Martín Solares on Creating Novelesque Excitement

From The Literary Hub:

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, people were said to lead novelesque lives if they traveled extensively, experienced major twists of fate—at times disastrous (and someone would come to the rescue), at times lucky (in which case an enemy would try to destroy them). In any event, their lives were full of surprises, adventures, interesting anecdotes; protagonists who placed the most daring bets, laid it all on the line. The novelesque was at its prime: no one would have associated it with distraction, or called it boring, or outlandish.

Then, in the second decade of the twentieth century, as Thomas Pavel shows us in La pensée du roman (The thinking novel), came the great novels that sought to be more like poetry: Joyce, Proust, Kafka, Faulkner, to name just a few, followed shortly thereafter by a long train of imitators who, in their attempts to emulate their predecessors, managed to write some tremendously boring books. Adventure novels seemed to be the last bastion of surprise. As a result, people began to describe the novelesque as not having its feet on the ground.

A story is novelesque when it provokes in the reader, at regular intervals, the burning question: What will happen next? This question is as powerful as a wave: it lifts us high, pauses for a moment, takes our breath away, and unfurls onto the sand, or another wave, with a crash before disappearing. It’s strange: when we talk about a novel, we remember the emotion it produced but never the nearly minuscule strategies that built up our interest throughout. Of an enthralling novel, we remember—at most—the emotion and the suspense, that private pleasure it generated in us, the moments when we suffered because of a character’s impending doom; we don’t remember the techniques used to produce those sensations.

According to Raphaël Baroni, one of the theorists who have studied the curiosity sparked by fictional narratives, the tension we feel when reading a story is also a poetic effect, the result of well-crafted intrigue. For Baroni, tension mounts when the reader has to wait to see how the plot will be resolved, and this waiting is marked by enough uncertainty that the denouement sparks an intense reaction.

Though a far cry from novels focused on developing a highly literary language, several early twenty-first century television shows brought back the novelesque in the nineteenth-century sense—its constant surprises, its strategies for holding the reader’s interest—and, in doing so, revealed to practitioners of the form just how much they had forgotten of this essential aspect of their art. And they did something else: returning to this essential element of the nineteenth-century novel, they turned the novel into a popular product that is also undeniable in its artistic refinement, able to captivate the most demanding novelist.

Link to the rest at The Literary Hub

Words fail us, and this writer knows it. How she is bringing people to the (grammar) table

From USA Today:

Ellen Jovin is not the grammar police.

She’s more like a grammar guru, a gentle, nonjudgmental guide who knows English isn’t etched into a linguistic stone, rigid and unchangeable. Instead, she knows it’s a living, evolving thing whose rules are subject to the wants, needs and whims of those who speak and write it.

Though she is hardly a Strunk & White scold, Jovin is so invested in English as an interactive pursuit that she has not only written a book about it (“Rebel With a Clause,” HarperCollins), but she’ll also set up a table just to talk shop, answer questions or geek out with fellow word nerds. Her husband, Brandt Johnson, also a writer, is working on a documentary film about the Grammar Table.

“I treasure everything about language,” Jovin said. And she enjoys sharing that passion with others, no matter their own relationship to words. “It’s about love for the language in all the forms it comes to us − slang, departures from traditional grammar, what words mean and how that can change. It’s fun.”

Jovin has taken the Grammar Table to all 50 states since 2018 (she has stops planned for Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona, in February) and is often in parks in New York City, where she lives. A longtime educator, consultant and writer, Jovin started the Grammar Table as a way to get away from a computer screen − where grammatical rules have degraded almost as much, it seems, as personal and political discourse.

. . . .

Jadene Wong is one of the people Jovin has connected with (yes, Jovin said, it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition). A pediatrician at Stanford University and “self-admitted grammar nerd,” Wong loved “Rebel With a Clause” so much that she found the author’s website and reached out via email. She was delighted when Jovin wrote back.

Wong thinks so highly of Jovin − and grammar, apparently − that she took time out of her vacation in Hawaii to talk to USA TODAY. When she visits New York, she finds out where Jovin will be with the Grammar Table and makes a point of stopping by to talk.

“Her writing is so humorous and fun,” said Wong, who lives in the San Francisco Bay area. “She knows the rules, but she also goes with the times and the trends. She’s not a person who says, ‘You have to do this or you have to do that.’ She wants to know, ‘What would you do?’ She knows modern language. She’s not like your old schoolteacher.”

One thing Jovin does that’s reminiscent of an old schoolteacher, though, is diagramming sentences. Her Instagram, @grammartable, includes posts from her travels as well as a couple of quick diagrams of pop songs’ lyrics, including Pink Floyd’s grammatically challenged “Another Brick in the Wall” and Vampire Weekend’s salty song “Oxford Comma.”

And if you think diagramming is a relic as old as a ruler-wielding Catholic school nun, think again.

Ninth grade students at High School of American Studies at Lehman College in the Bronx learn how to diagram sentences as part of their English curriculum, said the school’s principal, Alessandro Weiss.

Jovin visited the school last year and will be back again this year.

“Ellen is excited about language,” Weiss said, and that’s something HSAS educators want students to share. “We want our students to find joy in language and to understand how it’s open to change.”

Diagramming not only helps students understand sentence structure and grammatical rules, but it also illustrates how much precision matters. Students can see misplaced modifiers, stray prepositions and the dreaded dangling participle more easily when it’s mapped out on a series of straight lines.

Link to the rest at USA Today

The Grift of Fiction

From Writer Unblocked:

Permit me a moment of apostasy.

I realize it might seem perverse to pursue this topic in light of Jim Dempsey’s far more sanguine post from just this past Tuesday (“How Books Can Change Lives”), but for some time, I’ve had the uneasy feeling that the merits of storytelling have been oversold. The use of the mercantile metaphor is deliberate. In any ever-increasing number of realms, the “craft of narrative” is being used to justify the unjustifiable—the dishonest, the trivial, the crass, the sanctimonious, the unnecessary, and all manner of other dubious ends.

Tell the story has become the hallmark of the hustle. Give the folks a convincing, compelling tale and they’re yours, facts be damned.

We’re even told that facts are meaningless outside a narrative—an approach that turns scientific theory into a kind of fable.

. . . .

It concerned the three-part HBO miniseries about the 1986 nuclear disaster at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. In that post I noted that the series showrunner, Craig Mazin, suffered many of the same concerns I did.

For the sake of simplicity, let me just repeat here a portion of what I wrote then:

[W]hat I found particularly fascinating was [Mazin’s] discussion of how narrative cannot help but distort what it seeks to portray, and what that means when you’re telling a story based on real events. Does a ripping yarn really absolve the writer’s responsibility to the truth?

It turns out he thought about this long and hard before and during his writing of the script for Chernobyl—especially because he likens humanity’s plight right now given the climate crisis to the technicians working at the reactor.

“Right now, like it or not, we’re unfortunately those guys in the control room going, ‘Well, the one thing we don’t have to worry about is this thing blowing up.’ That’s us, on this planet, right now.

He takes particular note of the use of narrative in advertising—commercials don’t sell products, they sell stories—and notes that “politics is weaponized narrative,” to the point where:

“Everything is a narrative. And we’re suffering. We’re kind of drowning in narrative poison”

He therefore became obsessed with recognizing where he made deliberate choices that distorted the known truth for the sake of dramatic effect—so much so that he decided to create a podcast to accompany the miniseries to point out the distortions and to provide the factual record to the best of his ability.

“The last thing I ever wanted to say to people was, ‘Now that you’ve watched this, you know the truth.’ No, you don’t. You know some of the truth, and you know some of the stuff that’s been dramatized.

“And ideally, through this, we start to maybe find a new way to present things to people where we’re not so worried as artists that people are going to question whether or not we, quote-unquote, ‘got it right.’ We can’t get it right; we can only get it sort of right. That’s the best we can do.

But if we can share everything else, including things that challenge or undermine the narrative we presented — because we are dealing with an imperfect process that boils two years down into five hours — then I think they will appreciate what we do more, not less.”

This issue once again came to the forefront of my thinking as I was watching Oppenheimer, an utterly impressive film that nonetheless also plays fast and loose with certain facts. (For example, concerning the worry that the nuclear explosion might trigger a chain reaction that ignited the atmosphere, causing the end of the world. It’s a key dramatic theme in the film; unfortunately it appears the concern was dismissed almost immediately.) This isn’t the only distortion of the facts in the film, per a nuclear historian, though it also got a great deal right. The director, Christopher Nolan, apparently does not share Mazin’s qualms about misrepresenting reality, for as far as I know he’s said nothing about the matter.

Link to the rest at Writer Unblocked