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Driving to the Sea

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I’ve thought a lot about the comments that were posted here yesterday, and  I want to address a couple of things directly, and then I want to argue against one of the most kneejerk assumptions in the evaluation (and enjoyment) or literature.

First,  I don’t think Gone With The Wind was written in order to repair the reputation of the South or to make the Sunbelt possible–I just think it did.  Margaret Mitchell sent her highly sentimental fantasy of the Old South out into the world, and the world loved it.  For better or for worse, for most Americans, was the South (and slavery) were “like” was what Margaret Mitchell presented them to be.   And that South is a hell of a lot easier to live with than the reality would have been, or than the accurate perception of that reality would have been.  Sororities at Ole Miss and debutante balls in Charleston can celebrate their “heritage” by throwing parties with “anteBellum” themes because, when they envison “anteBellum” life, what they see is the Tarleton boys and Tara, not pregnant women picking cotton all day in hundred degree heat and the slave market in New Orleans.

Since I’m actually intending to get to American literature, I’ll leave Huck for later, but I do want to point out to Robert that there is, indeed, at least one battlefield scene in GWTW.  It’s not the scene of a battle, but it does take place on a battlefield, where the battle has largely been lost and moved on, and the wounded are lying on the ground as the doctor moves among them, without hope, without anesthetics, without effective help for the dying. 

In the middle of all this, Scarlett rushes up to demand that the doctor drop everything and deliver Melanie’s baby, and she gets shoved off in just the way she ought to be.

That’s not only the most famous scenes in the book, it’s probably one of the two most famous in the movie.  

But let’s get to that other point–that Margaret Mitchell’s virtue as a writer was in her ability to “tell a good story,” and that especially since she was not interested in hammering home a cause or otherwise propagandizing her readers in any way.

I want you to consider, for a moment, a novel that quite definitely means to propagandize its readers, that in fact spends a good third of its really hefty bulk doing that directly, with people giving speeches like treatises that last ten to fifteen to twenty pages long, that violates every rule of good novel writing (talk about characters constructed from the outside in), and that still manages to sell, 100,000 copies paperback a year fifty years after it was published and twenty after its writer died.

What can we say, really, about Ayn Rand and her last novel, Atlas Shrugged?

I mean, what they hell.

Let’s admit it.

That woman was to narrative drive what Sherman was to marching through Georgia.

Narrative drive is what people actually mean when they think they’re talking about “a good story.”  There are thousands of “good stories” that sell few copies and interest few people.  There are dozens of stories that are not so good, that are simplistic or incoherent or muddled or meandering or unbelievable on a million levels, that gather readers like an  Elizabethan virgin gathering rosebuds in May.

Neither Shakespeare nor Stephen King ever came up with an original plot in their lives.  They both rely on a long tradition of “stories” that they feel (felt) free to update and adapt.  We don’t read those other stories.  We read them.

But they’re at least good writers–very good ones–even on the technical level we talked about before.  Ayn Rand isn’t so much a very bad writer on that technical level–although she’s that, too–as an affront to the entire tradition of the novel.

Symbolism?  It’s everywhere, and so obvious and overdone it makes your teeth hurt.   What’s worse, a lot of it has dated very quickly.  At one point, for instance, she goes into an elaborate extended metaphor about how the lit end of a cigarette in a man’s hand is like the fire alive in a thinking brain, and puts the entire silly thing into the mouth of a character who spouts it whole as if he’s just stopped being a character and started giving a lecture at a Chattaqua. 

It would be hard enough to read a passage like that if the subject was culturally neutral.  In a world in which smoking cigarettes has come to be equated with nearly instant death, it’s enough to make you wince.

Then there are the characters, who are scarcely more rounded than the ideational figures in a Medieval morality play, and who are prone to stopping short in the middle of the action to deliver long disquistions about everything on the planet.

The heroes are heroes–so heroic they’re unable to kiss their wives without contemplating how their love for her represents and affirms the best within themselves.  

The villains are villains–scheming and hysterical, but likely to deliver disquisitions, too, like Lilian Riordan’s bit about how to use guilt to control the man you want to support you.   That one comes with a horse training metaphor so overused in the Anglophone cultures and to constitute something worse than a cliche.

And if all that wasn’t bad enough, there’s the fact that every hero and every villain looks just the way he’s supposed to.  Dagny Taggert is beautiful, clean-lined and “pure,” by which Rand doesn’t mean virginal, but morally innocent.  Lilian Riordan is slack-jawed and prone to wearing perky little ridiculous hats that scream “irony” and destroy any attempt any person who sees her may make to take her seriously.

In Ayn Rand’s fictional worlds, good people take themselves very seriously indeed, and the suggestion that maybe we shouldn’t do that is proof positive of the villainy of the person making the suggestion. 

This thing should be a train wreck.  On any objective, technical level, it is a train wreck.  It certainly violates Robert’s thing about not preaching or promoting a cause.

And yet.

I read that novel for the first time when I was eleven years old.  Then I read it twenty more times–twenty, and the damned thing is as big as a college dictionary–by the time I was fifteen. 

And I’m not the only one.  For a period of about eight to ten years in the early Sixties through the Seventies, Atlas Shrugged was the one novel most colleges could assume their incoming freshman would have read, so much so that some of them made countering its ideas and assumptions part of freshman orientation. 

What’s more, the book created a cultural climate that hasn’t quit yet, a set of libertarian assumptions shared at least in part by left and right both, and a generation of bright men and women who went out into the world and acted on what they’d imbibed along with cigarette metaphors and the vision of sex as a kind of stylized rape.

It gave us  Alan Greenspan. 

Story doesn’t matter so much, but narrative drive does.  The problem with the contemporary novels that I know Robert doesn’t like, and that I often don’t like much either,  is not that they lack plot or that they don’t tell a story.   That’s sometimes true, but not always.  The problem with them–the works of people like Ann Beattie, for instance, or even Jonathan  Franzen–is not that they lack plot or story, but that they lack narrative drive.

And if I could explain narrative drive, believe me, I would.  I could make a lot of money selling it to publishers, who know damned well that whether the book is going to sell depends more on this than anything else.  

The best I can explain it is this:  there is something about some people’s writing that  pushes the reader forward, pushes and pushes, relentlessly, so that he goes along because he can no longer resist. 

This effect can be nonexistent, or mild, or moderate–moderate is where most reasonably popular books fall.

Every once in a while, in a few extraordinary cases, it can be strong as hell, and if it is, nothing else matters.  Literally nothing.  Bad writing, cardboard characters, preachy interludes–the things that would kill most books won’t even slow the readers down.

And what’s more, the effect will last, for generations, at least.   Hit a nerve culturally (like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or The  DaVinci Code) and you’ll sell a lot of books and then watch your novel sink into obscurity, a sociological curiosity rather than a work of literature.

Produce a work with terrific narrative drive and you’ll have given yourself an annuity that just won’t quit. 

It’s the Holy Grail of any writing career, and I don’t know of a single case where a writer has been able to acquire it deliberately.

Written by janeh

November 1st, 2008 at 5:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Driving to the Sea'

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  1. I read something by Ayn Rand when I was a teenager – I think it was ‘The Fountainhead’, though, and I disliked it so much I never read anything else she wrote. I don’t remember it well, and I expect I didn’t understand half of what she was trying to get across, but I certainly could never figure out later what all the fuss was about her as a writer. And I didn’t want to read ‘Altas Shrugged’ to try to find out.

    I agree that some books just pull you in. I’ve been attributing that to plot, and my dislike of most modern literary novels to the way so many of them don’t seem to have much plot, and in addition, have boring or unlikeable characters, so I don’t much care what happens to them. But you have a point that sometimes this force exists in books that really aren’t that great at all, and enable me to overlook stuff that, when I think about the book later, really don’t make sense and would normally completely destroy WSOD. Now I’ve got a name for it – narrative drive!


    1 Nov 08 at 7:14 am

  2. What can one say? Every time I discuss fiction, I wind up quoting Sammy Goldwyn: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” But when I could only bring one 4X8 case of hardcovers into exile in DC, ATLAS SHRUGGED was on that shelf–along with the complete Edgar Rice Burroughs Barsoom novels, which violate every rule of fiction regarding coincidence. But Burroughs was a master story-teller. Rand is not.

    I think she’s nearer Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or for that matter, Five Nights in a Bar Room–a novel written to confront a great evil. Rand’s strength was that she’d been through the fire. She’d finished her education in newly-Bolshevik Russia, and knew EXACTLY where certain very popular ideas led. When those ideas are no longer seen as a threat, Ayn Rand will no longer be seen as a novelist. But while Ron Brown insists on replicating the Winston Tunnel disaster, and Hillary keeps talking like Ivy Starnes, Rand will stay in print. Probably my lifetime at least.

    And it never occured to me to call a casualty clearing station for the Battle of Ezra Church a battlefield.


    1 Nov 08 at 7:35 am

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