Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on Lectures on Literature

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today I’m taking a look at Lectures on Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.

Let me start by saying that as a movie fan, there’s nothing I like better than a good commentary. I actually just finished rewatching the extended version of The Outsiders for which most of the original cast, including C. Thomas Howell, Ralph Macchio, Patrick Swayze, Diane Lane, Matt Dillon, and Rob Lowe, provided a commentary on the experience of making the movie way back when. The conversation they had was not especially deep but it was fun to hear their stories about what it was like to make the movie as a group of very young, unknown actors who all went on to greater fame. Listening to them talk enhanced my enjoyment of the movie and drew my attention to things I might not have noticed, like the changes that were made to many of the music cues for the new version of the film.

Probably the best kinds of commentaries, I find, come from people who weren’t involved in making the movies at all but instead are historians or critics who happen to have a deep love of the thing they’re commenting on. Roger Ebert’s commentary on Citizen Kane is one of my favorites. You can feel his love for the movie and the comments he makes are suffused with a great deal of expertise both about Citizen Kane specifically and movies in general. Listening to him talk about what makes that movie special both to him and to film history makes the experience of watching it even more special.

The trick to a good movie commentary, I think, is finding a balance between telling the viewer what’s happening on the screen at any given moment and actually analyzing what you’re seeing. Some people who provide commentary, especially actors who are doing it out of obligation rather than because they have any interest in providing any insight into the moviemaking process or affection for the project in question, tend a little too much toward summary. They’re literally just telling you what’s happening during the story at a given moment. It’s like they’re speaking the movie at you while it’s happening. Who needs that? I’ll just watch the damn movie.

The reason I’m bringing this up is because a lot of craft criticism reminds me of movie commentaries. Like the Ebert-type commentators, writers who write craft criticism weren’t involved in the “making of” the thing they’re commenting on but they obviously have a deep appreciation for the result not only as readers but also as writers.

For me, the problem is that a lot of craft criticism tends toward too much summary. The basic structure seems to be, “So-and-so’s book is a great example of X technique” followed by a long summary of so-and-so’s book that includes a lot of lengthy quotes and then wrapped up with a conclusion that basically says, “And that’s why so-and-so is a great writer.” It’s like having the book talked at you when you could just read it your damn self.

Lectures on Literature is a lot like that for me. In the book, Nabokov examines seven great works of literature (Mansfield Park, Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Swann’s Way, The Metamorphosis, and Ulysses) and by “examines” I mean “summarizes” and by “summarizes” I mean “quotes at length.” At length.

His stated purpose is to conduct an investigation into literary structure as it’s used by a set of genius writers.(1) And when he actually comments on the structure of the stories, he does have interesting things to say, which makes the tendency toward quotes and summary all the more frustrating. Seriously, if you took a highlighter to the text and highlighted every single quote, the thing would be a blinding riot of color. No page would be untouched.

I get that these are actual lectures that were used in actual  classes (at Wellesley and Cornell). I’m guessing Nabokov didn’t actually require his students to read Swann’s Way so the need to summarize what happens in the story is necessary to help them understand the structure. But a lot of these lectures read like plot summaries book-ended by brief analysis. I’m pretty sure the summary of The Metamorphosis is somehow longer than the actual text of The Metamorphosis.

I realize all of this makes me sound like a philistine. I can’t help it. It’s not that I don’t appreciate great works of literature or the genius of the writers who create them. Craft criticism just does nothing for me, no matter who is writing it. Not as a reader and not as a writer. Pedagogically, I know it’s supposed to help the reader understand what makes great writing great so that they both better appreciate great writing when they see it and perhaps even produce some of their own. But to me, stuff like this is only so much static.

Luckily, the goal of this project isn’t to improve my opinion of craft criticism. It’s to figure out what, if anything, books about writing that are likely appear in academic settings have to say about research. What I’ve discovered so far is that research is rarely if ever brought up in craft criticism, probably because these works are so closely focused on the genius of the writer in question. Nabokov’s lectures are no different in this respect.

Just as well I guess that the next book on my list is the last one for this project. Next time, I’ll take a look at The Half-Known World by Robert Boswell.

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(1) He seems to call Jane Austen a genius only grudgingly—his analysis of Mansfield Park gives the impression that he thinks it’s a cute effort but nowhere near the level of Bleak House and he makes it pretty clear after that essay is over how relieved he is to be done talking about it. I’m still trying to figure out why, of all Austen’s novels, he chose Mansfield Park. The obvious answer is “structure” but I feel like he’s seriously handicapping the only female author he bothers to consider by choosing to focus on what is arguably one of her lesser works.

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