James Joyce’s Dirt-Covered Locket Story

May 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

I finally found an anecdote I remember reading about James Joyce, where he tells a story about a story of a dirt-covered locket. It took so much googling that I started to doubt it had ever existed in the first place, but at last, via a Google book search, I found it in the “New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes” (which is a shockingly reasonable place to find it).

It’s about specificity in writing, and it goes like this:

A German lady called to see me today. She is a writer and wanted me to give an opinion on her work, but she told me she had already shown it to the porter of the hotel where she stays.

So I said to her: ‘What did your hotel porter think of your work?’

She said: ‘He objected to a scene in my novel where my hero goes out into the forest, finds a locket of the girl he loves, picks it up and kisses it passionately.’

‘But,’ I said, ‘that seems to me to be a very pleasing and touching incident. What did your hotel porter find wrong with it?’

And then she tells me he said: ‘It’s all right for the hero to find the locket and to pick it up and kiss it, but before he kissed it you should have made him wipe the dirt off it with his coat sleeve.’

I told her, (and I meant it too) to go back to that hotel porter and always to take his advice. ‘That man,’ I said, ‘is a critical genius. There is nothing I can tell you that he can’t tell you.’

The reason I remember this anecdote, and the reason I wanted to try to rescue it from obscurity with this blog post, is that it’s such a neat lesson about the prime virtue of good writing: specificity, i.e. filling in the details that bring a story to life.

The interesting angle in this anecdote is that it argues how much creative mileage you can get out of the mundane question “What would really happen?” You can expand your understanding of a work, and you can expand your own work, by several dimensions simply by considering its implications for itself.

In Bleak House, a man spontaneously combusts. Okay. So what would really happen? Well, there’d be soot scattered everywhere, in spots here and there and then closer and closer together, drawing a passerby by degrees to the scene of the incident. And that’s what happens, in a terrifically narrated scene.

Or there’s a scene in The Simpsons where the camera turns from a marching protest group to Homer banging his fists on a counter at a food truck chanting “Where’s my burrito?” He keeps banging his fists until the awning comes loose, collapses, and whacks him in the head. The scene is so unforgettable simply because the writers or animators asked “What would really happen?”

Or to put it my own way, the difference between an ordinary scene and a creative one is stopping to ask “What if?”

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