On Authorial Distance

by | February 13, 2015 |

On Christmas Day 2014 I listened to an interview Diane Rehm had with Margaret Atwood about her new story collection Stone Mattress: Nine Tales.

Note: The original NPR airdate was November 10, 2014.

During the interview Atwood read the opening pages from the title story first published in The New Yorker in 2011. The story begins: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple.”

Atwood then goes on to describe Verna in some detail. She is an older woman who is highly self-aware and who has done what she can over the years to maintain her looks. She might no longer strut around in a bikini, for instance, but she looks pretty good in a sweater.

Given the first sentence, it is clear Verna is going to kill someone.

Spoiler alert: It turns out to be the man who had raped her in high school. The story is one of revenge.

I read the comments at The New Yorker site. Since (so the saying now goes) what people do on the internet is either troll for love or vent their spleen, the comments on this story were uniformly negative.

By way of contrast, in the September 2014 New York Times review of the collection, the reviewer called this particular story “powerful.” So opinion diverges, unsurprisingly.

I am not interested to debate the merits of this story. Rather, as I heard Atwood read her description of Verna, I was much struck by how far Atwood was standing from her subject.

I felt that Atwood was at her easel, with her subject about ten feet away, while Atwood looked from subject to palette to canvas, putting a dab of color here, a dab of color there, building up an expert portrait of this woman, inside and out, that was recognizable and believable.

As I listened, I enjoyed the portrait, but my writerly self was put off. It was only then that I realized I never stand so far away from my subjects. I mostly feel myself right there next to them. I now wonder whether relative authorial distance is what some critics, explicitly or not, use to distinguish one type of fiction from another.

In Loving with a Vengeance (first published 1982, reprinted 2007), feminist scholar Tania Modleski points out that one of the conventional camera techniques of the soap opera is the close-up. In real life, she notes, close-ups are experienced only by lovers and babies in their mother’s arms.

So now we have a chain of association: cuddling lovers, cradled babies, comfort, proximity. Since Modleski’s subtitle is Mass-produced Fantasies for Women, let’s add: genre and females.

Note: Unfortunately, the term mass-produced suggests that the stories can be reduced to a flat with no way and no reason to distinguish among them. In my blog The Romance Novel as an Art Form I say that I’m waiting for a Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School to theorize aesthetic taste on a large scale and relieve it of stigma.

It is sometimes said that pathos is proximity and comedy is distance. Take a man who works on the 40th floor of an office building and who likes to run up and bounce himself off his plate glass windows for the amusement of his co-workers. One day the glass breaks, and the man falls to his death.

If I’m reading about him as the winner of a Darwin Award, which is bestowed upon stupid people who thankfully remove their genes from the gene pool by dying before they reproduce, I’m laughing. If he’s my brother, I’m crying.

So now I’ll add another term to the chain of associations: emotions, specifically ones involving heat such as humiliation, lust, anger, shame, love, and loss when its searing.

The romance writer gets right next to her characters, stands in the space of their body heat, and maintains no critical distance, which does not mean she is not or cannot be critical about her characters’ actions, thoughts, or intentions. Nevertheless, she does not contemplate her subject. She immerses herself in it and bathes in emotional heat in its many varieties.

Clearly a writer as accomplished as Atwood knows her characters’ emotions and knows them well. My comments on relative authorial distance come with no judgments. One of my aims in these blogs is to understand the dynamics of the wide-ranging genre known as the romance with special attention to why it is so routinely denigrated.

I am grateful to Atwood, because her reading helped me understand my own proximity to my characters. Her tale of Verna the killer also brought into high relief my preference for exploring the conditions of heat, for we all know the temperature at which the dish of revenge is best served.

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This post was written by Julie Andresen

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