In technical terms, narrative is defined as summarized story action told to readers by the author. It’s quick, economical, and useful for transitions or dispensing a lot of information in condensed form. It’s biggest drawback is that it’s telling instead of showing, and readers may grow detached from the story events or characters.
In the middle of the twentieth century, narrative was a popular mode of discourse in women’s fiction, particularly in the so-called Gothics that were mega-hot during the 1960s and ’70s. If you’ve never heard of Gothics, they were a sub-genre of romantic suspense and highly derivative of Charlotte Bronte’s JANE EYRE in that they featured a naive young woman without family going to work in a huge, spooky mansion and meeting a handsome wonderful man who turned out to be a villain and a gruff, brooding, irascible man who turned out to be the hero. Some had historical settings while others took place in modern times. The covers featured a somber Victorian manse in the background with a young woman running away from it, usually clad in a diaphanous nightgown. Gothics grew so popular that in the 1970s there was even a daily soap opera called DARK SHADOWS that unfortunately aired just before my high school let out for the day. If I walked home at lightning speed, I could sometimes catch the last five minutes of the program, which made for very disappointing viewing since that was always the cliffhanger. Given that soaps did not play reruns and VCRs hadn’t been invented yet, it was a frustrating situation.
But I digress.
Victoria Holt, Phyllis Whitney, and Norah Lofts were leading authors of this era. Two years ago, I stumbled upon a small treasure trove of these authors at an estate sale and snapped up an armload. (I believe I posted about it.) What struck me in reading these books was how heavily they relied on narrative rather than the moment-by-moment scene action and reaction I had been trained to write.
By the early 1980s, Gothics had fallen from public favor. Women’s fiction shifted from historical adventures to contemporary. The bedroom door flung open wide. Conflict between heroine and hero intensified, and moment-by-moment story action was depicted along with sharp-witted dialogue.
For the past forty years, most commercial fiction of various genres has been presented this way with scenes that demonstrate conflict without summary alternated with in-viewpoint processing of emotional reaction and planning of what the protagonist will do next.
Yet currently I’m seeing a trend back to narrative. I noticed it first–and this is by no means any sort of accurate or precise observation–in suspense thrillers featuring the so-called unreliable narrator. College students currently seem enamored of the type of female protagonist whose personal life is a mess, whose emotional life is erratic, and who may turn out to be the villain in a–gasp–plot twist at the end. My students find this extremely thrilling. I, alas, am less impressed by the so-called novelty of this approach since [spoiler alert!] Agatha Christie pulled this off in THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD in 1929, and therefore it’s hardly new.
Last year, I picked up a romance novel by a successful author that I’d heard about but hadn’t read before. Given that this author has also written numerous well-received suspense books, I expected a skillful, engaging story written by expert hands. What I got was two opening chapters of exciting story action, written in moment-by-moment conflict, and the rest of the story in narrative. Okay, I thought. She was probably finishing off a long-term book contract and just wanted to get done.
Last month, I picked up a fairly recent Danielle Steel novel. I haven’t read Steel in years, but this had a historical setting in a time period I like so I gave it a try. I lost interest by Chapter Three because it was all narrative. The heroine’s problems are strong ones, and I wanted to sympathize with her, but the less-than-skilled summary held me too far from her. Okay, I thought. This is Steel, who is far from being one of your favorite authors.
This weekend, I started a book of contemporary women’s fiction by Susan Wiggs called THE OYSTERVILLE SEWING CIRCLE. I don’t believe I’ve read Wiggs before. She is smooth and compelling, and I’m enjoying the rather complicated story a great deal. However, it’s nearly all narrative. There are snippets of dialogue here and there, occasional scenes or scene fragments, then it slides right back into told-by-the-author format. Fortunately, it’s expertly handled, and my interest is held. But at the key turning points in the book, I’ve found myself slightly disappointed by the narrative distancing. I want to be in the moment when the protagonist is betrayed. I want to experience it vicariously. I want to participate in her face-to-face confrontation with the person that torpedoes her. And instead I’m being left out, kept apart, and told about it later. Hmmm….
Now, I’m a person that seeks patterns. I like overviews. I think about the cycle of history and how it so often repeats itself politically and culturally. I like to mull over the causes of events and piece factors together.
If genre fiction really is seriously trending into narrative–not just a few sub-genres, but across the board–then this is a large pivot point in how stories will be presented to readers.
So I ask myself this: in terms of decor, one of the hot trends in the past five years has been mid-century modern furniture, with collectors grabbing pieces from the 1950s and ’60s. The retro movement is very chic, and some wear clothing and hairstyles of the era as well. The Bohemian style is also in favor. Called Boho, it features vivid colors such as orange, avocado, and turquoise, mismatched furnishings garnered from thrift stores, plants, macrame, and brass accents. So here we have the 1950s through the 1970s very much in vogue. In the 1960s and ’70s, narrative summary was very much the writing style.
Then I tilt the question around and examine it from a different angle. The past decade–admittedly rough for fiction sales–has seen only one market segment strengthen and grow. That’s the children’s market. It’s grown because adult readers moved in, attracted by simpler story lines and imaginative settings. However, these readers wanted more adult themes, which created edgier books and a category designed for so-called “New Adults.” While American juvenile fiction has long relied on moment-by-moment scene action, British juvenile fiction has held the tradition of a narrator telling the story. Three of the most influential children’s series have come from England: J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS; C.S. Lewis’s NARNIA books; and J. K. Rowling’s HARRY POTTER adventures. I might also throw in Brian Jacques and his charming REDWALL series for good measure.
And finally, I have to wonder if it’s not a confluence of a declining literacy in the United States that needs a simpler story approach and people being so overwhelmed with the now-constant barrage of global information that they can’t escape.
Declining literacy is one of my frequent rants, and I find it shameful that the most powerful, affluent nation in the world continues to see a decline in this area. My college students claim they are avid readers, yet only about five percent of them are currently reading fiction on a regular basis. The rest–when questioned–will reluctantly admit that they stopped reading at about age fourteen. They are hardly what I would call a sophisticated reader, and some of them are so lazy they will not read a novel if they don’t immediately understand its arcane vocabulary. They refuse to grasp the idea that this is how a person continues to learn and grow mentally.
As for the information overload, the Internet pours too much over us all day long. My phone dings frequently, bringing me news headlines. I receive work emails, personal emails, store and shopping emails, blog posts, text messages, and Instagram feeds 24/7. There’s no way to absorb or process it all even if I wanted to. I can’t even play a simple word puzzle on my phone to keep my aging brain limber without being assaulted by advertisements, Facebook enticements, and political messages. Yes, I can turn off much of it. I can block messages and unsubscribe to shut down emails. If I ever retire, I can become a complete Luddite and jettison my computer and phone. However, I’m not desirous of becoming a hermit. Setting aside the current pandemic where we want very much to know what’s happening, after attempting to process too much information all day long, do people really want to spend their leisure reading intense, conflictful, moment-by-moment scenes or would they rather glide along, safe behind the narrator telling them a story but not asking them to become too involved?