Tim Parks proposes a different way of categorizing novels, such that all narrative fiction can be sorted into four grand categories.
I want to propose a different way of categorizing novels, or at least arranging the ones you have read on your shelves: something that came to me after reading Dickens and Chekhov in quick succession. At first glance, it might be hard to think of two writers who are more different. Dickens so expansive; Chekhov so economical—story after story unfolding in a few pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs. Cut, cut, cut, he told friends who showed their unpublished work to him. Yet I was surprised to find myself sensing a deep affinity between the two authors.
Characters dream of solving their problems by becoming more controlled and many have delusions of “election”—the sense of oneself as “chosen,” “special,” a celebrity perhaps. “For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well,” Coetzee opens his great novel Disgrace. The aspiration is to indulge always with control, without being overwhelmed. The reader knows that is not going to happen.
With all these authors, the imprisoning apprehension of the dangers lurking behind every action only heightens the yearning for a free, full life. “The tiniest misstep can have tragic consequences,” we hear in Philip Roth’s Indignation; “A brief glance in the wrong direction… could toss his existence over a cliff,” we are told in Jhumpa Lahiri’s story “A Choice of Accommodations.” Perhaps this is why these authors are unbeatable for erotic intensity. Nobody hears the sirens sing so sweetly and ruinously.
Am I being reductive? All of narrative fiction, I’ve suggested, can be sorted into four grand categories. Each presents a rich world of feeling in which any number of stories can be told and positions established, but always in relation to, or rather, driven by, a distinct cluster of values and consequent emotions. My claim is that it really is worth being aware which of these worlds we are being drawn into. We read better. We know where we are. And what the dangers are.