Thursday, May 26, 2005

There are no Great Novels

In my previous post, John Carey and the Arts (set out immediately below this one), I promised to supply an extract from my book The Truth about Writing: an extract which deals with the question of whether there is, or is not, such a thing as a Great Novel.

Here is that extract. But if you haven't yet read the piece on John Carey, then I suggest you do so first.

There are no Great Novels

The theory of emotion which is expounded in the previous sections [of my book The Truth about Writing] has a number of interesting implications. Here is a discussion of the first of them.
Almost every teacher and lecturer in the field of English literature will seek to convince you that there is something called a Great Novel.

The alleged great novel may be, for instance, James Joyce’s Ulysses, a book which, it so happens, I much admire; or it may be D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, a book which, it so happens, I find unreadable.

According to the professors and opinion-setters of our time, the great novel somehow has a stature all of its own; it remains a great book whether you happen to enjoy it or not. In fact if you, as an individual, happen to consider the great novel excruciatingly dull and boring, then it is you, the moron, who is at fault. The novel in question allegedly remains a great novel, regardless of whether or not you – the individual reader – have the good taste and intellectual equipment to recognise it as such.

Nonsense, is my view. I know of no argument which constitutes grounds for believing these ideas to be true, and I can put forward a strong case for believing the opposite.

Consider what we know so far about the novel.

If the novel is anything at all, it is a machine for creating emotion in the reader. Reading a novel may, conceivably, leave you better informed about hotel management or fetishistic sex, but readers do not, on the whole, buy and borrow novels in order to enhance their stock of general knowledge; consciously or unconsciously, they read novels in order to be made to feel. The main function of a novel, therefore, any novel, may be said to be the generation of emotion in the reader. This is true whether the reader understands what is happening to her or not.

And what have we learnt about the generation of emotion?

We know that, in order for us to ‘get the joke’ – if we are to feel amusement, and if we are to laugh – we have to be able to speak the right language; furthermore, we need to have the right frame of reference. To understand a joke which is told in English, we need to speak English. To understand a joke told in English about Holmes and Watson, we need to know who Holmes and Watson are.

If we are German, or Japanese, and if we are Nobel-prizewinning chemists, are we necessarily intellectually inferior because we don’t speak English, and because we have never heard of Holmes and Watson? I don’t think so. We may, in fact be extremely bright and well educated.

Those persons who do not ‘get’ the joke about Holmes and Watson [which I quoted earlier in the book] – and I have no doubt that there are many millions of them – cannot be said in any meaningful way to be stupid, ignorant, or lacking in taste. They are simply people who do not speak the necessary language and who do not possess the necessary frame of reference in order to appreciate the joke.

Exactly the same can be said, of course, about the communication of emotion via Ulysses, Sons and Lovers, and any other book which is held by the so-called authorities to be a great novel.

A brief excursion for ammunition

At this point we need to make a brief excursion into the fields of quantum mechanics and information theory. But fear not. It’s all quite simple really.

In 1927, Werner Heisenberg pointed out a particular limitation of science. Heisenberg realised that if you wanted to know the precise location of an electron, you had to make it visible, so to speak, by bombarding it with electromagnetic radiation.

Unfortunately, when you bombarded the electron in this way, you also shifted its position. Hence you could find out where it was after you had ‘shone a light’ on it, but you could never know where the elusive thing had been while it remained in darkness, so to speak. This circumstance is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.

Please note that the observer who examines an electron does not give ‘reality’ to that entity; but the act of observing does change the system.

In itself, the uncertainty principle does not seem to be all that big a deal, at least to the layman; it doesn’t seem to have much to do with the price of fish. But it turns out that the principle has some profound implications in philosophy and science.

For example, Karl Marx and his communist colleagues had argued that a number of political developments were absolutely certain to occur in capitalist societies. Certain to occur, please notice, without any mights and maybes. Armed revolution by the working classes, for instance, was historically inevitable, at least according to Marx; you couldn’t do anything to prevent it even if you wanted to.

However, when armed with the uncertainty principle, a number of critics of communism, notably Karl Popper, were able to demonstrate that the Marxists’ claims were fundamentally unsound. Marxism, it turned out, was no more scientific than any other set of preferences or ideas about how things might happen in the future.

Popper was also able to show that Freud’s ideas on psychoanalysis were distinctly less scientific and ‘certain’ than some enthusiasts had claimed. For a long time, Freud’s supporters had managed the neat dodge of labelling any sort of criticism of their theories as being motivated by neurosis; hence, they argued, criticism of Freud’s theories merely constituted further proof of how right those theories had been all along. In the end, this argument was recognised as specious.

To summarise: the important thing to note, from a writer’s point of view, is that, in quantum mechanics, the observer has an effect on reality.

Next we need to have a brief look at information theory.

Information can be described as ‘the difference’. For example, there is a difference, to most observers, between (a) the sky and (b) the grass in a field below the sky. A scientist and a cow can both see this difference.

To the scientist, however, the grass might represent something to be taken to the laboratory and tested for chemical content. To the cow, the grass would probably represent food.

Same stuff, grass, but two observers and two interpretations of the same information. In other words, in modern information theory, the observer becomes part of the equation.

Quantum mechanics and information theory both demonstrate that in any assessment of reality, the observer has to be taken into consideration. This contrasts with the view of nineteenth century scientists, to whom the observer was irrelevant; reality was thought to exist independent of any subjective viewer. But in the twenty-first century we are obliged to accept that the observer’s participation makes a difference.

Back to the Great Novels argument

When we consider fiction, we find an exactly analogous position to that which exists in quantum mechanics and information theory.

A novel exists as a physical object, a book. But the emotion which a novel creates is not of a fixed quantity or quality. The emotion varies according to language spoken by, and the frame of reference possessed by, each individual reader. The case for there being any such thing as a great novel is therefore fundamentally unsound.

This is not a secret. We already know this. We have seen it demonstrated many times over. When we come across a book which we ourselves find entrancing, we often recommend it warmly to a close friend whose tastes, we know, largely coincide with ours. But even then the friend may remain unmoved and unimpressed; the magic doesn’t always work.

And why doesn’t the magic doesn’t always work? Because of the way in which emotion is generated. We know that, in real life, the series of events for creating emotion is: stimulus; conscious or unconscious thought; physical response.

The same mechanism operates, or fails to operate, when we read fiction. A stimulus is provided by the printed word; this creates conscious or unconscious thoughts, and stirs up memories; and a physical response may or may not arise.

Each reader (observer) brings to this interaction of stimulus, thought, and physical response, her own set of experiences, memories, hopes and fears. The contribution from the reader may or may not interact with the stimulus provided by the writer in the ways which the writer intended. The precise opposite of what was intended may occur. The intensely serious play by an intensely serious young man may play like a farce which has the audience folded up with laughter.

There is not, literally, a two-way exchange of traffic between the novel and the reader; the words on the printed page do not change. But there is certainly an interchange, and there is certainly two-way traffic, metaphorically speaking. The reader invests the book, temporarily, with her own biochemistry and receptivity, and the novel succeeds, or fails, accordingly.

It follows, therefore, that great novels do not exist as entities in their own right. A novel only has the power to generate emotion when a reader of the right kind comes across it. And this is true whether we are talking about D.H. Lawrence or Mills and Boon.

There is no hierarchy of fiction

Most professors of English literature, and most of the highbrow literary critics of this world, would have you believe that there is, metaphorically speaking, a hierarchical tower of fiction. This tower is something like a block of flats. At the top, in the exclusive penthouse, is a small amount of ‘literature’, i.e. Great Novels. In the basement is a large heap of trash.

Now, I am not much impressed by some of the more extreme feminist arguments about dead white European males, but I do have to admit that all this hierarchy malarkey has a distinctly masculine feel to it. The idea is almost phallic. Furthermore, it is a theory which is for the most part advanced by men, and curiously enough it embodies the belief that most of the good stuff, at the top of the tower, is written by men. The ‘generalised rubbish’ at the bottom of the fiction pile is often identified, when push comes to shove, as romantic fiction, or women’s fiction.

The truth, however, is that there is not a top-to-bottom hierarchy of fiction, with great books at the glorious summit and ‘trash’ or ‘pulp’ at the unspeakably vulgar bottom. If we must think of the range of available fiction in visual terms, it is best to think of a broad spectrum of books, which runs horizontally. You might care to imagine a street in which every building is a bookshop containing a particular kind of fiction.

This range, or spectrum, of fiction consists of a variety of types of novels which are accessible at different points to different kinds of readers.

Not every book appeals to every reader, in the sense that each and every reader will inevitably feel its emotional impact. It has never been so, and it never can be so. A novel will only ‘speak to’, and generate emotion in, those readers who are capable of understanding its language, and who possess the relevant frame of reference.

Let me remind you of what Edgar Allan Poe said, in that paragraph which I quoted earlier in the chapter [i.e. in the Truth about Writing]. He spoke of a short story being appreciated ‘in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art.’ (Italics added.) ‘With a kindred art’ is Poe’s way of saying that you need to speak the right language and possess the right frame of reference.

As we grow older, and learn more, our knowledge of ‘languages’ usually expands, as does our frame of reference. We do not usually read and enjoy the same novels at age seventy-five as at age fifteen. At different stages of our lives we may very well access the spectrum of fiction at different points.

We know instinctively what we want from fiction, just as an animal knows when it needs salt, or water, and we seek it out. We read reviews, we ask our friends for advice, we question librarians and booksellers. But the point is that we move sideways on the available menu, not upwards – or even, occasionally, downwards.

This visual image of the range of fiction is, I suspect, a softer and more feminine view than the one which is offered to us by males.

And do you want to know why men are so keen on the hierarchy idea? Because it permits those who hold power in this particular arena to impress the opposite sex.

You think I’m joking? Try attending a party given by one of the leading literary publishers and watch the young lions (male writers) being surrounded by gullible young women. Seems to work every time.

Then again, consider the vested interest of all those who teach the subject of English literature. They are all doing pretty nicely, thank you, preaching the 1947 party line, and they’re not too keen on having any revisionists question it.

The facts are really very simple. A book either works in terms of producing the intended emotion in a target reader, or it does not.

For instance, a literary work by, say, Salman Rushdie either fascinates and enthrals and ‘delivers’ to those who normally enjoy contemporary literary fiction, or it does not. Similarly, a Mills & Boon hospital romance either works for regular hospital-romance readers, or it doesn’t. If a particular novel does satisfy most readers in the target audience, it may be said to be successful. To insist on calling it a ‘good’ book or a ‘great novel’ really doesn’t help much.

Personally I do not believe that a book can be said to be good or bad in any absolute sense – it is only successful or unsuccessful in terms of its intended audience. And its intended audience, to repeat a point made earlier, is a group of people who speak a particular language, either literally or metaphorically; it is a group of people who share a set of interests and a common frame of reference.

Some books continue to produce the intended emotion in readers over a long period of time. There are still plenty of people who can read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice with pleasure, even though it was written in 1813. On the other hand, Fergus Hume’s The Mystery of a Hansom Cab does not satisfy many readers today, despite the fact that it was a huge hit in the years immediately following its publication in 1886.

Books which continue to be enjoyed for long periods of time tend to become known as ‘classics’. This is a convenient shorthand term, but again, you should not be misled into assuming that it implies some absolute quality.

Sherlock Holmes is often thought of as ‘immortal’, and James Bond is still going strong at about fifty years of age. But were their creators, Arthur Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming respectively, any better writers than, say, Edgar Wallace or Margery Allingham, neither of whom is much read today? I don’t believe so.

Books which continue to work for a long period of time, say several decades, do so I suspect more by virtue of factors other than the inherent character of the books themselves. Not the least of these is adaptation into film and television series.

As for striving to achieve classic status yourself – forget it. Your first task, when writing a novel, is to make it work for your intended audience today. Let the future take care of itself.

4 comments:

archer said...

Nobody knows the answer to this stuff. I have been assured by all that Richard Wagner wrote great operas, for instance; but despite a through professional training and years as a performing musician, I find the Ring unlistenable. I find most other operas tedious, too, except for Mozart's. Same with books. If Finnegan's Wake is so great, why can't I read it? Why is Mark Twain easy to read and Thackeray a screaming bore? Why does one perfectly nice-looking redhead put me to sleep and another send me into helpless convulsions of priapic delirium? The whole discussion has never impressed me as productive. In the end, I am with the amateurs. I don't know much, but I know what I like.

Simon said...

A novel exists as a physical object, a book. But the emotion which a novel creates is not of a fixed quantity or quality.

Not according to Immanuel Kant's Critique of Judgement. Kant claims that although the notion of beauty is subjective, there is beauty that is universally subjective, meaning that there are certain works of art (including written art) that we are able to claim are beautiful to Everyman. In these cases, we can say rightfully that others should enjoy the beauty, too; and if they don't, it's their taste that needs tuning.

Fortunately, Kant doesn't start picking out examples.

Anastasia said...

It all boils down to what Piaget pointed out with six week old infants - preference.

I've had Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses on the shelf for some fifteen years now and I can't get beyond page five. This is not due to it being 'crap' (even though that first time 15 years ago I did think that) it's because I'm not in the right frame of mind to read it and I find that this can occur. There are many times I get all excited with new books I've borrowed from my local library only to open them up and think 'okay'. Milan Kundera is another author I have tried to befriend but, to me, reading him is like having a root canal. This can be due English translation, I don't know, but I got far with him.


Sometimes I'll be asked if I've read a particular author's work and I'll feel like an imbecile when I say I haven't. On many occasions I've come across people who simply like to list names, they're like celebrity name droppers at parties.

I can't say I'm into romance fiction (Harlequin Mills & Boon stuff)and even though many think these medium is 'piss easy' to write, it's not. It's better, in my mind, for people to read than not to read and if they happen to prefer romance (for argument's sake) then this serves a purpose as well.

Steven Augustine said...

The semi-gratuitous citing of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle is one of the more unfortunate (though waning in popularity) tendencies of the day, and is almost always the sign, unless it is invoked by a particle physicist in a discussion of particle physics, of a poorly-argued positioned being bolstered by name-dropping undigested arcana (Chaos Theory, anyone?). When everyone can read well enough (or even wants to) to get what's weak in even the strongest novel and interesting in the cheapest dross, the overall argument will be relevant. As it is, it's merely an excuse for lazy readers to champion the latest Nick Hornby while dismissing the lifelong work of a real artist like DeLillo. How can a sytem of comparison be properly discussed or worked out when most people treat books as time-killing, sub-television-type distractions? The irony being that even many of those with a passionate opinion on the matter can't read well enough to get much out of a finer treatment of the issue.