“In my youth, I regarded the universe as an open book printed in the language of physical equations, whereas now it appears to me as a text written in invisible ink, of which in our rare moments of grace we are able to decipher a small fragment.”
At a time when novels are often competing with TV dramas, it’s little wonder that flashy blockbuster novels and massively complex series like Fire and Ice are garnering loads of attention. But all the emphasis on “going big” in terms of story raises a compelling question: Is there still a place in readers’ hearts for quieter stories — stories that are content to turn a compassionate, but incisive eye on some “small fragment” of life?
This is the question raised by a Financial Times’ review of Margaret Drabble’s new novel The Pure Gold Baby (November 16/17, 2013). Reviewer Kirsten Gunn had some thought-provoking things to say about the enduring power of quiet stories.:
“Yet the novel should not just be about entertainment and three-for-two deals in the bookshops and being up with current fashions. It’s also about the simple pleasure of reading. The quiet, subtle and domestic novel can remind us in a way histrionic fabulations can’t, of the texture of sentences, the sheer power of language. Stripped of big look-at-me subjects, the story becomes self-aware, dependent upon its telling for its power and gravitas.”
“Drabble’s latest novel, The Pure Gold Baby, so quiet and reserved it could be no more than a murmur coming through the open window of a north London terrace, is the opposite of an action-packed drama…..But how well Drabble shows the real grain of her subject. The overall effect is dangerous and threatening because what we realise, after reading books such as The Pure Gold Baby, is just how brutalised we’ve been by the easy entertainments of louder, more obvious novels. These quiet tales with their quiet resolutions, sometimes with no resolutions at all, and little in the way of plot and action and counteraction, are so much more challenging in their style and delivery than anything we may meet in the average page-turner.”
Surely there’s food for thought here. To be blockbuster-bound is certainly a goal worth pursuing, but the goal of crafting quieter, less flashy short stories and novels that mine small-but-precious nuggets of truth and meaning is equally worthwhile. If this is what you feel drawn to writing, then take a tip from Margaret Drabble: Let all the chatter about bigger and better fade away into background noise and pursue the muse in your own way and your own time. And write on.