A Novel is Not the Singular of Data


Persian indigo production methods

by Emma Darwin

Recently, I came upon a neat phrase to use on those people who refuse to hear the fact that there has been net emigration of central Europeans from Britain, because all the waiters in their local Pizza Express come from Warsaw: “Data is not the plural of anecdote.” But it reminded me of how a writer friend wanted her ancient-Persian heroine to start up a cottage industry making dyestuffs in her kitchen. “But it wasn’t done like that,” said the friendly expert at the British Museum. “The evidence is that dye production was on an industrial scale, and they wouldn’t have employed a woman anyway.” My friend’s plot was dying (not dyeing), about her: she couldn’t possibly do something that was “wrong”. No doubt the general picture of the expert was true, but it’s hard to believe that at the domestic, individual level, no “industrial” things were done; just because the only remains after Armageddon will be the McVities factory, I suggested, doesn’t mean that no one ever set up a small business making cakes in their kitchen. My friend’s plot was restored to health, because anecdote is not the singular of data.

And then few weeks ago, Jerusha Cowless suggested that to find the energy in a passive, put-upon heroine, without being anachronistic to a period when women weren’t suppose to be act-ors, it would help to research the period more deeply. “There’s nowt so queer as folk” said Jerusha, “and there are so many real stories which are odder and more surprising than you’d think”. The writer should look to historians for particularities which go against the generalised ideas that the non-historian has.

So when I blogged over at The History Girls, under the title Caution Novelists: Historians at Work, I found myself saying this:

History, as a discipline, is about finding the larger patterns and forces which shaped lives in the past. An honest historian may acknowledge some evidence which exists but has yet to be fitted in. But still, the project will be to synthesise things to explain the whole picture. And yet always, as a novelist, I’m aware that the opposite was probably also true…. If you think round your friends I’d put money on every single one of them having several characteristics which don’t fit the norm for their job/background/class/ethnicity/gender/nationality. The essence of gender history is that husbands batter wives, but that doesn’t mean that no wife has ever battered her husband, and my characters are individuals, not essences. If I want to put a battered husband in my novel, I shall. I’ll have to work harder to convince the reader, but that’s never a bad thing for me as a writer, or for my reader. As I was talking about on my own blog a while ago, the expected thing slips past the reader too easily: it’s the surprising, the off-beat, the taking-aback thing, done properly, which catches the reader and holds them long enough for the story to come alive.

In 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel novelist/critic/teacher Jane Smiley says, “The novel resists generalising”, and it’s true. Particularity is the usual project of fiction, because it’s essentially a form that deals in individual experience and individual consciousnesses, even if the project is to illuminate wider ideas. And in the comments on my post Yours to remember and mine to forget, Jules said

I love the suggestion you make here, that information in a novel feels real when it feels remembered. Even when a narrator speaks in the present tense, maybe it has to have a remembered quality. It has to sound as though it has been filtered through someone’s perception, someone’s prejudices and experience. If it sounds too dispassionate or objective then it can stop sounding like a story.

So, whereas historians are trained to make their consciousness as thin and transparent a lens as possible, we feel what’s told in a novel is real because of our sense that it’s passed through an individual consciousness – at least the writer’s, and most of the time the characters’ too. I’ve always wondered why I’m drawn irrestistibly to plots which are about un-doing, or coming to terms with, something in the main character’s past. And I think that might be the answer: it’s then very natural for that past story to be filtered through the character’s individual consciousness and thereby to acquire its realness.

There are two kinds of particularity going on, then: the individual sights/sounds/words/smells/actions of this moment in the story (calling them “details” doesn’t do their importance justice), and the particularity of the consciousnesses (writer’s, characters’, reader’s) through which they’re perceived and transmitted. No wonder novelists need either to dig through the data to the particularity of anecdote, or toss the data, like seeds, into the “anarchic, gift-conjuring, unknowing part of the novelist’s mind”, and wait for the truth – the particularity of imagination – to grow.

Piece originally published at This Itch of Writing Creative Commons License