Thoughts on fiction/the novel: when the emphasis is on “story”

I admit that these days it isn’t often that I seek out fiction voluntarily—usually the fiction I read are assigned texts.  Sometimes these are page-turners: plot-driven quick-reads.  While “I couldn’t put it down” is frequently a form of praise, if that’s the main thing I can say about it, for me, it means the plot of that novel is more pleasing than its language.  Its language didn’t make me want to linger, didn’t make me stop and marvel.

What if “I couldn’t get past the first page” meant that you were awestruck by the language and wanted to savor it for a while?!  Yes, yes, I know: “I couldn’t put it down” and “I couldn’t get past the first page” are phrases in reference to the norm of reading as a linear experience (and, specifically, only forward in direction).

While once it was a pleasurable thing, more and more I feel annoyed if I “couldn’t put it down”: the more a text feels easy to read, the more it is plot-dependent, and the more that I am reading a “story” rather than engaging with interesting language.  While there is nothing wrong with a good story, I enjoy reading for language.

Perhaps I prefer to watch or hear a story….  After all, a story is more of a passive experience: you receive a story; your enjoyment in it (usually) is in accepting it for what it is.  And I think that listening and watching are passive experiences; they are also both linear experiences.  Reading seems to require a more active engagement, as you are your own guide: you read at your own pace, you linger or skim as you wish (and reading does not have to be linear).  Thus, I feel it is more fitting (and more efficient) to hear or watch a story than to read one.

But then again, I do want to be happy for something to exist for the purposes of reading, even if it is extremely accessible….  This of course relates to the idea of people seeking out page-turner fiction and how sometimes/oftentimes it is bad writing.  Should we be glad that reading is happening, even if the text is low-quality, or should we be sad about low standards?  That dilemma.  (That big boulder of a dilemma.  Sometimes it does make sense to pay attention to the pebble in your own shoe: solve what you can.  People probably won’t let you check their shoes for them, much less would you walk in them.  Oh no no, some problems will remain clichés; that’s that.)

To be clear, of course I accept/understand that “story” is one of the things thought to make fiction and the novel be what they are.  My concern is with story being a work’s only strength.  I know, I know: perhaps this is the problem of the poet reading fiction.  My interest is in how language is used: the syntax, the word choices, etc.  I read in order to engage myself with language.

On a personal note, having gotten some assigned reading done, I have begun Finnegans Wake.  I find it delightful.  And I am enjoying not having an overt plot pushing me through the text; therefore, it feels like a very present reading experience: I am appreciating each sentence, each neologism/portmanteau for what it is…!

What do you think of “story” requiring a passive experience?

What do you think of a “story” being more fit for showing or telling?

Do you seek “story”?  In what media?  Why?