Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Fit and natural speech

In a comment to my post on dialogue in the novel, Fabio asks an excellent question: “What makes one character’s ‘voice’ fit, and the other’s fake?”

The word fit, of course, summons the literary principle of decorum. Once upon a time it was held that speech should be appropriate to the occasion or a person’s station (another obsolete concept). Neither writers nor critics believe in decorum any longer. The closest thing is the technical demand that a character exhibit consistency (or at least not be inconsistent). Classically, decorum was a moral concept, but then literature was considered the dramatic representation of virtues and vices. Perhaps the most authoritative source was Horace’s Ars Poetica:

Qui didicit, patriae quid debeat et quid amicis,
quo sit amore parens, quo frater amandus et hospes,
quod sit conscripti, quod iudicis officium, quae
partes in bellum missi ducis, ille profecto
reddere personae scit convenientia cuique.
Respicere exemplar vitae morumque iubebo
doctum imitatorem et vivas hinc ducere voces.
(ll. 312–18)
In Leon Golden’s 1995 translation:He who has learned what he owes to his country, what he owes to his friends, by what kind of love a parent, a brother, or a guest should be honored, what is the duty of a senator, what is the function of a judge, what is the role of a general sent into war—he, assuredly, knows how to represent what is appropriate for each character. I bid the artist, trained in representation, to reflect on exemplars of life and character and to bring us living voices from that source.By “living voices,” Horace seems to mean voices that are useful to the quandary of living but also voices that speak a language which is living, current, not obsolete. Contemporary writers would probably take such advice to heart while laughing off the suggestion that they owe anything at all to country, honor, or duty.

The uppermost principle in contemporary fiction is that speech must sound right. The quality of eavesdropping, in which the chitchat on the page sounds just like what might be overheard any day under natural conditions, is prized above everything else. But there are problems with such a conception of “dialogue” in fiction.

First of all, the most lifelike speech in American fiction is characteristically the least eloquent and meaningful. In some writers (Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie), naturalness is equated with inarticulateness; in most others (whose dialogue rarely achieves any distinctiveness, precisely because it is the imitation of standard idiom), the men and women are most emphatic and intelligible about practical concerns, especially love and other kinds of friction between adults. Here is a pretty good example, taken almost at random, from a novelist whose dialogue typically rises above the norm. It is taken from Paul Auster’s Sunset Park:     I don’t mean to pry, [Bing] says, but I was wondering if you have any plans.
     Plans to do what? Miles asks.
     To see your parents, for one thing.
     Is that any of your business?
     Yes, unfortunately it is. I’ve been your source for a long time now, and I think I want to retire.
     You already have. The moment I stepped off the bus today, you were given your gold watch. For years of devoted service. You know how grateful I am to you, don’t you?
     I don’t want your gratitude, Miles. I just don’t want to see you fuck up your life anymore. It hasn’t been easy on them, you know.
     I know. Don’t think I don’t know.
     Well, are you going to see them or not?
     I want to, I’m hoping to . . .
The ellipses are in the original, where they belong. The only way to get out of such an interchange is to let it trail away. A passage like this, which gives the impression of being much longer than its one hundred and thirty five words, helps to explain Nabokov’s impatience with dialogue in fiction. Nabokov considered it the resort of lazy novelists. It is hard to tell, outside the lackluster witticism about the retirement watch and one more page to add to his growing total, what Auster gains from this back-and-forth.

The bigger problem is the set speech in which a character must finally say something definitive. In Being Polite to Hitler, Robb Forman Dew has a character explain why he becomes involved in the effort to pass the Ohio Civil Rights Bill in 1959, even when he knew that “the issue wasn’t going to enhance [his] authority” or brighten his political future in the state:     “There’s no better way for a person to become a racist than to grow up in the middle of a society that generally has no idea of the bigotry they all live with. Later on you can’t believe you were part of it. You perpetuated it. You finally just can’t believe the things you’ve absorbed growing up. Just imagine! In nineteen forty-four, I was in a B-seventeen flying over Czechoslovakia,“ Sam [Holloway] said. “The flak guns suddenly opened up, and we were hit . . . oh, at least eighty times. We made it home because those P-fifty-ones just showed up out of nowhere. They covered us like glue. It turned out they were the Red Tails. The Tuskegee Airmen. And I couldn’t get over it—I’ll never get over it, I guess. The base where we were stationed was segregated!
     “So there we were! In a godforsaken muddy swamp of a place and I looked around. Every one of us was sure that the next flight would be the one when we’d get blown to bits. But God forbid you eat in the same mess hall as any of those black pilots!”
Ignore the unlikelihood that, to the pilot of a B-17 Flying Fortress, the fighter planes seemed to “show[] up out of nowhere,” and that they “turned out” to be P-51 Mustangs from the 332nd Fighter Group, the famous Red-Tail Angels, when they were assigned to escort the bomber to its target all along. (Ignore too the ellipses, the American novelist’s acquiescence to the convention of inarticulateness.)

A declamation like Sam Holloway’s is the counterfeit of reflection. Its self-congratulatory quality, in which a man says both that racists are unaware of their society’s bigotry but also that he was uniquely aware, undermine what Dew is trying to do. She wants to arrange speech that is representative of a larger and more comprehensive point of view—the point of view belonging to her circle and class. The trouble, as I said before, is that the opposition to her point of view is without form and void.

Just imagine! There were men who defended the segregation of the U.S. Army during the Second World War. And their defense might even be worth listening to: they had reasons in addition to motives. But don’t ask Robb Forman Dew to imagine what their reasons could possibly be. She can’t imagine them, or she won’t. And if the segregation of the military is wholly indefensible then Sam Holloway’s dignity and courage in opposing it (at this late date) turn to ash. His speech has little purpose beyond establishing that, for Dew, there are simply two kinds of people. There are the self-aware, like Sam, and there are the racists, thickly unaware of their society’s bigotry. No dialogue between them is possible.

Small wonder most contemporary American novelists prefer the vacuousness of interpersonal twittle-twattle. Apparently that is the only point of view they trust themselves to know with any authenticity.


D.N. Stuefloten said...

Too many fiction writers use dialog to advance the plot or to explain what should be implicit, not explicit. And since most dialog is mere prattle, I figure one should use it as little as possible, just enough to add an inkling of character or a bit of atmosphere. What do you think of Hemingway's dialog? I mean his early stuff--not the heavily mannered late work. I saw it as a careful extraction of conversation, a few bits and pieces to suggest the whole. All dialog, I think, even the prattle, works on two levels, the minutiae of the actual words--which so often are drab, dull, dead--and a kind of subterranean swelling of archetypal emotion. Some writers are good at using a bit of (even inane) dialog to suggest the depths hidden beneath; most are not.

Guy Pursey said...

Thanks; there were so many insights for me here, and in your previous post on dialogue. Although, I found it hard to follow your advice and ignore both the ellipses and the unlikelihood of Holloway's speaking in such a way, once you had pointed them out. (What is that device called anyway? Praeteritio?)

This post puts my own comparitively long and unrevealing review of The Chequer Board, which also in part addresses U.S. Army segregation during the Second World War, to shame. Not that I would expect anything less.... I've much to learn.

And as further proof, I have to end with what might seem like incredibly naïve questions: What does good dialogue look like? Who does dialogue "best" (if anyone)?

PMH said...

Good dialog, like all well-employed story elements, advance the story. Direct dialog is part of the scene, not summary, and so it must help create the drama of that scene. It may have a lot to do, or not much at all to do. My fiction tends to be chatty, I suppose, because I'm chatty but I find it very interesting when dialog works, when it both hides and reveals, when characters show themselves (almost) and then through their actions or further interaction (spoken thought)make that scene deliver.
Dialog should not function as exposition. Thought can be a form of action (rather than always its enemy) and dialog helps reveal that thought.