Friday, October 22, 2010

Depth and breadth in organizational narrative

Last night I finished reading The Pillars of the Earth, a historical novel by Ken Follett about the middle ages. I wanted to read the novel because I enjoyed the miniseries, which I fell into watching on Netflix purely by chance (all right! it was because I saw Matthew MacFadyen and Rufus Sewell in it). I generally hate movies about fighting (b.o.r.i.n.g.) and skipped over the clash-and-gore battle scenes, but I enjoyed the rest of the miniseries very much. Everyone said the book was ten times better, so I had no choice but to read it. (It is ten times better.)

Depth: 1 cm

When I started reading Pillars, my first thought was "now I remember why I read historic novels instead of historical novels." The subject matter might have been medieval, but the delivery was pure 21st century. That means: a painful lack of detail. Here is the monk Phillip leaving the monastery where has been raised since he was orphaned at five.
His farewells were tearful. He had spent seventeen years here, and the monks were his family, more real to him now than the parents who had been savagely taken from him. He would probably never see these monks again, and he was sad.
He was sad? He was sad? That's all we get? When I read that sentence I put the book down in disgust. But the next day there it was again, and I had paid for it, so I took it up again.

Depth: 100 cm

By a funny coincidence, the book I had read just before Pillars was Dickens' Great Expectations. I was struck by the fact that in it another Phillip (Pip) also left the only home he had ever known. Here is how Dickens described it.
It was a hurried breakfast with no taste in it. I got up from the meal, saying with a sort of briskness, as if it had only just occurred to me, "Well! I suppose I must be off!" and then I kissed my sister who was laughing and nodding and shaking in her usual chair, and kissed Biddy, and threw my arms around Joe's neck. Then I took up my little portmanteau and walked out. The last I saw of them was, when I presently heard a scuffle behind me, and looking back, saw Joe throwing an old shoe after me and Biddy throwing another old shoe. I stopped then, to wave my hat, and dear old Joe waved his strong right arm above his head, crying huskily "Hooroar!" and Biddy put her apron to her face.

I walked away at a good pace, thinking it was easier to go than I had supposed it would be, and reflecting that it would never have done to have had an old shoe thrown after the coach, in sight of all the High-street. I whistled and made nothing of going. But the village was very peaceful and quiet, and the light mists were solemnly rising, as if to show me the world, and I had been so innocent and little there, and all beyond was so unknown and great, that in a moment with a strong heave and sob I broke into tears. It was by the finger-post at the end of the village, and I laid my hand upon it, and said, "Good-bye O my dear, dear friend!"

Heaven knows we need never be ashamed of our tears, for they are rain upon the blinding dust of earth, overlying our hard hearts. I was better after I had cried, than before - more sorry, more aware of my own ingratitude, more gentle. If I had cried before, I should have had Joe with me then. [He asked Joe not to go to the coach with him.]

So subdued I was by those tears, and by their breaking out again in the course of the quiet walk, that when I was on the coach, and it was clear of the town, I deliberated with an aching heart whether I would not get down when we changed horses and walk back, and have another evening at home, and a better parting. We changed, and I had not made up my mind, and still reflected for my comfort that it would be quite practicable to get down and walk back, when we changed again. And while I was occupied with these deliberations, I would fancy an exact resemblance to Joe in some man coming along the road towards us, and my heart would beat high. - As if he could possibly be there!

We changed again, and yet again, and it was now too late and too far to go back, and I went on. And the mists had all solemnly risen now, and the world lay spread before me.
The depth of Dickens' description, with its conflicting emotions and layers of individual, interpersonal, societal interactions, feels like velvet in comparison to Follett's threadbare description of Philip's "sad" day.

Depth: 1000 cm

But to tell the truth, I had been reading Dickens with a sense of desperation anyway. Ever since Dostoyevsky I've been wandering in a wasteland of superficiality. My advice, if you love depth and have not yet read Dostoyevsky: wait until you are pretty sure you have less than a year left to live. Because reading Dostoyevsky spoils you for reading anybody else, ever. Everything else seems like dime-store fiction in comparison. I have nothing left to read, but must read. Yes, Proust, James, Lawrence, Tolstoy, Balzac, Chekhov, Eliot, Austen, Gaskell, Sand, Gogol are deep, but they are deep in a more irritatingly repeating way. Dostoyevsky is a universe unto himself; these others are just solar systems. You get to the end of them too quickly and meet them again on the way back. Take D.H. Lawrence: when I read the words "he was annihilated" for the umpteenth time, a little "enough" switch flipped in my mind. I had got to the end of D.H. Lawrence and was on my way back. With Dostoyevsky you never come back; you just travel inward until you fall into the black hole in the center.

Anyway, those who are still reading this (we few, we happy few) will not mind if I pull in an example from Dostoyevsky. In The Idiot, a mountain with its waterfall is used as Prince Myshkin's image of his youthful home, and this image is brought back over and over to symbolically portray a critical point of his identity and of the entire novel. Here is the prince at the start of the novel, explaining his old home to newly met relations.
There was a waterfall near us, such a lovely thin streak of water, like a thread but white and moving. It fell from a great height, but it looked quite low, and it was half a mile away, though it did not seem fifty paces. I loved to listen to it at night, but it was then that I became so restless. Sometimes I went and climbed the mountain and stood there in the midst of the tall pines, all alone in the terrible silence, with our little village in the distance, and the sky so blue, and the sun so bright, and an old ruined castle on the mountain-side, far away. I used to watch the line where earth and sky met, and longed to go and seek there the key of all mysteries, thinking that I might find there a new life, perhaps some great city where life should be grander and richer—and then it struck me that life may be grand enough even in a prison.
Later, overwhelmed with the contrast between his simple, idealistic view of life and the complexities of social intrigue, he wishes to return to that image.
At ... moments he felt a longing to go away somewhere and be alone with his thoughts, and to feel that no one knew where he was. Or if that were impossible he would like to be alone at home ... and to lie there and think—a day and night and another day again! He thought of the mountains-and especially of a certain spot which he used to frequent, whence he would look down upon the distant valleys and fields, and see the waterfall, far off, like a little silver thread, and the old ruined castle in the distance. Oh! how he longed to be there now—alone with his thoughts—to think of one thing all his life—one thing! A thousand years would not be too much time! And let everyone here forget him—forget him utterly! How much better it would have been if they had never known him—if all this could but prove to be a dream.
Finally the image returns to reinforce the novel's central theme, of the incompatibility between the prince's Christ-like simplicity and the hardened pragmatism he finds in the world around him.
An old, forgotten memory awoke in his brain, and suddenly burst into clearness and light. It was a recollection of Switzerland.... He climbed the mountain-side, one sunny morning, and wandered long and aimlessly with a certain thought in his brain, which would not become clear. Above him was the blazing sky, below, the lake; all around was the horizon, clear and infinite. He looked out upon this, long and anxiously. He remembered how he had stretched out his arms towards the beautiful, boundless blue of the horizon, and wept, and wept. What had so tormented him was the idea that he was a stranger to all this, that he was outside this glorious festival.

What was this universe? What was this grand, eternal pageant to which he had yearned from his childhood up, and in which he could never take part? Every morning the same magnificent sun; every morning the same rainbow in the waterfall; every evening the same glow on the snow-mountains.
Every little fly that buzzed in the sun’s rays was a singer in the universal chorus, 'knew its place, and was happy in it.' Every blade of grass grew and was happy. Everything knew its path and loved it, went forth with a song and returned with a song; only he knew nothing, understood nothing, neither men nor words, nor any of nature’s voices; he was a stranger and an outcast.
Now that's depth. If you lay this series of quotes beside the quote from The Pillars of the Earth, it's like watching a minnow swim next to a whale. And pretty much every event, every perception, every emotion in Pillars is minnow-sized. They never get much bigger than that.

Breadth has its own depth 

So, is that the end of the story? Contemporary fiction is shallow, thus useless? No. As I read The Pillars of the Earth my opinion of it went up and up. Yes, the individual descriptions of emotions and actions and reactions are radically simple all the way through. There is an overarching theme of sorts, but there is no single image that holds it all together. What Pillars does instead is heap up hundreds of simple small descriptions into great mounds of narrative that eventually become nuanced in aggregation rather than in detail. The minnows gather into shoals, and together they move like whales. The book holds together perfectly and the main characters resonate, even though the details are so sparse as to exasperate detail lovers throughout. The breadth of the story becomes almost as satisfying, in its own way, as depth in another story. It takes a bit of work to encourage the coalescence, but all good reading should challenge the reader in some way. (I'm not sure if you'd call this literature, but literature, like morality, is a retrospective classification. Ask me in a few hundred years.)

As I read Pillars I kept feeling like it reminded me of something, and after a while I figured out what it was. It was two things. First, it reminded me of reading folk tale collections. I love doing this, but it's a very different experience than reading a coherent novel. Each story is short, but the stories layer onto each other in ways that ripple out as you move through the collection, and across multiple collections, until you arrive at new understandings that can't be found in any one story but straddle a great many of them. Bocaccio's Decameron is a similar set of related but disparate tales, as is Chekhov's oeuvre of short stories (which I read en masse). The second thing Pillars reminded me of was Henry Fielding's novels Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews. In those early novels the same characters are followed throughout, but their adventures are superficially described and strung together loosely. So I have read and enjoyed works of fiction like The Pillars of the Earth before, and though they have never been my first choice I have enjoyed them in their own way. It took a while to remember that, but it was worth remembering.

By the way, I noticed an interesting contrast between the critical and popular receptions of The Pillars of the Earth. Many critics apparently panned the book, calling it "a cornucopia of banality," "an inert pudding of slipshod research and slovenly writing," and most damning of all, "not literature." In contrast, most of the popular reviews on laud the book's exciting storytelling, which even the critics grudgingly admit is exceptional. Amazingly to me, many of the popular reviews complain that the book is too detailed! One reviewer said: "Some might consider the plot to be a bit slow, especially with the long descriptions of cathedrals and architecture, but definitely worth it!" Long descriptions? Long descriptions? The amount of detail on medieval architecture in this book could have fit into the first five minutes of the first lecture of the first art history class I had in college. There were only a few sentences on architecture at a time -- just the barest of hints! When you compare it to Henry James taking five pages to describe a glance, it seems almost a joke to say the book is detailed. It makes me wonder if we are all living in the same narrative universe. But that's not the point of this post.

Affinity and organizational narrative

Ah, the point of the post. You thought it would never come, didn't you? The point is that as I pondered the various preferences for and effects of depth and breadth in fiction, I began to see a parallel pattern in narrative work. There has been long debate in the field of organizational narrative about whether it's better to work with few or many stories. Sometimes people suggest that attention to detail in few stories is biased, usually through over-reliance on expert interpretation, and sometimes people suggest that a lack of attention to detail is biased, usually through over-reliance on statistical techniques. But bias is a friendly fellow; he visits everyone and overstays his welcome everywhere.

When you collect few stories, you come to understand them in nuanced detail, like Pip's leave-taking in Great Expectations and the mountain scenes in The Idiot. When you collect many stories, it's not the individual stories but the assemblages that make sense, in the same way that the shallow descriptions in The Pillars of the Earth build up into complex portraits of increasingly familiar, nuanced and enjoyable characters. Both styles of narrative and of narrative research can lead to satisfying and enlightening results.

I'm beginning to think it's possible that hiding behind our declarations of superior quality, both in literature and in narrative work, are rationalized cognitive style preferences for depth or breadth. We think we are making methodological choices based on utility, but there is an aspect of affinity as well. (Yes, this is related to the suggestion I made a few weeks ago, that declarations of the utility of various social media approaches might hide cognitive style preferences for modes of social interaction. It's on my mind.)

I've worked on narrative projects ranging from a few dozen to a few thousand stories, and I've come to enjoy all degrees of breadth and depth. But I'm most comfortable near the lower end of the range, and I think this is connected to my preference for narrative depth over breadth. I most enjoy projects at the sweet spot of 100-200 stories, but that's not necessarily because it creates the best outcome. It's because I can still read all the stories and revel in their details. (I do get nervous when the number of stories dips below 100, but that's because the statistics get shaky, and I like to balance qualitative and quantitative approaches to even out the forms of bias.) When I have a project with a thousand stories or more, I can carry it out, but a little of the fun goes out of it (unless I just read all the stories anyway). I know people who find a hundred stories too many and people who find a thousand stories too few. I haven't done a systematic study of what sorts of novels they prefer, but I have noticed some matches between what people read and what sorts of narrative projects they prefer.

So, if you work with stories, or are planning to, you might want to ask yourself whether you gravitate to depth or breadth in your narrative life. If you like long detailed descriptions in your stories, you might also prefer in-depth qualitative analysis of narrative texts. If you prefer aggregations of short descriptions in your stories, you might find statistics and mass narrative collection more to your liking.

Here's a self-test. Find a copy of Henry James' book The Golden Bowl. Read a few chapters. Do you love it? Can you stand it? Is your reaction like this one?
Like all the rest of James' works The Golden Bowl gave me a massve headache. Amidst all the adjectives and adverbs James tells an interesting story where all the characters act 'splendidly' toward each other. In this case deceit and infidelity are at the core. Hemingway could have written this in 100 pages or less. James just makes your head spin.
 Or this one?
The subtle discriminations, the way James holds up to the light tenuous motives and turns them slowly - very slowly - so that their hidden facets become, fleetingly, visible; the very real portrayal of interesting characters that James reveals; as well as the languorous, unpredictable turns of a Jamesian sentence - all offer the kinds of pleasures that no other writer (possibly excepting Proust) is able to produce.
These are both from customer reviews on I'm definitely in the latter camp: The Golden Bowl is in my top ten books of all time. (In one of these reviews the word "splendidly" gave me goose bumps all over. If you've read the book you know why.)

But most people probably don't need to read The Golden Bowl to find out their narrative style. What do you read already? What do you come back to and read over and over? That's probably your best answer.

If you are just starting out doing narrative work, I suggest starting with your strength. Find your narrative home and start your work there. If you prefer depth, start with few stories and go deep. If you prefer breadth, start with more stories and watch them swarm. But after you have become comfortable doing story projects in your narrative home, get ready to leave it and travel elsewhere. Why? Because depth and breadth complement each other, and the best narrative work involves both approaches. If you have collected few stories in the past, try a broader shallower collection. If you have never gone deep into stories, try collecting fewer, longer stories and giving them more depth of attention. You are guaranteed to find some new ideas you did not know you needed.

How can you combine depth and breadth in a story project? There are lots of ways to bring them together. You can complement an intense 20-person all-day workshop with a web collection that brings in hundreds of anecdotes. You can collect many anecdotes, then follow up with ten percent of the respondents for in-depth ethnographic interviews. Workshop methods can integrate assemblages of stories into deeper, fewer artifacts. Asking twenty people to integrate hundreds of stories told by dozens of contributors into ten emergent constructs creates a breadth-depth bridge you can use to address an issue from both sides. Many narrative methods can be used in concert, with the outcome of one feeding into another.

If you look for opportunities to pursue both depth and breadth in your narrative projects, I suggest you will find the outcomes to be richer and more useful, and you'll extend your skills so that you can get the most from all narrative contexts.

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