Noting yesterday's post on this blog, A.C. Douglas maintains that I share with Michael Blowhard "the curious notion that the actual writing in a work of fiction is somehow separable or exists apart from the work's story." Linking to a previous post of his own, Douglas futher asserts that
There are two fundamental elements that go into making a work of prose fiction -- every work of prose fiction -- both of which are sine qua non. First and foremost, of course, is a story. No story, no work of prose fiction. Lousy story, lousy work of prose fiction. Nothing will save a work of prose fiction that's absent a first-rate story. Second, is human characters or a character (whether they take actual human form or not) through whom the story is played out.
If Douglas is suggesting that the "story" in a work of "prose fiction" can't be separated from the way in which it's told--which includes more than just "writing" per se, although finally everything in a work of literature does come down to writing, the words on the page--I entirely agree with him. I was objecting to a view of fiction that abstracts story from style or form and proclaims it to be the "real" object of interest to most casual readers. I simply want to insist that there are some readers who are more than casual in their approach to fiction and that these readers aren't just pointyheads because they sometimes do other than read for the plot.
I tend to stay away from claims about the "fundamental" elements of anything. It was once thought that among the fundamental elements of poetry were meter and rhyme, but only the most adamant anti-modernist would now deny that perfectly good poems have been written without either of these devices. And no one is saying that fiction should do without either story or character. As Jonathan Mayhew said in a comment on my original post, "Even experimental fiction tends to use proper names attached to bundles of seemingly human characteristics and move these bundles forward in some kind of narrative." I can't myself think of any fiction, experimental or otherwise, that doesn't present such bundles of "human characteristics" and have them do something or other. But of course it's a question of emphasis. Some writers want to know what the boundaries are--how much can you de-emphasize story or create less than "rounded" characters or manipulate the point of view and still engage the attentive reader's interest? There's nothing wrong with this. If some writers didn't do it, fiction as a form would simply calcify.
Douglas uses Lolita as an example of a novel that has "a great story to tell," despite what some readers and critics have had to say about Nabakov's prose style or his use of black humor. But I don't know that this book really provides such good support for Douglas's position. What exactly is the "story" Lolita has to tell? A dirty old man travels across country with his nymphet? Is it really this slender narrative thread that pulls the reader along through Nabokov's novel? Aren't there really many different stories in Lolita, most of them attached to this thread but many of them more or less self-sufficient? Are we really in reading Lolita sitting on the edge of our seats to find out what will happen to Humbert and to Lolita? Don't we know? Isn't it finally indeed Nabokov's style and wicked humor, his skill at manipulating the loose requirements of the picaresque narrative, that keep us reading?
In identifying story as the "sine qua non" of fiction, hasn't Douglas himself "separated" story from its effective embodiment and privileged narrative over all the other strategies a writer might use and all the other effects a work of fiction might create? In my view, if the words "literary fiction" have any meaning in the first place, they refer to the way in which a given writer has managed to convince us there is no such thing as a sine qua non in literature, except for the skill with which the writer is able to marshal the resources of language for whatever aesthetic purposes he/she has in mind.