Thursday, September 3, 2009

Stained Waters

“…the waters stained yellow by sunscreen and human flesh.”

Who’d have guessed that such a line would ignite a debate?

For more than half an hour we debated the merits and drawbacks of that one phrase, the eight students of my Advanced Fiction Workshop and I.

It started as such debates always start, with a student singling out a phrase or sentence for praise or damnation. This time the student was Sheila, and the first volley consisted of praise. I asked her to specify.

“I like the rhythms of the sentence, and the vivid image it summons of a crowded public beach.”

Others, though not everyone, agreed.

Now my turn to play devil’s advocate. “But do you really see YELLOW water? Do you WANT to see yellow water? What sort of a public beach are we talking about here, one along the Ganges? Does sunscreen really stain water? Does it stain it yellow? If so, how much sunscreen is required to stain a whole beach?”

Sheila objected. “We’re writing fiction here!”


“As a reader I know exactly what the author means,” Richard, another of my students, said.

“What does the author mean?”

“He means that the water seemed to be stained yellow with sunscreen.”

“If that’s what he meant, why didn’t he say so?”

“But that IS what he said?”

“No, he said the waters are stained yellow, not that they seem that way.”

“What’s the difference?”

“The difference is that one statement is true, and the other is false.”

“So,” said Sheila, “if TJ had written, ‘...the waters seemed to be stained yellow by sunscreen and human flesh’ that would be okay?”

“That would be a solution, though not a great one.”

“Why not?” asked Warren.

“Because ‘seemed to’ is a wishy-washy cop-out. Why say what something seems like when you can say what it really is?”

Heads shaken.

“But how do you know the original statement is false?” Sheila again. “How do you know the waters weren’t stained yellow?”

“You’re right,” I said. “I don’t know. But I’m not convinced. In fact I have serious doubts. I have never seen a public beach stained yellow by sunscreen, or by anything else, for that matter. Nor have I ever seen water stained by human flesh.”

“But I think he’s talking about the water being ‘stained’ by the reflections of human flesh,” said Gwen, who usually stays out of these things.

“Then maybe he should have said so, in that case.”

“But it’s implied," Warren said with a gotcha look on his face. "You’re always saying, ‘Don’t state what you can imply.’ Aren’t you always saying that?”

“On the contrary, he’s not implying that the waters are figuratively stained with reflections of flesh. He’s stating that they are stained with flesh.”

“The implication is implied!”

“A fact was stated—an inaccurate and unconvincing fact, in my opinion—and yours, apparently, since you feel the need to convert it into a figurative statement. But it shouldn’t be the reader's job to make such conversions.”

“Why not?” asked Sheila.

“Because in the moment in which such conversions are made, the action of the story, however briefly, is frozen, stopped; as readers we are no longer having the experience described; instead, we are pressed into service as editors, doing damage control, however subliminal.”

“You’re crazy,” Warren concluded not for the first time.

“Maybe so.”

At this point TJ, the author, spoke up. “I was at that beach. The water had a yellow tinge. I asked a lifeguard about it. The lifeguard said the yellow tinge was from sunscreen washed off of people’s bodies.”

Warren smirked. Sheila smiled. Looks of satisfaction spread around the conference table, as they usually do when I am made to eat my pedantic words.

“So, Professor,” said Sheila, “now what do you think of the line?” (Note: if and when my students elect to call me "Professor" it's usually with a touch of sarcasm, to indicate that I'm being an ass.)

“If the description is factually true, then the author is completely right to insist on such a phrase, since, though it may raise doubts like mine, it's nevertheless accurate.”

Warren: “Are you saying that it’s okay to write something no one will believe, as long as it’s true?”

“I’m saying the author is within his rights in doing so. That doesn’t necessarily make it a wise decision, but it makes it a justifiable one. And one could argue, too, that in describing water stained yellow by sunscreen the author is telling us something about the world that we—or at least I—didn’t know. That’s worth something.”

“Yes,” said Tom, who'd made a valiant effort to shut up until now. “But you didn’t believe it!”

“Now I do," I said.

Sheila looked exasperated. So did everyone. Eight pairs of eyes rolling. Since throwing marbles as a kid I'd never seen so many bright shiny objects revolving.

“Let me explain. First, if I were reading this story, say, as published in the pages of the New Yorker, or a literary journal, with that phrase in it, certain things would be true that are not true here, now. First, the story would, presumably, be working well as a whole (it isn't now). By the mere fact of its being published my confidence in the author would be preordained, so to speak, and would only grow as confirmed by my reading. By the time I reached that phrase in the story, assuming all has gone well up till then, my confidence in the author’s authority being by then well-established, I would surrender any and probably all doubt and immerse myself—if not luxuriate in—those yellow-stained waters.

"That isn’t the situation we find ourselves in here. No such authority has been earned. By telling us that the description in question is indeed based on fact, the author has won the right to stick by his guns: here, now, in this room, among us, his peers. However, he still faces the problem of authenticity—or of the appearance of authenticity—with readers not privileged by his immediate presence and attendant charm, good-looks, etc., and to whom he can present his case and make his explanations apart from the text in question. In other words, once the rest of his story works, when it is convincing as a whole, then his earned authority will buy him yellow-stained beaches and whatever else it can afford. Until then, TJ can’t get away with it—or he can, but in a limited way, with a few readers, and that's not good enough."

"So what should TJ do?" asked Tom.

"If this were my story, and that were my phrase to tinker with, the solution, for now, for me, would be to cut the word ‘yellow’ and add the word ‘reflected’ and write:

‘...the waters stained by sunscreen and reflected human flesh.’ ”

There were those in the room who didn't agree. But no one said a word. But then they'd had enough of me and my pompous sophistry, and you have, too.

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