“I read a line and I like it enough to read the next”: George Saunders on Stories as Linear Temporal Phenomena

From the so-far excellent A Swim in a Pond in the Rain:

Years ago, on the phone with Bill Buford, then fiction editor of The New Yorker, enduring a series of painful edits, feeling a little insecure, I went fishing for a compliment: “But what do you like about the story?” I whined.

There was a long pause at the other end. And Bill said this: “Well, I read a line. And I like it . . . enough to read the next.” And that was it: his entire short story aesthetic and presumably that of the magazine. And it’s perfect.

A story is a linear-temporal phenomenon. It proceeds, and charms us (or doesn’t), a line at a time. We have to keep being pulled into a story in order for it to do anything to us.

I’ve taken a lot of comfort in this idea over the years. I don’t need a big theory about fiction to write it. I don’t have to worry about anything but: Would a reasonable person, reading line four, get enough of a jolt to go on to line five?

Why do we keep reading a story? Because we want to.

Why do we want to? That’s the million-dollar question: What makes a reader keep reading? Are there laws of fiction, as there are laws of physics? Do some things just work better than others? What forges the bond between reader and writer and what breaks it? Well, how would we know?

One way would be to track our mind as it moves from line to line. A story (any story, every story) makes its meaning at speed, a small structural pulse at a time. We read a bit of text and a set of expectations arises.

“A man stood on the roof of a seventy-story building.” Aren’t you already kind of expecting him to jump, fall, or be pushed off? You’ll be pleased if the story takes that expectation into account, but not pleased if it addresses it too neatly.

We could understand a story as simply a series of such expectation/resolution moments

George SaundersA Swim in the Pond in the Rain

That’s it. Recommended.

Linear-Temporal Question

Hold on though – is there anything that isn’t a linear-temporal phenomenon? We may observe a painting or sculpture as a whole (non-linearly), but we still process it in a linear temporal way moment to moment.

I suppose a novel is different in this way: we can’t see it all at once, and we don’t usually jump from place to place in a book as our eyes might when we’re looking at a painting. To a large extent we go through written texts on rails: we all see the same words in the same order, even if we don’t (can’t) experience the same novel.

Music is even more strongly linear-temporal. I’m reminded of this description of the subjects of the classical quadrivium: “ the upper division of the medieval education in the liberal arts, which comprised arithmetic (number in the abstract), geometry (number in space), music (number in time), and astronomy (number in space and time).

Time Beings

Life* is linear-temporal.

*Life as you experience it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...