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Stories Thick and Thin

Thoughts on fictional “density,” and a credo

A story which fails to satisfy is said to be “thin.” This implies that there is a thickness or density of fictional effect – a sense of gravitas – that we find desirable as readers and need to achieve as writers. But how? And of what does this density consist? One answer would be that this is a question of “felt life,” i.e., the novel’s sense of “reality,” especially psychological reality. This argument holds good for so-called realistic fiction. Yet fiction demands more than outward believability, or, for that matter, depth of character; if not, Gulliver’s Travels, Candide, or The Time Machine would never have achieved the impact that they have.

A more satisfying answer lies in what I call density of implication: the sense that the story has import beyond the mere narration of anecdote, that it signifies something beyond itself. Density of this sort is the highest achievement of storytelling. Stories work – and have meaning in our lives – because they are metaphors for experience, not because they “record” experience or because they offer merely an escape from it. A “thick” story is, first of all, a good metaphor, and, as such, it bears repeating: we can hear it or read it again and again; the tale is never “used up” – consumedin one telling, as a given episode of a soap opera is consumed. Stories are about what happens next; but if, once you know what happens next, there is nothing to interest you, the story is not a good one. The silly but now ubiquitous term “spoiler alert” is used as a warning when a discussion of a book or film might give away plot details, and hence, supposedly, “spoil” it for new audiences. This is a useful courtesy, but audiences in Ancient Greece would not have felt that Oedipus Rex was “spoiled” if they knew how it ended. Indeed, they certainly did know how it ended before they saw the play.

Greek plays are “thick.” The Arthurian legends are “thick.” Shakespeare and Milton are “thick,” as are the folk tales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. But the advent of the novel (the literature of narrative novelty) induces a crisis in fictional thickness. Ian Watt, in The Rise of the Novel, observed that Defoe and Richardson were the first major writers in English literature who did not draw their plots from mythology, history, legend, or previous literature. Works such as Robinson Crusoe or Clarissa succeed, in spite of this, in lifting their material to a mythic plane; but as novels proliferated, more and more of them became fundamentally forgettable. Partly, the problem is abundance itself. In 1778, Fanny Burney published her comic novel of society, Evelina, a book which achieved huge and enduring success. In that year about fifteen novels were published in England. By the mid-nineteenth century, annual figures had risen astonishingly; the scholar John Sutherland estimates that the category “the Victorian novel,” if we include literally all British novels published in the period 1837-1901, comprises some 60,000 titles. The Victorian age was the heyday of the novel; yet today, despite movies, radio, television, and the Internet, the tide has not abated. On the contrary: it has increased vastly. We have enough novels; there can be, from many points of view, no point in writing more.

images-3How can further novels not be trivial, ersatz, inessential? This is the problem for the modern fiction writer. Writers have addressed this in various ways. What is called “genre fiction” can be understood as an attempt to connect individual narrative acts, like batteries for charging, with a wellspring of tradition. Such fiction, being like something else, seeks to use this alikeness as a source of authority; hence, the science fiction writer’s belief that “sf,” as an overarching entity, validates his or her work. It does not. Stories which require genre knowledge in order to be appreciated are, by definition, bad stories. Nobody needs to know anything about science fiction in order to “get” Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There are deeper problems than genre. Much modernist and postmodernist fiction – Ulysses being the key text – turns away from storytelling in favour of innovations in style and narrative method. This was never a good way to go. F. R. Leavis suggested once that Joyce and Lawrence represented the key choice that had to be made by readers of modern literature. There is something in this. People read novels in order to follow stories, and, through that process, to learn about and to reflect upon life. There may be something primitive and vulgar about stories, as Forster suggested, half-satirically, in Aspects of the Novel. But people, generally speaking, are primitive and vulgar (I include myself). If we want stories, a writer had better give us them, or provide something unusually compelling in their place. Joyce, some would argue, does exactly that; but what Dr Johnson said of Paradise Lost is truer of Ulysses: no reader ever wished it longer.

Neither modernism nor postmodernism has established a viable tradition. The few great works in either category are best understood as eccentric performances, not “experiments” opening up new possibilities but splendid oddities, like Tristram Shandy. The nouveau roman and magic realism have brought us interesting (or at least curious) works, but one soon tires of the intellectual coldness of the first and the overheated whimsy and arbitrariness of the second. Contemporary fiction, of the supposedly serious kind, is often seen as a tug of war between a surviving realism, heavy with quotidian detail and valuable (we are told) for its revelation of this or that mode of “real” life, and a literary self-consciousness in which style is all.

images-5What to do? We must recover the sense of story, but story as myth, thick story, not thin, forgettable anecdote. To focus on story in this sense, and the implications of story, is to discover a way beyond the impasse of an outworn modernism and the false antitheses of “realism” versus “fantasy,” as well as “literary” versus “genre.” Genre fiction is for the most part not interesting, but neither is that attenuated contemporary product known as “literary fiction.” A novel in which the story is allegedly unimportant and what is significant is the way in which it is written is almost certainly dreary rubbish. The ideal contemporary novel would be compelling as a story, interesting in the first instance (as is, say, Robinson Crusoe) because of what it is about, as well as rich in human reality and able to compel imaginative assent whether “realistic” or not. Stylistically, it would be beautiful, a thing of wonder: the prose would not merely be functional as in trash fiction, a drab conduit, like a waste-pipe, discharging into the stream of what-happened-next, but in itself a source of pleasure: we might linger there.

Prose “style” is not, in a good writer, separable from “content.” Mario Vargas Llosa wrote of Virginia Woolf that “she managed, thanks to her prose and the lovely, keen perspective from which she described her fictional world, to spiritualise all reality, dematerialise it, infuse it with soul” (Letters to a Young Novelist, 1997). I have reservations about Woolf, whose ideas about the future of the novel (as expressed in the essay “Modern Fiction”) really are nonsense. Still, what Vargas Llosa describes is what great (or even good) prose should do; and, if it does – not incidentally – the story it tells is less likely to be consumed in one telling. With a good book, there has to be a point in reading it again. Ideally, you could read it over and over. It would not just be a story. It would be a myth.

Would it be a novel at all? Perhaps we have gone beyond the need for the novel, that self-validating artefact of the bourgeois imagination whose creator must, as Auden said, “become the whole of boredom.” Certainly we have gone beyond “realism,” but realism was never as dominant even in eighteenth or nineteenth century Anglo-America as critics want us to believe: vide Ann Radcliffe, “Monk” Lewis, Charles Brockden Brown, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Richard Jefferies, H. G. Wells – lesser writers, all of them, than Dickens or Tolstoy or James, but all significant creators of that type of resonant narrative one feels compelled to call “mythic.” Distinctions between realism and romance (or fantasy) are in any case part of the problem. Clarissa, possibly the single greatest English novel, is ostensibly a realistic story; but, through the intensity of its unfolding, its spiritual force, its awareness of eternity, rises effortlessly above the quotidian. Clarissa is not a social document, for all the efforts of Marxist and feminist critics to make it one. Richardson, as much as Milton – or Wells – writes about the universe. That is what makes him mythic.



(1) Novels written only to record some particular way of life are of no interest, at least as works of art. In a generation’s time, few people will know (or care) whether your picture of a peasant community in Angola is “true” or imaginary; all that will matter is whether it is interesting, colourful, moving. In fiction, imagination is always more important than fact. (Alejo Carpentier, Cuban originator of the term “magic realism,” depicts eighteenth-century Haitian and Cuban society in his classic novella The Kingdom of This World [1949]. This story, for all its bizarre happenings, clearly draws on “real” history, but I have no idea how accurate the details are; I enter it as a fantasy world, and love it for that reason.)

(2) Novels written only to expose social injustices (or argue political points) are of no interest, at least as works of art. The novels of Dickens or Zola or Hardy or the plays or Ibsen or Shaw or Brecht endure in spite of the “issues” with which they deal; they endure because they are illumined by the power of imagination. Dickens does not record the world; he makes a new world. (People sometimes complain about the “melodrama” of nineteenth-century novels such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Great Expectations, or Jude the Obscure. They think they have made a telling point by saying: “That’s not realistic.” They have not. They have simply exposed the limits of their conceptions both of reality and of art.)

(3) The purpose of fiction, and of art generally, is to make a new world – cf. Mario Vargas Llosa, Letters to a Young Novelist: “Fiction is a lie covering up a deep truth: it is life as it wasn’t, life as the men and women of a certain age wanted to live it and didn’t and thus had to invent. It isn’t the face of History but rather her reverse or flip side: what didn’t happen and therefore had to be fabricated in the imagination and in words to fulfil the ambitions real life was unable to satisfy.” This is why distinctions between “realism” and “fantasy” in fiction are unsatisfactory. All fiction, The Grapes of Wrath or The Lord of the Rings, is a species of fantasy. But that fantasy leads us back into the real world. It is, indeed, a part of the real world.

(4) The doings of fictional protagonists, including those which in “real life” would be unsettling, alarming, or even horrific, reflect the desires of the writer; hence, the secret theme of every novel is the – or a – life the author wished to live and things that he or she wished to do. Dostoyevsky is Raskolnikov; Wilde is Dorian Gray; Fitzgerald is Gatsby; Nabokov is Humbert; Highsmith is Ripley; Roth is Portnoy. Mary Shelley is both Frankenstein and the monster. Stevenson is both Jekyll and Hyde. Lawrence is Lady Chatterley’s lover; he is also Lady Chatterley. (Good writers are of course not just one character. They are all of their characters. Good writers do not say: “I write to express myself.” They write to express the various, myriad selves that whirl about inside them – aspects, all of them, of that greater and richer humanity which Jung implied with his “collective unconscious,” which should be a fundamental concept in literary criticism as well as psychology.)

(5) Works of art have a spiritual function; art is not the same as, though it may overlap with, both entertainment and education (i.e., instruction). Religion, as the product of primitive cultures – or, if you prefer, cultures or ages in which metaphor and reality, or imagination and fact, are not clearly demarcated, as they appear to be in the contemporary West – represents a perhaps cruder but certainly communal form of the artistic imagination. The purpose of both religion and art is to compensate us for the real world. Religion promises (falsely) to redeem us. Art will not redeem us; art is what consoles us while we are not being redeemed. In the end, however, it may teach us that we do not really want to be redeemed. (Art, wiser than religion, returns us – by a circuitous route – to the kingdoms of this world. It says: “I like the way you look.” It says: “That joke made me laugh.” It says: “It was good to be in the showgrounds that Saturday last summer, hearing that music, drinking that beer, feeling the heat of the sun on my face.” A good thing, and enough.)