Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Uncle Charles Principle

I've written before about this, but I was working with a group of learners tonight and it came up again.

The Uncle Charles principle is a particular occurrence in Point of View when the POV effectively slips out of omniscience into the particular, subjective view of a character.

It was so named by the American critic Hugh Kenner after Uncle Charles in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. In the opening of part two of the book, Joyce writes:

"Every morning, therefore, uncle Charles repaired to his outhouse...."

Another critic objected to this as poor language, citing the word "repair" as archaic and pompous. Exactly, said Joyce. This is exactly the sort of word that Uncle Charles would use, and it is therefore entirely appropriate. In other words, it is as though the narration is now coming through Uncle Charles.

Another example can be found in Miss Brill by Katherine Mansfield:

Miss Brill was glad that she had decided on her fur. The air was motionless, but when you opened your mouth there was just a faint chill, like a chill from a glass of iced water before you sip, and now and again a leaf came drifting–from nowhere, from the sky. Miss Brill put up her hand and touched her fur. Dear little thing! It was nice to feel it again.


That "Dear Little Thing!" is clearly Miss Brill speaking, but it isn't in quotes. For the moment the narrative has slipped entirely into her point of view.

Cormac McCarthy, of course, takes this to extremes, as he does with most things, particularly in Suttree which is full of instances when the third person narrative not only adopts the Uncle Charles principle but actually steps entirely into the first person, and the omniscient narrator and the main protagonist, Suttree, become one. Yet another twin for that most reluctant of twins, Buddy Suttree. In this example, Suttree is shown some old photographs of long lost kin and the experience is so traumatic we are drawn into his own, horrified thoughts, so that by the end of the passage we are in first person:

She came with the tea, a tall vase full, chocked with ice, a curl of lemon. He ladled sugar in. Between the mad hag’s face and this young girl a vague stellar drift, the wheeling of planets on their ether trunnions. Likeness of lost souls haunt us from old chromos and tintypes brown with age. Bloodless skull and dry white hair, matriarchal meat drawn lean and dry on frail bone, a bitter refund ashen among silk and lilies by candlelight in a cold hall, black lacquered bier on sawhorses wound with crepe. I would not cry. My sisters cried.


It's a hard technique to get right. Suttree is a masterpiece of writing.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Cormac McCarthy film script

Well, he has a habit of surprising people. We've been patiently waiting for the publication of his next novel, The Passenger and, instead, Cormac McCarthy has submitted to his publishers a spec film script.

And the surprises continue. It has a contemporary setting, apparently, which is most unusual for McCarthy. Only The Sunset Limited has a contemporary setting. And it has two female lead characters, which is unheard of in McCarthy. (Apparently, The Passenger will also have a strong female lead; perhaps McCarthy is finally finding his feminine side...).

McCarthy has a mixed record with film scripts. The Gardener's Son, on HBS many years ago, was scripted by him and is a fine piece. Cities of The Plain, however, started as a film script and it wasn't too good. And the film script version of No Country For Old Men is simply risible.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Genre and literary fiction

In a recent journal article, Andrew Hoberek discusses genre fiction and literary fiction, and a tendency, in recent times, for the latter to reclaim the ground of the former. There is, he suggests, a return to genre fiction, and he cites examples of McCarthy’s No Country and The Road, plus the work of Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead and even Pynchon (his latest, after all, not specifically mentioned by Hoberek, is a stoner crime novel, not only a genre novel, but a sub-genre novel).

This move, Hoberek suggests is a return to the pre-modernist canon of literary respectability, and it may even call into question how separate these two literary histories are:

From Henry James, the twentieth century, and eventually the creative writing program, inherit a commitment to both realist representation and continual stylistic innovation. What gets lost is the ability of a writer of James’s stature to pen something like The Turn of the Screw (1898), let alone the even more insistently generic fictions of James’s contemporaries like Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stevenson – lost, that is, until the recent embrace of genre models by authors nonetheless committed to their status as writers of serious fiction.


There is an implicit criticism here of MFA programs. I think there’s a lot in that – there is undoubtedly a certain style of writing that is instantly recognisable as being produced from the MFA cauldron - overwritten, overstylised, somewhat predictable. It doesn’t have to be that way, though. The fault may originally lie in the programs but the remedy must come from the writers - who should, of course, insist on setting their own course. And the way that McCarthy, Chabon et al have produced their own individualistic work, not tied by convention or expectation, is presenting a lead.

How to freak out a librarian

Thursday, January 05, 2012

William Gibson on writing

This is from an interview in the New York Times with William Gibson, author of Neuromancer:

About how he has written so many books, he says: “I suspect I have spent just about exactly as much time actually writing as the average person my age has spent watching television, and that, as much as anything, may be the real secret here.”

I think the man is correct. There's not really any other way to be a writer than to write.