Monday, September 17, 2012
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
LONG HAUL OR SHORT STRETCH?
Among general, non-specialist readers, there has long been a lowbrow way of dividing up historians. There are deep diggers and there are broad scopers.
Deep diggers tell you everything there is to know about one small specialist topic. Broad scopers write historical narratives covering hundreds of years.
Deep diggers take 600 pages to examine the class, gender and ethnic composition, voting records, ideologies and interrelationships of the members in one three-year parliament. Broad scopers take 600 pages to cover half a millennium of national history.
Deep diggers are more likely to be academic specialists. Broad scopers are more likely to be going for the mass market.
Of course the two approaches are complementary. Without the detailed specialist monographs, there would be little but unreliable generalizations upon which to build broad narratives. Without the sense of history as an endless continuum, the specialist monographs would have no context.
It’s easy enough to categorize history books in this way. But I think I’ve found an analogy in imaginative fiction.
There are those novelists who go for minutely-detailed prose, covering every psychological and physical aspect of a given episode or situation. And there are those who write in broad brush-strokes, but have a firmer grasp of how the overall narrative develops.
And it is odd how these two different approaches affect readers.
If I am caught up in the fine prose of the novelistic deep digger, I relish it, but I am likely to get to the end of the novel with only the foggiest notion of where the story went.
If I am galloping along with the novelistic broad scoper, I’m not paying too much attention to the prose, but I am likely to finish with a firmer sense of structure and story.
At this point I was going to line up two teams of well-known novelists to contrast these approaches. Deep digger Henry James versus broad scoper Charles Dickens – that sort of thing. But the weakness of my generalization would at once become apparent. Whoever said Dickens was negligent about his prose? And whoever said James was always fastidious about his?
Still, I’m left with the impression that some novelists work better in the analysed moment, and some in the structured narrative – and usually it is the latter that stays longest in the mind.