Sunday, May 3, 2009

Do we need back story?

I heard an interview on NPR this evening with the novelist Colm Toibin, in which he was asked an unusual question, unusual at least for the evening news. The reporter had heard that, in his fiction workshops, he opposed back story, and she wondered is this was true. I didn't hear his answer, as I was loudly frying up some garlic and onions. But the question got me thinking.

"Back story" is what fiction nerds call flashbacks--things that have happened before the events of a story or novel's main temporal territory, and which are delivered to us either in the form of a character's memory, or, in the case of a less close third person, a bit of narratorial trickery. Back story, for the experienced reader, is essentially invisible--we're accustomed to being yanked around in time, in a book. So it doesn't generally create confusion.

There are disadvantages to using it, though. One is that it breaks up the rhythm of the narrative. If that's what you're trying to do--write a disjointed story that mirrors the mind's own scope and reach--then fine. But if you're not, you might not get your desired result. Back story also puts the narrative at risk for accidentally explaining all the nuance and mystery out of itself. In my new novel, Castle, I actually took this risk, intruding upon a mostly linear narrative with a violent event from the narrator's past. My intention was to explore how the character's memory works, and the way events in the present cause him to think about things he'd rather avoid. But it's possible that some readers will think I'm being reductive--that the back story serves to "explain" all that comes later. This is a bad thing, in a novel, when present events are shown to be the direct result of past events--we know that real life is stranger than that, and more interesting.

I just read Denis Johnson's new novel, Nobody Move. It's a real cracker--the tight, spare prose style of Jesus' Son brought to bear on a fast-paced crime story. And while it's not completely linear, it relies very little on back story to move the narrative forward. We get all the details we need from the way the characters talk, feel, and behave. (One of these characters, a villain named Gambol, is a marvelously memorable creation, cruel, shrewd, and filled with unexpected joie de vivre.)

I always get excited about something when I am deep in the middle of doing something else--in this case, a long, flashback-soaked literary novel. But Johnson and Toibin have got me thinking about other ways to work. Maybe sometime next year I'll try a new tack--a "slim vol" that doesn't have much to say, and never looks back.

(And by the way, thanks to all of you who came to my readings in Portland and Seattle last week! Those are always good towns for a book tour, and this time around I had my best events yet.)

11 comments:

rmellis said...

I like backstory, but not when it's used to "explain" the frontstory. I think the past saturates the present, and it would seem weird and flat to never refer to the past at all in a piece of fiction.

That said, maybe I should try this Colm Toibin. I've avoided him because I have a prejudice against Irishy writing. Remember when the Atlantic used to regularly publish fiction? Those stories were either about Irish people, involved priests, took place in a boat, or all three.

rmellis said...

"to regularly publish" -- oops, sorry about splitting that infinitive, grammar snoots.

sdavis said...

The question of backstory really interests me. When I try longer fiction, I am often criticized for not providing enough of the stuff. But I am, as you say, John, afraid of explaining too much, which is (in any art) one of the worst crimes, right? And when I sit down to do it, I often find it to be the most tedious task. If I'm bored to tears, wouldn't the reader be, too? (Without it, I was told once, a novel just seems like a long, long train, one car in front of another, all forward movement, and who would want to read that? hmm, maybe me.) I think the past has to be referred to now and then, but maybe not always fleshed out?

I wish I could have made it to one of your readings. Come to New Jersey! (shh, not that I live there or anything)

jrlennon said...

Right, it's like Rhian's saying, the past saturates the present--I like that word. The present is, in a sense, in fact MADE UP OF the past. And so the past can be hinted at--recreated by the reader in her imagination--using details of the present. Complex past relationships can be revealed by just a few lines of awkward dialogue, if you pick the right words. Chekhov was awesome at this.

That's Sarah, right? Are you writing a lot of fiction these days?

Mark said...

Funny, I have been half-assedly reading, in two-minute bursts while baby-tending, a Colm Toibin story in one of the recent New Yorkers. Haven't finished it yet, but it's about a guy putting the aunt who raised him into a nursing home. Most memorable scene so far is back story: he lets himself into her house, she's getting senile and it's dark, so she thinks he's the old dude that she's romantically involved with (who also has a key to her house), and when he tries to tell her, "It's me, auntie," she says, "Oh Dave [or whatever his name is], I always knew Dave was gay, but I always acted like I didn't." It deepens the present story a great deal without having any straightforward explanatory purpose. So I'd imagine Toibin is against reductively explanatory back story ("I'm beating up my neighbor now because my mom made me stuff candy in my dog's mouth when I was four"), rather than back story, period.

Beginning writers, though, tend to write the reductive kind of back story as a crutch, when they can't figure out how to propel a person interestingly through a scene. So I could understand a moratorium on back story in a workshop, in the same way I used to discourage, when I was teaching, stories about "the funny stuff that happened while I was wasted" or "the guy I killed just because"--both of which are almost-adequate summaries of great stories in Jesus' Son.

jrlennon said...

Yeah, I think it's extremely useful for students to engage in limiting exercises--keeping themselves from using dialogue, or back story, or similes, or any of the other stuff that gets overemphasized in neophyte fiction. Perhaps that's what Toibin was saying when the sizzling in my kitchen obscured the sound of his voice...

rmellis said...

Sarah, come visit your old stomping grounds. The ABC Cafe is supposed to close at the end of June, isn't that sad?

The whole idea of "explaining" in fiction might be a subject for another post.

sdavis said...

Not the ABC! That's rotten. That's where I discovered how great beer and ice cream are together (oops, too much backstory). I'd like to get there this summer somehow...

And no, not writing a lot of anything, but fiction is what I keep heading back toward, and hoping for.

Anonymous said...

it's interesting to hear writers discussing method.
artists I know rarely justify their methods. writing seems so rule-bound compared to art. which makes me wonder if a lot of writing is stuck in a rut ?

Nancy ( in England )

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