Counteradvice: Against Specificity
Surely there is something to be said about drawing a circle around our attention and remaining within that circle. But how large should this circle be? –Zadie Smith, “The Embassy of Cambodia”
Lesley Nneka Arimah, the indomitable writer of literary speculative fiction, sent an article to me at the end of my second MFA semester with a gracefully understated subject line: “This might be useful.” The article itself riffs on Zadie Smith’s idea that attention can be contained within a boundary of sorts, reflecting that writers of interminable drafts of unfinishable novels could benefit from drawing such a line around their own work. (Or a circle, as it were.) Lesley had just read a lot of my first drafts, false starts, and false-middles of a multi-POV fabulist novel. She was helping me refine some ideas for an ambitious thesis essay, too. Like any good advisor, she knew when to nudge me–gently–to reel it in, to draw a circle and keep my narrative inside of it. Only then would I be able to finish a draft.
But how to do you draw that circle? How do you signal the boundaries of your story world?
In this really long post, I’ll cover a couple of things:
- What it means to be deliberately vague, when all writing advice says to be specific
- An example of the technique in Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West
- Implicitly, an example of how to read really closely and learn from it
Conventional writing advice tells writers to be specific, always. We trace it back to John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, which asserts that verisimilitude (story details that have the weight and appearance of reality) is the backbone of good writing. I’ve given similar counsel. I’ve seen how replacing abstract concepts and clichéd props with vivid details can improve a story. Who could argue that the line, “He sank into his family’s old rocking chair and felt small” is better than how Gabriel García Marquez originally wrote it in One Hundred Years of Solitude?
He sank into the rocking chair, the same one in which Rebecca had sat during the early days of the house to give embroidery lessons, and in which Amaranta had played Chinese checkers with Colonel Gerineldo Marquez, and in which Amarana Ursula had sewn the tiny clothing for the child, and in that flash of lucidity he became aware that he was unable to bear in his soul the crushing weight of so much past.
Yet I began to find counterexamples in the other magical realist fiction I was reading. Broadly, I read a lot of literary speculative fiction–that’s to say, it’s fiction mostly about human emotions, but it uses a fabulist twist to create interest and point our attention toward what the story wants us to feel. Besides all the other elements of good craft, it often requires extra attention to world-building: that gargantuan task of creating a world that feels familiar, yet apart from, our own. Done well, good world-building is detailed, painstakingly considered, and intuitively believable. It’s specific.
It can also get out of control. (Arguably, like this blog post.)
In my own writing, I struggle with what I call my “branchy-ness.” My rough drafts feel about as welcoming and easy to navigate as a big shrub. I overthink, I plot, I outline, I follow tangents, I get way, way, way too complex. My revisions require pruning shears and a glass of wine the size of a fishbowl. As I worked with Lesley during the second semester of my MFA, I began to pay attention not to what was clear about good stories, but rather, what was fuzzy. To figure out where the details were allowed to get smudgy; were to hang the frosted-glass windows at the edges of the room so that the reader can make her own assumptions about the shapes beyond the pane.
A Really Good Example
For examples, read any Diane Cook story. Or better, look at Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, a novel I nerded out on in my thesis essay because it does what I want to do in my own writing: it draws from politically relevant material but tells a story that is just about people, and to make this ambitious goal a little more compact, Hamid gets magical. Exit West’s magical conceit is that mysterious voids begin appearing around the world, randomly filling up doorways that have hitherto been normal passageways—a closet door, a bathroom stall door, an office threshold. A town might contain a few of these doors and a city might contain many, making them remarkable but not uncommon. Rumor has it that if you walk through one of these doorways, you will emerge somewhere else in the world. Hamid uses this invented phenomenon as an occasion to explore the consequences of unrestricted, poorly policed global migration. We see characters’ various motivations for fleeing: leaving behind dead-end lives, seeking better fortunes, and in the case of his twentysomething protagonists, Nadia and Saeed, fleeing civil war at home. As we follow a year in their lives, we also watch the evolution of their relationship from strangers to lovers to disillusioned friends—observing the subtle but profound nuances of distance, affinity, and shared experience.
To do all this, Hamid draws a very, very tight circle around his protagonists. For one thing, they’re the only named characters in the story. Likewise, their home city is nameless, too. But even on the line-and-detail level, he gently smudges away what is irrelevant to our enjoyment of the story. Look how ostentatiously Hamid avoids specifics right in the first line of Exit West: “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.” Blurring via an intentional imprecision drips from the indefinite articles here, creating a fuzziness that communicates two things: first, the situation involves a classic, compelling tension (likely romantic) between two young people in a city on the brink of war, and second, the message that we don’t need to worry about the geopolitical specifics.
In fact, it’s important that we don’t know the city or the year, for even if Hamid had invented them from scratch they’d make for a distracting opening—e.g., rewritten badly and branchily, it might read, “In a refugee-swollen New Blandulla, before the Third Great War, a young man named Yumun met a young woman named Wumun in rexology class but didn’t speak to her.” The reader would pay attention to all the wrong things here—doing too much thinking, feeling nothing. Already, it seems like the first line of a different kind of novel. It’s already branchy, too packed with things that get in the way of enjoying the story.
Hamid avoids branchiness by putting our attention on the relationships between the characters and on their immediate, felt experiences. We are aware of a continuing vagueness around Saeed and Nadia. For example: “Nadia’s flat … opened onto a roof terrace that looked out over the market and was, when the electricity had not gone out, bathed in the soft and shimmying glow of a large, animated neon sign that towered nearby in the service of a zero-calorie carbonated beverage” (pp. 27–28, emphasis mine). These details are organized from the general to the specific, and also in order of least to most importance. We learn that there is a neighborhood market; then we learn of the spotty electricity, which is important because it’s a condition reinforcing this city as unstable and poor. After this, the sentence really comes into focus around the emotionally positive details of the sign’s light—Nadia likes it up here, and indeed she’ll spend a lot of intimate time with Saeed here in the coming months. But Hamid doesn’t put a period on this sentence yet. In the final, most important position, he presents us with a deliberately blocky detail, “zero-calorie carbonated beverage.” He could have ended more gracefully on “drink advertisement” or just “billboard,” but these options are vague in an invisible way, and thus convey unimportance—violating the sentence’s ascending order and also wasting the power position at the end of this line. Instead, he ends with ostentatious imprecision that makes us pause and wonder, “Coke Zero?” before realizing that he’s conspicuously not going to tell us which brand illuminates Nadia’s rooftop bower.
This technique shows up again throughout the world-building sections of this novel around the protagonists’ hometown, social media sites, specific racial identities, and more, rendering us deliberately innocent—deliberately curious—in a larger situation that, in life, would provoke cynicism, helplessness, fear, and a resulting need for information that is unimportant to the work Hamid wants the first part of this novel to do: less thinking, more feeling. From the outset, Hamid uses blurring to construct our innocence, to circumvent our armor and make us receptive. He wants us pliable at the outset, a little unsure of what we think we know, so that we learn to trust and depend on his narrator; in this way, the blurring technique interlocks with narrative authority, further enabling us to accept the novel’s magical elements.
Yes, this was nerdy deep-dive. But if you’ve ever hired me to critique your fiction, and I’ve advised reading some authors closely to see how they accomplish an effect, this is the kind of close attention that I mean. Write out your observations, even–especially if you feel like your craft has plateaued. Close attention teaches you things you didn’t even know you should pay attention to in the books you admire. I love literature because it’s an endless supply of things we can get away with.
It’s difficult to decide where to draw the circle around your story world: often, it’s not the sort of thing you figure out in a brainstorming session before you begin writing the book. But the line-to-line struggle of writing can teach us where our attention wants to go; and if we are laboring over Google searches and Wikipedia wormholes just to figure out a specific detail about something we don’t care about, that can be a signal that the detail truly isn’t important. Why don’t you care about it? Is indifference a hint that you’ve bumped up against the natural circle around your story? If so, that’s great. Work even deeper at the line level to let us know that it doesn’t matter: instead of being specific, you can be deliberately, obviously vague. Leverage the power of indefinite articles (a, an), generalities, and imprecision to reassure us that the details that are the most interesting are right here, in the room with the narrator, and not out there, beyond the blurry windows.
This doesn’t apply to every story, of course. Strictly realist fiction happens in a world whose rules we already understand. We have the illusion that all is as we expect it to be, and rarely think to be curious about how a familiar-seeming world works. But in invented worlds, boundaries (beyond which the unimportant is kept vague) help orient the reader as to what you think is worth paying attention to. They help keep distracting questions at bay, and crucially, they make sure that our eyes stay on what’s most important about this imaginative place.