A Survey of Writers on Contemporary Writers
Listening to writers read and discuss their work at Newtonville Books, the bookstore my wife and I own outside Boston, I began to wonder which living, contemporary writers held the most influence over their work. This survey is not meant to be comprehensive, but is the result of my posing the question to as many writers as I could ask.
© Charlie Hopkinson
ALIX OHLIN: Like many people, I first became aware of Ishiguro’s work through the lovely restraint of The Remains of the Day. His gift at suggesting subterranean emotions, and at lending inarticulate characters depth and dignity, commanded my attention. What’s interesting to me is how he has pushed this gift further—the subsequent books are all different, still elegant but ever stranger, in wonderful ways. The Unconsoled, a dream-like novel about a pianist who arrives in a European city for a concert but cannot navigate the landscape—even of his own memory—is lyrically disorienting and, I think, a masterpiece. I also love how he has played with genre, writing about cloning in Never Let Me Go without employing any of the trappings or tropes of science fiction. Like all his books, Never Let Me Go is deeply sorrowful but very quiet, a tone that Ishiguro has made recognizably his own.
JAMES SCOTT: Kazuo Ishiguro had a profound effect on me. I think before I read The Remains of the Day, A Pale View of the Hills,and especially Never Let Me Go, I didn’t really understand what people meant when they asked for clarity. I assumed they wanted everything to make sense, which seemed both boring and counter to what I enjoyed in many of my favorite books. But reading Ishiguro, I understood what that clarity meant—a clear purpose, a sense that the author knows exactly what he or she is doing and out of that comes a trust that will allow the plot to go anywhere.
KAREN THOMPSON WALKER: Kazuo Ishiguro, especially with Never Let Me Go, reminds me that sometimes the best writing is the least showy. I admire how fully he inhabits his characters, his own voice completely submerged beneath theirs.
ALEXI ZENTNER: Men have sobbed. Women have wailed. Children have gasped. Sometimes all on the same page.
Younger writers often have characters carrying on in ways that are loud and obvious. I think that sometimes, the idea is that a great gnashing of teeth is the only way to convey just truly how intense the emotion is supposed to be. The reasoning is that if you are not clear as a writer that the characters are undergoing great joy or sorrow, if you don’t tell the reader how to feel, she might miss the point. I can understand this fear. Our readers don’t always give our work the attention we’d like, and breaking out the pyrotechnics can feel like a safety net. The concern is that we end up with redundant writing: the reader is both shown how a character feels (“the man’s shoulders were shaking as he cried over the body of his dog”) and then told (“the dog had been his only companion, and now he was sad and alone.”)
While I believe that great writers both show and tell, telling is best left to information. It is showing that is the province of emotion. But showing us how a character feels requires a great trust in the reader. More than that, when you have a character who does not entirely know herself and remains somewhat unknown to the reader, what is required is precision. And for that, I think of Kazuo Ishiguro and The Remains of the Day.
I’m particularly drawn to the moment, about halfway through the book, when Stevens’ father has a stroke. Stevens’ is a butler, and though his father is dying, he keeps working at a party that we are told is tremendously important. But partway through the party, Stevens’ employer sees him and is concerned:
“‘Stevens, are you all right?’”
‘Yes, sir. Perfectly.’
‘You look as though you’re crying.’
I laughed and taking out a handerkerchief, quickly wiped my face. ‘I’m very sorry, sir. The strains of a hard day.’”
And that is all that Ishiguro allows; he does not explain Stevens’ emotional state, does not take us inside of Stevens’ mind, does not tell us that Stevens was bereft. He trusts the reader to understand this. And very shortly thereafter, when informed by Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, with whom Stevens has had a muted romantic interest, that his father has died, Stevens does not abandon his post as butler. But as Miss Kenton turns to mount the stairs and attend to Stevens’ father, Stevens stops her:
“’Miss Kenton, please don’t think me unduly improper in not ascending to see my father in his deceased condition just at this moment. You see, I know my father would have wished me to carry on just now.”
Note the language; in the first sentence of the paragraph, Stevens’ diction, already formal, is elevated to a level that is almost absurd. Read it again. He’s saying, “don’t think that I’m cold for not going to see my father’s body.” But the way he says it, the tonal change, the way in which Stevens becomes even more stiff and remote, shows the reader that he is, in fact, greatly moved by his father’s death. The tears that were mentioned on the previous page are highlighted here by their absence. Ishiguro does not need to add anything to convey Stevens’ emotional state.
This is the beauty of Ishiguro’s writing. In his precision, he can have a faith in the reader. Instead of hammering home his point — instead of both showing and telling the reader what the character is feeling — he can allow the reader to simply understand.
Alix Ohlin is the author of the novels Inside and The Missing Person, as well as the short story collections Signs and Wonders and Babylon and Other Stories
James Scott is the author of the novel The Kept
Karen Thompson Walker is the author of the novel The Age of Miracles
Alexi Zentner is the author of the novels The Lobster Kings and Touch
Lettering by Caleb Misclevitz