Research in fiction writing: Thoughts on The Art of Time in Fiction

After reading 10 popular books on creative writing in search of information on the role of research in the creative process, I’ve now shifted my focus to a set of more “academic” books that are specifically about fiction writing. I say “academic” because, of all of the books on a very long list of recommended creative writing books that I found, these are the ones that are a) about fiction writing specifically and b) owned by the libraries at 20 institutions with highly respected creative writing programs at either the undergraduate or graduate level.

Today, I’m taking a look at The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber.

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber is part of a series of books edited by Charles Baxter which examine aspects of writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry that are often neglected in other places. To that end, Silber focuses on how time is used to tell a story. She splits the book into sections on “classic time,” “switchback time,” “fabulous time” (meaning how time is used in magical realism) and more and uses a number of in-depth examples from great works of literature to illustrate each concept.

Silber’s book reminded me a lot of works like Reading Like a Writer in the sense that it’s more about reading than writing, albeit reading with an eye toward learning about craft. The examples Silber provides do a good job of getting you to think about how time is used in the stories she’s citing and perhaps look at other stories for evidence of how they use time. But her commentary/analysis on the examples she’s chosen doesn’t provide any guidance for an aspiring writer on how to think about the use of time in their own work or how to choose one time-related technique over another. It’s not a practical guide, is what I’m saying.

That’s kind of expected, though and it points to an interesting difference between the “popular” writing books I read in my previous project and the more “academic” ones I’m reading now. So far it seems like popular writing books are much more likely to focus on the how-to of things. They use a lot of examples but they get very specific about technique and making choices between different techniques. Reading Like a Writer (which was on the “popular” list but not the “academic” list) was actually an exception to this. Meanwhile, it’s easy to see how a book like The Art of Time, despite its specificity, would fit well with the guidelines set forth by the AWP, which make it clear that writing programs (at least at the undergraduate level) are more about helping students become better readers than they are about helping them become better writers.

If I had to bet, though, I’d say that The Art of Time probably gets used as a text in literature classes more often than writing classes because the lack of how-to from a writing standpoints makes it a better fit for analyzing literature than writing it. That’s just a guess.

Because there’s not a lot of how-to here, there also isn’t anything about research. This is actually the first of the academic books I’ve read so far that doesn’t mention research at all. It might not seem like research is a good fit for the theme of this book but the more I think about it, the more I think researching time could actually be an important and overlooked aspect of writing, from simple questions about how long something typically takes to more in-depth research about an historical event that took place over a period of time and what that period would look like from a character’s point of view. So a how-to book could have something to say about that, but since Silber’s not focused on the how-to, it makes sense that it doesn’t come up here.

One thing The Art of Time did have in common with the other two books was its focus on Great Literature. All of the examples Silber uses come from the type of literary books that would be considered “canon” of one kind or another in a college-level literature course. For some reason this didn’t annoy me as much here as it has previously. Maybe this is because Silber never tries to explain her choices. If she did, this might require her to say something about the value of literary fiction versus non-literary fiction, the way Johnson and Butler do. Because she doesn’t, any assumptions about relative value are still there, but they’re left implied.

That’s kind of too bad. I won’t go into a rant about it like I did last time (…oops) but I do think there could be some benefit in looking at how time-related techniques are used not just in Great Literature but also non-literary works as well. Like, if you think about it time is actually really important to even the most run-of-the-mill mystery novel, if you want to tell the story well. It’s also important to historical novels and other types of novels too. In her defense, Silber doesn’t try to argue that this isn’t the case or even state that non-literary novels don’t use time well. It just would have been interesting if, in addition to the literary examples she uses, she’d showed how some of these same techniques have been used in non-literary fiction.

But obviously that wasn’t what Silber was going for and I feel like I can’t exactly hold that against her. The question of how time is used in fiction is a really interesting one, certainly something I hadn’t thought too much about before I started reading this book. It’s easy to see how Silber’s book earned a place among other “academic” books about writing (even if it’s more about reading). I don’t know if this narrow focus that I’ve seen on literary fiction will carry through the whole list (which, after all, includes Stephen King’s On Writing, which I’ve already read) but seeing it in the three I’ve read so far has made me think a lot about my own experience as a creative writing student and the effect it had on my thinking about my own writing.

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