10 November 2021

Asking for Tea

Stanley Tucci tells this story:

     An actor complains to his director, “I’m not getting a laugh when I ask for the tea.”

     And the director says, “You’re not asking for the tea, you’re asking for the laugh.”

The audience has a nose for insincerity. You can get away with a lot, but you can’t get away with the pretense of feeling. Readers accept the necessity of researching ballistics, or migratory birds, or the sex habits of the Trobriand Islanders; they won’t accept faking it or phoning it in, not if it’s dishonest, or worse, condescending.

John D. MacDonald said that sentimentality is unearned emotion. I remember breaking down at the end of Old Yeller – the Fred Gipson book was on my summer reading list – and for good reason. You were invested in the story, even more so in the dog. (I was never a fan of the Disney movie. Spike, who played Yeller, was terrific; Tommy Kirk, not so much.) Of course, a few years later I had a similar reaction to the ending of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. I didn’t burst into tears, mind, I threw the book across the room. Again, a matter of investment. We’ve come to believe in Leamas, and have every confidence in the mission. Who would expect him to climb back down?

Here’s something. You don’t tell people how to feel. You give them a resolution that’s authentic, or persuasive, and allow for a visceral response.

You get the laugh when you ask for tea, whether it’s in character or not, because it develops naturally out of the context. You get the tears for the same reason. You don’t milk them. Oscar Wilde’s remark comes to mind: “A man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell.” Wilde certainly didn’t mind mocking convention or having fun at someone else’s expense, but he usually pays you the compliment of assuming you’re in on the joke. True, here, of Dickens. He’s reaching for the effect. It’s all too obviously manipulative. You can hear the gears creaking.

In fairness, with all due respect to Wilde, you can find a lot in Dickens that’s genuinely chilling, or funny, or just plain sincere. That’s a tricky adjective, damning with faint praise, the way we might say a piece of art is na├»ve, the execution rough but its heart in the right place.  My point is that Dickens can work amazing sleights when he imagines himself into a place of his own sympathies, and writes – you guessed it – from the heart. When he tries to fake it, skilled as he is, he can’t spin gold from flax.

You can no more talk somebody into liking something – a movie you’re crazy about, say – than you can talk yourself out of being in love. Some things are simply impervious to reason, or persuasion. By the same token, you can’t make the reader believe a story by wrestling them to the mat with the brute weight of detail, not if you don’t believe in it yourself. The reader’s going to notice. You have to wear the clothes, or it’s just an empty suit.    

The word I’m looking for here is inhabit. You want a lived-in kind of conviction, a sense of the familiar, a confidence that gains your trust. Years ago, Matthew Bruccoli and Richard Layman bought one of my first mystery stories for an anthology, and in their introduction, they quoted Hammett, from “The Gutting of Couffignal.” The Continental Op is settling in for the night with a borrowed book, and he describes it like this.

The book was called The Lord of the Sea, and had to do with a strong, tough and violent fellow… whose modest plan was to hold the world in one hand. There were plots and counterplots, kidnappings, murders, prisonbreakings, forgeries and burglaries, diamonds large as hats and floating forts larger than Couffignal.

It sounds dizzy here, but in the book it was as real as a dime.

Now there’s a nice turn of phrase, as real as a dime.  I’ll leave it at that.  


  1. David: GREAT post. Two quick anecdotes backing this up, both from experience, first as a reader, and second, as a writer.

    First, while reading Cormac McCarthy's NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, I came upon the scene where the character I THOUGHT was the main character meets his end at the hands of the nightmarish Anton Chigurh. I threw the book across the room, hit the wall with it. Grudgingly finished it so I could try to see what McCarthy was up to. I've heard a variety of theories about this since, none satisfying. The entire experience left me cold and I haven't invested a second of my time on McCarthy's work since. Apparently I'm the only one it affected this way, because boy did the critics love this book, especially that mid-book twist. Me it just pissed off. Good job Cormac. Doubt you'll miss my investment in your subsequent earnings statement.

    Second, as a writer. I wrote a story (I won't say which) years ago that got published and many of my friends who read it wished aloud that it was a longer piece, as they really enjoyed the characters, plot, etc. So I expanded it into a novella. The ending, a purposely "The Lady or the Tiger" sort of ending, I left intact from my earlier version.

    A very good friend, an editor by trade, who opinion I trust implicitly, pressed me repeatedly to add a further paragraph at the end, expanding on what literally "happened next," which, of course, I wished to leave to the imagination of the reader. I thanked him (repeatedly) for the suggestion and respectfully disagreed and left the novella the way it was.

    I have never had occasion to regret that decision.

    Seriously, really a thought-provoking post. Definitely appreciate it. Thanks!


  2. I can think of a couple of times when I became intensely vested in a novel and asked a prior reader if this was going to turn out the way I wanted. Fortunately, both did.

    Oh man, I enjoy the Continental Op. I read the stories as a kid, which cemented my admiration for Hammett.

  3. Good stuff. I am trying to think of an edning that made want to throw a book. Can't come up with one. The GUTTING OF C... is one of my favorite mystery stories. The last sentence is worth any number of full novels.


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