Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Dialogue in the novel

It’s not the same as recorded speech. A better word for the back-and-forth between persons in most novels would be chitchat. The word dialogue entered the English language in the thirteenth century as a name for a specific type of writing in which the action or argument develops as an interchange between two or more points of view. This is, in fact, the earliest use of the word. Not until two centuries later did the technical term become a synonym for casual conversation.

The unattractive word dialogism, which has gained prestige through its association with the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin, is now more likely to be substituted for the dramatic interplay of thought in the novel. Originally, though, the order was reversed.

In his Arte of English Poesie (1589), for example, Puttenham observes that the forms of poetry and the manner of its writing are as diverse as its subject matter. Some poets write of heroes, while others are “more delighted to write songs or ballads of pleasure.” Some are taken with “the perplexities of love,” while others write only for the stage. “There were yet others,” he continues, “who mounted nothing so high as any of them both, but in base and humble style by manner of Dialogue, uttered the private and familiar talk of the meanest sort of men. . . .” He names Theocritus and Vergil as practitioners of the kind, identifying the eclogue (or “shepherdly talk”) as a subgenre of the larger class.

The fiction of speech in another man’s mouth, however, is called something else entirely:

We are sometimes occasioned in our tale to report some speech from another man’s mouth, as what a king said to his privy counsel or subject, a captain to his soldier, a soldier to his captain, a man to a woman, and contrariwise: in which report we must always give to every person his fit and natural, and that which best becomes him. . . . So if by way of fiction we will seem to speak in another man’s person . . . [t]his manner of speech is by the figure Dialogismus, or the right reasoner.Most contemporary novelists are exercised only by dialogismus. That is, they trouble to make the speech that they assign to their characters sound “fit and natural,” a tribute to their own “ear” for ordinary utterance, but the words rarely if ever advance a distinct and distinguishable point of view.

Jonathan Franzen is perhaps the most glaring example in contemporary fiction. As if he were an entomologist collecting specimens, Franzen excels at characters who sound like someone at the next table in Starbuck’s, whose conversation you find yourself eavesdropping upon. In The Corrections, he noticed the way that some people end their sentences with a rising so, as if they were about to go on, although they don’t. In Freedom, he is deft with the word like. “We haven’t even started on jealousy yet,” Patty tells Richard. “This is, like, Minute One of jealousy.” Or later:I know who fucked it all up. I know it was me! But, Richard, you knew it was harder for me. You could have thrown me a lifeline! Like, possibly, for that one minute, not talked about poor Walter and his poor tender feelings, but about me instead.Patty is the most arresting and interesting character in the novel, because she is the one with the most sharply individualized speech. At the same time, she is also the character with the least developed point of view, the least reflective, the least likely to swerve into politics. In a book with ambitions to be the Great American Novel of Liberal (or, at least, Anti-Bush) Ideas, this is a deep flaw. Far worse, though, is what I called in my review Franzen’s lack of integrity: his refusal to create fit and natural speech for political viewpoints with which he disagrees. As a consequence, the only truly convincing character in the novel is the one who is furthest removed from its core of conviction.

What I am suggesting is that the two treatments of dialogue in the contemporary novel—the scrupulous mimicry of everyday speech and the studied exclusion of differing points of view—are connected at the level of basic assumptions about the nature of fiction in today’s literary culture. Reading Luke Ford’s interview with Robb Forman Dew, I was struck by the following exchange:Luke: “Do you have any friends who are conservative Republicans?”
Robb, quickly: “No. I don't think I could. Are you?”
Luke: “Yes.”
Robb: “You are? You really are? Oh no. You can’t be.”
In the interview, conducted four years ago, Dew supplies the premise to her brand new novel Being Polite to Hitler. When she was a child, she explains, two things broke her family apart—“religion and Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Her uncle Brent, an “airplane navigator in the Pacific,” supported Truman’s decision to drop the bombs on Japan. “My father thought there was no excuse for dropping a bomb like that on a civilian population,” she recollects. “That the government should’ve dropped it on an unpopulated island and said, ‘This is what will happen.’ ” Brent dismissed the idea as “romantic.”

In Being Polite to Hitler, the horror of the atomic bomb is the psychological landscape of the novel. The novel opens in October 1952, when “there was not a single community [in America],” according to Dew, “that didn’t harbor an unacknowledged dread and anticipation of some sort of retribution for having perpetrated an act of aggression previously unmatched by any other country.” The dread worms its way into the lives of every character in the novel, spreading frustration and unease. No other response is possible, because the only admissible point of view is that “dropping a bomb like that on a civilian population” was an “act of aggression.”

Robb Forman Dew can no more imagine a different conception of Hiroshima and Nagasaki than she can imagine having conservative Republican friends. And in this she deviates little from Jonathan Franzen, who is otherwise a much superior novelist. Their novels suffer as a consequence, however, because it is just impossible to enter into dialogue with what can neither be imagined nor believed. In Bakhtin’s terms, their novels are monologic, a long rehearsed speech by a single uninterrupted voice. Or, as I would prefer to call them, they are examples in American fiction of “begging the question,” which establish their premises by shutting out anything that might aggravate them.


Robb Dew said...

Just to be clear about my comment to Luke Ford, he had telephoned me out of the blue some years ago to discuss homosexuality, because I was a member of PFLAG at the time, and he said he was wrestling with his sexuality. I had no idea I was being interviewed, although I agreed to do an interview with him at some time.

But let me assure you that I can well imagine a person who believes the decision to use atomic weapons to end the War in the Pacific was the only choice to be made--I haven't decided what I think about it myself.

Robb Forman Dew

Stephen Cahaly said...

Theoretically speaking, chit-chat in novels assumes people are exactly what they say. Wink wink, we know, which is what gets on my nerves too. A conservative tends to think, "I know what I think. I don't need to qualify everything with babbling nonsense." A liberal tends to think, "But I love the shades of gray. I live for the shades of gray. Why remove the fruit from the table," each, in part, losing out on the whole that holds any narrative together. It's truly astonishing how much psychological depth even Shakespeare's walk on parts have, as he appears to have handed them out as favors for a successful theater. Great post, D.G., as always.

Luke Ford said...

The transcript of our interview speaks for itself. Robb realized this was an interview. I said nothing about focusing on homosexuality and I never said anything about wrestling with my sexuality.

It is not unusual that people give an interview and then regret it and as a consequence make up all sorts of things.

Luke Ford

Fabio said...

"the most sharply individualized speech."

"fit and natural speech"

Prof. Myers,

This is a great post and one of the reasons I keep coming back here. One question: how can we (you) tell when the speech is right? Is it just intuition? What makes one character's "voice" fit, and the other's fake?

Thank you.

D. G. Myers said...


An excellent question: “What makes one character’s ‘voice’ fit, and the other’s fake?”

I need to ponder the question, and answer at greater length a little later, but for now perhaps this sentence from William James will do. I happened upon it while reading desultorily on Shabbes.

Writing in 1905, James is discussing the cultural skirmish between humanists and anti-humanists. The trouble is knowing exactly what the anti-humanists think. He complains that, in their “reticences,” they have “perplexed the humanists” (little has changed in one hundred plus years). Much of the disagreement, as a consequence, is unproductive. And why?

“It is always good in debate to know your adversary’s point of view authentically.”

For James’s “debate” substitute the word dialogue, and the outlines of an answer to your question begin to emerge.

Marly Youmans said...

I came to see how you had used Puttenham--I do love him!--but found the post and thread interesting as well. No doubt it's a particular ailment of our time in the West that many novelists find it repugnant to "enter in" to the mind of someone with thoughts and worldview alien to their own. I like your answer by way of William James. And the Dew-Ford exchange is curious...