Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Two Small Prepositions

The difference between two prepositions, “at” and “to,” becomes the fulcrum for successful storytelling in the twenty-first century.

What you mean by “successful;” is itself idiosyncratic.  What was successful in storytelling terms in the remote past of the twentieth century has already lost some of its patina.  We do know—and you do believe—that success in those particular terms in the twentieth century was at a remove from what it is now, scarcely an eighth of the way into the newer century.

You will, of course, get to those distinctions, using as your wedge those two propositions, at and to.

Nineteenth- and twentieth century readers were accustomed to having stories directed “at” them, directed more or less as descriptions and, as a result, possible to skip over, skim, ignore, or, worse even yet, believe you’d grasped.  Directed stories land in the vicinity of the reader; they may capture complete reader attention or only a portion of reader focus.

With some remarkable exceptions in mind—Jane Austen, for instance, or George Elliot, or Virginia Woolf, and perhaps you’ll allow William Faulkner in there as well==the preposition “to” did not apply with great specificity to readers; writers were still in the habit of including the literary equivalents of footnotes, stage directions, and explanations to readers.

Conventions for telling story undergo change while story remains more or less what it has always been—the techniques for conveying it have evolved, moved closer to the dramatic material itself and the audience on the receiving end.

How does this shift appear before us?

At one point in the early history of the medium, the author, knowingly or not, took on the role of a narrator, a chorus, or some filter, in effect reciting the story in ways similar to the ancient poets, those proto-Homers who recited The Iliad or The Odyssey, describing, using language and delivery to convey a sense of presence.

These ancients spoke at the audience; they told us what to believe.  If the story were interesting and the delivery was presented at the proper degree of plausible sincerity, the audience had cultural incentives to take these elements in as an appropriate approximation or actuality; the audience found no problem believing the emotions hinted at and evoked.

Now, the audience is accustomed to having the story envelope them, take them in with its immediacy.  The audience wishes to experience for themselves what the characters are feeling, without having the narrative points thrust on them as though they protective garments pressed upon children on rainy days.  The audience thus wishes to have the story happen to them, to experience both the sensual and philosophical darts being thrown at them as they are thrown in everyday life.

Having the benefit of past convention and dramatic traditions, the contemporary audience may sense something wrong without being able to articulate the resulting mismatch of hearing a modern story being rendered in nineteenth- or early twentieth-century conventions.

You are by cultural preference and by self-directed study more comfortable with reading late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century narrative.  To the extent you have favored some eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, you have less difficulty accommodating to the narrative conventions of those styles.  To the extent that their grasp of dramatic technique seems remote to you, there is less chance you will be able to read such writers to any degree of intimacy that could be argued as close.  The devil maybe in the details but the division comes with the arrival of the narration.

You are willing to have it described to you because, as you were coming up, you read much earlier works than such classics as the Sinclair Lewis novels or the Steinbeck.  For all he was a stylistic entrepreneur, Ernest Hemingway was seldom mired in the engines of his style to the point where readers were left neither knowing nor caring what the characters wished or what they were willing to do to achieve their wishes.

How good you would have felt, knowing these salient facts when you were confronting ways to tell the stories you wished at the time to tell.  Because you were, in fact, still listening to the conventions of your earlier times, you would have paid only scant heed to anything as small and apparently notional as a few prepositions.  You would not have recognized these prepositions as the plastic card contemporary equivalent of the earlier key to the hotel room.

You’d have not been able to gain entrance and without clue of how to proceed.


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