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?