House of the Spirits, it occurred to me why I am so angry with The Children’s Book.

It is unsettling because it looks like me. All Byatt’s shortcomings look like advanced forms of my own. I would not be surprised to find out that the progress of her writing followed the same course as mine.

For years, I would sit at the computer for hours every day, writing endless rambling novels that mostly took place in the same kinds of worlds. They were rugged, semi-civilized worlds with dramatic scenery and occasional barbarians and hidden cities. Bows and arrows were the most advanced form of weaponry available, and everyone wore “tunics,” which didn’t actually mean tunics so much as it meant something foreign-looking and primitive. It took forever to travel anywhere, and a voyage generally meant discovering a new species, probably sentient, usually amazing and endowed with some sort of power. Most of them flew. The characters were perfectly flat cardboard cut-outs of people, mostly either perfectly noble or perfectly evil, and occasionally with an edge of recklessness or moral weakness. There were no details, ever, except when there were. For example, I came up with about ten medicinal herbs for one of my stories, and I went into great detail about them whenever I wanted. And sometimes I’d have the great idea to put in a detail that would be referenced later and my readers would be flattened with astonishment at my cleverness! But then I’d forget about it, and when you read back over my stories they are dotted with conspicuous solitary details like redwoods in a meadow. My books were nothing but plot, and pretty skimpy plot at that.

Over time, of course, I grew up (meaning I came across articles and manifestoes by famous authors about what you need to write good fiction), and I dutifully obeyed the pronouncements of the gods of English class. Eventually I discovered more and more problems in my books, and tried to improve my writing accordingly. My systematic analysis yielded these problems and their accompanying “improvements” according to convention.

  1. DULL SETTING. You must have a complex and specific setting, say the gods of English class. Solution: Research and plenty of it. I reached the painful decision to place my stories in the real world, and I picked a specific date (1740) and began trying to research it exhaustively.
  2. FLAT CHARACTERS. Characters must be round and complex! say the gods of English class. Solution: Uh…well, I could have all my characters have secrets and skeletons in their closets. Is that round?
  3. MORE DIALOGUE!! Must have more dialogue, pant the gods of English class, MORE! Solution: More dialogue, regardless of skill. Every character must have its own distinctive voice! the gods roar. I frantically began to try to train myself to write dialogue that doesn’t suck by working on plays.
  4. DETAILS DETAILS DETAILS! Writing is nothing unless it is positively warty with details, say the gods of English class. Good writers write down every detail they see in real life and then they write down every detail they see in their imaginary worlds. DETAILS. Solution: I tried to put in more details. Even when there weren’t any in my head.
  5. CONTRIVED PLOT. Plots must be exquisitely twisty and convoluted yet simple and honest, and thematic, say the gods of English class. What? Solution: Well, I finally noticed those redwood details, and realized that in order to do what I wanted to I had to set up the plot from way back, not just produce convenient loopholes at the very moment I needed them. There is a famous scene in “The Believer” (my only surviving novel) where the main character has been wounded and captured by the enemy and is being held in a tent. The ancient-healer ghosts who have been teaching and helping her show up, and one of them glances around the tent (which has no floor, just grass), and exclaims, “We’re in luck! These are the very herbs you need to dress your wound!”

Now! Some of these work and some of them don’t. But I was beginning work on a new novel around the time I was having these epiphanies, working title “Catherine,” about a white witch and a girl who can cause nightmares. The story has evolved so much over the last ten years that I’m actually a little confused about it now, but I decided early on that this one would be different. For one, I would outline it this time, so I could be precise about adding in sneak-up-on-you-later details. And this time I would camouflage them in a herd of details and no one would ever, ever see them coming. I would research 1740 to DEATH, to the point that everyone would be amazed that I hadn’t actually lived through it. The plot necessitated a romantic triangle, so I painstakingly constructed harmless-looking episodes whose entire point was to ratchet up the romantic tension, from zero to breaking point, for two separate characters. And each of these episodes would be written in the fashionable manner, slow and full of dialogue and penetrating psychological insight. It was going to be a masterpiece!

And now here I am, on the brink of junking the whole thing. In some ways, “Catherine” is as stunted as “The Believer” was, even though it has been “improved.” Part of it is that I’m simply no good at some of those improvements, like dialogue, and including them was a mistake. Another part of it was that adding all those frills, even if they were a good decision, divorced me another couple degrees from the heart of the story that I loved and was passionate about writing, leaving me to slog through all those stupid episodes that I’d constructed and didn’t really care about. And if I had any kind of work ethic I’d have actually researched 1740 to death, and that could have led to such a glut of extraneous historical details in my book that my readers would have been pissed off.

I’ve realized all this, but I think Byatt got this far and no farther. She researched her period to death and buried her story under facts. Her one concession to character roundness is repressed or frustrated sexual desires and/or sexual secrets (which I need hardly repeat is not roundness), and she talks about these extensively. She has worked everything out meticulously, from what everyone is wearing to what food is on the table, from how the room is decorated to what shops are on the street outside—not only worked all this out but included it all as well. The only thing she did right was recognize that she wasn’t great at dialogue, and she left lots of it out. But to me everything about the book reeks of someone who started out with talent, writing rambling stories, then recognized flaws in them and tried to fix them according to the gods of English class, with the result that what started out as a good story is broken into chunks that shine with passion and imagination separated by slogging sections that were decreed but were no fun to execute. The good story is thin and stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread. This is my greatest fear, and this is why The Children’s Book, a sub-par ramble not worth thinking twice about, is constantly coming up in my thoughts and making me angry. What I really want to do is to pit Natalie Goldberg against the gods of English class and watch her rip them calmly to pieces and stuff them into a big fireplace and set fire to them like leftover wrapping paper. Or maybe if I read her book again it will give me the ability to do it myself. Death to the tyrant gods of English class!

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