What do you look for in a piece of fiction, dear reader? I’m asking partly out of interest and partly as a half-hearted piece of market research in preparation for writing some of my own.
It was while reading Patrick Süskind’s celebrated and entirely disappointing 1985 novel, Perfume this week that I finally realised exactly what I personally look for.
I think that novels (and short stories, novellas etc) should have a strong conceptual element and that anything else – plot, character development, use of language – are all elements of artistry, which, while vital, should really just be part of the machinery and second to this conceptual element.
Would you rather read a vital and original work by a clumsy genius with Asperger’s Syndrome or a soulless and linear trek through convention by a completely articulate wordsmith?
The obvious and most middleground answer is probably the former written by the latter (though as a fan of Beefheart and Vonnegut, I’d probably still be tempted to go for the raw mania of a monkey pumped full of dopamine).
A novel should build up an environment complete with characters in which an idea or ideas can be played out. This was where Perfume failed for me. It’s just a story which goes and-then-and-then-and-then-and-then-and-then: a linear chronology in which Act Three barely relates to Act One other than that it succeeds it.
I think this is why I like 1950s science fiction so much. Writers like Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury and Theodore Sturgeon are conceptual machine guns firing out amazing ideas in rapid succession: ideas that, if not potentially and entirely life-changing, are just fascinatingly new and peculiar. Yet this stuff can’t really be looked at as “literature” in that it was such a mass-produced medium only brought about due to the marketing of personal type writers. Ellison alone wrote something like two-hundred thousand short stories: none of which have much merit in terms of literary poise but which serve as flabbergasting philosophical experiments – the “what ifs?” and the “why nots?”.
Perfume is almost completely conceptually dead. Süskind does stupid things like painting scenes and then having them collapse into the river to make way for the next chapter without any kind of event being staged in them. He also hops from point of view to point of view too often: how am I supposed to give a shit about Granuille (the anti-protagonist) if I’m spending so much time in the head of characters that don’t matter (A perfumer called Baldini who dies in the first act and a paranoid villager called Richis in the last act who is likeable but pointless)?
Characters should exist as embodiments of ideas. The guy in Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, for example, is a representation of passivity, naivety, ‘new man’-ness and the modern condition. The characters in Perfume however, are merely characters: pieces being moved around on a board completely convincingly but without any reason to do so.
So, reader, what do you look for?