OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYou’ll sometimes see the phrase in reviews of books: a work of sustained imagination. It’s almost a cliché, a taken as read, taken for granted, glib, throwaway piece of shorthand labelling. How often do we give a thought to what it means, or rather, to what a book, or a story, needs to have, needs to be, to merit such an accolade?

The primary implication is in the adjective: duration. The noun gives us the core of all stories, even those cobbled together -imaginatively – from snippets of memory and observation. Put the two together though, and you get something more than the sum of the parts. Sustained doesn’t only imply duration; it means consistently maintained. The imagined world must be consistent. It must not falter, fade off at its edges into some other world, fray into a different perception.

Fictive worlds told in text exist only in the words that are used to present them. Where there are gaps in such worlds our imaginations, as readers, must be able to step across them, arriving in the same world as we have left. Where there are edges, our imaginative gaze must look out beyond them and see the same world.

However much at odds with our own world, worlds of sustained imagination, must have their own internal consistencies. Sustained imagination does not put a foot wrong. It does not flicker on and off. It never forgets itself, never makes a mistake. It does not allow the intrusion of a misplaced scene, artifact, reported event, or even word. There is no pantechnicon crossing the horizon of its medieval landscape, no modern motor-car parked in the side alley of its World War Two streets, no ‘Cumbria’ in the reminiscence of a Cumberland childhood.

I remember, when a student, seeing a school dance troop perform. Out of them all one dancer was particularly gifted, or accomplished. Her body danced in its entirety: to the toes and fingertips, all was deliberate and intentional. Even her hair, I’m tempted to believe, was flung out precisely by her twirls. The others, by comparison, seemed to dance only partially, their concentration focused on one or two elements only of their movements. I’ve seen actors too, not good ones, scanning with their eyes an audience that should not have existed for their character.

In a story of sustained imagination, the street furniture, the passers by, the ambient sounds, must all be part of the same imaginary world. The minor characters must belong to it, and behave in accordance with its norms, even when they are not conforming. A sustained imagination is not intermittent, not patchy, not inconsistent, and making sure of that is part of the hard slog of writing beyond the foregrounded events of a story.

This is one reason why ‘less’ is ‘more’. What you don’t reveal can’t be mistaken; though what the reader imagines may not always be what we expect. I’ve mentioned before what a surprise I got in a Coppard story when a hat that I hadn’t assumed, but which he’d assumed I would, was raised! And here we come to the difference between a wholly imagined world and a presentation of a ‘real’ one. Imagined worlds are, perhaps, smaller, though real worlds are limited by the size of our (both reader and writer) bubbles of perception of them. And the fact that the words – the only evidence of the worlds an author presents, real or imagined – will never have quite the same resonance, or even meaning for each individual encountering them.

The photograph, by the way, is of a distant planet, without life, yet with evidence of past life, which I visited once upon a time…..

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