Last week, in class, after we had discussed the Raymond Carver story ‘Gazebo’ I asked my students if they had read much else by that writer. All at once the class bloomed as they started sharing their favourite Carvers. Sometimes they could remember the titles, sometimes not, and never the names of the characters. What they did was retell the stories, a process that was something more than a simple plot summary or a paraphrase: they imbued their telling with a vital sense of narrative momentum, and enthusiasm. They told the stories excitedly. The others listened eagerly.
Then, on the train home, I read Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’, in which he laments the passing of the oral tradition (linking it to the rise of the novel), rather as he laments the loss of aura from the work of art in his more famous essay.
Later I thought back to the conversations I had had with my fellow tutor P as to what stories we were thinking of setting our students in this seminar. The conversations consisted in large part of us recounting favourite stories that the other didn’t know. In this we did exactly as those students, with their Carvers. I told P Lorrie Moore’s ‘Dance in America’, he told me ‘True Short Story’ by Ali Smith. I don’t know if P rushed out to read Moore, but I got hold of the Smith as soon as I could.
True, we did include some elements of analysis in those conversations – the stories we set were supposed to highlight particular themes: plot, characterisation, point of view and so on – but by and large, and at base, we said what happened to the characters in the story.
In thinking back on these varied experiences of retelling favourite stories (as speaker, listener and witness), and comparing them to the usually more measured terms in which the students discussed the stories I had set them in class, I got to thinking about that ghostly chimera of a holy grail that publishers like to speak of: word of mouth.
What is word of mouth? It’s saying, ‘I’ve just read a great book,’ yes, but it’s more than that. ‘It’s a great book’ will usually meet the rejoinder, ‘What’s it about?’ which can be answered in one of two ways. Either, ‘It’s about human despair in the face of mortality’ (thematic summary) or ‘It’s about a character whose mother dies and they go on a road trip to meet their father and… and… and…’
Word of mouth, true word of mouth – the good stuff, that actually sends the recommendee skipping off to the nearest bookshop or library – involves the impassioned retelling of a story. A word of mouth recommendation of a novel carries in it wisps and echoes of Benjamin’s lost oral tradition. The recommender becomes, in some minor way, a storyteller him- or herself – and the quality of their storytelling can be taken as a measure, in this instance, of the quality of the story retold.
Basically, a story retold with passion, concision and balance is likely to be a good story – because it’s been remembered, and internalised, and is rewarding to retell. That’s how word of mouth works. In recounting a short story or a novel for a friend, you are essentially filleting it for its story. The story in the story.
Compare this now to a book review. The perverse, insidious thing about book reviews, as everyone knows, is that they absolve the person reading it from actually reading the book. In non-fiction, obviously, this can be because the review summarises the book’s argument (oh, so that’s her take on New Labour/Modernism/weeds) but it happens with fiction reviews too. The difference is that the fiction review ties up a plot summary (though, compared to the word of mouth recommender’s, a thoroughly dispassionate one) with an aesthetic judgment of the work, even an explanation of it. Now here’s Benjamin:
Actually, it is half the art of storytelling to keep a story free from explanation as one recounts it […] The most extraordinary things, marvellous things, are related with the greatest accuracy, but the psychological connections among the events are not forced on the reader.
In pop psychology terms, a book review offers closure that a word of mouth recommendation doesn’t. The book review gives us a story in the form of an autopsy report, the word of mouth recommendation in the form of a big wriggling bundle of characters, events and themes, thrust into our arms with the injunction to see what we make of it.
Obviously, there are stories that resist plot summary, and I’m rushing off right now to follow up P’s non-summarised recommendation of David Means (story in the New Yorker here) to test that out, but I’m talking about the broad middle ground here, the home of the ‘Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story’ story.
A final thought. When someone asks you what your novel is ‘about’ (and again that’s always the terms in which the question is posed), they usually do so apologetically, acknowledging the reductionism it implies, but you should be grateful to them.
Even if you’re still writing your novel, and you’re all tangled up in the middle of it, lost in a wood made insistently of trees, think of this: they are asking exactly the same question they would ask of someone who’s just read your – published – novel: ‘What’s it about?’
Think of the answer you would want that person to give. That answer, if your novel ‘tells a story,’ involves – however briefly and reductively, but hopefully enthusiastically – telling the story of your story. That’s where the oral tradition lives on, in word of mouth.