The Art of Art #1: the emotional back story

(An occasional series that may never get beyond #1)

Art often derives its power from what it does not say, from what it leaves unsaid. Artworks such as novels and poems and movies and songs typically include spaces or gaps which the reader (in the case of verbal art) is required to fill in, based on information encoded in the text but not explicitly stated.

Take Hemingway’s famous 6-word story: For sale: baby shoes. Never worn. The reason this micro-story works so well, or works at all, is that it carries an emotional back story and that back story is supplied by the reader, not the writer, though the writer fully intends such a back story to be elicited in the reader’s mind. What the story doesn’t say of course is that the baby in question has obviously died before he or she was even old enough to need shoes, which evokes our pity. But it’s more than that. It also implies that the baby’s parents were good parents, full of plans for the future, having prepared for the birth by buying clothes which wouldn’t be required till later. And this in spite of the fact that they’re clearly not well off – or why else would they now be selling off these same clothes, unless it’s because they can’t bear to be surrounded by reminders of their beloved baby’s death. Either way, our pity is again evoked. All this is contained or implied in the story’s six words but none of it is made explicit. It’s left for the reader to make the necessary connections.

Emotional back stories come in many forms, you even find them in TV ads. One of the ads I remember most fondly from my youth – and I remember it precisely because it packed an emotional punch – is the Del Monte tinned oranges ad: ‘The man from Del Monte he say yes!’ (Later versions of the ad changed ‘say’ to the more politically-correct ‘says’.) Each time I saw this ad I would briefly share in the triumphant euphoria of the old Spanish farmer whose livelihood depended so heavily on getting the thumbs-up for his oranges from Del Monte. For a moment I would stand in his shoes: the expectant wait for the Del Monte buyer to arrive, the inspection of the crop and the anxious uncertainty while awaiting his verdict, the rushing home to his wife to share the good news. One must not forget, however, that this was an advert and, like all adverts, it was designed to increase sales. So it also managed to smuggle in a neat little message about the high quality of Del Monte products and how rigorously they’re inspected before selection so that only the juiciest oranges from the most conscientious farmers ever make it into their tins. But the point is that all this is accomplished with just an 8-word slogan.

Songs of course are full of emotional back stories. One of my favourite Springsteen tracks is ‘Meeting Across the River’ from the Born To Run album. Like many Springsteen songs, it’s a character sketch – this time of a down-on-his-luck small-time Jersey crook who has a big job lined up in NYC if only he can cadge a lift through the tunnel from a friend. In fact he’s so down on his luck he’s even been reduced to pawning his girlfriend’s radio – an act of desperation, even sacrilege, for any Springsteen character, never mind the appropriation of his girlfriend’s property – prompting the girlfriend, Cherry, to threaten to leave him. All this is stated more or less upfront in the song’s lyric. But the song is also full of telling details and subtle turns of phrase that allow the listener to paint a broader and more nuanced picture of the song’s subject and finally to feel sympathy for him.

Take the song’s closing lines:

Tonight’s gonna be everything that I said: In other words he’s been talking the job up, promising Cherry this is the big one, the one that’ll finally end their financial woes.

And when I walk through that door I’m just gonna throw that money on the bed: Which suggests the couple are living out of a motel room or perhaps in a one-bed apartment, another signifier of their indigence. And the significance of throwing the money on the bed can be summed up in a single word: vindication.

She’ll see this time I wasn’t just talking: So this has happened before, perhaps many times, he’s talked a job up and nothing has come of it, he’s disappointed her. But this time it’ll be different.

Then I’m gonna go out walking: We leave him enjoying his fantasy of his soon-to-be-acquired sense of vindication, celebrating by just strolling through the city streets on his own, feeling good about himself.

So a song about a penniless small-time crook ends by becoming a song about hope and dreams (albeit of a limited and criminal variety) and self-respect. And this transformation is brought about largely by the listener, who supplies the missing, or rather implied, emotional content.

I’ve written elsewhere on this website on the subject of humour and there I suggested that, for a joke to be successful, it always requires the listener to make a creative connection – a connection deliberately placed there by the joke-teller, waiting to be found – in order to complete the comedic circuit of the joke. The emotional back story is a variant of this device. All art is a conversation between the artist, or rather the artwork, and its audience. Sentimental art occurs when the emotional back story is too clearly foregrounded so that the message is obvious and no creative collaboration on the part of the reader/viewer/listener is required. (The equivalent of the sentimental story in joke form is the joke that provokes a groan rather than a laugh because it’s too obvious.) Great art occurs, or can occur, when our creative responses are so cleverly and subtly manipulated that we have no sense we’re being manipulated at all.

For what it’s worth, my own short story ‘The Book of Ands’ – a story about a book from which everything but the word ‘and’ has been excluded, in other words a book which ends up being written by the reader – is a Borgesian exploration of this same idea.

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