Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

breaking the spell

cows eating grass
I just got back from a brief vacation at Big Bend National Park, and when I was packing I made sure to stick a novel in my backpack. I’m not going to name it, but it is a very recent novel, by a first-time novelist, that has received a great deal of praise. Before my departure I had already read the first chapter and found it quite promising. I was excited.

The next few chapters, I discovered while on my trip, were equally compelling; they carried me some fifty pages into the book. But in the next fifty pages the narrative energy seemed to flag. The act of reading started to feel effortful. And then, about 130 pages in (about halfway through the book), I had a sudden thought: This is just someone making up a story.

And that was it; the spell was broken, my investment in the novel over and done with. I couldn’t read another paragraph. Which is an odd thing, because of course it was just someone making up a story — that’s what novels are, and I knew when I bought the book what it was. But nothing can be more deadly to the experience of reading fiction than the thought that came (quite unbidden) to my mind.

Coleridge famously wrote of literature’s power “to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” (Like most writers before the twentieth century, Coleridge used “poetic” to mean what we now call “literary.”) But really, the requisite suspension of disbelief is willing only in a peculiar anticipatory sense: it has to become unwilling, involuntary, in the actual act of reading, or else all the magic of storytelling is lost.

I have found in the past few years that this has happened to me more and more often as I read fiction, especially recent fiction. There are many possible reasons for this, including an increasing vulnerability to distraction and the return to the reading habits of my youth that I describe in this essay. But I’m inclined to think that neither of those is the problem. Rather, I think that for the last fifty years or more “literary” fiction‚ and a good deal of “genre” fiction as well, has recycled far too many of the same themes and tropes. Like a number of other readers, I’m inclined to assign much of the blame for this to and capturing of so much English-language fiction by university-based creative writing programs, which suffer from the same pressures of conformity that all academic work suffers from. (And yes, the author of the novel I abandoned is a creative-writing-program graduate, though I just now looked that up.)

In other words, I have just been around the same few fictional blocks far too many times. I’m tired of them all, and only only satisfied when I’m surprised.

Maybe that’s not the problem. But I sure feel that it is.


P.S. Something that just occurred to me: A long time ago Northrop Frye noted — I can’t at the moment recall where — Ben Jonson's frustration that Shakespeare’s plays were far more inconsistently and incoherently put together than his own but were nevertheless, somehow, more popular, and commented that this was just it: Jonson’s plays were put together, more like “mechanical models of plays” than the real thing, whereas Shaksepeare’s plays had all the odd growths and irregular edges of organic life. This is my chief complaint with much fiction of the past fifty years, including much very highly regarded fiction, like that of John Updike: these aren’t novels, they are mechanical models of novels. Precision-engineered down to the last hidden screw, but altogether without the spark of life.


  • I'm not sure whether it's true or not, but some writers (like Christopher Booker) say that there are only seven basic plotlines in all of literature. If that's true, then aren't there bound to be repetitive themes and tropes in all stories?

  • Sam W: Yes.

  • I understand you don't read the NY Times anymore, but the comment about mechanical models of novels seemed quite in line with this appreciation of "Good Night Moon"

  • Arrgghh this feels like one giant spoiler! Can't get "fiction toolkit" out of my mind!

  • Sorry if my earlier comment seemed a little simplistic and/or harsh; didn't mean for it to come across that way.

    I guess I'm trying to say that I've been experiencing something similar. Lately its become popular among writers to say, "Originality doesn't exist," or "Everything is a remix." They cite things like Joseph Campbell's monomyth and the 'seven plotlines' of Christopher Booker as examples. While this idea may be encouraging to authors because it relieves the pressure to be completely unique, to my mind it makes fiction sound less exciting. What's the point of reading something 'new' if it is really just the same-old-story in new wrapping paper? Its hard (for me, anyway) to enjoy 'The Lord of the Rings' if people keep telling you its just a re-hash of, say, Star Wars, and vice versa.

    Any thoughts on this?

  • Part of the problem may be that audiences (readers, moviegoers, concertgoers, etc.) are themselves too knowing, too expert in the various genres to suspend disbelief and simply go with the flow. All manner of behind-the-scenes, making-of, and audience-education bonus features have turned our attention away from creative work as objects of enjoyment toward being objects of study, much like the academic study of literature, film, or music makes the student into a prospective author/creator of such work. Thus, the plates, seams, joints, and mechanics of how things are put together become the trees and the forest is lost.

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