Literary Concision

Writers are often praised for being concise. Their sentences lack flab and are full of information and comparisons. Their plots get started right away without buildup or much preparation and various plot elements overlap so that the story or play or novel is at once an allegory, an insight into character and motivation, and also casts light on the society being observed. That is certainly the case with the sprawling novels of the English Nineteenth Century, where you learn from Dickens that Peter Dombey is at once imperious and weak, too readily the tool of his assistant and that tells you how an English law firm of the time works as well as how that will get in the way of the hero and heroine of the novel.

Concision, however, is not just a virtue demonstrated by a good writer. Rather, concision is implicit in all story telling which is, after all, the telling of events in a sequence which may not at all be the sequence in which the events described are purported to happen and where material not regarded as necessary to the telling of the tale is left out. You don’t depict every time a businessman has coffee or takes a bathroom break but deal with relating what you are trying to describe about business. An author also has to deal with the inevitable longueurs that occur in real life, nothing much happening until the next event important to telling the story. So days may go on before a break in a murder mystery a screenwriter is unfolding and that will be dealt with in a quick cut. News organizations face similar problems in telling their own stories. There may be an announcement by the Justice Department about the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in American elections, and then the news media will spend a few days or a week milking whatever is announced or turning to something else, like a cave disaster, to fill their airtime before returning to the main story when something new is anticipated or is revealed. News programming is a constant fight to make news into a story. In fact, the reader relies so heavily on the author to do his job properly that when there is a description or an interlude that is included that seems merely comical, as when Bloom goes to an outhouse in “Ulysses”, the reader has to ask himself what that incident signifies, for why else would it be included? The sophisticated reader is well trained in what he or she has to bring to the reading of a story. But there are very different ways in which authors handle concision and that is what I want to discuss.

Jane Austen is a master of concision. She collapses time so that she can get on with her story. Her heroes and heroines are always engaged in long journeys, whether by commercial coach to London or Bath, or to remote estates by smaller coach or on horseback. She does not linger on these tedious journeys, although the arrival of someone from one of them is sure to be the beginning of some important development, so much energy needed to undertake one of them, the protagonists waiting  and busying themselves with their own thoughts or music or reading until it is time for the next pregnant conversation. So Jane Austen milks the drama of the journey even without detailing either it or the scenery at one or another place visits take place, noting instead only the elaborateness of the houses in which people live as a sign of their wealth. Things are left out so that one can get around to the next visit which brings with it some important interchange-- or else none, which is still a significant event because these opportunities are rare. It isn’t just travel that Jane Austen leaves out. She leaves out meals except when something is to be said or doing laundry except when screenwriters decide they have to fill the screen with something, such as darning. Mostly, the women sit around waiting for something to happen in their lives that is worth reporting. Maybe they just stare out into space a lot.

Different Nineteenth Century novelists leave out different things depending on what they think motivates people. Thackeray leaves the battle of Waterloo out of “Vanity Fair”, except for the sounds of battle that reach Brussels, because he is like the old time high school history teachers who didn’t cover the battles in the American Civil War because they didn’t have the time and also because they were interested in causes and consequences not the process of war itself which seems independant, at least  to them, of the social fabric of the time. Charles Dickens, who seems to put everything in, to neglect neither eating nor walking through London streets, nor the decor of houses, leaves out sex, although he doesn’t neglect filial affection, which is the basis for romance in so many of his novels, while his fellow Victorian novelist, Wilkie Collins, is perfectly willing to admit that his characters feel sexual attraction to one another. Leaving out little has its disadvantages. “David Copperfield” is a picaresque novel because it goes from one thing to another, its only excuse for doing so that these things happened in the hero’s life, which is what leads Holden Caulfield to denounce “all that David Copperfield kind of crap”, and we may presume that to have been J. D. Salinger’s aesthetic as well. Start in the middle of a story; fiction isn’t biography.

And so another way in which an author can be concise is when to start and finish a story. Charles Dickens starts “Oliver Twist”, “David Copperfield” and “Great Expectations” at the beginning of a life and ends those novels when the fortunes of a person’s life has been settled, whether by marriage or a profession. Jane Austen begins her novels when her heroines are at an age when courtship can begin and ends with them when they are married, though she does not do that in perhaps her greatest novel, her last one. “Persuasion”, which she begins when property relations are unsettled but where the reader eventually discovers the heroine’s back story of her earlier love affair. Austen doesn’t give us many details about that, though they must have filled the mind of Anne Elliot, her heroine, because Austen wants to make the novel center on what happened later, how the romance was rekindled, even though the odds were against that ever happening, people not given to opening up old wounds. Mark Twain begins his stories with the mental dilemma he has set for himself: how a pauper would interact with a prince, or a Connecticut Yankee with a medieval court, and comes up with surprising solutions: the pauper willing to give up his newly acquired position rather than be a rascal who tries to keep it, and Huck finding himself allied to Jim even though it was just by chance that they wound up on the raft together.

So what is it that the Nineteenth Century novelists chose to leave in? Mainly, what people were thinking about, their multiple and endless motives, some paramount in some people, others paramount in other people, and some people perplexed about their motives. Also, the invisible social structures of social class and ethnicity that seemed to shape their lives, from issues of the inheritance of property in Jane Austen to, towards the end of the century, whether a Jewish politician like Daniel Deronda had a chance of making it big (Disraeli having already pulled off that feat). Nineteenth Century characters are therefore always both inside and outside themselves and that, the drama of the individual within society, is always at the core of the drama.

The Modernist authors brought back in all the things that the Nineteenth Century authors had left out: what was happening in internal life even if nothing much was going on in the “real” world of society. Hemingway brought the sound of cicadas to the story of a soldier lying wounded on the battlefield; Joyce made cold a characteristic of Dublin politics; Virginia Woolf introduced the idea of stream of consciousness, much as Proust had done, though it might be said that this is a superficial version of what had been left out, being just random thoughts that don’t add up to much. Faulkner gave a sense of how phenomena would seem to a person of limited intellect. Kafka broke down the wall between dreams and reality. Only Thomas Mann remains committed to the old fashioned full panoply novel, full of intellectual pyrotechnics, but resistant to plumbing new feelings and experiences, with “Death in Venice” a possible exception if one thinks of it as exploring sexual attraction rather than just the new topic of homosexuality.

Actually, the conciseness that characterizes fiction is also true of ordinary life. We cut to the chase in our dreams, imagining what we will look like in fifty years or what it would have been like to continue in a relationship that went sour. And, of course, we’ll remember those events we take as having been “traumatic” in great detail, as if they occurred yesterday, at the same time we cannot remember what it was we had for breakfast yesterday unless it was something we eat every morning. Time moves ahead in fits and starts, yielding to each of us a narrative of our own lives, accentuating what we have come to think of as important, rather than recording all of it equally. And we have enough thoughts in our own heads that it would take hundreds more of those Nineteenth Century novelists to write down. Storytelling is therefore not just about telling stories; it is the very structure of life.