Saturday, May 12, 2012

Where Did All the Yarn Go?

Through a chance post on the internet while reading about Erle Stanley Gardner, I learned about this book: Secrets of the World's Best-Selling Author: The Storytelling Techniques of Erle Stanley Gardner by Francis and Roberta Fugate. The title pretty much tells you all you need to know about the subject of this book. It turns out that Gardner's papers are housed at the Ransom Center at my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin. TheFugates  waded into the 36 million documents to extract just how it was that Gardner did what he did: write 80 Perry Mason books, 29 Cool and Lam novels, and millions of words of pulp fiction.

Among all of the notebooks on plotting were the correspondence between Gardner and his editors. Over and over again, Gardner would refer to his stories as "yarns." It got me to thinking: why did that term first get applied to pulp fiction and why, in the years since its heyday, the term is rarely, if ever, used.

I looked up the definition of "yarn" and got a couple:

"an elaborate narrative of real or fictional events."
"a story told by a colorful character"

So, if these definitions are basically true, what does that tell us about Gardner thought about the types of stories he wrote? He's not necessarily a colorful character. The Mason stories are told in third person. The Cool and Lam tales are told by Donald Lam and I'd characterize them as yarns, to be sure. I wonder if Gardner kept thinking of his novels as longer versions of all those pulp stories he wrote back in the 1920s. Maybe so. I know that lots of the writers back then used the same term.

So why do we now think of out modern short stories and novels as yarns?

One possibility is realism. As the decades have progressed and the readers and writers have both become more sophisticated, new realism has creeped into our stories. Where once writers were restricted in how they described violence, now, no restrictions exist. Readers know a whole lot more then they used to, and the call for more real details--be it Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell--continues and we writers comply.

A corollary idea is this: with the drive to be more real, have we lost the yearning for a yarn? Have we lost the desire for an over-the-top story? Do our automatic triggers ("that can't really happen,") preclude us from a joyful abandonment?

In short, have we grown too sophisticated for yarns? Do we readers just know too much?

Movie of the Week: 

The Avengers.

Yeah, just go see it. Best, most thrilling time in the theaters thus far this year. (Truth be told, it'll likely be the winner of that category of film--you know, the FUN kind--for the entire year of 2012.)


Thomas Pluck said...

I still say yarn.
I'm not always out for realism, especially when it has come to mean "tragedy," as if nothing ever works in the world. I read the paper every day, plenty of news stories would make great novels word for word, others would be nonsensical, others would seem too good to be true.
A good yarn has to be fake enough to seem real.

Dana King said...

"A good yarn has to be fake enough to seem real."


I think of many of Donald Westlake's comic stories as yarns. There's an implied bit of whimsy in a good yarn, a story neither the teller nor the audience is taking too seriously.

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