Speaking at the Hay literary festival, the Irish novelist said modern writers should emulate Jane Austen and stop overdoing the backstory
By Mark Brown
Colm Tóibín has issued a rallying call against what he sees as the scourge of modern literature: flashbacks.
The Irish novelist said the narrative device was infuriating, with too many writers skipping back and forward in time to fill in all the gaps in a story.
“We are living in the most terrible age,” Tóibín told the Hay literary festival in Wales. “I know people are worried about Brexit and I know people worry about Donald Trump. But I worry about the flashback.
“You can’t read any book now – any book – without suddenly, on chapter 2, [the writer] taking you back to where everybody was 20 years ago. How their parents met, how their grandparents met.”
Tóibín was taking part in a panel discussion on Jane Austen, who, he said, wrote complex, layered characters without ever contemplating a flashback.
For example, he said, Mr Bennet in Pride and Prejudice is a number of different characters, with the reader feeling less on his side as the novel progresses. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, meanwhile, is not very bright and then she is. “That lack of being obvious gives her a depth, especially her stubborn feelings.”
Tóibín urged writers to leave it to readers to figure out a person’s character. “I like the business of: we don’t know, it is left out, just imagine it yourself… you do it! I do not want to know how Mr Bennet met Mrs Bennet.” Having said that, how they met is a complete mystery, he said. “What happened that night?”
Tóibín said that although Mr and Mrs Bennet are not physically described in Pride and Prejudice’s first chapter, you know how to read both of them straight away from the things they say.
The panel was one of a number of Austen-themed events taking place in the run-up to the 200th anniversary of her death on 18 July. Tóibín was also launching his new book House of Names, a retelling of the classical Greek tales of the house of Atreus, including the stories of Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, their son Orestes and daughters Iphigenia and Electra.