I recently finished a novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and I can barely remember what happened except to say it had the general message that racism is bad, mixed race identity confusing. This message has been delivered a thousand times already. It seems to be enough to raise the same question over and over without adding anything new. But people praise the book. It’s supposed to be really good. And it was well-written, but shouldn’t there be more to a novel than “well-written”?
I don’t mean to pick on this particular novel. Disappointment with most contemporary novels is a pattern for me, and I wondered if it was my fault. Erikleo recommended Colin Wilson’s book, The Craft of the Novel, after I had made these complaints in a previous post. I have to say, I found Colin Wilson’s open and thoughtful critique of all authors great and small right up my alley. He raises the bar…and isn’t afraid of disparaging James Joyce or claiming that “The Lord of the Rings must be regarded as one of the most successful works of art of the twentieth century.” This pomposity would be irksome under normal circumstances, but in the context of our lax intellectual standards in fiction these days, I found it refreshing in its decisiveness, even if he turns out to be wrong. He insists that successful novels should have meaning and, more specifically, ideas. He summarizes the novelist’s goals at the end of chapter four, As for Living:
1. The aim of the novel is to produce wide-angle consciousness. Everyday consciousness is narrow and limited; the novel is one of the most interesting compensations that man as so far devised.
2. The novel is substitute experience. Most of us have an appetite for a far wider range of experience than our lives afford. To some extent, the novel can provide it. It can even provide forms of experience that would have been impossible in reality.
3. The novel is a form of thought-experiment. Like the thought-experiments of the philosopher, its aim is to teach us something about the real world.
4. Ideally, the aim of the novel is not only to produce wide-angle consciousness, but also three-dimensional consciousness—something allied to the opium experience (the sense of relaxing and opening up), but with an unimpaired sense of reality—a recognition of the enormous and fascinating complexity of the world.
5. Unsuccessful novels are thought-experiments that have failed to ‘come out right’, like a calculation that has gone wrong, or a laboratory experiment in which the experimenter has made some crucial error.
6. The aim of all these thought-experiments is the exploration of human freedom.
Freedom? Thought experiments? This sounds like the language of philosophy. Indeed, Wilson says, “‘Describing reality’ and ‘telling the truth’ are only secondary aims, the novelist’s credentials—his authority for demanding the reader’s attention. His real aim is to understand himself, to grasp his own purpose…” In other words, writing fiction is a philosophical journey.
Wilson seems aware of the usual platitudes that come from writer’s workshops. You can succeed in doing all the things the workshops tell you to do (show don’t tell, keep consistent POV, use only relevant details, don’t describe physical appearance by having characters gaze into mirrors, avoid omniscient unless you’re awesome…) and still fail because you don’t have ideas. “Most of the writers who have landed in blind alleys—from Flaubert to Beckett—have done so because they placed too much faith in artistic intuition, and too little in thought.” I think this is still going on. Would-be writers go to school and study writing. But what will they write about? They are told they already have things to write about, that everyone has something to say, it’s just a matter of saying it right. I disagree. This Mr. Rogers attitude has made writers intellectually and conceptually lazy. Workshop junkies would be better off stepping outside the ring for a moment to expand their horizons.
Wilson’s not advocating a cerebral novel with lengthy soliloquies or sermons. He’s saying it’s not enough to hold a mirror up to the universe. “A writer needs to have some idea—no matter how vague—of what he would actually prefer.” The mirror should be held up to the author as well. So many novels simply tell the story of a bleak and meaningless universe, a general sense of dissatisfaction, author nowhere to be found. Many would argue that the author is always there all along. I can see this point; we like to say that journalists, even when they take every step to be impartial, can’t help but reflect themselves in their selection of details, that Objectivity is impossible. However, novelists shouldn’t strive to be journalists. Even if the author is “there all along” holding up the mirror to the world, he’s still trying to hide, to make no claims, and this is boring. I suspect that if authors are forced to come out of hiding, they might take it upon themselves to have something to say.
I also suspect that omniscient has gone out of style because it puts the narrator-author too much in the foreground. (Here I’m not speaking of the clever omniscient of Jonathan Franzen, for instance, where it pops in from time to time, but stays for the most part in 3rd person limited and never makes sweeping claims). The topic of omniscience could be an entire post, so I won’t go into it here.
But this concept of expressing a positive idea of oneself is itself a bit vague. Wilson insists we must tell the story of a search for freedom, but here does not explain what freedom is. The most I could find were statements such as this:
Freedom is the same for all human beings, but the maze inside each of us is different. The novelist’s aim is to reach the freedom at the end of his own maze.
Lovely prose, but what does it mean?
Next post will be on the meaning of freedom. I give you all time to ponder that. Heavy topic, I know. My philosopher readers will have a lot to say and I can’t wait to hear it, but I hope it won’t be too intimidating for the fiction writers out there.
What do you think is the aim of the novel? (Not necessarily a philosophical novel this time, but all novels.) What do you think makes a novel meaningful? What’s your favorite novel? Why?