Narrative Expectations

When people first started thinking about how you could define something as ‘literary’, one of their initial propositions was that literature set out to thwart people’s expectations. Except that they called it ‘defamiliarisation’, or the way in which story telling, used innovatively, can make habitual experiences, objects and feelings seem new and surprising to us again. Now before we go any further, let’s just say that not all literary texts do this, or at least not all to the same extent or in the same way. We can’t take it as a general principle, but we can consider it as an intriguing characteristic that often crops up. From a writer’s desire to avoid cliché and make language feel fresh and newly minted again, to the mark of an exciting book being one that stretches the limits of its genre, to the desire on the reader’s part for a storyline that is to some degree unpredictable and equivocal, we find literature working against the template of some kind of fundamental, basic story that we have all downloaded in our earliest reading days.

What’s interesting to me initially is the thought that, in this way, literature works in the opposite direction to life, because having one’s expectations dashed or confounded in reality is a curiously painful experience. The verbs we use to describe that process are interestingly violent; dashed, as in shattered or destroyed, confounded as in confused and bewildered but also (according to my dictionary) defeated, cursed, made execrable. It’s an oddly visceral process, being disappointed in one’s expectations. So why should it be that, as readers, we find pleasure and excitement in being toyed with in this manner?

Well, of course, when I started to think about this, all that came to mind were examples of people getting very upset over the issue of dashed narrative expectations. Back in the 50s and 60s in France, a new literary movement developed in reaction to the socio-political realism of Existentialism, and it was called the ‘nouveau roman’ or the new novel. What was new about the new novel was that it tried not to look like a novel at all. Rather in the way that modern art stubbornly refuses to draw pictures of things we might recognise, so the new novel attempted to dispense with character, plot, and often punctuation, to see how far you could bend the rules and still have something like representation. And, my God, did people hate it! The vitriol poured over the writers in this group was a thing of wonder in itself. Naturally the movement had its acolytes and defenders or else it wouldn’t have survived on university syllabuses until the present day.

Some of what they did is actually extremely clever. Robbe-Grillet’s novel The Erasers has his Inspector Clouseau-ish detective investigating a murder that has not in fact taken place and somehow managing, a perfect 24 hours later, by a series of extraordinary twists and coincidences, to shoot the intended victim himself. It’s an elegant act of narrative transgression in which the real crime is to mix up the diametrically opposed roles of the murderer and the detective. I was always quite interested by what the new novelists were trying to do; it was just difficult sometimes to stay awake while reading them.

So the moral of that particular story is that you can mess with reader’s expectations but only up to a certain point. A descent into incoherence, disorder and profound ambiguity does not win their hearts and minds. The other example that I can’t resist telling you about because I love the story so much, comes in Tonino Benacquista’s novel Saga. This is a story about four aspiring screenwriters who are brought together to create a mini soap opera for French TV. In France there are quotas for the amount of time that ‘cultural’ programmes must fill the schedule, and so these writers are assigned an hour’s slot at 4 every morning to do something worthy, experimental and creative. There are no rules: they can do whatever they like, so long as it requires no more than six actors and two sets. So, this team sets to work and produces a soap opera like no other ever before, and of course, as time passes it begins to develop a huge cult following. Eventually pressure from its fans means that it’s moved to prime time, mainstream television viewing, and that in turn means their creativity starts to become compromised by the television company. As the first series reaches its climactic last episode, the writers are hugely annoyed that they have been forced to replace their quirky and unusual storylines with tired old clichés and they decide to rebel. Using bits of footage that have been discarded they create an alternative final show, and their revenge is to ensure that every story line has an anti-cathartic ending, a downbeat, energy-draining, disappointing ending. When France hangs on the outcome of the concluding episode, the writers thwart their expectation in the most brutal manner.

The result is outrage. The audience is in uproar and the screenwriters become public enemies. The roads where they live are piled high with the debris of broken television sets, abandoned in protest, and they are unable to appear unprotected on the streets for fear of being lynched. If you think this is implausible, do remember that back in the nineteenth century, Victor Hugo outraged his own theatre audiences by daring to split the alexandrine, the classic twelve-syllable line of French poetry. And at the first performance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, a play in which two tramps do nothing but wait (and nothing ever happens), when the curtain opened for the second act on the same stage set and the same situation most of the audience who had not left in the intermission now walked out and started a riot in the street. Perhaps it’s just the French, but there are precedents.

So the moral of this particular tale, is that you can mess about with the audience’s expectations all you like whilst the narrative is in progress, but you must come good on the conclusion. All in all, when I look back over this, I have to think that defamiliarisation must be a feeble, delicate thing, if it is not to alarm and disappoint an audience. That the brilliance of literature lies in its recognising a reader’s limits and playing with them only to the extent that the reader’s tenacious, underlying hope is protected. Narrative does set out to surprise us, and present us with paradoxes and contradictions we’d never thought of, but to do so effectively, it needs to maintain enough secure, dependable elements to keep the reader within a defined comfort zone. Those expectations turn out to be necessary lifelines after all.


18 thoughts on “Narrative Expectations

  1. I’m reminded of Agatha Christie’s “the Murder of Roger Ackroyd” where the narrator turns out to be the murderer thus messing with everyone’s expectations of the genre. It upset a lot of people at the time– but I’m not sure Agatha Christie is ever counted as literary.

  2. Well, I know what you mean about Agatha Christie’s literary status, but I think your example is an excellent one. She did something that broke a rule of expectation, and it did upset her readers.

  3. I love that story of the TV show. Any story about people getting really, really upset over something literary or over a narrative is great. How dare Hugo split the alexandrine!

  4. I read that particular Agatha Christie this summer and loved it–for exactly the reason that people were angered. Of course we’ve come a long way between then and now and all sorts of lines have been crossed, so this wouldn’t have been shocking. You have to give her credit for breaking the rules in such a creative way!! I do think however, that writers can mess about with their readers just so much, but if at the end they don’t rein things in, they might piss them off. I have found myself more than once getting annoyed at an author, or movie maker for taking things too far!! I love that the French have cultural quotas. There must be some great arguments over there as to what is okay culturally and what is garbage!!

  5. I often wonder whether its the emotional current of a story that creates this tension – we may be willing to accept certain modifications of content and form as long as our emotional expectations aren’t strained beyond a certain limit. As you say, the reader’s underlying hope shouldn’t be disappointed once the narrative has established certain expectations.

  6. I remember reading Saga and laughing like crazy. It was very daring and refreshing. I like how you explain the need for narrative lines. I think shocks are necessary sometimes to enlarge the audience’s expectation. Noone would be outraged at a broken alexandrine now, thanks to Hugo’s daring attempt.

  7. There’s always a status quo majority or there couldn’t be an avant garde. We expect the rules and react when they are broken. Beethoven’s music struggled at times I think, and remember the impressionists,now the world’s art bankers! In a different dimension and back to crime, grief and the widespread wearing of black armbands followed the demise of Sherlock Holmes, so that he ended up re-emerging, presumably a symbolically born-again detective, from the falls. This was no doubt a reaction to the psychology of detective fiction which until recently made the detective the all-seeing God-like presence who restored order to the disordered world of the crime. How times have changed. I don’t remember any such reaction when Morse took the plunge. The trouble is what happens when the breaking of the rule becomes the expected norm?Is that where we are now – the sensational and the attention grabbing sound bite? Seem to have said that before – the rule of repetition! In his anti-theory book, if that’s what it is, Harold Bloom (‘The Western Canon’), makes his definition of a canonical book one which makes a shift in the perceptions so far existing in previous canonical works – that’s if I read him correctly, of course. And who said “make it new”?

  8. Pingback: Bookmarked! March 21st

  9. We do all have narrative expectations don’t we? Some of us have more strict expectations than others. I was in a book group once where everyone but me hated any book that had an open-ended conclusion. The passinate outbursts against the author from some of the members made me laugh. While I draw the line at incoherence, I like to think I am open to narrative to surprise, but I’m probably not as open as I like to think I am 🙂 Love the story about the French TV show!

  10. That is so true about readers’ expectations. I find that while I can take a lot of rigmarole in my narrative flow, start messing with syntax and spatial arrangement of sentences and everything screeches to a halt. I keep on trying to get over it though, and stretch myself so that I can wander among strange literary landscapes. I both love and hate the thought of uncharted territory.

    Robbe-Grillet is another author on my To Be Read list. It’s odd that I didn’t know that about Beckett’s play considering that I studied it for ‘A’ levels, or not so odd really, because my teacher was terrible; that whole experience has soured Beckett for me.

  11. Of course, if no one ever “broke the rules” we’d still be living in caves, wouldn’t we? Still, I absolutely agree that we readers, although some of us are far more tolerant of venturing quite a ways out of it than others, don’t want to be taken TOO far outside our comfort zones (especially if we’re just going to be abandoned somewhere with no means back), because then what we’re doing becomes something other than reading a good story (puzzle solving? exercise in frustration?), right? And most of us pick up novels in order to read a good story.

  12. Dorothy – I know, isn’t it great? You saying that reminds me that one day I must post on the student uprising in May ’68, a revolution completely mobilised by books. Danielle – I agree, I loved the Christie, where others didn’t, and yes, I get very fed up if movies go too far in particular – I have NO tolerance for them! Verbivore – I think that’s an extremely insightful remark. Yes, I do think it’s the emotional current that we can’t be tricked on. Pauline – so glad to find another Saga fan. I adored that book, and couldn’t stop laughing at the machine that moved fat from one person to another. Bookboxed -such interesting thoughts. Is that why we no longer seem to have an avant-garde literary movement these days? (I’m sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong here). That quirks and oddities and novelty have become the norm? Personally, I was quite sorry about Morse, but not enough to wear a black armband. Stefanie – I reckon my position is not so far different from yours – mess with me, but just not too much!! Imani – that’s a shame about Beckett, because I can imagine all too well how he could be butchered pedagogically. I can do a fair amount of experimentation (and I love Beckett) but I cannot bring myself to read Ulysses…. Emily – you’re quite right. That concept of the ‘good story’ has to be the rock on which all fiction is founded. It’s the basic unit of readerly pleasure.

  13. Another fascinating post! I recently bought a copy of Robbe-Grillet’s “The Erasers” and it’s a happy thing to have that bit of context before I begin. (I was prompted to pick it up by an essay analysing the debt that Paul Auster’s “New York Trilogy” owes to Robbe-Grillet.)

  14. Your (as usual) brilliant analysis has made me wonder if “broken rules” is the right way to think about experiementation. It seems to me that experimentation might be more about the creation of new rules or perhaps new narrative structures would be a better way of putting it. I am reminded of the great movie “Memento,” which told a fairly straightforward story in a weird way, thus highlighting the crucial tensions in the main character’s life. Without the “broken rules” in this film, it would have failed as a narrative, not because it would not have fulfilled our expectations, but because it would not have had the same tension of thwarted expectations, nor would it have had the pleasure of the “click,” that moment when everything that has come before and has confused you suddenly makes perfect sense.

  15. In Jim Thompson’s The Nothing Man, the narrator goes from believing there might be a serial killer loose in town to believing that he himself is the serial killer. At the end, it’s revealed that there haven’t been any murders at all.

  16. As a student of “anti-lit” (including oulipo and the nouveau roman), I have always loved the French new novelists, as well as Beckett, Bernhard, Pinget, et al. Although Bloom usually annoys me, his contention that the strange is central in predicting the canon is mostly right, I think. There is no accounting for the public’s taste, of course, but the canon tends to favor the formally experimental. I’m glad that literature can take in the traditional and the exceptional, though: I like a little bit of Witold Gombrowicz after my Iris Murdoch. And words do, and ought to do, more than “tell stories”, I think. Language always references something, but sometimes it references itself, or the history of story-telling, etc (Ulysses, for example). It is time the public recognize that the linear representations of the past, while they may satisfy our narrative desires, seem to somehow ring false in the modern world. Great subject!

  17. Kate – I look forward so much to reading what you have to say on the Robbe-Grillet. And you remind me that I MUST read some Auster! Bikeprof – well I am very delighted to see you! And extremely ihtrigued by what you say. I have never seen Memento although I have heard a lot about it. Now I feel I really must get it out on DVD and experience that ‘click’ for myself. burritoboy – that sounds like another great recommendation – thank you very much. D. Heikkinen – this site warmly welcomes any anti-lit enthusiast! But I agree with you – its the variety and the flexibility of literature that makes it so wonderful. Long may it keep mutating to satisfy our needs.

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