Tuesday, February 03, 2009

The literary trope

I have just read Toni Morrison's "A Mercy".
A wonderful book, gorgeously rich writing, fascinating characters in a magnificent but savage setting of uncertainty, disease, servitude, the constant haunting of death standing at the shoulder. A nice touch of irony - the only truly free character is the black man.

Highly recommended, and it is a tale I shall read again.

But as I lay the book down, it made me think about one of the much belaboured tropes of literary writing - that the author so often feels obliged not to be straightforward, but to hide the truth of the tale in a welter of words that have to be decoded.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. In fact, when you have to hunt for clues in the words, it can make you appreciate the story all the more, and I think Morrison does this very well. Her way of unfolding the truth makes you go back and reread and appreciate. But then, she is a master craftsman.

Others don't succeed so well and seem to feel that you can't have clarity in their writing, not if you want to be literary. You must hide the denouement, or the realities, or the motivations under obfuscation. You must hint, never tell. You must make the reader put the book down, saying in puzzlement, 'Huh? What happened in the end?' Make it all too easy to understand, then it's commercial fiction, not literary.

(This last statement is not true, of course. Think, say, To Kill a Mockingbird. Hmm, maybe that's why it is both commercial and literary.)

To me, blurring the tale deliberately to make the reader not immediately understand what happened is just as much a trope of literary fiction as the boy with magic ending up being the King/Sorcerer/Hero is a trope of fantasy.

1 comment:

Jo said...

In my opinion, there is nothing worse than putting a book down and then wondering what it was all about and what happened in the end.

However, if YOU consider a book good and worth a probably re-read, then I shall hi-tail it to my library and get said book. Your recommendations always turn out to be excellent. Thanks.

By the way, I found another big statue which I am posting a picture of today.