Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Dictionary of Fictional Techniques: The Generalized Categorical

I've long admired the formidable Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. When I was studying poetry early in my graduate education, I coveted my poetry studying colleagues' ability to reference this work to identify and articulate poetic devices and always wanted an equivalent for the close study of fiction.

Unfortunately, I've never run across anything up to scratch. So, I am going to write one. Or at least write one entry for one and then try slowly to add more entries over time. (If any readers out there want to suggest future entries, even just point out something that seems like it might be a technique, let me know and I might write about it).

So here's my first entry (with example), inspired by my current read, Jaimy Gordon's NBA-winning Lord of Misrule:

The Generalized Categorical

Definition: a reference to an unknown, abstract category or condition. Primarily used to describe a specific, elusive quality.

Example 1:
"But she sensed a thread  had been dropped somewhere, the route to some secret heart of this business had been lost"

Example 2:
"Was she some sort of born slave herself, a prostitute in a temple, a hierodule?"

The generalized categorical posits the existence of a class to suggest the membership of the described person, behavior, or condition within that class. In first example, the existence of "some secret heart" ratifies the character's sense "that a thread had been lost somewhere." The generalized categorical need not exist for its descriptive function to work, and indeed it often functions with the reader's express knowledge that it does not.

Consider an slight alteration to "the route to a secret heart of this business had been lost": the switch to the indefinite article moves the sentence into the realm of the actual, rather than the realm of the possible. This leveraging of possibility also invokes a sense of indeterminacy and unknowability; in the above examples, this uncertainty seems at least as important as the specific descriptors.

Any other thoughts on the Generalized Categorical? I'm also thinking about writing a taxonomy of dialogue formats: with and without quotations marks, with dashes, embedded in to paragraphs, etc. So if you can think of a good example of an unusual dialogue format, I'd be really interested to hear about it.

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  1. C. McCarthy does this quite a bit in his fiction. To wit: "And he went forth stained and stinking like some reeking issue of the incarnate dam of war herself." Critics like J. Wood find it vexing. Personally I like it. Cheers, K

  2. I'm not surprised that Wood doesn't like it, given his preference for realism. Adding the metaphorical element (like) in your example seems a sub-category, though I'll need to think about what that adds/subtracts.

  3. Adding "like", for me, distances the comparison from the character or the object being compared—in Interpolations's example, I imagine the reeking issue as separate from the character, whereas in the examples above, it's vaguer and closer to home.

    I think I'm going to like this feature.

  4. Fascinating project ... I cam here via Kerry, of Hungry like the wolf, and think I'll come back.

    I have of course come across many different dialogue formats but can I recollect any? Hmmm, I think there was one recently that used italics interestingly. I'll let you know if I remember it.

  5. Ah, yes, this may not be what you are looking for but in The thousand autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Mitchell puts the thoughts of characters in italics (during both conversations - plain text for speech, italics for thoughts - and action).

  6. Clare-
    Yup, I think you're right there. In order of descending connection "Y is a X" then "Y is some kind of X" and then finally "Y is like some kind of X" Does that sound right?

    I can tell already that the dialogue taxonomy is going to be a real bear (and badger, and wolverine, and possum). Thanks for the example, and I'll file it away for future use.