Getting out of the woods: the joy of linear storytelling

I discovered Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit when I was seventeen. After I rescued it from the back shelves of the college library, I swiftly realised it was a magic book.
It’s haunted me since, this anarchic little novel. It radically restructured my mind, it opened doors to new vistas. I was absorbed from the first line.
This is despite the fact that I’m really a terrible reader, and back then I was even worse. I read Oranges at lightning speed, occasionally checking how much reading time I had left till my next class. I was like oiky Mr Toad, speeding through a beautiful forest in an obnoxiously noisy car.
The sections which diverted from the main narrative (including the fairytales and the Book of Deuteronomy) were sadly lost on me, as I was too eager to get back to the main story to appreciate them. Why have we strayed over here, into the woods? I don’t want to hear about Winette Stonejar or knights. Where am I? Take me back to the plot.
Everyone creates their own, private version of the books they read. After I inhaled Oranges, it worked away quietly at the back of my mind, changing my thoughts on structure, autobiography, and what a novel could do.
After reading Woolf, Calvino, Winterson, Joyce, and a handful of other authors, I drew the conclusion that books with a straightforward, linear plot were a bit… inferior. Straightforward plots were just unimaginative. (Winterson calls them “written-down television” – as though television plots are incapable of being smart, imaginative or non-linear.) It was around the time that Twilight was popular, so it felt like the smart thing to criticise linear storytelling. I was the educated rebel finding a source of discontent. Books, I told anyone who’d listen, were about more than story. They were also about language, images, ideas.
At seventeen, I drew the conclusion that straightforward plots were “unimaginative” because I hadn’t yet sat down to write and realised that even writing a straightforward plot is as difficult as fitting an entire watermelon in your mouth.
PG Wodehouse said that he wrote about 400 pages of plot notes for each novel and would generally fall into despair halfway through – and his output mostly consists of relatively slim comic novels. Although Wodehouse used similar plot structures and motifs over and over during his career, each plot taken by itself is meticulously put together and executed. That does require imagination, and it’s a craft which should not be overlooked.
I’m glad I can admit now that I like a story. I like a linear plot. It eases my mind to admit it, somehow. Five years later, it’s the story of Oranges – that central relationship between the mother and daughter, the daughter’s quest for love and freedom – that I remember most vividly. In the interim, my mind has stripped away the abstractions.
And I still adore Oranges, of course. There are many books with non-linear or experimental structure that I like and admire very much. I am learning how to read more deeply, to appreciate text more fully. But story is a large part of my reasoning for selecting new books to read. I like to be emotionally engaged, and to me that isn’t possible without a coherent story, preferably told in a linear way.
That doesn’t mean non-linearity is intrinsically incoherent, of course; sometimes it’s the best way to tell a story. I enjoy writers like Ali Smith, who combines a poetic lyrical intensity and subversion of structure with excellent storytelling. Books like How to Be Both prove it is possible to subvert conventional narrative structure and still tell a great story.
On the other hand, I do not enjoy writers like Winterson taking a prescriptive approach to what I should and shouldn’t enjoy as a reader. There is nothing wrong with linearity in itself: the earliest myths and legends are linear tales, after all. Nor does it make you somehow less smart to enjoy a linear story. Stories aren’t for that. Stories open your mind, forge empathy and take you to new worlds. If you become smarter from reading them that’s a by-product, not the end result.
I began to feel less guilty about all this when I read an article by Matthew Haig, which I referenced here in an earlier post. Haig wrote about how books helped to lift him out of his depression: “words help give us the building blocks to build another mind, very often with a better view. My mess of a mind needed shape, and external narratives I found in… books offered hope and became reasons to stay alive.”
Well, exactly.
The great thing about a story is that if you’re a poor kid reading a book in an inner-city library, you’re catapulted out of your world and into another. Stories move you, and not just emotionally. When your world seems mired and rutted, linear storytelling reminds you that movement and change is possible. You follow the line through the labyrinth, and out the other side.
You get all the joy of following Harry Potter away from Privet Drive to the house on the rock, to Diagon Alley, and to Hogwarts. You leave the Shire with a gaggle of hobbits and follow them all the way to Mordor. You can visit Neverwhere, over and over. I can vividly remember being seven years old, lying on a flowered bedspread in a small bedroom in Southampton, and following Lucy through a wardrobe into an unfamiliar snowy world.
These are not just the pleasures of childhood, either. We are allowed to experience the joy of narrative and story for as long as we live. No intellectual snobbery should crush this private splendour: the reader, the page, the story.

Notes

Essay on postmodernism and storytelling: ‘What’s wrong with heroes? – Some thoughts on superhero narratives’
Read Jeanette Winterson’s thoughts on Oranges are Not The Only Fruit here

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