Story vs. Language

From my shared items (available in the top left corner of the blog, as well as by RSS), I thought I’d highlight this post from the Guardian. It opens:

In his meditation on the works of James Joyce, Anthony Burgess delineated the two different types of novel, categorised into types A and B. The A novel, to summarise his argument, is completely in thrall to convention, tapping into traditional literary archetypes with a distinct focus on plot and character. The B novel, however, can incorporate plot and character (though it occasionally dispenses with such trivialities altogether) but its ultimate aim is to explore literary form, narrative and language.

The idea being that the B novel is superior to the A novel, in the eyes of some. Blogger Bharat Azad argues that this is a false dichotomy:

Prose-wise, can even the most learned literary critic convince us that, “a sewerful of guineagold wine with brancomongepadenopie and sickcylinder oysters worth a billion a bite” from Finnegan’s Wake or a 447-word sentence by Marcel Proust is really more worthy of literary merit than Plath’s “person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is the bad dream”?

For me, too much style–ie, overly beautiful prose–is not the sign of a great novel but the sign of a great something else. Like a poem, perhaps. Or a short story. All that beauty distracts me from what I want from a novel: to tell me a story. Let me get lost in the world as you see it, the world that you’re creating for me, word by word. I don’t want to have to pay attention to each individual brick, I want to explore the rooms of the house and discover all that lives in the white space around the words.

That’s not to say that I believe that all novelists should adopt an invisible style. Rather, I’m saying that the novelists that I prefer, those who move me with their alchemy, are those who don’t see language as an end in itself. Forster, Ishiguro, Austen, Atwood, McEwan, Wharton, Twain, Greene–you wouldn’t accuse any of these writers of neglecting the beauties of the English language, or of a laziness when it comes to prose construction. Yet they understand something I feel that other, more words-obsessed authors don’t, which is that words are just the skin on the beating heart, not the heart itself.

Today’s work read was a children’s fantasy that was all about a character coming to learn that magic isn’t real. For some reason, this depressed me.

6 thoughts on “Story vs. Language”

  1. Ah, the deluding of children. Reminds me of the short story ‘A Proper Santa’ from Anne McCaffrey’s ‘Get Off The Unicorn’. (Her publisher messed up the intended title, ‘Get Of The Unicorn’, referring to progeny of a unicorn.)

    I was told that poetry has a higher density of information than prose. Your comment about intricate style being less readable makes sense, and brings to mind another McCaffrey title, ‘DragonSinger’. DragonSinger has a young girl enter a music academy with a couple of catchy tunes that she had written. Feeling embarrassed in the presence of very learned scholars and accomplished musicians, one of the senior instructors tells her that there is need for all levels of music.

    I think the more ‘evolved’ styles, the more intricate sentences, the explorations of the boundaries are essential for those studying the nature of language. Common expressions of stories will always be more popular. Just as there are different ‘levels’ of usage expected for young adult writing than for adult readers, there are people that read and think at an advanced level. And the ‘B’ novels seem more intended to amuse and instruct those that got bored with their MBA and Mensa tests.

    Years ago I came across automated tests for text, to assign a ‘reading level’ to any writing. I think MS Word still has one. An author must know what grade level of language they want to pursue. Jumping from 4th grade to 16th for a few paragraphs in the middle of a young reader book would be rude. Bouncing from 14th grade to 6th for a few paragraphs every now and then would feel wrong in an advanced book, although usually novels are kept closer to 10th to 12th grade, down to maybe 7th grade. A treatise on molecular genetics would be expected to stay at a consistent post-graduate level, unless being submitted to ‘Nature’ magazine or the Wall Street Journal.

    Certainly an author that consistently wrote A novels would appeal to a different market than an author known for B novels.

    Unless you mean William Steig’s ‘CDB’. With all the line drawings I guess this would be a B graphic novel? As would the sequel, ‘CDC’.

  2. I know many writers (and books) which are great read without resorting to heavy or pedantic language, but actually because they use simple language.

    Though I have nothing against language flourishes, But I agree with you, that should not distract readers from the storyline.

  3. Well, sometimes Asimov and some Marathi authors (Marathi is my mother tongue) I know.

    What about George R R Martin? Many historical fictions do have stylish language.

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