Thoughts on Writing Novels
William Faulkner once said that writing a novel is like a one-armed man nailing together a chicken coop in a hurricane. Lawrence Durrell said that he suffered a nervous breakdown for every novel he wrote. Walker Percy, in an Esquire Magazine self-interview, said all novelists are ex-suicides.
For a while I made a specialty of teaching the rudiments of novel structure. My expertise was mainly based on trying to figure out how to write a novel for myself. It used to mystify me how some people could pop them out like pancakes on a griddle, one after the other, all different, but all sharing some essential similarity. Some of this mystification was due to the fact that as a student I had avoided English literature, choosing to bury myself in Kant and Wittgenstein instead. Lately, I have been immersing myself in George Eliot and Thomas Hardy, and I suddenly realize, ah, that’s where you learn the basics. Coming at the craft from my own peculiar mental state of confused naivete and rebellion, I learned the basics from mystery writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ross Macdonald1, especially Macdonald, who distilled the other two and codified the Freudian detective plot (surface plot: THE MURDER; understory: a different murder, 20 years earlier). And so, after writing two unpublishable novels, I finally succeeded with a parodic detective novel called Precious.
I remember standing in the offices of Seal Books in Toronto and my editor/publisher Anna Porter rather gruesomely reading me the riot act. She could make me into something (I forget what: rich, famous, adored…) if I could turn out one of these every year (in memory, I think she may have said nine months). My basic personality traits (naivete and rebelliousness) kicked in and I walked away determined never to write another parodic detective novel. I was going to be rich and famous on my own terms (still working on that).
I went back to basics and read Milan Kundera. “The novel is not the author's confession; it is an investigation of human life in the trap the world has become." (Unbearable Lightness of Being) “A novel is to set different emotional spaces side by side.” (The Art of the Novel) “The great prose form in which an author thoroughly explores, by means of experimental selves (characters), some great themes of existence.” (The Art of the Novel) In the end, too general and ethereal to be helpful, though I did learn about polyphony and novelistic essays reading Kundera and Broch. From reading McLuhan (the little plot), Yeats (emotion of multitudes), and E. A. Brown (also watching The Love Boat reruns on TV), I began to figure out subplots. Brown and Nabokov taught me about character grouping and gradation. Margaret Atwood, bless her, taught me the rudiments of image patterning.
Having discovered that so much of literary production is based on patterns, I wrote an essay called “The Novel as a Poem” (see my book Notes Home from a Prodigal Son, but you can read it online here).
Meantime, as I say, I was teaching the rudiments of novel structure. I ended up inventing a staple presentation, called, simply, The Novel Lecture (see below for a video). Eventually, I made an essay out of this — “How to Write a Novel” (Attack of the Copula Spiders). After I wrote the essay, I grew bored giving the lecture and stopped. (And, naturally, I would give the lecture differently today.)
Still dissatisfied, I went back to basic basics and studied Don Quixote, recommended by Kundera and reputed to be the first novel (not really). Then I wrote a book about Don Quixote, the history of the novel, and novel form (The Enamoured Knight). My favourite bit:
The Greeks called their novels tales of suffering for love. If they weren't about suffering for love, they wouldn't be tales. A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it. There are no stories about people who start out happy and contented, remain happy and contented throughout, and end up happy and contented. Imagine the phrase "tales of not-suffering for love" or "tales of having fun for love" or "tales of finding pleasure for love." The difference between pornography and literature is that in pornography everyone has orgasms all the time. There is no gap between desire and consummation. In literature there is always an element of frustration, displacement, delay and incompleteness (even if someone does eventually manage to have an orgasm).2
My happy discovery in studying Don Quixote was in finally reading my way through Northrop Frye3, who pointed out the rather obvious insight that novels came from medieval romances, that the basis of novel form was the romance, a tale of love and adventure.
Am I done learning? Not a chance.4
From nearby Kitchener, Ontario. Sowesto is the centre of the universe.
“A story consists of someone wanting something and having trouble getting it.” This sentence has turned into a minor Twitter meme. Out of context, it’s beginning to feel like a Hallmark sentiment, something to send to other members of your support group. This is the fate of all art: first, a discovery; then a commonplace; then an annoying cliche; then background noise.
From Moncton, New Brunswick. Not the centre of the universe, but close.
P.S. If you really want to know what I think about writing novels and novel construction, you’ll need to read the essays I wrote about writing novels, plus all the essays (collected in my three essay books) on particular novels (every novel yields new variations and inventions), plus The Enamoured Knight.