Narrative Tension

As many of you likely know, I spent much of the last year and a half or so writing a biography of my great-grandfather, tentatively entitled The Paris Bureau. I am now running the gauntlet of rejection letters that is recognized to be the standard hazing ritual of publishing. Writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald to J.K. Rowling are famed for the number of these letters they bagged before selling the book-that-almost-nobody-wanted. Although I’ve only gotten a handful thus far, it’s nice to know that I am in illustrious company for something.

Like everything else, I take it that publishing has a glutted job market now. Whereas publishers once responded to pitches from writers, they now receive most of their new books from literary agents. Whereas literary agents once relied mostly on pitches from writers, they now receive most of their recommendations from established authors in their stable. This is probably why so many new writers come out of MFA programs, which are taught by established writers. At some point, it might become like college basketball, with promising young writers being signed for their work in crayon by well-connected preschool teachers and groomed to someday write the next 50 Shades of Grey.

I also suspect that most writers don’t take rejection well because the letters are almost laughably apologetic. Please understand that we get hundreds of submissions and simply don’t have the time to take on new projects unless we’re madly in love with them. Rest assured that your work will be sold one day, dear (fill-in-the-blank). Perhaps because I’ve worked construction, where vitriolic and profane criticism is par for the curse, I’ve basically got the skin of an elderly alligator. My dissertation director was the terror of the department, in fact, for her torrents of abuse. She liked me though because it never fazed me. I far prefer spleen to fuzzy vagueness, which is more the norm now. Give me the poison pen over the smiley face.

So far, the best rejection letter I’ve gotten was the most useful. The agent won’t take on my book because, in his words, it “doesn’t have quite enough narrative tension” to sell to a big publishing house. Remembering that my background is writing an academic historical text on a totally different topic, this sent me to the library to find books on narrative tension in non-fiction. The agent generously recommended Storycraft by Jack Hart, which I’ve found to be very useful. I also picked up Death Wish by Brian Garfield, since it’s a potboiler (and not for tips on vigilante justice, rest assured).

For an historian, narrative tension feels very artificial. It’s strange to shape someone else’s life into a coherent story line, even though we tend to do that with our own lives. Perhaps that’s the reason it’s awkward: in the finality of giving a departed person a story with a “happy” or “sad” conclusion, it’s hard to avoid judging our own lives in similar terms. I suppose I remain hopeful that my story doesn’t end at this point: writing away all night while cleaning toilets part time, single for the most part. While I can recognize the narrative tensions in my life- the problems and internal conflicts that I am trying to solve- there’s something very Freudian about thinking it through in those terms. It feels like a final judgment.

At this point, I’m supposed to quote Kierkegaard to the effect that life can only be understood backwards but must be lived forwards. This work of assigning a narrative to the past in order to preserve it reminds me more, however, of Proust (to whom the quote is sometimes mistakenly attributed) and his inspiration from Henri Bergson. The movement of time, duration, can only be experienced in retrospect because it’s not happening in the present: the only moment we’re experiencing now is this one. The hopeful thing about this, and the most terrifying, is the future doesn’t exist. We can only say a future event is “possible” in the sense that there are no barriers to its existence, but not that it’s more possible than any other event. The past, meanwhile, no longer exists. We can either take this state, in which only the present moment exists, as ultimate potentiality or total meaninglessness. If I remember right, Bergson compares moments of time to isolated photographs in a film strip that only appear to take place in a continuous duration of cause and effect. In reality, we only imagine a contingent process of cause and effect.

I’m no doubt mutilating Bergson here, so take these as my thoughts. As I shape The Paris Bureau into a third draft, the trick has been to take an episodic text, in which one damn thing happens after another, and create a coherent narrative in which each event is leading to the resolution of the main “character’s” internal conflicts. This is not how life actually happens, but it seems to be how our species understands it. We think in terms of a beginning, middle, and an end. There even seems to be a part of the brain associated with storytelling, which is deeply ingrained in every one of our cultures thus far.

So, I find myself at this point hoping that Guy’s story can be made riveting and satisfying in its conclusion, and wishing that the same can be said about my own.


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Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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24 thoughts on “Narrative Tension

  1. Narrative tension is why academic historians get frustrated at popular historians. The Great Person Theory of History isn’t really popular with academic historians of any political persuasion. For most people its the drama of history that makes it exciting. A lot of the public might not necessarily agree with the Great Person Theory of history, they might not even know what it is but they like it dramatic. Thats why the most popular histories tend to be about heroic or villainous individuals, big important events like war battles unusually exciting eras and places rather than the smaller topics considered important by academic historians.

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    • That’s one reason why I like James Burke’s take on history of science and technology so much. He does create a kind of narrative, but the main character in the narrative is the science. We watch the events that will come to shape the narrative, but the people involved – even the Edisons and Galileos – never take over.

      And he manages to bring off conveying that there’s no preordained destination for the narrative, no overarching plan. Everyone plays their roles with just the information available to them, and does what seems appropriate at the time. The story of us is only one of a myriad of possible stories, and that makes the intricacy and sweep all the more beautiful for it.

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      • Napoleon’s a guy you can make a pretty plausible Great Man argument for. He pretty well transformed Europe, for better or for worse: organized civil service, Civil Code of laws, public education, removal of internal tariff barriers, elected municipal government, modern ideas of the nation-state (and of nationalism), abolition of serfdom. The territory of the Holy Roman Empire went from a basically feudal system of government to having the mechanisms of a modern state over the course of a decade.

        You’re the history prof, so please correct me if I’m wrong.

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    • The Great Person Theory of History isn’t really popular with academic historians of any political persuasion.

      I was all set to get in a huff and disagree, but as I examine my own assumptions, those of most* academic historians I know, and the assumptions present in most* of the monographs and other professional historical works I’ve read so far, I have a hard time finding any counter-examples.

      *”Most” here is more of a courtesy and a catchall. I don’t recall finding any examples, but it’s quite possible I’m mis-remembering.

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      • There might be some academic historians who are still interested in the Great Person Theory but most academic historians from the Baby Boom generation or after will have a distaste for it.

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      • It is hard to think of examples. Honestly, most academics find greatness pretty foreign personally and professionally! So, they tend not to write about great men.

        That said, what I do in the book is more common: writing about a minor and forgotten person who just happened to be there. It’s not so much a book about Hemingway as about what it must have been like to be a lesser writer whose close friend became very successful as a writer while he remained on earth. That’s probably easier to relate to!

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  2. Is there some sort of grand finale you can hint at?

    People love it when you do the whole “shave and a haircut” knock three or four times before culminating in “TWO BITS!”

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  3. Rejection letters work differently in the magazine business (at least from my friend the editor’s perspective, which was science fiction). They were as caustic as you seem to crave (in part to bolster an author’s flagging enthusiasm with rage at the editor, rather than despair at how horrid his writing is) — but most stories worth a rejection letter got published.

    With books, it’s a different story — there’s little incentive to invest in authors, and reading and editing a book takes a lot longer than a short story.

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  4. I seems to me that simply by considering the project at the very outset, you engaged beginning, middle and end. The beginning, that first glimpse of the idea, now the middle, and the end the book itself. As you point out that is artificial in that it elevates the project, the book, to an organizing principle. But how else do we get anything done? The self may be an illusion, but it’s a useful one.

    So it’s not a question of if, but how much.

    I wonder how much these issues relate to the life of your great great grandfather. Or, are you your GGGF’s son? I’m guessing you feel some kind of connection – why else do this? So of course it’s Freudian and then perhaps Oedipal in the best sense of the word.

    Oedipus Rex concludes with this:

    So while we wait to see that final day,
    we cannot call a mortal being happy
    before he’s passed beyond life free from pain.

    I hope this is helpful in some episodic, contingent way. Best of luck.

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    • The weird thing is I read his letters and his articles and he actually sounds like one of my family members. I recognize the weird sense of humor and the way he describes people, even though he was dead for about 25 years when I was born. My thought is that I get my sense of humor from my father and he might have gotten it from his grandfather, although I have to say that my grandfather was one of the least amusing people I’ve ever met.

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