This week, we read the essay, The Power of Persuasion by Mario Vargas Llosa from his book, Letters to a Young Novelist. Llosa shares some great advice for writers, talking about a novel’s form and how, in great novels, form and content are not really separate from each other.
A novel’s form is its most concrete attribute. It lends them shape and substance. What is not usually evident to the readers of a novel is that the separation of form and content is artificial. It is only when one sets out to explain it or analyse it does the distinction become apparent. The story a novel tells is inseparable from the way it is told. The way it is told or in other words, the novel’s form is what determines whether a story is believable or not, whether it is ridiculous, comic or dramatic.
The division between content and form never occurs naturally in good novels (it does occur in bad ones though). In good novels what is told and the way it is told are inextricably bound up together. Such novels are good precisely because of the effectiveness of their form which lends them an irresistible power of persuasion.
Take the example of The Metamorphosis. Merely being told what the story is about, ‘the transformation of a meek little office worker into a repulsive cockroach’ would have perhaps bored you. But the reader believes in the protagonist, Gregory Samsa’s plight wholeheartedly, because Kafka was capable of finding a way to tell it. Using words, silences, revelations, details, organisation of information and narrative flow, the reader’s defences are overwhelmed and thus all mental reservations that he or she might harbour are surmounted.
Llosa offers his technique on how one can equip a novel with the power of persuasion – it is necessary to tell your story in such a way that it makes the most of every personal experience implicit in its plot and characters. But that’s not all. The story must be capable of transmitting to the reader an illusion of autonomy from the real world. The more independent and self-contained a novel seems to the reader, and the more everything happening in it gives him/her the impression of it occurring as a result of the story’s internal mechanisms and not as a result of the arbitrary imposition of an outside will, the greater the novel’s power of persuasion. In short, a novel needs to contain in itself everything that it needs to exist and thus be completely free from real life.
Llosa talks of Bertolt Brecht who expounded the theory of the alienation effect. According to Brecht, to write an epic and didactic theatre, it was essential to develop a way of staging plays. The movement or speech of the actors and even the construction of the sets had to destroy the illusion and remind the audience that what they were seeing was not real, that is was a theatre, a fabrication, a performance. Nevertheless, conclusions from the play must be drawn and lessons learned that promote action and reform.
In a novel, exactly the opposite effect needs to be deployed in order for the power of persuasion to work. In its persuasive efforts, the novel aims to reduce the distance that separates fiction from reality. Once the boundary is merged, it is then the task of the writer to make the reader live the lie of fiction, turning the illusions into the most convincing depictions of reality. That is what makes great novels great. They convince readers that the world they describe is ‘real’ and not give a hint that the real world has been dismantled and rebuilt by the writer. Only bad novels, according to Llosa, foster the alienation that Brecht talks about. Bad novels don’t convince us of their lie; the lie appears to the reader exactly for what it is. Llosa compares this to the puppets of a mediocre puppet master, where the threads of the puppets being manipulated by their creator are clearly visible, exposing them as caricatures of living beings. The deeds or sufferings of such puppets will hardly move the audience – for do they, after all, experience anything for themselves?
However, there is this curious ambiguity of fiction – it must aspire to independence and at the same time, through sophisticated storytelling techniques reflect on the world that the readers actually live in. If not, the novel would turn out to be remote and mute, and would never posses any power of persuasion. Form is what works such a miracle. It is made up of two components that are always intertwined – style and order. Style refers to the words of the story. Order is the way the story is organised, it is the construction of narrative space and time.
What are your views on a novel’s form and content? What, as a reader or a writer, persuades you to believe that a story is ‘real’?