January 27, 2010
On Lengthy Narration
As a reader, I’ve always been focused on story and character. I don’t need to be kept breathless with constant action and excitement because an exceptional, complex character will keep me engaged. However, books that have long passages devoted to setting and other descriptive narrative not directly related to character or story bore me. I discovered a few years ago that as a reader I actually just skim through these sections. I don’t read them with my full attention. I don’t care what kind of dresses people are wearing or what sort of furniture is in the room; I don’t care about the no-name people walking down the street and what they are doing; I want to find out what will happen to the real characters.
When I became a writer I discovered (no surprise) that I had trouble writing good description. Although I don’t like to read it, setting is important and needs to be handled, whether in short concise sentences or long detailed paragraphs. This is especially true in historical fiction because the reader needs to understand and connect with the environment of the story. Having skimmed this kind of narrative for so many years, I now give it my full attention.
And now that I’m doing it, I can’t help but wonder: how much of this does the reading public want? Some writers do it, in my opinion, exceptionally well: Tracy Chevalier, Philippa Gregory, Markus Zusak. Their writing is poetic, descriptive and concise. I don’t even realize I am reading setting, or if I do, it is so well written and fascinating that it works for me. I never feel the need to skim with these authors. Other extremely successful historical novelists put so much into their settings that the setting becomes a character in the novel. I admire their ability to do this, and yet the setting is not a character I care about. Although I love Claire and Jamie and their story, I stopped reading the Outlander series because I was so tired of wading through material I didn’t care about.
I find this true of modern short stories as well. I feel like I’m missing something. Most short stories I have read recently (in the New Yorker or in published collections) leave me thinking: Huh? They seem to have very little story and fairly boring characters. I don’t mean to seem anti-intellectual or uncultured. I’m hoping to have a conversation about this with people who do get it and can explain to me why they love the modern short story or Gabaldon’s lengthy narrative.
So, comment please!