The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

The Art of Time in Fiction

It’s rare that I read a nonfiction book with as much enthusiasm as Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction.  Given the topic it’s not surprising though. I’ve long suspected that one of the key elements dividing literary fiction and genre fiction might be the use of time. I’m thinking of the artless use of the split-narrative that we find in almost every crime novel these days. Or the time-split in historical genre novels. Silber’s title is well-chosen, because using time masterfully is really an art.

She divided her book into different chapters, each dedicated to another use of time, another technique. I noticed, when compiling the list that when it’s done really well, we hardly notice what approach an author chose. I really appreciated the many examples she gave and from which she quotes extensively. Of course, this makes it a dangerous book for book addicts because it makes you want to add to your piles.

I will go through the categories, describing them briefly and adding the examples Joan Silber chose.

Classic Time

The first category was “classic time”. In this approach the author describes the story chronologically, chosing only a brief time span. There isn’t a lot of back story, nor flashbacks. I’d say it is the category that shows the most, tells the least.

The best example for classic time is:

  • Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby


Long Time

When an author tells a character’s whole life and the story spans over many years and decades, then we have an example of long time. I think it’s the category I’m the least fond of, but stories like Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, that capture a whole life, condensing long stretches, and only needs some forty pages, are not to be dismissed.

The examples quoted are:

  • Anton Chekhov – The Darling
  • Gustave Flaubert – A Simple Life/Un Coeur Simple
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake
  • Carol Shields – The Stone Diaries
  • Arnold Bennett – The Old Wives’ Tale
  • Guy de Maupassant – Une Vie
  • Yu Hua – To Live
  • Evan Connell – Mrs Bridge
  • Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Switchback Time

The use of flashbacks, dreamlike sequences, non-linear storytelling, might be what appeals to me the most.

Here are a couple of examples for this type of storytelling:

  • Alice Munro – A Real Life, The Progress of Love, Carried Away, The Albanian Virgin
  • James Baldwin – Sonny’s Blues


Slowed Time

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time might be the most prominent of this category. In a movie there would be the use of slow motion. It’s an arresting technique that captures sensory and sensuous details like no other.

A few examples:

  • Nawal al-Sadaadawi – The Thirst
  • Don DeLillo – Videotape
  • Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time


Fabulous Time

This is the realm of magical realism and folk and fairy tales. It’s characterized by uncertainty and a reversal of natural time and disregarding the laws of time.

The examples used to illustrate this are:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  • Italo Calvino – Italian Folktales
  • Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things


Time as Subject

One of the most interesting uses of time in fiction is when it’s made the subject of the story. I’ve never read Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams, which seems to be similar to The Great Gatsby, but uses time differently. Since I’m planning on re-reading The Great Gatsby, I’m looking forward to comparing it to Winter Dreams.

Here are the examples given in the book:

  • F.Scott Fitzgerald – Winter Dreams
  • Katherine Anne Porter – Old Mortality
  • Henry James – The Beast in the Jungle
  • Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilych
  • Alan Lightman – Einstein’s Dream
  • Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Denis Johnson – Out on Bail
  • Martin Amis – Time’s Arrow
  • Charles Baxter – First Light
  • Jorge Luis Borges – The Secret Miracle
  • Ambrose Bierce – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I can’t say there’s one of these approaches I don’t like, but I guess books in which the time is a subject and what Silber calls “switchback time” might be those I like the most.

This is a wonderful little book that will appeal to readers and writers alike. It’s part of “The Art Of” series books published by Graywolf Press.

What about you? Do you prefer any of these categories? Or do you enjoy the use of split timelines/narratives more?


32 thoughts on “The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

  1. This sounds fabulous! And I can already sense that reading this book would make me want to read some of the example books she’s listing. Of the top of my head, I can’t say that I have a favorite or least favorite approach. I’ve liked books in each category, so I think it probably depends on how well the author makes use of the approach s/he chooses.

    • It is fabulous. She adds many quotes to illustrate the different ways of using time. It’s really interesting and all the stories/novels she chose are probably well worth reading anyway. I know I’ll pick up quite a few over the next months and the return to her book. I already read or reread Flaubert’s novella and was glad I’d read this first. It really showed me once more how amazing he is.

  2. Wonderful book and a beautiful post, Caroline! I want to read some of the books in the list – Calvino’s ‘Italian Folktales’, Nawal al-Sadaadawi’s ‘The Thirst’ and a few others. It is interesting that Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ and ‘Winter Dream’s describe and depict time differently. Would love to read and compare them. Would love to hear your thoughts on them. Thanks for introducing us to this beautiful book.

    • Thanks, Vishy, I’m glad you liked it. I’m happy that I’ve got so many of the books and authors on the list already because else I would have had to break my book buying ban. Not a ban really, but book buying moderation.:)
      I’m really looking forward to reading The Winter Dreams. It will be interesting to compare. I never noticed that the backstory we get in The Great Gatsby is told by one person to another. Vere by the narrator.
      I really loved this book. It’s small but so rich and the quotes she chose are wonderful.

  3. The book sounds fascinating, quite a dangerous prospect for the TBR though as I can imagine wanting to read quite a few of the novels Silber uses to illustrate her points!

    As far as my preferences go, I particularly like the first two: Classic Time and Long Time. The Great Gatsby and Evan S. Connell’s Mrs Bridge are two of my all-time favourite novels. Time as a Subject is interesting, too – I have Calvino’s Invisible Cities to look forward to as it’s in my TBR.

    • It’s a fascinating and dangerous book. I’m so glad I’ve got Mrs Bridge. When I saw what she wrote about I thought I would like it and now that you mention it as well.
      Some of the Long Time examples like The Stone Diaries didn’t work for me, but I definitely like Classic Time too.
      I got that Calvino as well.

    • Yes, it is. I’ve never read her fiction though. It might be interesting to see how she handles time. I’m ahsmaed to say that I’ve got one of her books somewhere but I’m not sure where.
      You’ll see it’s a quick read. It’s so engaging. I hope we can discuss it.

  4. Sounds really intriguing and as a lover of Calvino and also of Time’s Arrow I obviously enjoy time as a subject!

  5. This is an intriguing subject that I never gave much thought to before.

    I do have a favorite or least favorite method of handling time. I suppose it is all about how well an author deals with whatever method that they choose.

  6. What a lovely and thought-provoking post! I’ve never really paid much attention to which fictional treatment of time I prefer, but upon reflection I’d say I have a strong attraction for narratives that utilise classic and long time. I don’t like flashbacks and back stories at all, and I’m always disappointed when I start reading a book and the medias res thing rears its aggravating head. 🙂 I like cradle-to-grave biographies, too, and not the ones that flit about all over the place. I’m thinking that for me, it has a lot to do with liking things to be ‘logical’, and it’s logical to me that a story starts at the beginning and takes us on a journey to the end. It’s certainly an interesting topic for discussion, though, and may go some way towards explaining why we enjoy reading certain books and not others. Maybe this is why I like classic novels, because they more often deal in classic and long time. It seems to me that many contemporary novels tend to include back story and flashbacks, and often fabulous time, which I don’t like either. 🙂

    I might have to give up reading your blog because every time I visit I want to read the book you write about and it’s not doing my ‘read my own books’ project any good at all! 🙂 Seriously, though, this sounds like a fabulous read and I shall have to acquire a copy and peruse those lists.

    • Thanks, Violet and sorry if I tempted you. 🙂 I know what it’s like trying to stick to the piles. Thsi book is particularly bad because most of the titles she chose seem so well wort reading. It’s rather light on the analysis, it’s much more about giving examples, which makes it all the more dangerous.
      I’m very drawn to literature that puts me in contact with soul, makes me dream. Literally and I often find books in which charcaters look back, with the use of flashback or just showing us how time works, does exactly that.
      But I don’t mind the logical, only cradle-to- grave isn’t really my thing, I’d say. But, of course there are always exceptions. I don’t like characters in movies reminiscing, telling anecdotes.

      • I didn’t get several posts last week but this happens from time to time when wordpress is buggy. I think switchback time is fine, but it takes a bit more skill from the author. Sometimes it can be frustrating when the author doesn’t make it clear which timeframe we are supposed to be reading about.

        • I get posts via Bloglovin which is pretty good. You just get them a little later.
          I like switchback time. I don’t like confusion either but smetimes I find it too neat, when ecery chpater has a title 1994 – 2014 . . . .

  7. Thank you for introducing me to this book! I hadn’t known about it until I read your post.

    Exploring the use of time in fiction is a valuable undertaking. I love how Joan Silber breaks time into these categories.

    I agree that the reader will hardly notice if the author has used time to the best advantage for the story. On the other hand, if the author has made the wrong choice for the genre, subject matter, or characters, the readers will certainly notice, but may not be able to say exactly what was wrong.

    I will definitely put this book on my list.

    • I think ou’ll find it useful and thought provoking. I think she really captured all the categories.
      To be honest, I alos like it sometimes when a book switches between different times and makes it very clear but the book needs to be very good. These days authors just seem to reyl on these spilt timelines too often. Sometimes it’s lazy writing.

  8. I have heard so many good things about Joan Silber–she is a writer I keep meaning to try. My library has this book and I have looked at it, now I feel like I must go grab it from the shelf as you have piqued my curiosity! I am not sure which category I prefer most–you are right lots of authors use that split narrative of two parallel time periods. I think long time when done well can be really good, but maybe my favorite, too, is the use of flashbacks. It would be fun to read the book in tandem with a book from the list of examples she gives. I always want to turn a book into a reading project–no wonder I never manage to accomplish anything at all….

    • I think you’ll really like it but it’s so dangerous. It makes you want to read them all. It would be a cool project though.
      I’ve got a short story collection of her and want to start that soon. I’m i two minds about the split narrative. It’s really something that’s mostly used in genre novels. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
      I think I really like Classic Time as well

  9. This sounds really interesting and definitely a book to look out for. I’ve been loving the non-fiction this year and the books I’ve really admired have all been non-fic, funnily enough.

    • There are years like that. I must say, I seem to choose my nonfiction more carefully as I’m rarely disappointed by my choices.
      I’m sure you’d find this very interesting.

  10. Very interesting topic and post, Caroline. I thought of Einstein’s Dream immediately. Love that book.
    I don’t think about the concept of time that much, I just want great writing and characters.

    • I noticed that I’m not as aware of time as I should but I always notice when it’s used in a heavy handed way.
      It’s a great little book but be careful – you’ll risk to want to read everything she mentions.

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