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.