In the 20th century, as the practice of the novel tore away from storytelling, narrative went to the movies. But that rip in literature is now being mendedby Julian Evans / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: The seven basic plots Author: Christopher Booker Price: (Continuum, £25)
It may seem odd to propose F Scott Fitzgerald as the most modern of storytellers, but consider how his portrait of Anson Hunter, the protagonist of The Rich Boy, opens with the narrator’s reflections on his own technique: “Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created – nothing.” The Rich Boy was written in 1925, as Fitzgerald waited for The Great Gatsby to be published. With the explosion of modernism, the 1920s were a watershed for storytelling. Behind this decade were Austen, Dickens and James; in front, Joyce and Borges. Yet far from showing Fitzgerald marooned on the 19th-century shore (where critics almost invariably place him), the 30 pages of The Rich Boy demonstrate a remarkable bridging of that watershed. The story consists of a linear narrative managed by a modern consciousness. It may owe more to Chekhov than Beckett, but post-Beckett it is possible to see a notion of reality that has already abandoned authority, becoming oblique, partial, esoteric. “The only way I can describe young Anson Hunter,” the narrator concludes his introduction, “is to approach him as a foreigner and cling stubbornly to my point of view. If I accept his for a moment I am lost.”
Why should this concern us? Because in an era of cultural plenitude like ours, stories should abound in something like the manner they did in Fitzgerald’s time. In a sense, they do. Stories are everywhere. The hourly headlines are stories, as are the multifarious narratives of postmodern pluralism. We have more leisure than ever to give to their telling and hearing. Yet it is not the storytelling itself that leaves an impression so much as the histrionic energy of its distribution. The publishing of fiction, its marketing, the shortlisting for prizes, the profiling, the reviewing, the processing: since we lack the time to read the several thousand novels published in Britain each year, the high level of these epiphenomena ought to make us feel that our fictional culture is alive and well. Does it? My answer is a qualified no.
The histories of the novel and of storytelling ran together until the early 20th century; since the 1920s, that history has been one of formal drift, away from the…