On subtlety, briefly


Earlier this week Slate published an article which declared that subtlety sucks and it’s time for more heavy-handed art. I’m not going to address the nuances of this argument (besides, others are already kicking back), but I have been thinking about this, largely for work-in-progress reasons (which will be #2 in the following list).

1. One of the reasons, in my opinion, that much of Orson Scott Card’s later work is weaker than his earlier stuff is that he gets too heavy-handed, thematically. Take Ender in Exile. Large sections of it read like The Author Telling Us What to Think. Now compare that to, say, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead—which choose not to rub your nose in theme—and we see how vital some subtlety is.

2. My frequently-postponed-for-other-projects alt-history novel, as it grows and develops in my mind, turns more and more into an opportunity to soapbox what we should think about X and how we should talk about Y. Et cetera. I worry that by the time I finish it, I’ll have written a polemic rather than a novel.

On the other hand,

3. One of the good things / bad things about Mette Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife was its willingness to be very direct thematically. The Role of Women in the Church! Issues with Sex-based Leadership! And, I understand, the new novel (His Right Hand, coming out next month) will prominently feature a transgender character (Soho Crime—why haven’t you sent me a review copy?). On the one hand, a bit too on-the-nose for 2015? On the other hand, isn’t that an absurd complaint? What else is fiction for?

In conclusion, as if I’m ready to draw conclusions,

I’m leaning towards Fiction Ought to Be Heavy-handed in Topic and Theme, with Subtlety in Execution. We should have no confusion as to what we’re talking about. We should not be certain what conclusions have been reached.

“Literature,” after all, as Roland Barthes said, “is the question minus the answer.”

10 thoughts on “On subtlety, briefly”

  1. Interesting. I wonder how much of this is a subjective view of subtlety. I read a review of HRH recently that liked it because of the lack of authorial intrusion and general transparent style (which, incidentally is what both Scott and I aim for).

    And I will say now–and probably a thousand times before now–I wrote His Right Hand in 2012, right after I wrote The Bishop’s Wife. It’s a weird concurrence of things that 2015 turns out to be the year of transgender people. I had no idea that would happen back then. It’s good for the book and for publicity, but if you understand how slow the publishing world is for nobodies like me, you’d see you could never anticipate something like this.

  2. .

    Why thank you, William. I am rather happy with where it ended up.

    I suppose subtlety is also largely a matter of public perception, Mette, author be d**ned. Cf my relative who can find an anti-business climate-change agenda in just about every movie ever made….

  3. I think subtlety comes with the reader. For instance, in Magdalene, one reviewer (non-Mormon) said I was too heavy-handed on the allegory (which I knew I had been), which is something a person who’d studied the Gospels moderately extensively, would be able to pick up on. She even realized that the ritual death occurred on Easter of that year and realized I had released the book on Easter.

    Other people were surprised when I told them all the corresponding details. If they weren’t Christian, they were like, “Oh, cool, didn’t know that.” If they were, they were kicking themselves for not getting it.

    That said, I name my chapter titles obscurely. It was a thing I got from Tom Wolfe. When I got the chapter titles, it was like an in-joke I was sharing with the author. The song lyric-derived titles are the easiest, but naming the chapters to get that effect is no mean feat.

  4. Looking at the Slate article, it looks like much of the “subtlety” he’s complaining that we’re obsessed over is stylistic subtlety. However, unless I’m misunderstanding, what you focus on above is subtlety with respect to the “message.” Yes?

    I think a lot of whether a work of literature strikes me as heavy-handed is when the writer seems to be stepping away from the natural viewpoints of the characters and the situation they are in to make a point Then too, a lot depends (as Moriah said) on what I as a reader bring to it, including (in my case at least) whether I agree with what is being said or not — and what else I’ve read (especially recently) that may make the same point, or (conversely) to which the new work may contrast presently.

    In short, it’s all very contextual. I suspect that the fact that you (Theric) felt the need to declare the importance of thematic directness has more to do with your own artistic development than the state of Mormon letters as a whole, given that “subtlety” has seldom (if ever) been identified as the vice toward which we as Mormon authors have a particular weakness…

  5. I meant, “to which the new work may contrast pleasantly” not “presently”…

  6. I also have to admit that the title of your post keeps making me itch to write something titled “On brevity, subtly”…

  7. For what it’s worth, the other post pretty much *is* my short version. Not that I’ll ever write the long version. Brevity, alas, is not one of my virtues…

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