Lessons on Narrative Distance: What Essays Can Teach Novelists

pinkpigHow Not to Write

I used to keep a book on my shelf to remind myself how not to write. The book, call it Stricken, consisted of a collection of essays on the author’s recent widowhood. She had written it perhaps too soon after her husband’s death.

It had all the hallmarks of a person drowning in grief: narrative without insight. The opposite of emotion recollected in tranquility. The contents of her husband’s pockets were recorded. Where he had hung his pants on the day he died. That ten months after his death she could not wash the pants. There was a lot of crying.

If she had been my friend, I would have sat on the couch next to her, visited the shrine of the pants and the items in the pocket and paid deference to the departed husband. But as reader, I was impatient. I longed for insight, for meaning.

I am appalled by my harsh judgment, but in my defense, it is trial enough to live through the death of a loved one. If I am going to read about it and be called upon to dredge up those harrowing feelings, I want something back for my investment.

Alchemy: When Meat Becomes Pig

The best writers alchemize, forging insight and meaning from experience and observation. Essayist E. B. White lived on a farm in mid-coast Maine, where he raised animals for slaughter. But when a particular pig sickened, White found himself nursing the very animal he had planned to ax. And eat.

In “Death of a Pig”, White chronicled his battle to save the pig as a battle against mortality itself. When the pig died, White grieved. “The loss we felt was not the loss of ham, but the loss of pig,“ he wrote. (Maybe this pig inspired his children’s book, Charlotte’s Web.)

If the essay were “How I Lost My Ham Dinner,” I wager we wouldn’t read far. The same criterion applies to novels: Readers hunger for meaning, for a reason to read. Stakes is one aspect of meaning in novels.

Narrative Distance

To alchemize, to deliver the stakes, the writer must first find the proper emotional distance. Zadie Smith has a knack for this. In the first line of “You Are in Paradise”, she writes, “If you are brown and decide to date a British man, sooner or later, he will present you with a Paul Gaugin.”

Put myself in her shoes, and I am enraged. My boyfriend reduces me, conflates me with naked brown girl in the jungle with clothed white man watching? Seriously? My boyfriend?

If she had begun with justified fury, she would have lost many readers. But because Smith is funny and coolly devastating at once, I will go on any field-trip with her.

The more emotional the topic, the more dispassionate the tone might be a rule of thumb for authors. The very opposite of what we would likely feel in real life. Novelist Jeffrey Eugenides establishes this distance in the first line of The Virgin Suicides.

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

If Eugenides were writing about lumber—or a pig–he would have had a different challenge: to invest the lumber (or pig) with emotion. But he was writing about the most emotional of topics—five suicides, all teen girls, sisters from a single family. Therefore restraint was not only in order, it was crucial.

Imagine if The Virgin Suicides began with not a recitation of facts but weeping and pounding hearts. Our natural reaction is often to withdraw from intensity of feeling. A certain distance, accompanied by the particular detail—a beam suitable for hanging say—and we are drawn toward the prose. Nature abhors a vacuum.

It’s the same trick with cats. Chase and he will flee. Sit, read and he will, warily, approach. He might even settle onto your lap and purr.

4 comments

  1. Carol D

    “The more emotional the topic, the more dispassionate the tone might be a rule of thumb for authors.” Excellent post, Lisa, and great advice. I have not thought enough about how the stakes, the meaning of a story, are delivered. I certainly will now.

  2. Love this post. I see the problem as letting the reader catch up with the emotion. If we saw two people arguing in the street, the chances are the violence of the emotion would scare us off because we haven’t got the involvement they have. So if a reader is plunged into the turmoil too violently they might never catch up. We have to coax them in.
    I’m off to tweet!

  3. Lisa Birk

    Thanks so much, E.B. and Carol. For me, narrative distance is such an interesting part of the craft. In reading your novels, AN UNSEEMLY WIFE and BEASTLY, I think you each have found the just right narrative distance. I hope to do as well!

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