Thursday, August 27, 2009

What Keeps Us Turning The Pages?

Well, I finally made my way through all 700 pages of Vanity Fair. The more I read the more I remembered why it was one of my least favorite Victorian novels.

The critical edition I was reading included several contemporary reviews and modern appraisals, and I was fascinated to read that my suspicions about what Thackeray's portrait of Amelia revealed about him was true: Amelia's character, was indeed based on that of his poor wife who became mad. And that is why he paints her so affectionately and so sentimentally, and ultimately, why she is one of the least engaging characters in the book.

The idea that he was being ironic about her masochism and stupidity never occurred to his contemporaries or any critics until the post-modern period. Most tellingly, most of his contemporaries found his authorial adoration of her puzzling and repellent. As oppressed as Victorian women might be, readers in Thackeray's day, including men, did find Amelia's behavior abnormal.

But that said, one important fact stands out: I read every one of the 700 pages of this book. And this stood out to me because you do not want to know how many recent novels I've abandoned 100 pages in because I was so bored and so unable to get into the characters that I couldn't bear to read another word.

So that got me thinking about what it is that Thackeray was doing right. His plotting is humdrum. You aren't on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen to his characters. His characters' emotions are blunted and every time they threaten to turn into people with feelings you might care about, Thackeray steps out from behind the curtain and reminds you they are puppets meant to teach you a lesson about how rotten people really are.

But even so, Vanity Fair is still fun to read.

A couple reasons why suggest themselves. Even though each of the characters is meant, quite blatantly, to teach us a lesson, Thackeray makes them come alive with that brilliant choice of detail. Every scene and every bit of dialogue is grounded in reality. People walk around real rooms in real neighborhoods and talk to each other like real people would. And each character is painted in a way where they are unique, no matter what use the master puppeteer intends them for.

Becky's speeches could only be Becky's. Miss Crawley behaves as only she would do. This realism was what Thackeray contemporaries found so impressive in his writing. Tellingly, the only passages I found myself forced to skip were those where Thackeray descended to painting an ethnic stereotype--the Irish commander's wife and some of the European scenes where, having got rid of his most interesting characters, Thackeray seemed to be flailing around for something to say until he brings back Becky and finishes his book off with a denouement in which he proves just how little he understands about the emotional lives of actual women.

The other thing that kept me reading was what I think of as the "Gossip Factor." Once people seem real, we want to know what they've been up to. Think of how when you get together with people you haven't seen in a while, you want to know what all your mutual acquaintances are up to. They don't have to have been attacked by a vampire to interest you. You just want to know, are they dating someone, did they change jobs, what happened to their son? So it is with Thackeray's characters. He makes you want to know what they did next, whatever it might be, and that points to what a very good writer he is despite his tin ear for human emotion.

So I came away thinking that Vanity Fair is a puppet show, but realizing too that a good puppet show is compelling entertainment, which is why children even now enjoy them.

What can the aspiring writer take from this? How important it is to ground your characters in reality, to paint them with the telling details that turn them into individuals. That we must make sure our characters; personalities come through in the way they speak. Don't obsess about crafting an unusual plot because if you make your characters real enough, your reader will want to know more about them, even if the "more" is not all that astonishing.

I'd love to hear your ideas about what makes this book work for you, or if it didn't why it didn't.

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