My acquisition of an iPad resulted in me reading my first ever ebook (Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel) followed promptly by my second (Holly Black’s White Cat). Having learned that I enjoy reading ebooks via ibooks, I discovered the collection of free ebooks available on the platform via project Gutenberg. So, I finally read through a few Arthur Conan Doyle books, some Daniel Defoe, and others. Now, reading books written prior to the 20th century isn’t exactly a novel experience for me. My first degree is in English. I took Renaissance literature, I’ve read Paradise Lost and Pilgrim’s Progress and Canterbury Tales and Pride and Prejudice and all those books you read when you do a degree in English. I discovered my love of Daniel Defoe reading Roxana and Moll Flanders. I know very well how many great books are out there.
But this time around, reading them next to modern books on a hypermodern platform, I’m noticing something odd about them. They seem slightly flat. That seems unfair, why would these books feel flat? I thought maybe it had something to do with current expectations of character building. I thought, maybe vie just become accustomed to reaching a particular level of intimacy with a character that wasn’t the fashion before now. But then unpacking that a bit more, I thought it was actually just what mascarades as the illusion of intimacy with a character.
In a 19th century novel, we are fairly intimately enmeshed in the lives of the protagonist. We follow them everywhere. We know most of everything that they do. But somehow that didn’t feel like enough to me. Following them around, hearing all their conversations, accompanying them to meals, it just doesn’t feel like enough.
So then I started to think about all the current fiction I’ve been reading, and what’s going on in the, that’s so different.
For a start, current novels stick to a structure for more tightly. I read a lot of YA, fantasy and science fiction, and these genres all adhere to a pretty strict narrative structure. A protagonist with a mission, a story with a powerful beginning, lots of action in the middle to hold your attention, enemies that have at least some life breathed into them, a crashing, satisfying conclusion. I can’t read anything written in the last 10 years without being hyperaware of now word processing has shaped it. Easy editing, storage, searching, sharing, the relative ease of writing incredible volume that still hangs together as a complete story arc; I don’t imagine any of this would have been so easy and routine without access to a simple word processor. I think about J.R.R. Tolkien and how there’s just no way the detour with Tom Bombadil would have made it past an editor today. And I know he edited a lot, but I don’t think The Lord Of The Rings would have been quite the same book if J.R.R. Had had access to a MacBook and a copy of Scrivener. For nor, it would have been even longer.
But it isn’t only that. I also realized, reading Conan Doyle and Cassie Clare at roughly the same time, that we have very few stories without a Sixth Sense sort of twist to them. I’m hard pressed to think of a single story vie read in the past 10 years that doesn’t have some kind of ancient twist in the latter middle or end of the story. Not just a twist, see, actually a secret hidden in the past of the character that makes everything they’ve done all along suddenly appear in a different light. It not enough anymore to just have a plot; I also need this huge, revealing understory to cast a pall over everything else. I’m used to getting two stories for every story I read. And somehow this dual story surprise is what makes the characters feel more open to me. We don’t just go through a series of events together, which I think has largely been enough to make a good, immersive novel until relatively recently. I also expect to be let into a whole other internal drama, with secrets, betrayals, alternate identities, and shifts so massive there is no going back.
In Harry Potter, we have the relatively simple story of the boy who is a wizard, off to wizarding school; but of course there is the understory about his dead parents and all of their choices and relationships, all of which is in the past but coexists and underscores the progression of the narrative. Couldn’t we have done without it? Would it have seemed even thinner if it had just been a story about the here and now, like Holmes and Watson? Moriarty isn’t revealed to be Sherlock Holmes’ long lost twin brother, tangled in feelings of rejection and jealousy of his brother’s familial support and ability to avoid turning to the dark side. Nor is Moriarty Holmes’ father.
I think my expectation of this deeper explanation, revealed fairly late into a narrative but hinted at along the way, is what makes stories without them feel thin, more surface. I have no idea really why Sauron is so evil in The Lord of the Rings. He just is. Just like Moriarty. Defoe’s Roxana is a sexy criminal, for no apparent reason other than that is simply who she is. Without the big reveal and subsequent rethinking of the entire sequence of events toward the end of the story, I feel as though there’s a sizable chunk of the story left to the imagination. No wonder everyone questions Watson’s devotion to the confirmed bachelor Holmes; we’re used to the other shoe eventually dropping, and if it doesn’t, we’re left to find it and reveal it ourselves.
I love these stories with the twists in them. They’re extremely satisfying. I’ve just never noticed until now that the twists have the effect of simulating a new level of intimacy with the characters and the story, perhaps because I the reader learn something alongside the protagonist. We become confidants rather than merely storyteller and audience. But I think it is illusion, and a powerful one. Can’t an old school narrative filled with descriptions of actions and decisions tell you just as much about a character as learning an old family secret? By all rights, shouldn’t it tell us more?