There are two ways to respond to any impressive performance: “Bravo!” or “How did you do that?” The second response will sometimes unnerve the performer, and of course it’s also the basis of education and pedagogy.
Edgar Poe, before Modernism, before the Writing Era, before Post-Modern Theory, asked in his “Philosophy of Composition,” why poets never recorded how they wrote a poem, and thought “authorial vanity” the chief reason. Poe goes on to illustrate, step-by-step, how he wrote, “The Raven.” Poe, here, was destroying the Romantic notion that a poem was “organic,” that a poem had to be written because of some fountain of passionate expression in the poet’s soul, that a poem was a mystical, religious experience glimpsed through a burning window. Poe merely said we can put together a poem like a piece of machinery. The New Critics and T.S. Eliot, with their anti-Romantic, perfunctory, ironic, modern, intelligence, learned it all from this one essay. Much was made of (and the moderns mocked) Poe’s “Death of a beautiful woman” formula; but this was just Poe (as usual) having it both ways: machinery/tenderly human. The point Poe was making was that the poem-machinery still needs a human theme to work like a machine: machines work for people, after all. “The death of a beautiful woman” really wasn’t the point at all. It was just an example. His machine, as he tells his readers, was a “popular” poem machine; you need a popular theme for a popular poem to work.
The poet must be a critic of himself even more than the critic needs to be a critic of the poets, for the former produces great poetry; the latter only points out bad poetry. We can crudely puff ourselves, too, investing in “Bravo!” over “How did you do that?” This third option is by far the worst.
Poets should be critics, but should they be fiction writers, too? Or historians, as well? How much should the genres mingle? Critically, how much can be surveyed at once? Is there enough time to become expert in more than one field?
And is it philosophy that should bind all these up—criticism, poetry, fiction, and history?
Any poet will give short, competent answers to these questions in interviews, and every intellectual revels in a certain number of disciplines, but philosophically we’re winging it. No one really knows very much, beyond a suave, surface nominalism capable of fooling people for an afternoon in front of a classroom. In our hearts we know we are frauds. Inspiration may visit. But not for very long.
The following is merely a good place for this discussion to start because it manages to cover it all: poetry, fiction, history, and criticism. It is from Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition.”
There is a radical error, I think, in the usual mode of constructing a story. Either history affords a thesis — or one is suggested by an incident of the day — or, at best, the author sets himself to work in the combination of striking events to form merely the basis of his narrative — designing, generally, to fill in with description, dialogue, or autorial comment, whatever crevices of fact, or action, may, from page to page, render themselves apparent.
I prefer commencing with the consideration of an effect. Keeping originality always in view — for he is false to himself who ventures to dispense with so obvious and so easily attainable a source of interest — I say to myself, in the first place, “Of the innumerable effects, or impressions, of which the heart, the intellect, or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?” Having chosen a novel, first, and secondly a vivid effect, I consider whether it can best be wrought by incident or tone — whether by ordinary incidents and peculiar tone, or the converse, or by peculiarity both of incident and tone — afterward looking about me (or rather within) for such combinations of event, or tone, as shall best aid me in the construction of the effect.
The analysis and criticism of literary fiction invariably involves talk of three things: “character,” “point-of-view,” and some “essay topic theme” by which the work is generally characterized and marketed: Man v. Nature, Boomer Romance Comedy, or topical news interest such as immigration, gun control, health control, cyber-bullying.
These things, however: character, p.o.v., and theme, though commonly discussed, are crude markers. A new vocabulary for discussing fiction is necessary.
The one thing we all want is to know and reflect the truth—if such a thing exists, and let’s assume, for the moment that it does. So poems, stories, criticism of those poems and stories, history, philosophy should express—in their various ways—truth. Truth, for the reader of fiction, might be truth of character, a small insight into life, a slice of political truth—it doesn’t have to be truth with a capital “T,” just so we know what we are generally aiming for, here.
Edgar Poe makes the radical assertion that he prefers writing a story without a “thesis” from “history,” or “one suggested by an incident of the day.” Then he goes on to say that he will select an original and vivid “impression” to affect the “susceptible” reader, using “incident” and “tone” and looking “within” to find the right “combination” of such.
We can hear the howls of protest from those looking for “truth.” Mr. Poe, by walling himself off from history and life, and starting with the impressionable reader, seems determined to get as far away from the truth as possible, to say nothing of “looking within” for “combinations.”
Poe, are you mad? Yes, mad like a fox.
Here’s how we imagine Poe would respond: Why insult history, and worse, Truth herself, by saying fiction is true? Why make fiction into a kind of half-history/history lite, incident-of-the-day-illustration, or an essay chock full of half-truths that yet satisfies a blowhard’s opinionated animus in a certain literature-approved direction? A reader’s susceptibility is simply the coin of fiction; why pretend otherwise? If the bad routinely preys on this susceptibility, why not genius, too? As for the ‘walling off’ and ‘looking within,’ charge: removing fiction from history’s realm—where history is merely turned into half-truth by the untrustworthy—we free up fiction to be more itself: combinations of tone and incident fashioned within by the only one worthy to fashion, in a novel manner, these combinations: the author.
“Incident” is just the right word, too, as bland as it might sound to modern ears. “Incident” refers to both character and plot, neither of which can exist without the other. We hear lovers of literary fiction go on about “character,” as if mere “plot” belonged to the cruder arcs of genre fiction, “character” distinguishing high-brow productions from their populist kin. We recall Poe scolding a critic, who, in speaking of Hamlet, the character, wrote of Hamlet as if he were a real person who walked among us, and not simply the coinage of Shakespeare’s brain. As the religiously superstitious over-anthropomorphize, so the critic of literary fiction inevitably mistakes fictional characters for real persons—they are not. “Character” is merely a piece of machinery belonging to the fiction, belonging to the “incidents,” and is no more genuine than a plot device—for each part of the machine cannot exist without the other; the “combination” of the “incidents” is all—and the “character” merely a piece existing for those “incidents” and their “tone,” a tone which belongs solely to the author, and if we think the tone has anything to do with “character,” we err in the manner just alluded to in the Hamlet example.
When Poe, the author, constructs a story, obviously “the real” seeps in, but to acknowledge this is only to recognize what the more history-based author makes paramount, anyway. The issue here is “Who is in charge?” The author, or the historical incident? Both have integrity, and this is precisely why we don’t want to mix them up.
Much is made of “point of view,” also. But “incident” can cover this, as well. The author needs to best determine whether first or third person will work better for the nature of the story being told. Again, this has nothing to with “character,” for instance, or the sorts of topical or historical truths the reader of literary fiction is often on the hunt for: it still boils down to Poe’s simple formula: “combinations” of “incidents” and “tone.”
Poetry is beholden even more rigorously to the same laws. If one writes a poem about one’s grandmother dying of cancer, the poem will be obliterated by the grandmother, and the cancer.
There are “incidents of the day,” there are historical themes, of which no poem could be the register—and still be a poem. John Updike, the distinguished fiction writer who dabbled in poetry, published a poem about the poignant death of a family puppy—with tears running down our cheeks we deny not the pup, but the poem. If gossip-as-art lives, true art dies—this would be the more hysterical type of warning we might give.
The fiction writer might think himself free of the principles set down by the master, Poe, who was determined that the short story be like the poem in its artistic and imaginative rigor. But these are questions for the critic and the philosopher, if not for the magazine or newspaper reviewer.
The protest will surely sound something like this: I wrote this story because my puppy died. How dare you ask me how it was done!