Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Writing Peace

I've known since a very interesting #writechat session a few weeks ago that I needed to write an article about this. This ISN'T that article, which will appear later on the Year Zero site, but I want to start a discussion that will help me have the first clue where to start that piece. but given that it's Armistice Day, it seems nuts not to post something now. Please be argumentative and outspoken.

A fortnight ago, Marc nash wroet a wonderful article, Pain, in which he posed the question whetehr it's possible for writers to write a reader's pain. It has, by dint of accident, the fascinating subject matter, and the quality of Marc's thought, become somewhat programmatic for our recent works, and indeed will provide the introduction to the forthcoming anthology Thirteen Shadows Waiting for Sunrise. There has been some incredible discussion, some breathtaking writing, and some very deep soul-searching. But what I am hoping some of my fellow Zeroes will turn their thought to in the New Year will be seen as far more sinister and disturbing than writing pain. I want to know if it's possible to write peace.

Specifically: can there be a great novel without conflict?

Now, I'm not daft enough to equate conflict in a literary setting with guns & ammo, or even with dragons and jealous fathers and the old hackeneyed staples that have come down form the courtly tradition. Although I DO want to ask about this, as well - the differnce between internal and external conflict, whether one is the subject of literary fiction, the other genre fiction, as is sometimes posited.

We are so used, thanks to that courtly model, and thanks to the almost universally worshipped Dwight V Swain, to the idea that a novel is driven by conflict, that a character is only interesting if they are flawed. It is so much a commonplace that if flaws and conflict are absent a critiquer or editor will simply box-tick, saying "add conflict". Most of the time, of course, this is sound advice. but is it really a no-brtainer box tick?

I want to finish posing the question with some thoughts I and the ever insightful @kashicat put forward:

- the reason peace is seen as uninteresting often has to do with the fact people think of peace as the absence of conflict. In fact peace is a rich, wonderful, and fascinating state with a multitude of contents of its own.

- humans are imperfect. We therefore think of a character without flaws as being impossible to relate to. But is a flaw really the same as imperfection? What about motivation?

So: a novel where all the characters are "good" (discuss!) ; set in a peaceful land with no obstacles to be surmounted. Would anyone care to read it? What on earth would it look like? And how could we possibly set about writing it?


  1. I'm a little confused as to weather you are omitting emotional conflict?

    And surelly 'good' would rely on what sort of society they are in - now to me this sort of set up brings to mind some awful controlled place were negativity is not allowed. I know this probably isn't what you mean to protray - but its what my mind comes up with.

    Peaceful also does not mean stagnant and I'm not sure why obstacles would be related to conflict?


  2. My problem isn't about how hackneyed conflict, flaws, traits, hubris et al are, of course they are not as they are part of the human psyche. My issue arises when they are drawn out of the melange of human emotion and put as the centrality and organising principle of a novel. Doing so tends to be reductive as it turns human emotion into a plot drive. I am far more interested in representing the true conflict of emotions, which is that there are likely to be mutually antagonistic feelings and thoughts swirling around in any one mind that is trying to apply itself to dealing with an event/ situation. This is a non-linearity I would like to encompass, rather that distill conflict and externalise it to the situation. The conflict is internal and usually ongoing.

    I've written a 5000 word story based on the Beirut hostage situation, but who's whole drive is towards serenity and a calming of the chattering cocktail of emotions. It can be done over this length. Over a novel? I think the strangeness of the world you are inviting a reader into would have to be detailed minutely by the author, since you are asking them to go against virtually all their previous experience as a reader of literature, which as you say is conflict-led.

  3. It’s emotions I think. If people read a book that only has happy stuff, then it’s just a quite pleasant read, in a passive manner.

    Conflict, whether emotional or external, brings the drama. And that drama of conflict takes readers through a myriad of feelings that gets them involved, maybe identifying, and caring about principal characters and their story. Roots for them in their struggles. Or at least be fascinated and entertained.

    And then, if there is happy stuff after characters have traveled through the difficult and grown and reached their reward (whatever it is), that’s good!

    Now if a "peaceful"story can engender more than just a "oh that's nice," then maybe...

    William Styron is purported to have said:
    "A good book should leave you... slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it." William Styron

  4. @Saffy I was leaving the meaning of emotional conflict up for debate :) - there are many different kinds - what I have tried writing about is a character with different tugs on her life, having to choose between two things, both of which she would do for the very best of reasons. Yes, I know how relative a term "good" is

  5. @sulci - I agree on the tediousness of conflict as the "organising principle". I guess a sub-question would be whilst acknowledging its place can one write a story in which it is not the organising principle (though in my head I can hear all the Swainers deconstructing my piece to prove there's conflict there - or just saying it's rubbish - whcih it may well be if I wrote it, but for other reasons than the lack of conflict). And I really do think the short story/novel issue one is relevant here - no one would deny the serenity of a haiku. The question is where they would draw the line. I'd like to know what Heikki thinks

  6. @Marisa "Now if a "peaceful"story can engender more than just a "oh that's nice," then maybe..." that's the biggie - I wonder if our idea of happiness isn't over-sentimentalised - I think that's something I'm trying to get under the skin of - a rigorous, exciting, exhilarating happiness that gets those characteristics not because of the contrast with the bad times, but because it has them in itself.

  7. ha ha ha "A,B&E" is an inquiry into the nature of both pleasure and happiness, embedded in a novel that is full of conflict, unhappiness and unpleasantness.

    In the contemporary West, we don't really have much notion of what pleasure is. Hence the misconceptions that Bingeing in alcohol, sex, food or whatever, that quantity equates to pleasure, rather than some notion of quality of the experience.

  8. Hence the title of De Rougemont's "Love in the Western World" taht condemned us all to a cycle of Tristanic sex & death

  9. Dan, as a Christian, my idea of peace is not the absence of conflict. It's the ability to remain, calm, contented and happy in spite of conflict. It's the inner state that a human allows himself to attain to because he chooses to, NOT because there is nothing to get him down.

    A funny person is one who can make jokes about, and inject humour into situations that are bleak or unfunny.

    A happy person is one who can remain in a positive frame of mind regardless of troubles in his life. If you're a miserable git, you'll find the negative in everything. If happiness is the absence of worries then we all are happy people because we can all laugh when things are going right. It takes a motivated person to do it the other way around.

    In the same way, peace can be had even in the hardest of times. So, yes, peace can be written and a peacful character can be flawed but motivated enough to find calm within his heart.

  10. I think, without a doubt, conflict is at the essence of all drama, all narrative, and, perhaps, all art. At the very least there is a tension there, a struggle, an attempt at a movement forward. Of course the conflict can be at a global level or at a very subtle psychological level, but the conflict has to be there. Without that there is no story. It's what makes you turn the page, you want to know what happens next.

    I think Dwight V Swain is pretty crass, and ideologically suspect, but he does have a good (if over simplified) notion of how stories work. There are certain minimum structural requirements for something to be a story; I've had my battles with the idea of story in the past, but now I've been converted. I want story. The reader wants story. It can be subtle or it can be grand, but story has to be there.

  11. "In the contemporary West, we don't really have much notion of what pleasure is. Hence the misconceptions that Bingeing in alcohol, sex, food or whatever, that quantity equates to pleasure, rather than some notion of quality of the experience." - Do we? All of us? And is the West as opposed to the East? Have you seen how businessmen drink in Japan or how the rich gorge themselves in India?

    In the UK, our bingeing also seems tied up with a notion of guilt, that it is wrong, and that transgression is part of the pleasure. And the current obsession with gourmet cooking and good wine and guides to good sex would suggest that the quality of the experience is paramount. Bingeing is neither particularly contemporary or Western.

  12. I merely said Western because I have no concept of what things are like in the East - I take your point re japanese businessmen.

    Of course it is not all people, but we do seem to have lurched more and more into a binge, consumptive and consumerist society, where aspirations are far more equated with materialist markers than anything notionally of the mind. ie our measures of happiness are far more externally mediated than personally - which may give some pause for thought to Anne's comment which seems to me to be very much a personal measuring of happiness.

    I still argue that the majority of people are unable to formulate a concept of happiness based on their own cogitation about what makes them happy, but they would tend top express it in terms of received group notions such as possessions or the 'craic'.

  13. Hi Sulci C -
    I wasn't arguing for the sake of it, but I always get concerned when someone refers to a more ideal state of existence either back in time or space - it's a concept of lost innocence that, at the very least, needs examining. And to say " majority of people are unable to formulate a concept of happiness based on their own cogitation about what makes them happy" I find rather patronising. How do you know? From what position of superiority do you speak?

    Most of us have many conflicting desires, some of which we succumb to, some of which we don't, some of which give us temporary pleasure, some don't, but few of which do we expect to find the source of lasting happiness. But that doesn't mean those desires are wrong, or the desirers stupid. I would suggest most people, most of the time are trying to work it out.

  14. Roland, where would you place the haiku?

  15. Dan, that's a very good question, and I don't think I can give a suitably good answer.

    Poetry is not really my area - and I would include haiku within the world of poetry - but maybe this is what separates a poem from story (leaving aside narrative poetry for the moment). A poem can be a glimpse, an image, it can contain a rhythm or a structure that echoes its subject. And maybe there is tension within that rhythm, but tension that is not released. It is when it is released that it becomes the beginning of a narrative.

  16. After years of reading to my kids the sort of bland, politically correct, conflict free, we- all- love- each- other pap the Department of Education decrees will go in their libraries I am giving my vote to conflict. Yay Conflict! Driver of good stories, prodder of moral choices and, lets face it, an everyday occurence from who gets the TV remote control to bombing in Iraq. It's part of the human condition and as such, to be concientiously ignored in favour of a 'peaceful' book, leads to PC artifice and parents who fall asleep while reading aloud to their children. They read for themselves now and love all the books with farts, and spew, and adventures and baddies and goodies and yes, vampires and boy wizards, and they read under the covers because they HAVE to know how the conflict is resolved and they think I don't know that they are doing this - but I do.

  17. @Phillipa - :) that's exactly why I'm asking the question wheteher we can write a book about peace and happiness that ISN'T like that. If I may be so bold as to presume, I'll add you to the "no" votes :)

    @Roland - yes, the poetry/prose distinction is important I think (though like you I'm not a poetry expert), but it DOES show that there needn't be conflict in ALL art necessarily - and one that's been admitted there is a debate over where the boundaries are - and that leads to interesting play, and the chance to see if the boundaries can be nudged. It's not something I'm saying is possible - just that I'd be interested to see. Too curious and not enough lifetimes, I guess.

  18. Dan - Well yes.

    But the thing about the haiku, is that, by definition, it is NOT a page turner...

    (unless your type is very large and your pages exceedingly small)

  19. Someone once recommended a book to me - Evan Marshall's 'Novel Writing' - whose bestseller prescription is as follows:

    1. Start with the MC in a place of bliss.
    2. Bham! Some crisis happens which flips his/her world upside down.
    3. Enter the antagonist.
    4. The rest of the novel is a sequence of ebb & flow, tantilising the reader re. whether the crisis will be resolved.
    5. Climax scene - to answer said pivotal Q.
    6. Pull the Random Bestseller Generator lever...

    ...and Hey Presto!

    Whilst I found such a prescriptive approach puke-inducing, I'm having a mental block as to how one could avoid crisis/conflict altogether.

    The only interesting art (taking in all forms) that avoids discordant notes is religious art. But I prefer light being shone on humanity's dustier corners.


  20. Hm. Very interesting questions. Here's my take, off the top of my head, and I might have more ideas tomorrow.

    Starting point: if we're not growing in some way, we're likely dead. So at the very least, a good novel, I should think, would include the growth of the characters in some way. But much of the time, how does growth happen?

    I think of a muscle, which grows by being strained in some way, which prompts it to create more tissue and grow stronger. So that makes me wonder if a person's character also grows that way. Maybe not by experiencing bad or antagonistic obstacles per se, but by experiencing obstacles in some way and growing because of them?

    Would that sort of "overcoming" be definable as intrinsically non-peaceful? Is there a peaceful way to confront an obstacle, push against it, and grow stronger because of it?

    I would argue no, myself. But maybe before I'd argue that, I'd suggest that you actually need to define what you mean by "peaceful." It seems to me that that's the crux of the matter. Or one of them. If "peaceful" means "no unpleasantness" or "no obstacles," then I'd say you absolutely can't write a completely peaceful story. If it means "maintaining equanimity in the face of obstacles, even sometimes unpleasant ones or rough events," then I'd say yes. But I have a feeling that's not what you mean.

  21. I have written entire books without conflict. My first novel had none, and some people really enjoyed it, and others' reaction was the tick-box response you mention "add conflict." Until I got that feedback, I'd never consciously thought about whether a story needed conflict or not - that's not how I write, and not how I think. I rewrote that story until it was three times its original length in order to give it the sort of structure and conflict I'd suddenly realized it "needed." It's been in print for six years and, talking to people about it, readers fall into two camps: they either only remember the part of the story that was without conflict (and loved it), or they hated that part of the story (and thus, the end of the book) because they're conflict lovers, like most of the commenters here. I'm thinking the book might do better if I cut out all the damned conflict and re-released it in an edition based on the original manuscript!

    My second novel rolls along for roughly 2/3 of its length before any conflict appears, and -to me- it feels like an afterthought, hastily inserted, which ruins the book.

    Since then, I've mostly been working on creating false conflicts, to satisfy all the readers who insist a story must have conflict *or else*. Usually this means that no matter the conflict, a resolution is effortless, accidental, and/or coincidental, and that the conflict has no real bearing on the characters or the story I'm telling. I've written three books whose intention is to be a subtle parody of that need for conflict, and they've been some of my most popular books! People want to *feel* that there's conflict, they're trained to expect it, and that's good enough for them.

    Then I wrote a book that actually did have a fair amount of conflict, but no action; the entire book takes place in dialog *about* the conflicts, physical, mental, and emotional, that the characters had faced or were about to face. There's effectively no actual action on the page, an even though the book is chock-full of conflict and has an interesting story, it was again rejected by readers. Because they haven't just been trained that conflict=story, but also that action=story. That dumb, old "show, don't tell" rule. Not only do you need conflict, but you need to show it.

    Alas, this doesn't reflect all people's experience of life. I think there's value in exploring alternate perspectives, including perspectives where there's little/no conflict, little/no action. In my life, any action or conflict is brief - and briefer still, in relation to the amount of time I'll spend thinking and talking about it, before and after it occurs. The more interesting an event, the smaller a percentage of the time I devote to it is actually in the event. The rules of fiction say to leave out all but the core, the action, the conflict. I like the rest of the story. Sometimes I like to tell a story that's 80% denouement, because sometimes that's what life is like.

    I'm not entirely anti-conflict, I just think it's often an artificial insert, and that stories don't need it as much as writers are trained to believe they do. I have learned that I can't stand to read thrillers, because of all the ridiculously inserted conflict that serves no purpose but to follow the rules of fiction.

  22. @phyl - defining peace is exactly the heart of it. And I very much want to get away from the idea of peace as a lack or absence. I'm not sure about the journey/growth question. It SEEMS, prima facie, so obvious - but that's what makes me want to question it, to try and pull the idea apart and say does it HAVE to be like that? Or is growth just another= of the myths at the heart of our idea of narrative? Musicians thought, from what I can gather with my very limted knowledge, that music could only be about chromatic tonesand harmonic progression, until loads of people whose name all, ironically, began with a shhh sound turned up and showed that wasn't so. I wonder if Modernism did something similar for the novel, and if not whether that's because it's impossible, or because it didn't try hard enough.

  23. @Teel Nice to meet you - I believe I may have come across your Modern Evil Press on smashwords?

    I'd always recommend going with what you're happy writinga nd hoping the readers pitch up (but I know that's a minority opinion) - and when they do you'll BOTH be happy.

    You make a very good point connecting two box-ticking exercises - show don't tell relates top conflict quite strongly, but I hadn't realsied till you mentioned it - people assume if there's too much just sitting talking that it's all "tell" - they equate show with action. Your "all but none conflict" scenario reminds me of the kind of play you used to get a few decades ago - like Durenmatt's "The Physicists", which are virtuosic accomplishments. You've also got me thinking about Gen X and Slacker stories.

  24. I do think the characterization of us as "conflict lovers" is a real straw man argument, and not very helpful.

    I think the whole point of this discussion is both what "conflict" is and what "peace" is.

    Overcoming an obstacle -- even if it's something entirely non-violent such as a boulder blocking a road, and finding a way around it -- can be a process of growth for the person in the story who finds a way around, and it could even be classified as a certain kind of "conflict," because the person is working against a resistance of some sort.

    It could be a story conducted entirely peacefully, with other characters who live nearby coming and helping out, everyone cooperating, and everyone having learned something and grown closer to each other by the time they're done. But there was still a type of conflict that was the catalyst for this.

    I don't think you can really write a story where a character experiences no change or even a tiny bit of growth from beginning to end. Perhaps this is my temperament -- I can't conceive of reading a story where it basically says, "Kashicat is this way now. And she's still this way. And look, she's still this way. And now she ends this way." Even if you add in people's opinions about it along the way, it's not telling any kind of story, at least in my opinion.

    Maybe, in addition to needing to define what "peace" actually means, a definition of "conflict" is also needed. I don't think "peace" means the same thing as "no conflict."

  25. Dan - "Musicians thought... that music could only be about chromatic tonesand harmonic progression, until... people... showed that wasn't so. I wonder if Modernism did something similar for the novel, and if not whether that's because it's impossible, or because it didn't try hard enough."

    Good question. I think all the arts went got the modernist bug in the 20th century - for example, atonal/concrete/free music or non-narrative/conceptual abstract film - but for the majority, these remain marginal to what is perceived as 'music' or 'cinema'. It happened to literature too, butI think if you push the novel too far, it ceases to be a novel, just as experimental film ceases to be a 'movie'. A writer such as Robbe-Grillet now seems very much of his period rather than cutting-edge - the 'nouveau roman' now perhaps seems a little quaint.

    Does this mean the experiments failed or do we just live in very conservative times? Or is the novel, in itself, a traditional 19th century form that we have chosen to work in? Or does the very fact we're having this conversation mean we're dabbling in post-modern irony?

    (answers on a postcard please)

  26. @Phyl - you're right about the need for definitions to be crystal clear (and the need to avoid building straw men to combat)
    "I don't think "peace" means the same thing as "no conflict."" - that, of course, was the basis of our #peacechat - and that's what I'm really interested in conveying to readers - and you're right to separate it out as a question form the "novel without conflict".

    @Roland - my best man was a modern linguist who was always talking about the nouveau roman, which utterly fascinated me (he used to drag me to films at Oxford's Maison Francaise, whcih is I think where I got my taste for continental cinema - I am still guilty of actually liking Last Year in Marienbad and all the Peter Greenaway films it inspired, however dated they are.

    I wonder if it's not that we're inconservative ties but that we have returned to the novel but with a knowing wink - a bit like teh slasher film, that had a golden age with Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street, and then New Nightmare and Scream came along, and everything was totally nudge nudge and you could only do serious horror if you went arty and pompous (step forward Cronos), but now a new generation has emerged through the influence of Japanese cinema that doesn't set out to deconstruct conventions but to use them for purely slasher effect - only with a knowing look over its shoulder.

  27. When I *did* my O'level English Literature - I refused to do My Family and Other Animals like the rest of the class and forced my English teacher to let me do the alternative book on the syllabus instead - The Shrimp and the Anemone by LP Hartley.

    The Durrell book was about a family blissfully living their lives until the idyll was cut short by the onset of WWII - The Hartley book was a story about a timid boy's relationship with his beautiful outwardly strong sister.

    For me the first book was fun to read but unsatisfying - while plenty happened there was no arc - no development it was just one after the other of amusing anecdotes.

    The second book was multi-layered complex and while less happened so much more was going on in the emotional turmoil and self-inflicted agonies suffered by Eustace as he struggled with his concept of 'goodness' and his deep-seated conviction that he was never going to match up to anyone's expectations of him.

    I loved that book.

    I bough the entire series and although I no longer have the books in my possession hardly a day goes by that something doesn't remind me of a passage from one of them, or one of the characters.

    As for pain - I felt every headache, fever, and muscle twinge. There was a character who had severe arthritis and my own hands felt cramped and old as I read the descriptions. Given I was a hale and hearty 14 year old at the time - it has to be said that Hartley could certainly write pain.

    The only problem was that the work was so wonderful I became convinced I would never ever write anything that even came near to that perfection and so gave up my ambition of becoming a writer of any note and so stopped writing for a long time except for songs and poems.

    These days I have not changed that opinion but I am prepared to try and do the best I can even though I know it will never match up - ironically just like Eustace never did.

  28. Hi Dan -

    Yes I like Marienbad (but not as much as Hiroshima Mon Amour). When it came out it was seen as massively important (I believe one critic said something like 'at last cinema has become art'), a landmark. Now it's still intriguing but also seems a trifle pretentious and, like a lot of sixties avant-garde cinema, not so much a signpost to where cinema was heading but a curiosity on the side of the road (but you could argue you can see its legacy in Lynch's masterful Mulholland Drive and, adding a dose of ironic humour, in the work of Charlie Kaufman).

    So, yes, I agree, we drink it all down in one post-modern gulp now and don't seem at all interested in deconstruction - but maybe that's because once you've de-constructed an art form what do you do next? Abandon it? Put it back together again?

    Moreover, I would say that the avant-garde impulse to deconstruct was tied up with the neo-Marxist politics of the era. Take away the politics and it can all seem a bit arch.

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