Anthony Wheeler

Humble Executive.  Literary Artist.  Altruistic Libertarian.

                               Chapter 6 - The Reading Novelist

                                                                                          An illiterate king is a crowned ass.

                                                                                                         John of Salisbury

Many nascent novelists will consider themselves a ‘Common Reader’:

What Johnson and Woolf after him called the Common Reader still exists and possibly goes on welcoming suggestions of what might be read.  Such a reader does not read for easy pleasure or to expiate social guilt, but to enlarge a solitary existence. (1)

There are many reasons for writers and non-writers alike to read, and to read well.  In the first case, reading is enjoyable:

Despite the labors of academic artists and those sophisticates who are embarrassed by emotion, it seems all but self-evident that it is for the pleasure of exercising our capacity to love that we pick up a book at all.  Except in the classroom, where we read what is assigned, or study compositions or paintings to pass a course, we read or listen to or look at works of art in the hope of experiencing our highest, most selfless emotion, either to reach a sublime communication with the maker of the work, sharing his affirmations as common lovers do, or to find, in works of literature, characters we love as we do real people. (2)

Not only to experience love of character, Annie Dillard writes, but we read to wake up:

Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened and its deepest mystery probed?…Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?  What do we ever know that is higher than that power which, from time to time, seizes our lives, and reveals us startlingly to ourselves as creatures set down here bewildered?  Why does death so catch us by surprise, and why love?  We still and always want waking.  We should amass half dressed in long lines like tribesmen and shake gourds at each other, to wake up; instead we watch television and miss the show. (3)

Without the best books, how would one experience anything sophisticated, complex, profound?  From conversation with neighbors?  Not likely, unless one lives in a very special place: 

People who do not read books, or who read only the fashionable books of the hour, are driven to depend for their mental activity upon what passes for conversation.  Almost all modern conversation, when not between lovers or book-lovers, is a silly interruption of the secret ecstasy of life. (4)

Might a person develop a deep understanding of the world through newspapers, magazines, television, or radio talk shows?  Unlikely, as these media produce superficial content meant to entertain, and little of value can be gained from prolonged exposure to them. 

Can a person develop a profound expansion of consciousness from the university?  Possibly, but most people can only attend a few years, and even lectures from the most eminent thinkers are restricted, as they can only say so much.  Besides, the student spends most of his or her academic time reading anyway.  “In fact,” John Cowper Powys writes, “the great gift of metaphysical reading is that it gives a person the feeling that there is some truth in every vision, all truth in none.”5   The best students don’t consider their education finished when they graduate.  They know they have just begun, school simply having provided the foundation for future learning.

Another possibility to enhance oneself is to go it alone: imagine all things, discover everything, escape from Plato’s legendary cave and gaze upon the light of truth.  No Virgil as guide, no Beatrice to meet one along the way.  While the majority will find this approach extremely limiting, Schopenhauer argues that insights realized without the help of others are worth more than ones taken whole from previous thinkers.  This is certainly true, even if what one discovers already exists.  The pleasure of reaching a (personal) new insight is significant.  An epiphany every once in awhile is good for the soul, even if the same epiphany lit thousands of souls in the past.

Travel helps expand ones understanding of the world, and what is important, but again, not everything can be experienced and realized, no matter where one goes.  Attending concerts, visiting museums and art galleries also broadens and deepens a person, but ultimately, the most effective way to grow intellectually and artistically is to commune with the greatest thinkers in history.  This means reading the best books, along with the best commentary.  Reading those books puts the reader in direct contact with something special:

Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text (the piece of music, the work of art) incarnates (the notion is ground in the sacramental) a real presence of significant being. (6)

A balance between reading, direct experience and contemplation is necessary in order to integrate what we think we already know.

Culture is not something you put on like a ready-made suit of clothes, but a nourishment you absorb to build up your personality, just as food builds up the body of the growing boy.  It is not an ornament used to decorate a phrase, still less to show off your knowledge, but a means, painfully acquired, to enrich the soul. (7)

People with poor memories, no imagination and an active mind love to read – must read – because if they didn’t they’d look inside and find nothing there.  One big stagnant blank.  “Reading teaches us to take a more exalted view of the value of life,” Proust writes, “a value at the time we did not know how to appreciate and of whose magnitude we have only become aware through the book.” (8)   Then there are those who simply appreciate a bit of help from time to time:

Living one’s own life can be a great muddle, but the great writers do not make it plain, they palliate, and put the whole in a sort of proportion.  Which helps; and on the whole, year after year, help is what one needs. (9)

“We read,” Harold Bloom writes, “frequently if unknowingly, in quest of a mind more original than our own.” (10)   And if we are lucky, the quest continues for an entire lifetime:

Who would call a day spent reading a good day?  But a life spent reading—that is a good life. (11)

Read to Write

The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book. (12)

While reading quality fiction and criticism can be an enjoyable pastime for anybody, doing so is essential for the aspiring novelist.  Powys emphasizes the general advantage of reading the best literature, and indicates how it can positively impact the potential author:

The desirable effect upon one’s mind of imaginative literature is not to strengthen one’s memory or enlarge one’s learning, or to inspire one to gather together a collection of passages from “great authors”; it is to encourage one to learn the art of becoming a “great author” oneself; not in the sense of composing a single line, but in the sense of sufficiently detaching oneself from the chaotic spectacle of reality [actuality] so as to catch on the wing that fleeting loveliness of which no genius has the monopoly and which only the stirred depths of one’s own deepest nature can prevail upon to pause in its eternal flight. (13) 

Every serious novelist should aspire to literary greatness, whether they can attain it or not.  Reading the best literature will help carve away the obstacles that impede progress, as well as cast light on the distant path:

Proust never stopped demonstrating that for him the greatest innovations in style and thinking were based upon a deep classical culture; he himself had undergone those ‘long years of studying’ which he felt were so necessary. (14) 

Reading deep into the canon cuts two ways: on the one hand, Philip Roth indicates that doing so can free a person from his or her own “suffocatingly narrow perspective on life,” allowing them to be “lured into imaginative sympathy with a fully developed narrative point of view” that is not his or her own. (15)  On the other hand, coming face to face with history’s best literature can dampen one’s enthusiasm for writing fiction at all, considering the quality, range and endless imagination depicted within the best books.  The daunting challenge of creating something genuinely new may de-motivate the best of us.  As George Steiner puts it, “in the arts, precedent can both inspire and lame.” (16)  Of course, one can always take John Updike’s pragmatic approach and leave the richer for it:

My purpose in reading has ever secretly been not to come and judge but to come and steal. (17)

What to Read

Sometimes people read literature because they have become bored with the commonplace that characterizes genre fiction.  Given that uniqueness distinguishes literary art, literary novels promise lasting interest, both singly and en masse.  To make the most of this literary treasure, it’s important to remember that “A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short.” (18)   Powys puts it this way:

Life is short and the number of books is appalling.  It is a kind of insanity to satiate oneself with short sensation-tales and detective-tales and leave untouched the great, slow, deep-breathed classics. (19)

This advice is great for mature adults interested in creating their own literary novels, but for many others, particularly young people, Ford Madox Ford provides a more practical point of view.  “If a boy tells me he does not like Virgil,” he writes, “I tell him to find something he does like and to read it with attention.” (20)   Young people should read anything they like, even comic books, if they are to develop a literary imagination and the unique pleasure that accompanies it.  Very few, if any, limits should be placed on students at any educational level.  Once they develop the taste for reading, the entire literary world opens to them.  If, on the other hand, their enthusiasm for reading is dampened—if not extinguished altogether—by a brutal insistence to gurgitate profound works that painfully bore them, they may never read again, remaining insular, ignorant, and deprived souls with nothing but superficial conversation and common television to accompany them through a boring and meaningless existence.  Even for mature adults, Ford is correct when he writes

Our reading list is by now so great that we have not time for duty reading.  If, after a reasonable trial, the works of any writer fail to ring our bells, our duty is to throw them away and begin on something else. (21)

This is good advice I rarely take.  “Like many an autodidact,” John Updike writes, “I have taken simple-minded pride in finishing a book once I began to read it.” (22)   More stubbornness in my case than pride, but like Updike, I rarely set aside a book until I finish it, even when I should.  As a result, I take special care when selecting one, making sure it is one of the best, minimizing the literary risk of wasted time. 

Fifteen years ago I quit reading news magazines (I never read newspapers).  Once I did, I went from reading an average of 20 books a year (7422 pages) to 48 books a year (over 15,000 pages).  With few exceptions, news papers/magazines contain very little substance.  Open any paper, any news magazine, and you find the same sub-set of stories: wild fires ravaging California; purposeless mall shootings; stock market crashes; failed (or successful) insurrections; botched elections; suicide bombings; product recalls; destructive earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, killer storms; coups, civil wars, military invasions; fires, fatal car wrecks; hi-profile divorces, scandals, drug overdoses.  The same thing, day in and day out, year in and year out.  While some of it reflects history (9/11 for instance, or the dismantling of the Berlin Wall), very little of it achieves lasting significance:

If it were the intention of the press to have the reader assimilate the information it supplies as part of his own experience, it would not achieve its purpose.  But its intention is just the opposite, and it is achieved: to isolate what happens from the realm in which it could affect the experience of the reader.  The principles of journalistic information (freshness of the news, brevity, comprehensibility, and, above all, lack of connection between the individual news items) contribute as much to this as does the make-up of the pages and the paper’s style.  (Karl Kraus never tired of demonstrating the great extent to which the linguistic usage of newspapers paralyzed the imagination of their readers.) (23)

This is how Charles Swann puts it:

The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance. (24)

For me, perhaps two or three dozen.  The exact number, however, is not important.  The serious novelist will consider setting aside the daily press, gaining for themselves precious reading time by doing so.  Walter Benjamin provides a useful comparison between the stories told in imaginative literature and what is commonly found in the popular press:

The replacement of the older narration by information, of information by sensation, reflects the increasing atrophy of experience.  In turn, there is a contrast between all these forms and the story, which is one of the oldest forms of communication.  It is not the object of the story to convey a happening per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds it in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening.  It thus bears the marks of the storyteller much as the earthen vessel bears the marks of the potter’s hand. (25)

Some might contend that ignoring the popular press will cut the link between the individual and the real world.  John Cowper Powys doesn’t think so.  “Let us have done with this vociferous, hypocritical humbug about real life being so much more important than books!” (26)   “People say life is the thing,” Logan Pearsall Smith adds, “but I prefer reading.” (27)  Wordsworth supplies the counterpoint:

     Up! Up! my friend and quit your books...
     Close up those barren leaves
     Come forth, and bring with you a heart
     That watches and receives.
(28)

“Reading can lead us to the threshold of spiritual life,” Jean-Yves Tadie writes, “although it is not a substitute for it.” (29)   Schopenhauer sounds perhaps the most meaningful warning:

Much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment. (30) 

As in all things, some form of balance must be attained.  Each person will decide for themselves what they read, and how much.  In all, the better the reading, the better the writing, balanced in some fashion with a truly lived life:

We pay heed so easily.  We are so pathetically eager for this other life, for the sounds of distant cities and the sea; we long, apparently, to pit ourselves against some trying wind, to follow the fortunes of a ship hard beset, to face up to murder and fornication, and the somber results of anger and love; on, yes, to face up—in books—when on our own we scarcely breathe. (31)

Critic of One’s Own Work

 “In the long run,” Valery writes, “every poet’s value will equal his value as a critic (of himself).” (32)   The ability to critique one’s own work – line by line, word by word, sequence by sequence – will largely determine the quality of the finished novel.  Like Darwin’s theory of evolution, the author creates many variations only to ruthlessly cull them until only the most worthy remain.  Not only do you ‘kill your little darlings’ ala Faulkner, you must space the ugly ducklings or transform them into gracious swans:

The larger part of the labor of an author in composing his work is critical labor; the labor of sifting, combining, constructing, expunging, correcting, testing: this frightful toil is as much critical as creative.  I maintain even that the criticism employed by a trained and skilled writer on his own work is the most vital, the highest kind of criticism; and…that some creative writers are superior to others solely because their critical faculty is superior. (33)

Eliot goes on to write, “We must ourselves decide what is useful to us and what is not.”  This seems right, and also, to our dismay, what follows: “It is quite likely that we are not competent to decide.” (34) 

The judgment required to critique one’s own work also applies to critical feedback received from others.  As Maxwell Perkins advises, the author must take full responsibility for the critical process:

Don't defer to my judgment.  You won't on any vital point, I know, and I should be ashamed, if it were possible to have made you; for a writer of any account must speak solely for himself. (35)

In order for the novelist to act as his or her own best critic, they must develop their own taste.  To do that, they fully explore the literary terrain to discover what thrills, engages, disturbs, delights and frightens them.  They embrace aesthetic shock; immerse themselves within the profound wisdom found in the best books, ones that express the unavoidable human truth.  It helps to identify what they like, and what they despise, and then determine why. 

What criticism is meant to do—show us what we missed or just plain didn’t get. (36)

In addition to reading the finest literature, it’s possible to learn from the best critics.  Good criticism acts as a guide through the garden of literature, illuminating some things, while helping to avoid the unworthy.  Cornelius Mathews, in a book on Edgar Allan Poe’s literary criticism, provides the following definition:

[Criticism] dismisses errors of grammar, and hands over an imperfect rhyme or a false quantity to the proof-reader; it looks…to the heart of the subject and the author’s design.  It is a test of opinion.  Its acuteness is not pedantic, but philosophical; it unravels the web of the author’s mystery to interpret his meaning to others; it detects his sophistry, because sophistry is injurious to the heart and life; it promulgates his beauties with liberal, generous praise, because this is its true duty as the servant of truth. ….A criticism…includes every form of literature…It is an essay, a sermon, an oration, a chapter in history, a philosophical speculation, a prose-poem, an art-novel, a dialogue… (37) 

Poe adds that “following the highest authority, we would wish…to limit literary criticism to comment upon Art.” (38)   Keeping in mind the definition of art provided in chapter three, consider Eagleton’s definition of literature:

John M. Ellis has argued that the term ‘literature’ operates rather like the word ‘weed’: weeds are not particular kinds of plant, but just any kind of plant which for some reason or another a gardener does not want around.  Perhaps ‘literature’ means something like the opposite: any kind of writing which for some reason or another somebody values highly.  As the philosophers might say, ‘literature’ and ‘weed’ are functional rather than ontological terms: they tell us about what we do, not about the fixed being of things.  They tell us about the role of a text or a thistle in a social context, its relations with and differences from its surroundings, the ways it behaves, the purposes it may be put to and the human practices clustered around it. (39)

I would suggest that any literature we value must be meaningfully significant and essentially unique, marking it clearly as an art object.  Mathews writes that  “A criticism…includes every form of literature…It is an essay, a sermon, an oration, a chapter in history, a philosophical speculation, a prose-poem, an art-novel, a dialogue…”(40)  If we accept this position, then we accept many forms as potentially art, forms other than creative fiction or poetry.  Walter Benjamin disagrees:

A judgment on art that is not itself a work of art…has no civil rights in the kingdom of art. (41)

Walter Benjamin may be the greatest writer who is most often creatively mistaken, and I believe this to be one of those times.  If we equate ‘art’ and ‘literature’, than many things written other than novels, short stories and poems will qualify, including some works of literary criticism.

“The first of all critical gifts,” T. S. Eliot writes, “without which others are vain: the ability to detect the living style from the dead.” (42)   Harold Bloom covers another part of the field when he writes: “What literary criticism ought to be and very rarely is: the appreciation of originality and the rejection of the merely fashionable.” (43)  Lore Segal writes that the purpose of criticism, according to John Gardner,

was not to belabor the distinctions between modernism and post-modernism but to look at the real end of all art, which is Beauty, Truth and Goodness, as decent folk have known all along. (44)

In addition to ‘Beauty, Truth and Goodness,’ I would add nobility of character, greatness in theme, and admirable action.  John Gardner himself writes

Critical standards built on the premise that art is primarily technique rather than correctness of vision—built on the premise that every artist has his own private notion of reality and all notions are equal—cannot deal with important but clumsy artists (Dostoevsky, Poe, Lawrence, Dreiser, Faulkner) except by emphasizing what is minor in their work. (45)

There is no point in reducing a work to its moving and non-moving parts: illuminating the structure, calling out specialties of syntax, describing normative stylistic gestures – all potentially irrelevant to the value of an object as a work of art.  Like reducing love to sex, or sex to the physiology of the act.  Understanding the primal procreative urge common in humans, or the precise biological mechanism of orgasms does nothing to enhance the romantic experience.  In the same way, identifying and delineating the technical aspects of a literary work, while in some cases a valuable exercise for the working novelist (in the same way understanding the biological and psychological aspects of human reproduction may help a sex therapist), mean little or nothing to the non-specialist, that is, the common reader.  Either the elements coalesce in an effective manner and contribute to delivering an aesthetic response, or they do not.  When they do, the reader is pleased, and it is worthwhile for the working novelist to study the work and understand the literary mechanism involved.  When they do not, the work fails, no matter how impressive the literary gymnastics, and neither the reader nor the novelist has any use for it.  This is why structuralist and deconstructive criticisms are of little value, other than to the academic.  The reader and the working novelist can largely do without such reductive exercises.

A work of art is like a guitar string meant to reverberate with a unique and enigmatic sound.  Anyone who attempts to express a finite meaning about the work—whether a critic or the artist himself—risks pressing the string and stopping the music:

To extract the “meaning” from a work of fiction is like extracting hydrogen from a molecule of water.  The atomic bonds are broken; fluidity goes; you end up with a fistful of gas.  Literary analysis, even expertly done, has a similar effect. (46) 

Any literary work can be negatively criticized, and almost any serious work can be admired by somebody, at least in some manner.  What often makes the reader respond so strongly one way or another is the degree of sympathy they apply to the particular work, or artist.  If one is pre-disposed to dislike an author, for political or fashion reasons, say, they can easily find reasons to dismiss the work as inferior or failed.  On the other hand, if someone they respect recommends the work, or provides a favorable context, it’s easier to enjoy it, and look past its inevitable weaknesses.  This takes place routinely in the academy, as students are often influenced prior to encountering a particular work.  They learn from their teachers what is ‘good’ and what is not, and react accordingly.  It’s sometimes difficult to encounter a well-known work without some kind of attitude prior to reading it, and this attitude may color our response. 

Joyce’s Ulysses and Rand’s Atlas Shrugged stand as good examples, as I read Ulysses with no sympathy at all, resulting in an long-lasting distaste for the work and radical disagreement with it’s reputation in the literary community.  At the same time, I am perfectly willing to look past the flaws in Rand’s novel and still consider it great.  It would be very easy for another reader with the necessary sympathy for Ulysses to convincingly extol the novel’s literary virtues, and then read Atlas Shrugged ‘with nose plugs on’ (as a friend of mine characterized his reading experience of Rand).  There are several ways a critic might respond to distasteful works:
 

  • If they don’t like it, and it’s not worth mentioning, they can smother it in silence
  • If they don’t like it, and it’s important to say why, they can express a substantial and meaningful critique
  • If they don’t like it, but are unable articulate why, or they don’t wish to reveal the reason for their distaste, they attack the author


The presence of personal attacks indicates a lack of genuine critical concerns and the existence of underlying intellectual, aesthetic, political and/or personal prejudice.  Those who resort to such attacks have nothing of value to express, and they in turn should be ignored.  We value what artists create, not who they are, so ad hominem attacks are aesthetically meaningless yet very common.  Doctor Johnson explains why:

When a man voluntarily engages in an important controversy, he is to do all he can to lessen his antagonist, because authority from personal respect has much weight with most people, and often more than reasoning. (47)

During the course of any debate, such Johnsonian attacks are a tacit admission of defeat, and should be so treated.

Great criticism seems to us to touch more or less nearly on pure philosophy. (48)

“You can never draw the line between aesthetic criticism and moral and social criticism,” T. S. Eliot writes; “you cannot draw a line between criticism and metaphysics; you start with literary criticism, and however rigorous an aesthete you may be, you are over the frontier into something else sooner or later.” (49)   Art Berman agrees, and goes even further when he writes that

since an analysis of language may be at the heart of epistemology, and consequently at the heart of every philosophical dispute, literary criticism—the investigation of the interaction of meaning and structure—may have the potential to become the paradigm for all philosophical analysis. (50)

So once again, as we indicated in chapter two, art, and the criticism that goes with it, finds itself perched at the pinnacle of human intellectual activity.

The Critic

The proper function of a critic is to save the tale from the artist who created it. (51)

According to Bulwer, the critic

must have courage to blame boldly, magnanimity to eschew envy, genius to appreciate, learning to compare, an eye for beauty, an ear for music, and a heart for feeling. (52)

Poe adds:  “And a talent for analysis and a solemn indifference to abuse.” (53)   This seems like a fair summary. 
 
The First Critic: 

     When the flush of a new-born sun fell first on Eden’s green and gold,
     Our father Adam sat under the Tree and scratched with a stick in the mould;
     And the first rude sketch that the world had seen was joy to his mighty heart,
     Till the Devil whispered behind the leaves, “It’s pretty, but is it Art?” 


                     Rudyard Kipling, quoted by Alberto Manguel in Reading Pictures

The best critics discern the truly special, independent of the cultural circumstances and regardless of how different a work might be.  “New works tend to encounter indifference, surprise, or sarcasm,” Mikel Dufrenne writes.  “Only a few are able to recognize and accept new works, and they are those in whom the works arouse a knowledge which prepares the way for their acceptance.” (54)   Those who can achieve the identification of the newly great possess a special critical insight, and are accordingly quite rare.  It’s always easier to follow the crowd, to hop on and off the fashionable bandwagons as they roll by.

Walter Benjamin points out that “In a work of art, the critic is seeking the truth content, the commentator the subject matter.” (55)   “In distinction from both the reviewer and the literary historian,” George Steiner writes, “the critic should be concerned with masterpieces.  His primary function is to distinguish not between the good and the bad, but between the good and the best.” (56)

While the best critics serve as the vanguard, and influence what continues to be read and what is left behind, Somerset Maugham believes that it is the mass of interested readers that determines the true staying power of a work:

What makes a classic is not that it is praised by critics, expounded by professors and studied in college classes, but that the great mass of readers, generation after generation, have found pleasure and spiritual profit in reading it. (57)


Instead of the critic or academic, Ford Madox Ford believed that presenting literature “should be, not in the hands of the learned, but in those of artist-practitioners…men and women who love each their arts as they practice them.” (58)  This rings true, as I have learned more from reading critical essays by working novelists (Updike, Vidal, Ellison, Oates, Nabokov, Roth, Bellow, Powys, Eliot, Rand, Poe, Aldridge, just to name a few) as opposed to professional critics, like Edmund Wilson (although he did write a novel that is rarely read or discussed.  You have to wonder about that).  It may also be worth pointing out that in many cases I prefer the commentary of novelists more than their novels (Updike and Vidal, for instance).  George Steiner also wrote a very interesting novel, but only one.  Walter Benjamin didn’t write much fiction.  I have enjoyed reading Kazin, and I don’t know what else he wrote.  Nietzsche wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, but this is a difficult work to categorize.  More like an Eastern religious text than a work of fiction or poetry, something akin to Lau Tsu’s Tao Te Ching.  I don’t believe Mencken wrote any fiction, but he was the most discerning critic I have read, and demonstrated excellent taste in contemporary fiction (based on how those works have faired).  He missed very little in his time.  But perhaps this is an example of the tail wagging the dog: Mencken was very influential, and those works he praised probably benefited from his attention, ensuring that they would be fully considered by the literary and reading community.

“A critic is not an artist,” Alfred Kazin writes, “except incidentally; he is a thinker, and it is the force, the exactness, the extension—perhaps the originality—of his thinking that gets him to say those things that the artist himself may value as an artist, the reader as a reader.”   He goes on to explain the value of criticism independent of its different uses:

To the true critic insights are valuable for themselves, and different members of the audience may use them in different ways.  But no critic who works for the pleasure and excitement of his task writes just to instruct the writer he is reviewing and for the sake exclusively of the public that reads him.  For the interest of criticism lies in itself, in the thinking that it practices. (59)

Kazin’s point indicates the value and interest criticism holds for the practicing novelist.  The novelist acts as an interested critic both in his or her creative reading, as well as their creative writing.  The critical habit is necessary to render the best fiction, and fortunately for the writers who are also ‘true critics’, gain the intellectual pleasure to which Kazin refers.

The Novel

The novel, like art, is notoriously difficult to define, and consensus will probably never be reached.  H. L. Mencken makes the following attempt:

A novel is an imaginative, artistic and un-dialectic composition in prose, not less than 20,000 words nor more than 500,000 words in length, and divided into chapters, sections, books or other symmetrical parts, in which certain interesting, significant and probable (though fictitious) human transactions are described both in cause and effect, with particular reference to the influence exerted upon the ideals, opinions, morals, temperament and overt acts of some specified person or persons by the laws, institutions, superstitions, traditions and customs of such portions of the human race and the natural phenomena of such portions of the earth as may come under his, her or their observation or cognizance, and by the ideals, opinions, morals, temperament and overt acts of such person or persons as may come into contact, either momentarily or for longer periods, with him, her or them, either by actual, social or business intercourse, or through the medium of books, newspapers, the church, the theater or some other person or persons. (60)

The ‘imaginative’ and ‘artistic’ tags seem appropriate, but the ‘un-dialectic’ problematic, as almost every significant novel responds antithetically to something prior to it, either philosophically, politically, aesthetically, or all three at once.  You would be hard pressed to find a literary novel completely un-dialectical.  This definition would also leave out In Search of Lost Time, based on the length limit, and Atlas Shrugged, which runs about nine-hundred thousand words.  Perhaps Mencken’s more concise formulation works better when he writes “For in the novel, as in the drama, the interest lies, always and inevitably, in some one man’s effort to master his fate.” (61) 

George Orwell takes a shot at a definition, when he writes that a novel

is a story which attempts to describe credible human beings, and—without necessarily using the technique of naturalism—to show them acting on everyday motives and not merely undergoing strings of improbable adventures.  A true novel, sticking to this definition, will also contain at least two characters, probably more, who are described from the inside and on the same level of probability—which, in effect, rules out novels written in the first person. (62)

Interestingly, the author who created the most memorable farm animals in literature requires a novel to consist solely of ‘credible human beings’.  Ruling out novels written in first person decimates the canon, eliminating In Search of Lost Time once again, along with the wonderful To Kill a Mockingbird.

Rand would also eliminate animals (or aliens) as she defines a novel as “a long, fictional story about human beings and the events of their lives.  The four essential attributes of a novel are: Theme—Plot—Characterization—Style.” (63)   Many writers would find this definition far too restrictive (myself included), requiring a ‘plot’, ‘theme’, ‘style’ and ‘characterization’.  While I agree that the majority of successful novels include these elements, there are several well known authors who manage quite well doing without some of them (William Burroughs comes to mind) if not all of them (Gertrude Stein for example).  As a positive example I would submit Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities for consideration, as it is one of the century’s best, without having a well-defined plot.  Many other novels are more episodic, rambling even, without a clear beginning, middle and end, without the standard dénouement, and others are written in the most basic style (Kafka).  Sometimes the characterization is minimal or non-existent.  I am not sure how to characterize Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels (Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things, for instance).  Musings, ramblings, yet interesting and satisfying, but not like anything else.  In any case, I wouldn’t eliminate any of these books from the category ‘novel’ based on Rand’s definition, although many, if not most, missing these attributes may well be considered literary failures.

Kundera defines a novel as “The great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.” (64)   This seems general enough, but I think we can agree with Terry Eagleton when he writes

A novel is a piece of prose fiction of a reasonable length.  Even a definition as toothless as this, however, is still too restricted. (65)

Hugh Kenner provides this interesting characterization of a novel:

The invention of Fact, early in the seventeenth century, evoked within fifty years the invention of that indomitably comic contrivance the novel, the function of which is to incorporate a random fusillade of information into a loose system, propelled forward by narrative, the data as they accumulate moving steadily forward into a vacuum of expectation. (66)

The definition of a novel may be less important than its substance.  Ralph Ellison writes that “true novels, even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core.  Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.” (67)   Eudora Welty reminds us that a novel is

Made by the imagination for the imagination, it is an illusion come full circle—a very exclusive thing, for all it seems to include a good deal of the world.  It was wholly for the sake of illusion, made by art out of, and in order to show, and to be, some human truth, that the novelist took all he knew with him and made that leap in the dark. (68)

According to Kundera, Hermann Brock insists that

The sole raison d’etre of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover.  A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.  Knowledge is the novel’s only morality. (69)

Discovering ‘a hitherto unknown segment of existence’ is what makes a particular novel unique, and therefore literary art.  “The novel’s spirit,” Kundera goes on to write, “is the spirit of complexity.” 

Every novel says to the reader: “Things are not as simple as you think.”  That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off. (70)

Walter Benjamin echoes Kundera’s point:

The novelist has isolated himself.  The birthplace of the novel is the solitary individual, who is no longer able to express himself by giving examples of his most important concerns, is himself uncounseled, and cannot counsel others.  To write a novel means to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.  In the midst of life’s fullness, and through the representation of this fullness, the novel gives evidence of the profound perplexity of the living. (71)

“The novel is a model of morality,” Terry Eagleton writes, “because it can feel its way sensitively into a whole galaxy of human lives, showing us how each of these men and women experiences the world from a different angle.” (72)   Lukacs provides the context for considering what a ‘genuine’ novel accomplishes, both for the reader and the writer:

The need for reflection is the deepest melancholy of every great and genuine novel.  Through it, the writer’s naiveté suffers extreme violence and is changed into its opposite.  (This is only another way of saying that pure reflection is profoundly inartistic.)  And the hard-won equalization, the unstable balance of mutually surmounting reflections—the second naiveté, which is the novelist’s objectivity—is only a formal substitute for the first: it makes form-giving possible and it rounds off the form, but the very manner in which it does so points eloquently at the sacrifice that has had to be made, as the paradise forever lost, sought and never found.  This vain search and then the resignation with which it is abandoned make the circle that completes the form. (73)

All this may seem a bit high handed, so Somerset Maugham provides the balancing perspective when he describes the attributes of a good novel, indicating that one

should have a widely interesting theme, by which I mean a theme interesting not only to a clique, whether of critics, professors, highbrows, truck drivers or dish washers, but so broadly human that it is interesting to men and women of all sorts….The story should be coherent and persuasive; it should have a beginning, a middle and an end, and the end should be the natural consequence of the beginning….The creatures of the novelist’s invention should be observed with individuality, and their actions should proceed from their characters;…The dialogue should neither be desultory nor should it be an occasion for the author to air his opinions; it should serve to characterize the speakers and to advance the story….The writing should be simple enough for anyone of ordinary education to read it with ease…Finally a novel should be entertaining….it is the essential quality, without which no other quality is of any use. (74)

This seems like a fair summary.  Robertson Davies quotes John Middleton Murray as he describes “A truly great novel” as “a tale to the simple, a parable to the wise, and a direct revelation of reality to a man who has made it part of his being.” (75)  Schopenhauer writes that a novel

will be the higher and nobler the more inner and less outer life it depicts….The art [of the novel] lies in setting the inner life into the most violent motion with the smallest possible expenditure of outer life….The task of the novelist is not to narrate great events but to make small ones interesting. (76)

While this perspective is probably right, and certainly applies to novelists I admire (Proust, Musil and Ishiguro for example), it’s not the approach I tend to take.  I write about cataclysmic events, the end of the world, and there always seems to be a nuclear weapon involved.  Wars, ultimate struggles, what it means to be human—these are the thematic elements I explore in my fiction.  Even so, I don’t assert that my work is better for it—only that I am inclined to fictionally explore the extremes.  Writing in this realm puts one in league with Milton, Dante, Tolstoy, Homer—who among us can possibly compare?  It doesn’t matter: we write what we are compelled to write, wrangle with themes and worlds we wish to create and explore, and finish novels that resemble what we like to read. 

Developing One’s Own Literary Taste

I believe they are woefully mistaken who assert that the foundations of knowledge or culture, or any foundations whatsoever, are necessarily those classics which are found in every list of “best” books.  I know that there are several universities which base their entire curricula on such select lists.  It is my opinion that each man has to dig his own foundations.  If one is an individual at all it is by reason of his uniqueness.  Whatever the material which vitally affected the form of our culture, each man must decide for himself which elements of it are to enter into and shape his own private destiny.  The great works which are singled out by the professorial minds represent their choice exclusively. (77)

An author cannot succeed by thoughtlessly accepting the critical judgment of others.  Kant is right to insist that you should “have the courage to make use of your own understanding.” (78)   When you do, you gain the privileged perspective of the working writer:

And while [Ford] says it is rash “to set one’s private judgments up against the settled opinions of humanity,” for contemporary literature the only test, he assures us, is one’s personal taste.  To him, the working writer was by far the best judge of literature… (79)

And a working reader.  Somerset Maugham writes:

A novel is to be read with enjoyment.  If it does not give that it is worthless.  This being so, every reader is his own best critic, for he alone knows what he enjoys and what he doesn’t. (80)

Auden agrees:  “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide,” he writes, “but it is the least fallible.” (81)

If the novelist grows to depend on the advice of his or her editor, spouse, or friends, the art object will cease to be wholly their own, their unique voice and vision will be diminished, and much of the satisfaction in writing will be lost.  To prevent this aesthetic dependency, the writer develops his or her own taste, and gains the confidence to trust their own critical judgment:

One of the most prevalent obstacles to a growing self-development in sensitive personalities is the difficulty of striking a balance between the process of banking up our own peculiar taste and the process of extending that taste in new directions.  In the one case our psyche has to harden itself into an inviolable core of resistance to innovation.  In the other case it has to dissolve into a floating vapor of curious exploration. (82)

Powys, perhaps the most underrated novelist of the 20th century, goes on to write:

The more culture a man has, the more austerely—though naturally with many ironic reserves—does he abide by his own taste.  It is ever the mark of the parvenu in education to change and fret till his opinions correspond to the last word of modish sophistication.  Culture, however, like aristocracy, goes its own way and does not bother about justifying itself. (83)

I once met a Yale undergraduate who criticized Hemingway for his literary misogyny.  Turns out, she hadn’t read any of his novels or short stories, her attitude derived entirely from the classroom.  Her literature professors may or may not have been correct, but she had no business rendering such a critical opinion as if it was her own.

It is the task of the original artist to learn the tradition on the one hand, while forging all the time their own aesthetic space.  This becomes difficult when we are told that there exists an absolute aesthetic judgment that lies beyond our competence.  For example, T. S. Eliot suggests that


For literary judgment we need to be acutely aware of two things at once: of “what we like,” and of “what we ought to like.”  Few people are honest enough to know either. (84)

As a Christian, he had a specific standard in mind, but the notion applies to any academic or critical paradigm.  But must such a distinction be made?  How are we supposed to ‘like’ something if we really don’t, or count it as aesthetically superior?  Ayn Rand adds to the confusion when she writes, “Since art is a philosophical composite, it is not a contradiction to say: ‘This is a great work of art, but I don’t like it.’”  If she said ‘art’ and left off the ‘great’, as in something like ‘While this is certainly a created unique work with substantial meaning, that is, a work of art, I hate it and think it’s terrible,’ I would agree, as we admit to the existence of ‘bad’ art.  But an aesthetic object cannot be considered good or successful, let alone ‘great’, if we derive no personal satisfaction from it.  Rand provides the following specific example:

I cannot stand Tolstoy, and reading him was the most boring literary duty I ever had to perform, his philosophy and his sense of life are not merely mistaken, but evil, and yet, from a purely literary viewpoint, on his own terms, I have to evaluate him as a good writer. (85)

What does she mean by ‘a purely literary viewpoint’?  There is no such purity, unless we defer to those we deem more competent to judge.  The only literary viewpoint we can truly hold is our own.  And what does she mean by ‘on his own terms’?  If we accepted this criterion, we must consider every novelist ‘good’, as they all write on their own terms.  But we can’t do that.  We must evaluate them on our terms.  If you read a novel that results in ‘the most boring literary duty [you] ever had to perform’, it is, by definition, a bad novel.  Rand manages to make my point when she writes the following about music:

No one, therefore, can claim the objective superiority of his choices over the choices of others.  Where no objective proof is available, it’s every man for himself—and only for himself. (86) 

I believe this statement applies to all aesthetic judgment.  The only time we readily defer to the judgment of another is when we are unfamiliar with the work, or do not understand it.  In such cases we can reasonably accept someone else’s judgment as their judgment and not our own.

Parents, professors, pundits all tell us what is ‘good’ and what isn’t, and we risk public shame if we enthuse over a book that is not critically accepted.  Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind provides an excellent example (albeit an ironic one considering the previous comments) when he writes

There is always a girl who mentions Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, a book, although hardly literature, which, with its sub-Nietzschean assertiveness, excites somewhat eccentric youngsters to a new way of life. (87)

Note the disparaging ‘girl’.  It can’t be ‘student’, or at least ‘woman’, indicating Bloom’s utter disregard for Rand’s novel and those who admire it.  He follows with the disdaining ‘hardly literature’.  I would suggest that any work that “excites somewhat eccentric youngsters to a new way of life” must be art, and while it is unsurprising that some people dislike the novel and criticize it accordingly, The Fountainhead counts unequivocally as literature.    

The artificial separation of what we do like and what we should like leads critics with social/political agendas to praise what they don’t admire, and damn some things they do.  Instead of honestly assessing the impact of an art object, and attempting to understand the nature of the impact, we are asked to apply an external standard we may or may not understand.  This results in a social/cultural position, not an aesthetic one, and every working artist should find their own way through the dense forests of art and literature and discover for themselves unique delights, passions, scenes and people, then stand up for their own unique taste and critical judgment, and express themselves accordingly – in their work, or to themselves, if nowhere else.  If that risks making one a ‘philistine’, someone with bad taste, or no taste at all, so be it.  If you can’t decide for yourself, give up art and go back to writing email:

It’s a little absurd, as the cartoonist David Levine has sometimes mentioned, that criticism should be the business of specialists.  It ought not to require years of education for a man to pronounce judgment on a blank canvas presented as a finished work of art, or knowledge of all music from Bach to Robert Helps for a man to assess the aesthetic significance of blowing up a grand piano. (88)

Having said that, it is important to keep in mind that

no matter what our judgment of taste may be about a given work, it is possible to have imperfect, maladroit, or incomplete perceptions of it, whether through the fault of performance, as when an orchestra is bad, or the fault of circumstance, as when a painting is poorly illuminated, or the fault of the spectator, as when he is inattentive or, for lack of training, simply not qualified. (89)

For this reason, if a critic you respect admires an art object you don’t, try to understand the nature of the critic’s appreciation.  Doing so may lead to new insights, and if nothing else, sharpen your critical skills by examining the process in others.  In some instances you may discover, even after sincere and sympathetic effort, that you cannot accept the critic’s judgment.  That’s okay – we are all different, and our tastes will inevitably diverge, even among those otherwise very much alike. 

While developing your own critical standards, it may help to keep in mind T. S. Eliot’s critique of Gertrude Stein’s work, as it serves as a reasonably good rule of thumb:  “It is not improving, it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one’s mind.” (90)   Or take Oscar Wilde, when he wrote

there is no doubt that whatever amusement we may find in reading a purely modern novel, we have rarely any artistic pleasure in re-reading it.  And this is perhaps the best rough test of what is literature and what is not.  If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use reading it at all. (91)

On the other hand, a novel that must be read several times to appreciate isn’t worth reading once (or so my daughter tells me).  In most cases, if I don’t initially admire what I read (Joyce, Pynchon, for example), I never do, even after extensive study and significant effort to understand the appeal these writers have for others.  Henry James is a notable exception: after plowing through Wings of the Dove, I read several critical essays that greatly increased my appreciation for the novel, and turned my initial ho-hum experience into genuine appreciation.  The same thing happened with The Turn of the Screw.  I didn’t get it, until I read the commentary.  Once I did, I was impressed by what James had accomplished.  Perhaps this simply points out my limits as a reader.  But keeping this kind of exception in mind, in most cases the reader can decide for themselves what is good and what isn’t, and learn to trust their own critical judgment.  The writer needs to recognize

The artist who works at what he’s trying to say so clumsily that he cannot get it said, and the artist whose statement is so much like everybody else’s that nobody finds it worth listening to—these are frauds, apprentices, or fools. (92)

It is the mission of all working novelists to avoid falling into one of these unworthy categories.

Opposing Critical Opinion

We cannot rely on the critical opinion of others, even the most exalted, as literary history is replete with radically conflicting opinions that mutually exclude themselves.  For example, take the reputation of Mark Twain’s finest work as expressed unequivocally by Mencken, Hemingway and Joyce Carol Oates:


  • Huckleberry Finn—the greatest work of fiction yet produced by an American… [1909] (93)

  • All modern American Literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn…it’s the best book we’ve had. (94)

  • Huckleberry Finn occupies a singular place in our American literature, like nothing before or since; nothing that Twain himself wrote approaches it in depth, or in energy and inspiration. (95)


Yet Faulkner, certainly a credible reader and critic, considered Mark Twain “a hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tricked out a few of the proven ‘sure fire’ literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.” (96)  In another example, Dostoevsky greatly admired Cervantes:

There is nothing in the world more profound and powerful than [Don Quixote].  It is the ultimate and greatest word yet uttered by human thought, it is the most bitter irony that a man could express, and if the world should end and people were asked there, somewhere, ‘Well, did you understand your life on earth and what conclusions have you drawn from it?’ a person could silently point to Don Quixote: ‘Here is my conclusion about life, can you judge me for it?’ (97)

Milan Kundera agrees, when he asserts that “The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes.” (98)   And yet Ford Madox Ford, another literary authority, practically credits Cervantes with the destruction of Western Civilization:

Cervantes…did this world and our time so great a disservice that I have no intention of increasing, however microscopically, the number of his readers by writing of him.  The gentle ideal of chivalry is the one mediaeval trait which, had it survived as an influence, might have saved our unfortunate civilization.  Cervantes by his vulgar kick in the behind to its departing form covered it with a ridicule that is perpetuated by every schoolboy-minded contemporary who guffaws over the distresses of the good knight of La Mancha. (99)

Shakespeare serves as another interesting case.  Harold Bloom believes that he is “the largest writer we ever will know.”   He adds that “his powers of assimilation and of contamination are unique and constitute a perpetual challenge to universal performance and to criticism.” (100)   Bloom places the Bard at the pinnacle when he asserts that “Shakespeare and the Western Canon are one and the same.” (101)   He goes on to place Hamlet at the center of the Shakespearean canon.  Yet Henry Miller could not ‘abide’ (10)2 the Bard, and Tolstoy famously despised him, relating the following experience:

I remember seeing Rossi’s performance of Hamlet, in which the tragedy itself and the actor playing the leading role are considered by our critics to be the last word in dramatic art.  And yet, during the whole time of the performance, I experienced both from the content of the play and from its performance that special suffering produced by false simulacra of artistic works. (103)

We expect profound sensibility in the greatest writers, yet George Steiner asks “Where is there a Shakespearean philosophy or intelligible ethic?” (104)   Ford Madox Ford provides very faint praise for the master when he writes that

Shakespeare is just ourselves at no excruciatingly esoteric mental level.  The English or American adult male is said to remain all his life at about the intellectual high water mark of the fourteen-year-old schoolboy and there is nothing in the thought of Shakespeare’s plays that an intelligent fourth-form schoolboy could not enthusiastically applaud and corroborate. (105)  In other words, Shakespeare today would write great sit-coms, and a good movie now and again (perhaps something like West Side Story).

Dostoevsky provides another great example.  Sigmund Freud writes that “Dostoevsky’s place is not far behind Shakespeare.  The Brothers Karamazov is the most magnificent novel ever written; the episode of the Grand Inquisitor, one of the peaks in the literature of the world, can hardly be valued too highly.” (106)   Yet Nabokov, certainly an authority on Russian literature, writes:

My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one.  In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me – namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius.  From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one – with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between. (107)

And for our final example, we come full circle in considering Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.  In J. Peder Zane’s recent book The Top Ten, one hundred and twenty five working writers collectively (using an admirable methodology where each of them listed the top ten novels) ranked Anna Karenina the greatest.  But Dostoevsky had the following to say about Tolstoy’s novel:

Every character is so stupid, commonplace, and trivial that you positively do not comprehend how Count Tolstoy can direct our attention to them.  There are so many vital, substantial questions among us, crying out so threateningly, on which depend either life or death, and suddenly we are asked to devote time to Officer Vronksy’s infatuation with a fashionable lady and what ensued as a result.  We are so accustomed to stifling in this salon atmosphere, and we encounter banality and mediocrity so incessantly, and then you pick up a novel by our best Russian novelist and encounter the very same thing! (108)

Tolstoy himself agreed with Dostoevsky when he wrote “What’s so difficult about describing how an officer gets entangled with a woman?  There’s nothing difficult in that, and above all, nothing worthwhile.  It’s bad, and it serves no purpose.” (109)   Bloom extolled the virtues of Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, yet Tolstoy himself considered it “stupid.” (110)   And Henry James, according to Bloom, “could not abide the novels of Tolstoy (‘loose, baggy monsters’)…” (111)  

Kazin explains this critical diversity when he writes that the “The critic who has the equipment to be a force, the critic who can set up standards for his age, must be a partisan of one kind of art and a bitter critic of another.”  He goes on to provide specific examples:  "Like Johnson, he will be unfair to the metaphysicals; like Goethe, to Holderlin; like Sainte-Beuve, to Flaubert; like Arnold, to Whitman; like Emerson, to Dickens; like Henry James, to Tolstoy; like Eliot, to Shelley; like Wilson, to Kafka; like Trilling, to Dreiser.  Such a critic will be not only unfair,” Kazin insists, “he will pursue his prejudice to the point of absurdity, setting up a straw figure that will serve to bear all his dislike and even his hatred of a certain kind of art.” (112)

Perhaps there is no avoiding such radical departures in critical taste, as no single standard for literary greatness exists, or even what stands as literature.  The working novelist has no choice but to decide for him or herself. 

Taking Criticism from Others

Inexperienced novelists benefit greatly from soliciting criticism from friends, family and strangers, and learning how to use it to improve their work.  Strangers are often the most valuable critics as they are typically less concerned with giving offence.  Sympathetic readers can also help the writer determine if the vision, image, ideas, and emotion in the writer’s mind actually makes it to the page:

An objective style is one in which the words are so arranged that the reader is downright compelled to think exactly the same thing as the author has thought.  But this will come about only if the author continually remembers that thoughts obey the law of gravity to this extent, that they travel much more easily from head down to paper than they do from paper up to head, so that for the latter journey they require all the assistance we can give them. (113)

Often writers do not work hard enough to get their intent fully transferred from paper to the mind of the reader, and other times they just don’t realize they haven’t succeeded.  The writer knows what they mean (at least they should), what they think, the point of the sentence, paragraph or page; but it helps if someone plays it back to the writer to see if they understand it the same way it was originally intended.

Good constructive criticism is very difficult to provide, and finding someone that can read, understand, judge and articulate effectively is harder still.  For the new novelist, learning to incorporate critical feedback from such a person is perhaps most difficult of all, so the entire process is wrought with creative challenges.

Several dozen people read my first novel, but only a few provided valuable criticism.  The first was a close friend and accomplished artist, musician and writer.  I had been sending him finished chapters as I completed them, and about eight months after I started writing the novel, he sent me six-page critical letter: single-spaced, with 10-point font.  While I was blessed to have someone make such an effort, the letter devastated me.  One of the opening paragraphs went like this: 

You have told me more than once that you don’t believe you are made of the stuff of great writers or artists [this is true, and still is].  Get that idea out of your head, at least while you are writing this book.  Do this even if it requires fooling yourself or drinking a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon; do this even if you have to write with your left hand while your right hand is stiffing ten dollar bills in the G-string of a dancer at Les Girls [where we had my bachelor party]; do this even if you can only do it for five minutes at a time at 3:30am.  Get the point?  Write with your mind, not your brain.  Write from the part of you that’s scared, not the part that’s 100% sure.

He followed with specific criticisms.  Each paragraph began with a major point, followed by detailed examples and suggestions.  Some of the major points included:
 

  • Put some color and energy in your prose.

  • The fluidity of Still Dawn is sacrificed repeatedly by the interjection of long, sterile descriptions that read more like a manual than a novel.

  • Write dialogue that is expressive and real.

  • …and trim the superfluities from around it’s ears, please.

  • I don’t mean to sound discouraging, but I believe every single page needs to be trimmed.


Yes, the final page contained positive points, but what came before crushed them into insignificance.  No amount of suger-coating could soften the message: I was terrible. 

Everything he wrote seemed valid, and nothing made me balk.  He didn’t attack me or the novel, and he remained respectful, objective and credible throughout.  It was a great learning experience, but...the letter took the writing wind right out of my literary sails.  I didn’t write for months, and didn’t know if I ever would again.

But when I proceeded, I was much better.  His critique improved my craft, but more importantly, I proceeded with a renewed determination to keep at it no matter what obstacles I encountered, including such discouraging letters.

Two years later I received a critical letter from another reader, this time from a person I never met.  I had finished the novel by then, and he obtained a copy from his ex-wife, a woman who worked for me.  The first paragraph of his letter included the following sentence:

Overall, an outstanding book in which I was captivated most of the time and felt enriched by it at the end.

Among his other criticisms (he returned a copy loaded with sticky notes), he recommended restructuring the beginning.  At first, this was difficult to seriously consider, as the suggested changes were radical.  I let the suggestion sink in and digested for several weeks until it made sense.  The novel had been structurally flawed all along, and he made it clear why, and what to do about it.  He provided the key insight to make it right.  Until then, the novel had been rejected by over a dozen agents, but once I made the change, the next agent to read the overview and sample chapters (including those that had been restructured) offered to represent it.  It was subsequently read by several publishers but never placed.  He ended the letter with the following comment:

Your book reminded me of Orson Scott Card’s Red Prophet Trilogy but I actually like yours better (forgive me Orson!).

If you are lucky, and persistent, and open to criticism, and share your work with others, you may receive similar valuable advice.  And if you are really lucky, you will figure out how to use it.

Sometimes you get sincere feedback that validates your efforts and encourages you to continue.  While this has limited value in terms of improving your work (if there is nothing to change, than there is no opportunity to get better), it does provide a spiritual lift which every writer can use once in awhile.  A year or so after that letter, I received one from the daughter of a person who worked for me.  Her letter began:

I just completed your book Still Dawn.  To start off I would just like to tell you that it was an incredibly well written book.  I have read many science fiction novels and yours definitely surpassed them in intricacy, compelling, enjoyable to read novels.  I began reading it Saturday morning and barely left my room until finishing early on Monday.  [all 170,000 words, no less]

She goes on to provide some specific critical suggestions, all of them relatively minor, then finishes with this:

All in all it was an incredible book that I was immensely hooked on.  I liked the way everything fit together in the end.



                              There is nothing more awful than imagination devoid of taste.

                                          Goethe, Harold Bloom’s Where Shall Wisdom be Found?
 

Notes for Chapter 6 – The Reading Novelist
 

  1. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
  2. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
  3. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
  4. John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture
  5. Ibid
  6. George Steiner, No Passion Spent
  7. Somerset Maugham, The Ten Best Novels in the World
  8. Proust, Time Regained
  9. Henry Green, quoted by John Updike in More Matter
  10. Harold Bloom, How to Read and Why
  11. Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
  12. Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  13. John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture
  14. Jean-Yves Tadie, Proust – a life
  15. Philip Roth, Reading Myself and Others
  16. George Steiner, My Unwritten Books
  17. John Updike, Odd Jobs
  18. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  19. John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture
  20. Ford Maddox Ford, quoted by Gore Vidal in United States
  21. Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
  22. John Updike, Odd Jobs
  23. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  24. Proust, Swann’s Way
  25. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  26. John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture
  27. Logan Pearsall Smith, American Literary Anecdotes, Robert Hendrickson
  28. Wordsworth, quoted by Carlos Baker in Emerson Among the Eccentrics
  29. Jean-Yves Tadie, Proust – a life
  30. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  31. William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life
  32. Valery, quoted by Adorno in, Notes to Literature Vol. I
  33. T. S. Elliot, Selected Essays
  34. Ibid
  35. Maxwell Perkins, Editor to Author
  36. Gore Vidal, United States
  37. Cornelius Mathews, in Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism
  38. Edgar Allan Poe, Literary Theory and Criticism
  39. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory
  40. Cornelius Mathews, in Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism
  41. Walter Benjamin, Rainer Rochlitz The Disenchantment of Art
  42. T. S. Elliot, Selected Essays
  43. Harold Bloom, Genius
  44. Lore Segal, John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction
  45. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
  46. Tim O’Brien, quoted in Mark Carne’s Novel History
  47. Samuel Johnson, Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  48. Henry James, Literary Criticism – French, European
  49. T. S. Elliot, Selected Essays
  50. Art Berman, From the New Criticism to Deconstruction
  51. D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature
  52. Bulwer, Edgar Allan Poe’s Literary Theory and Criticism
  53. Edgar Allan Poe, Literary Theory and Criticism
  54. Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience
  55. Walter Benjamin, quoted by Rainer Rochlitz in The Disenchantment of Art – The Philosophy of Walter Benjamin
  56. George Steiner, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky
  57. Somerset Maugham, The Ten Best Novels of the World
  58. Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
  59. Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries
  60. H. L. Mencken, Smart Set Criticism
  61. Ibid
  62. George Orwell, Essays
  63. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto
  64. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
  65. Terry Eagleton, The English Novel
  66. Hugh Kenner, The Counterfeiters
  67. Ralph Ellison, Essays
  68. Eudora Welty, The Eye of the Story
  69. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
  70. Ibid
  71. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations
  72. Terry Eagleton, The English Novel
  73. Lukac, The Theory of the Novel
  74. Somerset Maugham’s The Ten Best Novels of the World
  75. John Middleton Murray, quoted by Robertson Davies in The Merry Heart
  76. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
  77. Henry Miller, The Books in my Life
  78. Kant, quoted by Gadamer in Truth and Method
  79. Alexander Theroux, Ford Madox Ford’s The March of Literature
  80. Somerset Maugham’s The Ten Best Novels of the World
  81. Auden, The Dyer’s Hand
  82. John Cowper Powys, The Meaning of Culture
  83. Ibid
  84. T. S. Elliot, Selected Essays
  85. Ayn Rand, The Romantic Manifesto
  86. Ibid
  87. Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind
  88. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
  89. Mikel Dufrenne, The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience
  90. T. S. Elliot, quoted by Elizabeth Hardwick in Sight Readings
  91. Oscar Wilde, The Artist as Critic
  92. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction
  93. H. L. Mencken, Smart Set Criticism
  94. Hemingway, quoted by Harold Bloom in Genius
  95. Joyce Carol Oates, Where I’ve been and Where I am Going
  96. Faulkner, Essays, Speeches and Public Letters
  97. Dostoevsky, quoted by Mikhail Bakhtin in Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics
  98. Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel
  99. Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
  100. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon
  101. Ibid
  102. Henry Miller, The Books in My Life
  103. Tolstoy, What is Art?
  104. George Steiner, No Passion Spent
  105. Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
  106. Sigmund Freud, quoted by Rene Wellek in Dostoevsky – Collection of Critical Essays
  107. Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature
  108. Dostoevsky, quoted by Joseph Frank in Dostoevsky – Mantle of the Prophet
  109. Tolstoy, quoted by John Updike in Odd Jobs
  110. Ibid
  111. Harold Bloom, Genius
  112. Alfred Kazin, Contemporaries
  113. Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms