I’m going to start this month’s column with a little joke:
“A guy walks into a bar with a midget riding a crocodile and a seven foot nun with a ring through her nose. He orders a pint glass full of pickled eggs for the midget, a shot glass full of pork scratchings for the nun and a vodka martini for himself.
The midget begins stuffing all the eggs into his ears. The nun blesses the pork scratching and then sets light to them with a blowtorch. The man drinks his martini then orders another round of the same for all of them. This carries on all night until, half an hour before closing time, the barman leans over and says: “Hey buddy, what’s with the midget and the nun then?”
“Ah,” says the the guy. “Well you see my wife is a big fan of the Dalai Lama and for some time now she’s been trying to get pregnant. Tonight is her birthday and I want to do something really special for her.”
“So this is all for her benefit?”
“Yes it is.”
“But how is this going to help her get pregnant?”
“You my friend,” says the guy. “Have never read A Universal History of Infamy!”
Then the guy finishes his drink and leaves. The midget smashes his forehead against the bar five times while the nun gives him a withering look.
Didya get it? Didya, didya, didya? Wasn’t that like the funniest thing ever?
WADDAYA MEAN NO!
Didn’t you get the subtle Freudian imagery? Or the obscure reference to Jorge Luis Borges? What about the spiritual subtext that was brought to the fore by mentioning Tibetan Buddhism? Come on people, didn’t it give you a creeping sense of amusement? Haven’t you ever heard of Quiet Humour?!?
Or could it be that the joke just wasn’t funny? Yes, it had a vaguely entertaining set up, but I’m pretty sure that, unless you have a very strange sense of humour, it failed to make you laugh in any way whatsoever. That’s because this joke lacks one essential element:
Without a punchline it makes very little sense at all. We have no idea why one of the characters is riding a crocodile, or what his reasons are for stuffing pickled eggs in his ears. We have no clue why the nun is blessing pork scratchings that she subsequently torches. Furthermore, we are no wiser as to why they are both in the company of a man who plans to get his Dalai Lama-loving wife pregnant on her birthday by taking these two characters to a bar. Without a punchline to wrap up and explain the scenario none of these matters are addressed.
I could, of course, answer your concerns by pointing out that in real life there are no punchlines, no pat and convenient endings, no easy solutions or explanations for people’s behaviour. But I didn’t start this column by saying “let me tell you a real life event”. I said I was going to tell you a joke. If this was real life then someone would have undoubtedly called the SPCA or the RSPCA the minute they saw someone mistreating a crocodile so grievously. It’s doubtful any bar would have either the stock, or the goodwill, necessary to repeatedly fulfill an order as ridiculous as the one the guy makes to the barman. Nor would they allow anyone, no matter what their religious leanings, to set light to pork scratching all night with a blowtorch because it contravenes every fire law going. So that argument is specious in the extreme.
All of these points are so ridiculously self-evident that you may be wondering, right about now, just why I’m making them? If you will concur that jokes and funny stories, such as this one tried (but failed) to be, can be counted as a lesser branch of fiction, (they are stories after all) then I would argue that they’re the ONLY branch of fiction in which all these points are self-evident. And THAT, I would argue, is one of the main things that’s wrong with a lot of contemporary fiction.
As this is a horror site, and I publish most widely in the field of horror, I’m going to focus my comments mainly on horror, as even your dear old Uncle Jasp isn’t up to the Quixotic task of tilting at the entire windmills of contemporary fiction.
I’ve discussed this matter quite a bit with my good friend and fellow author John Llewllyn Probert and we both tend to agree that an increasing number of contemporary authors seem to reach the end of their short story, or longer fiction, with a sense of “oh well, this will do.” It sometimes feels as though their allotted word count is like the bell at a speed dating session and as soon as it sounds they’re off to start the next project, no matter how unresolved their current story is.
I am not without sympathy of course; finding a good ending, like finding a good title, is a problematic process at best. Sometimes the ending, the title, and the whole idea come to you in one fell swoop like a little gift from the universal mind. But those occurrences are rare. Usually it is as painful and complex as performing brain surgery on yourself with an old teaspoon and an out of date copy of Gray’s Anatomy. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should just abandon the idea altogether and avoid coming up with a satisfying ending.
I think the problem is a little more systemic than avoiding a satisfying ending, though. I think it stems from contemporary fiction’s relationship with plotting and the whole concept of ‘plot’. About a year ago, Caitlín R Kiernan posted on her blog that “I have no real interest in plot. Atmosphere, mood, language, character, theme, etc., that’s the stuff that fascinates me. Ulysses should have freed writers from plot”.
Kiernan is not alone in this view. It was close to an article of faith for both modernist and post-modernist fiction for a good part of the twentieth century. There were many who believed that a piece of fiction could not be considered literature if it was sullied by something as base as a plot. In his short text Reflections on The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco quoted the theoretician Renato Barilli expounding on just this matter: “That … the abolition of plots and action had been encouraged, in favour of the pure epiphany, in its extreme form of ‘materialistic ecstasy’ (we might say, ‘I will show you the heavens in a handful of dust’, as in the paintings of Pollock or Dubuffet or Fautrier.)”
Views and opinions that often start with a handful of avant-garde practitioners can, in time, filter down and affect huge swathes of the mainstream. So many of us working in the horror field, who would like our work to be taken seriously, might find this viewpoint very attractive. Especially if it garners us sympathetic critical attention outside of the genre.
Arthur Schopenhauer said that: “Art consists in the fact that with the smallest possible expenditure of outward life, the inward is brought into strongest relief, for the inward is properly the object of interest.” The ‘inward’, in fiction, isn’t normally associated with plot; that would be the ‘outward’ machinations of the story. And if the ‘inward is properly the object of interest’ then plot isn’t necessary to ‘art’ in fact it might even hinder it altogether.
Plot, after all, is often seen as a matter of contrivance. A string of handy coincidences and deus ex machinas that move a group of two dimensional characters through a series of hackneyed set pieces on their way to a clichéd ending. We’ve all read novels, and watched many films that support this view and they did little to enrich our lives or tell us anything about the universe and our place in it.
I would argue, however, that the problem might not lie with plotting, per se, just bad plotting. Plotting and the creation of plot is a somewhat undervalued element of our craft these days. Like all elements of craft, however, in the hands of a master, plotting can become an art form in its own right. Look at the wonderful twist and turns in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Macbeth if you don’t believe me, or the incredible turn of events in Great Expectations and Oliver Twist not to mention the carefully constructed story of The Woman in White. There is much to be said for the artistry of the plot and plot creation. Everybody loves a good story; stories are the beginning of all fiction and the very essence of a story, when you disregard all the trappings of how it’s told, is plot.
One platitude that editors, agents, and other people paid to pontificate on such matters, are always keen to ram down the throats of new writers, is that all stories/plots are about conflict. It’s very hard to find a good plot that doesn’t involve some form of conflict, either external or internal, but I don’t think conflict is the raison d’etre of plot. A protracted conflict can become highly frustrating. We only have to look to the problems in the Middle East, or the interminable jostling for power between political parties to see that.
What really engages us in a plot is not the conflict, but the way the characters, in whom we are invested, will resolve this conflict. This is one of the many powers of fiction. Real life rarely gives us the resolution, or the closure we so often crave, but fiction can and this might allow us to heal, to achieve insights into our own existence and to move on from situations and issues that may have impacted on our lives for years. Plot isn’t all about conflict, it’s about resolution.
Resolution of course demands a well-written and ultimately satisfying ending. Which brings us full circle back to the matter of endings and also what I’d like to say in conclusion. My conclusion is that … oh wait, is that the bell? Sorry, it seems I’ve reached my word count. I did have a brilliant conclusion worked out but … “oh well, this will do.”
You’ll just have to trust your Uncle Jasp on this one. You know it makes sense.
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