Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fiction -- miscellaneous musings from over-the-hill

As I am an over-the-hill reader of fiction, I have accumulated over the years a few thoughts about prose fiction, and my previous posting and Fred's comments have led me to write this meandering posting.

(1) First I must lay some groundwork with some definitions and explanations.
(2) Then I will attempt some provocative observations and judgments.
(3) And at the end, I will extend an invitation to you. 

So, constant readers, here it goes.


A useful way of analyzing prose fiction includes identification and discussion of its principal, dynamic, interactive elements: plot, characters, setting, point of view, style, and theme.

Plot -- whether simple or complex -- should be viewed as the sequence of major events of a story, usually interrelated by cause-and-effect relationships; an important aspect of plot development involves an author's choices about shaping and developing events within the sequence. Sometimes plots can described as "tight" (e.g., many of Edgar Allen Poe's stories), sometimes plots can be described as loose or ambiguous (e.g., the stories and novels of James Joyce), and sometimes plots can be described as complicated (e.g., Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse novels).

Characters generally are the people (although sometimes animals or other creatures) within fiction. Characterization (yet another bit of terminology thrown your way) involves the development of characters throughout the fiction; the author, in furtherance of characterization, often selects and includes characters' physical descriptions, words, actions, and thoughts. Some characters are minor (e.g., Goody Cloyse in Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown") and some are major (e.g., Captain Ahab in Melville's Moby-Dick). Depending upon the depth of characterization, characters can be simple or complex, flat or round.

Setting is the context for the action: time, place, culture, atmosphere, etc. Works can include single or multiple settings; and settings can be more or less significant to the overall meaning of the work (e.g., the Puritan Salem and forest in "Young Goodman Brown").

Point of view in fiction is the perspective from which a narrator(s) presents the story or novel. First-person and third-person narrators are the most common (and second-person narrators are most uncommon) in prose fiction. The point of view can be omniscient, limited, objective, or subjective. Here are several illustrative examples: Shirley Jackson "The Lottery" is told from the third-person objective point of view; Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" and Joyce's "Araby" are told from the first-person subjective point of view; shifting points of view in Kate Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" enable readers to see the protagonist from outside and even a bit into her emotions and secrets (via third-person subjective), and more directly her thoughts as if we the readers were inside her mind (via first-person subjective).

Style refers to the diction, syntax, and other linguistic features. Different writers have different voices (styles), so style distinguishes one writer's language from another. Consider three very different styles as represented by the works of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Arthur Conan Doyle. 

Theme is the central idea in a literary work (i.e., the general concept, explicit or implicit, presented to the readers). The other elements of fiction contribute to a theme's development. 


Even though New Critics would tell me that I am quite wrong, I think that all critical response to prose fiction is personal and subjective. Moreover, all personal and subjective responses to prose fiction are predicated upon readers' interests in, preferences for, and awareness of the elements outlined above. For example, a reader's preference for one writing style over another might make that reader avoid Henry James but embrace Elmore Leonard; also, if a reader craves characterizations and savors settings, she might celebrate the works of Charles Dickens but be impatient with and intolerant of the works of J. R. R. Tolkien; another reader, in search of Christian themes might become a reader of G. K. Chesterton's cozy little Father Brown stories but not Flannery O'Connor's grotesque stories and novels. In other words, as I cut to the chase here, all works of prose fiction are different, all readers are different, and there are no absolute aesthetic standards applicable to prose fiction in general: this means -- dare I say it? -- James is not better than Leonard, Dickens is not better or worse than Tolkien, and O'Connor is not worse than Chesterton. In other words, the readers' interests and tastes (which is such a dangerous, loaded word) are more important than the individual merits of any work of prose fiction. So, friends, here is the bottom line: except for students' assigned and recommended reading in schools (which is another can of worms which I will keep on the shelf until another day), readers should read whatever they enjoy reading, they should as much as possible ignore other readers' advice and recommendations, and no one should criticize another reader's choices. 


Well, now it is your turn. I invite you to comment. 

* * * * *


In my future postings, I will be featuring many more reader-response, reader-friendly book reviews, and I will try to include fewer of my off-the-wall  provocations. So, friends, stay tuned!


  1. I think you've pretty much nailed it, Tim. Reading is a co-creative act. The reader uses his imagination to bring the words of the writer to life. I think one should try to experience as much of the world of fiction as one can, but everyone has his limits.

    1. Frank, you might be surprised (but maybe you wouldn't be surprised) to know that my POV was often at odds with most of my former English departments colleagues, folks too much in love with theory to enjoy reading; I am congenitally allergic to literary theory, and I am too dense to understand aesthetics, so I simply go with my POV that reading is a personal, subjective, interactive event.

  2. (applause heard in the background, cheers and those funny paper rolled up things you blow into...) tx a lot for the post, RT; it organizes and explains a lot of stuff re lit i've wondered about... i don't have any lit training, so i've been more or less in the dark and confused about some of the things said in the blogs i frequent... so, again, many tx for the short but comprehensive analysis... and i look forward to more of the same or different...

  3. Mudpuddle, I’m glad you appreciate my musings .

  4. R.T.--excellent! Clear, concise, and coherent!

    1. Thanks, Fred. The 3Cs are not my strength anymore.

  5. HI R.T. That was an interesting explanation. My only disagreement would be whether one writer can be better than another. To a point yes, if you are judging skill (and of course, what criteria is used to judge skill is a whole other topic). A Harlequin Romance writer is not on par with James or Leonard (although I've never heard of Leonard) but it becomes a thin line when we arrive at the truly greats.

    And there are truly greats. People's opinions or enjoyment of their works don't determine that.

    It's like concert pianists, there are those who are head and shoulders above the rest, but which legendary pianist is better than the other? At that point I only know the ones I like to listen to the best. I also know my favorite concert pianist is considered controversial and others can't stand him.

    Thanks for the food for thought. I am now pondering what exactly makes writing great or mediocre. My own writing has hit a wall and it's frustrating me.

    1. sharon: so who's your favorite pianist? i always like Horowitz...

    2. Sharon, the issue of “better” is a subjective judgment involving more than just syntax, style, grammar, and other matters; correct v. incorrect writing is another but more objective matter.

    3. Mudpuddle, Horowitz is the great master of the twentieth century. I don't believe anyone can surpass him. His interpretation of Liszt's Funerailles is the best ever.

      There's so many I love, Andre Watts is probably the greatest living pianist.

      Ivo Pogorelich when he was young, Radu Lupu, Alfred Brendel, Marta Argerich, so many.

      But my favorite is....

      Glenn Gould. He takes liberties and you can often hear him singing along on his recordings but I don't believe any pianist is more expressive than he is.

    4. remarkable that you should say that, Sharon... it was enlightenment when i first heard him play Bach; that memory stays with me: his extraordinary precision and simultaneous musicality just blew me away... i've never heard anyone approach him...

    5. His Goldberg variations are just incredible and I absolutely adore his performance of William Byrd's Pavane in G.

      R.T. you're right about writing. There's more to it than simply being clever with words. There's something else. I need to study it further. Why do I love Orwell so much even when I don't care much for his take on life?

      And why do I think Eudora Welty spends a good deal driveling when I enjoy Southern writers so much?