Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The elements

In a collection of short stories that I read recently, the editor had taken pains to group together stories that had similar ‘elements’. The elements of a short story, he explained in the introduction to the book, are setting (time and location), plot (the sequence in which the author arranges events), conflict (one central struggle or one dominant struggle with other minor ones), character (persons or their characteristics), point of view (first person, character-centric) and the theme ( the controlling idea or insight). A good story is the price of admission into the ranks of good writers, but to engage your readers you’ve got to pay attention to all these elements.

All this may be old hat for students of English Literature, but I have never been taught this in my engineering course; so I read on.

Now different authors in different stories use different types and mix of these elements, to get the readers in their grip. So, if you were reading Hemingway and got conditioned to a certain set of elements in his stories, and then you suddenly shift to James Joyce, who uses different sub-sets of these elements, you are going to find it difficult to accept the change.

The idea in grouping together stories with similar elements was to spare the reader the discomfort and disorientation that are inevitable when moving from one ‘set of elements’ to another.

I guess that the same is true with long stories and novels too. If you try to read Tolstoy, after having finished one of Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories, you would do injustice to both yourself and Tolstoy. Not just because one is humorous and the other filled with melancholic stuff about the lives of poverty-stricken Russian peasants. Because, each employs a different structure and mix of elements. You get the point.

Authors ought to know this, right? That’s why I find Shashi Tharoor’s criticism of R.K.Narayan’s style surprising. Here is an extract from one of his columns written in 2001:

The gentle wit, the simple sentences, the easy assumption of the inevitabilities of the tolerant Hindu social and philosophical system, the characteristically straightforward plotting, were all hallmarks of Narayan's charm and helped make many of his novels and stories interesting and often pleasurable.

But I felt that they also pointed to the banality of Narayan's concerns, the narrowness of his vision, the predictability of his prose, and the shallowness of the pool of experience and vocabulary from which he drew. Like Austen, his fiction was restricted to the concerns of a small society portrayed with precision and empathy; unlike Austen, his prose could not elevate those concerns beyond the ordinariness of its subjects. Narayan wrote of, and from, the mindset of the small-town South Indian Brahmin, and did not seem capable of a greater range. His metronomic style was frequently not equal to the demands of his situations. Intense and potentially charged scenes were rendered pathetic by the inadequacy of the language used to describe them. In much of his writing, stories with extraordinary possibilities unfolded in flat,monotonous sentences that frustrated rather than convinced me, and in a tone that ranged from the cliched to the flippant. At its worst, Narayan's prose was like the bullock- cart: a vehicle that can move only in one gear, is unable to turn, accelerate or reverse, and remains yoked to traditional creatures who have long since been overtaken but know no better.

I was, I must admit, particularly frustrated to find that Narayan was indifferent to the wider canon of English fiction and to the use of the English language by other writers, Western or Indian……Narayan's was an impoverished English, limited and conventional, its potential unexplored, its bones bare.

Why should RKN not choose to limit his range? Why should he bother about the wider canon of English fiction, when his bare-bones style and methods managed to get him loyal readership? Why should he pretend to have a wide repertoire, just to impress Tharoor? Can’t this guy understand that RKN’s mix of elements was unique and certainly different from Tharoor’s? In fact, I am sure if RKN had to pick up one of Tharoor’s books, he would have tossed it into the River Sarayu, after reading a couple of lines of his pompous drivel.

And, why did I wait till 2008 to comment on Tharoor’s column of 2001? Because I didn’t know about the ‘elements’ then. Besides, I wasn’t blogging then.

Which reminds me. I read stuff written by more than 50 bloggers, and I realise that each one of them has a different style and ‘mix of elements’. Blogger A gets into the depth of the subject, analyses it threadbare and writes long treatises. Blogger B likes width and to flit from one subject to another, merely providing links. Blogger C sees the world through his lens of libertarianism, while Blogger D wants to project herself as a crusader against social inequity. All very different. So, when I keep surfing from one blog to another, my brain must be getting bombarded with rays of different frequencies.

To avoid a collapse of the hard-disc in my head, I am going to group ‘like bloggers, together in my Google Reader. Yes, that’s what I’ll do.


Karthik Sriram said...

I wonder what Shashi Tharoor has to say about P.G. Wodehouse. :)


Raj said...

karthik, actually Tharoor praises Wodehouse quite lavishly. He was also the president of the Wodehousian club of Stephens.

dipali said...

R.K.Narayan's world is so complete and so rich that it seems puerile to try and pick holes in it. In The Guide he manages to handle a very adult(erous) theme in his characteristic gentle style, with absolutely no loss of impact. Shashi Bhai, R.K.N stands among the immortals.

A Motley Tunic said...

can you share what you read on google reader?

Anonymous said...

Three cheers! I completely agree with your verdict on Tharoor's pomposity. The man is obviously so full of his much-travelled self that he cannot see the universality of RKN's themes or subjects. The proof of this is there for everyone to see - RKN continues to sell and be loved, but who remembers Tharoor's Great Indian Whatever?

Anonymous said...

I don't know who you folks are, but from the brief introduction it appears that most of you are engineering/technocrat/cyber-coolie types, which makes this rant not so surprising. Really, calling RKN's prose pedestrian is generous at best. Surely, no one takes him very seriously except for folks that speak English as a second language. It is with good reason that RKN is not seriously in India or abroad, his prose is "Wren and Martin" meets "Illustrated Weekly" lacking any aesthetic beauty whatsoever, his analysis is banal and mindless, though I understand that may be difficult for engineering types to appreciate. Perhaps the one use RKN may be good for is to train the legions of call center workers and cyber coolies to somewhat gramatically correct English (which would be an improvement), while also providing them a reaffirmation of their simple minded view of life.

P-2 Student said...

If RKN would have been alive to read Tharoor's book, he would have chosen to consult "The English Teacher" to understand the different sentence formations and later consulted with "The Financial Expert" to ascertain the monetary value of the book and perhaps talked to "The Printer for Malgudi" to see if the book could be hard-bound and later perhaps resigned into his "Dark Room" to contemplate as to what could be done with the book - whether to hand it over to "The Man-eater of Malgudi" to feed his animal or to "The Tiger for Malgudi" for using it as a stepping stone for the animal to get into the cage or to "The Painter of Signs" or "Vendor of Sweets" in exchange for some artefact or glucose coated edible as the case may be or to "Swami and his friends" for creating some mischief in "The Boardless" hotel.