Tracked down source material for "Psychical Distance" and "Aesthetic Distance" recently. A perhaps thirdhand or more source of Dave King's "Decoding Narrative Distance," John Gardner's "psychic distance" in The Art of Fiction, and firsthand source for Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, and Seymour Chatman, Story and Discourse "aesthetic distance" and "narrative distance." Also, source of general writing community anecodotal distances intellectual and emotional and overlaps between the five distances used to stand shorthand for any one distance term: aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, psychic, and narrative distance.
Bullough, Edward. “‘Psychic Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle.” British Journal of Psychology 5 (1912): 87-117. Sophia Project. Web. 14 Oct 2014.
Wow! The text challenges reading and comprehension ease, philosophically encompasses art, art psychology, psychology generally, all arts: plastic arts, sculpture, visual arts, aural arts, culinary arts, aromatic arts, tactile arts, and written word arts' distance. However, the text defines distance and illustrates the definitions--artfully shows and definitively tells the meaning of distance. Worth the midnight candle burn.
Bullough notes distance may be too open or too close, over-distanced or under-distanced in his terms. He shows over-distance is the more common practice in art and certainly for prose, singles out traditional prose expression as remote from perhaps an ideal distance. Bullough references The Poetics of Aristotle, Aristotle's touch upon spatial and temporal distance a spectator receives a narrative, which Bullough allows is a part of aesthetic distance, though much, much more, and defines and shows what distance is about.
He uses a fog at sea example to show what he means, claims anyone is familiar with and fearful of fog at sea. The essay was published 1912, a time when sea travel was fraught with more peril than presently, what with sonar, radar, and GPS navigation aid reduction of maritime hazards. The aesthetic fog examples with which Bullough illustrates for contrast is, oh my, exquisite.
Aside from, noted, a general tendency throughout the literary opus, ancient, classic, and contemporary, for over-distance, a stand-out of the text is when, where, what, why, and how under-distance is problematic. Bullough establishes parameters for a continuum from over-distance to under-distance. Outstanding essay for any ambitious writer's composition skill growth and benefits thereof.
Looks to be a very interesting article. I'm starting to realize the importance of distance (or the lack of). Expanding the topic to include all forms of art only makes it more weighty a subject. It seems tricky for me to determine just what level of distance an artform portrays. And how does one determine objectively if it is too little or too much? Can that be determined at all? I must read further.
Two questions: Is there a perfect level narrative distance that every story should seek to achieve? And should a story maintain the same level of narrative distance throughout or is it acceptable to change for a good reason?
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The article gives one example of under-distance, that of a man troubled by faithless romance who views Othello, which is about an unfaithful lover. That example demonstrates another point of the essay, distance varies from work to work and from spectator to spectator and time to time. A science fiction short story figuratively about nuclear war survival may appeal and therefore have a closer distance for science fiction fans though not appeal to and be over-distanced for mainstream fiction fans.
Narratives about bodily functions are also an example of under-distance, as Bullough notes for explicit and graphic sex scenes, and other taboo or pointless bodily function topics.
I believe to err on the side of somewhat under-distance rather than over-distance is a useful principle, because readers generally overlook too subtle a close distance. Likewise, err on the side of more is less for most anything else writing; slightly overstated understatement, for example. Also, much contexture that informs distance often doesn't make the transfer from a writer's imagination onto the page.
For my other arts, woodwork and pottery, I've noted art show spectators and judges favor wares that command their display space, a spatial distance matter. However, art buyers for home decoration favor smaller wares that suit their home display spaces. Temporal distance is likewise an objective criteria, a spectator who views artwork left at the end of a show misses the full impact of multiple items to contrast and compare with each other.
In literature terms, maybe Homer's Odyssey is over-distanced in time and place, composed for oral presentation to Greeks several thousand years ago. Reinventions of the basic premises crop up and "update" the narrative: Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, novel and film, a recent example.
An objective determination might be a matter for a preview reader panel, writer workshops, beta readers in some writers' terms. However, a personal though objective guidance is highly dramatic scenes and events should be closer distanced than summary and explanation and transitions.
If Polly Doe is fraught with peril and fear, enough emotional attitude contexture to clearly and strongly convey her emotional state and no more is a useful principle. Less is more, in that case. If Polly travels across the tracks and not much dramatic needs to happen, then distance can open for tension relief purposes. Again, less is more in that case.
Tension relief gives readers a break between dramatic scenes so they catch up with a narrative's close emotional distance, and so that the high points have low points for contrast that enhance high points' emphasis. Besides, occasional open distance of a transition rebuilds relieved tension while an agonist changes scene to a different time, place, and situation, for example, for foreshadowing purposes.
And variety is the spice of writing, distance too, as in life.
Any given narrative's ideal distance spectrum is a matter of topic and viewpoint. No one-size-fits-all distance. A strong narrator attitude may pass judgment on or evaluate a circumstance, the distance closer to the narrator than an agonist, a close distance nonetheless. O' Henry wrote that kind of distance. Many traditional writers did, which created the over-distance Bullough claims was and is too common.
On the other hand, true crime drama needs a degree of over-distance from otherwise gory and visceral details, for many readers' sensibilities. Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, for example, holds distance more open than close. Less is more in that case.
However, Oliver Stone film Natural Born Killers may be too under-distanced for sensitive viewers, though a film. The point of the film is news media makes cult heroes out of depraved criminals and glorifies their activities. The senseless slaughter, gore, and viscera of the film may overstate the point, though strong and clear that that's the point, an example of under-distance used for a rhetorical purpose, also, more is less in that case.
I favor close distance, close to viewpoint agonist to the point a narrator is nearly invisible. I enjoyed the close distance the second, third, and fourth Thomas Harris Hannibal Lecter novels approached every agonist, Lecter included. The villain or antihero of an artful piece I usually find more appealing from dynamic and robust character development than a goody two shoes who can do no wrong and always gets his or her desire, suffers no personal growth at great personal cost nor trial and error. Besides, artful doubt development appeals to me more than certain outcomes prematurely revealed.
Artful distance depends on writer, reader, audience, medium, an era's spatial and temporal and moral sensibilities, and strengths and limitations of any given narrative method; for example, a multiple viewpoint agonist narrative needs a degree of closeness for each agonist, one more than any other, the one to keep in touch with--Harry Potter, for example, though by default, multiple veiwpoint narratives keep distance more open than single viewpoint narratives.
Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games stays close to Katniss Everdeen throughout the novel, somewhat singular viewpoint, more viewpoints, though, for the film, because the interior discourse of written word is a challenge to translate into film.
Rowling manages distance methods by mostly external means, a few internal thoughts and emotional reactions, more external expression of thought trains and emotions, mostly all external sensations though, and from an agonist's viewpoint looking out rather than narrator viewpoint looking in.
Good points. I found it an insightful article to be sure. Distance is something I'll certainly need to think more about while writing. A good treatment of distance in a work is the best answer to the question, "so what?" Why should the observer care that something happened to someone somewhere. I believe that, for the most part, proximity determines importance. And this goes beyond physical proximity. If we can produce the right level of "closeness" in a work, we draw the audience in that much more.
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