Tag Archives: Denis Johnson

Here’s Why Denis Johnson Was the Last Truly Great Gonzo War Correspondent — by Jeremy Kryt

Johnson was “willing to place his lonesome ass in the way of seriously bad and scary stuff and then bring back the tale, told better than it’s ever been told before.”

Source: Here’s Why Denis Johnson Was the Last Truly Great Gonzo War Correspondent

The White Space and Transitions in Short Stories

The following is taken from my response to a former student who asked: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  In other words—how I decided to construe the question—how do you break scenes and create implicit transitions between them?

When I started training myself to think in scenes, I relied heavily on the “white space” as a time lapse / separator.  The visual analogue of this would be the classic “wipe” transition from TV and movies.  It’s technical shorthand for “there is nothing more of significance to show in this particular time and place.”  We can use this because modern writers have pretty much stopped trying to adhere to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.

Here is one theory about this departure.  As a form, the novel is older than the short story and the stage play is older than the novel.  Each form owes a lot to its predecessor.  Even late British stage melodrama generally observed the Aristotelian dramatic unities.  In other words, the only “jumping around” were the extremely conservative transitions between acts and scenes on stage—existing primarily so the stage hands could change the scenery and the actors could change costumes, etc.  But as western culture changed, public and private space got redefined, and middle class leisure reading became important (Habermas is the man to read to understand this in conjunction with the rise of the novel).  Fiction in English began to transform from highly episodic, picaresque shipwreck narratives (think: Defoe) and expositions of female morality (think: Richardson) to the highly stylized escapism of the Gothic novel.  The aesthetic of Gothic romance rebelled against tightly controlled forms.

Enter: Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, her first published novel and pretty much a parody of the Gothic style.  As soon as we got this, we were ready for Victorian realism in the novel, which kept the idea of what a novel could be (a long, sometimes convoluted, graphic portrayal of a person’s life) and dropped the Gothic melodrama.  This is important because Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most significant figures in the early development of the short story form, argued (roughly around the same time) that a story should be readable in one sitting (back to Aristotle).  His reasons were less aesthetic and more practical: he wanted to encourage magazine fiction as a legitimate market (here is a good summary of his motivations).  So the story form emerged in a time when the novel (as the dominant form of fiction) was breaking away from classical, formal assumptions about when / where / how.  And the short story was defined (and marketed) as something compact that you could read out of a magazine in a single setting.

This is where the use of white spaces comes in.  Early story writers either used them to tell broader more “novelistic” stories or didn’t use them and scaled everything down in order to tell a more compact tale.  The idea was to produce a single emotion (incidentally, where we will get the modernist concept of epiphany).  Twain used white spaces like this.  Hemingway adopted them but more sparingly (we see them also in Fitzgerald and Maupassant)—still trying for that definitive emotional moment.  But in the 1960s, the maximalists rebelled against this, arguing that life actually wasn’t at all the way modern realism made it out to be.  Given the highly subjective, variable nature of human experience, the early maximalists (think: Elkin, Barthelme, Coover) found “minimalist realism” to be highly unrealistic!  This means that in their work technical moves like white spaces could be a lot of different things (look at the Coover link).

Realists loudly criticized such maximalist departures from what they considered to be a highly defined, clearly articulated form.  Needless to say, their vehemence fit right into the tradition I’ve been describing (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig is a wonderful exploration of the tension between classical and romantic aesthetics).

Can we use the white space to good effect, defining what it will be the way Coover does in his famous story or in the way of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson–the recent postmodern maximalists?  Yep.  We can.

So back to the original question: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  Given everything I’ve said, here’s the answer that might not have made sense otherwise: first determine what you’re trying to make the reader feel.  Because “form” should follow function instead of a set of classical assumptions about how to dramatically interpret experience through structure.

Moreover, everyone wants to write a story that will show up in the New Yorker or a novel that will make them famous with the NYC publishing machine.  But the corporate model for success as a fiction writer actually cannot be taught or learned.  That kind of success is as serendipitous as any other—no matter what the book industry would have young writers believe.  So if I were to tell students, “Do what feels right and make your own rules,” no one would listen.  Instead, I have begun with “let’s follow some of the rules.”  Only later have I followed that with: forget about what people say you should do.  Study literature as your guide and learn from what other writers have done.  Then do your own thing.

Right now, I’m writing a story, a novella, and working on a full-length novel.  In each of these, my only goal is to create the emotional movements / moments I need to create.