In the chapter on narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, she talks about the problem of figuring out who you are writing for or who your narrator is addressing when you are writing your novel or story:
Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?
She solved this problem initially by writing framed stories — stories where narrators told their experiences to other people. The listener would appear at the novel’s beginning and end and in the middle now and then to comment on or react to the story. In this way, the audience was obvious and the writing came more easily. She knew exactly who was talking and who was listening and why the narrator was telling the story and what led up to the telling of the story and what the narrator’s motivations were. This method led her to the question:
Would anyone imagine that these recounted events would hold another human being’s interest, and would the reader believe that anyone, even a fictional character, would stay focused and pay attention all the way through?
What Prose says after this interests me:
It was fortunate that I had lived so much in books, and especially in the books of the past. For one thing, I seemed not to know that no one wrote that way anymore. For another, I was somehow unaware that no one lived that way any longer — that is, in circumstances that encouraged and facilitated the telling of long stories.
She goes on to talk about how we don’t have the patience to listen to other people’s stories these days, and we tend to do our best to avoid them (unless they are telling their story on a TV show), so a story like Chekhov’s “On Love” where a group of men tell long stories to each other about their past love affairs can seem highly unrealistic.
I’m not sure if this is true or not — if we really don’t believe anymore that people will listen with interest to other people’s long stories — but it certainly isn’t true for me. The kind of book Prose is talking about is exactly the kind I like. Perhaps that makes me old-fashioned, or perhaps Prose hasn’t got it quite right. I don’t know, but I think this explains why I like epistolary novels — books that are all about people telling each other stories. Here it’s assumed that your audience is interested and will read and respond, and that the time put into reading and writing letters is time well-spent. Yes, at times books like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa come to seem unrealistic — how could they really write all that? when did they find the time? — but I like the sense of an ongoing conversation in those novels, that the characters can assume that people value their stories, and that they believe taking the time to shape their stories for a particular audience has value.
Prose gives Wuthering Heights as another example of a book about storytelling, this one “constructed like a series of Russian nesting dolls,” beginning with Mr. Lockwood, who gets Nelly to tell him the story, and then with Heathcliff and others telling stories within hers. Frankenstein is constructed like this too; it opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister, moves to Frankenstein’s story, which he tells to Walton, and then moves to the creature’s story, which he tells to Frankenstein. Each of these narratives is quite long.
Perhaps few write this way anymore (I can’t think of modern examples like this, although they must exist — ??), but it doesn’t strike me as unrealistic. In the past I’ve been known to write long letters myself, and although I don’t tell long stories or expect that people would want to hear them if I did, I like to hear other people’s long stories, provided they are interesting. Can you think of modern examples of this type of novel, or is Prose right (excepting her own early work, of course)?
10 responses to “Narration”
I hate to be a pessimist, but I think it is difficult to find people to listen – to listen to anyone’s story…I just took a modern novels class, and the literature was frightening and haunting; the main question that we always asked in the class was: How can literature compete with what is going on in the world? We read books like The Things They Carried (which I loved) and Slaughterhouse Five, and The Human Stain (which I never quite finished by Philip Roth) – I guess these works represent postmodernism at its worst – no one listens to anyone in this stories – all the characters are disconnected – families hold conversations, but no one is on the same page, no one is holding the same conversation. So – I’m not sure, but I think within the context of today’s literature, storytelling, even if fragmented and distorted, provides the writer with meaning and purpose. We need to tell stories in order to retain substance and meaning within life.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is written as a letter from the narrator to his son. One of the things that I thought was interesting is that the narrator retells stories within his “letter” that involved his father and grandfather and moves between addressing his son as he is in the present (about age 7) yet anticipates him reading the letter as an adult. It isn’t quite the same as the Lockwood-Nelly-Heathcliff progression of stories within the story. Robinson handles the telescoping of time seemlessly. As a technique, it allows her to cover a time period of over 100 years, something that would have required a much lengthier book had she approached it as a chronological narrative, and by imaginging the boy reading the letter as an adult, she allows the reader to see the actions in the book from a contemporary perspective, assuming that the grownup son would be reading this letter in current times. The boy, himself, is not really a character in the book, which puts the reader in the position of being the letter recipient. I discussed this book in two different reading groups (very different groups) and the unrealistic quality of the letter was a major complaint among those participants in the group who did not like the book.
Oh my goodness me, I’m convinced there are lots of frame narratives being written today only I can’t think of one on the spot. i’ll have to return if any come to mind. As for listening to long stories, well, I think there are some people who will do it happily in any case, and some who will do so if the story is right.
I like the framed narrative too, but the two contemporary examples that come initially to mind are books that I didn’t enjoy because I felt the writer simply did not have the skill to handle the form: The Historian (where everyone who tells their tale seems to have the same voice) and then The Thirteenth Tale (where an elderly writer tells her story to a young biographer; here I simply felt that the tales being told were too outlandish). Perhaps it’s a harder trick to pull off than it initially looks!
Ah, just looked down my lists of books I’ve read and I can add, and highly recommend, Moo Pak by Gabriel Josipovici – a tale told to an old friend during walks around London. You might like this one – it’s a while since I read it but I recall the narrator had a particular affection for the Eighteenth century.
Perhaps nowadays we pay therapists to listen to our stories! In which case we might be able tot add Portnoy’s Complaint to the list!
It’s interesting to think about this question from the inside out. I like the framed narrative as well. I think I tend to be pretty forgiving when it comes to epistolarly novels (how would someone know all that information?). Maybe they really can’t know it all, but it is a fictional novel, and if it is well done, I don’t mind having my imagination stretched a bit, too. I also thought of The Thirteenth Tale when you asked about contemporary authors using this technique–and surely there are more, but off hand I can’t name any. As for actually listening to long takes…it depends on what the tale is about and who’s telling it. I think there can be a fine line sometimes between a long (interesting) tale and someone being long winded.
I thought a lot of Alice Munro’s stories are “stories within stories” (though not epistolary).
Hepzibah, I think you’re right that the kind of confidence and trust in storytelling I’m talking about is something more common in earlier time periods — modernity does call that kind of connection into question doesn’t it? But I also believe that there’s tons of great writing from our time period that doesn’t follow the characteristics of modernism or postmodernism as critics tend to describe it, and that does have more confidence in storytelling and human connection — I like thinking about those books too.
Cam, I’d forgotten about Gilead, but that’s a great example. There’s an old-fashioned feeling to that book, I think, which may be making Prose’s point and undermining my own, I’m not sure. I love that book, and love the way Robinson put it together.
Litlove, I have the same trouble — I know they are out there but can’t think of them — so thanks to those of you who mention some examples!
As I read your comment Sandra, I thought of my own example that I didn’t like particularly, Jennifer Egan’s The Keep — it’s got a lot of storytelling in it but the whole thing felt out of control. Moo Pak is something I have on my TBR list — I believe I put it there after reading your post about it.
Danielle, yes, it is interesting to hear about it from the writer’s point of view, isn’t it? And yes, I’m willing to be forgiving about epistolary novels too — at least up to a point.
LK, interesting — I shall have to read more Munro I see!
My mind is blank, i can’t think of any either. I’m a chapter behind you in this book and having mixed feelings about it. I am hoping that now I am past words and sentences things will improve.
“Can you think of modern examples of this type of novel”
— I’m thinking of Haruki Murakami. His novels often involves listening to another character tell the story of their lives.
Not fiction, although he did edit details when he needed to – Bruce Chatwin. His books are always collection of stories he heard, the stories of other lives narrated by himself.
I believe there was an entire novel written in the form of email correspondence. Was it “e” by Matt Beaumont? Maybe it’s a sad sign of our times – we don’t have the patience to listen anymore.
Well, Stefanie, I look forward to your thoughts about the book!
Dark Orpheus, good suggestions! I do need to read Chatwin; he’s been on my mind forever. I’m not sure what I think about a novel made up of emails — I’m not predisposed to like it, I guess, but maybe it would surprise me. I’m not sure why I’d have a prejudice against email novels, when I like ones in letters, but there you go.