Monday, July 14, 2014

Memory in Fiction and Memoir--"Peeling the Onion"

Something I see in manuscripts I edit (and in my own writing) is how layered and difficult the issue of memory often is. Unpacking a memory, especially a childhood memory or the recollection of a traumatic event, is a bit like peeling an onion. There is, of course, the original memory you hold in your mind, which can often be spotty and full of holes. And then there are the multiple layers of interpretation that have been stacked upon that original memory over the years. The things that have been forgotten, the various embellishments. 

As writers we need to acknowledge the imperfections in our own memories, because a claim to perfect memory simply isn't going to be credible for the reader. Also, our minds tend naturally to block out difficult or traumatic events. Here's an example of a writer sorting through the layers of a traumatic childhood memory. This is from Mary Karr's memoir, The Liar's Club, where Karr is talking about being farmed out to a neighbor family when her mother "was adjudged more or less permanently Nervous":

I don't remember who we got farmed out to or for how long. I was later told that we'd stayed for a time with a childless couple who bred birds. Some memory endures of a screened-in breezeway with green slatted blinds all around. The light was lemon-colored and dusty, the air filled with blue-and-green parakeets, whose crazy orbits put me in mind of that Alfred Hitchcock movie where birds go nuts and start pecking out people's eyeballs. But the faces of my hosts in that place--no matter how hard I squint--refuse to be conjured.

It is interesting to note how sensual this memory is. It was famously observed by Proust how the senses can bring back to us, unbidden, memories we might otherwise not be able to recall. In Swann's Way, Proust samples tea and a madeleine (sponge cake), and his whole boyhood town of Combray is suddenly recovered by his mind:

As soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of my madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me . . . the whole of Combray and its surroundings, taking shape and solidity, sprang into being, town and gardens alike, from my cup of tea.

As writers, we can look for these sensual "Proustian triggers" in our own work in order to summon the past into the present, such as with familiar smells, foods, places, and so forth. The important thing is to show the process of remembering. 

Once our original, spotty memory is unpacked, though, that is only the beginning, the core of the onion. Next there is the question of How something has been remembered. Often the way things are recalled can be influenced by current motivations, or by family myths and stories. Here's an example of this phenomenon from Vivian Gornick's wonderful memoir, Fierce Attachments. In this example, Gornick's mother is telling the story of how she was fondled by her Uncle Sol, a soldier who had returned from the first World War to live with her family, when she was sixteen. 

He didn't say a word to me. He picked me up in his arms and carried me to his bed. He laid us both down on the bed, and he held me in his arms, and he began to stroke my body. Then he lifted my nightgown and he began to stroke my thigh. Suddenly he pushed me away from him and said, "Go back to your bed." I got up and went back to my bed. He never spoke one word about what happened that night, and I didn't either. (p. 8)

Each time Gornick's mother tells the story to Gornick, "it is both the same and different because each time I'm older, and it occurs to me to ask a question I didn't ask the last time around." Gornick says, "The first time . . . I was twenty-two and I listened silently: rapt and terrified." (p. 7) The second time she heard the story, Gornick says, she was thirty:

She repeated it nearly word for word as we were walking up Lexington Avenue . . . When she came to the end I said to her, "And you didn't say anything to him, throughout the whole time" . . . "It just seems odd not to have uttered a sound, not to have indicated your fears at all." (p. 8-9)

The third time she hears the story, Gornick is nearly forty. She says, "Ma, did it ever occur to you to ask yourself why you remained silent when Sol made his move?" Gornick's mother angrily retorts, "Are you trying to say that I liked it?" (p. 9)

Whether or not Gornick's mother liked being fondled by Uncle Sol, this example shows how malleable and subject to reinterpretation memories are, especially family stories and myths. The way we recall things can be greatly influenced by the stage of life we are going through. So, for example, a wedding might be recalled one way by a romantic young teenager, and another way by an adult woman about to enter into her own marriage.

Finally, there is the outer layer of the onion: It is often necessary in our writing to leave room in the present for those who are still standing around to account for what has happened in the past. In Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It, for instance, the narrator has retold the story of his troubled brother's death (in a fight) when they were both teenagers. Maclean and his father both recall in the book what a beautiful and skilled fisherman the dead brother was, but we don't hear them discussing the brother's death until near the end of the book, and something is still missing. At last they talk about the brother's untimely death, and their discussion includes this passage:

Once my father came back with another question. "Do you think I could have helped him?" he asked. Even if I might have thought longer, I would have made the same answer. "Do you think I could have helped him?" I answered. We stood waiting in deference to each other. How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?" . . . "It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us."

I guess the thing to take from this lovely passage is that the final accounting we seek of our memories often defies us. Still, it is important to ask these sorts of questions, and--when we are writing about the past--for us to show the struggle we go through to make sense of what has happened, even if--in the end--we are unsuccessful at doing so.

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Art of Flashing Forward

Or, How Alice Munro Pulls Off Those Long Leaps Through Time

An interesting question came up in one of my workshops last spring, from a fiction writer. The question was about how to pull off jumps forward in time. "How do you do it?" this student asked. "Is there a trick?"

This is actually a common question, and one that usually comes from someone in my workshop who is writing from "too close" a perspective. It is certainly natural to want to do that, to be right there, up close with your characters. Writers love that feel of "immediacy." The extreme version of this is to place your prose in the present tense, which a lot of newer writers seem to want to do these days. The problem with this, though, is that it makes the act of moving through time feel very awkward and jarring. If you are firmly rooted in a single moment, it's harder to shift to another time period.

While there's no single "trick" to making leaps forward in time, the best thing you can do is to "back off" a little in terms of your temporal distance as narrator. Gaining some retrospective distance on your material makes moving around through time much easier. In fact, if you are going to be making a lot of long leaps through time, as Alice Munro often does in her stories, you will want to place your narrator (or the teller of your story) as far forward in time as possible, so that the narrator is looking well back upon events of the story.

That way, even if you leap forward ten or more years with your characters, they will still seem to be standing "in the past" as far as your narrative-perspective is concerned. This will make your leaps forward seem more natural, and more like ordinary human memory--where you might remember different events from various time periods in the past all in one thought.

Munro, you will notice, often uses a deep retrospective viewpoint to pull off her dramatic leaps forward through time, often called "flashing forward."

For great examples of such "flash forwards," check out Alice Munro's story collections. My personal favorites are Open Secrets and The Beggar Maid.

A Brief Tribute to Alice Munro

This week, Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Price in Literature, a recognition that thrilled a lot of us women writers. Munro is one of the few working writers today who has really been able to capture the complexity of women's lives, our struggles for independence from our families and the orbits of men, the different stages that we go through in our lives (daughter, mother, lover, worker), and the many ways that others regard us as we go, and the demands they make upon us. Munro has explored how we often become our own worst enemies, has charted the lusts and rages that consume and distort us, and, like no one else, has captured the bewildering flow of time which has a way of leaving us dismissed and marginalized beyond a certain age, our energies dissipated by obligation, our youth and beauty spent, yet holding in our hands the cherished and priceless gifts of perspective, memory, and understanding. Nobody else has quite managed to show women as they are the way Alice Munro has. There is such respect and curiosity, and fearlessness, in her portraits of women, assets that are visible from her earliest work, which by the way she first published when she was nearly forty. I hope that Munro serves as a bracing reminder to any writer--man or woman--who hopes to capture women characters in prose, not to succumb to the lazy stereotyping of women so often seen in fiction and memoir, but rather to treat women as full human beings, the way Alice Munro has done. --Kim  

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Poetry And Abstraction

What makes a work Poetry is the specific observation of the restless mind working. Frank Bidart did this in Watching the Spring Festival, and Rilke, too:


Inside the many ways to dance Giselle/The single way that will show those who sleep/what tragedy is.

Rilke, from The Duino Elegies (Mitchell trsl):

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels hierarchies.
For me, these passages become abstract, and lift the material beyond the strictly personal, beyond the reach of diary or note-taking, and allow us to attend to the universal, by which we mean the applicability to others, to the dreams and fears of others, that sense of waking up and of writing into ourselves and into understanding of what our lives are truly about. That we are the tragic Giselle.

I always worry about this with my own writing. That my journals are nothing but that, just journals, and they are. But if you keep working the language and attending to--what?--to what IS this poem actually about?--then somehow the larger elements of abstraction seem to rear up out of the material. And yet, I never want to stray all that much from the sweet and bitter Real--because, if I do, the poem disappears, and you lose that pungent physicality that makes all great writing sing:

A little more Bidart:

Many ways to dance Giselle, but tonight as you/watch you think she is what art is, creature/who remembers/her every gesture . . .. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Point of View--Ironic Tone in Third Person

I wanted to talk this morning about point of view, and specifically about writing in an ironic or satiric tone of voice in the third person. This is an issue that has plagued some of the strongest writers in my workshops, and often surfaces during our point of view exercise, where I ask everyone to switch between writing in first person and writing in third person. If you usually write in first person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs of your work in the third person. If you usually write in third person, you are to rewrite a few paragraphs in the first person. 

I often assign this exercise because the writers in my workshops are frequently writing rather autobiographical fiction, and I find that making them switch viewpoints can help establish a wider stance and "sense of perspective" upon the world they are creating. However, the more ironic, first person writers always have trouble with this exercise, and I thought it would be helpful to discuss why that is, and to get out a few examples of writers who have successfully used an ironic or "snarky" tone of voice. 

We are all used to the ironic or self-deprecating first person voice. To take a famous example, here's a snippet from the opening of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. 
Now we should be able to perform our "exercise" on this passage, right? Just convert from first person to third person. But watch what happens when we do: 
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where he was born, and what his lousy childhood was like, and how his parents were occupied and all before they had him, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but [I don't feel like going into it][or][he wouldn't want us going into it] if you want to know the truth. 
The trouble with this paragraph is that when you move from first to third person, you move from a narrator who is the same as the character, to a third person off-screen narrator who is not the same person as the character, and who now in fact sounds like he's "making fun" of the character.  

This can actually be a problem any time you write a bit ironically in the third person. The reader may begin to feel as if the narrator is beating up unfairly on the characters. The reader may also begin to question, who is this off-screen persona/voice who has all of these strong opinions? 

With a light touch, this sense of an opinionated off-stage voice may be quite pleasurable. However, handled badly (as in my example above), such a voice can leave the reader perplexed and struggling. 

Let's look at a couple of examples where writers have successfully used an ironic or snarky tone of voice in the third person:

Our first example is from the opening of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters. "My dear Mr. Bennet," said his lady to him one day, "have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?"
And so we go on to follow this mannered courtship drama. There are a couple of things to note here. First of all, a witty, ironic tone is fully in evidence--so it can be done in the third person. Next, while Mrs. Bennet's character will certainly come in for some rather unkind examination during the course of the novel, she is largely allowed enough rope to hang herself, and Austen generally takes a light and sympathetic tone with Mrs. B, and with all of her characters, and you never feel as if she's flogging anyone as in my example above. 

I think this point of sympathy is an important one. Narrators need generally to be sympathetic with their characters, though not in the sense of believing everything they say, but rather in the sense of being searching and curious about their situation. The narrator needs to find the difficulties of the characters worthy of serious, if playful, examination.

Here's another example, from an author who plays it closer to the line--This is a snippet from the opening of Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, which becomes a full-on social satire, and probably goes to the limit of how much fun you can make of characters without losing interest in them:
Three in the afternoon was a time of danger in these gerontocratic suburbs of St. Jude. Alfred had awakened in the great blue chair in which he'd been sleeping since lunch. He'd had his nap and there would be no local news until five o'clock. Two empty hours were a sinus in which infections bred. He struggled to his feet and stood by the Ping-Pong table, listening in vain for Enid. Ringing throughout the house was an alarm bell that no one but Alfred and Enid could hear directly. It was the alarm bell of anxiety.
Clearly there is a risk here of losing the reader--If Franzen does not step in and humanize these characters quickly (which, in fact, he does), we readers might start to say to ourselves, look, these characters are so pathetic, why should I care about them? So there is a delicate line we are treading here as writers. How much irony you think you can get away with must, in the end, be an intuitive decision as you write. And some of it is clearly a matter of taste. I personally love Franzen's writing, but I sometimes hear others complaining that his tone is "too much" for them. 

A couple more quick examples before I quit. Writers sometimes resort to the second person for an ironic or satiric tone of voice, and here's an example--A passage from the opening of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.
The point about using second person is that it really writes like a subset of first person. You don't feel the presence of an ironic offscreen narrator as you do in third. Rather, for the reader, it is more like being asked to step into the shoes of the first person narrator. And the oddness of being in second person emphasizes the ironic tone and the strangeness of the situation. So second person can work well in this way. 

A final example, to show that in the third person it is important to distinguish between the narrator's ironic tone and character inflection, which is a very different thing. Sometimes the narrator can have a fairly neutral tone, but the character herself is being ironic. This is essentially a matter of distance: Are we up close with the character? Or farther out with the narrator and watching the character? You need to be clear about what distance you are working at in the third person. To illustrate, here's an example from the opening of Alice Munro's short story, "Royal Beatings" from her collection, The Beggar Maid, where Munro negotiates this relationship between narrator description and character attitude.
Royal Beating. That was Flo's promise. You are going to get one Royal Beating. The word Royal lolled on Flo's tongue, took on trappings. Rose had a need to picture things, to pursue absurdities, that was stronger than her need to stay out of trouble, and instead of taking this threat to heart she pondered: how is a beating royal?
Munro's narrator is reporting fairly neutrally, but the report is inflected with wonderful character attitude. 

I hope these examples help clarify this difficult issue. Happy writing everyone!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Dialogue--Big Issues Come Out Over Small Things

We have had interesting discussions in my workshops about the way big issues tend to come out over small things in fictional dialogue. I want to elaborate a bit more on this subject, because it comes up a lot. The example I use in my classes is of a fictional mother and son pulling up to a fast-food drive-through window. The mother thinks the son is gaining weight and she is concerned about his health. The son, being a hungry teenager, wants to order the super-sized meal. As I was saying in class, the mother would usually broach her "agenda" gingerly: "Oh, honey, you aren't really that hungry are you? Why don't you just get the regular size fries." And the son might respond: "Trust me, Mom. I really do want the super-size dinner. I'm hungry."

The point here is that the big issue--the issue of the son's weight and health--tends not to come out in a direct way. This is simply a matter of social convention and of the niceties with which our personal interactions are conducted. People have to live together, right? And so we try to gently nudge each other in the "right direction" (meaning the direction we want them to go), rather than waging a battle at every turn. 

We tend not to start with: "If you keep eating like that, son, you're going to turn into a fat pig." Or even, "Son, I'd like to talk to you if I could. You have been putting on weight, and from now on I think you should think about cutting back on your fast-food consumption." There's likely to be a lot more dancing around the issue before the fictional characters ever get to anything that direct.

The beauty of having a dialogue run in an oblique way like this, is that it also opens up a lot of other interesting possibilities besides the son's health and eating habits that may be brewing under the scene. Such as the amount of control the mother exercises over the son's life, and the son's need to break free and make his own decisions. 

As writers, we need to be alert to these various emerging agendas and to emotional nuances that may be revealed as our dialogue progresses. At first the mother might seem genuinely concerned about the son's health, but then gradually we begin to detect that this concern disguises an overriding controlling nature, and that's really what the son is reacting to. In fact, the son may be overeating to prove a point.

I think of dialogue as having both "global" and "local" weather. The local weather is governed by the immediate agendas of the characters. The son wants a larger meal because he's hungry; the mother wants him to get the smaller meal. However, there's also a "global weather" operating behind the scenes, the "jet stream" if you will. These are the bigger issues of character dynamics and nuance that we can detect developing moment to moment as we write.  

Here we may find larger motivations such as control issues. Or, profound emotional nuances that make our characters seem more human. In our example, we might begin to see the mother's well-meaning attempts to "help," and then her resignation and sadness that her son has rejected her efforts, and her defeat that he's probably turning out all wrong and it's all her fault. We might also see the son's burgeoning rebellion and anger, his need to be his own man, his silent, inflamed victory as he chews through the greasy fries, occasionally glaring at his mother.

Note here all of the different nuanced emotions coming out step by step as the scene runs and the global push and pull between these characters: The attempts to help, resignation, sadness, defeat, rebellion, anger, victory, etc. These feelings won't all come out at once, but must be doled out by the writer as the dialogue runs, slowly revealing to the reader all of the various emotional complexities at play, the true affections, the hard truths, the self-interests of each character. 

In fact, you can think of scene--and specifically of dialogue--as a string of such emotional "moments," strung together like pearls on a string, one cascading into the next. Sometimes these moments will come across naturally as the scene runs, but often we can underscore them by forcing nuances like these into character gestures and facial expressions within the scene. So, for example, at some point in the conversation the mother might sigh with resignation. Or the son might chomp his fries in victory. Use of gestures can be very helpful in pulling more emotional depth out of our scenes.

At the end of our class discussion, someone asked me, "So, do the big issues always have to come out in small ways? Can't they ever come out directly?" Good question. 

I certainly did not mean to suggest that there can never be direct discussion of a big issue between characters, or perhaps even a big fight. Sometimes the mother and son may need to have at each other: "You are turning into a fat pig" and "Get off my back, mom." They just don't usually start out that way.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Creating Dialogue for Nonfiction

"But what if I don't remember the exact words we said!" I often hear this cry of distress from the memoirists I work with. (This is the single most common concern next to, Can I say mean things about [fill in name], and get away with it?) Not to worry. There are several techniques we can use to help us create compelling dialogue for nonfiction essays and memoir, even when our memories are spotty. One of the most useful things to do, if you don't remember the exact words people said, is simply to put your dialogue into summary. This relieves you of the problem of having to come up with exact quotes, in quotation marks.

So, for example, you could write, He told me that I should go home to my mother. Rather than writing, "Go home to your mother," he said. You can then save the direct quotations for those few pungent lines that you really do remember exactly.

Another useful device for creating nonfiction dialogue is "compositing." It is generally allowed--in dramatizing for memoir or essays--to roll several conversations into one, or to consolidate dialogue that may have occurred over a period of time. In creating dialogue for nonfiction, I also encourage my students not to be shy about having their characters say the sorts of things they usually said, or the kinds of comments they always made.

Often in memoir, we are writing about people--such as family members--whom we know so well that it's pretty easy to put words into their mouths. I tell my students to be brave about re-creating these characters for us on the page. You know more than you think you do, I say. Just get your scene with dialogue down on paper, and then step back and look at what you've written.  Now ask yourself: It this a fair and accurate representation of what happened? If so, you are done. If not, then start deleting anything that feels inaccurate or misleading to you.

One thing to keep in mind is that all memory, to some extent, is a re-creation. Unless you are one of those rare people blessed with a photographic memory, your task in writing memoir is to get down, as best you can, the way you yourself remember things. Other people may recall things differently. And part of the exploration of memoir is the search for what we remember, and why. It can be fascinating, for instance, and an endless source of exploration, to discover that you and your siblings remember things completely differently.

If you really get stuck, and simply cannot remember, as for example with a scene from when you were eight, this still should not prevent you from coming up with an effective dramatization. This is where the imagination can kick in, and you can fill in what the scene "must have been like" based on what you know. 

The key here is to be clear with the reader when you are starting to invent or imagine. Put a little disclaimer right in the text, such as: My memory is spotty, but I picture my mother with her bouffant hairdo and shirtwaist dress, serving breakfast to my brother and me . . .. If you are going to do this kind of thing a lot, you might consider putting some sort of disclaimer right up front in the preface of your memoir as to the amount of inventing or conjecturing you are doing. Or, if you are writing comedy, the amount of exaggerating or embroidering you are doing. What you don't want to do is to mislead the reader. In the end, it is all about NOT misleading the reader. See my related post on using disclaimers in creative nonfiction.

This post is expanded and updated from an older post.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

The New Dystopians: The Importance of Immediacy

Unless you have been living in a cave (or a post-apocalytic missile silo), you are probably aware that genre fiction has been selling like hotcakes on the Amazon Kindle. Authors are pricing these books cheaply enough to encourage potato chip-like consumption, and they usually offer a "series," with the first installment priced free, or for 99 cents, in order to "lure in" new readers.

It isn't clear that the authors of these books--many of them Indie authors--are making much money at these prices, but there's always the prospect of building an audience for the future, or possibly scoring a movie deal or a TV series. (There have been a handful of breakout hits that have gone on to be optioned as movies, or offered publishing deals, which of course is the real fantasy for many Indie writers.)

This has all led to no end of handwringing among the literati, on Twitter and elsewhere, about the destruction of literature as we know it. It is, we are told, the death of the literary novel, what with all of that erotica, romance, horror, and sci-fi jamming the browse categories and bestseller lists online. Authors formerly considered strictly "literary" have jumped into the fray, such as Justin Cronin (of The Passage trilogy), whose work has been scathingly assessed in the New York Times.

I thought today that I would take a look at a couple of these so-called "penny dreadfuls." Are these genre books any good, or are they just so much sensationalist drivel being churned out by a bunch of cheap hacks? And--even more provokingly--why are readers devouring these books like Halloween candy? How dare they?

I don't know much about romance or horror, but I did grow up reading a lot of science fiction or "speculative fiction" as it is more broadly called these days, and many of the novels that were derided back then as being "mere genre sci-fi" have held up rather well as literature. I'm talking names like Atwood, Vonnegut, and Le Guin. So I thought that I would take a look at a couple of the "dystopian" novels that have been selling especially well as of late.

The two books I'm going to examine are The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins and Wool, by Hugh Howey. The Hunger Games started out as an unassuming YA book for Scholastic back in 2008, became a breakout hit, and then of course grew into a series of novels and a major motion picture. Howey, for his part, is a true Indie author, and published Wool as a long short story or short novella directly to Kindle in 2011 via the Kindle Direct Publishing program, where it too grew into a hit and, again, the inevitable series followed. Howey's work recently made headlines when director Ridley Scott (of Alien fame) optioned Wool for a movie. Howey has since signed a "hybrid author" deal with Simon and Schuster, whereby the publisher will distribute print books while Howey retains his digital rights, even as the books and movies come out. (That deal really got the Indie authors salivating.)

My ambition today is not to "pile on" criticizing these books. The truth is, I enjoyed reading both of them. Rather, my goal is to look at what these books do, and how they do it. This is a creative writing craft blog, after all. And I don't know about you, but if books are selling well, I certainly want to know why. What are they doing, I wondered, that is making readers respond so positively?

The first thing you notice about both of these books, once you crack their digital spines, is their--for lack of a better word--"sense of immediacy." The narrators of both books hold an extremely tight, almost interior focus on their characters. Here's an example from the opening of Hugh Howey's Wool, where his character Holston climbs up the inside of a buried silo:
The children were playing while Holston climbed to his death; he could hear them squealing as only happy children do. While they thundered about frantically above, Holston took his time, each step methodical and ponderous, as he wound his way around and around the spiral staircase, old boots ringing out on metal treads. The treads, like his father's boots, showed signs of wear. Paint clung to them in feeble chips . . ..

And so on. The entire novella transpires at this extremely close distance, with great physicality.

To see exactly how close and immediate this writing is, compare this excerpt from Wool to a more traditionally distanced third person, such as this writing from the opening of Ursula K. Le Guin's 1968 A Wizard of Earthsea:
He was born in a lonely village called Ten Alders, high on the mountain at the head of the Northward Vale. Below the village the pastures and plowlands of the Vale slope downward level below level towards the sea, and other towns lie on the bends of the River Ar; . . . The name he bore as a child, Duny, was given him by his mother, and that and his life were all she could give him, for she died before he was a year old.

The Hunger Games goes even further than Wool, since it is written in the first person, present tense, effectively destroying nearly all narrative distance. Here's a sample:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim's warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping. I prop myself on one elbow. There's enough light in the bedroom to see them. 

This extremely close distance, adopted by both Wool and The Hunger Games, is not an approach that I would ordinary recommend to my writing students. Such writing often verges on interior monologue. And an interior focus can feel very claustrophobic for the reader, and can make it hard to keep things grounded in space and time.

However, the claustrophobia that results can actually work for you with a dystopian novel, where the point of view underscores the oppression the characters are experiencing. Margaret Atwood did something very similar in The Handmaid's Tale in 1986, and the "new dystopians," if I can call them that, seem to be drawing rather heavily on her playbook--though even Atwood, you will note, has more "observational" and temporal distance. Here's a sample from the opening of Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale:
We slept in what had once been the gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted on it, for the games that were formerly played there . . .. There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without shape or name. I remember that yearning, for something that was always about to happen and was never the same as the hands that were on us there and then, in the small of the back, or out back, in the parking lot, or in the television room with the sound turned down and only the pictures flickering over lifting flesh. (underlining added) 

The other thing that these novels do is that they build an almost unrelenting sense of suspense. In The Hunger Games, for instance, the main character Katniss Everdeen goes from test to test in her gladiator game, which constantly place her into taut moral quandaries where any warmth of feeling she might experience towards her fellow characters poses an instant threat to her very life. We are catapulted from one such dilemma to the next with very little room for observation or reflection. Howey's main character similarly wars inside himself between hope for the future and fears of his own suicide as he climbs up his buried silo towards the outside world chasing after his missing wife.

So are these novels any good?

I actually thought that Howey achieved a lovely "poetic" moment towards the end of Wool. I won't spoil this moment by describing it. (I did have a little trouble getting grounded as a reader in place and time at the beginning of Wool, which--as noted above--is not unexpected.) I think that the popularity of The Hunger Games with readers probably speaks for itself. On the whole, I think that if these novels have a deficit, it is that they trade so much in "what's going to happen next" that they often fail to establish the kind of perspective and insight we expect from more literary books. I certainly felt that with The Hunger Games where the moral situations, while interesting, remained largely unexplored. And I never felt that either of these novels achieved quite the political or sociological resonance of A Handmaid's Tale or Fahrenheit 451. Again, though, I read only the first books in these series, and it should be pointed out that many of these newer genre scribes are very young, and are developing as writers before our eyes. I think that Howey, in particular, bears watching because he has an interesting sensibility.

So what can we, as writers, learn from these books?

Well, plenty. I think that the new dystopians show us the kind of vivid immediacy that it takes to hold the attention of a reading audience in a digital age. While I was charging ahead reading The Hunger Games and Wool, I was never once tempted to check Facebook or Twitter. You can call these books escapist or sensationalist if you want, but their success is evidence to me that readers do in fact read differently in this digital era. Contemporary audiences are far more prone to distraction than their predecessors were, when YouTube and cheeseburger-obsessed cats are just a click away.

What these successful genre books remind us, is that it's possible to catch and hold the attention of even the itchiest reader. This is a lesson that perhaps writers at the "literary" end of the spectrum need to give greater heed.