Tag Archive for #narrative time

Trigger finger pointing

“I had an incident come up in class this week” could be another way of saying, “I taught a Mary Gaitskill story in class this week.” I’m a fan of Gaitskill’s work in the same way I’m a fan of Joyce Carol Oates’s: it makes me uncomfortable; it makes me think; it reminds me how people very different from myself think, and then it makes me think some more about what that says about our world.

We read “The Girl on the Plane” in my Narrative Time class, a pretty brutal story about a vile man who gang-raped a woman when he was much younger and is just now coming to accept that’s what he did. For years he has justified his behavior based on her behavior, and told himself what he wanted to hear, and only now, years later, does he see how little that holds.

Shortly before class, I received an email from a student saying she thought it would be a good idea to warn students beforehand about material like this, to basically offer a trigger warning, a term that is debated a lot in academic circles and about which I have mixed feelings. I decided to ask the class about it and the feelings were mixed. “It’s college and people should be aware we’ll be discussing adult topics.” “How can you ever guess might be someone’s trigger?” “People shouldn’t be forced to read something that makes them feel unsafe.” “This kind of thing takes away from the real topics at hand” (as evidenced by the fact we were giving classtime to talk about the issue versus narrative time). All good points.

Like with most things, I can see both sides, and I don’t mean that as I’m a well-rounded individual who takes the high ground, but as someone kind of wishy-washy who would have sucked at debate in high school. At some point I would have stood at the podium and said to the opposition, “Well, gosh. You’ve got a good point there,” and scratched my head.

I guess my bottom line came down to this: if a student is that repulsed or triggered by a story, there’s no way she’s to get out of it what I want her to get out of it. You can’t discuss the brilliant use of switchback time or point-of-view when you’re that preoccupied with something else in the story. I also told students that if something like this were to come up again, while I couldn’t speak for other professors, I would want them to stop reading. Their mental health is more important than reading a story. I would want them to come talk to me about it and we could figure something else out. I think we can all have stories we react to like this and mine would be different from theirs. If it continued to happen to a student with any frequency, I think the student would have to take a hard look at whether this was the correct major for him or her.

As for now, I don’t think I’ll teach the Gaitskill story again, and a part of me thinks that’s too bad. It’s a wonderful, tough story and one that explores a psychology that is very much a part of our culture. I don’t consider this censorship but common sense. There are other stories that work just as well to demonstrate narrative time so I’ll use them instead. I do worry though that what I’m calling common sense is also wanting to avoid the headache of it all, and if laziness isn’t the first step toward a form of censorship.

Classic Time

Classic time, as you may have guessed, is the default setting for a lot of works in the 20th and 21st century according to Joan Silber. She writes, “In novels that might serve as examples of classic time, the span is short enough to be easily seen as a unity and is often delineated by a natural border–a month, a season, a year.” It’s the time frame you don’t pay much attention too because it’s not something out of the ordinary; if anything, it’s what you’re expecting, and as such, sinks into the background, but like a lot of things you might be expecting, there’s a comfort there in knowing what you’re getting.

As a reader and a writer, I think I’m drawn to classic time. For writing, it helps me think about where I’m heading (or more accurately, when I’m heading), and since I don’t often know where I’m going, it gives me a sense of structure to work within for pacing. As a reader, it’s the same kind of thing: I want to have a sense where I’m going, and even if it’s not explicitly said the book will end at X point, I still have the sense it will be at the end of the vacation, or the summer, or the school year.

What’s so great about this chapter on classic time, is how Silber addresses the use of scene, summary, and generalized time. How do you move forward without showing every single thing? How do you give a sense of things happening over and over again without boring the reader? (The example she uses here is all the parties in The Great Gatbsy.) She talks about the “immediacy of scenes” and “highly inflected scenes,” saying that when you’re trying to figure out what to show in scene you have to remember that the “elements are reduced to their service of the story.”

For the Narrative Time class, we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” first. In the story she says from the get-go that the lights are going to be turned off for five days, setting up the time frame. She plays with this a bit, but as a reader I like the sense I know where I’m going. She does a great job too looking at generalized time, showing how Shoba shopped for groceries, prepared foods, hosted guests before their lives changed, but in the generalization is very specific on details: “He watched in disbelief as she bought more food, trailing behind her with canvas bags as she pushed through the crowd, arguing under the morning sun with boys too young to shave but already missing teeth, who twisted up brown paper bags of artichokes, plums, gingerroot, and yams, and dropped them on their scales, and tossed them to Shoba one by one.”

We also read David Leavitt’s “Territory” a story that takes place over a week-long trip to visit the main character’s mother and that uses more full-scene flashbacks to tell the story. And finally, we looked at “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio about a thirteen-year-old boy escorting a woman home from one of his mother’s parties and intersperces backstory with less full scene but just as effectively.

While classic time might be the default, it’s anything but boring. Look for it in books and stories as you read, or in TV shows and movies, and you’ll see the range of possibilities it affords.

Next up: long time, of which Silber is a master.

How much time do you have?

We started classes last week at Wright State, and the second day of class I asked my students what they thought off the two chapters we had read and hands went up, they gave me what I also considered the highlights, and at seven minutes into class I thought, oh shit, now what? I’ve worked with a lot of these students before and remember now how good they are. They’re engaged and smart, and as such, discussions are not so much a discussion of what the essay is about but what to do with it, which means I have to push them further just like they push me further.

The class is called “Narrative Time in Fiction” and is centered around Joan Silber’s brilliant book The Art of Time in Fiction.


She’s broken down narrative structures into different classifications: classic time, long time, switchback time, fabulous time, and slow time. As we discuss them in class, as a way of organizing my thoughts and harnessing this great class’s energy, I hope to give you the highlights here along with what we’re reading. Let me start with a few quotes from Silber’s intro:

  • “A story is entirely determined by what portion of time it chooses to narrate.”
  • “Plot likes causation. We read anything looking for a pattern of events, and through it a meaning–the reason someone is bothering to tell us.”
  • “How much time [a story] covers has everything to do with what it means.”
  • “Time is always in some ways the subject of fiction.”
  • “A story is already over before we hear it. That is how the teller knows what it means.”

I can’t say this enough: this book is fantastic. As I was struggling to write a novel, it helped me figure out that my pacing was off because I hadn’t yet determined the time frame; I was just flabbily writing toward an ending. Going back and framing it around a school year made all the difference, and since then, with every story I’ve written, I’ve taken the time frame into consideration. I’ve ended up with tighter, more pointed stories, I think, and it’s all due to this book. I hope my students find it as helpful as I have.

Up first: classic time. We’re reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter,” Charles D’Ambrosio’s “The Point,” and David Leavitt’s “Territory.” Stay tuned!