22 January 2009

Man Size Pleasure

What is a novel? This is a question I am continually asking myself as I work on my second one.

The learning curve for writing novels is quite steep. Someone once said that writing your first novel is toughest because not only do you have to write your novel, you have to teach yourself how to write a novel as well. Well, from my experience, writing the second novel is just as tough because you're teaching yourself how to write a different novel. That's really just a way of saying I eschew formulaicism.

One of my ways of keeping focused on the task is to keep a theoretic framework in mind. A map, if you will, of the territory ahead.

So, what is a novel? Is it more than, say, a fictional narrative in prose of a certain length? Is it one genre among others in the category of longish fiction? Some good discussion on the Web has been going on recently. Here's Dan Green at The Reading Experience. Here's Richard Crary at The Existence Machine. Go there. You'll find me in their Comments pimping for WoW.

Maurice Z. Shroder, in an influential 1963 article entitled "The Novel as a Genre" in The Theory of the Novel edited by Philip Stevick, remarks the breadth and flexibility of the form prevents easy definition. Some things, though, can be set out:
"Like any narrative, the novel has a typical action, with thematic value, which is peculiarly its own.

The matter of the novel—the theme that has informed the genre from Don Quixote onward—is relatively uncomplicated. The novel records the passage from a state of innocence to a state of experience, from that ignorance which is bliss to a mature recognition of the actual way of the world. In the less loaded terms of Lionel Trilling, the novel deals with a distinction between appearance and reality. It is not necessarily a question of ontological subtleties: the reality to which the novel appeals is that to which it is historically connected, the reality of bourgeois life, of business, and of the modern city. The first Falstaff, as he stands on the field of Shrewsbury, the thought of money metaphorically coloring his speech—as he questions the value of such aristocratic absolutes as chivalric honor and resolves to be a live coward—Falstaff embodies the sensibility that will make the novel possible. The great expectations of the young Hotspur find ironic responses in the lost illusions of the old Sir John. The protagonist of the novel follows the same pattern of disillusionment—which Harry Levin sees as a major part of what we call realism—from potential fulfillment to actual accomplishment, from a hopeful naivete to a resigned wisdom.

Thematically, then, the novel distinguishes itself from the romance, in which the protagonist proves himself a hero, actually fulfills his heroic potentiality. ... The protagonist of a novel is likely to be an 'anti-hero,' an 'unheroic hero," ...who is able to elaborate his dreams of glory only by ignoring the material realities of his station and his times." (14-15)
"The action of the novel...is essentially a reworking of the basic action of the romance...the 'monomyth'...the 'quest.'... In the novel, the 'going forth' may be metaphorical rather than actual; but the voyage often provides the novelistic framework, and the protagonist's movement is always from a narrow environment to a broader one. He may move in space...he may move rather in time. The goal of the quest...may or may not be achieved; but the protagonist of the novel is likely to discover, with Falstaff, that there is no future for heroism, that he himself is a perfectly ordinary man, with the experience and the knowledge that suit his station. ... [P]rotagonists succeed only because they have let fall their illusions and their pride. Such a fall, in a novel, is a happy one, since it represents the completion of that educational process with which the novel deals, an education into the realities of the material world and of human life in society." (15-16)
According to Shroder, "The novel would then seem to be an essentially ironic fictional form, occupying a middle position between the non-ironic romance and the philosophical tale, which is ironic, but in ways often different from those of the novel." (20)

To recap: the novel is essentially urban, middle class, and anti-romantic, marking the passage from ignorance to knowledge, innocence to experience, appearance to reality. It is ironic in attitude; disillusioned in stance. According to Shroder, these are the hallmarks of the novel, properly so called.
"Romance is essentially escapist literature; it appeals to the emotions and imagination of the reader, invites him to marvel at an enchanted world of triumphant adventure—and the triumph may be the slaying of a dragon or the unmasking of a corrupt sheriff. The novel...leads the reader back to reality by questioning the basis of romance; and the more sophisticated, the more subtle, or the more devastating the process becomes...the less 'popular' the novel is likely to be, the more limited the audience that savors the novelist's irony." (21)
So, for the novelist, the novel is, essentially, novelistic: the better the novel you write, the less it will sell/the harder it will be to get it accepted for publication. How ironic.


Edmond Caldwell said...

Although some people say that "the first novel is a gift," and that it's the second one where you really have to buckle down and learn (I know DeLillo for one said this, but it's my sense that I've heard it elsewhere as well).

But I'm with you, novel one and novel two were both long-haul learning curves in their particular ways.

Jim H. said...

The first novel is often the 'write what you know' novel, supposedly. That being that, for your second novel you either have to delve deep and ask yourself 'what else do I know?' or learn something new or just start making stuff up. None of which is necessarily a breeze.

A gift? One summer when I was in grad school (not band camp), I dedicated myself to cranking out a 'stream-of-consciousness' novel. Just wrote it straight through, like that NaNoWriMo thing. Maybe that's what you mean by gift. Yet, that thing sucked so bad. I can't even read it now—and I wrote the damn thing.

I sent it to one place, The Chicago Review, and received a surprisingly nice, hand-written rejection saying to get back to them when I came up with something with more of a plot.

Jim H.

Toast said...

Two things: rejections are always surprisingly nice -- when the rejector has absolutely no interest in you or desire ever to be bothered by you again -- and frequently hand-written, because it makes the rejectee feel good and noticed and less likely to become a persistent nuisance. If publishers are actually interested by your work, they'll give you the harsh critique.

Second: your conclusion that "the better the novel you write, the less it will sell/the harder it will be to get it accepted for publication," is one of the silliest, most self-aggrandising and most pitiful misinterpretations I've ever read. Let's try a new definition of the novel: a prose narrative that actually gets published. That way you and your no-talent pals will have to stop maundering about the "novels" you have written and are writing and recognize the gulf between yourselves and novelists.

Anonymous said...

OMG! Toast is back. Missed your dulcet tones, Dude. Thought maybe you'd been buttered or fallen on the jelly side, or something.

First, most rejections, in my paltry experience, are simply pre-printed form notes, usually partial pages to save paper. No matter.

As for your second point, no one makes me cry better than you. I will say, I do not call myself a 'novelist'. One agent I met told me you can't truly call yourself a novelist until you've published your third. Daunting. I can't go; I'll go on. But keep trying.

Jim H.

Edmond Caldwell said...

Whew! That Toast has been badly burnt somewhere...

Toast said...

Hey Wisdie. You go ahead, tell yourself that you're special. And also as well, let me quote you from your January 21 post: "Without evidence, I won't speculate over what's going on in his psyche or what his motivation was; I'm not a novelist. Oh, wait...I am."

Oh, wait...no you aint.

Jim H. said...

Ouch. Folks, that's what they call in the business a 'gotcha'. Now I know how Sarah Palin felt around Katie Couric. Poor dear.

So, Charred Bread guy, when are you going to get that piece of, um, toast blog of yours up and running again?

Jim H.