You may think this is a rather large subject to be tackling in a blog post. Well, actually, I mean a specific kind of time, the time that relates to pacing in a novel. The time that one experiences when listening to music. The time that doesn’t just pass, it exists, manipulated by artists to shape our perceptions.
That is perhaps the biggest difference between the visual arts and music or literature. Music, of course, is the starkest example. Although it theoretically exists on a page in the form of a score, until it is performed it doesn’t really exist for most people. That’s a huge subject much debated by music theorists, so I’ll leave you to ponder it at your leisure. But nonetheless, composers have to know how to manipulate time (and I don’t just mean metrical or rhythmically, but thematically). I remember one of the most illuminating things I heard in any of my musicology or music theory classes in grad school was that the way Beethoven began his symphonies gave you a sense of the scope of what you were about to hear, prepared you mentally and emotionally either to settle in for a lengthy, engulfing experience or not.
Less adept composers might not set your expectations in that way, and you might find your mind wandering and wondering when the climax will come, or worse, when the conductor will finally put down his baton.
I’ve often thought that writing a novel is somewhat akin to composing a symphony, and the beginning must set up the same expectations in a reader. A page-flipping thriller has to start that way, or it will seem unbalanced. A good literary novel, where reflection and deep character exploration takes place, will start in a way that makes us take a deep breath and prepare to settle in to experience literary time in a different manner.
I like books that ebb and flow. Like movies or TV shows that are so full of breathless action they make my heart pound in an unpleasant way (for me, that’s 24) give me a visceral experience but I feel so manipulated by them it mars my enjoyment. Others, where action occurs at moments that are carefully prepared and then relieved by other moments that are important but not pulse pushing I find more satisfying (example would be Bones).
I like to read a good mystery or thriller if I’m in a certain mood, but my favorites are those that ebb and flow, that give me time to reflect but also have moments of high drama and excitement.
This is all just a way to say that the time spent reading is time within time. It’s a kind of magic that has always amazed me, and that is part of what raises writing fiction above a craft that anyone can learn to an art that is partly pure inspiration.