Book Review: The Hidden Machinery

Book Review: The Hidden Machinery

Ore in Every Rift of Livesey’s Apologia and Guide

By Dewitt Henry, Literary Bookmarks Editor

DeWitt Henry

THE HIDDEN MACHINERY: ESSAYS ON WRITING by Margot Livesey (Tin House Books, 2017). 301pp, paper, $15.95.

MFA programs are descendants of the “how to be a successful writer” handbooks in the 1890s (see “Handbooks and Workshops” in Andrew Levy’s 1993 study, The Culture and Commerce of the American Short Story). On the high end, Henry James’s prefaces to the collected edition of his works, The Art of Fiction, led to Percy Lubbock’s influential codification, The Craft of Fiction (1921), and were followed by E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927), which turned from rules and recipes to genial touchstones and observations, such as the “massive chords” in Tolstoy (Rhythm) and the reminder that “people in fiction” can sometimes be represented as “flat” and other times “in the round.” Livesey knows these books, as well as more contemporary versions such as Bird By Bird (Anne Lamott’s compendium of both her own and other handbook advice), and recent, influential discussions such as John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House, and James Wood’s How Fiction Works. The author of seven noteworthy novels as well as a story collection, and a teacher in many creative writing programs as well as a sometime-fiction editor, Livesey enters the discussion with sophistication and brio, at once literary, personal, and collegial, and speaking to writers, critics, and readers.

She recommends studying the “hidden machinery” of classics. Her chosen masters have been writers in what F.R. Leavis dubbed The Great Tradition, and she brings their lessons alive through the history of her apprenticeships. She is a passionate defender of literary continuity, and of enduring relevance; and her thinking helps us to think. By “machinery” she means craft, technique, tricks, artifice, strategy, devices: “the business of art to conceal, and the business of the apprentice to comprehend.”

She begins by describing her reading as a child and a schoolgirl; her first attempt at writing a novel as a university graduate; and her inspiration from James and Forster as novelists. “How well,” she comments, “James and Forster understood that embarrassment is a major emotion.” Nevertheless, she first read without “the notion of dismantling a novel, of examining, say, the point of view or transitions” and in her own early work had yet to understand the importance of description, pacing, and suspense.

She moves gracefully from this admission to sophisticated discussions of James’s and Forster’s “machineries.” She compares Portrait of a Lady to Passage to India.  “James’s Americans come to Europe. Forster’s English men and women go to Italy, or India….New landscapes can reveal issues of culture and class, as well as the spiritual lives of their protagonists.” In James, the focus is on large questions: What will Isabel Archer do?  “As one question is answered, another opens up, leading us onward.” He works to earn the reader’s attention, keeping the focus always on Isabel. In Forster, Adela “is not allowed to be a heroine,” and the questions are small and scattered, until Forster “shows his hand” in the third section, “Temple.” 

In drafting her own novel, Homework, Livesey learned to moved from the “long line of suspense” to managing “the shorter lines of suspense,” that helped both characters and readers to progress. She also learned through James and Forster, “how to read the world” and “grasp the telling detail”; and how the authors’ crises in life lead to deepening their perspectives and breakthroughs in the “arguments” of their art.

She also discusses Jane Austen in detail, and later Flaubert, relating her discoveries in terms of craft and the writers’ biographies: “on the one hand how certain elements of the text—characters, plot, imagery—work together to make an overarching argument; on the other how the secret psychic life of the author and the larger events of his or her time and place, shape that argument.”

When it comes to creating vivid character, “I am character handicapped,” she confesses. Her early drafts limit descriptions to eyes and hair and four gestures: “Look, turn, nod, shrug,”  With effort, craft, and luck, however, she later manages to make them more complex. Given Forster’s distinction between flat characters and round, she reminds us that both are difficult to create, and that flat characters need to be able “to respond to an emergency” and suggest “a more complicated history, just beyond the page.”

Margot Livesey

Following on William Gass, she highlights the art of suggestion: “How much, or how little, do we need to put on the page to persuade the reader to fill in the rest?” For pragmatic suggestions, she offers a collection of “prompts, rules, and admonitions,” such as: “When creating a character very different from myself, I often need to create her or him from the outside…[while] characters who stand in for me…I create from the inside out.” From Flannery O’Connor’s example, she cites how “attitude” brings key characters to life; we need “telling details—and what those details tell is attitude.”

She considers “voice-driven narratives,” where “the first-person voice often acts as a substitute for scenes.” She considers the nature and uses of dialogue: “Dialogue is a wolf in sheep’s clothing—often pretending to be woolly and vague, actually all teeth and meaning.” She discusses subtext, the nature of scenes, the convention of a character’s inner eloquence contrasting to her or his inarticulate dialogue, and indirect speech.

She offers a full-on study of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse as an example of writing with an aesthetic agenda. Woolf “was writing to resolve various intellectual challenges as well as her relationship to her family history….[Her] relationship with her own consciousness…along with her mental and physical states, lies at the heart of her aesthetics.” She needs “to capture the simultaneity of experience and…the sensibility of women.” In terms of craft, “[Woolf] does not believe in exposition but she does believe, passionately, in consciousness, connection, and completeness….She has almost no interest in conventional plot and suspense, but she is very interested in the larger seismic shifts of society.” She teaches us “how to resist the platitudes of thought and feeling…and to keep questioning the gap between lived experience and the page.” 

The topic of “homage” Livesey explores as a different aspect of “making it new” in novels that allude to or retell earlier classics. “Writing back…nearly always involves a critique of the original,” she explains, citing not only literary examples but also “painting back” in Cézanne’s variations on Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. She recounts the challenges of her own recent novel Gemma Hardy , set in Scotland of the 1960s, as an earnest, rather than playful or subversive, homage to Jane Eyre; and her idea of “reexamining the possibilities of women’s lives more than a century after Bronte wrote.”

In her chapter on Madame Bovary, she draws lessons in the three-part structure, ironic juxtapositions, contrasting points of view, descriptions of setting that convey the characters’ inner lives, the foreshadowing of main events, and the value of research; as well as the “connection between craft and autobiography.” She devotes the following chapter to “attempting to tell a true story”—in her case, the story of her stepmother’s life in the collection, Learning By Heart. She distinguishes between fiction and “anti-fiction,” probes the boundaries between them, lists their comparable techniques, and welcomes “how they can help me tell the stories I couldn’t otherwise tell.” In the penultimate chapter, she offers lessons from Shakespeare, such as “Does your plot need a subplot, or two?” and recommends the plays as a “treasure that we can visit over and over, ransack and purloin as often as we need, and yet the gold remains piled high, waiting for us to return.”

There is ore in every rift of Livesey’s apologia and guide as well. Her fascination with the hows and whys of masterpieces serves to enlarge the art and to involve us in its necessity, struggle and promise. Ideally, we return to our own writing and reading with a keener grasp of craft and passion.

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