Good brother; not-so-good brother: thinking about literary themes

Somewhere in the middle of the movie, “The Fighter” we had a strong sense of déjà vu. After thinking about it, we realized that “The Fighter,” which depicts a younger brother finding the self-confidence to surpass his older brother as a boxer is very similar to “The King’s Speech,” also about a younger brother overcoming the limitations of second-hood, in this case to accede to his brother’s throne. Both stories are based on true events. In both, the second brothers have to get past difficult, overbearing mothers in order to overcome their doubts and disabilities.

It is highly amusing to find the same theme in a work about British royalty as in one about lower middle class folk in Lowell, Massachusetts. We wonder why it has suddenly popped up twice.

Bertie (the king to be) is miserably safe to stutter because of primogeniture, the law requiring that the oldest son inherit the throne. He is safe, that is, until his brother steps down. In “The Fighter” there is a sort of presumed primogeniture – passed down by custom maybe – that the oldest son, Dicky, will get a boxing title. Never mind that he is a crack head. Micky, the second son, is expected mostly to facilitate his brother’s comeback. And their seven sisters are a sort of stuck-at-home wailing Greek chorus. In both movies, the unfairness of the family systems is gripping and we rooted for the second son heroes as they eked out their success punch by punch and s-word by s-word.

Primogeniture has been around at least since the Bible when Esau sold his birthright to his younger brother Jacob. But in the pantheon of great literary motifs, as far as we know, this second brother one doesn’t crop up as much as say the prodigal son or Oedipal complex. It is interesting to note that it is doing so now with such success and to speculate about what this might mean for future literary and cinematic works. And what does it say about book and movie audiences, about us, that we root so hard for heroes – a long way from Superman – whose hard-won success is measured in such small increments?

The king’s speech – and everybody else’s too – keeping dialogue spare

We went to see “The King’s Speech” this weekend and among other things – the camera work, the acting, the story, the palaces, etc. – we were struck by how cleverly the king’s speech impediment was portrayed. In several scenes in the movie, the king (or pre-king) kuh-kuh-kuh’ed his way into some speech or conversation and the filmmakers left him on screen just long enough to establish his difficulty and then, as soon as soon, cut away. Obviously, watching a person stutter is hard on an audience and the director did not want to risk losing viewers by letting Colin Firth stutter on and on and on, no matter how brilliantly he did it.

This is a lesson that can be applied to any written speech. Writers need to develop radar for extraneous words in everything they write but nowhere more so than in writing conversation. It is so easy to fall into the trap of being realistic. But you don’t want to go there. Real conversation is full of uhs and wells, and other extra sounds and words that just drag fictional conversation down, down, down. Real conversation is also repetitive. In a book, play or film, you bore your readers/watchers by re-covering old ground.

Ideally, fictional dialogue should do more than move the plot along, and at its best, communicates something more than what is being said on the surface. In the movie, the king’s stutter is the manifestation of a cold, repressed childhood and he must break through both to lead his people at a time of national crisis. In the movie, giving speeches is what the job of king is.

Here is a small piece of dialogue from “The Birthday Party” by the playwright Harold Pinter, one of the great masters of dialogue. Even if you are not familiar with the play, see what this passage communicates to you. Meg and Petey are husband and wife.

Meg: I was the belle of the ball.

Petey: Were you?

Meg: Oh yes. They all said I was.

Petey: I bet you -were, too.

Meg: Oh, it's true. I was.


Meg: I know I was.

In these six lines and the highly significant pause, it is obvious that Meg was not only not the belle of the ball but is not really talking about having been the belle of the ball. Rather, it seems obvious that she is trying to convince herself of a fiction or fantasy. And in fact, she is to trying to make herself believe that things are the way they were before the birthday party of the title, a disastrous event in which Meg’s illusion of a son is destroyed and the son substitute is taken away from her. What makes this economical passage so brilliant is that it expresses everything about what Meg is feeling without her saying anything explicit.

We always think of Pinter when we write or edit dialogue.

Winter of the Wild and Golden West

While it has been very cold this winter here in the east, our hearts and imaginations have been out west which we think of as warm even if it is portrayed as cold in the movie “True Grit” and the opera “La Fanciulla del West” (in English, “The Girl of the Golden West”).

The Coen brothers movie was first released at the end of 2010. The Puccini opera – which we saw on HD Simulcast from the Metropolitan Opera in New York– this weekend – was first performed in 1910, exactly 100 years earlier. It has been interesting to see how different times shape similar material.

The two works are both the stories of intrepid women. In the movie, 14-year old Mattie hires a one-eyed gunman to avenge her father’s death. In the opera, a young woman named Minnie cheats at poker to win possession of the hold-up man she loves. Minnie is a saloon keeper at a gold mining camp in the midst of the California gold rush, where she conducts bible study for the miners. We were struck by how much whiskey Minnie was depicted as throwing back only about ten years in advance of prohibition. Plus, she cheated at cards. But Minnie is redeemed by the miners whose dreary lives away from home she has blessed. At the end, the miners, who have captured her bandit, release him to Minnie’s custody out of sheer love for her. They ride off to begin a new life together.

In the movie, there is no reward for anything. When Mattie finally shoots the man who killed her father, she is knocked back into a snake pit, almost dies and loses her arm. “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace,” Mattie declares. The true grit of the movie is her ability to keep on keeping on when there is never any earthly reward. For this reason, Stanley Fish of the “New York Times” calls this remake “a truly religious movie.” At movie’s end, Mattie is a one-armed spinster standing at the graves of both her father and her hired gun, Rooster Cogburn.

But La Fanciulla did not leave us light-hearted either. We could not escape feeling that the bandit Ramerrez, aka Dick Johnson, was not really a nice guy, while the miners were sweet-natured, homesick and adoring. It is they, rather than Johnson, who elevate Minnie, and when they voluntarily release the bandit to run away with Minnie, the opera ends poignantly.

Because this is a blog about writing, we are below including the scene from the 1911 novel written by David Belasco from his original play on which the opera was also based. If nothing else, it is fun to see the style of writing 100 years ago.

“The Girl’s heart was beating fast; she was hoping against hope when, a moment later, she asked: “You’re not goin’ to pull the rope on ‘im?”
“You mean I set him free,” came from (Sheriff) Rance, his tone softer, gentler than anyone had heard it in some time.
“You set ‘im free?” repeated the Girl, timidly, and not daring to meet his gaze.
“I let him go,” announced the Sheriff in spite of himself.
“You let ‘im go?” questioned the Girl, still in a daze.
“That’s our verdict, an’ we’re prepared to back it up,” declared (Miner) Sonora with a smile on his weathered face, though the tears streamed down his cheeks.
The Girl’s face illumined with a great joy. She did not stop now to dissipate the tears which she saw rolling down Sonora’s face, as was her wont when any of the boys were grieved or distressed, but fairly flew out of the cabin, calling half-frantically, half-ecstatically:
“Dick! Dick! You’re free! You’re free! You’re free…!”
The minutes passed and still the miners did not move. They stood with an air of solemnity gazing silently at one another. Only too well did they realise what was happening to them. They were inconsolable”


Victorian writing advice, very 21st-century

Our business of helping writers was born, you might say, in the mid 1890’s with the publication of the first how-to-write book: HOW TO WRITE FICTION, ESPECIALLY THE ART OF SHORT

STORY WRITING. It was written by a 26-year old American with nothing to his credit but a self-published book of poems.

Sherwin Cody was on to something. It was the era of Thomas Hardy whose books still define the English language novel, and a lot of people wanted to write fiction.

We learned about Cody in an article posted on Slate ( Author Paul Collins, an assistant professor of creative writing, points out that some of Cody’s advice to would-be Victorian fiction writers is similar to the stuff we blog about today:

Show, don’t tell: "To say your heroine was proud and defiant is not half so effective as saying she tossed her head and stamped her foot."

Be ruthless in editing your favorite lines: “Sacrifice absolutely everything of that sort."

Don’t quit your day job: "No man ought to make the writing of fiction his sole business."

Cody followed up his how-to with a novel of his own, a Horatio Alger type story called IN THE HEART OF THE HILLS. It was not a success. But don’t weep for him. He went on to produce a number of books and a self study course on writing and speaking the English language which was mail-ordered and studied by more than 150,000 people. In the early 20th century, the marketplace was changing the American language, and Cody’s course promised to get people up to speed.

He has a Wikipedia entry and a 2008 book devoted to his story published by Oxford University Press. How many of his how-to-write-fiction readers can claim similar success with their writings?






For the holidays: a literary feast

Posted in Uncategorized by The Word Process on December 21, 2010 Edit This

Somebody once observed to us that the way to evaluate a writer is to look at how that writer writes about food. We’re not sure that is true, but it is fun to think about. For one thing, authors can sometimes make imaginary food taste better than real food. An example we picked up on the Web is the Turkish delight that Edmund gorges on in C.S. Lewis’ THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE:

“Each piece was sweet and light to the very center and Edmund had never tasted anything more delicious.”

Lewis makes is sound wonderful, but Turkish delight, remember, is that jellied stuff with pistachios in it that most children disdain.

Something else that authors can do with food is make it stand for something, turn it into a metaphor or imbue it with emotion, often longing. When we first thought of writing this blog, a scene in THE WIND IN WILLOWS immediately came to mind. It is the scene when overcome with longing, Mole goes home where he and Rat are visited by caroling field mice – and all feast together on a basket of food Rat purchases. The funny thing is we remember this feast and Mole’s emotions vividly but Kenneth Grahame never tells us exactly what is being feasted on:

Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savoury comforts; saw his little friends’ faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose — for he was famished indeed — on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy home-coming this had turned out, after all. As they ate, they talked of old times, and the field-mice gave him the local gossip up to date, and answered as well as they could the hundred questions he had to ask them. The Rat said little or nothing, only taking care that each guest had what he wanted, and plenty of it.

Leaving all the lit crit stuff aside now, we have assembled a literary holiday dinner which is just that and, except where meaning just happens to creep in, no more. It is a full meal, consisting of all food groups and a number of traditions. Bon appétit and happy holidays!

“He paused. Patroclus obeyed his great friend,
who put down a heavy chopping block in the firelight
and across it laid a sheep’s chine, a fat goat’s
and the long back cut of a full-grown pig,
marbled with lard. Automedon held the meats
while lordly Achilles carved them into quarters,
cut them well into pieces, pierced them with spits
and Patroclus raked the hearth, a man like a god
making the fire blaze. Once it had burned down
and the flames died away, he scattered the coals
and stretching the spitted meats across the embers,
raised them onto supports and sprinkled clean pure salt.
As soon as the roasts were done and spread on platters,
Patroclus brought the bread, set it out on the board
in ample wicker baskets. Achilles served the meat.” (THE ODYSSEY, Homer)

“Bynum Walker: My… my… Bertha, your biscuits getting fatter and fatter.” (JOE TURNER’S COME AND GONE, August Wilson)

“Payday today, so she can begin the frying, mustard seeds sputtering in the pain, brinjal and bitter gourd turning yellow-red. Into a curry of cauliflowers like white fists, she mixes garam masala to bring patience and hope. Is she one, is she many, is she not the woman in a hundred Indian homes who is sprinkling, over sweet kheer that has simmered all afternoon, cardomom seeds from my shop for the dreams that keep us from going mad?” (THE MISTRESS OF SPICES, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni)

“Midori’s cooking was far better than I had expected: an amazing assortment of fried, pickled, boiled and roasted dishes using eggs, mackerel, fresh greens, aubergine, mushroom, radishes, and sesame seeds, all cooked in the delicate Kyoto style.
‘This is great,’ I said with my mouth full.” (NORWEGIAN WOOD, Haruki Murakami)

“Those stockings weren’t empty yet. Mary and Laura pulled out two small packages. They unwrapped them, and each found a little heart-shaped cake. Over their delicate brown tops was sprinkled white sugar. The sparkling grains lay like tiny drifts of snow.
The cakes were too pretty to eat. Mary and Laura just looked at them. But at last Laura turned hers over, and she nibbled a tiny nibble from underneath, where it wouldn’t show. And the inside of the cake was white!
It had been made of pure white flour, and sweetened with white sugar.” (LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, Laura Ingalls Wilder)

A number of our examples and the illustration below came from