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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Monday, December 05, 2005

more on anhedonia

I wanted to talk more about my fiction anhedonia, since the reader Kate made some attempted diagnoses in the comments to yesterday's post.

I enjoy reading. Enjoyment is still my primary datum: I know whether I'm enjoying something or not. The effort to explain why I'm enjoying it or not enjoying it is secondary, an attempt to identify factors or qualities.

My critique of storytelling is one of these. I place emphasis on it because I believe that story is, in general:

a) the most important single aspect of a novel, and

b) the least well executed aspect

It doesn't mean that other aspects aren't important; they are. In my recent praise for the novel Shantaram I mentioned how I felt that story, in my sense, is not its strong point--but many other points are so strong that I am really enjoying the book. Nor do I really restrict my definition of story to the thumbnail description I gave about one character having one problem. My own work has four protagonists, and there are lots of ways of telling a good story.

The quality I'm looking for is what I call story traction: the feeling of being pulled through the story. A sense of gentle, interested zeal has me turning the page. Not a sense of duty, not a feeling of, "well, I've started this book so I'm damn well going to finish it." When I feel that, I bail.

Where does story traction come from? At bottom, I believe, it comes from the sense that the book has something important to say, it means something of relevance to me, and this meaning is encoded in a dramatic structure. I feel that what's happening here, in the fictional world being portrayed, matters. A good work of fiction teaches me something about life and how to live it. It's about values, their relative importance, and how to realize them. Life is finite and short. Moment by moment it slips away, and that awareness is never far away; it is the source of urgency in our lives. How we spend that ultimate wealth is important. A good story is counsel in our approach to that universal problem.

Kate puts the question of whether I have in effect poisoned the well of reading by becoming a writer, by subconsciously analyzing things. But I don't analyze things subconsciously--I do it consciously! For me, it is not only something that does not detract from enjoyment, but also part of the discipline of being a writer at all, part of my program of continually trying to improve. When my friend Rob asked me whether I couldn't "suspend disbelief" and just enjoy something without criticizing, analyzing it, I said no.

"It's like you sitting down to a dinner," I said (he's a Paris-trained chef). "No matter how much you want to enjoy the dinner, you'll know how well it's cooked. You'll know whether they achieved what they set out to do, which things got flubbed."

He thought it was an apt analogy. You can't just unknow what you know.

My example of a good work of historical fiction is Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave. That's what I offer up as a sample of what I like. Maybe more of why in a future post.

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  • Yes, Mary Stewart is very good. My all-time favorite has been Mary Renault though, but she's writing the history that I'm interested in and writing myself. I pore over her work and study how she constructs her stories. At first I had to be careful I wasn't copying her style, but I've developed my own style now.

    Rosemary Sutcliffe is also an excellent historical writer. Her stories which are for young adults are just as intersting for us older kids.

    By Blogger Wynn Bexton, at December 06, 2005 12:07 AM  

  • Life and how to live it. Okay, that's a high hurdle but I have an idea of what you're getting at now. (By the way, how do the Claudius books fit this?). A lot of history raises questions about e.g. the use and abuse of power, the balance between integrity and practicality (politics was always the art of the possible), independence versus unity, and so on. If you take Nigel Tranter's 'Bruce' trilogy, there's an insistent question in the first and especially the second book; should Bruce carry on fighting for independence at the cost of continual war and suffering, or would he be a better king if he knuckled under to Edward I and gained peace at the price of lost independence? You have the same sort of question in Sharon Penman's books about the last days of independent Wales, 'Here Be Dragons' and 'The Reckoning'. In her book 'Falls the Shadow', which comes chronologically between these two, she tells the story of Simon de Montfort's rebellion against Henry III, which has a theme about whether it is right to rebel against an incompetent king. But in all these cases, the theme is part of the background rather than the foreground, if you follow me. Perhaps because we know the history and know the choices that were made, so that makes it harder to have the conflict at the heart of the story. If you like, it's history, so the outcome is *not* always in doubt.
    Do you read/like epic fantasy? Some authors choose to write it because the invented setting means the outcome *is*, theoretically at least, always in doubt. This is one reason why I like 'The Once and Future King'. No real monarch in the Middle Ages would have executed his beloved wife merely because she was guilty under the law; he'd have executed the accusers instead. But TH White can have his Arthur make the opposite choice, so the decision is in doubt until it happens.
    Now I will go and get The Crystal Cave out of the library and read it.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at December 06, 2005 4:44 AM  

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