In the chapter on narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, she talks about the problem of figuring out who you are writing for or who your narrator is addressing when you are writing your novel or story:
Who is listening? On what occasion is the story being told, and why? Is the protagonist projecting this heartfelt confession out into the ozone, and, if so, what is the proper tone to assume when the ozone is one’s audience?
She solved this problem initially by writing framed stories — stories where narrators told their experiences to other people. The listener would appear at the novel’s beginning and end and in the middle now and then to comment on or react to the story. In this way, the audience was obvious and the writing came more easily. She knew exactly who was talking and who was listening and why the narrator was telling the story and what led up to the telling of the story and what the narrator’s motivations were. This method led her to the question:
Would anyone imagine that these recounted events would hold another human being’s interest, and would the reader believe that anyone, even a fictional character, would stay focused and pay attention all the way through?
What Prose says after this interests me:
It was fortunate that I had lived so much in books, and especially in the books of the past. For one thing, I seemed not to know that no one wrote that way anymore. For another, I was somehow unaware that no one lived that way any longer — that is, in circumstances that encouraged and facilitated the telling of long stories.
She goes on to talk about how we don’t have the patience to listen to other people’s stories these days, and we tend to do our best to avoid them (unless they are telling their story on a TV show), so a story like Chekhov’s “On Love” where a group of men tell long stories to each other about their past love affairs can seem highly unrealistic.
I’m not sure if this is true or not — if we really don’t believe anymore that people will listen with interest to other people’s long stories — but it certainly isn’t true for me. The kind of book Prose is talking about is exactly the kind I like. Perhaps that makes me old-fashioned, or perhaps Prose hasn’t got it quite right. I don’t know, but I think this explains why I like epistolary novels — books that are all about people telling each other stories. Here it’s assumed that your audience is interested and will read and respond, and that the time put into reading and writing letters is time well-spent. Yes, at times books like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa come to seem unrealistic — how could they really write all that? when did they find the time? — but I like the sense of an ongoing conversation in those novels, that the characters can assume that people value their stories, and that they believe taking the time to shape their stories for a particular audience has value.
Prose gives Wuthering Heights as another example of a book about storytelling, this one “constructed like a series of Russian nesting dolls,” beginning with Mr. Lockwood, who gets Nelly to tell him the story, and then with Heathcliff and others telling stories within hers. Frankenstein is constructed like this too; it opens with letters from Robert Walton to his sister, moves to Frankenstein’s story, which he tells to Walton, and then moves to the creature’s story, which he tells to Frankenstein. Each of these narratives is quite long.
Perhaps few write this way anymore (I can’t think of modern examples like this, although they must exist — ??), but it doesn’t strike me as unrealistic. In the past I’ve been known to write long letters myself, and although I don’t tell long stories or expect that people would want to hear them if I did, I like to hear other people’s long stories, provided they are interesting. Can you think of modern examples of this type of novel, or is Prose right (excepting her own early work, of course)?