(Reading, Seeing #2)
The narrative gift, is that what to call it? The story-teller’s knack, as developed in writing.
Story-telling is clearly a gift, a talent, a specific ability. Some people just don’t have it — they rush or drone, jumble the order of events, skip essentials, dwell on inessentials, and then muff the climax. Don’t we all have a relative who we pray won’t launch into a joke or a bit of family history because the history will bore us and the joke will bomb? But we may also have a relative who can take the stupidest, nothingest little event and make it into what copywriters call a gut-wrenchingly brilliant thriller and a laugh riot. Or, as Cousin Verne says, that Cousin Myra, she sure knows how to tell a story.
When Cousin Myra goes literary, you have a force to contend with.
But how important is that knack to writing fiction? How much of it, or what kind of it, is essential to excellence? And what is the connection of the narrative gift with literary quality?
I’m talking about story, not about plot. E.M.Forster had a low opinion of story. He said story is “The queen died and then the king died,” while plot is “The queen died and then the king died of grief.” To him, story is just “this happened and then this happened and then this happened,” a succession without connection; plot introduces connection or causality, therefore shape and form. Plot makes sense of story. I honor E.M. Forster, but I don’t believe this. Children often tell “this happened and then this happened,” and so do people naively recounting their dream or a movie, but in literature, story in Forster’s sense doesn’t exist. Not even the silliest “action” potboiler is a mere succession of unconnected events.
I have a high opinion of story. I see it as the essential trajectory of narrative: a coherent, onward movement, taking the reader from Here to There. Plot, to me, is variation or complication of the movement of story.
Story goes. Plot elaborates the going.
Plot hesitates, pauses, doubles back (Proust), forecasts, leaps, doubling or tripling simultaneous trajectories (Dickens), diagrams a geometry onto the story line (Hardy), makes the story Ariadne’s string leading through a labyrinth (mysteries), turns the story into a cobweb, a waltz, a vast symphonic structure in time (the novel in general)….
There are supposed to be only so many plots (three, five, ten) in all fiction. I don’t believe that, either. Plot is manifold, inexhaustibly ingenious, endless in connections and causalities and complications. But through all the twists and turns and red herrings and illusions of plot, the trajectory of story is there, going forward. If it isn’t going forward, the fiction founders.
I suppose plot without story is possible — perhaps one of those incredibly complex cerebral spy thrillers where you need a GPS to get through the book at all. And story without plot occurs occasionally in literary fiction (Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall,” perhaps) — oftener in literary nonfiction. A biography, for instance, can’t really have a plot, unless the subject obligingly provided one by living it. But the great biographers make you feel that the story of the life they’ve told has an esthetic completeness equal to that of plotted fiction. Lesser biographers and memoirists often invent a plot to foist onto their factual story — they don’t trust it to work by itself, so they make it untrustworthy.
I believe a good story, plotted or plotless, rightly told, is satisfying as such and in itself. But here, with “rightly told,” is my conundrum or mystery. Inept writing lames or cripples good narrative only if it’s truly inept. An irresistibly readable story can be told in the most conventional, banal prose, if the writer has the gift.
I read a book last winter that does an absolutely smashing job of story-telling, a compulsive page-turner from page 1 on. The writing is competent at best, rising above banality only in some dialogue (the author’s ear for the local working-class dialect is pitch-perfect.) Several characters are vividly or sympathetically portrayed, but they’re all stereotypes. The plot has big holes in it, though only one of them really damages credibility. The story-line: an ambitious white girl in her early twenties persuades a group of black maids in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1964, to tell her their experiences with their white employers past and present, so that she can make a book of their stories and share them with the world by selling it to Harper and Row, and go to New York and be rich and famous. They do, and she does. And except for a couple of uppity mean white women getting some egg on their face nobody suffers for it.
All Archimedes wanted was a solid place to put the lever he was going to move the world with. Same with a story trajectory. You can’t throw a shotput far if you’re standing on a shaky two-inch-wide plank over a deep, dark river. You need a solid footing.
Or do you?
All this author had to stand on is a hokey, sentimental notion, and from it she threw this perfect pitch!
Seldom if ever have I seen the power of pure story over mind, emotion, and artistic integrity so clearly shown.
And I had to think about it, because a few months earlier, I’d read a book that brilliantly demonstrates a narrative gift in the service of clear thought, honest feeling, and passionate integrity. It tells an extremely complicated story extending over many decades and involving many people, from geneticists cloning cells in cloistered laboratories to families in the shack-houses of black farming communities. The story explains scientific concepts and arguments with great clarity while never for a moment losing its onward impetus. It handles the human beings it involves with human compassion and a steady, luminous ethical focus. The prose is of unobtrusive excellence. And if you can stop reading it you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. I couldn’t stop even when I got to the Notes — Even when I got to the Index. More! Go on! O please tell me more!
I see a huge difference in literary quality between these two hugely readable books, which certainly has to do with specific qualities of character — among them patience, honesty, risk-taking.
Kathryn Stockett, the white woman who wrote The Help, tells of a white girl persuading black women to tell her intimate details of the injustices and hardships of their lives as servants — a highly implausible undertaking in Mississippi in ’64. When the white employers begin to suspect this tattling, only an equally implausible plot-trick lets the black maids keep their jobs. Their sole motivation is knowing their stories will be printed; the mortal risk they would have run in bearing such witness, at that place in that year, is not seriously imagined, but merely exploited to create suspense. White-girl’s motivation is a kind of high-minded ambition. Her risks all become rewards — she loses malevolent friends and a bigoted boyfriend and leaves Mississippi behind for a brilliant big-city career. The author’s sympathy for the black women and knowledge of their everyday existence is evident, but, for me, it was made questionable by her assumption of a right to speak for people without earning that right, and killed dead by the wish-fulfilling improbability of her story.
Rebecca Skloot, the white woman who wrote The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, spent years researching a vastly complex web of scientific research, thefts, discoveries, mistakes, deceits, cover-ups, exploitations, and reparations, while at the same time trying, with incredible patience and good will, to gain the trust of the people most directly affected by the one human life with which all that research and profit-making began — the family of Henrietta Lacks. These were people who had good reason to feel that they would be endangered or betrayed if they trusted any white person. It took her literally years to win their confidence. Evidently she showed them that she deserved it by her patient willingness to listen and learn, her rigorous honesty, and her compassionate awareness of who and what was and is truly at risk.
“Of course her story is superior,” says Mr Gradgrind, “it’s nonfiction — it’s true. Fiction is mere hokum.”
But oh, Mr Gradgrind, so much nonfiction is awful hokum! How bad and mean my mommy was to me before I found happiness in buying a wonderful old castle in Nodonde and fixing it up as an exclusive gourmet b&b while bringing modern educational opportunities to the village children….
And contrarily, we can learn so much truth by reading novels, such as the novel in which you appear, Mr Gradgrind.
No, that’s not where the problem lies. The problem — my problem — is with the gift of story.
If one of the two books I’ve been talking about is slightly soiled fluff, while the other is solid gold, how come I couldn’t stop reading either of them?
14 May 2012