Practical Theory

I don’t write about movies much, and for good reason: despite having learned a few film theory terms from discussions with smarter friends, I don’t really understand “moving pictures” in any deep way. But in this last week I’ve spent on a sort of writing retreat in Massachusetts with my friend Adam we’ve been watching some Paul Thomas Anderson movies that have got me thinking about the relationship between theory and praxis as it relates to both cinema and fiction, or maybe just narrative forms in general – and I’m going to try and explain some of these thoughts here, even if they might seem naive to someone with a better understanding of film.

The discussion began after Adam and I watched “Punch-Drunk Love.” The next night we were driving through the snowy landscape to get dinner when Adam (who does have some film studies classes under his belt) started in on a train of thought that boiled down to this essential point: PTA seems to be a kind of post-theory director, insofar as when Adam watches his movies he feels as if certain scenes and shots jibe so perfectly with different theories about space and character relationships and “gaze” that it’s too big a coincidence to imagine them not being influenced by these theories, to some extent.

Having looked over some interviews and articles over the last month (the release of Inherent Vice definitely goosed the internet for all things Anderson), I said that I wondered whether this had to do with the way PTA likes to replicate shots from old films: his obsession with incorporating old forms and frames into his narratives. It would make sense, then, that his work would look like it was made in accordance with film theory: not because Anderson is influenced by theory, but because he replicates the classic movies which film theory uses as its starting point.

This got me thinking of the sneaky ouroboros between narrative art and the people who seek to theorize it. The construction of narrative art, whether through language or images, is a very tricky proposition that requires a great deal of artifice. Some teachers of creative writing look down on teaching the creaky mechanisms of structure, like plot, motif, or character development, but the fact remains that these practical concerns are the tools with which most prose writers (even a great many “experimental” ones) manage the trickery that is a narrative. They control the flow of time, the pattern of speech, the appearance of personality. It’s not a perfect corollary to the way directors construct film through camera angles, editing, lighting, sound design, etc., but it’s not so far removed that the comparison ceases to be useful.

This is not to say that novelists don’t consider large-scale effects when producing work, or that a theory which attempts to develop ideas about narrative on a large scale aren’t valuable. It’s only to say that any theory that seeks to talk about narrative art in a way that is meaningful to me ought to spend some time analyzing the way in which that narrative is constructed on a micro level, as well. I know that I’m writing as a writer, here, and that I have my obvious prejudices, but I’m mistrustful of the way some theories of literature seem to be constructed primarily on other theories of literature: that it’s our theory that is “post-theory,” not our literature.

(It’s different in the world of poetry, in which theory and writing praxis have a very productive relationship which I admire and enjoy but won’t discuss here. The construction of narrative has its own difficulties which limit and shape prose fiction, and make the relationship between the two far less productive, IMO.)

I imagine I’m exposing myself to accusations of aesthetic conservatism when I say that I’m primarily interested in the construction of literature as the basis for both my own work and the best kind of literary theory – the same way I think Paul Thomas Anderson’s source of inspiration is film itself, with theory at best a secondary concern – but I can’t think of any other perspective that makes sense. Most of my life I’m shaping text, burrowing into, rearranging it; the sentence level is where I do my work. It’s also the site of reading, at which comprehension (and revision, since the reader is their own author) occurs, if it occurs at all.

That’s why a theorist like Bakhtin seems so productive to me. Even when he talks about the way in which a line of text will always be inflected by its context, he still takes the text as the basic arena in which these issues are played out, and he never abandons his investigation of the form of narrative as the basis for philosophical concerns. Look at the multiplicity contained in a single line of prose, he seems to be saying, and look at the complexity of space and time that novels attempt to wrestle with. When I read Bakhtin, I leave with an appreciation not just (or even mostly) of his own intelligence, but of the inexhaustible intricacy of fiction as a form.

I remember going to see Ben Lerner read a few months back and being so depressed by the way he subtly maligned the idea of writing a novel. “I never imagined myself doing this,” he admitted, as if the fame he’d earned from writing prose embarrassed him, and he maligned “most novels” as being simplistic, beneath his attention. He wished he could just keep on being a poet, he said, but somehow these novels just kept coming out of him. (Not sure whether this excretory form was intentional or not, but there you go.) I left with two clear impressions. The first was that Ben Lerner needed to relax a little bit. The second was that Ben Lerner probably hasn’t read that much prose fiction, or really thought that much about its construction.

This perspective would have concerned me less if I hadn’t heard much the same perspective from friends of mine who are (for lack of a better word) “intellectual” poets: this sense that the wedding of theory and poetry has made the latter deeper and more complex than prose fiction, and that poetry as a pursuit is more intellectually advanced than prose fiction, precisely for the reasons I outlined above: the idea that the creaky constraints of plot and character keep language from articulating its own fissures and disjunctions.

Except, of course, that the creaky constraints of plot and character are tools by which to express time and space, the dialogue not only of opposing points of view but different modes of language, even the movement through which one can reject that language, through the subtle process of irony — and all of this is dependent on a system of narrative which is just as capable of dramatizing its own fissures as any piece of poetry. (In fact, one of my favorite parts of Bakhtin is the way he apprehends the productive relationship between the limiting, unifying aspects of prose narrative and the way heteroglossia bursts through these unifying aspects: the way prose is always forcing a writer to operate in ways which are alien and opposed to their intentions, and therefore complicating those intentions.) Think of a character struggling to become contiguous, the way Odette struggles to maintain her solidity in the face of social apprehension in Proust, or the way a narrator can blur the line between the borders of constructed and “real” occasions, as in the work of Gerald Murnane, or the way a single sentence can deny its own legibility through several levels of discourse and irony, as in my favorite book of prose published last year, Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. 

All of these novels embrace different strategies through which prose fiction produces and interrogates meaning – and those strategies are just as worthy of investigation as poetic structures. I hope that by now it’s clear that I’m not advocating against theory. In fact, I’d like to see more of it in relation to narrative fiction, as long as it takes the area of the (con)text and the work that narrative does as one of its main preoccupations. It seems a shame to me that the preference for poetics in theoretical circles leaves so many people unaware or even dismissive of the practical complexity contained in narrative fiction.


2 thoughts on “Practical Theory

  1. Winona says:

    First of all I want to say fantastic blog! I had a quick
    question which I’d like to ask if you don’t mind. I was interested
    to find out how yoou center yourself and clear your head prior
    to writing. I have had difficulty clearing my thoughts in getting my ideas out there.
    I ddo enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10 to
    15 minutes are gemerally wasted just teying to figure out how to begin. Any recommendations or hints?
    Many thanks!

    1. Sam Allingham says:

      Thanks, Winona – generally, I find it helpful to start out writing long-hand, and to keep two different notebooks; the first notebook is for random thoughts and scribbles, while the second is for more serious projects. That way, when you sit down to write you can start in the random scribbling notebook, which makes it easier to write whatever you like. Then, when you feel ready, you can move to the other. Some people also find keeping a journal helpful, instead of the random scribbling notebook. Hope this helps!

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