Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Stories: What Happens or How You Get There?

I've been reading (well, re-reading after nearly twenty years, which is a lot like reading for the first time) Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire novels. A week ago I wrapped up The Warden, a genial little social commentary/satire which is notable in that genre for the fact that every major character is acting in good faith and is, at least moderately likable. It's also very short, so if you have the desire to get a feel for Anthony Trollope's literary charms, it's not a bad place to start. I've now moved on to Barchester Towers, in which a larger tempest is troubling the teapot of the imaginary cathedral town of Barchester.

What struck me, however, is a bit which deals with different ways of telling a story. Trollope has just spent a chapter laying out the possibility that young (and pretty) widow Eleanor Bold will end up marrying one of two rather self-interested suitors (both of whom had just learned that her late husband left her a lot of money.) After reveling laying out the dangers before Eleanor, Trollope then turns to the reader and says:

But let the gentle-hearted reader be under no apprehension whatsoever. It is not destined that Eleanor shall marry Mr. Slope or Bertie Stanhope. And here perhaps it may be allowed to the novelist to explain his views on a very important point in the art of telling tales. He ventures to reprobate that system which goes so far to violate all proper confidence between the author and his readers by maintaining nearly to the end of the third volume a mystery as to the fate of their favourite personage. Nay, more, and worse than this, is too frequently done. Have not often the profoundest efforts of genius been used to baffle the aspirations of the reader, to raise false hopes and false fears, and to give rise to expectations which are never to be realized? Are not promises all but made of delightful horrors, in lieu of which the writer produces nothing but most commonplace realities in his final chapter? And is there not a species of deceit in this to which the honesty of the present age should lend no countenance?

And what can be the worth of that solicitude which a peep into the third volume can utterly dissipate? What the value of those literary charms which are absolutely destroyed by their enjoyment? When we have once learnt what was that picture before which was hung Mrs. Ratcliffe's solemn curtain, we feel no further interest about either the frame or the veil. They are to us merely a receptacle for old bones, an inappropriate coffin, which we would wish to have decently buried out of our sight.

And then how grievous a thing it is to have the pleasure of your novel destroyed by the ill-considered triumph of a previous reader. "Oh, you needn't be alarmed for Augusta; of course she accepts Gustavus in the end." "How very ill-natured you are, Susan," says Kitty with tears in her eyes: "I don't care a bit about it now." Dear Kitty, if you will read my book, you may defy the ill-nature of your sister. There shall be no secret that she can tell you. Nay, take the third volume if you please—learn from the last pages all the results of our troubled story, and the story shall have lost none of its interest, if indeed there be any interest in it to lose.

Our doctrine is that the author and the reader should move along together in full confidence with each other. Let the personages of the drama undergo ever so complete a comedy of errors among themselves, but let the spectator never mistake the Syracusan for the Ephesian; otherwise he is one of the dupes, and the part of a dupe is never dignified.

I would not for the value of this chapter have it believed by a single reader that my Eleanor could bring herself to marry Mr. Slope, or that she should be sacrificed to a Bertie Stanhope. But among the good folk of Barchester many believed both the one and the other.
(Barchester Towers, Chapter 15, Anthony Trollope

Having moved on several chapters past this point, I have to say I think Trollope pulls off what he promises. Through some odd working of the Paradox of Suspense, despite the fact that he has now told us quite baldly that Eleanor will not marry either the oily preacher Mr. Slope or the young spendthrift Bertie Stanhope, the progress of the Eleanor plotline becomes no less riveting. Partly this is because of the nature of the conflict involved: Eleanor isn't actually attracted to either man, but people who are enlisted in the various factions of the book's main struggle work themselves up a great deal worrying that she might be. So while we may know that she won't actually marry either, the question of how the whole conflict will play out remains very much up in the air.

However, I'm inclined to take the dictum rather further than that. Perhaps I'm more than usually immune to "spoilers" (I am usually quite happy to read reviews that give the plot away and don't find my eventual enjoyment lessened, except in the case of fairly surface level "who done it" kind of stories) but I do think that most of the time the interest in a story is much more in how one gets there than where one gets. And indeed, even if I know where a story is going, I tend to still experience a strong feeling of suspense while reading it: even when I'm re-reading a book and thus know not only how it will end but how it will get there.

Nonetheless, outright telling the reader how some plot point will end up, as Trollope does here, is unusual (though don't be concerned, the eels don't get Buttercup either.) Should it be? Can most stories not withstand "spoilers"? Or would "would people still be interested in reading if they knew how this revolved?" be a good self-test for authors in determining whether they're writing something of sufficient interest?


Amber said...

I try to read books where I care more about the journey than the destination. Destination books that are ruined by finding out what happens at the end are oft shallow, poorly written and/or gimmicky. I'm sure there are exceptions, but none are occurring to me at the moment!

Lisa said...

I don't know what I think of your question; a little like considering a second reading. If you reread an old favorite, you can do it when you've forgotten the details (like new again) or you can read it knowing exactly where it goes but enjoying the journey.

I recently discovered Trollope via Audible and have read both The Warden and Barchester Towers. I had a similar startle when reaching the section you quoted - all the more striking when read aloud. You feel very connected to Trollope when listening to the audio book because of his narration style.

Brandon said...

I'm completely spoiler-immune myself; I actually enjoy stories better if I already know how they end.

I think the best test for good writing, though, is whether people will read it again and again, and this generally requires that the story not be spoiled if we know how it ends. And I think, even setting this aside, some stories are structured so as to require knowing how the story ends for full enjoyment -- Flann O'Brien's The Third Policemen is an even better story on second reading, although that's partly because the story is completely baffling until you realize the significance of the ending.

mrsdarwin said...

I am an inveterate re-reader, and generally will not purchase a work of fiction if I'm not convinced that it's worth re-reading. (I've been wrong on this -- Girl With A Pearl Earring is gathering dust on the shelf, uncracked since the day I finished it.) And spoilers don't bother me, though I find that I read differently if I think I know what the ending is, and indeed have mis-read several books that way. Silence, by Shusako Endo, comes to mind; years before I read the whole book, I'd flipped it open, read a few pages in the second half, and came away with an incorrect idea about where the book was heading. And that's why I'm always flummoxed when I hear of people reading the last pages before reading the beginning of a book. Spoilers are different -- the person telling you may have details wrong, or even if they're correct about the plot, they don't have the authorial voice, and so the events aren't "real" until you read them in the author's own words.

A novelist who doesn't bear re-reading will fall out of fashion and out of favor. I slogged through John Galsworthy's whole Forsyte Saga -- all nine volumes! -- but I wouldn't re-read it; it was too tedious and dated the first time around. On the other hand, Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome will never grow old. The can of pineapple is even funnier when you know it's coming up. Declare, by Tim Powers, is one of those where knowing the ending makes re-reading very rewarding -- I think I've read it at least three times.

Lisa said...

(lost my comment, trying again)
I haven't thought of rereading Declare but may give it a 2nd listen if you say it plays well the 2nd time. On Jerome K. Jerome - it languishes on my Kindle awaiting a first read. But I only know of it from the excellent homage embedded in To Say Nothing Of the Dog by Connie WIllis. If you can handle time-travelling historians, give it a go.

mrsdarwin said...

Lisa, I'm sorry to say that I started To Say Nothing of the Dog and never finished it, although everyone says it's delightful. I'll have to try it again.