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.
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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!