Friday 3 April 2020

Time, Narrative and Genre

By Jonathan Taylor

          We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths; 
          In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
          We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives 
          Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best. 
          And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest: 
          Lives in one hour more than in years do some 
          Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins. 
          Life's but a means unto an end; that end, 
          Beginning, mean, and end to all things – God. 
          The dead have all the glory of the world.
 – Philip James Bailey

Literary Time
Over the last three or so months, as part of one of the modules on the MA in Creative Writing, we’ve been exploring the theme of time, in relation to writing. This semi-module is trans-generic, and we’ve looked at time in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, philosophy, science fiction and films. We’ve covered subjects including ‘Narrative Time,’ ‘Creative Historiography,’ ‘Writing Historical Fiction,’ and ‘Time Travel.’ 

Time is a central – but sometimes overlooked – aspect of writing. ‘Literature,’ write Janet Burroway and Stuckey-French, ‘is … by virtue of its nature and subject matter, tied to time in a way the other arts are not.’ And conversely, if literature is ‘tied to time,’ time is tied to literature – or at least to storytelling in the widest sense: our perception of time is often determined by modes of storytelling. As H. Porter Abbott suggests, ‘Narrative is the principal way in which our species organises its understanding of time … allowing events themselves to create the order of time.’ Or, in the words of the nineteenth-century poet Philip James Bailey: ‘We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths; / In feelings, not in figures on a dial.’ In everyday life, we experience time primarily through ‘deeds, … thoughts … [and] feelings’ – so that some minutes in our lives feel like hours, some years like minutes – and that experience is mirrored in our stories.

Story Time
This is why stories convey such a complex, flexible, even capricious notion of time: they are shaped around ‘deeds’ and ‘feelings,’ and focus on them at the expense of a more regular, clock-based time-span. In stories, that is, minutes can sometimes last hours (of reading time), while years can last seconds, depending on the events and feelings being described. As Bill Greenwell writes, ‘Almost invariably, the time shown by the writer will be only a fraction of the total time in which the action of the narrative takes place … Sometimes you may find that years, or even centuries, are covered in only a few sentences; at other times, you may find that the time covered by the writing is roughly equivalent to “real time.”’ 

The time-span of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel (originally a short story) and Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey is millions of years, while there are, by contrast, many novels which last less than a day. Tobias Wolff’s famous short story, ‘Bullet in the Brain,’ for the first two or so pages, comes close to what Jean-Paul Sartre termed ‘durational realism,’ whereby the reading (experiencing) time is very close to the time-span of the events described (especially if, like me, you are a slow reader). But then, once the main character has been shot, time massively slows down, so that real time and reading time diverge. The final section of the story magnifies something that presumably takes barely a nanosecond into two or so pages of visionary description – rather like a slow-motion sequence or film montage. It’s a vivid demonstration of the way in which narrative time – time based on ‘deeds, … thoughts … [and] feelings’ – departs from the ‘figures on a dial.’

On a much wider canvas, history itself is often conceived not (primarily) as ‘figures on a dial,’ but as a series of ‘deeds, … thoughts … [and] feelings.’ As Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick recognised, history, in a word, is itself narrative (or a collection of narratives). Many historians and historiographers have made this point. A. R. Louch writes that ‘the technique of narrative as it is used by historians … is not merely an incidental, stylistic feature of the historian's craft, but essential to the business of historical explanation.’ Most famously, Hayden White claims that ‘in general there has been a reluctance to consider historical narratives as what they most manifestly are – verbal fictions ...  If there is an element of the historical in all poetry, there is an element of poetry in every historical account of the world.’ So history and poetry – history and Creative Writing in general – overlap; and history and historical fiction, at some level, are doing the same thing.  

Personal Time
Another, analogous way of conceiving Bailey’s distinction between ‘deeds’ or ‘feelings’ and ‘figures on a dial’ is by referring to the difference between subjective and objective time – between, that is, a relativistic time versus an absolute notion of time. Stephen Hawking discusses this key distinction in A Brief History of Time: ‘Up to the beginning of the [twentieth] century, people believed in an absolute time … However, the discovery that the speed of light appears the same to every observer, no matter how he was moving, led to the theory of relativity – and in that one had to abandon the idea that there was a unique absolute time. Instead, each observer would have his own measure of time as recorded by a clock he carried … Thus time became a more personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it.’

According to James Gleick, the idea of a subjective, relative time has had a major impact on literature, and our conceptions of narrative: ‘Literature creates its own time. It mimics time. Until the twentieth century, it did that mainly in a sensible, straightforward, linear way. The stories in books usually began at the beginning and ended at the end. A day might pass or many years but usually in order … Not anymore. We have evolved a more advanced time sense – freer and more complex. In a novel there may be multiple clocks, or no clocks, conflicting clocks and unreliable clocks, clocks running backwards and clocks spinning aimlessly. “The dimension of time has been shattered,” wrote Italo Calvino in 1979.’

Genre Time
Clearly, Gleick is generalising here: there are plenty of pre-twentieth-century instances of non-linear literary narratives, and many twentieth-century linear narratives. Also, though he’s ostensibly talking about ‘literature’ in general, implicitly he’s referring mainly to novels (‘stories in books’). What I’ve noticed, since starting to teach this semi-module on Time and Creative Writing, is how differently the various literary forms and genres deal with time – to the extent that the various forms and genres might, in part, be defined according to their dominant conceptions of time. 

For a start, I think Gleick might be (at least partly) right in his suggestion that the novel form, by and large, assumes a linear, maybe even chronological, structure. Of course, there are probably more exceptions to this generalisation than there are novels which conform to a linear narrative structure; but I do think there is something about the novel as it is commonly understood which – even when the form is being challenged, subverted – at least implies a linear mode of storytelling. In fact, self-conscious non-linearity in the novel often encodes the dominance of its opposite, implying an overarching linear framework (in the novel itself, in the reader’s head, in other novels, and so on). I’ve written about this aspect of the novel at greater length here.

Plays and films assume a different model of time. Again, there are a million exceptions, and plays which subvert conventions, but the general assumption of an audience in a theatre is that any given scene – especially one featuring dialogue – is happening in some kind of real time. In his discussion of moments in stories where ‘the time covered by the writing is roughly equivalent to “real time,”’ Greenwell notes that ‘the most obvious example of this is when dialogue is being used.’ Dialogue – both on the page, and particularly on the stage – at least suggests a kind of ‘durational realism.’ No doubt it is this which makes dialogue seem so immersive, that lends it so much immediacy: it feels ‘real,’ in a time sense. Most scenes in Shakespeare’s plays seem to be happening in some kind of real time, even if there are huge time lapses between scenes. And similarly, scenes in conventional movies often assume a mimetic notion of time – which is perhaps why montage sequences stand out so much, and are often used as climactic devices, because they provide a very different experience of time, telescoping it, playing with it, collapsing it.

I’ve always felt that the form which has the most (naturally) flexible relationship with the dimension of time is poetry – and maybe also, to some extent, memoir. In his memoir, Speak Memory, Vladimir Nabokov talks of the ‘coloured spiral,’ ‘spiritualised circle … [of] life,’ the ‘“rhythmic patterns” [and] … “contrapuntal” nature of fate’ – and if, as Nabokov demonstrates, memoir can capture these spirals, patterns and counterpoints, poetry can do so in a peculiarly condensed form. Of all forms, poetry, I think, finds it most easy to flit between different time frames in a tiny space, superimposing memories and histories on top of one another. Poems, it might be said, are miniature warps or holes in the fabric of space-time. Poems flit easily between, or knit together, different spaces and moments; they can bring different pasts, presents and futures into close proximity, drawing connections or contrasts. Different times can co-exist between and within stanzas and lines; and poems can even superimpose one time frame onto another, like a palimpsest, through imagery, plays on words, radical ambiguity. No doubt this flexibility is partly because of poetry’s neutron-star-like density – like super-dense cosmic objects, they bend and distort space-time for readers. Poetry is often read very slowly, with intense concentration, in a way that’s far removed from ‘durational realism,’ and it brings with it very different expectations, on the part of the reader, in terms of its (non-)linearity, ellipsis and narrative structure. I’ve written about this aspect of poetry at greater length here.

Time Travel
Given its near-infinite temporal flexibility, ‘poetry is time travel,’ as Tarfia Faizullah declares. But then so, in their different ways and to different extents, are all literary forms: they are all means of travelling to the past, to the future, of flashing back to childhood, of flashing forward to death, of reconstructing histories, of inventing alternative histories, of dreaming of possible futures, of slowing time to a near-halt, or speeding it up, of superimposing onto the reader’s present any number of different moments. As Gleick puts it, reading is ‘time travelling by page turning,’ and ‘our imaginations liberate us in the time dimension, even if we can’t have a Wellsian time machine.’ In this sense, H. G. Wells’s famous novel The Time Machine merely stages readers’ experience of all literary texts; it brings to consciousness what readers unconsciously already understand: that all literature is time-travel literature. 

Works Cited 
H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative
Philip James Bailey, ‘Festus’
Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft 
Arthur C. Clarke, ‘The Sentinel,’ and 2001: A Space Odyssey
Tarfia Faizullah, Interview with Kathleen Rooney,
James Gleick, Time Travel: A History 
Bill Greenwell, Chapter 6, in A Creative Writing Handbook, ed. Derek Neale
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time
A. R. Louch, ‘History as Narrative’
Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited
Jonathan Taylor, ‘Research Notes: Entertaining Strangers,’, and ‘On Prophecy and Time,’
H. G. Wells, The Time Machine
Hayden White, ‘The Historical Text as Literary Artefact’
Tobias Wolff, ‘Bullet in the Brain’  

Jonathan Taylor is director of the MA in Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. His website is 

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