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Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction, Part 1

September 17, 2010

I was excited to find and read Joan Silber’s book, The Art of Time in Fiction, for several reasons. I’m a fan of Silber, especially of her book Ideas of Heaven; I’m a fan of The Art of Series, and any good book on craft; and, I’ve got time, in fiction, on my mind as I begin to revise the first half of my novel-in-progress. Because I want to study and learn the concepts she lays out, I’m going to summarize them extensively here.

Silber divides time into four types: classic time, long time, switchback time, slowed time, and fabulous time. This first post will be about the first two types.

Classic time, a term Silber invented, is the default mode for modern and contemporary fiction. Novels written in classic time alternate between scene and summary and generally stay within a shortish time period (a month, a season, a year). Rather than go into numerous examples, Silber spends her time describing one at length–The Great Gatsby. She admires the fact that Fitzgerald’s novel, while taking place over a single summer and written for the most part in scene, has a plot that depends on the past and explains the author’s “elegant solution” (14) for giving backstory. She shows Fitzgerald’s way of distilling scenes “into flashes…, far from the blow-by-blow report in real time” (17), and gives an example of how he uses summary in the form of a list of many specific details, letting the reader know the repetitive nature of what’s being described without being overly general.

Reading about classic time reminds me how important it is to condense, to choose carefully what to show, and to find inventive ways to provide information, whether backstory or summary, in order to, as Silber writes at the end of the chapter, let meaning emerge.

The second type of time that Silber covers is long time, which, as the name indicates, describes a time frame of years. This is the type of time that Silber, for the most part, writes in herself, and what attracted me to the stories that make up her book, Ideas of Heaven. In the title story, she has a fabulous way of cutting from one period of time to another that feels topical instead of time-related. For example, the beginning section tells a brief chronological tale of the narrator’s father going away to fight during the civil war. Though extremely condensed (two paragraphs), there is a beginning (the father goes) a middle (they get letters and fear, when the letters stop, that he is dead) and an end: “In fact my father was not dead… he was home safe by summer” (144). The line that starts the next section, after white space, is: “Fred was my favorite, of my siblings”  (144). Only later in the paragraph does the narrator reveal that she is now fifteen. It’s almost as though Silber is changing the subject in a conversation, creating a feeling of freshness and new interest, except that what comes next contributes fully to the forward movement of the story.

In her chapter on long time, she points out how some of our greatest writers cover a lifetime in a story. Both Chekov and Flaubert write summary and habitual action as though it were scene. The reader, Silber believes, gets a sense of intimacy while leaping over years. Flaubert shows the passage of time by showing how a single object is changed by time.

In a more recent example, Silber describes how the writer Yu Hua makes long time pass effectively in his novel, To Live. He uses a first person narrator in order to “allow for skipping and jumping and pausing” (34); the narrator can both comment and illustrate. Silber describes the book as dense, with very little transition, and no need for white space. When I reread a short passage from To Live, I found that while there is in fact no white space, there are what I think of as transitions that reflect time’s passage (“The day Erxi came to marry Fengxia…” [183] and “Meanwhile the Cultural Revolution was raging more and more intensely in town” [192]). Interestingly, I stumbled upon a paragraph that functions in the same way as examples cited earlier from European writers, using specific detail rather than overt summary: “We sold the chickens and lamb and brought Fengxia into town to buy her two new outfits…” (183)

Silber usefully concludes that what all the writers she discusses in her chapter on long time have in common is their ability “to stay in scene, despite the great swathes of time they are leaping through… [S]uprisingly little is needed between scenes to keep time running along. To judge from the success of these books, readers can keep up just fine with a pace of shorter scenes, and lots of such scenes, and can accept the illusion of whole lifetimes passing as readily as they accept the more familiar illusion of a season or a year in a novel” (40).

This morning as I was revising a chunk of summary at the beginning of my novel, I got rid of all general statements and relied on specific details to carry the reader forward to a new time.

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