Tuesday, October 16, 2012

What's Left Unsaid

I used to secretly cringe whenever I heard the commandment of Henry James, that as a writer I must be “one upon whom nothing is lost." I was all too aware of my shortcomings in this department. I’m not completely oblivious to what goes on around me, but I’ve been known to forget a face, or not notice what someone’s wearing, or wonder whether the leaves had fallen from the tree I walked past a half-hour earlier. Instead, I remember weird things, impressions really, like smudged lipstick or scuffed shoes or the wet smell of fall.

Years passed before I figured out that James wasn’t suggesting that writers had to be cameras, recording minutia and spitting it back for our readers. That’s boring and pointless. Readers want to get involved in the story. They don’t want the author to lay everything out, front and center. “Fiction is about the selection of details, not the accumulation of them,” says author Victoria Redel in Words Overflown by Stars. “Every detail, even the most seemingly random or improbable, must accrue, must finally as the details that thread and weave through the fiction become imbued with larger meaning.”

She goes on to explain that random looking, a kind way to describe my un-Jamesish way of noticing, accumulates into meaning. “Descriptions of the witnessed world are not important in fiction only to give the reader a feeling of where the characters are,” she says. “The details of the witnessed world are essential because, properly selected, they become vehicles for understanding the human experience.”

How do writers select the proper details? “One answer would be ‘very carefully,’” says Redel. “But I also think that another equally valid and not altogether different answer might be ‘randomly.’ The random thing looked at long enough and from enough different angles will become essential and vital.”

We don’t need all the details. In fact, too many will muck things up. Power comes from omission. By leaving out or strategically withholding certain details, by focusing tightly on a few and leaving others to the reader, it’s possible to create a purposeful ambiguity that encourages readers to participate with the text.

This isn’t an excuse for sloppiness. It’s certainly possibly to overdo ambiguity by making the reader work too hard, with few clues and little payoff. But hurling everything at the reader invites yawns and accusations of a different sort of laziness, where the writer says in effect to the reader: Here, have it all, and you figure out what matters.

Is omission the same as minimalism? I think not. The point is not so much to strip down or to be spare or to shun emotion as to make meaningful choices. “For the most part, to say a thing directly in a piece of fiction, to say it directly from the get-go, diminishes tension. And the fictive enterprise is all about maximizing, creating a whirl of tension,” says Redel. “I am proposing that there is a bounty, often greater bounty, in the partial, the suggested, the entirely left out.”

Even crucial literary elements can be omitted, if the writer is skillful and purposeful about it. In “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson leaves out motive; tension is heightened by the juxtaposition of quotidian details against the horrific.

Likewise, some of the most powerful dialogue involves what’s left unsaid, the responses people don’t make to each other. As Charles Baxter says in The Art of Subtext, “In truly wonderful writing, the author pays close attention to inattentiveness, in all its forms.”