1/15/07

Ancient History

I just started reading Penelope Williamson's The Outsider last night. The plot is basically Witness but set in frontier Montana, so we spend much of the first 70 pages (or something huge like 550 pages total) in the head of Rachel Yoder, the Amish heroine.

Williamson's writing style intrigues me in that she selectively repeats certain details for emphasis:
"Who is that?" asked the man in the bed, the man with the gun."
I love the odd rhythm that these repetitions are creating in the prose. Not only does it serve to heighten my understanding of the hero's physical characteristics, but it shows Rachel dwelling on the differences, the frightening and strange details that make this man an outsider.

And, of course, Williamson breaks all of the "rules" regarding romance storytelling. Backstory, lengthy chapters, glacial pacing, and random scene-setting moments told from the POV of secondary characters all serve to create a sense of mounting tension. She is clearly setting up a conflict between the Plain way of life and the outside world, and the slow, building tension is heightened by those inventive repetitions. But at the same time, I can imagine by-the-numbers editors, agents, and contest judges giving poor feedback for Williamson to speed things up a bit. I'm enjoying the stroll, but I imagine some readers wanting to run from page one.

I skimmed ahead in search of nookie because I'm a crass woman. Mostly, I wanted to see what level of resolution she was going to give to all this tension. Oh, 400+ pages in she's got a one paragraph consummation of some sorts, and I wondered at the possibility of selling this MS today -- only six years on from its initial publication. Maybe I'm believing the hype and don't read enough to know better, but it seems like erotica is everywhere. In this age of erotica in romance publishing, could this lengthy, detailed, quiet book make it through the editorial process intact? Or would it be subject to extensive, sexually intense additions?

At least there's no head-hopping. Williamson starts a scene in Rachel's POV and stays consistent through the remainder of that scene. Go back another five years and the head-hopping is actually painful. But I find it amazing how much the expectations surrounding genre fiction can change in only a few short years.

What trends in storytelling have you seen come and go? Which ones do you miss, and to which to you bid good riddance?

2 comments:

Ann(ie) said...

Penelope Williamson is one of my favorite authors. Apparently she's now writing gritty historical crime books with "sin" in the title. I'll have to check them out, purely on her strength as a writer (which poses some interesting questions about just where a reader will follow an author cross genre lines, once hooked on her style).

carrie_lofty said...

I didn't go with Elizabeth Lowell when she went to contemporary romantic suspence, and I'm struggling to adjust to Susan Wiggs' modern woman's fiction bent. The story's still the thing, for me, although I give favorite authors a lot of chances.