Yes, we in the twenty-first century are the anti-Victorians in so many ways; and not the least of these is in our inability to sit through anything longer than about 4 minutes (or a thousand words) – or to give a novel an even break. You cannot afford, these days, a leisurely, scene-setting start to a novel: you must plunge right into the action. All hell must break loose within first few pages or else the reader will simply give up. You can give us a page or so of scene-setting if you must, but no more – and in a short story it’d better be at most a paragraph before you cut to the chase. Even that expression, cut to the chase, has gained a currency in almost every situation. Leave out the waffle! people cry all over the world. Cut the crap! Elbow the descriptions and just tell us what happens!
The result of this is that literature has become very plot-based. Now, I know that the most popular of Victorian writers, Charles Dickens, was nothing if not plot-based – and yet he had the time and space for a leisurely walk around Chatham Docks or the London slums; he could spend time painting a room or delineating a character or eavesdropping on a conversation.
But nowadays? Nowadays we can’t do any of that. And why? – because at our back we always hear/ time’s winged chariot hurrying near.
Consider two of the most popular writers of the last decade or so: Ian Rankin and J K Rowling. Neither of them are slouches when it comes to character or description or dialogue – and yet the outstanding, the leading feature in their work is plot. Plot, plot, plot, you can almost hear them saying – in the same way as Blair once said Education, education, education. The result is that a plot-wimp like me has to read each of their books several times before I even know what’s happened. This is especially true of Rankin. Reading a Rebus novel is like having very sudden sex in the morning before you’re properly awake: loads of fun but you don’t quite know what hit you.
But there’s another phenomenon, too, in modern fiction – one which is particularly relevant to writers – and that is the prevalence of ever-shorter forms. So, from the short story (most outlets want 3000 words or less, which is about 7 or 8 pages) we progress to flash fiction (1,000 at most and sometimes as few words as 300) and then the ‘short-short’ story which is barely more than a paragraph – and now in the age of Twitter we have the story told in tweet-form. And barely a week goes by without the Facebook forum ‘Writing.com’ urging me ‘Quick! give us 2 words to describe how an astronaut feels on re-entry!’ – or something similar. I could give them two words to describe how I feel about their ideas – but I doubt they’d publish them.
Yes, I know there’s a lot of skill in telling a story in just a few words, but there are limits; and to ask for a story in a paragraph suggests a readership that just can’t be bothered.
So there we are: and here I am, an ideas-driven writer stuck in an age of plot. I should have been born in 19th century France, then like Proust I could have written 600 pages describing that moment between sleeping and waking….
Au revoir, mes petits. A demain.