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Rebecca Berg, who on Monday starts teaching Reading as a Writer: The Lush Novel (featuring William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice) is very gracious when you bug her on a weekend. I e-mailed her yesterday to ask, Why Styron, why now? Today she sent me this note:
Our emphasis as fiction writers is so often on creating an effect of “immediacy.” It’s gotten to the point that we almost think of narrative distance as a mistake. Sometimes I think we see the classic “talky” novelists as imperfect pioneers of a technology that has evolved since their time–as in: now we know better. Or maybe we tell ourselves: “Well, Styron was a great writer, but don’t try this at home.” Or maybe we think: “We’re in the age of Twitter–complexity not allowed.” Disempowering stuff. So my “Lush Novel” fascination is a little bit in the spirit of defiance: Remember, lots of people love to read those fat novels. And here’s the thing about Sophie’s Choice: it manages to speak about the unspeakable, the Holocaust. It breaks another rule, too: a lot of that unspeakable history is outside the author’s direct personal experience. The novel claims the right to do that. To exercise the imagination in that way. And one reason I think Styron brings this off is the various distancing techniques he uses. You don’t see much of the sun by looking at it directly.