Monday, May 28, 2012

Death of a Salesman's Audience

Interesting article by Lee Siegel in the New York Times detailing how the U.S. economy has become so stagnant for all but the wealthy and theater ticket prices have got so expensive that the (lower ) middle class depicted in Arthur Miller's great play 'Death of a Salesman' can mostly no longer afford to go and see it. A shame for many reasons, not the least of which I'd imagine Phillip Seymour Hoffman would make a great Willy Loman.

From the article:

Certainly few middle-class people, or at least anyone from any “middle class” that Loman would recognize, are among the audiences attending this production. What was once a middle-class entertainment has become a luxury item. Tickets for the original run, in 1949, cost between $1.80 and $4.80; tickets for the 2012 run range from $111 to $840. After adjusting for inflation, that’s a 10-fold increase, well beyond the reach of today’s putative Willy Lomans.

Tickets aren't exactly cheap in New Zealand either, even without the stellar casts. It is rare that I go to the theater, as I usually do the maths in my head about what other books/films I could enjoy for the price of the ticket. Nevertheless, live theater is still a unique environment in which to absorb story.

I'd image in terms of quality of content, Death of a Salesman will be performed forever, but will there be anyone much left who can afford to see it.

Read the full article here.


I've had a couple of discussions recently about writing a synopsis.

Synopses are much more difficult than we imagine, but they need not be a chore. The first things to get sorted are: 
  • who is the synopsis for? (A publisher, an agent, to go with a publicity pack)
  • what is the next action you want the reader to take after reading the synopsis? (ask for more chapters, the whole manuscript, take highlights out for a press release, use as an intro for a public talk about the story)
Publishers and agents will have their own parameters about word count but generally a synopsis is somewhere between 300-600words. 

When crafting the synopsis, remember to regard it as a piece of creative writing, not just as a piece of information to accompany your work. In that sense it's often effective to write the synopsis in a voice close to the voice of the story itself. Don't write about the story in objective terms, e.g. This is a story about... It's unnecessary and just takes up wordcount space. 

Regarding the structure, you could think about it in the following terms:

  • start by identifying the central conflicts in the world of the story - what is missing, what is in trouble, at stake, in jeopardy? 
  • introduce your protagonist, very brief sketch
  • describe how the central conflict impacts on your protagonist, on the other key characters around them. What specific challenges to the characters face
  • what agency does your protagonist have to do something about their challenges. What gifts do they have, what abilities (even if they're dormant.) 
  • what obstacles are in their way (may - and should - be both external and internal. Internal obstacles would included baggage and unfinished business from the past that still haunts them in the present (backstory.)
  • who are their allies, if any. What are their key relationships and how will they be effected by the story's events
  • who and what are their enemies
  • what is the first step to be taken on the road to meet the challenge
  • what are their responses to the first couple of challenges. How do their challenges escalate. What more is put at stake and how. (Their physical safety, their emotional and psychological safety, their morality or ethics)
  • what is at stake in the final challenges towards the story's end. What is line up against them (again both external and internal.)
  • you can give a hint of the climax, or describe it directly (depending on who the synopsis is for, and what you want that reader to do next). Resist the urge to get too cute, e.g. 'But to find out how it ends, you'll have to read the whole story.' There's no need for that and the voice might put people off.

John Cheever.

Today is the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the American writer, John Cheever. Cheever (like Raymond Carver) specialized in the short story, and like Carver he wrote sketches of everyday life. His stories had an elegant simplicity and presented middle class suburbia as a place of sterility and coldness, manicured and polite but often dangerous and destructive to the newcomer or the outsider.

My first exposure to Cheever's haunting storytelling (though I didn't know it at the time) was via the film version of his story 'The Swimmer' starring Burt Lancaster. Cheever's short story had originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine in July, 1964. A man spends the entire story in swimming trunks, stopping in at every house with a swimming pool, telling people he's 'Swimming my way home.' The story starts with the character a braggart and popular wherever he goes, but the closer he gets to home the darker the encounters become and people shun him. None of this is explained in exposition but is shown in small disturbing scenes (coming across a hot dog wagon he knows he owns, which is now in someone else's yard, encounters with people he doesn't remember but they recognize him and shy away.) The final scene of the film when Lancaster arrives home to find it locked and boarded up with a cold wind blowing leaves in icy circles is unforgettable. He slowly sinks to a fetal  position in the doorway.  I was about 7 years old when I saw that and it has stayed with me to this day.

Cheever's original thinking about The Swimmer filled 150 pages of his notebooks, which he whittled down into a short story. In his formative sketches he was thinking of the classical story of Narcissus, who died gazing at his reflection in a pool of water. This becomes a thematic metaphor for the story as a whole.

His stories worked mainly by creating relationships of apparent civility but with worrying undercurrents. In that way he was the precursor to Carver, though Carver's cast of characters were a couple of steps down the social ladder from Cheever's. The magazine format with its generous wordcount allowed Cheever room to develop his narratives beyond the 'slice of life' (which he apparently disliked) into morality tales contrasting characters outer success with inner demons, in deft, subtle strokes.

Among his novels, 'Falconer' (1977) set in a prison, but metaphoric of society as a whole, is a classic.

Here is an article from The Telegraph in the U.K. about Cheever and his legacy.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Some thoughts on point of view

I recently came across an interesting way of thinking about first person point of view by the Australian writer and academic, Dr Anthony Macris.

In his chapter in The Writer's Reader: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Poetry (ed) Brenda Walker, Halstead Press, 2007, pp 67-79, he talks about there being two modes for first person point of view, that of the hero and the witness.

According to Dr Macris, the hero narrator is both 'the perceiving agent and the object of these perceptions' whereas the witness narrator is 'present at all events but doesn't dwell on his/her own actions, focusing on external characters and events.'

He goes on to say:
'The skillful alternation between witness and hero modes is extremely important in first person narration... too much focus on the hero narrator [and] the reader can soon tire of their dominance... If the witness narrator function is... too fragmented and inconsistent, the story can lose dramatic intensity and thematic cohesion. Successful alternation between the two modes... allows the reader to identify strongly with the protagaonist... while also making it possible to present a clearly-drawn set of characters, settings and situations.' (p 69)

This quote made me realise why I've always found some first person narrators really difficult. I often feel as if  they are bashing me over the head with their constant dominance. Mostly I just want them to shut up, e.g. Holden Caulfield, the 16 year old narrator of J D Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Here is a link to another  interesting article by Dr Macris in the Griffith Review called Creative Writing Strikes Back, in which he mentions some of the problems that can happen for writers if they don't have a good understanding of Point of View.