Monday, March 1, 2010

Making a great "film"

About a year ago, while driving to work, I heard an NPR interview with Arch Campbell, longtime movie critic for a television station in Washington, DC. Having grown up in that area, and lived there as late as 1993, I remembered Campbell and his entertaining, just-another-guy-in-the-seats approach. So I listened with interest. At one point, the interviewer asked, "What do you think makes a movie great?" Campbell's answer to this almost uselessly gigantic question was surprisingly specific. He said that thinking over what he regarded as the best movies of the last century, one quality they seemed to share was that they were set in the same era in which they were made. They confronted, questioned, revealed, and detailed the moviemakers' own time. The answer gave me pause. I'd never heard anyone say this before. So you can't make a great historical movie? And because I was deep into my Van Gogh novel project, I immediately extended Campbell's statement to books as well. Now, making a movie certainly is not the same thing as writing a book--and Campbell was answering a question specifically about movies--but there has been enough give and take between the two media over the decades that my extrapolation seemed a natural reaction. So you can't make a great historical novel? Or, stated more precisely, a historical novel can't rank among the greatest?

Boxing back, I started mentally listing all the classic historical novels I could think of. What about The Scarlet Letter, that fixture in high school and college literature surveys and arguably the first great novel our country produced? I thought of modern authors and the historical novels they've written. Bernard Malamud's The Fixer. E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. Madison Smartt Bell's Haitian triology. Susan Vreeland's Girl in Hyacinth Blue. These books are ranked among the best their authors ever produced. And if I heard Campbell today I could throw in Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which only won the Man-Booker Prize last year. I don't know if Campbell expanded on or explained his thesis further. Probably not, because I don't remember anything else from the interview. But, after my initial defensiveness, he certainly got me thinking. Was there something about taking on a historical subject that was inherently self-defeating? I know--and I've blogged about--all the nit-picking tribulations involved in trying to bring an earlier era alive. But it's not just a matter of finding out how people tied their ties or what bread they ate; it's also a matter of having an intuitive feel for the human climate and social psychology of a given period. When one writes about one's own time, one brings such knowledge and such intuition immediately to the writing desk. It doesn't need to be won through research. Does that make the writing process more clear, somehow, and more affecting? Does the chasm of history create a kind of invisible wall too high even for the best of us to overcome?

Finally, I think the answer has to be no. And not just because if the answer is yes, taking on a project such as I have with Yellow means essentially I'm shooting myself in the foot. The answer is no because I don't think there's any artistic challenge that's not worth taking up, and there's none that can't eventually be met. Whether my book succeeds or not, I've had a blast writing it. It's a challenge I can never regret, because I've learned so much from it and have had to push myself so hard in the doing. It's a far more ambitious book than I've ever previously composed--but finally ambition, for an artist, is a good thing. And if doesn't succeed, I'd rather not think it's simply a matter of that darn, inherently problematic, historical fiction. If it doesn't succeed, I'd rather it be on me. I'm eager for all comments/reactions on this question. Is writing a great historical novel that much more difficult than writing any kind of great novel? Are we establishing extra barriers, or are we pushing ourselves to do even better? Should we extrapolate on the opinions of a DC movie critic, or do we switch the channel and just keep on driving to work?


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