The Novel Dilemma
Session on long-form Erotica by Madeleine Morris (aka Remittance Girl)
It is in our failures that we learn the most profound lessons; I never finished the first novel I began. I say this because I suspect most writers don’t finish their first novels and I want to underscore how important false starts can be. That first doomed attempt taught me more about what a novel is, how it differs from other writing forms, how it is structured, and what the pitfalls are than years of classes.
What’s a novel?
There are no hard and fast rules as to what constitutes a novel. The most fixed quality is that it needs to be prose and it needs to be long. Publishers and book sellers classify a novel as a single work of prose over 60,000 words in length. The novel is fairly recent thing, and has changed over time, with various structures coming in and going out of fashion. In terms of form and content, the earliest novels, like Don Quixote and Moll Flanders, are lengthy stories of the experiences of one central character. But writers like Dickens evolved the approach, relating the experiences of a number of characters within a single work. Experimentation in the 20th Century played with many story arcs that converged, ran in parallel, or were related to each other by nothing but a seemingly unimportant aspect – a theme, a recurring object, a setting. Sometimes it is hard to determine the difference between a novel, separated by chapters, and a collection of short stories which feature the same character, take place in the same setting, or possess a dominant theme. Two novels that come to mind as groundbreaking in their time are Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell, and The Atrocity Exhibition, by JG Ballard. Cloud Atlas has six stories, set in different times, that leapfrog each other in the most curious way. The Atrocity Exhibition uses the obsessions of a single character and revisits them over and over, like clutch of vortexes that end up pulling you along until the whole story is getting sucked down the drain.
Why a novel?
The popularity of novels as a single satisfying work might be a result of technology and marketing more than anything else. Publishers in the late 19th and 20th Centuries found that they could not charge as much for an anthology or novella as they could for a novel, while having to incur the same costs of typesetting, layout, printing and binding. So, writers were under pressure to churn out novels for purely economic reasons. Similarly, writers were not as likely to get advances on novellas or sets of short stories, so turning their hands to novel writing evened out their income.
The purpose of all this history is to remind you that the premium we put on novels as a mark of a writer’s legitimacy is artificial and highly suspect. Now that writers to publish their first works in digital form, there really isn’t the same compelling financial reasons for novels. In fact, kindle novels seldom cost more than $6-8 dollars, meanwhile, it’s hard to charge less than a dollar for a short story, the latter is more profitable.
The question I’d like you to consider is how big is your story? Can it be told compellingly and concisely in 10,000 words? How about 30,000? If you’re like me, I’m sure you’ve ground your teeth in the middle of a novel that was clearly padded to make up the word count: plot repetitions; long, meandering descriptions that don’t add anything; annoyingly recurring inner monologues; sub-plots that feel like nothing but a digression; minor characters that suck up the air. I’ll stop there. I know many of you are nodding.
Length or Girth?
The question ‘how big is your story?’ is a complicated one. There are, of course, stories that span decades or centuries, or across continents, or contain a dozen characters that all play a part in the evolution of the story. But even small stories can be novels if what matters most is the moment by moment details. While a plot-driven thriller can be vast and novelistic, so can the interior dialogue and experiences of a man spending the last 24 hours of his life on death row. In this latter case, because a life is about to end, a writer can reasonably persuade the reader that every moment of that last day becomes precious and important.
Every one of JG Ballard’s novels began life as a short story. Some were complex and gripping enough to grow beautifully into longer form. But too many of his novels lacked the tight, sharp impact of the original short.
I want to task you with an exercise or two. Think of all the novels you have read and pick one which you feel had absolutely no excess, no waste, nothing superfluous. Go back and read it again. Now that you are looking, you will find bits and pieces that could have died on the editor’s desk but, on the whole, does it still feel solid and riveting?
Now read “Sixty Minute Zoom”, by Ballard. This short story that was never made into a novel, but I want you to consider all the things the writer has not told us, all the peripheral stories of the ‘subjects’ he talks about that might be delved into and developed, the history of the marriage that has led to the point where this story begins (or ends, actually), the slow erosion of the narrator himself that has led him to this place.
In my session on writing long erotica, we’re going to approach the challenge in two ways: First, by starting from scratch, using a tried and true 12-point structuring method. Then, using “Sixty Minute Zoom” as the bones, learn how to add layers of narrative and complexity to a short story skeleton to end up with a much longer piece. Finally, we’ll be discussing how erotica and the novel form compliment and resist each other.
The 60 Minute Zoom
(From the anthology The Venus Hunters, pub. 1980, Panther Books)
by J G Ballard
Lioret de Mar, Apartamentos California
I am looking into a silent world. Through the viewfinder of this cinecamera, set at its maximum field, I can see the Hotel Coral Playa three hundred yards along the beach, covered by a desert light so glazed that it would embalm Pharoah. It’s incredible that the sea is only a few feet to the right of frame – with this dense powdery light we could be at Karnak, in that tourist hotel by the necropolis where Helen befriended her Stuttgart dentist and first set in train this epic of the amateur camera. The ultimate home movie, perhaps, but so far everything has gone well, thanks to $2500’s worth of Nikon Zoomatic and an obliging Barcelona camera specialist. Renting this apartment was the only difficult moment delivering a second key to my door, did the suspicious Swedish manager catch a glimpse of the complex tripods and clamps I was assembling by the bedroom window? Like the barbette of some sinister assassination weapon, which it is in a way. But this second-rate apartment building provides the only suitable vantage point. The fifteen-storey façade of the Coral Playa must exactly fill the opening sequence – in an hour the automatic zoom will carry me along the carretera, past the hundreds of parked cars and beached speedboats, to within three feet of my target within the bedroom of our tenth-floor hotel suite. A miracle of Japanese lens-cutting. Thinking of the electrifying image, worthy of Bergman or Polanski, that will be the climax of this film almost derails my mind. I listen to the faint susurrus of the zoom motor, the sound of well-bred Osaka matrons at a flower arrangement course. Despite everything, the degrading but exciting months of anger and suspicion, I feel the first hint of an erection.
Already I am closer to the Coral Playa, the equivalent of perhaps 200 yards away. For the first time I can pick out our own suite, Helen’s black water-skis arranged like runes on the balcony. Now and then something flicks through the afternoon light, a bottle-top or cigarette packet flung from one of the unseen apartment blocks on the left. Lying here on a raised couch in the darkened bedroom, it is hard to believe that the Coral Playa exists at all except as a figment of this view- finder. But the rectilinear façade of the hotel is sharper. The fifteen floors are each taking on a separate identity. There are differences of tone, subtle declensions of balcony geometry that hint at the personalities of the people behind them. The varying angles of the shutters, the beach umbrellas and bikinis hanging on improvised lines, constitute an elaborate personal notation, a complex of ciphers that would send a semiologist into trance. Almost no sky surrounds the hotel, and half the lurid electrographic sign on the roof has been cut away. The image of the hotel’s façade, its 150 balconies, is an increasingly abstract entity. As yet there is no sign of movement Helen will still be on the bed where I left her, a towel around her head, reading her shower- damp copy of American Vogue as I set off ostensibly for Barcelona. The guests are still finishing their gaspacho and paella in the hotel restaurant. In the main ground-floor entrance I can identify several of my neighbours sitting in the armchairs and talking to the lobby clerks. They resemble bored marionettes, unable to sustain their roles in this drama in which I have cast them. My main concern is with the two balconies of our suite and the cluster of adjacent rooms. Already the dark interiors are beginning to lighten, I can just distinguish the internal doors that lead to bathrooms and corridors Wait… While my attention is fixed on my own bedroom, impatient for Helen to make her first appearance as the star of this film, I almost fail to notice that a man in a red bath-robe is standing on a balcony five floors above. An American journalist named Anderson, he is looking down at the entrance drive, where a black Mustang has pulled into one of the diagonal parking spaces. The over-heated carapace is about to flow like tar, and for a moment I am too distracted to notice the young man hefting flippers and snorkel from the rear seat. Rademaekers! Panicking, I realize that the young Danish heart surgeon has returned half an hour earlier than I estimated. My zoom may close in on a shot bolt!
I have calmed myself, straightened the damaged blind and re-aligned the tripod. In the last few minutes the scene before me has been totally transformed. Rademaekers has gone straight to the American’s room, where he wanders about gesticulating with the flippers. Drink in hand, he seems unlikely to be visiting Helen in the next hour. The Nikon purrs smoothly, carrying me ever nearer the Coral Playa. Little more than an apparent hundred yards from me, the hotel has become a hive of activity as the guests return from the dining room and prepare for siesta. Already I recognize dozens of my neighbours in their bedrooms, the men taking off their shoes, the women testing the beach towels on the balconies and examining their teeth in the dressing-table mirrors. These commonplace but almost meaningless activities have an extraordinary fascination, for years I have watched them in a hundred hotels. But now I am glad that Helen has failed to make her entrance. With her entrenched rationality, her over-calculated approach to life in general and the needs of her sexuality in particular, she has always failed to understand the real significance of my obsession with the private behaviour of my neighbours. She cannot grasp that this aimless minor traffic around their bodies, the applications of sun-oil, the dabbing of scent into this or that fossa, represent a continuing authentication of their physical selves, a non- vocal gossip about their armpits and pudenda that no kinaesthetic language, beyond those provided by the instructions on a deodorant or lady-shaver, has yet been found to express. Fifty units of intense private activity, they edge closer to me. On the second floor the young wife of a Marseilles lawyer undresses to reveal a breastless brown body like a catamite’s, sits in bed with the sheet over her knees forming a white pyramid, a geometry of remarkable chasteness from which I move my eyes only when I notice that, at last, the central balcony of the film has been mounted by my wife.
A shame that there is no sound-track. Rather than the Polanski or Fellini of the home movie I shall have to become its D. W. Griffith. With his architectural obsessions he would have appreciated the special merits of this film. I am now looking at the façade of the Coral Playa from a distance of fifty yards. Haifa dozen floors are visible, a cluster of balconies at whose centre stands my wife. Wayward and erotic, faithless spouse but excellent travelling companion, she is gazing, uncannily, straight towards my camera. The powdery light has cleared, and every detail of the hotel is exposed with the vividness of an hallucination – the rust stains leaking from the balcony rails, the drying swimsuits and discarded paperbacks on the balcony tables, the unfamiliar brands of towel picked up in some provincial Mono-Prix. Oblivious of this plethora of detail swarming around her, Helen is brushing her hair with a reflex hand, revealing the strong muscles of her neck and making the greatest play with her profile for the benefit of the audience watching her from the balconies above and below. For all this attention, she is dressed discreetly in my white towelling robe, no doubt a signal to someone in my absence. Moving my eyes from her, I notice that on the surrounding balconies stands the full complement of her admirers, that troupe of beach-partners, one of whom will play the supporting role in this film. Penelope with her suitors, and I with my Nikon-bow. Even the ever- faithful Argus is there in the bedroom behind her, the dented but still inflated rubber sea-lion which Helen bought me, with cruel irony, two years ago at Venice Lido, and which I, refusing to be outdone, have cared for devotedly ever since, much to her exasperation…
Helen has loosened my beach-robe, exposing the entire upper hemisphere of her right breast. There is a quickening of heads and eyes. I feel a familiar surge of excitement as I make a last inventory of my rivals. Rademaekers, the pedantic Danish surgeon who took her snorkelling yesterday, has returned to his room three floors diagonally above ours. Even as he hunts for a clean shirt in his wardrobe he is still holding one of the flippers, like a sea-born land creature clinging obsessively to an obsolete organ. I eliminate him, and move to his neighbour, a thirty-year-old Brighton antique dealer, whose speedboat, during our first week, sat reversing in the shallows ten yards from the beach where Helen and I lay under our umbrellas. Engaging but unscrupulous, he too is taking in his opposition principally Fradier, the Paris comic-strip publisher two floors above, leaning on his balcony rail beside his attractive wife while openly admiring Helen. But Fradier is moving out of frame, and by the logic of this film can be dropped from the cast-list. As the camera moves nearer I approach the main stage of this vertical drama – a tier of fifteen balconies distributed among five floors, Helen at the centre. Two floors below her, bare-chested in the fierce sunlight, is a minor Italian film actor who arrived only yesterday, bringing with him an anthology of dubious sexual techniques which he had already displayed for Helen in the hotel bar after dinner. His profession would make him my chief suspect, but he too is about to move out of frame, exiting from this reductive fable.
Helen is scrutinizing her eyes in a lacquered hand-mirror. She plucks a stray hair from her brow-line with the ruthlessness she always applies to her own body. Even thirty feet away, hovering in the air like an invisible angel, I find this violence unnerving. I realize that I have only been fully at ease with my wife while watching her through the viewfinder of a camera – even within the private space of our various hotel rooms I prefer her seen through a lens, emblematic of my own needs and fantasies rather than existing in her own right. At one time this rightly outraged her, but recently she has begun to play along with my obsession. For hours I watch her, picking her nose and arguing with me about something as I lie on the bed with a camera to my eye, fascinated by the shifting geometries of her thighs and shoulders, the diagrams of her face.
Helen has left the balcony. She tosses the mirror on to the bed, gazes with a pensive frown at the fading but still cheerful expression on the face of the sea-lion, and walks straight through the suite to the front door. Almost before I stifle a shout she has disappeared into the corridor. For the moment I am paralysed. Under my beach-robe she is naked.
Where is she? The camera is closing with the Coral Playa at an unsettling speed. I wonder if the Nikon engineers have at last over- reached themselves. I seem to be no more than ten feet from the façade of the hotel, I can almost reach out and touch the balconies. Only three of the suites are now in frame, our own sandwiched between the Lawrences above us, an affable English couple from Manchester, and a forty-year-old Irish pharmacologist below with whom we have made no contact. These three have involuntarily gate-crashed their way into my film. Meanwhile Helen could be anywhere in the hotel, with Rademaekers or the antique dealer, even with the comic-strip publisher if Mme Fradier has left for the beach. Fumbling with the tripod, I am about to realign the camera when Helen reappears, standing in the centre of the Lawrences’ sitting room. Barefoot, hands in the pockets of my white beach-robe, she is talking to Lawrence, a handsome, sandy-haired accountant wearing nothing more than a string swim-slip over his ample crutch. But where is his wife? Is she in the hotel pool, or hidden from me by the lowered bedroom shutter, joining in the conversation through the open door? Confused by this unlikely tryst, I am ready to stop the camera when Lawrence and Helen embrace. I catch my breath, but their kiss is merely a light peck. With a wave, Helen takes a magazine from him and steps into the corridor. Thirty seconds later, as Lawrence wanders around the sitting room patting his groin, Helen re-enters our suite. After a pause, she leaves the door ajar. Her actions are calm and unrushed, but totally conspiratorial. With aching relief, my loins are at full cock long before the heavily built figure of the Irish pharmacologist steps deferentially into the sitting room and locks the door behind him.
Reverie of pain, lust and, above all, child-like hate, in which the slights and antagonisms of a lifetime are subsumed in this unresolvable confrontation between fear and desire, the need and refusal to face the basilisk stare of Helen’s sexuality… all these modulated by the logic of the zoom, by the geometries of balconies and the laminated gleam of a fashion magazine on a white sheet, the terrifying reductive authority of the encroaching lens. By now the entire frame of the viewfinder is filled by our hotel suite, I seem to be no more than three feet from the nearer of the two balconies, watching Helen and her lover like a theatre-goer in a front stall. So close am I that I fully expect them to incorporate me in their dialogue. Still wearing my beach-robe, Helen strolls around the sitting room, talking away matter-of-factly as if demonstrating a new domestic appliance to a customer. The pharmacologist sits on the white plastic settee, listening to her in an agreeable way. There is an unforced casualness, a degree of indifference so marked that it is hard to believe they are about to copulate on my bed. Leached away by the camera lens, the dimension of depth is missing from the room, and the two figures have an increasingly abstract relationship to each other, and to the rectilinear forms of the settee, walls and ceiling. In this context almost anything is possible, their movements are a series of postural equations that must have some significance other than their apparent one. As the man lounges back Helen slips off my robe and stands naked in front of him, pointing to the burn marks left by her shoulder straps.
For the first time the camera lens has crossed the balcony and entered the domain of our hotel suite. I am no more than a few steps from the Irishman, who is undressing beside the bed, revealing a muscular physique of a kind that has never previously appealed to Helen. She sits naked on the bidet in the bathroom, clearly visible through the open door, picking at a toenail and staring with a preoccupied expression at the rubber floor-mat. The white porcelain of the bidet, the chromium fitments and the ultramarine tiles of the bathroom together make a curiously formalized composition, as if Vermeer himself had been resurrected and turned loose to recreate his unhurried domestic interiors in the Delft Hilton. Already I feel my anger begin to fade. Annoyingly, my erection also slackens. The transit of this camera across the last forty minutes, which should have brought me to a positive Golgotha of last humiliation, has in fact achieved a gradual abstraction of emotion,an assuagement of all anger and regret. In a way, I feel a kind of affection for Helen.
They lie together on the bed, taking part in a sexual act so relaxed that this camera should film them in slow motion. I am now so close that I might be sitting in the armchair beside the bed. Enlarged by the lens, the movements of their bodies resemble the matings of clouds. Steadily they inflate before me, the vents of their mouths silently working like those of sleeping fish, a planet of anatomical abstractions on which I will soon land. When they come, our orgasms seem to take place in the air above the bed, like the aerial copulation of exotic and gentle birds. Little more than three feet from the camera, the blurred smile of the sea-lion presides over this interlude of nuptial bliss.
Helen is alone now. Her face is out of frame, and through the viewfinder I see only a segment of the pillow, an area of crumpled sheet and the upper section of her chest and shoulders. An almost undifferentiated whiteness fills the lens, marred by the blue hollow of her armpit and the damp sulcus of her right breast, in which a few of the pharmacologist’s hairs have been caught. Edging closer, I watch the easy rise and fall of her ribcage Helen has sat up. Breaking this extended calm, she has turned on one elbow. The sharp movement almost jars the camera, and I realize that far from being asleep she has been lying there fully awake, thinking to herself about something. Her face fills the viewfinder, in the only true close-up of this film. She is looking me straight in the eye, violating our never-spoken agreement in a blatant way. In a blur of light I see her hand pull the sea-lion towards her, then stab with her nails at its worn eyes. Instantly it buckles as the air spurts from the dented plastic.
At this moment I am certain that she has known about this film all along, as she must have known about the others I have made, first with the still Hasselblad as she and the young waiter flirted around the Pontresina ski-lift, later following the Bayreuth Kappelimeister with a cheap cine-camera mounted in the back of the car, productions that have increased in both range and ambition as they led to this present most elaborate exercise of all. But even now, I dream of the ultimate voyeurist film, employing bizarre lenses that reach to some isolated balcony over extraordinary distances, across the Bay of Naples to Capri, or from Dover to a beach hotel in Calais, magnifying the moment of orgasm to a degree of absolute enlargement where the elements of her infidelity become totally abstracted from themselves, areas of undifferentiated light that assuage all anger.
Within a few seconds the camera will reach the limits of its zoom. Helen sleeps on her side with her face away from me. Never faltering, the camera creeps onwards, excluding more and more details from the edges of its frame, the stray hairs of her lover, the damp sweat-prints of her shoulder blades on the sheet. Yet I am aware that there has been a sudden intrusion into the white spaces of the bedroom. What are unmistakably parts of a man’s shoes and trousers have appeared soundlessly beside the bed, pausing by the sagging beach-toy. Helen sleeps on, her malice forgotten, unaware of the flash of chromium light that irradiates the screen. Fascinated, with no sense of alarm, I watch the movements of this mysterious intruder, the articulated volumes of almost unrelated forms.
Only a white field is now visible, detached from all needs and concessions, a primed canvas waiting for its first brush stroke. Applauding, I see the screen fill with sudden red.
The man kneels beside the bed, watching the elaborate patterns formed by the quiet blood as it runs across the sheet, hunting a hundred gradients. As he turns, exposing his face to the camera, I recognize myself. The sea-lion, my faithful Argus, expires at my feet. As always when I see this film and listen to its commentary, the infinite dream of the sixty-minute zoom, I remember the long journey across the dust and noise of Lloret, past the clamour of the sea to the serene world within this hotel bedroom, to my faithful wife rediscovered in the marriage of red and white.
(excerpted from The Complete Stories of JG Ballard, 2010, WW Norton, New York,)