Friday, January 13, 2017

Unca Mike's Masterclass: Beauty


I just finished A. S. Byatt's short nonfiction book Peacock and Vine. In it, she expounds on Jane Burden Morris and her place as a muse of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. In addition to being one of the best writers around, Byatt is a wonderful researcher. Yet after reading all she could find on this woman whose images have left generations of art historians swooning, she declares, "I do not have any idea at all of what she was really like." How many thousands of words were expended on this woman's beauty! How few on her self.

Which brings us to this lazy habit you have of ladling gallons of gush over a (female, almost inevitably) character's beauty.

I won't go into the many different ways women can be beautiful, though they are myriad. This leads too easily into what my feminist friends would call "objectification." But, even more importantly, it distracts from the business of fiction which is getting at the inner workings of things, whether they be orbital mechanics or the mysteries of the human soul.

As a general rule, when you write about beauty, you are writing about desire. Which is a topic almost as interesting as "beauty" is not.

I have known -- I mean this verb in its non-sexual sense -- beautiful women who were not aware of that fact and women who were distinctly plain yet drew men like moths to their flame. I know a woman who believes her twin sister is the beauty of the family and she the ugly duckling. (And watched men walk right past her to hit on her sister.) I once met a strikingly ugly woman whose absolute unconcern with her appearance took my breath away with, yes, desire. What makes somebody an object of desire is the fierce light of personality shining through the mask of flesh.

So don't tell me a character is beautiful. It leaves me knowing no more than I did before you wrote it. If it is important to your story that I know a woman (or man) is beautiful, tell me why or how.

Thus ends today's sermon. Go thou and sin no more.

Above: Jane as Proserpine. One of many paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She led a pretty scandalous life. It seems to have occurred to pretty much nobody to ask her why.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you.
That was most enlightening. I must have understood something like this before because I try to keep the description of a female whom the male protagonist finds beautiful to two or three sentences at most.