Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Reading Dorothy Sayers - Some Thoughts on Old-Fashioned Modernism

A critical part of your research for writing is to read other things in the genre you are writing in. I hope everyone knows that. You need to know your genre, because your readers certainly do. Sometimes, though, you read for a less factual reason.

A really important aspect of preparing for a novel for me is getting the feel of voice. Since I'm prepping to write something that "feels" like certain kinds of fiction of around the 1920's, I'm currently reading books from the 1910s to 1930s. I read a lot of these books a long time ago, and yet they surprise me with their freshness and fun. But they also often bug me with writing practices which are Simply Not The Done Thing any more. And yet many of those practices are the very thing that make them feel fresh.

It is irony or kismet that this period has an awful lot in common with the current one, especially in publishing. Things are changing rapidly. People are inventing things as they go. This was a period when even cheap trashy fiction was an experiment in new styles and attitudes -- and that's what I want to talk about tonight.

A little over a year ago, I stopped to study the first pages of several books and did an analysis of them. (The series starts with "How To Start a Novel Badly.") In the last installment of that series I talked about why I had so much trouble getting into Dorothy L. Sayers. It was all because the first page of the book I was trying to start with was just not a good place to start the series.

So this past week or so I've been reading a different Sayers book -- the first one, Whose Body? What I found was that it was much easier to get into because it sets up the characters better. The later one I read, I think, was written more for those who had read more of the series. However in both books, Sayers uses a lot of the same tricks - in particular the disembodied voices.

It was one of the first things I noticed -- she wrote like a playwright a lot of the time. Often she even forewent the use of tags like "he said." And the characters would often say things to hint at what was going on, rather than the narrative describing it. For instance, at one point early in the story, Whimsey is explaining something to his police friend, and he interupts himself to talk to his valet Bunter, or to comment on what Parker is doing in reaction -- all in dialog. We don't see Bunter enter the room, we don't get to see what Parker is doing.

Now, it all made sense to me what she was doing. I was an English major. I even went to grad school for a while. And I was taught that in twenties, Hemingway and all the other New Critical darlings were inventing this style (a few years after Sayers was using it -- odd, isn't it?). The idea was that photography and film (and other inventions) were changing what Art was. And WWI utterly changed society, and in this brave new world, one thing that was "cool" was to remove the narrator and do things like write only in dialog. Be objective. Experiment. Play with styles.

And later many literary writers (especially the French) began to acknowledge that pop culture, and pulp fiction and film in particular, were a major influence. Writing for sheer entertainment value, without thought to literary legacy was very existential, after all.

And all these ideas were certainly around in the arts movements before WWI, and so I can't say that Sayers wasn't doing it consciously. She wasn't doing it all that consistently either. I mean, yes, the dialog and internal monologues she did consistently, but she also tended to crop up with a whole different style for a page or two. She might switch to second person for a while. (Yes, that's right, second person. She'd be inside somebody's head and they'd think: "His Lordship is all right, but you can't understand what these high-falutin' fellows say half the time. They give you a cigar and treat you well, but you don't really know where you stand. So you sit and listen..." And pretty soon she has moved from speculation and thought to what's going on in the scene... and she's still using "you" as the main pronoun.)

So aside from historical curiosity, what does this mean for the modern writer?

Well, first, it's a way to stop and question our current styles and habits. Which of our deeply held rules really matter? Given that we're in a period of change, and some of our current rules are going to go, which might you want to go away? Do you want to start playing with dialog only? Do you want to be able to use second person, or go head hopping?

The answer is not in justifying oneself: "Dorothy Sayers did it, so I can too!" Rather you whould read something like this to identify the experience of the reader with these different techniques and styles. Most writers these days have been trained so well that it just bothers the heck out of us when someone goes head hopping, or violates some other firm convention. However, if you can find a way to let go, and just read it, and say "what effect does this have on me? Why does this work or not work?" You might learn something from the experiments of another age.

For me, the disembodied dialog works when I feel that I am watching or listening to a great actor do a monologue. The other things that I'm not seeing don't matter. However, it can also make me feel like I'm locked in a dark closet and can only listen to things going on in the next room. If I miss too much of what else is going on, it annoys me. And it's not good to send me searching for who is saying what -- because on a small screen e-reader, I may have to page back and forth quite a bit to figure it out. And by then you've thrown me out of the scene just because you were stingy with the "he said."

I'm also a little less afraid of long speeches. I heard recently that some blame the internet for writers becoming more long-winded. I don't know. I think that we're going back to an older style -- a style from before the telephone and the sound byte, when we wrote letters and expressed ourselves in long-form and in monologue.

Later I may talk a bit about head-hopping. Sayers doesn't do that very much, at least not in this first book, but there are a few other writers of the period that do. It's a tricky thing in a mystery -- since eventually you're going to have to end up in the killer's head, or disguise the fact that you never went there.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Trying to figure out the dialogue attribution definitely pulls me out of a story...and, as you've mentioned, on an e-reader it can take a while to figure it out!

a said...

With someone like Dorothy Sayers, you do have to get accustomed to the style. I read several of hers when I was in my teens, and I remember having some of the same reactions. However, as an exercise in learning about what "new" twists it might be worthwhile to resurrect, you're absolutely right. That's why I love reading English majors talking about writing. (Never got any of that type of analysis in biz school! ;-) )

The Daring Novelist said...

Yes, well, I really enjoyed Whose Body? and I figure that I will now enjoy Murder Must Advertise very much. (Needed an orientation, dontcha know.)

As for the unattributed dialog... I figure I have seen Sayers push the envelope far enough and I don't have to go that far to try things out. I do a LOT of pure dialog scenes in my mysteries (though not as much in Mick and Casey) and my goal is clarity, and also giving the characters interesting things to do (what the actors call "business") which keeps it interesting and also avoids the "locked in a closet" feeling.