Podcast

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Storyteller’s Rulebook: Literary Doesn’t Have to Mean Hide-n-Seek

We’ve done a lot of popular fiction, so I wanted to do something “literary”, but something that most people have read. I chose “Beloved”, but I’ve got a problem: It’s not a good example of a “difficult” book, if that’s what I was looking for. Let’s look at the remarkable opening paragraph:

  • 124 WAS SPITEFUL. Full of a baby's venom. The women in the house knew it and so did the children. For years each put up with the spite in his own way, but by 1873 Sethe and her daughter Denver were its only victims. The grandmother, Baby Suggs, was dead, and the sons, Howard and Buglar, had run away by the time they were thirteen years old--as soon as merely looking in a mirror shattered it (that was the signal for Buglar); as soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard). Neither boy waited to see more; another kettleful of chickpeas smoking in a heap on the floor; soda crackers crumbled and strewn in a line next to the door sill. Nor did they wait for one of the relief periods: the weeks, months even, when nothing was disturbed. No. Each one fled at once--the moment the house committed what was for him the one insult not to be borne or witnessed a second time. Within two months, in the dead of winter, leaving their grandmother, Baby Suggs; Sethe, their mother; and their little sister, Denver, all by themselves in the gray and white house on Bluestone Road. It didn't have a number then, because Cincinnati didn't stretch that far. In fact, Ohio had been calling itself a state only seventy years when first one brother and then the next stuffed quilt packing into his hat, snatched up his shoes, and crept away from the lively spite the house felt for them.

Morrison is taking full advantage of her omniscient POV to just tell us everything we could want to know about her novel, right up front. We have a genre (horror), a subgenre (haunted house), a setting (124 Bluestone Road outside Cincinatti), a villain (the ghost baby, who is so far unnamed), two heroes (Sethe and her daughter Denver), a description of the rest of the family and what happened to them (except the unmentioned father), and most importantly, the dramatic question: Can Sethe and Denver survive the spiteful wrath of the ghost? And we’re off to the races!

Not exactly difficult to read, is it? And yet the book could not have a more literary reputation, having won the Nobel prize and many more. I’ll have to find another example of a tough nut to crack!

Literary fiction doesn’t have to play hide-n-seek. There’s a place for difficult fiction, but it doesn’t have an exclusive claim to greatness. That’s a great opening paragraph, no matter what your aspirations are.

4 comments:

Justin Walsh said...

Maybe A Clockwork Orange, then? It's got challenging language, but Kubrick's adaptation makes a great comparison piece. Or something by Cormac McCarthy, maybe Suttree or Blood Meridian? Or just abandon all hope and go Finnegan's Wake.

Matt Bird said...

But then I'd have to read Finnegan's Wake!

Justin Walsh said...

You haven't lived...

Liam Walsh said...

"Difficult" books that are successful are more triumphs of marketing than of craft, in my (I assume quite controversial) opinion. If an author has done their job well, a book should be a joy to read -- and I don't mean in the "at last I have tangible proof I'm intellectually and culturally superior to the louts that surround me" sense. Clarity is underrated. I would cheerfully pay an extra buck for a Cormac McCarthy novel with the missing apostrophes and quotation marks put back in the places they belong.