Tuesday, December 23, 2008


(First of all belated congratulations to Dave Zeltserman for having his novel Small Crimes selected by both the Washing Post and NPR as being one of the ten best crime novels this year.)

There's been some discussion lately about backstory in fiction. In the age of streaming it's gotten a bad name in some quarters. A few sentences, nothing more, anything more is excess.

I'm influenced by the trend myself. In most cases two pages of densely packed type discussing the arc of a character's life makes me leery. Or even flip ahead a few pages.

But there are writers such as Elmore Leonard who make backstory as lively as the frontstory.

I thought of this today as I was rereading The Great Gatsby for probably the twenty-fifth time in my life. Nick has just escaped the living room where Gatsby and Daisy come together for the first time in five years. The whole situation is awkard, almost physically painful and Nick wants to be away from it. So he stands on the lawn and stares at Gatsby's house and gives us a little gem of local history.

"A brewer had built it early in the `period' craze a decade before, and there was a story that he'd agreed to pay five years' taxes on all the neigboring cottages if the owners would would have their roofs thatched with straw. Perhaps their refusal took the heart out of his plan to Found a Family--he went into immediate decline. His children sold his house with the black wreath still on the door. Americans, while willing, even eager, to be serfs, have always been obstinate about being peasantry."

Gatsby's house has a backstory. And a weird wonderful one.

Also I was struck by Nick's last remark. I can't believe it's wisdom escaped me all these years.

I frequently quote H.L. Mencken's remark that "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people." I always feel a bit uneasy about saying it because it's arrogant. The hell of it is I agreee with it. Yes, Mencken was a prosperous snob but he was right about masses of people--not just Americans. We all want certainty in our lives and so we willingly hand ourselves over to tyrants and buffoons wth alarming frequency. Look how long it took most Americans to catch on to George W. Bush. If Katrina hadn't happened one of his daughters might be running for president today.

But I like Fitzgerald's ironic distinction between serfdom and peasantry. I think he brought our lemming-like attraction to bullshit artists into much sharper focus than Mencken did.


mybillcrider said...

I've never minded backstory. I recently read Block's new Hard Case release, and a ton of it's backstory. Didn't bother me at all.

Chris said...

Been awhile since I've read Gatsby and that serf/peasant distinction never registered for me. Thanks for pointing it out. Great post!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think back story need to be redefined. If it's just a narrative explanation for something in the present, it can be static. But if it's played with dialog and character development, it can be just as exciting as the present.

AndyDecker said...

Publishers will be only be satisfied when all fiction is the same streamlined and boring dreck which is a supposedly "safe" sell.

And then they will complain if sales are falling more.

Fiction without back story is just empty.