THR Web Features   /   March 23, 2023

On Fiction’s Lawlessness

In which the digressive and progressive are reconciled.

Richard Hughes Gibson

( A Shandean illustration including archival snippets from a Cruikshank engraving, the famous marbled page, and one of Sterne’s squiggles.)

Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.[…] Our gentleman was approximately fifty years old; his complexion was weathered, his flesh scrawny, his face gaunt, and he was a very early riser and a great lover of the hunt. Some claim that his family name was Quixada, or Quexada, for there was a certain amount of disagreement among the authors who write of this matter, although reliable conjecture seems to indicate that his name was Quexana. But this does not matter to our story; in its telling there is absolutely no deviation from the truth.

Don Quixote (1605) by Miguel de Cervantes (trans. Edith Grossman)

Could a historiographer drive on his history, as a muleteer drives on his mule,—straight forward; […] he might venture to foretell you to an hour when he should get to his journey’s end;——but the thing is, morally speaking, impossible: For, if he is a man of the least spirit, he will have fifty deviations from a straight line to make with this or that party as he goes along, which he can no ways avoid. He will have views and prospects to himself perpetually soliciting his eye, which he can no more help standing still to look at than he can fly; he will moreover have various

Accounts to reconcile:
Anecdotes to pick up:
Inscriptions to make out:
Stories to weave in:
Traditions to sift:
Personages to call upon:
Panegyricks to paste up at this door;
Pasquinades at that:——All which both the man and his mule are quite exempt from. To sum up all; there are archives at every stage to be look’d into, and rolls, records, documents, and endless genealogies, which justice ever and anon calls him back to stay the reading of:——In short, there is no end of it … 

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759) by Laurence Sterne


In his influential article “The Database as Symbolic Form” (1998), the media theorist Lev Manovich pitted narratives against databases. They are “natural enemies,” he declares, “database represents the world as a list of items, and it refuses to order this list. In contrast, a narrative creates a cause-and-effect trajectory of seemingly unordered items (events).[…] Competing for the same territory of human culture, each claims an exclusive right to make meaning out of the world.” The immediate occasion for the comparison was the changeover Manovich was then observing from the “modern age” to the “computer age.” The former privileged narratives—specifically, novels and films—whereas in the latter databases take pride of place (indeed are all over the place). But Manovich goes further, arguing that narrative and database are elemental forces—“two competing imaginations, two competing creative impulses, two essential responses to the world”—that are apparent as far back as we can look. The Greeks, he notes, sang epics and assembled encyclopedias.

You are free to decide for yourself on the merits of Manovich’s overarching scheme. (I, for one, find it useful.) Here I want to concentrate on Manovich’s productively mistaken treatment of the novel. I say that because while I disagree with Manovich’s characterization of the novel as the posterchild of Camp Narrative, I see in his opposition useful terms to explain one of the qualities that makes fiction so remarkable. For part of what defines the art of fiction—what makes it distinct from other modes of writing—is the freedom fiction affords writers to exercise both of Manovich’s warring impulses: to put things in order and to gather copiously, even recklessly, in defiance of the strict demands of the plot. Now, to be fair, Manovich grants that history has witnessed many narrative-database “hybrids,” and he includes among them “the novels of Cervantes and Swift.” But in my view, this condition of hybridity is far more the norm than the exception, and nowhere is the productive interplay of the two elements more apparent than the novel tradition’s obsession with archives.

Cervantes indeed deserves credit here. The Spaniard revealed the artistic possibilities of inventing a character—the Don—for whom the backstory (which is thin) matters less than the enormous trove of documents lying in his story’s background, an archive never fully seen by the reader but constantly felt. In the very first paragraph of the first chapter (as seen in my first quotation), the narrator alerts us to the fact that the authorities disagree about the lead character’s last name: was it Quixada (jaw)? Quesada (cheesecake)? Maybe Quexana? The narrator shrugs the issue off, claiming at once that it “does not matter much to the story” which name is right and that his narration never deviates from the truth. Through this aside, Cervantes establishes that Don Quixote will not just chronicle the glorious deeds of Don Quixote (Quixada/Quesada/Quexana/Quejido/Quetal/Quetzal/etc.); it will also chronicle the chronicler who battles not with swords but sources. There is, in turn, an unspoken agon between hero and historian throughout the novel, as the narrator’s reports on the state of the manuscript tradition repeatedly interrupt and sometimes abruptly end the knight’s exploits. Moreover, Cervantes suggests at several points that his archive may be incomplete, meaning that somewhere out there more Don Quixote awaits the intrepid reader. But if there is a war between database and narrative here, it is a merry one. Cervantes’s great discovery was that readers derive pleasure from both.

Cervantes has many spiritual sons and daughters, leaving me many options, including contemporary fictions—new or old media—from which to choose a companion passage. Some books feature an archive or database in the title (such as Valeria Luiselli’s award-winning Lost Children Archive, 2020), while others are conspicuous in their use of real or imagined archives (such as the app novel The Silent History, 2013, or Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, 2004). Yet given my theme, I cannot resist the intrusion of the clergyman-novelist Laurence Sterne, one of world literature’s greatest archivists.

My second quotation springs from Sterne’s smash hit, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, which appeared in nine volumes published between 1759 and 1767. The passage appears in the fourteenth chapter of the first volume, as Tristram reflects on the fact that although he has been writing his “life” for weeks, he has yet to be born into it! But the office of the “historiographer,” he argues here, obliges him to stray regularly from the path. While we might wish to imagine that a writer can treat his story like an obedient mule, driving it ceaselessly to some predetermined end, the writer’s moral obligation is in fact to take the long way round. In classic Shandean style, a list begins to form, soon taking over the page. In addition to all of those people whom the historian must stop to visit, and vistas that must be seen, there are

Accounts to reconcile:
Anecdotes to pick up:
Inscriptions to make out:
Stories to weave in…

Shandyism acknowledges the writer’s ethical obligations to the database—to that vast and lawless miscellany of grammar books, histories, philosophies, legal records, tombstones, (I’m listing materials that actually appear in this book) translations, travel guides, memoranda, sermons, sentence fragments, half-remembered tales, half-uttered oaths, etc. & etc., that accumulate as we do the simplest things—like being born! (This book is honest about how hard it can be to rescue the story from the insurmountable paperwork of modern life. Maybe, Sterne suggests, it is better to sink.)

Tristram’s inability to keep his narrative on a clear track quickly becomes a running joke, and occasions several more asides about his penchant for turning aside. Later in Volume I, he claims that he has in fact “reconciled” the “two contrary motions” of his storytelling—the “digressive” and “progressive”—by sneaking in some of the character details he was supposed to be supplying (the “progressive” bit) in the midst of a digression. But the reader is at this point well prepared to see the convenience of the argument, and she knows better than to trust him. Tristram will wander again, and again, and again.

Looking back over his work as he writes Volume VI, the narrator draws line graphs of the movement of the previous volumes:

These squiggles vividly display the quixotic narrative database (or database narrative) that Sterne has constructed. Fiction, the author is showing us here, is never just a plot: it is a microcosmos consisting of all manner of things, including events, characters, places, local and national memories, myths, maps, title pages, blank pages, blacked-out pages, gallons of ink, reams of paper, and, above all, writing—writing of seemingly any kind. Such a cosmos accommodates travelers moving in many directions, or none at all.