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The Higher Gossip

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So, it’s Saturday morning on a long week end, and I’m doing–nothing.

Well, working.  I’m always working.  But other than that, I’m finishing one book, starting another, and complaining because there does not seem to be an ANTM marathon when there usually is one.

But I have been thinking, reading the comments, and some of the e-mails, about what it means to “like” a book.

Let’s start with the Trollope, which I have (almost) just finished.  The (almost) is because I actually have about five pages left.  I would have finished them before I started in here, but the machines were beeping at me, and I felt compelled to do things. 

The Way We Live Now–in fact, all of Trollope, as well as all of Henry James, all of Jane Austen, all of most of the nineteenth century classics in English, French and Russian–is an example of what was called, when I was in graduate school, “the higher gossip.” 

That is, these are books that are about the private lives of (mostly) middle class people, who they marry, who they fall in love with, what they do about their lives and their careers and their hopes and fears and dreams.

A successful novel of this kind makes you intensely interested in the characters, and then lets human nature take its course.  You want to know what happens to Lady Carbury for the same reason you want to know what happens to the woman next door.

There are, of course, other kinds of novels–but it’s really remarkable how even other kinds of novels rely to at least some extent on the higher gossip. 

This intense need we all seem to have to know what our friends and neighbors are up to is the reason why so many mystery series become soap opera extravaganzas where continuing series characters get raped, have their significant others murdered, fall victim to brain tumors, and on and on and on, until you think that if you lived that life, you’d blow your brains out.

For many people, the most important thing is that they should “like” the characters, or at least the main character.

I’ll admit that this isn’t true for me.  Lots of characters interest me that I don’t like at all, and if I was going to insist on “attractive” characters, I’d have to stop reading P.D. James.

I have to assume that the “likeability” of characters is important to most readers, though, because so much stress seems to be placed on it by publishers and editors and reviewers.  Writers who are being groomed for bestsellerdom by large commercial publishers are often given a list of things their characters may and may not do–female heroines shouldn’t be divorced, for instance, at least when the series starts. 

It’s requirements like these that make literary readers turn their noses up at “popular trash”–the assumption is that popular books are written to formulas that have nothing to do with the internal integrity of the novel itself, that they’re both manufactured and fake.

And, of course, some of them are.  But the scorn of formula fiction–better term than “popular,” since not all popular fiction is formula, and not all formula fiction actually sells that well–

The scorn of formula fiction comes as loudly from the devoted fans of various genres as it comes from literary types.  Somebody must read the formula stuff, but it’s sometimes hard to figure out who.

Some of what makes us “like” a book is entirely idiosyncratic.  For instance, I have absolutely no use for stories set in rainforests, jungles, or the wild West.  I want as much civilization as I can get.  Even if you give me characters who would interest me as people if I knew them personally, I’ll just fade away if they’re riding around on horses trying to do something serious about the cattle.

I also have very little tolerance for “action” scenes.  I don’t mind it when a shot rings out.  In fact, that can be kind of neat.  I start falling asleep when the fight scene lasts three pages, or there’s a car chase, or a long description of a battle.

Or sex.

When I was twelve years old, I found Mary McCarthy’s The Group, whose chapter two gives and absolute play by play of sexual intercourse.  I found it utterly fascinating.  I brought it to school.  We passed it around.  A girl named Valerie, who usually had a great deal of trouble reading, managed to get through that chapter in two minutes flat. 

But that was then, and this is now.  There’s not much more that can be said about that that hasn’t already been said.  Enough already.

Or, go look at Donald E. Westlake’s Dancing Aztecs, the greatest caper novel ever written.  There’s a wonderful couple of paragraphs where Westlake writes a scene of a man starting his car in the way you’d write a sex scene–oh, never mind.  You just have to read it  yourself.

At any rate, as we’re talking about liking here, it’s obvious that I’m in the minority when it comes to action scenes.  A lot of people must like them, since a lot of people buy that kind of book. 

Of course, I’m in the minority when it comes to action scenes in movies, too.  I’ve been known to fall asleep during them.  Mostly, as soon as stuff starts exploding, I go to the ladies room.

In the end, I think that the higher gossip is why we go to novels, and to fictional movies and to plays–the need to involve ourselves in the lives of the people around us, except this time with more interesting people. 

And that may explain why, in spite of the fact that so many people (including some of you here) say that what matters is “a good story,” a lot of the very best selling books aren’t good stories at all.   

The entire last half of the Harry Potter series is a mess of plot holes, dangling narrative threads and Big Moments that aren’t actually Big because they aren’t actually connected to anything–but the series was more popular at the end than at the beginning, because there was Harry and Hermoine and Ron and we were all worried about them.

In the end, I think, the Higher Gossip beats the Good Story (or Exciting Plot, which is what people usually mean) any day of the week.

Written by janeh

May 28th, 2011 at 7:09 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Higher Gossip'

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  1. A lot of my liking for novels is explained by my interest in a character and the gossip about him or her, certainly.

    I find I still have a slightly shamefaced feeling when admitting I am really, really tired of sex scenes because it seems to make me a prude. But honestly, they’re all the same and get extremely tiresome, particularly when they’ve become sex chapters, not sex scenes, as in one or two series I didn’t quit reading quite soon enough.

    I do like a good plot, too, though, and what I think is called a sense of place – a real feeling that I am in a different place or even social milieu.

    By the way, I found this link online today. It seems like literary authors (which I most emphatically do NOT read) are jumping on the supernatural bandwagon.



    28 May 11 at 8:35 am

  2. Trollope is about 30% done. One hopes, eventually, someone will have a plan.

    I don’t put good story and higher gossip in different boxes. It’s one reason I chucked my last Issac Asimov somewhere around 1975. I could never bring myself to care about his people. But interesting people not doing anything doesn’t get me any further–hence romance, detection and adventure. As soon as people in stories written after 1820 do something, the story becomes “genre” and the English teachers all leave the room in a huff. But SENSE & SENSIBILITY is romance, and HENRY V is adventure. THE WAY WE LIVE NOW is, so far, a mess.

    For me, there are good and bad action scenes. The good ones happen for a reason, I understand the strategies, and I understand WHY someone wins or loses. Jerry Pournelle, David Drake and Robert Howard are three of the best for this.
    This is why, fantasy and science-fiction fan that I am, I almost never regard magical or psychic duels as satisfactory climaxes. One almost never understands the abilities well enough. Andre Norton was especially prone to this. I enjoyed her writings, but it was a serious flaw. Why not just say, “there was a psychic duel, and Joe won?” “There was a gunfight, and Smith was just a hair faster than Jones” isn’t a vast improvement. I did see it work. Once.

    And I fall asleep as soon as someone starts counting votes. Bujold made it work in CIVIL CAMPAIGN. Once.

    I don’t believe I’ll discuss my preferences in sex scenes, thank you.

    Setting. No points for urban and rural, but points for individuality. If you can’t tell Gotham City from Metropolis, why bother? But Jekkara Old Town isn’t Lankhmar, and the dead sea bottoms of Barsoom aren’t the grasslands of the Sykerst.

    It’s the people you put there. I’m going to bang the drums again for SHARDS OF HONOR (front half of CORDELIA’S HONOR in later editions) in which Aral observes of Cordelia that “you carry your own civilization around within you.” It’s important to me that Aral and Cordelia are both distinct personalities and representatives of contrasting cultures. That the settings in which this plays out are sometimes wilderness sometimes rural or urban and sometimes downright cramped is as the plot requires.

    Formula. I’ll confess. I once read several Barbara Cartland regencies, and more than one volume of John Jakes’ “Brak the Barbarian.” It’s been 40 years. I think the statute of limitations applies. You get formula when someone derives the rules from a real author. The innocent reader, having exhausted Georgette Heyer and Robert Howard, looks around for something else like them, and falls into the trap.

    That said, I also read the “Rafferty” PI novels and Karl Edward Wagners “Kane” series. The Rafferties are so close to Spenser novels that its a wonder Parker didn’t sue, and Wagner made no secret that he was writing “Conan” pastiches. I would have to say that the Rafferty novels were better than the worst Spenser novels, and that Wagner never got as bad as the worst Howard. Claire Darcy and Elsie Lee aren’t Georgette Heyer either–but their best may beat her worst.

    There are worse ideas than figuring out what another writer did well and trying to do that oneself. The problem comes with copying the superficial things and not the essential ones.


    28 May 11 at 8:47 am

  3. Okay–will SOMEBODY please explain something to me.

    I’ve now got two comments from two people about how nobody in the Trollope is “doing” anything.

    But in the first thirty pages of my copy, the following is happening: Lady Carbury is trying to make a literary career; Sir Felix Carbury is trying to marry an heiress; Paul Montague is trying to get his money back from his partners; Hetta Carbury is rejecting her cousin’s offer of marriage; and Mr. Melmotte is trying to get rich.

    To me, this is all “doing something.”

    Why isn’t it “doing something” to some of you?


    28 May 11 at 9:19 am

  4. There is a serious difference between thinking it would be nice if something happened and doing something.
    Actually, in the first chapter, Lady Carbury really is trying to make a literary career. That looked promsing, but it hasn’t happened again. Her goal is to see Sir Felix is financially secure. She’s HOPING he’ll marry an heiress, but her only plan is to hector him.
    Sir Felix Carbury wouldn’t mind marrying an heiress, but he’s certainly not trying to. I’m about a third of the way in and he may be about to shift into second gear.
    Paul Montague would like to receive his money back, but again, he’s not trying, and most of the money bit was off-stage.
    I don’t know what Mr. Melmotte is trying to do. He seems to have money, and he’ll adopt a scheme to make more if someone hands him one and it’s not too much trouble. He seems interested in marrying his daughter into the aristocracy, but he’s not seriously working on the bribery or intimidation it’s going to take.
    Hetta Carbury, again, would like certain things to happen, but she’s doing nothing to bring them about.
    The Melmotte girl is starting to get the notion that if anything good is going to happen to her, it will be because she got up off her bustle and did something. OK, she’s an idiot, and she’d likely live to regret her own success, but at least she’s working on it. You could write a novel about a young idiot heiress in love with the wrong man and scheming to beat the band. You could call it GONE WITH THE WIND.

    It’s realistic. The world is full of people who would like nice things to happen to them, but aren’t doing anything to bring it about. But I don’t normally read fiction about THAT sort of person.


    28 May 11 at 10:19 am

  5. “I got up in the morning, went to work, came home, had dinner and went to bed” may show me doing something but it does not make interesting reading.


    28 May 11 at 10:00 pm

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