Against the Suspense Novel

[Warning: Contains muddled thoughts as they are passing through my brain]

This post derives from the tendency of my thoughts and reading habits recently, but is something that’s come rather to the forefront of my mind now that I’ve decided to re-write half the novel I’m writing (perhaps forthcoming in 2014, who knows? – I’m writing it specifically to publish directly on Amazon; which, for some bizarre reason, seems to involve me making it more commercial than it would have been if I’d only intended to send it to a publisher; – although more likely I’ve become more commercial-minded anyway; or at least, feel the curious desire to stimulate some interest in my reader; – though I have to remind myself, when I imagine that it’s too commercial, that the first sentence is still 11 lines long) on the basis of the same ideas. Indeed, I have another idea for a story – a novella – which I thought I might write twice: once as a “suspense novel”, and once as its opposite, what I’ve decided to call an “ironic novel”.

But what do I mean here by “suspense novel” and “ironic novel”, for I appear to be using the phrases quite idiosyncratically?

A “suspense” novel is a novel in which the writer keeps certain information back from the reader, in order that he may reveal it later on; – and by this revelation induce awe and wonder in his reader. This is, of course, a modus operandi oft followed by writers of thrillers and other disreputable works; perhaps this is where it grew up; but it’s important not to consider that it is only this kind of twist-in-the-tale story that comprises the “suspense” element. Indeed, twists-in-the-tale are not necessarily “suspenseful” in nature – Oliver Twist’s revelation as a member of the middle class provides a convenient ending, but offers little reflection on the action – and it is this reflection which is the characteristic of suspense. The revelation of the element withheld makes the reader see all the proceeding text with new eyes – it enables him to understand the text; is a key to it. So, many literary novels are of this suspenseful sort – the protagonist has been abused as a child, for instance, and so we understand why he’s acted the way he has (the great Lionel Shriver, it is rumoured, uses such techniques – though to what end and how effectively, I am unsure). Epiphanies (in the vulgar usage of the term) are just another form of this.

But this idea of suspense is quite a modern thing (oh, there must be some examples, but I can’t immediately think of anything pre-Wilkie Collins), and in the creation of works of art, I increasingly feel it is a pernicious mindset. For it tremendously restricts the richness of a text.

Shakespeare, for instance, strikes me as being remarkably innocent of suspense. In fact, I think non-suspense may be very common among writers of drama; perhaps because they have in the past made such effective use of its opposite: irony. By irony here, I mean, of course, dramatic irony: if suspense is to withhold information from the reader; then irony is to wilfully supply that information. But no, in fact, maybe irony is the wrong word altogether and I need to come up with another term. It’s not necessarily that the reader knows more than the protagonists that I mean; but that the reader and the protagonists possess the same information (perhaps this is the omniscience I hear talked about in realist novels). The consciousness of the basis of the protagonist’s actions seems to me to be a very important element in a successful work of art. I think, for instance, that something quite fundamental would be lost in our experience of, say, Hamlet, if we weren’t told until the end that Hamlet’s father had been murdered, or who had murdered him. We know, more or less from the outset, that Oedipus is the one who’s guilty. From an artist point of view, there is so much more you can do and explore with this information if it’s shared with the reader; you can enter into the depths of his psyche, create remarkable scenes etc. Whereas with suspense, in however literary a manner it is dressed up, there is always something I feel of a shoddy card trick about it.

Any pre-Wilkie Collins uses of this technique of withholding of information? Or great works of art that use it? Any non-thrillers (books based purely on the outcome of the suspense) which use it well?


2 thoughts on “Against the Suspense Novel

  1. I can think of earlier examples of withholding of information, but they all fall in the same tradition – “The Murder in the Rue Morgue,” for example. Or Dumas – who is Milady?

    Trollope has become my extreme opposite case. He hates withholding information. He fills his reader in on everything as quickly as possible. The only thing missing is What Will Happen, the future, which, given how Trollope wrote his books, he may not have known either.

    So there is suspense, but it is because I wonder what will happen when A. learns B.’s secret, a secret I have known about for 200 pages. It is another form of irony as you describe.

    A lot of the best information withholding comes with the modern messing around with the unreliable narrator. But in these cases – “Pale Fire,” “The Good Soldier” – the relevant information is not so much withheld as obscured. Hasty readers will miss important things and then be irritated when told what they missed. So these are really your ironic novels disguised as suspense novels.

  2. I think Dryden may actually be an interesting test case too. Villiers certainly claims there is a fashion for keeping information from the audience (to the point of never properly explaining anything); I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there is still something of the “suspense” about his plotting, that makes his work seem in some ways quite modern.

    Villiers also suggests, like Trollope perhaps, that Dryden was making it up as he went along, and that’s why everything is so convoluted.

    Anyway, the whole matter needs more thorough investigation.

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