Humble thanks to Jenna for yesterday’s priceless wisdom! I couldn’t agree more that superfluous forays into the past weigh a story down and should be slashed. And that writers should learn to recognize and kill off those darlings, no matter how painful. Jenna’s books are shining examples.
But I’m also worried. It seems that an exploding number of novels are cowering in a corner, so frightened of making that one fatal flashback misstep that they choose instead to march forward along a safe, straight-and-narrow, chronological line. These novels include virtually no scenes from points in time before their narratives begin, no matter how relevant or well-incorporated, which lends them a bland and frightening homogeneity. The exception indeed seems to be when there’s a second, alternating plot set in the past – a story in and of itself with its own set of powerful (“loud”) events. As if telling this second story in any other way were taboo.
Sure, in this age of short attention spans books have to be snappy and fast-paced enough, “I-gotta-see-what-happens” enough, to compete with Twitter and TV. But that’s exactly what scares me! Aren’t books meant to offer audiences something richer and more challenging than other types of media do? Their once bold range of expression has shrunk lately to a mere shadow of its former self. As a result, readers are getting used to being spoon-fed their paltry remains: action, action, action. They (we!) are growing lazy about having to think.
With sales and publishing imperatives the real Commander-in-chief around here, I also worry that we writers are developing a meek laziness of our own. In ruling out an approach that includes even artful flashbacks for the sake of avoiding risk and hooking publishers and readers, we’re losing the skills to create them at all. We’re even losing the ability to tell the difference between masterful forays into the past and those superfluous ones that yes indeed, have gotta go. Increasingly, we’re confusing “good writing” with mass-market writing, and in the process are narrowing the definition of “good.”
And speaking of that definition…. Stories that move forward through flashback-free action have their own set of inherent flaws. The intention to keep a plot marching onward and ahead can drive an author to fabricate an overload of powerful, present-moment events, often occurring in rapid-fire succession. These, too, can feel superfluous – exhausting, inorganic, hard to believe – and weigh a book down.
Of course, it’s all so subjective. When reading a flashback-free book, I personally crave the subtle complexity – and mourn the lack – of a narrative that weaves in and out of time. I’ve even found myself mentally cutting and pasting as I read, attempting to reorder events in a less linear, more poetic way. Take LOVING FRANK, for example. The narrative could have potentially begun where the book actually ends, placing its final scene (a horrific fire) in the dramatic present and weaving in the rest of the story as flashback – perhaps even cutting some redundant bits along the way.
It would be a great loss to literature, the mind and the imagination if the number of writers daring to work this way dwindled any more than it already has. Authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende and Julia Glass have done so with exquisite skill. So has Michelle Hoover in her dazzling debut novel, THE QUICKENING. Yet such authors are often under-recognized and are growing increasingly rare.
Paul Harding has suggested that “good art can be viable in the market.” While not everyone can or should aspire to Pulitzer-level standards, there’s surely space in readers’ hearts for both literary works of art and linear page-turners tailor-made to sell. But to keep that space alive, we writers have to resist losing sight altogether of the blurring lines between them.