Although I do not have the same degree of distaste for Neil LaBute's work as a certain other distinguished blogger (I continue to think that In the Company of Men is a very good movie), this week's NYTBR review of his collection of short stories, Seconds of Pleasure, makes it sound pretty dreadful. It's not so much the subject matter--the usual LaButian insights about the casual cruelty of men, and the monstrousness of human nature more generally--but instead the apparent incompetence with which these insights are translated specifically into fiction. (I haven't read the book. Like Mark S. I won't, so obviously my comments here will based on the reviewer's remarks about the book. If someone else reads Seconds of Pleasure and thinks Jennifer Egan's description is off the mark, please let me know.)
According to Egan, "Writing Fiction would seem to offer LaBute a chance to plumb his characters' inner lives more fully, but the opposite proves to be true: being in the head of a LaBute protagonist is like flying in a plane with blackened windows--the rage so many of them feel toward the women who engross them obscures virually eveything else." Further: ". . .the protagonist's inner machinations [in one of the stories] are merely caricaturish. What's lacking here is the subtlety, the intimations of a larger world that gives the best short fiction. . .its insinuating power."
Egan thinks that the "inner lives of Labute's perennial manipulators. . .turn out to be less interesting in these transparent incarnations than when left opaque," as in LaBute's films. This is a convincing enough insight about the kinds of characters in which LaBute is interested, and perhaps if he were to turn his attention to a different sort of character he might produce more compelling works of fiction. But I think it is more likely that LaBute's conception of both character and story are inherently better suited to film, and that his forays into theater and, especially fiction, only reinforce this perception and suggest he ought to stick to making movies. I do not necessarily mean to imply that writing good fiction is harder than writing screenplays, nor that screenwriting is finally inferior to fiction writing; I would say, however, that much mainstream fiction, even much "literary fiction," has been influenced in its formal and narrative assumptions at least as much by movies as by other fiction, and that this influence is not for the better where the future of fiction is concerned.
In a previous post, I observed that what seemed most notable about the rush to adapt certain "chick lit" novels to the screen was that it seemed these novels had been written to achieve such film deals in the first place, that fiction was only the first step in a process that led to the most important accomplishment--having one's story made into a movie, with all of the glamour and the publicity and the talk about grosses that this entails. I didn't exactly suggest that they had been written as if they were actually movies, but that much contemporary fiction--beginning with the popular potboilers, but extending as well to many of the novels that are praised by ostensibly serious reviewers in newspaper book reviews--does indeed leave the impression that it seeks to emulate the storytelling and character-creation conventions of film seems to me, at least, undeniable. Perhaps this comes from the actual influence of film on the authors of such fiction, perhaps unconsciously from the assumption that these conventions are the ones with which even most readers of fiction are now most familiar. At any rate, too many novels I read (or choose not to read, because the reviews make it clear it will be a book of this type) proceed as if what the author really has in mind is the movie version the story at hand merely transcribes into prose; few of them manifest any particular qualities that couldn't also be achieved on screen.
Thus, I would maintain that most fiction labeled "realistic" by critics and readers does not really belong to the tradition of "realism" as it was developed in nineteenth century fiction, but instead merely adopts the elements of conventional narrative as they are exemplified most recognizably in American movies. Such movies perhaps are themselves operating under the assumptions emodied in the traditional "well-crafted" story (at least where plot and character is concerned, both of which must follow certain patterns of "development" it is assumed an audience expects), but again our idea of what such a story is like is almost certainly more influenced now by the movies we see than the books we read. Moreover, realism of the classic variety, as illustrated by such writers as Flaubert, James, and Chekhov, doesn't really bear much resemblance to either mainstream Hollywood narratives or to what is called realism in much current fiction. I always encountered great resistance from students when I would teach any of these writers in intro to lit classes. Most often they would complain that in the assigned fiction "nothing happens," or there's "too much description." Clearly these students have become especially accustomed to a certain kind of story (where the focus is all on what does happen) arising from their movie-watching habits, but I think even more dedicated readers of current fiction might be surprised upon reading, say, Chekhov to find so little emphasis on plot, or even conventional character identification, of the kind films have prompted us to expect.
Two writers who seem to me to illustrate the phenomenon I am discussing would be Tom Wolfe and Richard Price. However much Wolfe wants to imitate Dickens or Thackeray, his books are cinematic, focused on visual detail and dialogue in such a way that whoever attempts a screenplay adaptation of them must find they provide an enormous headstart. Price is a better writer than Wolfe, but he began his career writing novels that, if not exactly movie-like, were readily assimilable to film. This may be why his services as a screenwriter were solicited in the first place. The books he has published since his immersion in Hollywood script-writing certainly seem if anything more cinematic than his early books, as if they began as movie ideas that Price couldn't sell or thought would work better--would provide him with a larger canvas--as novels.
LaBute appears to have been after what is conventionally called "psychological realism." The problem is, judging from the passages Jennifer Egan quotes, he uses it very perfunctorily, with no apparent feel for the possibilities of writing at all. It is as if the thoughts attributed to the characters are merely lines of dialogue LaBute has instead decided to place "inside" the character's heads. What it again seems to betray is the notion that fiction is much like film, only a little bit different, affording the opportunity to make explicit what in LaBute's films is implicit. But what works pretty well in his movies--focusing on his characters' behavior without explaining it, giving it a creepily mysterious quality--can't survive the necessary exposition fiction usually requires, or that LaBute at any rate wants to provide. In this sense, he would definitely be well advised to go back to film, unless he wants to change directions completely and instead explore more fully what fiction might be capable of evoking in him as a writer, as a stylist, rather than as half-hearted exercise one takes up just for kicks.