Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Slight of Hand

slight--a frequent response to manuscripts from literary agents and editors; a catch-all criticism implying that the problems and resulting decisions made by the protagonist of a story are inconsequential; an indication that characters and their conflicts are too simplistic.

How to avoid such professional responses? One effective way is to recall William Faulkner's definition of fiction as, among other things, the agony of moral choice. Put characters in situations where they have more to lose than they may realize but which readers recognize as highly probable. Make characters vulnerable to any or all of the seven deadly sins or, instead, invent a behavior or indulgence which, it pursued a tad too far, will emerge as a fresh view of a new sin.

While Frankie Machine nourishes realistic dreams of becoming a professional musician in Nelson Algren's The Man with the Golden Arm, his behavior reflects the pulls of guilt and love resulting from the possibility that he may have been the cause of his wife's invalid state. The possibility is equally apparent that Zosh, Frankie's wife, may not be as much if at all an invalid as she appears to be. Critics and editors have had a number of things to say about The Man with the Golden Arm, but none has suggested it is a slight narrative.

Similarly gritty in its reach and scope, James Leo Herlihy portrays in Midnight Cowboy the extraordinary friendship between Joe Buck,a young man whose dream of operating his own restaurant causes him to enter a lifestyle as a male prostitute, and Enrico "Ratso" Rizzi, a third-rate con man. Gritty as it is, Midnight Cowboy is not slight, particularly not in its denouement.

The temptation to over respond to slightness may produce an operatic quality to a work in progress, but NB, operatic as a concept has, in recent years undergone a change that is literally dramatic. Of yore, operatic was associated with broad gestures, which could be seen in the remoteness of the distant balconies, its themes having the equivalency of romance novels. Increasingly so, operatic performers are developing acting techniques as well as their voices, subject matter for operas are being drawn from wrenching social commentary.

A substantive story is rich in layered detail, has more to it than meets the eye. A slight story has less to it than meets the eye.

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