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Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novelby Jane Smiley
What Is a Novel?
An inexpensive paperback book from a reputable publisher is a small, rectangular, boxlike object a few inches long, a few inches wide, and an inch or so thick. It is easy to stack and store, easy to buy, keep, give away, or throw away. As an object, it is user-friendly and routine, a mature technological form, hard to improve upon and easy to like. Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book. As I line up my summer reading of thirty-four novels written in the twentieth century, I realize that I have gained so much and such reliable pleasure from so many novels that my sense of physiological well-being (heart rate, oxygenation, brain chemical production) noticeably improves as I look at them. I smile. This row of books elevates my mood.
The often beautiful cover of a book opens like the lid of a box, but it reveals no objects, rather symbols inscribed on paper. This is simple and elegant, too. The leaves of paper pressed together are reserved and efficient as well as cool and dry. They protect each other from damage. They take up little space. Spread open, they offer some information, but they don't offer too much, and they don't force it upon me or anyone else. They invite perusal. Underneath the open leaves, on either side, are hidden ones that have been read or remain to be read. The reader may or may not experience them. The choice is always her own. The book continues to be an object. Only while the reader is reading does it become a novel.
But it turns out that a novel is simple, too. A novel is a (1) lengthy, (2) written, (3) prose, (4) narrative with a (5) protagonist. Everything that the novel is and does, every effect that the novel has had on, first, Western culture, and subsequently, world culture, grows out of these five small facts that apply to every novel.
The longest novels that stand alone in one volume are just under 1,000 pages--Henry Fielding's Tom Jones* would be a good example. The shortest run under 100 pages--Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness would define that end of the continuum. Most novels run 300 to 400 pages, or 100,000 to 175,000 words. If a competent reader can read 30 or 40 pages in an hour--that is, 12,000 to 20,000 words--then most novels take ten hours to read. Length is a bland and reassuring quality, but it is no blander or more reassuring than any of the other qualities. Prose, for example, is usually simpler to read and more casual than poetry. We are accustomed to reading prose, and we talk in a sort of prose. Narrative, too, is a natural form. People tell stories from their earliest years and continue to narrate as long as they can remember and care about sequences of events. Almost always, their stories have themselves or their friends as protagonists. A story requires a protagonist--that is, a human or a humanlike consciousness who acts or is acted upon in the course of the story. Most people with the normal brain development and structure that results in a sense of self live with a protagonist every minute of every day, and that protagonist--"one who feels (agon) for (pro)"--is himself or herself. A protagonist is the most natural thing in the world.
Every novel has all of these elements. If any of them is missing, the literary form in question is not a novel. All additional characteristics--characters, plot, themes, setting, style, point of view, tone, historical accuracy, philosophical profundity, revolutionary or revelatory effect, pleasure, enlightenment, transcendence, and truth--grow out of the ironclad relationships among these five elements. A novel is an experience, but the experience takes place within the boundaries of writing, prose, length, narrative, and protagonist.
The most necessary of the five qualities of the novel is writing. The paradox of writing is that it is permanent, and so it may be forgotten. Author and reader agree that images and ideas set down in writing may come and go because they do not have to be stored in memory. Hazy notions and vague pictures that have to do with the writing certainly remain in the memories of both author and reader, as do strong emotional impressions that author and reader alike feel upon reading certain sections of the novel, but exact wordings can be largely forgotten. The same is not true of poetry. A poem must be remembered word for word or it loses its identity. In fact, poetry is often learned and remembered word for word, as when students memorize Hamlet's famous soliloquy ("Who would these fardels bear?") in spite of the fact that they have only the dimmest idea of what the words mean. The words may have the power of an incantation even in the absence of comprehension. The memory, though, sets limits upon what is to be remembered. The history of epic poetry, for example, shows that poets used set forms, rhythm, rhyme, figures of speech, and already familiar stories as mnemonic devices to aid in both the composition and the transmission of poetry from poet to poet and from poet to audience. Novelists have no need to do so. Particular stylistic tricks or turns of phrase are not necessary as mnemonic aids to the continued existence of the novel, and so the author is free to explore language and ideas that are hard to remember in detail. The novelist can go on and on, adding scenes, ideas, characters, complexities of every sort, knowing that they are safe from the effects of human memory--they will exist forever exactly as printed and will not evolve by passing through the faulty memories of others.
Writing allows the elaboration of prose. Since memorization is unlikely to begin with, it may be made all the more unlikely by the use of a style that is unmemorable. Prose slips by, common as water. Readers have no defense against it other than boredom. But because it is so common and often colorless, the writer can use it in many ways, from the blandest, most objective, reportlike purposes to the most vivid, evocative, lyrical purposes. James Joyce and Virginia Woolf famously exploited metaphorical and lyrical possibilities of English prose that Defoe and Trollope did not. Prose may slow down and quicken, invoke and state, flower into figures of speech, flatten into strings of facts, observations, assertions. It may pile detail upon detail or summarize years of action in a few pages (as in the middle section of To the Lighthouse). Prose usually privileges the sentence, using punctuation to define the beginnings, endings, and complications of thoughts, and sentences are easy. They are what we learn and, often, how we learn it. Even though we don't use them in speech as much as we think we do (in fact, people who talk in whole sentences are generally thought of as pedantic or "prosy"), when our thoughts assume formal shape, they organize themselves into sentences. Poetry, in its search for concentration and sharp effect, contracts. In prose, one thought leads to another--it expands. Although thoughtless expansion is a fault to be guarded against, inspired expansion gives us the novels of Proust and Tolstoy, or Laurence Sterne and Halldor Laxness. Prose is both sneaky and powerful, and is naturally narrative, since sequences of events have some inherent organization, and it is naturally expansive, since events can often be broken down into smaller events and extended backward and forward in time.
In Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster writes of narrative--that is, of "what happened then?"--almost with contempt. Even the lowliest bus driver, Forster says, could show an interest in suspense, in a sequence of events. He almost admits to wishing that novels could be written without narrative, without what he seems to think is the lowest common denominator of art. But they can't be. It is not only that the novel was invented to tell a lengthy and complicated story that could not be told in any other way, it is also that without the spine of narrative logic and suspense, it cannot be sufficiently organized to be understandable to the reader. Even more basically, a sequence of sentences, which is the only form sentences can occur in, must inevitably result in a narrative. The very before-and-after qualities of written sentences imply, mimic, and require the passage of time. There are minimally narrative novels, but the more lyrical and less narrative a novel is, the shorter it is, until it becomes a short story, which may, indeed, dispense almost entirely with narrative and become a series of impressions or linguistic effects or rhetorical flourishes, as happened with American short stories in the 1960s and 1970s. Narratives are as common as prose; they are the way humans have chosen to pack together events and emotions, happenings in the world and how they make us feel. Even the most informal narratives alternate what happens and how it feels (or what it means) to some degree. Even the most formally objective narratives (such as police reports) imply the emotions that rise out of the events, when at the same time they are suspending conclusions as to the meanings of the events.
Because narrative is so natural, efficient, and ubiquitous, it, like prose, can be used in myriad ways. The time sequence can be abused however the writer wishes to abuse it, because the human tendency, at least in the West, to think in sequence is so strong that the reader will keep track of beginning, middle, and end on her own. Nevertheless, the commonest bus driver can and often does take an interest in what happens next, and so because the novel requires narrative for organization, it will also be a more or less popular form. It can never exclude bus drivers completely, and is, therefore, depending on one's political and social views, either perennially compromised or perennially inclusive.
Perhaps the most important thing about narrative is that it introduces the voice of the narrator. In every novel, some voice is telling the story. The narrator may or may not personalize his voice. He may try to let the story seem to tell itself, as Kafka does in "The Metamorphosis"; he may come forward in what seems to be his own voice, and talk about the characters as if he and the reader were observing them together, as William Makepeace Thackeray does in Vanity Fair, or Kate Atkinson does in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. He may tell his own story in the first person, as Ishmael does in Moby-Dick. In every case, the reader must relate somehow to the voice of the narrator. In every case, the story is colored by the idiosyncrasies of the narrative voice, and how those idiosyncrasies strike the reader. Even the blandest, or most charming, or most skillful narrators have their detractors, because this aspect of the novel is irredeemably social, and draws constantly upon the reader's semiconscious likes and dislikes. Some narrators offend, some narrators appeal, but all narrators are present, the author but not the author, the protagonist but not the protagonist, an intermediary that author and reader must deal with.
The most obvious hallmark of novels is length. The novel was invented to be long, because what early novelists wanted to communicate could not be communicated in a shorter or more direct form, and also because length itself is enjoyable. The Tale of Genji runs 1,000 pages. Genji lived a long life and had many wives and concubines. His maturation and his greatness could not be depicted in fewer pages. Don Quixote is 700 pages long. Quixote's adventures and humiliations need to build upon one another. The paperback edition of Ulysses is 783 pages--the intricacies of Leopold Bloom's day out in Dublin require it. Length, too, is simple. It begins as a mere adding on, though adding on may quickly turn into elaborating or digressing or complicating or subordinating and analyzing. For an author, adding on may amount to no more than keeping going, day after day accumulating episodes and stories, getting paid by the word and so writing more words. For a reader, adding on may offer primarily the pleasure of familiarity--the characters or the narrator's voice or the author's way of thinking become something the reader wants to continue to experience. In a novel, length is always a promise, never a threat.
When the protagonist enters, a novel becomes specific, and even peculiar, and loses the generality that the other four elements seem to offer. The protagonist shapes the other four elements to himself. The narrative must be appropriate to him--it must grow out of his circumstances and teach him something. He must interact with the elements of the plot in a believable as well as an interesting way. The narrative and the protagonist are the chicken and the egg, the thesis and the synthesis. Neither precedes the other, nor exists without the other. A generic story line--for example, "a stranger comes to town"--becomes illuminating and interesting only as it becomes characteristic, only as it becomes the sole property of a particular protagonist. Similarly, the protagonist must prove himself worthy of the length of the novel written about him. If he is trite or blandly conceived, if he doesn't grow as the novel gets longer, the reader will lose interest in him. (It is true, though, that the novelist doesn't rely solely on psychological complexity to maintain the reader's interest in the protagonist. He may substitute sociological complexity if his theory of human nature is more realistic than romantic.) The length of a novel can become a problem for the protagonist--the author and the narrator may be tempted to leave him behind (as Cervantes sometimes puts Don Quixote to sleep when the other characters wish to talk about love problems). In some very long novels, the protagonist's role grows nominal as the landscape fills up with fellow characters and their stories take precedence over his. Even so, the protagonist, as he originates the story line and its circumstances, always remains the organizing figure in the novel, and the main plot must resolve his dilemma, however many other dilemmas it also resolves.
The protagonist is the fulcrum of the author's relationship to the narrator, and the prose, or style, of the novel continuously presents the shifting balances among the three. The prose, like the narrative, must be appropriate to the protagonist. It must express something about him that it could not express about any other protagonist and demonstrate his worthiness to be the protagonist. In some sense, the author, the narrator, and the protagonist are always in a state of conflict that is always being reconciled as the narrative moves forward. Henry James's The Portrait of a Lady is a good example of this conflict.
Copyright © 2005 by Jane Smiley
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