Monday, September 17, 2012

Something Thoughtful

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.


            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.


  1. Pray tell me, good sir: if it is "the latte that stays longest in the mind", what end serves the espresso? To wake it up quicker?

    1. AAARGH!! The dreaded facetiae based on a typo. I meant "latter" of course, and will attempt to have it altered. Besides which, I always start my day on two mugs of black coffee and don't touch the latte.

  2. For the benefit of other readers: the Concise Oxford (11th ed.) defines "facetiae" as "pornographic literature", so this is an especially crushing way to deflect the jest.

    1. Ach du lieber Gott!! I intended it in the other senses given in the OED viz. pleasantries, witticisms.

    2. Pleasantries aside, perhaps the broad scoper and deep digger contrast is related to the distinction between plot-driven fiction and the inside-someone's-head plotless style. The Germans call the latter an "innere Handlung" and it is almost never a mass-market style.

    3. Indeed - it is the very rare, and very talented, novelist who can combine the two. After conscientiously plodding around inside plotless character studies, I am often compelled back to something brainless but with a discernible plot. I think it was the playwright David Hare who described the phrase "literary novel" as "the two most depressing words in the English language".