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S.T. Karnick

The Right Stuff

Shortly before his untimely death in 1940, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, in his working notes for his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, "ACTION IS CHARACTER." Fitzgerald considered this observation to be so important that he underlined the first and last words several times each.

What this gifted novelist and short-story writer meant by this pithy statement should be quite obvious, though it seems to have escaped countless writers and critics in the past half-century: an author conveys a character and makes him real through the character's actions, including thoughts, words, deeds, or any combination of the three. (To interpret Fitzgerald's statement as meaning that action flows out of character would also make sense, but it is something that no author should find very useful: Where else could meaningful action come from but characters?)

Fitzgerald's observation would seem to be little more than common sense. As Aristotle noted more than two millennia ago, drama lies in the choices characters have to make. Unaccompanied by depictions of specific actions, statements about a person can hardly be dramatic, convincing, or compelling. On the other hand, most people are inherently interested in accounts of others' actions, in their moral choices, and in the thoughts that bring them to various crossroads and inform their decisions. That is why gossip is a universal phenomenon.

Unfortunately, during the decades since Fitzgerald wrote those words, action—in its most coherent guises of plot and story—gradually fell out of favor among the American literary élite and its multitude of followers. Novelists and, especially, short-story writers took the none-too-subtle hint and duly set out to explore character and let the story come as it might—or might not. By the 1980s and '90s, many of those at the top of the literary heap were minimalist writers such as Raymond Carver, Frederick Barthelme, Anne Beattie, and Mary Robison, whose "'around the house and in the yard' fiction," as the decidedly ...

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