one weird trick that makes a novel addictive
February 8, 2016 1:24 PM   Subscribe

Catherine Nichols on the technique of adaptation.

"...While reading Waldman’s essay, I remembered a quote from Douglas Adams:
It is difficult to be sat on all day, every day, by some other creature, without forming an opinion on them. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible to sit all day, every day, on top of another creature and not have the slightest thought about them whatsoever.
In Adams’s context, he’s talking about a horse and rider, but I thought: Female novelists have been writing from the role of the horse. In literature and life, it’s been a woman’s survival tactic to understand and adapt to the character of a man, whether her boyfriend, husband or father. Even with property rights, women are still often the meteorologists of mood—and FEMA when things get bad. Men haven’t been forced to form opinions about the minds of women to the same degree, and Waldman makes the strong case that there’s a difference in the ways relationships are described in their fiction."

Today over at Jezebel, Catherine Nichols considers Adelle Waldman's New Yorker essay The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels:
...In it, she notes that men and women write about marriage differently. [Philip] Roth and [Saul] Bellow write about mysterious attractions and breast shape; [Elena] Ferrante and [Jane] Austen write about the practical quest to find an intellectual and emotional peer. [...]

Waldman’s piece is so well-considered, and I’d like to add to her point. I think the thing she’s found in the women’s novels goes beyond the search for intellectual connection. There’s a novelistic technique that early nineteenth century female writers invented, which has been used primarily by female novelists ever since; it’s a technique that goes deep into the soul of the novel itself. It’s something like the blues, or early rock n’ roll—something artistically explosive invented under circumstances of oppression. It’s the technique of adaptation.

Adaptation is a kaleidoscopic way of understanding human nature, and a novelistic technique for showing that character isn’t fixed. In real life, people change constantly, depending on who’s in the room, or what they’ve each understood of the others’ nature and mood. Character isn’t only a ball rolling down a hill, these women write it like a game of billiards, with endless potential shifts and ricochets. These female characters aren’t just judging which man’s mind will give them the best hope for a respectful marriage; they are describing and creating a frame for the ways people create themselves in relation to others.
posted by flex (27 comments total) 117 users marked this as a favorite
[Philip] Roth and [Saul] Bellow write about mysterious attractions and breast shape; [Elena] Ferrante and [Jane] Austen write about the practical quest to find an intellectual and emotional peer. [...]

This is the most concise expression of why I would be fine with literally never seeing another man again that I have ever read!
posted by stoneandstar at 1:38 PM on February 8, 2016 [14 favorites]

This explains a lot about why I can't get into most literary fiction by men.
posted by immlass at 3:02 PM on February 8, 2016 [18 favorites]

Thank you for these very interesting articles!
posted by not that girl at 3:04 PM on February 8, 2016

I would probably have sooo much to say about this if I weren't afraid to RTFA because SPOILERZ! (I'm 3/4 of the way through The Story of a New Name. Oh man, oh man.) But I immediately thought of Elena Ferrante when I read the quote about the horse and rider, and wasn't surprised to hear her cited immediately in the next quote ... in fact, I said almost exactly this in my first comment about the Neapolitan Novels, well before I started reading them.
posted by sunset in snow country at 3:33 PM on February 8, 2016

Today I started reading If on a Winter's Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino. The main character is "You, the Reader", and is supposed to be a kind of Everyreader. That character is male. It was a pretty jarring realization. I haven't gone far enough to know if Calvino's making a point about the implied reader of novels, but even if he wasn't, it's a pretty stark demonstration of the way that literature is conceived.

A few months ago a female friend of mine was talking about how awful the portrayals of women were in most books she read by men, even books she otherwise really liked. Furthermore, women were always in a minority of characters, and most were on the edge of the story. A few weeks ago I was talking with a male friend of mine. We were debating a book. I mentioned that one thing I didn't like about it was that it had about 70 characters, of which about five were women. One of them gets murdered, another commits suicide, one is a mother who never gets to speak in her own voice but is only described by her son, the fourth is a castrating (literally) lesbian, and the fifth sleeps with the main character three minutes after meeting him, while on her job. My friend said that, basically, one thing he liked about the novel was it felt to him that he got to hang out in the company of men for the duration of the read.

I thought back to something that my female friend had said, that she always had to make excuses for her reading. Yes, there are no female characters in the book, but there's a gay couple. Yes, the main female character was murdered halfway through the book, but she was given an inner life. Yes, there are more descriptions of female bodies than words spoken by female characters, but the book is very well written.

I've never encountered a female writer who has the reverse problem. Personally I think that a male writer who can't convincingly portray female characters is about as flawed as a writer who doesn't understand how verbs work. Actually, that's seriously understating the problem.
posted by Kattullus at 3:54 PM on February 8, 2016 [37 favorites]

If I were to forward this article to any of my Black friends, they'd be howling with laughter, saying oh you white women just noticed that the dominant culture dominates? You call it "adaptation", we call it "code switching."
posted by janey47 at 4:43 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

Well... I don't think anyone just noticed it. I think they wrote about how it informed women writing novels hundreds of years ago.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:47 PM on February 8, 2016 [9 favorites]

Or, you know, focusing on marriage as the ultimate social relationship, as if you are not complete unless you attain it or as if there are no alternatives.

I happened to rewatch the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid last night with my wife and I was struck by the line spoken by Katherine Ross as Etta Place, when Butch and Sundance suggest she accompany them to Bolivia: "I'm 26, and I'm single, and a school teacher, and that's the bottom of the pit." That encodes so many assumptions about what she is supposed to want, and her possibility of getting those things, and maybe her lack of a fuck to give about getting them, that it was kind of breathtaking. Especially for something filmed in 1969.
posted by Bringer Tom at 4:50 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

and the fifth sleeps with the main character three minutes after meeting him, while on her job

Heh. There are plenty of things not to like about Dave Eggers's The Circle, but the one I couldn't get over was the fact that the main character (who apparently is Eggers's first female protagonist) does this, multiple times, for no apparent reason. A coworker who she just met and doesn't particularly like propositions her and she's like, yeah, ok, fine, and they sleep together. Then it happens again with a different coworker (who she does like, I guess, but why? It wasn't really explained). Then it happens again with the first one, who is portrayed as kind of a doughy loser, and he commits an egregious act of sexual betrayal in a totally unapologetic and obvious way. THEN he hits on her AGAIN, and AGAIN she's like "weeeelllll, last time I saw you you literally secretly recorded me giving you a blow job and posted it all over the internet, but yeah sure, sounds good, I guess I'll sleep with you again." What?!

I was completely baffled by it until I realized that the author must have figured writing a twentysomething woman in her first tech job would be exactly like writing a twentysomething man in his first tech job, genderswapped. Professional reputation was not a concern. Basic safety was not a concern. The fact that the average twentysomething woman is literally unable to accept every random sexual offer she receives because if she did she'd spend 100% of her time fucking was not a concern. Dave Eggers has never thought about any of these things, so naturally his protagonist doesn't, either. With the result that she's a completely terrible, hollow character whose choices don't even make sense. (Of course there are many possible reasons that a young woman might sleep with two of her coworkers, even one who's pulled some shady shit, but none of those reasons were explored - she was literally just like "hmm, yes, okay, fine with me" and then there was fucking. It was exactly like how a particularly dim sort of college guy might react if random women started offering themselves up to him sexually, but it just didn't work with the genders reversed!)

Yes, there are no female characters in the book, but there's a gay couple. Yes, the main female character was murdered halfway through the book, but she was given an inner life. Yes, there are more descriptions of female bodies than words spoken by female characters, but the book is very well written.

Reminds me of half the comments in this thread.

And yeah, this is totally a thing with PoC vs white culture, too. The minority understands the majority because they must, to survive. The majority can go a lifetime without considering the minority's experiences.
posted by sunset in snow country at 4:54 PM on February 8, 2016 [30 favorites]

This is the way adaptation plays out: Person A comprehends some information about person B’s nature from what B says or does, and that changes how A approaches her afterward. It sounds simple, but I think it’s very difficult to write and nearly impossible to write well. Almost no one tries. Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte each did this over and over.

This is so true and just blows my mind. And that last paragraph is on point. I rarely hear either of them lauded for what is undoubtably genius; the popular conception of Austen and Bronte is so domesticated. They are, at the very least, like the Mozart or Bach of literature. Just gorgeous, multidimensional, emotive but versatile. Artistry so natural you sometimes can't tell it's art, can't imagine it not existing as a cultural backbone.
posted by stoneandstar at 4:58 PM on February 8, 2016 [13 favorites]

Relationship as dynamic and changing because it exists between subjects, yes. Writing it is like catching quick fish in a torn net. It is--excuse the pun--a completely different kettle of fish than a portrayal of one subject defining and setting the terms of its relationship to an object.

I have always pulled for Lydgate to fall for Dorothea, but at the same time I know that he is completely unable (at least through most of Middlemarch) to reckon with her, rather than with his framing of her. She does not exist for him as an individual mind--and certainly not as Casaubon exists, for a while at least, as an intellect separate from her, in his own right. It's that awful realization, very early in Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, where Offred complains to her husband that her funds have been frozen, and he shrugs it off. It's of a piece with men not believing women, automatically discounting their claims, because maybe, just maybe, they're not convinced that women are people. There is a difference between writing relationship between full people, and writing about relationship to one's concept of an object.

I'm expressing myself poorly. To humor me, my husband picked up Ferrante's "My Brilliant Friend" and read three pages. He said, "It is not possible that a man wrote this," but he couldn't say why. I was thrilled that he was voluntarily exploring a very different depiction of the dynamic relationship between two full people, but when I looked over again, he had dropped Ferrante over the side of the bed and was deep into reading "Predator Hunting: Proven Strategies That Work from East to West."
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:58 PM on February 8, 2016 [15 favorites]

I also recently read Eugenides' The Marriage Plot after hearing all the controversy about the lead female character, and it just... ugh. It was essentially about two exciting, intellectual, adventurous (to someone) young men courting a young woman who is too middle-class and too dim to engage intellectually with anything or have any kind of spiritual journey. It was the opposite of a real marriage plot novel, which is exciting and funny and awful and moving in a hundred subtly contoured directions at once. And which in the hands of Austen, actually understood something about women, and didn't make the major shocking plot twist that the protagonist realized she didn't need to date either of the two losers.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:02 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

It was just so insulting that we were supposed to see it as "a modern marriage plot," where the woman was so one-dimensional and despite being the main character, was utterly subordinate to the other two douchebags. That is NOT why people are interested in the marriage plot. They are interested because of the incredible ability of these authors to describe and evoke this kind of emotional triangulation. As they tagline says, it makes a novel addictive.

The trappings of "oh, she loves him, but he's a douche, and she ends up running around trying to take care of him, and then she's like wow, that was so exhausting and I am so empowered now that maybe I will not date this other guy immediately... " INSULTING. Insulting that we're supposed to see that as "exploding" the conventions of the form when it can't even approach the form in the first place.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:11 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

that it was kind of breathtaking. Especially for something filmed in 1969.

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act wasn't passed until 1974, finally making it the law for a woman to be able to get a mortgage (or other loan) without needing a man to cosign. It is easy these days to forget how recent (and how fragile) these kinds of basic legal protections are.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:15 PM on February 8, 2016 [19 favorites]

In the emotional labor thread or another thread, I can't remember, I kept making a big point out of how there is a subtle abuse in being a young woman who reads a lot. You read all the canonical male geniuses while they subtly and not-so-subtly denigrate you based on your body, your intellect, your spirituality, etc., you make excuses for it while also internalizing it because these are your heroes... ugh. There are so many male midcentury authors I have barely read because even as a young feminist I just couldn't stomach it, and now I probably never will read them. Why should I? I will when all the men I know start reading Ferrante to feel hip.
posted by stoneandstar at 5:16 PM on February 8, 2016 [89 favorites]

The Jezebel article is very awesome. I love it when I learn new things about Jane Eyre.
I like how it compared this technique to blues and rock, because those techniques are also about skillful movement, for humans skillful movement is everything, or something.
posted by bleep at 9:22 PM on February 8, 2016 [3 favorites]

I love this article, but I'm faintly indignant that George Eliot is described as someone who doesn't use this technique. She uses other and very different ways to describe character growth too, but she can and does do the Jane Austen move - both on a small scale, in dialogue, and on a macro-scale, as character A's self-revelations makes a permanent change in character B's attitude to them and to life and vice versa. Fred Vincy and Mary Garth are a happy example; Rosamund and Lydgate are a bleak one. Some of the funnier moments in Middlemarch are when Ladislaw is trying to figure out how on earth to adapt to Dorothea, trying first one approach and then another and another. The fact that Causabon can't adapt to anyone - the same voice all the time - is half the tragedy of the marriage. I really like this lens for thinking about these stories but it certainly helps me think about Eliot too.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:55 PM on February 8, 2016 [5 favorites]

I love this exchange and Eliot's fine understanding of how these two see each other as objects, and flirt based on that error:
Lydgate that evening spoke to Miss Vincy of Mrs. Casaubon, and laid some emphasis on the strong feeling she appeared to have for that formal studious man thirty years older than herself.

"Of course she is devoted to her husband," said Rosamond, implying a notion of necessary sequence which the scientific man regarded as the prettiest possible for a woman; but she was thinking at the same time that it was not so very melancholy to be mistress of Lowick Manor with a husband likely to die soon. "Do you think her very handsome?"

"She certainly is handsome, but I have not thought about it," said Lydgate.

"I suppose it would be unprofessional," said Rosamond, dimpling.
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:11 AM on February 9, 2016 [2 favorites]

I also recently read Eugenides' The Marriage Plot after hearing all the controversy about the lead female character, and it just... ugh. It was essentially about two exciting, intellectual, adventurous (to someone) young men courting a young woman who is too middle-class and too dim to engage intellectually with anything or have any kind of spiritual journey

Oh holy shit yes, this is such a problem with Eugenides in general. He is shockingly good at portraying what it's like to have your face pressed up against the glass of a woman's inner life desperately trying to get a look in* — and just terrible at portraying women's actual inner lives.

It's infuriating, because he so clearly wants to understand women, and all he'd need to do in order to do it is to quit peering in through the window, so to speak, and walk up and ring the doorbell and introduce himself. Like, he's such an excellent observer of emotional nuance in his male characters, and even sometimes in his female characters who are too old to be fuckable, and he just keeps tripping over his conviction that young attractive women are some sort of glorious incomprehensible alien species.

*see also: omg all of The Virgin Suicides, and even those bits of Middlesex where Cal is trying to Be A Girl and fit in with other girls and just can't manage it.

And like, holy shit, he really is good at depicting that sort of awful, pedestalizing, othering obsession with women. I read The Virgin Suicides for the first time before I'd really accepted being trans, when I was in the midst of my own unexamined fit of "Cis women are so perfect and good and I just want to know what it's like to be one and I never will" — and I was floored at how well the book mirrored my own feelings. Now that I've gotten over myself a bit and learned to quit thinking of cis womanhood as this untouchable ideal, I find it really hard to read. It's still uncannily accurate, but maybe a little too much like reading an uncannily accurate depiction of a weeklong bender when you're a recovering alcoholic. Less "OMG! I'm not alone! This guy really gets me!" and more "Shit, I really used to feel that way, didn't I?" Yikes. Um. Not for me, thanks.

posted by nebulawindphone at 7:26 AM on February 9, 2016 [11 favorites]

In all fairness George Eliot was a pen name for Mary Ann Evans, so the premise that adaptive writing is a technique used by women and not men is, at the very least, not undermined by her regardless of whether or not you think she uses it.

That said, are we certain that these authors who write women so very poorly, actually write men well? Literary fiction is not an area I'm widely read in so I am happy to be contradicted, but I would be surprised if it were possible to to understand one gender without some grasp of the other.
posted by Meeks Ormand at 7:37 AM on February 9, 2016

I would be surprised if it were possible to to understand one gender without some grasp of the other.

I think it is possible if you derail your own empathy by buying into the idea that women are deeply and fundamentally alien. And in particular, if you're a man who's attracted to women and you mistake your feelings about them ("So alluring! So frustrating! So uncontrollable!") for any sort of insight into what it's like to be one of them.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:42 AM on February 9, 2016 [19 favorites]

Sure, I'm only objecting a throwaway sentence in the article -- "It isn’t in the work of George Eliot, Woolf, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, or Dickens" -- not the broader point about gender.

(Although the more I think about the broader point about gender, the less satisfied I am about it. Isn't Iago in Othello one of the most adaptable and protean characters in literature? Don't Shakespeare's Antony and his Cleopatra remake each other? I'm willing to say Jane Austen does this best and that men writers have a poor record of doing this with romantic plots but Character A adapts to / for Character B, and changes their shared world, seems to be a thing that writers of both genders show happening.)
posted by Aravis76 at 9:10 AM on February 9, 2016

I feel that Iago is different, though it's hard (at the moment) to say exactly how. Maybe because the ramping up of jealousy/deception in Othello is much more... theatrical? Less subtle? Iago is almost too protean. The plot is more triangulated than the characters; they're just articulate servants to the plot. It's also true that the psychology of characters (and maybe especially women) in Shakespeare is not always comprehensible/naturalistic. I would have to go back and read/think on it more. Shakespeare's characters are linguistic-philosophic, Austen's are linguistic-psychological. They're conversational. (Or something!) Shakespeare often represents a kind of conversational fraternity between his characters, especially in his comedies, but it's obviously more about what's spoken and less about what isn't.

That said I don't think this is something only women do well, but it is something that women seemed to do particularly well in the heyday of the novel, and something that takes a particular kind of genius. I find it odd that people who are gender essentialist in other ways (only men have the drive to create great art!) don't acknowledge the deep deep understanding of human psychology and intuition that, say, Austen displays (as well as her tremendous skill in rendering it). It's almost too much for me sometimes, how anyone could keep all of it straight. Amazing observational eye and fidelity, like her brain is a whole universe of human character.

The best male authors have this particular talent as well, but they're often hindered by their representation of women as objects. Even Hawthorne, an amazing psychological author, often treats women more like symbols and objects and confusing angel/demon creatures than subjects (though Hester Prynne is amazing). He never quite does the kind of subtle character work that Austen does. Male authors seem to tend to do character work in other ways; I don't know why this is, but it's notable.

I'm thinking of Joyce's "The Dead" right now as a short story where a man has this experience of deeply understanding the subtle reverberations of another's (a woman's) mind; it's odd that it sticks out so much and the entire story is thematized around the remarkable event of acknowledging a woman's interiority. (I love this story, but it's relevant that the "plot twist" or moment of male awakening is oh yeah, women have desires and a past!) And it's so remarkable that it shakes the man to his core. Something maybe also about Anna Karenina and the way her husband has a totally embarassing breakdown after she leaves him, avoiding becoming empathic and instead becoming a kind of laughingstock of moral cowardice. Men reeling over the confrontation with women's humanity.

I'm thinking of Henry James also, and how so much of his writing is the male protagonist confused by sexuality, or in denial of it, and the female character who is a bit too forward for him. How women attract and repulse in proportion to their level of frank humanity. And again, I love Henry James, but so much of his writing is about the mystery of women fading away before the eyes, and how the male protagonist simply cannot handle it and turns away decisively, in disillusionment.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:19 PM on February 9, 2016 [5 favorites]

With Iago, I wasn't thinking only of his mirroring/reshaping of Othello but also the way he is with Roderigo and Cassio - the way his voice changes from character to character. Of course Austen's characterisation is fundamentally different from Shakespeare's - more naturalistic, much subtler - but the basic phenomenon looks similar to me. Henry Crawford's adaptability has a little Iago in it, I think. But I don't know, maybe all I'm saying is that Virginia Woolf was right and Shakespeare is as good as a woman sometimes.
posted by Aravis76 at 2:55 PM on February 9, 2016

was there an askme thread asking for recommendations of books which contain this "trick"? because i thought there was, but am having the darndest time finding it.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:00 PM on February 14, 2016

andewcooke, was it this?
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:03 PM on February 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

yes! thank-you. it was in "media and arts" category (not books and lit or whatever it's called) which threw me.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:36 PM on February 14, 2016

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