The Problems in Portrayal

There are many difficulties in making black squiggles on a piece of white paper meaningful, but one subset might be in using the tools of specialized literacy to portray those who do not often have the same tools.


March 8, 2010

There are many difficulties in making black squiggles on a piece of white paper meaningful, but one subset might be in using the tools of specialized literacy to portray those who do not often have the same tools.

Last week my acquaintance Rory wanted to discuss his continued musings on the working class. He’d been thinking about what it means to portray in good faith the experience of, say, manual laborers. He wondered if beautiful language, as in lyric poetry, distorted and eroticized experience that was hard or ugly.

That is, when the poet speaks beautifully of “love’s austere and lonely offices” in relation to a father, “cracked hands that ached / from labor,” lighting the morning fire in an abusive house filled with “chronic angers,” does he miss something he nearly caught?

On the other hand, isn’t one of the poet’s responsibilities to juxtapose, as in these lines from B.H. Fairchild’s “The Machinist, Teaching His Daughter to Play the Piano”:

The bit shears the dull iron into new metal, falling
into the steady chant of lathe work,
and the machinist lights a cigarette, holding

in his upturned palms the polonaise he learned at ten,
then later the easiest waltzes,
etudes, impossible counterpoint….

If literature’s great capacity is the representation of individual experience that transcends and speaks to the human, what’s it mean to write those experiences artfully or honestly?

I recalled to Rory the introduction of the book Bloody Williamson, a history of the county where I’m from and an important source for my own two books. Its author, Paul Angle, was the director of the Chicago Historical Society from 1945–1964, a professional scholar, and not from Southern Illinois. He says that when he began spending time there in the ‘40s and ‘50s,

I came to take it as a matter of course that I should spend an hour, one evening, talking with a Marion businessman about the works of Plato and Aristotle, and the relative merits of the various editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica—subjects about which his information far exceeded mine. “I keep goin’ back to the ninth edition time after time,” he said in the edgeless drawl that reminds one of Egypt’s [Southern Illinois’] proximity to the South, “because of the high authority of the articles.” He mentioned Huxley and Darwin, and in philosophy Leibnitz [sic] and Schopenhauer. “And who was that monism fellow?” he asked. “I can’t think of his name.” I took two wild shots: “Kant? Fichte?” He shook his head, and we talked of other matters. “I’ve got it,” he said as we parted. “Hegel!”

Angle not only hints at a chance meeting in order to make a counter-assertion about a region judged as rough-and-ready; he reinforces his fallacy of insufficient sample by bringing in a second, like-minded, person:

On another evening, in Herrin, the talk ran to fine printing, to an obscure pamphlet of Sir Thomas Browne’s that my host had not been able to find, to London antiquarian booksellers, to the maps in William Camden’s Britannia, which lay open before us.

Angle drops that phrase “as a matter of course” but goes on to say, “I do not mean to imply that such interests are the rule in Williamson County….” But the implication remains, and he never admits that both his examples were newspaper editors, college educated, and not chance acquaintances at all but men working closely with Angle on his book.

All this could be lumped into the problem of “honest portrayals of class,” which is much on Rory’s mind these days. His own aesthetic dictates whiskey, boots (cowboy and work), inflammable fuel, and a pistol or two.

My own assumptions, in fiction, include: All characters have various and often rich inner lives; are largely aware of class and where they exist in it; understand their own suffering and joy about as much as anyone else does; understand processes and lines of thought without formal training; and should speak and be described in a language that translates their culture and views but doesn’t demean or prejudge them. (“Ain’t” shore is hard to git away with, ‘lessen you want to grind into the reader that yer characters ain’t had no book-larnin’.)

The same issues manifest themselves in depictions of rural and inner city, of military life (the last of the Home Fires dispatches yesterday at the Times says there’s a lack of roundedness in portrayals of the soldier), of childhood, of the past, and anything else romanticized in the Rousseauian mode, especially when those portrayed do not have the power—politically, legally, narratively, chronologically—to counter others’ representation of them.

I remember when the first of the Jane Austen movies came out with actors in visibly dirty clothes (was it Persuasion?), greasy hair, and teeth made up to look as if they’d only ever been brushed with twigs and salt. Everyone looks a little tired and unwell. I thought, Yes, it's an addition to the verisimilitude of the story, which I hadn’t even thought to miss. (Not everyone thinks so. According to one IMDb reviewer, the American video box replaced “the demure [British] leads with two glamorous models…a spokeswoman for Columbia Tristar…said, ‘I guess to make it a little more seductive to us over here.’”)

In a mini-documentary called “The Hundred Days,” on the special features disk for the film Master and Commander, director Peter Weir says he remembers seeing pictures coming out of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall in ’89, and that the faces of the people had a blankness, a lack of prepared persona for the cameras, which he knew he needed for his period film, so he cast many non-actors from bars and docksides. In a swipe at the Merchant-Ivory aesthetic, he says he never wanted scenes of beautiful carriage rides through architecture, that he wanted the film set at sea, with the feeling of the sea, and he dirtied everybody up and put tobacco stains on their teeth. But he also says he didn’t want to make a genre swashbuckler, and when the doctor (Paul Bettany) eats sandwiches among a bale of Galapagos tortoises, restful chamber music plays on the soundtrack, instead of there being silence or the sound of wind and tortoise grunts.

Much of portrayal in writing is the ineffable effect of what we think of as mere style, some amalgam of diction, music, imagery, and texture. It would seem to make sense that form and function should match, but Henry James’s great novel What Maisie Knew gets away with a sublime trick: A child serves as James’s “central intelligence,” so her consciousness sounds like mid-period Henry James:

The child was provided for, but the new arrangement was inevitably confounding to a young intelligence intensely aware that something had happened which must matter a good deal and looking anxiously out for the effects of so great a cause. It was to be the fate of this patient little girl to see much more than she at first understood, but also even at first to understand much more than any little girl, however patient, had perhaps ever understood before.

Paul Theroux, in the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, says, “[S]he often seems like a grown-up novelist rendered small and fitted into a frock and given a taste for chocolates and an ability to play dumb.” He’s not complaining, really.

Should part of the responsibility in the portrayal of others be that the writing is accessible to, or comfortable for, its subjects? Where would that limit be? I’ve been reading Declan Kiberd’s terrific Ulysses and Us (Norton, 2009), which angrily insists that Joyce’s novel was intended for the common person on the street but got waylaid by specialists in the academy. I read Ulysses in an independent study with a well-known Joyce scholar and still found it difficult.

Modernism—going back at least to Flaubert—assigned itself a project titled No Easy Heroisms, which included less exalted figures, more interiority (where things tend to get more muddled), and more uncertain and elliptical outcomes. The work of the last decades has been to dismantle the heroism of the story itself, in a project titled Every Narrative is Suspect. All this, one might say, has been in service to an attempt at honesty in what’s conveyed about lives lived.

What's honest next?


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