October 25, 2009

Orhan Pamuk on Character and Plot

Back from another trip to Boston, this time with a detour to Portland, ME and a drive along the coast of Maine. It was another enforced separation from the novel-in-progress, but while I was away my laptop was repaired (its faulty fan had been making the most awful racket for months) and I had the fun of starting a new story in my notebook (which I am dutifully ignoring for the time being until the novel draft is finished), so all in all it didn't feel like a lost week.

The trip coincided with a series of Norton lectures by Orhan Pamuk at Harvard University on "The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist." I had a chance to attend Lecture 3: "Character, Time, Plot" -- all subjects of intense interest to me, as you can imagine. I brought pen and paper to take notes.

The gorgeous Sanders Theatre just before the talk.

It was a treat to attend a free lecture at Harvard and fun to imagine myself as an Ivy Leaguer, if only for an afternoon. Pamuk read last week to a packed crowd at IFOA, so I've also been feeling a little smug that I managed to attend such an interesting lecture for just the cost of the subway fare from Boston. And to my amazement, who was introducing Mr. Pamuk but James Wood? I would have been excited simply to attend one of his lectures on fiction. (Has anyone read How Fiction Works yet? I keep meaning to pick it up.) And who was moderating the question period but Homi Bhabha? What a world Harvard is.

Pamuk read his lecture, so I suspect it will only be a matter of time before his Norton series is published as a book. One of his main points was that contemporary literature places too much emphasis on character. Pamuk scoffed at the notion that a novel really begins with a character above all else, following the trajectory of that character as he or she changes. He suggested plot should not be a secondary consideration, relegated to the concerns of genre fiction.

During the question period, a freshman mentioned that he had met a number of people who truly were interesting characters, the kind of amazing individuals Pamuk was suggesting are entirely the product of fiction. Pamuk acknowledged his point as valid but replied that in his own experience he had never been so fortunate as to meet anyone actually unique!


Jonathan Ball said...

I'm sad to hear that Pamuk gave such a flippant answer in defense of his stance on character. I too grow weary of the endless conga line of "unique" (read: "quirky") characters that bloom fungally over the pages of fiction these days. And we need look no further than Kafka for examples of characters who are totally subordinated to plots with great artistic effect (think of K., the "land surveyor" without a name, any personality not bound up with his concern for reaching the castle, and nothing in the way of a personal history aside from his summons to the Castle).

Jonathan Ball said...

Oh, and I've got the Woods book but haven't really read it yet, thanks for reminding me of its existence.

saleema said...

I should say that Pamuk was not as flippant as I've perhaps made him sound. He had already laid out a number of reasons for his stance during the talk, none of which I can do justice to at this point.

Let me know what you think of the Wood book!

Jonathan Ball said...

I'm actually confused, I don't have the Wood book but a similarly titled book by someone else.