Tuesday, March 29, 2011

These things will often happen to ordinary people.

I haven't had much time this semester for outside reading, a situation I lament often, but ever since AWP I've been stealing the occasional fifteen minutes with Anna Karenina. I don't have much to say about the book yet, as my Kindle tells me I'm about 8% through and the titular character just showed up a few hundred words ago.  Also, the last couple years have made me pretty much genuinely afraid of criticizing major books in public. (Don't worry: I'll get over it.) But there is one particular thing Tolstoy does with some regularity that I really dislike. I'd like to see this trope dead and buried, but I still see it in recent books as well.

What do I mean? I mean the part where Tolstoy makes a sharp observation, or in some cases what he seems to think is an especially sharp one but which I find rather painfully banal, and then telling me how common and ordinary the thing is, either among people of a certain class or among people generally. The particular moment that really made me hate this is the following:
All these days Dolly had been alone with her children. She did not want to talk of sorrow, but with that sorrow in her heart she could not talk of outside matters. She knew that in one way or another she would tell Anna everything, and she was alternately glad at the thought of speaking freely, and angry at the necessity of speaking of her humiliation with her, his sister, and of hearing her ready-made phrases of good advice and comfort. She had been on the lookout for her, glancing at her watch every minute, and, as so often happens, let slip just that minute when her visitor arrived, so that she did not hear the bell.
I mean ugh, right? Up until now we have a passage of the sort that I'm not exactly wild about, in general, for reasons of personal taste -- although unlike so many of the writers he inspired, Tolstoy seems to write with an awareness of the banality of his characters' feelings about affairs -- but it was well-executed. It worked. We had some discussion of how Dolly felt, it seemed accurate, and we can feel her anticipation, her anxiety, her ceaseless waiting, her nervousness, etc. And we have what could have been a very nice little moment: Dolly stops paying attention for just one moment, and in this time her anticipated visitor arrives. This puts her mildly off-balance and out of sorts. This is familiar and endearing and it feels very true.

But then Tolstoy had to screw it up by pointing to how familiar and endearing and true it is with his little aside: "as so often happens." It drives me up the wall. One of the chief pleasures of fiction is those moments of recognition, where a phrase or a particular moment feels so right, so much an emblem of your own experience, that you feel both more invested in the story itself and more connected to the writer and the characters as human beings. But this doesn't work if you draw attention to it. Saying "as so often happens" tells us that you think you've landed one of these moments. And either you're right, in which case it would be better if the moment could be allowed to stand alone without all this eyebrow-wiggling, or you're wrong, in which case now you're wiggling your eyebrows about something that never happened for your reader. Either way you look like a tool.

And this goes to a problem with many fiction writers generally. So often, writers are doing everything in their power to insist that their fiction is real and true and right. And this impression, if I come to it organically, can be a good thing for a reader -- it can feel nice. But when you push the point too hard, it gets to be ridiculous. Why are you writing fiction if your goal is to show me how well you understand reality? And if all you're doing is confirming me in my experiences, if you're only inscribing your prejudices as general principles of people and the universe, what's in it for me?

Just don't do it, guys. Winners say no.


  1. I'm reading a couple genre-heavy books right now, reads that are enlivened by thick ideas but also sluggish with thick writing, and I'm finding stuff like this more annoying than all the weird constructions and overexcited dialogue attributions. It's like a tic that manages to mess up both the story's mechanics as well as the reader's interaction with its conceptual flow.

  2. Seems like one of the modern versions of this would be "unlike most [X] on TV. . . " where X is some occupation or activity that is exaggerated.

    I do like narrators that insist that what they're saying is 100% real when it is very, very obviously not. I like the weird dissonance it creates. This is something I've been trying out a lot lately in the thing I'm working on.