Thursday, July 14, 2011

Music, memory, nostalgia ... and the novel

The other day I was writing a note (a.k.a. "e-mail") to a very dear friend, someone I've known since I was in high school. Without diving into the details, the correspondence gave rise to the usual, banal observation that old people like myself make -- you know, how much water has passed under so many bridges since blah blah blah.

As happens for many, I think, a song popped into my head as I typed, and I made reference to it: "Queue Fairport Convention," I wrote, tongue loosely implanted in cheek, and then pasted into the message a quickly-Googled link to a lovely acoustic rendering of Sandy Denny singing Who Knows Where The Time Goes. I found it on YouTube.

(If you like this performance, you can find it on the CD Classic Convention, one of a boxed set called Fairport Unconventional.)

Everyone who listens to music knows that it exerts a powerful pull on our emotions, and often evokes feelings and events and eras in our pasts ...with sometimes-disconcerting clarity. Nowadays, the ubiquity of MP3 players, iTunes, and the ability to find songs posted onto search-indexed sites like YouTube makes queuing up a song that pops into one's head a nearly-seamless experience. It's not even as much bother (!) as slipping a CD into the stereo, let alone setting up a vinyl disc on a turntable. Never mind the sound tracks provided to us by car radios and music-to-shop-by piped into retail stores of most every kind. Hearing recorded music is part and parcel of living in the present time, and the ability to shape one's own sound track has never been more broadly accessible.

So what does that mean to writers of fiction?

I mentioned in Monday's post, Craft and art: erasure and accent, that a question like this came up recently in my writers' critique group. One of our members referred to a singer & songwriter in a chapter she posted to the group; another of our number had never heard of the fellow (Gordon Lightfoot, if you didn't happen to read the Monday post). Others piled in, with one writer throwing lyrics to the cited Lightfoot song into our discussion thread for good measure. Some months before, that same writer included a 14-line stretch of lyrics from a song by Lily Holbrook in an early chapter of the novel-in-progress he's currently posting for critique.

I too excerpt lines from poetry, opera, and others' fiction in my own work. I already copped to inserting allusion to a painting into Consequence, my recently-completed novel manucript (check out Allusion in fiction, September 2010). Then there are the characters who chew over books or movies or TV shows they encounter, and that readers may have read or seen too.

There's much to consider here.

What's the right length of a quote from another author? Are fourteen lines from someone else's song too many? What about long runs of verse interleaved in a prose work, when the verse is the author's own creation -- as in J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings, or, even more central to the work of fiction, A.S. Byatt's Possession? Does interleaved quotation distract from the flow of a story, or enhance its grounding in a culture?

I don't think there's any single answer to this sort of question. It always depends. It depends on the nature of the story, on the types of readers who will read it, on the nature and length of the quotation or allusion, on the familiarity or obscurity of the referenced material, on the smoothness or roughness of the insertion.

And to complicate matters further: How does the emergence of hyperlinked and/or multimedia e-books change the picture? As (some) books edge toward forms we now read on web pages (like blogs that link out to their subjects, or web pages that include a sound track), and readers adapt to or -- dare one imagine? -- even embrace these changes, how will the experience of reading books merge with the modern, mobile-web experience of hyperlinked life?

What do you think?

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Craft and art: erasure and accent
Aleksandar Hemon on Narrative, Biography, Language
Allusion in fiction
Drafting vs. editing

1 comment:

  1. 14 lines? Way too many.

    Despite their prevalence on the net it can be difficult to get permission to include song lyrics in a novel - and permission can be expensive. I've heard of novelists who have built their work around particular songs only to have to rewrite because they could not get permission to reprint the lyrics.

    This is less true for poetry, but an issue to considered.

    It will be cool when you can tap the song title in an ebook and the music starts playing.

    As to the poetry or fiction written by characters in a novel - just have to say I didn't care for the poetry in Obsession and I thought the short stories written by Garp in The World According to Garp hamstrung the novel (the movie, lacking the short stories, was more enjoyable). On the other hand I hate having to take the narrator's word for it that a writer protagonist writes in a certain way - amazingly, say.