Saturday, September 14, 2013

An author shouldn't always want to be quotable

***Spoiler for Chinatown appears below***

A man is the sum of his misfortunes. One day you'd think misfortune would get tired, but then time is your misfortune.

Sin and love and fear are just sounds that people who never sinned nor loved nor feared have for what they never had and cannot have until they forget the words.

Those are two quotes from the novels of the oft quoted William Faulkner. I could list juicy tidbits from the man from Mississippi all day. I could not however spend a day reading the novels themselves. They are tedious, partly because they are crammed with quotable moments.

Often, the novels with the best quotes aren't the best novels, because the author forces in lots of great quotes at the expense of the story. It is even more grating when these perfectly formed lyricisms and insights are presented as dialogue. No authentic human sits around unleashing proverbs that outdo the King James Bible, yet authors create characters like this all the time. I get it, these writers want to be quoted 100 years after they're dead, so they inject mini-essays into their novels whether they belong or not, ignoring that essays and novels are different things.

The Picture of Dorian Gray is full of amazing quotes, most of them uttered by the character Henry Wotton. The first half is largely a showcase for Wotton's witticisms and worldview, and this hurts the novel. Apart from the fact that even the world's greatest conversationalist isn't a gushing fount of future Bartlett's familiar quotations, having a character essay rather than speak to show how he influences another character (Dorian) is a bit too on-the-nose. The novel is still entertaining, simply because Wilde was the greatest inventor of quips to write in English.

I know it isn't a novel, but the film Chinatown is an example of creating cumulative effect without dozens of florid, standalone quotes. The last line: "Forget it Jake, it's Chinatown" isn't so impactful by itself. But it is the perfect culmination of the film's story and tone, and is devastating thanks to the film's cumulative effect; its feel. If Jake Gittes spent the whole time unleashing Socratic monologues, neither the last line nor the film would have worked as well.

Some writers who knew about cumulative effect: Camus, Graham Greene, Orwell, Kafka, Flannery O'Connor. Orwell could be didactic, but his work is referenced - Newspeak, doublethink, memory hole, Thought Police - far more often than it is quoted. And when his novels are quoted, it is often explicit political slogans from them - Some animals are more equal than others, WAR IS PEACE -; not quips clumsily inserted to remind the reader what the book is about. Thanks to the cumulative effect and feel of Animal Farm, you can simply describe something as being like Animal Farm, and everyone knows what you mean. Not so true of the quote-filled The Sound and the Fury.

The better novels are the ones that achieve a cumulative effect, and because their insights and tones aren't explicitly stated, snipped passages from them don't stand out the way the great quotes from the lesser novels do. See, I just spelled everything out rather than let this rant have a cumulative effect!

Watch me outquip Oscar Wilde:

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