In the May/Summer 2004 issue of The Writer's Chronicle, Alice Mattison offers an interesting essay defending the use of coincidence in fiction. Subtitled "An Essay Against Craft," the essay commends the use of coincidence as a way of taking risk, which Mattison feels is discouraged in a literary world dominated by the workshop "rules" implicitly taught in creative writing programs. Writes Mattison: "I don't think directions or rules are available, just terms. . .that undeniably simplify discussions of writing and literature." Such simplification is at times useful, but "the problem arises when we begin to draw conclusions from succesful choices, assuming that what works once will work in every instance."
A few paragraphs after the statements just quoted, Mattison is discussing a Charles Baxter essay in which "Baxter glances at the sort [of stories] that were rejected as old-fashioned by the authors who first made stories turn on insight. He characterizes the stories that Henry James and James Joyce rejected as those with 'plot structures tending to require a set of coincidences or connivances of circumstance.'" Mattison comments: "It hadn't occured to me, before I read Baxter's sentence, that coincidence defines the type of story in which it appears. I hadn't noticed that such stories. . .were helpless without coincidence."
Although Baxter and Mattison don't use the word, what they are both describing is the influence on early novels in English of the "picaresque" narrative. The picaresque story--derived from the term identifying the protagonist of such stories, the "picaro"--was introduced by Spanish writers of the 16th and 17th centuries, and is essentially a journey narrative in which the picaro, usually a rogueish character, embarks on a journey in which, literally, one thing happens after another. There's not really a sense of progression in the picaresque narrative, just a series of episodes, and usually the protagonist remains more or less unchanged, undergoing no transformation or "epiphany." The most famous picaresque novel is undoubtedly Don Quixote, in which Cervantes alters the form by making his protagonist a deluded but not antisocial or rascally character.
The early British novelists of the 18th century were greatly influenced by the picaresque narrative, especially such writers as Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding. Fielding's Tom Jones is probably the most famous of these British picaresque novels. It adopts the journey conceit, the episodic structure, and adds an element of explicit comedy that exceeds even the kind of doleful humor to be found in Don Quixote. (Tom Jones remains a tremendously readable book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to know what the picaresque form can accomplish.) Charles Dickens was in turn profoundly influenced by Smollett and Fielding, and his novels represent a further fashioning of the picaresque into a narrative technique of great flexibility and latent aesthetic potential.
But this was indeed the "old-fashioned" kind of storytelling that came to be rejected by later writers more concerned about the "craft" of fiction. Perhaps the first writer to really move away from the picaresque was Flaubert, and he may be the writer most responsible for converting fiction into a more gracefully "shaped" kind of storytelling, and therefore a form that could be taken seriously as a mode of literary art. (I greatly admire Flaubert, and nothing I say here is meant to denigrate his achievement in any way.) Mattison identifies James and Joyce as the writers who came to "shape" their stories around the occurence of an "epiphany," but it was really Flaubert who showed James and Joyce that such an aesthetically intricate effect could be brought off in fiction.
Since Flaubert, the notion of "story" in fiction is thus usually associated either specifically with the kind of dramatic narrative leading to revelation or epiphany pioneered by James and Joyce or more generally with the kind of carefully structured narrative encapsulated in "Freytag's triangle": exposition, rising action, climax, denoument, etc. Most genre fiction probably uses the latter, most "literary" fiction the former. Most best-selling potboilers are likely to use the Freytag-derived narrative filtered through Hollywood melodrama. In this context, the picaresque story almost doesn't seem like a story at all, since it doesn't arrange itself in some shaped pattern, but is instead just a series of incidents strung together.
I go over all this not to offer some kind of lesson in literary history but ultimately to suggest, with Mattison but more broadly than her advocacy of "coincidence" goes, that the picaresque ought to remain a viable option and can provide an alternative to the workshop-reinforced domination of the revalatory narrative. To some extent the picaresque style was revived by postwar American writers such as John Barth and Thomas Pynchon, but in my opinion it still contains much untapped potential. It can free the writer from the tyranny of story--the creation of narrative tension by which too many stories and novels are reductively judged--but at the same time allows for the depiction of external events, provides an aesthetically justified motive for abjuring the directive to probe the psychological depths, and perhaps most of all makes available all kind of other effects--satire, subplots, a larger cast of characters--that the craft-like story discourages. Of course, this is not the 18th century, and writers now would be using the picaresque form in a much more self-conscious way, but that in itself would likely give such fictions a "shape" that would rescue them from mere formlessness. (Although attempting a truly "formless" novel might be an interesting experiment in itself.)
I am not suggesting that the picaresque narrative is superior to the more conventionally shaped narrative most novels employ. The possibilities in "shaping" the latter kind of narrative have by no means been exhausted, although most published novels don't seem much interested in exploring these possibilities. A renewed interest in the picaresque might, however, help demonstrate that there is more than one way to tell a story, multiple ways to "shape" a work of fiction, without sacrificing readibility or even fiction's "entertainment" value. (Both Don Quixote and Tom Jones are nothing if not entertaining.) And in the final analyis using such a narrative strategy wouldn't really involve abandoning "craft"; ideally it would further demonstrate that craft is just as much involved in the breaking of convention as in its repetition.
This essay by Robert Douglas-Fairhurst in the Telegraph is really quite thoughtful about "silences" and endings in fiction. For instance:
. . .writing is always partial: it involves the choice of some words rather than others, and choice requires rejection. As Henry James observed, "Stopping, that's art": the writer must know what to shut out, when to shut up.
But even stopping need not be an imaginative curb, because alerting us to what is not being said can also remind us of how often life gives words the slip, whether through secrets, reticence or repression.
Fictional endings are the moments when speech topples over into silence, so they regularly provide concentrated images of the horror of death, from the corpse-strewn scenes that conclude Shakespeare's tragedies, to the newer worry over entropy that filters into a novel such as Forster's Howards End, which begins with Mrs Wilcox looking "tired" and ends with Mr Wilcox "Eternally tired".
But endings can also be more lively and enlivening than this. "Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending": George Eliot's "Finale" to Middlemarch points out that it is no easier to tie up all loose ends in a novel than it is to draw a sharp line between one life and another life.
The insights here about the use of silence in works of serious literature are especially useful. What's not said, of course, is often as important as what is--Beckett, for example, seems to me the writer who has most profoundly understood the literary possibilities of silence, as well as the advantages of saying too little rather than saying too much. Somehow, these seem to me to be the real choices available to serious writers--either refusing to say what readers can be led to hear nevertheless, or saying so much that readers similarly come to understand what words can "say" and what they can't. (In contemporary American fiction, Carver on the one hand, Elkin on the other.) Saying just the right amount seems to me the most boring approach one can take. And it is the role of literary criticism, one it's no longer much assuming, to help readers prepare themselves to note the silences and make sense of the noise.
But I can't quite accept Douglas-Fairhurst's descriptions of the role of endings. He speaks of them as "stopping," as the final point in the narrative line a novel or play has drawn. This line, he suggests, is extended further by the reader into "life." (The final ending, of course, being the Big Ending awaiting us all.) "Above all," he writes, "good endings take us to the point where we emerge from reading better prepared to meet the challenges of the world." Perhaps some, perhaps many, readers have had this experience in reading narrative literature, but surely this can't be the more immediate purpose of endings in literature. Most writers have no better idea of how "to meet the challenges of the world" than anyone else.
Writers do, however, presumably have a somewhat better idea of how to shape works of fiction into literary art. They know how the ending relates to the other parts of the novel or story. They ought to know how they want the reader to relate the way the story ends to what has come before. In other words, an ending is more like a completion, the final piece of what should be the artistic whole, the last element in the literary design that allows the reader--perhaps forces the reader--to take a figurative step back and perceive that whole as it has now been finally presented. In this respect, it is no more--also no less--important than any of the other parts of the whole.
Douglas-Fairhurst's notion of the function of endings in fiction only reinforces the too widely-held idea that fiction is all about, is only about, "the story." Stories are a dime a dozen. There probably is some inherent fascination with stories hard-wired into the human brain, but most people would rather get their stories from movies and television. Fiction writers aren't going to get anywhere by continuing to compete with these media. The best writers stopped competing long ago. If fiction is going to survive as a vital--although not necessarily "popular"--literary art, writers will have to turn their attention away from stories in the simplistic sense Douglas-Fairhurst's otherwise very intelligent remarks nevertheless still invoke and instead concentrate on the more dynamic possibilities of fiction as a form aside from the requirements of narrative. At the very least, they need to think through unexamined assumptions about how stories work and what they accomplish. ("Dumbing down" complex ideas or dramatizing "issues" just won't do.) Great writers have never been simply great storytellers, although some have indeed been great ones; a story may keep you reading until the end, but if you don't go back and retrace the steps that got you there it may well prove to be an "imaginative curb."
The biggest problem with Julian Evans's "The Return of Story" in the December Prospect is that its central contention, on which the burden of his anti-aesthetic argument is placed, is simply wrong. "In the cinema" Evans writes, "a core of narrative innocence survives across a spectrum of values represented by Spielberg at one end and Abbas Kiarostami at the other. In the novel, however, story has gone down in a blaze of modernist attitudes. . ." Clearly Evans doesn't really read very many of the scores of novels published every year in both Great Britain and the United State. If he did, he would certainly discover that almost all of them--perhaps not exactly 100% of them, but pretty close to that--do indeed tell stories, and almost as many (90%? 95?) tell very traditional stories of a sort Evans's most conventional "storyteller" from the past would immediately recognize and heartily endorse.
(Evans is notably reluctant to name names in his indictment against contemporary novelists for abandoning narrative, but he does cite Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie. Come again? Amis doesn't tell stories? How did I miss that? And Rushdie? Midnight's Children? Perhaps one could call this novel "magical realism," but since when has magical realism done anything but tell stories? One Hundred Years of Solitude? If Evans has indeed read these books but still would claim they don't tell stories, he's a pathetically poor reader.)
But Evans gives the game away when he praises Fitzgerald's "The Rich Boy" because it "consists of a linear narrative managed by a modern consciousness." It's not that modern/postmodern novels jettison narrative altogether, it's that they don't stick to linear narrative. One might have thought that the history of fiction in the 20th century had at least demonstrated that stories don't need to be "linear" to be stories or to engage a reader's attention, but apparently not. Apparently most of this fiction is to be dismissed as so many "literary bleeps and squeaks," although Evans is assuredly mistaken if he really thinks fiction will be returning to the practices of the past in some ingenuously earnest kind of way ("down with self-consciousness!") or that the fiction characterized by "modernist attitudes" will just disappear. It prompts one to ask: If Evans really dislikes what fiction has become, why does he bother with it all, even to deplore it? He's stuck with it, so perhaps he should just console himself with the "narrative innocence" of movies. (Except that we all know that "the cinema" at its best lost its narrative innocence a long time ago as well.)
(The bit about "modern consciousness" takes us into James Wood territory, and I have made a resolution to not go back there again, at least for a while.)
What Evans really dislikes is art itself, at least as far as it has dared to sully the innocence of fiction: "The histories of the novel and of storytelling ran together until the early 20th century; since the 1920s, that history has been one of formal drift, away from the novel as a social form that described how characters live in relation to others. . ." It's telling that, for Evans, any deviation at all from the tradition of "storytelling" must be "drift," almost literally, given the language here, some kind of ethical betrayal. To be a muddle-headed aesthete, even to be interested in the aesthetic qualities of literature at all, has long been anathema to a certain kind of critic, grounds for accusing writers of being morally deficient, but why, for example, would it probably not occur to these critics to declare, say, composers too interested in art, too attentive to the needs of form over those of morality? Even the most conventionally tonal music is by its very nature about form, about the relationships between sounds and the interaction of purely musical qualities. Is fiction not allowed to explore the possibilities of the linguistic medium in something like the way music explores the possibilities of the aural medium? Why when a fiction writer does this is he/she more likely to be considered some kind of malefactor?
Furthermore, Evans is again simply wrong in his assertion that "The histories of the novel and of stroytelling ran together until the early 20th century." This is a common, but mistaken, belief about the development of fiction even in the 19th century. Evans cites Henry James as one of his storytelling heroes, but who would say that James's real preoccupation was telling stories? That he wasn't more interested in the "how" of storytelling--point of view, style"--than in the "what"--events, narrative progression, the details of "what happens"? For some reason it is assumed that the great figures of literary realism were also tale-spinners, but who can read Chekhov and say this? His stories are about character, situation, revelatory moments. As far as narrative is concerned, in most of them almost nothing happens. The fact is, the more fiction "drifted" toward realism, the less it focused on story at all--"story" was an artificial construction that was not faithful to the way real people actually experienced their lives.
But for Evans, fiction is not about individuals at all, which is presumably also an ethical breach: "Novelists may want to write narrowly or widely; but the novel remains a social form, and our fiction should communicate that whatever identity we may have is composed not merely of ourselves but of others. The novel, in its fully realised state, exists to reflect on those links between us - on their making and breaking. How can it do that other than through stories?" Evan's assumption couldn't be clearer: novels are not about art, they're sociology. Moreover, they're a particularly smarmy form of sociology, in which we are lectured to about our duties to others. They're a handy form of indoctrination and propaganda. Stories just keep it simple. And Evans's superior insights are apparently not restricted to moral issues: He also knows what novels are really for, has somehow acquired a knowledge of what they would appropriately be like in their "fully realized state." It's always nice when a critic is able to share his god-like wisdom and set poor novelists straight about what they ought to do.
According to Evans, one of the judges of the most recent Man Booker prize has finally learned her lesson. "Reading 132 books in 147 days," she is quoted as saying, "you learn a great deal about why so many novels - even well-written, carefully crafted novels, as so many of those submitted were - are ultimately pointless." And thus we arrive at what always turns out to be the crux of the matter for people with the attitude toward fiction exemplified by someone like Julian Evans: novels must have "a point," they can just be "well-written" and "carefully crafted." For Evans, the point must be "social," but for others it need not be socially redeeming per se. It just needs to be something more than "mere" art--indeed, more than "merely literary." This attitude, while ostensibly looking out for the welfare of literature, actually couldn't be more dismissive. Who needs literature, anyway, when you can just go around making points?
Myself, I love pointless novels. They can even tell stories, but when they start to "communicate" to me about our shared identities, I stop turning the pages.