Readers want stories.
A book without a narrative is ultimately unsatisfying.
Tim Lott, writing in The Guardian on 1st January this year, attributes the declining sales of literary fiction to the apparent reluctance of recent novelists to tell stories. ‘Worrying about plot and story has long been unfashionable on the literary scene’ Lott argues. ‘Style and voice are what gathers plaudits.’ I agree. I’ve ploughed through a lot of ‘clever’ novels recently, full of awe at the writers’ styles, yet reading them has felt more of a chore than a pleasure. When I’m gripped by a story, I constantly think about the characters and their predicaments, fretting about them until I can pick up the book again. Whilst I can admire well written books, ultimately I want a plot. My heart needs to be engaged as well as my head.
The American author Anne Tyler writes beautifully, but she is not so lofty that she can’t tell a story. She knows plot comes from character and that is why her books are peopled with memorable individuals, whose fears and failures drive the narrative. Ian McEwan’s powerful novel ‘Enduring Love’ is, in part, his exploration of what happens to a rational character in the face of an irrational event. The book examines the dichotomy between science and the imagination, but not in a dull or self-conscious fashion – in fact the critic Jason Cowley describes McEwan’s book as ‘written against the template of a thriller.’ It really is a page turner, but along the way, we absorb McEwan’s more erudite preoccupations. It is because of, not in spite of the engaging story that the novel is so enjoyable.
The wonderful Maggie O’ Farrell, who has just published her autobiography ‘I am, I am, I am,’ explains in her blog, that she never intended to write her own story; she had set out to write another novel, but ended up recording her own narrative instead. In relation to her child’s life-threatening condition, she writes: 'How does a parent absorb and explain the near-death experiences suffered by young child? How best to reassure them, make them feel safe? The only way I have found to do this is to tell my daughter stories, to transpose what has happened to her into narrative. Only then can she comprehend the illnesses, the threat, the pain.’ Stories have the power to soothe, to explain, to transform.
So, in our quest to write brilliant, even literary, prose, let’s not forget to tell stories. They are essential to every culture – we should ignore them at our peril.