John Biguenet

21 November, 2009

By William H. Coles

John Biguenet

An O. Henry Award winner, John Biguenet is the Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University in New Orleans, where he teaches creative writing. Among his six books are an acclaimed volume of short stories, The Torturer’s Apprentice, (Ecco, 2002), and a novel set in Louisiana, Oyster.(Ecco, 2003). He also is an award-winning playwright and served as a guest columnist for the New York Times after Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of levees in New Orleans in 2005.

William H. Coles

I was fascinated by your lecture yesterday, in particular your implication that the literary story is in decline. Why is this, do you think?

John Biguenet

I’m not sure there has been a decline. It’s just the opposite: our society is so immersed in stories that a kind of narrative exhaustion has set in. Every viewer of television and film can almost always predict where a plot is headed. The same is true of the other kinds of stories to which we are introduced every day in advertising, the news, and literary fiction. I think writers are facing a real predicament in terms of what it is that fiction should do when there are so many sources of storytelling and such experienced consumers of narratives.

William H. Coles

Has the quality of the fictional story changed in your mind? I ask because there is the sense that memoir and nonfiction have been replacing the fictional prose story.

John Biguenet

Because there is something potentially unexpected in the way real life works out, nonfiction doesn’t face quite the same problem of outcome prediction on the part of the audience. I think it’s one reason that reality television has become so popular — the possibility that something unpredictable will force the story in an unexpected direction. This element of the unpredictable is one reason why sports are so popular. We know the game’s rules and boundaries, which is to say we know the structure of the story, but the unexpected element of an injury, for example, or a bad call by the referee, can affect the ending of that particular tale. Those kinds of narratives have attracted larger and larger audiences in part because traditional narratives suffer from more predictable conclusions.

William H. Coles

Have you seen a change in how writers narrate stories?

John Biguenet

Not necessarily. I think short stories have increasingly imitated the novel, and often have taken as their subject relationships between people. But I’m not sure six or seven thousand words are enough to develop two characters and the arc of their relationship fully — and I don’t think that is what the short story was designed to do, actually. The novel is better suited to that type of tale.

William H. Coles

You’ve noted that today, nonfiction content is one of the ways to attract new readers to the novel, and that the quality and the choice of this nonfiction content is important. Could you expand on that? Specifically, I’m thinking of how you’ve used Louisiana to find the often-unknown aspects of the oyster industry, the human conflicts in that specific arena. How can writers seek their own valuable nonfiction for their fiction?

John Biguenet

The novel has traditionally had a great deal of nonfiction material in it. From the beginning of the Western novel, particularly, readers learned something of how the world worked. But by World War II that type of information was being conveyed by many different media, and so today the novel has lost one of its central reasons for existence, which is the conveyance of information unknown to the reader. I think that’s one reason for the success of writers who are talking about immigrant experiences, like Jhumpa Lahiri, for example, or in another way Nathan Englander in For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, who talks about a Jewish community that is not well known to most readers. Those writers have attracted an audience, at least in part, because their books provide previously unknown information about the world. At the same time, of course, the books are very well written.

William H. Coles

Is there a wealth of potential in stories exploring the integration of various immigrants into US society?

John Biguenet

Since the United States is becoming increasingly diverse, I think there is a great deal of curiosity about the many communities that make up the country now. And the writers from those communities who have arrived recently in the United States bring greater insight into the daily lives of those immigrants. Those communities have not had so many voices before in our national conversation. Writers from those communities can find wide readership, at least in part, because their narratives continue to do what the Western novel has done since its founding in the mid-eighteenth century: bring us news of something we don’t fully know.

William H. Coles

As you look at the importance of the nonfiction content of a novel, is there any danger of decreasing the importance of characterization?

John Biguenet

Oh, no. Just the opposite. When we talk about nonfiction content, we’re talking about the setting in which a character becomes eloquent. In Huckleberry Finn, for example, the character of Jim and the character of Huck become fully eloquent in the context of the journey they’re taking. It is impossible for us to think of ourselves as human beings outside the place in which we find ourselves. But places where characters have found themselves often have been places that are unknown or only vaguely known to the reader.

William H. Coles

What elements are necessary for a writer to develop an effective work of fiction?

John Biguenet

A writer becomes an author by demonstrating authority in two ways: over the craft of writing, and over the subject matter.

William H. Coles

How important is imagination now in literary fiction, as opposed to writing from experience?

John Biguenet

American fiction tends to follow the conventions of realism, and those stories that pay attention to realism will follow experience. In the rest of the world, fiction is often fantastic, and places as much emphasis on the imagined as on observed experience.

William H. Coles

As you begin to develop your novels’ character-driven plots, what does that mean to you? In other words, how do you conceptualize character-driven plots as opposed to plotting in a genre sense?

John Biguenet

If a story depends on things being out of balance, that absence of balance will be evident in a character who is capable of change, and so a story that begins with such a character will seek to discover how that person can achieve a sustainable balance. The setting of such a story also will reflect that imbalance. But it begins with ambition, lust, greed — some imbalance in a person that can be depicted in a plot.

William H. Coles

Does that relate to a core desire that is out of balance, or a foible?

John Biguenet

Not just a foible but something essential to the person. Think of it as a crack running through the character — which we all have, of course — but one that is capable of remedy as the character chooses one alternative rather than another to restore him- or herself to equilibrium.

William H. Coles

You’re a student of story and have valuable historical and cultural perspectives. What is valuable for writers to study about the development of story over the ages? I’m particularly thinking of how the oral tradition contributed to the written story and how drama was inserted.

John Biguenet

To balance on the one hand what the Greeks, for example, were doing in their drama and epics and what Anton Chekhov was doing in the nineteenth century with the short story is quite a leap. The forms that emerged out of the issues that each of their communities faced shaped the structure, and in a certain sense directed them toward a certain medium. The short story, as we practice it, is basically a nineteenth-century invention, and it responds in some sense to the Industrial Revolution and urbanization. But it’s difficult to trace a linear path of stories vis-à-vis cultures.

William H. Coles

Are there stories that you recommend for study? For instance in Chekhov?

John Biguenet

I admire enormously “The Lady with a Dog.” There are many stories by Chekhov, by Nathaniel Hawthorne, some by Edgar Allan Poe, certainly by Henry James.

William H. Coles

What Henry James stories might you recommend?

John Biguenet

I think “The Real Thing” is very interesting. It looks at the ways in which imagination can be bound by reality, and the necessity for imagination to remake what it observes.

William H. Coles

Do you think “The Turn of the Screw” is important?

John Biguenet

It’s about ghosts, so in some ways it’s at odds with most American literature, which has followed a realist tradition. But I think that everything James writes, because of his focus on the sentence, is something from which we can learn.

William H. Coles

How about earlier? Hawthorne?

John Biguenet

In Hawthorne you can see the invention of the form. In a sense he’s inventing the genre of short stories as he writes them, though with a high level of artistry. It’s fairly unusual to see someone both inventing and mastering a form simultaneously.

William H. Coles

What is the contribution in terms of structure?

John Biguenet

Structurally, to focus the short story on a single moment of crisis. When you compare one of Hawthorne’s tales to The Scarlet Letter, you see two very different things happening. He’s employed the novel for a complex unwinding of character, and the short story for a crisis that leads to a kind of decision through which the character could put his or her life back in balance.

William H. Coles

I sense that dramatization has been lost somewhat in contemporary writing. Is it possible to trace dramatization through the development of both the short story and the novel?

John Biguenet

I’m not sure about the term “dramatization.” But I can say that the character has to embody the conflict. My story “The Vulgar Soul,” for example, has to do with what exactly religion says about human experience if one strips away belief in the supernatural. Unless it’s addressing something entirely imaginary, religion must describe something observable. If one has no belief in God or the soul, is that to dismiss five thousand years of human thought in this area? Or does religion, even without belief, have something useful to say about human experience? To try to get at that question, I used a character devoid of religious faith who is afflicted with the stigmata and followed how his embodiment of this apparently religious experience works upon him. Although it doesn’t engender any religious feelings, it does bring him insights about himself and what it means to be a human being.

William H. Coles

Do you prefer writing in the first person or the third person? I know you’ll say it depends on the story and how it develops, but when do you choose, why do you choose, and what are the advantages?

John Biguenet

The first person is somewhat immediate, and the third person is somewhat distanced. It depends on how much space you want between the action and the reader. If you want the reader jammed up against the action, first person is more likely to accomplish that. If you want the reader to lean back a bit and be in a better position to make judgments about the choices the character is making, the third person better accommodates that.

William H. Coles

Is it fair to say that if drama is conflict, as you suggested — that is, conflict, action, resolution — it’s important to do that in scene rather than in interiorization or narrative description?

John Biguenet

Yes. I think readers grow weary of philosophical monologues relatively quickly. Series of scenes unfold very much as life seems to unfold, and so scenic development is easier for the reader to grasp with sustained concentration, I think.

William H. Coles

What is the role of meaning in your short stories and novels?

John Biguenet

I don’t know about meaning, but there is a difference between the elements of fiction — like plot, characterization, setting — and the subject. In the end, the story is about its subject, which is not the same thing as its plot.

William H. Coles

Is there morality in fiction?

John Biguenet

I don’t know about morality in the religious sense, but if you think of stories as mainly about things being in balance or out of balance, then if someone is out of balance, it may feel to that person a moment of moral crisis. How do I bring my life into balance? It may have no religious implications, but more a question of taking too large a portion for myself or distorting reality through a lie, for example, and therefore throwing things out of balance. How do I bring myself back into balance? That’s the question of fiction.

William H. Coles

What’s the responsibility of the writer in endings, particularly in the great short story that will be remembered and persist into future generations?

John Biguenet

A great short story frames a choice that may be unexpected and will bring us to a new way of understanding the particular imbalance the story has depicted. We come to understand greed or deceit or infidelity in a new way, perhaps a more complex way. It’s in the conclusion where the writer, through the character, reveals a new way of thinking about the problem — probably not providing an answer, but reframing the way we think about the question.

William H. Coles

Do you have thoughts about James Joyce’s epiphany and how that relates to imbalance?

John Biguenet

Joyce was employing a particular form that expressed its climax as an insight that might be accepted or rejected.

William H. Coles

Maybe on the religious side?

John Biguenet

Perhaps. However, I don’t think he is suggesting a religious solution to the problems his characters face. But he was raised within a religious culture, and it provides a form for him to think about the problems a human being confronts. The epiphany is simply the structural manifestation of the reframing of the human problem that Joyce offers.

William H. Coles

What are the major reasons that stories do not succeed today, in terms of being great stories but also in terms of getting published?

John Biguenet

I’m not sure about publishing, but a story fails because it has nothing to say, or perhaps because what it has to say is badly said. It does come back again and again to the craft of the story and its subject. Does the author have the authority to write about this matter and the authority of craft to depict it effectively?

William H. Coles

What about beginnings, and how stories are shaped?

John Biguenet

Because modern readers know so much about narrative, we certainly cannot begin with a great deal of exposition. The story must usually begin with rising action and go from there to integrate the character and the setting as the action continues to rise.

William H. Coles

John, thank you very much for participating. It’s been very enlightening.

John Biguenet

Thank you, Bill. It’s been a pleasure.



Read other Interviews by William H. Coles


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