Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Doing Things

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So, I got up way too early this morning, and the first thing I found was John’s post about how people who are getting up and going to work and coming home and going to bed are doing something, but it wouldn’t be interesting to read about.

And all I could think of was–yes, I agree.  What I don’t agree with is that that is what is going on at the beginning of The Way We Live Now.

And that brought me back to the original question–which is how we define as “doing something” or “something happening” in a novel, when we say that something is happening, and when we don’t.

And I think I was right to think that, for me, characters are “doing something” in cases where characters would not be for at least some other people.

For one thing, what I most want out of a novel (besides good prose, and Trollope is unobjectionable but not good) is character and the exposition of character, and in that sense I find the everyday affairs of ordinary people very interesting to read indeed.

I find them especially so under two circumstances:  when the writer is talking about class (here’s Henry James again), and when the writer is talking about what we now call “dysfunction.”

The “dysfunction” thing is mostly curiosity.  Every once in a while, I’ll turn into reality shows like Intervention, and find myself sincerely flabbergasted by the sheer logistics of the thing.  Here are people who don’t work, or work for a while and then get fired, who have no credit, who spend their time flat on their backs out of it except when they’re looking for their drugs or alcohol or whatever–and they’re managing to support two hundred dollar a day habits, three hundred dollar a week alcohol binges…

I mean, what the hell.  Where is all this money coming from?  Some of them steal, yes, but most of them are just mooching off their families, and the families are not rich.   How does this work?

The interest in class, though, is just an interest in class–Americans like to pretend that class doesn’t exist here, but it isn’t that simple.  In the European sense, of course, class doesn’t exist here.   Get successful enough, and we’ll find a way to declare that you fit in.  Reach the level of a Bill Gates–or a Mark Zuckerberg–and nobody will refuse to marry you because you didn’t go to Exeter or you’ve got a funny accent.

It is the biggest flaw with The Great Gatsby–historically, successful American upstarts have not spent their time and money buying their way into “society,” but simply ignored it and started their own.   That’s why Mrs. Vanderbilt had a 400.  The upper classes of her day didn’t want anything to do with her.  She was vulgar and cheap.  But her husband had a lot more money than they did, and so did his friends, and they just sailed off and founded their own debutante cotillions, country clubs and resorts.

So class interests me, as does the interaction between different people of different classes. 

So do relationships–between men and women (or women and women, or men and men), but also in families, and among coworkers.  The attempt of Michelle to get Leon to marry her, the dynamic in the office like the one in the dentist’s the other day, the way various family members cope with one of their number who has Alzheimer’s Disease (or who has just committed a murder)–

All that kind of thing interests me.   And for me, when that’s what I see on the page, then the characters are “doing something” and I find it interesting to read.

What I don’t find interesting to read, as I said before, are fight scenes, battle scenes, the monster attacking Detroit, the serial killer raping the corpse, and that kind of thing.

I am, as some of you already know, completely in love with an HBO miniseries called Band of Brothers, but during the three episodes where there’s mostly lots of explosions going on in the Battle of the Bulge, I make dinner.

For a while, I thought I had an exception to this rule in the fact that I really, really love disaster movies.  Or disaster books, for that matter–where is Harold Robbins when you need him? 

After a while, though, I began to realize that the reason I like disaster movies and disaster books is that the disaster is just the frame you hang the lives of the characters on, and it’s the lives of the characters–this one’s alcoholism, that one’s divorce, the other one’s fight with her father–that was really holding my attention.

So, to me, everybody at the beginning of TWWLN is “doing something,” and it’s all very interesting to read about. 

But I do think this discussion is ironic, in a way.

Trollope is always a bit declasse in graduate schools–or in good ones, at any rate–

Academics think he’s got much too much in the way of plot to qualify as a serious writer.

There’s an ANTM marathon this morning.  I’ve got tea.

Written by janeh

May 29th, 2011 at 5:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Doing Things'

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  1. Nothing illegal or immoral about being interested in character, but I think you weren’t using “doing something” as you normally would. If you told a student he had to “do something” about his grades, or an editor told you to “do something” about Chapter 17, nothing much in those first 30 pages of TWWLN would be what you or the editor had in mind.

    For myself, I’d swipe Hemingway’s “grace under pressure.” Plot ought properly to apply the pressure, and what the character does about his situation reveals his or her character. Not doing anything also reveals character, but I may be less interested in that sort of person than you are in gunfights.

    Yes, certainly there are novels–and movies!–which are all about the combat, and not how it reflects or changes character, but given the choice between those and OBLAMOV or Conflicted Preppie Fiction. I can learn to love the novel of tactics.

    And I won’t touch on academic taste. I could rant forever.


    29 May 11 at 7:35 am

  2. Now you’ve touched on why I haven’t been posting much: my father’s Alzheimer’s and my sister’s bizarre reaction.

    It’s hideous.

    Might make a book, though.


    29 May 11 at 9:15 am

  3. Hugs, Mary.


    29 May 11 at 8:03 pm

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