The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

SYD­NEY- BASED artist Bar­bara Camp­bell re­cently com­pleted a marathon per­for­mance project last­ing two years, nine months and one day. Or, to put it an­other way, 1001 nights.

At dusk on 1001 con­sec­u­tive evenings, she per­formed a live we­b­cast recital of a story — a dif­fer­ent one each time, and none longer than 1001 words — which was then posted in text on the web­site. The sto­ries were con­trib­uted by dozens of vol­un­teer writ­ers from across the globe, in re­sponse to a prompt phrase posted on the site that morn­ing.

As one of the con­tribut­ing writ­ers, I found my­self think­ing again about the orig­i­nal story of One Thou­sand and One Nights , the story of Princess Scheherazade and the way she used nar­ra­tive to win a stay of ex­e­cu­tion. Who could kill the teller in the mid­dle of the tale? That de­pends on the tale, of course, and the teller, but if the art of sus­pense is ef­fec­tively worked, there will be no es­cape for the hearer un­til the nar­ra­tive is re­solved.

Sto­ry­telling is a tra­di­tion surely as an­cient as hu­man speech and, if our old­est mytholo­gies are any­thing to go by, sus­pense is al­ways at the heart of the mat­ter, to­gether with the rhythms of the sun ris­ing and set­ting, of life and death.

The cre­ation of sus­pense is an art­ful process, as Princess Scheherazade demon­strated. It is con­scious and cal­cu­lated, strate­gic, con­trol­ling. There is more than a whiff of dan­ger about it. The in­ti­mate re­la­tion­ship be­tween sus­pense and dan­ger is what makes the story tick, and the tick­ing has an un­canny re­la­tion­ship with the clock. Time is also of the essence. The lis­tener or reader may be at once obliv­i­ous of its pass­ing in the real world and acutely aware of its un­fold­ing in the fic­tional one. Pages are turned and small hours pass in the night.

In my stu­dent years I did a lot of read­ing in the small hours, Charles Dick­ens es­pe­cially, and he must have pro­vided close on the magic 1001 nights of en­thrall­ment. Later I was a bit ashamed of my pe­riod of Dick­ens ad­dic­tion. Maybe from a lit­er­ary point of view it was rather un­so­phis­ti­cated. A fiction reader in the late 20th cen­tury needed to be more cross- cul­tural, modernist and post­mod­ernist, so I var­ied the diet ac­cord­ingly. And I took to read­ing the Booker prize novel each year, so I’d know what was in the pre­vail­ing wind.

I have to ad­mit, though, that the Book­ers just aren’t do­ing it for me any more. The truth is I don’t like the writ­ing. It’s bril­liant, of course, but the bet­ter it is, the more I hate it. Some­times I hate words, words in them­selves, words that draw at­ten­tion to them­selves in the van­ity of writ­ing, mak­ing them­selves into phrases like ‘‘ ma­lig­nantly agleam’’, telling you that ‘‘ the play of her ex­pres­sion hov­ered be­tween in­ten­sity and in­dif­fer­ence’’ or that ‘‘ blue­bot­tles make crazed tracks through the heavy air’’. Do they re­ally do that, blue­bot­tles? Am I both­ered? I put down the book and switch off the light, or swap the taste­fully pro­duced lit­er­ary novel for a Dick­ens ( ad­dic­tion now quite unashamedly re­sumed) or a thriller.

One night, af­ter an es­pe­cially frus­trat­ing en­counter with a prizewin­ning work whose back cover told me it was po­tent and malty with gen­er­ous ca­dences of sor­row and de­light, I put it in front of me next to the ri­val read, a crime thriller by a writer I grav­i­tate to when I badly need a dose of sus­pense, and won­dered what had hap­pened to cause the art of the novel to split in this way.

Al­though a grow­ing num­ber of writ­ers are try­ing to strad­dle the di­vide, most of them are do­ing so by split­ting their iden­ti­ties, us­ing pseu­do­nyms, as with John BanvilleBen­jamin Black. If you walk into a book­shop, you can see the apartheid sys­tem staked out in front of you, with thrillers and lit­er­ary fiction seg­re­gated in la­belled shelv­ing sys­tems. And the two species are treated quite dif­fer­ently in the var­i­ous are­nas for the pro­mo­tion of writ­ing: the re­view pages, the fes­ti­vals, the prize lists.

Lit­er­ary fiction gets the prizes and the crit­i­cal at­ten­tion, and thrillers get the sales. That is how it is sup­posed to work and many peo­ple in the book busi­ness de­vote con­sis­tent ef­fort to keep­ing it that way. It wasn’t un­til Graeme Blun­dell blew the trum­pet over Peter Tem­ple’s The Bro­ken Shore that peo­ple be­gan to re­alise the guy writes nov­els on a par with any other call­ing for se­ri­ous at­ten­tion.

What is re­ally go­ing on here? Some­how, a com­bi­na­tion of in­flu­ences has served to al­most erad­i­cate the plot from high- end fiction and, along with it, most of the tech­ni­cal ap­pa­ra­tus be­long­ing to the art of sus­pense. At the same time, the plot­ted novel has been stag­ing its re­venge by mak­ing a come­back in the form of the pop­u­lar thriller, es­pe­cially the crime thriller, mop­ping up most of the cash flow in the fiction trade.

Aware­ness is dawn­ing, I sus­pect, in those ex­alted re­gions where the crazed tracks of blue­bot­tles are so ad­mired. On the backs of the prizewin­ning books th­ese days, al­lu­sions to sto­ry­telling pow­ers and nar­ra­tive drive are be­com­ing more fre­quent.

Plots, though, and the mag­i­cal in­gre­di­ent of sus­pense they har­bour, are sto­ries in which the nar­ra­tive en­ergy comes from more than one di­rec­tion. Man­ag­ing th­ese plu­ral en­er­gies is some­thing quite other than hack work, as is ev­i­dent in nov­els such as Bleak House , Anna Karen­ina , Pride and Prej­u­dice and Nostromo . It in­volves a be­lief in the de­sign of the world, and a vi­sion of how that de­sign plays out, with its ironies, crossed paths, sud­den turns and re­ver­sals.

As crime nov­el­ists un­der­stand, it is also a mat­ter of life and death. In this they can lay claim to the her­itage of Scheherazade. Jane Goodall is a pro­fes­sor with Writ­ing and So­ci­ety, a re­search group at the Univer­sity of West­ern Syd­ney’s col­lege of arts.

Il­lus­tra­tion: John Tiede­mann

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