Friday, April 28, 2006


What is good writing?

Partly, it is about style. All good writers must move and shape words to bring situations alive and convey a particular point. They will mostly do this deliberately, having learned it by trial and error and by copying other good writers; though I have come across writers who create empathetic characters without apparently realising it. Such writers mostly write in the first person and their characters are usually either neurotic or psychotic, which leads one to wonder where the author/narrator split lies, or whether it exists at all. The exception to this need for technique is potboiler fiction such as throwaway crime thrillers or romances: these may be enjoyable, but that does not mean they have any artistic worth.

Style is not enough though. One needs content too, and even these two combined may not be enough. I have come across several writers who are technically proficient, and have potentially interesting material but whose writing is nevertheless flat or unexpressive. Mostly this is because one does not engage with the characters in the text or believe their particular predicament with the outside world. What is needed is for form and content to merge and complement one another, so that the text reflects or refracts the world convincingly.

What is form? What is content?

The two terms overlap substantially, so it is impossible to define them precisely. But consider the following idea:

A man in his early twenties has a girlfriend with whom he has a loving but listless relationship. He is also involved in a psychosexual relationship with another woman. This woman treats him very cruelly, not because she is a naturally vindictive person, but because he seems to want to be treated in this way: it is his prescripted requisite for the relationship to continue. They do not have actual physical sex, but the relationship is nevertheless sexual, and each party gets their kicks from different psychological stimuli: she likes being in control and wearing the facade of 'cruelty,' he likes being the victim. She, incidentally, is in a relationship of her own, an overtly sadistic relationship wherein she is the victim. The difference is that, whereas our protagonist's victimhood is agreed consensually, hers is forced upon her. The culmination is that she eventually offers herself to him: he is so overwhelmed by this that he turns the offer down.

Two different writers could turn this synopsis into a masterpiece and an appalling failure respectively. The content in each may be the same; it is the form which would alter. Form is not simply about deciding whether to write a poem, play, short story or novel. It is the difference (apart from the content) between a 19th century novel and a 20th century novel; between a novel by a coloniser and another by someone who has been colonised; between novels by male writers and female writers etc etc. The basic elements in, for example, medieval literature and much pomo cinema are the same - aspects of love, sexuality, gender, power, class relations etc - but the ways in which they are treated are very different.

Terry Eagleton states, in the "Form and Content" chapter of Marxism and Literary Criticism, Marx's (and Hegel's before him) observation that "artistic form is no mere quirk on the part of the individual artist. Forms are historically determined by the kind of 'content' they have to embody". Eagleton also quotes Fredric Jameson: "Form itself is but the working out of content in the realm of the superstructure."

Content will usually be arrived at through some sort of personal intervention - a relationship break-up, conversion to a philosophical idea, some sort of aesthetic awakening etc - but form is historically determined. And, as Jameson suggests, there is a strong dialectical relationship between the two. As I said before, texts are dull and worthless if they do not involve a dialectic between an ego-driven (in the psychoanalytic sense) individual and a world which he shapes and which shapes him. Jameson's observation is that it is form which takes the ego-driven content and brings it into conflict with the outside world.

There is much more to say about this, and I will post something more substantial soon. But as an open ending to this post, Eagleston also distinguishes between three forms, which all posit the character-within-the-world in very different ways:

Depicting archetypal characters who represent aspects of society in literature which draws together the "complex totality of society itself." This is fine as long as it recognises that society is indeed complex; otherwise, a crude form of political realism can lead us down the road of Gorky et al.

Whereby characters and situations are alienated from history and become disconnected. Whereas realist writers shape and are shaped by history and society, naturalism is passive in its observations.

As with naturalism, formalism depicts characters fundamentally alienated from socio-history, but it takes a subjective context. "Individuals are [...] robbed of social relations and so of authentic selfhood; history becomes pointless or cyclical, dwindled to mere duration." The ego becomes bereft of its symbolic make-up; it is nothing more than a hermit.


Blogger Comandante Gringo said...

(Didn't you just plagiarize the plot from "The Story of O"??
ba-da-boomp ;)

But seriously (Take my wife... Please!): one way to describe what you're saying, is that for this form-content dialectic to come off well in a work of art, a necessary (if not sufficient) prerequisite is that the writer have something to say.

Many don't. And they certainly and invariably write trash. Many do. But that doesn't guarantee they won't write trash. But all successful worx do indeed have something to say.

4:09 AM  

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