Thursday, May 10, 2007

Writing dialogue is hard

I've come to appreciate lately how difficult it is to write good dialogue. Despite how much we talk on a daily basis, somehow capturing the authenticity of conversation on paper is difficult, in part because the act of writing conversation is imbued with a purpose that conversation itself in its routine idleness and aimlessness does not possess.

In Thomas Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, his tome about modern-day debauchery at America's finest universities some of the dialogue borders on the implausible. The book has been criticized for depicting some characters as hopless cardboard figures, particularly the prep school alumni who are members of the most elite fraternities and sororities. This is debatable. What Wolfe most bitterly fails at, in my view, is depicting his more thoughtful characters. The intellectually curious students with whom Charlotte strikes up a rapport broadcast an unrealistic self-awareness to a point that seems utterly contrived. Take this conversation, where Adam Gellin, the student athlete tutor and college journalist who crushes on Charlotte, explains the M.O. of the intellectual members of his generation with dubious grandiloquence:
[...] Students like us used to just go to graduate school and become college teachers. But after that, a new type of intellectual comes on the scene: the bad ass. The bad-ass is sort of a rogue intellectual. A bad-ass doesn't want to do anything so boring and low-paid and like...codified...as teaching [...] You're an intellectual, but you want to operate on a higher level. This is a new millenium, and you want to be a member of the millenial aristocracy, which is a meritocracy, but an aristo-meritocracy.

Tom Wolfe: Are you serious???

4 comments:

Chris said...

I have yet to crack open I am Charlotte Simmons, but I've been thinking about dialogue lately, too. I've been re-reading Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and I've been struck by how the narrator Charles Ryder actually says, I've had to whittle down this hour-long conversation, but here are its most important bits. When there is actual dialogue, it's pretty sparse but loaded with meaning, which I pretty much missed when I read the novel 8 years ago.

As for the excerpt you provide, I heard a lot of that type of really bad muddled-thinking, pseudo-intellectual crap, but it usually came (filled with malapropisms) from aspirants to the "aristo-meritocracy." Here I think Wolfe has made a bad combination of character types - but such is what happens when one does research for his writing rather than writing about what one knows about.

Ben said...

It's ok, I'm sure Mr Wolfe just wants us to believe that Adam Gellin read it on Salon or something...


Really though, I haven't seen a fully representative sample of the dialogue in IACS, but I don't find this speech so hard to believe or a combination of character types. Gellin is clearly a bullshitter, full of himself and aspiring to his own "aristo-meritocracy." Someone like him could have easily pulled his dialectic from some article that he liked and worked it into a rant that he's rehearsed in front of many a helpless bystander like Charlotte. That's not to say I don't have any beef with the book though...

Ben said...

Pardon: I meant to type "bad combination of character types," quoting Chris above.

Elaine said...

See, I could see someone thinking that but not saying it. Even the most pretentious people I knew in college didn't brag about their intellect.