TRAVELLERS AND PLANNERS: TWO STYLES IN FABULATION

I am going to sound sillier than usual in this post but I keep wondering these days why there is no research on how writers fabulate. Yes, I am aware that I am most likely misusing the word. See below.

I’m working on Black Man, an SF novel by British writer Richard K. Morgan and wondering why this thriller is so long (630 pages) and why the action is so often interrupted with long (juicy) conversations, I emailed the author. I have never ever bothered an author, except to request a formal interview in a couple of cases, as my PhD supervisor used to tell me that authors lie all the time… Well, to my surprise and delight Morgan generously answered this and many other questions (I’ll soon publish the improvised interview online at my university’s repository). One thing he clarified is that unlike what I supposed, that thrillers are written ‘backwards’ after careful planning, he had started the journey of writing the book with a clear ending in mind but with only a vague idea of the actual path he would take. Paraphrasing his words, writing Black Man was like travelling towards a hilltop glimpsed at the end of a thick jungle with little idea of how to cross it. Since, he says, he is not good at planning, he will never make the airport best-selling lists. I answered back telling him about my surprise that he is a ‘traveller’ and not a ‘planner’.

These two labels, ‘traveller’ and ‘planner’, are my own private way to distinguish between types of authors but I have never used them formally in any academic writing. There was a time, years ago, when I attended many of the presentations offered by British novelists at the British Council’s building in Barcelona (no longer offered, sadly). From their talks, I deduced that fiction writers are very keen on discussing technical matters but that nobody really asks them the right questions. The ones that do get asked refer to the habitual matters: ‘where did you get your inspiration for this or that?’, ‘were you influenced by this or that?’ Naturally. We, common readers, are always making connections and expressing curiosity about how exactly fiction is written. Yet we don’t write novels.

The problem is that, academically speaking, this curiosity is complicated to manage. I did ask Morgan whether he got the inspiration for his main character (Carl Marsalis) from an actor (Idris Elba) who seemed to connect very well with his novel; he confirmed that I had got this right and his confirmation will help me with the article I am writing, as I will be able to claim that audiovisual products do have a very direct impact on fiction writing, particularly as regards the possibility that white writers deal with black characters. Yet, this connection still explains very little about the process of what I call ‘fabulation’: what happens when, as Martin Amis recalled in a British Council presentation, the writer sits down to think about a story, spending hours looking at the computer screen and outside the window, being bored, picking his nose now and then…

Back to my topic: the many writers I heard discuss their trade alluded, mysteriously to me, to either a long process of pre-planning or to taking a journey, a favourite metaphor it seems. Michael Crichton, the best-selling author who penned Jurassic Park among many other very popular novels, used to explain that he would do research for six months, plan his forthcoming book down to the last comma and then sit down to write it. A ‘planner’, then. Stephen King is, in contrast, a ‘traveller’ of the thick-jungle-crossing kind, which also explains why all his books are overlong. My dear Charles Dickens seems to be a hybrid ‘journey planner’: I once wrote a paper on his longest novel, Bleak House, and was completely overwhelmed by the enormous effort at planning the book he had made; yet, he was at the same time quite capable of improvising new plot lines to increase the sales of his serialised works. And, as I keep on explaining, what put me off watching TV series is the fact that the writers in charge of Lost claimed to be the best of planners when they were actually travellers, and very poor ones to boot, with no real hilltop in view.

If I consider what Morgan suggests, that planners make the best-selling lists better than travellers (um, I don’t know, look at King), then this means that there is a so far little explored tension between the needs of the writer to fabulate and the needs of the text to be constrained by feasible limits. My guess is that the masterpiece is the work in which those contrary needs are best balanced. Now, for the word ‘fabulate’…

I use ‘fabulate’ in the basic sense of ‘telling invented stories’ but within Theory of Literature, or literary criticism, the word has a more specific meaning. Robert Scholes is responsible for first using ‘fabulation’ to describe the plotting of liminal novels, placed somewhere between realism and fantasy, though not quite 100% the same as magical realism (perhaps because they were Anglophone?). He did so in The Fabulators (1967), although this particular meaning of ‘fabulation’ was spread among literary scholars thanks to Fabulation and Metafiction (1979). It seems that writers were labelled ‘fabulist’ until the word ‘post-modernist’ put Scholes’ term out of fashion in the 1980s. Or not quite. Within SF, ‘fabulation’ is associated with the work of American scholar Marleen Barr, who with her volume Feminist Fabulation: Space/postmodern Fiction (1992) urged critics to correct the exclusion of women fantasists from the post-modern canon. I do not use ‘fabulate’ in this way.

I mean, rather, the psychological process which is the foundation of storytelling. For all I know, someone in Cognitive Science may be literally picking the brains of novelists to see what happens when they sit down to stare at the blank page or screen and daydream about their stories. Think of J.K. Rowling’s famous claim that Harry Potter materialized in her head during a train journey and consider the impressive effort at planning his confrontation with Voldemort into 3,500 exciting pages. A detailed reading of Rowling’s series shows, as we all know, errors and gaps, and, certainly, improvised authorial decisions but, on the whole, she knew where she was going and had a pretty good idea of the jungle paths. What she did do as she walked them down, however, is just a matter for speculation and for, mainly, fan interviews, for it seems as if we have developed in academia a manifest distrust of writers. Remember my PhD supervisor?

I was thinking, excuse my silliness, that it would be nice to have ‘making of’ documentaries about novels. We have them for movies and they offer wonderful insights into filmmaking. I have no idea whether novelists keep writing journals where they jot down observations about how, returning to Black Man, Idris Elba shaped the physical appearance of Carl Marsalis, or showing their surprise that, say, Professor Dumbledore turned out to be gay. It would be nice to read something like ‘and then I realized that Heathcliff would never get Cathy’, in the same way we get sentences like ‘and when I saw Vivien Leigh, I knew we had our Scarlett O’Hara’. Supposing the journals existed, they would only scratch the surface, of course. Yet, it would be nice to have them.

What I am discussing here also affects, naturally, other kinds of writing, including academic writing. As a teacher, I insist to my students that they MUST plan their essays in advance, yet I know from my own practice that the greatest pleasures in writing come from surprising yourself: ‘Now, where did that come from?’ Now, imagine a silly academic asking you that all the time…

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