Lois Tilton February 3rd, 2007
The people who do literary theory and criticism like to use the word “text” a lot, but I suspect I am going to be using it here in a way they might not approve. The text as I conceive it is the arrangement of words that tell a story, but it is not itself the story. The story itself exists prior to the text, in the mind of the author, and beyond it, in the minds of the readers. The act of writing a story is the attempt to recreate the story in the author’s mind in the medium of written words â€“ a text. The act of reading the text is the recreation of the story in the reader’s mind.
Of course words are not the only medium in which a story can be told, and some people call those other forms of telling “texts” as well. It is possible to tell the same story in different ways â€“ not only in different words, but in different media, yet it remains, in some fundamental way, the same story. “Cinderella,” for example, has been retold thousands of times, with and without using words: spoken, written, sung, danced, mimed, drawn. Yet through all these alterations, it remains at its heart the same story. The thing that we recognize behind the difference in media is the story itself.
In an art studio, we can often find a dozen different artists drawing the same model. The resulting portraits are usually quite different from one another. The artist is not, as a rule, attempting a perfectly exact replication of the model’s form and features. It is rather that in the mind of each artist there is an image of the model that he is attempting to capture and reproduce in lines or brush-strokes on paper; this mental image is the analogue of the story, and the lines of the pencil are the artist’s words.
By the story, then, I mean the “thing told”; by the text, I mean the particular telling of it. And that the story itself, in our minds, exists in our minds apart from and independent of any of its tellings.
Â A writer, then, is attempting to tell a story. To compose a text. She has the story in her mind, she knows what will happen, she knows who the characters are â€“ how they think, how they feel, what they will do. The story is there, and what she needs now are the words to tell it. The right words.
The process should be familiar to any writer. Typing one set of words, deleting them, typing others. Reading the draft of the text, crumpling pages, tossing them away. The words aren’t quite right, they haven’t succeeded in capturing the heart of the story. The story is there in the writer’s mind, but the text doesn’t tell it as she wants it told.
Perhaps the point of view needs to be more intimate. The writer switches mental gears from third-person to first, rewrites the text. Now there are two texts, two versions of the same story told. In which does it come better to life? In which does it come closest to the version of the story in the writer’s mind? She reads both, compares them, perhaps composes a third version of the text. Sometimes a story can be elusive, hard to capture in words.
Of course different writers work in different ways. For some, the story has to be reasonably complete before the composition of the text can begin; for others, the story grows in the author’s mind along with the text on the page. There is a paradox: while [each version] of a text is fixed, a specific arrangement of words, the story itself seems to be infinitely plastic; it can take a variety of different shapes and forms. While the text has objective reality, the story is subjective; it exists in the mind as an idea, which can be a protean thing.
It might be enlightening to think of the story as the raw material, the clay that we can shape or form into a specific form as a text. Of course, in the case of a story being re-told, such as a fairy tale, or one taken from history or fact, the material is to some extent pre-shaped before the writer goes to work on it. In the case of original, imaginative fiction, though, the material tends to be amorphous. Any notion can become the seed of a story. A dragon, say. The writer pulls the notion this way, that way. Adds more elements â€“ a dragon-slayer. Perhaps a virgin. Changes some elements — what about a unicorn instead of a dragon â€“ unicorns like virgins, too. What if the unicorn is really a dragon? So the material of the story is shaped, until at some point the writer begins to select the words to tell it.
When I review a work of fiction, I look at both the text and the story it tells. I try to answer the questions: is this a good/enjoyable/ story? and how well does the author tell it? Of course it is impossible to review the story as it exists in the author’s mind. I can only read the story as it is told in the text. The term “medium” is very appropriate here, as the text stands in the middle between the author and the reader. It is a truism that the author publishes a single text, but each reader reads a different story.
For me, as for every other reader, the story I read includes my images of the characters, my emotional reactions to them, my involvement in the events of the plot. These aspects of the work, I have found, are what interest most readers of reviews: the elements that make up what I am calling the story. They want to know what the story is about, what kind of story it is â€“ hard SF, mythic fantasy, romantic comedy. They want to know if it is amusing, depressing or uplifting; they want to be warned if it is boring, pointless, unoriginal or possibly offensive.
When it comes to the actual words of the text, however, things are a bit different, as it moves further into the realm of judgment. What makes a story well-told? What makes it done badly? While I have found that many readers care less about issues of prose than those of story, it is necessary for a reviewer to address them.
Actively bad writing is the easiest to identify. The rules that are broken are usually quite clear; the examples of bad writing well-known. And while individuals vary greatly in their level of tolerance for infelicitous prose, it is hard for any reader to enjoy a badly-written text, when it comes to the point that the mis-steps in the writing distract from the story being told.
I find that most readers of genre fiction seem to prefer their prose “transparent” â€“ that is, prose that lets the story through without calling attention to the words used to tell it. Some readers may feel that this sort of prose is not worth noting, but the fact is that it takes a high level of skill to find the perfect word and avoid the less-than-perfect, to produce sentences that are not just not wrong but that tell the story with total clarity and subtle grace.
Then there is the sort of prose that actively draws attention to itself in the hope of admiration. This can be tricky, as all too often an author’s attempts at high-flown prose cross the line into bad writing. Still there are a number of readers who do prefer this sort of prose, and, if well-done, it can enhance a story. Here, I think, is the key point. An ornate or striking prose style can also sometimes draw too much attention to itself and distract the reader from the story being told, detracting rather than enhancing. This is the sort of writing sometimes criticized as self-indulgent. Still, there can be no doubt that such prose can often add another dimension of enjoyment to the reading of a text, and the readers’ appreciation of the story it tells.
See my reviews of short genre fiction at www.irosf.com