The OF Blog: Performance

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Involved in an interesting exchange with M. John Harrison right now in regards to an observation I made in regards to things "missing" from much of today's literature, mimetic and speculative alike. "Performance" was brought up by myself and the more I think about it, a large amount of any enjoyment I get from a fiction revolves around "performance."

It isn't just a a matter of a text being well-written or having intriguing characterizations or a well-plotted storyline; it's how well all of these elements "perform" in creating a story. Stories that explain themselves too much, dump so much out there as a coverup for a creaking story structure, those rarely manage to engage me for long. Seeing the gears and puppet strings of a story in most cases don't interest me - I could care less how much research an author did in regards to structuring the armies' armor and battle tactics. If the whole thing fails to perform above a mechanistic level, if I don't feel anything when reading it, if it seems to be just an artifice and therefore diposable, chances are I'm not going to remember it or think highly of it when it is recalled to memory.

But "performance" is very tricky to define. I prefer those stories in which the gears/puppet strings/etc. are hidden so well that verisimilitude is possible. There's no reason to explain how Gandalf weaves his magic; he does it, the hobbits are impressed, and the story flows. Suspension of disbelief is able. Don't need to know all the in's and out's of things, as reminders that this is all an artificial construction only serve to diminish the effect. If the story "performs" well, it'll feel real, perhaps as the Velveteen Rabbit felt in that story. But discovering the "whys" behind "performance" might be a fruitless task; I wonder if it would risk ruining the effect altogether.


Mark C Newton said...

I agree about Gandalf. I might suggest then that you steer away from Robert Jordan's work...

Performance is a great word to use. It sounds similar to acting - and I think it shares a lot in that context with how well a book performs. Performance comes above the character research, the historical accuracies in acting, as you say. It is the magnetism that an actor possesses.

Perhaps it should remain undefinable, because if you went looking for it you might miss the full effect. Or perhaps it is a kind of emergent property, even, that makes a book greater than the sum of its components?

Do you think the majority of non-critical readers are interested only in performance, and not for the characterizations etc? And is performance the same as entertainment?

Larry said...

Ha! :P Didn't you know that I am a mod/Admin over at wotmania? ;)

And yes, I was thinking of acting and what it entails when I wrote "performance," although it also has connotations of hiding behavioral "truths" as well (Performance Theory and its relationship to how enslaved peoples would act towards their slavers). As such, it is a dynamic quality and therefore, like observing a hummingbird with just one's eyes, it is something perceived more than actually seen in full.

As for non-critical readers, I do think at times they conflate "performance" with characterizations and other story elements, but again, it's a very tricky thing to define, so I will try not to go further into it right now, at least not while I'm thinking about this in relation to a review project of mine!

Mark C Newton said...

mod/Admin over at wotmania... Well, er... If you've cruised through all that over-the-top descriptions, and explanations, for ten books... you're a braver man than I! I managed book five, before I crashed and burned.

Larry said...

Well, to be truthful, I didn't read the 10th book until 3 years after its release and then only to do a MST3K-style spoof on it. I have the most recent one, but it'll be next year before I'll read it. Let's just say my tastes have changed over the past 8 years and while I somehow got that gig 7 years ago, it's a source of amusement to me to think how I'm still around there.

On a different note, thanks for including Splinter in that package. Only a few pages left to go before I crash for the night and it is a touching story.

Elena said...

Can you give me some examples of books that in your opinion tackle the performance aspect badly, and maybe a couple others that you think approached it well? I *think* I know what you are getting at, but I like to be thorough. I've never broken books down much further than "it worked for me/didn't work for me" but perhaps this is an idea at the root of the not working for me? Even if not, it's something to keep in mind as I approach my own writing. :)

MattD said...

Performance is a tricky word...on one hand, to the extent that you mean authors should be conscious in choosing the details of what they reveal, the pacing of their story, etc., to achieve their desired dramatic impact rather than including as many details as possible and treating them all with the equivalent sameness of "reality"...then yes, I agree. And I agree that fiction works best when both author and audience are aware that it is a performance and appreciate it as such -- which may not be quite what you mean. And the problem with the word "performance" is that the most common forms of performances relegate the audience to passive spectators, which I don't think is at all what you've professed to enjoy in the past.

(Have you read any John Gardner re: good fiction as a "continuous dream"? That seems to be what you're getting at, if I understand you correctly.)

I'm curious how you'd reconcile your ideas of performance as it relates to the books you favor -- "I prefer those stories in which the gears/puppet strings/etc. are hidden so well that verisimilitude is possible...suspension of disbelief is able. [...] Reminders that this is all an artificial construction only serve to diminish the effect" -- with some of the books that made your "best of 2008 so far" list, like The Last Book or The Man on the Ceiling (to say nothing of your admiration for Viriconium), which to a large extent are about the necessary artificiality and imposition of story, and include constant reminders of that.

Larry said...

An example of one series where the "performance" (as in how the characters perform vis-à-vis "real" life) felt too stage was the last book of Joe Abercrombie's trilogy, Last Argument of Kings. The plot twists felt contrived, moved against the grain of the character arcs in such a fashion that it didn't feel "real" but instead reminded me of those puppet strings tugging them along.


I put "performance" in quotations in part because I am thinking more about close to "realness" acting could become. It involves a more active audience participation in what is transpiring. In one sense, it is the antithesis of passiveness. The audience is there, trying to immerse themselves in what is happening, perhaps nodding and winking at times with the actors, but mostly they absorb the story as is during the performance before analyzing after the performance has concluded.

(No, I haven't read Gardner's book. Will consider it in the future, though.)

As for reconciling this with the books I've enjoyed, verisimilitude takes multiple forms. It isn't just about mimicking "reality" or "life," but about making things as seamless as possible. One obviously is going to pick up a fiction and know it's not "real." But authors who don't just dump all sorts of information in awkward places are more likely to achieve an affect, one that would make it feels as those those character and their actions and their settings feel more "alive," even as the author may be nodding and winking at and with the audience. An excellent example of this is Julio Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch), in which the author manipulates the audience into choosing a pattern for reading the book. However, there are multiple paths and reading in a different order (which the author has foreseen) leads to yet a different interpretation. The audience is very active here and the characters feel more "alive" in the sense that they aren't being led to the slaughter like cattle inexorably, but instead there's that feeling that what one is reading is but one of multiple possibilities...similar to how "life" itself may feel to us.

Fish Monkey said...

Oh God, I love Hopscotch so much. I also like the idea of performance, and the audience participation is crucial. At the same time, there are readers who feel alienated by the need to figure things out. There are books that are equivalent to TV/movies in that regard -- ie, they show you everything you need to know, and one can read more pasively. With others, like Hopscotch -- not so much, the book demands intrepretation and reader's choices.

Larry said...


Someone at Westeros and I have decided to engage upon a mini-crusade of sorts to get more people interested in Hopscotch. I agree that it resists pat "Idiot's Guide to..." approaches and that makes it simultaneously both more reader-friendly (or active reading-friendly) and less (for those who want to be dictated the terms of interpretation).

Have you read the sequel of sorts, 62/Modelo para armar? Can't recall if it's been translated into English or not, but it's based off of Chapter 62 of Rayuela and occurs simultaneously in London, Paris, and Buenos Aires, depending on your vantage point. Fascinating book. Need to re-read it soon.

Elena said...

and you even managed to couch it in terms of something i had read--thanks! :)

Larry said...

You're welcome - I do try to be intelligible on occasion! :P

Fish Monkey said...

Yes, Larry, I read 62. I don't know if it's been translated into English, but it certainly has been translated into Russian.

Larry said...

I just checked and it has been. It may also be pimped some as well by me elsewhere.

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