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Chapter 9 - What a Literary Novelist Strives to Achieve
The first quality of the literary art is delight.
Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature
The novelist fully develops his or her critical taste so they can write novels they would like to read:
Walter Benjamin’s assessment of why people become writers: because they are unable to find a book already written that they are completely happy with. (1)
The process of writing a literary novel allows the author to delve into any subject, issue, situation, or topic of personal interest, areas they wish to explore in their fiction, psychologies and philosophies, characters and creations, landscapes and legends. In fact, T. S. Eliot argues that exploring ones interests is more than an opportunity, but in fact, absolutely necessary to write successfully:
The first requisite of…every…literary or artistic activity, is that it shall be interesting. And the first condition of being interesting is to have the tact to choose only those subjects in which one is really interested, those which are germane to one’s own temper. (2)
The successful literary artist writes what he or she likes. Not what other people like, not what they think other people think is good, not what is fashionable. To make a unique mark, one needs to find his or her own way, and create something they truly admire. There are more people who wish to write serious fiction than want to read it, so the novelist needs to ensure they have at least one appreciative reader—themselves. Gore Vidal makes a great point when insisting that the novelist go far beyond him or herself:
Write what you know will always be excellent advice for those who ought not to write at all. Write what you think, what you imagine, what you suspect: that is the only way out of the dead end of the Serious Novel which so many ambitious people want to write and on one on earth—or even on campus—wants to read. (3)
Vidal indicates a great benefit of writing literary novels: the author needn’t be satisfied with themselves nor their particular circumstances. Kafka provides the counterpoint, arguing that we must not settle for writing books that “make us happy”:
If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? So that it shall make us happy? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside us. (4)
Perhaps we can do both—create works we can admire, while breaking the frozen sea within.
The serious writer who wishes to produce high-quality fiction strives to achieve particular effects. In the best novels, the reader doesn’t have to understand how the effect is achieved, doesn’t consciously consider it, yet welcomes it when it occurs:
The writer, like all other artists, aims at giving his reader a certain feeling that is customarily called aesthetic pleasure, and which I would very much rather call aesthetic joy, and that this feeling, when it appears, is a sign that the work is achieved. (5)
One way the novelist can do this is to re-create effects he or she admires in other novels. Not that the admired work is copied; the novelist must accomplish the effect in a different way and within a different context, yet yield similar results. John Gardner describes good fiction as having
a staying power that comes from its ability to jar, turn on, move the whole intellectual and emotional history of the reader. (6)
The hanging of Esmeralda in Hugo’s Notre Dame of Paris shocks the reader. To create such an effect in one’s writing would be a special achievement. Another great literary moment can be found in Tolkien’s Return of the King, when Frodo stands at the edge of Mount Doom. The diminutive hobbit has struggled against enormous odds to reach this place. The fate of the world depends on his completing his mission and throwing the ring into the fires from which it originated. Doing so will defeat the evil that threatens Middle Earth with domination and destruction. And yet, both Frodo and the reader stand at the edge of that precipice, Frodo holding the ring in his hand, the reader ready to toss the book down in disgust if Frodo actually releases the ring into the fires, as doing so would violate the very structure of Middle-Earth, and undo the world Tolkien so wonderfully created. To devise such a moment, across so many pages and hundreds of thousands of words (consider of how Golem is treated beginning to end) is an enviable achievement.
Hemingway describes another admirable effect, when he writes that
All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer. (7)
This is how the best books enrich a reader’s life, and provide imaginative experiences outside the realm of actual existence. Not only does the reader contemplate and relive these experiences in their minds, a good book has the same effect that beauty has on John Updike:
We feel ourselves in the presence of beauty whenever we are lifted frictionlessly out of self-concern, whether a mountain or a watchworks does it. Beauty surprises us out of our egos, and like happiness must come around the corner unexpectedly. (8)
This aesthetic surprise and the forgetting of self is one of the truly wonderful benefits of both the creation and enjoyment of imaginative literature. Another goal of writing is summarized by Salmon Rushdie, when he writes that, “It is for the novelist to create, communicate, and sustain over time a personal and coherent vision of the world that entertains, interests, stimulates, provokes, and nourishes his readers.” (9) Goethe breaks it down like this:
Simple people are satisfied by seeing plenty of action, whereas a more cultured spectator will have his feelings engaged as well, and only a truly cultured person wants to reflect on a play. (10)
The same may be said of a movie, a musical performance, a novel, or any work of art: what resonates after the fact? Do we still feel it, think of it, ponder the images and emotions that the work generated, both at the time and for some time later? Henry James writes that
we prize all the very best things…according to our meditative after-sense of it. Then we see its lovely unity melting its brilliant parts into a single harmonious tone. (11)
Has the work become part of us, etched like letters in stone? If so, the work has succeeded, the desired effect has been achieved, and we find ourselves the better for it.
How to Achieve the Desired Effects
After reviewing some of the effects a serious novelist strives to achieve, it’s time to discuss how this is done. The effects can be achieved in a variety of ways, most often in various combinations of technique and approach.
Every novelist must have a philosophy, some kind of unified understanding of the universe, themselves, society, and people: it would be impossible to express anything coherent without it:
All art implies a philosophy insofar as philosophy is understood as a certain manner of expressing oneself through deciding about oneself and the meaning of all things, that is, as a mode of comprehension which is a project both of the universe and of the self. (12)
According to Terry Eagleton, though, modern novelists writing today tend to take very small slices of a lived experience, and treat it in microcosm:
The great European novel of the early twentieth century—Proust, Mann, Musil—was able to weave together myth and history, psychological insight and social commentary, ethics and politics, satire and spirituality, comedy and tragedy, realist narrative and a fantasia of the unconscious. As such, it offered to bring together the various domains—aesthetics, politics, ethics, history, psychology, mythology—which modernity itself had split off into so many uncommunicating fragments. In fact, it was almost the only place where these divided domains could still be drawn together. It was the novel, above all, which resisted the division of intellectual labor typical of modernity.
What happens later, with some notable exceptions, is that each of these spheres—myth, satire, social realism, individual psychology, the symbolism of the unconscious—goes its own sweet way and finds its own fictional niche. We may look to Evelyn Waugh for social satire, Virginia Woolf for psychological apercus, William Golding for metaphysical resonance and early Kingsley Amis for comedy, but Proust’s great novel encompasses them all. (13)
Writing a novel provides the opportunity to create a unity, a vision of totality that includes all. Reading such a novel exposes this vision to internal experience, providing the framework for a special appreciation available only to those who access it. “Everyone who achieves strives for totality,” Walter Benjamin writes, “and the value of his achievement lies in that totality—that is, in the fact that the whole, undivided nature of a human being should be expressed in his achievement.” (14) The successful novelist attempts to achieve an integrated totality. Doing so rewards the writer, and when successful, pleases the reader.
The structure of a novel is key to its success. The best novels have been deliberately designed, executed with purposeful intention, and re-worked until the form delivers the utmost aesthetic satisfaction. Lesser works are written ad-hoc, piecemeal, and without focus. This casual approach rarely yields something worth revisiting, whereas a novel that is structurally sound is capable of supporting the most profound literary edifice:
A work is formed when it is everywhere sharply delimited, but within those limits is limitless…, when it is wholly true to itself, is everywhere the same, yet elevated above itself. (15)
George Steiner writes that “The criterion of poetic truth is one of internal consistency and psychological conviction. Where the pressure of imagination is sufficiently sustained, we allow poetry the most ample liberties.” (16) A well-designed and executed structure provides the internal consistency and conviction that enables those liberties. Ayn Rand provides a good summary of how the different elements relate in a properly structured novel:
The theme of a novel can be conveyed only through the events of the plot, the events of the plot depend on the characterization of the men who enact them—and the characterization cannot be achieved except through the events of the plot, and the plot cannot be constructed without a theme.
This is the kind of integration required by the nature of a novel. And this is why a good novel is an indivisible sum: every scene, sequence and passage of a good novel has to involve, contribute to and advance all three of its major attributes: theme, plot, characterization. (17)
Many novelists do not agree with this approach, and instead feel they can simply write down what comes into their head, and a good novel will result. They work it out as they go along, make things up on the fly, curious I suppose to see where their creative muse will take them. Some novelists have even succeeded with this approach (although I can’t think of any), yet the vast majority do not. While it may be easier to write this way (although I argue in the next chapter that lack of proper preparation is probably the principle cause of ‘writer’s block’ and most responsible for the vast number of incomplete novels sitting in forgotten dusty drawers), the results will likely be overly personal to be enjoyable to a common reader, or disjointed, or lacking the substance to sustain aesthetic interest. The majority of excellent novels effectively integrate every major element until each scene advances and/or contributes to character, plot and theme. Anything that sticks out like an extra appendage gets removed by the author, or modified until it becomes a necessary piece of the whole.
WHAT MATTERS THE MOST
Another way novels can deliver aesthetic pleasure is by effectively treating what matters the most:
A great work of art explores and evokes the grounds and sanctions of our most important choices, valuations and decisions—those decisions which are not acts of will, but are so important that they seem to make themselves rather than to be made by us. (18)
This doesn’t limit the serious novelist to only treating the world’s great themes: what it means is that the novelist should write about what he or she cares about, what they think important. Doing so makes the work potentially interesting to others, and ensures the novelist remains passionate about the work. According to John Gardner, there is really no other reason to write a novel:
Finding an adequate subject and understanding it is the novelist’s only business. (19)
“It is John Gardner’s thesis,” Lore Segal writes, “that art has one realm: the human. When it concerns itself with a large subject it is great art. When it concerns itself with the trivial it is at best minor art, at worst precisely trivial, inadequate, vacuous.” (20) Every successful novelist strives for ‘great art’ by selecting a ‘large subject’, one of particular personal interest, and effectively treats it. Gardner elaborates:
Whether you write about dragons or businessmen, it’s in the careful scrutiny of cleanly apprehended characters, their conflicts and ultimate escape from immaturity, that the novel makes up its solid truths, finds courage to defend the good and attack the simpleminded. (21)
“Hence the temptation for the writer to write intellectual works,” Proust writes. “A work in which there are theories is like an object which still has its price-tag on it.” (22) Yet all literary novels reflect an intellect. Successful ones effectively integrate the intellectual content with the aesthetic: story, character, plot, theme. Dostoevsky, Proust and Rand do this very well; Musil and Mann not as well, but still in an agreeable manner. Tolstoy fails in this regard, as his ‘ideas’ stick out like unattractive appendages (most of the Levin sequence in Anna Karenina, for instance, and his theory of history in War and Peace):
IDEAS: My disgust for those who reduce a work to its ideas. My revulsion at being dragged into what they call “discussions of ideas.” My despair at this era befogged with ideas and indifferent to works. (23)
If the potential novelist possesses many good ideas, yet has no aesthetic sense, can’t tell a story, and lacks the desire to structure and plan, than they should probably stick to writing essays. Or teaching. Or criticism.
Is it possible to write something new, a sequence of events, a characterization, a thematic treatment that is unique? Whether possible or no, the successful novelist strives for essential uniqueness, which means they attempt to create a work of literary art. Doing so effectively contributes to aesthetic joy, as the reader experiences something they never imagined. “The prime quality of art,” Ford Madox Ford writes, “is the quality of surprise.” (24) Uniqueness can surprise, if it does nothing else, and with that surprise the possibility of pleasing.
Getting surprised becomes increasingly difficult the more one reads. Eventually one can no longer abide the ordinary, the genre novel, or the formulaic. This may account (at least in part) for the pleasure academics take in Ulysses. Regardless of its lack of novelistic attractiveness, it stands supremely unique in the literary world. Imagine all those literature professors, men and women who have spent a lifetime reading and studying just about everything, exulting over Joyce’s text: “It’s no fun reading, but golly is it different!” John Updike takes the right approach:
Always, to begin to write, I needed the sensation that I was about to reveal what had never yet been quite revealed… (25)
John Gardner is one who feels nothing truly new can be produced today. He does, however, insist that we must find new ways of treating time-honored themes:
Aesthetic styles—patterns for communicating feeling and thought—become dull with use, like carving knives, and since dullness is the chief enemy of art, each generation of artists must find new ways of slicing the fat off reality. (26)
The successful writer will be well-read. This poses difficulties, though, as the deeper one descends into the canon, the realization dawns how difficult it will be to produce something new. After reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Virginia Woolf concluded in despair that she could never write another novel, as the novel of all time had been written, and there was nothing she could possibly contribute that could compare. Harold Bloom addresses this issue through Goethe:
The motto for any new strong writer was provided (perhaps forever) by Goethe, who urged him to have “the persistence, will, and self-abnegation to acquaint himself thoroughly with the tradition while retaining enough strength and courage to develop his original nature independently and to treat the divers assimilated elements in his own way.” (27)
According to Gore Vidal, the best writers remain unconcerned with originality, as it comes naturally to them:
[Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Tolstoy] were men of genius unobsessed by what Goethe once referred to as “an eccentric desire for originality.” Or as Saul Bellow puts it: “Genius is always, without strain, avant-garde. Its departure from tradition is not the result of caprice or of policy but of an inner necessity.” (28)
Ultimately, all successful novelists strive to attain this admirable attitude. They will maintain a natural interest in generating original works, without undue regard for common opinion.
WHAT COULD BE
Another way to generate aesthetic pleasure is to project a vision of what could be, or perhaps more pointedly, what should be.
The man of genius cannot give birth to undying works save by creating them not in the image of the mortal being that he is, but in the image of the representative example of humanity that he bears within him. (29)
Many authors drag their reader through society’s mud (Zola, Celine), and present the unseemly side of life, some in despair, many with apparent glee. The more terrible the better, it seems (or so the sophisticated critics would have us believe). Another approach would be to explore the limits of human possibility. “The significance we look for in creative literature is a matter of the sense of life,” F. R. Leavis writes, “the sense of the potentialities of human experience, it conveys.” (30) Lionel Trilling indicates that this was once common:
What so animated the novel of the nineteenth century was the passionate – the “revolutionary” – interest in what man should be. It was, that is, a moral interest, and the world had the sense of a future moral revolution. Nowadays the novel, and especially in the hands of the radical intellectuals, has become enfeebled and mechanical: its decline coincides with the increasing indifference to the question, What should man become? (31)
“I see the novelist,” writes Ayn Rand, “as a combination of prospector and jeweler. The novelist must discover the potential, the gold mine, of man’s soul, must extract the gold and then fashion as magnificent a crown as his ability and vision permit.” (32) Striking this golden vein provides the best opportunity to deliver aesthetic bliss.
Neanderthal man listened to stories…The novelist droned on, and as soon as the audience guessed what happened next, they either fell asleep or killed him. (33)
More than anything, serious fiction tends to lack sustained interest. No planned structure, aesthetic intent, story, or suspense. All that common stuff seems beneath too many literary authors. The agony, the artistic struggle, the profound complexities, the poetically opaque prose – that’s what too many believe important, when in fact, there are far more people who write such boring serious literature than wish to read it. Blame the critics. I do.
The first rule – whether you are a writer or a dancer or a fiddle player or a painter is – don’t bore people. My dad used to say that good writing ain’t necessarily good reading. A lot of people think good writing is like the compulsories in figure skating; it goes round in circles and doesn’t go anywhere. If I’m going to skate, I’m going to race. (34)
As I have indicated elsewhere, a good novel is one that is enjoyable to read. It is entertaining, in the best sense of that word. “All styles are good except the boring,” (35) Voltaire tells us.
The main object of the novel is to represent life. I cannot understand any other motive for interweaving imaginary incidents, and I do not perceive any other measure of the value of such combinations. The effect of a novel—the effect of any work of art—is to entertain; but that is a very different thing. The success of a work of art, to my mind, may be measured by the degree to which it produces a certain illusion; that illusion makes it appear to us for the time that we have lived another life—that we have had a miraculous enlargement of experience. The greater the art the greater the miracle, and the more certain also the fact that we have been entertained—in the best meaning of that word, at least, which signifies that we have been living at the expense of some one else. (36)
Robert Kellogg summarizes Meir Sternberg’s “innovative approach to three interlocking kinds of narrative interest,” including
suspense, which involves the reader’s interest in what will be told; curiosity, which involves the reader’s interest in gaps in what has been told; and surprise, which involves the reader’s activity of recognition when gaps are filled in unexpected ways.” (37)
A novel that doesn’t accomplish some element of this narrative interest will likely go seriously unread.
Dullness is the chief enemy of art… (38)
A novel can be just about anything – complicated, simple, short, long, poorly written, beautifully styled, oddly structured – but it can’t be dull and good at the same time:
Most of the fiction one reads—I mean contemporary fiction, but the same may be said of fiction done in Dicken’s day, most of it by now ground to dust by time’s selectivity—is trash. It makes no real attempt at original and interesting style, and the story it tells is boring….What writers do, if they haven’t been misled by false canons of taste or some character defect, is try to make up an interesting story and tell it in an authentically interesting way—that is, someway that, however often we may read it, does not turn out to be boring. (39)
Aiming higher, Harold Bloom provides the recipe for joining the immortal literary ranks:
One breaks into the canon only by aesthetic strength, which is constituted primarily of an amalgam: mastery of figurative language, originality, cognitive power, knowledge, exuberance of diction. (40)
While actually achieving such a breakthrough is fantastically unlikely, every successful novelist strives for it. The alternative is to end up in the book racks at the grocery store, setting there next to Stephen King, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton. “If you must fail then fail in terms of your art,” Gilbert Sorrentino writes. “Don’t abandon it for something that looks like art but which is apple pie to you. So that, in the pursuit of its easy crafting, you become a Great Man. It then becomes sour grapes for anyone to breathe that you once had something real occurring in your work.” (41)
If you are capable of doing something special, do it. If you only think you are capable of doing something special, do it still. Make it your best. Do not compromise, do not simplify, do not pander. Because in the end, the only opinion that matters is your own, and you will, in that end, reading as the most critical of readers, emasculate the author in the same way he has emasculated his talent, his potential, his artistic energy. You can either be pleased with your literary effort, knowing you made it your best, or disgusted, admitting that you let yourself down for no good reason.
A true work of fiction does all of the following things, and does them elegantly, efficiently: it creates a vivid and continuous dream
in the reader’s mind; it is implicitly philosophical; it fulfills or at least deals with all of the expectations it sets up; and it strikes us,
in the end, not simply as a thing done but as a shining performance.
John Gardner, Writers and Writing
Notes for Chapter 9 – What a Literary Novelists Strives to Achieve