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Friday, November 03, 2006


Important subjects

I've just been reading Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Great book, lots of fun, some very fine character writing. But the introduction I have is the biggest pile of nonsense I've ever heard.

Now, for those of you who haven't read Northanger Abbey, it's a early work that Austen rewrote later in her life, and, like much juvenilia, has flashes of brilliance and moments of poverty - particularly a dreadfully rushed ending in which she sets up a complicated plot scenario, then tops it off with a chapter saying, basically, 'And then some good things happened so everyone sorted out their problems.' Because of this, most people view it as one of her weaker novels, if still very good.

But not so my critic friend who wrote this intro. No, he had a new theory: it's one of her best. And why? Because unlike her other books, Northanger Abbey takes on the question of what it means to be a novel.

Which it does, of course. There are sections written entirely in defence of the novel as a form - it was a new thing back then and got unreasonably sneered at. It's also heavily influenced by the Gothic novels that were popular back then, and plays around with them in the latter half of its plot in a very funny way. Does that mean the ending isn't rushed? Of course not. But that's not the point, according to our critic. He thinks that - and this is the reason I'm getting irritable about it, because I have an English degree and listened to far too much of this stupid theory - the highest aim for a literary work is to 'interrogate' or 'challenge' or otherwise make you think about the form it's written in. Not just a legitimate aim, but the highest.

Let me say that again: he thinks that fiction that questions the nature of fiction is better than any other kind.

Why? Novels can talk about anything. Let's take a few examples from among my personal favourites. Beloved, Toni Morrison: primarily about the problems of slavery and recovery from slavery in America. Frost In May, Antonia White: about the spiritual survival of a child in an intense religious atmosphere. Middlemarch, George Eliot: about the life of an entire town, and particularly about the possibility of achieving exceptional goodness or worth in relentlessly unexceptional circumstances. Slavery, spiritual surival, goodness - more or less important than how to write a book? Feel free to post and add favourites of your own, because I have the very definite conviction that everyone can, off the top of their heads, think of novels that tackle questions that are more important to most people than 'what makes a novel?'

But it really gets me that so many critics take it for granted that the best works of art interrogate their form. Novels speak, they have personality. Is a person automatically brilliant if his chief topic of conversation is himself?

This is a theory that's bad for writers. Naming no names, I've read novels reduced from interesting tales of psychological friction to pointless babbling about the nature of novelhood, and it ruins them.

More than that, it shows a fatal misunderstanding of how writing works. Jane Austen wrote an early work that dealt with the question of novels. Why? Or to put it another way, if the nature of novel-writing is the biggest question a novelist can answer, why isn't Northanger Abbey a mature work that she decided to tackle once she got some experience under her belt and felt ready to do something really important? Why, after Northanger Abbey, did one of the greatest writers of the English language move on to writing stories about people and skip the theory section?

Because novels are an image of the heart and mind of the author. And when you first pick up the pen, the desire to be a writer looms very large in both. A lot of early work begins by being stories about other stories. It's not because that's the highest calling, it's because it's the first step. If you begin writing when you're young, often your reading experience outstrips your life experience. If you want to write, you love to read, and your favourite authors will be casting their shadows over your desk. Your mind is crowded with the writers that you want to measure up to, and that comes out in your work. 'How can I be a writer?' is an early question; once you get some experience, you answer it and move on to more interesting ones. Interrogating other works is very often the leaf litter on top of the rich soil, which you have to sweep up in before you can bed down and get to the real stuff. This isn't the case with all writers - some of them continue to do reference and metafiction after they've got experience - but it's a very common pattern. Northanger Abbey wasn't Austen pursuing her highest calling by challenging other writers, it was Austen getting those other writers out of her system.

Critics assume it's otherwise because they, of course, spend their days interrogating novels. I'm sure if a coal-miner was a critic, the books that spoke to him most would be about mining. But for a writer, stories about stories are frequently juvenilia, a kind of shake of the head to swing all your influences into their proper places and clear them from the deck.

I am so bored with this theory. There were so many seminars where my interest in the discussion, previously keen, suddenly flagged when we moved on to the question of 'how is the writer interrogating this form'? Do they have to interrogate it? Does every valid person in the world have to be in analysis? Do snakes tapdance?

Sometimes, I wish the form would just confess so we could get all the interrogations over with. It's only suffering unnecessarily in the meantime.

"I've read novels reduced from interesting tales of psychological friction to pointless babbling about the nature of novelhood..."

Atonement? :-)

Seriously though, thanks for the rant. It sums up a lot of what I
though about criticism but couldn't articulate myself.
I don't have a problem with sensible criticism. I don't think I'd ever have enjoyed Dickens as much if I hadn't read John Carey's book on him, for example. It's just when critics go on an unexamined assumption that, on examination, is really really stupid, that it gets up my nose.

Post-modernism is, I think, one of those things that you tend to love or hate by instinct, and I always found it unreasonable that, at least when I was an undergrad, everybody was expected to study it. On a literature degree, it seemed peculiar - pomo is really a philosophical tradition loosely connected with literature rather than a branch of literary thought, and I hadn't signed up to study philosophy. I just get depressed by the attitude that every text and 'discourse' is simply grist to the pomo mill; it's like you're only capable of one kind of pleasure in life. Pomo seems to like critics far more than it likes writers, which, given that it's invented and proposed by critics, seems rather more competitive than evaluative, which I found a bit suspect.

'Jouissance' my eye.
I haven't read a lot of the classics, but fiction about the nature of fiction just sounds like an essay, right?

I still like novels about authors, for example, Margaret Wander Bonanno's 'Preternatural', Martha Grimes' 'Foul Matter', and Georgette Heyer's 'Sylvester' are all really entertaining reads. Plus, they're about writers, and who loves writers more than writers? But the subjects of the stories are about human nature, not on the importance of writing about it.

I was a fatalist at a young age. I'd watch a horror movie, and expect the hero or heroine to die. I didn't understand why they'd do so much running before hand. When they'd triumph, I'd be like, "yeah, right." Then I read Christopher Pike's books and something about the way he told the story made me believe that if I fought with everything in me, I could triumph over my enemies. Changed my life, my mindset, but does he have a story about it? Er, no! Pike rules!

Okay, lunch, then back to NaMoWriMo...
A lot of the classics are actually really entertaining, if you can just ignore what the sillier critics say about them. You might well like Jane Austen if you like Georgette Heyer, for example (assuming you're in any way interested in a recommendation).

Personally I can't be having with novels that have authors as their central characters - or at least, it's much more unlikely I'll enjoy them. There's too much potential for self-justification, navel-gazing and general Mary Sueing. I think it's your 'who loves writers more than writers' point that sort of sums it up for me. When I'm reading, I'm a reader, not a writer. It tends to feel like the writer has stopped talking to me to look in a mirror.

Some exceptions, of course. 'David Copperfield' gets away with it by the simple expedient of confining its hero's literary career to the occasional 'And then I wrote another book and it turned out to sell well. So anyway, what was happening in my personal life was...' I've seen other writers write about a painter or musician, which tends to work better, I think. But that's just personal taste; metafiction has always gotten right on my wick, but I know some people like it.

(Incidentally, the deleted comment was me editing this post - I posted, then spotted a mistake in it. Not censoring a troll or anything; everyone who's posted here so far has been lovely.)
Oh wait, I figured out how to delete the 'this comment has been deleted' icon as well, so now there's no reference to it. Gradually, Kit learns the mysteries of technology...
Nice post - couldn't agree with you more. Why can't a novel just entertain (in however many ways)? Thinking about "challenging the form" seems to me to be worryingly anal. A good novel can make you think about any number of things and change your outlook on life, people, etc. Anyway, you asked for favourites, and mine is "The shape of things to come", because it's the only novel that really did change my life, and is a book everyone should have to read, especially before they get old enough to start hating people and things. But then, I don't think Wells ever drew attention to the form he was writing in because he was so worried by his "race between education and disaster". I suppose it helps to be really motivated to higher goals when you write!
Hm, I haven't read 'The Shape of Things to Come'. Probably should. I loved 'The Island of Dr Moreau' - MAN that's a scary book. Brr.

Interesting point you made about it changing your life; you've given me an idea for the next post...
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