"At Gettysburg," says Charleston novelist Bret Lott, "Robert E. Lee said, 'It's all my fault.' In one simple, declarative sentence, he took on himself full responsibility for all those deaths. Along comes Richard Nixon. What does he say? 'Mistakes were made.' And then there's Bill Clinton — 'It depends on what the definition of "is" is.' Those statements create distance between actions and consequences."
Lott is responding to a recent article in Poets & Writers. The literary magazine quizzed a handful of authors on a grab bag of topics, among them: "Do you trust language?" Most answered no. Yet no one asks painters if they mistrust paint or carpenters if they have misgivings about their saws.
"It's the fashionable answer," says Lott, a professor of English at CofC. "There's nothing wrong with language. You work with the material as it is."
Lott's material is most often his own flesh and blood. His novel, Jewel, told the story of the Hilburn family, who struggle to raise a child with Down syndrome in postwar California. The plot and characters, like those of his most recent novel, Ancient Highway, spring from his own family history.
In this way, Lott's stories are intimately bound to him — personal totems that defy the kind of distance some novelists interpose between themselves and their readers: ironic distance.
A tale takes on this ironic distance when authors — slyly or overtly — insist their writing is not a realistic portrayal of the world. Over time, authors have used this distance for dramatic or comic effect; more recently, however, ironic distance has come to reflect a deep-seated doubt that anything is knowable or trustworthy about anything a novelist writes about.
Lott is not one of those novelists.
He's writing an essay about this at the moment, but he's raised the issue before. In a 2005 book on the craft of writing, Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer's Life, Lott presented his case against the modern novel's drift toward irony, particularly the works of Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace.
"It's the observer effect," says Lott, referring to the tendency of objects to alter their behavior when we pay attention to them.
His passion for the topic comes across in his voice — a steady stream of exclamation points, dashes, questions, declarative sentences. It tumbles out of him like a verbal sweep of hands that casts wide the playing field, ardently and analytically.
"A novelist draws my attention toward something. Asks me to consider it. Look at this!" he says. "The author has chosen this subject, invested energy in it. And then — what? The author walks away? Effectively saying, 'I'm not really involved here, not responsible.' Where are the consequences?"
Lott has little patience for writers who cut their narrative adrift from the aftermath of their character's actions.
"I don't feel that I have to give characters a comeuppance," he says. "But we do need to see the consequences of their behavior. How it plays out in the context of their world."
Earl Holmes, the narcissistic character at the center of Ancient Highway, is a case in point. In 1927, 14-year-old Earl Holmes takes a hobo's train ride to Hollywood, bent on pursuing a film career. Stardom eludes him but is never far from his thoughts, a painful reality Lott renders with poetic empathy even as it falls to Earl's neglected family to shoulder the burdens he flatly ignores. The reader understands that Earl is kidding himself. The reader sees the costs of Earl's neglect. But for all that, Lott does not shy away from giving his characters the dignity of their humanity, warts and all.
Lott defines his turf as a novelist this way: "I think the writer is somebody who has chosen to really pay attention to the world and to see what is going on and discover the way the world works, rather than telling readers — 'I really know how the world works, and here's how it works.'"
The conversation ebbs and flows around this — at times feeling like a scene from My Dinner with Andre was unfolding over the phone — but it all returns to one thing: What makes a fiction writer stay with his subject, persist with his readers, follow through on the consequences of his tale?
Lott answers, perhaps inevitably, with a simple declarative sentence.