It’s the Story, Stupid

kinnon —  September 7, 2009 — 2 Comments


As mentioned below, I'm reading C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series. In just over a week, I've finished the first three books and am half way through the fourth (while also getting lots of other work done, honest).

I'm a murder-mystery fan (Elizabeth George being my favourite in this genre) and Sansom's series is murder-mystery set in King Henry VIII's England – combining another guilty pleasure of mine, historical fiction. This series is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

A few posts back, I wrote a rather snarky post on book writing called Push Back from the Keyboard, Put Down the Pen – key quote:

It would seem that everyone has a book in them. And perhaps that's where most of them should stay.

But the primary point in the post was that fiction sold better than non-fiction, and writers needed to consider becoming great storytellers – if they were going to inflict their writing on more than their Moms.

Continuing on this topic, Andy Crouch recently pointed to a good article in the WSJ from Lev Grossman on popular fiction vs plot-less, plodding "literary" fiction.

…the discipline of the conventional literary novel is a pretty harsh one. To read one is to enter into a kind of depressed economy, where pleasure must be bought with large quantities of work and patience. The Modernists felt little obligation to entertain their readers. That was just the price you paid for your Joycean epiphany. Conversely they have trained us, Pavlovianly, to associate a crisp, dynamic, exciting plot with supermarket fiction, and cheap thrills, and embarrassment. Plot was the coward's way out, for people who can't deal with the real world. If you're having too much fun, you're doing it wrong.

I've always preferred the pleasure of a good read to the pain of wading through the fictional accounting of a life more miserable than my own. (Though our library shelves might suggest otherwise – in my case, they lie.) And when it comes to said pleasures, 'twould appear I'm not alone. (As Crouch quoted Grossman)

There was a time when difficult literature was exciting. T.S. Eliot once famously read to a whole football stadium full of fans. And it's still exciting—when Eliot does it. But in contemporary writers it has just become a drag. Which is probably why millions of adults are cheating on the literary novel with the young-adult novel, where the unblushing embrace of storytelling is allowed, even encouraged. Sales of hardcover young-adult books are up 30.7% so far this year, through June, according to the Association of American Publishers, while adult hardcovers are down 17.8%. Nam Le's "The Boat," one of the best-reviewed books of fiction of 2008, has sold 16,000 copies in hardcover and trade paperback, according to Nielsen Bookscan (which admittedly doesn't include all book retailers). In the first quarter of 2009 alone, the author of the "Twilight" series, Stephenie Meyer, sold eight million books. What are those readers looking for? You'll find critics who say they have bad taste, or that they're lazy and can't hack it in the big leagues. But that's not the case. They need something they're not getting elsewhere. Let's be honest: Why do so many adults read Suzanne Collins's young-adult novel "The Hunger Games" instead of contemporary literary fiction? Because "The Hunger Games" doesn't bore them. (emphasis added by BK)

Tell me a story that doesn't bore. Pull me into a world that intrigues me. If you have truth to teach, weave it into the lives of your characters and bring it alive in the craft of your prose. As Grossman (almost) concludes,

The novel is finally waking up from its 100-year carbonite nap. Old hierarchies of taste are collapsing. Genres are hybridizing. The balance of power is swinging from the writer back to the reader, and compromises with the public taste are being struck all over the place. Lyricism is on the wane, and suspense and humor and pacing are shedding their stigmas and taking their place as the core literary technologies of the 21st century.

From a hieratic, hermetic art object the novel is blooming into something more casual and open: a literature of pleasure. The critics will have to catch up. This new breed of novel resists interpretation, but not the way the Modernists did. These books require a different set of tools, and a basic belief that plot and literary intelligence aren't mutually exclusive.

Afterall, it is the story, stupid!



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

2 responses to It’s the Story, Stupid

  1. You have no idea how muck flak I got for this in theatre school: I can remember criunging with embarrasment while playing characters with no life or depth and wondering where the story, the plot or the joy had gone. The theatre director spent a lot of time wondering where the audience was.
    I had this idea that theatre could be fuin, and exciting, and take people out of themselves and into the story for a while, so when I was assigned to write material I wrote what I wanted to see in a theatre. Non-theatregoers loved it, but it didn’t have enough ‘depth’ or angst for theatre people. (and it was far to easy to understand)
    Now I get into trouble for writing stories and not preaching…

  2. I took a sack full of literature classes during college. In reflecting back, I don’t recall ever hearing much about plot and character formation. The message was all sociological. What does the character say about contemporary America?

    It is why I enjoyed the Harry Potter series so much. There was an intricate plot that involved characters I cared about. The same is true of some television shows. I recently watch the entire first season of the Australian show, McLeod’s Daughters during one week. Most of the characters had a story arc that was interesting and consistent throughout the 22 episodes. To see character development like that reminded me of 19th century English novels where each chapter is a self-contained story advancing both the plot and the development of the character. The best one that comes to mind is Thackery’s Vanity Faire, which was written and published serially. An early example of crowdsourcing as he wrote the next chapter in response to what the critics and public were saying about the latest chapter. It is a better book that the recent film.

    Lastly, Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturian series, set a board a British war ship during the war of 1812 is a fine example of the development of story and characters that are consistent over the 20 or so novels in the series. It is like reading one long novel that you don’t want to end.

    Great post Bill.


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