Saturday, April 30, 2011

In Defense of Things Like Similes

Recently I feel like I've heard some serious backlash against similes in fiction writing, coupled with (maybe this is a little more limited) some weirdly exclusivist notions of what makes writing prosaic, i.e., that it doesn't have a lot of similes, that similes are the poet's domain. I haven't been able to find anything in particular to point to as a source of this, though it does seem a little more prevalent among sci-fi and fantasy writers. And I can understand that--they're coaching each other to avoid a tic that leads a lot of genre people into trouble, drawing their characters with eyes like stars and voices loud as thunder. And obviously similes are to be wielded carefully insofar as they can lead to nondescript, hyperbolic, or cliched writing. But one would hope that prose writers would want to avoid these things regardless, which is why the incarnation of this advice that seems to think of similes as a poet's tool only weirds me out--to what extent does this mean that prose writers aren't supposed to be messing around with image, figurative language, and comparison? To what extent does this mean that prose writers and teachers are embracing a conception of their writing as a plain rendering, unimagined and unimaginative?

Personally I think similes can bring a lot of life to prose. Mike and I were talking today about the amplifying effect that a really good simile can create: first you have the image of the thing offered as comparison, then the characteristics that this comparison brings to the original thing being described, then the character that the usual distance between the two images brings to the prose. I think Mike and I are both, as writers and readers, pretty into the weird simile, the one that doesn't immediately seem like a fit comparison, but that brings, as it's read, some additional color, shape, or life to the original. Good similes are powerful not because they use comparison to suggest the real form of the thing (which was, correct me if I'm wrong, never really what metaphorical language was meant to do), but because they offer an interpretive problem of what specific parts of the real form to convey, and how, which gives the audience something to work out too, to get involved in. Assuming the audience trusts the writer to have put some thought and discretion into the two images he or she has joined, it seems like a simile would be a pretty important tool for any writer to have.

So I think what disturbs me is 1) that people are playing a numbers game with figurative language for prose writers, suggesting that there is a low limit to the number of metaphors a prose piece can competently hold, and that 2) this might mean that prose writers and teachers are a little bit afraid of leaving room for the problems of interpretation in their work, and leaving room for audiences to draw conclusions about the narrative condition itself--about where the narrator is coming from, about what the narrative voice is concerned with in the telling, about its struggle or ease to make meaning out of the thing it's telling. Choices of language, as much as choices of plot and character, open important questions of what is ventured and what is at stake. Comparisons can, if anything, make the decision-making process of the narrator painfully clear. It unsettles me that writers would consciously limit themselves to the telling of a thing--to a strict rendering--and cut themselves off from the more interesting question of how a thing is told--which tells us much more about how people work, as well as the things that happen to them.

No comments:

Post a Comment