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From Time to Time Part 2: How Long and How Often?

26 Aug

big ben


This POST discusses the representation of TIME in narrative… although I must begin with a bit of grammar … and some tedious terminology.

But don’t let that confuse you. doubtful

Because it’s the ideas, rather than the terminology, that count …

In many languages, including English, verbs are used to indicate actions in TIME, and this is done via a number of tense and aspect combinations. Tenses locate actions along a linear timeline, revealing whether these actions are PAST, PRESENT, or FUTURE actions:


ASPECT is different. ASPECT provides extra information about actions wherever they sit along this timeline. ASPECT reveals duration, recurrence and regularity of actions and is, therefore, important to the PACE of a narrative.

Let’s consider two major VERB ASPECTS:

1. PERFECTIVE ASPECT – which describes an action that was, is or will be complete or limited.

                           Joe sat outside the Principal’s Office.

                           I smile nervously.

                           We will wait.

                           They have arrived

(NB: The term PERFECTIVE is occasionally confused with the word PERFECT, which is used to describe tenses.)

2. CONTINUOUS (PROGRESSIVE) ASPECT – which, as the name suggests, describes an action that was, is or will be on-going, or continuing for an extended period of time. (NB: The CONTINUOUS ASPECT always requires the PRESENT PARTICIPLE ending – ing),

                           Joe was sitting outside the Principal’s Office.

                          I am smiling nervously.

                         We will be waiting.

                         They have been arriving.

BUT, enough about grammar and, instead, more about why ASPECT is important when writing narrative. Well, for a start, look at the examples above:

Joe sat outside the Principal’s Office describes a closed event in the SIMPLE PAST TENSE; he might have sat down then got straight up and ran away. On the other hand, Joe was sitting outside the Principal’s Office suggests a longer wait, perhaps a wait during which something else might happen, someone else might join him:


I smile nervously in the PRESENT TENSE and using the PERFECTIVE, could refer to a single moment of smiling, whereas I am smiling nervously using the CONTINUOUS gives an impression of a longer period of smiling, long enough perhaps to involve a degree of introspection.

They have been arriving using the CONTINUOUS ASPECT (and the PRESENT PERFECT TENSE) suggests a process of arriving over a period of time, perhaps a number of arrivals over a period of time, as opposed to They have arrived using the PERFECTIVE ASPECT, which does not suggest any extended period of arrival …

Perhaps they have all come together:


So, if you want an action to seem more harrowing, more time-consuming, or a journey to seem to be more tiring, a wait to be more nerve wracking, a worry to turn into worrying, or the search for a demon hiding upstairs to seem more frightening, then slow the pace and make it all last longer using the CONTINUOUS ASPECT.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen uses a CONTINUOUS ASPECT sandwiched between PAST TENSE PERFECTIVES to highlight Darcy’s slow emotional catharsis:

darcy and elizabeth1



Occupied in observing Mr. Bingley’s attentions to her sister, Elizabeth was far from suspecting that she was herself becoming an object of some interest in the eyes of his friend. Mr. Darcy had at first scarcely allowed her to be pretty; he had looked at her without admiration at the ball; and when they next met, he looked at her only to criticise.


 Also, regarding affairs of the heart, Dusty Springfield’s song Wishin’ and Hopin’ uses a CONTINUOUS ASPECT to describe the long period of infatuation and then follows it up, with the advice, in the PERFECTIVE, to immediately become more proactive and do something about it:

Wishing and hoping and thinking and praying,
Planning and dreaming each night of his charms,
That won’t get you into his arms,
So if you’re looking to find love you can share,
All you gotta do, is hold him and kiss him, and love him
And show him that you care.

As well as slowing pace and emphasizing extended time, the CONTINUOUS ASPECT can also be used to portray large open spaces, spaces that go on and on into the distance. A tourist writing in The Melrose Mirror about a trip to the Banff region of Canada chose to stress the vastness of the area via a CONTINUOUS ASPECT:

… we breezed right though the entry gate to Banff National Park … The road climbs steadily, winding and bending, struggling up … The 35-mile drive between Banff and Lake Louise … is a pretty drive, winding through the forests, brushing up against towering cliffs, diminished by soaring mountains … we saw no wildlife … Above all it was a peaceful place. Soaring pines, aspens rustling in the breeze, mountains in every direction …

So, a CONTINUOUS ASPECTS slows narrative pace and stretches time and space. On the other hand a fast-paced, quick-action sequence, or a complete/terminated action does not benefit from a CONTINUOUS ASPECT. In Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, the PERFECTIVE ASPECT describes a rapid and completed series of events:


In The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown uses the PERFECTIVE to describe a rapid series of actions, with the present participles providing the stark contrast as the curator’s mind functions at a slower pace:

As he anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring.

The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.

A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.”

On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly.

Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars … The albino drew a pistol from his coat and aimed the long silencer through the bars, directly at the curator.

In Suicide in the Trenches Sassoon uses the PERFECTIVE to describe a tragically complete set of actions:

I knew a simple soldier boy,
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

But this is all generalization. A CONTINUOUS ASPECT can be used to describe a rapid sequence of events:

falling1 (Actually, that’s a bit of a cheat, because the short, irregular sentences and the close proximity of the verbs both increase the pace and counter the reduction of pace inherent in the CONTINUOUS ASPECT)

So, clearly, ASPECT reveals duration of actions. But what about repeated actions, actions that are not so much continuous over a period of time, but are rather repeated over time?

very doubtfulWell … this requires another sneaky bit of grammar …

Essentially, verbs that do not display a PERFECTIVE ASPECT are IMPERFECT. So the CONTINUOUS ASPECT is an IMPERFECT ASPECT. But there is also another IMPERFECT ASPECT, which is called the HABITUAL. It is used to describe repeated actions in the PAST and it is expressed in the following two ways:

He used to visit his aunt.

He would leave the house at exactly two minutes past seven and arrive at the station just in time to catch the early train.

Converted to the SIMPLE PAST tense these sentences would become:

He visited his aunt.

He left the house at exactly two minutes past seven and arrived at the station just in time to catch the early train.

But these latter versions may equally refer to an action that occurred once or several times. They lack any indication of a repeated or HABITUAL action that is clear in the first two sentences.

In Heart of Darkness (Conrad, 1902), Marlow describes his numerous meetings with a ‘lank, bony, yellow-faced’ foreman:

He would rave about pigeons. After work hours he used sometimes to come over from his hut for a talk about his children and his pigeons; at work, when he had to crawl in the mud under the bottom of the steamboat, he would tie up that beard of his in a kind of white serviette he brought for the purpose.

Of course, if you would prefer not to use these HABITUAL constructions, you can, instead, make the repeated nature of an action obvious by adding an adverbial phrase such as:

He visited his aunt every Tuesday.

Every morning, he left the house at exactly two minutes past seven and arrived at the station just in time to catch the early train.

The decision as to whether to use a HABITUAL ASPECT or just a simple PAST TENSE plus adverbials is a matter of style. And some authors do shy away from the use of HABITUAL ASPECT constructions, seeing them as unnecessarily awkward.

It’s up to you.

OKIn fact it’s all up to you.

You control the progression and pace of your narrative. ASPECT is just one of the devices that you can use to achieve that control.


The next post will discuss Retrospection and other departures from Linear Time … departures that have been referred to as Mental Time Travel.



From Time to Time Part 1: Present Tense and Past Tense Narratives

18 Aug

big ben


TIME now, that’s something worth considering. But where to start? Clearly, there’s the PRESENT, the PAST and the FUTURE. Simple …

Just ask an amoeba.          amoeba 3


You see, amoeba can only experience NOW … that infinitesimally tiny slither of time that marks our awareness. The PRESENT.

And those distinctions of PAST and FUTURE are all just constructs of the mind – which amoeba doesn’t have.

But, you might disagree, you might argue that we remember the PAST and we anticipate the FUTURE.

Haa, I reply, but you remember the PAST right NOW in the PRESENT … and you anticipate the FUTURE right NOW in the PRESENT.

Of course I am not the first person to point this out. St Augustine (354 – 430 AD) believed that PAST and FUTURE are mere components of the PRESENT, so he referred to the PAST as the EXPERENTIAL PRESENT and the FUTURE as the PRESENT OF FUTURE THINGS:

st augustine2

And, years later, Terry Pratchett agreed with him:


But what use is this metaphysical rambling when you are trying to tell a story?

None whatsoever … apart from the fact that, when we write, we write NOW. And, more importantly, the reader reads what we have written in his or her personal NOW. So, having realized this, how does one decide how to present a story to this anticipated reader? How do you choose whether to pitch a tale as happening in the narrative PAST or in the narrative PRESENT? Or indeed, can you imagine writing a whole narrative about things that are going to happen? Basically, it is a choice between PRESENT, PAST and FUTURE TENSE NARRATIVES … and there is no end to the advice and cautions regarding this choice.


The standard practice (and advice) is to write in the PAST TENSE, a commitment that has occasionally spilled over into the very titles of major works:

The Girl Who Played with Fire (Larsson, 2006/9)
As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning (Lee, 1969)
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (le Carré, 1963)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kessey, 1962)
England Made Me (Greene, 1937)
What Katy Did Next (Coolidge, 1872)

The bottom line with a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE is that the events of the story are over by the time the text is written, and the reader is reading an account, fictional or not, of things that have already happened. It’s the PAST TENSE that we use when we talk about our day’s experiences, write in diaries, share our memories. And it is the PAST TENSE that readers read without even thinking about it. Because they are so familiar with it. But the PAST TENSE NARRATIVE does not completely abandon the PRESENT: direct dialogue within a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE is always in the PRESENT. And despite this particular PRESENT being a PRESENT IN THE PAST, it is nevertheless a taste of the characters’ PRESENT in what is otherwise a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE.

Here are two well-known opening paragraphs that declare a commitment to the PAST TENSE that persists throughout the entire texts:

HP and NL

 The PAST TENSE is a long accepted way of presenting a story, from traditional folk tales that began Once upon a time there lived … to the writings of Rowling and Pullman above. However, those narratives are written in the SIMPLE PAST.

And time is never as simple as that

For instance, having decided to place one’s characters in the PAST and obviously their actions in the PAST, it might be necessary to describe something that happened even longer ago than that, something that happened further into the PAST than the time the characters occupy. So the PAST PERFECT TENSE is used to talk about things in the more distant PAST. For instance, the reason Harry Potter lived with the Dursleys is because many years earlier, Voldemort had killed his parents. This ‘had killed’ PAST PERFECT TENSE construction used to be called the PLUPERFECT (but everything changes including the names of TENSES). And in non-grammarian circles you may hear this more distant PAST referred to as the SUPERPAST. Some tutors, who prefer a steady obedience to a single continuous series of actions, do not recommend the use of the PAST PERFECT. But, in my view, that is tantamount to writing with one hand tied behind your back … possible but restrictive.


So, one can place actions into the PAST and further into the PAST and even further into the PAST by using the PAST and the PAST PERFECT TENSES combined with some interesting clause work. For example:

Jack won a million pounds with one of the lottery tickets that he had bought with the money that his granny had given him just before she emigrated to Australia.

Four moments in time are represented in that rather awkward sentence. But you get my point.

However, time is never as simple as that.

There is another PAST TENSE, a kind of hybrid PAST-PRESENT TENSE that it is only fair to mention, and that is the PRESENT PERFECT:

I have left my wallet in the Post Office.

 Clearly this leaving of the purse in the Post Office is an event which occurred in the PAST but, the grammar pedants say, it is an event which has more relevance to the PRESENT than the SIMPLE PAST, which would be:

I left my wallet in the Post Office

because that could have happened years ago.


So, essentially, we have three PAST TENSES to use when writing about the PAST.

I have left (PRESENT PERFECT) my wallet in the post office and it was (SIMPLE PAST) full of cash because I had just visited (PAST PERFECT) the bank.

Now, clearly, that sentence is not truly appropriate to a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE. It would actually be part of a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE that was referring to the PAST. So, with the PRESENT PERFECT TENSE, we are moving closer to the PRESENT.


Obviously, we speak about NOW using the PRESENT TENSE …

I’m really hungry … I need a new car … the sun is shining at last.

But what about writing PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVES? There is much debate about their worth. Some commentators advise against the PRESENT TENSE. It is certainly far less common in literature and it is generally assumed that, while a reader will not notice the use of the PAST TENSE, a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE will be NOTICEABLE, and the reader will have to suffer a period of adjustment to an unfamiliar mode of presentation. Personally, I think the PRESENT TENSE provides greater immediacy. In the fictional world of a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE, the plot outcome is unknown. The events are unfurling as the pages turn, and that can be used to great advantage when writing a high-action or suspenseful plot. For instance the action-filled and highly successful Hunger Games (Collins, 2008/10) was written in the PRESENT TENSE.

Hunger     Grey

In a similar way, a detective novel written in the PRESENT TENSE has that added mystery about it. The reader discovers as the protagonist/detective discovers.

Occasionally the PRESENT TENSE is essential, for instance, when presenting a character’s stream of consciousness. And despite the writing gurus berating the use of the PRESENT TENSE, James (2011) achieved great success with her sometimes stream of consciousness, PRESENT TENSE novel, Fifty Shades of Grey … it was almost as if you could share the action as it was happening …

There are instances where an author has chosen to insert a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE within a PAST TENSE NARRATIVE in order to emphasise that that section is different. So for instance Crais in LA Requiem begins Chapter 20 in the PRESENT TENSE although the major part of the novel is in the PAST TENSE.

There are criticisms. Some say that the use of the PRESENT TENSE limits reference to time, so that the narrative becomes fixed in a particular time frame. But this is not the case, a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE does not exclude the PAST or the distant PAST; the author just has to use various means of referring to them from the PRESENT as with the above sentence about the wallet and the Post Office.

The only problem I see with time in a PRESENT TENSE NARRATIVE is that the progression of, and ellipses within, time are more difficult to handle, so that phrases such as five days later, the following year, later and until cannot be readily employed. Here are the opening words of five consecutive chapters from Pride and Prejudice (Austen, 1813):

XVII Elizabeth related to Jane the next day …
XVIII Till Elizabeth entered the drawing-room …
XIX The next day opened a new scene …
XX Mr Collins was not left long …
XXI The discussion … was now nearly at an end …

Such pauses and leaps in time and, indeed, changes in pace, are not so easy with the PRESENT TENSE. A development of this criticism is that a character, stuck in this restrictive and contiguous time frame, also becomes restricted by a lack of PAST experience. However, I would suggest that a protagonist’s actions and thoughts, including retrospective thoughts, define character and the narrator’s presentation of these should be sufficient.

And it is worth remembering that some things are expected to be in the PRESENT TENSE even if they describe things that have already happened (HISTORIC PRESENT), for instance:

ObamaWinsNewpaper moon1

 OR things that have not yet happened (SCHEDULED PRESENT)

He arrives next week

 And, don’t forget, a synopsis should always be written in the PRESENT TENSE.


And then there are the FUTURE TENSES that can be used to refer to at least two points in the FUTURE. Obviously there isn’t just one FUTURE TENSE:

I will arrive (FUTURE TENSE) next Tuesday, and hopefully my luggage will have arrived (FUTURE PERFECT TENSE) before me.

But what of writing FUTURE TENSE NARRATIVES? It can be done and has been done. But I do not recommend it as anything other than a novelty, or perhaps the choice for a short story.

So enough about TENSES, other than to say that, to understand these major TENSES and how to use them provides great opportunities to tell a story within a complex time frame, to break away from a pedestrian series of one thing after another. There are, of course, more TENSES than those mentioned above, but rather than launching into a pointless appreciation of the PUNCTAL and GNOMIC PRESENT or the HABITUAL PAST, it would be more useful to talk next about the benefits of different ASPECT-TENSE combinations, because these reveal the duration, recurrence and regularity of actions (He walked as opposed to he was walking … I walk as opposed to I am walking).

So enjoy the above and watch this space for more about TIME in narrative.


Active or Passive: What a Daft Debate

5 Jul

Everybody knows what the words active and passive mean. However there is occasionally confusion when using these terms to refer to grammatical voice (not to be muddled with the unique creative voice that distinguishes a writer’s style). In this post I am going to talk about grammatical voice that describes the relationship between the action of a verb and its subject and object.

So, a sentence which demonstrates active voice has the subject as the doer:

John stroked the cat

John is the subject carrying out the action and is therefore the agent of the action. The cat is the object of the action. Two passive sentences are embedded within this active sentence:

The cat was stroked

Here the cat is the passive subject of the sentence and the agent of the action is not mentioned.

The cat was stroked by John

Here, also, the cat is the passive subject but now the agent of the action is revealed using a ‘by’ phrase.

Simple. Indeed, Stephen King explained it very simply: ‘With an active verb, the subject of the sentence is doing something. With a passive verb, something is being done to the subject of the sentence.’


So why choose one or the other?

Well, I regret to say that there has been a strange and recent trend against the use of the passive. Many writing tutors now recommend the exclusive use of active sentences since they are clearer. In the above active example, the active subject (John) is carrying out the action and the object (the cat) is experiencing the action. On the other hand, in the passive equivalent, the cat experiencing the action becomes the passive subject and John the agent is relegated to the end of the sentence.


Such passivity on the part of the doer is currently frowned upon. In The Elements of Style (2005), Strunk and White suggest that ‘The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive’, which tends to be ‘less direct, less bold, and less concise’, although they do concede that the passive voice ‘is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary’. Here are some examples of the convenient/necessary use of the passive. In most cases the agent of the action is undisclosed:

1. Where the agent of the action is assumedThe minority party was voted into power.

2. Where convention demands that the agent of the action does not need to be mentionedThe results were tabulated and statistical analysis was undertaken.   This kind of passive voice is typical of scientific reporting, which is expected to be objective and impersonal. The identity of the agent of the action is usually confined to the authorship citation.

3. Where the agent of the action is not important enough to warrant mentionThe city streets were scrubbed clean for the king’s visit.   The active version of this would be – A nameless force of municipal employees scrubbed the city streets clean for the king’s visit.

4. Where the thing that is having the action done to it is more important than the agent(s) of the actionThe Hubble Spacecraft was launched on April 24, 1990.   The awkward active equivalent of this would be – A nameless team of scientists and technicians launched the Hubble Spacecraft on April 24, 1990.

Hubble_Space_Telescope_HST_courtesy_of_NASA    malko

5. Where the agent of the action is unknownMiss Grey here told us that she did not see or speak to any stranger on the day that Sir Carmichael Clarke was murdered (Agatha Christie, The ABC Murders) OR  The Mona Lisa has been stolen.

6. Where the agent of the action is nebulousMany solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were concerned with the movement of small green pieces of paper … (Douglas Adams, Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).   This form is frequently used in business and commerce –  The New York Stock Exchange was founded in 1817.

7. Where the action needs to be depersonalized – Normal services will be resumed as soon as possible.

george-orwell-bbc8. Where the speaker prefers that the agent of the action should be concealedThe chocolates have all been eaten.   This potential for obfuscation was one of the reasons why George Orwell (Politics and the English Language, 1946) criticized the use of passive sentences, ie sentences which removed blame/accountability and divorced cause from effect.  He called them ‘swindles and perversions’ where the ‘passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active’ (oops, that’s a passive sentence isn’t it, George?).

In some instances the hidden agency of action can be revealed using a by clause. Such constructions, whereby the agent of the action is demoted to the end of the sentence results in the focus also being demoted:

The minority party was voted into power by a largely misinformed electorate.

This delay in revealing the agent of the action might be used to increase suspense at the level of the sentence. Occasionally it will be employed for the purposes of rhetoric:

The married woman’s significance can only be conferred by the presence of a man at her side

(Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch)


Confusions and Misconceptions

Occasionally there is confusion between passive sentences that have to be and to have auxiliaries as part of a passive construction:

The book will be published in June
They have been chosen as representatives

and active sentences that have the auxiliary verbs to be and to have as tense constructs:

Jane will be happy to see you
Jack has been fishing
Jason will have already been living there for two weeks

It is difficult to understand this confusion since the auxiliaries are and have and the linking/copular verb forms that declare existence or condition (I think therefore I am; Jane is happy; Jack is a dentist), are essential parts of active language.

Wordiness and Sloppiness

The confusion over passive sentences and active sentences containing auxiliary verbs has led some commentators to suggest that frequent use of the verb to be, which is an essential component of a passive construction, can result in wordiness. It is further suggested that this introduction of unnecessary words can interfere with the pace of a text. Well … apart from the fact that that is an utterly absurd conclusion, I feel obliged to point out that passive constructions often require fewer words than their active equivalents, which is why they are recommended in scientific reporting.

Some commentators have suggested that passive constructs produce an unclear and sloppy text and recommend avoiding the passive voice because it is weak and circuitous. Speaking about passive constructions Stephen King says:

‘I think timid writers like them for the same reason timid lovers like passive partners. The passive voice is safe. There is no troublesome action to contend with … I think unsure writers also feel the passive voice somehow lends their work authority, perhaps even a quality of majesty.’ (Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.)


On the other hand, the use of passive forms has been cited as an indication of literariness in a text, as evidence of writerly sophistication:

So a whimsical fate ordered that her hat should be taken off, veil and all attached, and placed upon his head …’ (Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd)

The servant who always brought the chocolate in the morning had found the bedroom door ajar and ultimately had ventured to look in. The bed had not been slept in.’ (Joseph Conrad, Suspense: a Napoleonic Novel)

So, at the level of narrative, does the frequent use of passive constructs create passive, ‘timid’ characters that are constantly having things happen to them rather than causing things to happen? Not really. But, if this were the case, how does a reader see such characters? What kind of emotions do they inspire? Empathy? Pity? Boredom? Harry Potter and Tess D’Urberville were pretty much passive characters in that they were victims of circumstance. Creative writing tutors will tell you that a protagonist must be at the heart of the action, driving it forward. Active, active, active … But, surely, passivity also has its place. There’s nothing more exciting than a character, presented as passive, who suddenly turns, grasps the moment and becomes active.

Well then, what to do? We are presented with a situation whereby style gurus both encourage and discourage the use of the passive voice. The answer is to turn away from dogma and really understand the nature of passive constructions and then use them to your advantage. Both active and passive constructions have their place in grammar and their role in language.

And don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

Recommended reading:
Baron, D.E. (1989). The Passive Voice Can be Your Friend. In Declining Grammar and Other Essays on the English Vocabulary.

King, S. (2000). On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Simon & Schuster (Pocket Books), New York.

Strunk, W., White, E.B., Kalman, M. (2005). The Elements of Style. Penguin Press, New York,

Literariness. What on Earth does that mean?

6 May

Over the last few years, whenever I’ve asked a fellow linguist/tutor/mentor what does literariness mean, I have never been given a straight answer. It’s as if nobody knows. So I have done a little research of my own. And it’s true. Nobody knows. And yet literariness looms before us as something to achieve, something that wins prizes, something that publishers seek, something that lurks within the fog of willing creativity just waiting to be … recognized.

In fact, I do not remember one person, in any of the numerous courses, degrees, conferences and seminars I‘ve experienced, offering any kind of clear formula that can elevate a piece of writing from the ordinary to the literary. Is it not something that can be taught? Would an attempt to analyse and recreate literariness be a hopeless exercise, doomed by its very nature to instant failure?


But, anyway, here are a few thoughts to add to the long confusion.

You see, the idea of literariness emerged in the early 1920s within the school of literary criticism referred to as Russian Formalism. And it was conceived by one theorist in particular: Roman Jakobson. Formalists such as Jakobson paved the path that led to structuralist and post-structuralist theories and they did so by demonstrating that literary/poetic works could be analysed according to the literary devices that they employ. Jakobson developed this idea further, suggesting that literariness can be achieved via defamiliarisation. That sounds like academic gobbledygook, but in simple terms it means that you use the linguistic properties and form of language to present something that is familiar in a strange or unfamiliar way, so that the reader perceives it differently. JL_soundbite1OK, that still sounds like academic gobbledygook, and indeed it is, but ultimately defamiliarization relies upon deviations away from ordinary language to create literariness. More recently Jonathan Culler has explained defamilairization and literariness as being achieved by deviating away from conventional expectations. In this way, a once familiar thing takes on a new or extended meaning. Therefore, literariness is all about devices that jolt the reader’s perception.

So, what are these devices? At a simple level, they include syntax, rhythm, word repetition, new words (neologisms), figures of speech (tropes):

‘And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.’

(The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter)

At a narrative level these literary devices include plot. Indeed, long before Russian Formalists began to analyse the not-ordinary texts of literature, Aristotle declared the prime importance of plot to the telling of a story. A story is a sequence of events linked temporally (in the right order) and causally (one thing happening because of another). The plot is the way you tell it. And literariness leans towards not telling things in the right order (for instance the chronologically reversed chapters in Night Watch by Sarah Waters) or choosing a moment to reveal causal relationships (such as the family dysfunction in Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). But, although it is important in itself, a plot often depends upon characters to drive and perform its detail. And here conventional expectation can be exploited to provide literariness: the strangely adult schoolchildren in Golding’s Lord of the Flies or the damaged cybergeek sexually-rampant girl genius in Larsson’s trilogy. There are many other devices:

  • a story nested within a story, for instance Brönte’s Wuthering Heights or Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth; or a story about a story (metanarrative) as in Atwood’s The Blind Assassin.
  • the alternative narratives in Martel’s Life of Pi.
  • the infiltration of narrative with unbelievably well-researched details, for instance regarding 18th Century perfumerie in Süskind’s cross-genre Perfume:The Story of a Murderer.
  • the mind-bending use of the second person in Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.
  • the total narrative craziness of Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, operating a rhythmic narrative macrostructure.
  • the overwhelming use of every literary device available to mankind in Joyce’s Ulysses.
  • the use of dialect, for instance in Hardy’s novels, in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, in Dickens’ Oliver Twist and in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, all defining the nature of the texts.
  • And, finally … the sophisticated corruptions of temporality such as the cyclical time in McEwan’s The Child in Time, the slowing and overnarration of time in Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy or the sudden casting into the past of the main characters in Faulks’ Birdsong.


So many ways to distract the reader from long-held assumptions. So many ways to make the reader question the meaning of the text, to struggle with narrative semantics. That was really the message in Jakobson’s ideas about literariness. But it seems that although literariness started this way, it was doomed to be reinterpreted, reconceptualised and contrived way beyond its formalist beginnings. Because, now, it seems that there are degrees of literariness. An author’s work can be seen as ‘quite literary’ or ‘almost literary’. Is there a tick chart somewhere that might be made available to the aspirant writer? And so many of the above-mentioned literary devices are currently eschewed: for instance, achronological narrative has fallen out of favour: too much retrospection has become a bad thing. And there are flights of fancy regarding the desirability of the first person/third person perspective. There are declarations being made about more than one main protagonist and pretend rules about too many characters (such rules clearly did not bother Shakespeare and they certainly did not filter through to the makers of Fortitude).

Then there’s that weird Commandment, written in stone, suggesting that some genre writing resides in a different bin to literariness, so that however many literary devices a science fiction novel might boast, it will never be desired by a modern day agent. Indeed, many of the gatekeepers proscribe such narratives yet, significantly, Hollywood sucks them up and makes blockbusters of them. But at least fantasy is enjoying popularity, thanks to the well-written Twilight and Hunger Games series.  Indeed, long forgotten are the days when nobody wanted stories about a school for child wizards. And while we’re on the subject of fantasy, let’s consider the Fifty Shades Trilogy. Devoid of any literary devices, those narratives sold millions. And that leads us to yet another great divide: that between the literary and the commercial … it’s as if they are mutually exclusive. Now, as far as I can gather, Jakobson never excluded  genre writing or commercially successful writing from the realm of literariness, yet somehow commerciality, particularly selling-like-hot-cakes genre writing, seems to carry with it an elitist taint of unliterariness. Of course, there are undeniable exceptions: commercial though they may be, nobody would dare relegate Lyra and her demon Pantalaimon to the depths of unliterariness …


Or would they?

It depends upon who’s writing the rules. And those rules seem to imply that there are books for us and books for them, and whilst we sit amidst the olives and oleanders sipping our lime juice and gin … struggling with a story about a child who has personified every object in the only room he has ever known, or trying to link the five disparate stories in Sebastian Faulks beautifully texted A Possible Lifethey are leafing through B&Q catalogues and Mills and Boon in the pub garden. Ah romance and chick lit … what an unliterary disgrace! But, come to think of it, nobody would accuse Miss Austen’s aspirational tale, of a young woman romancing an unapproachable and devastatingly handsome millionaire, of being unliterary chick lit. Because Austen’s works declare literariness. Indeed, in the pages of that particular piece of chick lit lurk the beginnings of psychonarration and interior monologue, recognized as literary devices by one and all.

JL_soundbite4So what is literariness one hundred years on? There is much disagreement. But it is probably centred more around the reader’s reactions to the text and to the reader’s assumptions regarding author intention. And that is all sailing dangerously close to discourse processing and cognitive pragmatics – which will inevitably lead to literary suffocation. And, significantly, these reader reactions are not something frozen in time. Half a century ago Henry Miller’s Sexus and Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover were denied literariness because they were outrageous but now they are quite lame in comparison with … well, in comparison with everything.

So, all things considered, I am forced to conclude that a theory of literariness is an impossible dream. Books will continue to be written that are destined to provide land fill or to last forever, and their nebulous literariness rating will have very little to do with their longevity. There is no formula only inspiration and luck. In fact, aiming to write an enduring literary text is like aiming to win the lottery.

And, I suppose, that is the sheer joy of it.


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