I first saw the movie Stranger Than Fiction over two years ago, before I decided to enter Ryerson’s publishing program; at that point I didn’t know then how books were made, or how authors got professionally published. However, I did know how writers wrote. I didn’t consider myself a good writer, but I knew enough to know that the whole “suffering artist” stereotype that the movie presented was bull. This aspect of the film has niggled at me for years (funnily enough, the movie has also informed how I handle my bookkeeping – that is, very assiduously).
So I watched it a second time yesterday evening, mainly to provide fodder for here.
My overall esteem for the film has not changed upon watching it again; it’s charming and filled with actors gamely servicing the needs of an original plot. The scenes between Will Ferrell and Dustin Hoffman are clever, and the budding romance between Ferrell and Maggie Gyllenhall has believable chemistry. However, I find that the scenes involving the author, played by Emma Thompson, mostly fall flat. What really irks me is that the movie seems to have no conception of how writers write, or of how manuscripts are actually made and processed.
The end of the movie states that the weird events depicted within took place over a period of four weeks. The movie (and the author’s narration) takes place over this period, from beginning to end. Prior to this, the author narrating Harold’s life, and thus narrating the book, experienced writer’s block for ten years – despite this, her previous books were critically acclaimed. When her draft of Harold’s life and death is complete, the literature professor who reads the manuscript pronounces it a masterpiece, precisely because of the emotional impact that Harold’s death provides.
Unfortunately, I find several things wrong with this scenario.
First, I find it hard to believe that anyone, even a highly-accomplished author, could crank out a literary masterpiece in a single month. The operating word is masterpiece; can any professional author instantly write one after having not written a single publishable thing for a decade?
Second, I find it hard to believe the book could be publishable without heavy substantive editing. I like to think that this is the true purpose of Queen Latifah’s character in the movie – that she nudges the book along towards birth by providing editorial feedback – but her part is so perfunctory that she contributes little to the plot. Literary masterpiece or no, you need to get an editor to look at that text before it’s ready for the press, and there was no discussion of the quality of the work beyond “Oh My God, It’s Art!”
Third, the writing in question is atrocious. It’s self-conscious and uses a twee, grating gimmick (Oh look! Harold’s watch is sentient and has feelings!) to introduce us to our hero. More importantly, it commits the cardinal sin of telling, not showing: Harold did this and Harold thought that. Most of all, Harold is aware of the author’s narration and rebelling against it, but although his self-awareness is actually incorporated into the story, it’s never explained within the context of the story that the author herself is writing. Let’s take one of the scenes where Harold Crick hears the author’s voice, is exasperated, and cries out in public:
Harold Crick: SHUT UP!
Kay Eiffel: [voice only] Cursing the heavens in futility.
Harold Crick: [extremely annoyed] No I’m not! I cursing you, you stupid voice so SHUT UP AND LEAVE ME ALONE!
Harold is cursing to the sky because he doesn’t know how to make The Voice stop. His action, although desperate, makes sense within the context of what the audience sees and hears onscreen. However, what has Kay written in her own book that motivates her written interpretation of Harold to scream? Why does Book Harold curse the heavens? Except for a general feeling of malaise and loneliness, Book Harold’s scream is not explained within the context of the novel. What is he feeling futile in comparison to, when the author is unaware that Real Harold can hear The Voice? If I were reading this book, I would feel that the author tried to indicate her main character’s sense of desperation using the laziest method possible.
Finally, I have a hard time believing that Emma Thompson’s character, in and of herself, could write anything considered a masterpiece. She’s a bundle of nerves and sunken-in eye sockets. I think this is what stuck in my craw the most upon both viewings. Kay Eiffel is a big huge bag of artistic stereotypes. Compulsive smoker? Check. Dismissive of others who don’t understand her particular artistic process? Check. Tortured? Check and check.
I know a lot of writers. I have the privilege of meeting many of them on a monthly basis as part of working with the WCDR. And none of them, none, are as self-absorbed or willfully hermetic as Kay Eiffel is. When I go to the WCDR’s breakfast meetings, I meet people who smile, are interested in each other, and are generous with their time and attention. I meet people who laugh and make jokes. I meet people who are willing to discuss their latest writing projects in detail, and support others who are doing the same. In short, I see a kindness and generosity of heart that I have been hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
To believe that a writer has to be tortured or cynical or somehow larger-than-life to write successfully submits to Byronic myth-making of the worst order. We can leave that posturing to angsty high school students, right? Presumably, the screenplay itself was written by someone who understands both “the writer’s life” in general, and how to write something that will sell. Moody artists may look sexy, but they’re generally not fun to work with, and people that aren’t fun to work with don’t get very far. So why should a movie about writing perpetuate this?