Tell Me A Story

Yesterday I picked up a book which has been long listed for at least two of this year’s major awards.  For once I had a whole afternoon free and I was looking forward to really getting into this new novel.  Two hours later, having crawled my way through the first fifty or so pages, I put it onto the pile to go back to the library wondering just what had gone wrong.  I could see that it was a very well written work.  Here was a writer who loved language and knew how to use it.  The author also had a keen eye for detail and created believable and precise characters and locations. However, what there didn’t seem to be was any attempt at telling a story.  Breaking off to seek out reviews, what I discovered was a series of comments about the way in which the lives and characteristics of the central figures were portrayed and the extent to which the writer had used them to comment on a certain strata of society.  Nobody tried to tell me about the plot – probably because there isn’t one.

Let me say straight away that I am not condemning the book on this account.  I’m sure that for some readers it will be a delight.  What I am more interested in is what it says about me as a reader. I want a story.  I want a plot with the ubiquitous beginning, middle and end, even if those elements don’t come in the right order.  Oh, I’m interested in character as well, but I need them to do something other than just walk through their daily lives.  I want to be able to describe at least one of them as a protagonist, which was a word I almost used in the previous paragraph before deciding that something as proactive as that could never be associated with any of the characters I had been reading about.  Maybe this makes me an unsophisticated reader, but do you know what, at this point in my life I don’t care.  Story is what has always been important to me.  I think it is important to most of us.  As Barbara Hardy so famously once said narrative is a primary act of mind, we all automatically tell stories about what we’ve been up to, even if what we are describing is the most mundane day of our lives.   Not for nothing did I spend my working life researching and teaching the way in which, from our earliest days, we learn how to shape and communicate the stories that define who we are.

Perhaps I should make a bigger effort to engage with novels that don’t work with plot, but when there are so many books out there that I want to read which do have a story to tell to be honest I’m not sure I really want to try.  Maybe I’m just in a grumpy mood this morning.

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17 thoughts on “Tell Me A Story

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings March 22, 2019 / 11:45 am

    I think for me it kind of depends what mood I’m in. Sometimes I want plot and story, sometimes I’m happy to wallow in beautiful language. Maybe it was just the wrong book at the wrong time.

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    • Café Society March 22, 2019 / 1:39 pm

      I know what you mean, Karen, but I think for me it was just the wrong book. Beautiful language alone is never enough for me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. BookerTalk March 22, 2019 / 11:50 am

    I don’t think you are being grumpy at all. You know what works for you and thats what you want to experience in books you read. I don’t want books that are entirely plot driven and have little to say in terms of issues or themes (and nor do you I suspect) but yes I do want some plot. Those that don’t have that element often feel the author is being very self indulgent …

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    • Café Society March 22, 2019 / 1:41 pm

      Yes, I think this did feel self indulgent but even more it felt exclusive. I didn’t identify with the people about whom she was writing and I definitely felt excluded. It made me wonder about the people involved in drawing up the relevant long lists.

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      • BookerTalk March 22, 2019 / 5:11 pm

        I have those questions in my mind often when I see award lists ….like when they put Will Self on a list for a book that has no punctuation or paragraphing….

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  3. A Life in Books March 22, 2019 / 12:00 pm

    You’re clearly far from an unsophisticated reader! I’m quite happy to read a novel for the sheer elegance of the writing but I’m also happy to be treated to a piece of well turned out storytelling. Of course, I’m busy speculating about which book it is.

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    • Café Society March 22, 2019 / 1:43 pm

      I love beautifully written prose, Susan, but it is never enough for me. And although this is well written I’m not sure I would describe it as beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Rohan Maitzen March 22, 2019 / 12:52 pm

    I share the preference for novels with a story. I also find I am often impatient, even if there is a story, if it is told really minimally: if I have to fill in everything between the gaps, it can feel to me as if the novelist is just shirking the genuine challenges of telling a story fully in an interesting way! For me the book your post most summoned up is Rachel Cusk’s Outline. I was fairly engaged with it in some ways but I also couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole exercise was just a deliberate exercise in not actually writing a novel–which in fact is sort of what it was, according to Cusk, but if it feels like a metafictional experiment, is it successful? I have the next one in that series but can’t quite bring myself to read another whole book that’s the same.

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    • Café Society March 22, 2019 / 1:49 pm

      Your phrase ‘metaphysical experiment’ really hit home, Rohan. I suspect one of the reasons this made me feel inadequate is that I have just started a new readers group in the complex where I am now living. I wanted it to be available to everyone, whatever they enjoyed reading, and made a big thing about the fact that I read from all sorts of different genre including crime, fantasy and children’s fiction. It brought in a lot more people than I had been expecting, readers of all sorts, but there was one woman who made a point of marking herself out as someone who was really only interested in experimental writers who were trying something new. Goodness only knows how everyone else felt but I certainly felt belittled. I suspect I’m still smarting.

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      • Rohan Maitzen March 22, 2019 / 9:59 pm

        The things some people consider ‘conventional’ are so hard to do really well – and sometimes it is hard to tell when something is experimental and effective and when it is just gimmicky (for me, A Message from the Good Squad is an example – I couldn’t tell but I didn’t like it in any case). I find especially that people who don’t read genre fiction are strangely cavalier about it.

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    • Café Society March 22, 2019 / 4:01 pm

      That is really interesting, Smithereens. Thank you for pointing it out. I am always going to be most interested in plot and character with setting and language being less important. I’m fairly certain that like you I wouldn’t react well to anything that was one dimensional even if that dimension was plot, but I wouldn’t look favourably on a book that was good in all other respects if it was without a decent plotline.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Elle March 22, 2019 / 4:57 pm

    It’s got to be either Normal People or Milkman…

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    • Café Society March 22, 2019 / 5:10 pm

      No, I’ve read and enjoyed Normal People and Milkman is next on the list for a book group in about ten days. 😉

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      • Elle March 22, 2019 / 5:10 pm

        Curses! Back to the drawing board…

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  6. nsfordwriter March 22, 2019 / 5:16 pm

    I agree with you. I need a plot! The writing has to be very special indeed for me to like a book which is character driven 🙂

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