Systems are still down at the office, so I’m going to use this time to write you a brief letter that I meant to write maybe two weeks ago – remember that Grace Paley story I asked you to read and which you didn’t like?
Well, it triggered some thoughts… My apologies for this resulting letter.
So, asides from A Conversation With My Father being an interesting and slightly defensive perspective on Paley’s fiction (like, her father literally references a couple of her other stories throughout the piece, out of his exasperation with them), a big reason that I stuck on this story so much was that I could relate to it perhaps more than is comfortable.
As you very well know, I also make things sometimes – writing, music, occasional recipes – and whatever your generous opinions on those things might be, 90% of my relatives and their family friends are very Old European. Their attitudes to art (and dinner options) remain largely identical to the father’s attitude in this story by Paley. (I’m not kidding about the dinner options by the way. Any time that I try to cook dinner for them, I have to throw the spice rack out the window, or half of them won’t touch the result. “What’s this? Rosemary? In my rice? I’m telling mom!!“)
My relatives and their family friends love classical music, for example (just like me), but their tastes are firmly nineteenth century (unlike me). One of them recently forbid me from playing piano any later than 7pm because my playing caused heart palpitations, insomnia, and anxiety. She would be unable to sleep all night if I kept it up. Couldn’t I play something that was a little more, well, musical? (I obliged with some Glinka, but it was really just to save face.)
There is a similar attitude to fiction as well. It was my father who gave me Hemingway and Jack London when I was young and told me I would have nothing good to write if I didn’t get out into the world and earn myself some authentic well-traveled life experience (by which he meant: join a safari). It was Jack London’s Martin Eden that was his particular favorite – that interminably frustrating Martin Eden, whose story’s conclusion could come straight from the mouth of Paley’s father: “Yes, what a tragedy, the end of a person. Tragedy! Plain tragedy! Historical tragedy! No hope. The end. What a tragedy.”
Both my sister and I rebelled with frustration at this particular The End. We were teenagers, and we did not have so much swashbuckling world experience – but, we had just enough to sniff out the shmaltz disguised as world-weary authenticity in Martin Eden, and deride it.
So Paley’s story was valuable to me, coming from that background. A mutual affirmation, of sorts.
That being said:
You and I had a brief conversation about this story, which led to another brief conversation that got me thinking about ambiguity.
I remember my own youthful thoughts about stories, and I guess it can be easy, when we are young, to think of ambiguity as a respectable sign of intelligent fiction. Because ambiguity makes the reader think, right? But actually (as we all discover eventually) it turns out that half the time it’s a cheap cop-out.
It’s too frequently used to excuse laziness on the writer’s part, while attempting to give their stuff a pretend-sheen of respectability and Thought-Provokingness. After the millionth groan-inducing example, it’s enough to make anyone shout, Give me an author who has the courage of their convictions! Give me a story where, sure, we can hate the ending, but goddamnit if the author didn’t seize it with both hands and just go for it.
It’s this sort of attitude that can give us all a newfound appreciation for authors who eschew ambiguity. Authors who do not hide behind vagueness. Who mean precisely what they say.
Though I am not sure that I come down on ambiguity quite so hard in the long run. Certainly I’m not in favor of the “what actually happpened????” ambiguity because that sort of ambiguity frequently gives me the hives, it is almost always like “Was it a drug trip all along? WERE THEY DEAD ALL ALONG?? Is it ALL IN THEIR HEAD” ugh just shut up already. Yes, it can be done phenomenally well in the right hands, but so often it is exactly a cheap cop-out used to excuse both laziness and a lack of conviction, hiding behind a smoke screen of pretend Thought-Provokingness.
No, I’m thinking more about an ambiguity in how we, the reader, are expected to feel about (and make moral judgments about) characters and events within the story.
Some authors make it very clear which characters are Awful and which characters are Morally Gray and which characters are Fucken Awesome. Even when our perspective is supposed to be shifting on those characters throughout the story, the author is still making it clear exactly at which point in the narrative we’re supposed to be feeling what about that character’s place in it.
This, of course, can cause some disconnect if the author’s idea of acceptable behavior don’t jive so well with our own (possibly more stringent) moral values.
And I would say that this type of anti-ambiguity, taken to its most extreme form, is what devolves into that bane of many sanities: protagonist-centered morality. (But you may want to fight me on this connection that I am making here, maybe.)
Conversely: ambiguous moral intent regarding an author’s characters can lead to an inherent invitation towards empathy.
Yes, this can be done very stupidly as well. But it is not always quite so easy to use this as the same sort of cop-out smokescreen because, unlike that other form of ambiguity which requires less work on the author’s part, this type of ambiguity does, I think, require more to carry it off. To make an intriguing, complex, and nuanced character while deliberately obscuring moral judgments you may have about them, preventing those judgments from affecting the text – it’s not always so easy, no? It’s also easy to fuck it up. First off you have to do the hard work of making that intriguing, complex, and nuanced character – no cardboard cut-out villains here, alas. And then you could, I suppose, do things like have some of their decisions be Good (she saved a puppy!) and some of their decisions be Bad (she’s drinking and driving!) and oooooh ambiguity, are they Good or are they Baaaad but that in itself can be kind of a cop-out and actually the sort of thing that leads to a perspective like Paley’s father (oooh tragic flaw, she brought it on herself, drinking and driving, she herself was her own downfall, Tragedy, A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, such hubris, oh such a flawed character, The End!), and it’s a much more delicate balance to simply withhold the Good and Bad entirely – if you can manage it.
One of Shakespeare’s favorite tricks is to give his various characters an occasional illuminating monologue – whether or not he agrees with it, we never find out, but he’ll just have them argue intelligently and passionately for this one perspective, usually at odds with the popular convention of his time, with no authorial puncture in that moment to what the character says. Does Shakespeare actually agree with Emilia’s perspective on marriage? Does Edmund’s initial speech about bastards reflect on Shakespeare’s ideas about “legitimate” birth in any shape and form?
Who the fuck knows, but it certainly makes for a richer and more nuanced narrative experience. And it is an inherent invitation towards empathy.
So there is that element, in many Paley stories which I appreciate (she has a later story, for example, where the same narrator from Conversation reappears as a sort of side character – older and wizened-er – and essentially argues her father’s perspective at the protagonist, who is the one claiming the possibility of change for his own life). A withholding of Good and Bad, as much as Paley can manage it. Let the reader introduce it into the story themselves. It is, with her, maybe a running obsession.
I suppose a main problem with this type of thing, though, is that while someone like Shakespeare uses it more as a spice to his main dish, choosing to use it entirely as your main dish does rely so very much on the context that the reader brings to it. And it is difficult, maybe impossible, to design something that exists successfully whole while also shifting shape convincingly depending on its readers’ varied eyes – without frustrating or boring any of them.
So, all while inviting the esteemed demons of ambiguity, you could maybe pretend that you’re widening the audience of potential readers, but really I think you shrink it.
I mean that’s just what happens when you rely on a fair amount of outside readerly context for the full story “effect” to complete its circuit and light a spark.
All stories succeed most with their ideal readers, yes, but I think few types of stories can fizzle as badly with their non-ideal readers as these might. I liked this story, sure. (And most of her last stories blew my mind, one by one.) But, just as often, Paley’s fictions had me scribbling an annoyed question mark on my short-story-tracker-spreadsheet-thingamajig. Comments like “maybe come back to this later in five years and see if I like it any more then??” or “well that was grim” or just “missing context, if I’m being generous – and I’m not too interested in pursuing any further”.
I think Paley is maybe the most devoted practitioner of this form that I’ve ever read. And, based on the stories I’ve read, I would also say it was very important to her, for a slew of reasons, to write her stories the way that she did.
This is not intended as a categorical criticism nor praise of Paley’s fictions, or of this style of writing, because it certainly is not. More like, a respectful and quizzical consideration.
This whole subject is something that I want to think about a lot more – especially before I can feel like I’ve come to any real conclusions.
Anyway. Here’s hoping that systems at work will be back online soon!
Twiddling my thumbs here,