Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The taste for story - "Too - much - goin' - on!"

Back to that James Wood interview for a minute, and "the essential juvenility of plot." He said it, not me! Wood immediately admits that he doesn't really mean it anyway, he's exaggerating for effect.

Wood is not really making an argument here. He's just stating a preference, a preference for "fiction in which not a lot happens in obvious ways." It's a preference I share - give me Richardson over Fielding, Austen over Scott. Chekhov, Proust, Beckett. Give me Malone Dies (plot summary: Malone dies).

There's a distinction I should make between story and incident. Everyone wants a strong story. It's the taste for incident that really matters. Clarissa has only three or four major incidents, that, over the course of 200 pages, might make for a taut thriller. Over the actual 2,000 or so pages, they become secondary. Or look at Proust - a fair part of "Combray" is devoted to details about how the narrator falls asleep, and the climax is when our young hero runs off to say farewell to his favorite hawthorn bush.* Dumas (or Hugo, or Dickens), fills his long books with much more incident. A lot more just happens, even if the basic story is not much more complex.

The quote in the title is something meine Frau heard at a showing of the remake of Shaft. The dashes should be read as pauses, the inflection should be increasing - land hard on the last word. It's a brilliant piece of literary criticism. Incident is often mistaken for story, even by professional writers. A good action movie has a simple, possibly even mindless plot, but complicated episodes. Writers, like the Shafters, often get this wrong. We want fewer plot twists, but more cool incidents.

The taste for incident is sometimes described as immature (action movies, video games). We're supposed to outgrow it, just as we're supposed to cultivate or somehow acquire a taste for sophistication in music. Honestly, is this anything but snobbery? The use of incident can be extremely subtle. Orlando Furioso is almost nothing but incidents, piled up to the moon, ingeniously woven together. Ovid's Metamorphoses works similarly - the fragments and stories are individually brilliant, but the transitions are marvels.

My preferences are ceteris paribus. I prefer less to more, all else equal, but with the great writers, all else is never equal. Rabelais, Cervantes, Byron, Waugh - their wonderful books are bursting with activity. Now I don't know what to think. Maybe I like it all. Save that thought for tomorrow.

Anyway, this has to influence how I write about stories. If I don't put a high value on story, then I won't be as thoughtful about revealing surprises as I perhaps should. Maybe writing this out will remind me to be more careful. Probably not. De gustibus non disputandum est. Nonsense, we dispute other people's tastes all the time. But how often do we argue with our own?

* The most pathetic scene in all of literature? Marcel gives the hawthorn a big hug, tearing up his little suit and hat. What a great book.


  1. Some of the most frustrating books I've read have been all incident without a satisfying overall story arc, including at least one book from the 18C, and I think it's common for novelists from the 18C and earlier to write novels with lots and lots of incidents (unless you're Richardson). Some of them do it well (Fielding) and other don't. Overall, I think I tend to prefer fewer incidents, but really, I think it just depends on how well the author writes them.

  2. Absolutely, incident can be a few words of dialogue that change everything or a single gesture filled with meaning...In that sense, plot or story don't matter but all the little stuff going on beneath the STORY do...
    I love the idea of arguing with my own taste!

  3. I thought about mentioning the old French "romances" and German Baroque novels, most of which now fall into the "unreadable" category, for just the reason you state. They used to be the norm. But I didn't think I knew enough about them.

    verbivore, I'm always asking, how does he do it, how does she do it - how do they tell a story? And every great writer, it turns out, has come up with a different answer.