The members of the tollbooth have been talking about reviewing crafts books here that we think might be of interest to writers. Because it’s a hot, sultry summer Friday here in Chapel Hill, NC, and because I imagine everyone in the blog world is either leaving their office early or thinking about it, I’m going to briefly review one today. And because I often look back for my inspiration as a writer as often as I look to the present day, I’m going to talk about COLLECTED IMPRESSIONS by Elizabeth Bowen, which was published in 1950. (available used from Amazon)
Read this book.
Does that count as a review?
Ok. How about this: Elizabeth Bowen (1899 – 1973) was one of the most respected female Anglo-Irish writers of her time. If you haven’t at least read her short stories, there’s a hole in your education as a writer.
Reviewing craft books may not be my thing.
COLLECTED IMPRESSIONS is a collection of essays on adult fiction writers such as Virginia Woolf, E.M.Forster. Ben Jonson, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Anthony Trollope, as well as reviews of plays, pictures, and places from 1936-1945 in England. At the very back of this lovely collection is a section called “Notes on Writing a Novel” which was written in 1945. As someone who admires every book Bowen wrote, anything she has to say about writing is of great interest to me. Even if you’ve never read her, though, the way she talks about craft, and the topics she covers, will prove insightful, if not invaluable.
Most interesting of all, to me, is that we really haven’t come up with anything new to say about writing, we only talk about it in a different way. The particular style in which Bowen talks about the same aspects of craft allows the writer to come at it from a different way. I’m going to share a few tidbits here. The italics are Bowen’s, as are the “musts,” which I admire her for using as frequently as she does. The (a)’s and (b)’s are also hers and very quaint.
For instance, Bowen writes about “angle.”
“Angle has two senses – (a) visual, (b) moral. This has been much discussed – particularly I think by Henry James. Where is the camera-eye to be located? (1) In the breast or brow of one of the characters? This … imposes on the novel the limitations of the ‘I’ – whether the first person is explicitly used or not. (2) In the breast or brow of a succession of characters? This is better. It must, if used, involve very careful, considered division of the characters, by the novelist, in the seeing and the seen. Certain character gain in importance and magnetism by being only seen: this makes them more romantic, fatal-seeming, sinister. In fact, no character in which these qualities are, for the plot, essential should be allowed to enter the seeing class.”
I love the idea of characters being given a sinister air by only being seen. And the concept of the camera eye in the “breast or brow” of the characters. When Bowen goes on to say, “The cinema, with its actual camera-work, is interesting study for the novelist,” she could be addressing a modern-day conference, albeit in slightly formal tones. Cinematography is huge in the writing world today.
Bowen says that dialogue must be “pointed, intentional, relevant.” Also, “The functional use of dialogue for the plot must be the first thing in the novelist’s mind. Where functional usefulness cannot be established, dialogue must be left out.”
What is this functional use? That of a bridge, according to Bowen. “Dialogue is the thin bridge which must, from time to time, carry the entire weight of the novel. Two things to be kept in mind – (a) the bridge is there to permit advance, (b) the bridge must be strong enough for the weigh.”
“Characters should, on the whole, be under rather than over articulate. What they intend to say should be more evident, more striking (because of its greater inner importance to the plot) than what they arrive at saying.”
Today, we refer to this as subtext. I find talking about what a character intends to say but doesn’t, more direct. In the same way, I find the idea of dialogue as a bridge convincingly visual. And having a camera in the brow of my character makes sense.
There’s so much more about plot, character, scene and dialogue in this essay, but I’ll end with what Bowen says about relevance.
“Relevance – the question of it – is the headache of novel-writing. … The novelist’s – any writer’s – object is, to whittle down his meaning to the exactest and finest possible point. What, of course, is fatal is when he does not know what he does mean: he has no point to sharpen. The most striking fault in work by young or beginning novelists … is irrelevance – due either to infatuation or indecision. To direct such an author’s attention to the imperative of relevance is certainly the most useful – and possibly the only – help that can be give. “
“When he does not know what he does mean.” That’s another way of saying “What’s your point?” That, happily, brings me right around to my first post this week, which I ended with that thought. A most auspicious, but entirely unintended, feat.
Is “exactest” even a word anymore?
Thanks for being here this week. Next week, a classmate of mine, Ann Jacobus, will be our guest blogger. Ann grew up in Texas and Arkansas and now lives in Paris. She writes edgy YAs with a unique Texas-French attitude. Believe me, you don’t want to miss her.
This is a Tollbooth Classic post by Stephanie Greene, one of the original Tollbooth crew