If It Lives, It Moves: Looking at the Kinetic as a Reading Strategy
This is a talk about reading in the writing classroom and in particular approaches to reading the work of published writers in a writing class.
I want to start, however, by describing how I orient my writing students when they’re asked to read and respond to each other’s work in class. I encourage them to start from their subjective experience, to offer a response as a reader to another student’s work rather than rewriting a story by aiming for the prescriptive (you need to rethink the point-of-view here or it would be better if that character weren’t driving a car). Locating where in the text something isn’t working can be useful; being prescriptive about the solution often isn’t very useful at all. And so I ask: begin by identifying what most fully holds your attention, what excites you — words, images, gestures, sentences, moments, scenes. Where do you find the work most urgent, vibrant, passionate — and can you attempt to articulate why? Conversely, where do you fall out of the story either through boredom or confusion or distraction, and can you articulate why — what isn’t clear, what actively confuses, what fails to hold your attention, what needs to be present and isn’t, where the writing goes slack and loses energy or focus. In this way the student writer, receiving these responses, can gauge what her actual words are communicating or failing to communicate on the page. She begins to locate both where the writing is coming to life and places of disconnection between what she intends and what the reader actually makes of her words. To be offered a reading of her text rather than a rewriting of it can be invaluable — above all, a reading that highlights where the writing most fully lives and where it fails to live.
Mavis Gallant, in her brief piece, What Is Style, collected in What Stories Mean, ed. John Metcalf and Tim Struthers (Porcupine’s Quill, 1993), says, with her characteristic forthrightness: “The only question worth asking about a story or a poem or a piece of sculpture or a new concert hall is, Is it dead or alive?” This quotation is preceded by another, “No guided tour of literature, no commitment to the right formula or to good taste can provide, let alone supplant, the inborn vitality and tension of living prose … Like every other form of art, literature is no more and nothing less than a matter of life and death.”
This vitality is what we write for and read for: that fundamental sense of a piece of literature being alive and offering us a way to live through it. It’s easy enough to say, I know what that is when I see it, and I know it when I don’t see it or feel it, but I want to lay out some strategies for talking about liveliness in literature, or lifelike-ness, which I think of as a kind of movement, animation rooted in a kinetic energy. Gallant, describing Collette, calls it the writerly talent of “perceiving the movement of life.” I want to offer up a vocabulary for thinking and talking about these things, a particular form of attentiveness to offer students both when they’re reading the work of other students and published texts.
If something moves, it isn’t necessarily alive, but if something’s alive, it moves – in some fashion, even if it’s a particle capable of the most rudimentary form of change or decay. It is this quality of liveliness that compels our attention as readers, makes us concentrate, stay focused and intent, concentration being an active state and not a passive one, a kind of movement in itself, an attentiveness that allows us to make thematic and metaphoric connections and to create a moving, vivid world in our heads. Our mental faculties and our emotions are aroused — we’re moved, in other words. As writers, we want to move our readers — at the most literal level, we want our readers’ eyes to move across page or screen, we want them to keep reading, to turn the page. How are we to induce this movement? And how are we to create a literary text that moves in ways that make it feel alive to us?
I want to embark on a series of brief close readings, but first I’d like to turn, also briefly, to the work of philosopher Elaine Scarry. In her book, Dreaming by the Book (Princeton University Press, 2001), Scarry attempts to describe what actually happens in a reader’s brain when we read fiction. She conceptualizes fiction as a series of operating instructions to the reader, instructions that incite us to create a lively, moving world in our heads (a view of how fiction works upon its readers backed by current studies in psychology). She analyses what writers actually do in order to achieve that sense of movement — she’s examining effects, not offering a how-to manual for writers, and her work is not necessarily one that I would bring into a writing class. What attracts me to her work, however, is her interest in the kinetic: she’s making an argument about the necessity of movement in the creation of a world that feels alive, full of sensory content, vital. “Vivacity” is another word that she uses to describe this necessary effect.
Scarry looks at some examples from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and notes how Flaubert’s sentences are full of particular kinds of movement — movements of the body, for instance, bending, stretching, leaning, which the reader’s mind can manipulate into motion. She also details how Flaubert uses the movement of cloth, particularly when describing Emma, to suggest the movement and volume, the three-dimensionality, of the body beneath the cloth.
Here’s Leon observing Emma: “With his hands on the back of her chair, he would look down and see the teeth of her comb piercing her chignon. Each time she threw down a card the right side of her dress gave an upward twist, and he could follow the gradually paling shadow cast down her neck by the knot of her hair, until it was lost in darker shadow. Then her dress would drop down on both sides of her chair, swelling out in full folds and spreading to the floor.”
Scarry isn’t saying that Flaubert considers these effects in the same terms as she does, although undoubtedly he wants to convey both movement and vitality, and is alert to the inherent vitality of literal descriptions of movement.
Elaine Scarry isn’t the only one struck by the essential animation of Flaubert’s sentences. Not long ago, I stumbled across a passage in an essay by Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” in which O’Connor quotes with wonder another sentence from Madame Bovary.
Emma is at the piano: “She struck the notes with aplomb and ran from top to bottom of the keyboard without a break. Thus shaken up, the old instrument, whose strings buzzed, could be heard at the other end of the village when the window was open, and often the bailiff’s clerk, passing along the highroad bare-headed and in list slippers, stopped to listen, his sheet of paper in his hand.”
O’Connor comments on the concreteness of Flaubert’s details while also arguing for the art in his selection of detail: “art is selective, and its truthfulness is the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement.” Movement again — what strikes me about the sentence that O’Connor quotes is precisely its attention to movement, the way the racing of Emma’s hands across the keys carries the piano’s sound from one end of the village to the other, Flaubert’s attention first to the physical gesture that creates the sound, then to the sound travelling, spanning the distance to where the clerk, in his slippers, stops to listen – the cessation of movement bringing our attention to the movement that has been abruptly halted.
The critic James Wood, in his recent book, How Fiction Works, comments on Flaubert’s use of detail and points to Flaubert’s prose as the origin of a kind of “noticing” that can become almost fetishistic, “the ideal of writing as a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings.” Strangely, while Wood highlights the density of Flaubertian detail, and Flaubert’s creation of a depth of visual field that becomes a form of realism, he seems far less attuned to the role of the kinetic in Flaubert’s prose, the way that Flaubert’s details are linked through movement, as in the above passages, which makes “necklace” seem far less apt a metaphor than, say, a flung or vibrating rope.
The openings of novels are often described in terms of setting something in motion and the need for the opening of a novel to do so. The way that something is set in motion can be both small and literal and yet still access the truth and liveliness that O’Connor and Gallant speak of.
Here’s the opening of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient: “She stands up in the garden where she has been working and looks into the distance. She has sensed a shift in the weather. There is another gust of wind, a buckle of noise in the air, and the tall cypresses sway. She turns and moves uphill towards the house, climbing over a low wall, feeling the first drops of rain on her bare arms. She crosses the loggia and quickly enters the house.
In the kitchen she doesn’t pause but goes through it and climbs the stairs which are in darkness and then continues along the long hall, at the end of which is a wedge of light from an open door.
She turns into the room which is another garden — this one made up of trees and bowers painted over its walls and ceiling. The man lies on the bed, his body exposed to the breeze, and he turns his head slowly towards her as she enters.”
Our attention is first called to the character, Hannah, standing up rather than standing, motion rather than stasis, as she senses the shift (more movement, a change) in the weather. These opening paragraphs are given over to a series of literal movements as the character moves from garden into the house, through the kitchen without pausing (notice how this sentence, set off as its own paragraph, doesn’t pause except at the end of the long hall where a comma breaks before we see the light through the open door). Notice, too, the repetition of the word “turns,” which appears three times in these three paragraphs, once in the first and twice in the third paragraph, the final “turn” part of our shift in attention from the woman to the man, the new element introduced at the end of this brief section. We see the woman in motion as she moves through the garden and house towards the man; the man, although ostensibly still — lying on the bed — is given sensual presence by means of the breeze moving over his body, which bestows upon the body a corporeality it would otherwise lack, as in the first paragraph the rain on Hannah’s arms calls our attention to her skin, movement upon the sensual surface suggesting the depth beneath. Then the man, too, moves, if only through the small gesture of turning of his head to take in the woman. The noticing of the world — gust of wind, swaying of cypresses, the light at the end of the hall, the garden in the room where the man lies — takes place while the character is in motion, and both the way that Hannah observes across distance, across the landscape and down the hallway and as she turns into the room, and the sensual detail of movement (rain falling, a breeze) upon bodies heightens the sense of the three-dimensionality of this world: the world created through these words has depth as well as kinetic energy. Also, Ondaatje structures his scenes, and this is particularly noticeable as the novel opens, so that each scene sequence, set off by a line break, moves towards the introduction of a new element — something changes or is revealed — which moves the story forward, this sense of narrative movement being as essential as literal movement.
Here’s an excerpt from the opening of another novel, featuring another Hannah, this time from Scottish writer A.L. Kennedy’s Paradise. I’ll start a couple of paragraphs in: “In one fist, I notice, I’m holding a key. Its fob is made of viciously green plastic, translucent and moulded to a shape which illustrates what would happen if a long-dead ear were inflated until morbidly obese. I only know that it’s actually meant to be a leaf, because it is marked with an effort towards the stem, the ribs and veins that a leaf might have. I presume I’m supposed to like this key and give it the benefit of the doubt because people are fond of trees and, by extension, leaves. But I don’t like leaves, not even real ones.
I’ll tell you what I do like, though: what I adore — I’m looking right at it, right now and it is gorgeous, quite the prettiest thing I’ve seen since 8:41. It concerns my other hand — the one that is leaf free.
It is a liquid.
I do love liquids.
Rising from the beaker to the jug in that continually renewing, barley sugared twist: falling from the jug into the beaker like a muscle perpetually flexed and reflexed, the honey-coloured heart of some irreversibly specialised animal. It’s glimmering and, of course, pouring — a drink pouring, hurrying in to ease a thirst, just as it should. I put down the jug and I lift up the glass, just as I should.”
Whereas the Ondaatje excerpt was narrated in a fairly distant third-person point-of-view, here the world comes to us in the first person, also from far deeper within a character’s subjectivity. In a sense, Hannah’s voice becomes an engine of movement: we are aware of her consciousness actively doing the noticing (and judging), the world recreated through language and through what Hannah wants or is able to take in. Here is someone trying to will the world into being, always at a slant to it; the urgency of her noticing creates movement, her desperation to comprehend where she is and what she is looking at, the leaping movement of metaphor — key fob resembling a swollen dead ear that is actually meant to be in the form of a leaf — before her voice practically overflows in its giving voice to what she longs for. The culmination of her noticing — and ours — occurs when her attention falls upon the liquid, evoked in a veritable festival of movement — rising, renewing, twisting, falling, flexed, reflexed, glimmering, pouring. Hannah, too, shifts into action: puts down the jug and lifts the glass. Even the figurative language moves towards the animate: the liquid is compared to a muscle, the heart of an animal, the liquid made corporeal — coming to life — in the act of being poured.
What I try to demonstrate to students, through close readings such as these, is the necessity for various kinds of movement in the creation of vigorous, vital fiction — at the level of the sentence, the scene, and in the narrative overall. The world observed by character moving through it will be more lively than a more static description: noticing doesn’t need to bring the world to a stop. The key, of course, is in the selection of detail: what offers literal motion, and what is essential in this moment to the narrative, and what, given the character’s nature and state of mind in this particular moment, is she or he likely to notice, if we are observing deeply from within her point of view? For emotional state slants observation, too. Then, as mentioned above, there is the whole issue of narrative movement that comes to bear on the shaping of scene. So often students are told about the importance of conflict, or action, but both conflict and action can become repetitive and fundamentally static if nothing essential changes in a scene: if something doesn’t shift between the characters, or within a character, or for the reader, if something new isn’t revealed to the self or another, or some shift in circumstance or the balance of power created. Something must change in order for the scene, and the novel to move, for the narrative to have life. (In stories, as in poetry, a sense of movement can be created through the charged relationship between elements, through the tension of arrangement and association and juxtaposition: in a novel, so given over to time, this becomes virtually impossible, for movement through time must somehow be grappled with.)
Here’s a brief excerpt from the end of Chapter – of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View. Each chapter in the novel moves quite clearly towards a moment of change between characters, or within Forster’s protagonist, Lucy Honeychurch, although Forster also likes to end his chapters with an additional complication, which pushes the story itself forward.
Out on a picnic with various others, Lucy has been led, by the young Italian carriage driver, to a view over the hills and to “the good man” that she has requested. “From her feet the ground sloped sharply into the view, and violets ran down in rivulets and streams and cataracts, irrigating the hillside with blue, eddying round the tree stems, collecting into pools in the hollows, covering the grass with spots of azure foam. But never again were they in such profusion; this terrace was the well-head, the primal source when beauty gushed out to water the earth.
Standing at its brink, like a swimmer who prepares, was the good man. But he was not the good man that she had expected, and he was alone.
George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her.
Before she could speak, almost before she could feel, a voice called, ‘Lucy! Lucy! Lucy!’ The silence of life had been broken by Miss Bartlett, who stood brown against the view.”
It seems a little redundant by now to point out all the literal movement in Forster’s description, its nearly violent vitality: the violets running in rivulets, eddying, etc; beauty gushing like water; the flowers beating against Lucy’s dress. Of course the essential gesture is George’s kiss: he steps forward and kisses her. But then Forster adds the twist of Miss Bartlett’s shout. Lucy must not only take in the import of being kissed by George but the peril of discovery by Miss Bartlett, whose shout disturbs the silent liveliness, whose stillness — “stood brown” — brings the vital moment to a halt even as the movement of the novel tumbles forward, driven by the question not only of what Lucy feels, given this sudden change in her relationship to George Emerson, but what Miss Bartlett and Lucy, and also George, will do next.
Once again, these examples, and readings, are not offered up in the spirit of being prescriptive and saying, This is how it must be done, but in order to demonstrate a way of thinking about fiction and thinking through fiction — movement as a fundamental quality that fiction must achieve in order to come to life. I am not trying to argue for this as the only way to read fiction but an important way, an essential way, and I hope at the very least that these comments prove suggestive.
Published as one of papers presented at Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs Conference, October 2010. Full text and citations available at
the only question worth asking of a story … is, "Is it dead or alive?”
- Mavis Gallant
Catherine’s contributions to UBC’s optional-residency MFA audio downloads can be heard here (2009-2006). Scroll down to 2006 for her instructor talk: "Why Fiction Matters: Some Thoughts on Realism, Authenticity and Conviction"
"to create life which does not eat, procreate or drink but which can live in people who are alive."
- Henry Green on writing